If it could be proved that the early Church believed, as part of her faith, the contrary of what we believe now, or anything logically incompatible with our belief, this would be exceedingly serious; it would, indeed, be the refutation of our position, since we maintain that the faith does not change. But it is not at all the same thing, even if it were true, to say that we could not prove that the early Church did believe what we believe now. Suppose, for the sake of argument, that we could find no statement of any kind about some dogma; this would not affect our position. There would then be no proof, either for or against the dogma, in the given period. We should believe it all the same, because of a definition made at another time (29).In other words, he is saying, "if we don't find anyone supporting our belief, that's ok, because it doesn't actually disprove what we believe, and we can still assume it was there." And those of you who read this blog know that that's a pretty fair summary of how Catholics can tend to argue some things.
Fortescue's "out" here will be the little phrase "as part of her faith." It is extremely difficult to pin down an authoritative doctrinal statement prior to the year 325. He does allow that, "If it could be proved that the early Church believed, as part of her faith, the contrary of what we believe now, or anything logically incompatible with our belief, this would be exceedingly serious; it would, indeed, be the refutation of our position." (29)
As I've studied these issues, I believe there is a whole raft of things that demonstrate beyond a shadow of a doubt that the early church had no idea that there was anything like a pope. But let's just play "make-believe" for a moment and allow Fortescue to outline his claims.
What Are the Papal Claims?
Here is his "thesis to be proved": "What we believe about the rights of the Pope is contained in these four points":
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)
These are things that he claims the earliest church (prior to 451) believed. But these are the "theses to be proved." It will be useful to go through each of these four at some point -- the arguments that Fortescue has made, and address his reasoning in each of these cases.
In choosing the year 451 as his stopping point, Fortescue quietly covers over a pivot-point that greatly changed life for the bishop of Rome, and that would, of course, be the conversion of Constantine. At that point, bishops of Rome went from a position of at best, neutrality with the state and at times, from being violently persecuted, to being, cording to Roger Collins, "functionaries of the state."
For his evidence in favor of a papacy prior to Constantine, Fortescue relies heavily on Clement, which I mentioned in an earlier post, and Cyprian. Subsequent scholarship -- even Catholic scholarship -- have greatly tempered any notion that these examples support an early papacy. My hope is to discuss all of these things in the coming days and weeks.
One reason why I am focusing on the papacy at this point, and particularly the earliest papacy, is because it is, I believe, the weak, soft underbelly of the Roman Catholic edifice. And it will be important, in the context of all the talk about the Reformation that we'll be seeing as the 500th anniversary of Luther's 95 Theses comes up. Luther began his work by being a loyal subject of a pope. Very many things crept up on him, and in many ways, he had to develop his theologies about them "on the fly."
But if Luther had had a proper understanding of the papacy going into his efforts, it would have clarified things greatly for him, and for the world around him.