Monday, December 12, 2011

Why I am not a Roman Catholic

Earlier in the year my friend Brad Littlejohn wrote an article for his blog titled ‘Why I Won’t Convert’, outlining his continued commitment to Protestantism. Now it’s my turn. Having used my previous post to reaffirm my commitment to Calvinism (kind of), I wanted to use the present post as an opportunity to explain why I am not a Roman Catholic.

First the qualifications. Keep in mind that I am still in the process of learning about Roman Catholicism and I do not claim any expert knowledge. I cannot even guarantee that what I will say is not tinctured with protestant caricatures or uncharity. I am hoping my Roman Catholic brothers and sisters will enlighten me on any factual mistakes in what follows.
The purpose of this post is not to claim any special authority on Roman Catholicism, but simply to explain from a personal point of view why I have not chosen to convert. What follows is not written out of any sense of antagonism towards Roman Catholics. Rather, it was written after feeling pressure from a traditionalist Roman Catholic brother that I should convert to Rome. (No problem there: if someone believes that RC is the true church, they should want to convert me out of love. But equally, it only seems fair I should respond by explaining the reasons I have chosen not to convert.)

Finally, although I will be critical of Roman Catholicism, this should not be taken as overshadowing my strong commitment to ecumenism that I have articulated elsewhere (see my article, ‘Sola Fide: The Great Ecumenical Doctrine’) nor my belief that Roman Catholics are Christians.

One of the primary reasons I have not converted to Rome is because Rome does not seem to be Catholic enough. Consider just three areas where Protestants normally find fault with Rome: (A) Rome’s sacramentalism; (B) Rome’s claims to universality; (C) Rome’s concept of authoritative traditions or the magisterium.

Now these three areas are indeed problems, but not because Rome puts too much emphasis on these things, as Protestants often erroneously claim, but too less. The real reason Rome’s sacramentalism is a problem is not because she is too sacramental, but because she is not sacramental enough. The real reason that Rome’s claim to universality is a problem is not because she claims universality but because she isn’t universal enough. The real reason that Rome’s concept of an authoritative tradition is a problem is because her traditions are not authoritative enough. Let's take each of these in turn.

Rome Trivializes the Sacraments

In practice, Rome seems to minimize the importance of the sacraments. Think of the way the blessed Eucharist was functionally devalued in medieval Europe within a system that was prepared to deny wine to the laity and restrict even the bread to annual services.

Or again, consider the way Rome trivializes the Eucharist by allowing those who support abortion and even homosexuality to have access to Christ’s body and blood merely because they are Roman Catholics. Such people would be quickly excommunicated in conservative Protestant churches and in the early church (see Paul’s correspondence with the Corinthians) and yet are allowed full table privileges in Rome. The patience and slowness of the Roman Catholic church on these matters is an innovation compared to the practice of the early church, as evidenced in Paul correspondence to the Corinthians.

Rome is to be applauded for her high view of the Eucharist, but we do right to protest against her for not holding a higher view.

Rome Isn’t Catholic Enough
Rome is right to emphasize the importance of the church’s visible unity and catholicity, and Protestants have much to learn from Roman Catholic teaching in this area. Yet when Rome excommunicated many eastern patriarchs in the 11th century and continues to be incredibly slow about pursuing institutional unity with the Eastern Orthodox church since they do not accept the supremacy of the Roman pontiff (though there is some hope things may change during the present millennium), one has to wonder how deep her commitment to visible unity really runs.

While there was sin and ungodliness on both sides, it was predominantly Rome's fault that the Western and Eastern churches fell out of communion in the second millennium.  It happened through Rome being sectarian and failing to practice the catholicity she claims to cherish. A brief historical detour should make my point clear.

What is often popularly referred to as the moment of ‘the Great Schism’ was simply a local dispute between Cardinal Humbert and Cerularius, the patriarch of Constantinople and did not involve the East either formally or functionally excommunicated all of Western Christendom or visa versa. Rather, there were only local and individual excommunications and the two churches remained in communion with each other and not just in the border regions. The two sides didn’t fall out of communion until the early 13th century when the crusaders brutally sacked Constantinople. There was good reason for them to fall out of communion after that, since the West was essentially saying, “We don’t see you as being any different from the Muslims.”

True, this horrendous genocide had been provoked by the Massacre of the Latins in 1182, in which a mob of Eastern Orthodox Christians, acting with the tacit approval of the emperor, massacred tens of thousands of Western Christians. This massacre was prompted by unfair trading licenses imposed on Constantinople by western powers. As horrendous as this massacre was, it was a far cry from the Pope calling easterners ‘heretics’ and then the crusaders butchering hundreds of thousands of Eastern Christians on that basis. Even hearing of the crusaders decision to take Constantinople, the Pope hedged and failed to offer an outright condemnation of the plan. (See A History of the Crusades, Vol. III: The Kingdom of Acre and the Later Crusades, Volume 3) Though the Pope officially disapproved of the massacre, he did not disapprove of the subjugation of Eastern Christians to the West. Indeed, for the next 70 years the Pope installed Latin priests and a Latin patriarch on the Eastern Christians, essentially saying, “We don’t recognize your own leaders as having any legitimacy.” To this day they are doing the same thing, installing their own bishops in Russia to usurp the existing Orthodox churches.

Or again, when the Roman Catholics held 14 councils between 869 to 1965 and then called these councils ‘ecumenical councils’ even though the Eastern Patriarchs had not participated in them, they were proclaiming, once again, that the Orthodox are not part of the true church. When the Roman Catholics decided to unilaterally change the Nicene Creed by adding the Filioque even though the Council of Nicaea had specified that it could not be changed without the consent of the whole church, what was that other than an acknowledgement that anyone other than Roman Catholics are outside of the church? In numerous ways the West was saying to the East, “We no longer recognizing you as being a legitimate church.”
Essentially what happened was that one of the five original Apostolic Sees (Rome), broke off from the other four (Jerusalem, Antioch, Constantinople, Alexandria) and then unilaterally granted itself the power to bring new innovations and to change the Nicene Creed independent of the rest of the church. If that isn't sectarianism, I don't know what is.

It is true that Rome now has their own bishops in Jerusalem, Antioch, Constantinople and Alexandria so that they can pretend to have continuity with the universality of the church in the first millennium. However, because these bishops were placed there to intentionally replace the Eastern Orthodox bishops who can trace their lineage back to the apostles, it is actually an example of Rome's sectarian, truncated and non-catholic view of the church. Of course, from Rome's perspective it is the East that broke away, not them; however, if one compares the teachings and practices of Rome and the East by the standard of the church fathers and the Ecumenical councils (which I will discuss below), it should be obvious who has more continuity with the historic church throughout history. This, in turn, suggests that it was Rome who broke away from the universal catholic church, not the East who broke away. Eastern Orthodox Christians are still waiting for Roman Catholics to return home to Mother.

So much for Rome's attitude towards Eastern Orthodox Christianity. What about her attitude towards Protestants? Even when Vatican II’s Decree on Ecumenism acknowledged that some Protestants are “members of Christ’s body” (3.20), part of “Christian communions,” (1) and “justified by faith,” (3.20), and that Protestants as Protestants have “access to the community of salvation,” (1.22) Rome still didn’t have the guts to officially retract her earlier statements to the contrary. Does Vatican II’s Decree on Ecumenism mean that Pius XII Mystici Corporis Christi is no longer accurate, specifically when it gave submission to the Roman hierarchy as one of the four conditions to church membership? Similarly, since the Anathemas of the Council of Trent and Pope Pius IX's Syllabus of Errors’ still officially stand (both of which gathered together in one spot teaching that was already part of the magisterium), the post-Vatican II approach to Protestants is highly ambiguous, if not incoherent. Does Vatican II mean that all earlier statements to the contrary are now void, or does it mean that what was true then is no longer true now? At least the Eastern Orthodox approach towards Protestants has been consistent and unchanging and is not plagued by this obscure dialectic.

Rome Trivializes Tradition
Rome is to be applauded for her high view of tradition, but we do right to protest against her for not holding a higher view. Think of the way Vatican II rendered some of the Church’s past tradition meaningless by reinterpreting the meaning of past documents without recourse to authorial intent, rather like liberal judges routinely do with the American constitution. When a Protestant succumbs to the impulse of liberalism, all he has to do is to say that he no longer assents with his church’s historic confessions, whether it be the 39 Articles or the Westminster Confession of Faith. But when a Roman Catholic becomes liberal, he cannot reject the infallible magisterium and so he simply reinterprets it. Hence, a statement like Cyprian’s Extra ecclesiam nulla salus (“outside the church there is no salvation”) which was once used to exclude Protestants, is now interpreted in a way that includes Hindus (at least, according to some of the more liberal interpretations of Mystici Corporis Christi of 1943).

Here's another example. Consider the way that Vatican II reinterpreted the meaning of the mass to be more compatible with Protestant understandings, thus updating their theology to keep pace with the . In a national broadcast radio program in France on December 13, 1993 author Jean Guitton, a member of the French Academy and a close friend of Pope Paul VI, commented on the way Vatican II completely overhauled the theology of the mass, the bedrock of Catholic teaching:
...but I can only repeat that Paul VI did all that he could to bring the Catholic Mass away from the tradition of the Council of Trent towards the Protestants' Lord's Supper... In other words, we see in Paul VI an ecumenical intention to wipe out or at least to correct or soften everything that is too Catholic in the Mass and to bring the Catholic Mass, again I say, as close as possible to the Calvinist liturgy."
How can Rome simply update its theology like this? Does it mean that previous doctrinal statements are now false? In theory no, the past statements remain fixed; what chances is Rome's interpretation of them.

Such fluid hermeneutics are often defended by Newman’s ‘development of doctrine’ theory, though it leads one into cases of serious historical anachronisms. Consider, for example, the Declaration on Religious Freedom known as ‘Dignitatis Humanae’ (and which can be read on the Vatican’s website here). This document, which made its way into Vatican II, says that all nations have a right to public and private worship, thus contradicting (or ‘reinterpreting’ in good Roman Catholic form) Pope Leo XIII’s formal statements to the contrary.

Given this fluidity, I often find it very confusing trying to figure out just what the Roman Catholic church officially believes. I have tried to resolve this dilemma by speaking to Roman Catholic friends of mine, but it is not uncommon that I receive differing, even contradictory, answers. One person told me that if I am confused trying to navigate through all the contradictions and figure out what the Roman Catholic church officially teaches, I should consult the 1994 Catechism of the Catholic Church. However, when the Catechism contradicted earlier documents, like it did when it’s statements on religious freedom contradicted Pope Leo XIII’s earlier authoritative statements, or when it incorporated into it Pope John Paul II’s private opinions on the death penalty even though such views were without precedent in earlier tradition, the Catechism becomes as much a part of the problem as the solution.

Paradoxically, by making church tradition equal to Holy Scripture, Rome ends up with a fluid concept of tradition that has the effect of devaluing the authority of tradition in practice. The problem is something that Protestantism avoids, since a Protestant who rejects his church’s past tradition can simply say he doesn’t believe the creeds anymore; however, because Roman Catholics are committed to an infallible church, they do not have that luxury and must content themselves with reinterpreting the meaning of past statements under the banner of 'development.' For Rome, therefore, everything is up for grabs because the interpretation of all authoritative documents is in a constant state of flux.

Rome is to be applauded for her high view of tradition, but we do right to protest against her for not holding a higher view.

Apostolic Succession Isn’t That Important
What about Rome’s claims to have apostolic succession? Isn’t that a reason to convert?

I have numerous questions about apostolic succession that would need to be satisfactorily addressed before I would be convinced that apostolic succession is even in Rome’s favor. However, even if Rome is correct about this, why does it really matter since the Vatican now acknowledges that Protestants, while being outside the chain of apostolic succession, are still fellow Christian “brothers” (albeit “separated brethren”), “members of Christ’s body”, part of “Christian communions” with “access to the community of salvation” and “justified by faith”? Or again: “The children who are born into these [Protestant] Communities and who grow up believing in Christ cannot be accused of the sin involved in the separation, and the Catholic Church embraces upon them as brothers, with respect and affection.” Or again, “For men who believe in Christ and have been truly baptized are in communion with the Catholic Church even though this communion is imperfect. …even in spite of [the barriers] it remains true that all who have been justified by faith in Baptism are members of Christ's body, and have a right to be called Christian, and so are correctly accepted as brothers by the children of the Catholic Church.”

Now here's the rub: if I can have all that as a Protestant by virtue of my Trinitarian baptism (and Vatican II says I can), then why does it matter if my baptism was not performed by someone standing in the link of apostolic succession?

By contrast, the Eastern Orthodox church is much more consistent and would never say that “For men who believe in Christ and have been truly baptized are in communion with the Catholic Church" unless such a person actually was in communion with their church. What is essentially happening with Vatican II is that Rome is implicitly assuming a notion of the invisible church that is foreign to the East.

The Traditionalist's Come-back

Many Traditionalist Catholics have varying degrees of opposition to Vatican II. The traditionalists will be immune to much of the above critique. Many traditionalist Roman Catholics concede that Vatican II could possibly have erroneous statements in it, especially the more generous statements about Protestants contained in the Second Vatican Council’s ‘Decree on Ecumenism.’ Indeed, according to the Traditionalist's more consistent model of Catholicism, Protestants like myself are on a one-way street to hell. The hyper-traditionalist still takes as normative such statements as the following without reinterpreting their meaning in light of Vatican II:
  • Pope Pius IX (A.D. 1846 – 1878): “It must be held by faith that outside the Apostolic Roman Church, no one can be saved; that this is the only ark of salvation; that he who shall not have entered therein will perish in the flood.” (Denzinger 1647)

  • Pope Saint Pius X (A.D. 1903 – 1914): “It is our duty to recall to everyone great and small, as the Holy Pontiff Gregory did in ages past, the absolute necessity which is ours, to have recourse to this Church to effect our eternal salvation.” (Encyclical, Jucunda Sane )
  • Pope Boniface VIII in his Papal Bull Unam Sanctam (A.D. 1302): “We declare, say, define, and pronounce that it is absolutely necessary for the salvation of every human creature to be subject to the Roman Pontiff.”

One traditionalist catholic quoted the above to me with a number of other citations and said that as a Protestant I should quake in my boots while reading them. If Vatican II makes me feel warm and fuzzy, these quotes make me scared, or should do according to what my traditionalist friend said in an email. (Though thanks to the doctrine of ‘invincible ignorance’, the force of such statements is somewhat diminished.) In particularly, I should quake in my boots when reading Unam Sanctam, Cantate Domino, and Innocent III at the Fourth Lateran Council since these are the three that enjoy infallibility.

The traditionalist Roman Catholic will point out that because Vatican II was merely a pastoral council and did not officially decree any new doctrines, the statements made by the above Popes still stand and should not be reinterpreted in light of the more fluid doctrines of 'subsistence', although such statements as the above do need to be seen in light of all eight documents about salvation, some of which allow the salvation of Protestants who suffer from ‘invincible ignorance.’ While this certainly navigates around many of the problems mentioned above, it creates a new network of difficulties.

Traditionalist Catholicism is Viciously Circular

How does the traditionalist Roman Catholic who rejects Vatican II know that his position is correct? The traditionalist Roman Catholics I have talked to tend to answer this question by appealing to Holy Tradition, urging that the truth of statements such as those cited above can be verified with reference to Holy Tradition, which they define as being “what has always and everywhere been believed by all.”

In discussing Holy Tradition Roman Catholics, I have asked whether the Eastern Orthodox church is part of this Tradition. The answer I have received is that the Orthodox church is not part of this tradition since their rejection of the papacy precludes them from being included in the ‘all’ when we talk about “what has always and everywhere been believed by all.”

The circularity here should be immediately apparent. This view of Holy Tradition only works if we start by assuming a Roman criteria for what constitutes genuine tradition. The Eastern Orthodox portion of Christendom, to say nothing of many historic Protestants, would dispute that Pope Boniface VIII’s Papal Bull truly represents church tradition, not least because Eastern Orthodox and historic Protestants employ a different criteria for determining what constitutes Holy Tradition. Now, since the hyper-traditionalist’s criteria for determining what constitutes church tradition is largely dependent on a prior conviction concerning what Holy Tradition is, it is hard for their argument to get off the ground without collapsing into vicious circularity.

The inherent circularity becomes even more obvious when we reduce the Roman Catholic argument to the following premises:

1)    In order for a theological proposition to be true, it must conform to Holy Tradition.

2)    Holy Tradition is “what has always and everywhere been believed by all.”

3)  Because Eastern Orthodoxy rejects the pope’s primacy, as well as Vatican I and Vatican II, these aspects of EO theology are not part of Holy Tradition and therefore falls outside the ‘all’ of “what has always and everywhere been believed by all.”
Put the three premises together and what do you get? You get the following:
4)    Therefore, in order for a theological proposition to be true, it must conform to Holy Tradition, and in order for it to conform to Holy Tradition, it must be true.
Because this is self-evidently viciously circular, it proves that Holy Tradition cannot function as an external authority. Indeed, if we’re going to reason like this, one could prove anything. I could prove that abortion is ethical, that the devil should be worshiped, or that the world is flat!
Most Roman Catholics will try to escape from this obvious circularity by appealing to the church fathers. The problem with this approach will be elucidated shortly.

Traditionalist Catholicism is Radically Sectarian
Let’s assume the Traditionalist Catholic could overcome this problem of circularity. The problem still remains that the Traditionalist Catholic's ecclesiology is radically sectarian. If we accept that the papal statements cited above accurately reflect Holy Tradition, then we are left with a very sectarian notion of the church, since it questions the ecclesiastical legitimacy not only of all Protestants, but the entire Eastern Orthodox portion of Christendom from the second millennium onwards (since they, like Protestants, are also not subject to the Roman Pontiff). This does not in itself prove traditionalist Catholicism wrong, but it is worth noting that it creates the same type of problems inherent in other sectarian models such as American Puritanism.

Consider, traditionalist Catholicism basically tells us that souls are in jeopardy who are not members of the right church. Those who make ecclesiastical choices because of nuancing the Consensus Fidelium differently, and therefore dispute that Pope Boniface was doing anything other than talking out of his backside when he declared that submission to the Roman Pontiff is necessary to salvation, are in danger of hellfire; many ‘modernist’ Roman Catholics are in danger of going to hell because have vainly recognized the  of Vatican II to be part of the ongoing tradition; Protestants are in danger of going to hell because they have misunderstood what the tradition of the Patristics really taught; Eastern Orthodox are going to hell because they have preserved a more primitive notion of the faith without accepting innovations like the eighth through 21st 'ecumenical' councils (which were not ecumenical at all).

This can easily lead to an introspective crisis similar to that generated by Puritanism. Just as some American Puritans went mad worrying about whether they were among the elect (since they could never be sure if their conversion experiences had been genuine), so traditionalist Catholicism can cause people to go mad worrying about whether they have recognized the right tradition, because we can never be sure if we have. Even if we narrowed it down considerably to one of the ‘apostolic churches’, you would still have to choose between Roman Catholicism, Oriental Christianity and Eastern Orthodoxy (saying nothing, of course, of the different sects within these broad groupings).

The traditionalist Catholic might give the rejoiner that it is not hard to recognize what is Holy Tradition, because there are levels of authority within the teaching of the catholic church ranging everywhere from the general teaching of the church fathers to infallible decrees. Moreover, he will assert, there are clearly defined criteria for determining which is which. The problem is that to accept such criteria as being genuine is already to presuppose (at least to some extent) the view of Holy Tradition for which the traditionalist catholic is arguing, thus causing his entire argument to collapse into a petitio principia fallacy.

The Problem of the Church Fathers
Both traditionalist and non-traditionalist Roman Catholics appeal to the church fathers to support their ecclesial framework. However, the lens by which they read the church fathers often involves implicitly assumes the conclusion prior to the investigation. For example, in his Letter to the Prelates and Clergy of France in September 8, 1899, Pope Leo XII wrote "Those who study it [history] must never lose sight of the fact that it contains a collection of dogmatic facts, which impose themselves upon our faith, and which nobody is ever permitted to call in doubt." Or again, Cardinal Manning wrote, "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." Elsewhere Manning commented, "The appeal from the living voice of the Church to any tribunal whatsoever, human history included, is an act of private judgment and a treason because that living voice is supreme; and to appeal from that supreme voice is also a heresy because that voice by divine assistance is infallible." In other words, you person must begin your study of history assuming that Catholicism is already true. This circular approach makes it difficult for Roman Catholic theologians to come to an objective assessment of the history record, though they frequently make appeals to the church fathers for polemical purposes.

When one reads church history without Roman Catholic lenses on, one finds the church fathers actually challenge Roman Catholic teaching on a number of key points. For example, a survey from Roman Catholic scholar Jean de Launoy found that only seventeen Church Fathers thought of the rock as Peter in the iconic Petrine text of Matthew 16:18-19, whereas a full forty-four believed the 'rock' referred to Peter's confession, while sixteen thought that Christ himself was the rock and eight thought that the rock represented all of the apostles. The significance of this should be obvious: 80% of the Church Fathers did not recognize that Peter was the rock on which Christ was building His church! Commenting on this in his book his book Two Paths: Papal Monarchy - Collegial Tradition, Michael Whelton points out

Many Roman Catholic apologists ignore the writings of the Early Church Fathers, who were equally well versed in scripture, and focus solely on their interpretation of Matthew 16:18-19. "And I say unto thee: That thou art Peter and upon this rock I will build my church.... And I will give thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven...." To them it is so clear, what else could it mean? They will even delve into the Hold testament to find supporting evidence for the imagery  of the 'keys.' In doing so they lapse into the practice of 'Sola Scriptura' (by scripture alone) that they accuse Protestants of committing - by ignoring the mind of the Early Church in favor of their own subjecitve judgment. In addition, they anticipate their own conclusion in their initial premise when they associate any reference by Early Church Fathers to Peter as head of the apostles, the seat of Peter, Peter and the keys, etc., as pointing to evidence of Rome's supreme universal authority.
The fact that the early church never considered Peter to be head of the church is clearly demonstrated by the approach to the first seven ecumenical councils (which I would argue are the only ecumenical councils). The Pope never attended any of the first seven ecumenical councils; the Second Ecumenical Council was convened without his knowledge; the Fourth and Fifth Ecumenical Councils were contrary to his express wishes. Because the early church fathers believed the government of the church to be conciliar rather than hierarchical in government, they believed that these councils, not the bishop of Rome, represented the highest ecclesiastical authority. To quote again from Whelton's book,

...these councils were not called to advise the Bishop of Rome, and...the Bishop of Rome did not enjoy veto power. Nowhere in the canons or creeds of these councils do we find any recognition of Rome's claim to supreme universal jurisdiction. None of the Church Fathers or General Councils settled doctrinal disputes by appealing to an infallible pope. Claims of infallibility by a single bishop would have been incomprehensible. Furthermore, the idea that the Bishop of Rome was superior to a council of the church and that a council was only ecumenical because the Bishop of Rome alone confirmed its decrees was unknown. In fact, all five Patriarchs, Rome, Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch, and Jerusalem had to confirm the decrees.

Michael Whelton's book shares similar examples of discrepancies between the teaching of the Catholic church and the teaching of the church fathers. He shows, for example, that even though the see of Rome was always believed to have special honor, the early church fathers believed that judicially Rome was on the same standing as the other patriarchal sees. Whelton also shows that Rome shed many of the traditions of the early church which have been preserved in the East, such as using leavened bread for the Eucharist (a custom the Roman Church kept for the first 800 years) and allowing children to partake during communion. His book is worth reading in full because it establishes that Protestants are not the only ones who constantly innovate: Roman Catholicism itself is one of the greatest innovations of church history.

Further Problems with Holy Tradition
But this is not the only problem with Holy Tradition. Appeals to Holy Tradition are also problematic because there is no consensus even among the most ancient traditions of Christendom (Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholicism and Oriental Christianity) for even identifying Holy Tradition. The traditionalist catholic compounds this problem by making the right identification of Holy tradition a potential salvation issue (assuming that responsible ecclesiastical choices follow such identification). If this was correct that our standing before the judgement seat of God really did depend on being able to correctly recognize the church, then Patristic historians would have a better chance of salvation that those who (like myself) specialize in modern history. If it was correct, then we should mortgage our houses to study history; we should take drugs to keep ourselves awake so we have more time to master  the languages of the Patristics so that we don't have to read them in translation, thus increasing the statistical likelihood of being able to recognize which of four competing groups who claim to speak for Holy Tradition (Traditionalist Roman Catholics, non-Traditionalist Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox and Orientals) do in fact speak for church tradition.

Even just sticking with the church fathers, which the Traditionalist and non-Traditionalist Catholics appeal to, hardly gives us a clear idea of how to navigate the confusing waters of church tradition. I'll admit, when I read the church fathers, sometimes they seem to be saying things that sound very Catholic (for example, their views on the Eucharist) but at other times they make statements that sound very non-Catholic (for example, when they say things that sound like sola scriptura). At other times they say things that sound very much like Eastern Orthodoxy.

There is a deep irony to the fact that there are numerous different ways to interpret the church fathers, and a number of different lenses through which we can read them. In other words, it is reminiscent of the complaint that Protestant critics make about sola scriptura. And here's the rub: if the Bible is so confusing that the private individual cannot interpret it without reference to the church fathers, then why does the private individual suddenly become immune to this same problem when it comes to interpreting the church fathers? And if I'm able to interpret the church fathers on my own, and to use the intellectual judgements this generates to determine which contemporary ecclesial tradition has genuine apostolic authority, then why should I believe the critics of Protestantism who say I'm unable to do the same thing with the Bible? If they respond by saying that we do not interpret the church fathers on our own, but in the context of an ecclesial community, then this amounts to miserable circularity: we know which ecclesial tradition has genuine apostolic authority because of our reading the church fathers, and we know how to read the church fathers because of how a certain ecclesial tradition tells us to read them.

Maybe it’s not that complicated. Maybe the Ecumenical councils are our key to determining what constitutes Holy Tradition. If true, that severely limits the claims of Roman Catholicism (both Traditionalist and non-Traditionalist) since the ‘infallible’ decrees of Vatican I were not ecumenical (to say nothing of Vatican II which did not even claim infallibility). One Roman Catholic friend told me that participation by the Eastern Orthodox churches cannot be a criteria for determining whether a council is truly ecumenical or not because “if the Pope has called it an ecumenical council, then it is.” However, since this is at variance with the criteria used by the early ecumenical councils, it can only work if one has started by already assuming one’s conclusion. But to assume one's conclusion is to reason in a circle.

Suffice to say, I am not planning on converting to Roman Catholicism.

Further Reading

Debate: Is Protestantism Heretical?

Why You Shouldn't Pray to Saints

Sola Fide: The Great Ecumenical Doctrine

Questions about Sola Scriptura

Sacred Times and Seasons Part II

Questions about Ecumenical Councils

A Critical Absence of the Divine: How a ‘Zero-Sum’ Theology Destroys Sacred Space

Are Calvinists Also Among the Gnostics?


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