Should Catholics lean on their own understanding of Tradition?
Catholics often say that the Church may be likened to a stool with three legs: Scripture, Tradition and the Magisterium. This is said to be in contrast to many Protestant denominations who stand on Scripture alone.
However, the stool analogy would be incomplete without acknowledging that the Magisterium of the Catholic Church alone has authority to interpret Scripture and Tradition. The Catechism of the Catholic Church states:
“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. Its authority in this matter is exercised in the name of Jesus Christ." This means that the task of interpretation has been entrusted to the bishops in communion with the successor of Peter, the Bishop of Rome.” CCC 85
Consequently, the laity can simply trust the teaching that comes from their pastors. The laity do not need to interpret 186,400 sentences in the Bible and 2,000 years of Tradition on their own:
“Mindful of Christ's words to his apostles: "He who hears you, hears me", the faithful receive with docility the teachings and directives that their pastors give them in different forms.” CCC 87.
But many Catholics emphasize the intermediate section of the Catechism, which speaks of the role of Sacred Tradition:
“Yet this Magisterium is not superior to the Word of God, but is its servant. It teaches only what has been handed on to it. At the divine command and with the help of the Holy Spirit, it listens to this devotedly, guards it with dedication and expounds it faithfully. All that it proposes for belief as being divinely revealed is drawn from this single deposit of faith." CCC 86.
Many Catholics seem to be of the belief that this gives the laity the authority to check the Magisterium’s teaching, to hold it to account by comparing the Magisterium’s teaching to Tradition. Of course, this view cannot be found anywhere in the Cathechism. Both the prior and succeeding sections of the Catechism state that the Magisterium alone has the authority to interpret Tradition, and that the faithful are to receive the Magisterium’s teaching with docility.
The experience of the early church shows why it is important to defer to the Magisterium’s interpretation of Tradition, and not to “lean on your own understanding” (Proverbs 3:5).
The Quartodeciman Controversy
Saint John the Evangelist spent the final years of his life in Ephesus in Asia Minor. His followers, including Saint Polycarp, followed the tradition of celebrating Easter on the 14th day of the month of Nisan regardless of the day of the week on which it fell. Late in the second century, Pope Victor I ordered the churches of Asia Minor to stop this tradition and celebrate Easter on the first day of the week. Bishop Polycrates of Asia Minor wrote a defiant letter to Pope Victor I, staunchly defending his churches’ tradition and concluding with the stark words: “We ought to obey God rather than man.”
Nevertheless, the churches of Asia Minor ultimately relented to Pope Victor’s commands. Their tradition, expressly approved by Saint Polycarp, was overturned by the Pope. This was a question of discipline rather than doctrine, but Bishop Polycatres’ letter to Pope Victor I shows how strongly emotions were running at the time.
The Synod of Antioch and the First Council of Nicaea
Paul of Samosata, Patriarch of Antioch in the 3rd century, fell for the adoptionist heresy, teaching that Jesus is a mere man who was adopted by God. Paul taught that the Divine Logos and God the Father were really the same – they were homoousios. The eastern churches held several synods at Antioch to condemn Paul, as well as the teaching that God the Father and the Logos are homoousios. See page 123 of Hefele.
Of course, just 60 years later the First Council of Nicaea declared that the Father and the Logos are in fact homoousios, and many people (Arians) argued that this was a break with the tradition established at the synods of Antioch. Certainly on the face of the matter, Nicaea seems to have made a complete break with the tradition of Antioch. Antioch had declared that the Father and the Logos are not homoousios, and Nicaea declared that they are homoousios. If the laity and even certain members of the clergy (even some bishops) have the right to interpret tradition on their own, it’s hard to argue against the concerns they would have had at one council explicitly contradicting a prior council.
For reasons we don’t need to get into here, the First Council of Nicaea, presided over by the legates of Pope Sylvester I, was entirely correct to affirm the use of a word that the synods of Antioch had condemned. But if the laity have the right to use Tradition as a tool to check the Magisterium, how were the laity to know that the Council of Nicaea was correct? Did every member of the laity need to study the philosophical meaning of homoousios and decide the issue for themselves, and hope they got it right? Or could the laity simply trust the Magisterium?
The Second Ecumenical Council
The Second Ecumenical Council in 381 was, at the time it was held, a local council of eastern bishops with no western bishop or representative of the Pope present. The council upheld the Nicene creed that had been adopted 56 years earlier, but it made changes. Among other things, the council added to the creed that the Holy Spirit is adored and glorified together with the Father and the Son. Opponents of this change (and there were many) could point out that this teaching could not be found in the original Nicene Creed. They accused this council of innovating new teachings that could not previously be found in the deposit of faith. Should a member of the laity have simply clung to prior tradition, and ignored the teachings of the council?
The Council of Ephesus
The Second Ecumenical Council condemned the heresy of Apollinarianism, the teaching that Jesus does not have a complete human soul, but that the highest part of His soul was replaced by the Logos. In eastern Syria, orthodox Christians clung to this teaching against their Apollinarian opponents. They clung to it so closely that any teaching that did not heavily emphasize the distinction between the full divinity and full humanity of Jesus seemed to them to be Apollinarianism. For detailed historical reasons explained in The Lesser Eastern Churches by Father Adrian Fortescue, the eastern Syrians believed that the Council of Ephesus had contradicted their anti-Apollinarian tradition. For members of the laity living in eastern Syria, these arguments certainly seemed convincing. What should they have done? Place their trust in the Magisterium of the Church in communion with the Bishop of Rome, even though it seemed to be completely at odds with their own understanding of tradition? Or did they need to test whether Rome could be trusted based on their own understanding of tradition?
The Council of Chalcedon
For most Christians in western Syria, Palestine and Egypt, the Council of Ephesus had settled all questions concerning Christology. They had triumphed over their Nestorian, eastern Syrian enemies. Jesus is one person and Mary is the Mother of God. And yet just 20 years later the Church met again at the Council of Chalcedon and adopted the Tome of Pope Leo I that spelled out the Church’s understanding of the Hypostatic Union still further. For the people of Syria, Palestine and Egypt, this was breaking with the settled tradition of Ephesus. Father Fortescue explains their view of the matter in The Lesser Eastern Churches. Were they right to put their own understanding of tradition first, above that of the bishops in communion with the Pope?
The Fifth Ecumenical Council
The Church was not done with Christological controversies at Chalcedon. A century later, the Church met again at the Fifth Ecumenical Council and issued yet another statement of doctrine on Christology. This time it was the western churches in northern Italy and central Europe who dissented, claiming that Pope Vigilius had overturned the tradition of Chalcedon. For several decades, these western churches declared open schism with Rome because they did not trust Rome’s interpretation of tradition.
The Sixth and Seventh Ecumenical Councils
The story repeats itself in the following centuries. At the Sixth Ecumenical Council, monothelites produced plenty of texts from the Church Fathers that, at least on the surface, stated that Jesus has only one energy and only one will. But the Council, called at the request of Pope Agatho I, understood these texts differently. The monothelites refused to yield, and in 712 they gained control of Constantinople, repudiated the Sixth Ecumenical Council and broke communion with Rome.
Likewise, the iconoclasts of the 8th and 9th centuries found plenty of early church texts expressing concern over the use of icons. But the Seventh and Eighth Ecumenical Councils saw the matter differently. The iconoclasts broke communion with Rome because they trusted their own interpretation of tradition over that of the Pope.