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.