How to Talk About the Papacy Without Offending Catholics

How to Talk About the Papacy Without Offending Catholics April 8, 2015


Pope St. John Paul II [Flickr / Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license]





Sometimes Protestant apologists argue to the effect that it is some inherently terrible and inconceivable thing for Catholics to believe as they do vis-a-vis ecclesiology and the papacy, so that ecumenism is scarcely even possible. When one side is forced from the outset to make one of its non-negotiable tenets negotiable, or else be accused of outrageous intolerance and arrogance and hubris (which also occurred in proposed talks in the 16th century), then it is unfair to that position from the get-go (and, I would argue, most uncharitable).
We won’t stop believing in the papacy, anymore than a Protestant will yield up sola Scriptura. These are bedrock principles, having to do with the Rule of faith on both sides. But I disagree that this is either “triumphalistic” or fatal to ecumenism.
Only someone who foolishly thinks that we will literally unite in some Hegelian synthesis-church would think that. Ecumenism is the effort to find common ground, rejoice in that, clear up misunderstandings and hostilities, and an effort to respect others who differ from us, and who will in all likelihood continue to do so. It is not some attempt to create hybrid-churches which will please no one.

That’s not fair, and — in my mind – it is not ecumenism. It’s holding a group hostage and assuming they are inferior and not even seriously dialoguing with them until they become like “us” — because “our” position is so reasonable and moderate and nuanced and biblical, etc., etc.
All Christians believe that their views are derived from, and/or harmonious with, the Bible. To make this sort of argument, I should think that at the very least, some familiarity with actual Catholic arguments ought to be exhibited, before launching off into the hyper-polemics. 
How does a rational, honest, committed Catholic possibly respond to such a charge? “Yes! Wow! You know, my friend, you have a good point there! It is a profound realization. Now that I have finally faced the fact that I am inherently dishonest, and that this is a ubiquitous shortcoming of ‘RC apologists,’ we can get into a good discussion. Now we can get somewhere.” This is the logical fallacy of poisoning the well. It begins with the false assumption that dishonesty is so widespread in Catholic ranks as to be epidemic and fatal to all ecumenical discourse and other joint endeavors.

What offends Catholics is the insinuation that we are less-than-fair-minded or rational or charitable people by simple virtue of the fact that we are Catholics and believe in outrageous, outlandish, self-evidently false doctrines like the papacy or various Marian doctrines or what-have-you. It’s the old “triumphalism” charge, writ large.

If those who criticize Catholicism argue from the Bible and history and avoid making the hostile meta-assertions about internal attitudes and supposed pagan background of Catholic tenets, or “ubiquitous dishonesty,” we would have no objection. We have the Bible in common. That’s the whole point of my emphasis on “biblical evidence for Catholicism” on my website and in my books and articles. We can all go to Holy Scripture and make our arguments.

I would challenge Protestant apologists to overturn the biblical arguments we can produce and show us what the biblical ecclesiology is, if not papacy and episcopacy, a visible church which has councils and priests, etc. They need to deal with apostolic succession. Dialogical opponents need to back up their statements. They shouldn’t have the luxury of simply making them and letting them hang there, unsupported and unproven and untested by scrutiny and close examination: biblical, historical, and logical.
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