Please note: When I address the differences between Catholics and Protestants, I am addressing doctrinal issues; I am not judging anyone's personal holiness or love for Christ.
Once upon a time, five hundred years ago, a group of Christians broke away from the Catholic Church in protest, declaring that the Bible was a Christian's only legitimate authority. Without an authoritative Church, each protesting (i.e., Protestant) Christian was now able to interpret the Bible himself, as Protestants believe God intended.
However, this new paradigm of each Christian interpreting Scripture for himself means that there are as many interpretations of Scripture as there are Protestants. As you can imagine, this leads to a host of problems for a religion that exists to proclaim Truth.
Protestants will tell you that sincere Christians can find the Truth easily, because the "Scriptures are clear" -- and yet Protestants cannot seem to agree on even the essentials of salvation. This reality has led to division after division after division among the Protestant churches over the centuries. It's a real quandary, one which many Protestants acknowledge.
Catholics, thankfully, don't have that headache. We know what the Church teaches on every issue that touches on salvation, because Tradition has been handed down intact throughout the centuries, both written and orally, and those teachings are accessible to all. Anyone who wants to know what the Catholic Church teaches can know.
However, something has come up time and again in my dialogues with Protestants over the years. They tell me that we Catholics have a more serious problem with our Sacred Tradition paradigm than they have with their "Bible only" paradigm. They say that since Catholic Tradition is not "written down" (except for the part of Tradition that is written down, i.e., the Bible), then it is subjective, almost impossible to pin down.
To show how the argument goes, I'll reprint an excerpt from a facebook dialogue I've had with a thoughtful and godly Protestant Christian whom I'll call Brian (his words in red):
It seems to me that if there is no written Tradition (primary sources), then that makes Tradition highly subjective.
Hi again, Brian!
Okay, so if I read you correctly, you contend that submitting to Church authority/teachings/Tradition is highly subjective, but that submitting to the written Word (the Bible alone) is objective.
I don’t think, practically speaking, that that bears itself out.
For example, let’s set up a simple comparison:
Group A: 1,000 Bible-believing Protestants (sola scriptura adherents, who believe in the Bible as our only authority). They are all “true believers” who are saved and who love Jesus, and who sincerely want nothing more than to submit their lives to Christ’s Truth as found in the Bible.
Group B: 1,000 Church-loving Catholics (who believe the Church is the final authority). They are all “true believers” who are in a state of grace and who love Jesus and who want nothing more than to submit their lives to Christ’s Truth as found in the Church.
***Note: None of the Protestants or Catholics are dissenting or liberal Christians… i.e., no “Jesus Seminar” types in the Protestant group, and no Pope-bashers in the Catholic group.
First, ask the individuals in Group A questions about what they believe on important matters of doctrine. Then, ask individuals in Group B the same questions about what they believe on important matters of doctrine. Here’s what you will find (and just as an example, let's use baptism):
Group A (Sincere Protestants):
Q. Is baptism a sacrament? A. Answers will vary.
Q. Is baptism regenerative? A. Answers will vary.
Q. Is infant baptism legitimate? A. Answers will vary.
Q. Can baptism be repeated? A. Answers will vary.
Q. Must baptism be by immersion only? A. Answers will vary.
Group B (Sincere Catholics):
Q. Is baptism a sacrament? A. All will answer “yes”
Q. Is baptism regenerative? A. All will answer “yes”
Q. Is infant baptism legitimate? A. All will answer “yes”
Q. Can baptism be repeated? A. All will answer “no”
Q. Must baptism be by immersion only? A. All will answer “no”
To me, this shows that adhering to “sola scriptura” leads to a much more subjective result than adhering to Church authority/teaching, which leads to an objective result.
I am willing to hear why you think my example is inaccurate.
Blessings to you,
Here is the pertinent part of Brian's response:
[T]he example that you give is in fallacious in a big way. The same example can be given of any organization. For example, you can place Jehovah's Witnesses in group A and Mormons in group B; Protestants in group A and Anglicans in group B. A general consensus doesn't necessarily mean truth.
Thanks for allowing me to discuss this with you.
Brian, you misunderstand. I never argued that my example proves "truth". I was only arguing that my system (true or not) is less subjective than yours. You were arguing that Catholicism's paradigm led to more subjectivity, no? I was showing you that your system leads to more subjectivity. So, I think I am on firm ground there.
Even Mormonism (which is false), has a system that is more objective than yours [i.e., the Protestant paradigm].
At base, the divide between Protestants and Catholics boils down to authority. If there is no earthly, human authority, if everyone gets to decide for himself what the Bible means, then we have a system of subjectivity and chaos. It is unworkable, as evidenced by the lack of agreement by Protestants not only of how to understand the essentials of salvation, but even what those essentials are!
Here is a short list of things that touch on salvation itself, about which Protestants cannot agree:
- The existence of, nature of, and number of the sacraments in general, especially Baptism and Eucharist
- The moral law, including degrees of sin and teachings on human sexuality
- The meaning of justification
- The cycle of redemption
- The nature of the Church and Church authority
- The existence and nature of Purgatory
- The implications of the Incarnation
- Whether salvation is once and done, or a lifelong process
- Whether one can lose his salvation
- The nature of predestination
And many more.
As I told Brian, I have not tried to prove the truth of the Catholic Church in this discussion. But consider that if God loves us (and He does) then He would not leave us confused, forced to reinvent the wheel with every new Christian. A loving God would leave us with clarity and truth throughout the centuries and millennia. And He did. Christ established His Church so that we would not be left orphans, and the Holy Spirit has guided the Church into all truth since that time.