172. Can the Roman Catholic Church survive two Popes? — one Catholic and one Roman

When Pope Benedict XVI resigned in 2013 nobody could have imagined what has been happening since: the Roman Catholic Church has one reigning pope (Francis), but also a former yet living pope (Benedict) who still speaks, acts, and intervenes in ecclesiastical matters. There were hints that the prospect of having two living popes would cause some confusion, if not controversy. The fact that Benedict wanted to keep his title as Pope (only adding “Emeritus” to it), as well as his white papal robe (a symbol of the papal office) and his residence inside of the Vatican walls (the home of popes), indicated that, in spite of his pledge to remain silent for the rest of his days, the cohabitation between two popes would easily result in misunderstandings, even conflicts. The outcome has been an increasing polarization between Francis’ fans over against Benedict’s supporters and vice versa, certainly beyond the intentions of both.

One Pope, Two Popes?
In 2019 we had a preview of the present-day turmoil. The two popes spoke on the same subject, the sexual abuses committed in the Roman Church, but with clearly different positions: Francis blamed “clericalism”, an abuse of ecclesiastical power by the priests and religious people involved, whereas Benedict pointed to the collapse of Catholic doctrine and morality since the Sixties and after the Second Vatican Council, a theological decay that according to him was at the root of the scandals. The two popes interpreted the malaise of their church and the possible solutions in radically different ways.

More recently, a power struggle rallying around Pope Francis and Pope Benedict erupted, with the “Francis party” pushing for changes in areas such as the re-admission of the divorced to the Eucharist and the extension of the priesthood to married men, and the “Benedict party” resisting those changes, denouncing them as heresies, confusions and failures. It was indeed an Annus Horribilis (terrible year) for the Roman Church. Last but not least, we have now a popular movie entitled The Two Popes telling a made-up story (with some truth in it) and making fun of the two characters and their unusual cohabitation in the Vatican. All of this was unthinkable seven years ago.

Pope Emeritus, yet Outspokenly Concerned
The last episode in the tale of the two Popes only happened a few days ago. Cardinal Robert Sarah, a prominent member of the traditionalist front, announced the imminent publication of a book written with Pope Benedict. The title of the book, From the Depths of Our Hearts, is indicative of the highly emotional tone of its authors. The book itself is a heartfelt cry seasoned with theological acumen to maintain the traditional Roman Catholic doctrine and practice of the celibacy of the priests. It arises out of fears that after the 2019 Synod for the Pan-Amazon region, Pope Francis will allow some married men (viri probati, “proved men”) to access the priesthood, thereby breaking a millennial rule of the Roman Catholic Church which prescribes her priests to be celibate. Sarah and Benedict staunchly defend the permanent validity of the celibacy of the priests and denounce any attempts at breaking it, even those painted as “exceptions” in extraordinary circumstances. It is true that after the press release by Cardinal Sarah there has been a backlash against Benedict appearing as co-author of the book, even though it looks like the Pope Emeritus had given at least tacit prior approval for the full manuscript. You can read the full story here.

The theological arguments of the book deserve attention on their own merits because they show that traditional Roman Catholic theology is against progressive and liberal trends, not out of biblical concerns or standing under the authority of the Bible, but in order to preserve traditional Roman Catholic teaching on the basis of the weight of church tradition and extra-biblical arguments (i.e. the “ontological” and “sacramental” nature of the priestly office). Because of its importance for gaining an insight into the traditional Roman Catholic way of theologizing, the book by Sarah and Benedict will be reviewed in a future Vatican File. What is of interest now are the standing questions that it brings.

An Unsettled Tension
One of the roles of the pope has always been the maintenance of the balance between the Roman and the Catholic dimensions. Roman Catholicism is the ongoing tension between two fundamental aspects of the whole: the Roman side, with its emphasis on centralized authority, pyramidal structure, binding teaching and the rigidity of canon law; and the Catholic side, with its emphasis on the universal outlook, the absorption of ideas and cultures and the inclusive embrace of practices into the Catholic whole. The resulting system is Roman Catholicism, at the same time Roman and Catholic. The human genius of Roman Catholicism and one of the reasons for its survival across the centuries has been its ability to be both, though not without tensions and risks of disruption.

Popes embody the Roman Catholic synthesis by holding together the Roman apparatus and the Catholic vision. Of course, they each do it differently, especially after the Second Vatican Council. John Paul II, for example, was a very Roman pope but at the same time a very Catholic one. For example, he strongly defended traditional Roman Catholic teaching (e.g. by launching the 1992 Catechism of the Catholic Church), but was second to none in promoting the universality of this Church around the world (e.g. inter-religious dialogue, traveling globally). Unlike John Paul II, who was both Roman and Catholic, Benedict XVI made the pendulum swing over the Roman pole. With his staunch conservativism in areas such as liturgy, morality and the critical relationship with the secular world, Benedict appeared to be more Roman than Catholic. He seemed to be a rigid, centripetal, doctrinaire pope. A Roman pope. Many felt that his papacy, while strong in its Roman centredness and boundaries, was weak in its Catholic breadth and warmth.

This criticism helps explain why a pope like Francis was chosen to succeed him. With the election of Pope Francis, Rome seemed to be wanting the pendulum to move in the opposite direction in order to re-address the balance. Distancing himself from many Roman features of the office (e.g. his refusal of the pomp of the Vatican Curia, his blurred teaching that leans away from official teachings), Francis has embodied the role of a very Catholic pope. His stress on “Who are we to judge?”, universal brotherhood with Muslims and other religions, ecological concerns, etc. made his papacy significantly shaped by the Catholic elements. The open-endedness of his teaching, coupled with the ambiguity of his language, has created some interest in the secular West, which resonates with much of what he says on social issues. This is to say that he is a very Catholic pope. Perhaps too Catholic and too little Roman for a growing number of Roman Catholics!

A Struggle to Re-Fix the Balance
Admitting the divorced to the Eucharist, fudging the traditional opposition to homosexuality and extending the priesthood to married men have been perceived as the latest, dangerous “Catholic” moves of the pope which run contrary to the Roman tradition, risking its whole collapse! This is the highly emotional background behind the From the Depths of Our Hearts book, part of which was written by Benedict himself in order to reinforce the “Roman” teaching on the celibacy of priests over against possible “Catholic” openings towards married men, which Francis seems to be in favor of.

The tension between the “Roman” Benedict and the “Catholic” Francis helps explain the present-day crisis. Past popes reigned without a Pope Emeritus around and therefore embodied in their own way the Roman Catholic synthesis. The next pope would have fixed the synthesis differently. But now, with two very different popes living next to each other (with only one reigning, but the other still lucid and active), the situation is very different. The overly Catholic attitude of Francis is compared and contrasted with the Roman outlook of Benedict to the point of creating an unprecedented struggle between opposite parties. For some, Francis has become too Catholic to maintain a proper Roman Catholic synthesis. He is incapable of being the Roman Catholic (at the same time) Pontifex. Therefore, he needs the correction of a Roman pope.

And yet, if this situation goes on unresolved it will undermine the institution of the papacy as it was cleverly crafted throughout the ages. The “progressive” pope will be counter-balanced by the “traditional” pope and the disruption of the system will be achieved. The papacy will be transformed into a two-party political system, as if it were an ordinary parliamentary monarchy. It will be the end of Roman Catholicism as it stands now.

This tension at the highest level of the Roman Catholic Church is not tenable in the long run. This is why it is highly probable that the status of Pope Emeritus (the one which Benedict enjoys now) will be revisited and regulated in order to end the temptation to think of the papacy as a “dual” responsibility, resulting in the on-going confrontation of a Roman and a Catholic party. Roman Catholicism accommodates different positions and tendencies, but the pope is thought of as being the one, living synthesizer of the tension, until the next one takes over and perhaps re-fixes the balance. The tale of two popes will not last long because Roman Catholicism is built on the conviction that its system is capable of keeping together its unchangeable Roman identity and its ever-increasing Catholicity. No biblical reformation is in view; it is only an internal struggle that is causing Rome to go through a stress-test and some chaos until the Roman and the Catholic dimensions find a new, sustainable equilibrium.

112. Peter, the Rock and the Keys: Does Matthew 16 Support the Doctrine of the Papacy?

September 1st, 2015

The most apparent and quoted evidence for the doctrine of the Papacy are the well-known words of Christ to his servant: “You are Peter and on this rock I will build my church” (Matthew 16:18). This is deemed to be the cornerstone of the Biblical doctrine of the Papacy, and is the foundation of the doctrinal and ecclesiastical development that shaped the Papacy as we now know it. These words appear in the inside of St. Peter’s basilica in a marvelous mosaic, right where the Pope exercises his office.

The interpretation of this passage has been hotly debated for centuries and its meaning is a matter of on-going debate between informed readers of the Bible.[1] Some critical commentators argue that this speech by Jesus was inserted by the Petrine party in the early church to support Peter’s role and leadership over the Pauline party and the Jacobite party. The background of this hypothesis refers to the argument between Paul and Peter in Galatians 2:11-21, and Paul’s recognition of the existence of factions in the Corinthian church mentioned after the names of the apostles (1 Corinthians 1:11-12).[2] This view, however, imposes on the canonical Bible a power struggle between the early church leaders. The early church was certainly characterized by various tensions in the inner circle of believers, but they did not reach the point of using apostolic writings as weapons to fight one another.

The standard Roman Catholic interpretation sees in this passage the embryonic stage of the doctrine of the papacy that was later developed into its full form. In it Jesus gives the person of Peter (and by implication his successors) a foundational role in the building of His Church. Subsequent traditions and practices continued to develop this role to the point in which the papacy eventually emerged. It is difficult, however, to see the organic connection between what the text says and the function of the papacy with its succession of the Petrine ministry to subsequent generations (which is not what Jesus says here), with the fundamental importance attributed to the See of Rome (which is not mentioned here), and with the imperial form that the Papacy took (which is not at all implied in the text).

Peter’s confession that precedes what Jesus says to him in Matthew 16 is reported in all three Synoptic Gospels, and is in the context of Jesus announcing His passion, His instructions to His disciples, and the Transfiguration narrative (Matthew 16:13-17:23; Mark 8:19-9:33; Luke 9:18-45).[3] Only Matthew’s Gospel, however, adds to this discourse the words: “Tu es Petrus …”. The context is Jesus’ approaching death, a necessary step towards the fulfillment of the Messiah’s mission as Savior and Lord. As He is nearing his death, Jesus asks His disciples who the people say He is, and after that, who they believe Him to be. At this point, Peter pronounces his perhaps most famous words: “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God”. These words, however, do not originate from Peter himself. Jesus promptly replies that they come from a revelation of God. There is nothing inherently Petrine in Peter’s confession of faith. It is God who has revealed it and Peter has spoken it. The church (ekklesia), the community of Jesus’ disciples, will be built upon the truth (the rock) that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God. Jesus underlines the fact that “my” church will be built in such a way. It is not the Petrine church; it is the church of Jesus, founded by Jesus as the Messiah. “I will build my church”, says Jesus. Jesus is the Founder and the Builder of the Church, whereas Peter is a witness, a special spokesperson of this Divine truth that was revealed to him by God. Moreover, there is no indication that Peter will have successors that will take his place. It is Jesus that will build His church, not Peter or someone else after him.

In amplifying Peter’s confession, Jesus says that He will give Peter the keys of the kingdom (16:19). The symbolic significance of the keys has been outstanding for the identity of the Papacy, especially as far as his authority is concerned. The Pope is thought of as being the one who has the power of holding the keys of the church and exercising supreme control over it. In popular imagery, Peter is pictured as the one standing at the gate of heaven opening or closing its door. It is important, however, that the “keys” which Jesus refers to are put in the right Biblical context. In mentioning them, Jesus is quoting Isaiah 22:22 where Shebna, king Ezekiah’s steward, is about to be replaced by Eliakim, onto whose shoulders the keys of the house of David will be put. Opening and closing doors with keys is the subordinate role of the steward on behalf of his king. It is not a self-referential, absolute power in and of itself. It is not something that the steward can do as if he were the king. So, by receiving the keys of the kingdom, Peter will be a servant of God the King who will use them as a steward of the church that Jesus will build. “Binding and loosing” is another expression that Jesus uses to define what Peter will be called to do (16:19). It is a Jewish saying implying the exercise of discernment (e.g. forbidding and permitting) that leads to decision. In fact, Peter will be part of various decision-making processes in the church’s development that will impact the life of the community of Jesus.

As the narrative continues Jesus announces His imminent passion and death. Peter replies according to his “flesh and blood” and rebukes Jesus for doing so (16:22). Apparently Peter does not possess infallibility, nor does he exercise a divinely appointed role that is beyond the need of on-going spiritual reformation. Jesus calls Peter “satan”, one whose mind is not on the “things of God” but on the “things of men” (16:23). These words shed light on the whole passage, especially if it is interpreted as supporting a papal portrayal of Peter. Peter is safe when he follows the revelation of God and lives under His authority. Peter is utterly unsafe when he acts according to his own understanding and wants to prevail over God’s will. The point is that he is not given a leadership role beyond his spirituality. He is not given an office detached from the condition of his heart. He is not assigned a divine office that puts him on a different level than other Christian leaders. Peter is and remains a saved sinner that God will use for his purposes inasmuch as he hears the Word of God and obeys it. Matthew 16 can be seen as the Biblical basis for the Papacy only if the doctrine of the Papacy has already been established apart from Scripture and then subsequently and retrospectively squeezed into it. It is perhaps fair to say that the Papacy created the papal implications of the “Tu es Petrus …”, not the other way around.

This is an excerpt from my book A Christian’s Pocket Guide to the Papacy (Fearn: Christian Focus Publications, 2015). http://www.christianfocus.com/item/show/1617/-

 


[1] The standard survey of the interpretation of the passage is the volume by O. Cullmann, Peter: Disciple, Apostle, Martyr. A Historical and Theological Study (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1962). More recent discussions are analyzed by M. Bockmuehl, Simon Peter in Scripture and Memory. The New Testament Apostle in the Early Church (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2012).

[2] This reading was recently argued for by M. Hengel, Saint Peter: The Underestimated Apostle (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2010).

[3] For extended exegetical discussions on the passage, cfr. W. Hendriksen, Matthew (Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1974, reprint 1989) pp. 641-652; R.T. France, The Gospel of Matthew NICNT (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2002) pp. 611-628.

A Christian Pocket Guide to the Papacy. A Book Review by Chris Castaldo

Here is a review of my book on the papacy by Chris Castaldo (PhD, London School of Theology), lead pastor of New Covenant Church in Naperville, Illinois. He is the author of Talking with Catholics about the Gospel. Chris blogs at www.chriscastaldo.com.

Leonardo De Chirico. A Christian’s Pocket Guide to the Papacy: Its Origin and Role in the 21st Century. Ross-shire, Scotland, UK: Christian Focus, 2015. 128 pp. $7.99.

The office of the papacy is an enigma to most evangelical Protestants. The spectacle of medieval regalia, papal coronation, gem-studded tiara (several of which are displayed at the Vatican), red leather loafers, and the popemobile tend to provoke curiosity, skepticism, and bewilderment. Add to these visible symbols the pope’s claim to supremacy, monarchial titles (over the Vatican, of which he is a head of state), infallibility, and a standing army, and the portrait gets even more perplexing.

Cutting through the fog of mystery and confusion is Leonardo De Chirico’s new book, A Christian’s Pocket Guide to the Papacy: Its Origin and Role in the 21st Century. De Chirico is ideally suited to write this volume. An Italian historical theologian with specialization in Roman Catholic history and thought, he has spent numerous years teaching in the Eternal City. He sits at the table in ecumenical dialogue with Vatican scholars while simultaneously pastoring a Protestant congregation (which he planted in partnership with Redeemer Presbyterian Church’s City to City initiative). Consequently, we’re getting a treatment that is in some sense “insider,” intimately acquainted with the finer points of the Vatican, and at the same time thoroughly evangelical, rock-ribbed in its commitment to Scripture’s supreme authority.

De Chirico begins by examining the historical development of the papal office through its titles and symbols. Readers are then escorted to the Sistine Chapel to observe cardinals in conclave (“from the Latin cum clave, “locked up with a key”). By the way, such parenthetical definitions fill each chapter, providing insight into a myriad of Latin expressions (e.g., Pontifex Maximus, plenitude potestatis, ex-cathedra). A couple of paragraphs later, he consults the Catechism of the Catholic Church to note how such formulations are explicitly defined by contemporary Roman Catholic teaching. Whether it’s the “keys” of Peter, the pope’s throne, or his pallium (a woolen cloak), De Chirico explains how such symbols convey the form and substance of papal authority.

to continue reading the book review, please go to

http://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/a-christians-pocket-guide-to-the-papacy

Another review of the book by James Dudley-Smith was published on Evangelicals Now (July 2015) p. 26 (https://www.e-n.org.uk/2015/07/reviews/rome-alone/)

I am also pleased to announce the publication of the Italian edition of the book

Il papato. Una guida evangelica, Firenze, BE Edizioni 2015, pp. 116.

http://www.beedizioni.it/shop/48-il-papato-.html

 

Il papato. Una guida evangelica

”Gaudium magnum: habemus papam”

Questo annuncio presenta un nuovo papa al mondo. Il papa è uno degli ultimi esempi di sovranità assoluta nel mondo moderno e rappresenta una delle istituzioni più antiche, anche se nel 2013 l’attuale papa Francesco è stato nominato dal Time “persona dell’anno”. Questo libro risponde alle seguenti domande introduttive: chi è il papa e in che modo la chiesa cattolica romana definisce il suo ruolo? Che relazione c’è tra Pietro e il papa? Pietro è stato il primo papa? Come può una posizione di guida nella chiesa cristiana avere assunto una forma così “imperiale”? Perché Roma è stata così importante in questo processo? Come veniva visto dai riformatori protestanti del XVI secolo e oltre? Che cosa si può dire dei papi contemporanei? Qual è il significato ecumenico del papato e quali sono le sue prospettive nel mondo globale? Queste e altre domande costituiscono lo sfondo delle nostre indagini sull’intreccio biblico, storico e teologico del papato da un punto di vista evangelico.

Video of the presentation of the book at the National Book Fair in Torino

An interview on the contents of the book

A Christian’s Pocket Guide to Papacy

Dear Friends of the Vatican Files,

this is not a new Vatican File but a short message to inform you that my book on the Papacy is now available for purchase.

http://www.christianfocus.com/item/show/1617/-

USA: http://www.stl-distribution.com/details/?id=9781781912997

Other areas, check here:  http://www.christianfocus.com/distributor/list/-/-

I hope that you will enjoy it!

A Christian’s Pocket Guide to Papacy

Its origin and role in the 21st century

by Leonardo De Chirico

A Christian's Pocket Guide to Papacy

Pages: 128
Trim: Pocket paperback (178 x 110mm)
Isbn 13: 9781781912997
List Price: £4.99
Originally Released: January 2014
Last Reprinted: January 2014
Imprint: Christian Focus
Category: Church Life > Protestant Denominations

 

 

  • Comprehensive introduction to the Catholic Church’s doctrine
  • Unpacks the mystery of the Papacy
  • Investigates the topic biblically

Description

Who are the Popes and how does the Roman Catholic Church define their role? What about the present day Popes? What is the ecumenical significance of the Papacy and what are its prospects in the global world? These and other questions are tackled as Leonardo De Chirico explores the Biblical, historical, and theological fabric of the Papacy.

Leonardo De Chirico has been involved in a church planting project in Rome and is now pastor of the church Breccia di Roma (www.brecciadiroma.it). He is lecturer of Historical Theology at Istituto di Formazione Evangelica e Documentazione (www.ifeditalia.org) and vice-chairman of the Italian Evangelical Alliance (www.alleanzaevangelica.org).

 

Reviews

…Professor De Chirico investigate the phenomenon of Roman Catholic hierarchy using biblical exegesis, fascinating historical data, and basic theological insights to inform our view…engaging, clearly written, polemical in the best sense, and resolutely Scriptural, this is easily the best shorter guide for those wanting to know how to evaluate the institution of the papacy and related matters.

William Edgar, Professor of Apologetics, Westminster Theological Seminary, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

 

How readable! How fascinating! How important! This book is a page-turner. I kept thinking, “I have it, to whom can I give it?”…Right at the heart of Roman Catholicism there is this giant delusion. You don’t believe me? Then read this fascinating and brief book and think for yourself.

Geoff Thomas, Aberystwyth Baptist Church, Aberystwyth, Wales

 

In terms of an introduction to the Catholic Church’s doctrine and exercise of the papacy, this book is unmatched! Read this book and you will gain essential insights into what for many Christians is a mystery, now unpacked by a trusted evangelical theologian and pastor.

Gregg R. Allison, Professor of Christian Theology, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Louisville, Kentucky

98. John Calvin and the Papacy

December 31st, 2014

This is an excerpt from my forthcoming book, A Christian’s Pocket Guide to the Papacy (Fearn: Christian Focus Publications, 2015)

The Papacy has always had its critics throughout the centuries. It is fair to say, however, that it was the XVI century Protestant Reformation that developed the most comprehensive and massive argument against the Papacy pulling together Biblical, doctrinal, historical, moral, and institutional threads in order to do so. The Protestant critique reached its peak with the identification of the Pope as the Antichrist. According to the New Testament the Antichrist is someone who is against Christ and His church by wanting to take His place and destroy His work (e.g. 2 Thessalonians 2). For Christians the Antichrist is the enemy par excellence. This equation stirred the religious emotions more than many subtle theological arguments. The Protestant Reformation was not the first movement that referred to the Pope as the Antichrist. There was a robust Medieval European tradition – from the Waldensians to Wycliffe, and down to the Hussites – that had denounced the Pope in such a radical way. This is why a recent Roman Catholic and Lutheran dialogue in the United States acknowledges this fact: “In calling the pope the ‘antichrist’ the early Lutherans stood in a tradition that reached back into the eleventh century. Not only dissidents and heretics but even saints had called the bishop of Rome the ‘antichrist’ when they wished to castigate his abuse of power”.[1] Even in this case the Reformers were not necessarily innovative but relied on previous strands of thought well attested for in Church history. Here is how John Calvin argued his case against the Papacy.

The French Reformer John Calvin dealt with Roman Catholic representatives at various times and in different ways. [2] His major work, the Institutes of the Christian Religion (first edition: 1536) contains frequent interactions with Roman Catholic doctrines and practices. Here Calvin develops his argument that the Pope is the Antichrist (Institutes IV,7,25). The historical Pope that Calvin had in view was Paul III (1534-1549) but his critique never focuses on his person, but rather on the Papal institution. After underlining the fact that the Antichrist sets his tyranny in opposition to the spiritual kingdom of Christ, Calvin writes that the Antichrist “abolishes not the name of either Christ or the Church, but rather uses the name of Christ as a pretext, and lurks under the name of Church as under a mask” by robbing God of his honor. This is, for him, a clear picture of the Pope and therefore he concludes by saying that “it is certain that the Roman Pontiff has impudently transferred to himself the most peculiar properties of God and Christ, there cannot be a doubt that he is the leader and standard-bearer of an impious and abominable kingdom”. Calvin is not speaking of a particular historical Pope, but he is referring to the Pope as representing the institution of the Papacy.

An Antidote to the Papacy

Calvin’s main critical analysis of the Papacy is found in two works in particular. In 1543 the theological faculty of the Sorbonne published twenty-five articles that candidates had to subscribe to as a kind of oath to remain faithful to the Catholic Church. The following year, Calvin wrote a refutation of this summary of Catholic doctrine in his Articuli a facultate sacrae theologiae parisiensi by quoting each article and providing a critical review, i.e. an “antidote”.[3] Article XXIII treats the primacy of the See of Rome and rehearses Catholic proofs for it. In response, Calvin argues that while Scripture often speaks of Christ as the head of the Church, it never does so as far as the Pope is concerned.[4] The unity of the Church is based on one God, one faith and one baptism (Ephesians 4:4), but there is no mention of the necessity of the Pope in order for the Church to be the Church. Moreover, in listing the ministries and offices of the Church, Paul is silent about a present or future Papacy. Peter was Paul’s co-worker, not his pope-like leader. The universal Bishop of the Church is Christ alone. To this Biblical argument for the headship of Christ, Calvin adds a historical reference to some Patristic writings that support the same New Testament view. Even Cyprian of Carthage, who is often considered a Church Father who favored an early form of a Papacy, calls the bishop of Rome a “brother, fellow-Christian, and colleague in the episcopate”, thus showing that he did not have in view the kind of primacy that was later attributed to the Pope. These kinds of Biblical and patristic arguments against the Papacy can be found in another giant of the Protestant Reformation of the XVI century, namely Peter Martyr Vermigli (1499-1562), especially in his 1542 Trattato della vera chiesa e della necessità di viver in essa (Treatise of the true church and the necessity to live in her).[5] They appear to be standard controversial treatments of the magisterial Reformation.

What is Wrong with the Papacy?

Returning to Calvin, another of his works that deals with the Papacy was written in 1549. When Charles tried to find a compromise solution to the Augsbug Interim, Bucer and Bullinger urged Calvin to respond. He wrote the treatise Vera Christianae pacificationis et Ecclesiae reformandae ratio, in which he described the doctrines that should be upheld, including justification by faith. In expounding the doctrine of the Church, Calvin devotes a section to the Papacy. Here he criticizes the standard Catholic reading of John 21, a New Testament text that is considered to be one of the Biblical foundations of the Papal office. In commenting on the passage, Calvin notes that the threefold command to Peter to shepherd the sheep is to be related to the threefold denial of Jesus by Peter. This office is not exclusive given the fact that Peter exhorts his fellow-elders to do the same (1 Peter 5:2). Furthermore, according to Calvin the Papacy is totally invalid because in the New Testament there is no injunction given to Peter to find successors in a juridical sense. To keep the unity of the Church, Christ is all we need. Calvin then comments on the choice of Rome as the chosen See for the Pope. “Why Rome,” Calvin asks.  In writing to the Romans, Paul mentions many individual names, but Peter is not on the list. And even if Peter would later go to Rome, why was the city selected as the special and central place for future Popes? Why not Jerusalem? Or Antioch? Calvin, however, does not address the political and historical importance of Rome as reasons for locating the Papacy there.

Finally, Calvin once again accuses the Pope of being the Antichrist because of his “tyranny”, “destruction of the truth”, “corruption of the worship of God”, “breaking of His ordinances”, and the “dispersion of the order of His Church”. Here we see many similarities with Luther, with the exception that with Calvin the apocalyptic tone is not as strong and is less evident than that of the German reformer. Rather than passionate eschatological concerns, Calvin relies on lucid theological and Biblical arguments in his effort to grapple with the Papacy.


[1] “Differing Attitudes Towards Papal Primacy” (1973). The text can be accessed at http://www.usccb.org/beliefs-and-teachings/ecumenical-and-interreligious/ecumenical/lutheran/attitudes-papal-primacy.cfm and is a useful summary of the main controversial issues around the Papacy between present-day Lutherans and Roman Catholics.

[2] On Calvin’s views of Rome as they are presented in various writings, see M. Stolk, Calvin and Rome in H.J. Selderhuis (ed.), The Calvin Handbook (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2009) pp. 104-112.

[3] This word “antidote” would come back in Calvin’s refutations of the Acts of the Council of Trent. See his Acta synodi Tridentinae cum Antidoto (1547).

[4] See also Calvin’s Institutes IV,6-7.

[5] See my paper “Separazione e riforma della Chiesa ne ‘Il Trattato della vera Chiesa e della necessità di viver in essa’”, A. Oliveri and P. Bolognesi (edd.), Pietro Martire Vermigli (1499-1562). Umanista, Riformatore, Pastore (Rome: Herder, 2003) pp. 225-232.