There's a rather fascinating discussion going on over at The Continuum, where Robert Hart and others are taking Mike Liccione and Al Kimel to task for their sanctimonious triumphalism. The combox, last time I checked, was getting longer by the minute, and I got into the act myself a couple of times (once using my wife's name as a pseudonym--a fairly clever ruse, even if it did happen by accident [I was using her computer, and somehow logged in using her Google account]).
What's at issue, I suppose--if anything is--is the question of how one decides to submit oneself to this or that teaching authority. The bloggers at The Continuum are all Anglicans (of the proper sort, not those faux Anglicans of PECUSA), in case you didn't know, and the blog is well worth reading. Like the Orthodox, of course, Anglicans don't buy any of this Roman primacy stuff, and I suppose there is some other theological baggage they would like to toss as well; they also behave Eastern Orthodoxically insofar as they think of themselves as fully within what they call "the Tradition", by which what they appear to mean is that the Anglican church is every bit as co-extensive with "The Church" as is the See of Rome. In some ways they are a little more charitable towards Rome than are some Orthodox, some of whom don't really think that Rome is at all co-extensive with the church, so let's count our blessings while we can.
One thing that I've noticed about the debate so far is a certain amount of equivocation on certain key terms, such as "authority", "private judgment", "the Church", etc. I don't think that either side disagrees that it is not up to the individual person to pass judgment on the truth of authoritative Church teaching; where they disagree is over what constitutes an authoritative Church teaching and why. For example, Anglicans as well as Catholics will assert that a Christian must believe in the Trinity, and both will agree that the reason why a Christian must believe in such a thing, in spite of the fact that no such thing is ever mentioned in the Scriptures, is because the doctrine has been taught by the Church. Well, what does that mean? If you had asked me a few years ago, I would have said that it means that it was taught by an Ecumenical Council. Some Catholics perhaps still think that is what it means; but to some Anglicans what it means is that the doctrine of the Trinity meets a certain standard, namely, the Vincentian Canon (a subject of much comment both here and at Mike Liccione's Sacramentum Vitae). That which has been believed by all Christians at all times and places, these Anglican say, is what must still be believed by anyone professing to be a Christian.
As it happens, not everyone agrees that the doctrine of the Trinity actually meets this criterion. It is an empirical question, and as far as I can see most, if not all, of the evidence points towards the doctrine being one that evolved over time. This does not preclude the possibility, of course, that it was at least secretly believed right from Day One, but unfortunately there is no evidence to that effect, and the very fact that it was necessary for an Ecumenical Council to define the doctrine, and to anathematize anyone who rejected it, suggests that there were plenty of folks who did not accept it. These folks, according to the Vincentian Canonist View (VCV), were never really Christians to begin with--by definition. The purpose of the Council, according to VCV, was not to define some new doctrine that nobody had ever believed before, but merely to put into words--to make explicit, as it were--the genuine content of the Faith that had been handed on by the Apostles but that, in the course of time, had come to be misunderstood by certain persons.
Needless to say, the Catholic Church believes exactly the same thing. So what's the problem? Well, consider, for starters, the fact that some Anglicans say that there were only ever seven Ecumenical Councils. Fewer say that there were only ever nine of them. Certainly no Anglicans would ever say that there were ever twenty-one of them, which is what Catholics are prone to say. Even Anglicans who may perhaps have some fondness for Vatican II will nevertheless toss their cookies at any mention of Trent or Vatican I (I think we can all imagine why, too, so no need to get into any internecine strife at this point). So what were those, um, "gatherings" doing, if they weren't Ecumenical Councils but just collections of various bishops from here and there? Well, whatever they were doing, they weren't making explicit things that were already contained in the Deposit of Faith. To hear Robert Hart tell it, they were "magically" summoning up "innovations" in doctrine--especially all that stuff about Papal "infallibility" (by which he appears to mean some view about Popes being inerrant, though he was remarkably unclear on the whole thing). Who's this Robert Hart when he's at home, you may ask? Wellll...he's an Anglican--but keep calm, he's one of the proper sort that we like, not one of those nasty ones tossing our religion into the dustbin of history.
OK, so "real" Ecumenical Councils, however many of them there are, appear to be bound by this VCV. Vatican I fabricated an "innovation" (Papal infallibility), hence it was not really an Ecumenical Council (among other reasons). Mike Liccione and I argued for some time a year or two ago about what it means to say that this or that teaching "developed" over time, but I think we agreed that, whatever else it means, it does not mean that any legitimate teaching can be new in the sense of an "innovation". But Robert Hart asserts that Mike's analysis of the situation is just a bunch of hooey, and that Mike fails to understand his (Robert's) proof that Anglicanism does not fall victim to the heresy that is the set of innovations to be found in such "councils" as Trent and Vatican I. I'm not altogether sure how he knows this, since I don't believe any of the first five, seven, or nine Councils declared when the next one was to be, or how many of them would be enough. What he does say is that the VCV is a necessary (and, I suppose, sufficient) condition on authoritativeness; he then appears to use his own judgment to determine whether a particular doctrine as taught by other institutions (whether local or allegedly "ecumenical" councils, etc.) really meets the VCV.
I'm jiggy with that, as far as it goes, but there are a few worries. If it's really true that a council, if it is genuinely "ecumenical" in nature, only ever makes latent doctrine patent, what are we to do with the doctrine of the Trinity? Or the doctrine that the Holy Spirit is to be accorded the same latreia as the Father and the Son? Suppose, for the sake of argument, that the doctrine of Papal infallibility had been taught by the same Council that taught the Doctrine of the Trinity. According to Robert, that would be sufficient to show that the council was not really a council; but why not assume instead that it was a council, and that Papal infallibility is not actually an innovation? In short, there are two ways to look at the historical fact of such a meeting; one is as a genuine council, the other is as a heretical innovator. Are there specific facts that would enable one to distinguish the right way of viewing the historical meeting from the wrong way? At this great distance in time, probably not. What people point to in the case of Vatican I is the view, held by many not only outside but also inside the Catholic church, that nobody ever believed in Papal infallibility before. Not only was it not semper ubique, it was more like nunc et tunc, hic et illic. But how on earth can one know such a thing with a sufficient degree of certainty to determine whether the doctrine is a deal-breaker for Councilhood? If we were to apply the very same standard that is applied to the Doctrine of the Trinity--that the folks who didn't believe it just weren't really Christians--we would be permitted to say that, well, folks, those who did not believe, at least implicitly, in Papal Infallibility simply weren't really Christians. But, of course, no Anglicans would want to say such a thing, and I doubt that any Catholics would want to say it either; but if we must say it about the Trinity, we must say it about Papal Infallibility as well--if Vatican I was a genuine council. If you don't think that Vatican I was a genuine council, you must say why you think so, but you cannot point to the doctrines that it promulgated or else you will be begging the question.
To reject the authority of a putative council on the grounds of what it taught will always necessarily beg the question, just so long as one endorses VCV. If one rejects VCV, then of course one may reject any Council one wishes, for no other reason than that one does not like what it taught. I suspect few Anglicans would want to go that route--why else distance oneself from the PECUSA madness?--(though these days I am not so sure about how many Catholics would want to avoid that route). But VCV seems like a condign principle, and it has a certain cachet in orthodox-with-a-small-o circles. Mike Liccione has written at some length on how the VCV must be read if it is to make any sense: in particular, there is a difficulty involving the fact that the VCV itself ascribes authority to "the Catholic Church", not the consensus fidelium, as would appear to be the import of semper ubique taken rather literally. Some Anglicans think that Romans want to equate "the Catholic Church" with the See of Rome, but no real Roman Catholics want to do that. The teaching of the See of Rome herself is that "the Catholic Church" subsists in what is called "the Roman Catholic Church", which obviously includes the See of Rome but which also includes every See in Communion with the See of Rome.
What does it mean to be "in Communion with the See of Rome"? One thing it means is being willing to count as "Ecumenical" those councils at which a Pope, or one of his legates, was present and to whose teachings he consented. This is a historical, rather than doctrinal, criterion for counting a council as Ecumenical. On this standard, there are indeed twenty-one Ecumenical Councils. Anglicans and Orthodox Christians reject this standard. What standard do they put in its place? VCV; but this is a doctrinal standard and, as such, necessarily begs the question.
My comments here are not intended as compelling proof of one point of view or another; they are offered principally in explanation for a certain point of view. When I converted to Catholicism twenty-five years ago, it was largely due to my thinking through various issues of this sort, but I recognize, of course, that what I found compelling will not necessarily be found compelling by everyone. That is an unfortunate artifact of our sad divisions, and it is a sign, perhaps, of how far we have fallen from that "one accord" in which the Christian community found itself in the description of the author of Acts. Personally, in the case of Anglicans (of the proper sort) and Orthodox Christians, I'm always ready to look to what we share rather than to our divisions, because the things we share, in this debauched and secular world, are so much more important than the things we disagree about.