Ecclesial or Fundamentalist Catholic

Austen Ivereigh, the author of a most interesting biography of Pope Francis entitled The Great Reformer: Francis and the Making of a Radical Pope tweeted a link the other day to this post at the blog  Where Peter Is There is the Church.

Mike Lewis writes:

Those who support the position of Pope Francis, and accept his authority on matters of faith and morals to be binding take what can be called an ecclesial approach to Church teaching. In this context, ecclesial is defined as someone who gives a pride of place to the Magisterium: the teaching authority of the pope and the bishops in communion with him. The ecclesial Catholic assents to the teachings on faith and morals handed down by legitimate authority in the Church, and trusts — based on Christ’s promise and with the help of the Holy Spirit — that the Church and the see of Peter will remain faithful to Christ in perpetuity. Along those lines, the ecclesial Catholic respects the pope’s role as guarantor of obedience to the Word of God, and the authentic interpreter of Holy Scripture and Tradition. In addition, the ecclesial Catholic attempts to think with the Church, rather than to criticize the Church.

I found this description of “ecclesial Catholic” interesting, because this is basically what we were taught in our preparation for entering the Catholic Church.   “Where is Peter, there is the Church” was an essential part of ecclesiology we had to accept in order to come into full communion with the Successor of Peter and rightfully, juridically call ourselves Catholic.   No more could we say, well, I’m catholic, just not Roman Catholic, as if official membership and communion with the Bishop of Rome was not essential.

Then, however, I think Mike Lewis sets up a false dichotomy.

Many of those who reject Francis’s position, and instead appeal to earlier teachings or scriptural understandings as the higher authority can be said to have a fundamentalist approach. For the fundamentalist Catholic, the highest Magisterial authority is the Tradition itself, as understood by the Church as handed down from the Apostles. The fundamentalist will reject Petrine authority or new doctrinal developments promulgated by the Holy See, if, in light of their understanding of Tradition, they determine that the new teaching does not conform to it. If the teaching of the current pope does not appear to them to align with the traditional understanding, they will appeal to the teachings of prior popes that they believe contradicts the new teaching.

While I do think there are people who take a fundamentalist approach —who use proof texts from papal encyclicals the way Protestant evangelicals can sometimes use Scriptural proof texts to defend their positions, this is a stereotype and borders on smear.

I do not think one is necessarily either in one camp or the other, but there is a spectrum, and many nuances where one might find oneself.

I admit, it was much easier to be an ecclesial Catholic under Pope Benedict XVI!  I also think Catholics who hold to Tradition also believe in the teachings regarding Peter as the sign of unity and, guided by the Holy Spirit, the guarantor of the faith.  So one who truly holds to Tradition is also an ecclesial Catholic.

But, we are living in a state of tension right now, because Peter seems to be contradicting Peter or at least opening up the possibility and what does that say about the Catholic faith?  Does it mean Tradition is meaningless and we are all merely legal positivists now and therefore no matter what comes out of a Pope’s mouth is what we must believe, until the next Pope and then we must just as docilely accept what he says, even if he totally undermines the magisterium of his predecessor?

Your thoughts?





10 thoughts on “Ecclesial or Fundamentalist Catholic

  1. Pingback: FRIDAY LATE EDITION – Big Pulpit

  2. Despite my strong disagreement with the argument of his recent blog post at “Where Peter Is” (see the link), I have to applaud the author, Mike Lewis, for articulating in clear fashion what is the basic tension which exists between what he calls the “Ecclesial Catholic” versus the “Fundamentalist Catholic”. The EC’s are those who follow the Pope with unconditional obedience, and the FC’s are those who (he reasons) make “their understanding of Tradition” as assuming epistemological control over what is right even if it means challenging X Pope who teaches something they don’t agree with. The EC , according to Mr. Lewis, is not obliterating logic or reason, but suggests that one cannot ascertain whether his or her reasoning is not flawed, and so must thrust themselves with unconditional trust that the divine Magisterium will always be guaranteed to be unerring. The FC, for Mr. Lewis, is basically a self-made Pope since he insists that he can challenge X Pope and be somewhat confident.

    I think one could spend 10,000 words going into the problem here, but I would only ask this one question – What would Mr. Lewis do if the Pope came out and said “I command all the faithful to not obey my commands”? Does one allow the Pope to re-create the laws of logic such that he could actually make this a legitimate command? A command to not obey commands? Sounds like a contradiction. What if I choose to disobey this particular command? Does that mean I am saying I want to be disobedient? The problem spirals into the bottomless abyss.

    If it turns out that the Pope himself is not granted the right to re-make the laws of knowing, re-create perceived reality, and re-shape fundamental truths which are self-evident and without which you necessarily contradict yourself, then we have a bit of an enclosure outside of which the Pope himself, supreme as he is, *cannot legitimately transgress*. In other words, the Pope himself *must* work within an enclosure. His right to be right is not boundless. And if just this puts a limit to the capacity, why not other things like the “faith as it has always been understood”? If it were not so, then we must be open to the possibility of a Pope coming out and teaching that the Christian faith is actually the Islamic one, and this would require the “Ecclesial Catholics” to edit their entire perceived reality to finely adjust to that arbitrary dictum. Stick that in your epistemological pipe, smoke it, and inhale deeply. I think we need to take a step back before we equip the Pope with an epistemological control whose problem is far too large even for the authority of the Pope.

    I’m sorry, that is simply not what Papal authority is for. The authority of the successor of Peter is precisely *not* to do this, as Vatican I itself taught us. Therefore, despite this breaking up the floor underneath which stands many Papal apologists, the Keys of the Kingdom are not a blank check from heaven by which any and all input is true and valid. As even Pope Benedict XVI wrote, when he was Fr. Joseph Ratzinger:

    “After the Second Vatican Council, the impression arose that the pope really could do anything in liturgical matters, especially if he were acting on the mandate of an ecumenical council. Eventually, the idea of the given-ness of the liturgy, the fact that one cannot do with it what one will, faded from the public consciousness of the West. In fact, the First Vatican Council had in no way defined the pope as an absolute monarch. On the contrary, it presented him as the guarantor of obedience to the revealed Word. The pope’s authority is bound to the Tradition of faith, and that also applies to the liturgy. It is not ‘manufactured’ by the authorities. Even the pope can only be a humble servant of its lawful development and abiding integrity and identity.” (The Spirit of the Liturgy)


  3. An informed friend responds:

    The fundamental error of the Mike Lewises of this world is to ascribe to every papal word that extraordinary magisterial authority which only attaches to papal pronouncements under certain limited circumstances. Their view really is that “pipeline” ecclesiology which would simply reduce everything to the will of the pope – papal absolutism rather than papal infallibility. It’s a tempting position to adopt precisely because it is intellectually fundamentalist. Like Prierias against Luther, it reduces any and every doctrinal debate to the simple question, “What does the Pope think?”

    The doctrinal infallibility of the church has to operate across time. If the infallible teaching of the church at one time is A (marriage is dissoluble only by death) and then at another time is not-A (marriage is dissoluble by other continegencies than death), then, self-evidently, the church’s claim to infallible teaching authority in matters of faith and morals is null and void.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. The fundamentalist approach, as presented here, is also flawed. Vatican II, in Dei Verbum 21 says: “Therefore, like the Christian religion itself, all the preaching of the Church must be nourished and regulated by Sacred Scripture.” Nothing else is listed here as a regulator of Christianity. At least the official Catholic position in V2 puts things into perspective. Scripture is the alternative to Tradition and the Magisterium that must be considered above all else.


    • Actually, scripture and tradition are mutually complementary — NOT alternatives to one another. Indeed, it is precisely tradition that tells us which extant ancient writings have status as scripture and which do not, and it is tradition that guides our understanding of scripture.

      Scripture is not silent on tradition, either. Here, II Thessalonians 2:15 is quite clear.

      So then, brothers and sisters, stand firm and hold fast to the teachings we passed on to you, whether by word of mouth or by letter.

      The “letter” to which the apostle refers is indeed scripture, and the “word or mouth” is tradition — that which is not written in scripture..



      • By the way, there’s a lot of “both-and” and very little “either-or” in the Christian faith.

        >> The “Word of God” is both our Lord himself (see John 1:14) and the whole of sacred scripture.

        >> The “Body of Christ” is both the bread consecrated in the eucharist and the Church.

        There are many, many more examples, but these make the point.


        Liked by 1 person

      • Tradition (all the preaching of the Church) has limited itself to being regulated by Scripture. This is similar to when a nation limits itself to a Constitution.


  5. I’ll stick with Holy Tradition over the varied and often contradictory teaching of bishops and even the bishop of Rome…too many ambiguous things, too many scandalous things. When Tradition is clear and affirmed by the Councils and writings of the Fathers it is very simple for me. These are the “tests” for me regarding confusing and seemingly oppositional teaching/ideas. Guess I’m a fundie


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