Roman Authority
James McCarthy

Growing Challenges

Though submission to Rome is at the heart of what it means to be a Roman Catholic, the Church is nonetheless finding it difficult to keep its increasingly feisty flock in line. As never before, educated Catholics living in free and pluralistic societies are questioning Rome’s teaching on a variety of topics: artificial contraception, divorce, reception of the Eucharist by divorced and remarried Catholics, priestly celibacy, the ordination of women, general absolution, academic freedom for teachers and theologians, and the relationship of national conferences of bishops to the Vatican. Many of those who remain Catholic stay on their own terms, accepting some aspects of the faith, redefining others, and rejecting the rest.

Two hotbeds of discontent are Europe and North America. Some two million Catholics in Germany and Austria recently signed petitions calling for the Vatican to make celibacy for priests optional, to open up the priesthood to women, to support the inclusive treatment of gays, and to recognize a "primacy of conscience" in regard to the use of artificial birth control. Similar petitions are now circulating in the Netherlands, Belgium, Italy, Spain, and France. Once proudly described as the "eldest daughter of the Church," France is now being called Rome’s "most rebellious child."

Many European Catholics have stopped listening to the Church altogether. The Vatican’s teaching on the use of artificial birth control is a case in point. Though formally banned by Pope Paul VI in 1968, Catholics continue to use the pill and other devices. Family size is shrinking across the continent. The lowest birthrates belong to two Catholic countries: Italy (98% Catholic) and Spain (95% Catholic), both at 1.2 children per couple.

On the other side of the Atlantic in the United States and Canada, petitions are also circulating, calling for the same changes. There, not only are the people divided, but their bishops also. Some bishops have been openly, though respectfully, critical of Rome’s rigid orthodoxy. Tension between these and more traditionally minded bishops has become increasingly evident. Leading bishops have become critical of one another. Some have even begun using the press to wage their battles, much like politicians.

John R. Quinn, retired archbishop of San Francisco and former president of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, recently called for the reform of the papacy. In a major address at Oxford University, Quinn criticized the centralization of power under Pope John Paul II. Quinn cited, for example, the way the Vatican has been appointing new bishops. "It is not uncommon," he writes, "for bishops of a province to discover that no candidate they proposed has been accepted for approval. On the other hand, it may happen that candidates whom bishops do not approve at all may be appointed."i

At the epicenter of increasing discontent is the question of authority: Who or what determines what is to be taught and believed? Sister Maureen Fiedler, spokesperson for the progressive We Are the Church Coalition, is among those loudly objecting to the Vatican’s narrowing definition of what is acceptable diversity among Catholics and the Church’s refusal to dialogue with dissenters. "Who decides what is authentic and acceptable?" she asks. "Who decides what the boundaries will be?"ii Hoping to have some say in the direction of the Church, her group is among those circulating petitions calling for reform.

Other Catholics are supporting an opposing petition being championed by Benedictine Father Paul Marx called "The Real Catholic Petition." It asks signers to "lovingly believe and defend every single teaching and doctrine of the Holy Roman Catholic Church, as defined, protected and taught by the magisterium and the Holy Father." This petition describes Sister Fiedler’s We Are the Church Coalition as "an anti-Catholic organization."

An editorial in a national independent Catholic weekly newspaper highlighted the growing intensity of the squabble. Beginning "Holy Father, We Need to Talk," it stated: "The issues will not disappear, and the tragedy is that the Vatican, instead of providing the space and means for conversation, keeps insisting that everyone simply shut up and stop thinking."iii

With battle lines drawn and swords clashing, Cardinal Joseph Bernardin of Chicago stepped into the fray in 1996, calling for a truce. Bernardin announced the formation of the "Catholic Common Ground Project." In an accompanying document titled "Called to Be Catholic: Church in a Time of Peril," he decried the polarization that was taking place. Bernardin described how "party lines have hardened. A mood of suspicion and acrimony hangs over many of those most active in the church’s life; at moments it even seems to have infiltrated the ranks of bishops…. Candid discussion is inhibited… proposals are subject to ideological litmus tests." Bernardin, himself dying of cancer and with only weeks to live, called for dialogue as a path to establishing common ground between warring factions.

Cardinal Bernard Law of Boston immediately labeled the document as having a "fundamental flaw."iv "The Church already has ‘common ground,’"v said Law. "It is found in sacred scripture and tradition and it is mediated to us through the authoritative and binding teaching of the magisterium. Dissent from revealed truth or authoritative teaching of the church cannot be ‘dialogued’ away…. the crisis the church is facing can only be adequately addressed by a clarion call to conversion."vi

By conversion Law means that troublemakers need to repent and start acting like true Catholics. They must abandon the notion that they can form their own judgments in matters of faith and morals. They need to subjugate their opinions to the official teaching of the Church.

Submission to Rome is Unbiblical

Despite the Church’s confident assertions, there is no biblical basis for the submission that Rome demands. Christ never instituted an authority structure such as the one Rome seeks to impose upon Catholics. The rock upon which Christ built His church was Himself, not Peter. Though Peter was a leading figure among the apostles, he was never the head of the apostles. The Lord Jesus was their leader both while He was on earth and after He ascended into heaven.

There is no biblical record of a college of bishops ruling the universal church under the leadership of a pope in Rome. Neither did the apostles ever ask anyone to submit to their teaching without question. They taught the first Christians to "examine everything carefully; hold fast to that which is good" (1 Thessalonians 5:21). John warned, "Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God; because many false prophets have gone out into the world" (1 John 4:1). Paul also spoke against blind obedience, writing, "But even though we, or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to that which we have preached to you, let him be accursed" (Galatians 1:8).

The pope, on the other hand, expects Catholics to submit to him as Christ’s representative. They are to receive the Church’s teaching "with docility,"vii treating the pope’s dogmatic teaching as infallible, beyond even the possibility of error.

Compare that with how Paul treated Peter, supposedly the first Roman Catholic pope. During a visit to the church in Antioch, Peter initially enjoyed warm fellowship with Gentile believers. But when legalistic Jewish Christians arrived from Jerusalem and refused to have close contact or to eat with Gentile Christians, Peter became fearful and confused. He withdrew from the Gentiles and began to "hold himself aloof" (Galatians 2:12). The other Jewish Christians in the church of Antioch followed Peter’s example and also broke off contact with the Gentile believers. When Paul saw what was happening, he realized that the very heart of what it meant to be a Christian was at stake. Paul opposed Peter "to his face" (Galatians 2:11) "in the presence of all" (Galatians 2:14). He accused Peter of "hypocrisy" (Galatians 2:13), of not being "straightforward about the truth of the gospel" (Galatians 2:14).

This incident demonstrates that the early church considered no one to be immune to error or beyond reprimand. Indeed, the Scriptures warn us that there are "false apostles, deceitful workers, disguising themselves as apostles of Christ" (2 Corinthians 11:13). In the book of Revelation, Christ commends the Ephesian believers for putting to the test "those who call themselves apostles, and they are not, and you found them to be false" (Revelation 2:2).

Adapted from Conversations with Catholics by James G. McCarthy (Harvest House Publishers: Eugene, 1997)


i. Archbishop John R. Quinn, Lecture at Campion Hall, Oxford, June 29, 1996.
ii. Pamela Schaeffer, "Initiative seeks ‘Catholic Common Ground,’" National Catholic Reporter, August 23, 1996, p. 3.
iii. "This Fractious Family Wants to Sit Down and Talk," National Catholic Reporter, October 13, 1995, p. 20.
iv. Quoted by Pamela Schaeffer, Initiative Seeks ‘Catholic Common Ground,’" National Catholic Reporter, August 23, 1996, p. 3.
v. Quoted by Pamela Schaeffer, Initiative Seeks ‘Catholic Common Ground,’" National Catholic Reporter, August 23, 1996, p. 3.
vi. Quoted by Pamela Schaeffer, Initiative Seeks ‘Catholic Common Ground,’" National Catholic Reporter, August 23, 1996, p. 3.
vii. Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 87.

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