Here we go again. As with the reporting on his splendid Regensburg address of last September (see my commentary on " The Regensburg Moment "), the story line is that the pope misspoke and had to be "clarified" by his press secretary. It was on this week’s flight to Brazil that he was asked about Mexican bishops who said that politicians voting for abortion had excommunicated themselves. Did he agree? “Yes,” Benedict replied. “The excommunication was not something arbitrary. It is part of the [canon law] code. It is based simply on the principle that the killing of an innocent human child is incompatible with being in communion with the body of Christ. Thus, they [the bishops] didn’t do anything new or anything surprising. Or arbitrary.” Later, Benedict’s spokesman, Fr. Federico Lombardi, said in a statement approved by the pope, “Since excommunication hasn’t been declared by the Mexican bishops, the pope has no intention himself of declaring it." He added that politicians who vote in favor of abortion should not receive the sacrament of Holy Communion. “Legislative action in favor of abortion is incompatible with participation in the Eucharist. Politicians exclude themselves from Communion,” he said. Precisely. Every excommunication is, so to speak, self-excommunication. By committing certain grave sins, such as procuring, performing, or encouraging abortion, excommunication is automatic ( latae sententiae ). By such an act one has gravely impaired one’s communion with the Church and therefore should refrain from receiving Holy Communion¯the Eucharist being the supreme expression of communion with Christ and his Church. In certain extraordinary circumstances, the fact that one has excommunicated himself is publicly declared by ecclesiastical authority. In sum, what Benedict said is firmly established teaching, and the media flurry about his statement is, once again, a reflection of general illiteracy about Catholic doctrine.
The return of Francis Beckwith to full communion with the Catholic Church has understandably occasioned much comment and debate. He has resigned his position as president of the Evangelical Theological Society (ETS) and, it seems, from the society itself. The ETS executive committee issued a statement saying his resignation is “appropriate.” The committee’s eight members, including acting president Hassell Bullock of Wheaton College, said in a May 8 statement that ETS membership is not compatible with “wholehearted confessional agreement with the Roman Catholic Church." All ETS members must affirm each year that “the Bible alone and the Bible in its entirety, is the Word of God written and is therefore inerrant in the autographs.” ("Autograph" refers to the original manuscripts, none of which we have.) The ETS statement does not specify exactly what is included in “the Bible alone and the Bible in its entirety.” It notes that Catholics include in the canon¯the official list of biblical books¯writings that Protestants do not recognize as biblical. Moving on to shakier ground, the ETS statement also says that Catholics recognize as infallible certain conciliar and papal definitions that evangelicals do not accept and that violate their understanding of sola scriptura . (The ETS statement would be more persuasive if it indicated a greater familiarity with Catholic teaching on these questions, as in the constitution of the Second Vatican Council, Dei Verbum .) What has been prompted by Beckwith’s decision is a very lively¯sometimes nasty but potentially salutary¯debate among evangelicals about the relationship between Scripture and the interpretive tradition of the Church. These are questions addressed in the statement of Evangelicals and Catholics Together, " Your Word Is Truth ." In that statement, it is underscored that sola scriptura does not mean nuda scriptura ¯Scripture divorced from the living community of faith by which it was produced and is interpreted under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit whom Jesus promised to the Church. Over on Pontifications, Fr. Al Kimel has a very nice treatment of the irony evident in ETS’s struggling to define the tradition by which to interpret authoritatively the autograph (which we do have) of its founding mission statement. One interpretation of that statement is quite blunt: It was designed to exclude Catholics from membership in ETS. Kimel includes a fine reflection by the Lutheran theologian Robert Jenson on the confusions that have attended Protestant efforts to pit sola scriptura against the lived experience of Christian community through the centuries. As it happens, the Beckwith controversy exploded in the week that Catholics observe the feast of the apostles Philip and James. In the Office of Readings for that day, we have an excerpt from the second-century Tertullian dealing with the issues engaged. Tertullian wrote:
Every family has to be traced back to its origins. That is why we can say that all these great churches constitute that one original Church of the apostles; for it is from them that they all come. They are all primitive, all apostolic, because they are all one. They bear witness to this unity by the peace in which they all live, the brotherhood that is their name, the fellowship to which they are pledged. The principle on which these associations are based is common tradition by which they share the same sacramental bond. The only way in which we can prove what the apostles taught¯that is to say, what Christ revealed to them¯is through those same churches. They were founded by the apostles themselves, who first preached to them by what is called the living voice and later by means of letters.We can be sure that neither in their living voice nor in their letters did the apostles preach sola scriptura as ETS understands that phrase, since their preaching long precedes the formation and canonization of what we call the New Testament. (St. Athanasius in his Festal Letter of A.D. 367 was the first to name the twenty-seven books of the New Testament as canonical.) The Church is not a community constituted by a book called the Bible. The Church is the extension through time of the People of Israel living in fidelity to God’s revelation of himself in Jesus the Christ under the direction of the apostolic authority that he established. That is the community that, guided by the Holy Spirit, both produced and holds itself accountable to the inspired Scriptures of Old and New Testaments. To put it differently, the question is not Scripture and tradition. The Scriptures are that part of the tradition that the Church recognizes as uniquely authoritative. Of course I am grateful that Frank Beckwith has returned to full communion with the Catholic Church. And I pray that the debate prompted by his action will lead the members of ETS and other Christians, including Catholics, to a fuller understanding of what it means to affirm that "Your Word Is Truth."