Article 14: Catechism of the Catholic Church Series

Paragraphs 84-95

For Catholic Spirit (Week of June 4, 2015 edition)

Heritage of Faith

Father John G. Hillier

The heading for this section of the Catechism, the Interpretation of the Heritage of Faith, reminds me of a story told by an elderly parishioner who worked in New York City as a young executive in the 1950′s.

It happened on 5th Avenue near Rockefeller Center as several fire engines roared past with dozens of firefighters standing on its running boards and clinging to the side rails. Hundreds stopped to stare at the huge red trucks as they thundered past. What caught the attention of many was not the powerful fire-fighting equipment, not the distant clouds of smoke rising between the concrete jungle against the afternoon sky. Rather, it was an act of faith by the brave firemen as they passed St. Patrick’s Cathedral. Clinging with one hand on the swaying rails, each one raised his right hand reverently in honor of our Eucharistic Lord, and made the sign of the cross. It was a sight that made you proud to be a Catholic. It made you thankful for the mysteries of our religion, for the heritage of our faith and for our power to believe the truths revealed by God.

Today, it seems, the opposite is true. Many fallen-away Catholics like to say some variation of the following: “I used to be Catholic before I grew out of it.” Others practically apologize for being Catholic or offer excuses for their Catholic belief. To hear some people talk you would think there is something wrong with a religion that demands belief in the mystery of God and service to one’s neighbor.

On the positive side, when we talk about the heritage of our faith we mean the totality of what the apostles received from Jesus and what we have received from the apostles down to the present generation. The authentic interpretation of the heritage of faith comes from the successors of the apostles, otherwise known as the teaching office of the Church or the Magisterium.

What is the content of this heritage of faith? The Catechism tells us that “the apostles entrusted the ‘Sacred deposit’ of the faith (the depositum fidei), contained in Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition, to the whole of the Church” (ccc 84). In the next paragraph we are told that “the task of giving an authentic interpretation of the Word of God, whether in its written form or in the form of Tradition, has been entrusted to the living, teaching office of the Church alone” (ccc 85).

In other words, for Catholics, “the Word of God” comprises “Sacred Tradition and Sacred Scripture” which form one “sacred deposit” of the faith. It belongs to the Magisterium (the teaching authority of the Church) to interpret the Word of God (Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition), both explicitly and implicitly.  The Second Vatican Council’s Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation, Dei Verbum (DV) explains it this way: “the task of giving an authentic interpretation of the Word of God, whether in its written form or in the form of Tradition, has been entrusted to the living teaching office of the Church alone” (DV. 10).

Catholics do not accept the proposal that the “Word of God” refers to Sacred Scripture alone or “sola scriptura,” to use the traditional Protestant terminology. If we did, we would be at a loss to explain how the Church was able to preach Christ and His good news of salvation in the early days after the Resurrection before the New Testament was even written down.

Quoting from this same 1965 Vatican II document, Dei Verbum, the Catechism further explains: “This Magisterium is not superior to the Word of God, but is its servant. It teaches only what has been handed on to it … It listens to this devoutly, guards it with dedication and expounds it faithfully” (ccc 86).

15 years earlier, in his 1950 encyclical Humani Generis (HG), “Concerning False Opinions Threatening to Undermine Catholic Doctrine,” Pope Pius XII similarly summarized Catholic teaching on this matter. He explained: “God has given to His Church a living Teaching Authority to elucidate and explain what is contained in the deposit of faith only obscurely and implicitly” (HG, 21). In short, the Magisterium or Teaching Office of the Church, receives the deposit of faith (Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition) as God’s gift. In every age, it is the responsibility of this Magisterium to seek and express a deeper, more profound, precise and authentic understanding of our precious Catholic faith so we might be more faithful witnesses.

The various documents of the Church summarize well what is commonly described as the stable and reliable three-legged stool of “Scripture, Tradition, and Magisterium.” The Church rests upon this stool and if any of the legs is removed the stool will collapse. In “Dei Verbum” article 10 we are taught: “It is clear, therefore, that Sacred Tradition, Sacred Scripture and the Magisterium of the Church are so connected and associated that one cannot stand without the others (and) … each in its own way under the action of the one Holy Spirit contribute effectively to the salvation of souls.”

To say it another way, nothing is accepted as true on the basis or authority of Tradition alone, Scripture alone, or the Magisterium alone. All three function together, and all are necessary for the life of the Church “working together, each in its own way, under the action of the one Holy Spirit” (ccc 95).

Next time I see a fire truck, my thoughts will take me to a workday in New York City so many years ago, with Saint Patrick’s Cathedral as the backdrop. But, in my imagination, I will be sitting on a stable and reliable three-legged stool with the supremely wise arrangement of God, “Sacred Tradition, Sacred Scripture and the Magisterium” (ccc 95), in the forefront of my mind and heart.