Saturday, 19 December 2015

Two ultramontanist Catholic texts

  • Louis Cardinal Billot SJ, Tractatus de Ecclesia Christi, 3rd edition, 1909-10
  • John S. Daly, Michael Davies: An Evaluation, 2nd edition, 2015

The first text that I want to look at in this post is the Tractatus de Ecclesia Christi (Treatise on the Church of Christ) by Cardinal Louis Billot (1846-1931).  Billot was a star theologian in his time, but he is largely forgotten today.  His undoing was dabbling in far-right French politics.  He gave his support to Action Fran├žaise, an essentially secular movement which supported the restoration of absolute monarchy; and he was forced out of the College of Cardinals by Pope Pius XI as a result.  In his treatise, he quotes Charles Maurras, the ideological leader of Action Fran├žaise, despite Maurras being a religious sceptic with a particular dislike of Christian doctrine.

Billot's magnum opus is a technical work written for an audience of insiders: essentially, seminarians and scholars.  It is lengthy - it takes up two volumes - and it is systematic, detailed and thorough.  It is also written in Latin, as everyone who was supposed to read it would have been competent if not fluent in that language.

The subject of Billot's treatise is ecclesiology - the branch of theology concerned with the nature of the church.  Billot's ecclesiology is unabashedly triumphalist.  The Catholic Church is the only legitimate religious organisation in the world.  It is the creation of Jesus Christ himself.  Without it, nobody can be saved from damnation (although people who are innocently caught up in other sects might be saved unknowingly if they have an implicit desire to unite themselves with the true church).

But the church is not just a spiritual organisation concerned with salvation: it is a physical institution which has rights and duties in relation to human societies.  Indeed, being divine in origin, the Catholic Church is the supreme human society.  What is more, it is not (or, at least, should not be) subject to the legal jurisdiction of any other earthly power.  While it does not claim to be a temporal government, it does very definitely claim the right to exercise indirect control over the policies of temporal governments.  Within its own sphere of concern, it has true legislative power: it can make laws pertaining to matters of faith, morals and ecclesiastical discipline.  And it has coercive power to enforce those laws.  This is how Billot explains the matter:
First, the fact that the Church has the power of punishing the wilfully disobedient, even with temporal and physical penalties, is proved by the words of Christ to Peter in John 21.17: Feed my sheep.  This broad pastoral authority includes anything which is needed for the effective direction of the flock.  In order to effectively direct sheep, the shepherd needs not only the ability to guide them but also the ability to coerce them by physical means, as when a dog is sent to bite the tail of a wandering lamb.
Billot also quotes in this context the biblical proverb about sparing the rod and spoiling the child (Prov. 13.24).  For Billot, these were not just analogies or metaphors.  He very definitely believed that the church should be in the business of inflicting this-worldly penalties on Catholics who stepped out of line.  In particular, he openly affirmed that the traditional punishment of death for falling into heresy was justified.  The only question open to serious debate was whether the church had the power to physically carry out such death sentences itself or whether it needed to hand the culprits over to the civil authorities to do its dirty work for it.

At the top of the structure of legislation and punishment was the Bishop of Rome: the infallible Pope.  For Billot, there was no question that Catholicism is a democracy.  Jesus Christ himself prescribed a monarchical structure for his church when he singled out Peter and conferred supreme authority on him (Mt. 16.18-19; Lk. 22.32; Jn. 21.15-17).  This universal primacy was inherited by the Popes as Peter's successors.  Next after the Popes come the bishops, who are the successors of the apostles in general.  The bishops and the Pope may be considered together as a single supreme body, but the bishops are not the Pope's equals: "he [the Pope] alone is the source and the basis of the supreme authority of the whole body".  The Pope is the bishop of bishops.  Bishops are "shepherds and masters with respect to their people, but sheep and disciples with respect to the Pope".  The church is essentially and inescapably hierarchical.

A major consequence of these ideas is that Billot was a diehard opponent of modern liberalism, which he argued was fundamentally anti-religious.  Ideas like freedom of conscience and the separation of church and state not only threatened the social power of the Catholic Church: they promoted rebellion against Almighty God himself.  Like other conservatives of his age, Billot also advanced the secular argument that political liberalism would end in tyranny because breaking the power of traditional institutions like the church and the patriarchal family would leave only the omnipotent state still standing.

It is important to realise that, in Billot's ecclesiology, the hierarchical structure of the Catholic Church is not just a practical mode of governance.  It has profound religious significance.  Catholics know what to believe not through personal revelation from God or from private study of the Bible, as Protestants do.  Instead, they get their faith by listening to the teaching authority (magisterium) of the church, exercised by the bishops with the Pope at their head.  This is not optional: it amounts to a commandment of God.  And, because God cannot have bound his people to obey a fallible authority, he must necessarily have given the magisterium the gift of infallibility.  This allowed him to ensure that his revelations to mankind would be preserved through the years without corruption.  Denying the infallibility of the church is (said Billot) not merely a heresy: it is "the root of all other heresies", because it taints the source from which Catholics get the rest of their faith.

The implications of this are stark.  For Billot, people are saved from damnation by embracing the Catholic faith, and they embrace the Catholic faith by conforming to the teachings of the infallible church.  It follows that salvation is essentially a matter of obedience.  Obtaining salvation is indistinguishable from obeying the Pope and the bishops of the church.  On this view of things, submission to hierarchy is not only a core value, it is the very pathway to Heaven.  This is authoritarianism in its purest form: strict obedience imposed by the supreme ruler of the universe and backed up with the penalty of eternal damnation.


Billot's absolutist ecclesiology has gone out of fashion in the Catholic mainstream since the Second Vatican Council (1962-65).  It is still to be found, however, in some ultra-traditionalist circles.  It is from this milieu that our second book comes - Michael Davies: An Evaluation by John Daly.  This book was written as a refutation of the writings of the conservative British Catholic author Michael Davies (1936-2004).  In some ways, it is a less easy read even than Billot's dense Latin text, as it is characterised by the rather tiring mixture of leaden rhetoric and nitpicking pedantry that is so often found in religious polemics.  Davies was a popular and journalistic writer with limited theological training, and he made exactly the kinds of mistakes that one would expect from such a background.  But it is clear that his real sin, for Daly, is that he wasn't enough of an authoritarian.

The first chapter is explicitly dedicated to the subject of "authority".  In it, Daly argues that a religious writer is bound to suppress his own personal opinions in favour of constantly deferring to authoritative sources: there is "no better, more certain or easier way" to tell a good Catholic author than his "attitude to authority".  In similar vein, we discover later in the book that Davies was an "anarchist" because he advocated engaging in resistance to allegedly liberal popes and bishops, a stance which is said to lead to "chaos".  (Daly's own position is that most modern churchmen are heretics and so have no authority to resist in the first place.)  Davies supported his position by citing various cases of disreputable popes from history.  Daly doesn't like this, not because Davies' facts were necessarily incorrect, but because one shouldn't tell embarrassing truths about authority figures:
Certain categories of individuals – our parents and our prelates especially – are entitled to our special allegiance, so that we should be very slow to believe evil of them and slower still to publicize it.  Indeed, as a generality, our duty to our parents, our bishops and especially to the popes is to spread their honour and to conceal anything we may know that tends to their dishonour.  [Emphasis in all quotations original]
Underlying Daly's attitudes is the same ultramontane foundation that Billot set out a century earlier.  The Pope is infallible in his doctrines and his laws.  Even when the Pope makes a statement that is not technically infallible, Catholics must give it "true internal and external assent".  As for laws, Daly echoes Billot's teaching that the church has legislative power and that any general law made by the Pope is infallible.  Particular commands (as opposed to general laws) given by the Pope or another religious superior are not infallible, but it cannot be accepted that "a Catholic may disobey the pope, no matter how ill-advised and potentially disastrous his command may prove".  The only exception is where it is absolutely certain that obedience would be positively sinful.

Daly writes that "faith without obedience is of no avail to salvation" and that "obedience to ecclesiastical authority is a definite requirement for salvation".  But, like Billot, he is really making a stronger claim.  The import of his ideas is that obtaining salvation not only requires obedience - it equates to obedience.  Right belief and right behaviour consist of believing and behaving as you're told to by the church hierarchy.  Once a person has intellectually accepted the claims of the Catholic Church, the thinking stops and the obeying begins:
Catholics can establish with certainty, by objective criteria, the fact that the Church is infallible and then listen in docility to her teachings.
On this view, rational examination of the church's claims is simply a temporary prelude to a lifetime of submission.  (It is also interesting that Daly only mentions spiritual faith here in a footnote.)  Daly later notes that Pope Pius IX explicitly demanded that Catholics show "entire and absolute submission to the Holy See".  He castigates Davies (who was a convert) for not having realised this:
Unconditional submission is exactly what is required of every Catholic, and it is something with which you ought to have come to terms before seeking admission to the Church.
The same unsettling rhetoric of subordination and submission is found elsewhere in the book too.  For example, the reader runs into the following passage slap in the middle of a dry discussion of the technical subject of sacramental invalidity:
Where the Church instructs us, either by her direct teaching, or by her practice, or by the teaching of her approved authors and theologians, human wisdom must fall silent, and bow before the superior wisdom of the Church, the Spouse of Eternal Wisdom.
It comes as no surprise that the same authoritarianism also informs Daly's treatment of secular politics.  For Daly, modern electoral democracy is a "diabolical tyranny".  It ought to be replaced with a monarchic state - an absolute monarchy, not a "'constitutional' puppet-monarchy" - which should busy itself with "ruthlessly extirpating the hidden enemies of both Church and state".  Billot and Maurras would surely have agreed.