Father John H. McKensie is pastor at St. James the Apostle in Refugio.
Many of our non-Catholic brothers and sisters in Christ ask why Catholics teach and practice certain things that are not in the Bible. They wonder why Catholics place so much emphasis on Tradition. It is important that they consider what the early Church—the Catholic Church—practiced before it organized the works of the apostles into the New Testament and the Bible.
It was the Catholic Church that decided which books the Holy Spirit inspired. It is helpful to know that nowhere in the Bible does it say that the Bible is the sole source of revelation. As for Tradition, consider 2 Thes 2:15 “Therefore, brothers, stand firm and hold fast to the traditions that you were taught, either by an oral statement or by a letter of ours.” Tradition with a capital “T” is the “handing on” of the faith to the next generation.
That is what the Church did before the New Testament was compiled. Sacraments were administered; the Eucharist was celebrated; and whole families were baptized, including children and infants. It was through tradition that early Christians evangelized before the Church published the first Bible.
As time passed and as the apostles died, there was a realization that the Second Coming might not be as soon as people expected. The teachings of the apostles were put into writing. But there were many writings in circulation. The Catholic Church, the only Christians around at the time, had the duty to discern which books the Holy Spirit inspired and which it did not.
The Church employed three criteria to determine which books the Holy Spirit inspired. First, could it be traced to an apostle or have a connection to an apostle. For example, St. Paul’s writings—though he was not one the original 12 apostles, met this criteria. Second, did the dispersed Christian communities receive a book? Was what was read in Antioch also read in Rome or Jerusalem? Third, did the book affirm or contradict what the Church taught?
Around the year 200, the theologian Tertullian used the term “New Testament.” By 397, the Council of Carthage, chaired by St. Augustine established the first “canon,” which means measurement. St. Augustine based his faith on the Church, deciding which books belonged to the new canon that we know today as the New Testament. It was affirmed again at the Council of Carthage in 419, the Council of Florence in 1442 and at the Council of Trent in 1546.
A further contribution can be seen in the work of St. Jerome, a contemporary of St. Augustine. St. Jerome translated the Old Testament from Hebrew and Greek into Latin between the years 382-406. This was a great undertaking, which made the Bible available in the common language of the West at that time. St. Jerome also wrote some important commentaries on the certain books of the Bible. He is famous for saying “Ignorance of Scripture is ignorance of Christ.” He used his knowledge for the glory of God in making the Bible available in the language common at the time.
Archbishop Fulton Sheen once said that there are no more than a hundred people in the United States who hate the Catholic Church, but there are millions who hate what they wrongly perceive the Catholic Church to be.
By knowing the facts, we can correct the misperceptions that so many people have about the Catholic Church.