On this matter of contrasting Protestant and Roman Catholic paradigms of authority, I like Jeremy Tate’s analogy of a school room. Protestants in class have no teacher, only a book. Wrong, but let’s go with it for now. Roman Catholics have a teacher and a book. Therefore, Rome has a teacher to instruct and determine the right answer.
The problem with the analogy for the folks at Called to Communion is the failure to notice that post-Vatican II Roman Catholics seem to ignore their teacher as much as Protestants behave when no classroom authority is present. Granted, a time existed, and Quebec between 1900 and 1960 is an example of that era, when Roman Catholics did heed with deference the church hierarchy. But just as Quebec secularized in the 1960s to become one of the least observant places in the West, so Roman Catholicism in the West has shown a marked hostility to the teaching authority that CTCers tout. According to Mark Noll in what is one of his best essays:
As a final element in Canada’s recent ecclesiastical history, it is important to highlight the significance of the Second Vatican Council. The role of the Council was obviously important for Canada’s Catholics, but may have been almost as significant for its Protestants. In Quebec, but also for Canadian Catholics in general, the Council was destabilizing because it rapidly altered the liturgy, the language, the music, the tone, the disciplines, and the calendrical observances that for a great part of the faithful had simply constituted the meaning of the faith. In this sense, Canada resembled Western European Catholicism, which was also disconcerted by the Council, rather than Eastern European, African, and Asian Catholicism, which was energized by its work.
The lack of compliance among Roman Catholics is a huge problem for those who celebrate Rome’s superiority as a communion with a teacher who can instill order and discipline in this imaginary classroom. If Rome has it, and I don’t doubt that Rome claims it, why won’t it use that authority to make the students sit down and be quiet? Why won’t it teach those students what they are supposed to learn? Well, one big reason is Vatican II (more on that at another time).
Another reason is that no communion since the late 18th century has the school principal to back up its teachers (Protestants do actually believe they have ministers with authority who exercise the keys of the kingdom). Since the separation of church and state in the West, all of us inside the classroom don’t have the fellow with the big stick at the end of the hall who will spank the bottoms of unruly students. That means that Protestant teachers and Roman Catholic popes are left with the same amount of authority — it’s all spiritual. We can exhort, cajole, excommunicate. But at the end of the day, without the state to back up our rulings, the unrepentant sinner is free to walk down the street and attend another church, and over time join and become a member in good standing.
Even so, I wonder what good the CTCers promotion of infallibility does. It seems, given the state of North American and European Roman Catholicism, the main effect is to remind Protestants what we don’t have. Great. I got it. Rome has authoritative authority. Protestants don’t. That may make Rome more orderly and coherent. But then why does the classroom with a teacher look so much like the classroom without one? It sure seems to me this is a question that the serious minded folks at CTC could ponder.