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Sacred Scripture, Traditions, and the Magisterium

The continuing foofaraw over where President Obama was born is complicated by important issues of Constitutional interpretation. Ever since the famous case Marbury v. Madison, the country has accepted the Supreme Court as the official interpreter of the Constitution. The continuing jurisprudence of that august body interprets the section of the 14th Amendment to the Constitution on citizenship as granting that citizenship to all who are born or naturalized in the U.S.

All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.

The only problem with the wording above is that it leaves open to doubt whether the intention of Congress was to recognize the citizenship of all who were born in the U.S. prior to passage of the amendment, such as people of African ancestry who were born in the U.S., or whether the citizenship was to be automatically granted to anyone born here either before or after passage of the amendment. The main reasons this issue has great significance are (1) it applies to any child born here of parents who are here illegally and (2) as such, it is a privilege unprecedented in human history, and, furthermore, never again granted elsewhere.

The longstanding acceptance of the Marbury v. Madison ruling makes it, in effect, part of the sacred tradition of our country. Thus, the role of the Supreme Court in ruling on the constitutionality of law as well as the protection of citizens' rights is unassailable.

This issue, in theory, does not end there. It is possible for the Supreme Court to overturn this interpretation of the 14th Amendment, citing its unprecedented nature as well as the clear primary intent of Congress to legitimize the citizenship of those of African descent and born or naturalized here prior at the time of passage. In my humble opinion, this reversal is unlikely ever to take place. Many people would consider such a reversal to be a travesty of justice. Many other people would regard failure to reverse it as a travesty of justice. It will undoubtedly remain a bone of contention for many. Because of the President's circumstances, and because of the ongoing problem with unenforced immigration law, this has become a highly politicized issue.

We find such controversies in the interpretation of Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition. In Roman Catholicism, the definitive interpreter is defined in ¶ 100 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

The task of interpreting the Word of God authentically has been entrusted solely to the Magisterium of the Church, that is, to the Pope and to the bishops in communion with him.

The Pope, speaking or writing "ex cathedra" (i.e., "from the Chair" of Peter). The physical chair, of course, is not what is important. Rather it is whether the Pope makes a declaration with the intention of doing so officially and definitively as the successor to Peter. This power we call "papal infallibility" is analogous to the role of constitutional interpretation of the Supreme Court. It was only officially declared in Vatican Council I in 1870. The tradition of the Pope's supremacy in matters of interpretation, however, can be traced back to Jesus declaration to Peter in Matthew 16:19 that Jesus would give him the keys to the kingdom of heaven.

In addition, we can also find an important historical recognition of this supremacy in the Council of Chalcedon in the year 451, when Pope Leo I presented his position on the faith of the Church in what has come to be called "Leo's Tome." When Pope Leo read his statement for the first time at this council (having officially presented it for the first time at the 2nd Council of Ephesus that preceded it in 449), the bishops assembled declared with one voice, "Peter has spoken!" Thanks to Pope Leo's declaration, the Nicene Creed took nearly the final form that we recite today.

The bishops of the Church, in union with the Pope, issue infallible declarations in what are called dogmatic constitutions at ecumenical councils.

Whether an infallible declaration is made by the bishops in union with the Pope or whether it is made by the Pope, ex cathedra, no such declaration can ever be overturned. It is, as issued, declared to be infallible. It is possible to add to a previous interpretation by way of removing ambiguity, but no reversal is possible.

This is very different from the tradition of the Supreme Court. The Court has reversed itself several times. Such a reversal is possible in the finding of the Court of a right to abortion in Roe v. Wade and Doe v. Bolton. Most constitutional scholars will admit today that these cases were decided on pretty flimsy grounds. Indeed, the argument today is not about the validity of the original ruling in these cases. The argument is about whether it is truly "settled law" according to the Court's tradition of stare decisis, or respecting a prior Court's decision, however formulated. Naturally, this tradition was not followed in reversing Dred Scott v. Sandford.

The Church's sacred tradition of Petrine supremacy has protected it from the chaos that has taken over Protestant and, to a far lesser extent, Eastern Orthodox traditions. It has made it possible for the Church to grow and mature, meeting the challenges of the world while preserving the deposit of faith. There are, today, what we might call "Cafeteria Catholics," or people who believe whatever they feel like believing (like people who act according to their own personal interpretation of the U.S. Constitution, only worse). The full deposit of Catholic faith, however, is built solidly upon Christ. As Jesus, said, "Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away." [Cf. Luke 21:33.]

By contrast, the patrimony of our nation's founders is largely diluted from what it was, and the nation is in danger of losing it altogether. Indeed, if the pattern of human life from time immemorial is followed, then this too shall pass, though no one can say for sure when.

We defy augury; there's a special providence in the fall of a sparrow. If it be now, 'tis not to come; if it be not to come, it will be now; if it be not now, yet it will come: the readiness is all.

[Hamlet, Act V, Scene 2.]