The Origins of Papal Power and Dissent

This last week I have been deep in study of issues related to the papacy. Let me set the scene here.

Several weeks ago, the news broke out of the major cover ups high up in the Roman Catholic Church relating to the sex scandals. While I had years ago studied, as every good Reformed Protestant should, the doctrinal and practical problems with the Roman religious edifice, I was suddenly lurched back into the topic after listening to Tom Woods’ podcast episode with Roger McCaffrey and Steve Skojec. It was fascinating to listen to this libertarian hero of mine shed some light on the politics of the Catholic crisis.

Tom Woods, for those that don’t know, is a very traditional catholic in a sense that is not merely descriptive of his catholic commitments. He was actually a well-regarded catholic scholar who helped to fuel the rising, and dissenting, Traditionalist camp within western Catholic circles. He was a scholarly contributor to the literature which urged dissent from the modernist tendencies of Rome that were largely exacerbated by the 1960s ecumenical council Vatican II.

Now, dissent in the Roman Church is fascinating to me and there are a lot of vague aspects of it, among both Protestants and Roman Catholics alike. Contrary to Catholic apologetic claims, the status of the papacy as an infallible and trustworthy interpreter of Scripture and upholder of the One True Faith, has not prevented division in their church. James White always points this out: Protestants are always blamed by Catholics of having no weapon against doctrinal chaos because, well, people can believe whatever they want and denominations can be started on a whim. The Catholic Church, however, is unified because it all exists under the doctrinal oversight of Rome.

This is a matter for another time, but the point is that Catholics are very divided about what to do with Vatican II and the rise of modernism and Progressivism in their church. Thus, Woods, McCaffrey, and Skojec, expressed immense frustration over the recent catholic crisis, implying at several points that if Rome had spent the last several decades getting back to her roots and not trying to fit in with fashionable opinion (as Tom Woods calls it) on social, philosophical, and cultural issues then, well, maybe it would have been able to prevent this crisis from reaching this point.

After all, the highly controversial current pope, Francis, urged silence on proof of conspiracy to protect the guilty in these sex accusations, while declaring global warming something of an international emergency! Talk about priorities.

But what is the catholic to do? Can the catholic even criticize Rome in this matter? These Traditionalists, who are not to be confused with “Conservative Catholics” in a more colloquial sense, dissent from the entire modernist adoption by Rome. Woods and Ferrara categorize both Conservative and Liberal mainstream catholics as right and left wing Neo-catholics. For readers interested in the libertarian movement, once senses the same thrust behind the categorization of mainstream conservatives today as “Neo-cons.” And this sense would be right (and for the record, I am totally fine with these categorizations and distinctions).

Thus, their criticism of Rome reaches way back to the Progressive era. See Tom Woods’ early book The Church Confronts Modernity: Catholic Intellectuals and the Progressive Era.

The largest and most complete contribution to the Traditionalist dissent can be found in a book that Tom Woods co-authored with a lawyer Christopher Ferrara: The Great Facade. This book was criticized for literally making an effort toward schism in the Catholic Church, which Woods and Ferrara denied on the basis of their commitment to the legitimacy of the current Pope. Nevertheless, one reviewer pointed the finger at the Ferrara/Woods thesis as such:

It is an old story in the history of the Church: Those who distrust the Magisterium and refuse to be guided by its interpretation of what constitutes “Tradition” and what liturgical and ecclesiastical practices are in conformity with “Tradition”, are invariably led to acts of disobedience, and later, open schism.

And, aware of the growing dissent in the Roman church, Pope Paul VI addressed it with”

There are those, who, under the pretext of a greater fidelity to the Church and the Magisterium, systematically refuse the teaching of the Council itself, its application and the reforms that stem from it, its gradual application by the Apostolic See and the Episcopal Conferences, under our authority, willed by Christ. Discredit is cast upon the authority of the Church in the name of a Tradition, to which respect is professed only materially and verbally. The faithful are drawn away from the bonds of obedience to the See of Peter and to their rightful bishops: today’s authority is rejected in the name of yesterday’s… It is painful to take note of this: but how can we not see in such an attitude -whatever may be these people’s intentions- the placing of themselves outside obedience and communion with the Successor of Peter and therefore outside the Church.

Here is where my fascination in what is going on took root: what is the nature of Rome’s authority over the church? Is distrusting the Magisterium (the teaching authority of the Papacy) and refusing to be guided by it appropriate for the Catholic lay member? Obviously the answer, once again, is that there are varying opinions on this. Most mainstream catholics and would affirm that this level of harsh dissent is inappropriate, perhaps worthy of discipline. Vatican II was an ecumenical council and therefore its decisions are good and final.

But if dissent is warranted, as the Traditionalists claim, then what is to be said of the Pope’s alleged infallibility– for 1/3 of the pillar of religious authority is the teaching power of the church (the other two being Sacred Tradition and Sacred Scripture)? This is where it gets tricky. For the Traditionalists, there were no new dogmas produced by Vatican II, therefore the documents that resulted from the council were not matters of “morals and faith,” but of a pastoral, practical, and liturgical nature. Or, in their words, “the neo-Catholic obliterates any distinction… between the doctrinal and disciplinary decrees of popes and Councils — it’s all infallible.”

But since the traditionalists apparently do distinguish between these decree types, it is therefore appropriate to dissent from Vatican II since those decrees were not of the doctrinal nature. As Ferrara and Woods write in the Great Facade,

Neither that Council nor the post-conciliar popes have imposed “as a matter of doctrine to be held by the faithful any explicit theological error.”

To remind the reader, as a Reformed Christian who considers the Roman Church to preach a false gospel and who therefore considers Roman Catholicism as separate religion from Biblical Christianity, all these summaries I have made are purely descriptive in nature.

But what I am interested in is the origin and development of this debate. Biblically speaking, I believe Christians do have a right to dissent from false teaching and false teachers (this is implied in the doctrine of sola scriptura and the fact that Christians are not bound to a single outward physical church organization). But historically speaking, the great question is whether Rome herself divides up her authority between doctrinal and disciplinary concerns in a way that allows dissent from the latter. There is indeed a Great Crisis confronting the modern Roman Catholic Church. I –and other Reformed Christians– are outside observers on this matter. We are not part of the Roman Catholic Church. And the crisis is going to bring to the surface a lot of questions about Papal authority. Secularists are going to make moves against religion, Catholic participants are going to either jump ship completely or choose a side (to dissent or to support the Pope’s reactions to all this). Thus, it is high time for Protestants to be aware of the background of all this.

Hence my recent readings.

One of the books I had browsed several years ago, which is one my current readings, is called Papal Power by Henry Hudson. He expresses the problem with trying to figure all this out: “How can it be,” he asks, that the first Vatican Council adhered to tradition in regards to papal infallibility in order to, for the very first time, define it if this concept does not even “appear in the New Testament.”

It must lie somewhere along the trajectory of history, which means historians must research a complex concatenation of historical circumstances in order to discover how the tradition was started in the first place.

After all, this doctrine does not appear in the writings of the Church Fathers, most of whom held to the ideas behind sola scriptura; or if, they didn’t, they were considered heretics but in any case none of theme referred to the infallibility of the Pope as the vicar of Christ– after all, the office wasn’t even established in yet! So when did it all start? It’s actually difficult to answer this question, to document it. Hudson refers to a 1972 book which touches on the topic:

According to the work of Brian Tierney (Origins of Papal Infallibility, 1150-1350), the doctrine emerged in the years around 1300. Of course, it did not appear out of thin air. Papal power must have achieved such heights that a doctrinal claim of so great a consequence could be argued seriously. How then did such power come into existence? Obviously, the historical dimensions to the question cannot be avoided.

As has been noted, the first five centuries of Christianity knew little or nothing about an actual supreme rulership of the Roman pope over all the churches. What then, from a historical point of view, could make such an unprecedented claim possible?

Hudson’s first suggestion, which will be elaborated on later, is that

there seems to be a definite correlation between the power vacuum created by the demise of the ancient Roman civilization and the growth and development of papal power at Rome.

He quotes a Renaissance era historian to the effect that Constantinople’s taking of the imperial seat was the occasion of the origin of papal power. He also quotes Thomas Hobbes:

[The papacy] is no other than the ghost of the deceased Roman Empire, sitting crowned upon the grave thereof. For so did the papacy start up on a sudden out of the ruins of that heathen power.

That is, as Hudson observes, “responsibilities of a more secular nature were thrust upon the Church.” As Hudson quotes Norman Cantor, “The popes took over the role of the Caesars.”

As a final word, it is an interesting place to be to watch the modernism that destroys western civilization and Biblical Christianity also destroy the traditional catholic formulations. The traditional catholic formulations, of course, are not Biblical or praiseworthy. But the modernism that has entered the battleground in the Catholic Church to destroy it from the inside is all around us. One does not have to defend Traditional Catholicism to recognize this. Biblical Christianity– and the gospel itself– is under attack.

More thoughts to come.

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