Road to Rome

by Alvin Frank Kimel, Jr.


Well over a year ago, Ephraim Radner declared, “I am myself convinced that we are not really dealing simply with ‘error’ and ‘false teaching’ within ECUSA. Rather, we are dealing with something akin to madness.”

I can think of no better diagnosis of the present Episcopal Church than that offered by Dr. Radner—madness! What else can explain a church that abandons its foundational theological principles and giddily jumps off the ecclesiastical cliff in an act of spiritual and institutional suicide. Like the early Bolsheviks, our Episcopal revisionists really do believe in their revolution. Damn the torpedoes! Full-speed ahead! Viva la revolución! Whatever the cost, no matter how many members are driven away, no matter how many congregations may be forced to close, no matter how many faithful priests are compelled by conscience to renounce their orders, no matter how many canon laws must be twisted and abused to rid the church of clerical dissenters, the revolution must succeed. These guys sincerely believe they are are doing the work of the Holy Spirit. They are true believers. To quote the Blues Brothers, “We’re on a mission from God!” All attempts, therefore, to effect a negotiated reconciliation within the Episcopal Church will and must fail. Two very different religions—at least two!—now inhabit one institutional body.

Fourteen years ago, I and five other priests issued a summons to the Episcopal Church to return to biblical orthodoxy—The Baltimore Declaration. We believed then that the bishops and priests of the Episcopal Church had lost their hold on the twin defining truths of Nicene faith—(1) that Jesus is God, “of one substance” with the Father, and therefore is the definitive and final revelation of deity; and (2) that this Jesus, through his atoning death and victorious resurrection, is the divinely ordained and exclusive mediator of salvation. A month later I wrote in the Living Church that the Episcopal Church was in the midst of a crisis of apostasy. A fellow cleric in the Diocese of Maryland angrily confronted me, “You accused me of being an apostate!” “Eddie,” I replied, “I wasn’t speaking about you personally. I was speaking about Episcopalians who do not believe that Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life.” (What I wanted to say to him was, “If the shoe fits …”) I don’t think he was mollified.

A lot of theological water has now passed under the bridge. It is now common for Episcopalians to uncontroversially state that there are “many ways to God” and that Jesus is but “one savior among many.” The gospel of Christ has been replaced by an insidious counterfeit—the ideology of radical inclusivity. The three sacraments of this ideology are abortion, the blessing of same-sex unions, and open communion. As an institution, the Episcopal Church is no longer in a crisis of apostasy; it simply is apostate. Of course, there still remain faithful orthodox believers, congregations, and even some dioceses; but the war for orthodoxy in ECUSA has been lost. The House of Bishops, the ECUSA bureaucracy, the seminaries, and the majority of parish pastors have all embraced the false gospel of radical inclusivity. The Episcopal Church has become an effete high church unitarianism. Episcopalians today worship a very different God than the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. To all who still believe we are called by God to stay and fight and recapture the institution—wake up and smell the coffee! ECUSA’s madness is God’s judgment upon it. God is not going to save the Episcopal Church as an institution. He has lifted his restraining hand and is now allowing it to follow its own sinful desires into lunacy and dissolution.

The Anglican Communion Network is still hanging on for two miracles to occur in the next three years. Miracle #1: The Archbishop of Canterbury will recognize the Network dioceses as the authentic expression of Anglicanism in the United States. Miracle #2: American courts will recognize this judgment and allow the Network dioceses to leave ECUSA whilst keeping all of their assets. (There are even some who dream that the courts will rule that all ECUSA assets now belong to the Network—talk about moving mountains!) Both miracles are possible, though I can’t imagine either as being probable. But if God can separate the Red Sea, I suppose he can move +Cantuar and state judges to see things the Network way. But let there be no mistake, ECUSA will not freely let go of one penny, one building, one square foot of property. It will buy the best lawyers and avail itself of every legal remedy. It’s possible that the Network might eventually prevail, but only after years and years of litigation and millions of dollars spent by both sides. And let’s not forget that any Network bishop who attempts to dissociate his diocese from ECUSA will no doubt be tried by the House of Bishops and removed from office.

But does the possibility of legal victory, no matter how unlikely, justify risking the spiritual lives of our children and parishioners, not to mention our own souls? The Episcopal Church does not claim to be the one and exclusive Church of Jesus Christ in the United States; therefore an unconditional obligation to remain and fight to the last man does not exist. We are a Protestant denomination, and a member of a denomination is always free to leave its company if it betrays the gospel.

Last November I came to the conclusion that it is the moral duty of every Episcopalian outside of the Network dioceses to flee! I did not issue such counsel lightly then nor do I issue it lightly now. I know that many of my readers took umbrage at my words, and a few wrote me privately and rebuked me. But I cannot help that. It’s what I believe. Orthodox believers can no longer afford to keep their heads in the sand. It is time to look clearly at diocesan and parochial reality and acknowledge that ECUSA has bent the knee to Baal. We can no longer pretend that our ecclesial world ends at the borders of our tiny congregations. Whether we like it or not, each Episcopal parish is part of and is the Episcopal Church. At this moment, every Episcopalian is in sacramental communion with Frank Griswold, Jack Spong, Bill Swing, and Gene Robinson—just name your favorite heretical bishop. Funny thing about sacramental communion. It’s utterly objective. As long as my bishop is in communion with these guys, so am I, regardless of my personal opinions and preferences. I may privately believe that Griswold & Company are teaching heterodoxy; I may whisper to myself, and perhaps even to others, that I am not really in fellowship with them; but the act of remaining in eucharistic communion with heretics objectively declares the opposite! Holy Eucharist is a public act. It presumes and proclaims a common faith; it boldly states that we mutually affirm each other’s theological beliefs, that significant, church-dividing differences do not exist between us. It expresses and embodies unity in the catholic faith. A thousand miles may separate us; but there is only one one faith, one baptism, one Eucharist.

After I wrote my “Fly, you fools” article, some readers asked if I was not contradicting myself by excepting the Network dioceses. That’s a hard question for me to answer. I admit the possibility that my admiration for Robert Duncan and Edward Salmon may be influencing my judgment. I honor what they are seeking to do. I also understand the politics of excommunication and why the Network bishops have decided to remain in communion with the Griswold Church, pending the future judgment of Canterbury and American court decisions. But I submit that precisely this failure to confront heterodoxy in the 80s and 90s has led to our present disaster. Several years ago I was riding in a car with a solidly orthodox bishop who asked me “Al, if you were in my shoes, what would you do?” “Bishop,” I answered, “I would cut off all funding to 815 and I would sever communion with all bishops who have publicly departed from the catholic faith.” I also explained what severance of communion entailed: clergy and laity of his diocese would no longer be permitted to receive communion in the excommunicated dioceses, and members of the excommunicated dioceses would no longer be permitted to receive communion in the parishes of his diocese; moreover, priests from excommunicated dioceses could no longer expect to transfer willy nilly into his diocese; some kind of certification of orthodoxy would be required and perhaps even conditional ordination. Needless to say, the good bishop did not heed my counsel—which is why he is a bishop and I am a lowly parish priest.

The words Elijah spoke to Israel are now spoken to all of us in the Episcopal Church: “How long will you waver between two opinions? If the Lord is God, follow him; but if Baal is God, follow him.”

For me personally, the burden of being in the Episcopal Church is directly related to my role as a priest and pastor. I cannot in conscience summon sinners into the fellowship of the Episcopal Church, nor can I in conscience teach or defend what appears to be the new orthodoxy of the Episcopal Church. Here the question of authority bears most heavily upon me. By what authority do I declare that what I teach is in fact the revealed Word of God? For twenty-five years I have been teaching a modified form of Anglo-Catholicism, with a dash of Luther, Robert Jenson, and T. F. Torrance. Yet not only is my personal concoction of the “catholic faith” not taught by 99% of Episcopal priests, it also lacks definitive Anglican authority; it is just one opinion among many Anglican opinions. Why should my parishioners take my teaching with any seriousness? My rectorial predecessors at my former parish didn’t teach many of the things I do and most likely my successors will not teach them either. The fact is, Anglicanism has comprehended a wide range of ever-changing beliefs since its inception—from Calvinism to Latitudinarianism, from Anglo-Catholicism to modernism. My “catholic” version of the faith is simply one option in the Anglican cafeteria. It can claim no more authority than the now dominant inclusivist ideology. And this is intolerable. And it should be intolerable for every priest out there who has a catholic bone in his body!

I do not believe that the Episcopal Church is a safe place for those who would be formed and nourished in the gospel. Ours is a denomination determined by the private judgments and theological insanities of its members. Do we want to raise our children as Episcopalians? The question is most acutely felt if one lives within a revisionist diocese. How do parents explain to their children that “We are Episcopalians … but we disagree with everything the Episcopal Church teaches … and therefore we do not want you attending any diocesan functions … nor are you permitted to visit any other Episcopal parish, unless we have previously investigated the orthodoxy of its rector.” Parents need to confront the reality that by the time their children grow up, there will not be an orthodox Episcopal congregation anywhere that will be safe for them. Hence Episcopal parents find themselves in the untenable position of raising Episcopal believers whose future church affiliation will (hopefully) be non-Episcopal.

Those within Network dioceses are of course hoping that a viable alternative Anglican entity will be created in the next few years. Whether this is likely to happen or not, the bookmakers must decide. Last September I offered my own prognostications on the future of Anglicanism in the United States. I stand by what I wrote then. But even if the Network is able to secure some independence from ECUSA, I know that it cannot be a viable alternative for me personally. As a priest and pastor, I must be confident that the Church I represent is indeed the true Church of Jesus Christ. I must be in a Church ruled, not by private judgment and Anglican compromise, but by Holy Scripture, the dogmas of the Catholic Faith, and the lucidity and life of the Holy Spirit. I must be in the Church.

31 May 2005


Ten years ago or so I dreamed that I was an Orthodox priest. If you had asked me even three years ago what I would become if I ever decided to leave the Episcopal Church, I would have replied “Eastern Orthodox.” Yet today I find myself becoming what I truly never seriously considered until the past two years.

Why did I not choose to become Orthodox? Who but God can answer? All such matters are a mystery, a mystery between the mystery of the human heart and the mystery of the Holy Trinity. Rational analysis takes one only so far. All I really know is that during the past two years, as I intently studied both Orthodoxy and Catholicism, I found myself increasingly drawn, against my will and desire, and certainly to my amazement, to Catholicism.

I love the liturgy and sacramental life of the Orthodox Church. It speaks to the depths of my heart. I long to pray the Divine Liturgy and be formed by its music, poetry, beaity, and ritual.

I love the integration of theology, dogma, spirituality, and asceticism within Orthodoxy. There is a wholeness to Orthodox experience that is compelling, powerful, and attractive on many different levels. This wholeness refuses any bifurcation between mind and heart and invites the believer into deeper reconciliation in Christ by the Spirit. This wholeness is something that Western Christians particularly need, as we confront and battle the corrosive powers of Western modernity and secularism.

I love the reverence and devotion Orthodoxy gives to the saints and church fathers, who are experienced in the Church as living witnesses to the gospel of Christ Jesus. I love the icons.

And I love the theological writings of many Orthodox writers, especially Alexander Schmemann and Georges Florovsky. For all these reasons and for many more, it would have been oh so very easy for me to become Orthodox.

But two features in particular gave me pause.

First, I am troubled by Orthodoxy’s “Easternness.” The coherence and power of Orthodoxy is partially achieved by excluding the Western tradition from its spiritual and theological life. One is hard-pressed to find an Orthodox writer who speaks highly of the Western Church, of her saints, ascetics, and theologians, of her manifold contributions to Christian religion and Western civilization. According to Orthodox consensus, Western Christianity went off the tracks somewhere along the way and must now be judged as a heresy. Understandably, Eastern Christianity considers itself the touchstone and standard by which the Western tradition is to be judged.

To put it simply, Orthodoxy has no real place for St Augustine. He is commemorated as a saint, but the bulk of his theological work is rejected. The noted scholar, Fr John Romanides, has been particularly extreme. I raised my concern about Orthodoxy and the West a year ago in my blog article Bad, bad Augustine. In that article I cited one of the few Orthodox scholars, David B. Hart, who has been willing to address Orthodox caricature of Western theologians:

The most damaging consequence, however, of Orthodoxy’s twentieth-century pilgrimage ad fontes—and this is no small irony, given the ecumenical possibilities that opened up all along the way—has been an increase in the intensity of Eastern theology’s anti-Western polemic. Or, rather, an increase in the confidence with which such polemic is uttered. Nor is this only a problem for ecumenism: the anti-Western passion (or, frankly, paranoia) of Lossky and his followers has on occasion led to rather severe distortions of Eastern theology. More to the point here, though, it has made intelligent interpretations of Western Christian theology (which are so very necessary) apparently almost impossible for Orthodox thinkers. Neo-patristic Orthodox scholarship has usually gone hand in hand with some of the most excruciatingly inaccurate treatments of Western theologians that one could imagine—which, quite apart form the harm they do to the collective acuity of Orthodox Christians, can become a source of considerable embarrassment when they fall into the hands of Western scholars who actually know something of the figures that Orthodox scholars choose to caluminiate. When one repairs to modern Orthodox texts, one is almost certain to encounter some wild mischaracterization of one or another Western author; and four figures enjoy a special eminence in Orthodox polemics: Augustine, Anselm, Thomas Aquinas, and John of the Cross.

Ironically, the various contributions by Perry Robinson and Daniel Jones, here on Pontifications and elsewhere, have heightened my concern. Both have sought, in various ways, to demonstrate that Western theology is incompatible with the catholic faith. While I have neither the training nor wit to follow many of their arguments, I am convinced that their project is wrong. Both presume that one can know the catholic faith independent of ecclesial commitment and formation. If one insists, for example, that St Maximos the Confessor, read through a post-schism Eastern lens, is our authoritative guide to a proper reading of the sixth Ecumenical Council, then of course Augustinian Catholicism will come off looking badly, despite the fact that Maximos was himself a great supporter of the prerogatives of Rome and despite the fact that Rome was instrumental in the defeat of monotheletism. Yet Catholicism embraces both Augustine and Maximos as saints, even though Maximos has had minimal influence upon Western reflection. Clearly Rome did not, and does not, understand the dogmatic decrees of III Constantinople as contradicting Western christological and trinitarian commitments. As much as I respect Perry and Daniel and am grateful for both their erudition and civility and their stimulating articles on these matters, it seems to me that their conclusions are more determined by their theological and ecclesial starting points than by “neutral” scholarship. And one thing I do know: there is always a brighter guy somewhere who will contest one’s favorite thesis.

Neither Orthodoxy nor Catholicism, in my judgment, can be conclusively identified as the one and true Church by these kinds of rational arguments, as interesting and important as they may be in themselves. Arguments and reasons must be presented and considered as we seek to make the necessary choice between Rome and Constantinople, yet ultimately we are still confronted by mystery and the decision and risk of faith.

If the catholicity of Orthodoxy can only be purchased by the practical expulsion of Augustine and Aquinas, then, at least in my own mind, Orthodoxy’s claim to be the one and true Church is seriously undermined. A truly catholic Church will and must include St Augustine and St Maximos the Confessor, St Gregory Palamas and St Thomas Aquinas. A truly catholic Church will keep these great theologians in conversation with each other, and their differences and disagreements will invite the Church to a deeper and more comprehensive understanding of the divine mysteries. To set one against the other is not catholic, but partisan.

Second, I am troubled by the absence of a final court of appeal in controversies of faith and morals. We Anglicans are now witnessing first-hand the disintegration of a world-wide communion partially because of the absence of a divinely instituted organ of central authority. In the first millenium the Church employed the Ecumenical Council to serve as this final authority; but for the past thirteen centuries Orthodoxy has been unable to convene such a council. Is it a matter of logistics, or is the matter perhaps more serious, a question of constitutional impotence? Or has God simply protected the Orthodox from serious church-dividing heresies during this time, thereby temporarily obviating the need for such a council? Regardless, it seems to me that if Orthodoxy truly is the one Church of Jesus Christ in the exclusive sense it claims to be, then not only would it be confident in its power and authority to convene an Ecumenical Council, but it would have done so by now.

Yet as Orthodoxy begins to seriously engage the worldview and values of modernity (and post-modernity), the need for a final tribunal will perhaps become more evident. Consider just one example—contraception. It used to be the case that all Orthodox theologians would have roundly denounced most (all?) forms of contraception. But over the past twenty years or so, we have seen a growing diversity on this issue amongst Orthodox thinkers. Some state that this is really a private matter that needs to be decided between the believer and his parish priest. Clearly this privatization of the issue accords with modern sensibilities; but I am fearful of the consequences. Given the absence of a final court of appeal, does Orthodoxy have any choice but to simply accept diversity on many of the burning ethical questions now confronting us? Can Orthodoxy speak authoritatively to any of them?

For the past two years I have struggled to discern whether to remain an Anglican (in some form or another) or to embrace either Orthodoxy or Catholicism. Both Orthodoxy and Catholicism make mutually exclusive claims to be the one and true Church of Jesus Christ. We are confronted by a stark either/or choice. An Anglican is tempted to retreat to a branch theory of the Church, and on that basis make a decision on which tradition appeals to him most; but both Orthodoxy and Catholicism reject all such branch theories. There is only one visible Church. To become either Orthodox or Catholic means accepting the claim of the respective communion to ecclesial exclusivity. How do we rightly judge between them?

One thing we cannot do. We cannot pretend that we can assume a neutral vantage point. Oh how much easier things would be for all of us if God would call us on our telephones right now and tell us what to do!

The Pope convenes the College of Cardinals in emergency session. “I’ve got some good news and some bad news,” he says. “The good news is this: I just received a phone call from God!” Everyone cheers. “But here’s the bad news: God lives in Salt Lake City.”

I cannot see the Church from God’s perspective. I am faced with a choice. Good arguments can be presented for both Orthodoxy and Catholicism; none appear to be absolutely decisive and coercive. Moreoever, considerations that seem important to me are probably irrelevant to the large majority of people. “The Church is a house with a hundred gates,” wrote Chesterton; “and no two men enter at exactly the same angle.” Finally, I can only rely upon my reason, my intuitions, my feelings, my faith, under the grace and mercy of God. May God forgive me if I have chosen wrongly.

9 June 2005


In 1974, during the first semester of my senior year at Bard College, I was introduced to a philosophical argument for the existence of God, a variation of the argument from design, with specific reference to human consciousness and our ability to apprehend and know reality. (A short version of the argument can be found in Richard Taylor’s Metaphysics [1982].) I wrote a letter to a friend who was a philosophy major at Vanderbilt University describing the argument. During the composition of this letter, I discovered that I actually believed that the argument was sound. I had unconsciously moved from atheism to theism. Six months later I would become a believing Christian.

Looking back at my conversion thirty years later, I wonder how in the world I could have made such a life-changing decision based on a single piece of controversial ratiocination; but there is no question that at that time, at least consciously, this philosophical argument was the foundation for my belief in God. I know now that the argument was only one piece of the conversion puzzle, and the argument that I found so very persuasive and important then no longer holds much interest for me at all. I will probably never truly comprehend, in this life, all the reasons that led me to God. As Pascal stated, “The heart has its reasons, of which the mind knows nothing.”

At the age of fifty-three, after twenty-five years of ordained ministry in the Episcopal Church, I have become persuaded that the Catholic Church is the one and true Church of Jesus Christ. Or as Vatican II puts it, the Church of Christ, “constituted and organized in the world as a society, subsists in the Catholic Church, which is governed by the successor of Peter and by the Bishops in communion with him.” This conviction has compelled me to make life-changing decisions that have dramatically affected not only myself but my family, friends, and former parishioners.

It is likely that if the Episcopal Church had not entered its 2003 General Convention meltdown, I would still be happily, or not so happily, serving as a parish priest. But the formal decisions of the Episcopal Church to embrace the ordination of noncelibate homosexuals and the blessing of same sex unions catapulted me into a crisis of conscience. It is quite one thing for individual bishops and priests to publicly promote heterodoxy, without official rebuke and discipline—at least one can tell oneself that these bishops and priests do not represent the institution as a whole—but when the institution, at its highest legislative level, formally commits itself to significant departure from the faith of the Church catholic, then it is no longer possible to pretend that such an action does not implicate our witness and ministry. Since the actions of the 2003 General Convention, every Episcopal parish priest should be asking himself a very simple question: “Can I in good conscience continue to summon sinners into the communion of the Episcopal Church?” If a confident yes cannot be given in reply, then to call people into the fellowship and teaching of the Episcopal Church is immoral.

Congregationalism, of course, comes easy to Episcopalians, and so it is easy for them to elide these issues. It’s easy to pretend that what the church does at national and diocesan levels do not affect the identity and spiritual life of the local congregation. It’s easy to pretend that St Swithun’s continues to be the Church of Christ, even though it finds itself part of a national community that is barely recognizable as Christian. But such congregationalism violates the deepest ecclesiological intuitions of Anglo-Catholicism. The Anglo-Catholic knows—or at least should know—that the retreat into congregationalism is a betrayal of his catholic faith and confirmation of what he has feared all along—namely, that he is in reality … ta daa … a Protestant!

The General Convention forced me to directly confront my understanding of what it means for the Church to be the Church. Eventually I had to conclude that Anglicanism, even in its most orthodox forms, is not the true fold of Christ and the ark of salvation. Hence when my local newspaper headlined my resignation from my parish with the unfortunate words “Priest quits parish over gay issues,” I had to cringe. My decision to enter into full communion with the Catholic Church is so much more than a matter of disagreement on a question of sexual morality. It certainly is not riveted upon “gay issues.” For the past twenty to thirty years we have been fighting for the heart and soul of the Episcopal Church. The nature of God, the divine identity of Jesus Christ, the mediation of salvation through our Lord’s glorified and risen humanity, the reconciliation of sinners with God through the shed blood of the Savior, the naming of the true God as “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit”—these are the decisive theological issues before us. These are the issues that have involved me in controversy and apologetics and eventually led to the composition of the Baltimore Declaration. Yet the revisionist steamroller has been unstoppable. The spirit of radical inclusivity has captured the mind and heart of the bishops and priests of the Episcopal Church, with dramatic consequences to the theological and ethical teaching of the Episcopal Church. The evidence is overwhelming and has been overwhelming for a good while; but until two years ago I somehow was able to sustain the delusion that I belonged to an evangelical and catholic Church. But Gene Robinson—God bless him!—changed all that.

I found myself confronted with four choices: (1) join a continuing Anglican body of some sort, (2) become Orthodox, (3) become Catholic, or (4) abandon my Christian faith altogether. I did not long consider option #4, though I suspect I will always hear in my deep heart the taunting voice “You’re making it all up!” Nor did I long consider option #1, since I am increasingly convinced that Protestantism, even in that form which I have found so congenial, namely, catholic Anglicanism, is fatally flawed and therefore constitutionally incapable of being the Church according to the intentions of our Lord.

As I noted in an earlier article, I long believed that I would become Eastern Orthodox if I ever left the Episcopal Church. Moving from Canterbury to Constantinople seemed a natural and easy move, requiring only a modest reconfiguration of my understanding of Holy Scripture and Holy Tradition.

What I had not banked on, though, was the gentle but persistent encouragement of my friend Fr Scott Newman to at least give Catholicism a serious hearing. Me become a papist? Inconceivable! Submit myself to the dreary liturgies of modern Catholicism? Inconceivable! Give up my Anglican superiority to all things Roman? Inconceivable!

You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.

Yet how could I say no? If I was going to abandon my ministry of twenty-five years, then surely I should be willing to at least consider the possibility that a billion Catholics might not be wrong.

And so I began to read that other Newman, John Henry Cardinal Newman. Newman’s An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine was of course the first title I tackled. Quite honestly, I find this to be a difficult book to wade through, cover to cover, perhaps because much of Newman’s argument is not of great interest to me at this time of my life. But I have found chapters 1 & 2 particularly helpful, especially the section subtitled An Infallible Developing Authority to Be Expected. That doctrine develops seems so patently self-evident that I do not know how to argue against someone who denies it. But once the development of doctrine is acknowledged, how are such developments authenticated as true and right? How can there be reliable authentication in the absence of a divinely ordained organ of truth within the Church? As Newman forcefully puts the issue, “A revelation is not given, if there be no authority to decide what it is that is given.”

Newman’s argument is not the simplistic “There must be an infallible authority because we clearly need one” but rather something more like “Because we so clearly need an infallible authority if divine revelation is to be preserved in history, is it not appropriate to look around and see whether any historical communities in fact do claim to exercise such an authority and to examine their credentials?”

26 June 2005


A Cardinal Newman proposal: “Take then the Roman Church and take the Anglican in a large town; let each call itself the Church, and just see what the people say to it. They may prefer the Anglican, as more Scriptural, as not being corrupt, etc etc. but they will all say, or will show they feel, that the Roman Church, whether corrupted, whether perverted, (which is a question of opinions) yet in matter of fact is the continuation of that old Church, called Catholic, which has been in the world from time immemorial, which has been in the world so long that you cannot say when it was not in the world, to which you can assign no date short of the Apostles.”

The fact of Rome. Before all of our theories, before all of our speculations and arguments, there is the embarrassing, scandalous, offensive, irresistable, tangible, substantial, glorious fact of the Catholic Church and its divinely given place in the structure of human existence.

The factuality of the Catholic Church was made manifest to all during the time between the death of John Paul II and the election of Benedict XVI. Whether it wanted to or not, the world found itself compelled to watch all that was going on, and so the media set up their cameras in Rome and provided commentary for days on end. An ancient institution grabbed the throat of the world and demanded its immediate attention … and the world attended. Christian and non-Christian, Protestant, Orthodox, and Catholic—all were drawn to the happenings of Rome. Yes, we were drawn to the manifest holiness of the man Karol Wojtyla; but there was something more powerful at work. We were drawn to Rome, to the Vatican, to the chair of St Peter, to the bones. From John Paul II to Gregory the Great to Linus—sinners and saints stretching over two thousand years, yet all successors to the Apostle Peter.

Could any other institution in the world have generated the kind of response from the world that we witnessed over a period of two to three weeks? We may grieve the death of a beloved leader, religious, political, or social; but the death and election of a Pope is different. There is mystery here—the sacred become palpably visible. For seventeen days we were powerfully connected to the saving events of Christ and the deepest identity of the Church. When a Pope dies, it is almost as if the Church returns to Calvary; when a new Pope is elected, the Church is reborn. Yet I do not wish to push the analogy too far. I simply note that when John Paul II died, it felt different than the death of just a man. His death created a special kind of absence. And when Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger stepped onto that balcony as Benedict XVI, the absence disappeared and the universe was once again made whole. Habemus Papam!

Unlike many, I was not glued to the television set during the seventeen days. I did not even see much of the funeral. But I ran down to the living room and turned on the TV when I read on the internet that the conclave had elected a new Pope and I excitedly awaited his introduction to the Church and to the world.

“We have the bones,” Fr Scott Newman (the other Newman) likes to say. The bones of Saints Peter and Paul, bones that now rest under the basilicas dedicated to their respective Apostles. Even now these bones speak to us and draw us to the Apostolic See and to that rock upon which Christ has built his Church.

The fact of Rome. Perhaps this is what I have been most impressed by Catholicism over the past two years—the hard, undeniable, categorical fact of Rome. It does not need to be justified—indeed, cannot be justified—by our philosophies and intellectual exertions. It simply is. It enjoys an almost primordial existence. The Church. The body of Christ. The temple of the Holy Spirit. Ecclesia Catholica.

We do not spin out our ecclesiologies and then ask if the Vicar of Christ has a place in the Church. We begin with the fact of Rome and her abiding conviction that her bishop is the visible head of the Church.

Of course, the Orthodox can also testify to the apostolic foundation of their Church, yet there is a subtle difference. And here, as I see it, is the crux. Orthodoxy claims an antiquity as old as Rome’s. It has faithfully preserved the creeds and the dogmas of the ecumenical councils. It breathes the spirit of the (Eastern) Fathers. To pray the Divine Liturgy is to step into the worship of the saints and martyrs.

But Orthodoxy does not speak with quite the same authority as Catholicism. It’s hard to articulate the difference, yet the difference is there. Orthodoxy certainly asserts the Orthodox faith as the Christian faith, yet she lacks that imperious, offensive edge that is the Catholic Church. She confidently believes she is the Church catholic in its fullness, yet she does not speak with that living, transcultural, prophetic voice by which Peter challenges the world and Church today, a voice that dares to speak with the magisterial authority of God.

Cardinal Newman was right when he said that “the essential idea of Catholicism is infallibility.” The world intuits the supernatural reality of the Catholic Church. In the magisterial teaching of the Church it hears the voice of its Creator and is both attracted and repelled by it.

I did not fear becoming Orthodox. I did fear becoming Catholic. Finally I feared not becoming Catholic.

This is why, I believe, the death and election of a Pope can arouse such consuming interest from an unbelieving world. And this is why the world simultaneously hates the Catholic Church with such irrational and virulent passion. No other religious community, save the Jews, evokes such universal antipathy. The Catholic Church wears, in Chesterton’s words, a “halo of hatred.” The world hates the Catholic Church because she truly is the Church, because she speaks with the authority of God. I cannot think of a more convincing note of her authenticity than this halo of hatred.

It was the fact of Rome with which the Anglican Newman finally had to confront.

Christianity is not a matter of opinion, but an external fact, entering into, carried out in, indivisible from, the history of the world. It has a bodily occupation of the world; it is one continuous fact or thing, the same from first to last, distinct from everything else: to be a Christian is to partake of, to submit to, this thing; and the simple question was, Where, what is this thing in this age, which in the first age was the Catholic Church? The Church called Catholic now, is that very same thing in hereditary descent, in organization, in principles, in external relations, which was called the Catholic Church then; name and thing have ever gone together, by an uninterrupted connection and succession, from then till now. Whether it had been corrupted in its teaching was, at best, a matter of opinion. It was indefinitely more evident a fact, that it stood on the ground and in the place of the ancient Church, as its heir and representative, than that certain peculiarities in its teaching were reallly innovations and corruptions. Say there is no Church at all, if you will, and at least I shall understand you; but do not meddle with a fact attested by mankind.

And it was this fact of Rome which Cardinal Newman forced this poor Episcopal priest to confront.

27 June 2005


We are confronted with the fact that there exists in the world today an institution that enjoys two thousand years of historical continuity with the Church of the Apostles of Jesus Christ and that claims to speak and act with the authority of God. This institution claims that the fullness of the Church of Jesus Christ is visibily realized in communion with the Bishop of Rome. It claims that the Bishop of Rome enjoys universal jurisdiction and authority over all particular Churches of the one Church. And it claims that the Bishop of Rome, speaking ex cathedra, can bind the consciences of all Christians on matters of doctrine and morals, in the confidence that the Holy Spirit will protect the Supreme Pontiff from grievous and irretrievable error.

In his letters Cardinal Newman employs the following expressions to describe the unique identity of the Catholic Church: “the one oracle of supernatural truth,” “the one Ark of salvation,” “the Oracle of Truth,” “the Fold of Truth,” “the True Fold of Christ,” “the one true fold and Church of God on earth,” “oracle of revealed doctrine,” “His Apostle on earth,” “the One authoritative Oracle of God and the One Ark of Salvation,” “the exclusive divinity of the Roman Catholic Church.”

“Do you understand and believe,” Newman asks one inquirer, “that the Church is the Oracle of God in such sense that she can declare and interpret authoritatively every part of that body of doctrine which our Lord gave to His Apostles?”

To another inquirer he says, “What is certain is that you ought to act on a conviction of the divinity of the Catholic Roman Church, if you are to join it.”

“There is only one Church and that is the Catholic,” Newman concludes.

These are remarkable and hard claims. Their radicality and offensiveness must not be minimized. These claims distinguish the Catholic Church from all other Christian bodies. They have been muted during the past forty years of ecumenical dialogue, yet the claims remain dogmatically intact. If they are not true, then, as Scott Hahn has observed, the Catholic Church is “nothing less than diabolical.” Henry Cardinal Manning formulated the dilemma clearly: “The Catholic Church is either the masterpiece of Satan or the Kingdom of the Son of God.”

Readers of C. S. Lewis will immediately recognize Manning’s dilemma as similar to Lewis’s argument that Christ either was, and is, who he claimed to be; or he was a lunatic or the Devil from Hell. I found the Lewisian trilemma persuasive and cogent in 1975 when I was considering the claims of Christianity, and it has remained a staple of my teaching and preaching. Given the outrageousness of the Roman ecclesial and papal assertions, this kind of argument also compellingly obtains here. Ecumenical sensibilities may have led in recent years to a soft-pedalling of Protestant and Orthodox offence to the Roman claims, yet surely the offence is right. It is salutary to re-visit earlier, and not so earlier, polemic against the Papacy and the Catholic Church:

“He names himself an earthly God, as though,the only true and Almighty God were not on earth! Truly, the pope’s kingdom is a horrible outrage against the power of God and against mankind; an abomination of desolation, which stands in the holy place. `Tis a monstrous blasphemy for a human creature to presume, now Christ is come, to exalt himself in the church above God. If it had been done amongst the Gentiles, before the coming of Christ, it would not have been so great a wonder. But though Daniel, Christ himself, and his apostles, Paul and Peter, have given us warning of that poisoned beast and pestilence, yet we Christians have been, and still are, so doltish and mad, s to adore and worship all his idols, and to believe that he is lord over the universal world, as heir to St Peter; whereas, neither Christ nor St Peter left any succession upon earth.” (Martin Luther)

“The See of Rome is the seat of Satan, and the bishop of the same, that maintained the abominations thereof, is Antichrist himself indeed; and for the same causes this See at this day is the same that St. John calls, in his Revelation, Babylon, or the whore of Babylon, and spiritual Sodom and Egypt, the mother of fornications and abom­inations on earth.” (Bishop Nicholas Ridley)

“If the pope be not anti-Christ, he hath the ill-luck to appear so much like him.” (Richard Baxter)

“True, Rome is heretical now—–nay, grant she has thereby forfeited her orders; yet, at least, she was not heretical in the primitive ages. If she has apostatized, it was at the time of the Council of Trent. Then, indeed, it is to be feared the whole Roman Communion bound itself, by a perpetual bond and covenant, to the cause of Antichrist.” (John Henry Newman [1833])

“In the Book of Revelations, the sorceress upon the seven hills is not the Church of Rome, as is often taken for granted, but Rome itself, that bad spirit which, in its former shape, was the animating principle of the fourth monarchy. In St. Paul’s prophecy, it is not the Temple or Church of God, but the man of sin in the Temple, the old man or evil principle of the flesh which exalteth itself against God. Certainly it is a mystery of iniquity, and one which may well excite our dismay and horror, that in the very heart of the Church, in her highest dignity, in the seat of St. Peter, the evil principle has throned itself, and rules. It seems as if that spirit had gained subtlety by years: Popish Rome has succeeded to Rome Pagan: and would that we had no reason to expect still more crafty developments of Antichrist amid the wreck of institutions and establishments which will attend the fall of the Papacy! … I deny that the distinction is unmeaning. Is it nothing to be able to look on our mother, to whom we owe the blessing of Christianity, with affection instead of hatred, with pity indeed, nay and fear, but not with horror? Is it nothing to rescue her from the hard names which interpreters of prophecy have put on her, as an idolatress and an enemy of God, when she is deceived rather than a deceiver?” (John Henry Newman [1834])

“It is the bounden duty of every Christian to pray against Antichrist, and as to what Antichrist is, no sane man ought to raise a question. If it be not Popery in the Church of Rome, there is nothing in the world that can be called by that name. If there were to be issued a hue and cry for Antichrist, we should certainly take up this Church on suspicion, and it would certainly not be let loose again, for it so exactly answers the description.” (C. H. Spurgeon)

“We tremble at the sight, while we read the inscription, emblazoned in large letters, ‘Mystery, Babylon the Great,’ written by the hand of St. John, guided by the Holy Spirit of God, on the forehead of the Church of Rome.” (Bishop Christopher Wordsworth [1893])

I’m confident that these Protestant polemical statements could easily be matched by Orthodox statements; but for our purposes it is sufficient to cite two 20th century texts. The first is from the 1993 Letter of the Twenty Sacred Monasteries of the Holy Mountain of Athos to the Ecumenical Patriarch in response to the Balamand Agreement.

Most Holy Father and Despota, in human terms, by means of that joint [Balamand] declaration Roman Catholics have succeeded in gaining from certain Orthodox recognition as the legitimate continuation of the One Holy Church with the fullness of Truth, Grace, Priesthood, Mysteries, and Apostolic Succession.

But that success is to their own detriment because it removes from them the possibility of acknowledging and repenting of their grave ecclesiology and doctrinal illness. For this reason, the concessions by Orthodox are not philanthropic. They are not for the good of either the Roman Catholics or the Orthodox. They jump from the hope of the Gospel (Col. 1:23) of Christ, the only God-Man, to the Pope, the man-god and idol of Western humanism.

For the sake of the Roman Catholics and the whole world, whose only hope is unadulterated Orthodoxy, we are obliged never to accept union or the description of the Roman Catholic Church as a “Sister Church,” or the Pope as the canonical bishop of Rome, or the “Church” of Rome as having canonical Apostolic Succession, Priesthood, and Mysteries without their [the Papists’] expressly stated renunciation of the Filioque, the infallibility and primacy of the Pope, created grace, and the rest of their cacodoxies. For we shall never regard these as unimportant differences or mere theological opinions, but as differences that irrevocably debase the theanthropic character of the Church and introduce blasphemies.

The following decisions of Vatican II are typical:

* The Roman Pontiff, the successor to Peter, is the permanent and visible source and foundation of the unity of the bishops and of the multitude of the faithful.

* This religious submission of the will and mind must be manifested in a special way before the authentic teaching authority of the Roman Pontiff, even when he is not speaking ex cathedra.

* The Roman Pontiff, the head of the college of bishops, by virtue of his office, possesses infallibility when, strengthening his brethren (Luke 23:32) as the shepherd and highest teacher of all the faithful, he declares a teaching through an act of definition regarding faith or morals. For this reason it is justly said that the decrees of the Pope are irreversible in nature and not subject to dispensation by the Church inasmuch as they were pronounced with the collaboration of the Holy Spirit … Consequently, the decrees of the Pope are subject to no other approval, to no other appeal, to no other judgment. For the Roman Pontiff does not express his opinion as a private person but as the highest teacher of the universal Church, upon whom personally rests the gift of the infallibility of the very Church herself and who sets forth and protects the teaching of the Catholic Faith.

* In the course of his responsibility as the vicar of Christ and shepherd of the whole Church, the Roman Pontiff has the fullest, highest, and universal authority in the Church, which he is always empowered to exercise freely … There cannot exist an Ecumenical Council if it is not validated or at least accepted by the successor to Peter. The convocation, presidency, and approval of the decisions of the Councils are the prerogative of the Roman Pontiff.

Do all of these teachings, Your All Holiness, not fall upon Orthodox ears as blasphemy against the Holy Spirit and against the Divine Builder of the Church, Jesus Christ, the only eternal and infallible Head of the Church from Whom alone springs forth the unity of the Church? Do these not utterly contradict the Gospel-centered and God-Man-centered Orthodox Ecclesiology inspired by the Holy Spirit? Do they not subordinate the God-man to man?”

St Justin Popovich, who died in 1979, offered an even harsher assessment of the heresy of papism:

In the kingdom of humanism the place of the God-man has been usurped by the ‘Vicarius Christi,’ and the God-man ha thus been exiled to Heaven … In the history of the human race there have been three principal falls: that of Adam, that of Judas, and that of the pope … The dogma of papal infallibility is not only a heresy but the greatest heresy against the True Church of Christ, which has existed in our terrrestrial world as a theanthropic body ever since the appearance of the God-man. No other heresy has revolted so violently and so completely against the God-man Christ and His Church as has the papacy with the dogma of the pope-man’s infallibility. There is no doubt about it. This dogma is the heresy of heresies, a revolt without precedent against the God-man Christ on this earth, a new betrayal of Christ, a new crucifixion of the Lord, this time not on wood but on the golden cross of papal humanism. And these things are hell, damnation for the wretched earthly being called man.

I cite the above, not as examples of extreme and irrational polemic, but as examples of responses to Catholicism that are proper, right, and appropriate if the Roman claims are false.

The Roman claims are profoundly offensive. I felt their offensiveness deeply as I began to explore the claims of Catholicism two years ago. I feel their offensiveness still. It is one thing to personally admire Pope John Paul II, as I did and do; but it is quite another thing to consider in full seriousness the distinctive, singular, and scandalous claims of the Catholic Church.

“Either the Church of Rome is the house of God or the house of Satan,” Newman declared; “there is no middle ground between them.”

In the end I found that I could not in conscience identify the Catholic Church as the house of Satan.

1 July 2005


Inquiring minds want to know: Is the Pope really who he claims to be? And how in the world can we ever know for sure?

For most inquirers into the Catholic faith, this is probably the burning question; but it is instructive to note that it was not John Henry Newman’s burning question. Newman’s question was “Where is the Church of the Apostles and Fathers to be found today?” When he became convinced that the Catholic Church was and is this Church, he then accepted the Church’s claims about the Bishop of Rome. “I did not distinctly believe in the jus divinum of the Holy See till I joined the Church,” Newman explained. “I then believed in it as I believed in any other doctrine of the Church, because she was the Church, the oracle of Christ.” Newman became convinced that the Catholic Church is the one Church because she embodies and realizes in her life and history the Notes of the Church—apostolicity, catholicity, unity, sanctity. “To the poor is the Gospel preached,” Newman wrote. “Accordingly the notes of the Church are simple and easy, and obvious to all capacities. Let a poor man look at the Church of Rome, and he will see that it has that which no other Church has.”

One must therefore begin with the Church, with its divinity and infallibility. Only within this context does the supremacy of the Pope make sense. Hence Newman rejected the thesis that the truth of the Catholic Church depended upon proving the infallibility of the Pope, as he emphatically told Francis Richard Wegg-Prosser:

I must protest with all my right against what I consider an assumption, that the infallibility of the Pope is the basis of the Catholic religion looked at controversially, and I will not meet you on a point, the admission of which seems to me a mistake. I will not put myself in a false position.

A person must first be persuaded that the Catholic Church is the Oracle of God and the True Fold of Christ. Then his assent to the Church’s authoritative teaching on the papal office comes naturally and easily. Newman criticized Wegg-Prosser for his fixation on the papal claims, likening him to a man who had “just planted himself outside the walls of Rome and declared he would not go round to one of the gates—for he had a fancy to enter the city at that particular point.”

Yet is it not also the case that one critical feature of the Church’s self-testimony to its divine identity is the claim of the Bishop of Rome to be the successor of Peter, chief pastor of the Church and Vicar of Christ? Given the interconnection and coinherence of all Christian doctrines, is it not possible to approach the Roman claim to be the one true Church of Jesus Christ through the Roman claims of the papacy?

For the past twenty-seven years we experienced the powerful embodiment of this claim in the person, preaching, and ministry of John Paul II. Here was an extraordinary man, a man of faith, intelligence, erudition, creativity, and sanctity, who understood himself to be the Pope and who realized this identity and role in his life. He was not a theory but a fact. When I read Crossing the Threshold of Hope, I was most impressed simply by the fact that John Paul really believed that he was the Pope, with all the meaning that word carries for Catholics. He did not have to shout it aloud. He did not need to provide proofs and evidences. He was Peter.

We are thus confronted with the assertion, personally and sacramentally embodied in the man who sits in the chair of Peter, that the Pope is the Pope. Do we believe him or not? Of course, every mental hospital is filled with people who believe they are Jesus, Napoleon, Tallulah Bankhead, or Bill Clinton. Even Bill Clinton thinks he’s Bill Clinton. We do not simply take their word for it. We demand further evidence and documentation. But before taking this easy way out, I want us to dwell for just a moment on the significance of self-attestation. It cannot be dismissed out-of-hand. Saul of Tarsus claimed that he had met the risen Christ and had been appointed Apostle to the Gentiles. Though the Book of Acts tells us that Saul’s companions sensibly experienced something (sound? light?), the fact remains that we only have Paul’s testimony for what he claims to have seen and heard. We are confronted with a choice, to believe or disbelieve his testimony, the same choice that confronted St Peter and the other Apostles when Saul shared with them his story. And the same applies to any claim of prophethood or apostleship. We may invoke various tests—the personal integrity of the person, congruity with tradition and previous revelations, manifestation of miracles—but ultimately it simply comes down to a decision, to believe or disbelieve.

Cardinal Manning went so far as to suggest that the search for additional proof was itself rationalistic and indeed heretical. The Church is inspired and guided by the Holy Spirit. How can God’s Word spoken to us by the Spirit be judged by standards external to God? Does it not convey its own self-evidence?

As soon as I perceived the Divine fact that the Holy Spirit of God has united Himself indissolubly to the mystical body, or Church of Jesus Christ, I saw at once that the interpretations or doctrines of the living Church are true because Divine, and that the voice of the living Church in all ages is the sole rule of faith, and infallible, because it is the voice of a Divine Person. I then saw that all appeals to Scripture alone, or to Scripture and antiquity, whether by individuals or by local churches, are no more than appeals from the Divine voice of the living Church, and therefore essentially rationalistic. (The Temporal Mission of the Holy Ghost [1881], p. 44)

The doctrines of the Church in all ages are primitive. It was the charge of the Reformers that the Catholic doctrines were not primitive, and their pretension was to revert to antiquity. But the appeal to antiquity is both a treason and a heresy. It is a treason because it rejects the Divine voice of the Church at this hour, and a heresy because it denies that voice to be Divine. How can we know what antiquity was except through the Church? No individual, no number of individuals can go back through eighteen hundred years to reach the doctrines of antiquity. We may say with the woman of Samaria, “Sir, the well is deep, and thou hast nothing to draw with.” No individual mind now has contact with the revelation of Pentecost, except through the Church. Historical evidence and biblical criticism are human after all, and amount at most to no more than opinion, probability, human judgment, human tradition. (p. 227)

Manning seems to be suggesting that it is an act of disbelief to ask for evidences beyond God’s magisterial voice spoken in and by the Church.

God takes the stand: “I swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help me me.”

I grant Manning’s point, yet still it seems appropriate to ask for evidences to support the Church’s teaching on the papacy. The Pope is, after all, is the rock upon which so many stumble. Even Paul VI conceded that “the pope—and we know this well—is without doubt the most serious obstacle on the ecumenical road.” The pope hypostatsizes the skandalon that is the Catholic Church. If one is standing outside the Catholic circle of faith, surely it cannot be wrong to ask for evidences and arguments. Faith may be a leap but it is also a reasoned leap, a leap based, as Martin Moleski says, on asymptotic reasoning: “We see that all of the lines of evidence point in the same direction, even though none of the lines constitute a complete, formal proof.”

Just as the Church’s claim of the divinity of Jesus Christ cannot be divorced from history, so the Church’s claim of the primacy of the Bishop of Rome cannot be divorced from history. So how does the Pope fare at the bar of history?

4 July 2005


Does history support or confute the Roman claim of papal supremacy? But before everyone starts pulling out their favorite prooftexts, consider the difficulties posed by the question. We know that no historian can be truly “objective” and “neutral.” Perception is theory-laden. Our worldview, morals, presuppositions, ideological and religious commitments all shape how we select and interpret the “facts.” It comes as no surprise, therefore, that equally erudite historians can disagree on any number of matters or even on the interpretation of a single text or event.

But the difficulties are even worse than this. Historians deal only with limited sources. History is past and we are left only with its detritus. For example, just because a second-century church father does not refer to the supremacy of the Bishop of Rome does not necessarily mean that the bishops of Rome did not understand themselves as enjoying a privileged, divinely ordained status in the life of the Church catholic. It may simply be the case that no one thought it necessary to address the matter at the time in writing or that such writings are no longer extant. The argument from silence can be precarious.

But there is an even deeper problem, a problem alluded to in my previous article Inquiring Minds—namely, the relationship beween the dogmatic teaching of the Church and historiography. How does the research and probabilistic judgments of historians affect the the fundamental beliefs of Catholic Christians? Cardinal Newman addressed this problem at length in his Letter to the Duke of Norfolk. In response to the accusation that Catholics neglect the scholarly results of historical science, Newman insisted that historical science can neither prove nor disprove a dogma of the Church:

Why should Ecclesiastical History, any more than the text of Scripture, contain in it “the whole counsel of God”? Why should private judgment be unlawful in interpreting Scripture against the voice of authority, and yet be lawful in the interpretation of history?… For myself, I would simply confess that no doctrine of the Church can be rigorously proved by historical evidence: but at the same time that no doctrine can be simply disproved by it. Historical evidence reaches a certain way, more or less, towards a proof of the Catholic doctrines; often nearly the whole way; sometimes it goes only as far as to point in their direction; sometimes there is only an absence of evidence for a conclusion contrary to them; nay, sometimes there is an apparent leaning of the evidence to a contrary conclusion, which has to be explained;—in all cases there is a margin left for the exercise of faith in the word of the Church. He who believes the dogmas of the Church only because he has reasoned them out of History, is scarcely a Catholic. It is the Church’s dogmatic use of History in which the Catholic believes; and she uses other informants also, Scripture, tradition, the ecclesiastical sense or phronema, and a subtle ratiocinative power, which in its origin is a divine gift. There is nothing of bondage or “renunciation of mental freedom” in this view, any more than in the converts of the Apostles believing what the Apostles might preach to them or teach them out of Scripture.

Like Henry Manning, Newman will not ground the faith in the Church in the results of human reasoning and historical investigation but only in the Word of God and the divinely inspired teaching of the Church. Newman simultanously rejects both obscurantism and rationalism. He insists on the rights of the intellect, yet he refuses to grant it independence from its creator. Implicit in Newman’s approach is a confidence that the teaching of the Magisterium can always be finally reconciled with the ever-expanding horizon of human knowledge.

In his 1851 correspondence with Wegg-Prosser, Newman addressed the usual historical objections to papal infallibility, demonstrating them to be inconclusive on purely historical grounds. He then bluntly stated: “Well then—here the Church comes in—the Church declares (if it declares), for it is not actually a point of faith [this is twenty years prior to Vatican I], that the Pope is infallible. What becomes then of your cumulated objections, if they do not reach the point of utterly and imperiously establishing the Pope’s fallibility?”

In 1868 J. H. Willis Nevins converted to Catholicism and began to study for the Catholic priesthood. But after Vatican I and the promulgation of the definition of papal infallibility, he left the Catholic Church and returned to the Church of England, in which he was ordained a deacon. In 1872, however, he wrote Newman and told him that he no longer believed in the Anglican Church but believed in all the Catholic doctrines except papal infallibility. “Where then am I?” he asked Newman. Newman replied: “I grieve to hear of your mental suffering. Do you really mean to say that you know what happened a thousand or fifteen hundred years ago so intimately and accurately, that on the ground of your knowledge you can separate from the Church?”

Nevens wrote back to Newman, “May I without disrespect state that I do not see the full value of the remark?” This gave Newman an opportunity to expand on his own reception of the Vatican I definition of papal infallibility:

For myself, I never would believe, I said “I never would believe—that the Church would pass the Pope’s infallibility, till I actually found it had passed it.” But I said this, not as not holding the doctrine, for I have long held it, but as thinking the historical evidence in its favour not so strong that the Church would think it safe to pass it. Consequently I can quite understand a man saying “there is not evidence enough for my believing it (on evidence)” but I cannot understand a man logically saying “there is evidence sufficient for my rejecting it” (when the Church has affirmed it).

We return now to our original question: Does history support or confute the Roman claim of papal supremacy? Yes. Maybe. No. Sometimes. Not even the Pontificator knows for sure.

I certainly am not a historian, nor, I admit, have I attempted to immerse myself in the history of the papacy. Newman knew the primary sources far better than I can ever hope to. If he says that the evidence is strong enough, when read through Catholic eyes, to support the Catholic belief in the papacy and not strong enough, when read through non-Catholic eyes, to disprove it, well, I’m happy to trust Newman’s judgment. One cannot know everything, nor do I believe that God requires us to know everything in order to make a decision for his Church.

I do have one opinion that seems to me strongly supported by the evidence, no matter through whose eyes one reads it: The Bishop of Rome both claimed and enjoyed more than a primacy of honor during the first millenium. This more-than-primacy-of-honor was acknowledged by many, though certainly not by all, churchmen. I do not intend to rehearse this controversial history, which is certainly beyond my competence. I refer the reader to the following books: J. H. Newman, An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine; Vladimir Soloviev, The Russian Church and the Papacy; Kenneth D. Whitehead, One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic; Stephen K. Ray, Upon this Rock; Stanley L. Jaki, Eastern Orthodoxy’s Witness to Papal Primacy (877-247-6886); James Likoudis, The Divine Primacy of the Bishop of Rome and Modern Eastern Orthodoxy; Ludwig Hertling, Communio: Church and Papacy in Early Christianity; and Olivier Clement, You Are Peter. I have also found helpful the essay by Walter Ullman, “Leo I and the Theme of Papal Primacy,” Journal of Theological Studies (1960), as well as Phil Blosser’s short article on the Acacian Schism. And I would be remiss if I did not cite Elliot Bougis’s Eastern papal florilegium.

5 July 2005


After my conversion from atheism to theism to Christianity thirty years ago, I quickly rejected Catholicism as a personal option for myself. First because I believed I had a call to priesthood and a call to marriage, so obviously the Catholic Church could not be the one true Church. And second because the Roman claim of papal infallibility seemed preposterous. I read George Salmon’s classic Infallibility of the Church and E. L. Mascall’s The Recovery of Unity, and in short order I was utterly convinced of the errors of Romanism. It didn’t take a great deal of convincing.

The Anglo-Catholic presentation of conciliar infallibility seemed far more reasonable than the Latin alternative: Bishops of the Church gather in ecumenical council, argue out the theological question before them, and then by the Spirit come to consensus. If the conciliar decree is subsequently received by the Church as a whole, then we can be reasonably certain that it is a true dogma; if it is not received, then it’s not a true dogma. What could be more reasonable than that! I wasn’t clear in my own mind whether the received conciliar dogmas were truly infallible—after all, there was still Article XXI (“General Councils … may err, and sometimes have erred, even in things pertaining unto God”)—but I figured that at the very least they should be held as “practically infallible.” Why reinvent the dogmatic wheel with each new generation?

And then the theological collapse of Anglicanism began. Of course, it had begun well before my ordination, but no one in seminary thought it necessary to clue me in on that. I entered into the ordained ministry with a naïvete that was truly impressive. But with each passing year, I began to understand more clearly that I had been ordained into a church that was fighting for its very soul—and the catholic faith was losing. As I watched the disintegration unfold, I began to wonder if any Protestant denomination, given the rejection by modern Protestantism of an authoritative teaching office, could rationally withstand the onslaught of modernity. If every dogmatic claim can be questioned and relativized through the exercise of historical and ideological criticism, then we must eventually end either in skepticism or individual denominationalism.

Sometime in the early 90’s I read Richard Swinburne’s book Revelation. Swinburne was an Anglican when he wrote the book, but he subsequently converted to Eastern Orthodoxy. Swinburne argues that if there is a God, there is good a priori reason for believing (a) that God has revealed theological and moral truths to humanity and (b) that he has provided a means to ensure that his revelation would be faithfully delivered to subsequent generations (see The Logic of Revelation). Since I was primarily interested at the time in Swinburne’s understanding of metaphor and analogy, I did not especially attend to his argument on the transmission of revelation; but in retrospect I think it is accurate to say that Swinburne prepared me for John Henry Newman.

“If there is no Church there is no revelation,” Newman wrote to E. B. Elliot in 1870. This was an abiding conviction for Newman throughout both his Anglo-Catholic and Catholic days. At some point in his career, Newman also came to see that this Church must possess an “organ of truth” if the revelation of God is to be faithfully preserved in history. Doctrine necessarily develops as the Church considers new questions and confronts new heresies. Thus in his Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine, Newman argues that the greater the probability of the development of doctrine, the greater the probability that God has granted to his Church the charism of infallibility:

In proportion to the probability of true developments of doctrine and practice in the Divine Scheme, so is the probability also of the appointment in that scheme of an external authority to decide upon them, thereby separating them from the mass of mere human speculation, extravagance, corruption, and error, in and out of which they grow. This is the doctrine of the infallibility of the Church; for by infallibility I suppose is meant the power of deciding whether this, that, and a third, and any number of theological or ethical statements are true.

If human reason therefore leads us to expect the provision of an institutional authority to protect the divine revelation once given to the saints, then it is reasonable for us to read the history of the Church in light of that expectation. We will not be surprised if we see the Church acting as if she were being infallibly guided by the Spirit of God in her dogmatic decisions; and if we should see one bishop among many (say, the Bishop of Rome) claiming that Christ Jesus had granted him and his successors special powers and authority within the Church, we will be forced to grant this claim greater credence than we might otherwise.

The common sense of mankind does but support a conclusion thus forced upon us by analogical considerations. It feels that the very idea of revelation implies a present informant and guide, and that an infallible one; not a mere abstract declaration of Truths unknown before to man, or a record of history, or the result of an antiquarian research, but a message and a lesson speaking to this man and that. This is shown by the popular notion which has prevailed among us since the Reformation, that the Bible itself is such a guide; and which succeeded in overthrowing the supremacy of Church and Pope, for the very reason that it was a rival authority, not resisting merely, but supplanting it. In proportion, then, as we find, in matter of fact, that the inspired volume is not adapted or intended to subserve that purpose, are we forced to revert to that living and present Guide, who, at the era of our rejection of her, had been so long recognized as the dispenser of Scripture, according to times and circumstances, and the arbiter of all true doctrine and holy practice to her children. We feel a need, and she alone of all things under heaven supplies it. We are told that God has spoken. Where? In a book? We have tried it and it disappoints; it disappoints us, that most holy and blessed gift, not from fault of its own, but because it is used for a purpose for which it was not given. The Ethiopian’s reply, when St. Philip asked him if he understood what he was reading, is the voice of nature: “How can I, unless some man shall guide me?” The Church undertakes that office; she does what none else can do, and this is the secret of her power.

“The human mind,” it has been said, “wishes to be rid of doubt in religion; and a teacher who claims infallibility is readily believed on his simple word. We see this constantly exemplified in the case of individual pretenders among ourselves. In Romanism the Church pretends to it; she rids herself of competitors by forestalling them. And probably, in the eyes of her children, this is not the least persuasive argument for her infallibility, that she alone of all Churches dares claim it, as if a secret instinct and involuntary misgivings restrained those rival communions which go so far towards affecting it.” These sentences, whatever be the errors of their wording, surely express a great truth. The most obvious answer, then, to the question, why we yield to the authority of the Church in the questions and developments of faith, is, that some authority there must be if there is a revelation given, and other authority there is none but she. A revelation is not given, if there be no authority to decide what it is that is given. In the words of St. Peter to her Divine Master and Lord, “To whom shall we go?” Nor must it be forgotten in confirmation, that Scripture expressly calls the Church “the pillar and ground of the Truth,” and promises her as by covenant that “the Spirit of the Lord that is upon her, and His words which He has put in her mouth shall not depart out of her mouth, nor out of the mouth of her seed, nor out of the mouth of her seed’s seed, from henceforth and for ever.”

She alone of all Churches dares claim it. Infallibility! Protestantism proudly rejects ecclesial infallibility, yet in its place it has substituted heresy, chaos, and ceaseless schism. Orthodoxy claims the mantle of infallibility, yet its rejection of any institutional exercise of infallibility, which Bulgakov and others disparage as “external authority,” effectively undermines the practical value of the doctrine.

Back in November I asked, Do we need an infallible Church? The answer, I think, is an emphatic yes. Has God provided an infallible Church? There is one Church, the Church named Catholic, that boldly declares to the world that he has, and she proposes herself precisely as that Church.

As we have seen, historical evidence alone cannot determine the question for us. If the Roman doctrine of papal infallibiity is true, it is clearly a doctrine that has developed over two millenia, receiving its dogmatic formulation at the First Vatican Council (1870). We will look in vain for first millenum treatises on the infallibility of the Church and the authority of the papal office; nor can one convincingly assert, given the number of schisms between Constantinople and Rome during the first millenium (between the first and seventh ecumenical councils, for example, the two sees existed in a state of schism for a total of over two hundred years), that the Eastern Church ever decisively incorporated the doctrine of papal infallibiity into her ecclesial consciousness. But what one does see in the first millenum is an increasingly active and authoritative papacy that presupposes an implicit understanding of papal infallibility. In 1871 Newman wrote the following to Mrs. Froude:

The Popes acted as if they were infallible in doctrine—with very high hand, peremptorily, magisterially, fiercely. But when we come to the question of the analysis of such conduct, I think they had as vague ideas on the subject as many of the early Fathers had upon portions of the doctrine of the Holy Trinity. They acted in a way which needed infallibility as its explanation.

The Catholic Church believes that she has retained in her heart and mind that revelation originally spoken to Peter and transmitted to his heirs, a revelation that awaited the right time, circumstances, and necessities to be brought to clarity of understanding and explicit verbal formulation through the direction of the Holy Spirit. It is therefore “lawful, or rather necessary, to interpret the words and deeds of the earlier Church by the determinate teaching of the latter” (Newman).

Here has been the greatest revolution in my own religious thinking and experience. Catholicism has taught me to understand the Church as a living being, the body of Christ, quickened, inspired, and guided by the Holy Spirit of God. As an Anglo-Catholic I always appealed to my own personal reconstruction of tradition as the standard for all doctrinal development, yet the only authority my reconstruction enjoyed was the authority of the “Pope in my belly.” But the Church knows the truth that has been delivered to her. She is the same Church that first heard the words of her Savior. She is simultaneously modern and ancient. She knows her mind and she alone can faithfully expound it. She speaks to the faithful with a living voice, a voice that is authoritative, magisterial, and divine. “No one comprehends the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God” (1 Cor 2:11).

This is why I have become Catholic.

8 July 2005



One month ago, at St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Greenville, South Carolina, I was received into full communion with the Catholic Church. As readers of Pontifications know, Fr Scott Newman is the pastor of St Mary’s and a good friend of our family.

We arrived in Greenville the preceding Saturday afternoon. With some sadness Scott informed me that the Sunday 11:00 liturgy would not be the spectacular liturgy he was hoping to provide for the occasion. His choir director, first trumpeter, and several members of his choir were on holiday. I assured him that none of that mattered, that I rejoiced that he was the priest who would be receiving and confirming me.

St Mary’s is truly a beautiful Church. We sat in the second pew at the front. I sat at the end of the pew, with my daughter Taryn at my right. The church was full.

And then the opening hymn began! The music filled the church. A thirty-member choir, brass, violins, timpani—I had been had! Even the congregation sung. Yes, Scott had told the truth. His organist and first trumpeter were out of town; but he had brought in splendid replacements. All I can say is that the music was lovely from beginning to end. Such glorious music!

Incense filled the church. It was a Solemn High Mass, chanted from beginning to end, excluding the lessons and the Prayers of the People. Fr Newman chants the liturgy beautifully. It’s amazing how chant can transform even the most banal language into a graceful expression of faith. I can only imagine what the liturgy will be like when the new Missal is finally released. O what a beautiful and godly liturgy!

Fr Newman preached a powerful sermon on the theme of authority. After the homily he summoned me to the front, attended by my sponsor, my son Bredon. I was asked if I accepted all that that Catholic Church teaches, to which I responded “Yes.” I was then anointed with chrism and the Holy Spirit was invoked upon me.

Finally I returned to my pew and sat down next to my daughter. My heart will filled with grief, because I knew that a divide now existed between my daughter and me. I grabbed her hand and held it tight until the Offertory. Tears filled both of our eyes. When it came time to receive Holy Communion, Taryn remained in the pew while Christine, Bredon, and I went forward. In my heart I prayed that God would keep Taryn close to him and that he would eventually lead her too into the fullness of the Catholic Church.

And then I received the Body and Blood of our Lord. This was a quiet, unemotional moment for me. There was too much grief for me to feel joy or exhiliration. But there was a peace. I was a Catholic. I was where God wanted me to be. And now I was being offered that which has been at the heart of my spiritual life since I became an adult practicing Christian—the Body and Blood of Christ. And I noted a difference, a subtle but real difference. The Episcopal Church is part of a tradition that is not quite sure what happens at the consecration. There are different schools of opinion within the Anglican Communion. Private judgment is determinative. Consequently, the intention of the liturgy and Church itself is uncertain. I have always believed that Christ converts the bread and wine into his Body and Blood and thus have adored and worshipped Christ under the species; but the fact remains that the Anglican Church is uncertain about the eucharistic transformation. This uncertainty necessarily informs the consciousness of every Episcopalian, even Anglo-Catholics.

But there is no uncertainty in the Catholic Church. The sacramental intention of the Church and her liturgy is clear. This is a Church that truly believes and confesses and prays the Real Presence.

The Body of Christ was given to me to eat. The Blood of Christ was given to me to drink. At that moment I knew that I now belong to the Church of the Body and Blood of Christ.

I thank God that he has united me to his Catholic Church.

10 July 2005


My reception into the Catholic Church happened a lot more quickly than I thought it would. We were able to extend our holiday to South Carolina by several days, which allowed us to schedule in a visit to Scott Newman in Greenville. Scott then popped the question, When are you going to pope? Errr, ummmm, well … I couldn’t think of any reason to delay my reception … so I swallowed and asked him if he would receive me. “Sure,” he said, “but don’t forget you need to make your confession.”

No problem. I’ve made plenty of confessions during my thirty years as an Episcopalian. But I had less than a week and my spiritual director was out of town. So I decided to go to a Saturday afternoon confession just like regular Catholics do. I called the local Catholic Church and asked them when their Saturday confessions were. 4:30, I was told.

I arrived at the Church fifteen minutes before confessions were to begin and immediately located the confessional booths. I knelt before the Blessed Sacrament and prayed and waited. Finally, the priest arrived and went into his side of the booth and the little green light went on. I confess I was pretty anxious by this time. Just as I was about to get out of my pew, a little ole lady and her husband came in and entered the confessional, one after another. The red (or was it orange?) light came on. And so I waited.

Finally they left and the green light was back on. I went into the confessional booth and knelt behind the screen. I had never made a confession behind a screen before. The booth also had a chair in which I could have sat, but I wanted to do an old fashioned confession. Immediately the priest said, “In the Name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit.” I wasn’t expecting that. I realized at that moment that I had not taken the trouble to ask anyone about the mechanics of a Catholic confession. I just assumed that our Episcopal rite was similar to the Catholic rite. But the Episcopal rite of Confession doesn’t begin with the invocation of the Triune Name! Uh oh. I was now out of my comfort zone. I desperately looked around, hoping to find a copy of the rite; but there were no cards, no forms, no set prayers, no Prayer Book, no nothing! Jeesh, do Catholics actually have all this stuff memorized? Why the heck didn’t I ask Scott about all of this earlier? I know why. For the same reason Moses didn’t ask for directions in the wilderness. Suddenly I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t know if the traditional “Bless me, Father, for I have sinned” introduction was appropriate or not. Besides, even if it was, I didn’t know what prayer to say subsequently. And so all I could say to the priest was, “I’m sorry, but this is my first Catholic confession and I don’t know what to do.”

The priest was very gracious and guided me through everything. Apparently Catholics are a lot less tied to a set form for Confession than Episcopalians. Who would’ve thunk it? After I had recited my sins, he said, “You now need to make an act of contrition.” An act of contrition? What the heck is that? Not only have I been making confessions for thirty-some years but I’ve been hearing confessions for twenty-five of them, and I’ve never been asked to make an act of contrition and I’ve never asked a penitent to make one. And so I mumbled, “How do I do that?”

I guess I really am starting all over.

15 July 2005


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