A few weeks ago I came to the end of Aidan Nichols’s biography of Adrian Fortescue The Latin Clerk.  Fortescue is the original author of the standard handbook for the celebration of the Roman Rite in the English speaking world as well as a number of wonderful works on the Eastern Churches, a study of the claims of the Papacy up to 451 and much else besides. He was a colourful, extremely witty and highly sympathetic character. Nichol’s book is a most enjoyable read. Strangely Nichols reaches Fortescue’s death in the narrative some time before he finishes considering his works. I wonder if this is because Nichols, anticipating a conservative and traditionalist audience for the study, wishes to retain the sympathy of his readers. At the end of the biography Nichols considers Fortescue’s problems with the modern Papacy, the anti-Modernist purge and the inerrancy of scripture. These could well come as something of a shock to precisely the group who are most likely to admire Fr Fortescue.  By the ‘modern Papacy’ I do not of course mean the conciliar and post conciliar papacy (Fortescue died in 1923); rather, I mean the neo-ultramontane Papacy that emerged from the chaos of the French revolution and celebrated the triumph of the papal monarchy over the corpse of baroque Christendom and Gallicanism in 1870. Of course that sounds as if the Popes rejoiced over the collapse of the Vienna Settlement of 1814-15, and that is unfair, because they certainly did not. But one consequence of the fall of the Bourbons and co. was that the Holy See was free to define and then to exercise in spirituals the fullness of the authority had claimed for itself since the time of Gregory VII. The price was the growing exclusion of the faith from civil and social life. Or rather the triumph of neo- ultramontane ecclesiology was a side-effect of that exclusion.

Indeed, to do the post-1870 Papacy justice, its neo-Thomist intellectual and social programme achieved an amazing transformation of the Church’s fortunes and brought her to a state of internal discipline and political influence unimaginable at the time of Vatican I, before it was abandoned after 1958 (with consequences with which we are all far too familiar). Fortescue’s problem with this modern Papacy is that the church just isn’t supposed to operate as a vast multi-national corporation. The ordinary universal jurisdiction of the Pope is not supposed to be exercised in such a way as to effectively suppress the institutional life and independence of the particular churches. The tearing up of all canonical tradition and the production of a ‘code’ of Canon Law and the scrapping of the Roman Missal in order to create a ‘new order of Mass’ is unprecedented, and with good reason. Of course this all sounds like dangerous stuff as we all know what the institutional life and independence of the particular churches looks like today and few of the faithful wish to see more of the same. But we are probably wrong to suppose that more control from Rome would solve the problem. Control from Rome is part of the problem. If each diocese were left to go its own way it is true that the worst ones would soon be devastated. However, those with Catholic bishops would revive and when they did the successor of that bishop would be elected by the clergy of the diocese he had revived not by a series of committees and shadowy officials in Rome influenced and manipulated by his resentful liberal Episcopal brothers back home.

It was Rome which arranged many (and permitted many more) of the long series of car-crash prudential decisions that led to the situation we are now in. The present Holy Father belongs to the Germanic theological stable that brought about the ambiguities of the conciliar documents in the first place. Christ never promised to guarantee the private theological judgement of the Bishop of Rome or his prudential judgement or that of any members of any bureaucracy of which the Pope might choose to avail himself. We need to give up on a model of ecclesiastical government constructed on the basis that He did.

So Fortescue has a point. What he does not have a point about is the unlimited material inerrancy of scripture or about the idea that modern researches might lead us to think we need to worry about it. Nor does he have point in worrying about the content of Pascendi or Lamentabili or the oath that bound him to them. However, he might have a point in having a problem with them, formally if not materially, as it were. Fortescue seems to have had a relatively restrictive interpretation of Papal infallibility. Solemn anathema-bearing condemnations and not much else were guaranteed by Vatican I, it seems, in his view. I don’t think I agree with that. It seems that the basis upon which the fathers of Vatican I voted was that any teaching issued by the Pope that fulfilled the criteria laid down in Pastor Aeternus would be infallible regardless of its particular wording and rhetorical dress. Nevertheless, Fortescue’s particular assessment of the extent of Papal infallibility does not affect his essential point, which is (if I get him right): ‘What is the Pope doing addressing fallible teaching documents to the universal church?’ the universal church has a special group of people for this, they are called bishops. What is the point of writing documents addressed to all bishops, or all Catholics or even all people of good will, that contain things that might be wrong? Indeed, the Popes have not always done this. I don’t know when the first such document was issued but I would be surprised if it precedes the eighteenth century. We are told that we must give these texts obsequium religiosum. Fine, but why? Are they infallible? Lots of people including the present Pontiff seem to think not. Did Christ immediately after endowing Peter with infallibility also say ‘oh and by the way I am also giving you the authority to issue documents which although not infallible will be sufficiently likely to be correct that it would be sinfully imprudent of the faithful not to give them the benefit of the doubt but which might in the final analysis turn out to be wrong’. I’m not sure that just doesn’t sound like His style.

Now, I don’t agree with Fortescue. I think it is fine for Pius X to bind people to Pascendi or Lamentabili by oath. But then that is because I think they are infallible. I think there is a lot of mileage in the idea that the proper distinction between the so-called Ordinary and Universal Papal Magisterium and the Extraordinary Magisterium lies in the fact that the latter obliges us to reject or accept a rule of language while the former only obliges us only to accept the content of the doctrine taught. But what about the teaching documents of the Holy See which address the universal church on faith and morals but do not define? Are there any such? Or are all texts addressed to the universal church on faith and morals definitive? Pius XII says in 1950,

“Nor must it be thought that what is expounded in Encyclical Letters does not of itself demand consent, since in writing such Letters the Popes do not exercise the supreme power of their Teaching Authority. For these matters are taught with the ordinary teaching authority, of which it is true to say: ‘He who heareth you, heareth me’; and generally what is expounded and inculcated in Encyclical Letters already for other reasons appertains to Catholic doctrine. But if the Supreme Pontiffs in their official documents purposely pass judgment on a matter up to that time under dispute, it is obvious that that matter, according to the mind and will of the Pontiffs, cannot be any longer considered a question open to discussion among theologians.”

But what about when the Pope doesn’t “purposely pass judgment on a matter up to that time under dispute”? More importantly, why does the Pope issue documents addressed to the whole church when he neither solemnly condemns or defines something nor purposely passes judgment on a matter up to that time under dispute? Does this not simply cause confusion? Is this not the doctrinal equivalent of suppressing the institutional life and independence of the particular churches?

One of Fortescue’s correspondents in Nichols’s book complains about the hypostatisation the Church in distinction from Christ. Here perhaps lies the most sinister level of the problem. Those infected with Germanic thought are too often given to find a replacement for the Prussian State as the emerging Absolute. Those infected with Germanic thought and dwelling within the Church all too naturally turn to a hypostasised ‘Magisterium’ to be that substitute. Hence the novel concept of doctrinal development, not as the extrapolation of the logical consequences of the deposit of faith in defence of the deposit against novelty, but as the emergence of startling novelties that the Apostles and Fathers never dreamed might lie within their teaching and which have no discernible connection with it. Hence the enthusiasm for showing obsequium religiosum to the musings of the ‘Magisterium’ even when they might be wrong. Hence the hermeneutic of rupture. Hence the resistance to the definition of clear and irreformable teaching that might stifle such ‘development’. It is precisely because Pius X was right to react against modernism with such force that Fortescue was right to have the formal concerns he did.  There is no real hypostasis of the Church distinct from Christ. There is only Christ and the juridical person of the Church generated by the grace He gives. Christ is not sometimes wriong and sometimes right. He is true God and true man and He speaks with authority whenever He speaks. When the Pope exercises that authority by which “he who heareth you, heareth me” it is Christ Who speaks and the cause is ended. The power to speak to the entire church authoritatively was given to the successor of St Peter for this end and that is the occasion on which it should be used. “A reply of St. Joan of Arc to her judges sums up the faith of the holy doctors and the good sense of the believer: ‘About Jesus Christ and the Church, I simply know they’re just one thing, and we shouldn’t complicate the matter.’”