Friday, April 24, 2009

The terrible burden

And test of a mantle

Then Peter said unto her, How is it that ye have agreed together to tempt the Spirit of the Lord? behold, the feet of them which have buried thy husband are at the door, and shall carry thee out. Acts 5:9

The leaders of God's people in the pages of scripture bore their authority with prophetic insight concerning the moral condition of God's people. In the Old Testament there was no fooling Moses, Joshua, Samuel or the prophets of Israel. As Nathan confronted David with the words "thou art the man," it was no real surprise to the back-slidden ruler. And, so we see in the New Testament that Saint Peter the Apostle could not be fooled by the attempt of Ananias and Sapphira to lie to the Church, and therefore to the Holy Spirit himself as God present in his people.

A claim of Universal Authority over the Church carries with it the weight of exercising that pastoral office with the same prophetic insight that was the expected χάρις of all apostles and prophets in the pages of scripture. To make a claim of infallibility in teaching imposes the same burden, for the Bible reveals that we cannot distinguish between doctrine and prophetic insight in something as weighty as teaching authority. Peter could not be fooled in the case of these two liars who wanted more praise from their fellows than honesty would have permitted. He spoke to them and God took their breath away. A distinction between the gift to teach sound doctrine with all authority, and the responsibility to deliver the helpless among God's people from the oppression of sinful and false shepherds, indicates a standard far lower than the power we see in God's representatives as we find them in the pages of scripture.

In a recent e-mail exchange, a former Anglican priest who has begun to swim the Tiber in recent years, has expressed his indignation at Ed Pacht and me for referring to his denomination not as The Catholic Church, but as the Roman Catholic Church. We have tried to make clear the simple fact that this is not an expression of disrespect, and certainly not of malice, but rather a necessary way for us to state our own identity as belonging to the same Church we profess every time we say either of the two Creeds in the regular practice of our liturgical life. We cannot refer to the Catholic Church in such a way as to exclude ourselves, and neither can we teach our people to do so.

But, if we were even to consider this man's demand, we would have to ask on what basis? The problem with the demand is the weight it puts on the See of Rome, even if we were to call it the See of Peter. Does the clergy scandal of recent years tell us that we should trust that one See so completely as to hand over our polity in exchange for its single rule? What confidence could we have, even if we bought the claim to a χάρισμα of Infallibility in matters of doctrine (which claim was not made before 1870), to an Ecclesiastical authority that spent years doing nothing about complaints that children were being abused, and that certain bishops were living in an openly "gay lifestyle" that scandalized the faithful?

How valid is the claim to infallibility of doctrine without some sort of moral and prophetic insight, and what damage may result someday from yielding Universal Primacy to a See that failed to keep its house in order? I am glad that the new sheriff in town, that is the town of Rome, is going about to clean things up. But, I am not able to see why anyone trusts the system itself.


poetreader said...

Well said, Father!

St. Peter was not perfect, which was made manifest in that St. Paul felt free to reprimand him soundly for not eating with the gentile Christians. However, he did evidence exactly that prophetic discernment that has been lacking more often than not in the leadership of the various popes purported to be his successors.

The principal problem with the assertions of papal supremacy (and indeed infallibility) is that the claims rest upon the mere say-so of the organization making the claims, and are not ratified (as the apostolic ministry was) by consistent fruit of the charism. I'm afraid I would require a great deal more convincing than that in order to accept such large claims.


Canon Tallis said...

You are both far kinder than I, Father, but then my Roman uncle always found my discomfort with the attentions of his fellow churchmen amusing. Since the Greek roots of the word "catholic" mean 'according to the whole.' Consequently I find myself able only to refer to them as "The Roman Church." It does have its strengths, but also its weaknesses.

Anonymous said...

I have always been brought up to refer to 'The Latin Church' re Rome, and here in England Anglicans are known as English Catholics by Rome. I don't understand the term Roman Catholics at all, and I have never seen a Latin Church notice board describe its people or Faith as Roman Catholic at least not here in the UK.

poetreader said...

I'm a bit confused by this comment, as it resembles nothing I've encountered before.

Latin Church is actually a bit less useful that Roman Church, and potentially a bit more offensive. "Roman" recgonizes thst what distinguished such churches is their adherence to the Bishop of Rome. Not all such churches are of Latin heritage (such as Byzantines inder Papal authority), and, for that matter, very few of those with a Latin heritage use Latin any more which makes the term sound rather antique.

In my area (New Hampshire USA) the majority of parishes indeed do call themselves "Roman Catholic" on the signboard, and few RCs (other than the reverend gentleman we've referred to) are offended by our use of Roman Catholic, while probably most would be annoyed at being called "Latin" or the other accurate but somewhat snide Anglican term , "Italian Mission".



Anonymous said...

Fr. Hart,
Hello again! I am Pat the Roman Catholic or shall I say Pat The Catholic of the Roman Rite-lol. Anyway thanks as always for this site. It is excellent and I am always learning from those who post here. Your witness to the Lord is wonderful.

Now, you ended this post with these words:

"But, I am not able to see why anyone trusts the system itself." ie, the Roman Catholic system.

In light of what you brought out in the post can you give a positive explanation of the 'system' that you 'trust?'

Fr. Robert Hart said...


I appreciate your obvious effort at bending over backwards to be polite in response to a post in which it may seem, to some, that I have slapped your church in the face.

There has been much talk about the authority of local bishops in that largest of all Catholic communions. Nonetheless, many people have been scandalized by clerical criminals, especially child abusers, and some by a known practicing homosexual bishop years ago in the United States (who regularly hired male prostitutes). The problem was that they had no power themselves to get rid of these false shepherds by appealing to a responsive authority.

Whereas I appreciate the stated goals of Pope Benedict XVI to prevent these things from happening again, the most he can accomplish is limited to his own tenure. With a bureaucracy as large as what it takes to pastor over one billion people, a more responsive system (one that Rome could help create) would be more democratic. The Church did, in ancient times, elect new bishops in each diocese from among the priests who were known to the people. They were not chosen by one central authority from across the world a continent away. Matters involving notorious clergy, including bishops, while requiring in the latter case a larger regional tribunal, still placed some responsible power in the hands of the people of the Church.

There is no perfect solution on a merely human level; but overmuch clericalism makes a bad situation impossible, especially when added to a universal jurisdiction whose top man is far, far away.

Frankly, I favor the system or polity of my own church. I worry about some Anglicans who might think of trading it in.