Hi. I received this question some time ago in the comments section and I’ve finally gotten around to answering it. I think it would be very instructive for everyone. What follows is the question and my response.
From Thomas: How much authority does church council have, from where does it derive that authority, and what do we do when Scripture and Church council appear to contradict? Certainly this is a question that Christians have wrestled with for centuries, and I would like to come to a better understanding of the subject.
From me: Hi Thomas! I’m so sorry that I’m only now responding to your question! First let me recommend two very good and thorough books on the topic that will do so much more for your understanding than what I might deliver here. The first is by Mark Shea, and is titled, “By What Authority?: An Evangelical Discovers Catholic Tradition,” and the second is by Richard R. Gaillardetz, and is titled, “By What Authority?: Primer on Scripture, the Magisterium, and the Sense of the Faithful.”
To your question, there is only one deposit of faith. Period. Catholics believe that the fullness of truth that God desired to make known to mankind was revealed in the life and teachings of Jesus Christ. Of course, those teachings/that truth was first transmitted by word of mouth, or what is referred to as the “oral proclamation,” (up to 30yrs after Jesus’ death) and eventually came to be written down (30-60yrs) to be used as a form of Catechesis for those who desired to follow Jesus. Those teachings about Jesus, and the letters written by others were eventually accepted (and some rejected) and then compiled into what we today refer to as the New Testament. Whether oral or written, it is all one deposit of faith. Naturally, then, councils do not contradict Scripture, as Scripture itself was born out of councils. Truth does not contradict truth. If I recall, the New Testament Canon was debated at the Council of Hippo in 393, Carthage in 397, and then finally approved by Pope Innocent in 405AD. Over the course of these years, books were debated, accepted, or rejected based upon their authorship, universality, and consistency with what was known to be true by the Catholic bishops and theologians at the council. For more about the books that were not chosen, see New Advent.org. This link will take you to both the Apocrapha of Jewish and of Christian origin. Apocrapha simply means, “outside the Canon,” as oppposed to the “canonical books” that were approved and make up the 73 books of the Old and New Testaments.
The Catholic Church’s claim is quite simple—we are not a Bible based church, but rather the Bible itself is anchored deeply within the Church. The Bible is ecclesial (churchical). Catholic theology cannot be “Bible based,” as that would assume that somehow Scripture preceded the Church and formed it. The opposite, of course, is true. Jesus formed the Church when he gathered those who would eventually become his herald and give witness to his resurrection. The Church, his herald and witness, shares the truth about Jesus and his teachings in every generation. This “passing on” of the teachings of Jesus is what we call tradition—from the Latin traditio, which literally means, “to hand on” or to “pass on.” A great example of this is found in 1COR 15:3-4 where St. Paul cites the Old Testament as evidence for what he has himself heard. He says, “For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that He was buried, that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures,…”
When there appears to be a conflict between Scripture and Tradition, then it is only a matter of appearance of conflict as a result of an improper rendering of either sacred tradition or sacred scripture. The magisterium, made up of the college of bishops in union with the pope, is the official interpreter and teacher of the deposit of faith.
So, all of that to say, the greatest weight in the Catholic Church’s teachings come out of Ecumenical Councils where the bishops around the world gather in union with the pope. That’s a big deal, and the teachings that come out of that gathering with regard to the truths of faith and morals are therefore binding on the Catholic Christian community.
Finally, (and this is from the heart, I don’t have any ideas what Jesus said, or even less by what he meant with what he said. I was not there. I didn’t hear it, and he never explained it to me. There is no such thing as uninterpreted Scripture. The Bible doesn’t SAY anything. You and I have to believe either our own or someone else’s interpretation and teaching about what it “says” and what it means. That’s as close as we can get. With all respect, I rely not on my own holiness and scholarship with regard to Scripture. I have to trust somebody. That’s why I’m Catholic today. I don’t know who’s ultimately “right” in regard to Jesus’ teachings in total or those found only in Scripture, but the Catholic Church has the most claim to be right. The Bible didn’t fall from the sky. It was compiled by Holy men who sought to preserve for each generation what they knew to be true about their Lord and savior, Jesus Christ. The successors of those men continue to teach and guide the Christian community today, and they are the Catholic bishops of the world led by the vicar of Christ on earth, the Pope.
Many great evangelists and teachers have appeared and blessed us with their amazing giftedness, holiness, knowledge, and wisdom—but none of them individually trumps the collective giftedness, holiness, knowledge, and wisdom of 2,000 years of bishops and popes in the Catholic Church. And so, Catholic Christian I remain today and forever.
To conclude, the place of Scripture in the Church is one of great weight and authority because it came out of councils—and all councils since have pointed to Sacred Scripture to stand as a witness to the truthfulness of their teaching. So, while the Catholic Church cannot be Bible-based, the Bible indeed stands witness in every generation to the teachings of the Church. For Catholics, it’s not Bible OR Tradition (councils, encyclicals, theologians, etc.), but rather Bible AND Tradition, as authoritatively interpreted by the Pope and the bishops in union with him. And of course, the authority of the Pope to guide and lead the Christian community derives from Jesus himself, when he, in the Gospel of Matthew 16:19, Jesus says to Peter, “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on Earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on Earth shall be loosed in heaven.” So, the authority to teach in the name of Jesus comes from Jesus himself, and the teachings of Jesus make up the deposit of faith–safeguarded by Jesus’ faithful women and men for two millennia.
Again, sorry so long delayed in my reply. I hope this helps.