How Roman Authority is the Bane of the Catholic Church

Crisis of Authority

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

What the Quran Teaches about Non-Muslims

The reason that treaties cannot be negotiated with Islam is that they teach that non-believers (in Islam) are the worst of creatures! (Surah 98:6) Why would you have to honor a commitment to one less than the lowest creature?

A Book Review in Several Parts: “From Apostles to Bishops: The Development of the Episcopacy in the Early Church” by Francis A. Sullivan, S.J.



A few years ago I began to study the Catholic faith in which I was raised. And the findings of that study were disturbing. Whereas we had always been taught that the Pope of Rome was the “Vicar of Christ” and one who is directly descended from St. Peter – in unbroken succession no less – who was the first bishop of Rome. And that was a “truth” that we were required to accept de fide, which means something foundational and beyond question. But the truth of the matter as I was to find out – and affirmed by any number of Catholic scholars today is that not only is that not true – it is not even possibly true. And so I had to ask myself how the Catholic Church could require me to believe something that is not true and make believing in it a requirement for membership and even for my salvation? Would Christ build His church on a lie?

And so it was with great interest that I came upon Francis Sullivan’s book cited in the title. My first reaction was skepticism because I wasn’t sure how Fr. Sullivan would approach this topic. Those two letters after his name – SJ – identify him as a Jesuit; one of the “pope’s men”. So I doubted very seriously whether his station in life would allow for him to make an honest assessment of the matter. But I was pleasantly surprised by his candor throughout the book while maintaining my disappointment at his conclusions the disunion of the two being fertile soil for observations I may make later.

The book is comprised of eleven chapters which cover the period from the Apostles to Cyprian and includes an introductory chapter outlining the nature of the issue and a concluding chapter inquiring whether the successors to the Apostles were so because of divine institution, or not.    The depth of Fr. Sullivan’s effort is such that this review must cover several parts.

The divisive nature of the Catholic stance on the episcopacy is acknowledged by the author in his introduction:

The question whether the episcopate is of divine institution continues to divide the churches, even though Christian scholars from both sides agree that one does not find the threefold structure of ministry, with a bishop in each local church assisted by presbyters and deacons, in the New Testament.[i]

And shortly thereafter he notes what historians now universally affirm that the development of the episcopacy “took place earlier in the churches of Syria and western Asia Minor, than it did in those of Phillipi, Corinth and Rome.”  And that not even Rome – whose later claims bind the consciences of its members to the contrary – had a bishop:

…but hardly any doubt that the church of Rome was still led by a group of presbyters for at least a part of the second century. [ii]

It is helpful at this early point to reflect.  What Fr. Sullivan has done so far is establish that the Catholic stance on episcopacy is a divisive issue, but for whom?  It is not divisive within the confines of Roman Catholicism which teaches its necessity.  Nor is it divisive within the ranks of Protestantism which proclaims its novelty.  I suspect that at this early point we may discern the working of the Holy Spirit in Fr. Sullivan’s heart such that he tacitly acknowledges that the true Church of Jesus Christ does not subsist wholly in the church of Rome.  In other words, he believes – at least implicitly – that Christ’s church exists truly beyond the bounds of Rome.  How else could this issue be divisive?

The author then does an about face as he lays out Rome’s case for the episcopacy.  Relying on the work of a 1998 conference of British bishops, Sullivan ties “eucharistic communion” with “ecclesial communion” seeking to justify Rome’s aberrant practice of “closed communion”.

There is a basic incongruity involved in regularly sharing the Eucharist in a church with which one is not in full communion, and in receiving it from a minister whom one does not recognize as one’s pastor.[iii]

But apparently Greek Orthodox priests can be considered “pastors” for Roman Catholics:

What justifies the sharing of Eucharist between Catholics and the Orthodox and other Eastern Christians is that they not only share the same faith with regard to the sacraments of Holy Orders and Eucharist, but also recognize one another’s Eucharist as fully valid, for those who celebrate it are ordained by bishops who stand in the historic apostolic succession.[iv]

But isn’t one justified in asking how a Roman Catholic can be bound by such a proclamation when the author has already shown that there were NO bishops in Rome for a century and a half after Christ?  Does Fr. Sullivan mean to say that Roman Catholics can only take communion from Orthodox bishops who are descended in the episcopacy from the early Eastern Church as he notes above?

Glossing over such obvious contradictions, the author digs deeper:

Belief that bishops are the successors of the apostles by divine institution grounds the Catholic insistence that episcopal succession comprises an essential element of the permanent structure of the Church, on which the validity of its sacramental ministry and the authority of its official teachers depend.[v]

Now this ahistorical insistence is not without its problems.  And to the author’s credit he is able to ‘fess up to one instance the implications of which undermine his assertions and the unresolved nature of which negates his premise:

In Sweden and Finland, however, the first Lutheran bishops were ordained by a man who had been a validly ordained Catholic bishop. To my knowledge, the Catholic Church has never officially expressed its judgment on the validity of orders as they have been handed down by episcopal succession in these two national Lutheran churches.[vi]

Have not these Lutheran churches participated in the “essential element of the permanent structure of the Church”?  Cannot these “validly ordained bishops” in “apostolic succession” administer the Eucharist just as a Roman priest?  The reason that Rome has not pronounced on this issue is obvious.  Any decision would undermine Rome’s position on the episcopacy and its necessity as laid out by Fr. Sullivan.

The author draws this chapter to a close with these obvious, of not contradictory observations:

Admittedly the Catholic position, that bishops are the successors of the apostles by divine institution, remains far from easy to establish… The apostles were missionaries and founders of churches; there is no evidence, nor is it at all likely, that any one of them ever took up permanent residence in a particular church as its bishop.[vii]

But isn’t the “Belief that bishops are the successors of the apostles by divine institution” the foundation for the “Catholic insistence that episcopal succession comprises an essential element of the permanent structure of the Church…”?  How can something that is “divinely” instituted and is an “essential element” of the “permanent structure” of the Church be hard to establish?  And how can Catholics “insist” on an office which allegedly rests on the Apostles none of whom ever held such office?

In closing, I hope to have whetted the reader’s appetite as mine was when I discovered this book.  The self-contradictory nature of Roman Catholicism is laid bare by the facts of history.  And in part of what makes these times so fascinating is that Roman Catholic scholars are now free to indulge in the miasma of Roman Catholic teaching.

Next time we’ll explore Fr. Sullivan’s analysis of the Apostles’ role in this fairy tale.

[i] Ibid. Kindle Loc. 37

[ii] Ibid. Kindle loc. 42

[iii] Ibid. Kindle loc. 74

[iv] Ibid. Kindle loc. 79

[v] Ibid. Kindle loc. 213

[vi] Ibid. Kindle loc. 98

[vii] Ibid. Kindle locations 217, 228.

Catholics to Beatify Sola Scriptura


, ,

catholicyoungwomanFor the first time “on American soil” a saint is to be declared.  Apparently a 26 year old nun who died in 1927 was “holy” enough to merit this award.

But how utterly ironic that – contrary to the teachings of Rome during her lifetime – she discovered that the Word of God is “THE wellspring of wisdom and holiness.” (Emphasis added.)

Long before the renewal of Sacred Scripture, promoted by the Second Vatican Council, Sr. Miriam Teresa had discovered the Word of God as the wellspring of wisdom and holiness.


What the Roman church now teaches is that “the Church….does not derive her certainty about all revealed truths from the holy Scriptures alone.” (CCC 82)

So how is it that Miriam Teresa knew what she knew about the Word of God?  It was not the church of Rome which dissuaded people of her generation from reading the Word.  It was as John Calvin noted centuries ago, the work of the Holy Spirit:

“…our faith in doctrine is not established until we have a perfect conviction that God is its author.  Hence, the highest proof of Scripture is uniformly taken from the character of him whose Word it is…(And) our conviction of the truth of Scripture must be derived form a higher source than human conjectures, Judgments, or reasons; namely, the secret testimony of the Spirit.”  (Institutes, I.7.IV)

Apparently Miriam Teresa had that “testimony” of the Spirit.

But if she did, I wonder then what she would say about the effort to make her “holy” (i.e. beatified)?  Or that the Word of God denies that any are “beatified” i.e. made holy.  (Romans 3:10; Psalm 14:1-3, 53:1-3; Eccl. 7:20).  Or how she would feel about being put in God’s place so as to answer prayers.  Or how miracles wrought by God could erroneously be attributed to her for her glory?

As God raised up Calvin to remind us,

“… the mark of sound doctrine given by our Saviour himself is its tendency to promote the glory not of men, but of God (John 7:18; 8:50).  Our Saviour having declared this to be the test of doctrine, we are in error if we regard as miraculous, works which are used for any other purpose than to magnify the name of God.”

(John Calvin: Prefatory Address to His Most Christian Majesty, the Most Mighty and Illustrious Monarch, Francis, King of the French….; Institutes of the Christian Religion.)

Miracles attributed to a mortal like Miriam Teresa violate the very wellspring from which she drew her inspiration.  How ironic that Rome violates that wellspring in an effort to honor her and not God.

We must pray for an end to the idolatry of Catholic sainthood.

Halbig and Hammurabi and Sola Scriptura

Last week’s Halbig decision is an interesting application of the Reformation doctrine of Sola Scriptura for today and is a prime demonstration why that doctrine is central to American life.

The question in Halbig was essentially whether a “magisterial” administration could redefine a written law contrary to its explicit text in favor of what the political hierarchy “meant” when the law was drafted.  Was the text supreme or was it just one leg in a multi-legged stool upon which a prince could sit while pronouncing the law’s meaning?

Providentially, Kevin Williamson at the National Review Online weighed in on Halbig with his article, “Halbig and Hammurabi” (, July 27, 2014).  Hammurabi, it will be remembered is known to history as being (at least one of) the earliest  king to codify laws in written form.

Williamson reminds us of the importance of Hammurabi’s legacy:

The Hammurabic Code…represented something radical and new in human history.  With the law written down – with the law fixed – a man who had committed no transgression no longer had reaason to tremble before princes and potentates.  If the driver of oxen had been paid his statutory wage, if a man’s contractual obligations had been satisfied, and if his life was unsullied by violations of the law, handily carved upon slabs of igneous rock for all to see and ingest, then that man was, within the limits of his law, free.

And the implications are immense:

“The written law was the first real constraint on the power of kings.  An oral tradition is subject to constant on-the-fly revision.”

So the Court’s decision in Halbig was an affirmation on the restraint of kings.

Dr. Mereidth Kline has written a wonderful study entitled, “The Structure of Biblical Authority” (Euguene, OR; Wipf & Stock. Copyright 1989 by Meredith G. Kline) which traces God’s purposes in creating a society built upon written laws.  Kline shows how the ancient near east – including the Babylonia of Hammurabi – was moved to codify their laws in stone.  These ancient “covenants” specified the name of the king, his relation to his subjects and theirs to him, the laws that were to be followed and specific penalties for their violation.  One stone was typically placed in the center of town so that all could see it; another was tucked away for safe keeping in the event the first was damaged or lost.  This supports Williamson’s idea thoroughly.

This concept begins to become more interesting when one realizes that this is expressly the context into which God chose to codify His laws to the ancient Israelites.  Sometime about 200-500 years after Hammurabi (depending on which source you choose) God wrote His law in stone; one copy for the Israelites and one stored in the Ark of the Covenant. (Exodus 34)  That was His way of assuring the Law was being expressed in a fashion that would have been familiar to the Israelites.  And it would have been an entirely familiar thing to those societies among whom the Israelites lived.

But there is yet another fascinating part of God’s creation of laws written in stone that is fundamental.  And that is the extreme sanction against anyone seeking to change it.

Dr. Kline explains:

A feature of the covenant tablets of peculiar significance for their canonical character is the inscriptural curse, or what we may call the canonical sanction.  The tablet was protected against alteration or destruction by making such violations of it the object of specific curses…  Wherever it is found the inscriptional curse is somewhat stereotyped in content.  This is so both in respect to the techniques envisaged by which the text might be defaced or removed and with respect to the divine retribution threatened as a deterrent to any contemplating such transgression.” (Kline, p. 29)

How fascinating that God used that part of His creation as a model for the communication of His Law to the Israelites.

Consider Deuteronomy 4:2 –

You shall not add to the word which I command you, nor take anything from it.

…or Proverbs 30:6 –

Do not add to his words, or he will rebuke you and prove you a liar.

So this was an established principle centuries later when the Apostle Paul wrote in the New Testament:

“Do not go beyond what is written.”   (1 Corinthians 4:6)

Or when the Scriptures closes with just such an admonition.

Revelation 22:18-19  –

I warn everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this scroll:  If anyone adds anything to them, God will add to that person the plauges described in this scroll.  And if anyone takes words away from this scroll of prophecy, God willt ake away from tath person any share in the tree of life and in the Holy City….

So we readily see that the roots of Sola Scriptura – contrary to some claims of its modernity – is really an ancient doctrine.

So the Halbig Court affirmed principle that is thousands of years old and one that America’s Founders also affirmed.  Dr. John Eidsmoe’s study of early America produces this interesting fact:

Many, if not the vast majority of colonial Americans came from Calvinistic backgrounds.

The author goes on to show that by 1787 two thirds of Americans were “trained in the school of Calvin” and had come from “Calvinistic backgrounds.”  This resulted in seventy seven percent of the country universities being built on Calvinistic principles.  (Eidsmoe, John.  “Christianity and the Constitution: The Faith of Our Founding Fathers”.  Grand Rapids, Baker Books, 1987. Kindle locations 82, 87).  With such a large Calvinistic influence the presence of the doctrine of Sola Scriptura in the establishment of the laws of this country is self-evident.

So what happened in Halbig?  The court merely restated what the Apostle Paul taught us two thousand years ago:  “Do not go beyond what is written.”

Sola Scriptura at work today!

The Babylonian Captivity Of The Papacy – R. Scott Clark

Dr. Clark weighed in a topic about which I posted yesterday.  In this 600th anniversary year of the convening of the Council of Constance, his effort is very timely and can be read here.

The crux of the matter is put succinctly here:

 The Avignon crisis is just one of many examples from the history of the medieval church that illustrate the futility of seeking continuity, unity, and stability where they have never existed. The historical truth is that the Roman communion is not an ancient church. She is a medieval church who consolidated her theology, piety, and practice during a twenty-year-long council in the sixteenth century (Trent). Her rituals, sacraments, canon law, and papacy are medieval. The unity and stability offered by Roman apologists are illusions—unless mutual and universal excommunication and attempted murder count as unity and stability. Crushing opponents and rewriting history to suit present needs is not unity. It is mythology.

I commend his post to your reading.

The Crisis of Authority in Catholic Modernity


The post-Vatican II era has created a serious problem for Roman Catholics.  And that problem is precisely how to reconcile the claims of the church with the facts of history – and sometimes with the facts of its own history!   It is not that this is a new problem but rather that the world and how the church relates to the world has so changed as to now lay bear the glaring contradicitons that previoiusly had been covered over by structures of authority[i] which Vatican II has made more transparent.   Perhaps the most obvioius examples are the claims made by Vatican I regarding the papacy and its foundation, continuity and extent.  As it turns out none of those claims is supportable in history and modern Roman Catholic scholars are now free to plumb the depths of these errors however much they are enshrined as “de fide” pronouncements.

But what is new in all this is not the errors but the fact that they can be discussed openly.  We know from history that John Calvin himself cajoled the Roman Church for its false claims and showed in his famous letter to King Francis I that all ordinations after the Council of Basel were fraudulent.[ii]   Calvin showed how political machinations and not “apostolic succession” had made necessary the removal of some popes and the appointment of others with little regard for ecclesiastical involvement.   And that those depositions and appointments had broken whatever alleged continuity Rome claimed theretofore from the Apostles.  And yet centuries later Vatican I was able, with full force of papal authority, to claim that all popes are “successors” of Peter that it “has always been necessary for every church…to be in agreement with the Roman church….”[iii]

And so it was with great interest that I found a collection of essays by legitimate church historians dealing with exactly these matters and it is their title that I have borrowed for this post[iv].  The first essay written by the eminent scholar, Francis Oakley[v], focuses on how the Council of Constance is a roadblock to modern Roman Catholic claims to authority.

Oakley begins with a fascinating expose of John Henry Cardinal Newman’s famous, Essay on the Development of Doctrine. In what seems a tangential departure from the period of Constance, Dr. Oakley shows how Newman misunderstood “development” in the context of Catholic history.  According to medieval scholastics (Oakley names Bonaventure, Aquinas and Scotus) Catholic doctrines were “immutable”, never changing.  So when something appeared to be different than what the church had proclaimed to be “de fide”[vi] these scholars insisted that whatever the variation it was either “implicit” in the original teaching or could be explicated therefrom.  The point is that the teaching itself was considered eternal and unalterable – it did not develop as Newman would have it.   This was the view of the Roman church from medieval times through the period Oakley refers to as the “second scholasticism” when” Spanish theologians in the 17th century”…had been at pains to make clear that, in so doing, it (the church) was not attempting to supplement revelation that was, in fact, immutable.”  Oakley uses this to lay the foundation for what will follow:

When he (Newman) wrote that work, he appears to have known nothing about the older scholastic views on doctrinal development.[vii]



The Politics of Oblivion

 The ignorance of history displayed by Newman and decried by many of his critics unfortunately continues to this day.  I have written how the Archbishop of Philadelphia mischaracterizes his church’s history here and here in our time.   And Oakley cites the work of the distinguished Catholic theologian John Noonan who has documented “the convoluted process whereby a pattern of behavior once denounced (by Rome) as contrary to nature has modulated across time into the routinely acceptable….”[viii]    All of this is to say that there has been an odd combination of historical forgetfulness in the Church of Rome.

So how does this happen?

…it may largely be due to the empire that the present continues to exert over the past in so much of Catholic institutional thinking.  And it certainly reflects the measure of genial institutional forgetfulness that seems to attend inevitably upon that state of affairs.  Under certain circumstances, moreover, casual forgetfulness has betrayed a disagreeable tendency to mutate into a proactive politics of oblivion reflective of the Orwellian conclusion that if he who controls the past controls the future, then he who controls the present would be well advised to control the past.[ix]

It is precisely that “politics of oblivion” that makes the study of Constance so fascinating.


The Problem of Constance

 The instance of radical doctrinal discontinuity in question is the great gulf that yawns between the position the general councils of Constance (1414–1418) and Basel (1431–1449) affirmed concerning the ultimate locus of authority in the universal church and that staked out in 1870 by Vatican I.[x]

The seeds of Constance were planted more than a hundred years previously in the conflict between Boniface VIII and Philip IV, King of France.  And those seeds were watered and fertilized by the conflict between Boniface and the Colonna family in Italy.  The facts are too numerous to recount here but this conflict ended in favor of Philip and Boniface’s successors were much more amenable to the king’s wishes resulting in Clement V’s acquiescence to the King and the moving of the curia to Avignon (1309).

After a nearly seven decade hiatus at Avignon, the papacy returned to Rome haltingly in 1370 and then totally in 1378 with the election of Urban VI.  Shortly thereafter a group of French cardinals splintered from the Roman group, “disgusted by the pope’s insulting behaviour” and elected Clement VII who is known to history as the first “anti-pope”.  This is the action that set up the “Great Schism” of the church which saw competing claims to the papacy until Constance.

The intransigence of the two popes (Benedict XII and Gregory XII) coupled with a growing tension for the schism to be healed caused several of Benedict’s cardinals to defect to Gregory’s side where they called for a general council at Pisa in March 1409.  Both popes were invited to attend but refused and were summarily deposed by that Council.  The cardinals at Pisa facing a world now with no pope, elected Alexander V as their new pontiff.   And surprise of surprises, neither Benedict nor Gregory acquiesced in the Council’s decision.  Hence, the world now had three claimants to the See of St. Peter.

Alexander’s pontificate lasted less than a year until his death in May 1410.  The Pisan cardinals took less than a week to elect his successor, John XXIII, another “anti-pope”.  It was John who, under secular political pressure called the Council of Constance.

The great legacy of Constance is its decree Haec sancta, which declared that a general council of the church is the highest authority to which everyone, including the pope, is subject.  The Council thereby exercised that authority by deposing Popes John XXIII and Benedict XIII, negotiating and accepting the resignation of Gregory XII and appointing as replacement Martin V.


An Analysis

 Constance (along with Pisa and Basel) cause severe problems for Catholic historians.  Chief among these is the question of utlimate authority in the Church of Rome.  Is the council supreme ala Constance or is the pope as per Vatican I?  If the former is true then can it be said that Vatican I erred in its decrees?  And if Constance is not legitimate, then what to do with its annointing of Martin V as pope, a man who is the direct ancestor for every consecrated priest today?

Oakley traces the ultramontane reaction to Constance:

“…the Council of Constance, not having been convoked by a legitimate pope, cannot be regarded as a legitimate general council prior to its convocation by Gregory XII, just before his resignation on July 4, 1415.”[xi]

The difficulty here is that the council fathers did accord John XXIII the status of pope.  They did, after all, assemble in council at his decree.  And they forcibly brought him back to the council after his escape to prevent just that claim of illegitimacy from being made against them.

The discomfort that Rome feels about the history of Constance can also be seen in how they have selectively edited documents since then.

Thus, early in the (twentieth) century, even so learned a work as the Dictionnaire de thee’logie catholique took the extraordinary step of simply excising the Councils of Pisa, Constance, and Basel from tis list of general councils.  That list, therefore, simply jumped from the Council of Vienne in 1311–1312 to the Council of Florence in 1439–1445. A remarkably bold exercise in the politics of oblivion![xii]

Oakley continues,

In a similar but Anglophone exercise conducted around the same time, the editors of the Catholic Encyclopedia, a pretty scholarly piece of work, by simply opting to include no article on the subject, made it clear that conciliar theory was to be viewed as a dead issue, an ecclesiological fossil, something lodged deep, in the lower Carboniferous of the dogmatic theology.[xiii]

The author then goes on to note that the tradition of Rome’s historians was to label the Avignonese popes, “anti-popes” while Alexander V and John XXIII– the “Pisan” popes – were “handled in a more gingerly fashion and left in limbo.”  But Oakley notes how that mysteriously changed in 1947 when the prefect of the Vatican archives published a new list of popes wherein the “Pisan” line were now listed as anti-popes.  The reason for the change was not given but is another clear example of how the “politics of oblivion” works in Catholic history.

As you might have anticipated the situation was further aggravated when Angelo Rancalli chose the name “John” for his episcopacy in 1958.  Interestingly Rancalli refused to endorse the 1947 position when he noted that he was claiming his name “extra legitimitatis discussiones”.  Oakley explains that Rancalli thereby signaled that he was setting himself apart from “disputes about legitimacy” regarding the prior use of his chosen name.  And in another exceptional example of the “politics of oblivion” that phrase was removed from any “official version” of the papl record and the pope’s handlers took the matter so far as to say what he really meant was “to deny the legitimacy of the Pisan line.”  Oakley draws a circle around the issue thusly:

Thus, in some cases, the Council of Pisa is either passed over in silence or rejected outright; in others, the question of its ecumenicity is portrayed as having yet to be decided.  In most cases, the Avignonese claimants are treated consistently as antipopes, but in some, the matter of their legitimacy is left in limbo.   Similarly, the Pisan pontiffs are listed as legitimate popes or dismissed as antipopes sometimes even in articles appearing in the same encyclopedia. The most striking instance of disarray is in the New Catholic Encyclopedia (first ed., 1967), where Mollat insists that “the question of the legitimacy of [John XXIII’s]… claim to the Papal See is still unanswered” but does so, ironically, in an article titled (editorially?) “John XXIII, Antipope.”[xiv]


Three Issues

 Professor Oakley then gives us a brief overview of the extensive literature that has developed since Vatican I.  And in the interest of brevity focuses our attention on the three issues he deems most serious.

  1. The Great Schism itself.  Current scholarship tends to side with the French cardinals who instigated the schism in 1378 by electing Clement VII.  Ultramontane sentiments had heretofore been likely to favor the prior electon of Urban VI of the Roman line but new evidence shows that Urban was not of stable mind or temperament and was inclined to “torture dissident cardinals, despite their dignity and advanced years.”  Therefore, the cardinals acted justly in preserving the structure of the church as well as themselves.

The historical evidence, certainly, does not permit one simply to insist on the exclusive legitimacy of Urban’s title to the papacy (and, therefore, the legitimacy of his successors in the Roman line). If that claim is now enshrined in the current official listing of popes, it should be recognized that it has been advanced quite explicitly on theological or canonistic rather than historical grounds.[xv]


  1. The papalist claim that the Council of Constance “became a legitimately assembled council only after the Roman claimant, Gregory XII, as part of the deal involved in his resignation in July 1415, was permitted by the council to convoke it also falls by the wayside.”   Professor Oakley notes two things here: first, the council’s overriding concern was unity and not succession and secondly, during the previous year the Council had received ambassadors from both Gregory XII and Benedict XIII as “papal delegates” conferring a status on them reflective of the council’s estimation of who they were representing.  The final point in regard to the papalist claim here described is that all of the Fathers at Constance had accepted the decision of the Council of Pisa which deposed both the Roman and French popes.
  2. The third issue is “conciiliar theory itself”.  The papalist claims have been that conciliarism was an accident in history that sprung up quickly and receded in a similar manner.  I find it interesting that no less an historically vibrant character as Torquemada advanced just such a theory!  (Anyone want to side with the Inquisition?)  But Dr. Oakley cites the work of Brian Tierney as having documented the bona fides of conciliarism back to the early church.  It turns out that conciliarism has “deep (and impeccably orthodox) roots in history.”

Professor Oakley’s conclusion is that after centuries of censorship and avoidance the time has come for the Roman Church to own it’s history:

…what is not in doubt is the urgent need for contemporary Catholic theologians to accept the fact that doctrinal rupture or radically discontinuous change has in the past been an unquestionable reality in the life of the church and that condeded, to undertake the bracing challenge of coming to terms with that intractable fact.[xvi]

I will end here with a quote used by Dr. Oakley near the beginning of his wonderful essay.  It succinctly captures the dilemna posed by the councils of Pisa, Constance, Basel and Vatican I.

The past isn’t what it used to be.  – Yogi Berra


[i] Dr. Garry Wills prefers the term “Stuctures of Deceit” which may be nearer the truth.  See Wills, Garry: Papal Sin: Structures of Deceit.  New York, Doubleday Books, 2000.

[ii] See Calvin’s “Prefatory Address to His Most Christian Majesty, the Most Might and Illustrious Monarch, Francis, King of the French, His Sovereign” which were included as introductory to the Institututes of the Christian Religion.

[iii] First Dogmatic Constitution of the Church(Decrees of Vatican I).  Session IV, Chapter 2.  July 18, 1870. 1 On the institution of the apostolic primacy in blessed Peter

[iv] Lacey, Michael J. and Francis Oakley.  The Crisis of Authority in Catholic Modernity. New York, Oxford University Press; 2011

[v] Oakley Francis. “History and the Return of the Repressed in Catholic Modernity: The Dilemma Posed by Constance” in Lacey and Oakley op. cit., pages 29-58.

[vi] De fide or “of the faith” represents a level of commitment that Roman Catholics must make to teachings so described.  To question or modify a “de fide” doctrine is to place oneself outside of the Catholic faith.

[vii]  Oakley, op. cit., kindle location 621

[viii] Noonan, John T. A Church That Can and Cannot Change: The Development of Catholic Moral Teaching. (Notre Dame; University of Notre Dame Press, 2005; as quoted in Lacey and Oakley op. cit.  Noonan is undoubtedly referring to the matter of “natural” family planning which is now acceptable but historically had been prohibited in the Roman communion.

[ix] Oakley, op. cit. kindle location 677.

[x] Oakley, op. cit. kindle location 689.

[xi] Oakley, op. cit. kindle location 765.

[xii] Oakley, kindle location 788.

[xiii] Oakley, kindle location 789.

[xiv] Oakley, kindle location 819

[xv] Oakley, kindle location 855

[xvi] Oakley, kindle location 1041