A crucial influence in the development of the idea that the Pope himself might be free from error came from the Franciscan debates about poverty. Successive popes had ruled in favour of the Franciscan rejection of property. When Pope John XXII repudiated that teaching, and denied that Christ was a pauper, Franciscan theologians appealed against his judgment to the infallibility of other, earlier popes. They argued that the Church, in the person of those popes, had repeatedly accepted the Franciscan view of poverty as an evangelical form of life. John XXII, therefore, was in error in rejecting this infallible teaching--and since true popes do not err, this proved that he was no longer a true pope. Papal infallibility was here being invoked not to exalt the Pope's authority, but to limit it, by ensuring that a pope did not arbitrarily reverse earlier Christian teaching.What is interesting here is not the idea that a particular Pope had erred (or so the Franciscans were claiming), but the idea that Popes, as such, cannot err and, hence, the erring person in the papal garb is not really a Pope at all, but is only homonymously a Pope--a Pope in name only. This is not an appeal to an early version of the doctrine of Papal Infallibility as promulgated at Vatican I, though it is clearly connected to that idea, but is rather an appeal to the idea that, whenever Popes teach in conformity with the magisterium, they, insofar as they act as spokesmen for the maagisterium, are preserved from error. Not because they, as particular human beings, have some special grace that nobody else has, but because the office they hold has been granted that grace. If they should happen to err, that means that they no longer truly fill that office.
I was reminded of this passage by the recent kerfuffle surrounding Jay Dyer's decision to become a Roman Catholic. I call it a "kerfuffle", but it seems to have provoked controversy primarily among his Orthodox friends: the Romans in the playground have yet to get deeply involved. I was particularly struck by an essay at a..sinner by Sophocles Frangakis. I find Sophocles to be a voice for Christian charity in the blogosphere, and have always respected his opinions and comments, whether I read them here or at other blogs where he contributes, and his essay on Jay's conversion is, in my opinion, a good example of how to write an essay about something you disagree strongly with but are willing to respect as a matter of Christian love. As the essay progresses, we find Sophocles answering a few of Jay's arguments, and this, too, he does with sensitivity and care, and it is only to be expected, I think, that someone committed to a particular reading of history would want to defend his reading against a rival, especially when that rival had, for some time, been perceived as a friend. I do not doubt for a moment that I would do the same thing, were I in his shoes.
In fact, I write this very essay for that reason, because Sophocles makes an interesting sort of argument in his reply to Jay. He notes that
The citations Jay provides were written at a time when Rome herself was indeed Orthodox, and from the high remarks lavished on her in lieu not only of her position as the First See but also because of her exemplary Orthodoxy and the keeping of that one salvific Faith preserved and undiminished when other Sees were beset with heresy.Later (because of the Filioque controversy, among other things), Rome ceased to be "orthodox" in the sense that Sophocles has in mind and, hence, ceased to fill that office of Primacy that the other Sees willingly recognized in her for so long. In short, Sophocles makes here the very same argument that the Franciscans made about Pope John XXII. Just as he ceased to be truly a Pope when he attempted to teach something contrary to the Tradition, so too, Sophocles (and other similarly-minded Orthodox) claims, the Roman See itself, insofar as it has "erred", has ceased to be Primatial.
Rome was Orthodox and this is why the East "tolerated" her position because they were brethren, confessing one and the same Faith together and gladly accorded primacy, as it, primacy, existed then in its proper context.
And now there looms on the horizon a possible concordat between Rome and Constantinople, and this would permit another application of the same argument:
Hold still, everyone, because we may in our lifetime witness another schism in the Church if the Ecumencial Patriarch Bartholomew continues as he is in opposition to Moscow, who is holding the line formulating Orthodox answers to modern problems and challenges but of course is considered as narrow and old fashioned for doing so.In other words, once you determine who is in the wrong, you also get to determine who is in the right, and the "real" church will move around from place to place depending on who happens to toe your particular line. Constantinople has displaced Rome, but is now in danger of being displaced by Moscow. Eventually, I suppose, if Moscow were to reunite with Rome along with Constantinople, it, too, would be displaced (perhaps by Moscow, Idaho, just to keep things from getting too complicated).
If Constantinople should, for argument's sake, unify with the Roman Catholic Church, the Patriarch of Constantinople would cease to be "Orthodox" despite the fact that he takes up residence in the place Constantinople as Patriarch of the New Rome. He would in effect not hold in common that Faith held by the other Patriarchs.
I am reminded here of an argument that was put against me over at The Continuum. After suggesting that a central interpretive authority is required to avoid theological relativism, I was treated, in answer, to a quotation from, of all places, the 39 Articles:
As the Church of Jerusalem, Alexandria, and Antioch have erred: so also the Church of Rome hath erred, not only in their living and manner of Ceremonies, but also in matters of Faith.I confess that it was difficult to refrain from laughing out loud at this, but I never got the chance to ask whether the "Church" of England had "erred" in saying that the Church of Rome had "erred", since I was unceremoniously dismissed by the worthies there as a crank. You know you're in trouble when folks who routinely use Christian names with one another decide to refer to you only as "Carson". That's OK--I've been called worse, but I am certainly not insensitive to the necessity for the Church of England to maintain that everybody else is wrong. Indeed, it is the great Protestant Burden, it seems to me, to maintain two incompatible ideas at the same time. On the one hand, it must be maintained that something called "the Tradition" is not to be located in any one time or place, but in all times and places, that is, it is what has been believed by everyone everywhere. That's what "catholic" means, after all: "universal". On the other hand, it must be maintained that, when it comes to deciding what, exactly, fits this description--well, then it's confined to one time and one place: it's me. If you start to do or to teach something that is not all that consonant with what I and my cronies have been doing and teaching, clearly the only explanation is that you have departed from "the Tradition". I can prove this, too, by showing you the documents and other artifacts that constitute the evidence of "the Tradition" and interpreting them for you in the proper way, not in the heterodox way that you interpret them. If you insist, for some perverse reason, that I am interpreting them wrongly, then I will just point out to you that their meaning is plain and that you are the one jumping through hermeneutic hoops to get it to come out your way, while I am simply looking at all the data in the plain light of day, with no interpretive lens other than sheer rationality.
This kind of game can be played by both sides, of course, but I have to admit that the Orthodox have something of a leg up on us Romans, because we tend to think that the Orthodox are, apart from that whole Papal Primacy thing, well, orthodox, whereas the Orthodox tend to think that Romans, in addition to that whole Papal Primacy thing, have heaped many other heterodoxies onto their ash heap of theology. In other words, if reunification is what we're after, the Orthodox think that the Romans have a lot farther to go than the Romans think the Orthodox have to go. Having said that, however, I must say that my own opinion is that, however far you happen to think the other side has to go to meet you half way (and don't we all think we're closer to the center than the other guy is, else we would be standing with that other guy already), there are better and worse ways to go about approaching that center. The wrong way is to start quoting from the 39 Articles, or to say that Rome as a See has done the equivalent of what John XXII did. A far better approach is that taken by such excellent Orthodox writers as Peter Gilbert of De unione ecclesiarum or the folks at Eirenikon. The strategy employed at sites such as those (and there are others) is to look for common ground rather than difference, and where there are differences, to look for a common hermeneutic that will allow both sides to approach the center together, rather than forcing one or the other to come the whole distance alone.
I freely confess to my own particular bias here, and I hope and pray that my Orthodox brethren do not take what I have written in the wrong way. I suppose they are used to hearing such things from certain sorts of Catholics and perhaps it is safe to say that everyone, on all sides of any debate about who is "right" and who is "wrong", should be mindful that pride is the deadliest of sins, so I will be the first to apologize if what I say in genuine charity and hope for reunification comes off as proud, condescending, or just generally arrogant. It may be, as some Orthodox writers have lamented, that reunification is basically de facto impossible now, but one may pray otherwise since, of course, with God all things are possible.