Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Historical Revisionism in Rome’s official story of the Papacy

In my previous two blog posts, I provided a brief look at “historical criticism,” and how this predominantly liberal and skeptical practice has (a) despite its efforts, strongly confirmed the life of Jesus and the integrity of the New Testament and (b) wreaked havoc on the story that Roman Catholicism had for centuries told about the papacy.

I’m going to assume that most readers here understand the material at that first link (that the life, death, and resurrection of Christ and the integrity of the New Testament have been largely confirmed in the face of liberal skepticism).

On the other hand, I’m going to take some time, Lord willing, and expand now on the utter destruction that historical criticism has wrought on what the papacy had for centuries taught about itself. Adrian Fortescue (1874-1923), a Roman Catholic priest, scholar, and contributor to the Old Catholic Encyclopedia (1907–1913), and Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger (b. 1927, now Pope Benedict XVI) have been so kinds as to provide us with bookends, so to speak, about what was being taught during the 20th century about the early papacy.

In 1920, Fortescue wrote a work entitled, The Early Papacy: to the Synod of Chalcedon in 451, in which he sought to prove that “we have all the evidence we can require that the Catholic Church in the first four and a half centuries did believe what we [in 1920] believe about the papacy.” There is a bravado in Fortescue that historical criticism hasn’t yet ripped to shreds.

But by the time Ratzinger writes in the 1990s, there is an absolute failure to reiterate any of the claims that Fortescue so boldly makes. This lack of reiteration by Ratzinger (especially in his role as Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which was previously known both as “the Inquisition” and “the Holy Office”) – is a tacit, but official disavowal of Fortescue’s bravado.

It is, in fact, an official articulation of a concession first made by John Henry Newman, that Fortescue was wrong, and that the early church did not in any way have a conscious understanding of the things that Fortescue was articulating.

Core Beliefs About the Papacy
Like Ogres and onions, beliefs about the papacy consist in layers. In making his bold claim, Fortescue gives four “things to be believed” – things that the Roman church believed about the papacy in 1920, which he says, the ancient church also believed. These are
1. The pope is the chief bishop, primate, and leader of the whole Church of Christ on earth. “This is the first, the least claim. To a great extent it is admitted by most High Church Anglicans, at least in the sense that the Bishop of Rome is the first bishop of Christendom. The Eastern churches, not in communion with us, admit this too.” (40)

2. He has episcopal jurisdiction over all members of the Church. “This is what the First Vatican Council declares, that the Pope has ‘immediate power of jurisdiction, which is really episcopal,” over people of every rite and rank in the Church. It is not, so far, our object to prove any of these principles; first we want to establish what the Catholic thesis is.” (42)

3. To be a member of the Catholic Church, a man must be in communion with the Pope. “This follows from the Pope's universal jurisdiction. It is the one point that the most advanced Anglican cannot concede. If follows also, and more fundamentally, from the visible unity of the Church; this once more, is the root of all difference between us and Anglicans (not the papacy at all). If the Church is one united, visible society, all Catholics must be in communion with one another.” (45)

4. The providential guidance of God will see to it that the Pope shall never commit the Church to error in any matter of religion. “This is the famous ‘infallibility’ of the First Vatican Council.” (47)
More foundational to these four beliefs of Fortescue’s, lies the set of core beliefs that Shotwell and Loomis articulated. Fortescue touches upon these three beliefs, which he assumes to be true, though he dismisses the need to “establish these here” because it “would take too much space (51). In fact, Ratzinger tries (but fails) to provide some sort of “exegetical proof” for these in his work Called to Communion.

This core, first of all, includes the three elements included by Shotwell and Loomis in their work, “The See of Peter”:
First, that Peter was appointed by Christ to be his chief representative and successor at the head of his Church;

Second, that Peter went to Rome and founded the bishopric there;

Third, that his successors succeeded to his prerogatives, and to all the authority implied thereby.
As I noted above, Fortescue simply assumes these more foundational points; his effort, instead, is to prove that the early church “did believe what we [in 1920] believe about the papacy.”

I’ll pick up here next time.


  1. "Historical Revisionism in Rome’s official story of the Papacy"

    Hey John,

    This is an ironic title of sorts! Because, if I'm not mistake, RC's accuse Protestants of being revisionists! Yet, you're turning the accusation back upon them!

    Anyways, this has been a great series so far. Thanks for the research.

  2. Thanks Truth. You know, making the accusation of "revisionism" is not the same thing as pointing out what the actual revisions are.