Everyone knows that at Hillsdale, the “Protestant-Catholic” debate will come up continuously. I see this as a good thing. Hillsdale is full of students who take their faith seriously, which means presenting reasons for believing it, and (hopefully) sincerely considering the reasons presented by others. In the spirit of good, old-fashioned pot-stirring, then, and in an effort to further healthy and friendly discussion of this question, I argue that truly catholic Christians should leave the Church’s Roman denomination.
It is important to note what I am not arguing. First, I am not arguing that Roman Christians are unsaved, or are bad Christians, or anything like that. They are my brothers and sisters in Christ. It is, in fact, precisely unwillingness to divide myself from any part of the real catholic (“universal”) Church that leads me to conclude that Christians should avoid its Roman denomination.
Second, I am not arguing that other Christians have nothing to learn from Rome. I have attended several traditional masses and they are glorious. The typical evangelical church has much to learn from this.
Finally, non-doctrinal issues are not the only lessons Rome offers Protestant Christians. It is perfectly possible to be a Protestant and believe that typically Roman teachings are more accurate than typically Protestant ones. After all, there is no Protestant magisterium to forbid it. For example, though everything comes down to definitions, I believe that Roman language about “reason, scripture, and other tradition” is more accurate than language of “sola scriptura.”
There is, in fact, only one fundamental issue in dispute between Roman and non-Roman Christians: The Roman denomination claims to possess a teaching magisterium with the authority to make infallible doctrinal statements. If this is true, then the Roman church is in fact the true Church, and all Christians ought to join it. If it is not true, then members of the Roman church should leave that denomination so long as it requires them to affirm this doctrine.
The question then becomes: Can the Roman church defend its claim that an authoritative teaching magisterium exists and that the Roman one is it? The answer is no. None of the arguments made in defense of this idea is sound.
The stereotypical defense of the Roman magisterium and the authority of the pope, originates in Matthew 16. Peter was the preeminent apostle and the first pope, it is said, therefore, the pope has magisterial teaching authority.
There are multiple problems with this claim. It is certainly true that Peter was the preeminent apostle, but the important question is: In what sense was he preeminent? He is given the keys to the kingdom, but the text defines this as the power to bind and loose, which is given to the other apostles just two chapters later. And to predicate the entire doctrine of papal authority on the description of Peter as “this rock” would be eisegetical in the umpteenth degree. Even if some sort of super-apostolic teaching authority were vested in Peter, it still would not follow that that authority descends to whomever succeeds him in one of the offices he filled (the bishopric of Rome). There is no credible evidence for papal authority.
If the case for a Roman magisterium is basically nonexistent, the evidence against it is strong. The magisterium requires Roman Christians to affirm numerous doctrines that there is good reason to believe are false. The natural deduction is that its claim to teaching authority is false.
Consider Roman teachings about Mary. Members are required to believe that Mary always remained a virgin, contrary to Matthew 1:25, which states fairly directly that she did not. They are required to believe that Mary was sinless. Again, scripture strongly discountenances this idea. Mary offers a sin offering; she refers to God as her savior; and, of course, “all have sinned.” Finally, Roman Christians are required to believe that Mary did not die, but was bodily taken up into heaven. Once again there is little to no scriptural and traditional support for this idea. It was more or less forced on the church only in 1950 by papal decree.
As another example, consider transubstantiation: The Roman denomination claims the bread and wine of the Eucharist are literally the body and blood of Christ. But the cases from scripture and tradition stand against this reading. John 6 indicates that Christ’s common metaphors “eat my flesh” and “drink my blood” mean coming to and believing in him. And in one of his surviving fragments the patristic bishop Irenaeus describes the idea that the Eucharist “was actually flesh and blood” as an intolerable accusation.
Truly Catholic Christians — those of us whose allegiance is to the entire church across the nations and the ages, not a parochial fragment of it — are free to join any denomination that does not require us to affirm things that are false or do things that are wrong. Since the Roman denomination fails to meet those criteria, Christians should avoid membership in it until it allows members to question unsubstantiated doctrines and returns to catholic unity by ending its schism from the Eastern and Protestant churches.
Jonathan Ashbach is part of the Van Andel Graduate School of Statesmanship