I enjoyed scrolling through all these images of Catholic churches done in a “brutalist” style, collected and explained by Catholic architect Jason John Paul Haskins. Brutalism is not necessarily the most popular sort of church architecture, but it is interesting, and it has something unique to say. Haskins explains:
The thing is, I genuinely find many of these church buildings to be sacred, inspiring, beautiful, moving, rich, worthy… And not in simply an academic or historical study; in my time in my own experience, outside considerations of their original context or the intent of their commissioners, architects, and builders. And this is especially true when I participate in their completion in worship.
Francis has in a way upended things; more than his predecessors, he has chosen to lower the shield that ritual provides, revealing himself and the person he really is. This has injected unpredictability into the operations of the Vatican—which prizes predictability—making some of its courtiers nervous, but allowing others to thrive. In The Crown, we see this unpredictability in Diana, who as “the people’s princess” creates a kind of upheaval similar to what Francis has done in denouncing the clericalism of his brother bishops and casting himself more as part of the people of God than of the Curia.
I’m not sure what to make of this article from The Seattle Times, about ongoing demands for more transparency and accountability regarding the clergy’s complicity in the sex abuse crisis here in Western Washington.
Members of Heal Our Church, a Seattle-based alliance of practicing Catholics who seek a public review of how the Roman Catholic Church’s worldwide sexual abuse scandal secretly festered within the parishes of Western Washington, contend they’re being stonewalled by Archbishop Paul Etienne.
Heal Our Church has been seeking a meeting with the archbishop since January of last year, but of course, the coronavirus seems like an obvious mitigating circumstance. And a major, lay-led review of all this, as the article acknowledges, has already been done. But frankly, little of the hierarchy’s behavior in this matter makes me want to extend much benefit of the doubt.
On the other hand, I was surprised to see the McCarrick Report mentioned at the end of the article as an example of the clergy “circling the wagons”, rather than as an unprecedented act of transparency. It seems to me that something like the McCarrick report is exactly what Heal Our Church is asking for?
Regardless, the hierarchy certainly deserves all the suspicion and scorn it receives from the media, the public, and the faithful in this matter. That and then some.
This is a wrap on my series on authority.It’s not exactly a tight-knit argument for the papacy, but rather an attempt to trace out my thinking as it evolved over the last fifteen years or so. As I’ve tried to demonstrate over the past few weeks, once I really started to dig into the Catholic understanding of authority, it arrived as good news.
If you’re looking to better understand the Catholic argument for the authority of the Pope, there’s plenty of stuff out there already. So instead of trying to “prove” the papacy through various arguments, I just want to note some of the comparative advantages of a monarchical form of church governance, since this is the cause of a lot of scandal outside the Catholic world.
It’s hard to think of a higher and more scandalous assertion of the Pope’s authority than Unam Sanctam, a papal bull issued in 1302 by Pope Boniface VIII. A few quotes:
Of the one and only Church there is one body and one head, not two heads like a monster; that is, Christ and the Vicar of Christ, Peter and the successor of Peter.
This authority, however, is not human but rather divine, granted to Peter by a divine word and reaffirmed to him and his successors by the One Whom Peter confessed, the Lord saying to Peter himself, ‘Whatsoever you shall bind on earth, shall be bound also in Heaven‘ etc., [Mt 16:19]. Therefore whoever resists this power thus ordained by God, resists the ordinance of God [Rom 13:2].
Furthermore, we declare, we proclaim, we define that it is absolutely necessary for salvation that every human creature be subject to the Roman Pontiff.
My first thought: yikes!
As with everything, there’s a lot of debate around the meaning and significance of Unam Sanctam. At the time it was a controversial assertion of the Pope’s authority not just over matters of faith and morals, but in fact over kings and governments and over “every human creature”.
This is a high claim to authority. Why make it?
Again, those who are looking for explanations or defenses of papal authority won’t find them here; I simply want to point out a few advantages to having the office of the papacy as a part of the Church’s structure as opposed to the other kinds of polity we find in the Christian world.
First, the capacity for reform.
When Angelo Roncalli was elected as Pope in 1958, he was chosen as a “stop-gap” pope: basically, the cardinals thought he would keep the seat warm for a few years and not try anything too crazy. But instead of doing the expected, Pope John XXIII became one of the most consequential in history by calling the Second Vatican Council. The Council turned out to be probably the most dramatic reform of the Catholic Church ever, in which she “opened the windows” to the modern world after centuries spent in a defensive huddle.
So much for just keeping the seat warm! Once he was elected, it didn’t matter why the cardinals chose him. He was invested with the authority to pastor the Church until his death. As pope, his call for a council couldn’t be dismissed or rejected. He had the singular authority to call one, and so every bishop in the world was required to come to Rome and set about the work of reforming the Church.
It’s difficult to imagine such a drastic reform as Vatican II happening in any other sort of institution of such a large scale. Institutions naturally resist change! In a large corporation, for example, a CEO who tried to make radical changes is likely to be dismissed by the board of directors, especially if she has no clear mandate. Or in the United States’ system of government, separation of powers and narrow majorities make it very difficult to reform a system that isn’t working (as we all well know!).
But because in the Catholic Church, it is universally acknowledged that the Pope, together with the bishops, is invested with the authority to make changes to the Church’s teachings, liturgy, culture, and approach, Vatican II, while remaining a source of controversy, continues to be a wellspring for the ongoing work of Church reform.
Second, a visible unity.
Other churches have hierarchical systems of church governance—Methodists, Anglicans, and the Orthodox all come to mind—but none of these have a single visible leader and so all of them have, in recent years, proven vulnerable to the kind of division where there are competing claims to legitimacy. When division arises between two competing factions, whose job is it to give a ruling one way or another? Catholics have a pope for that. As St. Ambrose said, “Where Peter is, there is the Church.”
I discussed the need for an authoritative interpreter in part three, so I won’t re-hash the argument here. I only wish to say that precisely because the authority of the pope is clear and final—the “court of last resort”, borrow an American phrase—it’s pretty simple for a layperson to know what to do in a time of crisis: stick with the pope. It’s not necessary to know the ins and outs of every argument about faith and morals. You only have to, so far as you can, stand with the Bishop of Rome and you’re on pretty solid ground.
Third, passing judgment on the state.
Unam Sanctam, the papal bull we mentioned at the beginning of this post, caused an outrage among kings and governors because in it the Pope claimed authority not alongside government, but over it.
We in the United States find this to be a foreign concept, and maybe even an offensive one, because the separation of church and state is an essential part of our constitution here. And we’ve also been conditioned by a general Protestant sensibility that says, following Luther, that the state and the church each have ultimate authority in their own separate spheres.
But Catholicism claims that the sphere of political authority is not separate from the authority of the Church, but rather subject to it. Thus, the teachings of Christ through the Church cannot be simply set aside when you assume the office of, say, President or Supreme Court justice. Awareness of this claim to ultimate authority is exactly why mass immigration of Catholics to the United States in the 19th century caused so much anxiety. This was not without cause! There is often essential conflict between the laws of the state and the laws of the Church, and the Church teaches that her own teachings must be given precedence.
Scandalous though that may be, let’s consider for a second how important it is that the state be put in check from time to time. For example, what if the pilot of Enola Gay had been a good Catholic and refused to drop the bomb on Hiroshima in 1945? What if Catholics in the United States had, following the Pope in 1839, condemned the slave trade and refused to take part in it? What if the Spanish colonizers of the Americas had heeded the pope’s teachings on the full humanity of the native peoples of the Americas?
Seen from this angle, the problem hasn’t been that Catholics give too much deference to the pope, but rather too little. We have been far too willing to cede to Caesar what rightfully belongs to God.
I hope this series has been a useful summary of my thoughts on authority in Christianity as they’ve developed over the last few years. If you have questions, objections, or comments, I hope you’ll comment below. I’d certainly be willing to extend the series in response to readers’ input.
I’d like to do something a little more difficult than deconstructing sola scriptura and argue for the necessity of a living interpreter as the final source of authority and unity in times of crisis.
By way of analogy, let’s remember together a famous bit of Seahawks history.
(If you’re not from around here, the Seahawks are our local American football team.)
Playing at home against the Packers, the Seahawks are down 12-7. It’s 4th and 10 and the ‘Hawks are 24 yards from the endzone. There’s just 8 seconds left on the clock, and the only way to win is to score a touchdown. I wish I could embed the video but the NFL is strict about these kinds of things, so you can watch what happens here.
Well, what do you think? Did the refs make the right call?
That’s debatable. From one angle, it looks like Green Bay intercepted the ball in the endzone, which would make it a touchback and give Green Bay the game, 12-7. But Golden Tate, the Seahawks receiver, had two hands on the ball, too, which could arguably make it a touchdown, and the Seahawks would win 13-12. You could argue about this for days, and in fact, NFL fans did exactly that. It was an enormously controversial call, still known as the “Fail Mary”.
Now, what do you think? Who won the game?
The Seahawks, unquestionably. Why? Because in an NFL game, the referee is the living interpretive authority. The Seahawks won because, on a play that was both high-stakes and controversial, the referee called a touchdown.
Again by way of analogy, let’s talk about how professional football doesn’t work.
First, we might note how there’s no appeal to the rulebook here, although the referee is obligated to make a judgment in accordance with the rules of play. But the rulebook cannot, in and of itself, render judgment on a particular play. The rulebook needs to be interpreted by a living authority in order to apply to an ambiguous situation.
Second, Green Bay doesn’t get to say, “We strongly disagree with the call, so we’re starting our own league.” They can’t take their ball and go home. If they want to play in the NFL, they have to accept the rulings of the referees, like it or not.
Finally, we can note how the referee doesn’t say, “Well, hey, let each team interpret the game how they prefer. Green Bay, you can call this a win and we’ll put it in your record as such. Seahawks, same goes to you.” The players are not free to interpret the rules for themselves or to decide whether they won or lost. There would be no NFL at all if that’s how it worked, because it would be impossible to know which team really won or lost.
Imagine trying to have professional football without referees. It would never work! While you can certainly play backyard football without refs, anytime you want to play a high-stakes game on a large scale, you need that living authority to be an official arbiter. And you have to continue to accept that authority even if you disagree with a particular judgment. Without that, you don’t have a league at all.
I hope the analogy here is obvious: the referee here is what Catholics call the magisterium, a Latin term for the teaching authority of the pope together with the bishops. The magisterium is the living interpretive authority that makes the tough calls and keeps the league together.
Let me also suggest that this is actually what most Protestant traditions are actually doing. All the Protestant denominations have a person or body, whether that’s the General Assembly or the Board of Elders or the Queen of England, that make the final call on contentious issues. And while there’s an obligation to discern what Scripture says, that body has the authority to make a call within that denomination.
So the question has never been, “What does the Bible say?”
The question has always been, rather, about who has the authority to interpret, and where such authority comes from.
The question the chief priests ask Jesus in Mark 11 is still the right one: