22 November 2015

DUSTING DOWN THE ARCHIVES: What the pope is for

I wrote this on September 3 2010, when we were still in the Church of England. Although I say so myself, it seems to me eerily prescient of what needs to be said now, in a time when, once again, the old and evil maximalising notion of the Papacy ("the Pope can do anything") has raised its exceedingly ugly head; a time when many good people are very fearful (however wrongly) that a pope might act on the ultra vires assumption that he has competence to override the Tradition, to shove the very words of Christ Himself into the fridge. 

But "nenikeka ton kosmon". Her immaculate Heart will prevail.

I have preserved an interesting comment from the old thread.

 "The language of the Vatican [I] decrees on the Roman Pontiff is admittedly formidable at first reading". So wrote Dom Gregory Dix (and he proceeded, in a brilliant and witty tour de force, to demonstrate their congruity, not only with "the second century", but also with "the New Testament"). I think he was right; the language of those degrees does rather give the impression of having been written with a deliberate intention of upsetting the horses. Yet John Henry Newman, despite his earlier apprehensions about what the Ultramontanes (particularly England's own dangerously ultramontane cardinal) were getting up to in Rome, sighed with relief when he saw this wording ... and memorably commented "Nothing has been passed of consequence".

What can look so intimidating if you lack a certain sort of background, can seem matter-of-course or even inconsequential when one does have a sense of context. What one might call the body-language of the Vatican I decrees can seem frightening. They can appear to suggest that the Pope can, at will, impose new dogmas, and directly manipulate the life of any individual Catholic. Those who see them in this way do have some excuses for their anxieties; Wilfred Ward was but one of the Ultras who did believe something frighteningly like that. But Ward's dotty excesses were not what the decrees mean or, indeed, even come anywhere near to saying.

Newman and Ratzinger are strikingly similar in their approach to what the Papacy intrinsically is. Newman, from his "old, Anglican, patristic, literary" background, found himself writing "It is one of the reproaches urged against the Church of Rome, that it has originated nothing, and has only served as a sort of remora or break in the development of dogma." He goes on "And it is an objection which I embrace as a truth; for such I conceive to be the main purpose of its extraordinary gift". The heart of the role which the Roman Church plays within the Universal Church is, in other words, negative; to be a barrier against the encroachment of novelties.

It is important to grasp this because the two high-profile actions of Roman Pontiffs which in most minds have been associated with the idea of Infallibility-in-action are the two "Marian dogmas". Non-Catholics therefore tend to judge the purpose of the Roman Magisterium in the light of these two manifestations of it. This is unfortunate. Those two definitions are side-issues, not typical of what "Rome" has meant through two millennia. What is typical, as Newman says, is a caution, a conservatism, a sense of the dangers of being daring and clever. The need to be 'creative' is not often found in the writings of S Leo et al.! A patristic scholar less remembered nowadays than he deserves, my distinguished predecessor [at the Church of S Thomas the Martyr in Oxford] Dr Jalland, wrote of Rome's "strange, almost mystical, faithfulness to type, its marked degree of changelessness, its steadfast clinging to tradition and precedent".

Papa Ratzinger comes at the question in exactly the same way as Newman and Jalland. This cautious sense of his essentially negative role is at the heart of his wise discharge of his Pontificate. And nobody should have been surprised at this who had read his words. "The First Vatican Council had in no way defined the pope as an absolute monarch. On the contrary, it presented him as the guarantor of obedience to the revealed Word. The pope's authority is bound to the Tradition of faith ... The authority of the pope is not unlimited; it is at the service of Sacred Tradition".

I think this is finely put. The Revealed Word; the Sacred Tradition.


William Tighe said...

Consider the late Fr. John
Coventry, SJ, in the last, post-Vat II, decades of his life a "progressive" (or even "dissident"), clearly open to WO and other freakish innovations, but before Vat II a hyper-papalist, and one who advanced the notion, in a piece of his written in the 50s, the bibliographical details of which I can't recall, that in the future the Church (given new media of communication and rapid worldwide transportation) might require only one bishop, the Pope, who could centralize authority in himself and carry out those functions (if any) that only a bishop could perform, while delegation such matters as confirmation and ordination to priests with faculties for those purposes.

Why do I mention this? It has long seemed to me that many "progressives," at least those of an older generation, are one-time hyper-papalists in attitude and "devotion" who, as they became unhinged (or loosed from their moorings) by the influence of the Zeitgeist/"Spirit of Vatican II," expected the papacy to sponsor a kind of "Maoist" cultural revolution in the Church, and when Paul VI and JP II made clear their refusal to do any such thing, turned on the papacy in their wrath and frustration; and now that with Benedict their touching belief in the liberal next-pope-but-one has guttered into ashes, in their madness have started to fling out all sorts of nonsense in the name of an Vat II of their imaginations. So Fr. Coventry; so Fr. Loftus.

Amateur Brain Surgeon said...

With certainty, we Catholics can rely upon our Popes to actualise a praxis in conformity with his role as a Pope as summarised, in the entry, Pope, in the Catholic Encyclopedia:

He is to be the principle of unity, of stability, and of increase. He is the principle of unity, since what is not joined to that foundation is no part of the Church; of stability, since it is the firmness of this foundation in virtue of which the Church remains unshaken by the storms which buffet her; of increase, since, if she grows, it is because new stones are laid on this foundation.

Kathleen1031 said...

It would be good if this were common knowledge. One of the challenges is that this is not how most people believe it is, laypeople I mean, and how insiders act. For all intents and purposes, what difference does it make if the pope acts as if he can, his supporters promote he can (already has in fact), and there are millions of willing drones who then proceed? In our age, error is exponentially magnified by social media, especially a media that supports novelty.
To this layperson, this pope is dangerous, and his own words indict him. Whatever he may be about, he is not about preserving the faith, he is about changing it, the Church, practices, etc. Except for the few times he has "seemed" to support what we recognize as dogma, he has quickly contradicted that by word and action. If even I can see that, how much more do clergy and theologians? Heads must be spinning.

Calm and the use of reason are always a good idea, if one can maintain them. But I would suggest we are in a period of such disorder, that we need to pray there are some good men in the church who will begin to attach labels such as "heresy" to his maneuvers. In these bizarre times, it is actually comforting to read the concerns of clergy and our fellow travelers, because at least they are awake and we are not alone. What gets disturbing is when it is recommended "move along, nothing to see here". Obviously, there is something to see, and it is greatly disturbing to those of us paying attention. We see the pope's cheerleaders as well. There is obviously an atmosphere of fear. It can be sensed. The clergy must be profoundly afraid. What ill does that indicate for our Church? Serious, hopefully not fatal.

But back to problem one. He was elected by Cardinals who wanted something from him. They surely saw what he had done in Buenos Aires and wanted that for the whole church. His record indicates he brought the same thing there that we are seeing, Holy Communion as Protestants consider it, just a symbol, and given to everybody with no exceptions. Some say he brought chaos and disorder. I believe that, based on what we are seeing. As he himself said it, when he humbly brought up his humble notions about changing the Church, humbly, "It is not an era of change, it is a change of era!". So how many men in red hats are like-minded.