Although I could not find any other published debates, articles, or podcasts from Mr. Bellisario specifically on the papacy, I did find one book review that is of interest. Mr. Bellisario recommends Mr. Adrian Fortescue’s “The Early Papacy” as being: “full of great apologetics material for substantiating the Papacy in the early Church.” One presumes that Mr. Bellisario may rely on what Mr. Fortescue has written in his presentation on the Dividing Line today.

Mr. Fortescue writes: “let us see what [the pope’s] authority really is, as defined by the Catholic Church today. We shall then be able to show that it was the same in the first four and a half centuries.” (pp. 34-35) Mr. Fortescue seems to recognize that the immediate objection to his claim is that the doctrine of the papacy developed. Mr. Fortescue responds thus: “Has the papacy grown? In a sense it has, just as every Dogma of the Church may be said to have grown. We come here to that question of the development of doctrine, of which much might be said.” (p. 35) After briefly qualifying the kinds of development, Mr. Fortescue concludes: “But we do not admit that this development means any real addition to the faith; it is only a more explicit assertion of the old faith, necessary in view of false interpretations.” (p. 35)

Mr. Fortescue, in his brief discussion, had compared the development of the papacy to the development of the doctrine of the Trinity. In Mr. Fortescue’s view, the decision of the Council of Nicaea “grew” the doctrine of the Trinity. In his view, the Fourth Lateran Council’s use (in the 13th century) of the term “transubstantiation” and Vatican I’s definition of papal infallibility (in the 19th century) are analogous developments to Nicaea. They are simply making explicit something that was already the old faith.

There is a serious problem with Mr. Fortescue’s argument: the Nicaean definition can be shown historically to be simply a restatement of ancient doctrine. We can prove (from Scripture) that the Trinity was the teaching of the Apostles. The same is not the case for transubstantiation or papal infallibility. With respect to those views one is essentially left taking Rome’s word for it: the historical evidence (whether Scriptural or patristic) does not substantiate Rome’s claim that transubstantiation and papal infallibility were the faith of the Apostles.

Mr. Fortescue tries to make a positive case for papal infallibility being the ancient faith. He writes:

A conspicuous case of this is the declaration of papal infallibility by the First Vatican Council. The early Church recognized that the Pope has the final word in matters of faith, no less than in those of discipline, that she herself is protected by God against heresy. Put that together, and you have, implicitly, what the Council defined.

(p. 35)

Again, Mr. Fortescue’s argument is seriously flawed – in this case on at least three levels. First, it has been shown that the early church fathers did not view the bishop of Rome as having the final word in matters of discipline. In fact, to the contrary, we can demonstrate from history that this is not the case. In lieu of making this an unbearably long article, let me post a two historians (as quoted in William Webster’s book, the Matthew 16 Controversy (available here):

Rome itself never either exercised or claimed to exercise ‘patriarchal’ rights over the entire West. Such ‘patriarchal’ jurisdiction of Rome existed de facto over the so-called suburbicarian dioceses, which covered a relatively large territory – ten provinces – which were within the civil jurisdiction of the prefect of Rome. The power of the pope upon this territory was, in every way, comparable to the jurisdiction of the Eastern patriarchs.

(John Meyendorff, Imperial Unity and Christian Division (Crestwood: St. Vladimir’s, 1989), p. 328)

Nicaea I, which took place during Sylvester’s episcopate, is of interest…because of canon 6. It invoked ancient customs in assigning Egypt, Libya, and the Pentapolis to the bishop of Alexandria, affirming the customary jurisdiction of the bishop of Rome, and asserting the traditional authority of the bishop of Antioch and of the provincial metropolitans. The canon does not fix the boundaries of Roman regional power. But the expansion of the canon in Rufinus (345?—410) seems to limit Rome’s authority to the suburbicarian sees. This may reflect the actual jurisdictional situation at the end of the fourth century…Nicaea presupposes a regional leadership of Rome, but indicates nothing more. Thus one concludes that down through the Council of Nicaea, a Roman universal primacy of jurisdiction exists neither as a theoretical construction nor as de facto practice awaiting theoretical interpretation.

(Paul Empie and Austin Murphy, Ed., Papal Primacy and the Universal Church (Augsburg: Minneapolis, 1974), Lutherans and Catholics in Dialogue V, pp. 72, 77)

A second weakness is that even if there is evidence of an eventual widespread jurisdiction of the papacy in the West, there is not corresponding evidence that the papacy had “the final word in matters of faith.” In fact, as late as 1418, the “ecumenical” Council of Constance stated that: “legitimately assembled in the holy Spirit, constituting a general council and representing the Catholic church militant, it has power immediately from Christ; and that everyone of whatever state or dignity, even papal, is bound to obey it in those matters which pertain to the faith, the eradication of the said schism and the general reform of the said church of God in head and members.” According to the Council of Constance, ecumenical councils, not the pope, had the final say in matters of faith.

A third weakness is that even if there were evidence both of teachings of universal disciplinary jurisdiction (which there is not) and universal “final say” in matters of faith (which there is not), it would not follow that the early church fathers viewed the bishop of Rome as infallible in himself. In other words, one could still reject the portion of Vatican I’s definition: “such definitions of the Roman pontiff are of themselves, and not by the consent of the church, irreformable.” In a hypothetical world in which the bishop of Rome has “veto” authority over even ecumenical councils (contrary to what the Council of Constance said), the bishop of Rome would still not be infallible in himself, but only by the consent (as expressed by the council) of the church. He could prevent a definition from being made, but he could not make one himself, much as the American President can veto laws, but he cannot legislate.

We could go on and on, but why belabor the point? These sorts of arguments that the doctrine was “implicitly” there in the early church fathers is almost as crushing an admission as that provided by Roman Catholic Cardinal John Henry Newman who, speaking of his theory of the development of the papacy, wrote:

It will be said that all this is a theory. Certainly it is: it is a theory to account for facts as they lie in the history, to account for so much being told us about the Papal authority in early times, and not more; a theory to reconcile what is and what is not recorded about it; and, which is the principal point, a theory to connect the words and acts of the Ante-nicene Church with that antecedent probability of a monarchical principle in the Divine Scheme, and that actual exemplification of it in the fourth century, which forms their presumptive interpretation. All depends on the strength of that presumption. Supposing there be otherwise good reason for saying that the Papal Supremacy is part of Christianity, there is nothing in the early history of the Church to contradict it.

(An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine, p. 154 of the London:1878 edition)

In short, Newman has to admit that all he has is a theory, not historical documentation. A theory that he does not find contradicted by the evidence, but one that cannot be supported from the evidence (for if it could, the theory itself would not be a theory). It is a theory that “all depends on the strength of [Newman’s] presumption” and more specifically the notion that there is “otherwise good reason for saying that the Papal Supremacy is part of Christianity.”

Whether Fortescue’s approach of seeking to find implicit teachings of the doctrine or whether Newman’s approach of reading the doctrine in via external presumption is more fair, I leave to the reader’s judgment. It is sufficient that both of these gentlemen are forced to admit that there is no clear teaching of such essential doctrines of Roman Catholicism as papal infallibility in the early church. Let us hope that, in his discussion on the Dividing Line today, Mr. Bellisario is as candid regarding the absence of explicit and clear patristic evidence as the scholars of his church are.


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