Squaring the circle of the Post-Vatican II Roman Church: thoughts from Fr Charles McClean

IMG00085-20110109-1428Fr Charles wrote the following emails to me in response to questions I put to him about Roman Catholicism. If memory serves, I was involved in online and real-life donnybrooks with Roman Catholics at the time—considering that I had no hobbies apart from such donnybrooking for about three years after graduating college, that’s a fair guess. Anyway, these seemed germane to some recent discussions I’ve been having on social media about how Confessional Lutherans ought to regard the Roman Church, so I thought I’d share them.

Also germane, also citing Fr Charles: “So…which Christians are really Christians?” | Just & Sinner.


23 April 2011
Dear Trent,
It strikes me that one problem is this: you are citing the canons and decrees of the Council of Trent in their full severity; your interlocutors’ views are clearly shaped by the Second Vatican Council which has a much more positive view of Christians and Christian churches/ecclesial communities outside the Roman Church, the Jews, and even in some sense the heathen. Although it is true that Pope Benedict XVI has insisted on a “hermeneutic of continuity” with the Roman Church’s past pronouncements in interpreting the documents of the Second Vatican Council, it is very difficult as far as I can see to reconcile the Vaticanum II & the TridentinumBut that is a problem for the Roman Church. It is the question of salvation “outside the Church.” Until Vatican II the Roman Church surely had a definitely exclusive view of the limits of the Church, but that has unquestionably changed dramatically however much many traditionalist Roman Catholics might try to insist that it hasn’t. A similar process of change has been going on in parts of the Orthodox Church no matter how much some Orthodox are at pains to deny any change whatever in Orthodoxy! Hermann Sasse addressed the problem in a remarkable Letter, “Heil ausserhalb der Kirche. In piam memorian Augustin Kardinal Bea/Salvation Outside the Church: In Pious Memory of Augustin Cardinal Bea” (in In Statu Confesionis, 2 vols. Berlin: Die Spur, 1976). I don’t know where an English translation is to be had: I once had the German text but have misplaced it. Sasse’s great concern in this Letter was that the Roman Church was actually in danger of embracing a kind of universalism. In later years of his life he had met Cardinal Bea and had an extensive correspondence with him. Bea in a sense led the Biblical renewal in the Roman Church (which got completely out of hand following Vatican II with RC scholars embracing the negative results of the most extreme Protestant exegetes – cf. the shocking new edition of The Jerome Bible Commentary); he was father confessor to Pope Pius XII and is believed to have largely written the papal encyclical Divino Afflante Spiritus of 1947, the “charter” for Biblical renewal among Roman Catholics.
I think that in dialogue with contemporary Roman Catholics an appeal to Trent is likely to be at best difficult. I think most contemporary RCs see Trent in the light of Vatican II. Whether that is legitimate or right is a question for Roman Catholics. As a ready reference The Catechism of the Catholic Church (See p. 216) is the best source of doctrine as taught in the Roman Church today. One can also consult the Documents of Vatican II which I can’t seem to put my finger on right now. Vol. 9 Eschatology by Joseph Ratzinger (DC: Catholic University of America Press, 1988) in the Dogmatic Theology series edited by Johann Auer and Joseph Ratzinger is instructive but not easy reading. Here Ratzinger freely admits among other things the (dubious) background & development of the full-blooded doctrine of purgatory and says (p. 233) that the Orthodox would not have to accept it for reunion with Rome. On p. 231 there is this remarkable statement: “What actually saves is the full assent of faith.”
This of course leaves the whole debate in a very untidy state! As a Christian of the Augsburg Confession I see the tragedy of the Roman Church to be not least its insistence that the decrees of Pope and Council are “irreformabilis/irreformable.” We in the Missouri Synod should have some sympathy with that. Late in life the late Theodore Graebner (1876-1950), professor at St Louis and editor of the Lutheran Witness 1913-1949 wrote a paper entitled “The Burden of Infallibility” dealing with the not infrequently met Missourian tendency to claim that nothing but the purest and fullest truth has been taught “ubique, semper, et ab omnibus/everywhere, always & by all” (St Vincent of Lerins) in our Synod from the beginning – a suspicious claim at best – which tragically had the effect of making it difficult to address genuine theological problems which then festered and led to the debacle of 1969-1974.
The argument with Rome finally comes down to the sola fide in justification, whether the forgiveness of sins is bestowed freely as a gift or whether there must be qualifications to that assertion. Christians of the Augsburg Confession insist that there can be none. And this of course affects the whole body of doctrine.
These reflections do not directly address the issues you’re discussing but I hope that they may be of some help in placing the discussion in context.
Fr +Charles
19 March 2013
Dear Trent,
It is fascinating to read these many patristic references which give evidence that the teaching of the Church of the Augsburg Confession is not an unheard of innovation. And this is wholly in keeping with our Church’s insistence that she is no new denomination but stands in continuity with the one Church of God as it has been in this world since the first Pentecost. The difference between the Church before and after the Reformation is that of a garden before and after it has been weeded: it is still the same garden and none other! It is a great pity that so many Lutherans often speak as if the Church  before the Reformation were the Roman Catholic Church and that “our” Church originated in the sixteenth century! There is only one Church: in the 16th century part of the Western Church embraced the Augsburg Confession and (later on!) part of the Western Church embraced the Canons & Decrees of the Council of Trent.
The heart of the dispute with the Roman Church is surely this: 1) that to this very day the Roman Church is still unable as an institution to confess that the pardon of our sins is the absolutely free gift of God in Christ depending in no way on anything in us (aliquid in homine/something in man); 2) and that, although the Roman Church claims that the office of the papacy exists only to safeguard and not to add to the Gospel or depositum fidei, the Roman Church in general and papacy in particular have in fact added to the Gospel or depositum fidei doctrines which cannot be found in Holy Scripture nor in the ancient patristic witness and even gone so far as formally to anathematize all who dissent from these doctrines as defined by the Roman Church. This is the tragedy of Roman Catholicism: that although the Gospel is still preached and the Sacraments administered in the Roman Church the Gospel is nevertheless obscured – and even unwittingly, unintentionally denied – and the Sacrament of the Altar not administered in conformity with Christ’s institution.
As far as the question of universality or catholicity is concerned: 1) the Church was from the beginning the catholic Church even though it was in the beginning only a small group of believers in Jerusalem. On Pentecost, the day of the Church’s “birth,” it was clear, however, that the Church was intended for the whole world as seen in the narrative of the events of the first Pentecost. 2) Although the Church of the Augsburg Confession professes faith in no other church than the one catholic Church – the one Body and Bride of Christ – it has never claimed that the reality of that one Church is exhausted in nor limited to the churches of the Augsburg Confession but has confessed that the Una Sancta – the one Body and Bride of Christ – is present wherever the Gospel is preached and the Sacraments administered. 3) The Church of the Augsburg Confession believes that its – lonely! – task is to bear witness to the one Gospel in its purity (without equivocation, with humanly devised additions) before all Christendom. In this connection Dr. Sasse delighted in citing these lines from Michael Schirmer’s hymn to the Holy Spirit (The Lutheran Hymnal 235:3, Lutheran Service Book 913:2; Kirchengesangbuch fuer Evangelisch-Lutherische Gemeinden ungaenderter Augsburgischer Confession [Walther’s Hymnal] 140:3):

Dass wir in Glaubenseinigkeit
Alle koennen alle Christenheit
Dein wahres Zeugniss lehren

a rough translation being: “That we in unity of faith may bear witness to the truth before all Christendom.” We certainly do not claim that we alone possess the Gospel and the Sacraments and are therefore the one Church outside which there is no salvation! The Church of the Augsburg Confession has no interest in drawing attention to herself, pointing to herself, extolling her “virtues,” but only in pointing to Christ as did Saint John the Baptist: “Behold the Lamb of God…”
Insisting on the necessity of an infallible teaching office and on a universal extension in space of the Church as necessary is to say that the Gospel is not sufficient as that means through which the Holy Spirit “calls, gathers, enlightens and sanctifies the whole Christian Church on earth and keeps it with  Jesus Christ in the one true faith.” It involves an implicit claim that the essential content (res) of Holy Scripture is obscure and cannot be grasped. And that is to deny that Christ is the essential content (res) of Holy Scripture as Dr. Luther so beautifully puts it: the Scriptures are the “manger and swaddling clothes” but Christ the precious Content thereof, or as he says in De servo arbitrio: “What still sublimer thing can remain hidden in the Scriptures, now that the seals have been broken , and the supreme mystery brought to light, namely, that Christ the Son of God has been made man, that God is three and one, that Christ has suffered for us and is to reign eternally?…Take Christ out of the Scriptures, and what will you find left in them?”(LW 33, pp. 25f).
If an infallible teaching office and universal extension in space were of the essence of the Church they would need to have been there from the beginning. But even Roman Catholic theologians now concede that the early history of the Roman episcopate is far from clear, the evidence strongly suggesting that in the first century there was no monarchical episcopate in Rome, and therefore no (single) “Bishop of Rome,” but a sort of corporate presbyterate/episcopate. This was also apparently the case in Corinth. For example, Roman Catholic theologian Francis Sullivan S.J., at one time dean of Gregorian University in Rome, cites the evidence for this conclusion in his book, Apostles to Bishops: The Development of the Episcopacy.