Our Debt to Roman Catholicism

In his last chapter, Oakley describes what happened to conciliarism after its smack down at Vatican I. Late twentieth-century Roman Catholic ecclesiologists, he writes, have paid less attention to the institutional or extrinsic aspects of church governance to the more theoretical, abstract, and theological. That is one way of saying that exploring the constitutional characteristics of Roman Catholic ecclesiology is forbidden after the triumph of high papalism. Here he quotes one fourteenth-century schoolman, who after describing “the papal power of jurisdiction,” wrote, “But this I only assert. For it is perilous to speak of this matter — more perilous, perhaps, than to speak of the Trinity, or the Incarnation of Jesus Christ, our Saviour.” (219)

Oakley adds:

Such late twentieth-century preoccupations, however, should not be permitted to screen from us the fact . . . that for 700 years and more arguments based on secular political analogies, or arguments simply assuming something of a constitutional overlap between political and ecclesiastical modes of governance, served as a mainstay of eccleiologicial discourse, whether high-papalist or constitutionalist. Hardly surprising, of course, given the marked degree to which in the Middles Ages secular and religious intertwined, and ecclesiology and secular constitutional thinking, whether more absolutist or constitutionalist, constantly influenced one another. So much so, indeed, that the ‘juridical culture of the twelfth century — the works of Roman and canon lawyers, especially those of the canonists where religious and secular ideas most obviously intersected — formed a kind of seedbed from which grew the whole tangled forest of early modern constitutional thought. (219)

In other words, not the Greek polis or the Roman republic but conciliarism was responsible at least indirectly for the constitutional republics of the eighteenth century that sought to place limits on rulers who were prone to appeal to their divine rights.

Oakley goes on to observe the influence of conciliarism among Calvinists:

Neither the English, French, and Scottish resistance theorists of the sixteenth century nor the English parliamentarians of the seventeenth appear to have found anything at all ambiguous about the central strand of conciliar thinking upon which they placed so much emphasis. Nor did the French Huguenots appear to have lost any sleep over their indebtedness to scholastic predecessors for their revolutionary ideas. Quite the contrary, in fact. If Skinner is correct, they may even have seen it as a distinct advantage. For it helped them in their attempt ‘to neutralize as far as possible the hostile Catholic majority by showing them the extent to which revolutionary political actions could be legitimated in terms of impeccably Catholic beliefs. That was far from being the case, of course, with their seventeenth-century English successors. ‘In Stuart England there was much political capital to be made from convicting one’s opponents of popery’, and the sensitivity of the parliamentarians to the charge of crypto-popery and even more of Jesuitry is reflected in their anxious attempts to deflect its force. In relation to the despised doctrine of popular sovereignty [John] Maxwell had charged that ‘Puritan and Jesuite in this, not only consent and concurre, but like Herod and Pilate are reconciled to crucify the Lord’s anointed’. To that [Samuel] Rutherford retorted that Maxwell, having taked ‘unlearned paines, to prove that Gerson, Occam Jac[obus] de Almaine, Parisian Doctors maintanined these same grounds anent the peples power over Kings in the case of Tyranny [as did the Jesuits]’, had by so doing given ‘himselfe the lye’ and inadvertently demonstrated that ‘we have not this Doctrine from Jesuites’. But if not from Jesuits, clearly still from papists. And that charge [William] Bridge was forced to shrug off with the rejoinder that ‘Reason is good wherever we finde it; neither would Abraham refuse the use of the Well because Abimalech’s men had used it, no more will we refuse good reason, because Papists have used it. (237)

7 thoughts on “Our Debt to Roman Catholicism

  1. Channeling Muether:

    …sometimes the less said the better. This is a paradox that is not restricted to subscription. I remember Sinclair Ferguson describing to me a parishioner in his church who was plagued by her doubts over the doctrine of assurance. She couldn’t find assurance for her salvation, though she was obsessive in its pursuit, and Ferguson finally told her that she was going to figure out assurance only when she stopped thinking about it.

    Fascinating series on conciliarism, Darryl. But I do wonder if we have let Roman Catholics have their satisfaction, knowing we think on them as we have done now, for a while. I, for one, am ready to stop thinking about Roman Catholicism. We’ve explained “our debt,” here. And the existence of a few RC blogs doesn’t upset my sleep. We play into their hand when we are defined by what we broke away from. Anyway, excellent finish to the series. You ended on a high note, well done.


  2. What a monstrosity the Roman Church is.

    It is amazing and truly glorifying that the Lord can create and sustain faith, even in the midst of all that mess.

    I was raised a Roman Catholic. And I thank God for leading me to a place where I could actually hear the pure gospel…without all the barnacles covering it up.

    God bless those poor souls that haven’t heard that pure gospel, yet.


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