Adrian Fortescue, a Catholic priest and writer in the early 20th century, [he was a writer for the old Catholic Encyclopedia] made the case in his 1920 book "The Early Papacy to the Synod of Chalcedon in 451," that the Roman Catholic Church has always believed the same things about itself, and about the papacy.
He makes it clear from the outset:
We cannot admit that it is necessary for a Catholic today to examine the documents of the years 1 to 451 in order to know what is the nature of the primacy that Christ gave to his Church. We believe in a Church that exists and lives all days, even to the end of the world, guided by Christ, infallible in faith and morals as long as she exists. We have exactly the same confidence in the divine guidance of the Church in 1870 as in 451. [JB note: and they believe this to be true of the year 33 ad, too.] To be obliged to hark back some fifteen hundred years, to judge for yourself, according to to the measure of your scholarship, what the documents of that period imply, would be the end of any confidence in a living authority….I was born in 1960 to Catholic parents whose identies were shaped in the Pius XII years of the 1950's -- those years which commentator Patrick Buchanan said were the real "Catholic Moment" (as opposed to J.R. Neuhaus's "Catholic Moment" which began in 1978). I grew up believing that Matt 16:18 said, "Thou art Peter, and on this Rock I will build my Catholic Church." Such was the Catholic identity that came out of those years in ethnic America.
[If we were to go back to the ancient documents, we would] go on arguing about the meaning of the Fathers even more hopelessly than we have argued for centuries about the meaning of Matthew 16:18, when Jesus said to Peter, "Thou art Peter; and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it" (Douay-Rheims). The only possible real standard is a living authority, an authority alive in the world at this moment, that can answer your difficulties, reject a false theory as it arises and say who is right in disputed interpretations of ancient documents (22-23 emphasis added).
A page later, Fortescue clarified this further, and he set down the rule:
There are two kinds of proof for any dogma. The main proof, the most efficient in every way, the proof that is the real motive for every Catholic, is simply that this dogma is taught now by the Church of Christ, that Christ has given to his Church his own authority, so that we can trust the Church as we trust Christ himself. 'Who heareth you, heareth me' (Lk 10:16). The argument is the same for every dogma (that is why the Catholic position is essentially simple, in spite of apparent complexity); it can be understood by the most ignorant, as the religion of Christ must be (it is impossible for every child and peasant to make up his own Christianity for himself by his interpretation of Scripture or the Fathers down to 451). This position admits no vagaries of private judgment for each dogma. No variety of interpretation is possible as to what the Catholic Church of today teaches, or if such misunderstanding should occur, the Church is there to declare her mind. (26 - parenthetical notes are Fortescue's)For Fortescue, for Catholics in his day [or our day], even such an established and well-defined doctrine as the Trinity rests ultimately on the teaching of the Catholic Church today.
All we suppose, before we come to the Church, is that our Lord Jesus Christ was a man sent by God and whom we must follow if we wish to serve God in the proper way; that he founded one visible Church, to which his followers should belong; that this Church is, as a matter of historic fact, the communion of Rome (not, however, supposing anything about the papacy, but supposing only visible unity and historic continuity). This much must be presupposed and therefore does not rest on the authority of the Church. All else does (26-27, Fortescue's parentheses, emphasis added).Well then …
Of two minds
But in a most gracious way, Fortescue does allow that some of the unconvinced won't want to accept that presupposition as the law of the land. They will say "prove it." So he allows that the second type of argument for each dogma does involve "taking each [one] separately and proving that this was taught by Christ and has been believed from the beginning. But for Catholics, "this line of argument is neither so convincing nor so safe. It does now involve our private judgment as to whether the ancient texts do, or do not, really prove what we claim. It requires knowledge of the texts, of dead languages; to be efficient it requires considerable scholarship. It is impossible that our Lord should give us a religion requiring all this before you know what it is" (27)"
So for Fortescue, "the direct proof of each dogma [including the papacy] can be only confirmation of the general argument for all, taken from the present teaching of the church."
But there is a second component, "which we are always ready to offer, as long it is understood that it is not the main reason of our belief."
Fortescue's contention is thus that, while Roman Catholics could go back and "prove" the papacy historically -- "we can do this if we want to" -- he says, essentially, we don't have to do it because we believe the current dogma, and we merely need to assume that this dogma, confirmed by centuries of belief, was simply the way it was when Christ founded the church.
The question of "development"
Some Roman Catholics today, when faced with the kind of evidence that I've been presenting, throw out John Henry Newman's "theory of development," as if to say, "well, the papacy wasn't as well-developed as it is today. It merely existed in seed form. And in fact, Newman said of the development of the papacy, "no doctrine is defined till it is violated" (Newman, "An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine: Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press edition, pg 151).
But for Fortescue, writing in 1920, there was no "seed form." "Development" of the papacy simply meant turning up the dial and just "defining more explicitly" what has always been believed.
When there was confusion in the early centuries about the papacy -- some "dispute":
When a point of faith is disputed, when some new heresy arises, the Church makes her mind clear by defining more explicitly what she has always held. She forbids a false interpretation of the faith, and so she makes it more definite. Hence vague statements, harmless before controversy began, become impossible after the definition. But we do not admit that this development means any real addition to the faith; it is only a more explicit assertion of the old faith, necessary in view of false interpretations (35).After all, Clement was genuinely an early pope, in every sense of the word, exercising papal power and prerogatives, and the papacy had been "a constant tradition" even in the days of Irenaeus (c. 180 A.D.) The papacy essentially was what it had been from the beginning:
There is constant tradition, from Irenaeus down, that the letter written by Clement, Bishop of Rome. Clement, in his letter, commands the Corinthians to return to the obedience of their lawful hierarchy. He does not advise, he commands. He commands with an authority, one would almost say with an arbitrary tone that has not been exceeded by any modern pope. (66, emphasis added).I'll have more to say about Clement; that will come later. But for now, I wanted to give some feel for what real Catholics concretely believed about the papacy, in that boastful era between 1870 and 1960, and especially in that "Catholic Moment" of the 1950's, when a pope felt free to define new dogma all by his lonesome.