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Catholicism and Roman Catholicism

Three Addresses delivered in Grosvenor Chapel in Advent, 1922.

By Charles Gore.

London: Mowbray, 1922

II. Roman Catholicism

"Thy sister . . . was not mentioned by thy mouth in the day of thy pride. . . . Nevertheless I will remember my covenant with thee in the days of thy youth, and I will establish unto thee an everlasting covenant. Then thou shalt remember thy ways, and be ashamed, when thou shalt receive thy sisters, thine elder and thy younger: and I will give them unto thee for daughters, but not by thy covenant."—Ezek. xvi. 56, 60, 61.

AMONG the developments of the early Catholic Church the development of the Roman Church fills the largest place in history. And the note of that development has been unmistakable. It is the note of imperialism, the note which it carries over from the Roman Empire, to which in a remarkable way it succeeded. The climax of its imperialistic claim is to be found, in one sense, in the Bull Unam Sanctam of Boniface VIII in 1302: "We declare, affirm, define and pronounce that it is altogether necessary to salvation for every human creature to be subject to the Roman Pontiff"; in another sense in the definition of infallibility at the Vatican Council of 1871, where it is declared that "the definitions of the Roman Pontiff are irreformable of themselves and not by consent of the Church."

It is claimed, you see, that submission to the Pope is necessary for the salvation of every human soul, and that the Bishop of Rome, when he speaks ex cathedra, is, by himself, the organ and mouthpiece of infallibility. This means that the Roman Church is the whole Church and the infallible Church. Now I am not here to dispute the greatness or the glory of the Roman Church, but solely to show why we should entirely repudiate this its claim to be the whole Catholic Church and by itself the seat of infallibility.


In defending these dogmas the Roman Church deals very largely with certain Scripture texts, especially with our Lord's words to S. Peter, of which I was speaking last time. It has appropriated these words: " Thou art Peter; and upon this rock I will build my Church." Inscribed in vast letters round the dome of S. Peter's Basilica, they impress our imagination with a thrill. The Romans have done with this text very much what Lutheran Protestantism in the sixteenth century did with the Epistle to the Galatians. That, too, still haunts the imagination, and with a Protestant ring. But we desire to be true to both the one and the other passage of Scripture. And when you really study S. Paul you find that, on the whole, he is by no means an individualist who can find no room for authority in the Church. Quite the contrary. In the same way, if you read the New Testament as a whole, you see that the idea of any official authority being given to Peter over and above what was given to all the Apostles has no support at all. Thus Peter appears in the first half of the Acts—that is till S. Paul seems to supersede him—as the leader of the apostolic band: but no more. S. Paul's references to S. Peter, or "Cephas," in his Epistles suggest nothing in the world less than any authority inherent in him, other than the common apostolic authority; and S. Paul's account of Church unity under Christ the Head seems to exclude the notion of a supreme headship on earth. The utterances of Roman pontiffs from the fifth century downwards, and earlier, have been full to overflowing of the sense of a dignity given by God to Peter and his successors in the Roman see which none may share. But S. Peter's Epistle is as far as possible from sounding any such note. He is content to call himself "an Apostle."


When I move out into Church history, I note very early that different Churches have different characteristics. So it is with the Greek-speaking Churches, the Syriac Church, the African Church, the Roman Church, the Celtic Church; and, owing in part to these differences, even from early times you see that unity was maintained with difficulty. In the first days, however, incomparably the greatest debt of gratitude is due to the Greek-speaking Church. To it, in the main, we owe our theological terms and our understanding of the New Testament. Then when the African Church and the Syriac Church pass out of existence or out of sight, and the Celtic Church becomes Romanized, there remain only the great rivals, Rome and Constantinople. Their ambitions clash. Finally, there is schism—the responsibility for which appears to be divided about equally. We ask ourselves, " In becoming separated from the Roman see in 1054, did the Eastern Church abandon anything concerning the authority of Peter as persisting in the Roman Church which had been at any period part of its creed?" The answer is a decisive No. The Catholic Christianity of the Greeks had acknowledged no such doctrine.

Listen to the greatest modern Roman Catholic historian of the early centuries, Duchesne. He is describing the period of theological conflict in the fourth century, when the Church in the East appeared to be hopelessly bewildered, confused, and divided on the central points of the Faith; and the Church of Rome, where there was comparatively little theological interest or controversy, was, on the whole, enviably quiet and steady, constantly strengthening its governing position in the West. In this hour of extreme necessity, had the Eastern Church any idea of Rome as the divinely given centre of unity and authority to which it must at all costs cling? Listen to Duchesne, who is discussing the difficulties of the emperors in dealing with Church divisions: "When the points in controversy did not go beyond the domain of the local Church, it was possible still to settle them by the intervention of superior ecclesiastical authorities, to whom, in case of need, the Government could lend material support. But if the episcopate were divided, what means could be found of producing agreement, and which side ought to be taken? If there had been in the Church of the fourth century a central authority, recognized and active, it would have afforded a means of solution. But it was not so. Antioch and Alexandria are at variance. . . . How shall the matter be decided? By doing as [the Emperor] Aurelian did and putting himself 'on the side taken by the Roman Church? For that it would have been necessary that there should be in this respect a tradition, a custom; that it should have been usual to see the Roman Church intervening in such matters. But in reality it was a very long time since anything had been heard of that Church in the East. A century before the authoritative ways of Pope Stephen had offended many people, among them some of those most held in honour. The deposition of Paul of Samosata was notified to the Church of Rome, as it was to that of Alexandria; but it had not had to take any share in it. It played but a minor part at the Council of Nicaea. Athanasius, then deposed by the Council of Tyre, does not seem to have had any idea that an appeal to Rome might restore his fortunes. It was his adversaries who . . . made the first approaches to Pope Julius. Further, as soon as they were met by opposition from him, we find them assuming a disdainful attitude towards the Pope, and even taking upon themselves to depose him. . . . There was not then a guiding power, an effective expression of Christian unity. The Papacy, such as the West knew it later on, was still to be born."

But the recognition of the Papacy, as the West knew it, was never born in the Eastern Church. Easterns, when hard pressed and needing the help of Rome, did from time to time seek to conciliate the Pope by the use of phrases such as would please him. That is the Eastern way, we know. But when it came to any synodical statement they consistently refused to recognize anything special in the Roman see, except an honorary precedency, which they ascribe to its position in the capital city of the Empire. So it was that Constantinople, when it became the capital city of the East, demanded a like precedence and was granted it, in spite of the protests of Rome, by the Fourth Oecumenical Council (28th Canon): "The fathers properly allowed the precedency to old Rome because it was the imperial city, and the 250 bishops [that is the Second Oecumenical Council at Constantinople], being moved with the same intention, assigned the equal precedency to the most holy throne of New Rome [i.e. Constantinople], judging with reason that the city which was honoured with the sovereignty and senate, and enjoyed equal precedency with the elder Imperial Rome, should also be magnified like her in ecclesiastical matters, being the second after her."

The East never acknowledged the Roman claim of a divinely granted supremacy. Down to the present day the Orthodox Church has maintained its ancient profession. The guilt of the great schism lies divided. But there is no reason whatever for the suggestion that the East ever rejected any part of the faith or order of the Church which it had ever held. And there is no excuse for supposing that at the time of the schism it ceased to be part of the Church, any more than the Church of Rome. Historically judged, and judged by Scripture, the Roman Church is not the whole Church.


But it is at least as important to notice that the Roman Church presents in its moral and spiritual characteristics all the features of a one-sided development. Autocracy has, no doubt, many excellences as a form of government when it is in good hands. Roman authoritative arguments have in the past constantly assumed that absolute rule by one man is obviously the best form of government. But the world has decided against them in the secular sphere, and these naive arguments to-day fall very flat. However, for good or evil, that is the Roman conception of Church government. In the Pastoral of Cardinal Mercier, which Lord Halifax has recently introduced to us, this aspect of the Papacy is made prominent. The Cardinal describes it as "the accepted and cherished supremacy of one conscience over all other consciences, of one will over all wills." He speaks of all the bishops "subscribing beforehand to a programme they do not even wish to know," i.e. the new Pope's, convinced "that in matters of faith and Christian morality, not only will he not err, but he cannot err." This sort of autocracy inevitably makes a virtue of passive, unquestioning acceptance. With S. Ignatius of Loyola we must say, "To make sure of being right in all things we ought always to hold by the principle that the white I see I would believe to be black, if the hierarchical Church were so to rule it." The acceptance of a peremptory authority levels all articles of belief which it proclaims. All are equally credible and obligatory, whatever the conditions of evidence attaching to them. So the Roman Pontiff has decreed the Immaculate Conception of Mary as a fact and dogma equally to be believed with the Resurrection of Jesus Christ, though there is no semblance of historical evidence for the supposed event.

But our whole soul protests—this is not the kind of faith which I find in the New Testament. In the New Testament our faith in facts—concerning the birth, life, death, resurrection, and ascension of our Lord and the coming of the Spirit—is always scrupulously made to rest upon the ground of adequate evidence by firsthand witnesses. There is in the Church, both of the Old and the New Covenant, something infallible—that is the word of God on which it rests. But our Lord gives the most awful warnings against reliance upon mere ecclesiastical authority. For that may easily "make the word of God of none effect by its tradition." God will always be by His Spirit in the Church; but there is no security offered us that the Church authorities of the New Covenant may not go wrong, like the Church authorities of the Old Covenant, by relying on bare tradition with scant regard to that word of God of which the New Testament is the record. Again and again the evidence shows that they have done so.

Again our Lord, who is the supreme example of authority, showed Himself strangely averse to the use of the merely dogmatic method. He plainly desired that every man should think for himself. He chose that the disciples should find out the truth for themselves by the leading of God within them—even about His own Messiahship. He surrounded Himself with a group of men who loved to ask questions. They constantly asked Him plain questions. But He very seldom gave a plain answer. He mostly replied by asking another. Mere submission to dogmatic authority is not the spirit He seems to encourage. The stress of His claim is always moral.

The same is true of S. Paul. His Epistles are one continuous appeal to the word of God, fulfilled in Christ, and to the reason and conscience of men. So it was with the early Greek Church. The Roman stress upon absolute ecclesiastical authority—the strong distinction between the ecclesia docens (the hierarchy) and the ecclesia discens (the ordinary clergy and laity) which has only to receive and obey —a distinction against which the Orthodox Church of the East has always protested—strikes a new note which represents a different kind of appeal and claim from that of the New Testament.

Now the mass of men in some ages, and a good many men in all ages, are ready enough to receive dogma passively and practise the moderate requirements of ecclesiastical observance, if a sufficiently loud voice of authority guarantees them salvation on terms fairly tolerable to the flesh. But there are some men in every age, and many men in some ages, to whom this passive acceptance of authority without regard to evidence and free inquiry is treason against reason and truth; and reason, they know, conscientiously and freely enlightened, is the guidance of God. Passive acceptance is for them impossible, and yet many of them are men who, we feel, would most surely have been disciples of Jesus if they had lived in Gospel times. The claim of authority in the Roman Church is, as compared with the claim in the New Testament, a wholly different thing.


Unscrupulousness of statement is an almost constant accompaniment of autocratic authority. The Roman Church seems to us to have shown itself in its assertion of its claims extraordinarily unscrupulous. As I cannot here traverse the course of the history, I will give you but one quotation from one of the greatest of recent historians, himself a devout Roman Catholic, the late Lord Acton. He is speaking of the claim of infallibility for the Roman Pontiff as it was taking effect at the Vatican Council in 1871. "At the last moment a tract appeared, which has been universally attributed to Dollinger, which examined the evidence relied on by the infallibilists, and briefly stated the case against them. It pointed to the inference that their theory is not merely founded on an illogical and uncritical habit, but on unremitting dishonesty in the use of texts. This was coming near to the secret of the whole controversy." This "inference" Acton himself drew and affirmed in the plainest language on other occasions.

The revolt of much of the best intelligence and morality of Europe, as well as of many of its worst elements, against the religious autocracy of Rome since the Renaissance, is a fact of wide significance. Besides what has been said above, the causes of this revolt of a great part of the better intelligence and morality of Europe has had certain assignable causes. On certain great subjects Rome has been the chief spiritual misleader of Europe. It was Rome that was chiefly responsible and on the largest scale for the erecting of the persecution of heretics, even to death, into an instrument of the Christian religion. On this subject Acton framed and reiterated an indictment of Rome in almost savage language. We may admit excuses. But in the main the indictment is true. Rome was the chief culprit in seeking to consecrate a method which, as we now all acknowledge, is utterly incompatible with the spirit of the Gospel. It has been on this subject the great misleader of Christian Europe.

It has been so again in its attitude towards the legitimate freedom of science. The attitude of the Church towards Galileo and the heliocentric astronomy, on the ground that Scripture and Church authority declare that the sun went round the world and the world was fixed, produced an alienation from the Church both of scientific men and of whole generations of men attracted by the marvellous powers of science, which can hardly be exaggerated. For about two centuries Rome was again the great misleader. Other religious bodies have shared its guilt in later days. But the chief responsibility belongs to Rome.

To take another instance—thirty-five years ago it was possible for Newman to maintain that the Roman Church was not committed against some of the most assured results of Biblical criticism. But in 1893 Pope Leo XIII issued his Encyclical on "The Study of Sacred Scripture," which in the most peremptory manner identified the Church with the extremest doctrine of verbal inspiration, utterly discarding the distinction between matters of faith and morals and matters of fact and natural observation. Every statement of Scripture on every subject must be accepted as dictated by God and infallibly true. The Pope certainly intended to exercise thus his pastoral office of instructing all Christendom and especially the teachers of the Church. I suppose it is held not to be an infallible utterance. I notice that Roman Catholic writers appear to be again asserting a certain liberty. I dare say in fifty years they will speak about matters of criticism as they do about astronomy, freely. But meanwhile on this vital matter the authority of the Roman Church did its utmost to mislead the conscience of Europe and set the scientific intellect against Christianity.

I give only one more instance. Mediaeval theology allowed itself, by the misuse of dogmatic authority, to obscure the real meaning of our Lord's humanity. The truth came to us in such a book as Ecce Homo, and from countless other teachers, with a fresh thrill of delight. The Gospels and the New Testament have come to live again. One of the most vital districts of Christian truth has been restored to us. But it has been restored to us wholly, or almost wholly, by writers alien to the Roman Church, and often alien to the Christian Creed.

You see my point. I have not been talking about the Roman Church at large. Had I been doing so I should have spoken of its glories and greatnesses much more than of its weaknesses and crimes. But I have been speaking only to one point—its claim to be the whole Catholic Church. I have shown that such a claim for the Roman sovereignty rests on no real scriptural foundation and is contrary to history; and that the Roman Church presents, at point after point, the surest evidences that it is a one-sided development of original Catholicity in the direction of autocracy, with all the customary vices of autocracy, as well as its strength. If the Christianity of the New Testament is the standard to which we must always recur, then the autocracy of Rome requires very strenuous correction and limitation in the interests of truth and spiritual liberty. Rome is not the only guide, nor of itself by any means a safe guide.

Next Sunday I will proceed to speak of the Protestant revolt and of the Anglican Church, and of the duty of Anglicans.

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