Fortescue and the Centralized Papacy

You know, we have stuck out for our position all our lives—unity, authority, etc. Peter the Rock and so on. I have, too, and believe it, I am always preaching that sort of thing. And yet is it now getting to a reduction ad absurdum?

Centralisation grows and goes madder every century. Even at Trent they hardly foresaw this kind of thing. Does it really mean that one cannot be a member of the Church of Christ without being, as we are, absolutely at the mercy of an Italian lunatic?

. . . .

We must pull through even this beastliness somehow. After all, it is still the Church of the Fathers that we stand by and spend our lives defending. However, bad as things are, nothing else is possible. I think that when I look at Rome, I see powerful arguments against us, but when I look at the Church of England or Matthew or anyone else, I see still more powerful arguments for us. But of course, saving a total collapse, things are as bad as they can be. Give us back the Xth century Johns and Stephens, or a Borgia! They were less disastrous than this deplorable person.

– Fr. Adrian Fortescue, Letter to Herbert Thurston (Nov. 5, 1910), discussing Pope Pius X

It is hard to imagine many traditional Catholics having much sympathy for Fr. Fortescue’s private opinions on St. Pius X, a man whose name has become synonymous with sound doctrine and steadfastness for the Faith. Fortesecue himself was hardly a liberal despite holding a somewhat “modernist” opinion on the inerrancy of Scripture. What Fortescue detested, more than just the pontificate of Pius X, was the increased centralization in the Catholic Church. As a student of history and an expert on Eastern Christianity (Orthodox, Oriental, and Catholic), Fortescue was not impressed with a vision of the Church whereby the Bishop of Rome, through the Curia, micromanages the local particular churches in communion with him. Why should the Sacred Congregation of Rites—an office Fortescue loathed—be able to dictate how candles were let for Vespers in London, Cologne, or New York? And, more controversially, why should a pope—fallible except under very, very limited circumstances—be free to issue decrees to the universal Church which may contain unprotected statements that demand correction at a later date? (For those interested, an impressive and thoughtful reply to the second question can be found over at the Laodicea blog.)

To get a further sense of Fortescue’s frustrations, consider this letter to a friend visiting Rome, penned in 1920 during the pontificate of Benedict XV:

By the way, will you give a message from me to the Roman Ordinary? Tell him to look after his own diocese and not to write any more Encyclicals. Also, that there were twelve apostles and that all bishops are their successors. Also, to read the works of St Paul, also to open his front door and walk out, also that the faith handed to our fathers is more important than the Sacred Heart or certain alleged happenings at Lourdes.

No one need accept Fortescue’s somewhat extreme formulations to see what he is driving at. Well before the Second Vatican Council, Fortescue saw the danger in placing the pope on a pedestal to serve as an oracle for the entire Church. What Fortescue didn’t—or couldn’t—see is how unreliable the bishops of the Church would become when it came to preaching the Gospel, defending orthodoxy, and shepherding the faithful. Fortescue imagined a much healthier Catholic Church, one that didn’t need heavy-handed papal authority to keep her in line. Now the inmates are running the asylum, not just in Rome, but across the known world. The papacy is still centralized, indeed hyper-centralized in the current era of the “Celebrity Pope,” and yet he does nothing to quell massive outbreaks of heterodoxy, moral dissent, or liturgical abuse. Perhaps, following Fortescue’s advice, it would be better if the Bishop of Rome tended to his own increasingly insignificant diocese; stopped issuing ambiguous statements; and read the works of St. Paul, or at least his breviary. None of that is going to happen and the Church may very well be worse off for it.

History, I believe, must ultimately judge Fortescue wrong concerning the reign of Pius X. His pontificate was not “disastrous” nor was he a “lunatic” to believe that Modernism posed a legitimate threat to the Church. However, Fortescue’s instincts on centralization were in the right place. Now there seems to be no way of getting out of it, at least not without a total collapse of the present structure. Barring a miracle, the chances are slim that the next pope—or even the next few after him—will be able to clean house sufficiently in order to safely move the Church toward decentralization. The best many can hope for is that the next pontiff will be a new katechon, capable of holding back the lawlessness which runs rampant in the Church today. Personally, I have my doubts; but God has surprised us all before.



  1. T Graham
    November 4, 2015

    Here are two (possible) scenarios –
    No decentralisation: Pope Francis and friends tie up the next conclave in advance, we get relentless modernisation and continuing Gramscian revolution at the top. A malleable laity with no catechesis will not notice, and the resultant faithful schism will be tiny. There will be one more SSPX-like group around.
    Decentralisation: a few courageous and faithful bishops teach truth faithfully, reform their liturgies and see their dioceses flourish while the others shrink and die.
    I do not see how the solution is for the Successors of the Apostles to continue to run their dioceses as the Pope’s deputies, while he neglects his own. Fortescue was not, I think, extreme: Pius X’s breviary reforms set a disastrous precedent, quite disgracefully enforcing liturgical novelty, and – surprise – modernism has triumphed anyway.

    1. Gabriel Sanchez
      November 4, 2015

      What disturbs me about the second scenario is that while a minority of dioceses will flourish, a majority of the faithful will be swallowed up by wolves. I can’t take comfort in letting other people suffer just so I can get my “pocket of orthodoxy” somewhere in the world. This is one reason why I am very supportive of the Society of St. Pius X’s work. Instead of setting up little fortresses in a few geographic locales, the Society attempts to minister to Catholics worldwide and grow its apostolate bit by bit. However, the SSPX alone cannot save the Catholic Church. Other institutions and orders need to step in as well and diocesan clergy need to be prepared to defy their bishops for the sake of their flocks if it comes to that. And those bishops of the world who have kept the faith will need to take on a larger role of feeding Christ’s sheep beyond their traditional borders. People can talk about canonicity all they want, but we are in the midst of a crisis; it’s time to act accordingly.

      As for your point about St. Pius X’s breviary reforms, hindsight is 20/20. Although I am not convinced by the thesis that his reforms helped clear a path to the Novus Ordo Missae, I do think his alterations amount to an imperfect solution to a very real problem. By the end of the 19th Century it was all known what a liturgical farce the breviary had become. Rarely were all 150 Psalms recited in a given week and the plethora of festal days on the calendar meant that shortened festal offices were often used rather than the traditional ferial days. Moreover, the displacement of the Sunday liturgical cycle — which is the heart of Christian prayer — was an embarrassment that needed fixing. I don’t begrudge Pius X for trying; I just wish he — and his advisers — had drawn up a plan that didn’t displace so many elements that were hallmarks of the traditional Roman office.

      1. Felix R
        November 4, 2015

        Quite right.

  2. Felix R
    November 4, 2015

    Our situation is, of course, ghastly, but I have to admit that my opinion of the world’s episcopate has done nothing but improve since the Synod last year and the one this year. I would never have thought that such faith in the face of heavy handed papal bullying could be found.

    And on that point, Dr Sanchez, I would like to add a caveat to the rather upbeat estimation of the Orthodox episcopate’s orthodoxy you have given elsewhere. I think that if you compare like with like, you will find that the Catholic episcopate is probably no worse. Orthodox bishops around the world overwhelmingly run either tiny ethnic chaplaincy churches or churches in underdeveloped parts of eastern and southern Europe. Catholic bishops who run churches like those also tend to be very orthodox. I offer as an example, the Church in Poland and the Church in Norway. The Orthodox Church, as yet, does not have the challenge of a fully developed, socially liberal society in which they have a significant presence. When this challenge does appear, I am afraid, I expect they will show as much cowardice and obfuscation as their Catholic counterparts. Indeed, I suspect they will show more because they will be able to hide behind oikonomia and appeal to the more “spiritual” and less “hyper-rationalist” Eastern tradition to support their heterodoxy. Of course, when they do this they will be grossly misrepresenting both of those things, but I expect they will do it. Perhaps I am a just a bit pessimistic…

    1. Gabriel Sanchez
      November 4, 2015

      A quick point before I reply: I should not be addressed as a “Dr.” since I only hold a J.D. As such, I am still inclined to respond favorably to titles like “Yo” and “Hey you…”

      I do not deny that there are countries and regions in the “Catholic world” that are quite orthodox in faith and morals. Poland is a good example; Ukraine is another. The African episcopate, by and large, is more reliable doctrinally than any found in Western Europe. In North America it’s a mixed bag, though it seems to me that there is a bit more balance within the American hierarchy than there is up in Canada.

      With that said, even in North America (a small sample size, I know), my experience has been that Orthodox bishops and priests are still more steadfast for the Apostolic faith than their estranged Catholic brethren. Yes, there are exceptions to be found and no, I do not believe that Orthodox conservatism serves as a final “trump card” over Catholic ecclesiological claims. Moving to the global level, I generally agree with you about the sociological factors that feed into Orthodoxy having a more stable clerical base. Of course, as I have noted before, this stability has not resulted in rolling back the demographic decline of either Greece or Russia, nor does it seem to have really improved Orthodoxy’s missionary spirit. The Orthodox continue to limp along through history, but I can’t help but admire how well they have preserved certain elements of Christian living and worship that Catholicism, particularly Latin Catholicism, has largely discarded over the past five decades.

  3. Thomas Storck
    November 4, 2015

    In 1920 wasn’t Benedict XV the pope?

    1. Gabriel Sanchez
      November 4, 2015

      Oops. Thanks.

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