The Problem of Protestantism

In The Rock, it was shown from the Scriptures and the Fathers that jurisdiction over the Catholic Church was given by Jesus Christ to St. Peter and to the apostles. Furthermore, it was shown in Sola Scriptura & the Authority of the Catholic Church that divine Revelation was finally committed to the Catholic Church in the Scriptures. So, therefore, those Sacred Scriptures are only known and understood through the Catholic Church. The Catholic Church, in her teaching authority, is the Christian’s proximate rule of faith and, when coming to catholic consent on a doctrine, is infallible. However, this reality of the Church poses a problem for Protestantism. If the faith is given by the Church, and must be received; and likewise jurisdiction is given to bishops, and must be received; then how can a Protestant church on its own seek catholicity? Instead, if the Reformers rightly interpreted that they had lost catholicity in the western churches and needed to rediscover it, then would they not have needed to seek a catholic bishop to receive the catholic faith? And would not Protestant pastors have needed to receive jurisdiction from an orthodox ordinary?

Who Has the Authority?

There is an important question of who has the jurisdiction to govern the churches of God and to teach. There are many bishops in the world. Some of them manifestly heretical, some wandering bishops, and some proper & orthodox. However, do they all have the same authority?

This authority and jurisdiction was originally committed to the apostles. Just as the Father sent Jesus Christ to be the “the Shepherd and Bishop of your souls” and to be the great high priest and the head of the Body, likewise He says to the apostles “peace be unto you: as the Father hath sent me, even so send I you,” committing the keys and His authority to the apostles, including shepherding & governing (Acts 20:28), teaching (Acts 2:42), and the priestly office (Acts 15:14-6), so that—in Christ—they can also be called bishops, shepherds, priests, and heads of the churches of God.

Then, this gift is given to the bishops of the Catholic Church by the apostles (2 Tim. 1:6). The purpose of this authority is to pass on the catholic faith. Therefore, if a bishop tries to live in opposition to that faith by losing the faith and teaching contrary to it, then he necessarily loses his jurisdiction. For example, this happens with the circumcision party where St. Paul teaches St. Titus, “for there are many unruly men, vain talkers and deceivers, specially they of the circumcision, whose mouths must be stopped; men who overthrow whole houses, teaching things which they ought not, for filthy lucre’s sake” (Titus 1:10-1).

Likewise, for the good order of the Church, bishops govern different parts of the world. Therefore, if a bishop were to try to exercise his ministry outside of his allotted area, he would go into schism, since he is acting contrary to his mission, as seen in the Novatian schism. Of course, in a vertical sense, the authority of the episcopate to govern comes from Jesus Christ Himself. However, for a particular man to hold that office and to exercise its functions in a particular place, he needs to have received it from someone and maintain it. If a bishop, then, falls into heresy or schism he loses his jurisdiction to teach and govern.

The Issue of Ecumenical Councils

This issue of jurisdiction becomes particularly pertinent to the issue of ecumenical councils. If one is catholic-minded, then the ecumenical councils are binding not merely because they agree with the Scriptures (which is true of any true doctrine written on a napkin by a layman) but because it is the act of the Catholic Church teaching. However, if bishops do not lose jurisdiction, then how can any council be ecumenical, nevermind seven of them? After every ecumenical council, there were dissenting bishops. Some of those bishops continued their line, such as in the Nestorian and miaphysite churches. How could any council really be taught by the whole Church and received the consent of the whole Church?

Instead, an ecumenical council is not the teaching of all the bishops (which would be especially problematic now with all the wandering bishops in the world). Instead, it is the teaching of all of the orthodox bishops—those who have not lost jurisdiction by heresy or schism and who rightfully exercise ministry in the Catholic Church—and its reception by the orthodox faithful. That also means, by the way, that ecumenical councils are not magic spells to resolve all doubt and conflict within the Catholic Church but simply are used to manifest catholicity and orthodoxy. Of course, if you think about it, the bishops at the council have to be able to know the orthodox and catholic faith without the results of the council.

Where Does It Go?

If that is the case, and if it is essential to the Catholic Church to be exercise its magisterial authority throughout the ages, guided by the Holy Ghost, and for bishops to be governing the particular churches, then where does that jurisdiction and ministry continue? For the Protestant, it could not have continued in the West, for those churches fell into schism and divers heresies.

The Reformers understood that their churches, before the Reformation, had lost catholicity and were not orthodox. They rightly recognised that, in reading the Scriptures and the Fathers, something had gone wrong in the West. That is why they sought to restore catholic faith and practice by reforming the churches according to the Scriptures and the patristic witness. However, this poses three clear issues:

  1. If the catholic faith is given by a catholic bishop and received by the faithful, then where were the catholic bishops with jurisdiction? And from which ones did the Reformers receive the catholic faith?
  2. For the Protestant bishops and pastors, from whom did they receive their jurisdiction to exercise the pastoral ministry? And if they claim epieikeia and the need to have a pastor in the midst of crisis, then why have they not since (after 500 years) received jurisdiction from a bishop with non-extraordinary jurisdiction?
  3. Is it not proper to the good order of the Catholic Church to be re-taught by a catholic and orthodox bishop and to submit to any further councils or definitive decisions made by the proper Magisterium since having fallen away into heresy and/or schism? If the error is found in oneself, is it not disordered to try to reconstruct orthodoxy based on one’s research instead of simply receiving it, since it should be present in its purity somewhere in the world?

Of course, the answer for most Protestants is a rejection of apostolic succession (which fundamentally rejects the unique gift of Christ’s authority continued in His Church) and of an infallible church (which abandons any true anchor to the Church’s history, her ability to definitively settle any doctrinal issue, and a meaningful hermeneutic with which to interpret Scripture). For others, however, it seems like there is a desire to retain these true gifts and doctrines. And it is often done well, but do we really have the jurisdiction to do it, and are we missing something from having been disconnected from an orthodox bishop for 500 years (now about 1,000 years)? And is our hope simply reconstruction and restoration based upon our best attempts to peer into the annals of history and the Fathers? Can we really learn from the Fathers as our fathers, if we are not living as Christians within the ordinary canonical boundaries of the Catholic Church (since we have had no canonical jurisdiction after having lost it either in the Great Schism or in the various excesses and heresies of the Reformation, such as the rejection of the Seventh Ecumenical Council)?

The desire of any true Catholic in the west should be this: to be a Western Christian under an orthodox bishop who has legitimate jurisdiction over him. I ask of any Protestant who desires to think and pray in continuity with the Body of Christ: from whom did your bishop receive his jurisdiction?

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