Monday, May 04, 2015

The Ultimate Roman Catholic Apologetic

To those of who want to advocate “catholicity” or “reformed catholicity” of any kind – look at what you are getting yourself into:

The many grave disturbances which the Church experienced in the Middle Ages were not true crises since through them all the Church was never in danger of changing its nature or dissolving itself into something else. Low moral standards among the clergy and lust for riches and power disfigure the face of the Church, but do not attack its essence by attempting to alter its foundations.

This is “catholicity”. This is why things like murderer popes, Inquisitions, sex scandals and sex abuse scandals of all types, when brought up to committed Roman apologists, just flow like water off a duck’s back.

It is appropriate here to formulate the law of the historical conservation of the Church [the Roman Catholic Church and especially its hierarchy], a law which also constitutes her ultimate apologetic criterion. The [Roman Catholic] Church is founded on the Word Incarnate, that is, on a divinely revealed truth. She is also given sufficient energies to conform her own life to that truth: it is a dogma of faith that virtue is always possible.

Nonetheless, the Church is only in danger of perishing if she loses the truth, not if she fails to live up to it. The pilgrim Church is, as it were, simultaneously condemned to imperfection in her activity, and to repentance: in the modern phrase, the Church is in a continual state of conversion. She is not destroyed when human weakness conflicts with her own teaching (that contradiction is inherent in the Church’s pilgrim condition); but she is destroyed when corruption reaches the level of corroding dogma, and of preaching in theory the corruptions which exist in practice.

From: Romano Amerio, “Iota Unum: A Study of Changes in the Catholic Church in the XXth Century”, translated from the Second Italian Edition by Rev. Fr. John P. Parsons, Kansas City, MO: Sarto House ©1996 Rev Fr. John P. Parsons, pg. 18.

It is “the teaching”, the doctrine of the Roman Church, that is all-important. This is why the corruptions of the Medieval Church were no sweat. It’s the “Alias Smith and Jones” defense: “For all the trains and banks they robbed, they never taught anyone”.

Thus, “The great eastern schism left the whole structure of the Catholic faith untouched. The Byzantines did not even directly deny the primacy of the Bishop of Rome, and an act of reunion could be signed at Florence in 1439” (pg 19).

The only thing that matters to Rome is that Rome gets to be in charge. That is the “ontological reality” of the Roman Catholic Church: Christ made Peter “the first pope”; Peter was martyred in Rome, and his blood there sealed this ontological “divine institution”. Everything else can always be explained away to the satisfaction of the true Roman Catholic believer. Nothing else matters.

The heretical movements, which aimed at purging the Church of its worldly accretions, were powerless to put the Church in danger by causing it to change from one kind of thing to another. The real crisis came from Luther, who changed doctrine from top to bottom by repudiating the principle on which it rested (pg 19)

I have problems with this author’s accounting of history, but he does represent everything I dislike about the pugnacious, in-your-face Roman apologetic. Of course, “the principle on which it rested” was nothing less than the total, divine authority of the Roman Catholic Church.

It is therefore a question of seeing how Luther’s doctrine could not be included in the broad ambit of the Catholic system, and how his attack called into question the principle of the whole system, rather than this or that corollary. Inasmuch as it is a rejection of Catholic first principles, Lutheranism is theologically irrefutable. When confronted with Lutheranism, Catholic apologetic finds itself in the position neatly outlined by St. Thomas (ST 1,q.1,1,8): it can solve the opponent’s objections but not to the opponent’s satisfaction, since he rejects the principle on which the argument refuting him is based. For Luther was not merely rejecting this or that article within the body of Catholic doctrine (although he did do that as well) but rather rejecting the principle underlying them all, which is the divine authority of the Church.

Bible and tradition are only authorities for the believer because the Church possesses them; and possesses them not simply materially or philosophically, but possesses the meaning of them, which she historically unveils little by little (pgs 22-23).

Watch how the caricature, the straw man unfolds. Where have we seen this before?

Luther, on the other hand, places both the Bible and its meaning in the hands of the individual believer, rejects any mediating role for the Church, entrusts everything to the individual’s private lights and replaces the authority of an institution by an immediacy of feeling which prevails over all else.

Yes, Luther rejected “the divine authority” of the Roman Church of his day, but not “any mediating role” for what is truly a church. On the other hand, he in no way “placed both the Bible and its meaning in the hands of every individual believer”. Not even the most hearty biblicists of that day or ours believed what this Roman Apologist attributes to Protestants.

There is a line from a Keith Green song, from the perspective of the Devil: “I put a little truth in every lie to tickle itching ears”. This is most certainly what the Roman apologist needs to do in order to function.

Still, the Roman Catholic view of “the Church” itself is the constant:

… the soul of the Lutheran secession was not a question of indulgences, the Mass, the sacraments, the Papacy, priestly celibacy or the predestination and justification of the sinner: it was an intolerance that the human race carries about fixed fast in its heart and which Luther had the daring to manifest openly: the intolerance of authority. Because the [Roman Catholic] Church is the collective historical body of the God-Man, it draws its organic unity from a divine principle. In such a context, what could man be, but a part, living by unity with that principle and by obedience to it? The man who breaks that link loses the forming principle of the Christian religion (pg 25).

Paul gave the criteria for the qualifications of a leader in the church: “an overseer must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, sober-minded, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not a drunkard, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money. He must manage his own household well, with all dignity keeping his children submissive, for if someone does not know how to manage his own household, how will he care for God's church? He must not be a recent convert, or he may become puffed up with conceit and fall into the condemnation of the devil. Moreover, he must be well thought of by outsiders, so that he may not fall into disgrace, into a snare of the devil.”

On the other hand, the Roman Apologetic feels free to dismiss these criteria completely:

Once the crisis is seen in these terms (“the intolerance of [Roman] authority”), the consideration of the moral faults of the clergy and the institutional corruption that followed from it become a secondary question, even though it remains important as the historical cause that touched off the assertion of the principle of private judgment.

There were certainly enormous abuses of the sacred on the part of the Church’s ministers: one could cite the monstrous example of [“Pope”] Alexander VI threatening his concubine with excommunication unless she returned ad vomitum [“to her old sins”]. Nonetheless, quite apart from the fact that an abuse does not justify rejecting the thing abused, there is also the fact that the reform of the Church could only happen, and in the event did happen, in an orthodox way, thanks to men who were always convinced that Catholics could not be acting rightly unless they had the seal of approval of those same churchmen whose vices they continued to castigate, even while recognizing their authority …

The reason why the corruption of shepherds caused only a dispersal of sheep, rather than a true crisis, was that malpractice was not erected into a dogmatic theory as it was by Luther. A theory is unlimited, since it contains in its universality a potential infinity of acts, whereas acts themselves are always limited.

Thus if the theoretical dogma is preserved, the health-giving principle [“the ultimate authority of the Roman church”] remains undamaged, and through it the whole of practical action is saved (pg 26).


  1. "The reason why the corruption of shepherds caused only a dispersal of sheep, rather than a true crisis, was that malpractice was not erected into a dogmatic theory as it was by Luther."

    Given that the role of a "shepherd" is to prevent the "dispersal of sheep", in one sense that is the "true crisis" for the shepherd. The shepherd has failed at the task to which he has been entrusted.

    1. Yes, and "church" means "assembly".

      This author tends toward ultra-conservative among RCs.