A House Divided: A Critique of Roman Claims to be the One True Church
By Ian "Ivan" Hyde, June 01, 2009
Below is the result of much personal wrestling over the problems that the modern Church must tackle in order to bring about true Ecumenical progress and hopefully, eventually exhibit full Communion. But this essay is really only the beginning of that process. In it, I don't focus on what brings us together, but what splits us apart. I think any real ecumenical dialogue has to begin in this place. It's a place of frustration, sometimes anger and sometimes resignation. As such, while this essay deals with theological and historical problems, it isn't written as a theological or historical essay. It is, instead, a personal (and in many ways internal) argument over whether a Protestant Baptist, such as I, should convert to another form of Christianity (to more fully commune with Christ and my brothers and sisters), or stay where I am.
We are all full of faults, and in this essay I really focus on the Roman Catholic Church, as this is the largest communion in Christendom, it is the communion around which most schisms originate and despite faithful believers being spread across many denominations it still resolutely refuses to recognize that the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church encompasses something much bigger than the Roman organization.
And so, I operate from this beginning point: if anyone can satisfactorally explain away all these theological problems I have with the Roman Church's claim to be the One True Church, then I can see no other obstacle to converting and I would encourage all others that I meet to do the same.
A Quick History Lesson
I've been musing quite a bit over the idea of the "One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church" and what that means today (specifically, whether it is necessary for me to convert to Roman Catholicism in order to be fully within the True Church). For those of ya'll who are unfamiliar with the term, it comes from the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed (325 AD) which was formed during the First Ecumenical Council of 318 bishops representing Christendom, finalized during the Second Ecumenical Council (of Constantinople in 381 AD by 150 bishops) and confirmed by the Third Ecumenical Council (of Ephesus in 431 AD by about 250 bishops) as the only authoritative statement of Faith.
This creed was written to clearly define the sometimes ambiguous Scriptural doctrine that became known as the Trinity. In fact, by the beginning of the fourth century, Christianity faced its biggest controversy in Arianism (named for the priest Arius, who Jolly Ole Saint Nick slapped for bein' a goober - it's true!), the belief that Jesus was only human. It threatened to tear the Church apart, and for an Emperor who had just declared Christianity legal (Constantine), that was unacceptable. So he convened the first of many councils to deal with the problem.
But splits happened anyway. Of those factions that remain today, the Assyrian Church of the East split off after the Second Ecumenical Council, the Oriental Orthodox Church split after the Third Ecumenical Council and the Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic Churches divorced in 1054 after the Pope tried to tweak the above-mentioned Creed a little bit, and barely 500 years later the Roman Church, in an arguably corrupt and bloated state, pooped out its own child-out-of-wedlock in the Protestant Reformation which has since fragmented into thousands of pieces, all claiming to have more right teaching, doctrine, practice and polity than the others (most of which, except the crazy ones, still adhere to the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed).
And that's where we are today. Of the Christians belonging to the thousands of denominations that either explicitly or implicitly agree with the above Creed (about 2.1 billion), 65% (or 1.4 billion) claim to belong to a denomination that describes itself as the ONLY communion which fits the Four Marks as the description "One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic" has come to be called. By the way, the total of credal Christians above include Baptists, Pentecostals etc. who simultaniously claim to be "non-credal" and yet issue their own creeds (i.e. the Baptist Faith and Message), in the same way they believe in "Scripture alone" for their teaching and yet espouse doctrines like "age of accountability", "believer's baptism", and "congregationalist polity" to name a few that may be implied within Scripture, but are not explicitly stated.
Anyway, of the churches that claim to be the sole exhibitors of the Four Marks, one denomination sticks out to me: that of the Roman Catholic Church. As a Western Christian in a tradition (Baptist) which ultimately was birthed from the Church of England, which in turn came from the R.C. Church. As this denomination is the largest in the world, claims to exclusively be the One, True Church and actively seeks to convert those from other Christian communions (especially break-aways such as mine), I wanted to examine whether it really is necessary for me to join it, in order to fully be incorporated into the People of God. But as I examined this problem, I came across some major issues that must be resolved before I and my family are willing to join the R.C. Church. If anyone satisfactorily resolves these issues, as I said above, I will gladly convert and encourage all others to do likewise.
Theological Problem #1: Pope as Supreme, Infallible Vicar of Christ
Not only does this group claim to be THE (one-and-only!) One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church but this identity is deeply tied to submission to the Pope's supreme authority and infallible decisions as the Vicar of Christ (and His representative to the Faithful on Earth). This has caused a myriad of problems throughout Western Church history. First, it paved away for some of the most godless men of history to attain the Chair of St. Peter and systematically rape the Church raw. Here is a quick summary of lip-smacking depravity:
Steven VI (896-897): Convened the infamous "Cadaver Synod" where he mutilated the corpse of his predecessor, Fromosus.
John XII (937-964): An adulterer and mass murderer.
Benedict IX (1032-1044, 1045, 1047-1048): Guilty of Simony (sold the Papal office to the highest bidder).
Urban VI (1378-1389): Brutally tortured his cardinals and ushered in the advent of the Great Western Schism.
Alexander VI "the Borgia" (1492-1503): Had four children with his mistress, then elevated them to important positions (Nepotism). Arrested and murdered any rich person in sight to conviscate their properties, and yet still drove the church deep into debt.
Leo X (1513-1521): Nepotist who built the extravagant St. Peter's Basilica while the poor faithful were crushed under the burden of expensive indulgences. When Martin Luther and others rightfully called out for reformation Il Papa stubbornly refused and excommunicated them.
Clement VII (1523-1534): After trying to play all the political angles on the European scene, his scheming and machinations finally brought about the sack of Rome (though the church had already been sacked time and again by these "Holy Fathers").
The example of these men and others, to me at least, clearly nixes any claim to infallibility. In fact, I think a good argument could be made that Church infallibility doesn't exist either, based on the actions of the Crusades (against non-Christians and fellow brothers) and the burning of Protestant reformers - which were clearly driven by both political corruption and misconceived notions about the will of God. Roman Catholic teaching might make distinctions between action and doctrine, saying the latter is protected from the former, but the ink doctrines were written in during these times was still mingled with the blood of innocents.
But technically, the Papal claim to infallibility (as well as the R.C. claim to "Church infallibility") only applies to the dogmatic teaching of the Pope, ex cathedra, and not to his personal sins. And while the doctrine of P.I. was only recently fleshed out in the 20th "Ecumenical" Council (First Vatican, 1870 - in quotes because it is rejected by all other churches) as it is "Apostolic" it is also retrospective in scope. But wait! According to the Sixth Ecumenical Council (3rd Constantinople, 680) Pope Honorius I was declared a heretic and this decision was upheld by Leo II. These decisions predate - and contradict - the infallibility doctrine and are held up by the R.C. Church, the Eastern Orthodox and most Protestants. Added to this is the problematic papal bull by Leo X called Exsurge Domine which would more fittingly bear whatever Latin translation you can find for "A Pig's Gut Rot".
The title of "Vicar of Christ" is another major problem. While I would accept the apostolic tradition of the Pope as Vicar of Peter (though not exclusively, as we'll see below), to claim to solely represent the leadership and sovereignty of Christ to the Church is to usurp Christ's Holy Spirit, and to therefore set oneself up above God Himself. There is no greater Son of Perdition than the one who sets himself up above our Most Holy God.
Finally we must look to the Pope's claim of supremacy over the Church. This is what Orthodox, Anglican and Protestant Communions have most chafed under, when it comes to talks of unity: the idea that the title of Successor to the Apostle Peter solely lies with the Roman patriarch and no other. This is based on Matthew 16:17-19 when Jesus congratulates Peter's faith and tells him (or the Church, as many Protestant theologians believe) that he is the rock (a wordplay on Peter's name) on which Christ will build his church and to whom the keys to the Kingdom of Heaven are given, along with the power to bind and loose all things on Earth or in Heaven. I will not argue with the words of Christ and will work from the assumption that Peter's position over the other apostles is secure.
But here we run into a couple of problems. First, Peter was leader of the Antioch church before he was the leader of the Roman church. This means the bishop of Antioch has first claim to the chair of Peter, even before Rome. Also, at the Apostolic Council of Jerusalem described in Acts 15 and Galatians 2, it is James and not Peter that declares the final decision of the Apostles in regard to the issues associated with Gentiles joining the Church. Peter may still have outranked James (as Peter is always listed first in lists of the Apostles in Scripture), though he seems to show deference to the fact that James is the head of the Jerusalem church (which is older than both the Antiochan and Roman churches), which seems to lead credence to Protestant ideas about congregational sovereignty and Orthodox ideas about autocephalency - i.e. the sovereignty of each bishop. And we won't even get into the issue of Antipopes (some of whom were equally as orthodox as the "legitimate" popes they were competing with, especially during the Great Western Schism). In any case, due to the above problems, while Peter's decisions may have been supreme in the Church, the Roman Pope's clearly aren't.
Theological Problem #2: The Immaculate Conception of Mary
The R.C. Church states that Mary was immaculately conceived, free from the stain of original sin, and remained sinless throughout her life. This statement is based on the papal bull Ineffabilis Deus issued by Pope Pius IX in 1854 (though was a tradition since the days of St. Anselm) and the fact that the angel Gabriel addresses her as "full of grace" in Scripture. However, Gabriel's salutation in reality addressed her pious, righteous waiting for the Messiah in the tradition of those described in Hebrews 11 and the grace she received was the gift of bearing God's Son.
As for the idea that she was sinless in life, this is clearly refuted by Romans 3:23, "since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God," and by Mark 10:17 where Jesus states that "no one is good, except God alone," whereby he, himself is included in that statement (attesting to his divinity).
Mary was a sinful woman who deserved eternal separation from God, just like every other human being, and just like me. After all, Sarah was a prototype for Mary and just as much a part of God's plan for our salvation. To elevate Mary above the sinful is to imply she could provide an equal sacrifice to that of Christ's, and to assign her a position retained for God alone is idolatry.
Theological Problem #3: Transubstantiation
This is more of a sticky issue, as it involves competing Scriptural views. The R.C. Church believes the bread and wine of the Eucharist actually become the body and blood of Christ (as do the Orthodox and some Protestants kinda do), based on the literal wording of Christ at his Last Supper and later tradition and councils clearly define the phenomenon. Many Protestants on the other hand hold Christ's words to be largely symbolic of His sacrifice at the Cross (as my denomination does). Both stances are dangerous: if it is not truly Body and Blood of Christ, then those who treat it as such are showing idolatrous devotion towards what is simply bread and wine. If it is truly Body and Blood, then Protestants aren't showing it the devotion it deserves which becomes its own type of idolatry.
In this case, I think it is folly to do any more than to faithfully and gratefully accept the mystery of God that is the Eucharist. We should happily contemplate the immense grace of being bound to generations of Christians inseparable by time or space and be still in the Presence of what we don't understand.
Theological Problem #4: Forced Celibacy of the Clergy
Ever since the churches began to enforce celibacy in the clergy in the 4th century, there have been massive problems. Popes and bishops throughout the middle ages were infamous for the widespread practice of concubinage, and many brought ironic meaning to the title of father and the art of husbandry. More recently, in the 20th and 21st centuries, R.C. clergy have been implicated in the sexual abuse of congregants (many of them underage boys) in the U.S., Ireland and Australia and in Ireland many have even tortured and raped the orphans they were charged to care for. God help us in the midst of this abominable corruption!
Those are just the practical problems. The practice of forced celebacy for the clergy falls apart on theological grounds as well. 1 Timothy 4:1-5 tells us, "Now the Spirit expressly says that in later times some will renounce the faith by paying attention to deceitful spirits and teachings of demons, through the hypocrisy of liars whose consciences are seared with a hot iron. They forbid marriage and abstinence from foods, which God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and know the truth. For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected, provided it is received with thanksgiving; for it is sanctified by God's word and by prayer."
On top of this, Mark 1:30 shows that Peter was married and in 1 Corinthians 9:5 Paul tells us that some of the other apostles were married as well. Eusebius and Martin Luther also claimed Paul was married, though Paul's own words seem to contradict this (1 Cor. 7:8, 9:5). Finally, 1 Timothy 3:2-4 gives bishops permission to be marred and have children. In fact, the following orthodox and well-respected bishops in the 3rd century had wives: Passivus of Fermo, Cassius of Narni, Aetherius of Vienne, Aquilinus of Evreux, Faron of Meaux, Magnus of Avignon, Filibaud of Aire-sur-l'Adour and Sigilaicus of Tours (the last of whom also had sons).
Scripture and tradition are clear: the hypocracy of bishops espousing forced celibacy on the clergy is not to be suffered.
Theological Problem #5: The One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church
This final problem is one of definitions. The R.C. Church can be described as "One" as it is a self-contained bowl of foul doctrines mixed in with good, rotted institutions mixed in with the edifying and corrupted clergy mixed in with the sains. The problem is that within that bowl, "a little yeast leavens the whole batch of dough." [Galatians 5:9] The Church that can truly be described as One is that which spans across denominational or other dividing lines to reach those who truly believe they are sinners and that Christ's death on the Cross covers their sins and paves the way for their inclusion in the Kingdom of God.
Holy? Really? If the Church is holy, it is solely by the grace won at the Cross of Christ and not by the many traditions, dogmas and institutions of the churches.
The R.C. ceased being Catholic in a definite manner with the Great Schism of 1054, though many legitimate and apostolic churches (those that adhere to the Scriptures and the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed) split long before and many split after.
Finally, to be truly Apostolic a church must not only hold Apostolic Succession (through the laying on of hands from bishop to bishop, though Scripturally many can make the argument that those who are presbyteros are also episkopos, and therefore are able to perpetuate that line) but the church must also hold Doctrinal Apostolic Succession. Though a church retain lists of ordained bishops all the way back to the Apostles, if they don't preach the Gospel as stated in the Scriptures or hold dogmas that go against the teachings of Jesus and the Apostles as stated in Scripture, then they are not Apostolic. Many dogmatic issues are worth debating and are not clearly defined in Scripture, many others are simply a Mystery of God and should be treated as such, but many others (some of those listed above) so clearly contradict the plain meaning of Scripture that they can only be described as a perversion of Apostolic teaching.
Though the R.C. Church exhibits the problems above, so do many particular churches and ecclesial communities. It is my fervent hope and prayer that we as Christian brothers and sisters lovingly correct each other and build each other up. My words were harsh above only because they needed to be. So many have been and continue to be hurt by our corruptions and we need the Spirit and Grace of God to purge us of these. I pray that one day, even in my lifetime, the whole Church would finally recognize itself as the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church - bridging denominational lines and living in full, true Communion.