"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).

Saturday, November 18, 2017

The Pope and the Professor (III)

As I noted in the previous post, this fascinating and deeply learned book acutely portrays the tensions of 19th-century Catholicism, not just between its titular figures of Pope Pius IX and Ignaz von Dollinger, but between academic history and theological dogma, between the German academic context and that of a Roman bishop squeezed in and about to lose his Papal States once and for all, and finally between different notions of papal authority, jurisdiction, and infallibility. On this latter point, many familiar characters show up, not least Cardinal Manning and John Henry Newman (whose life is told in Ker's magisterial biography). Finally, this book contains a good bit of history of relations between Orthodox and Catholics, who, under Dollinger's leadership, were already discussing issues--filioque, papal authority--that would have to await another century and more before being taken up again.

When we left off last, The Pope and the Professor: Pius IX, Ignaz von Döllinger, and the Quandary of the Modern Age had set up for us the central tension in the book and in the life of its titular characters: infallibility and Vatican I are undeniably products of their time, a ferocious reaction to the European revolutions of 1848 and before, a deliberate and crude poke in the eye of the French and Italians who had so harried (even to the point of kidnapping) previous popes and who now were in essence colluding in the campaign to unify the Italian peninsula and thereby deprive popes of their dubiously acquired, and appallingly run, territories once and for all. At the same time, however, it does not seem possible--all the ultramontanist machinations notwithstanding--that the decree of Vatican I, which led to Dollinger's excommunication, could have been pulled off had it not enjoyed earlier support from people, including theologians, who were not coming at the dogma like reactionaries ready to ram a hot poker through Italian politicians and the imperialists of the French Second Empire.

There was, in other words, something of a theological case, flawed and problematic though it was, that could be made for infallibility and jurisdiction going back well before the 19th century, as Brian Tierney was among the first to discuss decades ago.

Dollinger thought that case complete nonsense. In writings under a nom de plume and then more boldly under his own name, he argued that the notion of infallibility "represented a novum, 'altogether unknown in the Church for many centuries'" (137). It was a position from which he was never to budge for the rest of his life. Dollinger's problem, in short, was that any definition would result in the "'triumph of dogma over history'" (143).

Less diplomatically, he would denounce the doctrine as "moonshine based on 'forgeries and fictions'" and this doctrine would prove a "'millstone'" around the neck of the Church, an idea in the 21st century it is hard to disbelieve. And like all flawed heroes in the heat of battle, Dollinger would undermine himself by fatal overreach in some of his rhetorical claims, causing sympathetic near-allies to withdraw, and leaving him more isolated, especially when he indulged in such controversies as attacking the Council of Florence as not being really ecumenical, and therefore inadmissible as evidence of earlier widespread belief in infallibility and jurisdiction, as the Infallibilists were attempting to argue.

All councils have extra-conciliar and blatantly political factors that loom large, and Vatican I is no different, as Howard so skillfully makes clear. Consider just one brief bit of chronology:

18 July 1870: the final vote on Pastor Aeternus, with 533 voting placet and 2 voting non placet; the other fathers having left to avoid voting against the decree. (At its convocation the bishops numbered some 700.)

19 July 1870: the Franco-Prussian War broke out, causing Napoleon III to withdraw his troops from Italy, leading to the final collapse of the Papal States and the realization of the project of Italian unification.

20 September 1870: Victor Emmanuel's Italian troops breached the walls of Rome at Porta Pia, and the city was now to become the capital of a new nation-state. From here until after the Lateran Accords of 1929, all popes considered themselves "prisoners" and would not leave the Vatican. Rather than quietly, let alone gracefully, accept this, Pius IX redoubled his rhetoric about the temporal states being necessary for the preservation of the Church's spiritual power, an argument I confess to finding absurd. He promoted, and allowed others to promote, a new cult around his person as though he were a proto-martyr about to be sacrificed at any moment. It is not an edifying spectacle to behold. If ever we needed a re-reading of Freud's Future of an Illusion about infantilizing father-figures and neurotic transferences, this is it.

The pressure on the Papal States in the late 1860s, and their impending demise, provoked in Pius and his courtiers and defenders a skillful counter-propaganda campaign that portrayed the pope as a harried, persecuted fellow, a "prisoner of the Vatican." This was enormously influential in arousing sympathy for the pope, and that sympathy softened up a lot of people to the claims of infallibility and jurisdiction that were being bandied about, giving the pro-infallibility crowd an initial advantage the minority found hard to overcome. Rather than directly and openly resist the move for a definition, which would seem in bad taste and unsympathetic to the pope, the minority adopted what Howard suggests was a strategic mistake: that of arguing that the time for a definition was "inopportune." The problem here, says Howard, is that "it appeared to cede the high ground of theological principle to the Infallibilists" (140). It was a mistake they would never recover from.

In the end, a "moderate" form of infallibility and jurisdiction was accepted by the council, the more "maximalist" position having been curtailed in part by the efforts of the minority, whose day, Margaret O'Gara first argued, would come at the Second Vatican Council. But this was still a bridge too far for Dollinger, who refused to knuckle under to pressure from his German bishop and was therefore excommunicated, a devastating blow to him which would never be lifted.

In addition to rejecting the ideas on historical grounds, Dollinger was, Eastern Christians will want to note, an early proto-ecumenist, who spent a lot of time organizing conferences with Anglicans and Eastern Orthodox in an attempt to heal the divisions of the Church. These conferences, held in Bonn, involved Orthodox participants from St. Petersburg, from the University of Athens, Romania, Syria, and elsewhere in the Orthodox and Anglican worlds. They discussed such issues as the filioque, noting in one of their decree that the filioque (so well treated in The Filioque: History of a Doctrinal Controversy by A. Edward Siecienski, whom I interviewed here) was inserted via an "illegal" method and that the whole Church, East and West, should consider removing it.

Echoing words of Popes Paul VI and John Paul II, words which I have myself made much use of in my Orthodoxy and the Roman Papacy, Dollinger argued that "'the great stumbling block and real hindrance to any understanding in the eyes of the Easterners...is the papacy, in the form which it has assumed'" (194).

These conferences were discussing issues that would then fade for nearly a century until the modern Orthodox-Catholic dialogue would take them up again, coming in some cases to a near-identical position as that of the Bonn conferences Dollinger organized and led. But as with us now, so with them then: hyper-Orthodox converts began to derail matters. In this case, "the joker in the pack," as Howard aptly names him, is some pest called Julian Joseph Overbeck who veered from Anglicanism into Lutheranism, then ordination as a Catholic priest who attempted to confect a marriage, after which he left and became an Orthodox layman in the Russian Church. He ginned up a letter-writing campaign to Orthodox hierarchs to derail the Bonn efforts, and to proclaim that Orthodoxy was the one true faith, all others hopeless heretics with whom no congress should be had. La plus ça change...

In the end, Dollinger died disappointed all around: by the decree of Vatican I, by his resulting excommunication, and by the failure of the Bonn conferences to resolve Christian division.

But did he die a failure? Howard ends by raising "a delicate question for Catholics today: to what degree was this excommunicated scholar an intellectual architect, or at least a significant harbinger, of the Second Vatican Council"? To which I would add another question: to what degree do we still need to learn from Dollinger about conflicts in the Church over papal authority, conflicts never so much in evidence after 1870 as they are today?


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