The post-Tridentine papal communion

[Chapter 3(c) of Catholicity: A Study in the Conflict of Christian Traditions in the West (Dacre Press, 1947), pp.32-41]

Dellinger once remarked that while contemporary Protestant theologians and historians in Germany were in his opinion doing their best to face honestly and candidly the great and serious [32/33] problem posed for Protestantism by the existence of the mediaeval Church and the post-mediaeval Papacy, he saw no signs that their fellows in England were doing the same. This has remained a serious weakness in Anglican thinking, and the question has been further distorted by the exigencies of ecclesiastical controversies with Rome over ‘continuity’ in England. In what follows we have attempted to set all these particular questions on one side, so far as may be, and to give objectively the bare historical outlines of the matter.

The slow development of fissures within the mediaeval Western synthesis of ideas during the later Middle Ages resulted in the sudden open schisms of the sixteenth century. In view of later alignments, it is of importance to notice that the original lines of cleavage were neither political nor racial, but (except in Spain) strictly doctrinal, running athwart all secular divisions in every country in Western Europe. The division began in the world of ideas, but political and secular forces from the first began to interest themselves in both sides, with about equally disastrous results for the purely Christian and theological issues. If the action of the Hapsburgs seems to have saved Western Catholicism from being overwhelmed in the initial crisis, and the action of certain Catholic princes powerfully assisted the counter-Reformation (e.g. in Bavaria), it is no less true that the political action of Sweden under Gustavus Adolphus, and of France under Cardinal Richelieu, saved Protestantism from being overwhelmed in the Thirty Years’ War. It was largely secular political influences which eventually brought about the deadlock of the two traditions in European history, and stabilised the division as it remained until the end of the nineteenth century. It is only within the last two generations that it has become possible again for other Western Christians to begin to regard the issues between themselves and Rome as primarily theological questions. And as such they are still complicated by deep ‘cultural’ divisions which have grown up between ‘Catholics’ and ‘Protestants’ in the intervening centuries.

When the first violence of the sixteenth century doctrinal earthquake was over, the remaining Papal Communion was left in the position of the most obvious direct heir of mediaeval Latin Christendom in doctrine and organisation, as well as the principal legatee in point of numbers. It was not slow to assert its claim to be its only representative. Yet the Church of the counter-Reformation was in important aspects the successor, rather than the mere continuation, of the unreformed Church of the fifteenth century. Thus, to name but two points on which the Protestant claim to have broken with the mediaeval past was most vociferous–administration and liturgy–the counter-Reformation was in some respects more thorough than the Reformers themselves. The Council of Trent set in motion a [33/34] series of practical reforms which remedied many of the grosser abuses of the old ecclesiastical machine more successfully than, for instance, was achieved in the English Elizabethan Church.1 The Pian Missal and Breviary were in most points a more authentic return, behind the mediaeval deformations, to those ancient outlines of worship which the Protestants set up as their own ideal, than the latter anywhere effected for themselves. But in these, as in many other matters, the extent of the Papal breach with the mediaeval past was masked–in the one case because it was effected by the constituted ecclesiastical authority and not by any revolution, in the other by the continued use of Latin, which largely confined the return to pre-mediaeval liturgical principles to the Clergy.

More important still, on a long view, were other facts.

(a) The Council of Trent, for all its theological shortcomings, had in effect sifted and purged certain sections of the haphazard accumulations in the old Western theological tradition, to which the Protestant denials had drawn special attention. It had thus given to the Western doctrine on these particular topics a coherence and a defensibility which it had never before possessed. To this Calvinism alone of all the Protestant Confessions could present any comparably satisfying intellectual achievement, and Calvinism was too doctrinally one-sided to become the permanent representative of Protestant thought, though for a while it looked like doing so in the later sixteenth century.

(b) The size of even the remaining Papal Communion enabled it to retain much of the many-sidedness of mediaeval Church-life, including its close connection with all social life, in a way that the much smaller and more academic and pietistic continental Protestant bodies failed to do. It was thus able to retain upon its own terms something of that humanist-liberal tradition which had begun to go its own way at the Renaissance, and to which orthodox Protestantism found itself forced either to oppose an obscurantist resistance or to surrender upon more or less unsatisfactory terms. The consequence of this continued partial alliance of Catholicism and Liberalism are seen in such things as the French ‘devout humanist’ school of devotion in Francis de Sales, Condren, de Berulle, and others; the great outburst of scientific Christian historical scholarship in the seventeenth century Jesuit and Benedictine polymaths; the beginnings of [34/35] Biblical criticism in such writers as Simon and Astruc. To none of these achievements does seventeenth century Protestantism offer a significant parallel. In the eighteenth century Catholicism steadily lost its hold on its liberal elements, so that the successors of the Maurists are the ‘Encyclopaedists’.

(c) The Papal Communion was reknit, much more closely and self-consciously than the late mediaeval Church, by the Protestant challenges; but the very vastness and richness of the organic life still possible in it, admitted of the existence of strong theological tensions within a single ecclesiastical body2 with the spontaneity and vitality which such contained tensions always bring to theological and ecclesiastical thinking. The much smaller and more theologically homogeneous Protestant bodies on the Continent, each modelled largely upon the thought of a single master-mind, had no such inner possibilities, as is shown by the increasing stagnation of orthodox Protestant thought abroad after about 1570. In the rare cases where such strictly theological tensions arose among Protestants, they usually issued in further schisms.

(d) The consciousness of the claim to ‘universality’ fostered and revivified the missionary impulse towards non-Christians, which had very greatly declined in the late mediaeval Church. It is remarkable that the achievements of Dominican, Franciscan and Jesuit missionaries (literally from China to Peru), in the later sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, should have stirred no Protestant emulation for over a century after the death of Luther, and no effort comparable in scale before the mid-nineteenth century.

It is obvious that the Papal Communion owed each of these advantages to the extent to which it had resisted that process of fragmentation of ideas and of life which had overtaken the rest of the West–in a word, to its continued unity. And it is historically obvious that it owed this basic advantage to its retention of the Papacy, as this had developed during the Middle Ages. It is not merely that this gave it a rallying-point and a central direction: it is one of the most remarkable facts in Christian history that the Papacy of the sixteenth century first cleansed itself of its vile and most notorious Renaissance scandals, and then itself directed and impelled the cleansing of the Renaissance Church. It looks at first sight as though, having assimilated much that was good as well as almost all that was evil in the humanist current of the cinque cento, the Papacy was able largely to reject this evil in the next century, by assimilating in turn much that was vital in the Protestant reaction from humanism. But it is our [35/36] judgment that the mediaeval structure into which these Renaissance and Protestant contributions were in turn absorbed, was itself in certain respects unsound, and that these flaws remained, and were even magnified, in the foundations of the reformed Papacy.

Nevertheless, the doctrinal services which the Papacy had rendered to all Christendom from the second century to the sixth, no less than the political and religious services it had rendered to the whole West in the seventh and eighth centuries, in the Hildebrandine reform of the eleventh3, and again in the resistance to the Turks, might alone have sufficed to suggest that the Papacy was potentially too valuable an institution to be sacrificed for the sins of the Borgia and Medici Popes. The easy way in which the Reformers, almost from the first, simply ‘wrote off’ the Papacy even as a possibility, illustrates clearly the extent to which they ignored from the outset both the New Testament doctrine of the ‘universal’ Church as an inherent part of the Gospel, and the inherence of the Divine-human society in the ‘here-and-now’ of history. (In this they reveal their own Western mediaeval theological origin: there is a great deal about the Israel of God and the ecclesia in the Scriptures, but there is no tractatus de ecclesia in the mediaeval theological cursus.) If such an institution as the ‘universal Church’ is to exist as more than a sentiment and an ideal–as a concrete substantial reality within human history in our highly organised modern society–then some such central institution would seem to be more than just a convenience. It is at least a pragmatic necessity, as is shown by the obvious temptation of the modern ‘oecumenical movement’ to try to provide a substitute for it. To cast away so lightly an institution with such deep roots in Christian history, and with such immense claims on European gratitude and veneration, was to prove oneself blind to the profounder realities of what is meant by ‘the universal Church’. But before 1540, it was clear that the Reformers were no longer thinking in any such terms. At the very best, the Lutherans now conceived of it only as a league of Landeskirchen, of increasingly different dogmatic and structural varieties, held together only by a diplomatic bond.4 The Calvinists, while laying much more emphasis on dogmatic and ministerial uniformity, were by the end of the century also content to conceive of Church unity in terms of secular political alliances. With the decay of popular faith, the Protestant conception of ‘Church unity’ has further declined into the conception of a league of sects rather than [36/37] of states, with a central organ of discussion, in which ‘union’ (as opposed to ‘parallel action’) can only be procured at the price of the convictions which caused the original separations, and which alone ever made these separations worth-while. This is the negation of ‘organism’; but it was implicit from the beginning in the actual historical process of the continental Reformation. From all this the Church of the counter-Reformation was saved by the fact that it retained as its central religious institution the Papacy, as it stood at the end of the Middle Ages, and with it the notion of ‘universality’, in face of the strong separatist tendencies of national governments of even the Catholic powers in the sixteenth century.

In the face of this reading of the history, the question forces itself upon us–Why has the Roman Communion, after four hundred years, still largely failed to reabsorb at least orthodox Protestantism, which has found increasing difficulty in standing alone? The answers appear to us to lie chiefly in some parts of its mediaeval inheritance, which proved to be an initial asset, but also a great burden.

(a) The close involution of ecclesiastical with all social life in the Middle Ages left the Renaissance Papacy exposed to all the chances of sixteenth and seventeenth century power-politics. In turn, the Hapsburg and Bourbon monarchies almost succeeded in identifying Papal Catholicism with their own political ascendancy. The Papacy and many Churchmen made great efforts to avoid the entanglement, but they were not sufficiently successful.5 It was quite impossible for members of the reformed Churches to consider the Roman Church simply as a Church at all, when it appeared to be acting principally as the instrument of an overwhelming political menace. Though the substance of this situation disappeared with the death of Louis XIV, the spectre of it continued to haunt the Protestant mind down to the French Revolution. The divorce of Catholicism from the liberal tradition in the eighteenth century led the Church to identify itself increasingly with the ancien regime, an identification which continued, broadly speaking, throughout the nineteenth century. It is really only in the twentieth century, against a secular background which menaced all churches alike, that those outside the Roman Communion have been placed in a position to view the Roman Church simply as a Christian Church. The results of this, in the way of greater understanding, are already not small.

(b) The second handicap of the mediaeval inheritance has lain in [37/38] the nature of the Tridentine revision of theology. The recovery of historical science and of Greek Patristic learning had not proceeded nearly far enough when the Council was held, for the defects of the mediaeval Western synthesis to be adequately remedied. In the result, the Tridentine theological horizon, like that of the Reformers, was essentially still only mediaeval and Western, and its re-formulation was still a re-formulation of the merely Western tradition–with its penetrating analyses, but also with its limitations, its gaps and its distortions. This was reasserted against the Protestant negations, often in a more defensible way, but without any substantial enlargement. Thus no new synthesis or improvement of theological balance was effected. The elements which Protestantism and humanism had separated and opposed to one another, were still held together in Tridentine Catholicism: but they were only held together at more or less that stage of incipient division which they had reached during the later Middle Ages. In some cases they were really only clamped together by the declaration of ecclesiastical authority, without much attempt at fruitful harmonisation. Thus, though Tridentine theology is not marked by the rigid antinomies of orthodox Protestantism and Liberalism, neither of these traditions has ever been able to be convinced that adequate justice was being done by Catholicism to the elements of the old synthesis on which each was based, and to which it clung. And, seeing the premature stage at which the Council was forced to do its work, and the rigid form which in the circumstances of the time its findings inevitably took, there was bound to be more truth than injustice in these judgments of Protestants and Liberals upon Tridentine theology. The Protestant question made the holding of the Council vitally necessary, and it was impossible that its findings should be given the nature of an ‘interim report’. Yet the historical materials and understanding for a more adequate solution of the theological difficulties were not available at the time. It was only by returning to a stage of the disputed questions much further back than that which the Council envisaged, and working forward from that, that a true Catholic ‘wholeness’ could be found.

With this foundation fault in some of the specifically Tridentine theology, goes the retention of the whole vast elaboration of the scholastic system of theology. Reasoning upon the data of Revelation is to some extent a necessity of the adult mind: but the codification of a huge syllogistic structure of reasoning, not only upon revealed truth but upon other deductions from revealed truths and their consequences, and the requirement of it all for orthodoxy, seems to end in the substitution of a human rationalism for the pistis of the New Testament, and in the obscuring of the grand central facts of Divine Redemption–even though it is directed solely to safeguarding [38/39] and illuminating them. It is true that the layman, and even the plain parish-priest, is not required to have even a working knowledge of all the ramifications of this system, but only to accept them en bloc, by an act of fides implicita. Nevertheless, it is this great system of reasoning about Revelation, rather than the Biblical Revelation in itself, which is presented as that ‘teaching of the Roman Church’ that the convert is required to accept. It would be difficult to devise anything more likely to repulse the instructed Protestant at the outset.

(c) The third mediaeval barrier to the absorption of Protestantism has lain in the retention of the whole closely articulated legal machine devised by the mediaeval canonists, and its further elaboration in some respects. Again, the elements of some such system are an unavoidable necessity in any but the most rudimentary human society. But the extent and complication of the canonical development in the West lent to the whole Church life of the later Middle Ages, a thoroughgoing aspect of ‘legalism’, against which the original Protestantism uttered one of its most needed protests, though one which it carried to indefensibly sweeping lengths in its own subsequent Church life. It is a sheer perversion when the process of Christian salvation can be represented as fulfilled by a merely mechanical human obedience to a human jurisdiction acting in the name of an absentee Christ. This gross mis-understanding of the system was undoubtedly present in the Middle Ages, and the evident survival of something of the same mentality in post-Tridentine Catholicism has appeared to most Protestants still to justify outright their forefathers’ original protest. The reconciliation here can only come from a deeper apprehension of the paradox of the Divine life imparted and lived through the necessities of living in an imperfect earthly society.

It is as well to point out here that the Papacy in itself is not the product of the canonical legal development, though it was exalted by it from the eleventh century onwards. The Papacy existed and had rendered some of its greatest services to Christendom long before the elaboration of that system began. What is the product of the Canon Law, is the system of Curial bureaucracy, by which the administration of the whole Papal Communion is centralised, and through which what is called ‘Papal absolutism’ finds expression. It was not so much the Avignon Popes (most of whom were personally spiritual men) as the Avignon bureaucracy of rapacious officials and lawyers, who provided the real justification for the Protestant repudiation of ‘legalism’ in the administration of the things of God. Unfortunately, the Church of England, and most Protestant denominations including the Quakers, are beginning to find that any close centralisation, [39/40] and the bureaucracy that this involves, are liable to produce much the same result, whether formulated in terms of Canon Law or not, and whether exercised in the name of a Vicar of Christ or only of an administrative committee.

We are aware, of course, that this historical and pragmatic examination of the role of the Papacy in its post-Tridentine phase is far removed from ‘Papalism’ as the Papacy now teaches it. In this, the Primacy jure divino, and the Infallible Magisterium of the Successor of St Peter in faith and morals, are made the theological basis of the whole claim that the Papal Communion, and it alone, constitutes in the eyes of God the entire Catholic Church of Christ. Further, the practical tendency to equate the Catholic Church as so conceived with the Regnum Dei is bound to make Roman Catholics fight for their Church as for God, and this fighting for God and the Church without any distinguo has some of its worst effects in situations where the Roman Catholics are self-consciously distinguishing themselves from other Christians: and certain of these effects are particularly and painfully evident in this country. Moreover, the force of the claim to be the entire Church was even in the Middle Ages greatly weakened by the existence altogether outside that Communion of the Orthodox Churches of the East, with their admittedly valid Orders and Sacraments, their faithful witness to some elements of the Patristic Tradition which the Western Church had lost, and their impressive organic life. Even in the West since the sixteenth century, the Papal Church has been forced by the realities of its situation to act again and again as one Church among many, despite its claim to universality.

Yet signs have multiplied in recent years, that whenever it can forget this sectarianism, and give a deliberate lead to all Christendom, outside as well as inside its own allegiance, on a matter of vital Christian interest, the Papacy can still command the attention and to a large extent secure the following of all Christians, and that it is the only Christian institution which can do so. It is at the head of a full half of Christendom, and that half, moreover, which shows no sign of diminished vitality and coherence. It is at once the strongest single bulwark of the historic tradition of Christian civilisation in Europe, and a pioneer of the modern Christian social teaching by which it is sought to remedy the desperate sickness from which that tradition now universally suffers. It is also the largest single missionary force in the world mission-field of today. Above all, it has never wavered in its adherence to the central Christian truths of the Trinity, the Incarnation, and the Redemption: for its mighty witness to these all orthodox Christians of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries have had cause to be deeply grateful.

[41] Whatever the difficulties, amounting in some respects almost to an impossibility, of seeking corporately a direct theological approach to the Papal Communion at the present time, we believe that these indisputable facts have been too largely lost to sight in much recent Anglican thought about Christian unity.

[Next: Chapter 4: Fragmentation and synthesis ]

1. Or abroad either. It was, e.g. the continuance of unreformed mediaevalism in German Protestantism which permitted Frederick Augustus, Duke of York, to be elected Bishop of Osnabruck in 1764 at the age of six months, to be officially known for twenty years only by that title, to be publicly addressed in dedications as ‘the Right Reverend’, and to die possessed of the See and its revenues sixty-three years later, without ever even proposing to enter upon an ecclesiastical career.]

2. e.g. that between the extreme statements of the doctrines of prevenient grace and free-will, in the seventeenth century disputes of Dominican and Jesuit theologians.]

3. The beneficence of the latter must be judged by the appalling state of the Church throughout the Middle Ages in those outlying regions where the Hildebrandine ideas never really penetrated, e.g. Scotland.]

4. Even Archbishop Cranmer’s more positive idea of a union of Protestant Churches on an agreed doctrinal basis failed to indicate the necessity of a true organic union.

5. The sort of confusion this caused may be illustrated by the facts that Queen Mary Tudor died in a state of declared war with the Pope, and Cardinal Pole died stripped of all his legatine powers and under summons to come to Rome to be tried for heresy.]