Common among Protestants is the notion that the Bible is perspicuous—that is, so clear in its key meanings that, for those who read it faithfully, it does not need explanation. It explains itself.
There’s a certain logic to this idea, at least at first glance. After all, the Bible is the written word of God. He is its author. If human authors are able to make plain the meaning of their books, how much more must God be able to make plain the meaning of his Book? The idea that we need a Church or some other human authority to explain God’s writings seems, if you put it that way, almost blasphemous.
In a kind of parallel case for Catholics, the Italian archbishop Vincenzo Paglia—president of the Pontifical Academy for Life—recently caused a stir when in response to a critique that the academy was moving away from defending Church teachings he said, “I am so certain of the power of Christian values that I don’t feel a need to defend them; they defend themselves.”
A logic similar to that of perspicuity seems to validate the archbishop’s words. As with Scripture, what can man’s efforts add to the sublime truth of God’s moral laws, or for that matter his doctrines? How can we improve upon, in the archbishop’s words, their “power to touch the hearts even of those who do not believe”?
Perhaps, indeed, we ought to listen to Bono and “stop helping God across the road like a little old lady.”
But as with biblical perspicuity, this idea seems less attractive under bright light. Scripture can’t really interpret itself because interpretation takes two: text and reader. And although the text of Scripture is God-breathed and inerrant, those who read it are not. The intellectual darkness from which all people suffer—caused by sin, vice, ill will, habit of error, or just plain mental density—interferes with the transmission and reception of the Bible’s meaning. We can’t always get it perfectly right because we’re not perfectly right.
Not to mention: even though God is the author of Scripture, he authored it through human instruments who used words, phrases, metaphors, concepts, and writing styles particular to their time and place and even their own personality. All those things take parsing out for readers thousands of years later.
Church teachings are scarcely any simpler. We can talk poetically of the self-evident power of truth, especially divinely revealed truth, but Christian history from day one tells us that people can still miss it by a country mile:
- Crowds rejected Jesus’ own proclamation of revealed truths, from marriage (Matt. 19:8–9) to the Eucharist (John 6:32–64). Judas was intimate friends with the Truth himself, yet betrayed him.
- Fourth-century Church leaders furiously debated Jesus’ divinity. Many bishops of the era, as well as the political and military establishment, supported the Arian heresy.
- A couple hundred years later, a man named Mohammed (perhaps influenced by lingering Arianism) denied the Trinity and rewrote salvation history. Billions followed him.
- Neo-gnostics in the Middle Ages concluded from divine revelation that there were two gods—one of spirit and one of matter—and that salvation meant rejecting the latter as evil.
- The Protestant Reformers jettisoned the authority of the Church and many Catholic doctrines.
- Modern secularists deride traditional Christian belief and morality.
This, of course, is just the briefest survey of two millennia of conflict over the things that Christians value, leaving out hundreds of other examples. But I mention these, at least, to highlight not only the capacity for people to get Catholic teaching crooked but the need for believers to help them get it straight again. In every one of the above examples, champions arose from among the faithful to contest with those who erred—because Christian truth, powerful though it is, still has to be mediated to an imperfect world; explained, defended, repeated with love, lived out with joy:
- The apostles took the Faith to the corners of the Earth.
- Church Fathers like Athanasius and Cyril of Alexandria went to bat for the Christological formulas that are the bedrock of our belief.
- Saints and soldiers strove for centuries to protect Christendom from Islam’s armies and errors.
- Thomas Aquinas settled the Manichees while baptizing classical philosophy into a marvelous and enduring Christian vision of reality.
- The Counter-Reformers preached, prayed, disputed, and died to witness the fullness of Catholic doctrine and rekindle faith where it had grown cold.
- Our age has its own courageous witnesses: faithful clergy, religious, and laity, families and ministries, authors and speakers who tirelessly hold up what they have received against an increasingly intolerant world. I am privileged to be part of an apostolate engaged in this very work.
All these champions, moreover, let their voices be heard not from love of ideological conflict or an arrogant desire to be seen, as Archbishop Paglia put it, as “the most faithful to tradition,” but for one simple reason:
The truth saves souls.
Politics, philosophy, history, math… these are subjects for idle debate. But the Faith is the subject of eternal destiny.
So we return to our question. Does the truth need us to save souls? After all, Jesus promised that the gates of hell would not prevail against the Church. We believe not only that the Church can never fall into error in its official teachings on faith and morals but that a great victory awaits it at the end of time.
It would be a mistake, I think, to take these facts and then sit on our hands, confident in God’s providential care as if we were spectators to it. God is undoubtedly in charge of his works, but in the great mystery of the economy of salvation, we are an integral part of his works. His Spirit moving through his human ministers to proclaim, propagate and—yes— defend his saving truths, not miraculous floods or thunderbolts from heaven, is the ordinary way he shows his dominion.
I’m reminded of Gandalf’s words to Bilbo Baggins at the end of The Hobbit. Having just taken part in a grand adventure, Bilbo was skeptical of the prophecies that foretold it. He didn’t see any cosmic forces moving events to their fulfilment—Bilbo and his little companions had done it. But Gandalf would have none of that faulty logic: “Surely,” he chided the hobbit, “you don’t disbelieve the prophecies, because you had a hand in bringing them about?”
“Surely,” Christ might likewise say to us, “you don’t deny the need to defend the Faith, just because I promised the Faith would never fail?”