One of the arguments used by Roman Catholics to try to prove the papacy is that it is a practical office used to unite the church. In order for us to have one united church, we need one head that is over the Church. This head keeps us from schism and keeps a certain continuity in the church throughout all time. But this claim crumbles when you look at what has actually happened since Christ’s ascension for two main reasons. Firstly, there is no need for an earthly head of the Church. Secondly, the Pope has done a horrendous job in the last 2 millennia of providing stability and is perhaps one of the biggest causes of disunity in church history.
Head of the Church
Roman Catholic apologist Trent Horn often uses the example of “The Office” to make this point. In the episode where Jim and Michael are made co-managers, Oscar sarcastically asks, “Where would Catholicism be without the popes?” as a tongue-in-cheek criticism against the idea of having multiple leaders. Horn uses this as an analogy to show that a mortal head of the Church (in the pope) truly does make the most sense. It doesn’t make sense to have many equally authoritative bishops. But this example can be turned around back on Horn and his fellow apologists who use this line of argument.
Christ is the true head of the Church. This objection is often caricatured and simply waved away by many Roman apologists, but it is undoubtedly true and is very important in discussing the papacy on the grounds of practical necessity.
And He is the head of the body, the church: who is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead; that in all things He might have the preeminence.Colossians 1:18 (ASV)
and He put all things in subjection under His feet, and gave Him to be head over all things to the church.Ephesians 1:22
For the husband is the head of the wife, as Christ also is the head of the church, being Himself the saviour of the body.Ephesians 5:23
So in at least some sense, Christ is undisputedly the head of the Church. But is there a need for a singular mortal leader? Still, the answer is no. In the Incarnation, Christ became the earthly founder and leader of the Church. A rejection of this is an implicit rejection of the Incarnation. If one of the purposes of the Incarnation was to unite heaven and earth, why must Christ rule with a mortal proxy? Christ rules His particular churches through the bishops, but Christ Himself is the head of the Catholic Church; there is no need for another.
The office of bishop is oriented to stewardship and shepherding in subordination to Christ, who is the “the Shepherd and Bishop of your souls'” Likewise, the bishops are charged to watch over our souls (Hebrews 13:7). In contrast, the Roman conception of the papacy (practically) is to govern in Christ’s stead, not under Him. While Roman apologists would say that the pope is subordinate to Christ, that is not at all how the papacy has manifested throughout history. A perfect example of this can be seen in the changing of the Lex Orandi in 2021. In short, Pope Francis changed the standard for what is proper worship to God, due to a change in faith in Vatican Council II, resulting in the suppression of the traditional Roman Mass. This is a fundamental change in faith, not just a change in the expression of faith. This is not something a steward of the “the faith which was once for all delivered unto the saints” would do. There are clearly legitimate needs for shepherds in the Catholic Church, but the additional authority of the Pope is not necessary, or even preferable in maintaining a proper hierarchy. Bishops are to be the shepherds of their communities like St. Peter says in his first epistle:
Tend the flock of God which is among you, exercising the oversight, not of constraint, but willingly, according to the will of God; nor yet for filthy lucre, but of a ready mind;1 Peter 5:2
There are certainly representatives of Christ and shepherds of His flock, but they are not to change how Christ wants His sheep tended.
The Chief Shepherd
In a recent interview with Cameron Bertuzzi, Roman Catholic apologist Joe Heschmeyer uses this passage from John 10 to show that St. Peter is the chief shepherd:
Verily, verily, I say unto you, He that entereth not by the door into the fold of the sheep, but climbeth up some other way, the same is a thief and a robber. But he that entereth in by the door is the shepherd of the sheep. To him the porter openeth; and the sheep hear his voice: and he calleth his own sheep by name, and leadeth them out. When he hath put forth all his own, he goeth before them, and the sheep follow him: for they know his voice. And a stranger will they not follow, but will flee from him: for they know not the voice of strangers.John 10:1-5 (ASV)
He points out that in John 21, this prophecy is fulfilled and St. Peter is confirmed as the chief shepherd. But if you read a little farther into the passage, you will see this:
Jesus therefore said unto them again, Verily, verily, I say unto you, I am the door of the sheep. All that came before me are thieves and robbers: but the sheep did not hear them. I am the door; by me if any man enter in, he shall be saved, and shall go in and go out, and shall find pasture. The thief cometh not, but that he may steal, and kill, and destroy: I came that they may have life, and may have it abundantly. I am the good shepherd: the good shepherd layeth down his life for the sheep.John 10:7-11
Christ says “I am the good shepherd”. It is not St. Peter, and it is quite clear that it is not St. Peter. Christ is the shepherd of His Church. We recognize His voice and we follow Him. It is simply terrible exegesis to think John 21 is a fulfillment of John 10. The commission that was given to St. Peter in John 21 was an episcopal commission. It was a reinstatement of St. Peter’s apostleship after he thrice denied our Lord. Feeding the lambs and sheep is what every bishop does, not just St. Peter.
Origen and Pope Gregory
There are two quotes that are very telling about the mindset of the early Church regarding the practicality of a singular mortal head. The first is from Origen writing against Celsus. Celsus uses the exact line of reasoning against Christians as Roman Catholics use against Protestants. Celsus says that Christians have no unity. Origen, in his work Contra Celsus, does not respond by saying that there is a need for an infallible teaching authority in the Church. Origen does not respond by saying that the Church has some sort of infallible teaching office. He responds by saying that differences (what he calls heresy) do not arise through strife but through a sincere and earnest search for the truth. As we do not have an infallible teaching office for medicine or philosophy, we do not have one for Church doctrine. Yet we are able to determine what is correct and what is not. An infallible teaching office is not a requirement for unity.
Another quote that is quite fascinating on this topic is from Pope Gregory the Great in response to bishop John of Constantinople. John is starting to exert authority over other bishops, and Pope Gregory replies as follows:
Are not all the bishops together clouds, who both rain in the words of preaching, and glitter in the light of good works? And when your Fraternity despises them, and you would fain press them down under yourself, what else say you but what is said by the ancient foe, I will ascend above the heights of the clouds? …. Certainly Peter, the first of the apostles, himself a member of the holy and universal Church, Paul, Andrew, John, — what were they but heads of particular communities? And yet all were members under one Head.Pope Gregory the Great: Book V Letter 18
Pope Gregory views the idea of one bishop over another as satanic. The concept of a need or even the possibility of a mortal head over all other bishops was so foreign an idea, that he equates it to something that Satan would do. In addition to this, he specifies that Sts. Peter, Paul, Andrew, and John were bishops of particular communities. He acknowledges a Petrine primacy, but it is clear he views St. Peter’s primacy as a primacy of first among equals, as would be understood in the Anglican communion.
A Guard Against Schism
In the same interview, Heschmeyer uses the episode in John 21 of St. Peter dragging the net full of fish as a prophetic-type action that shows that St. Peter was to govern the Church and singlehandedly prevent schism. Heschmeyer points out that the word for “torn” is the Greek word “schizo” which is where the English word “schism” comes from. This is a silly argument. Firstly, it is a massive jump to say that because St. Peter successfully dragged a net full of fish and the net did not tear, this means that St. Peter and his successors specifically in Rome have a unique infallible charism that is applied universally to the whole Church. It is very difficult to use typologies to prove points. As Dr. Gavin Ortlund points out, you can use any type and any archetype to prove almost anything you want. From typology, you can prove that our Lord was married on earth because He was the new Adam, and Adam was married. This same basic problem applies here. There are clearly apt typologies with St. Peter as the archetype, but you cannot use typologies to set your boundaries.
But let us say for sake of argument that this episode does show that St. Peter had a unique calling to prevent schism. There are still two major problems. To start with, there is a distinction between the office that St. Peter holds and the personal mission of St. Peter. All of the biblical verses used to prove the papacy, including John 10 and 21 by Heschmeyer, are directed at the person of St. Peter, not his office. None of these passages explicitly or implicitly state that St. Peter was the first occupant of an office that could be passed down. If St. Peter was tasked by our Lord to prevent schism and promote unity, there is no reason to believe that this specific aspect of St. Peter’s calling is to be passed on to his successors. And if there is a clear reason, there needs to again be a distinction between the papal line of St. Peter and the lines of succession that were established in the east by St. Peter. This is another topic where modern Roman Catholics want to have their cake and eat it too. If these passages establish the papacy by specifically talking about St. Peter’s person and character, why does this emphasis on person and character not pass on to his successors? Whenever Pope Francis does something unorthodox, he is defended by saying that he never used his infallibility or specific office. It is simply Francis being Francis. But the way the Roman apologists use to establish the papacy through scripture is by pointing to passages about St. Peter’s character. This is inconsistent.
The second reason this argument from practicality fails is that the papacy has done a horrendous job at promoting unity. Any accusation of disunity that can be levied at certain Protestant denominations can be equally applied to Rome. In the same interview, Heschmeyer claims that the first 500 years of the Church, which he considers very Roman Catholic, were quite monolithic in a way. There were disputes that arose, but they were swiftly dealt with. On the other hand, there is a large amount of disunity within Protestantism. This argument is once again not a serious problem at all to answer. Not only were there many divisions in the early church, some of these divisions were instigated by the Bishop of Rome! (Such as Pope Victor being rebuked by the Asian bishops for trying to force the Roman custom of Easter on them.) The most unifying figure since the conversion of Constantine has not been the Pope but the emperors! (Such as Sts. Constantine and Justinian.) However, the method and definition of unity that exists now in Rome is quite different. Rome’s view of unity is that:
This Church (the Church of Christ) constituted and organzied as a society in the present world subsists in the Catholic Church which is governed by the successor of Peter and by the Bishops in communion with him.Catechism of the Catholic Church
To Rome, unity is not essentially about truth or communion with Christ but submission to the authority of Rome. This is a disordered view of unity. They think that unity can be achieved through cutting away those with whom they disagree. But in reality, unity never meant communion with the Roman Pontiff. Their idea of unity is not true unity; it is “Solus Petrus.” It is conformity to a false standard. Those who are not in union with the Roman Pontiff are potentially damned for this. How does the presence of the Pope support unity in light of this? Unity is a good thing and a thing that all Christians are called to achieve and promote. But a united Church is not a monolith. There is no real barrier between Rome and several other groups of Christians, other than the Pope, which was never a standard of unity. In the Roman mind, this office is essential in providing unity, and yet it is the main source of division between Rome and many other denominations.
Not only this but those who are in Rome are not unified. One of the most common attacks against Anglicanism is that faux-Anglicans have started ordaining women and open homosexuals. But this can also be seen in the Roman church. Women claiming to be Roman Catholic are being ordained to the priesthood. Rome even official sanctions ordaining women to the minor orders in the Roman Church. There are also Roman Cardinals blessing same-sex couples. The fact that you can have Cardinal Marx and Dr. Taylor Marshall who both claim to be Roman Catholic and under the infallible authority of the Roman Church shows that when Roman apologists accuse Protestants of disunity, they are using an incorrect definition of the word “unity.” An apologist may argue that Roman Catholicism is different than certain forms of Protestantism because Dr. Marshal and Cardinal Marx are at least under the same laws. But this can be said for all historic Protestant denominations. They all have very clear confessional standards. The Anglicans have the 39 articles, the Books of Homilies, and the Book of Common Prayer. The disunity that does undoubtedly rear its ugly head in Protestantism shows up as much if not more in the Roman church.
It may seem apparently obvious that a clear head is an aid in unity. But as we can see, having a mortal head does not add clarity, and it has not historically worked. So rather than the pope being an aid in unity, it is clear that the pope has had a negligible effect on the unity of Christendom and has been impotent at its supposed true calling, of providing unity.