For several decades since Vatican II it has been a common refrain in Protestant circles that Rome has changed. Therefore ecumenical engagement and ecclesial rapprochement were to be actively sought. Of course, in a sense Rome has changed; no earthly institution, not even the Papacy, can remain unmoved by profound changes in the tenor of the world in which it must exist. Rome has certainly adjusted the face it shows to the 'modern world', at least cosmetically. But that Rome has changed substantially is a claim of which I have never been convinced.
Certainly, there was a move at the time of Vatican II towards a more conciliar ecclesiology, and a beginning made in dialogue with other Christians; but a sober reading of the documents of that Council reveals that in actuality Vatican II re-affirmed all of the prerogatives traditionally claimed for the Papacy, including those promulgated as de fide centuries after Luther had pointed to the late medieval Papacy as the clearest manifestation of the spirit of Antichrist in the church. Vatican II does not resile from the claims of Vatican I; in fact the documents of Vstican II cite the claims of that Council (claims which made even Cardinal Newman uneasy) in support of the continued Papal right to universal jurisdiction and unfettered power in the church.
Such assertions of Papal supremacy are a triumph of dogma - in the Roman sense - over history (in fact, none of the peculiar Roman additions to the apostolic deposit of faith can be justified at the bar of history, but for the present time we are focussed on the Papacy; for a convenient summary of the history and falsehood of Papal absolutist claims see von Döllinger's 'The & Pope and the Council'). But as the churches 'genetically' descended from the magisterial Reformation increasingly succumb to doctrinal and moral disintegration, such unhistorical claims to absolute jurisdiction and power by a church which presents itself as creedally and morally orthodox have a mysterious and for some a seemingly irresistable appeal (ironically, most Roman Catholics born within the fold whom I have spoken to view such absolute claims through a jaundiced eye; however, a liberal Catholic does not a Lutheran make!). Especially is this the case for doctrinally and morally conservative Protestant Christian intellectuals. "Is not a return to Rome the obvious solution", they plead, "to the problem of the disintegration of Christendom?" Only Rome can save the world!
Thus we observe the oft-commented on trend among Protestant intellectuals of converting to Rome, much like a panicked sailor on a sinking ship in the midst of a storm who spies land and concludes he has little to lose and much to gain by swimming for it. One can cite, to mention only the most recent example I have heard of, the case of the moderator of the 'Reformed Church in France' who announced his intention to become Roman Catholic immediately after the synod of his church voted to open holy communion to the unbaptised. The reverend gentleman may well be sincere, and we cannot fault his principled objection to the lamentable decision of his synod, but on the face of it his conversion to Rome on such a basis strikes me as fundamentally irrational - his decision is based on a massive non sequitur, namely that because the Reformed Church of France is sinking into apostacy the claims of Rome to be the one, true church of Christ and the thus the only refuge for the storm-tossed Protestant Christian must be true. But how can one be Reformed one day, and Roman Catholic the next? Surely only someone under great duress, or mightily confused about what he believes, can adopt such a course?
I have made a study of the conversion stories of many such people, and the thing which strikes me most is how they 'swim the Tiber' blindfolded, as it were, or half asleep, as if stupefied by the promise that awaits them on the other side. There seems in most cases to be no extended period, away from the tumult of ecclesiastical life, given to reasoned searching out of Roman Catholic claims with the light of history or indeed scripture (the view of the authority of scripture in such cases demands a separate post). Or, when there is, it stands out as the exception that proves the rule. Instead it most often seems that a single doctrinal issue engaged in the heat of ecclesial warfare, be it the ordination of women and/or active homosexuals, or the above-mentioned opening of communion to the unbaptised, or a single question of conscience, such as the morality of birth control, acts as a fulcrum which propels the Protestant intellectual Rome-ward (right over the Tiber, if you will, no swimming required!). Only then, when the decision to convert has effectively been made, is a formal study of Roman doctrine begun, by which time the convert has too much invested emotionally in the decision to reneg. Time and again one reads in such conversion accounts of how difficulties with this or that Roman doctrine are suspended in the interest of being "received into the church", after which the difficulties are expected to melt away. It would seem that Pascal's phrase aptly describes the state of such people: "the heart has its reasons which reason doesn't know."
I therefore view this contemporary trend as yet more evidence of the growing irrationality of our time both within and without the church. Just as the non-confessing Protestant churches sink deeper into a-historical neo-Gnosticism, some of their supposedly "best and brightest" surrender their judgment in religious matters to an authority which has an equally tenuous relation to history. In my judgment, then, this 'home to Rome' movement seems to be only the flip side of a coin minted by post-Enlightenment, liberal Protestantism. And it is essentially a reactionary movement which, because it jettisons so much of value from the legacy of the Reformers (again, note the a-historical tendency), does not present a real option for confessing and confessional Evangelicals struggling in these stormy times. We do better, if our ecclesial ship actually is sinking, to prepare to take to the boats and navigate our way out of trouble. Take heart, we have the heavens to guide us.
Which is all by way of extended introduction to the following scholarly opinion which has appeared in a new ecumenical study on the Papacy (click on the post title for an Amazon page)
In the first millennium there was no question of the Roman bishops governing the church in distant solitude. They used to take their decisions together with their synod, held once or twice a year. When matters of universal concern arose, they resorted to the ecumenical council. Even [Pope] Leo [I], who struggled for the apostolic principle over the political one, acknowledged that only the emperor would have the power to convoke an ecumenical council and protect the church.
At the heart of the estrangement that progressively arose between East and West, there may be a historical misunderstanding. The East never shared the Petrine theology as elaborated in the West. It never accepted that the protos in the universal church could claim to be the unique successor or vicar of Peter. So the East assumed that the synodal constitution of the church would be jeopardized by the very existence of a Petrine office with potentially universal competencies in the government of the church.
Just how far is this history from the Roman claim, promulgated at Vatican II (Lumen Gentium 22) and repeated in the current Catechism that "the Roman Pontiff, by virtue of his office as Vicar of Christ, and as pastor of the entire church has full, supreme and universal power over the whole church, a power which he can always exercise unhindered"? The amazing thing is that this opinion comes from the pen of an eminent Roman Catholic theologian, namely Archbishop Roland Minnerath, and can be found in his essay 'The Petrine Ministry in the Early Patristic Tradition', in How Can the Petrine Ministry Be a Service to the Unity of the Universal Church? (James F. Puglisi, Editor, Grand Rapids, MI and Cambridge, U.K.: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, ©2010, pgs. 34-48). Not that we should expect this admission of profound ecclesiological diversity in the ancient church to lead to a revision of the claims of Rome or her Protestant converts. Remember: in Rome, dogma trumps history every time.