Saturday, June 16, 2007

Says Who? - A Challenge to Lay Apologists

Says Who? - A Challenge to Lay Apologists
Particularly, to those who call Rome or Constantinople home.

If you are not ordained to teach or interpret Scripture and/or "Tradition," by what authority do you do so?

As a Reformed Christian, my source of authority to teach and interpret Scripture comes from Scripture, but the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches do not adhere to Sola Scriptura, so the questions above naturally arise.

By what authority do you teach? Why should anyone listen to you? You are not even part of your respective church's ordinary and fallible magisterium, much less part of your church's extraordinary and allegedly infallible magisterium.

More imporantly when you say "X," and Augustine (who is regarded as a "saint" by both your churches, and as a "father" by those of Rome) says "notX," why should I take your testimony over that of an elder and bishop?

May the God of Scripture, who revealed himself in Scripture, and whose Scripture confounds the innovations and idolatries of mankind, enlighten our minds by study of His Word by the illumination of the Spirit of God,



Reginald de Piperno said...


Vatican II devoted an entire decree to this, and you may read it here if you wish.

Select quotes:

"The apostolate of the laity derives from their Christian vocation and the Church can never be without it. Sacred Scripture clearly shows how spontaneous and fruitful such activity was at the very beginning of the Church"

"The laity derive the right and duty to the apostolate from their union with Christ the head; incorporated into Christ's Mystical Body through Baptism and strengthened by the power of the Holy Spirit through Confirmation, they are assigned to the apostolate by the Lord Himself. They are consecrated for the royal priesthood and the holy people (cf. 1 Peter 2:4-10) not only that they may offer spiritual sacrifices in everything they do but also that they may witness to Christ throughout the world."

But read the whole thing (it's about 30 pages in my paperback edition). Hence the Magisterium recognizes and endorses the service of the laity in drawing the world to Christ.

As to the content of what individual Catholics may say: it should be judged in the light of the teaching of the Magisterium. The Catechism of the Catholic Church is a valuable aid for doing so. You may find it here.

As for alleged disagreements between the Church Fathers (such as St. Augustine) and the teaching of the Church: No Father of the Church is presumed to be infallible in all that he writes. But Sacred Tradition is not identified with any single Father. You may read more about this in the CCC, beginning at paragraph 74. The answer to the question why you should listen to Mr. Lay Catholic "rather than" the Fathers would only arise in the hypothetical case where the Father might possibly disagree with teachings of the Church. You may decide which one to listen to by comparing them both to (for example) the CCC.

Anonymous said...

That's a very interesting point, and one that has occurred to me as well, although I don't think I ever formulated it as well as you did here.

I suspect the efforts of these apologists is mostly an American phenomenon. Radical individualism and independent action are such engrained parts of our culture.


Turretinfan said...

Dear Reginald,

Don't get me wrong, I'm aware of Vatican II. But the portion you cited neither states that laity is to teach or interpret. Same goes for the CCC.

The disagreement (and it is not merely an alleged disagreement) between the ECF's and modern American lay apologists does not invoke the same presumption. The teachings of a bishop of the church are part of the ordinary magisterium, just as the CCC is part of the ordinary magisterium.

The teachings/interpretations of a lay apologist are not part of the ordinary magisterium of the church.

But lets turn from what can be disputed to what you have admitted. You have admitted that what "individual Catholics" (and I hope you recognize the difference between a bishop and a layman here) say should be judged in light of the teaching of the Magisterium, and that the CCC can be an aid for doing so.

But, unless the layman is simply saying, see item number 3243 of the CCC, trying to use the process you describe involves:

a) the layman interpreting the teachings of "the Church," and
b) the outsider independently interpreting the teachings of "the Church" and comparing them to the interpretations of the layman.

Going back now to the disputed issue, when I read the portion of Vatican II you quoted, I see, just before it:

"In the Church there is a diversity of ministry but a oneness of mission. Christ conferred on the Apostles and their successors the duty of teaching, sanctifying, and ruling in His name and power. But the laity likewise share in the priestly, prophetic, and royal office of Christ and therefore have their own share in the mission of the whole people of God in the Church and in the world."

Notice that it says there is a diversity of ministry and then lists as pertaining to the apostles and their successors: "teaching, sanctifying, and ruling."

To me this rather clearly illustrates that layity are not to teach, not to rule, and not to "sanctify" (e.g. administer Eucharist).

You point towards those portions that mention that the laity "witness to Christ."

But Vatican II was very specific about what it meant:

"They exercise the apostolate in fact by their activity directed to the evangelization and sanctification of men and to the penetrating and perfecting of the temporal order through the spirit of the Gospel. In this way, their temporal activity openly bears witness to Christ and promotes the salvation of men. Since the laity, in accordance with their state of life, live in the midst of the world and its concerns, they are called by God to exercise their apostolate in the world like leaven, with the ardor of the spirit of Christ."

None of that involves interpreting or teaching.

I'm surprised you did not rely on this:

"Since, in our own times, new problems are arising and very serious errors are circulating which tend to undermine the foundations of religion, the moral order, and human society itself, this sacred synod earnestly exhorts laymen-each according to his own gifts of intelligence and learning-to be more diligent in doing what they can to explain, defend, and properly apply Christian principles to the problems of our era in accordance with the mind of the Church."

Perhaps the reason you did not is because, like the other passages, it falls short of authorizing laymen to engage in public teaching/interpretation. Even the passage above could reasonably be interpreted to be directed toward private discourse and voting rather than public dialogue/dispute.

Indeed, later in the same document, Vatican II writes: "As regards works and institutions in the temporal order, the role of the ecclesiastical hierarchy is to teach and authentically interpret the moral principles to be followed in temporal affairs."

And likewise, the emphasis on private discourse, and example (rather than diadactic) can be seen:

"In the family parents have the task of training their children from childhood on to recognize God's love for all men. By example especially they should teach them little by little to be solicitous for the material and spiritual needs of their neighbor." (with a similar comment about the role of lay educators in Catholic schools)

In short, through, Reginald I must say that Vatican II does not specifically authorize the laity to teach/interpret Scripture/Tradition publicly.

I suspect there is an historical reason why it does not: previous councils have had other views on the subject.

I wonder whether you believe there is any authority for the practice lay interpretation/teaching that precedes Vatican II?

Finally, I wonder whether you recognize that deleterious effect that permitting a superabundance of private, lay interpretations to be made public can have on the teachings of the magisterium of the Roman Catholic Church?


Turretinfan said...

Dear Ken,

I think you're right. I think you'll find most of these apologists (both Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox) are Americans. But there is another trait that I think you will find common: a significant percentage (though certainly not all) are former adherents of some Protestant body. As you know, Protestants usually encourage folks to interpret Scripture for themselves.


Reginald de Piperno said...


I regret that you may be parsing VII rather too closely - or at any rate, you may be parsing it incorrectly.

It is not the case that the laity may have nothing whatever to do with teaching. See CCC 897-913, and especially 904:

"Christ...fulfills this prophetic office, not only by the hierarchy...but also by the laity. He accordingly both establishes them as witnesses and provides them with the sense of the faith [sensus fidei] and the grace of the word" [ellipses and italics in original; bold added]

It then goes on to quote St. Thomas Aquinas: "To teach in order to lead others to faith is the task of every preacher and of each believer."

Paragraph 905 goes on to say that the testimony of one's life is not "the sole element of the apostolate; the true apostle is on the lookout for occasions of announcing Christ by word, either to unbelievers...or to the faithful" (the CCC is quoting from VII here; see below).

And more from Apostolicam Actuositatem 6 (I'm not going to quote the whole thing, so read it yourself if you wonder whether I am misrepresenting it): "a true apostle [in context, this includes the laity - RdP] looks for opportunities to announce Christ by words addressed either to non-believers with a view to leading them to faith, or to the faithful with a view to instructing, strengthening, and encouraging them to a more fervent life."

The passage from this same section 6 (I mean the part that you quoted) says that the laity are "earnestly exhorted" to (among other things) explain things. I know of no reasonable interpretation of the word "explain" that would specifically omit teaching and interpretation :-)

As AA 6 says, this must be done "in accordance with the mind of the Church," so that the laity must teach what the Church teaches. We are not at liberty to teach as gospel truth whatever the heck we want (obviously).

With respect to precedent for what VII says on this score: there is the quotation from Aquinas in the CCC that I mentioned, but I would not be surprised if there is little other mention of it in the Church's history: after all, the wide availability of education and especially books is relatively recent historically. I am pretty confident that Aquinas is not likely to be expressing a theological novelty: he was not a theological innovator.

With regard to the dangers of lay interpretation: There are only dangers in this regard when interpreters fail or refuse to adhere to what the Church teaches. This is true of bishops and priests no less than of laymen. I'm sure that I don't have to try and convince you that many a priest and perhaps even, unfortunately, no small number of bishops in the Church's history have taught errors.

Turretinfan said...

Dear Reginald,

I realize that you and I may read the same documents and come to different conclusions.

Allow me insert a third perspective into the dialogue:

"The conciliar constitution Dei verbum says that 'the task of authentically interpreting the word of God, whether written or handed on, has been entrusted exclusively to the living teaching office of the Church, whose authority is exercised in the name of Jesus Christ. " (boldface added)

These are the words of Archbishop Angelo Amato, as quoted in "Catholic Weekly" (link to source).

That "exclusively" seems to rule out the laity having a role in teaching/interpreting, at least with any authority.

But perhaps we will have to agree to disagree.

One thing I can certainly say, Vatican II provides a much stronger position for lay apologists than do the seven ecumenical councils of the Eastern Orthodox.


Reginald de Piperno said...


You are correct when you say, "at least with any authority." The "authentically" in the quotation from Dei Verbum is the difference, I would say. No layman has the same authority as the Magisterium when it comes to interpretation of Scripture or Tradition. Our "authority" as such is purely derivative - that is, to the extent that what we say agrees with the Magisterium. To the extent that a layman says what the Magisterium says, it seems to me that he ought to be heard not because of who he is, but on account of the fact that he says what the Magisterium says.

It seems to me that - at least in principle - this isn't very different from the subscription to the WCF that is required of Presbyterian elders and deacons. They are not free (short of reporting it to their sessions and/or presbyteries) to believe or teach just anything: they are obliged to adhere to the "system of doctrine" set forth in the WCF, right? And I know of at least two Reformed congregations that make/made such subscription apply to the laity in some fashion or other.

It seems rather obvious that the point of such rules is to safeguard the truth. While we may disagree about the formal content of the truth being safeguarded, I think we at least may agree that safeguarding the truth is a good thing.

Peace be with you.

Turretinfan said...

Dear Reginald,

Thanks for your comment. I think your candid admission: "You are correct when you say, "at least with any authority," really loops us back to the thesis of my original post, which is that lay apologists in the RCC do not teach with authority.

I'm content to leave the general issue at that. I suspect, however, that you may feel my loop-back link is unfair (perhaps, for example, you had understood my initial question as speaking of authority of another sort).

If you wish to further clarify, please feel free. I plan to turn to another subset of the issue shortly.


Reginald de Piperno said...

Hello Turretinfan,

Conceding that a layman has no authority in the Catholic Church is not the same, I think, as saying that nothing he says has any force whatsoever. It is a derivative authority, and in principle not really unlike what you have claimed for yourself. For we both appeal to an authority, and the only legitimacy we each claim for what we say rests on whether what we say is consistent with what that authority says.

Peace be with you.

Turretinfan said...

Thanks for your response, Reginald. It has been a pleasure discussing this topic with you.


Reginald de Piperno said...

Turretinfan - it seems that I'm repeating myself. I apologize. If you choose not to publish that last comment of mine, I won't be offended. Sorry for the trouble.

(Carrying on a discussion like this can be difficult after a while, because one loses track of what he has said! Well, I do, anyway) :-(

Turretinfan said...

Dear Reginald,

If there is a comment of yours on this thread that is unpublished, I can point my finger at ... because I didn't receive it. So far, to my knowledge, I've published all your comments.

If you'd like to repeat yourself, please feel free, I'd be delighted to receive the additional edification.