Tuesday, November 15, 2011

The Roman Catholic Hermeneutic

It’s important to understand, when Catholics and Protestants approach a given topic in Scripture or in history, they approach things in different ways. And it’s this difference, often unspoken, that often renders the subsequent discussions so maddening. You’ll hear things like “You have your interpretation, I have mine”. But what are these “interpretations” based upon?

This blog post describes what I’ve called “the Roman Catholic Hermeneutic,” and once you understand how this principle works, you can locate it anywhere. Any time you’re discussing Scripture with Roman Catholics, look for this method.

For Protestants, understanding begins with exegesis, and exegesis begins with a patient and humble listening to the text, with the willingness to hear an alien word,” according to Thomas Schreiner (citing “Romans,” from the Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament” series, pg. 2). “We are all prone to read our own conceptions into the text. Thus our first task is simply to see what the text actually says.” The Protestant seeks to understand what God is genuinely saying, through his Revelation in Scripture, from start to finish. The Protestant is concerned to track “what God’s people knew, and when they knew it,” and in the process, to understand what God revealed of himself over time, and finally in His Son, as is witnessed by the New Testament.

The Roman Catholic approaches Scriptures in a different way. Rather than trying to understand the text, and then allowing it to speak its word, the Roman Catholic starts with modern Roman doctrine, and then uses Biblical texts in such a way that they can seemingly provide support for those doctrines. We can and do call it “proof-texting” – pouring Roman Catholic “interpretations” back into “proof-texts”. In many cases, this means taking a verse that has nothing at all to do with Roman Catholicism, but nevertheless hijacking it, frequently contrary to its original meaning, and using it to support Roman Catholicism.

I’ve already outlined, in my post on The righteousness of God, how, early in church history, Augustine, who did not understand the Hebrew concepts of the Old Testament, substituted for those concepts a “popular culture” understanding of “righteousness”. Subsequently, the “infallible Church” wrote Augustine’s lack of understanding into an “infallible” dogma of “justification” at Trent.

That was a seminal example of how Roman Catholicism simply misunderstands something, dogmatizes it, and then looks for further support of its errors. One might call it a “twisting” of the Scriptures. Do you think I’m being overly harsh with this? Look at what some leading Roman Catholics have to say about this “method”.

Joseph Ratzinger, before he was pope, in his 1990 work Called to Communion invokes “the internal continuity of the Church’s memory” as “the standard for judging what is to be considered historically and objectively accurate”.

This Roman Catholic hermeneutical method – “the mind of the church” – is well described by popes and scholars. It is, in fact, a blatant form of revisionism.

Pius IX’s articulated this method in his Letter, “Gravissimas inter,” to the Archbishop of Munich-Freising, Dec. 11, 1862. Pius XII cited and reiterated this in his statement in Humani Generis: “theologians must always return to the sources of divine revelation: for it belongs to them to point out how the doctrine of the living Teaching Authority is to be found either explicitly or implicitly in the Scriptures and in Tradition.”

This is further explained in a variety of sources. One Roman Catholic theologian wrote, “We think first of developed forms for which we need to find historical justification. The developed forms come first and the historical justification comes second.” (“Ways of Validating Ministry,” Kilian McDonnell, Journal of Ecumenical Studies (7), pg. 213, cited in Carlos Alfredo Steger, “Apostolic Succession in the Writings of Yves Congar and Oscar Cullmann, pg. 322.) Steger calls this type of historical revisionism “highly questionable if not inadmissible.”

Aiden Nichols, “The Shape of Catholic Theology” (253) notes that for the last several hundred years, according to these popes, “the theologian’s highest task lies in proving the present teachings of the magisterium from the evidence of the ancient sources.” One internet writer called this method “Dogma Appreciation 101” (related in a discussion of his studies in a Catholic seminary.) Nichols calls this, “the so-called regressive method,” and notes that Walter Kasper (now a Cardinal) has traced the origins of this method to the 18th century.

Roman Catholicism is a “big tent”, and you’ll find all kinds of nonsense in it. But in this feature that I call “the Roman Catholic Hermeneutic”, the method outlined here of revisionism, of “reading back in” something that is not there, is major.

Next time I’ll describe a particular example of this from comments that appeared below.


  1. "This Roman Catholic hermeneutical method – “the mind of the church” – is well described by popes and scholars. It is, in fact, a blatant form of revisionism."

    For traditional/conservative Catholics who are also politically conservative, to be called "revisionist" really gets their gander up.

  2. Hi Truth, I'm sure it does get them. But it is what it is. Don't "exegete" the text, but rather, look for "proof texts" that kinda sorta say (stripped of their context) what you need them to say.

    I'm going to comment on Pete Holder's use of 1 Tim 3:15. But another blatant one is Gen 3:15: The LORD God said to the serpent ... "I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel."

    What this turns into is a proof-text for the perpetually-virgin Mary and her "immaculate foot" (a genuine Pope Pius IX statement). Never mind that in the very next verse, God says to the woman: "Your desire shall be for[f] your husband, and he shall(Q) rule over you." That's something completely different.

  3. Saint Augustine couldn't do it. But can someone else explain what kind of fruit Adam and Eve ate in the story? After 1600 years it's time to think, read, and give the real explanation based only on the facts in the story. No guesses, opinions, or beliefs. We've already had way too many of these. Treat the whole thing as an intellectual challenge. But first, do a quick Internet search: First Scandal.