Book Review: Fortescue’s “The Early Papacy”

Objections to the papacy are nothing new, for in fact, the primacy of Rome constitutes the most prominent obstacle toward ecumenical unity between Catholics and the “separated brethren”. The protests of both the Reformation tradition as well as of the Orthodox Churches against the so-called monarchical authority of the Roman bishop are so entrenched in the thought-forms of those communities such that any mention of the Pope is often met with cynicism at best, and outright hostility at worst.

The problem in our polemical engagements with non-Catholic Christians concerning the primacy is that each of our adversaries (which, for the sake of brevity, we distinguish as Protestants and Orthodox) selects an arbitrary historical standard from which to judge the issue at hand. Protestants, revolting against the excesses of the late medieval Church, see in the Reform a deus ex machina which supposedly breaks the wall of historical accretions and reveals the purity of the primitive Church as determined sola scriptura. The Orthodox, on the other hand, whose historical thinking is irrevocably bound to the geopolitics of 11th and 15th century Europe, are largely marked by an intellectual reaction to the waning temporal power of Constantinople. The unfortunate sack of that imperial city in 1453 at the hands of rogue Crusaders effectively revoked the unity achieved at the ecumenical Council of Florence, and the rift therein begotten between East and West endures to this day.

The error of both parties is obvious: Protestants argue from 1517, while the Orthodox argue from 1453 (or 1054). Implicit is a rejection of the practice of the first 15 centuries of the Church. One cannot say that the Church fell into such profound error for such a period without denying the indefectibility of the Church, which doctrine cannot be held by anyone who dares to take the name Christian.

Anglicanism, a brand of Protestantism with close affinities to Catholicism, is an anomaly. They maintain an episcopal hierarchy, the use of sacramental ritual, and preserve many of her doctrines. Therefore, they assert continuity with the pre-Reformation Western Church, and like her Catholic counterparts, know that to argue theological points on historical bases cannot be fixed at some arbitrary date so late in history. Preservation of doctrine and truth means continuity from the beginning. Adrian Fortescue, the great English Catholic priest and patristic scholar, was challenged by an Anglican to defend the “monarchical papacy” on the basis of early Church praxis. Of course, even Fortescue’s challenger could not escape the error of mainstream Protestants and Orthodox: he selected the year 451 AD as the latest date from which to draw proofs. This was based on the assumption that, up to the ecumenical Council of Chalcedon, the Church was truly one, for the Nestorian schism erupted in reaction to that council’s canons. Such assumption, of course, ignores the many other schisms which plagued the Body of Christ in the first centuries.

Firstly, Fortescue swiftly and clearly exposes as arbitrary the setting of any historical date as a “limit”. Knowing that the Church is a visible, living entity which develops over time, he points out that any date set by an opponent already carries with it prejudices and assumptions about the Church. “Further,” he says, “the idea of a dead past in which the Church was united, and a present in which it is not, means that the original Church, founded by Christ, has ceased to exist.” This is altogether opposed to the faith which claims that Christ, through the Holy Spirit, guides the Church through all ages and preserves her from defection.

However, in a brilliant exposition of his historical and theological knowledge, Fortescue indulges his opponent, setting out to demonstrate on the basis of primary source patristic texts that the Bishop of Rome, up to 451 AD, held a universally recognized primacy not only of place but of authority. He sums up the Catholic doctrine on the papacy in four theses:

1.  The Pope is the chief bishop, primate and leader of the whole Church of Christ on earth.
2.  He has episcopal jurisdiction over all members of the Church.
3.  To be a member of the Catholic Church, one must be in communion with the Pope.
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.

He develops each thesis sequentially, as each proceeds logically and coherently from the previous. By the time he explains the fourth thesis, he will have arrived at the dogma of the First Vatican Council expressed in Pastor Aeternus. With a pleasantly forthright style, he lets the Fathers of the Church speak for themselves, only connecting the dots as necessary to demonstrate the sublimity of the Catholic doctrine. Despite the impressive plethora of historical citations, they are by no means exhaustive. The footnotes provide more than ample suggestion for one who intends deeper study into the historical papacy.

Orthodox and Protestants should find this book eye-opening. They might see, despite the historical accretions which have encrusted over the Petrine office, that its core– an authoritative and final teaching authority on matters of religion– is of indisputably ancient (and apostolic) origin. Augustine, so influential on the development of Luther’s thought, accepts as a given the authority of Rome. The Orthodox, on the other hand, must be led to recognize that a council of bishops gains ecumenical status if and only if the Successor of Peter ratifies its decrees.

The Early Papacy is not a true theological dissertation or dogmatic treatise; it is rather a masterwork of Catholic polemics, an apologetical gem, characteristic of its era (1919). It is meant for layman and theologian alike. In an era where Catholic intellectual sophistication is on the decline, when theologians begin their arguments from a modernist hermeneutics of suspicion, Fortescue’s book, as all his works, is a refreshing oasis of straightforward, historically-founded, rigorous thinking. Practicing Catholics who are either doubtful, ignorant, or curious about the papacy’s foundations would do well to read this work.

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