The Case for Republican Ecclesiology

My friend Stephen Klugewicz has a post on the virtues of republicanism and the dangers of strong executives that has me wondering about what the laws of nature teach about the polity of the church. He writes:

The figure of Brutus—the assassin of the tyrant— cast a long shadow over American history. “Brutus” became the pseudonym of one of the most famous Antifederalist authors (probably Robert Yates of New York), who wrote essays in opposition to the proposed Constitution of 1787, which he believed dangerously consolidated power in the central government. In setting up their own republic, the American Founders looked to the Roman Republic as a model for what they should be and to the Roman Empire embodied by Caesar as a portent of what they feared the republic could become. Americans feared that liberty was fragile and that the republic could be undone by the ambition of one man.

The Framers of the American Constitution were indeed wary of the rise of a Caesar —after all, King George III was in their minds—and designed the presidency with great care in an effort to prevent any abuse of executive power. Under the Articles of Confederation, there had been no executive, no judicial branch. The government consisted of a unicameral legislature, which lacked, among other powers, the authority to tax either the people directly or the states. All that the Congress could do was request money from the states. It was the perceived weakness of this government that sparked the call for the Philadelphia convention of 1787.

Ironically, the title of the post is “The American Republic and the Long Shadow of Rome.” This is ironic because when Americans of the founding generation thought of Rome they did not merely think of Cato or Caesar or Brutus. They also thought about Boniface VIII or Clement VII. And when they thought of the Roman pontiffs, the sacred kind, they were not thinking of republicanism. For what the papacy represented to most Americans — all the way down to Vatican II — was not republicanism but monarchicalism of the most absolute kind, as in God’s vicegerent on earth (who delegates the civil sword to the magistrate).

The irony grows when you consider the reasons Klugewicz offers for fearing a strong executive in the form of one man:

In setting up their own republic, the American Founders looked to the Roman Republic as a model for what they should be and to the Roman Empire embodied by Caesar as a portent of what they feared the republic could become. Americans feared that liberty was fragile and that the republic could be undone by the ambition of one man.

(He also mentions that republican virtues included frugality, honesty, and humility. “To indulge in luxury and ‘baubles’ was seen to be effeminate, the opposite of being republican. Patriot leader Samuel Adams, the archetypal ‘old republican’ who made it a point to dress simply, pined for the creation of a “Christian Sparta” on the American continent.”)

The American founders were suspicious of Roman Catholicism in part for precisely the reasons that informed republicanism, namely, the danger of too much power in one officer’s hands.

In the ecclesiastical realm, objections to monarchical structures generated conciliarist efforts to reign in papal supremacy, reforms that the Protestant Reformers would later invoke. The logic seemed to be the same in both cases — beware the centralization of power in one executive. Lord Acton gave this outlook a slogan when he, a Roman Catholic in England, said in response to the claims of papal infallibility, “power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

Of course, the Roman Catholic answer to ecclesiastical republicanism, I suppose, is that the charism of the papacy makes all the difference. Absolute power in the hands of one man is conceivably benign when bestowed and preserved by the third person of the Trinity.

Even so, Roman Catholic teaching of late (at least) suggests that the doctrine of charmism can be reconciled with ecclesiastical republicanism. For instance, the Callers observe that when bishops speak as a whole they have the charism of are infallibility. Another points out that the charism of infallibility extends to the entire people of God. “The Charism of infallibility belongs not uniquely to the Bishop of Rome, but to the Church. This includes the Pope, the Bishops, and the faithful.”

If the charism is not reserved to the pope but extends throughout the church, then a republican ecclesiology, one that places checks and balances on the executive branch, would seem to be possible even for the Roman Catholic Church. Without it, the divergence between celebrating the infallible papacy and decrying the imperial presidency hearkens back to the dissonance that Roman Catholics in the U.S. once experienced when the papacy was not enthusiastic about republican governments.

This entry was posted in Adventures in Church History, Novus Ordo Seclorum and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Post a comment or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.


  1. Posted April 11, 2013 at 10:49 am | Permalink

    While the RCC accepts on faith that they are “The church that Christ founded”, Reformed theology starts with the question, if Christ founded a church, what should it look like based on Scripture? Upside-down paradigms.

  2. MichaelTX
    Posted April 11, 2013 at 10:51 am | Permalink

    It just seems to be what I see happening in the scriptures and what gets done in the pre-Tridentine Church, so I see no rupture just clarification and proclamation. Did I see before I started studying it? No. I find it in I & II Timothy, Titus, and Acts fulfilling the commands and promises of Christ in the Gospels. It just seems to be the air breathed by the early Christians. It seems who love for one another functions and how the Church has always been able to come together as one family to resolve disputes and protect the “Faith once for all delivered to the saints.” Error has always been the reason the people of God have needed to clearly say what is believed by obedient Christians who believe in the guidance of the Holy Spirit whom vivifies the new temple, the mystical body of Christ(the Church). Without those whom are “sent” there is no unity in the Faith. Without the resurrected Christ’s commands and promises to the Apostles they had no right to do what they did and I just don’t see where the promises every change. “I will be with you always, even to the end of the age.” “He [the Holy Spirit] will lead you into all truth.” “He will not speak on His own, but will remind you of what I have said.” All these promises come to us not directly but by extension of the ones “sent”, and to separate from the ones “sent” is to be faithless toward those many promises. The Church is sent. We are sent. At the end of the liturgies of the Church there is a sending. “Ite missa est” is the Latin. Basically a “Go and tell” type of thing. This is where the Mass gets it name. We bear Christ to the world because we have received the living Word of God and now go to live that Word in the world, in word and deed. We can have faith in the active sustaining power of the living Christ in us because of that Word.
    I seem to be getting off your direct question and being this isn’t my blog I will shut it down there. I will recommend a couple of books that might be much better at laying out your question better than me. One is “The Roots of the Reformation’ the other is “The Spirit of Catholicism” both by Karl Adams. They both can the found free in text format at EWTN’s library linked below.

    Peace fellas, Enjoy the day, Mike

  3. sean
    Posted April 11, 2013 at 11:40 am | Permalink

    Michael thanks. I keep reading from RC’s this same caricature of protestantism as essentially being sans officers and a visible manifestation, much less a belief in a visible church. It’s particularly odd being presbyterian and having offices of elders and deacons pulled straight out of the epistles you commend, not to mention the uniqueness of canonical authority in 2 Tim 3:16. I appreciate your candor in not being able to identify Tridentine RC in the scriptures or early church, either can I. I also appreciate your reliance on the Holy Spirit. I’m not sure how to tie all that into your commitment to what is still in form, despite the best efforts of Vatican II, a medieval institution and a church that elevates extra-canonical tradition on par with sacred text, and that without warrant from same sacred text to do so. Then assigns authoritative interpretation to a magisterium who oversees a deposit of faith that’s supposed to be the interpretive grid for the aforementioned sacred text, and yet we get a Tridentine RC that looks nothing like the sacred text it purports to safeguard and interpret. Granted there’s lots of things I don’t understand and so it’s no measure, but being as we’ve emphasized the inescapable binding of Imago dei conscience and seeing as protestantism, following Paul- think bereans and gal 1:8, points to perspicuity of sacred text, somebody’s got some ‘splaining to do. Furthermore, every time we head down this road, RC’s pull the ripcord and seek relief in Tradition as trumping/interpreting sacred text thus begging off the enterprise of justifying themselves solely per canonical authority, it leaves one like myself, who believes in ecclesiastical authority, to say nothing of apostolic authority, scratching his head and wondering; “is it really the protestants who are not submitting to rightful authority and unwilling to have their religious conscience conformed to and confirmed by apostolic authority.” Again if RC’s want to ground their authority in apostolic succession and that per discovery in early church history, which you and I both acknowledge looks nothing like Tridentine RC, it makes me question the integrity of the claim.

  4. Posted April 11, 2013 at 12:20 pm | Permalink

    Michael, I can see how the magisterium argues this way, but the New Testament is remarkably silent on the primacy of Peter. If you were to argue the primacy of Paul the New Testament case might make more sense, though Paul’s writings are amazingly silent about the primacy of any apostle.

  5. MichaelTX
    Posted April 11, 2013 at 12:24 pm | Permalink

    Maybe I was perceived wrongly. I did not mean to say I do not perceive the current day RC, or as you say “Tridentine RC,” in the previous Church. I meant to say it seems obvious that it is there and shows it self more visibly through the counsel. Figuratively, truth is seen more clearly when contrasted with error or white looks more bright when viewed beside shades of grey. I say shade of gray because I think we ca agree there are many aspects of the Faith that Catholic and Reformed agree upon, but there are difference too.
    Another thing to consider about the Bereans, is that they accepted the one “sent,” namely the Apostle Paul in there day. Where can you find the one “sent” today? There’s only a few church’s that claim that sending. “how can they believe if no one preach, how can they preach if they be not sent”
    By the way I have great respect for many aspects of what I perceive in the Presbyterian forms of church government and discipline. I just don’t find them as the one sent by the Father through the Son by the Apostles to preach Christ crucified to the world for the remission of sins and the reconciliation through the glorious cross of Christ.

    Thanks for you guys loving interactions with me.

  6. AB
    Posted April 11, 2013 at 12:42 pm | Permalink

    To clarify, you dudes post longer than three lines all you want. Just don’t expect me to read and grace you all with my vast knowledge. One exception: golf tips. On that topic, type away! Dg, golf?

  7. MichaelTX
    Posted April 11, 2013 at 12:46 pm | Permalink

    The Magisterium may, I have said nothing about it nor is it because of the Magisterium that I came to understand it. I do see it in the scriptures and the life of the Church. About Paul I’d say his primacy was just as important because he did not reject Peter, but joined in with Paul’s own call with in the existing Church.

  8. kent
    Posted April 11, 2013 at 2:10 pm | Permalink

    Good to see a discussion of this nature between two opposing sides, what I usually hope to find on a forum of this nature.

  9. MichaelTX
    Posted April 11, 2013 at 2:28 pm | Permalink

    Quite pleased myself Kent.

Post a Comment

Your email is never published nor shared.

You may use these HTML tags and attributes <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>