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Archive Ecclesiastical Polity Reformed Irenicism Steven Wedgeworth

The Leadership of the Catholic Church: Now vs. Then

In the wake of the latest round of sexual abuse scandals in the Roman Catholic Church, I would like to invite all Christians and serious moral thinkers to leave that ecclesiastical institution. Many sincere members of that church have confessed that they no longer trust their pastors and their bishops. Many have even said that they have no faith in the institution. Yet they do not leave because they cannot leave. In their minds, the Roman Catholic Church is the church that Jesus founded. It is the one true church, and a person cannot leave that church without leaving the Christian faith itself.

But what if the Roman Catholic Church is not the church that Jesus founded? What if it is neither the church we see in the New Testament, nor the Christian Church that existed in the 2nd and 3rd centuries?

In order to answer this question, I will compare what Rome dogmatically claims about the way the church was founded, and its precise hierarchical jurisdiction, with the church of the New Testament and the first three centuries. I will demonstrate that Rome claims Jesus founded a particular kind of episcopal church with Peter as the singular head. All other clergy descend through him and his successors, the bishops of Rome. Indeed, the Roman Catholic Church claims that the bishop of Rome has an ultimate, universal, and immediate leadership over all congregations. But this is not what we see in the actual history of the church, neither in the New Testament nor the post-apostolic fathers. What we do find actually precludes some of Rome’s key claims and thus demonstrates that Rome has been in error about the headship of the church for many centuries.

Quite simply, if Rome is wrong about how the Christian Church was founded and who governed it, then Roman Catholicism as such is not what it claims to be. Its other claims, especially its anathemas against dissenters, are thus shown to be unjust (and frankly divisive and sinful). And if Rome is not the only true church, then individual Christians owe no unique and unquestioning loyalty to its clergy and need not submit to its larger hierarchical claims.

In short, if Rome isn’t who she says she is, then individual members are free to measure the Roman Catholic Church by standards of fairness and biblical fidelity. They do not need to submit their consciences to its governance and can attend other Christians churches which they deem to be faithful.

Isn’t It Wrong To Be Having This Discussion Right Now?

At this point, many people will object to writing a polemical and apologetical essay on this topic at this time. They will say that it is insensitive and opportunistic. They will say that it is a distraction from the question of sexual abuse. We can even imagine calls for solidarity, for conservative Christians of all varieties to ally against progressive elements within their bureaucracies or for faithful lay persons of all religions to join together in calls for ecclesiastical transparency and legal protections.

To these protests, we can give a number of responses. There is no credible way to blame the current crisis of sexual abuse on progressive or liberal catholics. Pope Benedict XVI is himself implicated by Archbishop Vigano’s sensational testimony. Indeed, as further reporting seems to indicate, any disciplinary actions on Cardinal McCarrick were informal and private. Benedict appears to have been less than competent in his own administration, and his reputation was hardly unimpeachable prior to this latest round of accusations. A commitment to keeping up appearances, by both conservatives and liberals, has actually been a major enabler of abuse.

Additionally, the Roman Catholic Church has been covering up sexual abuse by its clerics and bishops for a very long time now. Our current moment isn’t all that new at all. As Hillsdale’s Paul Rahe, himself a catholic, explains, Catholicism’s sexual abuse crisis is an international one that has been going on for nearly a century. As early as 1985, Fr. Thomas Doyle presented a thorough report on the state of the problem and called for practical responses and new protocols. He was ignored. We are not simply inhabiting a time immediately after a painful revelation. We are in the time much later than that, after decades of pain, disappointment, and even despair. Parallel crimes have been uncovered in Mexico, Chile, Argentina, Honduras, Ireland, Germany, Australia, and many more countries.

But most importantly, the Roman Catholic Church’s current problems are directly connected to its spiritual claims. Roman Catholic clergy don’t engage in sexual abuse because they are Roman Catholic. They do, however, cover for one another and refuse to properly report their clergy to civil authorities because of the nature of the Roman Catholic ministry. Note well, Roman Catholicism is not the only church or network that has had sexual abuse scandals. Protestants of many varieties, including Reformed and Evangelical ones, have also had cases of sexual abuse, even among their clergy. However, what makes Rome different is that it makes certain absolute claims about itself and its relationship to the rest of society. It claims that Jesus Himself gave the bishop of Rome both spiritual and temporal power, and that Jesus set the spiritual power over the temporal power. Rome has a policy, going all the way back to Thomas Beckett, of rejecting civil claims over its clergy, even in the case of criminal charges. More than this, the Roman Catholic Church requires all of its laity to be subordinate to the clergy. Indeed, saving grace itself is itself mediated through this clergy. These claims are relevant both as to why Rome prefers to cover for its clergy and to why individual catholics do not feel like they have the option to leave an abusive and dangerous church.

Among other things, Rome’s ecclesiology prevents any attempt at full transparency or accountability. As Massimo Faggioli has pointed out, quite correctly, that to try to force the pope’s resignation goes against canon law. This is no new ideology. As early as the 12th century, Roman jurists were declaring that “he who is in a position of judge of all is to be judged by no one.” This was reaffirmed by the First Vatican Council which states, “The sentence of the apostolic see (than which there is no higher authority) is not subject to revision by anyone, nor may anyone lawfully pass judgment thereupon” (Session 4, Chapter 3, Point 8).

Rome also teaches that the laity should not be involved in the governance of the church. Writing in 1906, Pope Pius X also re-asserted that the laity are not to resist the governance of the clergy:

the Church is essentially an unequal society, that is, a society comprising two categories of persons, the Pastors and the flock, those who occupy a rank in the different degrees of the hierarchy and the multitude of the faithful. So distinct are these categories that with the pastoral body only rests the necessary right and authority for promoting the end of the society and directing all its members towards that end; the one duty of the multitude is to allow themselves to be led, and, like a docile flock, to follow the Pastors. (Vehementer Nos)

Thus the “hierarchical,” “clerical,” and “ultramontane” approach church government is not some new corruption of Catholicism but is in fact received dogma. Therefore, the current situation within Roman Catholicism highlights one of its essential characteristics–can faithful Roman Catholics truly practice what their church has preached? The scandals are not exceptions to a rule but are rather extreme moments which test the rule at its core. The Roman Catholic Church’s own power holds priority over the temporal well-being of its members, to include their psychological, emotional, and physical safety.

Many pious and traditional Roman Catholics have admitted essentially this point. They simply cannot leave the Roman Catholic Church, even if the worst allegations all prove to be true. Their salvation depends upon it. With a mixture of confidence and despair, they rhetorically quote John 6, “Where else can we go?” And according to Roman Catholic theology, their point stands. On those terms, Jesus has confined His church to the clerical jurisdiction of the Bishop of Rome, and there is simply no appeal beyond it or, in the case of spiritual tyranny, escape from it. In order to gain salvation, they must “hate their life” (As the reasoning from an ecclesiastical reading of John 12:25 would have it), and this includes submitting to abuse from their own church.

This principle also applies to the lower orders of clergy. Theoretically they have less authority, but practically, they have the more pressing authority. The same men who are either themselves sexual predators or are covering for and enabling sexual predators are tasked with the care of souls. This is not merely a prudential and ministerial care. It is also a juridical one. The priests and bishops are the practical executors of the sacrament of reconciliation, which includes a prudential application of discipline and even justice. To be insubordinate to these, even in the case of extreme and existential threats, is to risk salvation itself. If one’s priest is an abuser, the victims must also go to him to receive the sacraments. And they cannot presume that their bishop would be a helpful or sympathetic source of appeals. Michael Brendan Dougherty expresses this dilemma precisely when he writes, “How much must God hate us to put the means of salvation in the hands of so many predators?”

It is not a cheap shot to use the sexual abuse crisis within Roman Catholicism to test its claims about itself and salvation. To the contrary, this crisis highlights exactly what is at stake with those claims. The papacy admits of no earthly accountability. Even if the worst of the latest chargers were proven true, it would be entirely inappropriate for a Roman Catholic to call for the pope to resign. It would also be impossible for a faithful Catholic to leave the Church without also forfeiting salvation. All of this is necessarily implied by the ecclesiastical claims of Roman Catholicism. These are the costs of such a religion.

But if these claims are not true, if Rome is not what she claims to be, then this is one of the greatest tragedies in human history. Hundreds of thousands of souls are being held in spiritual bondage. They are being done a grave injustice. They are being continually abused. For those of us who believe that Rome’s claims are false–and who believe that we can demonstrate this falsity–actual compassion compels us to speak out. We must be a good neighbor. We must love our Roman Catholic brothers as ourselves. How cowardly or uncaring would we have to be to remain silent?

Given the enormity of the Roman Catholic abuse scandals, it is just, reasonable, and loving to call individual catholics to truly investigate the claims of their church. If it is not what it claims to be, then it cannot sustain its high-stakes requirements upon the laity. If Rome is not the one true church, then it requires its clergy and its members to lie. If Rome is not the one true church, then it is presently requiring its members to risk both their spiritual and physical safety. They should immediately leave it, for their own sake and for the sake of their children. And if Rome is not the one true church, then all men of good will should want that truth to be known.

What Rome Actually Claims About the Definition of the Church

Many discussions about Roman Catholicism allow contested claims to stand on a general level. We are told that Catholics believe in priests, bishops, and apostolic succession. The church fathers of the first six hundred years of Christianity are then brought in for support of these concepts and categories. But this is already a mistaken approach. You see, Roman Catholicism does not simply claim that Jesus created a church governed by bishops who descend directly from the apostles. It claims that Jesus established a singular episcopacy through the Apostle Peter who then gave that monoepiscopal jurisdiction to the bishop of Rome. This jurisdiction extends over all other bishops and indeed to all particular churches. Roman Catholic dogmatic literature makes this clear.

Vatican I 

The first Vatican Council represents the fullest expression of Roman Catholic ecclesiology. It contains all of the major affirmations, and it holds any who reject those affirmations to be under anathema. For example, Vatican I states:

…the apostolic see and the Roman pontiff hold a world-wide primacy, and that the Roman pontiff is the successor of blessed Peter, the prince of the apostles, true vicar of Christ, head of the whole church and father and teacher of all christian people. To him, in blessed Peter, full power has been given by our lord Jesus Christ to tend, rule and govern the universal church. (Session 4, Chapter 3, Point 1)

Notice the particulars of the claim. Jesus actually gave this universal rule to Peter, and the Roman pontiff is the successor of Peter. Immediately prior to this paragraph and immediately following it, Vatican I maintains that this claim is an exegetical and historical fact, “supported by the clear witness of holy scripture, and adhering to the manifest and explicit decrees both of our predecessors the Roman pontiffs and of general councils…”

Certain implications directly follow from this fact:

Wherefore we teach and declare that, by divine ordinance, the Roman church possesses a pre-eminence of ordinary power over every other church, and that this jurisdictional power of the Roman pontiff is both episcopal and immediate. Both clergy and faithful, of whatever rite and dignity, both singly and collectively, are bound to submit to this power by the duty of hierarchical subordination and true obedience, and this not only in matters concerning faith and morals, but also in those which regard the discipline and government of the church throughout the world. (Session 4, Chapter 3, Point 2)

The Council is clear that this authority applies in both faith and morals, in teaching proclamations as well as decisions about government and discipline. Any appeal to a council over and against a pope is forbidden (4.3.8), and anyone who would reject the pope’s absolute plenary power in faith, morals, discipline, or government is placed under an anathema (4.3.9).

Current Catholic canon law also prescribes this sort of ecclesiastical identity. It says:

Can. 331 The bishop of the Roman Church, in whom continues the office given by the Lord uniquely to Peter, the first of the Apostles, and to be transmitted to his successors, is the head of the college of bishops, the Vicar of Christ, and the pastor of the universal Church on earth. By virtue of his office he possesses supreme, full, immediate, and universal ordinary power in the Church, which he is always able to exercise freely.

Can. 333 §1. By virtue of his office, the Roman Pontiff not only possesses power over the universal Church but also obtains the primacy of ordinary power over all particular churches and groups of them. Moreover, this primacy strengthens and protects the proper, ordinary, and immediate power which bishops possess in the particular churches entrusted to their care.

§2. In fulfilling the office of supreme pastor of the Church, the Roman Pontiff is always joined in communion with the other bishops and with the universal Church. He nevertheless has the right, according to the needs of the Church, to determine the manner, whether personal or collegial, of exercising this office.

§3. No appeal or recourse is permitted against a sentence or decree of the Roman Pontiff.

It is important to highlight a few points. The claims made are historical and factual. Jesus is said to have given this particular office to Peter who then became the first bishop of Rome and endued that episcopal seat with this authority. The bishop of Rome has full and absolute power over all particular churches and indeed over all Christians. He does not receive this authority from the other Christians, churches, or clerics. He is not their elected representative. Rather, he receives this authority directly from Christ and governs immediately over all churches and Christians. He may choose to use a collegium of bishops. He may choose not to. And his sentences and decrees are without appeal or recourse.

All of this is what Rome proclaims about the Church, and this is what Catholics must believe if they believe the Roman Catholic Church is the one true church, the church founded by Jesus Christ.

The History of The Roman Claim

Vatican I was not the first time these sorts of claims were made by the Roman Catholic Church. As early as the eleventh century, such ideas were being attached to the papacy. Dictatus Papae, often credited to Gregory VII, makes these assertions:

1 That the Roman church was founded by God alone.

2 That the Roman pontiff alone can with right be called universal.

4 That, in a council his legate, even if a lower grade, is above all bishops, and can pass sentence of deposition against them.

15 That he who is ordained by him may preside over another church, but may not hold a subordinate position; and that such a one may not receive a higher grade from any bishop.

18 That a sentence passed by him may be retracted by no one; and that he himself, alone of all, may retract it.

19 That he himself may be judged by no one.

Many contest the validity and authority of Dictatus Papae, and so it is important to point out that its claims are echoed by Gratian’s Decretals (with the important caveat that the decretals would seem to allow a pope to be judged in the  case of heresy, though later theologians are divided as to how this could actually work. Current Canon law precludes it: “Can. 1404 The First See is judged by no one.”).

The Fourth Lateran Council of 1215 maintained that all other churches are subordinate to Rome:

we decree, with the approval of this sacred universal synod, that after the Roman church, which through the Lord’s disposition has a primacy of ordinary power over all other churches inasmuch as it is the mother and mistress of all Christ’s faithful, the church of Constantinople shall have the first place, the church of Alexandria the second place, the church of Antioch the third place, and the church of Jerusalem the fourth place, each maintaining its own rank.

This was further expounded in 1302, when Unam Sanctam argued:

Therefore, of the one and only Church there is one body and one head, not two heads like a monster; that is, Christ and the Vicar of Christ, Peter and the successor of Peter, since the Lord speaking to Peter Himself said: ‘Feed my sheep‘ [Jn 21:17], meaning, my sheep in general, not these, nor those in particular, whence we understand that He entrusted all to him [Peter]. Therefore, if the Greeks or others should say that they are not confided to Peter and to his successors, they must confess not being the sheep of Christ, since Our Lord says in John ‘there is one sheepfold and one shepherd.’

Here we see an exegetical claim, that Jesus entrusted the governance of the entire church to Peter and his successors in John 21:17. This is important because it disallows any later claim that the Catholic Church could develop this sort of teaching. Unam Sanctam does not claim that the teaching was vaguely present in seed form, needing to be clarified and applied in a new way. It says its teaching comes directly from Jesus.

1439’s Council of Florence made this declaration:

We also define that the holy apostolic see and the Roman pontiff holds the primacy over the whole world and the Roman pontiff is the successor of blessed Peter prince of the apostles, and that he is the true vicar of Christ, the head of the whole church and the father and teacher of all Christians, and to him was committed in blessed Peter the full power of tending, ruling and governing the whole church, as is contained also in the acts of ecumenical councils and in the sacred canons.

Again, we see that the Roman bishop is given universal teaching and governing authority over the whole church (indeed, the whole world), and he receives this authority through Peter who received it from Christ.

The Council of Trent clarified that Roman Catholic clergy do not receive their authority from the laity and therefore their ordination and authority does not depend upon the consent of the laity:

Furthermore, the sacred and holy Synod teaches, that, in the ordination of bishops, priests, and of the other orders, neither the consent, nor vocation, nor authority, whether of the people, or of any civil power or magistrate whatsoever, is required in such wise as that, without this, the ordination is invalid (23rd Session, Chapter 4)

And also:

CANON VI.–If any one saith, that, in the Catholic Church there is not a hierarchy by divine ordination instituted, consisting of bishops, priests, and ministers; let him be anathema.

CANON VII.–If any one saith, that bishops are not superior to priests; or, that they have not the power of confirming and ordaining; or, that the power which they possess is common to them and to priests; or, that orders, conferred by them, without the consent, or vocation of the people, or of the secular power, are invalid; or, that those who have neither been rightly ordained, nor sent, by ecclesiastical and canonical power, but come from elsewhere, are lawful ministers of the word and of the sacraments; let him be anathema.

Again, the claim is made that the hierarchy of the Catholic Church came by divine ordination. Bishops are said to be superior to priests, and the validity of any ordination is said not to depend upon lay consent but upon the superior ecclesiastical power.

Thus the full definition of church government made by the First Vatican Council was already made in various ways between the eleventh and sixteenth centuries. It is plainly Roman Catholic dogma. It maintains that the hierarchical government of the church is monoepiscopal, descending from Jesus to Peter to the bishop of Rome and then to all other churches. This government is universal and absolute, and the bishop of Rome teaches and rules over all Christian churches immediately. No judgment may be made on him and no appeal may be made beyond him.

But how do these claims compare with the reality of the first few centuries of the Christian Church? Can these claims be corroborated by Scripture or by history? Do the facts of history show a contrary picture?

We will devote our next installment to that question.

By Steven Wedgeworth

Steven Wedgeworth is the associate pastor of Faith Presbyterian Church in Vancouver, British Columbia. He writes about theology, history, and political theory, and he has taught Jr. High and High School. He is the founder and general editor of The Calvinist International, an online journal of Christian Humanism and political theology, and a Director for the Davenant Institute.