Monday, May 02, 2005

Who speaks for Rome?

One reason that some “Evangelicals” convert to Rome is not that they were dissatisfied with Evangelical theology as such. Rather, they came to feel that the Evangelical church lacked the apparatus to conserve whatever was true in Evangelical theology. So, in a sense, they converted to Rome as a way to preserve their Evangelical identity, although that, of course, entailed some major theological readjustments along the way—so it’s rather like destroying the village to save it.

The most famous case is John Henry Newman. He started out as a Scots Presbyterian. But he couldn’t find religious certainty in Presbyterianism, so he converted to Anglicanism. But he couldn’t find certainty in Presbyterianism, so he converted to Anglo-Catholicism. But he couldn’t find certainty in Anglo-Catholicism, so he converted to Roman Catholicism. One wonders, had he lived another hundred years, whether this would have remained his final destination.

The offer of religious certainty is perhaps the leading argument put forward by Rome. Indeed, it was canonized a Vatican I, when that Council said the right of private judgment first led to the fragmentation of the Protestant movement, and later to the questioning of the Protestant rule of faith (sola Scriptura) itself (session 3).

So, to an outsider, Rome may seem to be the source of certainty. Yet there are gradations of authority in Catholic teaching. And you find cradle Catholics of every stripe and rank gaming the system. The magisterium excuses embarrassing magisterial positions of the past by either saying that these were merely expressions of the ordinary magisterium, and therefore fallible, or else expressions of the extraordinary magisterium, but subject to a renewed understanding in the progress of dogma.

For its part, the laity excuses itself from morally and intellectual confining magisterial policies by applying the same convenient criteria. For instance, many or most Catholics disregard Humanae Vitae and subsequent magisterial reassertions of the same on the grounds that this is not, after all, an ex cathedra pronouncement, up there with the Assumption of Mary, so it may be safely disregarded.

Not only is this a game played by both the laity and hierarchy, but liberal and conservative Catholics each game the system with equal dexterity. Conservative Catholics accuse liberal Catholics of flagrantly violating the church’s ban on abortion. Liberal Catholics counter by pointing out that, in the ramp up to the Iraq war, they were on the same side as John-Paul II while conservative Catholics were spouting Augustine and Aquinas and telling us that the Pope’s opinion on this question was merely a matter of prudential advice.

Now, as I’ve said, a number of “Evangelicals” convert to Rome for conservative reasons. For religious certainty.

But once inside they may be in for a rude awakening. They find that they are more conservative than many in the hierarchy. Yet when a Protestant apologist points this out to them, they do something very interesting. They begin to game the system, just like the cradle Catholics.

If you comment on the liberal slant of some official teaching, you may be greeted, at first blush, with a blanket denial--accompanied by the condescending claim that you just don’t understand. You don't know what you’re talking about!

Suppose, though, you begin to document your claim. If you quote a priest, you are told that this doesn’t count, because a priest is not a bishop. If you quote a bishop, you are told that this doesn’t count because a bishop is not a cardinal. If you quote a cardinal, you are told that this doesn’t count because a cardinal is not the Prefect. If you quote the Prefect, you are told that this doesn’t count because the Prefect is not the Pope. If you quote the Pope, you are told that this doesn’t count, because he was not speaking ex cathedra. This is only his private opinion. And if you quote an ecumenical council, you are told that this doesn’t count since it is subject to reinterpretation given the development of doctrine.

If you quote from a work which has received the Imprimatur, you are told that this doesn’t count since that is only a mid-level assurance that the work is orthodox, not that it is inerrant. If you quote from a member of the Biblical Pontifical Commission, appointed by the Pope, you are told that this doesn’t count since it does not guarantee magisterial approval for every detail.

And gaming the system is fair game, for Catholic theology does have the internal resources to justify these degrees of magisterial authority and permutations of historical understanding.

But look what has happened. The “Evangelical” convert to Rome is now defending his conversion by appeal to religious uncertainty. Due to the progress of dogma and gradations of authority, there is ever so much latitude for doubt that the Church of Rome is virtually indefinable and unfalsifiable.

The “Evangelical” had defended his conversion from Evangelicalism on the grounds that he could find no certainty in the Evangelical church. For that, he had to turn to Rome. But once inside, he defends his conversion to Rome on the grounds that almost no one can speak for Rome with sufficient authority or clarity to disprove the divine teaching office.

Not even the Pope speaks for Rome, except in the extreme rarity of an ex cathedra pronouncement. And even when the church speaks infallibly and irreformably, at an ecumenical council, Conciliar pronouncements are subject to interpretative revision in light of subsequent church history. So the “Evangelical” convert now defends his newly adopted church by withdrawing into the impregnable fortress of a universal agnosticism.

So we end up, once again, with a hybrid Catholic, a freak mutant who isn’t quite Catholic and who isn’t quite Protestant. When he’s answering an Evangelical, he honks his Catholic horn, but when he’s answering a fellow Catholic of a more liberal stripe, he toots his old Evangelical horn.

I’m afraid that “Evangelical” converts to Rome are living in a fools’ paradise. For even if Rome were the true church, they don’t hold themselves answerable to the magisterium. Their Catholicism is a period-piece, decorated with Victorian gingerbread.

Let us go back to Cardinal Newman, who is the common denominator in all of this. In his Anglo-Catholic days, he tried to establish his position by appeal to tradition. But this generated a conundrum. Where do you draw the line? What is the cut-off point? 2C? 3C? 4C? 5C? 6C?

He had to keep moving the goal post to get everything in he wanted and needed. But, of course, by pushing the goal-post ever further ahead, he was pushing into the primacy of Rome. So he simply gave up.

Now you might suppose that this would cause him to retrace his steps and return to his Evangelical roots. But, no, he decided to complete his apostasy, but come up with a whole new argument, based on the development of doctrine. This theory, which is all it is, or was—before Vatican II canonized it—is quite striking on several grounds:

1. The theory is very much an artifact of 19C intellectual currents, which marked a shift away from essentialist categories to organic metaphors and the primacy of the historical process—ascending to the Absolute. Marx, Darwin, and Hegel are just three of the best-known representatives of this more fluid and dialectical outlook.

And it was applied to Bible history before it was extended to church history. You find this in the evolutionary view of religion, applied by Baur and Wellhausen to the Old and New Testaments.

Newman’s historiography is a philosophy of history which is applied retrospectively, retroactively, and anachronistically, to church history.

2. And this, in turn, leads us to a central contradiction in his theory. For his theory of tradition is a theological innovation. This is not a traditional understanding of tradition. It is, rather, a novel understanding of tradition.

3. And the oxymoron gets even worse. For the traditional view of tradition was locked in at Trent, and reaffirmed at Vatican I. On this view, tradition is oral dominical tradition. It consists in the disciplina arcani which Christ passed on, orally and privately, to the Apostles. When, for example, Trent says that Christ instituted the seven sacraments (Session 7, canon 1), the Tridentine Fathers meant this quite literally. The seven sacraments were directly instituted by Christ.

Of course, you can’t find that in the NT. But, for them, that is not a problem since the justification lies in appeal to oral tradition, to the disciplina arcani.

So Newman, ironically enough, defended his conversion to Rome by redefining Catholic tradition. Indeed, by defining Catholic tradition contrary to Catholic tradition.

4. Yet this is not the supreme irony. The supreme irony is that Vatican II canonized his redefinition of Catholic tradition. This redefinition did not issue from a natural, internal evolution of thought. Rather, it was introduced into this new habitat by an outsider, a convert to Rome. And it only took root in Catholic soil by uprooting the native foliage.

5. There has always been a tension in the case for Catholicism. On the one hand, we used to be told that tradition could establish the claims of Rome. Appeal was made to the early church Fathers to prove the primacy of Rome. The appeal was, of course, one-sided, but at least some semblance of historical attestation was offered.

On the other hand, we were also told that the Church was the only authorized interpreter of Scripture and tradition alike. Yet if, indeed, the Church has the final word on its own historical authorities, then the appeal is viciously circular. But once we shift from early tradition to a living tradition, then all pretence of an external, independent standard is lost.

Absent an objective record to adjudicate the authenticity of rival claims, the theory of development introduces a highly unstable element into the mix. Only a divine teaching office could isolate and identify a licit development from an illicit development.

But where, then, is the evidence for the teaching office itself? Does true tradition establish the true church—or the true church true tradition?

And if, for the sake of argument, you have a divine teaching office, then you can dispense with tradition anyway. Let us take a concrete example of how this is supposed to work:


In this connection I would like to relate a small episode that I think can cast much light on the situation. Before Mary’s bodily Assumption into heaven was defined, all theological faculties in the world were consulted for their opinion. Our teachers’ answer was emphatically negative…”Tradition” was identified with what could be proved on the basis of texts. Altaner, the patrologist from Wurzburg…had proven in a scientifically persuasive manner that the doctrine of Mary’s bodily Assumption into haven was unknown before the 5C; this doctrine, therefore, he argued, could not belong to the “apostolic tradition. And this was his conclusion, which my teachers at Munich shared. This argument is compelling if you understand “tradition” strictly as the handing down of fixed formulas and texts…But if you conceive of “tradition” as the living process whereby the Holy Spirit introduces us to the fullness of truth and teaches us how to understand what previously we could still not grasp (cf. Jn 16:12-13), then subsequent “remembering” (cf. Jn 16:4, for instance) can come to recognize what it has not caught sight of previously and was already handed down in the original Word,” J. Ratzinger, Milestones (Ignatius, n.d.), 58-59.


There are several crippling flaws in Ratzinger’s appeal, each of them sufficient to invalidate his case.

i) He offers no supporting argument for the theory of development. This is simply assumed to be true. Quoting John out of context is no proof at all.

ii) He disregards the fact that the nature of tradition was not an open question in Catholic theology. For Trent and Vatican I had already committed the church to a particular version of events.

iii) Even if he could get past (i) and (ii), a general theory of development offers no specific support for any individual development in particular. That would require yet another supporting argument, which is nowhere to be found.

iv) In the nature of the case, the theory of development falls short of logical inference, for if the distinctive dogmas of Rome were directly deducible then from Scripture, there would be no need for this accessory theory in the first place. But anything weaker than logical inference is too weak to either compel assent or disprove rival traditions.

As an American, I can’t help noticing the parallel between “living” tradition and a “living” Constitution,” in which judges discover new rights where none are implicit in the text, or construe the text contrary to original intent. Yet we are solemnly informed that these judicial “findings” enjoy Constitutional authority.

Likewise, tradition is personified, as though it were a living organism, capable of growth and maturation. Tradition, we are told, is not “frozen” in the past.

The most charitable construction to put on this is that men like Newman and Ratzinger and Rahner are bewitched by the power of a metaphor. A less charitable interpretation is that such men are resorting to lawyerly tricks of the trade to keep up appearances and fool the unsuspecting masses—a strategy which, to be sure, has had a very successful track-record.


  1. Needless to say, you can try to be as polite as possible, but most Roman Catholic apologists aren't interested in these issues.

  2. This post is very successful (though there are a few typos that are more than mere typos in that they change meaning). What I mean by successful is you communicate very directly on the overall theme in a way that is clear and gives understanding. ( should post this one, hint, hint...)

    Now I know why Dave Armstrong is so abashed with Newman.

    This was a particularly good passage:

    "So we end up, once again, with a hybrid Catholic, a freak mutant who isn’t quite Catholic and who isn’t quite Protestant. When he’s answering an Evangelical, he honks his Catholic horn, but when he’s answering a fellow Catholic of a more liberal stripe, he toots his old Evangelical horn."

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  6. You've hit the nail on the head. Now that Gerry Matatics has recently become a Sedevacantist, I'm calculating how many books in the mid-Eighties An Evangelical Realises Evangelical Is Not a Firm Enough Foundation Because Rome is Home-genre will have to remove the obligatory "Gerry showed me that Protestants are disunited because they each privilege their own private understanding of the Tradition over the definitive authority of the living Magisterium" passage from their next edition.

    One of the more embarrassing things about Papal Infallibility is that it commits present-day Catholics to believing that anyone who publicly denies the Immaculate Conception of Mary must "incur[] the penalties established by law if he should are to express in words or writing or by any other outward means the errors he think in his heart" (Ineffabilis Deus, 1854). Timeless truths indeed. What plays well to the base among Italian ultramontanes a century and a half ago, plays less well when you're trying to tell 21st-century Protestants living in liberal democracies that, why, the Catholic Church practically invented freedom and democracy, just as Al Gore invented the Internet. (By contrast, the more recent Popes' better work has never yet been officially given the "Infallible" seal.)

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  8. Relevant to this discussion are Steve Hays' critique of Philip Blosser's critique of sola scriptura, "By Scripture Alone," and Blosser's rebuttal, "Sola Scriptura revisited: a reply to Steve Hays (in 95 antitheses)."