Sheep Without a Shepherd

If Scripture is as clear as Protestants claim it is, and we Christians are left with sola Scriptura (“Scripture alone”) to determine the authentic content of the faith, why can no two groups of Protestants seem to agree what exactly our beliefs as Christians are supposed to be?

In response to yesterday’s post, Drew (a sola Scriptura-believing Protestant who’s taking the claims of the Catholic Church seriously enough to move towards converting) commented:

On the matters of baptism and the Eucharist, at least following the limited definitions of Schaff and Kelly, are not Lutherans aligned with Catholics? That is, is not baptismal regeneration and the real presence of Christ in the [E]ucharist taught and believed by orthodox Lutherans?

If I’m thinking straight, they do, and that, more than anything else troubles me about Protestantism. It is no surprise that I disagree with Catholics and Eastern Orthodox who have a different interpretive paradigm than I do about these sacraments. It is a sad surprise that I disagree with good Lutherans about them.

I wondered why Lutherans disagreeing with Evangelicals troubled him more, and he explained:

What I meant with the end, there, is that, as a sola scriptura Protestant, my disagreement with Catholics and Orthodox, who possess additional sources of equal and infallible authority, is not surprising, since the other sources might well clarify the doctrines in a direction not naturally (in my estimation) suggested by Scripture. That Lutherans, who have the same hermeneutical (sort of) approach and same authority (a 66 book Bible) as I do, come to different conclusions about the interpretation of the sacraments from the Bible is truly troubling. I said “good” Lutherans because they’re faithfully reading the Word by the light of the Holy Spirit like I try to do. “Bad” Lutherans, or members of any other denomination, for that matter, with whom I disagree doctrinally can have their interpretations dismissed as unorthodox because the Christians themselves are, well, unorthodox. That I disagree with emergent church Protestants, for example, doesn’t keep me up at night.

Had Protestantism been monolithic among faithful Christians, even from its earliest times, it would be a stronger suggestion than it now is. But since Luther and Zwingli fought over the Eucharist and Calvin and the Anabaptists over baptism, and that continues today among faithful Christians of each of those traditions (though seemingly without a Martin Bucer to encourage cooperation), I find myself saddled with the responsibility of being my own pope. And I don’t look very good in hats.

As Drew acknowledges, this problem isn’t new, at all.  Here’s how St. Francis De Sales put it, in response to the Calvinists of Geneva, back in the sixteenth century:

You have not one same canon of the Scriptures: 
  • Luther will not have the Epistle of St. James, which you receive. 
  • Calvin holds it to be contrary to the Scripture that there is a head in the Church; the English hold the reverse: 
  • the French Huguenots hold that according to the Word of God priests are not less than bishops; the English have bishops who govern priests, and amongst them two archbishops, one of whom is called primate, a name which Calvin so greatly detests: 
  • the Puritans in England hold as an article of faith that it is not lawful to preach, baptize, pray, in the Churches which were formerly Catholic, but they are not so squeamish in these parts. And note my saying that they make it an article of faith, for they suffer both prison and banishment rather than give it up. 
Is it not well known that at Geneva they consider it a superstition to keep any saint’s day? – yet in Switzerland some are kept; and you keep one of Our Lady. The point is not that some keep them and others do not, for this would be no contradiction in religious belief, but that what you and some of the Swiss observe the others condemn as contrary to the purity of religion. 

Are you not aware that one of your greatest ministers teaches that the body of our Lord is as far from the Lord’s Supper as heaven is from earth, and are you not likewise aware that this is held to be false by many others? 

Has not one of your ministers lately confessed the reality of Christ’s body in the Supper, and do not the rest deny it? 
Can you deny me that as regards Justification you are as much divided against one another as you are against us: – witness that anonymous controversialist. 
In a word, each man has his own language, and out of as many Huguenots as I have spoken to I have never found two of the same belief.

But the worst is, you are not able to come to an agreement: – for where will you find a trusted arbitrator? 
You have no head upon earth to address yourselves to in your difficulties; you believe that the very Church can err herself and lead others into error: you would not put your soul into such unsafe hands; indeed, you hold her in small account. 
The Scripture cannot be your arbiter, for it is concerning the Scripture that you are in litigation, some of you being determined to have it understood in one way, some in another. 
Your discords and your disputes are interminable, unless you give in to the authority of the Church. Witness the Colloquies of Lunebourg, of Malbron, of Montbeliard, and that of Berne recently. Witness Titman, Heshusius and Erastus, to whom I add Brenz and Bullinger. 
Take the great division there is amongst you about the number of the Sacraments. Now, and ordinarily amongst you, only two are taught; Calvin made three, adding to Baptism and the Supper, Order; Luther here puts Penance for the third, then says there is but one: in the end, the Protestants, at the Colloquy of Ratisbonne, at which Calvin assisted, as Beza testifies in his life, confessed that there were seven Sacraments. 
How is it you are divided about the article of the almightiness of God? – one party denying that a body can by the divine power be in two places, others denying absolute almightiness; others make no such denials. 

But if I would show you the great contradictions amongst those whom Beza acknowledges to be glorious reformers of the Church, namely, Jerome of Prague, John Hus, Wicliff, Luther, Bucer, Oecolampadius, Zuingle, Pomeranius and the rest, I should never come to an end: Luther can sufficiently inform you as to the good harmony there is amongst them, in the lamentation which he makes against the Zuinglians and Sacramentarians, whom he calls Absaloms and Judases, and fanatic spirits (in the year 1527).

So from the beginning, well-meaning Protestants, seeking to understand the Scriptures and the will of God, have disagreed vociferously on even the most basic principles of the Christian faith.  At the time of his writing, Anglicanism, Lutheranism, Calvinism, Anabaptism, and the rest were all new denominations, yet  St. Francis saw even then that these controversies would never go away, unless Protestants submitted to the authority of the Church.

In Numbers 27:15-17, we read:

Moses said to the LORD, “May the LORD, the God who gives breath to all living things, appoint someone over this community to go out and come in before them, one who will lead them out and bring them in, so the LORD’s people will not be like sheep without a shepherd.

So even in the time of Moses, an earthly leader was necessary to prevent the LORD’s people from acting like sheep without a shepherd, wandering as they will.  God didn’t say, “they have the Law, they don’t need an earthly shepherd.” He didn’t even say, “they have Me, they don’t need an earthly shepherd.”

Instead, He instructed Moses to lay hands on Joshua, to “have him stand before Eleazar the priest and the entire assembly and commission him in their presence,” and to “give him some of your authority so the whole Israelite community will obey him.

The crisis of sheep without a shepherd wasn’t solved through Scripture alone, but with a single visible leader over the entire people of God.  We see the problem  of sheep without a shepherd in the New Testament (e.g., Mark 6:34), and in Protestantism today.  If it’s true that God has left us with a single earthly shepherd, a Joshua for our time, there’s no serious question who that is: it’s Pope Benedict or no one.  He’s the public face of Christianity, and the man at the head of the world’s billion-plus Catholics.

This same Catholicism has clear and defensible answers to the questions of the number of sacraments, the Books of the Bible, the structure of the Church, and the rest. If we’re not to be like the tower of Babel, or like a shepherdless flock, he’s the one to follow.


  1. Joe,
    Another brilliant post. I just read this after dealing with a lot of these questions from a group of guys on facebook. I immediately posted it in our group.

    They are all of a Calvinist bent and have just told me that I need to repent of my Catholicism.

    I am stuck just trying to get them to acknowledge an authority outside the Bible, especially since Sola Scriptura fails…

    Anyway great post as always.

  2. The formation of the Canon is what got me about ten years ago, when I had no particular ties to the Catholicism of my baptism. Through what standard was the canon passed on through the early years of the Church? Was the Holy Spirit moving individuals to arbitrary acceptance, or was He working with their intellects, allowing them to distinguish between canonical and apocryphal based upon a pre-existing faith? And if the faith and its practice existed pre-Bible, is it sola scriptura rendered illogical?

    Either way, it all leads back to the question of authority.

    Great post. Keep writing, and I’ll keep reading.

  3. Michael, thanks!

    Father, you’ve got yourself a deal. By the way, your profile still says you’re a transitional deacon, but your blog says you hear confessions, and you’ve got Father before your name. You might want to update that, so people don’t think you’re a deacon giving absolution.

    In Christ,


  4. I really enjoyed the post. As a protestant nearing conversion to the RCC for issues such as this I appreciate the post.

    I have one question in regards to authority that maybe you can clarify or help me with. A protestant friend argues from Ezekiel 36, dealing with the New Covenant, that there is no need for an “earthly” authority, considering EZ 36:27 in particular, that God will give us a “new” heart and as opposed to the OC of heart of “stone” and “I [YHWH] will put My Spirit within you and cause you to walk in My statutes, and you will keep My judgments and do them.”

    Accordingly, God is the agent of cause and effect. He is the authority and the Covenant is no longer external but internal. Therefore, there is no need for a earthly Moses figure, i.e, pope.

    Now from a experiential standpoint we obviously could see the fallacies and the current problems with the multitude of splits/schisms that have occurred with that interpretive grid.

    So, I guess, from a objective prophecy fulfillment, how is Ezekiel 36 to be interpreted in light of the RC authority? Any help and clarification on this I would appreciate. Thanks in advance!

  5. MJV,

    It’s in the context of baptismal regeneration: look at the full context of Ezekiel 36:25-28. I’ve
    mentioned that before here.

    I think (and I can’t promise that this is right) that He’s saying that once we’re saved by grace, we’re freed from legalism, and able to actually walk freely in the path of the Lord.

    Under the Old Law, man had to follow a system of rules of behavior, but this external system couldn’t really make him have a right relationship with God. Christ explained the point of the Law in the two great commandments: to love God with all our heart, mind, and soul, and to love our neighbor as ourselves. The Law was merely a teacher to help us when we were young.

    Certainly, that’s how the rest of Scripture seems to use this image. Paul says that the Gentiles who follow God are listening to the law written on their hearts — what we’d call “conscience” or “natural law” today. They don’t have the teacher of the external Law, but already follow the internal Law. That’s better than those Jews who kept the Mosaic Law without loving or having faith.

    Hebrews 10:16-18 similarly shows that Christ fulfills the old sacrificial system (part of the Old Law), using this same imagery.

    Protestants go a step further and say: since we have the Law written on our hearts, we don’t need any external authority! But that standard would justify tossing the Bible in the trash. That’s just not what’s being said in Ezekiel. Yes, conscience exists; no, conscience isn’t omniscient.

    Besides that, there’s the experiential point you alluded to: clearly, Protestants aren’t getting the same message internally — they have different Laws.

    Much more has been said on the role of conscience in the Faith, by folks much smarter and holier than me, and that might be a good place to read up, if you’re interested about its interplay with external rules and revelation.

    God bless,


  6. Our Lord didn’t mince words: “And if He refuses to listen even to the Church, let him be unto thee as a heathen man and a publican” (Mat 18:17). St.Paul calls her “the pillar and foundation of the truth” (1 Tim 3:15)as the top of the blog displays! There are also extensive Old Testament foreshadowings of the Church in general and even her authority in particular.

  7. Fine work, again, Joe. I appreciate you representing my views fairly and treating them extensively. I do have a request, though. Next time (if there is one) that you write about me, would you mind adding “dashing” and “brilliant” along with “sola Scriptura-believing” as descriptors?

    I could go on here to editorialize about the Catholic Church not being monolithic, either, in a practical sense (I’m thinking Austria), but there’s no reason. I need to decide if having recourse to unity of doctrine, even if it’s not utilized as I think it should be (pope-hat), is preferable to having communities agree to disagree about some things but exalt Christ consistently. Pratfalls aplenty I know there are, but where I am now it trying to let Jesus be valued supremely even though it’s costing me intellectual serenity.

    But that boils down to saying, “People in my church love Jesus more than people in yours do,” and that’s just plain silly. Oh, brother.

    To what extent can we trust that Jesus is our shepherd, still? He says He’ll seek the wandering sheep, Himself, and I guess the Protestant says we’re just all running around, eating grass by the tree, here, or drinking from the pond there, some saying there are only two kinds of grass that we have to eat, with others insisting that there are three, baa-ing like sheep would. But we’re still within the pasture, trusting the shepherd to keep us there (my Romanizing brain is asking how we know where the fences are). We must be a comical bunch. And, then, just before the end, He tells another to feed them.



  8. Drew,

    I found it dashingly brilliant how your third paragraph answered your second. You really are costing yourself some intellectual serenity!

    On a serious note, you’re right that Protestants love Jesus so much, and that — particularly coming from a Protestant perspective — it’s sometimes easier to see their love than it is to see ours, because we express it so differently at times.

    But I think we’re dealing with something more fundamental than intellectual serenity: did Jesus found the Catholic Church, and is it His Will for His flock to be in that Church, visibly?

    If the answer to that question is “no,” then you shouldn’t be Catholic, no matter how intellectually satisfying the Church is.

    On the other hand, once you’re at the point of saying “yes” to that question, you need to join the Catholic Church. It doesn’t matter that some Protestants may wander their whole lives outside the visibly bounds of the Church, and still be saved by our loving Shepherd. You know what God wants on this issue, so you’ve got a duty to obey and follow Him, no matter how strange or scary it may seem.

    When Peter heard what God had in store for him, he looked at St. John and asked, “Lord, what about him?” Jesus’ reply: “If I want him to remain alive until I return, what is that to you? You must follow Me” (John 21:21-22).

    That’s how it is here, too. Once you know the will of God, you’ve got to obey: in the final analysis, I don’t think that any other factors ought to play much of a role.

    God bless,


  9. Drew,

    I forgot to respond to your mention of the situation in Austria. Note what’s different here. There aren’t two equal partners who happen to disagree. Rather, there’s one side, the Church, laying out the Truth and setting basic rules, and another side (the disobedient Austrian priests) stamping their feet and refuse to believe or obey. Schüller’s group openly calls for disobedience.

    So we’re not left with a crisis of the truth. We’re left with clear truth, and a minority declaring: non serviam. But we’ve had that contingent since prior to the Fall.

    In Christ,


  10. Hi Joe,

    I was raised Anglican and continue faithfully in that tradition, though I find it very painful that we are not in communion with the RCC in the way that the Orthodox are.

    I think if I could choose without consequence then I might wish to have been raised Catholic, but I wasn’t. And though there have been many devout Catholics who have had an impact on my life over the years (including my present spiritual director I might add), I’ve never considered the differences between us to be so insurmountable that I must uproot myself from my Anglican community and begin again in a Catholic one. Or to put it another way, I find all schism to be a painful disaster for Christianity, but I believe reconciliation must come between churches as a whole, and that my own position is neither here nor there. Personally I find almost nothing in the RCC Catechism that I disagree with. I could convert tomorrow with a clear conscience, and be joyful; but what of my brothers and sisters still Anglicans? I love them too. And what of my sisters who are priests in my church? To convert would be to say ‘your vocation is invalid.’ Whether I believe RCC teaching on that or not, I could not myself say anything against them, since they uphold virtue and love in the many parishes they care for.

    Nevertheless your arguments about protestant schisms are painfully accurate and convincing. I used to be quite calvinistic, then quite lutheran, and every time I changed my hat I found I had another group of Christian brothers and sisters who now weren’t really Christian and needed saving from their error.

    Personally I’ve found relief, happiness and joy in submitting to church teaching instead of insisting on my own pope-hat, especially since the more I read the Fathers, the more obvious it is that I don’t have the capability to interpret scripture purely by myself; to decide for myself what scripture means and then look around for those who agree, is a path to the dark side.

    But ultimately I wonder: how much unity of doctrine do we ‘need’ in Christ’s church, if we love one another? Or can we only love one another if we share the same doctrine on every issue?

    I have Evangelical friends who would never speak to me again if I became Catholic, except to try to save me. I have many Catholic friends with whom I cannot share the Eucharist. Do we really have to fight over these things? Is the validity of the priesthood of women a salvation issue? Do we have to know the underlying reality and meaning and means of Justification to be a child of God?

    I’m not saying doctrine is unimportant, but sometimes it seems that the churches have spent much of the last 2000 years arguing about angels on heads of pins and caring much less about Love. And no matter how many times someone tries to argue that it is loving to argue for Truth, I hear only sophistry in their words. Love looks and feels very different indeed.

    If there’s any question at the end of my ramble, it’s this: Is there any way we can stop arguing about who has the Truth (or the right to determine and expound the Truth) and instead judge ourselves and one another on the fruit of the Spirit? If the same Love is in my heart as in yours, as is in the heart of my Baptist friend, do we not do the devil’s will when we refuse fellowship with one another?

    *Is* the same Love in our hearts?

    I wish this comment weren’t so close to a wailing ‘why can’t we all just get along’ :). I am reminded of the question of the woman at the well, asking Jesus about the worship practices of the Samaritans vs the Jews. He beautifully transcended the question (John 4:19-26) and I so often wish we could do the same!

    By the way, Joe, your blog is superb. I have found it immensely valuable and interesting over the last couple of years. Thankyou for all your efforts.

  11. did Jesus found the Catholic Church, and is it His Will for His flock to be in that Church, visibly?

    Joe considering the debate I am having on Facebook as of right now this may well be my next blog post….

    Don’t worry I will credit you when I rip off your ideas….err I mean agree so thoroughly with you as to quote you in my blog 🙂

  12. Tess,

    Beautiful comment. I haven’t been quite sure what to say in response.

    The two reasons you cited for staying Anglican are the distinctive traditions and the church community. Those two concerns were the motivating factors behind the pope’s surprise decision to establish the personal ordinariates for Anglicans. I’m not sure how familiar you are with Anglicanorum Coetibus, but the idea is that it provides a way for entire Anglican parishes to become Catholic while preserving their community and the distinct liturgical elements which bring their own real beauty.

    Traditional Anglican patrimony is quite beautiful. I’ve twice been to St. Therese Little Flower in Kansas City, Missouri, an “Anglican Use” Catholic parish. I blogged about my first time there, and enjoyed it even more my second time. The Liturgy is modeled off of the Book of Common Prayer, the pastor is a former Anglican priest, and the tiny Anglican Use crowd is made up of members of his former church (the priest, Fr. Ernie Davis, also does a Gospel-music Mass — he’s an incredibly talented pastor). If you can find an Anglican Use parish near where you live, I’d suggest looking into it.

    I agree with you that truth and love aren’t always the same thing. There are ways of presenting the Gospel which are arrogant and unloving, while still containing accurate information. Ephesians 4:15 tells us to speak the “truth in love,” while Pope Benedict recently reminded us of the converse — the need to present “love in truth.”

    So we Catholics should love you Protestants enough to explain why we should all be one undivided family again, and we should love you enough to do it in a way that isn’t triumphalistic, but genuinely concerned for your spiritual well-being and your happiness.

    But that love should lead to a desire for a fuller communion — with one another and with Christ — that should also drive us to have these hard conversations. Our house, as Christians, is out of order, and we need to talk out our problems so we can come together as a family again.

    The image the Second Vatican Council gives us in calling Protestants “separated brethren,” is a profound one. We are brothers and sisters in Christ (and thus, in the Catholic Church), but a grave and regrettable separation remains.

    I’ll end this rambling comment by asking you the same thing I asked Drew: did Jesus found the Catholic Church, and is it His Will for His flock to be in that Church, visibly?

    In Christ,


    P.S. To both Michael and Tess, thanks for the complements on the post / blog. I really appreciated it!

  13. Hi Joe,

    To leap to your last question: “did Jesus found the Catholic Church…” my immediate answer is yes, and personally I’d love to be part of it, but ‘it’s not as simple as that’ 🙂

    If it was just ‘me’ then I’d have no difficulty being a Catholic, but I couldn’t contemplate accepting the primacy of the Bishop of Rome while the validity of the holy orders of half my church (and the Eucharist they celebrate) is denied. It’s far more important to me that the church as a whole is reconciled, rather than me choosing my own individual path.

    While I do wish we could accept the primacy of Rome, it’s clear that this is not ultimately a barrier to full communion, as proved by the Orthodox.

    Moreover, even the Catholic church has at times suffered under the burden of two (or even three) competing ‘popes’ ruling over different provinces, and some tremendous and valuable renewals of the church occurred under popes who were later forced to resign or recant, e.g. the reforms of the Franciscan orders undertaken by St Colette. We were all fortunate that these schisms didn’t last long enough for separate doctrine and ecclesiastical practices to evolve. Alas, the Anglican schism has become more entrenched, yet has become valued for its ability to hold in communion many with radically divergent theologies and practices.

    If we as Anglicans can hold together (just about) our evangelical wing and our anglo-catholic wing, and you as Catholics can allow some of your clergy to be married while insisting on a norm of priestly celibacy, I still long for a reconciliation of fellowship without having to give up our Anglican traditions (which are as rooted in the authority of Apostolic Succession as the Catholic and Orthodox are).


  14. You mention of course the Ordinariate, which has helped some Anglican clergy, religious and parishes make a smooth passage home. Unfortunately this path has become the favoured route for those fervently against the priesthood of women, and is considered by many Anglicans to be a path of even greater betrayal and hurt and division than simply to convert outright to the Catholic church. The Holy Father may have acted out of love, but much of my church sees the Ordinariate as an act of sabotage, a spanner in the works of our own efforts to maintain fellowship between those of disparate belief and practice.

    One final thought: I don’t actually consider myself a Protestant. The Reformers had much to protest about, but having put on their own pope-hat they found they couldn’t give it up again, despite the RCC putting much of its house back in order resulting in the Council of Trent. I am about as much of a Protestant as the Orthodox are.

    I’m aware that I’m dodging the question of whether the supreme authority of the bishop of Rome is divinely ordained. One could look at the question theologically, or pragmatically. Theologically I find the case for Rome’s primacy convincing, but pragmatically much less so. The downside of separate strands of authority is endless schism and contention, but on the other hand the Orthodox (& Anglican?) churches demonstrate that schisms need not proliferate beyond a simple localisation of authority and hierarchy, especially where all the provinces are looking to the traditions of the Fathers as their source of liturgy and practice. The downside of Roman primacy of course is the same problem faced by all centralising authoritarian power structures, that of not really seeing or experiencing the pain of the ‘little man’ being trammelled by the juggernaut of the greater good imposed from above. Just as many Anglicans turn to Rome in search of unity, many Catholics turn to Anglicanism in search of liberty. Both have their shadow sides (authoritarianism and schism).

    I’m not disagreeing with your excellent apologetics, Joe, just demonstrating that, alas, things are messier than simply coming to a conviction that Jesus wanted us to be One Church and gave the keys of the kingdom to Peter.

    with love,

  15. Tess,

    God bless you for sharing your perspective on this subject. I will pray that God’s will be done in your life, and I’m thankful that you are honestly trying to discern what His will is.

    You brought up a point that has really been on my heart for the last couple years: that Catholic apologists need to spend more time figuring out how to assist and enable entire congregations to join the Catholic Church. I’m quite sensitive to the personal suffering that many individuals endure when they join the Catholic Church, and I see no reason why God couldn’t move in a mighty way to move an entire congregation toward Catholicism. Indeed, it has already happened!

    If we take the model of Alex Jones and his congregation, the movement toward Catholicism had three key ingredients: pastoral commitment to truth, congregations trusting pastor to explore the early church together, overall obedience to the truth of God’s Word. I KNOW that many Protestant Churches out there have all three…and I think that we as Catholic apologists may have failed (thus far) to think big enough in our outreach. And in thinking big, it is people like you Tess, whose own conversion to Catholicism (I pray!) I would hope to ease in a tremendous way.

    All that being said, I worry that you may truly be 98% of the way to Catholicism. But that 2% makes all the difference when it comes to love, especially the love of Christ. You seem to know this. I could be wrong, but you seem to really be struggling with this as well. What ever the case, please pray for me, as I will for you.

    Here’s the problem, as I see it: there are many Christians out there (including Catholics) who don’t actually hold obedience to Christ as their highest value. They may be sincere, but still be sincerely wrong in following a tradition of men (such as female priests). If some of these people learned (perhaps only deep in their hearts) that their “orders” were not valid, I am not confident that they each would abandon their priesthood out of obedience to Christ.

    In other words, I have not seen evidence that the woman priests whom I have encountered are willing to pull an Alex Jones: to risk it all out of absolute, life-giving, love-inspired fidelity to Christ.

    Who knows…I could be wrong. We each are on a journey, and our salvation occurs in God’s timing. I pray he is at work in their lives, and I praise God when souls are drawn closer to Christ in any denomination.

    In the end, you and I are also called to risk–even deny–everything out of love of Christ. I worry that to not follow Christ and His Church 100% is to fall on the wrong side of an all or nothing wager.

    I know you speak out of kindness and love for those in your current church. But, if your presence (and implicit support) among them somehow contributes to their own lack of progress toward Christ and His Church, then you could ultimately be doing them and yourself a grave disservice.

    Whatever Love demands, whatever is True, that we should follow and never look back!

    About truth: remember that those who argue about truth with Charity (like Joe and many in his combox) agree on a much more foundational truth: that truth is objective, important, and ultimately found in the person of Jesus Christ.

    Even though our human nature might feel uncomfortable at times with the division (and dialogues that result), that is a good thing: it helps motivate us toward true communion with one another, which can only happen by being fully in communion with Christ and the sacramental life through which he desires to meet us.

    Sorry for rambling:)

    In Christ,


  16. Tess,

    (1) The Orthodox are part of the Catholic Church, but they’re not in “full communion.”

    We still have a terrible (and frankly, unnecessary) schism separating us. Even though we agree on the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist, they refuse to allow Catholics to receive at Orthodox Liturgies, and instruct their own congregants not to receive at Mass (we have no problem with Orthodox receiving the Eucharist).

    (2) Having said that, I think that the better example is that of the Eastern sui juris Catholic Churches. They use the traditional Eastern Liturgies, keep their own canon law, etc., but actually are in full communion, and acknowledge the pope as the head of the earthly Church.

    (3) I’m confused as to what you were saying about St. Colette, and about popes resigning and recanting. Could you clarify that point?

    (4) There’s one final point of clarification, and it’s a biggie. As Catholics, we don’t just reject the ordination of Anglican women to the priesthood and episcopacy. All Anglican ordinations are “absolutely null and utterly void,” as Pope Leo XIII put it (in no uncertain terms), in Apostolicae Curae.

    The reason is two fold: the Anglican church altered (1) the form and (2) the intent of the ordination rite, rendering it invalid.

    By was of history, during Edward’s reign, the Protestantizing forces within the Church of England declared the Catholic ordination rite superstitious, abolished it, and replaced it with the Edwardian Ordinal. The Edwardian Ordinal was (and is) intentionally Protestant, and borne out of a thoroughly deficient understanding of the priesthood. It’s the brain-child of folks like Thomas Cranmer who desired the very rupture you lament (and who denied Apostolic Succession).

    Here’s what the Thirty-Nine Articles say about the Mass: “Wherefore the sacrifices of Masses, in which it was commonly said, that the Priest did offer Christ for the quick and the dead, to have remission of pain or guilt, were blasphemous fables, and dangerous deceits.” Clearly, unambiguously, then, this is a denial of the sacrificial priesthood, and of basic Catholic beliefs about the priesthood and the Mass.

    Since there was no intent to carry on the sacrificial priesthood, or ordain men into the same, it’s without question that the Anglican church deliberately snuffed out Apostolic Succession. As such, when Leo declared the ordinations “absolutely null and utterly void,” a great many Anglicans agreed.

    This ultimately is the problem. Some Anglicans want to be Catholic, some want to be Protestant, and some want to tread an imagined via media, yet they’re using the defective Protestant Ordinal. The “power cord” of Apostolic Succession has been totally severed, and the mere desire that it wasn’t is inadequate.

    I raise this not to rub salt in a tender wound, but to lay out the stakes clearly: if you want valid sacraments, you can receive them in the Catholic Church. The Anglican Church can’t give them to you. In saying this, there’s no need to denigrate the selfless love and Christian ministering that many Anglicans exhibit for their communities. We can commend their Christian example while sticking with the authentic Sacraments, in the Church which Jesus Christ established.

    I know that making that jump is daunting, but heeding Our Lord’s warning in Matthew 10:34-37, and His promises in Matthew 19:29, I think it’s one worth seriously considering.

    In the love of Christ,


    P.S. For what it’s worth, many Orthodox agree that Anglican orders are invalid, although their reasons are different.

  17. Joe,

    As you were talking about the Law, I couldn’t help but think of it in the context of Protestant and Catholic disputes and come up with some questions:

    Does Protestantism understands the Law in the same way the Catholic Church does? More specifically, did Luther also had a different view of the Law in the whole context of salvation?
    As Luther had great appreciation for the books of Romans and Galatians, books that have a consistent account on Law and Grace, is it possible that he might have been wrong about the relationship between them?

    If so, how does the Catholic Church understand the relationship between Law and Grace?

    Thanks for the great effort.

    In Christ,


    PS: Forgive my off-topicness on that comment.

  18. Hi Joe,

    I have to say your response almost makes it sound like the Catholic attitude towards Anglicans is somehow retaliatory. Surely we don’t really feel that way do we?

    My purpose in mentioning St Colette and her reform work was simply to highlight that the validity of her work did not go away when the schismatic Pope Benedict XIII (who received her vows as a Poor Clare and gave her the authority to reform the Franciscans) was himself deposed in 1417 as an anti-pope. I was looking (only semi-seriously I must admit) to draw parallels between this and the Anglican schism :). My point being that just as the actions of that anti-pope were validated and honoured by the legitimate pope, I would hope that someday Anglican holy orders would be similarly recognised, even though they are currently considered ‘null and void’.

    Incidentally, those priests joining the ordinariate were challenged on this issue quite firmly. How did they feel about all their previous sacramental work being considered invalid? The response seemed mostly to be simply to not talk about the past. Those converting clearly felt that their ordination and sacramental offerings had been entirely valid, and the Catholic hierarchy studiously avoided picking holes in that (so long as the converts agreed to be re-ordained of course!).

    So I think these issues of validity can be (and are) overlooked when reconciliation is possible.

    Your argument about Apostolic Succession being dependent on the ordinands’ understanding of the Mass isn’t something I’ve heard before and I would need to research that further. My understanding was that Apostolic Succession simply meant that someone had been ordained by a bishop who themselves had been validly ordained. I apologise for my ignorance on this point.

    On the issue of the validity of the sacraments, I place myself again in the position of the woman at the well, asking Jesus whether it is valid to worship God on the holy mountain, or whether worship must take place in the temple at Jerusalem as the Jews said. As Jesus transcended the question then, so I hope we can transcend the question now, in the love of God. 🙂

    A truly Anglican response on my part, hehe.

    In practice I am motivated by a desire for visible unity among Christians, for the benefit of the whole body of Christ and for the world who need to experience God’s love. While we squabble over issues of validity (which I suspect are entirely in the minds of men, not the heart of God), the world dies for lack of love.

    I certainly understand your pain at not being permitted to communicate with the Orthodox (I didn’t know that they refused the participation of Catholics). Likewise, Anglicans generally welcome all Christian denominations to share communion with us, but the gesture alas is not reciprocated.

    In fact I know of one Anglican monastic community in England that was asked to train an orthodox nun in monastic life by the Orthodox church in Britain, and which enriched their own Liturgy greatly as a result. The links with the Orthodox were very close as a result. Yet technically of course these communities were not in communion with one another. Did the Orthodox consider all those anaphora celebrated in the Anglican community to be invalid while their own sister was present and studying there? I somehow doubt it. If they did, they kept very quiet about it!

    Ah well. Intellectually I agree with you, but life is not so clear cut. And love cries out for a more generous response between us.

    with love,

  19. Joe, I believe it’s inexact to say the Orthodox are “part of the Catholic Church”. All those in schism have valid sacraments, but they are not (yet) “part of the Catholic Church”. True, the schism seems close to being healed, with some barriers overcome, and mostly it is merely material today, but only after there is full communion can we say they are so. Would you disagree?

    Tess, I really appreciate your spirit and good cheer. Even immediately after Pope Leo’s declaration, many Catholics were at pains to point out that those Anglicans in good faith, in error through no fault of their own, and unaware of their obligation to return to full communion, would undoubtedly receive grace through their love and desire for Christ, called a “spiritual communion”. We can and should cooperate on many levels, but I’m afraid the Catholic Church does not, as you seem to opine, have the power to retroactively change teh past. Validity and liceity are two different things. Some sacraments are illicitly celebrated, but they are valid all the same. God bless you.

  20. Hi Tess

    You said –

    “To leap to your last question: “did Jesus found the Catholic Church…” my immediate answer is yes, and personally I’d love to be part of it, but ‘it’s not as simple as that’ :)”

    If your immediate answer is ‘yes’ then your staying out of Her because “It’s far more important to me that the church as a whole is reconciled, rather than me choosing my own individual path.” shows how much you love your friends.

    Jesus did not convert the whole town -He came to the woman at the well. SHE brought the whole town by listening to Him first.

    Food for thought, eh?

  21. Tess,

    If my response makes it sound like the Catholic attitude towards Anglicans is somehow retaliatory, that’s a problem with my response. Actually, Apostolicae Curae was written after Pope Leo conducted a reexamination of the matter, in the hopes that Anglicans had valid orders. He essentially explains as much in paragraph 2 and 4 of the encyclical itself.

    From a Catholic point of view, it would be far better if Anglicans truly did have authentic Holy Orders. It would make corporate reunion a lot easier, for the same reasons it’s easier to imagine union between the Catholic and Orthodox Churches, than (say) the Catholic Church and various Baptist denominations. Your own response – that this was the biggest thing keeping you Anglican – isn’t surprising.

    In other words, I wish the pope was wrong, and he appears to, as well. But at the end of the day, Pope Leo’s not the reason Anglican orders aren’t valid: he’s simply the one who has to announce it, in no uncertain terms.

    The problem is that the Edwardian Ordinal intentionally changed the rite of ordination in a rejection of the notion of a sacrificial priesthood. Given this, it would be unreasonable for the Catholic Church to pretend that the Edwarine Ordinal continued to confer ordination into the sacrificial priesthood, which is the only priesthood we (or the Orthodox) recognize as valid.

    If A validly ordains B validly as a priest, he’s a priest – even if the ordination is illicit, and even if both men are excommunicated as a result. The ordinations of the Society of St. Pius X are a good example here. But if B attempts to ordain C into a non-sacrificial priesthood, C isn’t a priest. And that means anyone C “ordains” isn’t a priest either… even if C attempts to ordain them into the sacrificial priesthood. He can’t pass on what he doesn’t possess.

    Having said that, this doesn’t mean that Anglican clerics are incapable of doing good for God. I think your example of St. Colette is a good one: the fact that Benedict XIII wasn’t really the pope didn’t mean that everything that he did was evil, or had to be rebuked. He genuinely did build up the Body of Christ in cases like the one you cited, and was furthered by popes like Nicholas V.

    But it does mean that we view Anglican orders in the same way we view Lutheran orders, or those of any other Protestant denomination: as well-meaning laymen who attempt to advance the Church, the Body of Christ. Even laymen can be leaders within the Church in a certain sense (for example, those who start prayer groups), but not in the sense suggested by Holy Orders.

    Now, you’ve said that this is the biggest thing keeping you Anglican. And here, I think, is where things get interesting. You’re prepared to acknowledge theologically that the Catholic Church was founded by Christ, and you’re able to “convert tomorrow with a clear conscience” into the Church called “the pillar and foundation of Truth” in Scripture (1 Tim. 3:15). But the visible head of the Church, the pope, has made declarations about doctrine that you disagree with on at least two issues: on the validity of Anglican ordinations done pursuant to the Edwardine Ordinal, and on the ordination of women. How do you address this conflict?

    Either the Catholic Church has happened to get all those other things right (in which case She’s just oddly lucky, not God’s Church), or She’s right because She’s protected by the Holy Spirit, in which case I think you should trust Her here, too.

    Finally, you mentioned the woman at the well, and Christ told her that New Testament worship would be in “spirit and in truth” (John 4:24). So truth still matters. We’re called to both charity and truth (Ephesians 4:15): it’s not an either-or. Certainly, if my presentation of the truth has been lacking in charity at all, I ask your forgiveness, and to see past me to the Catholic Church.

    In the love of Christ,


  22. Nishant,

    I’m not meaning to suggest that they possess the full unity of Eastern Catholics, but that they’re part of the Church in a way that even Protestants are not. There’s a certain membership in the Church achieved by faith, a certain membership achieved by Baptism, and Trinitarian Protestantism preserves these Catholic elements. But Eastern Orthodoxy has something more – an unbroken connection with the Apostles, valid Eucharist, unquestionably valid holy orders, and the like.

    Certainly, it’s incomplete, and perhaps I went too far in saying that they were part of the Church, but what I mean to say is what Pope Benedict said to the Eastern Orthodox Archbishop of Cyprus, Chrysostomos II: “In you, I greet the Pastor of an ancient and illustrious Church, a shining tessera of that bright mosaic, the East, which, to use a favourite phrase of the Servant of God John Paul II of venerable memory, constitutes one of the two lungs with which the Church breathes.”

    God bless,


  23. Hi Joe,

    I am currently in Canterbury in England, and attended evensong at the cathedral, where it so happened that Archbishop Rowan Williams was present, and I must admit I was looking around at the awesome interior of the cathedral church and thinking, firstly ‘we stole this from the Catholics’, and secondly I wondered how Archbishop Rowan would argue for the autonomy of Anglicanism throughout the world.

    Earlier in the day I had visited St Dunstan’s church (also in Canterbury) which happens to be the church where the head of Sir (Saint) Thomas More is interred, following his beheading for refusing to accept King Henry VIII as supreme head of the Church of England. I doubt there are many Anglicans who would see Henry VIII as the hero and Saint Thomas More as the villain, despite the Act of Supremacy marking the creation of our church and the ending of the Pope’s authority in our churches which we now take for granted. In fact St Dunstan’s church has a series of quite beautiful stained glass windows (donated by Catholics!) celebrating More’s life and faith, especially his famous declaration before his execution that “I am the King’s good servant, but God’s first.”

    This is all very Anglican. Our church was born in pride and heresy and sin and cowardice, and yet we still hail those who died defending the Pope’s authority against their King.

    Our church is so full of paradox and contradiction somehow held together with sticky tape and good humour.

    Like many anglo-catholics before me, I would much rather see the reformation errors undone, than make my own way home, alone. Women priests I accept because my church teaches they are valid. If I were Roman Catholic I would accept the teaching of that church on the subject.

    I think that really I need to do a lot more research into the justifications made by Anglican leaders past and present for maintaining a separate church with synodical authority. I suspect that most Anglicans simply don’t think too deeply about it and just say to themselves, “I disagree with the Pope, and therefore I disagree with him having authority over us.”

    The question then is do we have a right to a separate ecclesiastic authority? And the problem is that if we say ‘no’ then we have to deal with submitting our wills to a church with whom we intensely disagree. So it’s no surprise that we stick fingers in our ears and ignore the question.

    Perhaps I need to read some John Henry Newman.

    A question though: The Orthodox do not accept the leadership of the Pope. On what basis do they refuse to acknowledge him, and could Anglicans make the same argument?

    In a couple of days I’m entering an Anglican monastic community, so I’ll disappear offline. Thankyou again for all your friendly and compassionate discussion and wisdom. I fear I’m too much of a people-pleaser and conformist to be the sort of person who might leap solo from one church to another, however convinced I might be. And I know how ignorant I am and how easily I can be convinced by a slick apologist :). So I feel much safer being obedient to my church and waiting to see if our leaders can bring us all together.

    with much love,

  24. Hey there Joe, I came across your blog a month or so ago and I’ve found your posts helpful and thoughtful. Thanks for this post. St. Francis de Sales is one of my favorite saints and spiritual writers, and he brings out the disunity of Protestantism quite well. I have two questions:

    (1) I’ve brought this point out to Protestants as well, and they concede that Protestantism is unable to find agreement on many (most?) doctrines. But their reply is that this is not important, because they believe Scripture is clear enough on all the points they can agree on, i.e. “mere Christianity” and the truths which are absolutely necessary for salvation. In short, they’re saying that there is indeed disagreement on important points, but all Christians can agree on the necessities. How would you reply to this point? I know one might point out that even on these issues Christians don’t agree, but I think we can’t just go out and say that *all* interpretations are equally valid on Protestantism. This leads to subjectivism. As Drew from your post pointed out, people like the “Emerging Church” Protestants are obviously unorthodox and their disagreement doesn’t count against Sola Scriptura. So that’s my first question.

    (2) How do we get from the need for an authority to an infallible Church? Protestants have their experts, scholars, pastors, and theologians as well. Moreover, even if they grant that there is a need for an official, reliable guide, how does this get us to an *infallible* guide?

    I don’t think this replies hold water, but I’d be interested in your thoughts. If you’ve addressed it elsewhere it’d be nice if you could link those as well. Thanks.

  25. Joe,
    Part one of my promised blog on your question is up…If you feel I ventured a little too close to your territory let me know.

    Still trying to find my voice with the hard apologetics so I tend to mimic people I like.

    That being said if you feel it is too similar to your own work let me know I will remove it.

  26. Michael,

    I really enjoyed your post, and look forward to part two. By the way, you never need to worry about venturing too close to my “territory.” The Gospel isn’t mine, and I’m honored that you like the approach I take in comprehending It. And since my goal is to build up Christ (not me), your skimming the cream from the crop here only helps that goal.

    God bless,


    P.S. In any case, the particular part you got from me, I got from Abp. Fulton Sheen, so I can’t even claim any special insights there!

  27. Great discussion…still echoing through time…! Tell me though,if Redemption is the work of Jesus Christ, Only….and that through the agency of the Holy Spirit… since He is no longer physically present in this world….then who is any man to insert himself into the process, between man and God?

    1. “Whoever hears you hears me…whatever you bind on earth…I will give you the keys of the Kingdom…sins you forgive are forgiven…go to all nations teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you…”

    2. Fenwick,

      As Restless Pilgrim hints, the key here is that Catholics don’t have a situation in which “any man [inserts] himself into the process, between man and God.” Christ establishes His Church, and hand-picks men (Peter and the Apostles, and later, Paul) to lead it. In Acts, we see these men choose bishops, presbyters, and deacons, and instruct them to select successors. Did Jesus Christ need to rely on sinful men to lead His Church, write His Bible, and the like? Nope. But He chose to, and we respect it.

      As Catholics, no priest is even self-appointed: he is chosen by the Church, and there’s no “right” to ordination. In contrast, it’s within Protestantism that men can become “pastors” simply by declaring themselves such. So your criticism seems much more accurate in debunking Protestantism than Catholicism.



  28. My compliment: you seem very Sharp and Quick!:-) Are you operating your responses from pre- catalogued forms? Ok…let’s turn the original proposition inside out: are you saying God doesn’t function Outside the confines of the Roman Catholic Church? ( or if He does, its unofficial?:-)…
    What does the Apostle’ s Creed say about Who, specifically, will come to judge the quick and the dead?
    The pope?
    I believe that’s a reference to Acts 10:42; 1Pet.4:3-5….?
    I also wonder:
    When Jesus Ascended,
    Get promised the Paraclete to….
    A select, closed group?
    You all waited quite a while
    For a fish to bite on this line,
    Didn’t you?

  29. “Get promised”! Silly Android spellcheck not born again, obviously, should read: God promised! And please, don’t burden me with “a bad carpenter blames his tools”….consider the typo evidence of spontaneous generation of thought and text…if you will….:-)

  30. Fenwick,

    I can’t make out what your argument is in your latest comments.  How are any of the points you raised germane to the conversation we were having?  By the way, Brent Stubbs has a good post on the problems with shotgun-style oppositions to Catholicism here.  If you want to lay out an actual argument or question, I’m all ears.  But if it’s going to just be silly rhetorical questions about what the Apostles’ Creed said, I don’t think it’s worth any of our time.



  31. Also, ” in meekness and fear”, I am compelled to point out: Jesus christ indeed choose ” sinful men” illuminated by the irresistible presence of His Holy Spirit, to write. Holy Scripture and found his Church….for example, why is Saul called Paul? What did he call himself, “chief of sinners”?
    Enough with the protestant bashing already!:-) it’s undignified, to say the least.” Conduct unbecoming”
    In my Father’s house are many mansions….

    1. See my previous comment about fluttering between topics. We all agree that Christ chose sinful men to write Scripture and lead the Church. But that doesn’t mean we trust Scripture or the Church any less for it, since the Holy Spirit is the One in charge.

  32. PS: that was not a silly rhetorical question about the “germane” phrase in the Apostle’s creed…and I suspect, in you heart of hearts you know it….are you just lawyering it? Ad Hominiming , as a way of parrying the real issue: personal relationship with God…..underlying all the layers of Official Theological gymnastics….?
    Creative Misunderstandings are another lawyers trick I recognize….actually, I respect and appreciate the Roman version of catholicism!:-)

  33. I was pointing out something relevant ( and important) to the discussion….but as you say, you missed it. Thanks for the link to Bent Stubbs…”.talk about painful!”….:-) do you, personally, foresee an end to this squabbling and bickering, or has it become a lifestyle? “…just can’t get past human nature…” As the KGB guy said?:-)

    1. No, you weren’t “pointing out” anything. You were making insinuations, asking silly rhetorical questions (which you later denied asking), peppered with smileys and personal attacks (on me as a lawyer, to say nothing of the hints that because I understand theology, I don’t have a personal relationship with God, or whatever the nonsense about the KGB was about). In other words, you’re being generally passive-aggressive, rather than actually “giving a reason,” as 1 Peter 3:15 instructs us to do.

      That’s my whole point: you won’t just come out and make an argument, but flit around it. If you did come out and make an argument, I’m quite sure it could be promptly addressed.

      For example, the argument you were hinting at earlier seemed to be something along the lines that since the Apostles’ Creed says that Christ will judge the living and the dead, this means the Church can’t make judgments (or something). But of course, if you actually spelled this argument out, it’d be obvious why it’s facile. We see the Church exercising authority far beyond what I described here in places like 1 Cor. 5:5. And the Apostles’ Creed affirmed, rather than denied, “the Holy Catholic Church.”

      So I’ll try once more. If you want to engage in an actual conversation about theological topics, stop playing games and being intentionally cryptic. Form a coherent argument, or ask a serious question that you genuinely want an answer to. Otherwise, what do you possibly hope to accomplish?



Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *