By Robert Spencer
A Catholic apologist named Allan Ruhl has been waging a one-man campaign against my small book The Church and the Pope, about why I left Catholicism and returned to Orthodoxy. In doing so, he has never actually even attempted to address the central points it makes. He made a video to which I was asked to respond, but haven’t had a chance; he has now added an article in which he makes many of the same points. As I’m far more comfortable with the written word than with video, I’ll respond to that article now, and in doing so will cover the points he makes in the video as well.
In the years after 9/11, Mr. Robert Spencer skyrocketed to fame.
He often spoke publicly at Catholic venues and events. This put him at odds with several clerics of the church who wanted to engage in dialogue with Muslims.
I am not entirely against “dialogue” in principle. I’m against having my pocket picked. The Catholic clerics were and are entering into dialogue with Muslims without having any idea what they were dealing with, or what the other side’s objective was. Robert McManus, Roman Catholic Bishop of Worcester, Massachusetts, said it on February 8, 2013 as he was suppressing a planned talk (by me) at a Catholic conference on that persecution: “Talk about extreme, militant Islamists and the atrocities that they have perpetrated globally might undercut the positive achievements that we Catholics have attained in our inter-religious dialogue with devout Muslims.” So he willingly goes quiet about Muslim persecution of Christians so as not to harm the dialogue; the dialogue, meanwhile, doesn’t stop a single jihadi from persecuting Christians, destroying churches, etc. That’s what I oppose.
Despite making some good criticisms on Islam, his views were at times troubling. It often sounded like he was standing up for democracy or (Liberal) Western civilization as opposed to the Christian faith.
I’m unapologetically in favor of both Western civilization and the Christian faith, not of liberalism.
Muhammad wasn’t a false prophet because he preached Jihad. He’s a false prophet for saying incorrect things about almighty God and the Lord Jesus Christ.
I have actually never argued this way. I challenge Allan Ruhl to produce a single statement from me to the effect that Muhammad was a false prophet for preaching jihad. If Muhammad was a prophet, then jihad is a responsibility before Allah that everyone has.
It’s hard to pinpoint when exactly he actually converted but he often mentions a dialogue that he had on Islam with a Catholic priest named Monsignor Stuart Swetland as being one of the key points in his journey out of the Church.…However, during the dialogue Swetland correctly stated: “I think we should be Evangelizing Islam. I think the only way we’re eventually going to deal with this kind of violence is converting Islam. We should try to convert the whole world. It’s what Catholics should be trying to do.” Despite dabbling in some modern liberal views regarding Islam, these are noble words by Msgr. Swetland. He clearly has the great commission in mind and along with Spencer, eager to see the Muslims come to Christ. When Robert Spencer talks about this dialogue he never brings up this quote.
Right. That’s because it’s not relevant in the slightest degree to why I embraced Orthodoxy.
Spencer should keep in mind that the Eastern Orthodox Church let Mehmed the Conqueror appoint the Patriarch of Constantinople in 1454. Because of this compromise with Muslims, the Greek Patriarch gained more power over all eastern Christians in the Ottoman Empire than the pope of his time!
This is an odd point for Ruhl to argue. No one is claiming that the Ecumenical Patriarchs of Constantinople possess infallibility or have exercised unfailing good judgment. In any case, in 1454, the Church had little choice, because Constantinople had just been conquered and the Orthodox had just become subject to the Ottoman caliphate. The Ecumenical Patriarch’s authority at that time, in any case, was an arrangement that was imposed upon the Church by Mehmet, not a matter of faith decided in an ecumenical or even local council.
Or consider the fact that in the 12th century the Eastern Orthodox Church of Constantinople removed anathemas against the god of Muhammad in all catechetical books beginning with the codex of the Great Church since the Emperor believed that it would scandalize the Arabs who converted. Granted that many Catholic bishops and even popes of our time compromise with Islam, does Spencer not take these historical (and long lasting!) Eastern Orthodox compromises to Islam into account?
At issue was not whether or not Muhammad was a prophet. At issue was whether those Muslims who converted to Christianity should be made to anathematize him explicitly. Once again, this is not an issue of faith, or of some dogmatic definition. Nor is it even relevant to me personally; I didn’t become Orthodox because of what the Catholics said about Islam. I became Orthodox, as the book makes clear, because the bishops’ anger at me for criticizing Islam, and the pope’s false statements about Islam, led me to consider ecclesiastical authority on a deeper basis.
It’s almost as if he took every bad Protestant argument against the Papacy and hurled them all at his target, hoping some would stick.
Ruhl also makes much in his video of my allegedly using Protestant arguments. He seems to have become a bit confused about this now, as he claims it again here but charges in the headline to this very article upon which I am now commenting that I have succumbed to “Shallow Greek Polemics.” “Greek” in this context usually means “Orthodox.” So apparently he thinks I’ve fallen for Protestant and/or Orthodox polemics, which is actually a baseless charge on both counts, as I deliberately steered clear of the contemporary polemical literature in preparing my little book. I relied entirely on source texts giving me extracts from the Fathers of the Church. In any case, his frequent repetition of this false claim is rather odd, as an argument doesn’t become false because a Protestant repeats it.
His book is called The Church and the Pope: The Case for Orthodoxy and it was published by Uncut Mountain Press in July 2022. By Orthodoxy he refers to Eastern Orthodoxy and not Oriental. As I mentioned in my article from last year, most modern Eastern Orthodox polemics against the Catholic Church tend to airbrush Oriental Orthodoxy and the Assyrian Church of the East from history, giving the false impression that Eastern Orthodoxy is the only apostolic Church in the East.
Another false claim, at least in my case. In The Church and the Pope, I refer to both the Nestorians and Monophysites [Coptic, Ethiopians, Armenians] in connection with discussions of the Councils of Ephesus and Chalcedon. Neither are airbrushed out or ignored.
After all, if the Papacy is false, don’t Oriental Orthodoxy and the Assyrian Church of the East also have to be dealt with polemically? Eastern Orthodoxy simply doesn’t win by default if the papacy falls. In fact, as Erick Ybarra points out, these churches are in fact more consistent in rejecting the Papacy than are the Eastern Orthodox.
This reminded me of the many people who have told me over the years that I should not report about jihad violence without also reporting on violence by other groups. That might be a worthy endeavor, but I have specialized in one field, the one that no one is supposed to specialize in. It would be fascinating to read a book about the Church of the Seven Councils as opposed to Coptic Christianity and the Assyrian Church of the East, etc., but that’s not the book I wrote. Also, I suspect that most Copts, Syriac Orthodox, Ethiopian Orthodox, Assyrians, etc. would agree with the points I make in the book about the papacy of the first millennium.
Shallow, Protestant Polemics. In this book, Spencer brings up the classic Protestant arguments against the papacy from Pope Victor and Stephen to Honorius and many others. Spencer disputes whether Pope Victor had the authority to excommunicate the churches of Asia since some people were opposed to this. Did he have the right? He certainly did as he later excommunicated Theodotus of Byzantium and no one protested that or said he didn’t have the authority.
Ruhl here bypasses the point I actually made. In the book, I quote Eusebius noting that Victor’s decision to excommunicate the churches of Asia “did not please all the bishops….Words of theirs are extant, sharply rebuking Victor.” Then I wrote: “To see this more clearly, simply imagine if a group of Roman Catholic bishops had opposed Pope Pius IX’s definition of the Immaculate Conception as a divinely revealed dogma of the Faith in 1854. Can you imagine these bishops writing to Pius and explaining that they were ‘not pleased’ with his definition, and ‘sharply rebuking’ him?” Bishops writing to any modern pope in this way would be inconceivable, and Ruhl must know that. Clearly the general understanding of the prerogatives of the papacy have changed. Whether or not Victor could or could not excommunicate someone in particular, that point stands.
Regarding Cyprian challenging Pope Stephen’s authority on the issue of re-baptism, St. Jerome says that all of Cyprian’s followers abandoned his cause and sided with the ancient custom which Stephen held. St. Vincent of Lerins also says: When then all men protested against the novelty, and the priesthood everywhere, each as his zeal prompted him, opposed it, Pope Stephen of blessed memory, Prelate of the Apostolic See, in conjunction indeed with his colleagues but yet himself the foremost, withstood it, thinking it right, I doubt not, that as he exceeded all others in the authority of his place, so he should also in the devotion of his faith. Pope Stephen won the controversy and the entire later Church recognized that. Spencer doesn’t point this out.
That’s because it was not relevant to my point. In the book, I demonstrate that St. Cyprian held to a conciliar view of authority in the Church, and believed all bishops to be successors of St. Peter. He never retracted these views, or was rebuked by the pope for them. Once again, Ruhl ignores the actual point I was making.
In regards to Honorius, Spencer talks about how the Council of Constantinople in 680 AD rejected the claim in Agatho’s letter where it says “established upon the firm rock of this Church of blessed Peter, the Prince of the Apostles, which by his grace and guardianship remains free from all error.” This is not true. The Council fully accepted this letter with no qualifications knowing full well that they had condemned Honorius.
What I actually said was that the council’s condemnation of Pope Honorius as a heretic was an “implicit” rejection of the idea that the Roman Church “remains free from all error.”
Obviously there is a tension in these seemingly contradictory statements, but the First Vatican Council began to resolve these tensions by restricting papal infallibility to specific conditions, which helps to explain these things. Unlike the modern Orthodox churches, the Roman Church retains the authority of the First Millennium to resolve doctrine via ecumenical councils.
It seems that with Pope Agatho and Honorius, the Church of the 7th century, like the Church today knows that not every statement of the Pope is infallible. That is why Honorius can teach heresy to another bishop in a non-definitive letter and it won’t affect the integrity of the Apostolic See.
Ruhl here ignores the fact that Vatican I delineates conditions for papal infallibility that no one had enunciated in the entire first millennium. No one had any reason to think that a pope writing to an ecumenical patriarch about a hotly contested dogmatic issue was simply expressing a private opinion. The letter itself makes it quite clear that he was intending to settle the matter and end the controversy, and he did so by approving of a heretical formulation. To take refuge in claiming that this letter doesn’t meet the criteria for an infallible statement ignores the reality of how prelates exercised their authority in the first millennium.
By contrast Spencer is forced, like so many Orthodox apologists are, to oversimplifying the historical data and making baseless claims without any living, ecumenical Magisterium to answer to.
Actually, Ruhl oversimplifies the data by ignoring a thousand years of historical development in an effort to ignore the obvious intention of Pope Honorius in sending the letter in the first place.
Scripture Against Ecumenical Councils?
His biggest blunder however is how he handles the traditional Biblical prooftexts for the papacy. In doing so he betrays the ancient ecumenical councils and much of modern Eastern Orthodox scholarship.
For example, on page 15 he writes:
Orthodox theologians tend to see the “rock” not as the person of Peter, but his confession of faith, or Christ Himself. This is far from true. Spencer is endorsing a Protestant, reductionist interpretation of that verse by applying it to the confession or Christ Himself. The great 20th century Eastern Orthodox scholar John Meyendorff wrote:
The personal role of Peter as the “rock” upon which the Church was built was readily recognized by Byzantine ecclesiastical writers. Only later polemicists, systemically anti-Latin, tended to diminish it; but this was not the case among the most enlightened of the Byzantine theologians. Thus, according to Photius, Peter is the “the chief of the apostolic choir, and has been established as the rock of the Church and is proclaimed by Truth to be keybearer of the Kingdom of Heaven.
Or take another Orthodox writer in this regard, Fr. Laurent Clennewerck, who admits:
The Orthodox are extremely distrustful of Roman Catholics and would almost like to forget that their calendar and theology is replete with ‘Popes of Rome’ whose teachings about their own authority is better left unmentioned. They also know that accepting a universal ministry of unity and arbitration—something called for by authentic catholic orthodoxy—would jeopardize their nationalistic and ethno-centric kingdoms. Sadly, everyone is trying to look busy doing nothing about it.
The actual question here is what it means that Peter is chief of the apostles and the rock, etc. But his claim that I am “endorsing a Protestant, reductionist interpretation” is false. Actually, even Blessed Augustine says: “What is Peter’s confession? ‘You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.’ There’s the rock for you, there’s the foundation, there’s where the Church has been built, which the gates of the underworld cannot conquer.” Likewise Saint Ambrose: “Faith, then, is the foundation of the Church, for it was not said of Peter’s flesh, but of his faith, that ‘the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.’” St. John Chrysostom says: “And I say unto thee, Thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my Church’; that is, on the faith of his confession.” And so on.
Returning to Spencer, on the aforementioned page, further down, he continues:
It is noteworthy, however, that while there are many statements of the Holy Fathers about the pre-eminence of Peter, nowhere to be found is that Peter is the rock in his very flesh and bones, such that it is his presence in Rome and martyrdom that elevates the See of Rome above all others.
Philip the presbyter and legate of the Apostolic See said: There is no doubt, and in fact it has been known in all ages, that the holy and most blessed Peter, prince and head of the Apostles, pillar of the faith, and foundation of the Catholic Church, received the keys of the kingdom from our Lord Jesus Christ, the Saviour and Redeemer of the human race, and that to him was given the power of loosing and binding sins: who down even to today and forever both lives and judges in his successors. The holy and most blessed Pope Celestine, according to due order, is his successor and holds his place, and us he sent to supply his place in this holy synod, which the most human and Christian Emperors have commanded to assemble, bearing in mind and continually watching over the Catholic faith. This was read out by the Papal legate and no one protested. This gives a very clear application of the verse to the Papal office and Celestine who occupies it.
Yes, this was said at the council and no one protested, but Ruhl is misleading his audience in giving the impression that this meant that the council accepted it as the Faith of the Church. It doesn’t appear in any of the canons or conciliar statements in which the council enunciates its stance on various disputed issues. St. John Chrysostom, who had died 25 years before, clearly believes that the statement in Matthew 16 giving Peter the keys of the kingdom of heaven applied to all of the apostles, for he writes: “For the Son of thunder [St. John the Apostle and Evangelist], the beloved of Christ, the pillar of the Churches throughout the world, who holds the keys of heaven.” A later council, the Third Council of Constantinople, which is the sixth ecumenical council, condemned a pope, which makes it unlikely that everyone had accepted 250 years before that the pope had the sole authority to bind and loose. Ruhl criticizes my explanations of Luke 22:32 and John 21:15-17, and writes:
Concerning Luke 22:32, Pope Agatho writes:
For this is the rule of the true faith, which this spiritual mother of your most tranquil empire, the Apostolic Church of Christ, has both in prosperity and in adversity always held and defended with energy; which, it will be proved, by the grace of Almighty God, has never erred from the path of the apostolic tradition, nor has she been depraved by yielding to heretical innovations, but from the beginning she has received the Christian faith from her founders, the princes of the Apostles of Christ, and remains undefiled unto the end, according to the divine promise of the Lord and Saviour himself, which he uttered in the holy Gospels to the prince of his disciples: saying, Peter, Peter, behold, Satan has desired to have you, that he might sift you as wheat; but I have prayed for you, that your faith fail not. And when you are converted, strengthen your brethren. Let your tranquil Clemency therefore consider, since it is the Lord and Saviour of all, whose faith it is, that promised that Peter’s faith should not fail and exhorted him to strengthen his brethren, how it is known to all that the Apostolic pontiffs, the predecessors of my littleness, have always confidently done this very thing.
Pope Agatho applies Luke 22:32 to the Papal office and his predecessors who held it. This isn’t the opinion of a self-promoting medieval Pope who was trying to inflate his ego, as the Orthodox polemicists have it. It’s a decree from an Orthodox saint which became an official document of an ecumenical council that Spencer accepts. If Spencer had gone Protestant or Oriental Orthodox he wouldn’t have to deal with this, but his new religion venerates this saint and officially accepts this council which accepts this document. This letter by Pope Agatho also applies John 21:15-17 to the Papal office. In that same letter Pope Agatho writes:
And therefore I beseech you with a contrite heart and rivers of tears, with prostrated mind, deign to stretch forth your most clement right hand to the apostolic doctrine which the co-worker of your pious labours, the blessed apostle Peter, has delivered, that it be not hidden under a bushel, but that it be preached in the whole earth more shrilly than a bugle: because the true confession thereof for which Peter was pronounced blessed by the Lord of all things, was revealed by the Father of heaven, for he received from the Redeemer of all himself, by three commendations, the duty of feeding the spiritual sheep of the Church; under whose protecting shield, this Apostolic Church of his has never turned away from the path of truth in any direction of error, whose authority, as that of the Prince of all the Apostles, the whole Catholic Church, and the Ecumenical Synods have faithfully embraced.
All right. Yet once again Ruhl ignores my actual point. The very same ecumenical council (once again, Constantinople III) condemned a pope as a heretic. Clearly they didn’t believe that Agatho’s statements forbade them from criticizing a pope or even finding one to be a heretic. Allan Ruhl then tells the story of Stephen of Dora from one side; here is the other side. He concludes by expressing the hope that I would return to the “belief of the early universal Church.” That is precisely the belief that I explore and attempt to explain in The Church and the Pope. I hope that at some point Mr. Ruhl will read it without assuming that he knows its arguments already from other books, and will deal with the points it actually makes.
The YouTube Video of the So-Called "Shredding" of Robert Spencer's Book by Latin Papist Apologist Allan Ruhl in Which Robert Spencer Wrote This Article in Reply