Because . . . Gosh, Sometimes I’m Just Not Sure

There really are times when we Catholics give Protestantism a good name. In men’s group today, one of our most learned members read from a chapter on Mary in the Apocrypha, from The Thousand Faces of the Virgin Mary by George H. Tavard. At the end, I could all but feel the pain of Luther, Calvin, and Zwingli.

We human beings can complicate things so much. Mary, as presented in the four Gospels, is the slightest of characters. After the infancy narratives we hear her say of Jesus at Cana, “Do whatever he tells you,” or words to that effect, and she never speaks again. She’s there at the Cross, she’s there in the upper room. But the most important scene of any biography is not given to us for Mary: her death, where, when, and how.

These matters—and so much more, to judge by this morning’s reading—are given to us by tradition, some of which comes from the Apocrypha or, rather, as Bill (left) referred to it, the Epigrapha. The Apocrypha are the books that the Protestant “reformers,” Luther et al, left out of the canon, conveniently to their arguments. The Epigrapha are the books that were never in the canon to begin with, left out by the early Councils that decided the canon.  

The names of Mary’s parents, Anna and Joachim? They come not from Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John, but from the Proto-Gospel of James. Tavard calls this Epigraphal book “orthodox in doctrine,” but not orthodox enough apparently to be accepted as part of the canon. How about the feast days the Church celebrates to honor Mary—the Presentation, the Assumption, the Immaculate Conception, yes, even the Birth of Mary? None of these are given to us in the Gospels.

I know that I am stating the obvious for many readers, who are far better versed in these things than I am. And before I get over my head in waters where I cannot swim, I’m going to back out and just sit on the beach for a think.

Because when you start diving deep in these waters, considering the many accounts that are not canon and considering the Councils, composed of eminently human bishops, who gathered the canon, you can be overwhelmed with doubt: What do we really know? On whose word do we know it? And did they know it, or only argue, or suppose it? And so on.

I know Ferde will be all over me for this one. His e-mail signature reads: “Ferde. If the Catholic Church teaches it, it must be right.” And while I’m not sure about the doctrine of papal infallibility, I can tell you pretty categorically that I do believe in Ferde’s infallibility.

But I am not Ferde, and I am still on the beach, brushing off the sand and shaking my head. What I come back to is the Gospel, to the simple accounts of Mary there, and finally to virtually the only words she ever seems to have said, at least in anyone’s hearing: “Do whatever he tells you.”

Christ tells us what to do in the Gospels and nowhere else. Everything else is after the fact. Everything else is canon, deuterocanon, Apocrypha, Epigrapha, orthodoxy, tradition . . . Do I believe that the Holy Spirit guided each and every one of these deliberations? Or do I instead see some merit in the notion of Sola Scriptura, held by Luther and the boys?

I gotta tell you, right now, I don’t know. I’m just sitting on the sand (pretty cold here in New England this time of year) and I’m shaking my head.

But I’ll be back at Mass in the morning.

  • Ruth Ann

    If you accept Sola Scriptura then you will have difficulty being Catholic. Catholics, as you most probably know, believe in two sources of Divine Revelation, Tradition and Scripture. And, strictly speaking Scripture is part of the Tradition.Some of the things you said about Mary are not doctrine. Others are, like the Assumption and the Immaculate Conception.Catholics have many devotions, some sanctioned by the Church, which are not doctrines, but are simply prayer practices that appeal to some. Here Catholics may pick and choose what helps them in their relationship with God. A lot of such practices are embedded in certain cultures and were brought to this country by immigrants.The most excellent source I have found for Marian theology is The Mary Page at the University of Dayton: They have a search engine and a place to ask questions.

  • izyperspective

    Once again, you're honest with your struggles. I think this is why the Catholic bloggersphere is a comforting community. Several things popped in my mind as I read your post. 1)Mary did speak another time when she was heard: the Magnificat; 2)according to Cardinal Newman, "one thousand questions do not equal one doubt"; 3)this one according to my horse sense: it seems that our observation of feast days, including Christmas, is not necessarily based on known or precise facts, but rather on plausibility, theological sometimes(not that I know what that means precisely), and we do it more for our own benefit. The Church adopts and propagates certain practices because, guided by the Holy Spirit,they lead us Christward and Godwards through devotion and holiness. Sometimes I even think that the Church does certain things just because, more than any other institutions, she understands the human psychology, our needs and our limitations etc.. The longer I'm Catholic, the more I'm amazed at the built-in wisdoms in the Church's traditions and practices. And even when I don't really understand, I've learned to trust what she teaches (like Ferde? :-)). And that leads to my last point: 4)Catholics are taught to be able to walk and chew gum at the same time, hence your going to Mass even while shaking your head; I think they call it the "negative capacity." :-)

  • Francis P

    The Gospels, too are based on traditions – the oral traditions from the apostolic teaching generation in the second third of the 1st century, and reflect the understandings of the early churfch communities of the last third of the first century. The difference between what's in the canon and what's not is the degree to which the councils in the fourth and fifth centuries could relate various writings back to apostolic authority. SO, unltimately, all that we believe, even the words attributed to Jesus, are derived from traditions.

  • EPG

    Webster — I think I'll go and sit in the sand and shake my head as well. But, at least I'll get to do it on a warm sunny afternoon, even in November (such are the advantages of living on Florida's Gulf Coast).I am prepared to accept that the Holy Spirit guided the compilation of the Canon. As a non-Catholic, some of the other doctrines of the church, especially the Catholic doctrines about Mary, pose certain difficulties (again, among the many reasons YIM not [yet] Catholic.A Catholic friend of mine is fond of repeating Newman's aphorism: "A thousand difficulties do not add up to one doubt."If only that were true . . .

  • Wine in the Water

    Sola Scriptura *is* very attractive. No flawed humans, no convoluted history, no historical disagreements, just you and the God inspired-text. The only problem is that there is no such thing as Sola Scriptura, it's simply impossible. Someone has to decide what is and is not scripture. It took the Catholic Church almost 400 years to come to a complete consensus. And Luther didn't come up with his canon of scripture until over a thousand years later. So immediately, we have to give to look to *someone* to figure out what scripture actually is .. someone has to have the authority.And that's just where it begins. Then there is translation. Unless you happen to speak ancient Hebrew and Greek fluently, someone has to translate the text for you. (And even if you do speak them, they are both historical languages, someone has to teach them to you). Someone has to decide which meaning of a phrase to use, what is the equivalent in the new language. These can severely affect the meaning, and that is of utmost importance if the text is going to be our source of belief, if it is to truly be infallible.And it continues on. Translation does not capture all of the meaning. There is cultural, historical and even theological context. Someone must interpret the metaphors, decipher the allegories, discern the what the text is trying to say .. because if the meaning were always so plain, Christendom would not be so fractured, and the most fractured would not be the Sola Scriptura crowd.Sola Scriptura would sure be nice .. if only it were possible.Which gets to one of the main reasons Why *I* Am Catholic, What I Am Catholic For .. Apostolic Authority. In Catholicism, there is but one source of earthly authority: Apostolic Authority. Why isn't the Proto-Gospel of James in scripture? Because James did not author it. Clement of Rome's Epistle to the Corinthians was completely orthodox, but Clement was merely a bishop and not an Apostle. The standard for what is and is not in the New Testament was whether or not a book originated with an Apostle. The New Testament has authority not because it is scripture, it is scripture because it rests on the authority of the Apostles who are at its source (for it is Paul that is ultimately the source of Luke, and Peter the source of Mark). And it is on the authority of the Apostles passed on through Apostolic Succession to the bishops, a continuous laying on of hands and consecration with the Holy Spirit going back to Jesus Himself, that we know what is of the Apostles and what is not. So we have Revelations, but not the Gospel of Judas. And it is on that same Apostolic Authority that we know what those texts mean.And it is on that same Apostolic Authority that we know far more than is contained in Scripture alone. We know that Mary's parents are Anne and Joachim not because of the Epigrapha, the Epigrapha knows that Anne and Joachim are Mary's parents from the Holy Tradition passed down in the Church. We know that Mary was assumed into heaven not from the Gopsels or Acts, but from that same Holy Tradition. Scripture even tells us that there is far more than just what is recorded in Scripture.I don't need to take on the role of discerning canon, translation, interpretation, because Jesus left the Paraclete to guide His Church, and gave authority to the Apostles and their successors to act on that guidance.

  • Mary P.

    Well maybe it's just me, Webster, but I think Mary's instructions might be the most important words in the New Testament! What else do you need to know?BTW, I started reading "Orthodoxy" today. What a treasure! Thank you so much for pointing me in this direction. I have never read philosophical works, but read C.S. Lewis last year, and now G. K. Chesterton! it reads like poetry. Maybe my friends should be getting nervous.

  • Webster Bull

    I am taking the liberty of posting a very thoughtful comment sent to me by e-mail. Although the comment carried a first name, I'll call it "Anonymous."Sir – I tried in vain to post a comment on your post for today, but I did something wrong and it wouldn't accept my ID. Well, that's my problem, not yours, but here is the gist of what I was trying to say. When I'm thinking through things like Sola Scriptura, the Apocrypha, anything we believe that is not written in scripture about our Blessed Mother, the death penalty, whatever I have trouble with, I find that the words of your very wise friend Ferde are what carry me. I can accept without hesitation because my church says it's so. I think this might just have something to do with the fact that I am a cradle Catholic and wouldn't ever consider my church to be wrong -it's in my very being. Sometimes it's easier, I think, for simpler folks, like me, to deal with issues than you more thoughtful types. Maybe that's a cop-out on my part, but it works for me. Or, perhaps that is just my way of imitating the patroness of my family, the Little Flower. I hope you don't think that I read in your post a doubt in your faith and that I'm trying to teach or correct you. Not only is that NOT the case, I would never do anything so presumptuous. I just think that sometimes hearing how other people deal with things helps us in formulating our own thoughts.

  • Webster Bull

    I am taking the liberty of posting part of another e-mail, this one from Ferde, leaving out some personal matters. His comments are valuable to me, as usual.Ferde wrote: "When he comes, however, being the spirit of truth, he will guide you to all truth." (Jn. 16:13); "And know I am with you until the end of the world." (Mt. 28:20); "I will give to you the keys to the kingdom of heaven. Whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven." (Mt. 16:19).What has been incorporated into Catholic teaching has been tested, debated and prayed over sufficiently by the Church's Magisterium long enough to allow us to accept it as coming from the guidance of the Holy Spirit.The doctrine of sola scriptura is not found in Scripture. By that very fact it defeats itself. The doctrine is an invention of Luther and was never even so much as suggested in the 1500+ years before Luther.The quotations from Scripture above came from the mouth of the Lord and were addressed to Peter and the Apostles and their successors, the bishops of the Catholic Church. They (the quotes) contain the authority for the infallibility of the Pope and the Magisterium in matters of faith and morals. It is that infallibility that insures us the Church is teaching what the Lord intends her to teach — the truth of the Christian faith. It is what gives us the assurance of unity of doctrine and that when we go to Mass in Beverly, Boston, New York, Atlanta or Rome, we will hear the same Mass. Or approximately the same Mass.Which is why I say,If the Catholic Church teaches it, it must be right.

  • Anonymous

    Hi Webster, I read your post. What I go to is this-We must submit to the Truth. So once we accept it, the next act is to submit to it. Not cut it down to our size or appropriate it.Correct me if I'm wrong, Sub-latin for under; mit-latin for send. Based on where our information is coming from we have the freedom to assent to it or reject it. I trust the veracity of the witnesses so I accept their claims. This I came to freely after many questions. Thanks, Regina

  • Frank

    This bleeds over from the Book Club selection from Chapter Two but is pretty apropos…is Sola Scriptura a sane approach?"Now, if we are to glance at the philosophy of sanity, the first thing to do in the matter is to blot out one big and common mistake. There is a notion adrift everywhere that imagination, especially mystical imagination, is dangerous to man’s mental balance. Poets are commonly spoken of as psychologically unreliable; and generally there is a vague association between wreathing laurels in your hair and sticking straws in it. Facts and history utterly contradict this view. Most of the very great poets have been not only sane, but extremely business-like; and if Shakespeare ever really held horses, it was because he was much the safest man to hold them. Imagination does not breed insanity. Exactly what does breed insanity is reason. Poets do not go mad; but chess-players do. Mathematicians go mad, and cashiers; but creative artists very seldom. I am not, as will be seen, in any sense attacking logic: I only say that this danger does lie in logic, not in imagination." -GKC

  • Stefanie

    Webster –Don't sweat it. Having a feast day that's not based upon 'approved scripture' is not exclusive to us Catholics. The Jewish festival of Hannukah comes from 1 Maccabees 5:56-59, but that's a book not included in the Hebrew Scriptures though it is in ours. Hannukah was celebrated in Jesus' time(see John 10:22)and was an 8-day winter festival.Remember what John says at the end of his gospel (21:25) It's all good!

  • Webster Bull

    Many thanks for all the comments and advice from readers after this "confused" post. I don't mean to be ironic. I left men's group on Saturday with my head spinning. And I knew that by writing this post, and seeming to endorse Sola Scriptura, I would be opening myself to criticism. Even Ferde, though, was gentle in his corrections, and commented to me last night as we were watching the Patriots DEMOLISH!!!! the J-E-T-S Jets, that the comments to this post have been very interesting and instructive. Got some good readers here!