Can Apologetics Stand the Test of Reason Alone?

By Fr. Jean-Michel Gleize

St. Augustine once said of the Manicheans that they were “more eloquent and fuller in their refutation of others, than firm and sure in proof of their own doctrine.” Cajetan experienced the relevance of this remark when he met with Martin Luther in the city of Augsburg from October 12 to 15, 1518, over 500 years ago. As the official representative of Pope Leo X, Cajetan received Luther with paternal kindness. He asked three things of him: that he return to better sentiments and retract his errors, that he promise not to fall into them again, and that he avoid anything that could trouble the Church. At their last meeting, Luther brought a written text to justify his positions. Cajetan took no interest in this explanation. He sought by means of a presentation of the Thomistic doctrine to convince Luther of his error and allowed him no comments. His final words in dismissing him were, “Go, and do not come before me again unless you wish to retract.”

Luther’s Implicit Denial

And yet, in Augsburg, Luther had not yet denied the divine institution of the Sovereign Pontificate, but this denial was already implicit in his theses on indulgences, and Cajetan had enough insight to see it coming. It would become explicit the following year in the Leipzig debate during which Johann Eck, another representative of the pope, would reproach Luther for defending the previously condemned positions of Jan Hus.

Luther used Scripture to defend and justify himself, for he knew it inside and out; he had an excellent knowledge of all the passages on which traditional theology and exegesis base the central affirmation of the Primacy of St. Peter and his successors, in particular the passage from the Gospel of St. Matthew, Chapter 16, verses 18 and 19, the famous “Tu es Petrus et super hanc petram aedificabo Ecclesiam meam.” From this verse, even though it is the very foundation of the Church’s Romanitas, Luther deduced the denial of the supreme and universal power of the Bishop of Rome. Was the meaning of Scripture so very transparent?. . . While it is easy to invoke “biblical arguments” in favor of the existence and nature of the authority in the Church, it is far less easy to draw from them the full significance they can appear to have in the context of far too naïve an interpretation. This naivety can be excused, especially when it is due to an excessive apologetic enthusiasm. But on this particular issue, it would cause too much harm and would urgently need to be dispelled. Be they conscious or not, the presuppositions on which it is based imply a false conception of the Tradition of the Church, Divine Revelation, and its authorized sources.

The principal—and decisive—argument that suffices to establish the Primacy of the Bishop of Rome in the face of all the Protestant contestations, is not biblical. Or at any rate, it is only materially biblical, for while it does invoke the phrase from the Gospel of St. Matthew and rely on the “Tu es Petrus,” the force of its demonstration comes first and foremost not from Scripture but from the authority of the Magisterium.

The true strength of this argument lies in the dogmatic constitution Pastor Aeternus from Vatican Council I, in 1870, whose terms echo a constant and unaltered Tradition. This Tradition was expressed as early as the fourth Council of Constantinople, in 870, then at the second Council of Lyon, in 1274, and again with the Council of Florence in 1439. “We teach and declare that, according to the Gospel evidence, a primacy of jurisdiction over the whole Church of God was immediately and directly promised to the blessed apostle Peter and conferred on him by Christ the Lord. It was to Simon alone, to whom He had already said: ‘You shall be called Cephas’ (Jn. 1:42), that the Lord, after Peter’s confession (‘You are the Christ, the Son of the living God’) spoke these words: ‘Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jona. For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but My Father who is in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my Church, and the gates of the underworld shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven’ (Mt. 16:16-19). And it was to Peter alone that Jesus, after His resurrection, confided the jurisdiction of Supreme Pastor and ruler of His whole fold, saying: ‘Feed My lambs, feed My sheep’ (Jn. 21:15-17).”

The phrase “Tu es Petrus” receives all its clarity from the declaration of the Magisterium, which gives the authentic interpretation in the name of God and infallibly defines its meaning. It bestows on the faithful Catholic the absolute and unshakeable certainty that in the passage from St. Matthew, the Holy Ghost intended to designate, in the metaphor of a rock, the very person of St. Peter and of every one of his successors.

Biblical and Magisterial Arguments

This argument, which is to be formally taken not as a biblical but as a magisterial argument, is doubtless not the only one there is. But it is the principal one, and by that very fact, it is necessary and sufficient. Conversely, taken as it figures in the Gospel of St. Matthew, the passage “Tu es Petrus” is necessary but insufficient. It cannot suffice in and of itself, for it presents a literal parabolic meaning that calls for clarification. The Primacy of St. Peter is not affirmed in direct and explicit terms. It is veiled, as it were, by the indirect and implicit expression of a metaphor. Obviously, the rock on which the entire edifice of the Church is built could only be the first cause of the Church’s very being, in dependency on the unceasing action of Christ.

However, in order to go further and deduce that St. Peter and his successors are therefore the Vicars of Christ and ordinarily possess and exercise His power as supreme head of the Church, the literal expression of Holy Scripture is not enough. In fact, it even presents the danger to which any reader is exposed when faced with a versatile expression. For the Gospel’s “super hanc petram” could actually refer to a variety of realities, and the Fathers of the Church interpreted these words from Mt. 16:18 in very different ways, some saying the rock on which the Church is built should be understood to mean St. Peter and his successors, others the twelve apostles represented by one of them, others the Faith or St. Peter’s profession of Faith, others the divinity of Christ.

Luther, for his part, opted for the third of these interpretations. “There are some who affirm as if it were a dogma,” remarked Cajetan, “that the papal power was not entrusted directly to the man who is its subject but that it was attributed to this man insofar as he had received the gift of a virtue, in such a way that if the gift of this virtue is lost, the papal power is necessarily lost as well: as if this virtue were in a way a substance that acts as a bond between the man and the papal power. Thus, according to their opinion, the keys were not given to the person of St. Peter, but to the gift St. Peter received, and this gift is understood as being able to exist in a particular minister, for example, in a priest or any just man.”

Luther did indeed take the phrase “Tu es Petrus” into account, but his interpretation of it turns the Church into an egalitarian communion of all the just, in which each is identically priest and pope by the very fact that he possesses the same gift as St. Peter, that of self-justifying Faith. The biblical argument taken as such in a reasonable interpretation would thus betray a Catholic apologist who places too much trust in Scripture alone, and ultimately destroy the dogma of the Primacy. In any case, remarks Fr. Palmieri, for the Protestants, “the interpretation according to which the rock designates St. Peter is uncertain, and if Catholics choose to see it in this way, it is entirely their own responsibility; what is more, the third interpretation we have mentioned is in their opinion the most probable, for it seems to be backed by a greater number of authorities.”

The False Principle of Sola Scriptura

The false principle of “sola scriptura” is therefore false not only because it refuses the true principle of the ecclesiastical Magisterium, “the proximate and universal criterion of truth in matters of Faith and morals,” but also because it ignores the true nature of inspired Scripture. Indeed, this latter is not so very clear on its own, that one can use it alone and without need for further explanation to define the object of belief precisely; as a matter of fact, it is very obscure. Therefore, although there are two sources of Divine Revelation, Scripture and Tradition, they are not both on the same level, for Tradition is a source that remains anterior to Scripture from a threefold point of view: chronologically, with regards to its extent, and above all as its rule or criterion. The oral transmission of Revelation preceded its written transmission. Tradition transmits all of Revelation, whereas Scripture transmits only a portion.

Tradition must above all serve as the rule for how to understand the meanings of the truths revealed in Scripture. And Tradition, just like Scripture, also depends on another rule of interpretation which is the Church Magisterium. Scripture therefore has a twofold rule and is doubly dependent: it depends first of all on Tradition, as one source depends on another; then it depends on the Magisterium as a source depends on the proximate and universal criterion of truth in matters of Faith and morals. The exegesis of “Tu es Petrus” is an example that illustrates this situation perfectly.

The passage from the Gospel of St. Matthew, chapter 16, verse 18, depends first of all on the interpretation given by the Fathers of the Church, which represents another source of revealed truths, Tradition, which precedes Scripture. But as this interpretation of the Fathers allows for four different explanations, it is up to the Church’s Magisterium to define with authority which of the different possible meanings admitted by Tradition is the first inspired literal meaning on which the dogma of the Catholic Faith is to be based. Thus did Vatican Council I declare infallibly and definitively that the rock on which the entire edifice of the Holy Church is built is the very person of St. Peter and his successors, and that consequently, the supreme and universal primacy of jurisdiction belongs to the Bishop of Rome by virtue of its divinely revealed institution by Christ.

Vatican II’s Distortion

Paragraphs 9 and 10 of the Vatican Council II constitution Dei Verbum are unacceptable in this respect, for they commit a grave omission in presenting the two sources of Revelation, Scripture and Tradition, as two reciprocally complementary channels that equally concur. “For both of them,” says paragraph 9, “flowing from the same divine wellspring, in a certain way merge into a unity and tend toward the same end. . . . Therefore, both Sacred Tradition and Sacred Scripture are to be accepted and venerated with the same sense of loyalty and reverence.” In fact, Scripture does not flow from the divine source exactly in the same way as Tradition, since the written transmission of Revelation flows from its oral transmission: Scripture flows from its divine source through the intermediary of Tradition. And that is why they cannot both be received equally: Tradition must take precedence over Scripture.

That is also why apologetics must be careful not to be naïve. The argument of a reasonable interpretation of Scripture should be handled with care. For in order to be truly reasonable, the interpretation of Scripture itself depends on another far more decisive argument, the argument of Tradition. And both the biblical argument and the argument of Tradition ultimately draw all of their strength from the authority of the Magisterium, which accredits them by declaring with authority the authentic meaning of the revealed truth. There is always a strong temptation to go meet the Protestants on their own turf in order to win an easy victory since the meaning of the Gospel seems to appear so evident in its biblical simplicity. But a seasoned and experienced theologian knows to distrust such luce clarius patet that make for easy controversy.

It is true that it can serve the purpose of confounding Protestants based on Scripture and by means of a critical refutation according to the rules of the art. This refutation shows that it is impossible to use the text of the Gospels to justify the principle of private judgment and that the divinely inspired text rather leads one to recognize the divine institution of an ecclesiastical Magisterium. But this, like any other properly apologetic endeavor, is an integral part of theology and as such presupposes the initial criterion of the Magisterium. The only reason that can stand up to the false principle of “sola scriptura” is theological reason, that is to say, reason already enlightened by the Faith, “ratio illustrate fide,” as Vatican Council I says. And the truth of Faith that guides reason is the very truth of which the Magisterium is the proximate and universal criterion. Reason alone, without the direction of the Magisterium, would be just as powerless as Scripture alone, just as bereft of its rule, and that is why it is in no way surprising to see Protestantism sway back and forth between fideism and rationalism.

Just like all the rest of the revealed deposit, Scripture is the expression of a mystery. The meaning of this expression, which is very often obscure and ambiguous, necessarily eludes reason for this very reason. Reason in and of itself can never offer a complete, decisive and sufficient demonstration of this meaning. But when the biblical meaning is already presupposed, having been indicated by the double criterion of Tradition and the Magisterium (the former being itself ruled by the latter), reason can then show its soundness and the internal coherency of the inspired text, in keeping with this double criterion.

That is the way Cajetan proceeded—and most masterfully at that—in his treatise on the divine institution of the Sovereign Pontificate. “The entire truth of this thesis,” he says of the dogma of the Primacy, “depends on Sacred Scripture and there are two principal passages that explicit treat of this mystery: Mt. 16:17-19 and Jn. 21:15-17. Therefore, it is in reference to both of these texts that one must consider whether the words of Christ were addressed to St. Peter and to St. Peter alone.” Cajetan wishes to show that the divine institution of the Primacy is expressed in the Gospel passages he cites, and that it is therefore formally revealed by Scripture: that is the precise point of his demonstration.

Addressing Luther just after the Augsburg meetings, Cajetan resorts to an apparently biblical argument, but the rational interpretation and precise explanation he gives of super hanc petram flow entirely from the twofold argument of Tradition and the Magisterium, which is developed at length in chapter 14 of his work. He keeps this argument of authority ever in mind, even if he does not explicitly hurl it back at the father of the so-called “Reformation,” who is really the father of the revolt of human reason against God that as such characterizes modern times. A revolt in which reason refuses to depend on any rule. But in order to rid himself of the pope, Luther had no other choice but to pose as the pope. And in order to rid himself of the divine rule of the Magisterium, modern reason has no other choice but to proclaim herself a goddess.

At the time when the Lutheran revolution exploded, the successor of St. Peter was governing the Church like a Renaissance prince, and historians have since passed a severe judgment on his attitude. They have reproached this pope, and not entirely without reason, for not understanding profoundly enough what was truly at stake in the crisis caused by Luther. We must nonetheless recognize that Leo X did choose a true theologian in the person of Cajetan to take things in hand. Cajetan was, in fact, a true theologian, for his reason was enlightened by his Faith and the Faith came to him from the Magisterium of all time, that Leo X did echo. This Magisterium represents for a faithful Catholic the true light that shines in the darkness, and it is what is so cruelly lacking to Protestants of every denomination, be they Lutheran or Calvinist, illuminists or rationalists. Neither Scripture alone in the face of reason nor reason alone in the face of Scripture can make the light shine in the darkness. The only one that can do so is the rock on which Christ built His Church, and against which the gates of hell shall never prevail.