One of the things which allures the unsuspecting to the Catholic Church is it’s claim to authority. In a world of constant change and sinfulness, one full of strife and discord, Rome’s claims can look very much like a safe harbor. So the emotional appeal that lures the unaware is understandable. However one must go beyond emotions and look at the claims themselves to see that they are, in a word, vacuous. Worse still, Rome’s authority actually hinders honest scholarship, damages the relationship between clergy and laity and actually undermines the sacraments.
So it was with great interest that I found a compilation of twelve articles by Catholic scholars that makes this case in spades.1 The anthology is edited by noted historians Michael J. Lacey and Francis Oakley and includes contributions by Catholic professors from the Louvain, Catholic University of America and Notre Dame, Catholic priests, nuns and canon lawyers and others with like specialties. They show with great aptitude how Roman authority has created a “crisis” for the modern Catholic church.
In the period ahead I would like to share with you several of these articles that I have found fascinating. The next will be a look at how the history of the church makes it impossible to identify what truly is the nature and justification for Rome’s claims to power.
From the Prologue
The editors make the observation that the locus of Catholic authority – the papacy – is at once more consolidated and powerful than ever…
As the church settles into the twenty-first century, students of Catholicism no less than Catholics themselves are confronted with a paradox regarding the authority of its central institution, the modern papacy: it is stronger than it has ever been, yet frailer than before…2
…and increasingly irrelevant to local Catholics.
The practice is up to them (local Catholics). They cannot be scared into obedience or shamed into piety, and they know it. They can leave if they like and return if they wish.3
That is to say, today’s Roman Catholics cannot be bullied by Rome the way Catholics have been in the past.4 Or said still another way is that Rome has none of the actual authority that it claims.
This is amplified by another essay which shows that in Rome’s authoritative written instruments – it’s encyclicals, catechisms and the teachings of its bishops – “more authority is claimed than accepted, and the gap is apparently widening.” (This is reminiscent of a like situation that existed in the French church until it’s 1801 Concordat with Napoleon. Papal bulls and encyclicals were not allowed to circulate in that country without the local bishops’ approval.) In a lovely turn of a phrase it is noted what a charade teaching has become in the Catholic church:
“A spirit of reciprocal pretense seems to prevail: “…you pretend to teach me, and I’ll pretend to learn.”5
“Pretend” authority aptly describes the extant environment for Roman Catholics.
There is no better example of this than Rome’s “authoritative” teaching on birth control and contraception. The unwarranted claim that Rome makes in its current teaching is rejected by the majority of Catholics for several good reasons. The first is that incontrovertibly contradicts earlier church teaching and actually permits what was previously – and “authoritatively” – proscribed as sinful!
John Noonan, for example, has recently traced the convoluted process whereby a pattern of behavior once denounced as contrary to nature has modulated across time into the routinely acceptable, whereas another such pattern, once taken for granted as unexceptionable, has come to be viewed as totally unacceptable, perhaps even “intrinsically evil.”6
What the editors are drawing attention to here – and what Dr. Noonan describes in scholarly detail elsewhere – is the “rhythm method” of contraception. Declared a sin for centuries by Rome’s authority, Pope Pius XII made licit for all Catholics. To borrow a phrase from Judge Noonan, this is typical of the “topsy turvy” nature of Rome’s pronouncements.7
Later in this volume we will hear from a professor at Roman Catholicism’s oldest university – the Louvain – explain how the meaning of the term “Magisterium” – which signifies the teaching authority of the Roman church – has devolved into whatever the current Magisterium says it is.
I am very excited to be sharing this work with you. It is obvious to any honest observer that the official Roman claims to authority over the Catholic church are merely a power grab and a charade. The fact that innocent people are still, today, swayed by them is all the more reason to bring the discussion into the open.
This fabrication deserves to be exposed and these Catholic writers have begun the work brilliantly.
Next we will begin with an old problem for Rome’s claims to authority – the Council of Constance.
1 Lacey, Michael J. and Francis Oakley, ed. The Crisis of Authority in Catholic Modernity. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011.
2Ibid. Kindle loc. 81
3Ibid., Kindle loc. 95
4The example of the mistreatment of John Courtney Murray, S.J as recently as the 1960’s is but one example.
5Ibid., Kindle loc. 162
6Ibid., Kindle loc. 670
7More detail can be found in Noonan, John T., Jr. Contraception: A History of Its Treatment by the Catholic Theologians and Canonists . Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1986