Against Catholic Fundamentalism – 1 – Private Interpretation of Scripture

There is a certain false teaching, spreading among many Catholics, which claims that the Church prohibits us from interpreting Scripture. They call this the ‘private interpretation’ of Scripture. They say that we must wait for the Magisterium to tell us what any passage may mean. Or they say that we should only rely only on the interpretation of Scripture by the Saints, Fathers, and Doctors of the Church (and the Magisterium). They speak as if any Catholic who interprets Scripture is behaving like the Protestants, and becomes likely to fall into Protestant errors. And they consider any private interpretation and any theological argument based on such a private interpretation, to be unreliable and unworthy of consideration.

But this claim is not a teaching of the Church. To the contrary, the Church encourages the faithful to continually study and learn directly from Sacred Scripture. Pope Benedict XVI has frequently encouraged the faithful to engage in ‘Lectio Divina’, a prayerful devout reading of, and meditation on, Sacred Scripture. Such a practice would be impossible without interpreting the meaning of the text that is read. In fact, Pope Benedict XVI has characterized theology as a whole as being essentially based on Scripture:

“When exegesis is not theological, Scripture cannot be the soul of theology, and vice versa; when theology is not essentially Scriptural interpretation within the Church, then this theology no longer has a foundation.” (Address)

But of course, the type of Catholic fundamentalism that claims we must not engage in the private interpretation of Scripture, also tends to imply that we must not do theology either. Their view is that we must do nothing more than accept the teachings and rules of the Church: believe whatever you are taught and do whatever you are told. The use of free will and reason, in any area about which the Church has a teaching or a ruling, is anathema to them. It is as if we were not sons and daughters of the Church, but rather Her servants. It is as if we were not members of the Church, a part of the Body, but foreigners.

To the contrary, the Second Vatican Council encouraged all the faithful to be like little apostles, to engage in the apostolate of the laity.

“There are many aids for lay persons devoted to the apostolate, namely, study sessions, congresses, periods of recollection, spiritual exercises, frequent meetings, conferences, books, and periodicals directed toward the acquisition of a deeper knowledge of sacred Scripture and Catholic doctrine….”

Certainly, the Church has taught that the Magisterium interprets both Sacred Tradition and Sacred Scripture authoritatively, such that Her infallible teachings require the full assent of faith, and Her non-infallible teachings require the religious submission of will and intellect. The interpretation of Sacred Scripture by any individual Christian is not authoritative, not infallible, not non-infallible. But neither is private interpretation without much fruitfulness. For the Holy Spirit dwells within us, and it is He who inspired all the Scriptures.

It is truly impossible to be a faithful Christian, who seeks and does the will of God, while refusing to learn the faith directly from Sacred Tradition and Sacred Scripture. The fundamentalist Catholic speaks as if we should learn only from the Magisterium. But of course, such a one as this errs not only by rejecting the study of Tradition and Scripture, but also, typically, by over-simplifying and distorting what the Magisterium teaches. The fundamentalist over-simplifies religion, so that he can ‘own’ it, so that he can say, as if rendering a definitive judgment, ‘This is what the Church teaches. That is not what the Church teaches’. Such an assertion would be fine if it were a conclusion reached and supported by a theological argument based on Tradition, Scripture, Magisterium. But often it is not. The fundamentalist Catholic merely tells you what (he claims) the Church allows or does not allow.

Here is an example of this type of Catholic fundamentalism: Renewed Obedience to Ecclesiastical Superiors

The author, Jeff Mirus, claims that we must all be blindly obedient to all the teachings of the Magisterium, with no distinction between infallible and non-infallible teachings, and blindly obedient to all the rules and rulings of the Church, with no use of private judgment in matters subject to interpretation. What theological argument does he offer to support these claims? None at all. He merely tells you what you are to believe and what you are to do. (‘Be obedient to the Church’ quickly becomes ‘Be obedient to me, when I make unsupported claims about what the Church says’.)

Mirus, in his posts, frequently uses rhetorical devices to make it seem as if what he is saying is definitive and inarguable. For example: “But Catholics are not-repeat not-to exercise a private judgment over Catholic faith and morals which would lead them, in matters subject to interpretation, to evade the responsibility of obeying their legitimate ecclesiastical superiors.” Does an assertion become true merely by being stated as a command, ‘You are not to do so!’ or does it become true merely by repetition: ‘not, repeat not’? I don’t think so.

If anyone tells you that the Church teaches this or that, see if there is a sound theological argument to support the claim. If there is no theological argument at all, and no citation of such a teachings from a magisterial source, then perhaps you should look elsewhere for enlightenment as to what the Church teaches.

Truth is an objective reality that can be reached by the gifts of free will and reason. Even the whole moral law, in all of its specific requirements for us in this life, can be attained by reason alone, without Tradition, Scripture, Magisterium. We are morally obligated to form our consciences, not only on the teachings of the Magisterium, but on Tradition, on Scripture, and on reason and natural law. This fundamentalist claim, that Catholics must not use private judgment in matters subject to interpretation, such as judgments of the prudential order, temporal matters, discipline, and must not apply interpretation to Tradition, Scripture, Magisterium, is unsupportable. The Faith cannot be lived without the conscientious exercise of free will and reason, as concerns dogma (which requires interpretation), doctrine, open theological questions, and matters of discipline and judgment.

What did Jesus teach on this subject? He taught that David did not sin when he ate the bread of the Presence, which was against the Old Testament law to eat. He taught that the Old Testament priests did not sin in violating the Sabbath in certain ways.

[Matthew 12]
{12:1} At that time, Jesus went out through the ripe grain on the Sabbath. And his disciples, being hungry, began to separate the grain and to eat.
{12:2} Then the Pharisees, seeing this, said to him, “Behold, your disciples are doing what is not lawful to do on the Sabbaths.”
{12:3} But he said to them: “Have you not read what David did, when he was hungry, and those who were with him:
{12:4} how he entered the house of God and ate the bread of the Presence, which was not lawful for him to eat, nor for those who were with him, but only for the priests?
{12:5} Or have you not read in the law, that on the Sabbaths the priests in the temple violate the Sabbath, and they are without guilt?
{12:6} But I say to you, that something greater than the temple is here.
{12:7} And if you knew what this means, ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice,’ you would never have condemned the innocent.
{12:8} For the Son of man is Lord even of the Sabbath.”

This teaching of Jesus directly contradicts the claims of Jeff Mirus and other Catholic fundamentalists, who say we can never faithfully disobey, who say we can never faithfully dissent. The Old Testament law that David and that the priests violated was a discipline ordained by God in Divine Revelation. Yet they did not sin by violating that discipline. So certainly we can, at times, in some cases, disobey rules and rulings from the temporal authority of the Church without sin.

{12:57} And why do you not, even among yourselves, judge what is just?

This saying by Jesus contradicts the idea that we cannot judge what is right in matters of doctrine, by interpreting Scripture, or by dissenting from a non-infallible teaching. This saying contradicts the idea that Mirus and others promote, that we cannot base our faith in part on private interpretation of Tradition and Scripture, and on private judgment in temporal matters, even when the Church has a doctrine or discipline on the point in question.

And Saint Paul, teaching in the Holy Spirit, says this:

[1 Corinthians 6]
{6:1} How is it that anyone of you, having a dispute against another, would dare to be judged before the iniquitous, and not before the saints?
{6:2} Or do you not know that the saints from this age shall judge it? And if the world is to be judged by you, are you unworthy, then, to judge even the smallest matters?
{6:3} Do you not know that we shall judge angels? How much more the things of this age?
{6:4} Therefore, if you have matters to judge concerning this age, why not appoint those who are most contemptible in the Church to judge these things!

Even the least in the Church may exercise judgment, for the faithful are to be judges of this age and judges of angels. But the Catholic fundamentalists have abandoned the responsibility, given to us by God, to use our free will and reason and faith in order to discern truths on matters of faith and morals, and in order to judge in temporal circumstances.

Now Sacred Scripture does say:

{1:20} Understand this first: that every prophecy of Scripture does not result from one’s own interpretation.
{1:21} For prophecy was not conveyed by human will at any time. Instead, holy men were speaking about God while inspired by the Holy Spirit.

But this passage is often misinterpreted, to claim that we should not engage in the private interpretation of Scripture. That is not what the text says. The truth of any prophecy or teaching in Scripture is not in the interpretation, but in the Word itself. But this does not imply that we should not interpret. A good interpretation finds the meaning in the text, whether it is explicit or implicit. A bad interpretation imposes a new meaning on the text, or distorts the meaning, or subtracts from the meaning. So this passage is a guide to help us interpret Scripture, not a prohibition against interpreting Scripture.

Now these fundamentalists do not claim that the Fathers, Doctors, and Saints of the Church erred by interpreting Scripture. They instead hold that they could interpret Scripture because they are Fathers, Doctors, and Saints. But how did they know at the time that they were Fathers, Doctors, or Saints? They did not know. The fundamentalist will say, ‘Ah, but you are not a Father, Doctor, or Saint.’ The faithful reply to such a claim is first, that the Fathers, Doctors, and Saints did not know at the time that they were such, and second, that we are all saints if we continue to live the Faith given to us at Baptism and Confirmation. Therefore, we all can, should, and must engage in the interpretation of Tradition and Scripture, and in the prudential judgment of temporal matters, even if sometimes our conclusions lead us to a type of limited and faithful dissent, or a type of limited and faithful disobedience.

Beloved disciples of Christ, take care not to be led astray by false teachers.

Ronald L. Conte Jr.
Roman Catholic theologian and Bible translator

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