Normally I like to avoid false dichotomies. Simply defined, a false dichotomy is when two alternatives are presented as the only possible options, unnecessarily forcing someone into an either/or situation. Keep your ears open and you’ll hear how often people make this mistake! That’s why I was a bit hesitant the first time I read this: “The Catholic Church is either the masterpiece of Satan or the kingdom of the Son of God.” Or, again: “Either the Church of Rome is the house of God or the house of Satan; there is no middle ground between them.” And yet again: “If the power over the human mind and the infallible possession of Divine truth claimed by the Catholic hierarchy did not really come from God, the claim would be horrible blaspheme, and the hierarchy would be the work of the devil.”
Before I risk the accusation of being uncharitable, it may surprise you to learn that these weren’t written by protesting Protestants. Actually, they’re written by some of the Catholic Church’s popular and influential clergy and theologians—to be precise, Blessed John Henry Newman, Cardinal Henry Manning, and Matthias Scheeben. In their own words these thoroughly committed Roman Catholics are absolutely persuaded that Rome is either the work of God or Satan. Sounds startling, doesn’t it? I don’t imagine many Catholics or even Protestants would be quick to agree.
But instead of reading for reaction let’s pause and read for understanding. Why would these leading figures in Catholic thought, men who understood the claims of Rome more than you and me, make such bold statements? The answer, it seems to me, is because of the lofty claims the Church of Rome makes. Consider—:
Claim 1: Vatican II teaches that the Church has a continuing Apostolic prerogative, “Just as in the Gospel, the Lord so disposing, St. Peter and the other apostles constitute one apostolic college, so in a similar way the Roman Pontiff, the successor of Peter, and the bishops, the successors of the apostles, are joined together.”
Claim 2: According to Lumen Gentium “In virtue of his office, that is as Vicar of Christ and pastor of the whole Church, the Roman Pontiff has full, supreme and universal power over the Church. And he is always free to exercise this power.”
Claim 3: The Pope, as the successor of Peter, is, as Vatican I said, has power as “supreme judge of the faithful.” That means he doesn’t simply have an office of supervision and guidance,” but he has “full and supreme power to jurisdiction over the whole church” in matters of faith, morals, discipline, and government. He is subject to none, but all are subject to him.
Claim 4: When the Pope speaks ex cathedra—that is, when he is discharging the office of Pastor and Doctor, he posses by “divine assistance” infallibility in defining faith and morals. That means he is given immunity from liability to error and, therefore, his definitions—final decisions on faith and morals—are “irreformable.”
Claim 5: Again, according to Vatican I, the unity of the church depends on one’s union with the Pope, “In this way, by unity with the Roman pontiff in communion and in profession of the same faith, the church of Christ becomes one flock under one supreme shepherd.” Vatican II reaffirmed this, “[he is the] perpetual and visible principle and foundation of unity of both the bishops and of the faithful.”
While this is by no means extensive it’s clear that the Roman Catholic Church teaches that their hierarchy is infallible in matters of faith and morals. That means when Rome speaks in this capacity—either the Pope alone or the bishops in unison with the Pope—they believe themselves to be the very voice of Jesus Christ to his sheep. To disagree, depart, or reject that voice is to disagree, depart, or reject the Great Shepherd of the sheep.
I think it’s precisely this that led the above writers to make such startling claims. It’s not a false dichotomy to say either Rome is the voice of Jesus or it is not. There’s no other alternative. If it is, since the Lordship of Jesus knows no boundaries, the Pope deserves universal submission and acceptance. But, if it’s not, then Rome has exalted itself over Jesus by its claim to speak in his name.
Now, while I admit I’m self-consciously Protestant my point in this isn’t to be contentious. I don’t think my differences with Roman Catholicism simply make for nice points of debate. This topic is something, even for me, that is personal and very pastoral–it’s difficult and it’s heartbreaking. But my point is simply to observe that in their own words there’s no room for a third way that many want to create–the way of indifference. That shouldn’t surprise us. There was no false dichotomy when Jesus said, “Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters” (Matthew 12:30). In their own words, either Rome is the household of God or it is the household of Satan; there is no middle ground between them.