How many times have we have Catholics heard this accusation? Many non-Catholics (some folks I’ve debated with on this forum take umbrage with the term “Protestant” despite the fact that the denomination they belong to didn’t exist prior to Luther’s revolt in 1521; so I’ll just say “non-Catholic” instead”) accuse Catholics of replacing the Scriptures and the Holy Spirit with “the traditions of men.” At least two different members on this forum have accused me, as a Catholic, of substituting the inspiration of the Holy Spirit with the teachings of men. One even asked me, if the Pope was in one corner and the Holy Spirit in another, which would I choose?
The problem with this attitude is that it takes an either/or approach to the faith. Catholics, on the other hand, take a both/and approach. We certainly do follow the Scriptures (heck, it’s our book to begin with) and all Catholics are expected to follow the promptings of the Holy Spirit (we receive him at confirmation, so we sure ought to be listening to them), but we need to make sure that the practice of our faith and our interpretations of scripture is in line with the Magisterium.
But is this biblical? Absolutely! Throughout Scripture, we see that while God can and does speak to people directly, far more often he uses certain men to speak to others. In Exodus, God used Moses to lead the Jews out of slavery into the Promised Land. In later years God sent the prophets to condemn the idolatry and pride of the Jews in an attempt to bring them back to true worship of the Lord.
But what about the New Testament? Some non-Catholics seem to think that the New Covenant, with the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, meant that we could communicate with God directly without having to go through other men (they often quote 1 Timothy 2:5 to support their position). However, nowhere in the Gospels or Epistles are we told that we can be spiritual Lone Rangers (or to borrow the U.S. Army slogan, “a denomination of one,” as some non-Catholics on this board seem to be), interpreting the Scriptures as we see fit. In the Gospels, Jesus did not give his teaching authority to all and sundry, but primarily to the Twelve, and later to a select group of seventy-two disciples. In the book of Acts, we see the Apostles appointing deacons to take care of church matters not related to preaching and teaching (6:1-6) and holding a council to decide what should be done regarding Gentile circumcision (chapter 15). In these two passages, we can see the genesis of the institutional church. St. Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians 12:28-29 that the members of the Body of Christ have differing functions. In the various epistles, when the writers commanded their audience to excommunicate a disobedient member (1 Corinthian 5:4-5) or to keep away from false teachers, they were not making suggestions, but giving an order and expecting to be OBEYED.
The question remains: What happened to this teaching authority when the last of the Apostles died? Did it simply pass from them into their writings? For Catholics (and Orthodox) the answer is clear: they choose successors to carry on their work. One may ask another question: If the Bible and the Holy Spirit is all that is necessary to be a good Christian, why did Christ bother with the Apostles: why did he not simply hand out pocket New Testaments and tell them to ask the Holy Spirit to help them understand it? If that is all that is needed, why are there so many “Bible-only” groups who claim to be inspired by the Holy Spirit yet cannot agree on what the Scripture says? For that matter, if the Holy Spirit is all that is needed to guide us (as some non-Catholics claim) why bother with the Scriptures?