Why Catholics Don’t Know What They’re Talking About

Forty years after the Council of Nicaea definitively had settled the question of whether or not Jesus was God and condemned Arius as a heretic, a huge number of bishops, as well as most the cultured elite had more or less given up trying to actually live by the teaching of the Council. The Imperial Court was not interested in Catholic theology. It was interested in civil peace. So some sort of compromise with Arianism seemed like the way to go. All the Best People were semi-Arians and much of the episcopacy couldn’t see what the big problem was with a Big Tent. Let’s accommodate those who say Jesus is God and those who deny he is God, they said. We shouldn’t be narrow and exclusive. Eventually, an emperor arose (Julian the Apostate) who had an even better idea: Let’s get rid of Christianity with its tiresome theological squabbles and go back to paganism.

Julian was defeated and the Catholic position–against all odds–carried the day in practice as well as in word. But the question naturally arises: how could so many bishops have bailed on their own teaching after the Council?

The answer lies, I think, in a principle that is at once surprising and yet thoroughly orthodox: namely, we Catholics, particularly when we are articulating our doctrine in council and through the teaching of the Holy Father, don’t know what we’re talking about.

And that’s okay.

Think about it. One of the more mysterious passages in Scripture is written by St. Peter in his first papal encyclical. He tells us: “The prophets who prophesied of the grace that was to be yours searched and inquired about this salvation; they inquired what person or time was indicated by the Spirit of Christ within them when predicting the sufferings of Christ and the subsequent glory. It was revealed to them that they were serving not themselves but you, in the things which have now been announced to you by those who preached the good news to you through the Holy Spirit sent from heaven, things into which angels long to look. (1 Peter 1:10-12)

In other words, the prophets did not fully grasp the meaning of their own prophecies precisely because it was the Holy Spirit and not they who was doing the talking. They “spoke beyond themselves” and so they were compelled to inquire about the meaning of the things that they themselves had spoken.

Peter knew something about this since he had had up close and personal experience of the phenomenon himself. At the Council of Jerusalem, the Church had met to deliberate on the question of whether Gentile converts had to be compelled to obey the ceremonial requirements of Judaism (such as circumcision and dietary laws) in order to join the New Covenant people. Speaking by the power of the Spirit, Peter himself had articulated the liberating word of the gospel when he declared that God “made no distinction between us and them, but cleansed their hearts by faith” and announced that “we shall be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will” (Acts 15:7-11).

It was a brilliant, Spirit-led insight. And yet, not too very long afterward, Paul came to Antioch and found that “before certain men came from James, [Peter] ate with the Gentiles; but when they came he drew back and separated himself, fearing the circumcision party. And with him the rest of the Jews acted insincerely, so that even Barnabas was carried away by their insincerity” (Galatians 2:12-13). How could Peter and Barnabas, who had been at the Council of Jerusalem, possibly have done this?

One answer that comes readily to hand is cowardice. But another answer is quite as likely: they had not fully grasped the implications of their own teaching. And so they were sluggish in putting it into practice when more inviting “pastoral” alternatives presented themselves. Happily, God saw to it (as he always does) that the Church was set back on track–learning to obey what She herself had articulated by the power of the Holy Spirit.

This curious dynamic seems to me to be precisely what we must expect if the Church is what she claims to be: a communion of sinners whose soul is nothing less than the Holy Spirit himself. As Paul says, we have these treasures in jars of clay. And so, it naturally follows that the Spirit who reveals God through us and to us is making us participants in his work of “guiding us into all truth” (John 16:13) yet, precisely because he is guiding us into places we have never been before, it takes us a while to get up to speed with what we ourselves are saying. Because it is the Spirit–not we–who is saying it.


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