The Pontificator Explains the Fundamental Flaw of Divine-Right Absolute Papalism

In this post, Father Al Kimel, a.k.a. “the Pontificator,” answers Kevin Johnson’s and Mark Horne’s critiques of the notion that catholic unity is only found in union with the papacy. Kimel writes:

I am persuaded by the arguments of Newman and others, but I acknowledge that the papal claim, based on the historical evidence alone, is less than coercive. But the Catholic does not properly ground his belief in the supremacy and infallibility of the successors of Peter on the scholarly, and not so scholarly, research of historians but on the authoritative teaching of the Catholic Church (see my article “Newman did not become Catholic because of the Pope“). The authority of the Catholic Church comes first, then the authority of the Pope.

I want to draw attention to that last sentence: “The authority of the Catholic Church comes first, then the authority of the Pope.” Now this is an interesting argument for a papalist (NB: not the same thing as a “papist”) to make for the papacy, because it looks a lot like the one made by the 15th century conciliarists against the papacy. That is, the argument for the divine-right papacy in the 15th century was that Christ had delegated authority directly to the papacy, which then parceled it out to others, but the argument against the divine-right papacy in the 15th century was that Christ had delegated power directly to the Church, and that the pope was only the servant of the Church. Consequently, if he erred to the extent of damaging the whole Church, the Church could correct and even depose the pope, for the Church could act directly in the Name of Christ to restrain the abuses of His ministerial (not magisterial) Vicar.

Now usually today one finds Roman Catholics arguing the former position (pope before the Church) and confidently demeaning the latter (Church before the pope) as “heresy.” Yet here we have a recent convert (converted in no small part by the arguments of Newman) first claiming that the historical case for the papacy is “less than coercive,” and then claiming that the authority of the Catholic Church comes before the authority of the pope. I wonder if Father Kimel realizes that the consequences to his dogmatic papalist position of asserting that the authority of the Church is prior to that of the pope is to eviscerate his ability to be simply and bluntly dogmatic about his papalism. He may, of course, continue to assert that it is true, but by arguing the way he does he damages, if not destroys, the credibility of his argument for anyone who isn’t already convinced of the absolute papalist position.

For in fact, having already admitted that the historical case for divine-right papalism is “less than coercive,” he must be prepared to admit that a historical case for some other position–say, moderate conciliarism–may actually have some legs to stand on. And having been made to admit that (at least implicitly), it falls to him to explain why anyone should believe that some entity called “the Catholic Church” has dogmatized the doctrine of divine-right papalism and not some other position. For how can the Pontificator pontificate that the Church made the pontiff supreme and yet still, as all papalists must by the very logic of their absolutist reductionism, identify the entity “the Church which made the pontiff supreme” mainly by the reference point that it is the Church over which the pope is in charge?

This sort of view might be called “Ecclesiological Euclideanism,” after the great Greek geometer who simply posited unprovable definitions as mere givens and then unpacked their resistless logic to construct a beautiful edifice of “certainty.” It’s a sword that cuts both ways, though. By the same kind of Euclidean logic, I could posit some axioms and build a logically-resistless structure out of them which would bear the exact same quality of “certainty” as the Pontificator thinks he has found in his recent conversion to Catholicism. That is, I could simply declare the historical case for conciliarism “less than coercive,” and yet also claim that “the Catholic Church which by divine right orders itself in a conciliar fashion” is the one which made the ecumenical creeds, disciplined and anathematized certain popes for heresy, issued conciliar decrees binding the authority of the pope to the correction of the whole Church, and which continued to resist papalist absolutism all the way up until the final disastrous split institutionalized by the papalist “conciliabulum” (a derisive term) of Trent. I could then argue, in the same logical fashion as do papalist absolutists, that the papalist Church since the conciliabulum of Trent has been in “contumacious” schism from other Christian bodies, and perhaps, if I was clever enough, come up with a set of pretty little “laws” like the Pontificator has come up with to justify his present ecclesiological narrowness.

Since the authority of the Church comes before the authority of the pope, I don’t see why this sort of argument could not just as easily obtain. And note that it would obtain on exactly the same basis as our friend the Pontificator has embraced as a dogmatic absolute papalist–namely, “It’s true because the true Church said it, and the true Church is known to be true because it says it is.” This illustrates, I think, the fallacy of all attempts to reduce the Church to the papacy, which is the cardinal error that dogmatic papalist absolutism has always made and continues to make today, to the great detriment of all.

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