How the Making of Saints Led to the Eating of Sausage

In other words, you don’t want to see how they make saints any more than you want to observe the making of sausage. Consider, for instance, Francis Oakley’s review of a new book on canonization:

During much of the first millennium of Christian history, when it came to the recognition of sanctity, spontaneity seems to have been the order of the day. That is to say, the initiative was usually taken at the popular local level in Christian communities where cults of martyrs, confessors, and other saintly individuals had welled up and found expression in rituals and offerings at the tombs of the deceased or pilgrimages to reputedly holy sites. Official ecclesiastical sanction for such cultic practices was at first no more than sporadic. In the latter part of that era, however, local ordinaries increasingly undertook to exercise at least a supervisory role in relation to such saintly cults. And in a third phase, the one on which Prudlo focuses in this book, the high medieval quickening of papal centralization led to the growing papal domination of the process of saintly canonization, culminating in the fourteenth century with what almost amounted to papal monopolization of the whole business. “Almost” because, as Prudlo prudently concedes, that development may not have been “fully completed” until Urban VIII in 1634 definitively reserved to the papacy the prerogative of canonization.

The church that Jesus founded? Hardly.

The implications of this process for papal infallibility are also intruiguing:

the accumulating discourse pertaining to infallibility in canonization provided a new vocabulary and a new lexicon with which to carry on development of the infallibility discussion into the Counter-Reformation and beyond. It is true that when the First Vatican Council came finally to define the dogma of papal infallibility it made no mention of infallibility in canonization and focused exclusively on the broader issue of ex cathedra papal doctrinal definitions on matters of faith and morals. But recondite though the canonization-infallibility nexus may be, Prudlo’s findings are directly and significantly pertinent to the ongoing debate about the historical origins of the infallibility dogma and any historians working henceforth in that conflicted field will certainly have to take those findings into account.

In other words, papal infallibility is bound up with the debatable practice of recognizing saints.

Notice too that the doctrine of infallibility was originally designed to restrict, not enhance, papal authority:

the doctrine had been advanced with the goal not of enhancing papal power but of limiting it via the insistence that popes were bound by the inerrant, irreformable teachings of their predecessors. It is not surprising, then, that Pope John XXII (1316–34), no theologian but a canonist of distinction, seeing the insistence on papal infallibility as an infringement upon the pope’s sovereignty, described it as a “pestiferous doctrine” and treated it accordingly as some sort of dangerous novelty.

Meanwhile, everyone should have known that if Paul could refer to the Corinthians as saints, such hoops and hurdles were hardly necessary or very sanctified.

Glass Half-Full Kind of Guy that (all about) I Am

So who is more optimistic or pessimistic? Two-kingdom folks are generally dismissive of efforts to Christianize society and so are known for being overly sour about the possibilities of human “flourishing.” Theonomists, neo-Calvinists, and transformationalists, in contrast, are much more hopeful about the prospects of improving the world and doing so through Christian influence (however defined). (In light of certain affinities among the obedience boys, experimental Calvinism, and sanctification, we may also count the pietistic Calvinists as optimists. And just so Roman Catholics don’t feel left out, the folks who are nostalgic for Christendom and think it possible to defend and maintain western civilization also seem to qualify as optimists.)

And yet, look at how this works out in practice. The optimists about improving society wind up being nattering nabobs of negativism (thanks Spiro) because they look around and recognize that everything is not measuring up to the standards of human “flourishing.” In contrast, the pessimists wind up being fairly hopeful about the prevailing social conditions because they sense it could be a lot worse. Think back to Cain and Abel, or think of all those monarchs in Israel and Judah who were not exactly in the obedience-boy camp, or think of those early Christians who were falling away to bad teaching or committing immoral acts (think Corinth).

So maybe the question is where do we place our expectations? Are they high or low or somewhere in between? It does strike me that anyone who takes original sin seriously, that means Calvinists (who put “total” in Total Depravity), can never set the bar too low. Even though Augustine was not a Calvinist — it would have been anachronistic for him to be — he seemed to understand (according to Francis Oakley) the value of low expectations based on human turpitude:

. . . accepting the fact that Augustine’s whole conception of the two cities is shaped by his overriding preoccupation with the effects of original sin and his insistence that only the grace of God, gratuitously given, can counteract those effects, and accepting also the corollary that the elect and the reprobate remain inextricably commingled in all the societies of this world, we can still ask of him what position, what dignity, is under such circumstances to be accorded to the civil community, to the empires and commonwealths of this world. And in the reply that Augustine yields to this question, he succeeds in being responsive not only to the several strands, positive as well as negative, woven into the Christian pattern of thinking as it emerges from the New Testament but also to some strands of Hellenistic political thinking and even, in more muted fashion and going back further still, to the Platonic vision of the ideal republic capable of assuring to its citizens true peace, concord, harmony, and fulfillment.

In so doing, however, he is responsive also to the complexity of the Gospel teaching about the Kingdom of God. He recognizes, that is to say, that according to that teaching the Kingdom of God is at once a spiritual kingdom coming into existence as Christ comes to reign in the hearts of the faithful and, at the same time, a transcendent society, a kingdom not of this world, one not destined for complete realization until the ending of time. And by that recognition Augustine firmly endorses the New Testament’s forthright rejection of the archaic sacral pattern and its revolutionary reduction of what we call “the state” to the position of a merely secular entity . . . . because of the Fall and the concomitant corruption of human nature, not only has there been a palpable dimming in man=s perception of those norms but, beyond that, and even when he recognizes them, a catastrophic diminution in his ability to follow them. Only among the ranks of the redeemed, by God’s inexplicable mercy and the gratuitous bestowal of supernatural grace, can now be attained the peace and harmony that, in the state of innocence, man had enjoyed as his natural condition. As for the rest of humankind, their very survival depends on the protection of new institutions and new laws of an essentially political nature appropriate to their fallen condition.

For Augustine, then, subjection to political authority enters the picture not as something natural to man but, like slavery or for that matter death itself, as an outcome of Adam’s primordial fall from grace. Far from being a means of redemption, or a school for character, or even an agency capable of securing for humankind a good quality of life, the commonwealth or empire is a remedy, indeed a punishment, for sin, and it has in all humility to be accepted as such. . . .

The central thrust, then, of Augustine’s mature theopolotical thinking, as we encounter it in The City of God, is to make unambiguously clear the fact that the “state” or civil authority, however vital its function, is nothing more than a secular instrumentality adapted to the evanescent conditions of the saeculum or present age, an essentially limited and necessarily coercive force that lacks both the authority and the ability to reach beyond the imposition of a merely earthly peace and a merely external order to mould the interior dispositions of men. (Francis Oakley, Empty Bottles of Gentilism, 127-130)

Whatever Happened, It Deserves to be Mentioned

While Bryan Cross and others shrug their shoulders about Vatican 2’s significance, practically everywhere you go in other Roman Catholic venues you find acknowledgement that something changed in the church and it was disruptive. Bryan likens this line of attack to an accusation of bait and switch — such that when he blogs about the virtues of Rome he doesn’t mention the elephant in the room that Vatican 2 became for conservatives and traditionalists (but of course, according to Bryan, conservatives don’t exist — you’re either Roman Catholic or you’re not). Well, try as I might, I am having trouble finding other Roman Catholic apologists or scholars who are as reluctant at JATC (Jason and the Callers) are to talk turkey about Vatican 2.

So in the spirit of the season, here are a few servings:

It is hard, from these standpoints, not to stress the discontinuity, the experience of an event, of a break with routine. This is the common langauge used by participants and by observers at the time — the young Joseph Ratzinger’s reflections after each session, published in English as Theological Highlights of Vatican II, are a good example. It is from this perspective that James Hitchcock calls Vatican II “the most important event within the Church in the past four hundred years,” and the French historian-sociologist Emile Poulat points out that the Catholic Church changed more in the ten years after Vatican II than it did in the previous hundred years. Similar positions are held by people along the whole length of the ideological spectrum. Whether they regard what happened as good or bad, they all agree that something happened. (Joseph A Komonchak, “Benedict XVI and the Interpretation of Vatican II,” 108)

I do find it odd that the very institution that is supposed to govern interpretations within the church — the papacy, the office that protects Rome against Protestantism’s opinions — can’t even control the interpretation of such a central feature in church life.

Then comes this from Eamon Duffy:

On every front, then, the Council redrew the boundaries of what had seemed to 1959 a fixed and immutable system. For some Catholics, these changes were the long-awaited harvest of the New Theology, the reward of years of patient endurance during the winter of Pius XII. For others, they were apostasy, the capitulation of the Church to the corrupt and worldly values of the Enlightenment and the Revolution, which the popes from Piux IX to Pius XII had rightly denounced. And for others, perhaps the majority, they were a bewildering stream of directives from above, to be obeyed as best they could. Many of the older clergy of the Catholic Church found themselves sleep-walking through the Conciliar and post-Conciliar years, loyal to an authority which called them to embrace attitudes which the same authority had once denounced as heresy. Pope John’s successor would have to do with all this. (Saints and Sinners, 274-75)

Bryan is wont to shrug at such quotations from historical works, but I’m not sure how he doesn’t feel the weight of the change of authority — the very authority that he uses to show Protestantism’s inferiority — that Duffy notes. He can hide behind the claim that no dogma changed at Vatican 2. Yet, the line between sin and heresy and dogma and discipline was never so clear that the priests Duffy mentions knew how to sort it out and instruct the faithful on what was no longer required and why it wasn’t even though it had been sinful before not to perform certain acts of obedience.

Even for those hopeful of a restoration of Rome’s conservative posture — hard to believe given stories about conservatives’ perceptions of Pope Francis — Vatican 2 was a ecclesiastical bowl of confusion:

Of course, the fact remains that none of the documents of Vatican II are taught ex cathedra. Therefore, none of the teachings of Vatican II are formally pronounced as dogmas by the Second Vatican Council itself. So, very strictly speaking, a person can dissent from Vatican II itself without being a formal heretic. However, to dissent from an ecumenical council is no small matter. To put it informally, one may avoid being a heretic, but still may be a “bad” Catholic.

How did this confusion take root? It can best be explained as rising from the concept of conciliar self-verification. In other words, the Second Vatican Council teaches that the fathers at an “ecumenical council” are teachers of faith and morals, and their “definitions must be adhered to with the submission of faith.” The problem is, the ecumenical council making this statement is itself an ecumenical council—and, therefore, is making statements about itself and not making it with the highest authority, i.e., ex cathedra.

In other words, one might say this is the conciliar version of chasing one’s own theological tail. The fallout has been that, for several generations of Catholics, from academics and Church leaders to the laity in the pews, the lasting impression is, “Vatican II said it was okay to disagree with the Pope.”

Thus began the era of “taking sides.” It was as if the Catholic faith became no more than a grand game—Pope and established Church teachings versus the dissenters—and individual Catholics could simply pick which team to root for. Some called themselves liberals (the “left”) while others called themselves conservatives (the “right”). Each group dissented from Vatican II, but for different reasons.

Many liberal nuns in the U.S., for example, continue to sympathize with anti-life groups that claim they are helping the poor by promoting the poor’s right to funds for abortion and contraception. They claim to be supporting social justice by defending, or, at least, sympathizing with, the gay agenda. They are especially vocal in demanding that the Church ordain women to the priesthood—even after John Paul II informed them that the Church teaching on an all male priesthood is infallible and, therefore, cannot be changed.

On the other hand, the Society of St. Pius X, founded by Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, continues to err on the side of utter conservative rigidity. They reject the Second Vatican Council as a movement of the Holy Spirit, and cling to the minutiae of 500-year-old rituals as necessary, for their own sake. The change of the liturgy from Latin to English, or the vernacular of each particular country, is their most well-known objection.

Therefore, today, 50 years after the opening of Vatican II, the misinterpretation of one of its most salient documents, Lumen Gentium, continues to drive a number of Catholics in the United States into one of two camps, the “right” or the “left.”

So the next time Bryan wants to call conservative Presbyterians to communion, he might want to go through the fine print with those he’s calling.

Our Debt to Roman Catholicism

In his last chapter, Oakley describes what happened to conciliarism after its smack down at Vatican I. Late twentieth-century Roman Catholic ecclesiologists, he writes, have paid less attention to the institutional or extrinsic aspects of church governance to the more theoretical, abstract, and theological. That is one way of saying that exploring the constitutional characteristics of Roman Catholic ecclesiology is forbidden after the triumph of high papalism. Here he quotes one fourteenth-century schoolman, who after describing “the papal power of jurisdiction,” wrote, “But this I only assert. For it is perilous to speak of this matter — more perilous, perhaps, than to speak of the Trinity, or the Incarnation of Jesus Christ, our Saviour.” (219)

Oakley adds:

Such late twentieth-century preoccupations, however, should not be permitted to screen from us the fact . . . that for 700 years and more arguments based on secular political analogies, or arguments simply assuming something of a constitutional overlap between political and ecclesiastical modes of governance, served as a mainstay of eccleiologicial discourse, whether high-papalist or constitutionalist. Hardly surprising, of course, given the marked degree to which in the Middles Ages secular and religious intertwined, and ecclesiology and secular constitutional thinking, whether more absolutist or constitutionalist, constantly influenced one another. So much so, indeed, that the ‘juridical culture of the twelfth century — the works of Roman and canon lawyers, especially those of the canonists where religious and secular ideas most obviously intersected — formed a kind of seedbed from which grew the whole tangled forest of early modern constitutional thought. (219)

In other words, not the Greek polis or the Roman republic but conciliarism was responsible at least indirectly for the constitutional republics of the eighteenth century that sought to place limits on rulers who were prone to appeal to their divine rights.

Oakley goes on to observe the influence of conciliarism among Calvinists:

Neither the English, French, and Scottish resistance theorists of the sixteenth century nor the English parliamentarians of the seventeenth appear to have found anything at all ambiguous about the central strand of conciliar thinking upon which they placed so much emphasis. Nor did the French Huguenots appear to have lost any sleep over their indebtedness to scholastic predecessors for their revolutionary ideas. Quite the contrary, in fact. If Skinner is correct, they may even have seen it as a distinct advantage. For it helped them in their attempt ‘to neutralize as far as possible the hostile Catholic majority by showing them the extent to which revolutionary political actions could be legitimated in terms of impeccably Catholic beliefs. That was far from being the case, of course, with their seventeenth-century English successors. ‘In Stuart England there was much political capital to be made from convicting one’s opponents of popery’, and the sensitivity of the parliamentarians to the charge of crypto-popery and even more of Jesuitry is reflected in their anxious attempts to deflect its force. In relation to the despised doctrine of popular sovereignty [John] Maxwell had charged that ‘Puritan and Jesuite in this, not only consent and concurre, but like Herod and Pilate are reconciled to crucify the Lord’s anointed’. To that [Samuel] Rutherford retorted that Maxwell, having taked ‘unlearned paines, to prove that Gerson, Occam Jac[obus] de Almaine, Parisian Doctors maintanined these same grounds anent the peples power over Kings in the case of Tyranny [as did the Jesuits]’, had by so doing given ‘himselfe the lye’ and inadvertently demonstrated that ‘we have not this Doctrine from Jesuites’. But if not from Jesuits, clearly still from papists. And that charge [William] Bridge was forced to shrug off with the rejoinder that ‘Reason is good wherever we finde it; neither would Abraham refuse the use of the Well because Abimalech’s men had used it, no more will we refuse good reason, because Papists have used it. (237)

Irony: When A Council Kills Conciliarism

Oakley’s chapter on the First Vatican Council contains the following nuggets. The first is that conciliarism was alive and sort of well in ecclesiologists such as Henri Maret, the last dean of the theology faculty at the Sorbonne. Oakley describes his position this way:

In conscious opposition, then, to De Maistre, Maret sought to identify in the Church’s constitution a liberal element that could open the way to his longed-for ‘reconciliation of the Church with the modern notion of freedom’. Noting the presence in the Church’s constitution of a ‘democratic element in that any member of the faithful could be called to the episcopal state and that is was the original practice of Christian communities to elect their bishops, he insists, none the less, that democracy cannot claim sovereignty in the Church. But nor does that sovereignty reside in any form of absolute monarchy. It belongs, instead, to monarchy tempered with aristocracy (in one place he calls it ‘a monarchy essentially aristocratic and deliberative’), in effect, what is sometimes called a mixed government, one framed along the same lines as ‘constitutional and representative monarchy’ in the world of secular regimes.

That much can be said, Maret believes, even without having determined the precise relationship between pope and bishops. But as soon as one attempts to make that determination, one comes up against the fact that two long-standing schools of thought compete for one’s allegiance. The first is the Italian school, which . . . . says, ‘the pope possesses a monarchical power that is pure, indivisible, absolute and unlimited.’ . . . The competing school, that of Paris, . . . asserts to the contrary that, while the pope is indeed the monarch of the Church, that monarchy is ‘truly and efficaciously tempered by [the] aristocracy’ of bishops. . . .

One has to decide between these competing schools, and to do so (he says) one has to put them to the test of scripture and tradition. So far as the scriptures are concerned, the celebrated cluster of texts (notably Matthew 16 and 18) which together constitute what he calls (and pace De Maistre) the very ‘constitutional charter’ of the Church, certainly seem to suggest that the sovereign power was given, not to Peter alone, but to the ‘collective unity’ of Peter and the other apostles, and to exclude from the government of the Church therefore any sort of ‘pure, absolute and indivisible monarchy’. But it is to the acts of the general councils down through history that one must turn for the ‘authentic commentary’ on and ‘legitimate interpretation’ of that fundamental scriptural’constitutional charter’. . . . [O]n the conflicted issue of the pope-bishop relationship the decrees emanating from Constance and Florence are ‘the most weighty and celebrated’. (211-213)

Maret’s conclusion was that Haec Sancta and Frequens, the conciliar determinations that resolved the Western schism, were not “dogma of faith,” but “constitutional law” that regulated ecclesiastical power. These were decrees that stated more clearly and solemnly than had been before that the “Church’s constitution was to be viewed as a mixed one, a ‘monarchy . . . essentially aristocratic and deliberative’, one in which the pope, while possessing by divine authority the plenitude of power, was no pure absolute and unlimited monarch but a ruler who, in the exercise of that power, was limited by the aristocratic element constituted by the bishops themselves — ‘true princes,’ he added, possessing by divine right a share in the Church’s sovereign power.”

The second nugget is that First Vatican Council ended this tradition of conciliarism:

Maret’s position was to be doomed, thrust into the outer darkness of heterodoxy by Pastor aeternus, the First Vatican Council’s historic decrees on the primacy of jurisdiction and infallibility of the pope. Or so the pertinent curial officials clearly concluded. If Lord Acton as a layman was able to avoid any forthright endorsement of the council’s teaching on infallibility against which he had fought so vigorously, clerics like. . . Maret were permitted very little room for manoeuvre. . . . [Maret] was to find that his earnest attempts to identify some fugitive common ground between his own form of neo-Gallicanism and the ecclesiology which informed Pastor aeternus were unacceptable at Rome. In August 1871, then, though without specifying what is was, precisely, that he had in mind, he publicly disavowed ‘whatever in his book and in his Defense is opposed to the Council’s definition.’ (216)

Conciliarism and Protestantism

Francis Oakley traces the appropriation and extension of conciliarism by the Reformers (another historical development that cracks Jason and the Caller’s paradigmatic squint):

‘A general councell is a Congregation of Pastors, Doctors and Elders, or others, met in the name and authority of Jesus Christ, out of all Churches, to determine according to the word of God, all controversies in faith, Church-government or manners, no faithfull person who desireth being excluded from reasoning and speaking’. The author of this definition correctly noted that the definitions given across the two centuries and more preceding by the conciliar theorists Jean Gerson and Jacques Almain did not differ much from his own ‘save that they thinke that councells are lawfully convened, if such and such onely, as are of the Hierarchike order be members thereof . . . as also the Pope president . . . [which] we disclaime.’ . . .

These comments are drawn from The Due Right of Presbyteries which Samuel Rutherford, the Scottish Presbyterian, published in 1644. I do not believe it fanciful to suggest that they reflect in intriguing fashion the knowledge of, interest in, and sympathy with the long conciliarist tradition which had been so marked a feature of Scottish ecclesiological thinking since the first quarter of the fifteenth century, and of which, in the early sixteenth, John Mair had been the ‘outstanding representative’. . . . Significant elements of this conciliar ecclesiology are evident also in the Catechism which John Hamilton, archbishop of St. Andrews, published in 1550, and then were later reflected also in such official statements of the Reformed Scottish Kirk as the Scots Confession of 1560 and the Second Book of Discipline, this last drawn up in 1578 and recognized by James VI’s government in 1592. This Second Book of Discipline, indeed, affirmed the general Council to be an integral part of the Kirk’s organization, a capstone, as it were, to the structure of local, regional, and national or general assemblies.

But when James VI became James I, his suspicions of presbyterianism did not put him off conciliarism altogether even if his resolve for Reformed Protestantism was not as think as a Scottish accent:

Within a year of his becoming king of England, after all, and even before he told his first parliament that he acknowledged ‘the Romane Church to be our Mother Church, although defiled with some infirmities and corruptions’ and expressed, accordingly, his own heartfelt desire to help promote ‘a generall Christian union in Religion’, he had proposed to the papal curia via diplomatic back-channels that the pope should ‘summon a General Council, which, according to the ancient usage,’ would be ‘superior to all Churches, all doctrine, all Princes, secular and ecclesiastic, non excepted’. And if he believed the pope to be subject in jurisdiction to that of the general council (as the Council of Constance had demonstrated), he still insisted that he regarddd hierarchy as ‘essential’ to the Church, and the pope ‘the first Bishop in it, President and Moderator in Council, but not head or superior’. (142-144)

Conciliarism on the Eve of Reformation

It may come as no surprise to hear that Thomas Cardinal Cajetan, Luther’s chief antagonist in 1518 at the meeting in Augsburg, was a high papalist who took a decidedly anti-conciliar position with his 1511 work, De comparatione auctoritatis papae et concilii. As Francis Oakley explains, this book by Cajetan disrupted the council, then meeting in Pisa, and the bishops (from exile) sent Cajetan’s treatise to the leading theological faculty of Europe, Paris, for evaluation. There Jacques Almain responded with a vindication of the conciliarist position. It involved three grounds, as Oakley summarizes:

First, just as coercive civil power is present in a political body as a whole before it is wielded by any of its members, so, too, is it with the Church. The supreme ecclesiastical power, which Christ admittedly conferred directly upon Peter, he had earlier conferred ‘in its plentitude’ on the Church. So true is this, indeed, that had he failed after the Resurrection to institute anyone as his supreme pontiff or vicar general, the Church being possessed already of the ‘supreme coercive power’, could itself have done so. . . . .

secondly, the ecclesiastical power residing in the Church is ‘greater in extension’ than is that residing in the pope. When Christ conferred upon Peter the keys of the kingdom of heaven, he gave them to him not as a private person but ‘as a sign and figure’ or representative of the universal Church. Hence it is by the authority of the Church and in its place that Peter and his successors have wielded the power of the keys — ‘just as kings exercise the power of jurisdiction in place of the community.’ But the general council immediately represents the universal Church and it has the power of the keys ‘more directly than does Peter’. . . .

Third, the eccleiastical power which resided in the Church is not only ‘greater in extension’ than that residing in the pope, it is also ‘greater in perfection’ too. For it resides in the Church with constancy . . . so that the Church ‘is unable to err in those things that pertain to the faith and to good morals, nor can it err in passing sentence [on such matters . . . since it is assisted always by the Holy Spirit, doctor of truth and infallible director’. . . . For popes can err, and manifestly have erred in matters of faith, and have done so in their official public capacity as well as in their private personal beliefs, whereas from that danger the Holy Spirit protects the general council, representing truly as it does that council of apostles and disciples which was the recipient of Christ’s promise that he would be with us always even to the consummation of the world. (125-26)

So strong was this disagreement between Cajetan and Almain, and so strong was the conciliarist movement, that the Council of Trent represented one of the diciest moments in Roman Catholic history. According to Oakley:

. . . concern about the danger to the papacy which [conciliar views] still posed helped, accordingly, to bolster reluctance at Rome to respond to the Protestant challenge in Germany by summoning the general council for which so many Catholics pleaded. When the Council of Trent did finally meet in 1545, it was not only suspicious representatives of the evangelicals who turned out to want the matter of the superiority of pope to council placed on the agenda. Apprehension about the potential recrudescence of conciliarism, very much on the minds of the papal legates, was also, as Paulo Sarpi was to note later on in his ascerbic history of Trent, widespread among the council fathers themselves. And not, it turned out, without good cause. Given the way in which events were to unfold, one is forced to concur in the judgement that ‘there was . . . scarcely any set problems that was so controversial at Trent or that brought the council so close to collapse as the question of primacy and the relationship between the primate and episcopate’. Disagreement about the respective powers of pope and council, though partially downplayed in response to the threat posed by Protestant dissent, rumbled on through the council’s first two periods in the 1540s and 1550s, rising to the level of something more than a subdominant whenever the issue of reform in head and members came to be discussed. And in 1562-3, during the council’s last phase when a French delegation of some significance had finally joined the ranks of the participants, the issue helped precipitate what was clearly Trent’s greatest crisis.

Aside from the ecclesiological debates over a bishop’s power (whether it came through the pope or directly from Christ), and whether bishops were bound to reside in their dioceses, was the question of papal primacy.

Here the level of disagreement was such as to preclude not only that papally sponsored redefinition but also any decree at all on the controverted nature of the Christian Church. So menacing, indeed, was the atmosphere at the council, and so rancorous the dissent, that it was something of a triumph for the diplomacy of the papal legates to have succeeded finally in sidestepping the pursuit of that issue in a compromising context in which appeals were being made to the superiority decrees of Constance and Basel . . . and in which the celebrated Charles de Guise, cardinal of Lorraine, proudly proclaimed himself to be a Frenchman, one nourished at the University of Paris where, he noted, the Councils of Constance and Basel (but certainly not that of Florence) were held to be fully legitimate and ecumenical in status, and where those rash enough to deny the superiority of council to pope could expect to be censured as heretics. (130-31)

Why Jason and the Callers decided to go all in on a theory of papal primacy and chose to ignore the theory of conciliarism (which no less depends on apostolic succession) is not just a mystery but audacious.

Conciliarism Is What Christ Founded (or at least preceded high-papalism)

The crucial decree at the Council of Constance, in Francis Oakley’s story, is Haec Sancta, part of which reads (and according to the Vatican website contradicts Vatican I on “papal primacy/infallibility”):

In the name of the holy and undivided Trinity, Father and Son and holy Spirit. Amen. This holy synod of Constance, which is a general council, for the eradication of the present schism and for bringing unity and reform to God’s church in head and members, legitimately assembled in the holy Spirit to the praise of almighty God, ordains, defines, decrees, discerns and declares as follows, in order that this union and reform of God’s church may be obtained the more easily, securely, fruitfully and freely.

First it declares that, legitimately assembled in the holy Spirit, constituting a general council and representing the catholic church militant, it has power immediately from Christ; and that everyone of whatever state or dignity, even papal, is bound to obey it in those matters which pertain to the faith, the eradication of the said schism and the general reform of the said church of God in head and members.

Next, it declares that anyone of whatever condition, state or dignity, even papal, who contumaciously refuses to obey the past or future mandates, statutes, ordinances or precepts of this sacred council or of any other legitimately assembled general council, regarding the aforesaid things or matters pertaining to them, shall be subjected to well-deserved penance, unless he repents, and shall be duly punished, even by having recourse, if necessary, to other supports of the law. (quoted in Oakley, 83)

This affirmation of conciliarism was designed to address the unity of the church, one of the true church’s four marks:

Of the four marks of the Church designated in the Nicene Creed — one, holy, Catholic, apostolic — the mark of holiness had appeared earlier and more frequently in the various creeds than had the other three. And it was also the characteristic that had given rise to some of the earliest ecclesiological controversies. But in the great late medieval tide of debate concerning the nature of the Church that was to crest during the conciliar epoch, it was less the mark of holiness than that of unity that lay at the very heart of disagreement. If, for adherents to the more prominent high-papalist position, the key to that unity lay in the firm subordination of all the members of the Christian community to a single papal head, for others the key lay, rather, in the corporate association of those members. It was from the latter group that the conciliarists of the late fourteenth and fifteenth centuries took their cue. Committed to the belief that the papal headship of the Church was indeed of divine foundation, but more also it seems, by memories of what today would be called the ecclesiology of communio and by the scriptural and patristic vision of the community of Christians as forming a single body with Christ, it’s ‘primary’ or ultimate head, the proponents of conciliarist views sought to combine those two convictions. That is to say, and as J. H. Burns has rightly insisted, their argument with the high papalists was not an argument “for or against [papal] monarchy as such’, but an argument about the nature of that papal monarchy. For they sought to harmonize their twin convictions by insisting that side by side with the institution of papal monarchy it was necessary to give the Church’s communitarian or corporate dimension more prominent and routine institutional expression, most notably by the regular assembly of general councils representing the entire community of the faithful. (65)

In other words, the conciliarists were looking perhaps more for an arrangement like that of the Church of England, with an archbishop in Canterbury who presides over all the bishops but is the first among equals and meets every decade at the Lambeth Conference. Of course, this is not an argument for presbyteries, classes, synods, or assemblies as Reformed Protestants know and convene them. But Oakley’s book does show once again how deficient Jason and the Callers’ understanding of Roman Catholic history is. Papal primacy and its nature has long been a source of debate among Roman Catholics (and still is among American Roman Catholics, with the Americanists wanting the Vatican to loosen up and the conservatives wanting the papacy to instill discipline and order). Papal primacy is not a solution to Protestantism’s problems because it has not solve Roman Catholicism’s problems.

Oakley rounds out his discussion of Haec Sancta by addressing whether it was novel or reactionary in its conciliar convictions. Here he follows the path-breaking work of Brian Tierney:

Prior to 1955, scholars had long pointed out the frequency with which the earlier canon lawyers were cited in the conciliarist tracts, and the growth since the Second World War of interest in the history of medieval canon law helped focus attention on those citations. Insisting that the borrowing from Ockham and Marsiglio to be found in the consiliarist tracts usually reflected the use to which those two authors had themselves made of the canon law, Tierney argues that the strict conciliar theory, far from being a reaction against canonistic teaching or an alien importation onto ecclesial soil of secular constitutional notions, had instead deep (and impeccably orthodox) roots in the ecclesiological tradition of the pre-Marsiglian era. It unquestionably drew a great deal of inspiration from the communio ecclesiology and synodal practice of the first millennium of Christian life, and especially from the essentially concilar mode of governance that had characterized the ancient Church for long centuries after the Council of Niceaea (325). That phase of Church history had left as its enduring legacy not only the doctrinal decrees and disciplinary canons of the great ecumenical councils but also the memory of the work accomplished by a whole series of pivotal provincial councils, prominent among them those held at Toledo in Visigothic Spain. . . .

What this soluation to the problem of origins means, of course, is that conciliar theory did not represent (as Figgis and others assumed) some sort of radical intrusion — in Tierney’s words, ‘something accidental external, thrust upon the Church from the outside’. It was, instead, ‘a logical culmination of ideas that were [deeply] embedded in the law and doctrines of the Church itself. (106-107, 110)

Before You Sign Up for Christendom

Well before Martin Luther came along, the Roman Catholic Church had problems that stemmed directly from the very structures that were designed (theologically and politically) to unify church and society. The so-called Western Schism witnessed a papal crisis – three popes at one time – that only the Council of Constance (1414-1418) could solve. (Warning to triumphalist Protestants: this was the Council that also condemned those good old forerunners of the Reformation, John Hus and John Wycliffe.)

Here is Francis Oakley on Constance:

A divided Christendom had indeed been reunited but only because a general council, acting in the absence of its papal head, had formally claimed on certain crucial issues to be the legitimate repository of supreme power in the Church, had been able to vindicate that claim, and had been willing to do so even to the point of trying and deposing popes. In the month prior to the papal election and as part of the reform package to which all the conciliar nations had already given their approval, it had also gone on to set up constitutional machinery designed to prevent in the future any reversion to papal absolutism. In the decree Frequens it decreed that general councils were to be assembled, the first in five years’ time, the second in seventh, and thereafter at regular ten-year intervals. In this decree . . . the fathers at Constance were careful to ensure that, even if the pope chose not to convoke them, general councils would assemble automatically at nothing less than ten-yearly intervals and, in the unhappy event of renewed schism, within no more than a year of its outbreak. (42)

In other words, a century before the Reformation, the papacy was on the ropes and apparently chastened. The Restoration popes were also increasingly limited in their power, not simply by councils but also by the circumstances of European politics.

Loss of control and concomitant loss of revenues notwithstanding, possession of the actual substance of power over the provincial churches of Christendom mattered less, it seems, than the retention of a theoretically supreme authority over the universal Church. Its almost inevitable corollary, however, the revenues flowing in to Rome from the Church at large having been grievously diminished, was the pressing need for the popes of the Restoration era to turn inward and to focus their attention on the government of the papal states upon which they had now come to depend for a full half of their overall revenues. In effect, however grandiose their theoretical powers as supreme pontiffs and however much people continued to pay lip service to that position, they themselves had to concentrate a good deal of their day-to-day effort on their role as Italian princes, involving themselves in the complex diplomacy and ever-shifting coalitions required by the need to protect their Italian principality, to maintain, accordingly, the balance of power in Italy, to save off the recurrent threat of French and Spanish intervention in the politics of the peninsula, and when such efforts failed, to control and diminish the extent of that intervention. (53)

Such diminished authority was obviously crucial for the assertion of the provincial churches’ authority (subsidiarity in action?), which of course happened in spades with Luther’s appeal to the German nobility, Henry VIII’s “reform” of the Church of England, the rise of city churches in Switzerland, and the eventual emergence of a Dutch Reformed Church in rebellion against Spain. Still, conciliarism was key to Protestantism’s rise and to Trent’s failure to resolve Rome’s constitutional crisis.

In November 1518, in anticipation of the papal sentence, and again in 1520, Luther himself appealed from the judgment of the pope to that of a future general council. In his appeals, ironically enough, he drew the legal sections from the text of the earlier appeal launched by the theologians of Paris. For the pope, it may be, that was worrying enough in itself, but probably less worrying than those later calls, emanating from Catholic as well as Lutheran circles, for the assembly of a ‘general, free Christian council in German lands’. But, for one reason or another, worry did not prove enough to precipitate any sort of action that was truly timely, decisive, and effective. In that respect, two particularly surprising things may be noted about the response of the popes to the Protestant challenge. First, their failure for the better part of a quarter-century to convoke the general council for which so many Christian leaders called and upon the determinations of which so many anxious and conflicted spirits reposed their hopes. Second, when finally it did assemble, and despite the challenge laid down by the novel Protestant ecclesiologies of the day, the failure of that long-awaited council to promulgate any dogmatic decree on the nature of the Christian Church – and that despite its readiness to address so many other controverted issues. (58)

Again, I wonder when Jason and the Callers’ theory of papal sufficiency is going to catch up with historical reality.

Postscript: Oakley apparently has not left conciliarism to the archives or study carrel.

Have I Got A Book for Ross Douthat?

Last week Douthat reflected on what is becoming obvious — the change (at least in tone) in the papacy under Francis, though conclusive assessments are still premature. Douthat also argued that this change could be good for conservative Roman Catholics:

. . . to the extent that conservative Catholics in the United States find themselves actively disagreeing with Pope Francis’s emphases, whether on political issues or matters internal to the church or both, it might help cure them/us of the recurring Catholic temptation toward papolatry.

This temptation was sharpened for many Catholics by John Paul II’s charisma and Cold War statesmanship and then Benedict’s distinctive intellectual gifts, and by their common role as ecumenical rallying points for orthodox belief in an age of heresy. But if the tendency is understandable, it’s also problematic, because the only thing that Catholics are supposed to rely on the papacy for is the protection of the deposit of faith, and on every other front — renewal, governance, holiness — it’s extremely important for believers to keep their expectations low.

At various points during the last two pontificates, of course, it’s been liberal and heterodox Catholics who have consoled themselves with precisely this perspective, and with the belief that (as the writer Paul Elie put it, in an Atlantic article on the election of Joseph Ratzinger) “much of what is best in the Catholic tradition has arisen in the shadow of an essentially negative papacy.” But conservative Catholics need not agree with the liberal theological program to recognize that there is truth to the underlying insight. The papal office has been occupied by many more incompetents than geniuses, and there’s a reason why so few occupants of the chair of Peter show up in the litany of the saints. Or at least until so few until now — and here I agree absolutely with this point from Michael Brendan Dougherty, in a piece about the overlooked aspects of Francis’s now-famous post-Brazil interview:

For one thing, Pope Francis not only touted the impending canonizations of Pope John XIII and Pope John Paul II, but also the “causes” of Pope Paul VI and Pope John Paul I. Are we seriously to believe that every recent pope was a saint, even when the church has experienced unbelievable contraction and criminal scandal under their pontificates? Seems like the Church needs an “Advocatus Diaboli” again to point out the faults of candidates for sainthood …

So popes are not all saints, and the pope isn’t identical with the church — and it wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world for conservative Catholics to reckon with this fact. Maybe this pontificate won’t be the time for that reckoning. But if the historical record is indicative, it won’t be permanently delayed.

Something that may also help conservative Roman Catholics find separation from the audacity of papal authority is Francis Oakley’s book, The Conciliarist Tradition (2003). That Douthat does not appeal to conciliarism, as if papalism is the only game in town, confirms Oakley’s thesis that conciliarism has been forgotten and that high-papalism is presumed to be the traditional view:

. . . it has been usual to concede that tattered remnants of that conciliar ecclesiology were to be found caught up in those provicincal, obscurely subversive, and usually statist ideologies that have gone down in history as Gallicanism, Richerism, Febronianism, and Josephinism. But those disparate, occluding, and (usually) ninetenth-century labels have themselves served, in fact, to conceal from us the prominence, tenacity, wide geographic spread, and essential continuity of that age-old tradition of conciliarist constitutionalism which, for long centuries, competed stubbornly for the allegiance of Catholics with the high-papalist or ultramontane vision of things so powerfully entrenched in Italy and at Rome. If the latter is so much more familiar to us today, it is so because it was destined after 1870 to become identified with Roman Catholic orthodoxy itself. And it is only, one cannot help suspecting, our very familiarity with that papalist outcome that has contrived to persuade us of the necessity of the process.

In the past, historians concerned with the conciliar movement clearly felt obliged to explain how it could be that the seeds of such a consitutionalist ecclesiology could have contrived to germinate in the stonily monarchical soil of the Latin Catholic Church. But in thus framing the issue, or so I will be suggesting, they were picking up the conceptual stick at the wrong end. Given the depth of its roots in the ecclesiological consciousness of Latin Christendom and the strength with which it endured on into the modern era and right across norther Europe, the real question for the historian at least may rather be how and why that constitutionalist ecclesiology perished and, in so doing, left so very little trace on our historical consciousness. For perish it certainly did . . . Vatican I’s definitions of papal primacy and infallibility had seemed to leave Catholic historians with little choice but to treat the concilar movement as nothing more than a revolutionary moment in the life of the Church, and Catholic theologians with no alternative but to regard the conciliar theory as a dead issue, an ecclesiological fossil, something lodged deep in the lower carboniferous of the dogmatic geology. (16-17)

Perhaps with folks like Jason and the Callers in mind, Oakley wrote this:

. . . . Theologians of non-historical bent may doubtless be content to explain why this had necessarily to be so. Historians on the other hand, may be forgiven for wanting to rescue from the shadows and return to the bright lights of centre stage the memory of a tradition of thought powerful enough, after all, to have endured in the Catholic consciousness for half a millennium and more. (18-19)

So when Jason and the Callers embraced the papacy, they believed they were only doing what Roman Catholics had always done. Turns out that conciliarism (especially if you rummage around in the Eastern Church) has deeper historical roots than papalism. In which case, Jason and the Callers confirm Oakley’s point about the forgetfulness of traditionalist Roman Catholics about tradition.