The “three-legged stool” is the way Anglicans explain their understanding of authority in the church. The three legs are Scripture, Tradition and Human Reason.
At first, this sounds like a pretty good basis for making decisions. The difficulty, however, is that without a trustworthy external authority all three of the legs are shaky.
Scripture on its own can be used to prove most anything. Both sides have an interpretative tradition that skews the Scripture toward their pre-determined conclusions. The interpretation of Scripture is therefore dependent on the prior assumptions.
If you are in favor of homosexuality you interpret the Scripture one way. If opposed you interpret it another way.
The same is true of the other two legs of the Anglican stool. Tradition and Human Reason should be external forces that shape the minds and hearts of believers. Instead, the hearts are already determined and the minds are already made up.
Subsequently, Tradition is mined for evidence to support one’s case, and Human Reason is used as a tool to win debates, manipulate the evidence, weight the argument and twist the truth.
The result is not a three-legged stool, but a theological pogo stick.
This is why Anglicanism is in such disarray. Extend the image: Think of every Anglican prelate, bishop, theologian and priest in a desperate race each on his own pogo stick. Each one is desperately jumping around trying to keep his balance, trying to stay on his pogo stick while at the same time trying to make forward progress and fight the other fellows in the race to the finish line.
Lest Catholics be accused of smug self-righteousness, we have much of the same problem in the Catholic Church today.
Catholics of all stripes are devoted to causes of all kinds that they put before the authority of the Church.
The “Rad Traddies” have a whole range of causes and beliefs ranging from sedevacantism to enthusiasm for traditional devotions, right-wing causes and the traditional Latin Mass.
“Rad Trendies” have a whole range of causes from homosexual rights, women priests, Marxist theory and liturgical reform.
Both ends of the extreme (and lots of people in between) are sincere people. They are prayerful people. They all believe they are led by the Holy Spirit. They wholeheartedly believe that Scripture, Tradition and Reason are on their side. But they have all fallen into the Anglican error of using Scripture, Tradition and Human Reason as a resource for proof texts, precedents from the past and sensible reasons for support of their particular cause.
So the proof texts fly. The examples from the past are presented. The rationale is explained and the reasoning laid out, but no one is convinced. All that happens is that both sides return to their corner, gather their arguments and wait for the bell for the next round.
This is why the modern Church so desperately needs, not a three-legged stool, but the Chair of Peter.
The Chair of Peter has four legs: Scripture, Tradition, Human Reason and I would add, Facts — Common Sense. On top of these four legs is the seat into which they all fit, and this — to extend the metaphor — is the magisterium. The magisterium is the united, continuous, living, universal teaching authority of the Catholic Church.
The magisterium keeps Tradition, Scripture, Human Reason and Facts together and in balance. The magisterium prevents Scripture, Tradition and Human Reason from becoming proof text mines for people with preset agendas.
To show that the Chair of Peter is not simply a museum piece, someone sits on it: the pope, the successor of Peter. The reason the pope is so important to modern Christianity is because he is one person who, through depth of knowledge, breadth of vision, wealth of advice and expertise, can see the big picture.
The pope’s authority transcends vagaries of individual fashion, time and political expediency. The pope’s authority transcends local pressures, intellectual trends, moral dilemmas and subjective social opinions. There is simply no other authority system in the world that is universal in such an expansive and objective way.
This is why, as the Holy Father leaves America after his short visit, Americans need the Holy Father. We need him because he helps us transcend America. He helps us realize that there is something bigger than ourselves; something greater than our great nation.
He gives us a universal perspective — universal in time and universal in place. The Holy Father’s authority transcends our isolated and narrow-minded political correctness, our petty relevant religious agendas, our private views of “how the Church should be,” our individualistic opinions on Catholic morality and our private views on Church doctrine.
Submission to the bishop of Rome is not subservient toadyism. Through submission to the pope we gain an expansive perspective. We see history, and our place in it from a wide panorama.
Living in continuity and community with the pope is to build our house upon a rock. It is to transcend our blinkered vision and glimpse the larger world and the greater plan. In short, to submit to the authority of the pope is not to place ourselves beneath the feet of a tyrant, but to sit on the shoulders of a giant.
Father Dwight Longenecker
is chaplain to St Joseph’s Catholic School
in Greenville, South Carolina.