Friday, December 6, 2019

Hijacking Legitimate Authority

As I continue to work my way through the dreary Institutes of the Christian Religion by John Calvin, I notice a good deal of what I call hijacking legitimate authority. By this I mean that he claimed his interpretation of Scripture was what Scripture actually means. Then, when the Church rejected his interpretation, he claimed that the Church was at odds with the Bible when it was actually at odds with him

Thus we see in the graphic (from Book IV, Chapter IX, Section 5) that Calvin accuses the Pope and bishops of discarding the truth and instead invent teachings at odds with God’s word. But his accusations only have merit if his interpretation of Scripture (and the teaching of the Church that he claims contradicts it) is correct. This means we must assess his authority to teach in a binding manner before we give him any credibility in condemning the Church.

And that’s where his claims collapse. He presupposed that the Church teaching he disagreed with must be wrong. Then, to deny the Church authority when it justly rebuked him, he lumped together the bad behavior of some Churchmen and heretical councils rejected by the Church as “proof” that the Church could “teach error.” But in all of his writings, he never could demonstrate that the Catholic Church taught error or contradicted herself in matters of doctrine. The best he could do is point to the Church legitimately changing discipline while alleging that the Church changed “teaching” and the corruption from some in the Church were willed as doctrines.

The modern anti-Catholic fundamentalists who, due to being taught from the beginning to (wrongly) think that the founders of Protestantism spoke the truth might have an excuse before God§. But the person who professes to be a faithful Catholic but rejects the authority of the successors of Peter does not have that excuse (see Lumen Gentium #14). We are supposed to believe in a Church established and protected by Christ and which teaches with His authority. If we do believe that, we will trust in Him to protect those who teach with authority—the successors of Peter and the Apostles—from teaching error. When acting in their role (see Lumen Gentium #25), their teaching binds, regardless of what we might think about their personal behavior.

This is not papalotry. This is what the Church has always expected of the faithful. What’s more, when we look at Church history, we see that even when saints rebuked the personal behavior of Popes, the saints always recognized the authority of the Popes to teach. Church History gives us a very different judgment of those who refused to obey the teachings of the Popes—schismatics and/or heretics.

People who struggle with what this Pope teaches should ask themselves this: Is it really possible that God would allow His Church to teach error when even the Ordinary Magisterium binds us to obedience?* Or is it more probable that—if we see “error” in the teachings of the Pope—we have somehow either misinterpreted the Pope or the Scripture and Church teaching we cite against him?

If one is tempted to respond that the Pope is the one in error, such a one should think again. They should look at Calvin and recognize that he is the one they’re emulating, not the saints.


(§) I say this in the sense of “I do not know their individual culpability before God.” Not in the sense of “What they do is okay.”

(*) See Pius IX Syllabus of Errors #22, Humani Generis #20, Lumen Gentium #25, The Catechism of the Catholic Church #892, Code of Canon Law #752 etc.


  1. You bring up some good points and yes we should always think about whether or not we are misinterpreting the teaching of the pope. However, you are forgetting the distinction between when the pope teaches ex cathedra and when he teaches as a private theologian. The doctrine of the Magisterium, of which the pope is the head, cannot change, but the pope does not always teach magisterially. Thus it is possible for a pope to be in error privately. When judging whether or not a pope is personally in error, we measure it against previous magisterial teaching and not our personal opinions. If something is clearly contradictory, then that pope is in error personally and may even be a heretic, but can only be declared so canonically by other cardinals and bishops, not by the laity.

    1. There are some problems with your arguments.
      1. You overlook that there is a third position between your ex cathedra and private opinions. That third position is the ordinary magisterium, which is binding (canon 752, CCC 892, Pius IX Syllabus of Errors 22, Pius XII Humani Generis 20)
      2. When the Pope teaches, he is teaching magisterially.
      3. The Pope is the final arbiter of what is or is not a proper teaching, not the individual.
      4. There is no procedure for anybody to judge or remove the Pope (see canon 1404). Some people falsely think St. Robert Bellarmine’s opinion was doctrine. But he was evaluating 5 different opinions on the subject. The other one he approved of was that the Pope cannot be a heretic.

      So, you need to re-evaluate your position in light of those things.

    2. Following your line of arguments, the pope could make priestesses binding and therefore the defense would have to somehow prove that it is not a change in doctrine.

    3. No, because we trust that God protects His Church. We have never had a Pope—even a morally bad one—who taught error.

      So these hypothetical “what if’s” are a distraction.

    4. True, a pope cannot be a heretic which means that a heretic cannot be a pope because he automatically places himself outside of the church. So if a pope were to openly and obstinately proclaim heresy he would cease to be pope. Nevertheless, that cannot be canonically proclaimed as such until after death or resignation. So given the current situation, while Francis might be teaching things that outright error at the most and ambiguous and confusing at the least, those of us who are not sedevecantists (a position which is spurious due to lack of cogent solution) recognize and submit to Francis where it is due, that is, when he teaches ex cathedra. In direct contradiction to your claim that the pope is always teaching magisterially and therefore infallibly, here is St. Francis de Sales, doctor of the Church:

      We must not think that in everything and everywhere his judgment is infallible, but then only when he gives judgment on a matter of faith in questions necessary to the whole Church; for in particular cases which depend on human fact he can err, there is no doubt, though it is not for us to control him in these cases save with all reverence, submission, and discretion. Theologians have said, in a word, that he can err in questions of fact, not in questions of right; that he can err extra cathedram, outside the chair of Peter. that is, as a private individual, by writings and bad example.

    5. There is nothing that Pope Francis has done or said that points to an intent to teach ex cathedra. It doesn't seem that he ever intends to as indicated by renewing his passport as Bergoglio and not Pope Francis. Therefore it is at least possible for his words and actions to contain at least some error.

    6. This is your error: you confuse the Pope teaching with the Pope acting in a way that does not involve teaching, The Pope giving a private homily, governing Vatican City (or, previously, the Papal States), giving a press conference, or writing a book not intended to teach (like Benedict XVI in his “Jesus of Nazareth” books. He is not infallible in making appointments.

      But, when he issues a papal document, amends the Catechism, etc., he is teaching on faith and morals.

      In matters of discipline, a successor can change the policy of his predecessor, but neither the original or the change is considered an “error”.

      So your citation of St. Francis de Sales doesn’t contradict my points as the Saint is speaking on a different matter.

    7. I’ve already answered your argument on “ex cathedra.” It is an error on your part to think only that is protected (see CCC #892).

      At this point, I fail to see what further discussion will accomplish. So, unless you have official magisterial documents to cite, this is no point in continuing it.