Justification, unity, and papacy: A blind spot

Catechism of the Catholic ChurchOne of the most frequent charges I hear, when I point out the inherent chaos and disunity of Protestantism, is that “there is a lot of disagreement in the Catholic Church, too” — that somehow disagreements within the Catholic Church are equivalent to, or excuse, the fundamental doctrinal disagreements between diverse Protestant churches. In particular, opponents point out the large number of self-identified Catholics who practice artificial birth control or support abortion or same-sex marriage in contradiction to the teachings of the Church. My response is that there is a fundamental distinction between what the Church teaches — the one, consistent, unified and unambiguous teaching of the Church’s infallible Magisterium, as summarized in the Catechism of the Catholic Church — and what individual Catholics do and believe, the doings and failings of fallible people who may make mistakes and stray from the flock. Even if a large number of people should disagree, sin, or fall away from the truth, it does not change the truth that is taught or besmirch the teacher.

The leading charge of the Protestant Reformation is that the Church had fallen away from a true understanding of the doctrine of justification as taught by St. Paul — that in contrast to the claims of Protestants, that justification is “by faith alone” (sola fide), the Catholic Church taught a doctrine of “works’ righteousness,” that somehow by our own working we can deserve or earn our own salvation. I have written a lot on justification and presented frequently here that this is not what the Catholic Church actually teaches. I have attempted to make the distinction before, and I have a new post in the docket in which I want to explore the point further: Catholics do believe in justification by faith and not our own efforts; where Protestants disagree is only in proposing that no human response at all is necessary.

Antonio Rodríguez - Saint Augustine

Antonio Rodríguez, Saint Augustine (Wikimedia).

It’s clear from history that the Church has never actually taught a doctrine of “works’ righteousness,” the thesis that man, by his own effort, can in any way save himself. This is the heresy of Pelagianism, which the Catholic Church has always and consistently condemned. Saint Augustine, Saint Thomas Aquinas, and other monuments of Catholic theology consistently maintain that justification is only by the grace of God through faith and not human effort. Alister McGrath, in his brilliant Iustitia Dei: A History of the Doctrine of Justification, demonstrates convincingly that even throughout the rigorous scholastic debates of the Middle Ages, the teachers of the Church never abandoned the orthodoxy that no effort or merit of man can save him apart from God’s grace. The teaching of the Church, then, I’ve believed, was always consistent in teaching justification by God’s grace alone: what the Protestant Reformers charged and challenged was nothing new and nothing needed.

A blind spot

Gentile da Fabriano, Thomas Aquinas, detail from Valle Romita polyptych, c. 1400 (Wikimedia).

In my recent forays into the history of the Reformation era, I’ve come to realize that in this I may have had a blind spot. Despite the Church’s consistent condemnation of Pelagianism (“works’ righteousness”); despite the clear teachings of Augustine and Thomas and other theological lights; the situation among the Catholic faithful and even many clergy in the late Middle Ages and early modern era prior to the Reformation may have been much like the situation today — with many believing something that wasn’t true, something that was contrary to the actual teachings of the Church. And this idea of the “actual teachings of the Church”: to presume the kind of monolithic unity that we have today, to be able to point at a single compendium of doctrine, the Catechism, and say, “This is the one, consistent teaching of the Catholic Church” — may be projecting an anachronism onto that era. There was no such book in the sixteenth century; there were few printed books at all, at the dawn of the age of printing, and the vast majority of the faithful were illiterate. The “one, consistent teaching of the Catholic Church” was scattered among myriad tomes, among the writings of numerous Church Fathers and the canons of numerous councils; and though it was one and consistent, it was not digestible in a form that any but the most learned academic could grasp. In practice, the actual teaching of the Catholic Church was what individual bishops and priests actually taught the faithful, and the truth is, in very many cases this was pretty shoddy.

John Calvin

John Calvin, by Titian (16th century) (Wikimedia).

For Protestants, the doctrine of justification is the very core of the Gospel, the fundamental essence of the truth, the sine qua non of salvation. This emphasis on justification may be myopic: Sacred Scripture devotes only a few words in a few passages to the idea of justification — much more pervasive ideas being the love and mercy and grace of God. Prior to Augustine in combating Pelagianism, no Christian author paid much attention to the doctrine of justification; in him, both Catholics and Protestants find the foundations of their doctrines. In Eastern Christianity, justification has never been a major focus, let alone the cornerstone of the Gospel. In the West, between the times of Augustine and the Council of Trent, the mechanics of justification were mostly a subject for scholastic exposition and debate, not “the doctrine by which the Church stands or falls.” So I think Protestants too have something of a blind spot in this regard.

But I concede that a lack of emphasis on justification and grace by the teachers of the faithful in the early modern era may have led to poor understandings by many about something that is crucial: how we can have a relationship with God, and how we can be saved. When Protestant preachers arrived on the scene in the sixteenth century, in many cases the idea of justification by faith alone caught on like wildfire, to those who felt they had been striving in themselves for salvation. Even if this belief in human effort leading to salvation was an incorrect understanding of what was in fact the true and orthodox Christian doctrine, it was the failure of the Church, in her individual pastors, to teach that truth. As much as we may deplore the breakdown of Christian unity that followed in their wake, in this even Catholics owe the Protestant Reformers a debt of gratitude, in returning the focus of Christian teaching to the grace of God.

The failure of the papacy?

Brad S. Gregory, The Unintended Reformation

I recently read a review of Brad S. Gregory’s book The Unintended Reformation by Reformed author Carl Trueman. In Gregory’s book, he argues that many of the foibles of modernity, in secularism and postmodernism, were the unintended fruits of the Protestant Reformation’s denial of authority, and the resulting diversity of Protestant interpretations of Scripture and inability to affirm one, unified truth. Trueman’s response is essentially, “That may be so, but what you offer is even worse.” “Perspicuity [the belief that the Scriptures themselves teach a single, clear truth] was, after all,” Trueman writes, “a response to a position that had proved to be a failure: the Papacy.”

Alexander VI

Alexander VI (Cesare Borgia), one of the more notorious Renaissance popes. (Wikimedia)

I was taken aback to read this. The papacy — a failure? Honestly, in all my years, even as a Protestant, I don’t think such a thought ever crossed my mind, that the institution of the papacy was a failure. Trueman presents several respects in which he thinks the papacy was a failure: the medieval papacy was corrupt and caught up in politics and worldiness; the Western Schism of the papacy was such a mess that it took several councils just to sort out who the pope was; the early modern papacy failed to reform the Church with due speed and diligence following the Fifth Lateran Council even when many corruptions and failures were known. Yes, these things are all true. I would add my own: many popes of the medieval and early modern papacy failed to make the pastoral care of souls their chief concern; failed to make teaching the doctrines of the faith the heart of their work; failed to appoint bishops who would do the same. There was a breakdown, and yes, reform was desperately needed. But was the breakdown, the failure, in the office of the papacy, or in the men who held it, who allowed the world to pull their focus from what it should be?

Perhaps the most central concern is whether the papacy is a failure for what we maintain Christ intended it to be: as a guarantor of the truth and unity and orthodoxy of the faith. Yes, some men who held the office of the papacy were failures in some respects: they failed to be “good Christians,” perhaps even good pastors; they failed to keep the heart of the gospel, the salvation of souls, at the center of their concerns. Perhaps they even failed as teachers, in that they could have taught the truth, and overseen the teaching of the bishops, with much better clarity and focus and consistency. But we look to the papacy as the final safeguard between orthodoxy and heterodoxy, the one to whom all other bishops must guide in teaching the truth, to ensure that error is not taught. In this respect, the only way that the institution of the papacy could be a failure is if the pope in fact taught error with regard to doctrine or morals. As near as I can figure, this has never happened. In contrast to the to multiplicity of contradictory interpretations from “perspicuous” Scripture alone, the papacy has taught a single course of doctrine.

The triumph of the papacy

The Council of Trent

The Council of Trent.

So some men of the papacy failed, for a time, even for centuries. Perhaps if popes had done better at keeping the Church on the right course, if they had been reforming the Church all along, then the violent upheavals of the Protestant Reformation might never have occurred. But I maintain that in its essential purpose, the papacy never failed at all — not the way dependence on the “perspicuity” of Scripture has failed. And even the men of the papacy did not fail forever. I would argue that the Council of Trent and the Counter-Reformation, the way that, by God’s grace, the Catholic Church reformed itself, reaffirmed her doctrines, and has driven forward into modernity with a renewed heart and focus, is the greatest triumph of the papacy. I would argue that many modern popes — for example, Pius V, Pius X, and even the popes of recent memory, John Paul II, Benedict XVI and Francis, do present to the world the gospel of Christ the way a pastor and successor of Saint Peter should. Having divested itself of political and temporal encumbrances, and gained the publicity of mass communications media, the papacy of today, rather than being a “failure,” is succeeding in its mission of maintaining the unity of the faith and guiding the Church toward the gospel and salvation of Christ, perhaps better than it has in many centuries.

19 thoughts on “Justification, unity, and papacy: A blind spot

        • OK, OK. Enough snarkiness from me…sorry.

          To answer your question, the unam sanctum was just poorly done. I mean, the proof-text that is used for the church having both temporal and spiritual authority is that Peter was told by Jesus, “put up thy sword into thy scabbard.” That is not exactly the greatest text to site for such a topic. Not a very telling passage. Not one that I would go to for any seat of doctrine.

          Next, the math is all wrong. First, the bull says, “of the one and only Church there is one body and one head,” and then it says, “not two heads like a monster; that is, Christ and the Vicar of Christ, Peter…” It is saying that there is one head of the church–Christ and the Vicar of Christ (Peter). Doesn’t Christ plus Peter equal two?? Read it and you’ll see what I mean.

          Finally, the last sentence is just beyond me, and it is quite clear. It says, “Furthermore, we declare, we proclaim, we define that it is absolutely necessary for salvation that every human creature be subject to the Roman Pontiff.”

          The pope is not Jesus. The pope is not apostolic, that is to say, not sent out by Jesus to proclaim the gospel with the other 11 (or 10, depending on if you count Matthias). Therefore, the pope has no more authority than you or I to make such a statement. Am I to be baptized and to receive the Holy Spirit…yes. Am I to repent of my sins and to receive absolution…yes. Am I to receive the body and the blood of the Lord in Holy Communion…yes. Am I to accept the papal bulls as inspired documents from the mouth of the One and Only Triune God…heavens no.

          I know that Rome teaches tradition and the voice of the fathers as part of the faith handed down through the ages…but on the subject of the pope being the head of all the church–the one overseer to rule them all–I do not see, and the other overseers do not see, the right for Rome to lord it over the other apostles. Nor did Jesus mandate him as lord over all the other apostles.

          OK. That’s all. I’m done.

          PS> Have you read the Unam Sanctam? http://www.papalencyclicals.net/Bon08/B8unam.htm
          It’s just…well I think you see what I mean.

          • So basically, you don’t like the bull, don’t agree with it, think it’s poorly done, etc. But how does any of this equate the failure of the papacy as an institution?

          • Look, far be it from me to just disagree with the Word of God. To take it flippantly or call it poor in any way. But that is not the case here. Indeed, the Word of God stands true no matter what I have to say about it, no matter how I feel about it, and apart from me altogether. This is how it is with any document written under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. However, in the case of the Unam Sanctam, the Pope was speaking under his own inspiration, and misapplying the scriptures at that. Therefore, the institution fails where it fails to teach the truth. And to do so while claiming to make proclamation in the name of the Lord Jesus is even worse. That my friend is a failure of epic proportions, and deserves a healthy dose of repentance on the part of the Pope. (Not that he would ever relinquish his throne, though it would serve the church greatly in matters of unity and peace.)

          • No one claims that papal documents are “inspired” by the Holy Spirit in the same way as Scripture. Neither does anyone suppose that a pope is inerrant, incapable of making mistakes. A pope is certainly capable of “misapplying Scriptures,” though this is a matter of your own opinion, and reading the document, these appear to me to be perfectly reasonable allegorical applications.

      • Are you sure? What about this from Vatican I, Chapter 4, Section 9:

        9. Therefore, faithfully adhering to the tradition received from the beginning of the Christian faith, to the glory of God our savior, for the exaltation of the Catholic religion and for the salvation of the Christian people, with the approval of the Sacred Council, we teach and define as a divinely revealed dogma that when the Roman Pontiff speaks EX CATHEDRA, that is, when, in the exercise of his office as shepherd and teacher of all Christians, in virtue of his supreme apostolic authority, he defines a doctrine concerning faith or morals to be held by the whole Church, he possesses, by the divine assistance promised to him in blessed Peter, that infallibility which the divine Redeemer willed his Church to enjoy in defining doctrine concerning faith or morals. Therefore, such definitions of the Roman Pontiff are of themselves, and not by the consent of the Church, irreformable.

        So then, should anyone, which God forbid, have the temerity to reject this definition of ours: let him be anathema.


        And this from the same chapter, section 6 and 7:

        6. For the Holy Spirit was promised to the successors of Peter not so that they might, by his revelation, make known some new doctrine, but that, by his assistance, they might religiously guard and faithfully expound the revelation or deposit of faith transmitted by the apostles.

        Indeed, their apostolic teaching was embraced by all the venerable fathers and reverenced and followed by all the holy orthodox doctors, for they knew very well that this See of St. Peter always remains unblemished by any error, in accordance with the divine promise of our Lord and Savior to the prince of his disciples: I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail; and when you have turned again, strengthen your brethren [60].

        7. This gift of truth and never-failing faith was therefore divinely conferred on Peter and his successors in this See so that they might discharge their exalted office for the salvation of all, and so that the whole flock of Christ might be kept away by them from the poisonous food of error and be nourished with the sustenance of heavenly doctrine. Thus the tendency to schism is removed and the whole Church is preserved in unity, and, resting on its foundation, can stand firm against the gates of hell.


        I know that not every document from the pope is EX CATHEDRA, but in the case of the Unam Sanctam, it was. I also know that the pope himself is not said to be inerrant…but, according to the above, when in exercising his teaching office while speaking EX CATHEDRA, he is, “unblemished by any error,” and keeps the flock away from, “the poisonous food of error,” and is, “irreformable.”

        Methinks the doctrine of the establishment of the papacy is a bit puffed up–originating from man and not from our dear and good Lord Jesus Christ.

        P.S. I saw your post on your Pentecostal origins. You and I are in good company–we just landed on two different ends of the Catholic Church. Mine was the reformed 1580 end, yours was the reformed end that dealt with the aftermath of Luther in the negative. I still think you Romans are part of the church…you do, after all, believe in the good news of the gospel as defined in 1 Cor 15: 1-11. We are so close–yet so very far apart.

        • Yes, I’m sure. You are presuming that papal infallibility entails something like the inerrancy or inspiration of Scripture. It does not. You are presuming that because a particular document is held to be an ex cathedra pronouncement, that every part of said document is therefore equally ex cathedra and infallible. This is not the case. I’m not a scholar of papal documents, but by my reading, the only part of Unam sanctam that takes the form of a dogmatic, ex cathedra declaration is the final sentence: “Furthermore, we declare, we proclaim, we define …” The rest of the document, the parts you are arguing are flawed, is the pope’s own argument in support of this conclusion.

          Thanks. I am glad to belong to the non-schismatic end. 😉

          • So what we’re dealing with is not IF a document is infallible, but WHAT part is or is not deemed to be, by one person or another, an ex cathedra pronouncement. But when it IS actually ex cathedra, then it is without error, according to the verbatim from the above passage, since it merely repeats the teaching of scripture. I’m just trying to get this straight so as to not play around with straw men and such.

            You are my best source–you non-schismatic, lol.

            And…I’m just happy to be on the doctrinally pure end. 😛

          • Whether a statement is or is not an ex cathedra declaration is not arbitrary or subjective. As you should be able to tell, the final sentence of Unam sanctam is formally different than the rest. Compare, for example, the two modern dogmatic declarations, of the Immaculate Conception (Ineffabilis Deus) and the Assumption (Munificentissimus Deus) respectively. There is a lot of beating around the bush, offering support from Scripture and Tradition for the declaration about to be made, then the formal declaration: “We pronounce, declare, and define.” This is the ex cathedra declaration.

            Given the further fragmentation (disintegration) of your tradition, and the dubious “doctrinal purity” of the greater part of it, I’m not sure you have much room for bragging.

  1. The Lutheran tradition only follows the church Catholic, and still remains today. And we do have teachers and overseers who are equipped and trained for the purpose of enlightening the truth of Scripture–the Word of the Lord–to those who wish to hear and learn. I am sorry that you were not so privileged under your “Pentecostal” upbringing. You must have be quite frustrated–and at the same time overjoyed as well–to come into a wealth of knowledge that you had formerly known nothing about, but that had been there all the time. I know the feeling. Sorry if I came off as bragging. I was just trying to be academically jovial, as I thought that you were. Peace.

    I cannot help but comment on the Unam sanctam just once more. Under the part that was spoken ex cathedra, since I do not place myself under the subjection of the Roman Pontiff, nor recognize his authority, I am therefore definitively outside of salvation–according to the Roman Church. And so are all my brethren. That is quite the tough pill to swallow.

    • No worries. I was likewise being jovially, academically snooty. 😉

      Yes, it’s true that Unam sanctam dogmatically defines that being “subject to the Roman Pontiff” is necessary for salvation. However, the reality of what this means is more complicated than a simple statement, and hinges on the question of what is the Church. The argument of Unam sanctam is founded on the oneness of the Church as the Body of Christ and the necessity of belonging to that Body for salvation. Even accepting the declaration of Unam sanctam as a true statement, the (“Roman”) Catholic Church has never denied the possibility of salvation for the Eastern Orthodox, for example; never denied the efficacy of Baptism in the name of the Triune God for uniting even rank heretics to Christ; and never taught that the separated brethren of the Protestant Reformation are definitively outside salvation. The Second Vatican Council taught, with just as much infallible authority as Unam sanctam, that “many elements of sanctification and of truth are found outside of [the] visible structure” of the Catholic Church, and that even those who “do not preserve unity of communion with the successor of Peter” are “in some real way … joined with us in the Holy Spirit, for to them too He gives His gifts and graces whereby He is operative among them with His sanctifying power” (Lumen gentium 8, 15). So then, is this a contradiction? No. Just as the elements of the truth which your tradition still clings to “derive their efficacy from the very fullness of grace and truth entrusted to the [One] Church” (Unitatis redintegratio 3), in the same way, your communities are in some sense “subject to the Roman Pontiff” whether you recognize it or not. 😉

      A very good article by Mark Shea that makes a better argument than I have made here: Unam Sanctam: Just Exactly Where is the Church?

      • I thought you might say that. That is exactly how I would argue if I was in your shoes. Still, whether the “Roman” church assumes this or not, I cannot submit to the pope or call him the living Vicar of Christ on earth. I do not believe that is how Christ intended the church to operate and function.

        The question of, “where is the church,” is an interesting one though, and one that Lutherans had to struggle with in the years following Luther and Chemnitz. Many of the Lutheran scholastics of that day–concerned with the ordination of bishops–teased this out and came to their conclusions not without heated debate and discussion. It is a very interesting history–one that I would care to learn more of.

        Just out of wild curiosity, and since you mentioned Mark Shea, what do you think of Robert Sungenis? Do you know of him?

        • Protestants tend to misunderstand and mischaracterize the term “Vicar of Christ.” A “vicar” is not a substitute, nor is it a “representative” in the sense of a representation. A “vicar” — as the traditional English usage makes clear — is a subordinate official sent as a representative, delegate, or envoy of a superior one (cf. 2 Corinthians 5:20). A vicar in the Anglican tradition is a local pastor who represents his bishop in the local community. Traditionally, all bishops have been called “vicars of Christ” — just as, in common Evangelical parlance, I used to hear that a pastor “represents Christ” to his church and community.

          Scripture does make very clear that each local church should be subordinate to bishops (1 Timothy 3; Titus 1:5,7; Acts 14:23). As St. Ignatius of Antioch taught, “Let no man do anything connected with the Church without the bishop. Let that be deemed a proper Eucharist, which is [administered] either by the bishop, or by one to whom he has entrusted it. Wherever the bishop shall appear, there let the multitude [of the people] also be; even as, wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church.” (Epistle to the Smyrnaeans 8).

          As I recall, you are a member of the Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod, a sect that has shorn itself of bishops altogether.

          From what I know of Sungenis, I think he is a nutjob.

          • So isn’t an overseer the same thing as a bishop, as the scriptures above indicate? If I’m not mistaken, “bishop” comes from the Latin. Not sure if you’re using the word in a different sense, coming from your circles. But in the LCMS, we have overseers set up over the districts, and our pastor is directly subordinate to one of them. In that way we have bishops. In a much narrower and limited sense, our synod also uses the term “bishop” strictly between a vicar and his bishop–or a local pastor (the superior bishop) and his understudy (the subordinate vicar).

            So…given that information, why did you think that we had “shorn” ourselves from bishops altogether?

            Most people do think Sungenis is a quack, but I think he has some interesting things to say. As far as I can tell, he’s just a lone wolf whose trying to turn the tides of modern cosmology, given the current science that’s out there and breaking through. As far as I can tell his science is sound, albeit frustrating for some and definitely difficult to accept. A very prolific writer.

          • The word bishop did come into the English language by way of the Latin episcopus, but this is cognate, a direct transliteration of the Greek ἐπίσκοπος (episkopos). “Overseer” is a translation of ἐπίσκοπος (ἐπί, “over”, + σκοπος, “viewer”); I have also heard “supervisor,” which is more or less the same thing in Latin (super, “over”, + visor , “viewer”). But apart from the literal meaning of the word, ἐπίσκοπος took on the particular connotations of an office in Christian tradition. To invent a new office and call it an “overseer” while denying that tradition does not make that office the same thing as a bishop. By the beginning of the second century, the office of bishop had a very particular understanding as the head of a local church (later, as churches grew and spread, a diocese) whose authority descends from the Apostles by apostolic succession (cf. 1 Tim 4:13-16; Acts 1:15-26; 1 Clement 42, 44; Irenaeus, Against Heresies III.3).

            That said, it was my understanding that the LCMS didn’t have bishops. I didn’t know you had something called “overseers.” So I acknowledge that you have something “bishop-like” that carries out some of the traditional duties of a bishop. But I maintain that you have “shorn yourselves” of the episcopacy as a traditional office of the Catholic Church — which I’m pretty sure was precisely the intent.

            As a professional scientist, I don’t consider Sungenis’s pseudoscience to have any scientific foundation at all, and to be based on faulty premises from the start.

          • We did not invent anything if it is there in the Scriptures, and we were forced to call our own Bishops, Pastors, Preachers, and Elders, seeing as we were all excommunicated and not welcome in the Roman Church, given the tenants of scripture that our group held to. Which gets back to the question of, “where is church?”

            We don’t have any official position called, “overseer.” I was just using that as a descriptive word. I just read in the small catechism last night: “Section 3 – Table of Duties – Certain passages of Scripture for various holy orders and positions admonishing them about their duties and responsibilities – To Bishops, Pastors, and Preachers – The overseer must be above reproach…”

            So we do officially have “Bishops, Pastors, and Preachers,” according to our own catechism. Also elders, laypeople, hearers of the Word, etc, etc. I believe bishops are distributed throughout the synod as “District Presidents.” Under the district president is the “circuit visitor,” who would also be considered a bishop. Under the circuit visitor is the local pastor, and under the local pastor is the vicar.

            Funny how all the districts are under one synod president, but I believe that that president does not have the same powers as given to the pope. It is a leadership and executive office only, and I think that he is under a council in terms of authority.

            I appreciate the debate. It’s forcing me to brush up on my history, as well as my understanding of church and its structure.

          • On Sungenis: Now you got me curious. In your opinion as a professional scientist, what false premise might he be operating under? I have been following him for years now and would hate to find that I have been misled all this time. He seems to be an expert on church history and the Roman Church’s plethora of church documents, particularly as they pertain to the Galileo affair. I apologize if this is the wrong forum for such a discussion, but I do intend to keep it brief. 🙂

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