Do Catholics rely on private interpretation?

I’ve often read the Catholic objection to Protestantism in that Protestants rely on their own private interpretation of Scripture which is fallible.

However, don’t Catholics as well?

Okay, so Catholics obey and believe the Church’s teaching, and that it is infallible, but how do they know what “the Church” is, and know that the Church is infallible? How does one identify it with the Roman Catholic Church?

Without descending into a circular argument, does this not require a private interpretation of Scripture and Tradition? Does it not rely on the intellect and one’s own interpretative skills?

If so, then what use is the objection against Protestantism on these grounds? If Catholics ultimately rely on private interpretation as well, then where is the issue? It seems as if Catholics and Protestants are at the same level here, both relying on their own interpretative ability.

(Ultimately we rely on the Holy Spirit, I should add, but then there is no real issue as anyone can claim Holy Spirit guidance)

EDIT: A further point, the objection that Protestantism has led to 30,000 denominations also fails with this point, because Catholics also rely ultimately on private interpretation.

Peter, James, John, et. al., listened to Jesus. And there were not just his words, but his promise of the Holy Spirit to remind them of all he ever taught, including the meaning or intention of the Old Testament, which were the Scriptures, no NT as Scripture yet until somewhere in the 300’s AD. Before the 200’s there was no NT Scripture, only the Scriptures of the Old Testament and a large number of letters and documents that the Church regarded as traditionally authoritative, meaning from trusted apostolic members of the Church, like Paul, James, John, Peter, Matthew, Mark, Luke, etc.)

Now, as Catholics, we take seriously that promise of the Holy Spirit keeping the Church in Truth - it was a promise given to the Teachers (apostles) who were given it with the express purpose of making disciples by baptizing and then teaching them all that Christ Commanded them. So, we give ultimate (and I mean “ultimate”) authority to our official “teachers” - those apostolically commissioned in the line of the apostles to be our teachers. Not teachers of their own interpretations, but teachers of only the teachings that they received, from their teachers, the Apostles, who received only the teachings of their teacher, Jesus and his Spirit. The Holy Spirit is with our teachers, reminding them of what is from Jesus. We take this literally. It happened just as you read in Scripture and is happening now with the Holy Spirit.

We do read Scripture and try to see what it means, but not our “private interpretations”. We study it to see how it means what we have been taught by our official apostolic teachers. We have “understood” when we reach that point of saying, “Oh, I now understand why the Church teaches ‘this’ or ‘that’ - this Scripture is now clear to me”.

We do not try to find some “real meaning” or as yet “unknown meaning” in Scripture that was somehow missed by the Church that would then change something the Church is teaching, because the Church is teaching exactly what Jesus and the Apostles taught, understanding exactly what Jesus and the Apostles understood. Over the centuries it has never been changed, but only clarified over time.

I personally study the Bible in Greek, to do this very thing - to bring additional clarity to what I am receiving from my teachers.

By the way, I do see interpretations in my own study that would be contrary to what the Church is teaching. Now I could say, “Oh, the Holy Spirit showed that interpretation to me privately.” But, the Holy Spirit was promised to protect the Church, not divide it - so that should be a signal to me that “no, this interpretation is not one with the teaching of the Church, therefore not from the Holy Spirit”. Any interpretation that would divide the Church is not from Christ, but it does not stop there - the fact is that there is an interpretation that does “match” the Church’s teaching if you look for it, and it will give you confidence in the Church as speaking truly to you, and, further, you can see all Scripture as a unified whole in its teaching.

I’ve heard protestants say that they rely on the Holy Spirit who tells them what the scripture says. Well, there’s an inherit problem with that. First of all, many often overlook that Jesus himself, the Master, is the teacher of what we learn about ourselves, our faith, etc. And Jesus first taught His apostles who were the first members of the Church, who passed along the lessons that Jesus taught them. So knowing this, one would need more than the Holy Spirit to teach the scriptures. It would need the teaching of Jesus passed to the Apostles which is part of our faith traditions. We know that much of the ‘traditions’ that the Apostles practice is not clearly spelled out in the scriptures, but it is there if one were looking for it. Like the Church worshipping on the first day of the week which is the Lords day, and baptism taking the place of circumcision. The body and blood of Christ actually was center of the worship for the Apostles who came together to break bread. The bible came to be as it is written due to what was being already practiced by the Church. It would be in err to say the Holy Spirit teaches the bible because that’s only partially true. It says right in scripture that the Church is the teacher of our faith and that would be expected as the bible was the work of the Church. Of course one would have to have faith, but more than that they would have to know what the practices of the Church were in order that the Church would be able to write those inspired words of God we know as the bible. The bible is not our whole teaching, rather it supplements the Church traditions and teachings. In other words the Church came before the bible and the bible wasn’t completed until 300+ AD, and so the bible doesn’t tell the whole story about our faith and easily misunderstood without knowing Church traditions and teachings received directly from Jesus Himself. Catholics learn much about the bible from attending mass which has been done for 2,000 years so many are well versed on it as a whole just because it is part of our worship and we don’t take it out of context easily because we view it this way. It can happen, but we know if we want to learn what something means we should go to Catholic teaching on the scriptures. Of course it should be respected as a the written word of God so God speaks to us through it. I can tell you there were times where I have misinterpreted passages and then came to look for Church teachings on it and understood them in context better and it made sense to me but in a different light so I know the scriptures can easily be misinterpreted.

I want to add what St. Peter said on the letters St. Paul wrote of which there are many so I keep this in mind as the bible can be hard to understand on our own. That doesn’t mean we don’t read it on our own, but it helps to take good Catholic bible study classes or have a Catholic study bible.

2 Peter 3: 15 and regard the patience of our Lord as salvation. So also our beloved brother Paul wrote to you according to the wisdom given him, 16 speaking of this as he does in all his letters. There are some things in them hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other scriptures. 17 You therefore, beloved, since you are forewarned, beware that you are not carried away with the error of the lawless and lose your own stability. 18 But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. To him be the glory both now and to the day of eternity. Amen.

I think this article dwells on this subject of your question:

Ecclesial Deism

‘Tradition’ becomes whatever one agrees with in the history of the Church, such as the Nicene Creed or Chalcedonian Christology…What makes it ‘authoritative’ for Mohler is that it agrees with his interpretation of Scripture. If he encounters something in the tradition that seems extra-biblical or opposed to Scripture he rejects it. For that reason, tradition does not authoritatively guide his interpretation. His interpretation picks out what counts as tradition, and then this tradition informs his interpretation.

And I think this goes to the matter of your query…I think this is in part IV of the article:

*Aquinas believed that faith in Christ necessarily involves trusting the Church, because Christ cannot fail to guide and protect the development of His Church.

I came to see that I did not fully trust Christ, not because I thought Him untrustworthy, but because I had not understood that Christ founded a visible hierarchically organized Body of which He is the Head, and which He has promised to protect and preserve until He returns. I had not apprehended the ecclesial organ Christ established through which the members of His Body are to trust Him. I came to see that faith in Christ is not something to be exercised invisibly, from my heart directly to Christ’s throne, as though Christ had not appointed an enduring line of shepherds. Inward faith was to be exercised outwardly, by trusting Christ through those shepherds Christ sent and established. Jesus had said, “The one who listens to you listens to Me, and the one who rejects you rejects Me; and he who rejects Me rejects the One who sent Me.”29

This is the sacramental conception of faith, not simply belief that, but belief through. This is the sacramental conception of the Church, the basis for the priest speaking in persona Christi.

Something unique catholicism is its historical record and it traces its origins to the apostles.

If it just appeared in the 1800s or something you would be right, but the argument from history sets it in a league apart from any Protestant church.

I think that the answer is both yes and no.

Yes we rely on our personal understanding (and a lot of things factor into that) but…
No because we ultimately submit ourselves to another authority - that being the Church.

I believe that this is the key difference in the discussion with protestants. Where the Catholic submits to the Church, the protestant (in many cases) does not. Yes he might attend a given denomination, but he might just as easily change denominations…base on his private understanding.
In other words, as he seeks a church he is looking for one that matches him…not the other way around…

Does that make sense??

Sorry for painting with the broad brush…Apologies to my protestant brothers and sisters who do not fit the description above…


Great point, this really is the difference.

Protestantism relies on sola scriptura and the absolute right to private judgment.

Catholicism offers Sacred Scripture, Sacred Tradition and the Magisterium and the limited right to private judgment.

Explained here. In part:

There can and is a harmonization between the Magisterium and a limited right to private judgment, and this is what we find in the Catholic Church. Individual laymen and theologians can exercise their private judgment in reading the Scriptures all they want so long as they do not transgress what the Magisterium has settled. There is free reign for private judgment and opinion within the bounds of established Christian teaching. It is the crossing of these bounds that the Magisterium was set up to prevent.

This is the way in which the intellect of the individual is harmonized with the teaching authority of Christ, as exercised through his Church. God gave each individual a rational soul which, if it is not impeded, will enable him to learn, understand, and know the Scriptures and the teachings of Christ. This exercise of private interpretation is to be encouraged and fostered. People have been given a faculty by God, and they must be encouraged to fulfill the responsibility that comes along with that faculty.

But they were not given the faculty or the responsibility of building Christian theology from the ground up all by themselves. The average Christian was not given the responsibility to do this, nor the ability to do this. Not even the bishops who constitute the Magisterium have the responsibility or the ability to do this as individuals. Nor does even the pope himself have this responsibility or ability, since he is bound by all the previous decisions of the Magisterium. No one individual, since the day that public revelation stopped, has had the right or responsibility to decide all of the Christian faith for himself, not even the organs of the Magisterium God created.

How does someone without an ‘absolute’ right to private judgement decide that the Catholic Church is the true Church to begin with? Their private judgement is fallible, so ultimately their submission to the Magisterium is based on their original fallible decision to believe the Catholic Church?

How do you determine that “the Church” is the Catholic Church that you should be submitting authority to? Surely it ultimately rests on your private understanding?

Which Protestant “church” has been around for 2,000 years? Which Protestant “church” assembled the Bible?

The first time the Church was called “Catholic” was in 107 AD by St. Ignatius, third Bishop of Antioch and disciple of the Apostle John, in his letter to the Smyrnaeans.

See that you all follow the bishop, even as Jesus Christ does the Father, and the presbytery as you would the apostles; and reverence the deacons, as being the institution of God. Let no man do anything connected with the Church without the bishop. Let that be deemed a proper Eucharist, which is [administered] either by the bishop, or by one to whom he has entrusted it. Wherever the bishop shall appear, there let the multitude [of the people] also be; even as, wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church.

just read the bible and join the church that Jesus started. the one He founded on the rock. no interpretation needed. that’s what i did after 60 years of protestantism. if you have any objections to church teaching, it’s because your heart is hard, and you have sins you don’t want to let go of. that’s how it was for me.

The Catholic Church assembled the Sacred Scriptures at the Council of Carthage in 397 AD. Through the Magisterium (teaching authority of the Church), under guidance of the Holy Spirit, we come to the correct interpretation of the Scriptures. Having said that, what we possess is not really an interpretation at all, rather, the Truth. :thumbsup:

I can claim that the sky is green. Does that mean it’s green? No. Likewise, anyone can claim guidance of the Holy Spirit, but does that mean they possess it? No.

Catholicism (if you want political correctness, Orthodoxy as well) contains the fullness of Christian Truth. How can you say that a man-made Protestant sect between 0 and 500 years old is right, and the 2,000 year old Church founded by Jesus Christ himself is wrong?:shrug:

The Protestant Fallacy That Threatens to Undermine Christianity

Catholics believe in the infallibility of the Church and of the pope. This serves as both a teacher of, and an important check to, our personal interpretations of Scripture. If I understand a passage of Scripture to be teaching X, and X is a conclusion contrary to the teachings of the Church, I can be sure that I’m wrong. It’s a simple rule, but a powerful one. Think of the countless heresies have arisen from people misunderstanding Scripture. In many of these cases, these errors could have been avoided, if people would have just followed this rule.

But there’s a Protestant objection to this. It says, in a nutshell, "You Catholics believe in the Catholic Church for one of two reasons: either (1) because the Catholic Church says so, or (2) because you’ve become independently convinced on the basis of Scripture, history, etc. If it’s (1), that’s a circular argument. But if it’s (2), then you’re in the exact same position as a Protestant. You accept Catholic teachings because of your private judgment, we reject Catholic teachings because of our private judgment."

On its face, I think that this looks like a pretty strong argument. But there are several problems with it, two of which I want to highlight. The first is that the argument proves too much, and the second is that it misses a critical distinction.

I. The Unstoppable Acid

The first problem with this argument is that it’s too powerful. If it’s correct, it proves much too much. The people making this argument typically don’t acknowledge (or seemingly recognize) just how powerful this objection really is.

Typically, the people raising this argument view it as a way of reducing the authority of the Church to the private judgment of the individual. Whether I accept or reject such-and-such ex cathedra papal declaration depends on my own private judgment, so infallibility doesn’t really add anything to the equation.

But the logic of the argument goes so much further. It doesn’t just undermine the authority of popes and Councils, but of any Divine authority. On the basis of your private judgment, you believe that what Scripture says is true; on the basis of his, your neighbor believes Scripture is false. Even should God Himself appear to you, your private judgment would be necessary to determine that it was really God and not a hallucination, or a dream, or a demonic trick. So even the authority of God Himself reduces to your private judgment, according to the logic of this argument.

It’s a bit like inventing an acid so strong that it can eat through anything, and then realizing you have no place to put it: the force of the acid will eat through any possible container. At the end of the day, it destroys everything you have, dissolving down to the center of the earth. In trying to dissolve popes and Councils, the Protestant objector has come up with an acid that dissolves the Bible, and even direct revelations by God. It doesn’t just reduce Catholicism to the level of Protestantism. It reduces Christianity to the level of agnosticism.

This, of course, is the first clue that something is seriously wrong with this line of argumentation: it’s self-defeating for the Protestant to use it. To believe in the inspiration of Scripture is to believe in an authority greater than one’s private judgment. “First of all you must understand this, that no prophecy of scripture is a matter of one’s own interpretation, because no prophecy ever came by the impulse of man, but men moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God” (2 Peter 1:20-21).


II. The Missed Distinction

Fortunately, this objection is wrong, so we’re not left with agnosticism. What the argument misses is a critical distinction between the two elements of faith: fides quae creditur and fides quacreditur.

Don’t worry, it’s a lot simpler than it sounds. Fides quae creditur means “the faith that is believed.” It’s the objective portion of the faith. For example, we often speak of “the Catholic faith,” meaning the set of Catholic teachings. That’s the fides quae. Fides qua creditur, on the other hand, is “the faith by which it is believed.” It’s the subjective portion. It’s not “the” faith. It’s “my” faith (or yours, etc.).

Every act of faith consists of these two elements. I believe, you believe, somebody believes: that’s the subjective part of the faith. There’s a subject who is doing the believing. But the believer believes in something. That something is the object of faith.

Consider two types of people who don’t have the faith. The first is a devout heretic or non-Christian. In that case, they’ve got plenty of fides qua (they’re devout), but there’s a problem with the object of their faith, the fides quae. They’re putting their trust in something that’s not worthy of their trust.The second is the person who knows all about orthodox Christianity, but is lukewarm in their faith. In that case, the problem isn’t with the fides quae. It’s with the fides qua, their own response (in faith) to the faith. They’re failing to put their trust in something that is worthy of their trust. And, of course, it’s possible to lack both the fides qua and the fides quae.

As you can see, both elements are necessary for the orthodox faith. Here’s why that matters. The Protestant objector is right that there is necessarily a subjective element to the faith. It doesn’t matter how perfectly the faith is defined, individual believers still have to actually believe it. That personal act of faith is going to be influenced by a lot of things: grace, upbringing and culture, knowledge of Scripture and history, and the like.

But they’re wrong to think that this puts Catholicism and Protestantism on equal footing, with the individual making the final determinations about what’s true in false. It’s for the same reason that the Christian (Catholic or Protestant) isn’t actually in the same position as the non-believer. The non-believer, at least in principle, rejects all inerrant or inspired authority, leaving themselves with only their own reasoning. The Christian has Scriptures revealing things that he could never know by his own reasoning.

The Catholic can go further: he can trust the Church’s interpretation, even when it far surpasses the limits of his own reasoning. In this way, papal and ecclesial infallibility build up the fides quae, the object of faith. It means that you can have a purer, clearer picture of the truth. And this impacts the fides qua, as well. Ultimately, you don’t just have to trust you own authority or ideas or reasoning. You can know enough to know that (a) there’s a lot that you don’t know, and (b) the Church knows more than you do. Knowing the Jesus Christ founded the Church and that the Holy Spirit preserves her makes it much easier to make that act of faith, to believe the faith that she presents.


III. Conclusion

I mentioned at the outset that I intended to highlight only two of the problems with this argument, but that there were several. Fortunately, I don’t need to go into all of those, because Bryan Cross has already done it better than I ever could. He also gives this argument a name: the tu quoque, since this argument is a textbook logical fallacy. Andrew Preslar, also of Called to Communion, addresses a related argument.

The last thing that I’ll mention on this subject is that Jesus repeatedly calls us sheep (Matthew 7:15; 10:6, 16; 12:11,25:32-33; Mark 14:27, etc.). He explains a bit what He means by this curious image in John 10:1-5:

Truly, truly, I say to you, he who does not enter the sheepfold by the door but climbs in by another way, that man is a thief and a robber; but he who enters by the door is the shepherd of the sheep. To him the gatekeeper opens; the sheep hear his voice, and he calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes before them, and the sheep follow him, for they know his voice. A stranger they will not follow, but they will flee from him, for they do not know the voice of strangers.
In other words, we’re called to follow our shepherds: both the Good Shepherd (John 10:11), and those shepherds that He appoints over us (Jeremiah 3:15). As the Epistle to the Hebrews instructs us (Heb. 13:7, 17):
Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God; consider the outcome of their life, and imitate their faith. …] Obey your leaders and submit to them; for they are keeping watch over your souls, as men who will have to give account. Let them do this joyfully, and not sadly, for that would be of no advantage to you.
One of the problems of Protestantism is that it abandons the docility of the sheep. You, the individual sheep, are responsible for determining the meaning of every part of Scripture. You’re in charge of figuring out out what the “Biblical” position on Baptism is, and on polity (Church structure), and on Creationism and evolution, and so on. And you have to do this, precisely because there’s no infallible Church: you can’t put your faith in anyone else’s conclusions.

Next, you should find a creed, confession, or denomination that more or less comports with these findings. Cross describes this as “painting a magisterial target around our interpretive arrow.” You “follow” the denomination that agrees with you; and if you stop agreeing with them, you leave them and find a new denomination. You don’t have much choice. Without infallibility, you’re eventually faced with accepting heresy or committing schism, both of which are sins.

Of course, even as sheep, we have to make an act of faith: the sheep have to listen to the shepherd’s voice. No external authority - not the pope, not a Church Council, not the Bible - can replace your own faith. That’s the indispensable fides qua. But Scripture, Tradition and the Magisterium can give you a clearer picture of the faith that you’re saying yes to: they can speak with the Shepherd’s voice so that you and I can hear and follow.

Some more excerpts from St. Ignatius’ epistle:

They abstain from the Eucharist and from prayer, because they confess not the Eucharist to be the flesh of our Saviour Jesus Christ, which suffered for our sins, and which the Father, of His goodness, raised up again. Those, therefore, who speak against this gift of God, incur death in the midst of their disputes. But it were better for them to treat it with respect, that they also might rise again. It is fitting, therefore, that you should keep aloof from such persons, and not to speak of them either in private or in public, but to give heed to the prophets, and above all, to the Gospel, in which the passion [of Christ] has been revealed to us, and the resurrection has been fully proved. But avoid all divisions, as the beginning of evils.

See that you all follow the bishop, even as Jesus Christ does the Father, and the presbytery as you would the apostles; and reverence the deacons, as being the institution of God. Let no man do anything connected with the Church without the bishop. Let that be deemed a proper Eucharist, which is [administered] either by the bishop, or by one to whom he has entrusted it. Wherever the bishop shall appear, there let the multitude [of the people] also be; even as, wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church. It is not lawful without the bishop either to baptize or to celebrate a love-feast; but whatsoever he shall approve of, that is also pleasing to God, so that everything that is done may be secure and valid.

Moreover, it is in accordance with reason that we should return to soberness [of conduct], and, while yet we have opportunity, exercise repentance towards God. It is well to reverence both God and the bishop. He who honours the bishop has been honoured by God; he who does anything without the knowledge of the bishop, does [in reality] serve the devil. Let all things, then, abound to you through grace, for you are worthy. You have refreshed me in all things, and Jesus Christ [shall refresh] you. You have loved me when absent as well as when present. May God recompense you, for whose sake, while you endure all things, you shall attain unto Him.

I strongly suggest you read the writings of the early Church Fathers.

Which church was Jerome submitting to when he said -

“it is upon the basis of the judgment of the churches and no other that the canon of Scripture is known, since the Scriptures are simply the written portion of the Church’s apostolic tradition.”

Is there confusion as to which church he was speaking about here?


Well that would take a while to explain…:smiley:

Surely it ultimately rests on your private understanding?

Well yes it does, but consider that there is a whole lot tied up in that very simple phrase “your private understanding”.
Everyone - at all times and on every subject - has a “private understanding”, so saying that one makes the decision based on their “private understanding” really isn’t saying much.

The more pertinent question to ask is what goes into the person’s understanding that leads them to a certain belief.

In the case of joining the Catholic Church - for me it was the most intellectually honest choice as well as the most spiritually fulfilling. The steps in my case were as follows:
*]I believe that love must be the foundation of anything worthwhile.
*]Christianity as a whole embraces the foundation of Love…the NT is full of this Love.
*]Out of this love, and God’s grace, I accept Christ and wish to be his disciple.
Now the question is how to best do that.
In looking at the various forms of Christianity I find protestantism to me build on sand that shifts too easily.
*]Too many competing forms and (sometimes conflicting) beliefs all built on the premise of Sola Scriptura and private interpretation.
*]It bothers me that the protestants themselves seem to be little bothered such differences considering what the NT says about different Gospels and divisions etc.
*]I am also turned off by the fact that on the one hand the protestant espouses Sola Scriptura, yet the protestants changed Scripture - not through council - but in a rather haphazard way.
How can one place their faith in such an unbiblical system?

So now _ I’m left with the ancient Churches - EO and RC. Both forms are highly biblical, have a valid apostolic succession and thus have valid sacraments. They both have strong and valid teachings and deep rich spirituality. Between these two the choice is more difficult. Ultimately for me, it came down to the Pope. Not his “Power” as universal bishop, but simply the unity that we have with the Pope as the focal point of that unity. The EO has this to a degree with the various Patriarchs, but it isn’t quite the same.

So - - I submitted (or in my case resubmitted) myself to the Catholic Church.
What did I get in return?
*]The most biblical of Churches
*]The real presence of Christ in the Eucharist.
*]The true Gospel of Christ
*]Consistent teachings - all built on the foundation of Love.
*]Oh - did I mention the real presence in the Eucharist…:wink:
I guess one could say that this is simply where my “personal understanding” led me…and maybe that is true, but if I might suggest…listen to the conversion stories of a Scott Hahn or a Steven Ray - These were protestant ministers who came home to the Catholic Church. See what their “personal understandings” use to be and why they changed.

Sorry to be so wordy…


Randy - - Great Posts as usual…:thumbsup:


DISCLAIMER: The views and opinions expressed in these forums do not necessarily reflect those of Catholic Answers. For official apologetics resources please visit