I was invited to be keynote lecturer at the Ecumenical Society of the Blessed Virgin Mary's annual conference this past weekend at the lovely Catholic college in Newburgh, NY.
I chose as my topic a question that has long perturbed me: why did Pope Pius IX feel he had the right to proceed with a unilateral dogmatic declaration in 1854 concerning the conception of the Theotokos when:
a) no pope before had dared to dream of doing such a thing; and
b) no dogmatic crisis--whether in Mariology or theology proper in the strict sense--was at hand, and thus the old rule of "nothing is defined until it is denied" was not applicable.
Various traditions and scholars agree that there was no crisis to hand, and thus no obvious dogmatic or theological reason to proceed with a definition. The Anglican Roman Catholic International Commission, in several places between 1981 and 2004 (helpfully studied in Studying Mary: The Virgin Mary in Anglican and Catholic Theology and Devotion) agreed that the Immaculate Conception arose when there was no crisis to hand.
The great Russian Orthodox theologian Sergius Bulgakov says the same thing, rather wearily and acerbically, in his book The Burning Bush: On the Orthodox Veneration of the Mother of God. And even conservative Catholic scholars such as Sr. Sara Butler agree that there was no crisis to hand, and thus the justification for a definition must be sought on quite other than theological grounds.
The short answer I proffered, drawing on an article I published last year (“Sovereignty, Politics, and the Church: Joseph de Maistre’s Legacy for Catholic and Orthodox Ecclesiology,” Pro Ecclesia 24 : 366-389), was that the French Revolution, combined with widespread revolutionary turmoil in 1848, led the pope to realize that there was a crisis to hand, a crisis centred precisely on papal power in the temporal realm, which was rapidly coming to a disastrous end, and therefore some new modus operandi in the world and Church must be sought. Thus we see 1854 as the beginning of the popes as global teachers, a notion well described by the irreplaceable studies of Eamon Duffy and Owen Chadwick.
It would, of course, be too much of a stretch, especially in a short lecture, to suggest there is a direct route between 1854 and 2016, but I did sketch out enough evidence, I thought, to indicate some highly probable links between the 1854 definition, the 1950 definition of the Assumption by another pope named Pius, and also the burgeoning papacy commenting on everything under the sun and inserting itself into all manner of thing well and truly beyond its brief. This problem began with Pius IX in 1854, increased under Leo XIII, and then became more and more acute with every pope from him to the current incumbent of the Roman bishopric who seems to have missed all the warnings in the Apophthegmata Patrum about the importance of bridling one's tongue lest that organ become a σκάνδαλον to the brethren.
Then, for effect on a hot summer evening after three days of a conference, I threw in some spicy bits at the end calling for an overhaul of the papacy to prevent any future popes not only from proceeding with unilateral dogmatic definitions, but also from hosting flying press conferences, having Twitter accounts, giving interviews to anyone for any reason about any topic, and much else besides. I concluded with an especially bon mot from Adrian Fortescue, the English priest-scholar and Orientalist whose views on the papacy were much more acerbic, and much more polemically conveyed, than anything I have ever done in, e.g., my Orthodoxy and the Roman Papacy. (It seems a great pity that many of his choicest phrases are to be found in his correspondence, very little of which seems to have been published except in excerpts here and there--as in Aidan Nichols intellectual biography, The Latin Clerk: The Life, Work and Travels of Adrian Fortescue.)
Writing--note well--in 1920, Fortescue, a stout defender of the papacy and Church in other contexts, was forced to admit, “I wish to goodness that the pope would never speak at all except when he means to define ex cathedra. Then we should know where we are.”
To which let all the weary brethren say: Amen, Amen!