As I continue to work my way through the dreary Institutes of the Christian Religion by John Calvin, I notice a good deal of what I call hijacking legitimate authority. By this I mean that he claimed his interpretation of Scripture was the true meaning of Scripture. Then, when the Church rejected his interpretation, he claimed that the Church was at odds with the Bible when it was really at odds with him.
Thus we see in the graphic (from Book IV, Chapter IX, Section 5) that Calvin accuses the Pope and bishops of discarding the truth and instead inventing teachings at odds with God’s word. But his accusations only have merit if his interpretation of Scripture (and the teaching of the Church that he claims contradicts it) is correct. This means we must assess his authority to teach in a binding manner before we give him any credibility in condemning the Church.
And that’s where his claims collapse. He presupposed that the Church teaching he disagreed with must be wrong. Then, in order to deny the Church’s authority when it justly rebuked him, he lumped together the bad behavior of some Churchmen and heretical councils rejected by the Church as “proof” that the Church could “teach error.” But in all of his writings, he never did demonstrate that the Catholic Church had ever officially taught errors or contradictions in matters of doctrine. The best Calvin could do is point to examples of the Church legitimately changing discipline, while alleging that the Church had changed “teaching,” and asserting that the corruption in the Church had been willed as doctrines.
The modern anti-Catholic fundamentalists who, due to being taught from the beginning to (wrongly) think that the founders of Protestantism spoke the truth might have an excuse before God§. But the person who professes to be a faithful Catholic but rejects the authority of the Successors of Peter does not have that excuse (see Lumen Gentium #14). We are obligated to believe in a Church established and protected by Christ and teaches with His authority. If we do believe that, we will trust in Him to protect those who teach with authority—the successors of Peter and the Apostles—from teaching error. When acting in their role as teachers of the Magisterium (see Lumen Gentium #25), their teaching binds, regardless of what we might think about their personal behavior.
This is not papalotry. This is what the Church has always expected of the faithful. What’s more, when we look at Church history, we see that even when saints rebuked the personal behavior of Popes, the saints always recognized the authority of the Popes to teach. Church History gives us a very different judgment of those who refused to obey the teachings of the Popes—schismatics and/or heretics.
People who struggle with what this Pope teaches should ask themselves this: Is it really possible that God would allow His Church to teach error when even the Ordinary Magisterium binds us to obedience?* Or is it more probable that—if we see “error” in the teachings of the Pope—we have somehow either misinterpreted the Pope or the Scripture and Church teaching we cite against him?
If one is tempted to respond that the Pope is the one in error, such a one should think again. They should look at Calvin and recognize that he is the one they’re emulating, not the saints.
(§) I say this in the sense of “I do not know their individual culpability before God.” Not in the sense of “What they do is okay.”
(*) See Pius IX Syllabus of Errors #22, Humani Generis #20, Lumen Gentium #25, The Catechism of the Catholic Church #892, Code of Canon Law #752 etc.
David Wanat holds a Masters Degree in theology from Franciscan University of Steubenville. He has been blogging in defense of the Catholic Church since 2007. His personal blog is at http://www.ifimightinterject.com/.