"Let unity, the greatest good of all goods, be your preoccupation." - St. Ignatius of Antioch (Letter to St. Polycarp)

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Authority and Unity

It seems to some that I am focusing on the issue of authority in an unnecessarily repetitive manner. But the reason I am focusing on the issue of authority is that (1) it is the fundamental issue underlying the division between Catholics and Protestants, and (2) this issue has not yet been resolved.

The question of authority is unavoidable, though many well-meaning persons try to avoid it, while remaining unaware that it is in fact unavoidable and that they are not successfully avoiding it. I pointed this out in my post in June titled "You say one must not papalize". Of necessity, either we are submitting to some ecclesial authority, or we are acting as our own ecclesial authority. What does it look like in practice to act as one's own ecclesial authority? Here's an example.

Protestant: "Go read Calvin; see for yourself that what he is saying is true."

Catholic: "But what authority does Calvin have? Why should I follow Calvin's teaching?"

Protestant: "He has the authority of Scripture, because everything he says is right from Scripture."

Catholic: "But what authority does he have to say what Scripture means, or to teach in the Church? Who ordained him, and authorized him to teach in the name of the Church? Who sent him? (Romans 10:15; Acts 15:24)"

Protestant: "Obviously God sent him. Just look at all the theological riches in his writings."

This hypothetical conversation shows how the Protestant and the Catholic are working within two different paradigms viz-a-viz authority. In this conversation, the Catholic is checking for ecclesial authority; the Protestant is not. The Protestant is judging for himself that Calvin's interpretations and teachings are in agreement with Scripture. The Catholic, on the other hand, looks to the magisterial authority of the Church to determine whether Calvin's interpretations and teachings are in agreement with Scripture. "What does Calvin say about the Church?", asks the Protestant. "What does the Church say about Calvin?", asks the Catholic.

Notice what is implicit in that "Read him and see for yourself". It is nothing less than the Serpent's advice to Eve that she look and taste for herself that the fruit was good for her. Implicit in it is the notion that "You have the highest authority [under God] to judge for yourself what is good for you".

Of course the common reply here from the Protestant is that the Catholic did the same thing, in becoming Catholic. There is truth to that, though he does so rightly not by determining for himself which doctrines are orthodox and thereby which institution is "most scriptural". Rather, he does so by determining which institution is the one Christ founded and thus which has the authority to tell him which doctrines are orthodox. (Even from the Protestant point of view, there are no institutions that have the authority to determine for all Christians what doctrines are orthodox.)

Consider the following quotation from St. Irenaeus:

"Therefore it is necessary to obey the presbyters who are in the Church, -- those who, as I have shown, possess the succession from the apostles; those who, together with the succession of the episcopate, have received the certain gift of truth, according to the good pleasure of the Father. But [it is also necessary] to hold in suspicion others who depart from the primitive succession, and assemble themselves together in any place whatsoever." – St. Irenaeus (Against Heresies, 4.26)

If apostolic succession is about form, and not matter, then loyalty to a group of persons is properly subordinate to loyalty to what one perceives to be the content of apostolic succession. In that case, there need be no hesitation in establishing a new group of persons around the form as one sees it (or finding a different group of persons that is closer in doctrine to the form as one sees it), for then the matter of the Church is determined by a certain form, and in that case the matter of the Church is rightly discovered by locating the material instantiations of that form. The alternative is finding form through matter, on the ground that matter determines form (cf. Against Heresies 3.3), as one finds the same life of an organism at a later date by finding the same physical body. I see no middle position. (Luther defined the Church in terms of what he believed to be the "gospel", as I pointed out here.)

For those who believe apostolic succession is about form, possessing what St. Irenaeus calls the "certain gift of truth" must reduce to teaching 'what I believe to be true'. For those who believe that matter determines form, the "certain gift of truth" is not the same as teaching 'what I believe to be true'. Rather, it means that truth is found in and through that matter.

What has this to do with unity? If the "certain gift of truth" is reduced to 'what I believe to be true', there will be as many different 'successors of the Apostles' as there are various beliefs about what is true. This is why the purely formal notion of apostolic succession is intrinsically individualistic and disposed to fragmentation. But if the "certain gift of truth" is understood in the sense that truth is found in and through that designated matter, then the particularity of matter (i.e. its inability to be multiply instantiated) makes this notion of apostolic succession intrinsically opposed to fragmentation, and intrinsically disposed toward unity and perpetuation. Catholics and Protestants cannot be unified until they recognize and resolve their fundamentally distinct understanding of Church authority. Does form determine matter, or does matter determine form?

For those who think that form determines matter, the question is then: "Form as determined by whom?" Since they have ruled out matter determining form, the only remaining answer is by default something reducible to "Me". Can such a position yield true unity? Those who answer affirmatively have traded in the unmatched unity Christ describes in John 17 between Himself and the Father for a democratic consensus around a "mere Christianity" drained of all content except a lowest common denominator of "Jesus" (or "Jesus saves", or "trust Jesus"). But that is if the liberals are excluded. And who will be the one to exclude them, if there is no pre-existing authority? Either there is a pre-existing authority, in which case matter determines form, or there is no pre-existing authority, in which case there is no possible ecclesial unity.

In every case where the Church seems to the critic to have "gone off the rails" with respect to dogma, it is (by the Quine-Duhem underdetermination thesis) no less possible that the Church has in fact stayed on the rails and it is the critic who has gone off the rails. (I raised this point in my article "Two Paradigms".) The Pharisee Gamaliel seems to have been aware of this, when he advised the Council of the Jews: "if this plan or action should be of men, it will be overthrown; but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them; or else you may even be found fighting against God." (Acts 5:38-39)

With that in mind, it is not enough to raise a criticism of Church dogma, as if that establishes the Church's error. Throughout the history of the Church, heretical individuals and sects have believed themselves to be better judges of dogma than were the rightful leaders. That pride is precisely the sin by which they fell into heresy and schism – it can be seen in Korah's rebellion, and the sin of Nadab and Abihu. "We know better than you, Moses, what God wants for His people." The issue was not whether the leaders were fallible, but whether their God-given authority was to be respected, as David refused to kill Saul, and refused to make himself king. In order to unify the Church, we have to return to our rightful rulers. And that cannot consist in finding those who teach the doctrines we happen to think are true (cf. 2 Timothy 4:3). It means seeking out those old lines, the old matter (like Aragorn), and doing justice to their God-given authority over the Church. Either Christ failed to provide a means for ecclesial unity, or He provided to a line of men a "certain gift of truth". Those who deny that Christ provided to a line of men a "certain gift of truth" should be pressed directly on the possibility in their ecclesiology of true ecclesial unity. A careful examination will show it to be quite impossible, and for that reason rightly to be rejected. Grace builds upon nature, but those who deny that Christ provided to a line of men a "certain gift of truth" would need a miracle greater than the filling of the ark to bring about true ecclesial unity. That is Satan's lie, that man himself, by his democratic consensus, can establish the unity of Christ's Body. Implicit in that lie is the notion that the Church is not one. But God already made the Church one, as St. Cyprian explained. She is the "one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church". We do not make the Church one. We become one with the Church, and lead others to do so as well. The notion that Church unity is to come through democracy is the message of a contemporary Wormtongue.


Anonymous said...

Excellent post.

Bryan Cross said...

Thanks Tim. Happy Thanksgiving to you.

- Bryan

contrarian 78 said...

I enjoyed considering your position with this post, especially with the Lord of the Rings analogies.

Here is another book/movie that comes to my mind, however. I can't decide if it speaks well or if it speaks poorly of the non-individualistic position, but in thinking of the claims of Rome this scene comes to mind.

In Star Wars Episode II, Anakin was talking to Padme about politics, and this dialogue (which is leaps and bounds inferior to Tolkien's writing, I know) ensues:


PADMÉ: You really don't like politicians, do you?

ANAKIN: I like two or three, but I'm not really sure about
one of them. (smiling) I don't think the system works.

PADMÉ: How would you have it work?

ANAKIN: We need a system where the politicians sit down and
discuss the problem, agree what's in the best interests of
all the people, and then do it.

PADMÉ: That is exactly what we do. The trouble is that
people don't always agree. In fact, they hardly ever do.

ANAKIN: Then they should be made to.

PADMÉ: By whom? Who's going to make them?

ANAKIN: I don't know. Someone.


ANAKIN: Of course not me.

PADMÉ: But someone.

ANAKIN: Someone wise.

PADMÉ: That sounds an awful lot like a dictatorship to me.

A mischievous little grin creeps across his face.

ANAKIN: Well, if it works...


I must confess that when I see that scene and think of the disgusting fracturing that pervades Christ's body, I think that Anakin's way of thinking has a point, and it reminds me of Rome's view of authority.

This statement is a highly qualified one, but I still think think it's accurate overall.

I would state all of the qualifications here, but don't have enough time. For now I will say that the RC view of the Magisterium is such that the Pope is part of the body of bishops working to make authoritative decisions, not one lone Jedi/Sith, but much more could be said.

Further, the Jedi in those movies did have a council that made authoritative decisions based on seniority and position, such as whether Anakin was to be trained, etc.

What do you think of this comparison?


Bryan Cross said...


Thanks for your comments. One key here is the difference between direct divinely ordained authority, and authority that is democratically grounded. The Apostles were not democratically elected, nor was their authority democratically grounded. And so likewise with the bishops that the Apostles appointed. The situation being discussed by Anakin is one in which there is no such authority -- there is only democratically grounded authority. (That is not the case with an example like Aragorn, wherein presumably the king and his line was divinely established in some ancient time.)

Consider the following quotation Avery Cardinal Dulles in the latest issue of First Things:

"The successor of Peter, we believe, is intended by Christ to be the visible head of all Christians. Without accepting his ministry, Christians will never attain the kind of universal concord that God wills the Church to have as a sign and sacrament of unity. They will inevitably fall into conflict with one another regarding doctrine, discipline, and ways of worship. No church can simply institute for itself an office that has authority to pronounce finally on disputed doctrines. If it exists at all, this office must have been instituted by Christ and must enjoy the assistance of the Holy Spirit. The Petrine office is a precious gift that the Lord has given us not only for our own consolation but as something to be held in trust for the entire ­ oikoumene."

Notice how he says that no church can institute for itself an office with that kind of authority; if such an office exists, it must have been instituted by Christ. Notice also that he talks about the limitations of a democratically pursued ecumenical unity. I think he is right. If there is no Petrine office as a principium unitatis, there is no hope for the sort of unity Christ prays in John 17 that His followers would have. But that does not mean that the Petrine office must be a dictatorship, just as Christ's rule does not make Christ into a dictator. We are free to follow Christ or reject Him, and we are free to follow or reject the shepherd Christ appointed to lead His flock (John 21:15-17; Luke 22:31-32; Matthew 16:18-19). If we are each following different shepherds, there won't be unity.

I agree with you that the magisterium of the Church is not just the Pope, but includes also the bishops in communion with him. If Christ had not designated a leader among the Apostles (and thus among the bishops), there would be no protection from endless schism, and no clear indication of who and where the principium unitatis continued.

In the peace of Christ,

- Bryan