The Three-Legged Stool

June 20, 2012

In today’s world with free access to a mix of information (sometimes factual and sometimes not) and opinion (private judgment), Catholics can easily be swayed into error and moral relativity on subjects that have been settled by God from the beginning.  We can’t get away from the fact that studying our Faith and living Christian is something we must do all our lives.  There isn’t a magic time when we know it all, and we are in grave danger of losing our souls if we ever do believe we know it all.

Back in 1981 a couple of New York advertising executives named Al Ries and Jack Trout wrote a marketing classic called: Positioning: The Battle for Your Mind. I thought it was brilliant back then and still consider it one of the best books ever on re-defining image in the marketplace.  If you’re old enough to remember when 7-UP called itself “the Un-Cola”, you’ll know what I mean.

A lot is going on in the Catholic Church today with many people using positioning and re-definition principles to undercut the Faith.  Or maybe I should say, people who call themselves Catholic but don’t accept the teachings of the Church loudly broadcast finagled phraseology to confuse people.  Members of the LCWR and “Nuns on the Bus” come immediately to mind, but we could just as well throw in Father Richard McBrien of Notre Dame University, the Dignity crowd, and the Call to Action people as well to name just a few.

We have a moral obligation to know our Faith and to pass it on, even if we’re not theologians, priests, bishops, or members of religious communities.  Fortunately, we can sit solidly on the three-legged stool and be at peace.  Those legs are: Sacred Scripture, Sacred Tradition, and the Magisterium. With them we can be assured that anything contrary to what is found in the Deposit of Faith is false and not of God.

Father John Hardon, S.J. defines Tradition in his Modern Catholic Dictionary as follows:

Tradition first means all of Divine Revelation, from the first dawn of human history to the end of the apostolic age, as passed on from one generation of believers to the next, and as preserved under divine guidance by the Church established by Christ.  Sacred Tradition more technically also means, within this transmitted revelation, that part of God’s revealed word which is not contained in Sacred Scripture.

In The Catholic Catechism: A Contemporary Catechism of the Teachings of the Catholic Church Father Hardon writes:

[Sacred] Tradition differs from [Sacred] Scripture.  Where the latter is a tangible product, contained in sacred books, the former is a living reality.  It is quite correct, in this light, to view the Bible [Sacred Scripture] as part of Sacred Tradition.

We know what the last living apostle told us in Jn. 21:25:

There are, however, many other things that Jesus did; but if every one of these should be written, not even the world itself, I think, could hold the books that would have to be written. Amen.

The logical conclusion to this would be that many apostolic teachings that don’t appear explicitly in Sacred Scripture are contained in Sacred Tradition, which is nonetheless biblically based.  Our doctrines on Purgatory and the perpetual virginity of the Blessed Mother come to mind and are not contrary to Sacred Scripture.  Moreover, Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition are interdependent.  Tinkering with one will mess up the other.

We have St. Paul’s words to the Thessalonians in 2 Thess. 2:15 to support the Church’s revealed Deposit of Faith coming from both the Bible and Tradition:

Stand firm and hold to the traditions which you were taught by us, either by word of mouth or by letter.

Because these two legs of the stool are interdependent and inspired by the Holy Spirit who descended upon the Apostles and Mary in the upper room on Pentecost, they cannot contradict each other, nor can they be contradicted by the third leg.  That leg is the Magisterium, the teaching authority of the Church.

The Magisterium, defined by Father Hardon is

The Church’s teaching authority, vested in the bishops, as successors of the Apostles, under the Roman Pontiff, as successor of St. Peter.  Also vested in the Pope as Vicar of Christ and the visible head of the Catholic Church.

The Extraordinary Magisterium is

The church’s teaching office exercised in a solemn way, as in formal declarations of the Pope or of ecumenical councils of bishops approved by the Pope. [This is how the Church gathered the inspired writings and gave the world the canon of the Bible in the Councils of Hippo (393), and Carthage (397 & 419).]  When the extraordinary magisterium takes the form of papal definitions or conciliar decisions binding on the consciences of all the faithful in matters of faith and morals, it is infallible.

The Ordinary Magisterium is

The teaching office of the hierarchy under the Pope, exercised normally, that is, through the regular means of instructing the faithful.  These means are all the usual channels of communication, whether written, spoken, or practical.  When the ordinary magisterium is also universal, that is, collectively intended for all the faithful, it is also infallible.

How do we know that the Church is right in her teachings on Faith and morals?  Because she teaches only that which she has received in Sacred Scripture and Tradition, that is, what she received from God. Jesus said in Luke 10:16,

He who hears you, hears me; he who rejects your rejects me, he who rejects me, rejects Him who sent me.

Logically, then, if Jesus is God and He is truth, which He is, and if He gave His teaching authority to the apostles, which He did, and if the teaching authority of the apostles was handed on by their laying on of the hands (ordination of priests), which they did, and if the Pope is the successor of St. Peter, which he is, then not only can the magisterium be relied on, the Church cannot teach anything contrary to Faith and morals as given in Scripture and Tradition.  For us to believe anything else is believing a lie.

St. Paul had more than a few frustrations in keeping his flock on track.  He said in 2 Timothy 4:3-4:

For there shall be a time, when they will not endure sound doctrine; but, according to their own desires, they will heap to themselves teachers, having itching ears: And will indeed turn away their hearing from the truth, but will be turned unto fables.

If we continually study our Faith sitting atop the three-legged stool, we will not be swayed by the tricks of the teachers of falsehoods in our midst.  We will not mistake a false magisterium for the real one, which hasn’t changed doctrine one iota in 2000 years.  Moreover, we will grow in the love of God and desire to follow His Word.  We will also suffer persecution for justice’ sake (Matt. 5: 10), follow in the footsteps of our Master, and seize heaven in the process.

Note: I studied Father Hardon’s Marian Catechist programs and highly recommend them for home study. I also bought his series of tapes and listened to them more than once as part of my journey to deeper understanding of the Faith.  His programs would make an excellent family project for adults and teens.  Father Hardon’s cause for beatification is advancing and I am very grateful to have found him back in the 1990s when I was told I was “too vertical” in my relationship with God and I was supposed to believe in a “Jesus of history” and a “Jesus of faith.”

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R. Now and forever!

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Wednesday, June 20th, 2012 Catholic Church, religion

6 Comments to The Three-Legged Stool

  1. We drink 7-up together/ she doesn’t cola anymore.

  2. Christian on June 23rd, 2012
  3. Wonderful post, Barb! This is an excellent theology lesson! I have brought up the image of the three legged store when debating with protestants.
    Ellen Gable Hrkach recently posted..Sunday Snippets – June 24

  4. Ellen Gable Hrkach on June 24th, 2012
  5. Well done! Thank you! I don’t think I knew about the 3 legged stool but it is a great way to explain things.

  6. Colleen on June 24th, 2012
  7. Wonderful. So clearly written and engaging and most of all – solid TRUTH. Thanks be to God!
    Nancy Shuman recently posted..Just What IS a Cloistered Heart?

  8. Nancy Shuman on July 1st, 2012
  9. This is a very interesting topic. I’ve read a little bit about it, but I’m not very well versed in the controversy. I will definitely have to read up on each sides issues in the future.

    Your posts give me a lot to think about
    Holly recently posted..Pay It Forward ~ July 2021

  10. Holly on July 2nd, 2012
  11. Holly, a really holy priest got up in the pulpit about ten years ago and said repeatedly, “Know your faith.” It impressed me a lot. I purchased a hard copy of the Catechism of the Catholic Church and found it to be very helpful as well as a stimulus for prayer. People in politics all have an agenda. It isn’t salvation. The Church’s agenda is salvation. I’m so glad you found this interesting and I hope helpful. Thanks for your wonderful “Pay it Forward” meme.

  12. barb on July 2nd, 2012


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