The primary Catholic objection to the Protestant rule of faith (sola Scriptura) is that we can’t agree with each other.
There are several problems with this objection, but let’s focus on two in particular.
1. The Catholic conception of unity reminds me of a Star Trek episode: “Real Life,” wherein the Doctor creates the perfect holographic family:
The setting is a modern human home where everything is spotlessly clean and neatly arranged. Charlene, Jeffrey, and Belle hurry downstairs in unison and line up next to the front door. There is almost a Stepford Wives feeling as Charlene checks that her children's fingernails are clean and their shoes polished. Belle asks to greet her father first because she thinks Jeffrey always gets the honor, but Jeffrey reminds Belle that she went first yesterday. Charlene cheerily tells the children to get along. Politely, Jeffrey apologizes to Belle, who concedes that it is Jeffrey's turn. Charlene seems excited and the three of them stand at attention as the man of the house approaches.
The Doctor turns a corner, a cup of coffee in one hand and a briefcase in the other, and compliments Charlene on the quality of the coffee. Charlene tells him she replicated a new blend from Paxor III and she seems pleased to hear he enjoyed it. The Doctor kisses her on the cheek and informs her he will be home at the usual time. Everything seems to be in order as Charlene reminds her husband not to overwork himself, Jeffrey promises to have his homework done by the time the Doctor returns from work, and Belle assures the Doctor she will receive an A on her history test. She adds that she'd like to do some algebra problems with him if he has the time. Finally, Charlene reminds the Doctor to invite some of his friends from work for dinner, as she wants to meet them before she and the children say goodbye to the Doctor.
In sickbay, Kes stands at a terminal as the Doctor materializes, a satisfied look upon his face. Kes asks what the Doctor's new holo-family is like, and he confidently informs her it is everything he could have hoped for.
The Doctor and Kes tell B'Elanna of his new holographic family, which he found surprisingly easy to manage despite what he has heard about families being difficult. Both B'Elanna and Kes express interest in meeting his new family, so he invites them over for dinner.
At dinner, the Stepford Wives mentality continues as Charlene informs B'Elanna and Kes that she took a course in continental cuisine so she could replicate new and interesting foods for Kenneth (the Doctor's name in the program). Kes tries to be polite and goes along with the program, but B'Elanna grows increasingly impatient as the conversation continues. When Charlene, Belle, and Jeffrey cheerily describe Kenneth as the best husband and father in the quadrant, B'Elanna stops the program. The Doctor is confused, as he sees nothing wrong with the program, but B'Elanna informs him that his family is nothing like a real family. Describing the Doctor's wife and children as "lollipops," she explains that he won't learn anything from spending time in a fantasy world with a perfect family. However, she offers to help him make them more realistic.
Upon entering his holographic home, the Doctor finds his home disorganized with things lying around everywhere, no one to greet him at the door, and a strange series of bangs and other sounds that resemble music (Klingon music) coming from elsewhere in the house. Charlene is in a hurry to go somewhere and seems less than interested in his usual stories about his day at work. She is set to speak at the Tholian embassy, and he learns that it is his turn to cook. Belle yells from her room that she can't find her mallet and Charlene tells her she would have better luck if she cleaned her room. After Charlene leaves, the Doctor attempts to be reasonable with Belle, explaining she would know where it was if she put it in her closet. She whines as she searches the house frantically, late for practice, but they can agree that the music is too loud. The Doctor tells Jeffrey to turn it off, and he all but ignores his father. Two Klingon adolescents, Larg and K'Kath, knock on the door and rudely ask where Jeffrey is; when the Doctor tells them Jeffrey is doing homework and can't see friends, Jeffrey emerges and says something to Larg and K'Kath in Klingonese. They simply walk past the Doctor while he attempts to deal with the temperamental Belle. The Klingons upstairs and Belle in tears, the Doctor realizes how different real life is.
"Well, we're proud of him too. In fact, we think we have just about the most wonderful husband and father in the quadrant."
"Yes, we d..."
"Computer, freeze program."
"Lieutenant? What are you doing?"
"I'm stopping this before my blood-sugar levels overload."
- Charlene, Jeffrey and Belle, Torres, and the Doctor
"No one has a family like this – this is a fantasy! You're not going to learn anything from living with these... lollipops."
- B'Elanna Torres, to the Doctor
Now, the church is a family—the family of God. But from the way that Catholics talk about Protestants, you’d think they never grew up in a real family, but derived their notions of family life from a holographic program.
2. In addition, Catholics have a very deceptive notion of what it means to agree with each other.
In the modern age, with its emphasis on psychology and the role of the individual, we tend to define agreement in terms of shared beliefs.
And yet it’s quite clear that when Catholicism speaks of unity, that is not its operating definition. Let’s take a few paradigm cases:
“The Council [Vatican I] was polarised between two groups, the infallibilist majority, led by Archbishop Manning, and the inopportunist minority, which included all the Austrian and German hierarchy, and many of the French…The final vote on the infallibility decree took place on 18 July 1870. Fifty-seven members of the minority, including Dupanloup, having fought the definition to the last, had left Rome the day before so as not to have to vote against a measure they now knew would go through by an overwhelming majority,” E. Duffy, Saints & Sinners: A History of the Popes (Yale 1997), 230,232.
Putting things up for a vote is not a sign of consensus. Rather, it’s simply a way of imposing majority rule on the minority. There are winners and losers. The winners don’t win over the losers. They don’t persuade them.
This is not a case of conviction, but submission. Will you submit to the will of the majority? Not—“Do you agree with us?”—but, “Do you agree with our authority?”
Do you agree with the rules? That’s the bottom line.
“Not everyone like Paul’s methods [Paul VI]. Determined that the Conciliar reforms should not be thrown off course, he was also determined that no one should feel steamrollered…To achieve this, he tried to neutralize conservative unease by matching every reform gesture with a conservative one. In a series of deeply unpopular interventions, he watered down Conciliar documents which had already been through most of the stages of Conciliar debate and approval, notably the decrees on the Church and on Ecumenism, to accommodate conservative worries (which he himself evidently shared),” ibid. 275-76.
Here, instead of majority rule, we have autocratic intervention. Deep-seated disagreements are simply papered over with diplomatic doubletalk.
Finally, there’s the case of Humanae Vitae, in which Paul VI overrode the majority report of the pontifical commission.
My immediate point is not to take issue with either the tactics or the question of which side was right.
My point is that in these three paradigm cases, involving two ecumenical councils and a notorious encyclical, unity is not defined in terms of intellectual consent or popular consensus, but ultimate conformity to the institutional chain-of-command.
This is hardly surprising. The Catholic church is an authoritarian institution because it came of age during the era of imperial regimes. The papacy and the episcopate are simply the ecclesiastical parallel to the Roman imperium and the aristocracy.
Under such a system, no reasonable person expects a subordinate to agree with everything his emperor, commander, or master says and does. That’s not the point.
The point, rather, is whether a subordinate is prepared to obey orders. To carry out the will of his superiors—whatever his personal misgivings. Insubordination, not unbelief, is the acid test.
The reason that Protestantism is less united than Catholicism is not because Protestantism devalues or undervalues unity, but, to the contrary, because it values true unity by holding it to a higher standard of genuine agreement in the form of rational assent rather than external conformity.
And since agreement cannot be coerced, we live with a measure of disagreement. Just as members of the same family are naturally united despite their individual differences.
Indeed, one of the lessons of family life, and—I daresay—one of the reasons that God puts us in families, is to confront us with conflict, thereby teaching us how to cope with conflict, accommodating one another where possible while holding firm on non-negotiables. That balancing act operates at different levels, from spousal through parental to sibling rivalry.