Prescription, Theological Use of
PRESCRIPTION, THEOLOGICAL USE OF
Prescription is a legal term to express one way of acquiring property or extinguishing a debt. Natural law, as well as civil law, acknowledges that the public good requires that long possession of property or long failure by a creditor to claim a debt should be a title to property or a release from liability for debt. Moral theology accepts this position, stipulating that unless the civil law's ruling be effective in conscience, the public good would suffer harm. However, it imposes the conditions that the civil law's requirements be observed and that the beneficiary should throughout have good faith, which means that a person who knows that a property belongs to another or who culpably fails to pay a debt cannot by prescription acquire the property or be released from liability.
Tertullian (De praescriptione haereticorum, c. a.d. 200) transferred this juridical notion to theology, in order to prove that the teaching that the Church was its rightful possession from the time of the Apostles, from whom it received the teaching. Since his time this argument has been regularly used by theologians.
The nature of the argument is seen from its use. As in law, legitimate possession can be proved either by direct documentary evidence or by prescription, so too in theology Church teaching may similarly be proved. As in law, prescription is a legal title founded on long possession, so too in theology the long possession of a doctrine by the Church may give the Church a title to that teaching, i.e., be a proof that the teaching is an original possession of the Church.
The strict argument from tradition is that in which evidence is drawn from the records of tradition that a particular teaching has been faithfully transmitted from the Apostles to subsequent Christians. It is a difficult and long process, and sometimes impossible in that records going back right to the Apostles may be lacking. In these circumstances, the proof by prescription may be used. Since the early Church was extremely tenacious of tradition, novelty being strongly resisted, this argument gains in power. It may be propounded either as a purely historical argument or as a theological one. As a theological argument, the Church's infallibility is invoked to bring about, the conclusion that what the Church has long held to be revealed must be revealed—otherwise the Church would be in error. As a historical argument, the inherent improbability of a large number of people over a long period coinciding in the same error is invoked. In either case, the conclusion is the same: the undisturbed possession by the Church over a long period of some doctrine is a sure, though indirect, proof of its truth.
As an example, the belief in seven Sacraments may be cited. Although it was 1150 before the strict definition of a Sacrament was given, and that only in the West, nevertheless the Eastern Churches not in communion with Rome—the Orthodox who broke with the West in 1054 and the Nestorians and Monophysites who broke away in 431 and 451—all hold the belief in seven Sacraments and have done so over a long period. This fact alone proves the Church's prescriptive right to this teaching.
Bibliography: r. laprat, Dictionnaire de théologie catholique, ed. a. vacant et al., 15 v. (Paris 1903–50) 13.1:116–131. Sacrae theologiae summa, ed. fathers of the society of jesus, theological faculties in spain, 4 v. Bibliotheca auctores cristianos (Madrid 1945— ) 1:803–804. a. c. cotter, Theologia fundamentalis (2d ed. Weston, Mass. 1947).