On the Roman Catholick religion he said, “If you join the Papists externally, they will not interrogate you strictly as to your belief in their tenets. No reasoning Papist believes every article of their faith.

Boswell: A Life of Samuel Johnson

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.

-Theo Hobson: Against Hauerwas

Rev Wedgeworth’s Problem with “Squishy Converts”

Mr Wedgeworth is rather annoyed with what he calls “squishy converts” from Protestant denominations to higher church denominations. He thinks that they should not be pretend to be so “nice” about their former Protestant friends and fellow believers in Christ and that they should stridently affirm the anathemas of their new communion against their former church mates with all the zeal and insistence of a Dominican inquisitor (okay, that’s a bit of an exaggeration). Mr Wedgeworth puts it in the following terms:

…anyone who converts from an informed and self-aware Reformed church to Roman Catholicism or Eastern Orthodoxy needs to make strong and exclusive claims and why they had better really believe them. The act of joining a church which makes such claims is itself a profession of a kind of faith, and it bears direct and sober implications about the status of churches outside of their institutional jurisdiction. The various nice-guy converts who try to downplay all of this and say that it’s not that big a deal, or that nobody has to take a big criticism in all of this, are actually the least loving and least responsible of all.


To join the Roman Catholic Church…one must also believe that the substance of bread and wine are wholly removed from the eucharistic elements when the words of institution are spoken (Council of Trent, 13th Session, Declaration Concerning the Eucharist, Canon 2) and that anyone who denies this is anathema.

Why Squishy Converts are the Worse

(bold mine)

How to Papists should treat Protestants
How to Papists should treat Protestants

However, I do not share Mr Wedgeworth’s belief that Roman Catholic converts, or even Roman Catholics in general, must or have to believe or do anything which he lists out. I pointed this out on a friend’s link to the above post by arguing that most Roman Catholics do not believe every single niggardly proposition in every single piece of ecclesiastical document ever issued by their new communions. I argued that most of their clerics seldom police or examine the beliefs of their own converts anyway and excommunications are rare and also that there is a difference between believing in the positive theological content of their documents, e.g. justification comes by an infusion of grace, and believing in the anathemas that accompany them. I pointed out that there are interpretative tactics to allow the Roman Catholic to have their cake and eat it, e.g. such as saying that what is Magisterially binding about the Council of Trent are its “theological contents” and not the positivistic legal decrees or anathemas to do with a particular historical situation. The use of the division between what is “theological”, and thereby binding, and what is merely “historical” about an old church document is something I’ve seen being employed by Romanists themselves trying to make sense of Unam Sanctam.

I then subsequently realised that actually Mr Wedgeworth, and in general the people who agree with him, are actually operating on a different understanding of denominational obligation from me. It is this understanding of a denominational obligation, especially that of high church denominations, which will be the main focus of my note.

My main thesis is that basically whereas Mr Wedgeworth sees denominational obligations, what one “has to” or “must” believe or do, in idealational and deductive terms, that is, what propositions or actions are logically entailed by certain ecclesiastical documents, I see it more in the more realist terms of what propositions or actions which one is coercively obliged to believe in the face of an actual enacted threat of an excommunication or institutional censure.

In short, Mr Wedgeworth thinks that the high church believer “has to” believe or do such and such because that is the logical entailment of such and such documents, whereas I think that the high church believer “has to” believe or do such and such only because otherwise they will get excommunicated or deposed of. Thus in the absence of such living excommunicative patterns or censure, there is no “must” about it.

On Not Treating Roman Catholics like Protestants

I think the problem with Wedgeworth’s way of thinking about Roman Catholics is that he treats them like Protestants. I have taken to heart Theo Hobson’s rather extensive critiques against high church Protestantism and the “either-or” of contemporary theology which I’ve cited at the start of this note, that is, whether a church’s theology is anterior and prior to its living institutional apparatus or does it proceeds from it. Mr Wedgeworth is engaging high church denominations like he would a Protestant one. He assumes that their “theology exceeds their ecclesiology”, that they follow something on par to Luther’s dictum that the Word is prior to the Church, except in the case of the Roman Catholic, their theological system as prescribed by a certain select documents in the abstract, is prior to the actual living institutional action of their church.

While such an attitude is entirely reasonable with Protestants, it cannot be applied to Roman Catholics. Protestants of course believe that locus of the Faith is found in a biblical Word addressed to our conscience and reason which we grasp by faith alone. The Faith is not found in some realised institutional apparatus but in a living Kerygmatic address, a Word, or Message which could be discursively understood or reasoned. This is not so for the Roman Catholic where the Faith is precisely purely a function of the living action of a particular institution.The Church is “realised” or identified with a particular concrete institution. In short, nobody can reason their way into the Roman Catholic Faith or deduce it from certain ecclesiastical documents of their own selection. They know what their faith teaches by virtue of the present living action of their institutional apparatus.

Therefore we need to approach the Roman Catholic Church in more “realist” terms with an eye towards their actual living institutional action rather than “idealist” attempting to deduce or infer it from some historical or theological system. Their “musts” are not logical entailments but ecclesiastical coercions, based on the living action of their clerical corporation especially with regard to institutional censures and discipline.

Cardinal Edward Manning on the Priority of Listening over Inferring

The Roman Catholic attitude is best captured by Cardinal Edward Manning, the contemporary of Cardinal Newman. He expresses what I think are the actual attitudes and beliefs of the Roman Catholic Church in their rather unguarded moments.

Cardinal Henry Edward Manning: Archbishop Geoffrey Fisher
Cardinal Henry Edward Manning: Archbishop Geoffrey Fisher

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.

The Temporal Mission of the Holy Ghost

“I know what are revealed… not by retrospect but by listening”! Thus quite frankly, nobody knows what are the doctrines of the Roman Catholic by attempting to read the Council of Trent or any other historical church document for himself. He knows it by listening for the “enunciation of the faith by the living Church of this hour” which alone contains “the maximum, of evidence, both natural and supernatural, as to the facts and the contents of the original revelation.” The examination of history is NOT “his method of theological proof”. The reading of past documents does not determine the Roman Catholic faith. This point is buttressed further by another illuminating passage from 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.

(bold mine)

This point in bold could be further expanded, how can we possibly know what the past documents of the Roman Catholic Church means except through the Church? Only the present living voice and action of the Church “of this hour” alone can determine its meaning.

Conclusion: Realist Institutional Theology versus Idealist Deductive Theology

There is no doubt great historical and theological value in our examining the texts of past Roman Catholic documents, trying to determine their interpretation as well as teasing out the shape of their theology. We might even try to engage in the speculative task of trying to reconcile all their thousands upon thousands upon thousands of documents into some holistic coherent system or narrative, etc.

However we must ultimately not import our own Protestant way of doing theology into the Roman Catholic, or for the matter, any other high church denomination way of doing church. We must take their claims to having a “living Church”, that is, an actual living institutional apparatus, to help them settle their theology seriously. Ultimately their theology is not determined by a deductive conclusion but by an institutional fiat. It is not for us to attempt to use our methods of deduction and idealational systematisation to settle their own theology for them. It is therefore not for us to tell them what their documents “really” mean or what is the “true” Roman Catholic system of theology. We, as outsiders, can only observe their institutional and sociological facts, their patterns of institutional, clerical and lay actions and beliefs, and thereby make sense of their theology after these “on the ground” “living church” facts, in all its buzzing multifaceted complexity sometimes to the point of contradiction.

Thus in defence of “squishy converts”, as long as they remain in good standing in their new communions, are not excommunicated or censured, nobody, least of all a bunch of Protestants, can say that they are any less “Roman Catholic” than the most hardline believer in every single line in every single ecclesiastical document Roman Catholic.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *