A sad discussion has been taking place among the Catholic laity over the past few years about sola Scriptura versus the Magisterium.  Along with it comes some shocking comments, some of which readers have left on my blog, including statements such as (paraphrased):

‘Every Protestant is a law unto himself.’

‘There are 30,000 Protestant denominations, each with a different set of beliefs.’

‘Sola Scriptura makes no sense.’

Well, no, sola Scriptura makes no sense to anyone who doesn’t read the Bible. Allow me to illustrate. When I was a preteen, most of my friends in the neighbourhood were Protestant.  One day during the summer, we were taking a break from play and sitting in the garden.  We got to talking about church, as one did back then.  The defining question was always, ‘What are you?’  You knew immediately that someone was asking what church you attended.  So, the answer was always along the lines of ‘Lutheran’, ‘Catholic’, ‘Baptist’.  Therefore, today, I still find it unnerving that people refer to themselves as ‘Christian’, rather than give more detail.  That leaves it to me to ask, ‘Oh, and what denomination?’ 

Tell me ‘what you are’, then I know what you believe.  That has stood the test of time for me.  Thanks to my mom’s discussions with me about Catholics and various Protestant churches, supplemented by books we bought on sale or borrowed from the library, I had a fairly good idea at the age of 7 or 8, what the basic differences were — as much as could be explained to a child of that age. As Vatican II had ended and new programmes were in place, our parish priests, as requested by the diocesan bishop, always encouraged us to attend local oecumenical services. As it was no longer forbidden to attend a Protestant service — at least where we lived in the US. So, by the age of 12, I had attended a Methodist, a Baptist, an Episcopal and a Lutheran service.  This was followed by a semester of church history at Catholic secondary school which explained the circumstances surrounding the Reformation. But, I digress. 

However, reading or studying the Bible at home outside of set texts for homework was out of bounds.  Understandably, my mother — having grown up pre-Vatican II —  said that she couldn’t really help interpret any independent reading.  We didn’t have anything like a Catholic concordance or a commentary, which, I’m not even sure existed then for laymen.  If it did, it was probably quite expensive.  So, I relied on the nuns and the priests for any scriptural instruction.  That was the norm at that time.  Remember, we’re talking 35 – 40 years ago — so last century!

Meanwhile, my Protestant mates were learning the Bible at Sunday School and knew how to find their way around to cite chapter and verse. They knew which verses from the Old Testament that the New Testament referred to.  They often quoted what a pastor had said to them in class.  It was all quite impressive. 

Back to that day in the garden in the early 1970s.  As I said, we were talking about our churches and reading the Bible.  When my turn came, I said, ‘I’m a Catholic.  I don’t need to read the Bible.  The priests do it for me.’  Heads exploded, including that of the Baptist boy, heretofore unflappable, who exclaimed,  ‘You’ll go to Hell talking like that.  I can’t believe you don’t read the Bible.’

In case it is unclear, try this: ‘The priests feed me with spiritual food. I eat.  Beyond that, I’m not too concerned.’  I went to Mass with my parents primarily for Communion. Everything else was secondary.  With Latin Mass a receding memory, we had Novus Ordo.  The mystery was gone.  The liturgy had been watered down yet again.  I remember having one missal in 1964, another in 1967, and then the liturgy changed again in the early 1970s, becoming truly formulaic. ‘Today, I am using Eucharistic Prayer II,’ the priest would say.  We moved to newspaper-quality Missalettes.  My mom said it was too expensive buying missals every few years, so we stopped.  The new hymns weren’t that good — all Missalette stuff — and we were lucky to get a couple traditional favourites.  But, Novus Ordo and tunes are another topic entirely.    

I had another point to make to my friends by saying what I did: why would I need the Bible when I had the Pope, Mary, the saints and a rosary?  Where would the Bible fit into that grand and wonderful scheme of things? 

This first-person story illustrates something which still seems to be common to Catholics today — the reluctance to even contemplate the Bible, let alone read it.  Yes, you have to have a reliable commentary — and I have the foremost Catholic one — Haydock — in the Resources section (left-hand column). 

Yet, the barrier still exists.  Ask many adult Catholics if they read the Bible even now, decades after Vatican II ended.  Very few do.  Many openly say, ‘I don’t need to know the Bible.’  Which isn’t too different from saying, ‘I’m Catholic.  I don’t need to read the Bible.  The priests do it for me.’

This is the lead-in to an examination of sola Scriptura, much derided by Catholics.  We didn’t have that discussion in my day.  I didn’t even know what a sola was until last year.  Anything involving biblical literacy will bemuse a Catholic layman who has Tradition.  And what Catholic doesn’t?

In closing, I should like to address the first two quotes, which Catholics shouldn’t be using, because they are blatant falsehoods.  Mainline Protestant denominations have set confessions of faith which lay members and clergy are expected to understand and adhere to.  The Lutheran and Calvinist confessions are highly comprehensive, which is not surprising, considering that they are the direct results of the Reformation. Luther’s influence spread from Germany throughout Scandinavia and eventually to the New World. Calvinism’s influence spread through several European countries and to the North American colonies

The 30,000 churches in my second point at the top of the post is based on a miscalculation.  Even logic would dictate that there certainly are not that many established denominations.  There may be independent churches, but those we shall address in the next post.  The World Christian Encyclopedia states that there are 8,973 Protestant denominations — and 242 Catholic denominations (see page 2 of the link).       

Tomorrow: Sola Scriptura v solo Scriptura