One of the biggest attractions for newcomers to the Catholic faith is the expansive claims that Rome makes to its own authority. Catholic school children are taught – as I certainly was – that the Pope of Rome is the supreme authority of the church. Further, he has a primacy of jurisdiction and not merely honor and that he is the recipient of this power through an unbroken chain of his predecessors going back to St. Peter. And according to the First Vatican Council that this is the “manifest teaching of sacred scriptures” as the church has “always” believed. Pretty heady stuff to be sure and many unsuspecting converts or potential converts are apt to buy it.
Unfortunately, this is decidedly NOT what the Roman church has always taught or believed. In fact, in order to believe this line of thinking, today’s novice Roman Catholics will unknowingly deny or forget the history of their new denomination. As a more eloquent proof of that statement I recommend an exceptional essay by Dr. Francis Oakley to which we will now turn.
It was Yogi Berra who wryly noted that “the past just isn’t what it used to be” and Professor Francis Oakley aptly uses this aphorism to set the stage for his scholarly analysis of the changeable history of the Roman Catholic Church.
Oakley begins by showing how Rome has rested her understanding of doctrine in a highly variable fashion. His first example is the work of John Henry Cardinal Newman (i.e. Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine) while much venerated in today’s Catholic world, shows an historic ignorance of the very idea of “doctrinal development” from earlier eras. Oakley continues by highlighting how Newman’s second “note”, entitled “Continuity of Principle” is not able to describe the types of “radical discontinuity” that exist in the teaching and application of Catholic doctrine. He then cites an example that was brought to the fore by the noted Catholic scholar, John T. Noonan. Judge Noonan has documented how the Catholic Church’s teaching on contraception had moved the rhythm method from being “intrinsically evil” to officially approved. The fact that Catholics today can accommodate such a reversal in teaching is owing to the “empire that the present continues to exert over the past in so much of Catholic institutional thinking.”
But worse still,
Under certain circumstances, moreover, casual forgetfulness has betrayed a disagreeable tendency to mutate into a proactive politics of oblivion reflective of the Orwellian conclusion that if he who controls the past controls the future, then he who controls the present would be well advised to control the past.ii
This brings us to the current state of Catholic “forgetfulness” or “politics of oblivion” that is exercised with regard to the Church’s ultimate locus of authority. Although modern Roman Catholics are most likely familiar with the dictates of Vatican I with regard to Catholic authority, they are probably not aware of how those dictates contradict the Church’s history and Tradition.
Oakley puts the matter thusly:
The instance of radical doctrinal discontinuity in question is the great gulf that yawns between the position the general councils of Constance (1414–1418) and Basel (1431–1449) affirmed concerning the ultimate locus of authority in the universal church and that staked out in 1870 by Vatican I.iii
The Council of Constance was convened to resolve the problem posed to the Church by multiple popes and multiple papal sees. After the death of Gregory XI, the last of the French popes and the first to restore the papacy to Rome, Urban VI was elected. He proved to be violently unstable and physically abusive to those in opposition to him. So the Roman Cardinals removed themselves to the town of Anagni, declared Urban deposed and elected Clement VII in his stead. Thus began the Great Schism of the church with simultaneous Roman and Avignonese popes. The Council at Pisa (1409) tried to dethrone the descendants of both lines and add a third – or Pisan line – with its election of Alexander V. However, none of the popes stepped down so now the numbers of popes had actually increased! Alexander’s successor, John XXIII, under political pressure from the German King Sigismund of Germany and the cardinals, convoked the Council of Constance on November 5, 1414 to resolve the schism.
The Council was widely attended described by our author as “one of the most imposing of all medieval representative assemblies.” In short, nobody of that day would have cause to doubt the efficacy and authority of that gathering. In April of the following year, the Council published its famous decree, Haec sanctus synodus. That decree stated that the Council was a legitimate council which derived its authority directly from Christ. Furthermore, ALL Christians including the pope, were subject to it and future councils under pain of punishment. Acting on its generally accepted authority, the Council quickly deposed all three popes – Gregory XII (Roman), John XXIII (Pisan), Benedict XIII (Avignon) – and elected a fourth, Martin V of the Colonna family.
One interesting fact that will have a big impact on our discussion is that the last Roman pope, Gregory XII, as part of his agreement to abdicate, requested that he be allowed to end and reconvene the council by his authority. He felt it was improper for him to step down during a council convened by another pope. The council acquiesced and on July 4, 1415 the bull of convocation was read aloud, and Gregory resigned the papacy. Martin V was made the Pope of Rome by the Council. Every pope from that day to this is descended not from Peter, but from the pope appointed by this council.
Professor Oakley notes that the scholarship dealing with the complexities of the doctrine of conciliarism has blossomed greatly in the last century. But there appear to be three issues with regard to the contrast of Vatican I with Constance.
The first issue is the very schism itself.
The question it seems, is would a Roman Catholic in 1378, be able to distinguish between the Roman pontiff – Urban VI – and the newly elected pontiff – Clement VII? Oakley maintains that even those “intimately involved in the whole sorry chain of events” would be “in a state of “invincible ignorance” about which…was the true pope.”
The historical evidence, certainly, does not permit one simply to insist on the exclusive legitimacy of Urban’s title to the papacy (and, therefore, the legitimacy of his successors in the Roman line). If that claim is now enshrined in the current official listing of popes, it should be recognized that it has been advanced quite explicitly on theological or canonistic rather than historical grounds.iv
If the doctrine decreed by Vatican I was evidence of Divine effort, the teaching of Scriptures and of a supreme constancy, how would the schism have occurred at all?
The second issue has to do with the claim that Constance was not a legitimate council until convened by Gregory.
That claim would tend to negate the force of Haec Sanctus synodus whereby Gregory agreed to abdicate. But Oakley points out that Gregory’s convocation was merely a polite accommodation by the Fathers of the Council in order to smooth the transition to the next pope. It was not a formality that could be confused with doctrine of any sort. Our author cites as further evidence the fact that the Council Fathers had received ambassadors from both Gregory XII and his rival, Benedict XIII as “official papal delegates” thereby displaying their lack of favoritism for Gregory. But more damning than all of that is the fact that today’s popes are descended not from the last “Roman pope” – Gregory XII – but from Martin V who was elected by the Council. What that means is that the claim of Vatican I to an “unbroken succession” from Peter is nonsense.
The third issue that presents itself is that of “conciliar theory itself”.
The high papalists have claimed that the theory was “heterodox in its origins and rapid in its demise” but history has not been kind to that position. Here Oakley turns to the work of Brian Tierney of Cornell University. Tierney showed that the actions of Constance had deep roots in the ancient history of the church, the canon law and from a “vast ocean of commentary” in the “twelfth, thirteenth and fourteenth centuries.” And that it was not until quite recently – with the resurgence of the new high papalism – that conciliar theory has had any shadow cast on it at all.
The culmination of all this effort is put quite nicely by Professor Oakley:
I concluded, as a result, that we were confronted with an instance in which two legitimate ecumenical councils of the Latin church were in contradiction on a doctrinal issue concerning the very locus of ultimate authority in the church.v
The Nature of the Dilemma
So today’s Roman Catholic is faced with an unresolvable riddle. If the pronouncements of Vatican I are true – that the pope is the ultimate authority beyond which there is no other – then how to explain the fact that the power he assumes is derived from a council? If this “manifest teaching” with the church has “always” held wasn’t held from the 15th century to the 19th, how can we know which is the correct version? And attempting to rely on some sort of “development” theory falls short due to the law of non-contradiction and the nature of the understanding of Catholic doctrine at the time.
Of course, if the Roman Catholic Church cannot come to terms with the true source of its ultimate authority, how can it be trusted to speak authoritatively about anything? And how can it claim for itself any teaching authority when it so blithely ignores or misrepresents history? And how can the pope be trusted to proclaim his own “primacy” it is not truly “manifest” in the Scriptures or historically taught by the Church? How can today’s Catholic’s be under the anathema of believing that no one can go above the pope’s authority, when the very pope who declared the anathema has gotten his authority to do so from a Council?
It is not an easy problem but one that is entirely of Rome’s own making. She needs to come clean and confess that her claims do not stand the test of time and do in fact, change. And until she does, anyone who believes her claims to authority is a willing accomplice the “politics of oblivion”.
iOakley, Francis. “History and the Return of the Repressed in Catholic Modernity: The Dilemma Posed by Constance”. The Crisis of Authority in Catholic Modernity. New York. Oxford University Press, Inc. 2011 Pages 29-56. Kindle eBook.