Perhaps the greatest Anglican intellect of the late twentieth century, Henry Chadwick, described Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman as “a formidable controversialist, as supreme a master of irony and satire as any in our literature.” There can be little doubt that Newman's skills both dazzled his followers and admirers, and infuriated those whose own ecclesial comfort required them to evade his conclusions. In the febrile aftermath of the “Papal Aggression,” the restoration of the English Catholic hierarchy in 1851, Julius Hare, Archdeacon of Chichester, read a Charge to the clergy of his archdeaconry, in which he unloaded his wrath on “Dr. Newman's Circaean talent for metamorphosing historical facts.” Newman
has employed a large portion of his time and of his ingenuity in the twofold process of transmuting fable into history and history into fable, until he seems to have almost lost the perception that there is any real, abiding distinction between them, and to fancy that they become one or the other at the touch of a sophist’s wand.
In our own day, as controversy swirls around the Bishop of Rome, we have much to learn from one particular touch of Newman’s “wand”—his account of what the pope can and cannot do.
In the Apologia pro Vita Sua of 1864, Newman takes up a criticism leveled against Catholicism—namely, that it is intransigent. Rather than denying this charge, he accepts and strengthens it, then characteristically turns it against the Church’s critics:
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 doctrine. And it is an objection which I embrace as a truth; for such I conceive to be the main purpose of its extraordinary gift.
Newman denied that Rome was the site of innovation. He saw that “the Church of Rome possessed no great mind in the whole period of persecution,” nor in the centuries that followed. “For a long while, it has not a single doctor to show: St Leo, its first, is the teacher of one point of doctrine.” Just as Peter was not the dazzling originator of new teaching, his successors have more often served as a brake on innovation than as its impetus.
Of course, theological creativity is currently much prized, not least by the pope. It appears to offer a way to break log-jams such as that involved in the ecclesial and sacramental status of those who have “remarried” after a divorce. Early in his pontificate, Pope Francis discovered that “one of my Cardinals” had written a fine book on mercy. As we say, he picked it up and ran with it. Before three years had passed, Amoris laetitia was bearing the fruits of the papal thinking.
It is relevant to the thesis I am examining to point out the extreme length of this apostolic exhortation, as well as the immense volume of words that emerges almost daily from the Domus Sanctae Marthae. Papal prolixity, a malady both acute and chronic, combined with assertions (however ingenious) that non-x has “developed” into x, and has managed to do so in a less than three decades, can hardly be what Newman dreamed of when he praised the Roman Church for “serving as a sort of remora.”
The current attitude stems from the kind of false ultramontanism that Newman feared. As the possibility became clear that the First Vatican Council would define the infallibility of the Roman Pontiff, Newman argued, in a famous letter to his bishop William Ullathorne, for the essentially negative nature of the Church's magisterium:
When we are all at rest, and have no doubts, and at least practically, not to say doctrinally, hold the Holy Father to be infallible, suddenly there is thunder in the clear sky, and we are told to prepare for something, we know not what, to try our faith, we know not how. No impending danger is to be averted, but a great difficulty is to be created. Is this a proper work for an Ecumenical Council? … What have we done to be treated as the faithful never were treated before? When has the definition of doctrine de fide been a luxury of devotion, and not a stern painful necessity?
Newman believed that the power to impose belief de fide is a weapon in the Church's armory to be used negatively, as “a stern painful necessity,” when an error has arisen or an “impending danger is to be averted.” He goes so far as to imply that magisterial intervention is “improper” except when there is an error to be condemned or averted. In other words, the Church behaves most properly when she resists innovation by saying (with St Paul at Galatians 1:8-9) anathema sit.
Newman had the best of historical grounds for his belief that the Roman and conciliar magisterium functions as an obstacle to innovation. When the Anglican patristic scholar and Church historian Trevor Jalland concluded his Bampton Lectures at Oxford in 1942 (published in 1944 as The Church and the Papacy: A Historical Study), he spoke of the Roman Church as having “in its long and remarkable history a supernatural grandeur which no mere secular institution has ever attained in equal measure,” and went on to refer to “its strange, almost mystical, faithfulness to type, its marked degree of changelessness, its steadfast clinging to tradition and to precedent.” He headed one of his chapters with a line from the Annales of the pre-Classical Roman poet Ennius—Moribus antiquis res stat Romana viresque—thus linking the Christian Roman faithfulness to Tradition with the pagan Roman appetite for venerable and normative antiquity. We may recall the work of the great Dutch philologist Christine Mohrmann, who demonstrated that the style and idiom of liturgical Latin, particularly of the Canon of the Mass, was consciously based upon the archaic cultic Latin of the earliest pagan Roman antiquity. In other words, “Roman” means “what is authentic because it is old.” This seems not quite to be the Rome of Papa Bergoglio and his God of Surprises.
When, in the second century, something recognizable as Church History begins to emerge, we find the Roman Church already exercising a negative charism of the exclusion of error. The significant teachers of Christian antiquity were not popes, and the heretical teachers did not spread their innovative perceptions from the city at the center of the world. To quote another Anglican, Dom Gregory Dix:
To Rome comes Marcion, already under censure in other Churches; but until Rome has condemned him he is still a Catholic Christian. It is at Rome that the controversies with the great Gnostic heresiarchs, which fill the latter half of the second century, were primarily thrashed out. It is at Rome that the answer to their claim to a secret tradition and a succession of teachers from the Apostles is elaborated; it is at Rome that the additions to the baptismal symbol which exclude their interpretations of the Gospel are first made; it is at Rome that the incompatibility of their Hellenistic presuppositions with the concrete thought of authentic Christianity is made plain. … Above all, in the controversy over Montanus, about which we know more than any other in this period, Rome is obviously the centre and focus of the final issue, even though Montanus never left Asia and the Apostolic Churches of Asia were his chief opponents. It is at Rome that the Montanists, excommunicated in Asia, repeatedly seek the communion of the Church; at Rome that Praxeas intervenes against them; at Rome that the Church of Lyons seeks to mediate between them and their opponents; Tertullian the Montanist reserves his wrath, not for the Asian bishops who had excommunicated and sought to exorcise the new Prophets of the Paraclete, but for the Roman bishop whose refusal of Communion had finally cut them off from the Church.
The story is always the same: the testing of some novelty against Tradition; the rejection of the novelty; the formal exclusion from the Church of those who attempted to promote it.
Before we go on, it may be valuable to listen for a moment to some whispers heard now in the baroque churches and palaces of Rome, to the murmurs of which the very cobblestones are conscious. And we shall find that we hear much about the action of the Holy Spirit in Bergoglian Rome. One high curial official, a senior canon lawyer, explained: “The Jubilee Year of Mercy expects [sic] the humble obedience (on the part of the Church's shepherds) to the Spirit who speaks to them through Francis.” Another, now a newly minted cardinal, and a man schooled by his formation in the Legion of Christ to obey his superiors without criticism, revealed that the American bishops planned, at their November 2016 meeting, to discuss Amoris laetitia:
I think it is very important that they have that discussion. But at the same time I think it's very important that we all understand that this is the Holy Spirit speaking. … Basically, this is the Holy Spirit speaking to us. Do we believe that the Holy Spirit wasn't there in the first synod? Do we believe he wasn't there in the second synod? Do we believe that he didn't inspire our Holy Father Pope Francis in writing this document?
I wonder in how many other periods in the history of the Catholic Church the Third Person of the Holy Trinity was perceived as being so readily at the disposal of the politicians. A cursory glance at some of the documents from the early conciliar centuries suggests a much less vivid awareness of the Holy Spirit. The Chalcedonian Definitio Fidei observed that the devil (ho poneros) never ceases to supplant the seeds of orthodoxy and continually invents something new (kainon ti) against the truth; and then it goes on to reiterate previous magisterial documents (without tendentious attenuation). The Definitio Fidei of the Sixth Ecumenical Council begins with the word hepomene: “Following the five holy and Ecumenical synods ...”; and ends, as Chalcedon had done, with an anathema against innovators. Perhaps, in their simple and primitive way, the Fathers of these councils thought it better to repeat the teaching of their predecessors than to co-opt the assistance of the Holy Spirit in the propagation of novelties.
These conciliar Fathers may have had sound reasons for their caution. It is well known that the First Vatican Council defined the doctrines of the primacy of the Roman Pontiff and of his exercise (within certain limited circumstances) of that infallibility with which God had willed to endow His Church. It may be a little less widely recognized that, before doing this, the Fathers very wisely explained what the papal magisterium was actually for. And it is significant how carefully they couched this explanation in negative terms:
For the Holy Spirit was not promised to the successors of Peter so that, by His revelation, they might publish new teaching, but so that, by His assistance, they might devoutly guard and faithfully expound the revelation handed down through the Apostles: the Deposit of Faith (emphasis added).
And if it is not within the pay-grade of the Roman Pontiff to promote novelties when he speaks ex cathedra and to claim the support of the Holy Spirit for so doing, we may suspect that the same limitation will rest upon him when he uses a lesser register of his magisterium.
Despite the misgivings of Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman, Vatican I led to a welcome clarification in Catholic thinking about the Roman primacy. Vindicating Newman's root conviction that doctrinal clarification normatively results from the repudiation of error, this clarification arose from an attack made upon the Council and the Church by Chancellor Bismarck. The German episcopate issued a ringing response to Bismarck, asserting that
even as far as concerns ecclesiastical matters, the pope cannot be called an absolute monarch, since indeed he is subject to Divine Law and is bound to those things which Christ set in order (disposuit) for his Church. He cannot change the constitution of the Church which was given to it by its divine Founder. … The constitution of the Church in all essential matters is founded in the divine arrangement (ordinatione) and is therefore immune from every arbitrary human disposition.
Their lordships went on to emphasize that papal infallibility “is restricted to the proper meaning of the supreme papal Magisterium; [which] indeed coincides with the extent of the infallible Magisterium of the Church herself and is bound to the doctrine contained in Holy Scripture and in Tradition and to the definitions already made by the Church's Magisterium.”
The German press appears then to have suggested that the German hierarchy had watered down the conciliar definitions and produced a document that was viewed with disfavor in Rome. Pio Nono himself responded by endorsing the German statement, in a manner too lengthily and exuberantly fulsome to be quoted in full. His endorsement includes the following:
Venerable Brethren, you have continued the glory of the Church, since you have undertaken to restore the genuine sense of the definitions of the Vatican Council. … [S]uch is the perspicuity and solidity of your declaration that, since it leaves nothing to be desired, it ought to provide the occasion for our most fulsome congratulations. … [Y]our declaration expresses the inherent Catholic judgment, which is accordingly that of the sacred Council and of this Holy See, skillfully fortified and cleverly explained with such brilliant and inescapable arguments …
Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger clearly had this remarkable theological exchange in mind when, writing primarily but not solely about the liturgy, he declared:
The more vigorously the primacy was displayed, the more the question came up about the extent and and limits of [papal] authority, which of course, as such, had never been considered. After the Second Vatican Council, the impression arose that the pope really could do anything in liturgical matters, especially if he were acting on the mandate of an ecumenical council. Eventually, the idea of the givenness of the liturgy, the fact that one cannot do with it what one will, faded from the public consciousness of the West. In fact, 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.
Neither the German Bishops, nor Blessed Pius IX, nor Cardinal Ratzinger found a need to assert the role of the Holy Spirit in springing surprises.
When Pope Benedict XVI published Summorum Pontificum in 2007, to “liberate” the usus antiquior of the Roman Rite, he asserted that it had never been abrogated (numquam abrogatum). This claim stimulated much critical excitement among canonists. What went comparatively unnoticed was the associated claim, in the Letter to the Latin episcopate, that the ancient rite could not be abrogated. “In the history of the liturgy there is growth and progress, but no rupture. What earlier generations held as sacred, remains sacred and great for us too, and cannot be all of a sudden entirely forbidden or even considered harmful.” I would myself gloss this by asserting that, like those other normative products of the earliest centuries, the canon of Scripture and the creeds and the threefold apostolic ministry, the Church's ancient liturgical rites possess a normative and unremovable authenticity, an auctoritas that sets them above ephemeral canonical enactment. As Ratzinger had put it in the passage quoted above, “the authority of the pope is not unlimited.” It is bound to the service of Tradition, of the Depositum fidei.
When Peter speaks, he says no. It is true that he also offers words of affirmation, comfort, and encouragement, as all pastors do. But when he exercises the role most typical of the Petrine mystery—the safeguarding of the faith—he speaks in the negative. We see this in two of the most important exercises of the papal magisterium in the years since Vatican II—indeed, since the Council of Trent: Humanae vitae (1968) and Ordinatio sacerdotalis (1994).
Humanae Vitae was not the first major magisterial intervention on contraception. That had taken place a generation before, in Casti connubii (1930), when the See of St. Peter judged that a reply was needed to the Anglican Communion’s Lambeth Conference. In other words, Rome spoke against an innovation. And there can be no doubt that it was an innovation, throughout the Christian world, to suggest that contraception was anything other than immoral. Previous Lambeth Conferences had taught this; and when the 1930 Conference changed its teaching, one of the great theological luminaries of the Church of England, Charles Gore, Bishop first of Worcester, then of Birmingham, finally of Oxford, attacked it publicly. His paper excoriating the 1930 Conference was far more damning and outraged than any document I have seen on this subject from a Catholic source. As far as Byzantine Orthodoxy is concerned, as late as 1963 a popular book by a popular hierarch of English origin concluded its section on marriage with the unadorned statement, “Artificial methods of birth control are forbidden in the Orthodox Church.” (Later editions of the book did not maintain this position.)
In the 1960s, the discovery of pharmaceutical means of preventing conception without modifying the sexual act itself provided an opportunity for some Catholic writers to argue that the old prohibitions no longer applied. With historical hindsight it is easy to see that sexual ethics were the major problem of that decade—the point at which the zeitgeist most directly challenged the Church.
Blessed Paul VI, un po' Amletico, as his predecessor described him, saw the crucial importance of the doctrinal questions involved here, and the responsibility that lay upon him as Successor of St. Peter to give a decisive and authoritative ruling. Indeed, the Holy Spirit was given to him so that he might devoutly guard and faithfully expound the teaching handed down through the apostles, the Deposit of Faith. He did not summon synods in which he invited selected bishops to express with Parrhesia whatever views they had. He did not repeatedly suggest that the Holy Spirit might be abroad advocating a change in the established teaching. He did not float an ambiguously worded document in order to create an atmosphere in which those bishops who regarded themselves as closest to the pope's mind could feel that they had been given sufficient authority to abandon the Tradition. Instead, Paul VI stated: “Therefore, having attentively sifted the documentation laid before Us, after mature reflection and assiduous prayers, We now intend, by virtue of the mandate entrusted to Us by Christ, to give Our reply to these grave questions.” And his reply was a decisive negative. It failed to claim the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.
A similar pattern can be seen when John Paul II issued Ordinatio sacerdotalis in 1994. This document appeared at a stage in the sexual revolution that already seems as old-fashioned as grandmother's lace. The veteran English feminist Germaine Greer had not yet been no-platformed by the student guardians of the dogmas of gender diversity because she had declared a “trans” candidate for a fellowship in her women's college to be “not a woman.” Prepubescent children were not yet being encouraged to consider whether they might wish to change genders. But the proliferating absurdities of the next three decades are surely implicit in the question the pope set out to answer. That question was quite simply whether women, interchangeably with men, could receive the Sacrament of Holy Orders. And, in a brief magisterial intervention, John Paul II declared that the Church was unable (nullam facultatem habere) to ordain women.
In each of these cases, the proponents of innovation downplayed the significance of the changes they sponsored. In each, the reliability of the Tradition preserved by the papal intervention was dramatically vindicated before much time had passed.
Pope Paul's Commission of Experts on contraception claimed that a liberalization would change nothing:
Some argue that to legitimize contraception will prepare the way for indulgence with regard to certain sins such as abortion, fellation, anal intercourse, fornication, adultery, and masturbation. How far this is from the truth. … The so-called new theory is extremely strict … with regard to oral and anal copulation, since it does not permit them. For in these acts there is preserved neither the dignity of love nor the dignity of the spouses as human beings created according to the image of God.
Rarely can some clever men have been so blindly and childishly naive.
The witness of Ordinatio sacerdotalis against the culturally mandated dissolution of sexual distinctions is as powerful a defense of Catholic Tradition, and indeed of authentic humanity, as Humanae vitae was. In these two documents, the papal magisterium rendered as significant a service as any that pope or council had provided in two millennia. And it did so neither by deploying intellectually stunning arguments, nor by rhetorical strategies involving the Holy Spirit, but simply by saying No; by setting up a barrier against innovation; by saying, This is not what we have received.
In the tragedies of Euripides, an intractable plot is sometimes brought to a satisfying conclusion by the use of a deus ex machina. Today it is a Spiritus Sanctus ex machina, the use of the Holy Spirit as a piece of cheap machinery to evade perceived inconveniences in inherited Christian teaching. Catholics seeks a different and higher kind of deliverance. In order that we may say yes to Christ, Peter says no to the world.
Fr. John Hunwicke is a priest of the personal ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham.