Edward Sri recalled praying the rosary in church one day when he was interrupted by a bystander, an apparently working-class woman who told him that what he was doing showed his lack of education.
Sri started to take offense until he heard the woman’s story: She had prayed the rosary daily until a priest told her it was an uneducated thing to do.
“You look like you are educated, so why are you praying the rosary?” the woman had asked Sri, a Marian scholar who is professor of theology and Scripture at the Augustine Institute in Denver, Colo.
Sri, who spoke in Rochester during a three-day Marian conference in December, used the story as an example of how misconceptions about the Catholic faith abound even among some of the lay and ordained faithful. For example, although some have criticized the rosary for focusing more on Mary than Christ, Sri noted that Jesus’ name is literally and figuratively at the center of the Hail Mary.
“It’s addressed to Mary, but it’s centered on Jesus,” he said.
His talk dovetailed with a late-November announcement that the diocese would launch during Lent 2008 a spiritual renewal to deepen relationships with Christ, expand knowledge of the Scriptures, and promote commitment to a life of discipleship and stewardship.
As part of this focus on faith, the Catholic Courier developed "Foundations of Faith," a package of articles answering questions about Catholicism commonly heard from Catholics and non-Catholics alike. (To read more "Foundations of Faith" articles, click here.)
Before getting into specifics, it’s helpful to explore the process the church uses to develop doctrine. Scholars note that the process dates back to the earliest days of the church, and they say it can take several centuries before an agreement on doctrine is reached.
In the years just after Jesus’ death and resurrection, news of these events and his life spread orally, said Father Joseph A. Hart, a diocesan vicar general and moderator of the diocesan Pastoral Center.
Scholars say the Apostle Paul was the first to write down the news of Christ — writing even before the first Gospel — in letters to various communities, which were then circulated and shared.
“Even from the very beginning, people collected the sayings of Jesus,” said Father Hart, who was formerly a professor of systematic theology at St. Bernard’s School of Theology and Ministry. “Mark had the idea to collect the sayings with a narrative, to create the Gospel forms.”
Dei Verbum, the Second Vatican Council’s Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation, notes that the Gospels are based on oral traditions and interpretations of God’s revelation as Christ.
“The sacred authors wrote the four Gospels, selecting some things from the many which had been handed on by word of mouth or in writing, reducing some of them to a synthesis, explaining some things in view of the situation of their churches and preserving the form of proclamation but always in such fashion that they told us the honest truth about Jesus,” Dei Verbum states.
The church teaches that the Holy Spirit, which has been given to the church, helps guide our faith, Father Hart said. “The tradition handed on by the Apostles makes progress with the Holy Spirit.”
In the early church, those who received the tradition included the elders (presbuteroi in Greek) who evolved into priests, and the overseers (episkopoi in Greek) who evolved into bishops, Father Hart said, noting that both are tasked with preserving the truth of Christianity.
“The preoccupation of Christianity from the very earliest time is to pass on the authentic teaching from the Apostles,” he said.
Authentic teaching also is the focus of the magisterium, the church’s teaching authority, which comprises the church’s bishops and the pope. The Catechism of the Catholic Church notes the magisterium serves to protect God’s people from deviations and defections in faith and to give Catholics the ability to profess the true faith without error.
The magisterium sets doctrine by interpreting Scripture and modeling apostolic tradition, said Precious Blood Father John A. Colacino, visiting assistant professor of religious studies at St. John Fisher College in Pittsford. Scripture alone often is not enough to set doctrine, he said.
“Scripture can be ambiguous,” Father Colacino remarked.
Even in the earliest days of the church, ambiguity sparked heated debates among followers of Christ.
One such discussion took place during a Jerusalem meeting that is recorded in chapters 15 and 21 of the Acts of the Apostles. The focus of the meeting was whether Gentiles who wanted to become Christian had to come into full compliance with the Jewish Mosaic law, which, among other requirements, would have forced the males to undergo circumcision.
“Sometimes this (meeting in Jerusalem) is thought of as the first ecumenical council,” Father Colacino said.
According to Acts, James, a close relative of Jesus, ultimately pronounced the decision that circumcision would not be required of Gentile believers, but that they should abstain from entering into unlawful marriages and from eating blood, meat from strangled animals and meat that had been sacrificed to idols. It appeared, however, that this decision wasn’t adopted immediately by the church as a whole, Father Colacino noted.
“The controversy about conversion did not settle down, either,” Father Colacino said. “The author of Acts tends to give an idealistic view of that meeting.”
Nevertheless, the Holy Spirit played a prominent role in the gathering, Father Hart pointed out.
“There was an understanding that if (the Apostles) listened to that Spirit, then they wouldn’t err in their teaching,” he said.
This understanding persists. According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, the church is guided to infallibility and authentic faith by the Holy Spirit.
“In order to preserve the Church in the purity of the faith handed on by the apostles, Christ who is the Truth willed to confer on her a share of his own infallibility,” the catechism states.
The pope possesses the infallibility of the church when he professes an ex Cathedra teaching — an out-of-the-ordinary teaching on faith and morals, Father Hart said.
“This is extraordinary teaching, and you cannot slip into it,” he said.
Extraordinary teachings have been rare in modern times.
“The papal clarification has only been employed in recent history twice,” said Father Colacino, who noted that Pope Pius IX in 1854 clarified Catholic dogma on the Virgin Mary’s Immaculate Conception. Pope Pius XII in 1950, who was speaking infallibly as it had been defined in 1870 by Vatican I, clarified Catholic doctrine when he declared that Mary was taken bodily into heaven at the end of her life on earth.
Canon law notes that the college of bishops also can teach infallibly on a matter of faith or morals that is held definitively. The teaching can arise either during an ecumenical council or when the dispersed bishops but are in communion with each other and the pope through an authentic teaching.
Infallible definitions must be adhered to with the obedience of faith, the catechism states.
The Holy Spirit also guides the pope’s or the bishops’ ordinary teachings on matters of faith and morals. Father Colacino noted that such ordinary teachings do not invoke the full authority of the pope or the bishops, and are not protected by the full authority of infallibility.
Father Hart explained that Catholic Christians have an obligation to give a thoughtful and prolonged attempt to assent to an ordinary teaching. Canon law defines this action of adherence as a religious submission of the intellect and will, but it also calls on the faithful to condemn teaching that is erroneous.
“Sometimes it’s the Bishop of Rome who keeps the faith, sometimes it’s the bishops who keep the faith, and sometimes it’s the people of God who keep the faith,” Father Hart remarked.
He cited as examples periods in history when ecumenical councils were needed to sort out confusion about who rightfully held the role of pope. According to the New Advent Catholic Encyclopedia, one such instance happened in 1123, when the Ninth General Council nullified all ordinations made by antipope Gregory VIII. Current church law gives the pope authority to call ecumenical councils, and 21 such councils have taken place, Father Colacino said.
During an ecumenical council, participating bishops begin by professing their faith and defining what beliefs are outside their faith, Father Hart said.
“They set the limits, and then within the discussion there is a broad understanding,” Father Hart said.
The Roman Emperor Constantine, a Christian, called the first official ecumenical council at Nicea in 325 A.D. to settle questions dividing his empire about the relationship of Jesus as the son of God to God the Father, noted Father George Heyman, adjunct assistant professor in Biblical studies at St. Bernard’s School of Theology and Ministry in Pittsford who also is sacramental minister at Guardian Angels Parish in Henrietta. Gnostic Docetism, one school of thought at the time, later defined as heresy, denied Christ’s true humanity.
“It would be a knock-down, drag-out fight,” Father Heyman said of the argument over Christ’s humanity.
Ultimately, the Council of Nicea determined that the Son of God is, “‘begotten, not made, of the same substance (homoousios) as the Father,’ and condemned Arius, who had affirmed that the Son of God ‘came to be from things that were not’ and that he was ‘from another substance’ than that of the Father,” the catechism states.
However, after the Council of Nicea had ended, the participating bishops had more work to do. They had to return home and witness to the collective faith to encourage their fellow Christians to accept it.
“Reception is a nebulous thing, but it has been a nebulous thing from the beginning,” Father Hart said.
The Council at Ephesus, in the year 431, subsequently refuted the Nestorian heresy, which denied Christ’s divinity; the Council at Chalcedon (451) defined as heresy the belief that Christ stopped being human and became wholly divine.
Theologians also assist in resolving centuries-long debates, such as that over the Eucharist and the Real Presence. St. Thomas Aquinas tackled this question during the Middle Ages as part of his systematic theology, which was based on philosophy borrowed from Aristotle.
“What Aquinas and scholars did in the 13th century was applied Aristotelian philosophies to the lifestyle of Christ in particular, just as Augustine had done with Plato,” Father Heyman said.
Aristotle pointed out that natural law creates order in nature. Aquinas used that philosophy to argue that God gives rise to natural law.
“Thomas recognized that nature, philosophy’s proper concern, could contribute to the understanding of divine Revelation,” Pope John Paul II wrote in his 1998 encyclical Fides et Ratio, which deals with the relationship between faith and reason. “Faith therefore has no fear of reason, but seeks it out and has trust in it.”
Timothy M. Thibodeau, a history professor at Nazareth College in Pittsford, said Aquinas used his understanding of natural law to probe deep philosophical questions, such as why God exists. Aquinas always believed that reason worked along with faith, he said.
Aquinas also argued that the interpretation of contentious passages in Scripture needs to be informed by tradition, Thibodeau said.
“Aquinas also says reason can only take you so far,” he said. “What you have to do is turn to the fathers of the church.”
Even so, the fathers of the church did not always agree among themselves, Thibodeau noted.
“(Ss.) Ambrose and Augustine had many different understandings of the Eucharist,” he said.
Aquinas reconciled that conflict by arguing that the substance of bread and wine at Eucharist change into the body and blood of Christ, though their exterior does not change, Thibodeau said.
Aquinas’ theology was codified by the Fourth Lateran Council, Thibodeau said. According to a Confession of Faith written by the 1215 ecumenical council, “His body and blood are truly contained in the sacrament of the altar under the forms of bread and wine, the bread and wine having been changed in substance, by God’s power, into his body and blood, so that in order to achieve this mystery of unity we receive from God what he received from us.”
That council also required Catholics to receive the Eucharist at least once a year, during the Easter season. This requirement was put into place because people who believed in the Real Presence began to view the Eucharist as a relic, which they felt should be venerated rather than ingested, Thibodeau said.
“They were afraid of receiving it because they believed they were not worthy to receive it,” he noted.
Although debate over various forms of ecclesial tradition continues today, the Vatican II document Dei Verbum points out that sacred Scripture and tradition still help the church reach the ultimate goal of union with the Father: “This sacred tradition, therefore, and Sacred Scripture of both the Old and New Testaments are like a mirror in which the pilgrim Church on earth looks at God, from whom she has received everything, until she is brought finally to see Him as He is, face to face.”