The following e-mail exchange from 2012 may be worth preserving.  My interlocutor is a former parishioner who, after leaving Georgia, became a Roman Catholic.  I have removed his name for privacy’s sake.  He is not a theologian, and I do not mean to suggest that there are not stronger possible arguments for modern papal claims.  I also do not think that this kind of controversy has much positive value.  I do think, however, that the lines of argument I present in response are helpful for Anglicans when faced with aggressive or triumphalist Roman Catholics.

[From A.B.] 11:41pm May 10

I read your response to Rome recently. I suppose as a former baptist it struck me as odd. When I became a member of the ACC, you explained to me that the ACC was an authoritative church and that I would have to accept ecclesial authority to be an anglican. OK – that made sense to me as a former baptist. I suppose that you would also agree, or I presume so, that bishops can prayerfully elect a leader with the aid of the holy spirit. I would further presume that you would not disagree that the Bishop of Rome has been so elected by the vast majority of the world’s catholic bishops as represented by the College of Cardinals. So why then is “Conversion not necessary and absorption not appropriate”. Surely you would not say that to anyone thinking of joining the ACC?

Surely conversion is needed by all Christians, and it is our primary mission to evangelize. Surely also, there is a difference between being a full member incorporate in the body of Christ and being ‘absorbed’. The Catholic church is not the borg – one is not ‘absorbed’ like a slave chained to the oar of a roman galley as atheists like to shout about. It is more like a marriage. A potential marriage between the ACC and Rome seems to be protested more on the grounds of old fashioned anti-papist tory feelings than by theology.

King Henry VIII was like Kim Jong Il – forming a statist puppet church the same way China has created a ‘Patriotic Catholic Church of China’. Such ethnocentric ‘patriotic’ churches are almost as old as christendom. What absolute ruler wants to tolerate an external leader? Get’s in the way of one’s divorce does it not? For a group of Anglicans like the ACC to realize the value of ecclesial authority, unity, and tradition and then to reject the highest reflection of those principles in the elected office of the pope seems to me to undermine your own authority. Why should anyone accept your authority as Metropolitan if you cannot accept the authority of the pope? He was elected by a college of cardinals, as the successor of Peter. Surely Christ did not, in charging Peter with his singular mission, intend for their to be a plethora of ethnocentric churches organized around nation states. And surely he did not intend to create twelve bickering churches that recognized no principle bishop. Indeed, he selected Peter. Today when Christian unity is needed as never before in the face of secular and islamic persection around the world, it seems an ill advised time to reject the biblical tradition of a primary Bishop leading the church, splitting hairs on how the role is defined, or nursing old grudges about an apostolic succession that was clearly abrogated by a dictator and his suplicants.

A church in rebellion against no theological ideal other than the elected leader of the bishops cannot possibly be incorporate in the mystical body of Christ in the manner demanded to achieve the true presence of Christ in the eucharist.

A theological dispute makes sense. Say, the immaculate conception. Or the whole idea of infallible declarations. But the petrine office? I don’t understand. How can you disagree with the elected office of the papacy and still support a Metropolitan?

Just thought I’d get that off my chest. Hope it’s not offensive. Best Regards, [A.B.]

12 May 2012

Dear [A.B.],

No authority or role is given to Peter in Scripture that is not elsewhere in Scripture given to all the apostles.  All are called pillars or rocks, all are given the power of the keys, all are bound to feed the flock and strengthen the faithful.

What you are arguing for is the idea that the pope is the bishop of bishops and universal bishop.  But Pope Saint Gregory the Great rejected those titles repeatedly as ungodly and denied that any of his predecessors claimed them.  The modern papacy rejects the teaching of the ancient popes on this matter.  Modern papal claims are an innovation.

I am afraid your argument is shifty.  You distinguish non-papalist ecclesiological views from theological issues such as the Immaculate Conception.  But basic issues of ecclesiology are theological – which is why the marks of the Church are in the Creed.  For traditional Roman Catholics, indeed, the papacy is the single most important point of theology, not absolutely considered but epistemologically considered.

Your argument reduces to an assertion that anyone who rejects the views of the Roman Catholic bishops must rely essentially on personal, private judgement, because Roman Catholics are in the majority.  But I do not grant that numbers ensure truth.

Some counterarguments come readily to mind.  First, in fact more Christians and Christian bishops believe in the authority of the episcopal office than of the papal office – since Eastern Orthodox, Oriental, and Anglicans as well as Romans believe in the episcopate’s authority, while only Romans believe in the papal office in its modern form.  So it seems safer to rely on the episcopate if we make numbers our guide.  Furthermore, most people are not Christian at all, so if numbers are a guide to truth, we should reject Christianity entirely.

In fact I believe that in epistemological terms dogmatic authority rests not in the majority of a given period but in ‘that which has been believed always and everywhere and by all’.  And the problematic papal claims (universal, ordinary jurisdiction and infallibility apart from the whole of the episcopate) are not ancient but modern claims.

One might also make the point through a systematic argument.  All that is essential to the Church is given in a sacrament.  The unity of the Church is one of the marks of the Church and is of the essence.  Therefore the organ of the Church’s unity must flow from a sacrament.  Now the papacy is not bestowed by a sacrament but by an election which is non-sacramental.  Therefore the papacy cannot be the organ and guarantor of the Church’s essential unity.  The episcopate, however, is bestowed by a sacrament.  And in fact it is the episcopate that ensures the unity of the Church.

I became a full member incorporate in the body of Christ at my baptism – as did you.  That’s good Roman theology.  You just add something I don’t believe:  that the Roman Church is exclusively coterminous with the One True Church.  (Actually Roman theologians fudge that point now, but that’s a bit off the current points.)  The Eastern Orthodox also believe that they are the One True Church, and their identity with the patristic Church (which all agree was at that time the One True Church) is much more plausible than Rome’s.  So we have Two One True Churches.  Both are wrong, and each renders the exclusivist claims of the other implausible.  Happily as an Anglican Catholic I believe that the Church is one, that I am part of that one true Church, and that the Church exists beyond the visible boundaries of my own Church.

I have no interest at all in defending Henry VIII.  His behavior was, at any rate, that of a layman.  The Renaissance popes were as bad or worse, and we may reasonably hold them to a higher standard as bishops.  The Church of England existed before and after Henry.  In the 16th century it purged itself of many grave errors and took on some new ones.  That has little to do with whether Vatican I is right or not, which is what your argument really concerns.

For me the real point is this.  John Paul invited us to rethink with him the way in which the Petrine Office is exercised.  Then the door was slammed shut on any such cordial, joint rethinking.  Repeating the mantras of Vatican I, which do not persuade Anglican or Orthodox or Oriental Christians at all, is not what Ut Unum Sint suggested.  Rome now is cherry-picking Anglican converts.  They are, frankly, welcome to the ones they are getting.  And the numbers going for the Ordinariates are miniscule – a few hundreds in the U.S.  Someday perhaps Rome will take seriously what JP offered.  Meanwhile, I’m not at all impressed.  If Rome is what Rome claims to be, the collapse of the RCC in Western Europe and the decline underway in the U.S. are not what I would expect.

I am not in the least offended.  I’m always glad to hear from you, and I am very happy that you take your faith seriously.  I hope you will not be offended either by my equally frank reply to your points.

I hope [B.C.] and the children are flourishing.

In Christ,


[Reply from A.B.]

In what passage is St Thomas, Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, or Judas Iscariot appointed in any way similar to Peter?

[Answer from +MDH to one sentence reply:]

Mark and Luke were not apostles.  Judas abandoned his apostleship and was replaced by S. Matthias after his (Judas’s) suicide.  So the proper question is in what passages is the power of the keys (given to Peter in one passage) given to the apostles as a body and is the position of fundamental rock given to the apostles as a body?

I am on the road at the moment and cannot easily do research, but you will find an extended treatment of the Petrine office and the RC proof texts in the second edition of my book, Anglican Catholic Faith and Practice.  The relevant texts are also treated in most Orthodox and Anglican studies of the subject.  In brief, you will find that Paul refers to the apostles as a group, with Peter given no special position, e.g. in Galatians 2.9, as ‘pillars’ or ‘reputed pillars’ of the Church – which is the same as a rock, but without the pun on the name Cephas/Petros.  The account of the Council of Jerusalem in Acts 15 has James, not Peter, giving the determinative sentence of the apostolic college.  In Galatians 2.9 James is mentioned before Peter.  The power of the keys or of binding and loosing sins is given to all of the apostles by our Lord in some places, though also specifically to Peter in one place.  In any case the question is not whether Peter has a unique place.  Anglicans and Orthodox have no objection to the unique primacy of Peter.  The problems are the modern claims – universal, ordinary jurisdiction and infallibility apart from the whole of the Church.

Why does the bishop of Rome claim to be the unique successor of Peter?  Peter was first bishop of Antioch according to tradition.  Why is not the patriarch of that Church unique?  What Scriptural basis is there for Rome’s authority as opposed to Antioch’s?  In fact Pope Gregory the Great says that his office is shared by the patriarchs of Antioch and Alexandria (where by tradition Peter sent Mark to be first bishop).  This idea of a collegial and shared authority is in fact the heart of the Anglican position – which, again, is closer to the patristic model than the modern RC view.


[Reply from A.B.] 1:53pm May 12

OK I reviewed Acts 15 and Galations 2:9. Thanks for that – I had no idea those counter arguments even existed. I think it takes a lot of imagination to read into those an equal primacy for James or the others. Peter answers the question and James echoes it. That happens all the time, Benedict makes a call for evangelization and Cardinal Sean echoes it in his archdiocese. A pillar is not the same as the keys, and it takes a bit of sophistry to try to split those hairs. The archbishops of the world elected a leader. That matters.

I am not arguing that you should ‘go with the majority’. Surely you recognize the validity of the apostolic orders of the Cardinals, and they in turn with the aid of the holy spirit elect a pope. Islamic supremacists and radical secularists are roaring at the gates and it is unproductive to spend ones energy splitting hairs about the primacy rather than uniting as christians. It is as if a splinter platoon broke away from the allies in world war II because they were obsessed with how Patton was chosen as a leader of the Allied forces. Now is not the time to separate for the sake of separation, to debate primacy for the sake of debating primacy. The church compiled the bible in the first place, and as you confess no one debates the special place of the bishop of Rome anyway. You cannot join Rome, you say, because you cannot be ‘absorbed’ and because you argue fine details of the degree and nature of that primacy. Again, to me that seems counterproductive in the face of the mission of the church. You also seem to take a lot of issue with the declaration of invalidity under Leo. But it seems to me that regardless of the 400 year old issues of the day the bishops of England did deviate from the mission of the church and ally themselves with totalitarian secular rulers. This clearly places them in the same position as Judas Iscariot, whom you already agreed has given up his apostleship. They probably even participated in the Elizabethan persecutions of the church, and in many cases argued against lifting discriminatory laws against catholics in England.

So there is some risk in schism of deviating too much from the mission of the church and abandoning one’s apostleship, if it had ever been truly received in the first place. Surely you would agree that many in the Episcopal Church have abandoned their true mission; and you also likely would take issue with the female bishops. While the ACC is conservative, and does not exhibit such obvious deviations from the church’s mission, that does not mean a more subtle ethnocentric schismatic tendency towards the old statist isolationism from the rest of Christendom does not still exist as an undercurrent. Well heck, I used to hear ACC members talk in those terms now and again, but at the time I was still drinking the anti-papist cool aid.

So to answer your question: The Bishop of Rome has been chosen as the successor of Peter because the archbishop Cardinals of the world have, with the help of the holy spirit made it so. We are not a sola scripture church. We are a living church that makes spiritual decisions, including the decision to compile the scriptures into the bible. Peter was executed in Rome, and his bones are in Rome, and the holy spirit guided the apostles of the church to name successors to Peter wheresoever they chose – particularly in Rome. There were times when they could not agree, times when it was France, not Rome, times when secular powers that be interfered. But one is still taking a schismatic stance to stand against that selection, and decry it as invalid or overstated. When one actively suppresses, oppresses, works against, or otherwise harms the church as part of that schismatic effort, that is when I would suspect one’s orders are actually invalid ala Judas Iscariot. Obviously the ACC is not participating in such evil, but surely the continuity of the ACCs apostolic succession is threatened by the history of the conflicts in England and perhaps colonial america.

Thanks again for engaging me in this way. Best, [A.B.]

Reply from +MDH, May 18, 2012

Dear [A.B.],

The idea of all the apostles being pillars was not meant to be equivalent to the power of the keys but only equivalent to the description of Peter as ‘rock’.  Both ‘rock’ (Matthew xvi) and ‘pillar’ (Galatians ii.9) are terms suggesting the stable foundation on which something rests.  The power of the keys is another matter, but it too is explicitly given to all of the apostles as much as to Peter.  In Matthew xvi, again, Peter is given the keys of the kingdom of heaven and the power to bind and loose sins.  But the same authority is given to the apostles indiscriminately and as a college in Matthew xviii.18-9 and in John xx.22-3.  The promise that hell will not prevail against the Church is made to all of the apostles, with no special mention of Peter (Matthew xxviii).  I repeat my assertion that everything that is given to Peter or said of Peter in one passage is said to or of the whole apostolic college elsewhere.

It seems to me that if the papal form of Church government were intended by Christ or the Holy Spirit, then the Spirit would have come upon Peter at Pentecost and then been conveyed by him to the other apostles, and so through them to the rest of the Church.  And Judas’s replacement would have been chosen by Peter, as modern bishops are chosen by the pope.  But this monarchical pattern is absent from Scripture and the ancient Church.

I don’t think you’ve seen the full import of Acts 15.  Rome claims that the pope presides at ecumenical councils and over the other bishops and that no true council can exist and no act of the episcopate as a whole is valid without promulgation by the pope.  But James presides at the Council of Jerusalem and the decrees of the council of Jerusalem were promulgated without Peter’s presidency and with no reference to him in the encyclical letter.  Of course Peter is present and implicitly consents to the letter the council writes.  But this is a picture of Peter as one of (even if often the leader of) a college, not of Peter as the monarchical and unique pope.  Which is to say, this is a picture of the Anglican view of the papal office properly understood, not support for Vatican I.  So too in the Pauline literature.  And so too in the ancient Church, bishops are chosen without reference to Rome and councils are not only held without the pope, but councils feel free to condemn papal heresies when necessary.

The choice is not between Rome and some other individual as infallible authority.  If one is going to have a pope, it should be Rome.  But the part is less than the whole, and the pope is less than the Church as a whole.  This is not anti-papalism, but is the view of Rome held by many Roman Catholics before Vatican I and by most Western Catholics through much of Church history.  I am not against the bishop of Rome properly understood.  As John Paul II himself said, in the first millennium Rome was a source of unity, not division.  The division came not because Henry VIII or some individual decided to rebel against Rome late in the day, but because Rome’s claims rose higher and higher and further and further from a real and justified foundation in Scripture.  The real choice is between Rome and a collegial understanding of authority.  By appealing to the college of cardinals you are in effect going around the papacy to appeal yourself to collegial authority.  The problem is you can’t be an RC bishop unless appointed by the pope, so collegiality is abandoned from the start.  In the RCC bishops are in effect merely archpriests serving and dependent on and explicitly replaceable by the one true bishop of bishops – the pope.  And that is so despite the fact that ‘bishop of bishops’ was condemned by Pope Saint Gregory as an ungodly title unknown to his predecessors (see Book V, Epistle 43 and Book VIII, Epistle 30).

If the papacy were intended by God to be so central to the Church, why is Peter’s authority so entirely absent in Paul, while in Acts we see the Anglican/Orthodox idea of collegiality rather than of monarchy?  No impartial Martian would read the bulk of the New Testament and come up with papal monarchy.  This is not a sola scriptura argument, because the Fathers are not much more supportive of modern papal claims.  You are left with two or three passages in Matthew and John on which to build the immense superstructure of Vatican I papalism.  And an Anglican interpretation of those few texts is more consistent with the whole of the NT and Patristic data.  No one would come up with papalism based on a NT foundation alone.  If you begin by believing papal claims, then you can plausibly argue for your position from the few proof texts available.  But, to repeat, such a supposedly vital principle would, if intended by God, surely have been given a more clear and emphatic support in Scripture.

Your arguments from the need for Christian unity and a common front against Islam are weak.  Often the best way to help our friends is by offering friendly criticism.  Anglican converts to Rome are indeed assimilated in Borgian manner.  I have seen such conversion often over the years, and the process is depressing.  The ACC offers competition and critical support from outside.  My article in support of the RC bishops’ position against the HHS mandate would have had no notice at all if I were RC.  From a non-RC bishop it is more influential.  One reason Christianity is stronger in the U.S. than in Europe is precisely the healthy competition amongst churches:  though that competition also has its negative side.  In any case, the truth should not be abandoned for prudential reasons or for the sake of power or influence.

Do you think you would have come to the Church through the Roman Catholic Church?  If you had gone to S. Joseph’s or the Catholic Center you probably wouldn’t have been noticed and almost certainly wouldn’t have gotten to know a priest even if you had attended for a couple of years.  You might well not have encountered a persuasive exposition of the basics of the Faith either from the pulpit or from catechetical classes.  There are good parishes, of course, and fine priests, in many places.  But the average is not so good.

We had a family come to Saint Stephen’s a couple of years ago whose story is not uncommon.  He was a physician and prominent in the community.  They attended S. Joseph’s every Sunday for a couple of years and put in generous checks every week.  They had a young child.  Her father is an RC deacon and parish life was central to her life growing up.  She told me that despite very high commitment to the parish for two or three years, the pastor had no idea at the end of that period who she was or the name of her husband or son.  I think the opportunity to have contact with the clergy in a fairly personal and direct way – which is impossible in most immense RC parishes – was a help to you and is a help to many.  Of course that is not a theological reason for abandoning or questioning Rome or her doctrine.  But it is a reason for thinking that the RCC in the U.S. is largely dysfunctional.  I think Anglicanism and the ACC both have vocations that would have to be abandoned if we were RC.  So I continue to believe that our best contribution to Christendom requires and demands refusal to accept claims that we believe to be untrue.  I do not say that because I am hostile to Rome, or indeed blind to the problems in my own tradition and Church.  I say that because I love Rome and wish nothing for her, or for Christendom, but the best.

I would go so far as to say that in contemporary circumstances a papal rejection of papal claims would be practically harmful.  It would open the door to all sorts of liberal dissent and error within the largely diseased and unorthodox body of RC clergy and laity in the West.  But one error breeds another.  The fact that papal authoritarianism now cannot easily be undone does not make that authoritarianism itself either justified or true or Scriptural or healthy.  God will have to sort it out.  But I don’t think anybody would be benefited by the ACC or the Orthodox swallowing papal claims and submitting ourselves to liberal RC bishops with their girl acolytes and laymen administering sacraments and their complicity in grave scandals and their other innovations unheard of in the first millennium.

You will appreciate that I have thought about these things most of my life in a fairly intense way.  I have read much of the controversial literature, and I have always found the Roman argument very thin.  Of course if one has made a prior act of faith in the papacy, he will find sufficient support for his presuppositions in Scripture, tradition, and reason.  But I myself think such a conclusion can only rest on a basis whose real foundation is a prior acceptance of what is in fact in question – namely papal authority.  That is, I think papal claims really depend on an essentially circular argument, which assumes what it seeks to demonstrate.  I have no desire at all to shake any happy RC from his position.  But it is not a position that I find persuasive.  And given the problems within the Roman Church now, it is not a position I even find attractive for myself.  +MDH

2 thoughts on “Papal Claims

  1. From S.A.W-W. : ‘As an obscure point of order – your interlocutor makes much of the pope being elected by archbishop cardinals but… this is not precisely the right understanding of the place of cardinals in the RCC.’ Reply from +MDH: ‘No, it isn’t. Quite of few of them are essentially Vatican bureaucrats, though the majority have or had major dioceses and pastoral responsibilities. A few, of course, aren’t even bishops but are honored for their theological writing etc. (de Lubac comes to mind). A cardinal is just a papal elector, which makes my friend’s reasoning even a bit more circular: ‘He’s kosher because he’s elected by the papal electors, who are chosen by the pope to be papal electors.” Reply from S.A.W-W: ‘Your Grace, quite right, though I believe there’s instruction now that they all must be bishops (titular if need be, and indeed many of them are). The explanation I was given was that at one point clericalism in the RCC got so bad that if a diocesan bishop received a letter from the curia that was written by a cardinal who was only a priest, the bishop would refuse to read it. So while all cardinals now are bishops, that’s quite ancillary to their office, cardinals are, properly speaking, “created.” Which apparently once led a German bishop to suggest that the pope should also create a college of cardinal women! This suggestion was not taken up, but legally speaking…there’s a possibility there. It seems your friend was trying to say that the election of the pope was done by principle of synodality or episcopal conciliarism, but actually those aspects were abolished long ago.’


  2. Your Grace, thank you once again for an excellent and winsome essay in defence of the traditional Anglican expression of the catholic faith.


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