"The language of the Vatican [I] decrees on the Roman Pontiff is admittedly formidable at first reading". So wrote Dom Gregory Dix (and he proceeded, in a brilliant and witty tour de force, to demonstrate their congruity, not only with "the second century", but also with "the New Testament"). I think he was right; the language of those degrees does rather give the impression of having been written with a deliberate intention of upsetting the horses. Yet John Henry Newman, despite his earlier apprehensions about what the Ultramontanes were getting up to in Rome, sighed with relief when he saw this wording ... and memorably commented "Nothing has been passed of consequence".
What can look so intimidating if you lack a certain sort of background, can seem matter-of-course or even inconsequential when one has a sense of context. What one might call the body-language of the Vatican I decrees can seem frightening. They can appear to suggest that the Pope can, at will, impose new dogmas, and directly manipulate the life of any individual Catholic. Those who see them in this way do have some excuses for their anxieties; Wilfred Ward was but one of the Ultras who did believe something frighteningly like that. But Ward's dotty excesses were not what the decrees mean or, indeed, even come anywhere near to saying.
Newman and Ratzinger are strikingly similar in their approach to what the Papacy intrinsically is. Newman, from his "old, Anglican, patristic, literary" background, found himself writing "It is one of the reproaches urged against the Church of Rome, that it has originated nothing, and has only served as a sort of remora or break in the development of dogma." He goes on "And it is an objection which I embrace as a truth; for such I conceive to be the main purpose of its extraordinary gift". The heart of the role which the Roman Church plays within the Universal Church is, in other words, negative; to be a barrier against the encroachment of novelties.
It is important to grasp this because the two high-profile actions of Roman Pontiffs which in most minds have been associated with the idea of Infallibility-in-action are the two "Marian dogmas". Non-Catholics therefore tend to judge the purpose of the Roman Magisterium in the light of these two manifestations of it. This is unfortunate. I will stick my neck out by saying that those two definitions are side-issues, not typical of what "Rome" means. What is typical, as Newman says, is a caution, a conservatism, a sense of the dangers of being daring and clever. A patristic scholar little remembered nowadays, my distinguished predecessor Dr Jalland, wrote of Rome's "strange, almost mystical, faithfulness to type, its marked degree of changelessness, its steadfast clinging to tradition and precedent".
Papa Ratzinger, the First Anglican Pope, comes at the question in exactly the same way as Newman. This cautious sense of his essentially negative role is at the heart of the description I gave in earlier post of his discharge of his Pontificate. And nobody should have been surprised at this who had read his words. "The First Vatican Council had in no way defined the pope as an absolute monarch. On the contrary, it presented himas the guarantor of obedience to the revealed Word.The pope's authority is bound to the Tradition of faith ...The authority of the pope is not unlimited; it is at the service of Sacred Tradition".
I think this is finely put. One of the unfortunate side-effects of the decrees of Vatican I is the distinction between ex cathedra, 'infallible' papal pronouncements, and those which fall short of this august status. Obviously the distinction had to be made, or we might have been saddled with the sort of grotesque parody of a papacy which Ward and Manning wanted. But it does give 'liberal' theologians who lack the mind and spirit of the tradition the opportunity to claim that those bits of it which they are attacking at any particular moment are not defined ex cathedra and are therefor fair victims for their heterodox malice.
I feel a Dom Gregory Purple Passage coming on ...
Dom Gregory later.