* A parody of this article in Christianity Today, inspired by a tweet from Thomas Horrocks (@thomaslhorrocks).
The rise of church doors in the early 1500s has yielded the genre of the “church reformer.” From the comfort of their studies, these heretical monks can pen lengthy criticisms of Catholicism and affix them to church doors for any passing peasant to see. This advent of literacy, printing and architecture has created a crisis of authority that we haven’t hitherto seen before.
One of the most prominent examples of this crisis involves the popular Martin Luther, who last year announced his opposition to selling indulgences for the absolution of sin. He was cheered by some and denounced by others. The Pope has called for his writings to be burned. Aside from the debate about faith vs. works, broader questions have emerged: Where do scholars like Luther derive their authority to speak and teach? And who holds them accountable for their teaching? How can the average peasant know whom to trust?
How did we get here?
In this new age, it seems authority comes not from the Roman Catholic Church, but from rabble-rousing. Public discussions of theses nailed to church doors lead to the promulgation of even more theses—tracts written in the common language passed around on the street and in pubs. Plain, accessible writing, good penmanship, and compelling arguments are crucial to notoriety—and therefore to public authority—as liturgy, the Latin vulgate, and the Pope. These “monks” have become a sort of Renaissance-era equivalent to cardinals, garnering huge followings based on reasoning and wielding extensive influence, yet lacking any accountability to Church governance.
This revolution has had a unique and immense impact on the poor and uneducated in particular. Pauper’s voices—which historically have been marginalized in the Church—are suddenly amplified in this new medium. “Ministry to the poor has transformed in the 16th century,” writes Cardinal Smith. “The poor increasingly look to publicly known heretics for inspiration—especially when they don’t see leaders who share their concerns stepping into the pulpit.”
Cardinals, popes and bishops still derive authority from divine right. By contrast, there are comparatively few monks with such overt ecclesial authority. In the vacuum created by a lack of commoner voices in the Church, scholarly monks became theological leaders who largely operate outside of our institutional structure.
However, with the blessing and power of influence comes accountability to the powers that be. As public theologians—even those nailing theses to church doors—we forfeit the luxury of holding “unorthodox” beliefs. When monks make theological statements, they have a responsibility to defer to the established doctrine of the day, demonstrate their rigorous Catholic school training, employ a generous tone, welcome feedback from Church leaders, and in doing so, help everyone think and worship better. And although scholarly monks may have some semblance of accountability in their monasteries, they still need overt institutional superintendence (to match their level of notoriety) and ecclesial accountability that has heft and power. Otherwise, they might fool people into thinking they can come to Jesus in any ole way.
Responding to the crisis
The Roman Catholic Church has a responsibility to provide formal accountability to teachers, leaders and scholars—whether common or divine. If we don’t respond to this current crisis of authority institutionally, we are allowing Christian doctrine to be hijacked by whomever has the most logical argument, the most spiritual inspiration, or the best exegesis.
To be clear, I am not suggesting that a scholar must be ordained in order to write, speak or publish. A formal recognition of accountability can be called something else. What this looks like in practice will have to be creatively hammered out by the clergy in this institution. But while I cannot provide a specific model, I want to sound a call: All of us—whether clergy or commoner—need to create institutional structures to recognize the influence of scholarly monks and then hold them accountable for the claims they make about the Church and our doctrine. Without institutional accountability, there is simply no mechanism by which the Roman Catholic Church can preserve doctrinal fidelity.
The New Testament presupposes that Church authority, hierarchy, and discipline exist to protect orthodoxy and orthopraxy. This responsibility does not cease in this age of the printing press. The Church that values scriptural and historical faithfulness has a responsibility to provide clear guidance to peasants who are questioning methods of absolution amidst the din raised by heretical monks.
True, impoverished voices have been marginalized or silenced in the Church for far too long, and I am grateful for how our architectural revolution provides them with greater capacity to learn, think, and discuss.
Yet, in this age of theses and church doors, the poor still deserve the best teaching the Church has to offer. We don’t need less Latin, liturgy, or pomp—if anything, we need more of that. We need monks who can challenge us to think differently while still adhering to the biblical interpretations, doctrines and history of the Church and speaking clearly out of that tradition. As faithful Christians, all of us can embrace writing and teaching that is lyrical, obscure, prosey, and carefully arranged by men of sufficient study and divine election for our spiritual enlightenment.
I’d like to submit to my fellow scholars that part of our responsibility as leaders is to take on the burden, the joy, and the accountability of being deeply rooted in the Church—both publicly and institutionally. If we are to help build not just a personal following but a faithful Church for generations to come, we must work to strengthen and shape institutions larger than ourselves and submit ourselves to its authority and oversight, even if it seems frail or flawed—which it’s not.
Why formal authority matters
The Church has said for millennia that bad teaching is more deadly than bad bloodletting. Now we have an influx of teachers who become so by the stroke of a pen. We don’t want our doctors to simply be witty and relatable; we want them to practice medicine correctly. We need to be as discerning about whom we trust with the care of our souls as we are with the care of our bodies.
In this new era, we as God’s True Church have to remember that, like doctors, errant scholarly monks can help cure or kill. And therefore, we have to ensure that all monks have oversight and accountability that matches the weight of their authority and influence.
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