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Breaking News Alert This Week In Lawfare Land: Bragg's 'Star Witness' Blows Up His Own Credibility

Is There Any Church Abuse Too Far For The Catholic Faithful?


I am grateful for the many responses to my “Protestant Questions For Scandalized Catholics Who Still Remain Catholic,” whether in the comments thread, private correspondence, or replies published here at The Federalist and elsewhere.

I’m especially pleased that David Breitenbeck, almost singularly, understood that the central point of my essay was not that Catholics are wrong to remain Catholic in the light of recent scandals, but simply that “the reasons prominent Catholics have given publicly” for doing so appear, in many cases, less than adequate.

Most particularly, I’m happy to know that both Breitenbeck and Casey Chalk, at least implicitly, concede that this is the case. Breitenbeck does so by simply forwarding his own reason for remaining in the church, and ignoring the reasons the aforementioned prominent Catholics have publicly articulated.

Chalk does so by foregoing a plain reading of those authors in favor of esoteric exegesis. Thus, when Robert George makes the entirely uncontroversial claim that Christ will not allow the gates of hell to prevail against the church, what he’s really doing is invoking papal primacy and Roman infallibility. Or, when Matthew Petrusek makes the equally uncontroversial claim that Christianity is “ultimately all about” Christ crucified, what he’s actually doing is dog-whistling about the Eucharist, to “remind Catholics of what is unique about their own church.”

It’s All about the Eucharist—Or Not

Whatever one makes of that interpretive exercise, Chalk’s essay, like Breitenbeck’s, is to be commended for requiring no esoteric reading. Both are admirably explicit about what they believe to be unique about their church. Specifically, each appeals to the Eucharist, in which Christ himself is truly present.

Thus, in response to the question, “Do you believe Protestants have Christ?” Breitenbeck can answer, “Not as we [Catholics] do.” Instead, Protestants have a mere “echo or an image or a dream of Christ.” Less polemically, but for the same reason, Chalk can acknowledge that Protestants have Christ, but “they don’t possess him in his fullness.”

Given Catholic presuppositions, such assertions are entirely understandable. (Indeed, it was precisely the lack of such assertions in the recent writings of prominent Catholics that prompted my previous essay.) Believing that Protestant bodies lack apostolic succession, Catholics believe Protestant ordinations are invalid, and therefore Protestant clergy do not possess the power to confect the Sacrament.

For the sake of argument, let’s pretend all that is true. But let’s also remember that the original question addressed by George, Petrusek, and others wasn’t “Why not become Protestant?” It was “Why remain Catholic?” This being the question, even appeals to the Eucharist must be judged inadequate, for a reason Breitenbeck hinted at.

He notes that Eastern Orthodoxy makes things more “complicated.” Even on Catholic premises, the Orthodox truly have Christ in the Eucharist, because they have valid ordinations on account of a recognized apostolic succession (as, for example, Rod Dreher has repeatedly noted in explaining his own move to Orthodoxy from Catholicism). If matters were “ultimately all about” the Eucharist, then, it would have to be admitted that Eastern Orthodoxy remains a perfectly legitimate option for discouraged and disillusioned Catholics.

It’s All about the Papacy

Since neither Chalk nor Breitenbeck wants to concede this, however, we must look elsewhere for what’s actually “unique about their own church.” That which is most obviously unique—setting Catholicism apart not only from Protestantism but also from Eastern Orthodoxy—is of course its doctrine of the papacy, specifically its confession that the Bishop of Rome enjoys primacy in the church by divine right, and that, within certain parameters, his teaching is infallible.

As Chalk notes, this “Petrine primacy” and “doctrinal infallibility” are “intimately related to the nature of the Catholic Church.” This is because, as the Catechism of the Catholic Church (§881-882) asserts, Christ made Peter alone “the ‘rock’ of his Church,” so the papal office—with its “full, supreme, and universal power over the whole Church”—“belongs to the Church’s very foundation.”

Because the papacy, in this understanding, is of the very essence of the church, those “ecclesial communities” not acknowledging or submitting to its primacy or infallibility are, Chalk notes, “not properly churches.” He charitably wants to avoid concluding that the members of such communities are not Christians, but it is precisely Rome’s unique claims about the papacy that make that conclusion difficult for Catholics to avoid. Chalk attempts to do so by appealing to what he describes as the “infallible magisterial authority” of the Second Vatican Council.

One problem with this is that it’s not actually clear even to many Catholics that Vatican II defined any infallible dogma. Pope Paul VI, who concluded that council, explained that it “avoided issuing solemn dogmatic definitions engaging the infallibility of the ecclesiastical Magisterium.” While still prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the future Pope Benedict XVI was even more blunt: “this particular council defined no dogma at all.”

No, Really, It’s All about the Papacy

An even greater problem is that, as alluded to in my earlier essay, Pope Boniface VIII, in a pronouncement that does bear all the marks of infallibility, declared, proclaimed, and defined that “it is absolutely necessary for salvation that every human creature be subject to the Roman Pontiff.” For good measure, the eleventh session of the Fifth Lateran Council reaffirmed that “subjection to the Roman pontiff is necessary for salvation for all Christ’s faithful.”

The clarity, authority, and consistency of such pronouncements are such that the pre-Vatican II Catholic Encyclopedia could remark without qualification or embarrassment that “this has been the constant teaching of the Church.” With equal bluntness it could specify the implications of this constant teaching: “When, therefore, the Greeks [i.e., the Orthodox] and others say they are not subject to the authority of Peter and his successors, they thus acknowledge that they do not belong to Christ’s sheep.”

While I can therefore appreciate the ecumenical charity Chalk expresses, such charity comes at the cost of playing fast and loose with Catholic history and theology. When he claims that “no faithful Catholic can believe” that Protestants stand outside the Christian faith, and that to do so “would mean rejecting Catholic doctrine,” one is forced to ask: Which Catholic doctrine? That of Vatican II, which “defined no dogma at all,” or that of Boniface VIII and Lateran V, which defined and reiterated “the constant teaching of the Church”?

Yes, I’m fully aware of the many attempts to harmonize Boniface VIII with Vatican II. But any explanation that requires “absolutely necessary” to be understood as “not absolutely necessary” involves an esotericism beyond the ken of all but the most ardent apologists. Also, any invocation of the “development of doctrine” must honestly address the obvious point often reiterated by the inestimable Ed Feser: “simply calling something a ‘development’ rather than a contradiction doesn’t make it so.”

Chalk’s decision to highlight only a single, recent, and questionable strand of the church’s teaching therefore suggests that it might be he rather than I who, in trying to simplify matters, is prone to “misinterpret or mischaracterize what Catholicism actually teaches.” The ongoing disputes about how actually to understand the content and authority of Vatican II’s pronouncements might further suggest that any confusion about Catholic theology is less attributable to me than to that theology itself.

Who, Then, Can Be Saved?

Indeed, the documents of the council themselves reveal at least a vague awareness of the corner into which the church was being painted. Despite its qualified assurance that Protestants “have a right to be called Christians,” for example, it (and the Catechism, §846) also explicitly states that “they could not be saved who, knowing that the Catholic Church was founded as necessary by God through Christ, would refuse either to enter it or to remain in it.”

To be sure, that word “knowing” leaves open a sizeable if subtle escape hatch. For example, despite regularly being told that the Catholic Church was founded as necessary by God through Christ, I certainly don’t “know” this to be the case. I’m in fact quite confident that the Catholic Church—as Roman Catholics understand it—was not so founded.

Thus, despite the generous loophole possibly left to me and others outside of Catholicism, I laud the brutal frankness of Breitenbeck’s reply from inside. He writes, “it is not a question of whether anyone can be saved outside the Catholic Church; it is a question of whether I can be saved outside her.” He answers by confessing, “I don’t think I could be saved if I abandoned her.”

Chalk is less explicit; but given his professed belief in Vatican II’s infallible authority, as well as his presumed “knowledge” that the Catholic Church was founded as necessary by God, it seems safe to infer that he too believes he “could not be saved” if he refused “to remain in it.”

Concluding Questions

Some further and serious questions, then, for both of my interlocutors here and any of their likeminded co-religionists. What abuses, both physical and spiritual, might the hierarchy not commit, cover up, or even reward in the confident belief that the faithful can never depart without endangering or even forfeiting their salvation?

Where, if anywhere, is the line that cannot be crossed before one stops “knowing” that the Catholic Church was founded as “necessary”? Would reversals of “the constant teaching of the Church” cross such a line? About, say, subjection to the pope being necessary for salvation? Or regarding capital punishment? Or communion for the divorced and remarried?

Perhaps the line would be crossed if the church began—again—compelling magistrates to burn men and women to death for holding opinions contrary to its teaching? (Those of you who enjoy trolling Massimo Faggioli need not answer; your votes have already been tallied.) Since the line is apparently not to be located in decades of winking at sexual abuse, of protecting and even promoting the abusers, where exactly is it to be located?

Or is there no such line? Must one remain in the Catholic Church, as one of Dreher’s readers concludes, “even if every bishop is found to be serial rapists and murders”? Finally, if the church’s defenders publicly advertise that there is no line that, being crossed, might justify shaking Rome’s dust from one’s feet, do they not also become culpable for perpetuating the mindset partly responsible for the scandal once again roiling the church?