The Unity of Church Teaching
by Jeffery Cavins
To many, the perception of the Catholic Church is that it is big. Really big.
That was how I felt during those first weeks of my “reversion” to Catholicism, when my interest in the Church had been stimulated by the writings of Pope John Paul II. But before I could understand the details of doctrine, liturgy, and Church structure, I needed something that would tie together the whole faith.
During those months I was seeking God in the Catholic Church, I discovered something important: God wants to reveal Himself to us fully; He wants us to participate fully in His family; and, in the Church, He has given us the means by which this revelation is passed on and maintained throughout the centuries.
Today, many non-Catholic Christians understand divine revelation as a purely personal exercise wherein an individual mines the depths of the sacred text with the help of the Holy Spirit. This approach may seem easy, personal, and liberating, but in reality, sola scriptura complicates the search for truth and leaves the individual with a lack of certitude. This raises the question: If God, who created the complexities of the universe, chose to reveal Himself, wouldn’t He reveal Himself with the same attention to order and detail that went into creation itself?
It’s a Beautiful Dei
Vatican II’s Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation, Dei Verbum, is the concise articulation of how we receive divine revelation and grow in our understanding of it. The document reveals the liberating truth that we do not rely on “scripture alone”; that the one deposit of the Word of God is formed by Sacred Tradition and Sacred Scripture, both of which flow from the same divine source.
We know that in the Old Testament, God entrusted Himself to a people and began to manifest Himself through word and deed. This prepared man for the coming of Christ, who is God’s definitive revelation of Himself (cf. Col. 1:15). Dei Verbum explains the unity between the Old and New Testaments by quoting St. Augustine, who says that “the New Testament is hidden in the Old and the Old is made manifest in the New” (DV, no. 16).
This ordered progression continued when Jesus commissioned His Apostles to preach the Gospel to all men. The Apostles faithfully fulfilled this command and “handed on what they had received from the lips of Christ, from living with Him, and from what He did, or what they had learned through the prompting of the Holy Spirit. . . . In order to keep the Gospel forever whole, the Apostles left bishops as their successors, ‘handing over’ to them the authority to teach in their own place” (DV, no. 7).
What was it that was given to the succeeding generations by the Apostles? Dei Verbum tells us: “What was handed on by the Apostles includes everything which contributes toward the holiness of life and increase in faith of the people of God; and so the Church, in her teaching, life and worship perpetuates and hands on to all generations all that she herself is, all that she believes” (DV, no. 8). This is what constitutes Sacred Tradition.
Part of this Sacred Tradition includes the teaching role of the magisterium of the Church, that is, the pope and all of the bishops in union with him. The task of “authentically interpreting the word of God, whether written or handed on, has been entrusted exclusively to the living teaching office of the Church” (DV, no. 10). The magisterium not only hands on the objective truth of the faith, but also provides guidelines for biblical interpretation that have been carried on for centuries. “The living tradition of the whole Church must be taken into account along with the harmony which exists between elements of the faith” (DV, no. 12).
Pillars of the Church
A wonderful example of this “harmony” can be seen in the structure of the Catechism of the Catholic Church.
To the novice, the Catechism is certainly an impressive display of the basics of the Catholic faith. Indeed, it explains all the key elements. However, what is missed all too often is that the structure of the Catechism—its four sections or “pillars”— is itself set up to serve as a teaching tool.
The first pillar of the Catechism is the Creed, which is the Church’s profession of faith. The Creed can be thought of as salvation history, from Genesis to Revelation, in a tightly wound form. St. Augustine recognized that new believers could not handle the whole of salvation history, so he gave them the Creed as the starting point. It was through the lens of the Creed that the early Christians began to see and digest the wonderful revelation contained in Sacred Scripture.
Moving on from the written Word, as explained in the Creed, the Catechism continues to the second pillar, the sacraments and liturgy. What are the sacraments and liturgy in relation to the written word? The sacraments and liturgy provide us with the means of entering the story declared in the Creed. “From the time of the apostles, becoming a Christian has been accompanied by a journey and initiation in several stages” (Catechism, no. 1229). Certain essential elements will always have to be present: proclamation of the Word, acceptance of the Gospel entailing conversion, profession of faith, and Baptism itself. Throughout this faith journey, the sacraments provide direct encounters with Christ, resulting in the grace of God, which is the life of the Trinity. The new believer travels through initiation (Baptism, Confirmation, and Eucharist) and participates in the sacraments of healing (Penance and Anointing of the Sick) and service (Holy Orders and Marriage).
This brings us to the third pillar: life in Christ. How does this relate to the two previous pillars? Life in Christ is our personal and communal “script” on how to live. Our entrance into the story of salvation history is accomplished when we are initiated into the Church through the sacraments. Because the Church is the Body of Christ, we live the life of Christ in the world. It is this section where we learn about the moral life, the virtues, sin, and our relationship with society. With the Ten Commandments as a backdrop, we learn how to conduct ourselves along the journey of faith.
The fourth pillar of the Catechism, on Christian prayer, provides us with guidelines for fortifying our close, personal relationship with God. There are several wellsprings where Christ awaits to enable us to drink deeply of the Holy Spirit: the Word of God, the Liturgy, and the theological virtues. Through prayer we can drink more deeply from the Word of God and participate more fully in the sacramental life. It is in prayer that our bond with God grows deeper.
This Time It’s Personal
As we come to understand the unity of the Church’s teaching and that “harmony which exists between elements of the faith,” our appreciation for God’s revelation becomes more profound. Pope Leo XIII says that Scripture is a “letter written by our Heavenly Father,” given to His children for the purpose of revealing Himself to them. In this light, we are able to see the decidedly personal shape of divine revelation. After all, it is only in God’s revealed plan that mankind once again finds its intended purpose for being, “because man is created by God and for God; and God never ceases to draw man to himself. Only in God will he find the truth and happiness he never stops searching for” (Catechism, no. 27).
Although the Catholic Church can seem big and impersonal from the outside, we know that from within, it is the intensely personal means by which God reveals Himself to us. Further, because of the relationship between Sacred Tradition and Sacred Scripture, we can recognize that it is this Church that can accurately interpret this “letter from the Father.” Made infallible by the power of the Holy Spirit, the Church’s teaching—found in magisterial documents such as Dei Verbum and the Catechism—guides the believer in fruitful study, virtuous living, and ultimately to life eternal.
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Jeff Cavins is the Adult Faith Formation Minister at the Church of St. Paul in Ham Lake, MN. He is a renowned speaker and author. His most recent book is I’m Not Being Fed: Discovering the Food That Satisfies the Soul (Ascension Press, 2005). This article first published in Lay Witness Magazine and reproduced with permission of Catholics United for the Faith
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