Editor’s note: I’ve known Mark Shea for many years, having first met him in person about ten years ago in Seattle, just four hours up the road from where I live. A few years ago, I interviewed Mark about his Marian trilogy, published by Catholic Answers. As I thought of interviewing Mark about the revised and expanded edition of his book, By What Authority? An Evangelical Discovers Catholic Tradition (Ignatius Press, 2013), I thought, “I need someone who can really get into Mark’s head. Someone who knows him better than most and who can ask the difficult, even awkward, questions.” And then I realized who would be the perfect interviewer. What follows is the exclusive interview of Mark Shea by Mark Shea, or of “Mark” by “Shea” for those who cannot tell them apart.
There is only one drawback for me to this interview: having to interview that guy, whose faults are particularly well-known to me. I grew up with him and there are plenty of stories I could tell you. He is a guy who has spent more time eluding my salient criticisms and critiques—sometimes living in denial, sometimes promising reform and then skipping out when the kitchen got too hot, always slow to serious action—than anybody else on planet Earth. Abrasive, opinionated, quick to see the speck in the eyes of others and slow to see the log in his own eye. He has a juvenile sense of humor and a thin skin. He is notoriously prideful and childishly vain. He is, shall we say, “portly” and not what you would call a champion at self-restraint. He has a talent for making enemies and a certain listlessness when it comes to attending to the work that he needs to be doing. Nor does he have any particular academic training beyond his tepid BA in English.
Essentially, he has a big mouth and a bunch of opinions and yet somehow managed to persuade a lot of people that saying them aloud is sufficient reason for them to listen to him. There are any number of people who can’t stand him, me among them many days of the week, and I have to restrain myself from letting my hostility to him bleed into the conversation. However, I think I mostly managed it.
Mark: So. There are fifty jillion conversion stories out there. Why would you ever imagine yours is so important that it needs to be read by anybody else? What’s the big deal about By What Authority? and why does it matter that you just revised and expanded the book when it has been in print since 1996?
Shea: Well, when you put it that way, I didn’t really think of the book as a conversion story, but as an argument: one conducted (in my head) with friends from my old church and constructed—very consciously—along the lines of a sort of mystery story.
Mark: Not a conversion story?
Shea: No. Not really. By What Authority? deals with a single thread out of a whole tapestry of thoughts, emotions, struggles and problems I grappled with as I was coming into the Church. I have never really written up what I would call my conversion story, though I have told it and you can hear that story (if you like) by getting hold of a four-CD set that I did ages ago for St. Joseph Communications called Making Senses Out of Scripture. Three of the CDs are a seminar I did on my book of the same name. The fourth is my conversion story. The question of Sacred Tradition and the canon of scripture plays a role in that story, but lots of other things come in as well.
Mark: So are you saying that By What Authority? is not really giving the reason you converted?
Shea: No. I’m saying By What Authority? is describing only one of the reasons I converted. People seldom convert for a single reason, at least not when the conversion is a healthy one. Rather, you come to see that, as von Balthasar put it, “Truth is symphonic”. It’s not just that you realize that Sacred Tradition points toward the Church, or that Scripture points toward the Real Presence, or that the Magisterium and papacy make sense, or that Marian devotion is obviously apostolic and ancient. It’s that, eventually, everything starts pointing to the Faith like the spokes on a wheel. You reach a tipping point at which you realize the question is no longer “Why be Catholic?” but is rather “Why not be Catholic?” You start to realize the Church doesn’t tell this truth and that truth, but that it is a divinely constituted truth-telling thing, even when its member may be liars and scoundrels. And you are hard put to it to find good rebuttals to its teachings.
Mark: So you decided to grace the Church with your presence?
Shea: I suppose, in my worst moments, that’s exactly what I think. I’m as guilty as anybody of thinking that I racked up a pretty good credit balance with God by condescending to be converted. I know, for instance, that I can sometimes get frustrated when people read something I have written which, to me, is crystal clear and obvious and logical—and they just don’t get it. It’s easy for me to fall into the notion that the reason they don’t see it is because of willful blindness.
But one of the things By What Authority? reminded me of as I looked over the argument of the book in the revision process is that all the objection to Church teaching put forward there are things I myself thought at one time and only saw my way past with a great deal of labor and, most of all, the grace of God. It’s a tonic to me to remember that lots of people are struggling with this stuff honestly and just because it’s tough to see past sola scriptura at first doesn’t mean there is any sin involved.
Mark: What’s By What Authority? about?
Shea: By What Authority? is an explanation of what the Church means by “Sacred Tradition” written in user-friendly language. It is written for Evangelical Protestants and the Catholics who love them. The core argument of the book centers on the question “How do you know what books belong in the Bible?” and the centerpiece of that argument is basically found in Chapter 6, where we discover that the reality is not that Catholics believe in Sacred Tradition and Evangelicals don’t. Rather, it is that Catholics believe in Sacred Tradition and know that they do, while Evangelicals believe in Sacred Tradition and don’t know that they do. The central image I use to try and get at this is that of Light and Lens. Scripture is the Light, but it is often a fuzzy and blurry light. We require a Lens in order to focus that Light. The lens is Sacred Tradition and both Catholics and Evangelicals make use of that Lens all the time—but for Evangelicals, it’s often unconscious.
Shea: Sure. In addition to telling us which books belong in the Bible (the Table of Contents is, after all, not inspired), Sacred Tradition tells us things like “monogamy is the one and only way to conceive of Christian marriage”, “abortion is a sin”, “God is a Trinity”, and “revelation closed with the death of the apostles”. None of those things are clear from Scripture alone. And some of those things are less clear in Scripture than, say, the doctrine that Mary is the Mother of God or the Church’s teaching on Purgatory. I don’t go into it in the book, but you could likewise point out that Scripture does not tell us how to get married (there are examples ranging from “kill all the males in a town and cart the women off as captives” to “take over the harem of your father” that I doubt Focus on the Family or Rome would smile on, but only Rome can explain why these “biblical” examples are not our model as Christians). Nor does Scripture have anything explicit to tell us about why communion is supposed to be a regular sacrament but foot-washing (another ritualistic act performed at the Last Supper) is not.
Bottom line: what matters as much as the bare text of Scripture alone is the way in which the Scripture was read in the context of the life of the Church. The simple fact is, the Church handed down both the book and the way of understanding the book. And so, for instance, it celebrated “the breaking of the bread” regularly, but not the washing of feet. The book was read in light of the rule “Lex orandi, lex credendi”—the way we worship is the way we believe. In weighing doctrinal questions, the Bible was not on the Judge’s Bench, but in the Witness Box. So when the Church came to deliberate, say, the question of whether Gentiles needed to be circumcised (Acts 15), they did not do a topical Bible study on circumcision. Instead they looked at apostolic Tradition, arrived at a decision (“We are saved by grace through faith in the Lord Jesus Christ”) and then said, “Hey! Look! The Scriptures agree with us!”). Then they send out a letter with the daring statement, “It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us…”
Mark: Yeah. That is pretty daring. And some would say that your crediting of a narrative like that is an example of the fact that you are—not to put too fine a point on it—a boot-licking Vatican toady. Protestant critics have been saying that for years. But in the past year or so, even many Catholics are starting to say the same, given what your critics call your “craven defenses of the Novus Ordo Church”. Many wonder how you can you possibly credit the reliability of Sacred Tradition as it is embodied by the Magisterium of a post-conciliar Church that has lost all its moral authority?
Shea: Funny you should ask. Because that goes right to the heart of one of the two reasons I wanted to revise and expand the book.
Mark: Two reasons?
Shea: Yeah. The first one is the inexplicable popularity of The Da Vinci Code, which came out a few years after my book was published and which millions of presumably educated people took seriously as “impeccable research” on the origins of the Christian faith. Not coincidently, the reason they did so was, in part, due to the second reason: the fact that the Church’s witness went into eclipse due to the priest scandal at just the moment Da Vinci was published.
Mark: And rightly so. How can you make excuses for those horrors or the bishops who covered them up, help facilitate them, and in some cases, even committed them?
Shea: I don’t. If you ask me, I would say that the question of what to do with criminally negligent bishops and priests is straightforward: jail them. But that has nothing to do with the question of the validity of Sacred Tradition any more than the denial of Peter, the betrayal of Judas and the cowardice of the apostles does.
Saying that the sins of bishops discredit infallibility is like saying a shipwreck discredits lifeboats. Just as the lifeboat presumes shipwreck, so the Spirit’s gift of infallibility presumes that the Church is composed of dunderheads and sinners. I sometimes suspect that the reason Jesus picked the disciples he did—and especially Peter—was to highlight the fact that it is his Spirit, not the personal sanctity or genius of his followers, that holds the whole shooting works together.
This means that there was never a Golden Age of Purity. The Church was, from the get-go, full of screw-ups guided by God. Peter stands a sort of archetype of this. He has the peculiar habit of formulating perfect statements of Christian doctrine and then immediately failing to live by that doctrine. He goes from saying “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” to being told “Out of my sight, Satan!” in record time.
In short, the truth is that the Church’s teaching does not depend on the “moral authority” of any member of the Church, but on the Holy Spirit who is the soul of the Church. The apostles lost their “moral authority” the moment they ran off into the night on Holy Thursday. Their successors the bishops—and quite frankly every follower of Jesus since (except Mary)—has likewise never had any “moral authority” to lose. Jesus did not die for people with moral authority. We are a people to whom Jesus made two solemn promises of his presence and the Spirit’s guidance that depend entirely on him, not on us. That, and not the genius and goodness of the Church’s teachers, is why the Tradition is reliable. Indeed, the paradox is that our sinfulness only demonstrates the sturdiness of the Spirit’s guidance of the Church. As Hilaire Belloc said, the Catholic Church is “an institute run with such knavish imbecility that if it were not the work of God it would not last a fortnight.”
Mark: And when it comes to knavish imbecility, you ought to know.
Shea: None better!