…we declare, we proclaim, we define that it is absolutely necessary for salvation that every human creature be subject to the Roman Pontiff.
Pope Boniface VIII, Unam Sanctam
If the historical evidence of the Catholic Church for the stability of the faith in the See and the Successor of Peter be not sufficient to prove, as a fact of history, that the Christian Church has so held and taught, history is altogether a poor and slender foundation for the events and actions of the past, The pretentious historical criticism of these days has prevailed, and will prevail, to undermine the peace and the confidence, and even the faith of some. But the City seated on a hill is still there, high and out of reach. It cannot be hid, and is its own evidence, anterior to its history and independent of it. Its history is to be learned of itself.
To be perfectly clear, I dislike Roman Catholicism as a body of beliefs and theology, not Roman Catholics themselves. After my low church turn (of which you shall hear more later), I have long ceased to believe in any inherent convergence between members of a denomination and their “official” beliefs or -isms.
However, I feel compelled to give an account of why lately I have ceased to bait and criticise Evangelicals and have been producing quite a number of snarky commentary on Roman Catholic beliefs and practices. This pattern of writing does have roots in my personal history which I think would be good to set down in a post.
The High Church Phase
There was a time some years back when I was an extremely high church Anglo-Catholic. The label high church generally denotes a person who believes that the institutional and visible (liturgically and sacramentally) church and community plays a significant, if not total, role in the salvation and life of a Christian. I was not only read in the Anglo-Catholic tradition but influenced also by many “high church Protestantism” in vogue, i.e. Stanley Hauerwas, the cluster of theologies associated with N.T. Wright, the Federal Vision, etc.
The trouble of course was that I was an Anglo-Catholic in a predominantly low church Anglican diocese. “Baptist in robes” would be the appropriate epithet to describe the local Anglican clergy. They haboured most of the standard Evangelical and fundamentalist beliefs without much regard to liturgy and the sacramental life. There is a certain paradox in being high church and reverencing of one’s priests who are precisely undermining their own authority and their ministry.
To escape this dissonance, I began a Rome-ward drift (I wouldn’t really say “journey” because it wasn’t intentional or consciously willed, but more like a walk taken unconsciously and through many tiny actions rather than a single decisive moment). I read through the Catechism of the Catholic Church and some of Pope Benedict XVI’s writings and books. I accepted the apologetic (or rhetoric rather) about the patrum consensus, sacramental beauty, continuity of apostolic succession, etc.
But at the heart of it, I accepted the fact that Catholic faith cannot be an “intellectual” abstract or “invisible” thing but most be embodied in an actual concrete community and church which does practice what they preach. At least, that was the rhetoric.
Preludes to the Crisis
The problem was that even as I began to visit a lot of Roman parishes, the same problems which I suffered in Anglicanism seemed to be replayed in Rome. What I read about liturgical reverence and profound theology seems to be conspicuously absent in the actual “living church”. The liturgy was tacky and horrible compared to my Anglican services, and I encountered Roman priest who refused to admit that the Resurrection happened objectively and Roman catechists who openly disagreed with the Pope and wanted to go to a red light district to distribute condoms to prostitutes. The irony of me, an Anglican, dissuading this actual Roman from it was not lost on me.
However, I already had a framework to make sense of this, ironically once more provided by my Anglicanism. The “true living Church” was not to be found in the actual behaviour of their ecclesiastical officials and members but in their official teachings and stuff encoded in ecclesiastical documents and tomes. Thus, it doesn’t matter how they behaved as long as the “official system” works. This was what I told myself as an Anglo-Catholic when I see my priest preach low church stuff or speak in tongues or eviscerate the liturgy, as long as the 39 Articles and the Book of Common Prayer holds, all is well. But now on my Rome-ward path, I am merely transferring the exact same logic to the Catechism of the Catholic Church.
I finally took my first plunge when I signed up for an RCIA course, all the while uneasily habouring this dissonance in my mind. What is the point of swimming the Tiber when I arrive there there would exist the exact same problems between Creed and Deeds as where I am now? Is the Roman Church any “more” visible than the Anglican Church if the “true Church” is not to be identified with the actual empirical behaviour of their members but in a set of documents in the Vatican?
The Canonical Crisis
I think the first major event which halted my Romeward swim was when I read about Catholic annulment cases. I’ve always known that they existed but upon reading actual accounts of outraged husbands and wives, wrongly abandoned by their divorcing, opps, I mean annulling spouses for the most frivolous of justification (not “truly” intending to not use contraceptives, etc), furthermore egged and and encouraged by their priests to seek for an annulment even though their spouses wanted a reconciliation, I felt at first distressed that canon law can be so easily manipulated to get divorces.
But I only became really outraged when I read of faithful Catholics who have been wrongfully abandoned by their spouses and yet cannot commune or receive absolution, and have more or less been cut off from the entire ministry of the Church simply because they remarried and failed to get an annulment.
So I was thinking to myself, here we have some scheming Catholics who can, by a trick of canon law, get annulments and remain in good standing of the Church with access to the sacramental grace of the Church, and some can evem become deacons and priests, while we have other faithful Catholics who are cut off from the same sacramental grace simply because they can’t game the canon law system well enough.
Don’t forget, this is the Church which declares that submission to the Roman Pontiff is necessary for our salvation, “submission” of course simply meaning canonical obedience. So the conclusion inevitably has to be that your salvation and access to divine grace is fundamentally dependent upon your ability to manipulate canon law.
I think I must have felt the same thing as Luther did when he saw people paying their way to reduce purgatory points for themselves and their relatives. How can Christ’s economy of salvation, how can the free grace of God, be subjected to such financial and political manipulation? Is it plausible that distribution and reception of grace is not a matter of faith and truth but of legal formalities and technicalities?
When I told my Catholic friend about this, he replied that we must distinguish between the “external tribunal” and the “internal tribunal” where God truly knows what is in the Catholic’s heart and whether he is “truly” a Catholic and adhering to the Catholic faith.
But to my mind, this was absolutely absurd. What else was this “internal tribunal” where God alone knows the heart and decide who are true Catholics but the invisible Church of Protestantism? If indeed neither canonical obedience or institutional conformity constitutes the substance of the life of the Church, then what does it mean to say that the Church is “embodied” and “visible”, etc? Embodied where? Visible how? In the invisible hearts of “true” Catholics? In some musty tome or set of ecclesiastical documents issued from the Vatican and determined by a rather elaborate bureaucratic procedure?
The Theological Crisis: Either Truth or the Institution
Catholicism began in my mind to collapse simply into Protestantism with canon laws and chasubles. The “Visible Church” was not that visible after all, canonical obedience does not constitute the Catholic life, but this life remains hidden and can only be scrutinised by God. Their Catholic dogmas and depositum fidei are not embodied in their actual empirical members but in a set of documents managed by an elaborate bureaucratic machinery. The communion of saints began to diverge from the deposit of faith, the dispensation of Christ’s grace and his economy of salvation is subject to manipulation of canon laws and lawyerly tricks and technicalities.
But these reflections was crystallised into focus when I read Theo Hobson’s critiques of “high church Protestantism” and the other varieties of “ecclesiological fundamentalism”. Theo Hobson posed the following either-or in his essay “Against Hauerwas”
The most serious theological question of our time is whether theology exceeds ecclesiology. Can theology legitimately seek to stand outside of any community, any institution, in order to think Christianity through? If the attempt is futile, then authentic theology is that which is done in the service of an institution; its authenticity is a function of the intrinsic authority of a certain institution. This is the either-or of contemporary theology.
Therefore, I either believe that the Gospel truth was incarnate and fully realised in an empirical institution and that theology is nothing more than a rationalisation of this institution after the fact and that canonical polity was self-justifying, divine and the source of our justification, or, I believe that Truth is anterior to institutions and that the Word precedes ecclesiastical documents and Divine Justice above canon law.
I realised then that I could never believe that canon laws are the extensions of the divine will. I will never believe that a human bureaucracy mediated the depositum fidei or that the economy of salvation and grace was subject to legal manipulation. To be sure, there are good, prudential and pragmatic reasons for human institutions and organisations, but I realised that they could never rise to the level of divinity or pretend to be extensions of Christ’s will.
In accepting this, I not only ceased my Rome-ward march, all my high church beliefs died as well. Once I accepted that there was something much more fundamental to visible institutions, then I have effectively become a full-blown Protestant, the Truth, the Word precedes and stands above all ecclesiastical institutions and ordinances and it alone judges all. No institution is self-justifying but derives its legitimacy and life from the Word alone. In Luther’s own bracing words:
The Church has no power to make new divine promises, as some prate, who hold that what is decreed by the Church is of no less authority than what is decreed by God, since the Church is under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. But the Church owes its life to the word of promise through faith, and is nourished and preserved by this same word.That is to say, the promises of God make the Church, not the Church the promise of God. For the Word of God is incomparably superior to the Church, and in this Word the Church, being a creature, has nothing to decree, ordain or make, but only to be decreed, ordained and made. For who begets his own parent? Who first brings forth his own maker?
Martin Luther, The Babylonian Captivity of the Church: Ordination
Actual Facts versus Narratives
But what about all those things which the Roman apologist claims? The patrum consensus, the apostolic succession, authority of the ecumenical church councils, the Fathers, continuous tradition, etc?
It was at this time when I started reading Josh Strobeck otherwise known as the Fearsome Pirate, a Lutheran ex-seminarian. His blog discusses and cites extensively from the actual facts of the patristic fathers and the councils vindicating Protestant doctrines and refuting Catholic grand narratives. From a Papal Council declaring that the Scriptures are the foundation of the Church to the writings of St Thomas Aquinas teaching sola scriptura to the Blessed John Duns Scotus teaching forensic justification and the Protestant understanding of the Eucharistic Sacrifice, and even Pelagius himself teaching justification by faith alone, it is clear that all if not most of the Protestant doctrines have always been part of the Catholic Tradition.
Most importantly, he also points out past Catholic ecclesiastical documents as well demonstrating how many contemporary Roman doctrines were late innovations and completely different from the claims of Catholics of the past, from the Investiture Controversy in the 11th century contesting the Pope novel claims to be able to appoint bishops and rule the universal church to Unam Sanctam to the writings of Cardinal Bellarmine, it is clear that Roman Catholicism of today is nothing at all like the Catholicism of the patristics or even the medieval times.
But I think the most decisively break came when I read the works of the Eastern Orthodox theologian, Georges Florovsky, concerning the much vaunted “ecumenical councils” and “patrum consensus”:
Charismatic tradition is truly universal; in its fulness it embraces every kind of semper and ubique and unites all. But empirically it may not be accepted by all. At any rate we are not to prove the truth of Christianity by means of “universal consent,” per consensum omnium. In general, no consensus can prove truth. This would be a case of acute psychologism, and in theology there is even less place for it than in philosophy. On the contrary, truth is the measure by which we can evaluate the worth of “general opinion.” Catholic experience can be expressed even by the few, even by single confessors of faith; and this is quite sufficient. Strictly speaking, to be able to recognize and express catholic truth we need no ecumenical, universal assembly and vote; we even need no “Ecumenical Council.” The sacred dignity of the Council lies not in the number of members representing their Churches. A large “general” council may prove itself to be a “council of robbers” (latrocinium), or even of apostates. And the ecclesia sparsa often convicts it of its nullity by silent opposition. Numerus episcoporum does not solve the question. The historical and practical methods of recognizing sacred and catholic tradition can be many; that of assembling Ecumenical Councils is but one of them, and not the only one. This does not mean that it is unnecessary to convoke councils and conferences. But it may so happen that during the council the truth will be expressed by the minority. And what is still more important, the truth may be revealed even without a council. The opinions of the Fathers and of the ecumenical Doctors of the Church frequently have greater spiritual value and finality than the definitions of certain councils. And these opinions do not need to be verified and accepted by “universal consent.” On the contrary, it is they themselves who are the criterion and they who can prove. It is of this that the Church testifies in silent receptio. Decisive value resides in inner catholicity, not in empirical universality.
With that went every romantic narrative about general councils and the consensus of the fathers, etc. Learning the actual details of the six decade long Nicene disputes where councils anathemised each other and bishops excommunicated each other in the struggle for Nicene Orthodoxy laid to rest any notion of self-evident and self-justifying “ecumenical councils” which are only “ecumenical” after the fact based upon a retroactive reading.
The myth of tactile apostolic succession (the idea of a continuous laying on of hands in ordination) was dissolved when I read Hermann Sasse’s examination of the concept of apostolic succession where he points out that the succession to an office is not the same as a succession of consecrations. There was no evidence to believe that there was a “passing on” of a charismatic power via ordination rather than a mere appointment of someone to a preexisting office. Furthermore with regards to the Pope as the successor of St Peter, there is also much evidence among the Fathers to suggest that the “Rock” referred to by Christ refers not to an office but to St Peter’s Faith, and even if we accept that there is such a Petrine Office which gets passed on, there is no historical evidence that this Petrine Office is passed on to the Bishop of Rome. (The excellent Steven Wedgeworth has a much more concise and thorough discussion on apostolic succession here. For exegetical treatment of biblical passages to do with the laying on hands, I recommend Matthew Colvin’s treatment here.)
Conclusion: On Roman Catholics and Catholicism
After having read all these, I felt angry, betrayed and lied to. I believed the rhetoric which spoke of patrum consensus, a continuous uniform tradition and unchanging historical church. Instead what I got was a cacophony of contradictory voices, writings and even councils and decrees. The Romans, as much as the Protestants, are guilty of convenient selective reading of the Church Fathers, the Councils and tradition. The only difference however is that at least the Protestant is honest about what they are doing. The Protestant do claim that only the Scriptures alone are infallible and fathers and even councils have erred and do err.
On the other hand with rhetorical flourish the Roman appeals to their infallible Church. But when it comes to locating this infallible church, they fudge and dodge. As I wrote in another post pointing out how the Romans take the exact same attitude towards the past as Protestants:
…the “Church” which is supposedly infallible, the patrum consensus or sacred tradition which is supposedly a source of divine revelation, are entities which boundaries are constantly gerrymandered to suit the theological conclusions of their interlocutor. The Church is infallible, except when it is not, we believe the patrum consensus, but there is no consensus as to what they are. Rather than admit outright that councils, canonised theologians and Fathers can and have erred and have contradicted their present teachings, the high church advocate would rather take the challenger on a fantastic merry go round of trying to reconcile their writings and thoughts with their present claims and only when finally backed into a corner (which occurs only after the most tedious examination and arguments about their texts), they would then simply shrug and admit that they were fallible and wrong but their claims still hold!
But ultimately, I realised in the end that there was in fact four aspects to the Roman Catholic Church. There is an “official” reconstructed Roman Catholicism mostly based upon the Catechism, then there is the Vatican bureaucracy and system of canon laws which binds all Roman parishes and which is enforced somewhat inconsistently. There is the thousand upon thousands of ecclesiastical documents stretching all the way back to the early church which are selectively focused and discarded according to the needs of the present. Finally there are the ordinary Roman Catholics who more or less disregards the first three for most of their Catholic lives.
Thus, I can’t really get angry with most of the Roman Catholics who don’t really buy into the apologetic rhetoric anyway. But what really really irritates me is that the Roman Catholics themselves knows that their rhetoric about history is essentially a bluff!
This was what I discovered when I read through the writings of Cardinal Manning, a 19th century Roman Cardinal and contemporary or Cardinal Newman. With the rise of historical criticism, many Protestant historians and theologians pointed out that there was no evidence in the early church for many of the doctrines of the Roman Church which they have claimed to have been present in the Church right from the very start. While Cardinal Newman attempted to spin his “Theory of Development” to account for the discrepancy, Cardinal Manning with refreshing honesty simply admitted that history indeed cannot justify the Roman claims and denounced history itself! In his own bracing words:
The other objection I shall touch but briefly. It is often said that Catholics are arbitrary and positive even to provocation in perpetually affirming the indivisible unity and infallibility of the Church, the primacy of the Holy See, and the like, without regard to the difficulties of history, the facts of antiquity, and the divisions of Christendom. It is implied by this that these truths are not borne out by history and fact: that they are even irreconcilable with it: that they are no more than theories, pious opinions, assumptions, and therefore visionary and false.
We very frankly accept the issue. No Catholic would first take what our objectors call history, fact, antiquity and the like, and from them deduce his faith ; and for this reason, the faith was revealed and taught before history, fact or antiquity existed. These things are but the basis of his faith, nor is the examination of them his method of theological proof. The Church, which teaches him now by its perpetual living voice, taught the same faith before as yet the Church had a history or an antiquity. The rule and basis of faith to those who lived before either the history or antiquity of which we hear so much existed, is the rule and basis of our faith now.
But perhaps it may be asked: If you reject history and antiquity, how can you know what was revealed before, as you say, history and antiquity existed ? ‘I answer : The enunciation of the faith by the living Church of this hour, is the maximum, of evidence, both natural and supernatural, as to the fact and the contents of the original revelation. I know what are revealed there not by retrospect, but by listening.
Thus Cardinal Manning, out of most Roman theologians, seem to realise that the complexities of church history and writings cannot by itself bear the weight of the claims of the Roman Church, and in that light, he utterly denounces any attempt to ground the Roman faith upon history, antiquity or the past. Rather, the Roman faith is grounded simply upon the present voice of the living Church, whose announcement at each present moment exhaustively enunciates the entirety of the Roman faith regardless of what the church has written or said in the past.
So set against history and antiquity was Cardinal Manning that he even anathemises the appeal itself in the same work:
It was the charge of the Reformers that the Catholic doctrines were not primitive, and their pretension was to revert to antiquity. But the appeal to antiquity is both a treason and a heresy. It is a treason because it rejects the Divine voice of the Church at this hour, and a heresy because it denies that voice to be Divine. How can we know what antiquity was except through the Church ? No individual, no number of individuals can go back through eighteen hundred years to reach the doctrines of antiquity… I may say in strict truth that the Church has no antiquity. It rests upon its own supernatural and perpetual consciousness.
I felt like I had been the subject of a con. Even the Romans themselves knew that the historical evidence is not on their side and that the Roman faith is not based upon the testimony of history or the fathers or even a consensus of the church, but simply upon what some present day Vatican bureaucrat declares. And I very nearly bought into the con if not for the grace of God.
Right or wrong, it is for this reason that I often get irritated with Roman rhetoric of “the Infallible Church” or history or tradition or the fathers or patrum consensus or whatever. It is not merely because of the fact that those are false and cannot bear actual historical scrutiny. What really irritates me is that the Romans themselves knows it but merely adopt the rhetorical strategy of pretending otherwise until confronted with the actual facts, then they still simply hit you with the “Rock” of Peter and tell you to submit to whatever some present reconstructed system or retroactive reading of the past says.