Last time I touched on some of the similarities and differences between Catholics and Protestants. As I stated, the major differences stem from two Protestant teachings: Sola Fidei (salvation by faith alone) and Sola Scriptura (the Bible alone is the sole rule of faith). Last time I spoke about Sola Fidei. Today, I’ll speak about Sola Scrptura. When Martin Luther and other early Protestants parted company with the Catholic Church, they found themselves without an authoritative final word to settle disagreements on teaching and the Faith. As some Protestant groups adopted conflicting beliefs on different issues. Luther was unable to reconcile the belief that the Church was the reliable authority on the faith with the fact that there were members of the Church in positions of authority who were guilty of abuses and infidelity. He therefore looked to the Bible as his authority. The major difficulty with this position, however, was that biblical interpretation would be left entirely to the individual reader. Without the Church’s last word on how the Scriptures should be understood, there would be many varying interpretations, and as a result, many different Protestant denominations.
Catholic belief is that, in spite of the human weaknesses and failures of its members/leaders, the Holy Spirit is always guiding and protecting the Church (as Christ promised) in its teaching on faith and morals, and that includes its interpretation of the Scriptures. It’s also important for us as Catholics to understand that Christ didn’t necessarily write things down as he went along. Early Christians (i.e., members of the early Church) recorded his words and actions in the decades that followed. The early Church would compile what we know of today as the New Testament in fixed form over a long period of time. The early Church had to rely largely on oral tradition, i.e. the preaching and teaching passed down from the apostles and their successors as their source of the true faith and authority. There was no “Bible” for everyone to just pick up and read when they had a question. The New Testament was produced, guided by the Holy Spirit, through the Church and her authority. Therefore, the Church who maintained the teaching of the apostles and their successors was understood to be the proper interpreter of the Scriptures as they took shape. Not only was the Church seen as the proper interpreter of the Scriptures, but it also made the discernment of what books were inspired by God and included in the biblical canon, among the vast amount of Christian and Gnostic-Christian literature in circulation at the time.
Many Catholics today often feel put to shame at their apparent lack of knowledge of the Bible in comparison to Protestants who can often cite specific passages and books. Catholics are encouraged to read the Bible, and there is much we can learn from our Protestant brothers and sisters in this regard. However, to be fair, Catholics who regularly attend Mass, and who read and pray with the Scriptures, often know the Scriptures better than they think – but in a different way. While a Catholic may not do so well with citing exactly Scripture passage and verse, many are quite familiar with the major figures and stories.
One other difference between Protestants and Catholics is their understanding of the Church. Catholics understand the Church to be instituted by Christ and to have a structure that is visible in the world, while Protestants see it as a fellowship of believers in Christ built upon God’s Word in the Scriptures. Protestants also do not have the same understanding of the priesthood and priestly ordination. Protestants also have beliefs on the Eucharist that vary greatly from the Catholic belief in “transubstantiation” – i.e., that the substance of the bread and wine is changed to become truly the Body and Blood of Christ. And of course, most Protestants do not venerate the Blessed Virgin Mary and the saints in the same way as Catholics. May we continue to pray for greater unity of belief among us.