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Why Isn’t the Bible More Explicitly Catholic?

Jimmy Akin

Under the heading “Why isn’t the Bible more explicitly Catholic?” a user on the Catholicism subreddit asks:

For example, why didn’t Jesus just directly say “Peter, you and your successors will lead my Church as Vicar of Christ until I return.” Or why didn’t He say outright “priests are to bless ordinary bread and wine and through that it will become my body.”

Questions of this sort appear in a lot of forms, and on a lot of different topics—“Why aren’t people nicer to each other?” “Why don’t we have a cure for cancer?” “Why can’t I find my car keys when I want them?” “Why isn’t the existence of God more obvious?” and so on.

“Why not?” questions like this express a wish for something and ask why this wish is not fulfilled.

Taken as a group, “Why not?” questions are all subcases of what philosophers and theologians call the problem of evil. The thing that we are wishing for is a good, and since we don’t have it, we are experiencing a deprivation of that good—an evil. The question is why the evil exists, and if the question is asked in a theological context, why God would allow the evil to exist.

We have partial answers to the problem of evil, and sometimes the answers to “Why not?” questions are straightforward: If you’re regularly having trouble finding your car keys, it’s likely because you haven’t established the habit of putting them in a single place so that you know where to find them.

But there is a limit to our knowledge, and some evils have an element of mystery that remains even when we’ve explained as much as we can. We know that God would not allow an evil if he weren’t going to bring about an equal or greater good from it (CCC 324). But we don’t see the big picture, and so—in this life—we don’t always know what that good is, and thus we don’t always know why God allows a particular evil.

What about the question of why the Bible isn’t more explicitly Catholic? Well, it’s already pretty darn Catholic.

Jesus declared Peter to be the rock on which he would build his Church (Matt. 16:18-19), which makes Peter the head of the Church once Jesus ascends. If he didn’t mention Peter’s successors reigning in later ages, it’s likely because it had not yet been revealed that there would be any later ages. The first generation of Christians tended to assume that Jesus would return in their own day (1 Thess. 4:15), and the fact that there would be a long period before the end of the world wasn’t revealed for some time (Rev. 20:1-6).

That much of the answer is easy, but why didn’t God reveal it sooner that the world would go on for so long? We can’t say for sure.

When it comes to a clearer statement on transubstantiation, the Gospels are already quite clear: Jesus takes ordinary bread and wine (Mark 14:22a, 23a) and says, “This is my body” and “This is my blood” (Mark 14:22b, 23b). He says, “unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood, you have no life in you” and “my flesh is food indeed, and my blood is drink indeed” (John 6:53, 55).

Could he have been even more explicit and given a technical statement of the doctrine of transubstantiation? Sure, but not without using the language of a later age of history, and as we’ve seen, the existence of later ages hadn’t yet been revealed.

Then there’s the issue of whether giving a fuller statement would actually solve the problem. Even if Jesus referred to successors of Peter, people could still find ways of denying their authority. And even if he’d been more explicit about transubstantiation, people could still say he was “speaking symbolically.”

Ultimately, we can’t be fully sure of why God has done everything the way he has. However, we can tell—from the way that the Bible is written in the language of a particular culture—that he wanted to use that culture’s language and modes of thought to communicate his message—not the styles of communication used by other, later cultures.

We also can tell that he didn’t want to make it too easy on us. He apparently wants us to learn by wrestling with the text. That’s the purpose of Jesus’ teachings in parables and of the prophets seeing symbols in their visions.

There is, apparently, a good to be gained by struggling with texts whose meaning isn’t immediately transparent, even if we can’t see all of the dimensions of this good until the next life.

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