It was with great interest that I came across Bryan Cross’s rejoinder to  Mark Galli, the Managing Editor of Christianity Today  entitled “We don’t need no magisterium: A reply to Christianity Today‘s Mark Galli”  Mr. Galli was making his case that the Holy Spirit does not need a Magisterium.  Bryan, of course, rejects that idea.  But what caught my eye was Bryan’s use of the Council of Nicaea in defense of his position:

For example, the reason the Arians could not credibly claim that the Church had to go through a period of discernment to determine that the Holy Spirit was, in fact, teaching the Church that Arianism is true, that after the Nicene Council the Church continued only with those in the Arian tradition and that those persons who followed the decision of the Council were the heretics who were thereby separated from the Church, is precisely that the visible Church made this decision at that Council by way of the magisterium of bishops in communion with the episcopal successor of the Apostle Peter.

We should excuse Bryan the terrible run-on sentence and hope that he will make amends in the future but I take his meaning to be this:  the Arians at Nicaea were officially repudiated as a result of the decision of the unified “magisterium of bishops in communion with the episcopal successor of the Apostle Peter.”  In other words, it was Rome’s authority that saved the day.  Leaving aside the discussion about how the pope never attended the council and that his legates were minority figures there and the more important point that it was the secular emperor, Constantine, who ratified the whole thing the question I have is whether Catholics at the time of the Reformation would have come to the same conclusion using the same historical information.

And, indeed, they did not.

The largest population of “Catholics” at the time of the Reformation was the French.   The French church has a long and illustrious career in Christendom with well established structures and rituals.  So how would the French have interpreted the same data offered by Bryan?  Here is a fascinating excerpt:

A whole series of late sixteenth-century French historians drew their view of the relations between Church and Commonwealth from early fourth-century Rome, when Emperor Constantine was converted to Christianity and immediately took it upon himself to summon Councils to decide questions of Church doctrine and discipline:  they pointed out that after the baptism of King Clovis of the Franks, the same thing had happened in France.  This was not merely antiquarianism, as a representative splutter about the Council of Trent from the celebrated Gallican Catholic lawyer Charles du Moulin makes clear: ‘This new pretended Council has sought to deprive the King of France of his ancient honour by subjugating him and preferring another [the Pope] to him.  This other was elevated to his position long after the institution of the Crown of France, which delivered him from the pagans and the Saracens and installed the Catholic faith by means of the succours and victories of Charlemagne and the Franks.’”  [i]

Moulin, as a representative of the 16th century French “Catholic” church sees Nicaea as God’s institution of the King as His representative on earth.  God had historically established a secular ruler through which to administer His church and the inroads attempted by the Pope of Rome in this area were merely the bluster of a brash new upstart.

And this view is supported by the observations of the modern Roman Catholic historian, Paul Johnson:

In some (western European countries at the time of the Reformation) it is difficult to identify any period in which the papacy made successful inroads into royal control of the national church…  The sixth century councils the earliest examples of Church-State cooperation in Christian-barbarian Europe, show the Church acting virtually as a department of the State, and as essentially subordinate to it…In the fifteenth century, and still more in the sixteenth, the grip of the crown was tightened, as it was elsewhere in Europe, by formal concordats and agreements, which spelt out the respective rights of crown  and papacy in such a way as to make it clear that the state interest remained paramount.   The fact that Spanish-Hapsburg diplomatic and political policy might be, as a rule, in general alignment in its territories, with papal aims, or that the Spanish crown might be in full agreement with papal doctrinal positions, and enforce them in its territories, does not alter the absolute determination of the Spanish State to control the ecclesiastical scene – to the total exclusion of independent papal action.  The Spanish Inquisition was essentially an organ of royal power, one of whose functions was to ‘protect’ the Spanish Church from influence by outside agencies, including the papacy.  Hence the domination of the Church by the crown was perhaps more comprehensive in Spain during the sixteenth century than in any other Europe state, including those with a Protestant, Erastian system.  [ii]

According to Johnson, then, the correct view of the relation of Church and State for Catholics at the time of the Reformation is clearly that the former was subordinate to the latter.  Nobody looked to Rome for decisions on doctrine or ecclesiology and the Roman position held sway only in those cases where it happened to coincide with that of the secular ruler.

And this was the situation in Spain, as well:

The most fiercely devout of traditionalist Catholic monarchs, Philip II of Spain, was not going to yield any of his ancestors’ independence from direct papal interference in his dominions.  He was one of the first monarchs to implement the decrees of the Council of Trent; in fact he was so quick off the mark that he did so without waiting for the Pope to ratify them.  From the 1560’s the decrees were enacted through Spanish provincial councils convened by the King with Philip’s royal ‘observers’ in reality presiding over the proceedings, and whatever the King found difficult in the decrees he altered to suit himself.  In the same spirit, when Philip wished to introduce into the Spanish dominions the ‘Tridentine’ breviary newly authorized for the whole Catholic Church, he commissioned a local edition from Plantin, his official printer in Brussels, which made some deliberate minor alterations to get around the monopoly privilege granted to an Italian printer by the Pope.[iii]

The “fiercely devout” Catholic King of Spain had not the slightest idea that the Pope of Rome was the head of a Magisterium which could decide issues for local parishioners.  And in an even more interesting tidbit, the Spanish Inquisition actually banned the works of Ignatius of Loyola because his system deviated from the official Spanish style and possibly because of his allegiance to the pope.

But here we come to the interesting point.  How are Catholics today to resolve the obvious contradiction between what Bryan Cross thinks the Magisterium is and how Catholics in the 16th century viewed it?

If we adopt Bryan’s view, we look to the Magisterium defined as the pope of Rome and the bishops in communion with him.  But that system did not exist at all during the Reformation.  The bishops of each country were beholden to their sovereign leader, not the pope.

And could – or would – the modern Magisterium say that its functions did not exist just 500 years ago in the manner they do today?

So the irony is that Bryan Cross actually proves Mark Galli’s thesis.  The “Catholic” church at the time of the Reformation did not, in fact, need a magisterium as defined by Bryan.  And that is obvious because the Church existed and the Magisterium did not.

We don’t need no magisterium – indeed.

Soli Deo Gloria

[i] MacCulloch, Diarmaid. The Reformation.  New York: Penguin Books, 2003.  P. 321

[ii] Johnson, Paul. A History of Christianity.  New York: Simon & Schuster, 1976.  P. 217

[iii] MacCulloch, Diarmaid. Op. cit..  pp. 320-321