St. Bernard & the Papacy / Pope as “Head” (vs. Calvin #21)

St. Bernard & the Papacy / Pope as “Head” (vs. Calvin #21) January 12, 2019

This is an installment of a series of replies (see the Introduction and Master List) to much of Book IV (Of the Holy Catholic Church) of Institutes of the Christian Religion, by early Protestant leader John Calvin (1509-1564). I utilize the public domain translation of Henry Beveridge, dated 1845, from the 1559 edition in Latin; available online. Calvin’s words will be in blue. All biblical citations (in my portions) will be from RSV unless otherwise noted.

Related reading from yours truly:

Biblical Catholic Answers for John Calvin (2010 book: 388 pages)

A Biblical Critique of Calvinism (2012 book: 178 pages)

Biblical Catholic Salvation: “Faith Working Through Love” (2010 book: 187 pages; includes biblical critiques of all five points of “TULIP”)


IV, 7:18-19, 21


Book IV


18. The Papal tyranny shortly after established. Bitter complaints by Bernard.

From that time, while everywhere matters were becoming daily worse, the tyranny of the Roman Bishop was established, and ever and anon increased, and this partly by the ignorance, partly by the sluggishness, of the bishops. For while he was arrogating everything to himself, and proceeding more and more to exalt himself without measure, contrary to law and right, the bishops did not exert themselves so zealously as they ought in curbing his pretensions. 

And who is supposed to curb the pompous Protestant “pretensions” of Luther, Calvin et al? Or are they immune from all such mere human shortcomings?

And though they had not been deficient in spirit, they were devoid of true doctrine and experience, so that they were by no means fit for so important an effort. Accordingly, we see how great and monstrous was the profanation of all sacred things, and the dissipation of the whole ecclesiastical order at Rome, in the age of Bernard. 

There were certainly many corrupt and decadent periods in Church history.

He complains (Lib. 1 de Consider. ad Eugen.) that the ambitious, avaricious, demoniacal, sacrilegious, fornicators, incestuous, and similar miscreants, flocked from all quarters of the world to Rome, that by apostolic authority they might acquire or retain ecclesiastical honours: that fraud, circumvention, and violence, prevailed. 

Case in point. But strangely enough we don’t see St. Bernard concluding (like Calvin) that the Church is not what she is, because of human sin. Why, then, does Calvin cite him, since the two arrive at polar opposite conclusions as to how to proceed in the face of corruption?

The mode of judging causes then in use he describes as execrable, as disgraceful, not only to the Church, but the bar. He exclaims that the Church is filled with the ambitious: that not one is more afraid to perpetrate crimes than robbers in their den when they share the spoils of the traveller. “Few (say he) look to the mouth of the legislator, but all to his hands. Not without cause, however: for their hands do the whole business of the Pope. What kind of thing is it when those are bought by the spoils of the Church, who say to you, Well done, well done? The life of the poor is sown in the highways of the rich: silver glitters in the mire: they run together from all sides: it is not the poorer that takes it up, but the stronger, or, perhaps, he who runs fastest. That custom, however, or rather that death, comes not of you: I wish it would end in you. While these things are going on, you, a pastor, come forth robed in much costly clothing. If I might presume to say it, this is more the pasture of demons than of sheep. Peter, forsooth, acted thus; Paul sported thus. Your court has been more accustomed to receive good men than to make them. The bad do not gain much there, but the good degenerate.” Then when he describes the abuses of appeals, no pious man can read them without being horrified. At length, speaking of the unbridled cupidity of the Roman See in usurping jurisdiction, he thus concludes (Lib. 3 de Concil.), “I express the murmur and common complaint of the churches. Their cry is, that they are maimed and dismembered. There are none, or very few, who do not lament or fear that plague. Do you ask what plague? Abbots are encroached upon by bishops, bishops by archbishops, &c. It is strange if this can be excused. By thus acting, you prove that you have the fulness of power, but not the fulness of righteousness. You do this because you are able; but whether you also ought to do it is the question. You are appointed to preserve, not to envy, the honour and rank of each.” I have thought it proper to quote these few passages out of many, partly that my readers may see how grievously the Church had then fallen, partly, too, that they may see with what grief and lamentation all pious men beheld this calamity.

St. Bernard thundered against sin and corruption, as he should have. But again, I see nothing indicating that he wants to ditch the papacy, let alone the Church, and start anew, as the “reformers” did. Nor did he rail against all popes. He liked Pope Innocent II (r. 1130-1143) quite a bit:

Innocent II is praised by all, especially by St. Bernard, as a man of irreproachable character. (The Catholic Encyclopedia“Pope Innocent II”)

But his support for the office of the papacy extended far beyond admiration of one man. Let’s let the great saint speak for himself. Writing in 1148, to the new Pope Eugene II, he exclaims:

Who are you? The high priest, the Supreme Pontiff. You are the prince of the bishops, you are the heir of the Apostles; in primacy you are Abel, in governing you are Noah, in patriarchate you are Abraham, in orders you are Melchisedech, in dignity you are Aaron, in authority you are Moses, in judgment you are Samuel, in power you are Peter, by anointing you are Christ. You are the one to whom the keys have been given, to whom the sheep have been entrusted. (from De consideratione; cited in Christopher Ryan, The Religious Roles of the Papacy, Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies, 1985, 119-120)

In the same work, St. Bernard continues:

It is true that there are other doorkeepers of heaven and shepherds of flocks; but you are more glorious than all of these, to the degree that you have inherited a name more excellent than theirs. They have flocks assigned to them, one flock to each; to you all are assigned, a single flock to a single shepherd. You are the one shepherd not only of all the sheep, but of all the shepherds. (Ryan, ibid., 120)

Do you ask how I can prove this? From the word of the Lord. For to whom, and I include not only bishops but Apostles, were all the sheep entrusted so absolutely and completely? “If you love me Peter, feed my sheep.” . . . To whom is it not clear that he did not exclude any, but assigned them all? There is no exception where there is no distinction. (Ibid., 120)

And perhaps the rest of the disciples were present when the Lord, entrusting all to one man, commended unity to all in one flock with one shepherd . . . James, who appeared as a pillar of the Church, was content with only Jerusalem, leaving to Peter the universal Church. (Ibid., 121)

The power of the others is bound by definite limits; yours extends even over those who have received power over others. If cause exists, can you not close heaven to a bishop, depose him from the episcopacy, and even give him over to Satan? Your privilege is affirmed, therefore, both in the keys given to you and in the sheep entrusted to you. (Ibid., 121)

[A]lthough each of the others has his own ship, to you is entrusted . . . the universal Church which is spread throughout the whole world. (Ibid., 122)

Before everything else, you should consider that the Holy Roman Church, over which God has established you as head, is the mother of churches . . . (Ibid., 123)

St. Bernard (vastly differently from Luther and Calvin) holds to the indefectibility of Rome:

I consider it most especially proper that damages to faith should be mended in the very place where faith can undergo no falling away. This surely is the prerogative of your See. For to whom else was it ever said: “I have prayed for you,” Peter, “that your faith should not fail”? . . .

Therefore, what the rest of the text says is demanded of the successor of Peter. “And you,” it says, “when once you have turned, strengthen your brothers.” Surely that is now necessary. The time has come, most beloved Father, for you to recognize your primacy, to prove your zeal, to honour your ministry. I doing so you will clearly fulfil your role as Vicar of Peter, whose See you also hold, if by your warnings you strengthen the hearts of those fluctuating in faith and if by your authority you destroy those who corrupt the faith. (Ibid., 124; from Epistle 190 to Pope Innocent II)

19. Fourth part of the chapter. Altered appearance of the Roman See since the days of Gregory.

But though we were to concede to the Roman Pontiff of the present day the eminence and extent of jurisdiction which his see had in the middle ages, as in the time of Leo and Gregory, what would this be to the existing Papacy? I am not now speaking of worldly dominion, or of civil power, which will afterwards be explained in their own place (chap. 11 sec. 8-14); but what resemblance is there between the spiritual government of which they boast and the state of those times? The only definition which they give of the Pope is, that he is the supreme head of the Church on earth, and the universal bishop of the whole globe. The Pontiffs themselves, when they speak of their authority, declare with great superciliousness, that the power of commanding belongs to them,—that the necessity of obedience remains with others,—that all their decrees are to be regarded as confirmed by the divine voice of Peter,—that provincial synods, from not having the presence of the Pope, are deficient in authority,—that they can ordain the clergy of any church,—and can summon to their See any who have been ordained elsewhere. Innumerable things of this kind are contained in the farrago of Gratian, which I do not mention, that I may not be tedious to my readers. The whole comes to this, that to the Roman Pontiff belongs the supreme cognisance of all ecclesiastical causes, whether in determining and defining doctrines, or in enacting laws, or in appointing discipline, or in giving sentences. 

Jesus gave to Peter and the popes, his successors, universal jurisdiction, as St. Bernard noted above, but not in such a way that bishops did not have authority in their own regions, too. But the popes were not to be some kind of gods on earth. In the same works I cited from St. Bernard above, he also asserted a certain brotherhood, within the hierarchy, without denying in the least bit the pope’s preeminent position:

[Y]ou are not the lord of bishops, but one of them . . . (Ryan, ibid., 123; from De consideratione)

[Y]ou have been elected to the supreme position . . . Not, in my opinion, to dominate . . . (Ibid., 125)

I do not think it is unconditionally yours but is subject to limitations. It seems to me that you have been entrusted with stewardship over the world, not given possession of it. (Ibid., 126)

You are wrong if you think your apostolic power, which is supreme, is the only power instituted by God. . . . there are intermediate and lesser ones. (Ibid., 127)

But that is Catholic “both / and” reasoning, whereas Calvin and Protestantism in general are notorious for an “either / or”, unnecessarily dichotomous outlook.

It were also tedious and superfluous to review the privileges which they assume to themselves in what they call reservations. But the most intolerable of all things is their leaving no judicial authority in the world to restrain and curb them when they licentiously abuse their immense power. “No man (say they ) is entitled to alter the judgment of this See, on account of the primacy of the Roman Church.” Again, “The judge shall not be judged either by the emperor, or by kings, or by the clergy, or by the people.” It is surely imperious enough for one man to appoint himself the judge of all, while he will not submit to the judgment of any. But what if he tyrannises over the people of God? if he dissipates and lays waste the kingdom of Christ? if he troubles the whole Church? if he convert the pastoral office into robbery? Nay, though he should be the most abandoned of all, he insists that none can call him to account. The language of Pontiffs is, “God has been pleased to terminate the causes of other men by men, but the Prelate of this See he has reserved unquestioned for his own judgment.” Again, “The deeds of subjects are judged by us; ours by God only.”

There is a balance that was possible to be abused, and was abused, by some bad popes. We should expect this, but none of the bad popes could overcome God’s power in promising indefectibility for His Church. Men can’t overcome God’s will. Calvin wants to ditch the papacy to preserve the (supposed) Church. Catholics retort that it is impossible for any pope (even one of the very few corrupt, personally immoral ones) to cause the Church to defect in the first place. Therefore, eliminating the papacy as an office doesn’t “save the Church.” Rather, it deforms what is God’s will for the governance of the Church.

Calvin simply lacks faith: in the indefectibility of the Church, and in God’s ability to overcome any corruption or sin of man. Calvin wants to put men in the driver’s seat (i.e., himself, and his own novel doctrines) rather than God, Who revealed all of this in Holy Scripture and through the mouths of apostles, and down through the centuries, through the fathers and doctors and saints and ecumenical councils and popes, via apostolic succession and the Catholic magisterium.
[ . . . ]
21. Without mentioning the opposition of Cyprian, of councils, and historical facts, the claims now made were condemned by Gregory himself.


I will not treat with them on the strictest terms. In opposition to their great insolence, some would quote the language which Cyprian used to the bishops in the council over which he presided: “None of us styles himself bishop of bishops, or forces his colleagues to the necessity of obeying by the tyranny of terror.” 

That is exactly what St. Bernard condemned above. Gregory the Great asserted the contrary, without lowering the supremacy of the papacy in the slightest. That is Catholic teaching, and so is not at issue. A corruption of a thing by a particular man is not the thing itself. When will Calvin ever understand this simple but crucial distinction? Apparently never, because he keeps committing the same fallacy over and over.

Some might object what was long after decreed at Carthage, “Let no one be called the prince of priests or first bishop;” and might gather many proofs from history, and canons from councils, and many passages from ancient writers, which bring the Roman Pontiff into due order. But these I omit, that I may not seem to press too hard upon them. However, let these worthy defenders of the Roman See tell me with what face they can defend the title of universal bishop, while they see it so often anathematised by Gregory. If effect is to be given to his testimony, then they, by making their Pontiff universal, declare him to be Antichrist. 

That has been dealt with already in a previous reply and as usual, Calvin distorts Gregory’s meaning and uses great selectivity in citation, which accomplishes nothing.

The name of head was not more approved. For Gregory thus speaks: “Peter was the chief member in the body, John, Andrew, and James, the heads of particular communities. All, however, are under one head members of the Church: nay, the saints before the law, the saints under the law, the saints under grace, all perfecting the body of the Lord, are constituted members: none of them ever wished to be styled universal” (Gregor. Lib. 4 Ep. 83). When the Pontiff arrogates to himself the power of ordering, he little accords with what Gregory elsewhere says. For Eulogius, Bishop of Alexandria, having said that he had received an order from him, he replies in this manner: “This word order I beg you to take out of my hearing, for I know who I am, and who you are: in station you are my brethren, in character my fathers. I therefore did not order, but took care to suggest what seemed useful” (Gregor. Lib. 7 Ep. 80). 

None of this overcomes the many statements of papal supremacy made by Gregory (documented in a previous reply). Calvin is also dead wrong in asserting that the pope was not called “head” of the Church in the patristic period. The facts show otherwise (my green and bolded emphases):

You are the head of the fountain from which My teaching flows, you are the chief of My disciples. Through you I will give drink to all peoples . . . I have chosen you to be, as it were, the first-born in My institution, and so that, as the heir, you may be executor of my treasures. I have given you the keys of my kingdom. Behold, I have given you authority over all my treasures! (St. Ephraem, Homilies, 4, 1)

Kephas . . . the head of the Apostles who received the power of the keys and is taken for the shepherd of the flock . . . (St. Ephraem, Against Heresies, Sermo 56)

You cannot deny that you are aware that in the city of Rome the episcopal chair was given first to Peter; the chair in which Peter sat, the same who was head . . . of all the Apostles; . . . (St. Optatus, The Schism of the Donatists, 2, 2)

Peter, who is the head of the apostles . . . he is the firm and most solid rock, on which the savior built his Church. (St. Gregory of Nyssa, Panegyric on St. Stephen, 3)

Your grace must be besought not to permit any disturbance of the Roman Church, the head of the whole Roman World and of the most holy faith of the Apostles, for from thence flow out to all (churches) the bonds of sacred communion. (St. Ambrose, Letter to Emperor Gratian, Epistle 11:4)

Peter, that the head of the Apostles, the first in the Church, the friend of Christ, who received the revelation not from man but from the Father . . . this Peter, and when I say Peter, I mean the unbroken rock, the unshaken foundation, the great apostle, the first of the disciples, the first called, the first to obey. (St. John Chrysostom, Almsgiving 3:4)

[Y]et one among the twelve is chosen so that when a head has been appointed, there may be no occasion for schism. (St. Jerome, Against Jovinianus, Book I, 26; NPNF 2, Vol. VI)

The rising pestilence was first cut short by Rome, the see of Peter, which having become the head to the world of the pastoral office, holds by religion whatever it holds not by arms. (St. Prosper of Aquitane, Song on the Enemies of Grace, 1)

But this mysterious function the Lord wished to be indeed the concern of all the apostles, but in such a way that He has placed the principal charge on the blessed Peter, chief of all the Apostles: and from him as from the Head wishes His gifts to flow to all the body: so that any one who dares to secede from Peter’s solid rock may understand that he has no part or lot in the divine mystery. (Pope St. Leo the Great, Letter X. To the Bishops of the Province of Vienne. In the matter of Hilary, Bishop of Arles, I; NPNF 2, Vol. XII)

[I]t was given to one to take the lead of the rest. . . . the care of the universal Church should converge towards Peter’s one seat, and nothing anywhere should be separated from its Head. (Pope St. Leo the Great, Letter XIV. To Anastasius, Bishop of Thessalonica, I, XII; NPNF 2, Vol. XII)

[T]he most blessed Peter received the headship of the Apostles from the LORD, and the Church of Rome still abides by His institutions . . . (Pope St. Leo the Great, To Dioscorus, Bishop of Alexandria: Letter 9, 1, NPNF 2, Vol. III, 7)

When the Pope extends his jurisdiction without limit, he does great and atrocious injustice not only to other bishops, but to each single church, tearing and dismembering them, that he may build his see upon their ruins. 

When John Calvin extends his authority without limit, he does great and atrocious injustice not only to all bishops, whom he has thrown out of the Church, but to each single church, tearing and dismembering them, that he may exercise his arbitrary authority upon their ruins (after the iconoclastic riot and tearing down all supposed “idols”).

When he exempts himself from all tribunals, 

And what tribunal could ever bind Luther and Calvin? They simply spurned them all insofar as they disagreed with them. So it is quite comical for Calvin to rail against papal supremacy, when he was ultimately unaccountable to anyone, by his own design. At least popes had an express commission from Christ through Peter. Calvin had a commission from . . . the city council of Geneva or some such . . .

and wishes to reign in the manner of a tyrant, holding his own caprice to be his only law, 

That’s right: stretch the extreme caricature to the breaking-point. Anything but moderation of expression . . .

the thing is too insulting, and too foreign to ecclesiastical rule, to be on any account submitted to. It is altogether abhorrent, not only from pious feeling, but also from common sense.

Right . . . Calvin does talk a good game. We must grant him that, however fallacious and inaccurate his arguments habitually are.


(originally 6-27-09)

Photo credit: Historical mixed media figure of John Calvin produced by artist/historian George S. Stuart and photographed by Peter d’Aprix: from the George S. Stuart Gallery of Historical Figures archive [Wikimedia Commons / Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license]


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