Roman Catholic Church

Loves Covers a Multitude of (Theological) Sins: Doctrine and Ecumenism

As regular readers here well know, I care a lot about Christian ecumenism (or, I would prefer to label it, “catholicity”).  I also care a good deal more than most about doctrine.  These two are often thought to be in conflict, but I don’t think they need to be.  In preparation for a discussion I will lead with some of the people of my church, I drew up a list of assertions explaining my position about why “catholicity” is obligatory, and possible without sacrificing doctrine.  Any of these can be expanded, and I would welcome feedback on anything that seems to lack clarity, charity, or verity.  (Sorry, I couldn’t resist.) (more…)


A Tale of Two Priesthoods

It is often claimed that one insuperable difference between Protestants and Catholics is that Protestants, since Luther, believe in the priesthood of all believers, while Catholics believe Christians need a priest to bring them to God.  Today this is usually a Protestant accusation against Catholics, although in the sixteenth century Luther’s notion of the priesthood of all believers, including illiterate and semi-literate peasants, did come in for a certain amount of ridicule from some of the more educated members of the clergy.  Some of the wilder branches of Protestantism have gone further than Luther, even rejecting, on the claimed basis of the “priesthood of all believers,” any ordained clergy whatsoever (this includes the Plymouth Brethren and the Quakers), while many “Bible-believing” Protestants draw a sharp distinction between Roman Catholic priests and their own pastors or elders.  As with so many things, however, the disagreement between the denominations over the scope of the priesthood is based more on an argument over words than over the substance of what the Bible says.  There are substantive disagreements in Roman Catholic and various Protestant understandings of priesthood(s), but the “argument” over the priesthood or not of all believers can safely be put down to a deficiency of northern European languages like English, which have one word where Greek has two, and a desire on both sides of the argument to affirm the superiority of their group over those who disagree with them.


Dumb Enough for Jesus

I became a Christian over a decade ago.  It was a surprise to me and to all who knew me.  After all, I am a nerd, of an intellectual bent, and the prevailing wisdom of my friends and acquaintances was that only stupid people were Christian.  The notion, despite abundant counter-examples both historically and locally, was that any sufficiently intelligent or sufficiently educated person would leave behind such medieval superstitions as Christianity.  When I became a Christian, I learned to praise God that I was dumb enough for Jesus, and I found biblical support for that view. (more…)

Once Saved, Always Calvinist?

One doctrinal formula which Calvinists bandy about and non-Calvinists like to mock is “once saved, always saved.”  Like almost all doctrinal formulas, this one is shorthand for a longer assertion.  It’s easy to expand it to “once a person has been saved, that person cannot lose his or her salvation.”  But that formulation still presumes that we know what we’re talking about when we say someone “is saved.”  Although this language is often used, especially among American evangelicals since the 19th C, I don’t think “saved” can meaningfully be used as an adjective as it always is, or even as an absolute verb (i.e. a verb without additional specification of the predicate).  Now, some folks who know their Bibles really well will immediately point out that the apostles used the word “saved” in various contexts without adding additional specification (Eph 2:5 and 8 come to mind).  But we must always ask, in every context, “What is the subject of the sentence saved from?”

Since the notion of “once saved, always saved” has come up recently in a few places, I thought I would re-post here an (edited) email I wrote back in 2010 in answer to a question from a friend.  First, his question:

What does it mean to be “saved”? Is it a once-and-for-all thing, or a lifelong process, or what? A fellow who grows up a believer and manifests all the signs of a Christian and then in, say, his late teens turns away from the faith: is he saved?


Petrine Primacy: An Idiosyncratic Suggestion

One of the perennial dividing issues between Roman Catholics and other Christians is the issue of Petrine Primacy.  The Roman Catholic Church claims that our Lord gave his apostle Peter universal jurisdiction over Christians everywhere, and that the popes are Peter’s successors in this role.  Unsurprisingly, other Christians have taken a dimmer view of papal claims to universal jurisdiction.  (Papal claims are not, however, unique: some have suggested that the title “Ecumenical Patriarch” for the Patriarch of Constantinople implies a claim to universal jurisdiction, and a few scribes in the Church of the East title their patriarch the “Catholicos-Patriarch of the East and of all the inhabited world.”  Indeed, a scribe in Mosul in northern Iraq even gave the so-called “Nestorian” Catholicos the title “Vicar of Christ” [syr. natar duktheh da-mshiha]!)

A few years back, as I was re-reading Boniface VIII’s encyclical Unam Sanctam (as one does), I observed that his interpretation of John 21:17 flips the imperative: Jesus commanded Peter to “Feed my sheep,” but Boniface interpreted the text as a command to Christ’s sheep to be fed by Peter.  This got me thinking.

Many critics of the papacy throughout the centuries (perhaps beginning with Origen?) suggested that when Christ said to Peter, “You are Peter, and on this rock I shall build my Church” (Matt 16:18), the rock in question is not Peter but something else, perhaps Peter’s confession, or perhaps Christ himself.  (Paul tells us that Christ is the cornerstone, but we may not require the architectural metaphors for the spiritual community to be fully consistent.)  I think this idea is nonsense: if, as is most likely, Jesus was speaking Aramaic, then what he said is, “You are Peter [Aramaic kefa, “the rock”], and on this kefa I shall build my Church.”  We know from other NT texts that the Aramaic name of Peter is Kefa.

(I shall not consider in this post whether the Roman popes are the heirs of Peter or not.  I actually have little at stake in the question, the reasons for which will become clear later, I suspect.  If they wish to claim to be Peter’s heirs, let them live according to Peter’s call.)

So, having established that Christ singled out Peter in this passage, the question is what did he single out Peter for.  What did Petrine primacy consist of?

In the context of Matt 16, there are two things mentioned, neither of which is fully clear.  “The keys of the kingdom” would suggest that Peter can open God’s kingdom for others.  The very curious grammar of the “binding” and “releasing” (something close to “what you bind on earth shall have been bound in heaven”; future perfect periphrastic constructions are rare!) is surprising, but whatever the authority consisted of, it was then given by the Lord to the disciples more generally at Matt 18:18, sandwiched between instructions for confronting a fellow believer regarding sin (confronting as a peer, one might note) and references to any two or three Christians gathered together in Christ’s name for prayer.  Neither of these phrases are very clear regarding the content of Petrine primacy, which is no doubt why Boniface only cited Matt 16 to declare that papal authority has a divine origin, not to define the content of that papal authority.

Fortunately, other passages are clearer about what is required of Peter.  Luke 22:31-32 again singles out Peter, and indicates that once he has repented of denying his Lord, he should “strengthen [his] brothers.”  In John 21:15-17, Jesus three times commanded Peter to feed Christ’s sheep.  The command is not to the sheep, but to Peter, to provide food for the sheep.  Peter’s role in the early Church was to encourage, to feed, and to serve.

And this should not surprise us.  Christ himself “did not come to be served, but to serve” (Mark 10:45).  In that same context, Christ made clear what Christian primacy had to look like: “You know that those who intend to rule over the gentiles lord it over them, and their great men exercise authority over them.  It will not be this way among you, but whoever wants to become great among you will be your servant, and whoever wants to be first among you will be the slave of all” (Mark 10:42-44).  Christian leadership does not consist in exercising authority and lordship, but in serving.  If Peter was singled out for primacy of Christian leadership, after Christ, then he was called to serve more than all others.  If Peter was called to universal Christian leadership, this means that he was obliged to serve all Christians everywhere.

And Peter understood this!  His instructions to Christian leaders forbid “lording it over those entrusted to you” (1 Pet 5:3) and admonish these leaders to be “eager to serve” (1 Pet 5:2).  That is why, in spite of all his faults and failures, Peter is a great saint and a model for us all.

But think how different the history of Christianity would be if the popes had understood Petrine primacy as a call to serve rather than an opportunity to be served.  Patriarch Michael Keroularios of Constantinople was by reputation suitably pugnacious, but it was the papal envoy Cardinal Humbert who stormed into the Hagia Sophia Cathedral in Constantinople and inaugurated the schism of 1054 by excommunicating the Greek patriarch in the pope’s name.  Who was served by this?  One of the most severe spiritual crises under papal jurisdiction was the papal schism of 1378-1415, when for over a generation multiple different people claimed to be pope and were recognized by different countries.  It’s easy to see that as politics, and easy to miss the degree to which, on medieval understandings of salvation’s dependence upon allegiance to the (correct) pope, the salvation of large segments of the population was brazenly endangered by papal grasping.  That was the crisis which gave rise to the Conciliar movement in Western Europe, the notion that when popes were sufficiently refractory, they themselves were subject to ecumenical councils.  The Conciliar movement itself was outflanked by Pope Eugenius IV at Florence, and then banned by Pope Pius II in his bull Execrabilis of 1460, which then hampered the papacy’s ability to respond positively to criticism from friend and foe alike.  Pope Leo X was not the innocent Daniel in the lion’s den of the Roman Curia, as Luther portrayed him in his dedicatory letter to his treatise The Freedom of the Christian, though Luther himself was hardly docile.

The irony is that by the time of these medieval popes, a papal title invented centuries earlier had become a fixed part of papal self-designation.  In the late 6th C, Patriarch John IV of Constantinople assumed the title “Ecumenical Patriarch.”  This might be taken to imply jurisdiction over the entire inhabited world (the “oikoumene,” from which the title “ecumenical” is derived).  Pope Pelagius II protested the title as a usurpation of papal prerogative, but his successor Pope Gregory I had a different response: he disliked John IV, but he did not dispute the title.  Instead, Pope Gregory adopted the title servus servorum Christi (“the servant of Christ’s servants”).  If John of Constantinople claimed preeminent status, Gregory claimed preeminent service, and in so doing he captured perfectly the Lord’s calling for Peter.  According to the 1913 Catholic Encyclopedia, the title was used by some popes after Gregory and not others, and occasionally by bishops or others, but by the tenth century the title was claimed by all subsequent popes, and after 1200 or so was used exclusively by popes, even the very popes whose arrogance and lordliness contradicted Christ’s teachings on the nature of Christian leadership.

I suspect that the more that popes take this title and Peter’s calling as their agenda, the more Christians will wish to be fed by the Roman pontiff.


Most people assume that they know what the word “Catholic” means, but in fact, it means several different things.  Some of the more common meanings are:

1. “Not Protestant.”  The Anglophone world has been dominated by Protestant varieties of Christianity for almost half a millennium, and for much of that time “Catholic” has been used as a denominational label, on a par with “Lutheran” and “Baptist.”  Of course, there are many Christians who are neither Protestant nor Catholic (I’m not thinking of Anglican proponents of a via media here, but rather thinking of Greek and Russian Orthodox, as well as Arab, Syrian, Coptic, and Assyrian branches of Christianity).

2. “Christians who like sacraments, candles, high liturgy with colorful vestments, incense, praying to saints, ecclesiastical hierarchy, and medieval theologians.”  The advantage of this definition is that it is at least positive instead of simply a rejection of Protestantism.  This is the meaning of “Catholic” in the phrase “Anglo-Catholic,” which refers to Anglicans with a fondness for “smells & bells.”  But again, many of these elements (with a different selection of medieval theologians) would characterize varieties of Eastern Christianity.

3. “Part of the Christian denomination presided over by the Roman Pope.”  This excludes both Anglo-Catholics and sede vacantists, the latter being traditionalist Roman Catholics who feel that the recent popes have deviated from traditional Catholic teaching and therefore are not valid popes.  (The name comes from the Latin sede vacante, meaning “while the [papal] throne is vacant.”)  Although a narrower definition than the preceding two, it is not necessarily that much more precise, as there are a variety of ways to define membership in the Roman Catholic Church.  The church hierarchy itself reports membership numbers which include all those baptized into the denomination, regardless of whether they still attend mass or profess to believe any aspect of doctrine, although some rigorists would exclude such nominal Catholics from their definition.

4. “The true Christian Church founded by Christ, present wherever true Christians are.”  This sense of “Catholic” opposes it to “schismatic,” people in a particular locale or region who break away from all Christians elsewhere.  This is the sense in which Augustine used the term in his writings in the 4th and 5th centuries (he certainly didn’t use the term to mean “non-Protestant”!), and is the sense in which Protestants and Orthodox as well as Catholics recite the Nicene Creed’s confession of “one holy, catholic, and apostolic Church.”  It would be strange indeed for non-Roman Catholics to recite a creed saying, “I believe there is one true Church over there, and I am not part of it.”

5. In the phrases “Catholic truth” or “Catholic teaching,” it refers to teaching that is universally held among Christians, as opposed to distinctive beliefs of Christians in one area or one group.  Vincent of Lérins offered what has become the most widely accepted definition of “Catholic” in this sense: “What is believed everywhere, always, and by all.”  Of course, universals always require a scope, which Vincent does not make explicit, but “everywhere” and “always” should of course be taken to mean wherever and whenever there were Christians.  “By all” is trickier, because Vincent would presumably not have included heretics such as gnostics or schismatics such as Novatianists in his category of “all,” but if one narrows the category too much then “by all” becomes tautological: any belief is believed by all who believe it.

The contentious question, then, is what these different senses of the term “Catholic” refer to.  Basically everyone agrees that senses #1 and #2 are larger than #3 (this is empirically verifiable).  Between the Council of Trent (the Roman papacy’s answer to the Protestant Reformation) and the First Vatican Council (1868-1870), the Roman Catholic party line was that senses #3-5 simply refer to the same group of people.  They interpreted the patristic doctrine extra ecclesia nulla salus (“outside of the Church no one is saved”) as referring to the Roman Catholic Church specifically, in keeping with the teaching of Pope Boniface VIII (d. 1303) in his bull Unam Sanctam that submission to the Pope was absolutely necessary for salvation.  On this view, all true Christians were within the Roman Catholic Church (although the converse did not hold: those within the Roman Catholic Church were not necessarily true Christians), and “Catholic truth” was that body of doctrine taught by “all” the bishops of the Roman Catholic Church, i.e. the magisterium.  Protestants were ipso facto condemned.

Meanwhile Protestants took a few different lines.  Protestant theologians all (or almost all) asserted that they were part of the “one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church,” which required explaining “catholic” differently than loyalty to the pope.  Since the papacy rejected almost all of the reforms proposed by Protestants, many Protestants viewed senses #3 and #4 above as mutually exclusive, although some followed Luther in allowing for a little overlap.  The lack of a unified anti-papal organization distinguished the notion of a “Catholic Church” in this sense from an institutional unity, so that shared doctrine as indicated in sense #5 became more important as a definition of Christian unity and the key to recognizing good Christians who belong to other denominations.

Eastern Orthodox (and Oriental Orthodox and the Church of the East) had long earlier concluded that submission to the Roman pope was not the defining character of the Church of Christ, and they too continue to confess into their creed that they are part of the Catholic Church.  There are different self-governing ecclesiastical hierarchies among both the Eastern Orthodox (Greek, Russian, Bulgarian, Serbian, Rum Orthodox, Georgian, etc.)  and Oriental Orthodox (Armenian, Syrian, Coptic, Ethiopic), so they too concluded that one or another hierarchy was not as important as orthodox doctrine and sacramental unity (shared communion), although they do emphasize the visible unity of the church and the apostolic succession of the bishops to a greater degree than Protestants.  It is obvious to anyone who knows Greek that the term “catholic” comes from καθ’ ὅλην ἐκκλήσιαν (“according to the whole church”) or ἡ καθ’ ὅλην γῆν ἐκκλήσια (“the church in all the land”), and makes no mention of the pope or hierarchy; “catholic doctrine” in sense #5 was understood to refer to “ecumenical councils,” that is, councils which (at least notionally) involved the entirety of the Church and whose decisions were accepted by the Church.

With the modern ecumenical movement, many Protestants dropped the requirement of shared doctrine from their definition of the Catholic (i.e. universal) Church, and have recognized other Christians with whom they have larger theological disagreements.  On this model, sense #3 of “Catholic” describes a part of the group indicated by sense #4.  On the other hand, the Roman Catholic Church at Vatican II adopted as dogma the negation of Pope Boniface VIII’s requirement: it is not absolutely necessary for salvation to be in submission to the Roman pontiff.  (This has caused conservative Catholic sources I have looked at to resolve the tension by arguing one of the following: (1) Unam Sanctam does not in fact fulfill the requirements of the Vatican I definition of papal infallibility, (2) Unam Sanctam does not mean that it is absolutely necessary for salvation to be in submission to the Roman pope, or (3) Vatican II and subsequent popes are apostates and not true Catholics).  Instead, Christians and even non-Christians of good will can be saved.  The doctrine extra ecclesia nulla salus has been reinterpreted to mean that all who are saved are in some sense (without knowing it) spiritually connected to and dependent upon the Roman Catholic Church, even if they reject and repudiate the Roman Catholic Church they know (although perhaps they can’t be virtuous enough for salvation if they reject it too vociferously).  On this view, the Roman Catholic Church (sense #3 of “Catholic”) is still the one and only universal Church (sense #4 of “Catholic”), but now both definitions have significant footnotes: the Roman Catholic Church is held to have this non-visible wing of people who are evidently outside of it but mystically inside of it, and some of them are probably Christians of other denominations (which are not therefore, as denominations, other churches or other parts of the sense #4 “Catholic” Church).  Sense #5 is still understood to be the teaching of the Roman Magisterium, although it is progressively more difficult to interpret all the various teachings throughout the ages consistently, and so some, such as Pope Boniface VIII’s Unam Sanctam, get quietly neglected.

“Ecumenical” is still a dirty word among many Eastern and Oriental Orthodox Christians, although their participation in the World Council of Churches has helped them see commonalities across Christological divisions.

Is the Roman Catholic Church the Catholic Church?  Is the Pope Catholic?  Depending upon whom you ask, the answers will vary.  But in light of varying meanings of the term “Catholic,” it is important in our ecumenical discussions not to equivocate, but to distinguish the different senses of the term, even for those of us who believe there is a common referent.