"Let books be your dining table, / And you shall be full of delights. / Let them be your
And you shall sleep restful nights" (St. Ephraim the Syrian).

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

The Pope and the Professor (II)

As I noted here, this new book, The Pope and the Professor:Pius IX, Ignaz von Dollinger, and the Quandary of the Modern Age, is a splendid and deeply fascinating one both on its own merits but also as a useful text to consider amidst ongoing challenges to and about papal authority in this Franciscan era.

Howard begins from the premise that the "modern age" really begins with the very long 19th century, a century he and others see as running from 1789 to 1914, that is from the Bastille in France to the trenches of France and Flanders during the Great War. This was a period marked, inter alia, by the return of "religion" after many were predicting its demise, not least because of the massively bloody and utterly shattering attack on the Catholic Church unleashed by the French Revolution.

Those predicting secularization during this period because of the collapse of Catholic life and faith gave short shrift to examining actual Catholic practices, then and since. And thus much history of the period is written from a perspective that presupposes the good of ongoing secularization and consequently does not bother to inquire into the details of Catholic debates. This is one of the tasks Howard sets out for himself, remedying the lack of detailed examination of how Catholics themselves actually viewed the world of this long century, and whether they were united in either pro-secularization narratives, or narratives of reaction and revanchism. He attempts to take Catholic arguments seriously on their own terms, refusing to dismiss theological claims merely because they are theological. In so doing he has written an immeasurably stronger book.

It is, in fact, on debates about history, historiography, and "historical mindedness" that so much of this story turns. Much of the conflict between Ignaz von Döllinger, on the one hand, and Pope Pius IX (and his erstwhile court and followers) on the other comes down to the relationship between theology and history and the relativizing the latter was thought to do of the truth-claims of the former. Any such relativizing was heavily disdained by the papal court and hangers-on. Döllinger, by contrast, refused to see how historical evidence could be treated so disdainfully and dismissively, and stood by it (or at least his perception of it) even when it resulted in his excommunication.

Virtually alone of all the controversial Catholic figures of the long 19th century, Döllinger remains excommunicated and unrehabilitated. It is the burden--but only one of several--of Howard's book to examine why this is so, and to show us the uncomfortable challenges of conscience and authority that the German scholar's life still poses for Catholics today. These challenges are especially brought to the fore in chapter 3, treating the immediate ante-conciliar period as well as the First Vatican Council itself and its immediate aftermath. Döllinger refused to submit to its decree on papal primacy and infallibility, and was as a result excommunicated. He refused because as an historian he saw--quite rightly--that the evidence for anyone believing in papal jurisdiction and infallibility as was debated in 1869-70 was virtually non-existent for the entire first millennium and most of the second. He refused, moreover, because he was an ecumenist avant la lettre, and saw that infallibility and universal jurisdiction were not just impossible to ground historically but impossible to justify ecumenically.

The other challenge which Döllinger refused to look away from was that of the motives behind the conciliar definition, a problem I have myself addressed elsewhere. As Howard notes, "to understand how the teaching on infallibility came bursting to the forefront of theological conversations in the late 1860s, one must take into consideration the severe threat that the papacy experienced by forces of Italian unification" (118)--to say nothing of earlier, but still potent, threats from the French Second Empire and the various European revolutions of 1848. In the face of all these threats, "infallibility became not only the desired instrument of a counter-offensive, but also simply the right and proper theological thing to do" (119).

At the same time, however, one must not be so reductive and simplistic as to see this decree as solely the result of and reaction to external threats. As Howard goes on very rightly to insist, "papal infallibility, it merits reiterating, could hardly have succeeded if it did not enjoy broad international support from the lay faithful."  One must, therefore, resist the temptation to see "that infallibility was...cooked up by ultramontane polemicists of the Pope in a time of political crisis; it possessed much deeper sanction in the Catholic intellectual tradition" (122).


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