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Popes and Patriarchs: An Orthodox Perspective on Roman Catholic Claims Paperback – June 1, 2006
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About the Author
Michael Whelton is a British-born Orthodox writer residing on a fifteen-acre hobby farm in the lush farm country of southwest British Columbia. He is the author of Two Paths: Papal Monarchy-Collegial Tradition, The Pearl: A Handbook for Orthodox Converts, and False Gods: Counterfeit Spirituality in an Age of Anxiety.
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I was interested in the book primarily because I, too, am a convert from Roman Catholicism to Orthodoxy. I've spent half my life as an RC (24 years) and the other half as an EO (another 24 years). Having read some RC books which describe conversions to Rome, I was glad to see the counterpart, so I did enjoy the first 3 chpts, which are pretty personal and subjective.
This review is not over whether Whelton "makes" his case. Rather, the review is on how he fails to do justice to attempting to "make" his case.
First and foremost, Whelton is essentially an amateur historian and an amateur theologian. There is no sign of any academic expertise or training on the subjects. He doesn't state whether he knows any ancient languages, esp. Hebrew, Greek, and Latin, that help historians and theologians make better judgements about the subjects at hand. If he cannot read and study the original documents in their original languages, then he is at a most severe disadvantage when being forced to rely on the translations and opinions of others.
Critically, he relies most heavily on secondary sources, with few citations from primary sources . (I suspect when citing primary sources, he is nearly always citing the English translation of same done by someone else.) This is so because of both language limitations and resource availability issues. Even a cursory glance at the Bibliography shows the sourcing is secondary. To be both thorough and fair when discussing events from the 400s to the 1600s, the historian/theologian must deal with primary sources in their original languages. Whelton fails to do that.
Second, Whelton addresses the issue as if the modern RC Church and its viewpoints don't exist:
His primary scripture quotations are from the old, outdated Douay-Rheims version. This is the English translation of the Latin Vulgate directly analogous (and in competition back then) to the 17th Century KJV. No RC scholar today, unless discussing something tied directly to the Latin Vulgate, uses Douay-Rheims. And the RC Church has been translating scripture into the vernacular and for modern scholarly use from the original languages (e.g., Hebrew & Greek) since the 1940s! It might be one thing to quote the Vulgate from its Latin, but to quote it from its English translation, one which few RCs have ever read or used since the 1960s is odd. Why not also then quote from the RSV-Catholic Edition or the NAB to see how RCs are translating the original languages today in regard to the relevant verse(s)?
Even worse, unless I missed it in a footnote, Whelton completely fails to use or quote from the modern comprehensive and doctrinally binding RC Catechism from the 1990s, that has a wonderful English translation (see Catechism of the Catholic Church, Second Edition). No mention is made of it in the Bibliography. This is a massive and deliberate oversight. Why all the recent citations from modern secondary sources (including Encyclopaedia Britannica, 1972) but nothing from the definitive statement of RC dogma? The Catechism has extensive footnotes and citations from primary sources, including various councils and documents and church fathers.
Take just one issue, "Limbo". Whelton brings up the issue in Chpt 4. But because he fails to cite the Catechism, he leaves the reader with the wrong impression that Limbo has been dogmatized by Rome. There is no Limbo in the RC Church, and anyone who has read the RC Catechism knows this is completely false! Just see paragraphs 1261 and 1283 of the Catechism. Not only is Limbo never mentioned in the Catechism, but it makes clear that "As regards children who have died without Baptism, the Church can only entrust them to the mercy of God, as she does in her funeral rites for them."
Thus, overall the work lacks the necessary breadth and depth of scholarly evidence necessary to even begin to "make" the case. While this book may have some value for those with limited time to study the history and theology, it should not be used as a primary argument to make any case. It might be best used by Orthodox Christians interested in how Anglicans and RCs may be inclined to journey to Constantinople. But, unless someone pays close attention to its serious limitations, it should not be used as either primary history or theology.
Michael Whelton's book comes at an opportune time. Protestants are beginning to realize that their tradition has no roots- and they are seeking roots the ancient Christian communions. All of these communions make a claim to be the unique Church of Christ, outside of which salvation is normatively impossible (though some authors may try to dumb down this doctrine). Seeking Protestants come across primarily two claimants to this position- the Orthodox Catholic Church and the Roman Papal Church (known informally as the Roman 'Catholic' Church). The defining issue upon which all other issues stand is the claim by the Bishop of Rome to be, by divine right, the sole successor of St Peter and, by virtue of that succession, to have universal, supreme, and immediate (that is, without being mediated by other bishops) jurisdiction over every local Church. If this doctrine is correct and can be demonstrated from the history of the ancient Church, then the Roman Papal Church is properly known as the Catholic Church. If, however, this claim is proven to be a figment of the imagination, based on a misreading of the history of the Church, then it is the Orthodox Church which alone can lay claim to being the Catholic Church.
Mr. Whelton, a former Roman Catholic himself, sets out to prove the latter. In this mission he is partially successful. I say "partially" because the writings of Papal apologists aiming to prove the former claim are abundant and widely available. By contrast, recent works which aim to prove the latter tend to be rather short and non-comprehensive. Unfortunately, while Mr. Whelton packs plenty of content into this small book, it is still, nonetheless, small.
Chs. 1-3 detail Mr. Whelton's own journey from Anglicanism to Roman Catholicism and ultimately to the truly Orthodox, Catholic Church. These chapters are fascinating as Mr. Whelton is one of the rare few who experienced the both of faith-crises had by Protestant and Roman Catholic. In chapter one, Mr. Whelton describes the beginnings of his Christian faith in the Church of England. In chapter two, he discovers that Protestantism is not rooted in the ancient Church and that he must seek a Church rooted in the Apostolic Era. To this end, he finds Roman Catholicism and is received into the Roman Catholic Church before the convocation of the Second Vatican Council. Chapter two details Mr. Whelton's experiences after the changes of the Second Vatican Council were implemented across the Papal Church, describing, in emotional detail, how the beautiful traditional Latin Mass disintegrated into a Protestant worship service with lip service to the sacraments. Soon, as detailed in chapter three, Mr. Whelton discovers that the claims of the bishop of Rome to universal jurisdiction and personal infallibility when speaking ex cathedra are not as historically well grounded as he once thought. After an emotionally taxing two year search for truth, Mr. Whelton becomes Catholic in the true sense- Orthodox Catholic.
Ch. 4 makes an important point, an one often not understood by Western Christians. This is the fact that the Orthodox Church has a fundamentally different outlook on theology than does the Christian West. He describes the fall of true mysticism and the rise of scholasticism and scholastically influenced mysticism in the Roman Catholic Church, and contrasts the underlying theology of Orthodox Catholicism and the theology of the Roman Papal Church.
Ch. 5 deals with the primacy of St Peter in the framework of Orthodox ecclesiology. It is a fairly good treatment, exposing how Pope Leo XIII misquotes the Holy Fathers in his famous encyclical "Satis Cognitum", with a focus on the witness of Ss Cyprian of Carthage and Augustine of Hippo. He analyzes the theory of papal monarchy and contrasts it with the conciliarism displayed in the ancient Orthodox Communion of Catholic Churches.
Ch. 6 deals with various issues in the development of the Papacy, with a special focus on the Ecumenical Councils in light of papal claims. This was the section I found most deficient. Tragically, Whelton seems to acknowledge that Pope St Leo the Great (a saint of the Orthodox Church), believed and taught the papal claims later taught by fallen Rome after the schism. This is a tendency I have noticed in numerous Orthodox authors, a tendency that must be stemmed. I recommend that the Orthodox Christian simply read the Canons of Sardica, where the canonical rights of the Bishop of Rome are granted (by conciliar decree, not divine right), and then read St Leo's Epistles and sermons in that light. I assure the reader that he will find in St Leo a powerful Roman Bishop, serving as Primate of the Undivided Church, who nonetheless wielded his jurisdiction within canonical boundaries, judging mediately whenever a See had not fallen into heresy (given the canons that declare a heretical Bishop deprived of jurisdiction and a pseudo-Bishop), rather than immediately. Mr. Whelton seems to assume the Roman Catholic claim that St Leo did not recognize Canon 28 of Chalcedon because it attributed Rome's authority to its being in the imperial city. This is not so. If one reads St Leo's epistles, one will discover that he refused to recognize Canon 28 because he considered the decrees of the Council of Nicea to be immovable, which ranked the Sees in the order of Rome, Alexandria, and Antioch. Mr. Whelton also fails to discuss the fact that the ancient Popes of Rome felt the See of St Peter to be triune, being composed of Rome, Alexandria, and Antioch. As St Leo himself wrote in his rebuke to the 28th canon:
"These holy and venerable fathers who in the city of Nicaea... laid down a code of canons for the Church to last till the end of the world, survive not only with us but with the whole of mankind in their constitutions; and, if anywhere men venture upon what is contrary to their decrees, it is ipso facto null and void; so that what is universally laid down for our perpetual advantage can never be modified by any change, nor can the things which were destined for the common good be perverted to private interests.... nor metropolitan bishops be defrauded of privileges based on antiquity. The See of Alexandria may not lose any of that dignity which it merited through S. Mark, the evangelist and disciple of the blessed Peter, nor may the splendour of so great a church be obscured by another's clouds.... The church of Antioch too, in which first at the preaching of the blessed Apostle Peter the Christian name arose, must continue in the position assigned it by the Fathers, and being set in the third place must never be lowered therefrom. "
Ch. 7 is the real jewel of the book, as Mr. Whelton provides an analysis of several Eastern Fathers attitudes of about the See of Rome. He interacts with popular Roman Catholic apologists concerning Ss John Chrystom and Basil the Great, among others. His treatment of these authors is right on the money and serves as a sound rebuke to any Papal apologist seeking to attribute Papal attitudes to these two holy hierarchs of the Orthodox Catholic Church. His treatment of the Meletian schism is particularly interesting, though I wish he had treated the analysis of it presented in "The Eastern Churches and the Papacy", which questions whether Ss Chrysostom and Meletius were ever really out of communion with the See of Rome based on the fact that the See of Rome never formally excommunicated them. The answer is really quite simple- Rome was in communion with Paulinus, whom they regarded as Bishop of Antioch. Ss Chrysostom and obviously Meletius himself were in communion with St Meletius, whom they regarded as the legitimate Bishop of Antioch. As one is not in communion with two competing Bishops of the same See at once (see, for example, the usurpation of the episcopate of Rome during the Donatist era), Rome was out of communion with Ss Chrysostom and Meletius. Unfortunately, the ill-informed reader who comes across the claims in "The Eastern Churches and the Papacy" is subject to be misled.
The chapter ends with a much needed treatment of St Maximus the Confessor's alleged witness to Roman supremacy. Whelton provides the Papal apologist with a Catch-22- either the witness of St Maximus is forged, as is certainly possible, if not likely, or it is not, and the underlying Latin of this confession refutes a key Roman Catholic doctrine, namely, that all the rights of the bishop of Rome are by divine right and not by conciliar decrees. (Roman Catholic apologists often confuse the primacy itself, which was by apostolic foundation and thus divine right, with the application of primacy, which was synodically given.) I won't spoil this section for the reader, but it is an excellent analysis.
Ch. 8 analyzes the Photian controversy and comes down with a verdict firmly on the side of St Photios the Great, Pillar of Orthodoxy.
Ch. 9 deals with the subject of forgeries, analyzing how they were integral in asserting the claims of Roman supremacy. He analyzes the classic "Donation of Constantine" and then the "False Decretals of Isidore."
The appendix, a Q&A, provides the best treatment on divorce from an Orthodox Christian perspective that I've ever seen, and essentially eviscerates the position of the Papal church on annulment and divorce.
Overall, the book was decent, with a very good analysis of the Eastern Fathers and a rather lacking treatment of how the Holy Orthodox Popes of Rome saw themselves. I do wish that Mr. Whelton had tripled the size of his book and provided much more comprehensive analysis, and also interacted more deeply with the writings of Papal apologists, especially those of Mr. James Likoudis. Mr. Likoudis has apparently wrote an extensive "critique" of this book (for which he charges $18.00), but I am not inclined to give it any credence, considering his free use of forgeries in his published work.
I recommend this book to any Orthodox Christian, and also to the inquiring Protestant and doubting Roman Catholic. I would ask, however, that they not stop here, but pursue some of the older works on the Papacy, especially works from early 20th century Anglican authors, such as "The Primitive Saints and the See of Rome" by F.W. Puller and "Papalism" by Edward Denny (which is referenced in this work), which together compose over a thousand pages of fine print, dealing with the claims of the Papacy comprehensively. On top of that, immerse yourself in the writings of the Fathers of the Church directly, both pre and post-schism. As the Lord Jesus Christ said, "You shall know the truth, and the truth will set you free."
Doxa to Theo.