Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Religious authority vs. primacy of conscience (Part IV)

Part I covered the problem of having an authoritative doctrinal body in the devastating wake of the primacy of individual conscience. Part II concerned itself with building up the need for religious authority. Part III discussed the proper understanding of the primacy of conscience, put in the light of our common-sense perception of personal responsibility: Religious Authority doesn’t and can’t pull the trigger.

In a sense, the last two posts were meant in part to dispel the myth of the Mind-Controlling Church, that rhetorical bogeyman invoked by critics of the Catholic Church to push the “you’re not the boss of me” button on their audiences. True mind control, or “brainwashing”, is nowhere close to mainline acceptance as a valid psychological phenomenon, which of course hasn’t stopped it from being used as a meme elsewhere. As long as people need to assert and validate their intellectual independence against some Authority, they’ll continue to believe in mind control; here, however, we need not let this pseudo-scientific fallacy detain us further.

So let’s return to where we left off in the first part: Granting that some kind of central authority is needed to distinguish between authentic Christian doctrine and inauthentic or non-Christian doctrine, why must that authority lie with a monarchical Pope? Why can’t it be more like a democracy, with the Pope as kind of a president?


First, if we’re going to impose secular models on the formal structure of the Church, absolute monarchy is the wrong one; closer to the actual fact would be a constitutional monarchy. Contra Lord Acton,[*] the Pope’s “power of the keys” is not a blank check. Each Pope is bound by several considerations, especially the doctrinal definitions of previous councils and popes; the doctrine of infallibility as defined by Vatican I doesn’t give him the right to controvert previous dogmatic definitions, but rather only to refine or sharpen.

And there is a democratic, or at least republican, element in the convocation of ecumenical councils. If the bishop represents Christ to his diocese, it’s also true that he represents his people to the Pope and any council he attends. At one time, bishops were elected by the priests and people of the city or diocese; theoretically (at least), it’s not impossible to go back to such a scheme.[†] While these considerations don’t reduce the Pope to a figurehead or a mere “first among equals”, it should suffice to remind us that he’s a “monarch” only so far as he possesses absolute rule over a tiny city-state on the west bank of the Tiber River across from Rome.

Second, the logistics of a permanent, standing council — “central committee”, if you’ll permit — should be too obviously daunting to need further detail. But even assuming its practicality for argument’s sake, the problem of who gets invited to sit on the committee in a sense begs the original question of who owns the patent. To invite delegates only from aligned churches is by definition to exclude the non-denoms, putting them in the intolerable position of having their Christianity rated pass/fail by an authority they had no hand in shaping — a sort of “taxation without representation”, if you’ll pardon the pun. On the other hand, just having representatives from formal denominations would create a massive challenge; seating delegates from all 40,000+ churches would be unwieldy by several orders of magnitude (remember the shots of the Senate in Star Wars I & II?).

Let’s clarify this second point further. Whoever does the inviting presumes themselves possessed of the rock-bottom-minimum Christian doctrines the council is to define; whoever they invite is also presumably possessed of such a “mere Christianity”, and those not invited are not so possessed. Their deliberations after that must be little more than boiling everything down to the lowest common denominators (again, pardon the pun). In this sense, the answer is already baked in before investigation of the question is begun; the central committee’s results could be figured out by a reasonably determined researcher long before the opening gavel drops.

Third, the authority of the committee itself would stand or fall on the issue of its legitimacy. Certainly, Acts 15:6-33 gives us the model of such a council; what it doesn’t explicitly tell us is that the Council of Jerusalem was a legitimate authority because the authority of its members was incontestable. Of whom could a concurrent majority of Protestant Christians say such a thing? The Bible can no more give a person religious authority than it can give a cocktail party or perform at a piano recital. Again, we’ve argued in a circle: Who has the right to say who is an authority?

The solution was actually found and implemented long ago, in the Apostolic Age: the apostolic succession of the bishops. The whole exercise is not just one of reinventing the wheel. It also goes to show how placing supreme dogmatic authority in the individual conscience kills the notion of a definitive, magisterial church before it can gestate, never mind that church’s infallibility. Martin Luther, John Calvin and Henry VIII could not destroy the spiritual authority of the bishops without leaving their own authority open to challenge.

When mainline Christian communions ponder their emptying pews, the rise in “moralistic therapeutic deism” and the abandonment of traditional Christian values, to find the source they need only look at the Reformers … the first people to question religious authority, the first people to raise “You’re not the boss of me” to a sacred principle.

Some “Reformation”, huh?



[*] It was of the papacy that Lord Acton said, “Power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely.”
[†] I may need correction on this point; but while the role of the bishop as successor to the apostles is a matter of orthodox dogma, his selection by the Pope (I believe) is a matter of discipline and could therefore be changed without violating infallibility. In theory, at least, if the practicalities weren’t too cumbersome.