Roman Catholic Theory on the Development of Dogma and the Problem of Ecclesiastical Authority

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In view of the fact that those teachings which separate Catholicism from Orthodoxy - the filioque, the supremacy and infallibility of the pope, the immaculate conception of the Virgin Mary and others - were not known in the first centuries of Christianity, in confirmation of them an original theory appeared in the West, the so-called "theory of the development of dogmas" or the "theory of doctrinal progress," by virtue of which these teachings first existed "in embryo," and then gradually developed in the consciousness of the faithful and, finally, acquired their present-day form. It would be interesting to learn what new dogmas the Vatican will promulgate in the future?

The teaching on papal authority affected the whole Catholic teaching on the Church. In the first place, this erroneous teaching lessens the importance of bishops and diminishes the significance of the Ecumenical and other Church councils. The very ecclesiastical unity of Catholic doctrine is defined not so much by an organic community of faith and love, which are the inalienable components of that which we Orthodox call "catholicity" (sobornost'), as by an authority that stands outside and, in part, over the Church. Here is why, according to the thought of Father Alexander Elchaninov, "in Catholicism, the Church is mystically founded and experience by the faithful first of all as an organization and not as an Organism. An organization with the pope-monarch at its head" (The Notes of Priest A. Elchaninov, YMCA Press, Paris, 1962, page 150 [in Russian]).

Alexei Khomiakov notes that in Western Christian conscious-ness, "authority became external power" and "the knowledge of religious truths was removed from religious life." Truth defined by ecclesiastical authority became the property only of human reason, as the means "essential" or "beneficial" for salvation. Whereas Khomiakov writes, "the Church is not an authority, just as God is not an authority, just as Christ is not an authority; for an authority is for us something external. Not an authority, I say, but truth, and at the same time the life of a Christian, his inner life; for God, Christ, the Church live in him by a life more real than the heart beating in his breast or the blood flowing in his veins; but they live, inasmuch as he himself lives by the universal life of love and unity, that is, by the life of the Church" (A Few Words of an Orthodox Christian on the Western Confessions).

The powerful organization of the Roman Catholic Church attracts many people, even Orthodox, and the jurisdictional chaos of the Orthodox Churches disturbs them. Concerning this, Father Alexander Elchaninov speaks well: "Of course, in the Orthodox Church we have many 'disorders', which are almost unthinkable in Catholicism, where the centralization of authority in the hands of the pope (over the heads of the bishops) makes such disorders almost impossible.

"But one ought not forget that there were also 'disorders' in the ancient Church and that they were vanquished not through submission to the authority of the Roman pontiff, but were overcome and are overcome from within. And such obedience to authority is often an external submission, not signifying inner unity. One must remark that many Catholics and even Catholic theologians often internally do not accept this formal juridical submission to the Church" (ibid., page 150).

Father Alexander Elchaninov's last thought, expressed in the twenties, is confirmed in our time. Each day the statements of Catholics against one or another aspect of their church's doctrine are reported. This criticism took on large-scale dimensions shortly after the Second Vatican Council (1965), when attempts were made to introduce some elements of catholicity (sobornost'). Professor Protopriest John Meyendorff considers that this step pushed Western Christianity into a state of crisis:

"The movement to reinforce Roman authority, which constantly expanded from the time of the early Middle Ages until the pontificate of Pius XII inclusive, was reversed by Pope John XXIII and his Council... The Catholic intelligentsia, unaccustomed to freedom, began to be attracted by various forms of modernism, while skepticism and simple rebelliousness... triumphed in their minds. (...)

"...The question of "authority" continues to be the most obvious defect of Western Christianity. In the West, they have forgotten that which was fully evident for the ancient Church (and for contemporary Orthodoxy): it is not authority that makes the Church the Church, but the Holy Spirit acting in her, as in the Body of Christ, making real the sacramental Presence of Christ Himself among men and in men. Authority - bishops, Councils, Sacred Scripture, Tradition - is only an expression of this Presence" ("Is there External Authority in the Church," in the collection, Orthodoxy in the Contemporary World, New York, 1981, pages 66-67 [in Russian]).

Historically, too sharp a line between the clergy and laity has been drawn by the Catholic hierarchy with the pope at its head. The clergy elevated itself too much over the people and, abusing its position, oppressed them. An artificial division into the Church of those that teach and the Church of those that are taught appeared, while in the sacramental life, the significance of the prayerful participation of the people of the Church has been diminished.

©V. Potapov, 1996-98

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