Bryan Cross recently posted an article  that caught my eye.  Apparently, the old Catholic bromide that Protestants are too divided to be representatives of Christ has backfired.  A closer look at the data shows that Rome is divided, too.   Now comes Mr. Cross with his post, “The “Catholics are Divided Too” Objection”, which is an effort to help his friends answer this new Protestant rejoinder.

I will leave it to you, the reader to digest all of the intricacies of Bryan’s post.  But my summary of his points is this:

1.            The Roman Catholic Church has unity which it derives from Christ’s unity in His role as prophet, priest and king.

2.            That unity is not only invisible but also visible.

3.            That unity does not stem from agreement among individual Catholics, but “by the unity of the doctrine taught by the Magisterium.”

In sum, the unity of Rome is divine, visible and evidenced by unwavering magisterial teaching.  I hope to have gotten that right.

And to wrap up this introduction I should be explicit about what I mean by the term, “unity”.  I am relying on the common usage found here.  “Unity” then is present when there is “oneness” that applies to the whole of an organism under discussion.  “Unity” does not apply where there is any diversity within an organization or when the term is applied, selectively, to part of the organization under discussion.

So, what to make of the differences that do exist between well-intentioned Catholics?  Bryan cautions us to divide these differences into three distinct types: disagreements “not of faith”, disagreements that are “of faith” and open theological questions about which the Magisterium has yet to pronounce. The first type is not a big deal because they “can be fully compatible with the simultaneous agreement between the disagreeing parties concerning matters of faith, and thus the simultaneous preservation of the unity of the bond of faith.”  The same is true for the open theological questions.  The problem arises for the unity of Roman Catholicism (URC), or for the appearance of a lack of URC, in those disagreements that are “of faith”.   Let’s have Bryan make clear this distinction:

“However, when Catholics dissent from the teaching of the Magisterium, either about theological doctrines such as transubstantiation or women’s ordination, or about moral issues such as contraception, abortion or the essential heterosexual character of marriage, they separate themselves from the unity of the Church’s faith.”

Disagreements between Catholics about matters “of faith” are the most serious but they do not rise to the level of disunity in the Roman communion because these disparities separate the individual Catholic from the unity of the Magisterium.  They do not represent disunity in the Magisterium.

Let’s take a look at a matter that would be considered “of faith”, about which the Magisterium has clearly and unequivocally pronounced and that Bryan has offered as an example; abortion.   Has the Magisterium exhibited the requisite “visible” unity which Bryan demands?

The current Roman Catholic teaching about abortion is encapsulated in paragraphs 2270, 2271 and 2272 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) which can be found here.  Because of its official nature, the Catechism represents the true teaching of the Magisterium.  So I hope that we can use this as a true matter “of faith” not to be construed as either a matter “not of faith” or an open theological question.

That teaching in summary is this: life begins at conception (2270), “This teaching has not changed and remains unchangeable” (2271),  and anyone engaging in an abortion “incurs excommunication latae sententiae” (that is, immediately)(2272).

Our first observation is that the Magisterium has not always taught that life begins at conception as per 2270. 

St. Jerome held that “the fetus [was] at no point of development a human.”   The early church relied heavily on Augustine’s teaching in the area of sexual ethics and Augustine did not believe that full human life began at conception.  Much later, Aquinas wrote, “We conclude therefore that the intellectual soul is created by God at the end of human generation…”, not at the beginning.  And this was the official view of the Roman Catholic Church accepted at the Council of Vienne (1312); said view never having been “officially repudiated.”[i]   And that brings us to the truly interesting story as it relates to URC.  At least a century before the Council of Vienne, Pope Innocent III supported abortion.  Let’s here from the devout Roman Catholic writer (Ph.D. Catholic University of America) John T. Noonan:

“A contrary view was manifested in canon 20 of the title “Voluntary and Chance Homicide.”  Canon 20, Sicut ex, was a letter of Innocent III to a Carthusian priory about a monk who had caused his mistress to abort.  The Pope held that the monk was not irregular if the fetus was not “vivified.”  The wider significance of the letter arose from the usual rules for imposing irregularity.  Irregularity was no mere technical deficiency, but a state in which the right to perform sacerdotal functions was suspended…Irregularity was automatically incurred by a cleric guilty of homicide (Decretals 5.12.6).  Hence, if the Carthusian monk was not irregular, the plain implication was that no homicide occurred in a stopping of life prior to the time a fetus received a soul.  Sicut ex cast doubt on the literalness of Si aliquis, which held contraception to be homicide.”[ii]

Pope Innocent III, the Vicar of Christ on earth, did not believe in life “at the moment of conception” and his writings influenced the ethics of the church for centuries.

In fact, four centuries later the Council of Trent upheld the view held by Augustine, Aquinas and Innocent:

“The Council of Trent in the sixteenth century, for example, makes it clear that no human embryo could be informed with a human soul except after a certain period of time, as in the hylomorphic (Thomistic) commonplace.”[iii]

In further point of fact official Roman Catholic publications forbade the baptizing of fetuses until as late as 1895; a truly odd prohibition if life does begin at conception.[iv]  What we have, then, is a matter “of faith” which has received Magisterial attention from at least the time of Innocent III.   And we have a doctrine which is clearly contradicted by current magisterial teaching.

Now I assume that the Catholic rejoinder might well be the “development of doctrine” approach made fashionable by Cardinal Newman.  But it seems to me that this doesn’t apply because of the law of non-contradiction.  That is, a thing cannot simultaneously be both X and “not X”.  The magisterial Catholic doctrine of Aquinas and Innocent III cannot develop into the doctrine of the current Magisterium if for no other reason than they oppose each other.  Not to mention the fact that the current teaching would result in Innocent’s immediate self-excommunication.


Therefore, a reasonable conclusion to this analysis of Bryan Cross’s attempted rehabilitation of the concept of the unity of the Roman Catholic Church is that there is, in fact, no URC and that for three reasons:

  1. By attempting to selectively apply the concept of unity to only one part of the Roman Catholic Church, Bryan fails by definition.  “Unity”, per se, must apply to the whole.
  2. Bryan creates an artificial standard by introducing the concept of matters “of faith” and matters “not of faith”.  Neither of these ideas has a relation to the concept of unity, per se, and are therefore irrelevant.  The concept of unity does not allow for this differentiation by definition, because the differentiation is an indication of diversity.
  3. Even allowing for Bryan’s artificial definition of unity, we have seen that in “matters of faith” the very Magisterium of the Catholic Church has not only differed with itself over time but that it has, in at least the matter under discussion, created directly opposing doctrines.  This analysis falls under the “visible” nature of Catholic unity which is required by the two popes Bryan cited and his own conviction.  Teachings that are in direct opposition are the clearest examples of diversity and they void any claim to unity, per se.

For these reasons, we conclude that there is no URC.

Maybe it would be better to disregard these traditions of men and rely on the words of Christ:

Do you think I came to bring peace on earth? No, I tell you, but division. (Luke 12:51)

I wish you all every blessing of this Christmas Season.

[i] Dombrowski, Daniel A. and Deltete, Robert. A Brief, Liberal, Catholic Defense of Abortion.  Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press; 2000.  P. 35

[ii] Noonan, John T., Jr.  Contraception: A History of Its Treatment by the Catholic Theologians and Canonists. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1986.  P. 232 ff

[iii] Dombrowski and Deltete.  Op. cit. p. 38

[iv] Dombrowski and Deltete document how the 1617 edition of the Roman Ritual contained such prohibition.  They further note that this “remained unchanged until 1895.”  P. 48