Sources of Authority of Catholicism

I don’t know where to post this, so I posted this here.

As a former Protestant revert-to-Catholic, I often get lost when studying Roman Catholicism again. As a former Protestant, I am very comfortable by having to study the Bible only, and Protestants would say “Bible is the only authority we need” on the lines of Sola Scriptura, and hence I got comfortable in an environment where there is only a single authority everyone agrees and a single source in which all doctrine and theology are derived from.

Thanks to the help of Catholic apologists, and I knew, the grace of God, I then knew that the Sola Scriptura doctrine was wrong and I went back to Catholicism agian.

However, what are the sources of authority Catholicism use to derive its doctrine and theology from? I know first that Scripture is used, second, Sacred Tradition, then third the Pope and Magisterium but can anyone help with the hierarchy and an exhaustive list of the sources of authority in Catholicism for me?

-Scripture, no doubt
-Sacred Tradition, but what exactly is this? Does this refer to the teachings passed to the Church in its beginning? Does the opinions and writings of the Early Church Fathers count?
-Ecumenical Councils
-Pope and Magisterium
-CCC (what exactly is this?)
-Canon Law (again what is this?)
-Also, what is the boundary we have to determine until we give that the opinions and writings of Catholic theologians are valid?
-What also is Catholic philosophy and moral theology I saw here on the forums?

Sorry, guys, but as someone who became comfortable in an environment where there is only a single source of authority (Sola Scriptura Bible), as a new revert from Protestantism, the fact that Catholicism has so many sources to derive its doctrine and theology from still boggles me. It feels like I have to study too much things to fully grasp Catholic doctrine and theology meaning that most of it will probably be inaccessible to laymen like me.

Oh boy, you’re going to get some monster posts on this one! A good place to start would be the CCC, Catechism of the Catholic Church, especially starting at para. 74, which defines “Tradition.” Another resource is Modern Catholic Dictionary, where you can get brief but helpful definitions to terms like “Tradition”, “Council”, “Philosophy”, “Theology”, “Canon Law”, and the like.

Protestant convert here! Let’s see if I can take a crack at some of these.

Sacred Tradition

As I’m sure you’re well aware, a Bible did not descend from on high to the Apostles. Like many things, the stories and acts of Jesus and his Apostles were spread through oral tradition–Sacred Tradition. Sacred Tradition is the lens through which we interpret scripture, and overlaps it. Both compliment and serve to support the other. Since its about the Apostles carrying it down, I don’t believe that the Church Fathers count. However, their writings are very important as they verify that what we believe and do now is consistent with what was done in the past.

Ecumenial Councils

Generally, if I’m not mistaken, these were called when clarification of a teaching was needed. For example, determining the canonical books of the Bible, and dealing with various heresies. The result of these councils are infallible and become doctrine. The website here gives the Ecumenial councils and why they were held:

Pope and Magisterium

The Pope, when speaking as the Vicar of Christ (or ex cathedra–from the Chair of St. Peter) and with the Magisterium (College of Bishops) may declare something as infallible. An example of this is the Immaculate Conception. By virtue of his office and the promises of Christ, he cannot make something infallible which contradicts current doctrine or teaching.


This stands for the “Catechism of the Catholic Church”. In it contains all the doctrines followed by all those who are in communion with Rome–it’s not just for Roman Catholics. It is highly suggested that you have a copy.

Canon Law

These are the rules of the Church and its churches. Catholics are to follow them. For example, they set out the rules for what the Holy Days of Obligation are, the days we are to fast, etc.

Also, what is the boundary we have to determine until we give that the opinions and writings of Catholic theologians are valid?

If you are looking at the first few pages of a book, it may say “Imprimatur” or “Nihil Obstat”. Here’s an EWTN question explaining the difference:

What also is Catholic philosophy and moral theology I saw here on the forums?

Moral theology is like the name sounds–the theology concerning the Catholic Church’s understanding on morals. Catholic Philosophy I’m not sure about: it’s a pretty wide subject matter. My suggestion is that you read the posts to get a better idea! :slight_smile:

I hope this helps! Welcome home!

Sacred Tradition is attested to in the writings of the church fathers, though their writings were not infallible, of course. The Magisterium is not a source of either scripture or tradition, but it responsible for presenting the authentic apostolic teachings from them, and can do so infallibly (Papal ex cathedra pronouncements, ecumenical councils of bishops approved by the Pope, etc…). Apostolic succession of bishops in the early church, followed up with councils of those successors, were seen as important standards for determining the authenticity of teachings in the early church.

To me, it sounds like your fundamental question is about how the Catholic Church views Divine Revelation. For a good understanding of that, I recommend that you read the paragraphs from the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC 50–141; particularly CCC 80–87). For more detail, look at the 2nd Vatican Council’s document Dei Verbum (the Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation). This articulates the Catholic teaching on Sacred Scripture, Sacred Tradition, and the role of the Magisterium in preserving these two modes of the singular Divine Revelation. It is pretty short. I highly recommend reading through it.

Sacred Tradition can be difficult to wrap our minds around because it is not all written down in one easy handbook. Sacred Scripture is easier to understand because it is tangible and fixed.

But, really, Sacred Tradition came first. That is the Revelation that Jesus handed on to the Apostles, who wrote down some of it in Sacred Scripture. This is not to say that Revelation is continuing through Sacred Tradition. It is not. Public Divine Revelation ended with the death of the last Apostle (John). Nonetheless, our understanding of it grows, matures, and develops over time (just a the mighty Oak tree grows from the tiny acorn).

In an effort to get our minds around it, sometimes we try to turn to other concrete, written works as the complete and final authority on “Sacred Tradition.” But this largely misses the point. Some turn to the writings of the Early Church Fathers. While their writings are often indispensable in understanding Catholic doctrine, they do not function as some sort of alternate canon of Divine Revelation. They have lots to say about doctrine and Revelation. But they are not Sacred Scripture.

There are the writings of the Ecumenical Councils. This idea is closer, but still not quite there. The Ecumenical Councils are infallible (i.e. without error) exercises of the Church’s Magisterium (i.e. the teaching office that consists of the pope and the bishops together in union with him). But we don’t put them together and call them Divine Revelation.

The same is true for the Catechism of the Catholic Church. The CCC is (as St. John Paul II described it) a “sure norm for teaching the faith.” But it is not (exactly) Sacred Tradition concretized. Each doctrine articulated in the CCC has authority by virtue of the source material (i.e. the citations to Scripture and magisterial teaching), not by virtue of being in the CCC.

Canon Law are rules that are rooted in Divine Revelation, but it is not Sacred Tradition per se. Parts of it indicate unchangeable Revelation (such as the formula for Baptism), but other parts do not (such as what days of the year to fast and abstain from meat).

The works of Catholic theologians can get even more dicey. :o Doctrine sets the fence posts and theologians are free to explore inside the boundaries that doctrine creates. But theologians don’t always strike gold, nor do they always see the fence posts. Nonetheless, they can be of great assistance in understanding the depth and beauty of the Catholic faith (some more so than others! :p).

The philosophy and moral theology forums here are places for posters to discuss those topics. From a theological perspective, a right philosophy undergirds and assists right theology. Philosophy is the study of how we come to know things, after all, so it ought to be at the service of how we come to know God.

Moral theology speaks to how our faith is lived out in our daily life.

I know you probably would prefer a short, easy answer (I know I would! :o). Hopefully this helps in understanding these things a little better.

My post will be light on details.
Catholicism recognizes that God’s revelation is communitarian.
It is given to a community, not to each of us merely as individuals.
Individuals receive God’s revelation in the context of the community we are part of.
So our scripture interpretations and extrapolations into pastoral practice are informed by, and validated by, the community we live in, not our own personal authority.

Scripture is the person of Jesus Christ lived out, his life and “good news” given to those he lived with, and then committed to writing by those Inspired human beings. Jesus didn’t live his life based on what the NT said, because the NT wasn’t written. He is the book, personified. His community writes and breathes him. This oddly seems to be a very hard concept for SS types to grasp.

Tradition is…as others have said, a communitarian thing. The living body of teaching, thought, philosphy, interpretation, proclamation. Living. Just like a community of persons. Tradition is not a dead thing of the past. It is living. (did I mention Tradition is living?)
The Magisterium is not an individual, it is the living teaching authority of Christ’s body, given in unique charism to those who have it, as individuals acting in a community. In a most unique way to the successor of Peter.

The source of it all is Jesus Christ, risen from the dead and living, who is united to his Body, the Church, the Community of Saints.

Nicely put. :thumbsup:

Since you didn’t know what “CCC” meant, or what moral theology was, I wouldn’t even start with the Catechism. I’d buy “Catholicism for Dummies” and read that through first. Then I’d start on the Catechism.

And the book’s not really for “dummies.” It’s just an introduction to Catholicism.

Good point. I haven’t read that title myself, but I’ve consistently heard good things about it as a helpful introduction to Catholicism. If the passages I referenced above seem a bit thick to get through, this book might be the place to start.

Check out books by Tim Staples, Scott Hahn, Mike Aquilina, Robert Barron, Peter Kreeft, and Mark Shea. They cover a ton of topics that people joining or returning to the Church may be having trouble understanding or accepting.

Mark Shea’s book, “By What Authority?: An Evangelical Discovers Catholic Tradition” may be of particular use to you.

No, I appreciate your post a lot. This is exactly the kind of answer I was looking for, to detail which are exactly authoritative or not, and how is the scope of their authority.

The reason was that I was confused, at first I thought that Catholicism (and Eastern Orthodoxy) rests on two pillars - Sacred Tradition and Sacred Scripture. Then, things like CCC, Vatican documents, Canon Law came and I was like - Are these also another Tradition and Scripture? Are these authoritative? Are the Catholics adding new Traditions?

So, if my understanding is correct, Canon Law and the CCC are not authoritative in themselves, but are authoritative because they derive their content from Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition? So, they’re just merely tools for us to help understand and know Sacred Tradition and Scripture better? And the Magisterium is not an authority, its job is only to present Sacred Tradition and the truths found in Scripture?

I know I should start new threads to ask these questions, but for some reason I asked them here.
-What are the Vatican documents, again, they are also not authoritative and the Vatican is merely speaking based on Sacred Tradition and Scripture?
-How about the Vatican’s councils after the Seven Ecunemical Councils? I know this might sound like Orthodox, but what is the difference of more contemporary Vatican Councils to the Seven Ecumenical Councils?
-And where the Catholic Church gets its philosophy and moral theology also? From Sacred Tradition and Sacred Scripture too?

Sorry, if I have this kind of attitude, but I became confused when I reverted to Catholicism. I became accustomed to Protestantism where the only authoritative thing was the Bible and pastors only quoted from it. When I encountered councils, ECFs, Canon Law, documents, CCC in my newfound faith, I became confused that there are so many “authoritative sources”.

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