How the Magisterium of the Roman Catholic Church Contradicts Called to Communion’s Interpretive Paradigm

The fellas over at Called to Communion (C2C) are behaving like young boys with a new bike.  And that new “bike” is what they describe as their “Interpretive Paradigm” (hereafter, IP).  Just as a shiny new bike makes a young lad feel superior to his friends – at least until the first scratch or dent – so the C2C crowd seems to feel around their new IP.  But the funny thing – it’s really not funny – is that this new IP actually contradicts the history of the Roman Catholic Church.  And in so doing puts C2C in a precarious position vis-à-vis their intention of shoring up belief in the Roman Communion.

What I will attempt here is to define this novel, new IP as described by C2C.  Then, in keeping with the theme of Reformation 500, I will apply this IP specifically to the Roman Catholic Church at the time of the Reformation.  What we will find is that not only did this IP not apply to Roman Catholics at that time, but the very subject matter intended to be scrutinized by the IP was systematically eradicated by Rome thereby making the IP worthless.  In other words, at the time of the Reformation the C2C paradigm would have had nothing to interpret.  We will also find that the IP used by the Roman Church in Italy was very different than that used by Roman Catholics in other parts of Europe which negates the very nature of the paradigm.

IP Defined

As nearly as I can tell, the C2C IP was born out of an analysis that Bryan Cross did with Neal Judisch on Keith Mathison’s book, “ The Shape of Sola Scriptura”.  You can read the whole thing here.  I believe an accurate reduction of the idea is this, in the words of the C2C authors:

“The person becoming Catholic, by contrast, is seeking out the Church that Christ founded. He does this not by finding that group of persons who share his interpretation of Scripture. Rather, he locates in history those whom the Apostles appointed and authorized, observes what they say and do viz-a-viz the transmission of teaching and interpretive authority, traces that line of successive authorizations down through history to the present day to a living Magisterium, and then submits to what this present-day Magisterium is teaching. By finding the Magisterium, he finds something that has the divine authority to bind the conscience.”

So there we have it.  The superiority of the Roman Catholic IP consists in the claim that,  1.) it can be located in history, 2.) it has divine authorization,  and 3.) it is consistent “through history”.  Fair enough.  C2C should be allowed to define its own terms and I hope I have been reasonable in my representation of them.

IP Tested

If we were to test this IP we would look for a laboratory that contained only those items needed by the IP but was free from any contaminants not needed by it.  And fortunately for us, history provides just such a laboratory – the Papal States.  The Papal States was a European country entirely under the control of the Roman church and its hierarchy.  It existed for 700 years until 1870 and was at its peak during the 16th century.  The Vatican exercised complete and total control over every aspect of life within those borders and therefore qualifies as the perfect laboratory to test the IP.  (And just to be clear, Bryan’s piece was in response to Dr. Mathison’s work on Scripture so we may confine our investigation thereto.)

Scripture in the Papal States

Implicit in the C2C IP is the availability of the Scriptures to every parishioner as is the case today.  That the Scriptures are available is the minimal requirement from which questions about Scripture can arise.  Today’s Roman Catholic has access to the Scriptures and to his/her priests and bishops in order to have their questions answered.  And that is what undergirds the C2C IP.  But such was not the case in the Papal States in the 16th century:

“If an alert visitor from northern Europe tried to get to grips with the religious scene in Italy, one absence would be immediately obvious: there were no vernacular Bibles in the house of the laity.  Pope Paul V was perfectly serious when in 1606 he furiously confronted the Venetian ambassador with the rhetorical question ‘Do you not know that so much reading of Scripture ruins the Catholic religion?’[i]

I suppose that some may quibble over the phrase “so much reading of Scripture” but to the Supreme Pontiff of that day “so much” really meant “any”:

“Bibles were publicly and ceremonially burned, like heretics; even literary versions of scriptural stories in drama or poetry were frowned on.  As a result, between 1567 and 1773, not a single edition of an Italian-language Bible was printed anywhere in the Italian peninsula.”[ii]

It is worth a moment to pause and reflect at this point.  The boys at C2C want us to believe that the Magisterium of the Roman Catholic Church is the only God-given instrument whereby Scriptures can be properly and authentically interpreted.  And yet in a place and time where the Roman Catholic Church reigned supreme not only did they not exercise their alleged responsibility, but they used their temporal power to eliminate the Scripture to the greatest extent possible.  If the Pontiff thinks that reading the Scripture is the “ruin” of the Catholic religion, it is risible to maintain that he would stand as the head of an organization charged with giving “the divinely inspired interpretation” of that same Scripture.  Unless, of course, that “divinely inspired interpretation” is the burning of the Bible!

Scripture in the rest of Europe

The second nail in the coffin of the C2C IP for the period under investigation is that there was no uniformity of doctrine within the Roman Catholic Church in Europe.  For those Catholics who lived in northern Europe and had to interact with biblically literate Protestants, the Roman doctrine would have meant ecclesial suicide:

Even a visitor from the Catholic parts of Germany would find this astonishing: there a ban on Bibles would have been highly dangerous to a Church constantly confronting biblically literate Protestants[iii].

And one wouldn’t have to go as far as Germany.  The Republic of Venice vigorously maintained an independent stance from Rome.  The Catholic Church of Venice was outspoken against the reforms of the Council of Trent, which obviously included the Roman version of the canon of Scripture.

Reflect with me for a moment.  In northern Europe the availability of and familiarity with the Scriptures was necessary to the continued existence of Roman Catholicism.  But where the Magisterium was most powerful, Scriptures were the “ruin” of the Catholic religion and no Bibles in the vernacular were printed for over 200 years!  How could it even be possible for a Roman Catholic parishioner to avail himself of this marvelous IP when he would not have access to the very thing about which question might have been asked?  That is very troubling, indeed.

In Conclusion

The IP being promoted by the C2C crowd fails all of its own criteria.  The first of which is historicity.  Our examination has shown that the Popes of the Papal States in Europe had not the slightest interest in interpreting the Scriptures.  The historical record is clear that Pope Paul V especially, was committed to the eradication of Scripture from his domain.  The claim that Rome or its Magisterium would have exercised any interpretive authority is null and void.

The second criteria placed on the C2C IP is its alleged divine authorization.  That claim cannot be supported by virtue of the fact that Rome was engaged in the destruction and eradication of the Scriptures which have been central to the Judeo Christian heritage for 3,000.  Further, the “divine” nature of the paradigm is called into question because it was not used in the majority of Roman Catholic churches throughout Europe.  Neither the Catholic churches in Venice , nor the Catholic churches in northern Europe nor the Catholic churches in Spain would have granted a divine aspect to anything Rome did.

And lastly, the obvious fact that the C2C IP differs so radically from the historical record of the Roman Catholic church negates the third attribute claimed for it.

We must necessarily conclude therefore, that the Interpretive Paradigm offered us by Bryan Cross and the folks at Called to Communion is an anachronism.  And an historical investigation shows that the IP fails to display any of the three criteria which its authors claim for it.  We are justified to reject it.

Soli Deo Gloria

[i] MacCulloch, Diarmaid. The Reformation.  New York: Penguin Books, 2003.  P. 406

[ii] MacCulloch, Diarmaid. Op. cit.. P. 406

[iii] MacCulloch, Diarmaid. Op. cit.. P. 406

Published by Paul Bassett

I'm old enough to remember land-line phones and young enough to have 3 twitter accounts and two blogs. I'm Reformed in my theology, post-millennial in eschatology and therefore optimistic about the future. I'm grateful to be here...and that you are, too!

2 replies on “How the Magisterium of the Roman Catholic Church Contradicts Called to Communion’s Interpretive Paradigm”

  1. Paul,

    Enjoyed this article. Some good points raised here.

    “Further, the “divine” nature of the paradigm is called into question because it was not used in the majority of Roman Catholic churches throughout Europe. Neither the Catholic churches in Venice , nor the Catholic churches in northern Europe nor the Catholic churches in Spain would have granted a divine aspect to anything Rome did.”

    That is interesting – and I think true. Perhaps they believed certain councils alone could be infallible?

    Mike Liccione, participating at C2C said,

    “it took the Catholic Magisterium a long time to get round to defining its infallibility not because it thought it might be wrong about things until then, but because it didn’t think such a definition necessary until then. Its talk of infallibility was never intended to add a truth materially absent from the original deposit of faith. It was intended simply to make formally explicit what was always materially present in the original deposit of faith.”

    Locating infallibility in the papacy in the 19th c. though was perhaps new….?

    I had said in the past “When this doctrine was formally defined in the late 19th century, it was not a new doctrine, but was one (namely, the Pope’s voice is more or less God’s when he says it is) that had had some currency for a while.”

    But I’m not so sure how true that is after reading some of this interesting thesis. The truth is evidently much more nuanced:

    Here is a very interesting clips (pp. 27-32):

    The doctrine of papal infallibility also began to gain greater acceptance [in the 15th c.], though the
    fact that papal pronouncements were not unanimously received as binding indicates that
    agreement regarding the nature of the pope‘s magisterial authority was not widespread. In
    his study of the origins of the doctrine of papal infallibility Brian Tierney has underscored the
    importance of the distinction between supremacy or sovereignty and infallibility in the
    history of the definition of the papacy. The extreme papalists of the high Middle Ages such
    as Giles of Rome, James of Viterbo, Henry of Cremona, and Augustinus Triumphus, in
    proclaiming the doctrine of papal primacy, ***pointedly rejected any concept of the pope‘s
    infallibility as fundamentally incompatible with his sovereignty***. These canonists realized
    that any notion of the pope‘s magisterial infallibility would necessary bind him to the decisions of his predecessors, likewise infallible, and thus severely limit his sovereignty as a
    ruler. This restriction of the pope‘s freedom was just what the spiritual Franciscans of the
    fourteenth century had in mind in elaborating the idea that the pope was infallible, thereby
    rendering the pronouncements of previous popes binding on their successors.

    Tierney‘s study is extremely helpful not only in revealing the dubious origins of the
    doctrine of papal infallibility, used by the spiritual Franciscans to limit papal power, but in
    demonstrating the essentially conservative, even cautious, nature of the claims originally
    made by the extreme papalists of the high Middle Ages when compared to those made in later
    periods. The seemingly outrageous claims made by the canonists for papal sovereignty
    regarded his “legislative and dispensatory power . . . within the framework of positive
    ecclesiastical law;” in other words, they pertained to the pope‘s primacy of jurisdiction within
    the church, not his power over divine law. Indeed, the canonists argued for this primacy of
    the pope over the church on the basis of Christ‘s divine institution of Peter as the head of the
    church as recounted in the gospels, a primacy confirmed by the tradition of the church.
    Divine revelation in scripture confirmed and defined this primacy, and in no way did the
    canonists argue that the doctrine was fruit of an extra-scriptural source of revelation. If canon
    law originated with the Gregorian reform, it will come as no surprise that the canonists‘
    claims for papal sovereignty were initially made as a means of recognizing in the pope
    adequate power to clean up the church as he saw fit. The pope, in renewing and reforming
    the church, would not be bound by the actions and decisions of his predecessors.

    The historical awareness of the canonists in defining papal primacy led them to
    distinguish carefully between the pope‘s sovereignty and his teaching authority, as did the popes themselves, notably Innocent III and John XXII. Medieval popes envisioned
    themselves to be supreme judges over the church, but not infallible teachers; they were too
    aware of the pitfalls of infallibility, as well as the historical incongruence. In the Middle
    Ages papal magisterium was not recognized as a term or a concept. Popes had erred in the
    past, starting with Peter himself, a fact generally admitted and to be explained within the
    context of the larger indefectibility of the church. That God would not allow his church to
    fall into err was explained in various ways, including Henry of Ghent‘s (1217-1293) claim,
    later reformulated by William of Ockham, that since the pope was a judge, not a teacher, a
    theologian could challenge papal teaching; and John Teutonicus‘s assertion that a general
    council was greater than a pope in matters of faith. Ghent‘s claim was echoed by the
    fifteenth-century canonist Panorminatus, whose authority Luther cited to justify his challenge
    of papal teaching. Teutonicus‘s formula, familiar to every canonist who had studied the
    glossa ordinaria to the Decretum, took on new importance in the conciliar struggles of the
    fifteenth century. If the council was superior to the pope in matters of faith, it could be used
    as a political weapon against the pope, a possibility that did not escape the notice of kings and
    emperors. Papal theologians began to realize that the pope‘s sovereignty could only be
    secured if his teaching authority was declared supreme.

    Through the conciliarist struggles the idea that the pope was infallible, a doctrine that
    was never altogether absent from Catholic theology after 1324, gained wider acceptance as
    the most effective means of refuting conciliarist ideas, and in particular after the medieval
    era. Tierney observes that Cajetan defended some form of papal infallibility along with
    other sixteenth-century theologians, a century in which the doctrine entered the mainstream. The price for using the weapon of papal infallibility as a defense against conciliarist claims
    was that it required forgetting the past. History offered proof that popes had erred, even
    fallen into heresy; moreover, a doctrine of infallibility would make every past papal decision
    binding on the current pope, thereby severely restricting his sovereignty. The only means of
    maintaining the pope‘s infallibility and his sovereignty was to turn a blind eye to history, a
    phenomenon evident in the writings under examination of both Cajetan and Pole. In both
    these Catholic works, though in different ways, the idea of the pope as the church‘s supreme
    magister and guardian of truth becomes practically indistinguishable from his primacy by
    divine right. Cajetan and Pole perceive that Luther, in attacking papal authority, is
    challenging at the same time the idea of the pope as the church‘s supreme teacher, and the
    identity of the true church with the Roman Pontiff. At the heart of the storm raised by
    Luther‘s Ninety-five Theses was his suggestion that papal teaching was wrong; in the hands of
    his opponents papal infallibility will become a weapon against him with the argument that
    there is no truth apart from the pope. Schism and heresy go hand in hand.

    Indeed, Luther‘s Resolutio, Cajetan‘s De divina institutione, and Pole‘s De summo
    Pontifice can be presented as the last of the medieval debates regarding the nature of papal
    jurisdictional and magisterial authority. The dialogue among these three works helped to
    refine and distill positions, ultimately leaving little room for doubt, but it is apparent that a
    certain vagueness regarding what it was allowed to be believed about the nature and authority
    of the papacy existed which permitted the debate to take place. The decree of the Council of
    Florence Laetentur coeli (1439) in which the primacy and divine right of the Roman Pontiff
    received its first conciliar definition has been described by Hubert Jedin as the “Magna Carta
    of the papal restoration.” It defined the pope as “the head of the whole church, father and
    teacher of all Christians” to whom Christ gave “the full power of nourishing, ruling and
    governing the universal Church.” Yet Luther, in denying the ius divinum of the papal
    primacy and its supreme teaching authority, quite sincerely believed that such questions were
    still open to debate. Similarly, the idea of the council was not dead, and Luther was not alone
    in appealing to its superior authority for a definitive judgment. Pius II had endeavored to
    prohibit such appeals with his bull Execrabilis (1460), an attempt that was largely ignored
    even by his successors in the papal office. In sum, if one were to look just at pronouncements
    emanating from the Holy See regarding pontifical authority from the period after the
    dissolution of the Council of Basel, it would appear that the divine right of papal primacy
    over the church was widely accepted; in actual fact, popes often conceded authority to kings
    in return for theoretical acknowledgment of their primacy over the council. This gap between
    theory and reality clearly led many, like Luther, to believe that such issues were still open to

    Luther, Cajetan and Pole wrote their treatises on the papacy against this background
    of the late Medieval search for the true church, but though their writings take part in this
    ongoing debate, the dialogue between them served to draw a doctrinal line between those
    who recognized the pope as the church‘s supreme head and those who said it was Christ. In
    this dissertation I will explore how this line was drawn between two distinct ideas of the true
    church. For each one, the true church bears certain features without which it ceases to be the
    true church and so it must be asked what they mean by church, what its function is, and how
    its structure relates to its function. Since all were personally involved in church reform, it is
    natural that their writings afford insight into their concepts of reform, including their vision
    of what reformed Christianity should look like, the means of implementing reform, and the
    authority on which it was to be carried out….”



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