77 "In order that the full and living Gospel might always be preserved in the Church the apostles left bishops as their successors. They gave them their own position of teaching authority."35 Indeed, "the apostolic preaching, which is expressed in a special way in the inspired books, was to be preserved in a continuous line of succession until the end of time."36
Paragraph 77 provides the underpinnings for the authority and power exercised by bishops. The identity of a bishop throughout the history of the Church is derived from their intentional consecration by the laying on of hands of the Apostles. The Church has held from earliest times that the Apostles shared their Spirit-filled authority and their possession of the body of revealed truth of Jesus with chosen successors. The apostolic succession through the laying on of hands is what gives your bishop the right and duty to teach authoritatively in your diocese. The sharing of apostolic responsibility is both horizontal and vertical. A bishop receives his mandate vertically: through the Pentecost event and the historical line of bishops who succeeded him. He receives power horizontally by his membership in the body of bishops from around the world.
The identity of bishop has passed through several stages in the Church’s history. While we think of the Apostles as missionary bishops, there is no unified model in the first century. For every clear example of a stable, functioning apostle-bishop, such as Peter in Rome or James in Jerusalem, we have the more charismatic church life exemplified by Paul, who per his letters founded many local churches (the equivalent of today’s dioceses, on a smaller scale.) There is no record that Paul ever consecrated someone to serve as a designated leader, which is surprising when one considers all the problems with Eucharistic celebrations described in 1 Corinthians. Paul’s epistle of strong reprimand is sent to the entire assembly, not a local bishop.
From the New Testament text itself, one can assume that the passage of apostolic leadership was real but perhaps less formalized than now. A number of twentieth century historical texts hypothesize that the very early Church was somewhat free spirited, with the Eucharist celebrated by a wide range of individuals from Apostles to fathers of homes to itinerant prophets and preachers. Feminist theologians contend that woman may have presided over the Eucharist in the early days. Whatever the truth may be, it is certain that it took nearly two centuries for the Church to arrive at the sacramental identity and model of the episcopate we would recognize today.
At the risk of gross simplification, the Church figure who solidified our understanding the purpose and the office of the body of the bishops was St. Irenaeus (c. 120-200 A.D.) He was a bishop of extraordinary energy and wisdom who served the Church both in Asia Minor and Lyon in modern day France. Para. 77 speaks of the apostolic preaching preserved “in the inspired books,” and the “continuous line of succession” in preserving the apostolic preaching until the end of time. Irenaeus understood the that the twin doctrinal pillars of inspired books and historical succession were inseparable, and in his lifetime the Church would reach common practice on defining exactly which books contained the Apostolic Tradition and who was entrusted to determine this and carry the tradition forward.
For much of Irenaeus’ life Christians did not speak of “the Bible” as we do today. The Church held faithful to the Old Testament, as we do, but it venerated the apostolic preaching which by now had been put to paper. The apostolic preaching in its printed form was proclaimed at the Eucharistic liturgies. There was no formal church calendar as we have today, so local communities could choose from among texts revered in the early Church, such as the Gospel of Matthew or the letters of Paul. As the year 200 approached it was fairly clear which books sustained the faith of the Christians in liturgy and study.
So, the time came for the establishment of the New Testament Canon, and the first individual to undertake a deliberate list of books was Marcion of Sinope. Unfortunately, Marcion held views we would term today “heretical;” he denied the Old Testament (the entire canon!) and edited Jewish references from New Testament texts. Marcion’s “canon” made the final establishment of an apostolically sanctioned canon a high priority. This process would continue long after Irenaeus’ death, but in his lifetime he confronted an even greater challenge—the authenticity of the books themselves. While it was true that Christians were creating an authentic canon from liturgical use, did the text themselves reflect the Apostolic Tradition?
Irenaeus argued that the apostles had designated successors who both enjoyed the inerrancy of their office and who, by the Holy Spirit, guaranteed the passage of sacred texts to the present time. In other words, Irenaeus and other had to defend the authenticity of the books and the existence of successors of the Apostles who would insure the transmission. The Encyclopedia Britannica reports that “Irenaeus maintains that the bishops in different cities are known as far back as the Apostles—and none of them was a Gnostic—and that the bishops provided the only safe guide to the interpretation of Scripture. With these lists of bishops, the later doctrine of “the apostolic succession” of the bishops could be linked.” We do not have the lists of “guarantor bishops” Irenaeus refers to, but later Church historians such as Eusebius (c. 300 A.D.) would attempt to be more specific. Certainly, the belief in the unbroken line of apostolic bishops was strong enough that by 325 A.D. the Church was comfortable enough in both its bishops and its sacred texts to define the heart of Christian belief, the Nicene Creed.
The doctrines expressed in para. 77—which in turn come from a stream of teaching documents—derive authority from the authenticity of the New Testament and the divine credibility of the successors of the Apostles.
Paragraph 76: ApostolicRead Now
76 In keeping with the Lord's command, the Gospel was handed on in two ways:
- orally "by the apostles who handed on, by the spoken word of their preaching, by the example they gave, by the institutions they established, what they themselves had received - whether from the lips of Christ, from his way of life and his works, or whether they had learned it at the prompting of the Holy Spirit";33
- in writing "by those apostles and other men associated with the apostles who, under the inspiration of the same Holy Spirit, committed the message of salvation to writing".34
Paragraph 76 describes the process by which the Revelation of Jesus Christ has been composed and transmitted through the ages and in our own time. If you are reading this on the posting day, you have an opportunity this weekend to see the Scriptural roots of this paragraph. Matthew 4: 12-21 (Third Sunday of Ordinary Time-A) narrates the beginning of the public life of Jesus—his words, deeds, passion, resurrection, and commissioning. The first “public work” recorded by Matthew is the gathering of an intimate inner circle who will see or witness everything that Jesus teaches and exemplifies. Four of these companions are mentioned by name in Sunday’s text—Simon (eventually Peter), Andrew, James, and John. Clearly the evangelist Matthew is establishing the unique role of the inner circle as those who were “there from the beginning.”
Although the Scripture calls the group by different names—disciples, the twelve—the term apostle came into use for the intimates of Jesus and is found in New Testament letters and other early Church documents. The word “apostle” derives from the Greek “to be sent away,” which indicates that the term “apostle” has a broader meaning than simply closeness to Jesus. The Gospels report others who were close to Jesus—the sisters Martha and Mary, Lazarus, etc.—but there is no record of them being called “apostles.” This name has specific boundaries; it defines one as having been with Jesus from the beginning and as one sent forth or sent away in Matthew 28: 19-20 to preach and baptize to the ends of the earth.
Para. 76 uses the term “Gospel” to embody the full mission and teaching of Jesus, and is somewhat more broad than the term “Gospel” applied to the works of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. One can say historically, beginning with Paul, that the term “preaching the Gospel” [or Good News] of Jesus Christ is essentially preaching Jesus Christ. The written word is a subset of this mission as the text of para. 76 indicates in its segment on writing.
Para. 76 reflects the development of Church history and Scriptural study over the past two centuries, particularly in its recognition of multiple stages and sources in the handing on of tradition. (The “legal” boundaries for Catholic biblical scholars are summarized in the Pontifical Biblical Commission’s statement of 1964.) The Catechism endorses the fruits of modern scholarship on the process of the development and passing down of the Gospel through its sourcing from Vatican II’s Dei Verbum, The Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation.
It is easier to explain the process by its aberrations. The history of Biblical interpretation is complex, but pastorally speaking, when I was a child I was taught that the four Gospels were literally inspired, word for word, directly from God. If you Google images of St. Matthew, for example, you will find a number with an angel at his side dictating his text. The official Church never quite taught this level of literary inspiration, but it did hold to the substantive historicity of the Gospels, including the Infancy narratives. That the four Gospels differed in many ways was managed by synthesizing the four into a general narrative of understanding and faith.
This solution was useful for much of the Church’s history, as the Biblical texts themselves were not a staple of the uneducated, proclaimed only at Mass, and cited only as proof texts by Church scholars. Much of Martin Luther’s reform agenda was the accusation that the Catholic Church had drifted far from the Bible itself in its beliefs and practices. Protestants in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries revisited the sacred texts with multiple tools of literary and historical analysis. Catholic scholars were permitted to join in this research in 1943 by Pope Pius XII. The principles we use and teach today are the fruits of the scholarship of the last two centuries.
Para. 76 recognizes the existence of an oral tradition of Jesus’ ministry that predates anything put to paper. By today’s calendar Jesus died in 27 A.D. The first written book of what we know today as the New Testament is St. Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians in about 51 A.D. The first Gospel, that of St. Mark, was probably written between 65-70 A.D. Thus, the Church acknowledges, in the first part of para. 76, that for a generation or longer the tradition of faith was carried forth through oral traditions or telling. Sorting out the contents of each oral tradition from the later written texts is somewhat hypothetical, though it does seem that Matthew and Luke had possession of a “Q Source” that was unavailable to Mark, who wrote earlier. The Church holds that during this oral stage of transmission the accurate content was assured by the Holy Spirit.
Again, it is impossible to know the exact details of the passage from an oral to a written tradition of handing on the Good News. The Catechism does not say that the two methods are separate or mutually exclusive. The safest thing to say is that the oral preaching of Jesus by the Apostles and the written word we call Scripture merged together in the first century. Note in para. 76 that the New Testament was not written exclusively by Apostles but more in fidelity to their preaching. St. Luke, in the opening lines of his Gospel, admits to his patron Theophilus that he is not an eyewitness of Jesus but a historian (and certainly a theologian) who has traced the Jesus narrative much as a modern-day historian, looking back to written and spoken sources. Para. 76 emphasizes that the next generation of witnesses and writers enjoy the same wisdom of the Spirit as the Apostles. However, as we saw in earlier Catechism texts, the age of formal Revelation of Jesus Christ ends with the death of the last Apostle, believed to be St. John around 100 A.D.
When we proclaim our faith in the Nicene Creed at every Sunday Mass, one of the acclamations is belief in “one, holy, catholic [universal], and apostolic Church. Para. 76 explains the “apostolic nature” of the Church and how, by the guidance of the Spirit, the successors of the apostles—the bishops—are empowered to teach with authority so long as they are faithful to the corpus of Apostolic preaching and writing passed down to us from Jesus.
Paragraph 75: The DNA of FaithRead Now
75 "Christ the Lord, in whom the entire Revelation of the most high God is summed up, commanded the apostles to preach the Gospel, which had been promised beforehand by the prophets, and which he fulfilled in his own person and promulgated with his own lips. In preaching the Gospel, they were to communicate the gifts of God to all men. This Gospel was to be the source of all saving truth and moral discipline."32
Yesterday I was teaching an introductory course on the theology of sacraments to the Catholic school faculty in my own parish— “faculty lounge theology,” I guess you could say—and as I was meandering on about sacraments and signs I suddenly stopped my train of thought. “Of course,” I wondered aloud, “none of this has any importance if you don’t believe in God.”
I stopped and spontaneously went into the predispositions of Catholic worship—that there is a God, that God created, that God jumped the chasm between created and uncreated, that God took flesh and entered our world, that God came to do us some good, and that we trust we are encountering God in sacramental events. Without that, Catholic worship—all worship—is delusional magic. The DNA stream of belief is something that every adult must figure out personally and regularly, because age, wisdom, and personal experience change us. As I said yesterday, “You have to sort out your thoughts about God after you walk through a pediatric oncology unit.”
I have no idea what made me say that yesterday. In thinking about it later, it might possibly be that my students—young teaching professionals—are one to two generations behind me, and my own persona as a teacher is morphing from informer to sage. It could be, too, that after years of teaching roughly the same theological agenda I am coming around to a different, more basic, fashion of putting forth the Catholic tradition.
I had not read Paragraph 75 closely until early this morning, but considering yesterday’s experience I realized that this text is a personal and institutional building block of Catholic life. Again, the text makes no sense if one does not believe in God, in a revealing God, in a God who is synonymous with Jesus, in a Jesus who saves us from a wretched state and brings us to a glorious one, in a Jesus who has left himself behind to continue the saving, in his commissioning of specific people to authentically carry on this work, in a group empowered to lead his followers according to the intention of Jesus, until the end of time.
This is the DNA stream of para. 75, which summarizes the fact of a saving message and the means of its passing on—in Latin, tradere, “to hand on”; hence Tradition. When the Catechism speaks of “Tradition” it does so in a very technical and specific sense. The Church, in its acts, is acting in the persona of Christ, handing on what he did and addressing new circumstances as it understands Jesus would have done, given that Jesus’ Holy Spirit remains with the Church for all time.
The content of para. 75 rests at the heart of Church teaching for those who are called to meaningful engagement in the Church. Footnote 32 comes from the Vatican II Document Dei Verbum, “Divine Revelation.” DV, in turn, rests upon a wide range of previous Church teachings—from Church Fathers including St. Augustine, The Council of Trent (1545-1563), Vatican I (1870), the Council of Orange (529), St. Irenaeus (c. 100), Pius XII (1950)—among those sources cited in the Vatican II texts themselves. In short, the authority to faithfully pass along Scripture and Tradition is among the most cherished beliefs and teachings on the Catholic Church.
The content of para. 75 is not new to the Catechism to this juncture. Previous paragraphs have affirmed God’s revelation in Scripture, fulfilled in the life and works of Jesus. The idea of a universal mission to all to preach the Gospel is not new to the Catechism text, either. However, we are progressing—albeit slowly—to the details of Catholic life—none of which will have significance or impact upon a reader if there is not kind of personal trust and relationship in the Church.
In fairness, I need to harken back to Vatican II’s teachings on the Church itself, which reflects an ambiguity about the Church’s identity. Prior to Vatican II formal Church statements stated that the Mystical Body of Christ is the Roman Catholic Church. Such teachings gave rise to the belief that “outside the Catholic Church there is no salvation” or that Protestants did not have a true unity with Christ. But perhaps most troubling to the Vatican II fathers was the evident reality that Catholicism in its earthly dealings was not perfect—that then and now the Church in its leaders and members erred, sinned, and generally reflected imperfection. Vatican II language adopted better linguistics, describing the Church as a “pilgrim people,” a metaphor easily reminiscent of the Chosen People in the desert under Moses—dedicated to God but hardly perfect.
There is another linguistic work of genius from Vatican II that is not widely appreciated. The fathers voted to state that the Mystical Body of Christ subsists in the Roman Catholic Church. Wikipedia has a remarkably good explanation of the debate here, but put briefly, Vatican II now teaches that the Church contains everything that is necessary for salvation, while aspects of Christ’s truth can be found elsewhere. At the time of the Council I believe that that the fathers were attempting to replace what often sounded like arrogance (or technically, “triumphalism,”) with a statement of wholeness that invited hungry guests from the outside to come to the Church’s table, or in many cases, to return to it.
In 2017 this more nuanced understanding of the Church is critically important for several reasons. The temptation of institutional Catholicism is constantly to lapse into triumphal certainty—we have all the answers. Were this in fact true, there would be no need for the Holy Spirit. But the fact is there remain many issues—in life, in Church life, in our own consciences—where the meeting of Scripture, Tradition, and the well-intentioned private or collective consciences of Catholics continue in a fruitful dialogue. Tradition itself is proof of this. Around 200 A.D. the leaders of the Church had to determine which books belonged in the canon or collection we call the New Testament. From what I have read, one of the determining factors in the selection were the littles of books and letters already in use in Christian liturgy. A collective inspiration had taken place.
My second reason for defining the Church--as it is--has to do with the recent phenomenon that many good folks have left the Church, and quite a few others are members of the marginal type. I have no solid data for why this is happening---though I have many opinions—but I must wonder if our lost friends may still carry the pre-Council concept of the Church as the perfect society of which they are not worthy, or more likely, have seen the failures of “the perfect Church” and lost respect.
Again, returning to the DNA of Revelation and Tradition, it is important when making conscience decisions about fidelity and membership in the Church, to understand the “subsists” clause and the pilgrim people paradigm. The Church is sustained by a perfect God but peopled with imperfect but striving souls. Pastors are often accused of always asking for money; maybe they would do better to ask for hungry hearts.
74 God "desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth":29 that is, of Christ Jesus.30 Christ must be proclaimed to all nations and individuals, so that this revelation may reach to the ends of the earth:
God graciously arranged that the things he had once revealed for the salvation of all peoples should remain in their entirety, throughout the ages, and be transmitted to all generations.31
Paragraph 74 opens a new section entitled “God comes to meet man.” The next segment will examine the content of Revelation and the way it is passed down. Specifically, the nature of the Sacred Scripture and the unique authority of the Church to transmit the truth of Christ—known technically as Tradition with a capital “t.”
The opening sentence encompasses two bedrock beliefs: (1) that God “desires all men to be saved” and (2) that God desires “all men to come to knowledge of the truth.” It is important to reflect separately on each point, because the second is meaningless without the first. For the work of teaching the knowledge of truth rests upon the belief that there is something inherently wrong with the human species that needs fixing or completion. The term for that “fixing” is salvation, and the description of the “fixing” in theological terms is soteriology.
Soteriology is a very slippery eel to grasp hold of, and my early morning research raised more questions than answers. Every religion worth its salt has its own formula to describe what it is that man needs from God. I did learn that Calvinists have an interesting catechetical mnemonic for the salvific process known as TULIP: Total depravity, Unconditional election, Limited atonement, Irresistible grace, and Perseverance of the Saints. In the Calvinist-Presbyterian tradition, man is utterly depraved. He can do nothing at all on his own behalf to improve his lot. God elects certain individuals unconditionally, for no corresponding human reason. The saving merit of Jesus’ death, an act of reparation for human depravity, is limited to those already elected by God. God’s grace is irresistible; man does not have the power to resist it, though only the elect receive the grace. Once elected, it is impossible to lose the election, as the overriding power of God keeps the elected on the straight and narrow. The familiar word “predestination” flows from this tradition.
I suspect that if I had coffee with a professional theologian of the Calvinist tradition, he or she would kindly point out how I have mangled several key points of TULIP. A Calvinist attuned to Catholic theology and worship might ask me why, in 2011, the English Mass translation of the consecration of the cup was changed such that Jesus’ blood was shed not “for all” but “for many.” (A good discussion here for another day.) Yet the basic principles of Calvinist tradition on the nature of salvation do in fact contrast with several Catholic beliefs that we have covered in previous Thursday posts, such as man’s natural gifts to come to knowledge of a supreme being and a natural order of goodness.
The poor man’s summary of Catholic salvific history (soteriology) holds that God created man in pure generosity as a free subjective being able to engage in the give-and-take of a love relationship with his maker. This same gift of freedom enabled man to violate the loving relationship in acts of rebellion, symbolized in Jewish Scripture by the deeds of Adam and Eve, the youngest son of Noah, etc. In God’s good time he sent his son (essentially himself) in one final offer of full unity and love, with a new covenant or marriage that man remained free to embrace through baptism and a life of holiness. Enduring faithfulness would lead to full union with the loving God for all eternity. (Acts 2 is considered a very early summary of how the Apostolic era would have laid out the soteriological plan.)
I realize, of course, that most of everything I wrote in the previous paragraph is an object of profound complexity to any thoughtful individual, Catholic or not. Plato’s maxim about the emptiness of thoughtless living, void of reflection, applies here as elsewhere. Roman Catholicism, to this day, continues to refine its understanding of creation, the nature of “man’s fall,” the full dimensions of free will, the language of God’s revelation, the precise moral implications of the new covenant, and the nature of evil, to name but a few areas of energetic research. The prime purposes of such exploration are better comprehension of fullness and mystery of God, greater self-understanding, and the formation of a missionary message.
“Coming to the knowledge of the truth” is an adventure that never ends, at least in our human lifetimes. If indeed knowledge of our awesome God is the end of our quest, there is no point at which I can say I mastered it. Living as I do near Cape Canaveral, I am used to seeing rockets heading into space, some with telescopes that peer further and further into the universe. For all the knowledge garnered by these space telescopes, and despite the spectacular beauty of the pictures from Mars to Pluto, more knowledge brings more questions, humbling us by what we do not know. God is indeed “other.” Those of us in the educating and catechizing business must avoid the temptation to serve up “propositional religion” because of the danger of serving up idolatry, i.e., a God who is definable, predictable, and easily mastered.
The language of para. 74 is a launching pad (continuing the rocket metaphor), an invitation to be saved and to come to divine knowledge. This paragraph intimates that the quest for knowledge of God and the invitation of other to join this search is not a quest for a verbal creed or indisputable propositions, but a risk-taking venture more like entering a life-long relationship with a spouse. Little wonder that marriage is a sacrament of God’s presence.