The Authority of Rome

You might have missed it, but Ben over at Politics for Catholics and I had what I consider to be a very interesting discussion on the question of authority within the Church and specifically the authority of the Bishop of Rome. This discussion took place in the comment section of my post on 185 Years of Anglo-Catholicism. Our discussion was frank but respectful and dare I say took place between two well-informed catholics (he might be skeptical the catholic claim on my part, but that is at the soul of the issue so it can certainly be excused). But in the end I have to agree with his closing remarks here:

I think both of us might benefit from a more in-depth examination of papal infallibility. I know I’m not educated enough in the subject to get much deeper. I am pretty sure the last time the pope spoke infallibly was in 1950. What I came to recognize in becoming Catholic was 1. There is a historical basis for the papacy and 2. There is a practical basis for the papacy. I’m willing to discuss those two aspects at greater length if you like. But how/when infallibility/dogma/doctrine takes place and the history of this development of papal authority seems outside the scope of this comment section and my poor little brain…

I find myself able to admit clearly that I believe in everything about the catholic church, those parts of which reside within the Roman Church, and to some degree the Anglican Church (certain within Anglo-Catholic traditions), and the Eastern Orthodox Church. However, specifically with the Roman Church, I find myself unable to accept the supremacy of the Pope and how that manifests in the infallibility of the Bishop of Rome on matters concerning faith and morals. I cited many reasons why I have doubted this particular doctrine as being suspect in the Editor’s Manifesto of this blog and as well in more detail in the aforementioned comment section with Ben. And Ben certainly brings up very valid points about authority and oneness of the church which I do not disagree with but I am able to separate catholicism as articulated in the Creeds and the marks of the church and this particular doctrine.

So this is call out of sorts. With an open mind I would like to know what you think about the doctrine of Papal infallibility. Bonus points if you read the comment thread in the aforementioned post and comment on any points raised by Ben or myself. Help us better understand the doctrine itself from the perspective of the Church and from outside as well, and if anything else your own personal opinion. Leave a comment below!

5 thoughts on “The Authority of Rome

  1. Interesting post! Especially to usher in the weekend. This is definitely high-level stuff y’all are discussing. Like you both, I’m just a layman but the majority of Christians are simple laymen who do not have the time for intense, scholarly, seminarian level studies. We simply do not have the time, and many of us do not have the mental capacity; it’s simply not the vocation for some to be intense scholars. But such a discussion among laymen could actually bring out more fruit since Christianity is for the common man as much as for the epic scholar. How does he think? What sorts of intellectual processes does he go through for making decisions about religion and theology?

    Ben’s two-point comment was a good summation, I think. There is 1) a historical basis of the papacy and 2) there is a practical basis for the papacy. It seems the natural development matured due to both factors.

    Clarifying note: When I use the word “Catholic” I intend it to mean Roman Catholic, since I do not hold to the Branch Theory.

    Here’s kind of how I see the development of the papacy. A newborn infant has a brain that is controlling the body, even though the body and brain itself isn’t fully aware of its influence. Only as time passes does the growing person start understanding the role of the head over the body. That’s somewhat akin to how I view the development of the papacy (along with all the normal disclaimers about how no analogy is perfect).

    The young Church had the Pope, even if neither it nor the Pope himself fully realize his role. Do we see a fully formulated Vatican I style theology of the papacy in the scriptures and traditions of the earliest centuries? No. Do we see seeds of it? I think there’s a strong case. Like the head of an infant that is “in charge” even though neither the head itself nor the body is fully aware of its role.

    Where are these seeds?

    In Scripture:
    -Peter was the only one given the keys of the kingdom, what strongly seems a typological fulfillment of Isaiah 22:20-25.
    -Peter is clearly the leader in the early church.
    -The lists of the disciples always put Peter first and when the disciples are grouped together Peter is still often named.
    -It was Peter that Satan wanted to sift like wheat and Jesus prayed for him so that he could strengthen his brethren.
    -It was to Peter that Jesus charged three times to tend and feed His sheep.
    -Peter oversaw the replacement of Judas Iscariot (the first apostolic succession?).
    -Peter preached the gospel at Pentecost.
    -Ananias and Sapphira did not lie to Peter but to the Holy Spirit.
    -Peter was given the vision that Gentiles would receive the gospel too.
    -Peter made the decision at the Council in Jerusalem in Acts 15.
    -It seems Peter’s approval was needed for Paul’s writings to be considered authoritative.

    Outside Scripture:

    One example is the one mentioned by Ben in the comment thread on the other post; the letter of Clement I to the Corinthians. This is certainly evidence, I think. G.K. Chesterton pointed out,

    “Those who maintain that Christianity was not a Church but a moral movement of idealists have been forced to push the period of its perversion or disappearance further and further back. A bishop of Rome writes claiming authority in the very lifetime of St. John the Evangelist; and it is described as the first papal aggression.”

    Chesterton, it seems, was referencing Anglican bishop J.B. Lightfoot who described Clement’s letter in exactly that way; “It may perhaps seem strange to describe this noble remonstrance as the first step towards papal aggression. And yet undoubtedly this is the case.”

    The Protestant historian of the early church, Phillip Schaff, said something akin to this as well.

    “The first example of the exercise of a sort of papal authority is found towards the close of the first century in the letter of the Roman bishop Clement (d. 102) to the bereaved and distracted church of Corinth…. The Roman church here, without being asked (as far as appears), gives advice, with superior administrative wisdom, to an important church in the East dispatches messengers to her, and exhorts her to order and unity in a tone of calm dignity and authority, as the organ of God and the Holy Spirit. This is all the more surprising if St. John, as is probable, was then still living in Ephesus, which was nearer to Corinth than Rome.”

    Here are two prominent non-Catholic historians who see Clements’s letter as a sort of papal exhortation and exercise.

    It seems Ignatius of Antioch did not feel qualified to tell the Roman Church what to do, even though he was authoritative over the other churches. His letter to them is more apologetic in tone. He called that church “worthy of God, worthy of honour, worthy of the highest happiness, worthy of praise, worthy of obtaining her every desire, worthy of being deemed holy, and which presides over love” and “Ye have never envied any one; ye have taught others” and “I do not, as Peter and Paul, issue commandments unto you.”

    Irenaeus said all churches must agree with the Roman Church because of its pre-eminent authority (Against Heresies).

    Again, these are not fully developed Vatican I style quotations, but we can see the seed of the acorn slowly emerging as an oak tree. The muscles of the newborn Church are slowing realizing the control from the head.

    I think this fits what John Henry Newman said in his “Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine”;

    “When the Church, then, was thrown upon her own resources, first local disturbances gave exercise to Bishops, and next ecumenical disturbances gave exercise to Popes; and whether communion with the Pope was necessary for Catholicity would not and could not be debated till a suspension of that communion had actually occurred. It is not a greater difficulty that St. Ignatius does not write to the Asian Greeks about Popes, than that St. Paul does not write to the Corinthians about Bishops. And it is a less difficulty that the Papal supremacy was not formally acknowledged in the second century, than that there was no formal acknowledgment on the part of the Church of the doctrine of the Holy Trinity till the fourth. No doctrine is defined till it is violated.

    And, in like manner, it was natural for Christians to direct their course in matters of doctrine by the guidance of mere floating, and, as it were, endemic tradition, while it was fresh and strong; but in proportion as it languished, or was broken in particular places, did it become necessary to fall back upon its special homes, first the Apostolic Sees, and then the See of St. Peter.”

    Monophysite Heresy and the Council of Chalcedon:

    Newman’s analysis of the Monophysite heresy is fascinating, as well. The heresy had all the right things going for it.

    “Such was the state of Eastern Christendom in the year 449; a heresy, appealing to the Fathers, to the Creed, and, above all, to Scripture, was by a general Council, professing to be Ecumenical, received as true in the person of its promulgator. If the East could determine a matter of faith independently of the West, certainly the Monophysite heresy was established as Apostolic truth in all its provinces from Macedonia to Egypt.”

    What stopped the heresy from being promulgated in council? Pope Leo the Great exercising his papal authority.

    “[The] Council, after its termination, addressed a letter to St. Leo; in it the Fathers acknowledge him as ‘constituted interpreter of the voice of Blessed Peter,’ (with an allusion to St. Peter’s Confession in Matthew xvi.), and speak of him as ‘the very one commissioned with the guardianship of the Vine by the Saviour.’.…the historical account of the Council is this, that a formula which the Creed did not contain, which the Fathers did not unanimously witness, and which some eminent Saints had almost in set terms opposed, which the whole East refused as a symbol, not once, but twice, patriarch by patriarch, metropolitan by metropolitan, first by the mouth of above a hundred, then by the mouth of above six hundred of its Bishops, and refused upon the grounds of its being an addition to the Creed, was forced upon the Council, not indeed as being such an addition, yet, on the other hand, not for subscription merely, but for acceptance as a definition of faith under the sanction of an anathema,—forced on the Council by the resolution of the Pope of the day, acting through his Legates and supported by the civil power.”

    Speaking as a plain layman, it is difficult for me to accept the Fourth Ecumenical Council as authoritative without also recognizing the authority of the Pope who exercised his will over said Council. If the Council of Chalcedon is legit, then so must papal authority, it appears. Without Leo, the Council would likely have promulgated heresy.

    Other Evidence?

    Eastern Orthodox Bishop Kallistos Ware in his book “The Orthodox Church” seems to unwittingly give evidence of these seeds of papal primacy and orthodoxy when he said, “…on the whole, during the first eight centuries of the Church’s history the Roman see was noted for the purity of its faith: other Patriarchates wavered during the great doctrinal disputes, but Rome for the most part stood firm. When hard pressed in the struggle against heretics, people felt that they could turn with confidence to the Pope. Not only the Bishop of Rome, but every bishop is appointed by God to be a teacher of the faith; yet because the see of Rome had in practice taught the faith with an outstanding loyalty to the truth, it was above all to Rome that everyone appealed for guidance in the early centuries of the Church.”

    If Rome was so pure in faith and doctrine for so long, when did it lose that purity and authority to guide? When someone disagreed with it? Well, that was all of the heresies! We now know they were heresies only because Rome proclaimed them so. If we had lived at the time we could easily have said much the same as people today; “Who does the Pope think he is?” (An interesting Old Testament example is Korah’s rebellion against Moses in Numbers 16 which sounds very much like those who disregard the Pope; “Why do you exalt yourselves above the assembly of the Lord?”)

    Conclusion for now:

    There’s obviously a lot more to be said, and more evidence that could be summoned, and this did not even delve into much on the practical side of the papacy. But this got long and I should probably end it. It’s at least a good start and introduction to where my mind is at and the sort of process I went through in my own conversion to Roman Catholicism.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you very much for taking what I am sure was a significant amount of time to write this comment! It was extremely thought provoking and addressed the points that Ben and I had raised during our discussion (so you get bonus points of course). You post really poked at my catholic soul and reminded me of a lot of concepts and ideas that I held close when I was a Roman Catholic, that I did not take into much considering during the discussion with Ben. I do not have the answers right now to respond to you, but (see my comment with Ben) I have set some time to speak to a Priest of mine and I am taking this issue and exploring it seriously. My intention is to bring notes from your comments with me to get some insight into what I am thinking and then I will reply. Chances are there will be a post about it so keep your eyes open.

      The part that kind of sent shivers down my spine when I read it this morning:

      “Such was the state of Eastern Christendom in the year 449; a heresy, appealing to the Fathers, to the Creed, and, above all, to Scripture, was by a general Council, professing to be Ecumenical, received as true in the person of its promulgator. If the East could determine a matter of faith independently of the West, certainly the Monophysite heresy was established as Apostolic truth in all its provinces from Macedonia to Egypt.”

      I am going to have to jump deeper in Cardinal Newman.

      Thank you very much for this. I cannot help but think that the Spirit is being moved throughout our discussion here for all of our sakes. I hope you have a blessed Sunday.

      Liked by 1 person

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