Scholars and shepherds: another angle on Roman Catholic ecclesiology...

Under Francis Beckwith's post announcing his conversion to Roman Catholicism, one Roman Catholic commented:

Welcome back (to Rome)! I am a clergy convert myself.

To which I commented that Dr. Beckwith is not “clergy.” He has no congregation he has been set apart by the Holy Spirit to shepherd. For my own understanding of his error, this is key. Go back to the Erasmus/Luther debate, and the same distinction is pivotal. Erasmus is a scholar, Luther a shepherd.

Dr. Beckwith is not “clergy.” He has no congregation he has been set apart by the Holy Spirit to shepherd. For my own understanding of his error, this is key. Go back to the Erasmus/Luther debate, and the same distinction is pivotal. Erasmus is a scholar, Luther a shepherd.

Here is one more key distinction between Geneva and Rome. Church government done according to Scripture makes the session (elders board) of a particular church the court of original jurisdiction in disciplinary matters, whereas Rome, following her traditional hierarchical government, removes discipline from the hands of the shepherd of the flock, elevating it to professionals.

Yes, in Acts 15 we see Antioch appealing to Jerusalem. Similarly, the local session may appeal to the presbytery and the presbytery to the general assembly. But the doctrine of subsidiarity is foundational to Presbyterian ecclesiology whereas Roman Catholics seem to find it most useful only in non-ecclesiastical contexts. Why does this matter?

It matters because Roman Catholic bishops, archbishops, cardinals, and Rome engage in doctrinal controversy *at least* one step removed from the souls being devoured by particular wolves. By way of contrast, think of the Apostle Paul, shepherd to the Ephesian church and co-laborer with a very specific plurality of elders, warning those elders:

Therefore, I testify to you this day that I am innocent of the blood of all men. For I did not shrink from declaring to you the whole purpose of God. Be on guard for yourselves and for all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God which He purchased with His own blood. I know that after my departure savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves men will arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after them. Therefore be on the alert, remembering that night and day for a period of three years I did not cease to admonish each one with tears. And now I commend you to God and to the word of His grace, which is able to build you up and to give you the inheritance among all those who are sanctified” (Acts 20:26-32).

Thus yesterday I found myself wondering what shepherd knew of Dr. Beckwith’s dalliances over the past months and years, and warned him day and night with tears?

Tim Bayly

Tim serves Clearnote Church, Bloomington, Indiana. He and Mary Lee have five children and fifteen grandchildren.


I'm a bit confused by your point here. You say that Paul is the shepherd (the one to whom discipline belongs, according to your post) of the Ephesian church. But if so, then he is also "one step removed" from the souls in danger, as the verse you cite suggests. For in this verse, Paul is not talking to the souls in danger, but to their "overseers".

Which leads to further confusion because, according to Catholicism, the shepherd of the local church is the "bishop". His authority in the local church is delegated to his presbyters, who are tasked with protecting the flock under their care. Disciplinary matters only make it to the "bishop" when the need arises. How is this not subsidiarity?

Just askin'...

Roman Catholic polity removes discipline from the local congregation, placing it (at closest) in the hands of a bishop who almost never has served as the shepherd of that congregation. The local shepherd is barred from this discipline. As the (Roman) Catholic Encyclopedia puts it, "a parish priest cannot inflict this penalty (of excommunication) nor even declare that it is incurred." In presbyterian polity, though, this duty is born by elders dwelling permanently in the midst of their flock. Presbyterian polity handles discipline at a lower, more local level than Roman Catholic polity, well reflecting the principle of subsidiarity.

The Apostle Paul had been a shepherd of the flock in Ephesus. Thus he could say the very things that almost never may be said by Roman Catholic bishops, archbishops, cardinals, or popes--that the Ephesians could remember how he'd lived among them; that he'd warned them publicly and from house to house; that he'd never failed to say anything to them that God required; and consequently, that none of their blood was on his hands. All of these are intimate words from a shepherd to the flock he lived among and served.

Similarly with the Ephesian elders the Apostle Paul called to be faithful in discipline. They too were local and on intimate terms with their flock.

Thanks for the quick response. Taking your points in order.

1) While it is true that only a bishop may impose the penalty of excommunication, excommunication is hardly the only type of discipline that can be exercised. As examples, the priest can withhold the Eucharist (which is not excommunication) and prescribe penances. "In each local assembly of the faithful [the priests] represent, in a certain sense, the bishop, with whom they are associated in all trust and generosity; in part they take upon themselves his duties and solicitude and in their daily toils discharge them (CCC 1557)." Thus, the local presbyter is empowered for local discipline in the local parish.

2) Au contraire. Paul can only say these things to the Ephesians because he had been a shepherd in their local church. Likewise, most Catholic bishops have previously been shepherds in parishes, and could say the same things to those they have shepherded.

That there exist parishes that a bishop could not speak to with a "local flair" is only a function of the fact that the Church has grown exponentially since Paul's day. And all the more reason that the Catholic Church uses the principle of subsidiarity within the hierarchy.

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