Fractures in the Foundation of St. Peter’s Rock: The Current Catholic Crisis and the Evangelical Solution

By way of introduction, I would simply like to reproduce a short article that recently appeared on LifePetitions concerning the trouble that is currently brewing in the Catholic Church:

Four Cardinals have released an historic letter (FULL TEXT) to Pope Francis in which they plead with him for clarity regarding his Apostolic Exhortation Amoris LaetitiaDated September 19, 2016, the letter asked the pope five short questions which call for ‘yes or no’ answers which would immediately clarify the meaning of thecardinals_810_500_55_s_c1 confusion-plagued document on precisely those points where theologians, priests and even bishops have offered contradicting interpretations.

After nearly two months of the pope’s refusal to respond, the Cardinals have released their letter with an explanatory note giving the faithful the opportunity to see their grave concerns, which touch directly on the integrity of the Catholic faith. Signed by Cardinals Walter Brandmüller, Raymond Burke, Carlo Caffarra, and Joachim Meisner, the letter tells the Pope of the “uncertainty, confusion, and disorientation among many of the faithful” stemming from Amoris Laetitia. The cardinals explain that they are “compelled in conscience by our pastoral responsibility” to call on Pope Francis “with profound respect” to give answer to the questions posed, reminding him that as Pope he is “called by the Risen One to confirm his brothers in the faith” and to “resolve the uncertainties and bring clarity.”

The doubts raised by the aforementioned cardinals in reference to Pope Francis’ exhortation Amoris Laetitia have to do primarily with the issue of admitting to the Eucharist divorced persons who are living (in a marital way) with someone not their former spouse. While this may not seem particularly significant to many, the cardinals have emphasized that their concerns stem from the “contrasting approaches to the Christian way of life” that the pope’s exhortation entails. The fourth and fifth questions (link to full text above) that they pose to Francis are particularly revealing for what is at stake:

4. After the affirmations of “Amoris Laetitia” (n. 302) on “circumstances which mitigate moral responsibility,” does one still need to regard as valid the teaching of St. John Paul II’s Encyclical “Veritatis Splendor” n. 81, based on Sacred Scripture and on the Tradition of the Church, according to which “circumstances or intentions can never transform an act intrinsically evil by virtue of its object into an act ‘subjectively’ good or defensible as a choice”?

5. After “Amoris Laetitia” (n. 303) does one still need to regard as valid the teaching of St. John Paul II’s encyclical “Veritatis Splendor” n. 56, based on Sacred Scripture and on the Tradition of the Church, that excludes a creative interpretation of the role of conscience and that emphasizes that conscience can never be authorized to legitimate exceptions to absolute moral norms that prohibit intrinsically evil acts by virtue of their object?

In other words, what is finally coming to a head, occasioned simply by this particular issue, is the underlying problem that has, in the words of many Italian Catholics close to the Vatican, plunged the Catholic Church into a historic crisis of authority on par with the “Western” or “Papal Schism” that fractured the church from 1378 to 1417 due to the rival claims of three popes each vying for the chair of St. Peter. It is a problem that, while not always manifested, has always existed in Catholicism, emerging only in moments of great internal crisis. The problem to which I am referring is this: the pretensions of the papacy that “as Vicar of Christ and pastor of the whole Church, the Roman Pontiff has full, supreme and universal power over the Church” (Lumen Gentium, 22) and of the Catholic Church as a whole that it “cannot err in matters of belief” (Lumen Gentium, 12). This
structure of authority seems to function well as long as “the Bishops down to the last of the lay faithful…show universal agreement in matters of faith and morals” (ibid). But what happens when that universal agreement is broken? Even more pointedly, what happens when that universal agreement is broken by the very individual, namely the pope, who is supposed to be 39d7c71b786a4ba51ca88d954c868ca1“the perpetual and visible principle and foundation of unity of both the bishops and of the faithful” (Lumen Gentium, 23)?

The seemingly irresolvable dilemma that this creates is clearly illustrated by what is now happening in the Catholic Church which some have described as a “civil war”. At best, the pope’s teaching in Amoris Laetitia is ambiguous (which is causing division due to divergent interpretations); at worst it is heretical (that is, according to Catholic standards). From my own perspective, this whole conflict is unsurprising, given what the pope has stated elsewhere concerning his views on the relativity of truth and the freedom of individuals to follow their own conscience in defining for themselves good and evil. Yet is this not the Holy Father, the Vicar of Christ, the Supreme Teacher of the Church, the Successor of St. Peter and the very Rock upon which the Church is built? It seems that there are fractures forming in that very foundation as the pope and some of his cardinals who strongly disagree with him (as indicated by their questions) find themselves at odds, so much so that the latter have begun to take official action due to the latter’s refusal to respond to their concerns. Apart from its various details, this debate, to me, exposes the serious problems inherent in the Catholic view of papal authority and infallibility: what should be done when the Supreme Teacher teaches error, when the Vicar of Christ misrepresents Christ himself, when the Holy Father shows himself to be less than holy? Is it possible to contradict the Supreme Teacher in defense of the truth? Is it possible to oppose Christ’s Vicar without opposing Christ himself? Is it possible to chastise the Holy Father for moral compromise?

I am aware of the usual responses given at this point: the Catholic Church does not believe that the pope is sinless, the Catholic Church does not believe that the pope is infallible in everything he says, and so on. Despite such protests, however, the fact remains that papal authority on matters of faith and morals to which the faithful must assent extends beyond his ex cathedra pronouncements:

[T]he bishops speak in the name of Christ and the faithful are to accept their teaching and adhere to it with a religious assent. This religious submission of mind and will must be shown in a special way to the authentic magisterium of the Roman Pontiff, even when he is not speaking ex cathedra; that is, it must be shown in such a way that his supreme magisterium is acknowledged with reverence, the judgments made by him are sincerely adhered to, according to his manifest mind and will. His mind and will in the matter may be known either from the character of the documents, from his frequent repetition of the same doctrine, or from his manner of speaking (Lumen Gentium, 25, emphasis added).

Thus it seems to me, regardless of whatever rejoinders might be advanced, that Rome’s position on papal authority and ecclesial infallibility cannot be carried out on a consistent basis. If Pope Francis has indeed made “manifest” his “mind and will” in Amoris Laetitia (it is, after all, an apostolic exhortation), then according to the Church’s own teaching, his judgments on the debated issues should be “sincerely adhered to”. Yet this is precisely what is not occurring as evidenced by the four cardinals (and the countless people whom they represent) who oppose, however respectfully, his mind and will on this matter. Yes, their opposition is reverently couched in the form of dubia (doubts), yet their remonstrance is nevertheless clear. This appears to me to be a clear example of the brokenness of the Catholic system to which I referred in a previous post: those who resist the pope’s authority in the name of tradition cannot do so without contradicting the very principles that they seek to uphold.

Reformed theologian T.F. Torrance (who was no knee-jerk reactionary as evidenced by his extensive ecumenical work) made this astute observation:

Of all the Churches in Christendom, the Roman Church presents the greatest problem so far as discussion with it is concerned, for the simple reason that it has immured itself within its own peculiar developments and its own private conceptions, so that it is constitutionally unable to look beyond itself. Just because the Roman Church does not acknowledge anything within its own tradition greater or higher than its own tradition, it is unable to transcend itself…

[T]he Roman Church acknowledges two sources of Revelation, that of the apostolic tradition…and that of the Roman tradition…, and just because the former is only interpreted in terms of the latter, it is inevitably the latter that controls the former. In this way the Roman Church makes itself the master of all tradition; but in so doing it becomes introverted…behind all this there is something that goes down very deep and must be brought to light – the identification by the Roman Church of Truth with its own Subjectivity.[1]

Torrance has put his finger on the crux of the issue: as a consequence of elevating its own tradition and structures of authority to a supreme and infallible level, the Catholic Church is trapped within the closed circle of its own subjectivity. By proclaiming itself as the ultimate arbiter and interpreter of Holy Scripture, the Catholic Church has effectively placed itself in a position above Scripture and cannot therefore be reformed under the authority of Scripture. By raising its own dogmatic assertions to the level of infallible t-f-torrancetruth, the Catholic Church is unable to assess, by any objective standard outside itself, the fidelity (or lack thereof) of its teaching with respect to the Truth which is embodied in Jesus Christ himself.

Torrance further points out that this is no small irony: “[T]he Roman Church [appeals] to its own self-consciousness as the ultimate criterion of truth. Now the extraordinary thing is that this is just the accusation that Romans lay against Protestant theology”[2]. This is a critical observation: while Catholic critiques often target Protestants as having mired themselves in an inextricable subjectivity due to their lack of a single, authoritative magisterium that governs all biblical interpretation and church theology, it is actually the reverse that is true. Precisely because the Catholic Church claims for itself this authority, it cannot look beyond itself for instruction or correction, and thus it is itself mired in an intractable subjectivity from which, as things currently stand, it cannot escape.

Speaking from the perspective of the Reformation, Torrance offers the following counsel:

Romans accuse Protestants of making their own private judgments the criterion of the Truth, and we must acknowledge that unfortunately this element did creep into the Churches of the Reformation first from the Renaissance (within the Roman Church), then from the adoption in the seventeenth century of Roman Aristotelianism, and later from the adoption of Roman Cartesian philosophy, into Protestant theology, scholastic and pietistic alike; but Protestant theology has in it a basic and inalienable factor which is so lack in the Roman Church, namely, the subordination of all its thoughts and judgments to the critical judgment of the Word of God, and its readiness for a repentant rethinking of all its tradition. It is here that the basic position of the Reformation keeps reasserting itself, that knowledge of the truth is known only in the conformity of the reason to the object, only in obedience to Revelation, only in the subordination of all tradition to the Word of God, and only in subjection of the Church to Jesus Christ the Lord. That is the position to which Protestant theology is everywhere returning, and it is the position for which the Reformed Church has always stood so firmly throughout the centuries since the Reformation…

The temptation of Protestantism is to counteract individualistic subjectivism by assimilation of its thought to empirical science, and the temptation of Romanism is to justify its subjectivism by appeal from the individual to the corporate institution; but both these are temptations to a false objectivity. The only real objectivity is that of the object, God Himself who gives Himself to us in His Word and requires of us obedient conformity to Him in Jesus Christ. That is the acknowledgement that in all our knowing of the Truth and in all our tradition of it we are confronted by a transcendent objectivity, the living Lord Himself, who refuses to be domesticated to our subjectivity individualistic or corporate…If the Roman Church is to engage in this discussion it must…put its own house in order, and that means it must deal faithfully with the cancerous growth of its own subjectivity, and allow the Sword of the Spirit which is the Word of God to cut away the persistent identification of its own creative self-consciousness with divine Revelation.[3]

Succinctly stated, the only solution to Catholicism’s current crisis is for the Catholic Church to finally embrace the great Reformation principle of sola Scriptura. It is important to specify that the Scriptura of which this principle speaks is an inert text that requires human assistance in interpretation (which gives rise to all kinds of conflicting views even within the Catholic Church!) but rather, as John Calvin asserted, it refers to reality that in Scripture “God in person speaks”.[4] Sola Scriptura, properly understood, means that the relationship between Scripture and the Church is one of subject to object. That is to say, the Church is not the subject that acts upon Scripture, rather it is Scripture that, by means of the Holy Spirit, acts upon the Church. Scripture is not the pre-text on the basis of which the Church is free to formulate its own dogmatic creations; it is rather the voice of the living God addressing the Church and calling for a response of repentant submission and humble obedience. Only in this way can all subjectivities, whether Catholic or Protestant, be finally overcome by the transcendent objectivity which is the Truth of God himself, embodied in Jesus Christ and proclaimed to the Church through Scripture by the power of the Holy Spirit.

Let me conclude this post with the following quote from Karl Barth that eloquently summarizes all that I have been trying to say about the Catholic crisis and the (only) Evangelical solution:

It is here that we come to the final positive meaning of the Evangelical decision: it is taken in the thankful recognition that the Church is not alone, that it is not left to its own discussions and especially that it is not left to itself. It would be, the moment its authority ceased to be confronted by that divine authority. For then clothed with divine dignity the Church would have to stand and live by itself like God. And however hans_kung_with_barthgrand it might seem to be in its godlikeness, for the creature which is distinct from God that means only misery, the misery of sin and death. From this misery of the solitariness of the creature fallen in sin and death the Church is snatched away by the fact that God in Jesus Christ is present and gracious to it in concrete authority, which means in an authority which is different from and superior to its own. It is the Word of God as Holy Scripture which puts an end to this misery. Because Holy Scripture is the authority of Jesus Christ in His Church, the Church does not need to smooth out its own anxieties and needs and questions, it does not need to burden itself with the impossible task of wanting to govern itself, it can obey without having to bear the responsibility for the goal and the result. Because Holy Scripture is the higher authority established within it, the Church has a higher task than that which is at issue in those party conflicts, namely, the task of confession, which itself can only be again a thankful confirmation of the fact that its Lord is among it in His witness. Under the Word, which means Holy Scripture, the Church must and can live, whereas beyond or beside the Word it can only die. It is this its salvation from death which it attests when it makes, not the Catholic or Neo-Protestant, but the Evangelical decision.[5]


[1] Torrance, T.F., 1996. Conflict and Agreement in the Church, vol. 1: Order and Disorder. Eugene: Wipf & Stock, pp.146, 152.

[2] Ibid., p.152.

[3] Ibid., pp.154-156.

[4] Calvin, J., 2011. Institutes of the Christian Religion & 2 J. T. McNeill, ed., Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press. I.vii.4.

[5] Barth, K., Bromiley, G.W. & Torrance, T.F., 2004. Church dogmatics: The doctrine of the Word of God, Part 2, London; New York: T&T Clark. pp.584-585.