Scott Hahn, today a professor at a Catholic university in Ohio, was once a fervent anti-Catholic, schooled in the beliefs of Protestant fundamentalism. Hahn was led to the Catholic Church, at least in the early stages, by a process of intellectual conversion.
One day, a student asked him where in the Bible it states that faith is rooted in Scripture alone — a key tenet of the Reformation. "I said what any professor would say, 'What a dumb question!'" he recalled.
But the question haunted him. If the entire content of the faith is specified by Scripture, why doesn't the Bible tell us that?
Hahn began asking leading Protestant theologians the question. They too brushed it off as dumb.
But he found, rather than teaching that Scripture alone is the basis of faith, St. Paul urged Christians to "hold fast to the traditions that you were taught by us, either by word of mouth or by our letter" (2 Thessalonians 2:15). Right there, Paul was teaching that there is more than Scripture, that there is an oral tradition of faith.
And, in another place, Paul calls the church "the pillar and bulwark of the truth" (1 Timothy 3:9).
Working purely on the basis of his own literal fundamentalism, Hahn found that it takes more than the literal word of Scripture to root a Christian faith. That more is the church, the living tradition of faith, handed down from the apostles and reflected on by the body of believers over the centuries.
This is a crucial understanding to arrive at in our society which is rapidly losing its collective memory. We are becoming ruled by a tyranny of the present which ultimately says that anything beyond the present sensation is nostalgia.
But the human person is much more than a passive receiver of sensations. God has given us the ability to interpret, reason and judge. Our memories as individuals and our memory as a church and a society comes about by our using those abilities. And our memory can hold forth a vision of a world different than the one in which we live in the here and now. Moreover, there is no memory that has not gone through some interpretation.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church is an introduction to the collective memory of the church. The content of faith is not simply a piece of data given to us. It is something, rooted in Scripture, mulled over by God's people, further conclusions drawn by church councils, and received and re-integrated by God's people today.
Faith is a process of interpretation. Just like our personal memories, such interpretation is rooted in reality — Scripture and definitive church statements. Some memories are true and others are fabrications. But our stories become richer by being re-told and re-interpreted. And we have what the Second Vatican Council called "the living magisterium of the church" to guide God's people towards interpretations which are reliable.
Unlike what the Protestant fundamentalists think, this development of church tradition does not add anything to the faith which Jesus gave to the apostles. That would be a vain and foolish thing to attempt. But the church's reflection does deepen and make present for our own age and our own lives what Jesus taught to the apostles.
Scott Hahn used his own mind, asked questions and ultimately rebelled against the act of turning Scripture into an idol. He came to see that the Bible is the living word of God which bears fruit as people relate it to their own lives.
One irony in this is that the catechism itself can be turned into an idol. It can be used to stop our questioning, rather than to deepen it and refine it.
Just as Hahn's faith would have been cheated if he had not asked and held fast to his questions, so the faith of our church will be cheated if we do not ask questions and fervently seek out answers to them.
We need to be faithful and obedient to God's word and the church's tradition, but we also need to question. It is by holding fast to our questions that we will help to deepen the church's tradition for the generations to come.
(For more about Hahn's journey of faith, read Rome Sweet Home: Our Journey to Catholicism by Scott and Kimberly Hahn, Ignatius Press, 1993).
Copyright © 1998, 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009 -- Western Catholic Reporter
Our mission: To serve our readers by bringing the Gospel to bear on current issues in the Church and in secular culture through accurate news coverage and reflective commentary.