The Theology of Tradition in the American Church

Author: Gerald P. Fogarty, S.J.

The Theology of Tradition in the American Church

Gerald P. Fogarty, S.J.


James Hennesey's magisterial work on and his extensive writing on episcopal collegiality in the nineteenth century introduced a generation of students to a previously neglected dimension of the history of the Church in the United States. Where earlier historians had focused on the Church as an institution, Hennesey added the theological dimension to enrich our understanding of the American Catholic past. This essay by one of Hennesey's most grateful students will conceptrate on a theological issue that ran parallel to nineteenth-century collegiality-the understanding of the theology of Tradition in the American Church and its corollary, the interpretation of the magisterium. That theology passed through three phases. First, the bishops until Vatican I understood themselves as the guardians of tradition as the totality of the lived experience of the Church. Second, under the influence of Vatican I, theologians and bishops emphasized tradition as a "deposit" separate from Scripture, although there were a few glimmers of the older notion as late as the turn of the century. Finally, when the American bishops attended Vatican II, many of the debates concerning Scripture and Tradition were foreign to them, and their principal concern was religious liberty. But the disputes over that topic were in fact applications of the shifting meaning of tradition.

I. The Theology of Tradition up to Vatican I

In 1784, John Carroll had recently been appointed superior of the American Mission. He addressed the relationship between Scripture and Tradition in his pamphlet responding to Charles Wharton, a former Jesuit who had left the Catholic Church to become an Anglican. In Wharton's manifesto, published for the English Catholic community of which he had been chaplain, he claimed that certain Catholic doctrines were not contained in Scripture. Carroll demanded to know why Wharton would assume as a principle, that God communicated nothing more to his church, than is contained in his written word? "He knows, that we have always asserted, that the word of God, unwritten, as well as written, is the christian's rule of faith.... The testimony ... of the catholic church, certified in the tradition of all ages, is the ground, upon which we and others admit the divine authority of holy writ."[1]

The "rule of faith" for Carroll and his intellectual successors relied on an essential link between Scripture and Tradition.

When Wharton charged that Catholics resorted to unwritten tradition, Carroll replied:

And, pray, what is the tradition, to which we recur, but delivered down to us by the testimony of the fathers, and in the public doctrine of the catholic church: Does not the Chaplain himself receive the word of God from the same testimony and tradition? Why is it less to be depended on in witnessing the unwritten word of God, than in delivering down, and separating the true and genuine books of Scripture from those, which are false or corrupted?[2]

Far from being separate from Scripture, Tradition was the living testimony both to what constituted Scripture and to its meaning. Unfortunately, Carroll, who was named the first bishop of Baltimore in 1789, had little opportunity further to develop his theological notions, but some of his successors in the episcopate shared his theological insights, notably John England and Francis P. Kenrick.

John England, the first Bishop of Charleston, picked up some of the same themes. In May, 1825 he responded to a series of questions addressed to his newspaper, the . He explained the essential link between the life of the Church and Scripture. Christ had not called for "the publication of Bibles" as "the mode of knowing his doctrines," he argued while "leaving it to individuals to interpret them as they thought fit." Rather, he declared, Christ "sent teachers, to whom the people were to listen, and from whom and upon whose authority, the people were to receive his doctrine." Only by that authority, he continued, could one "know what Scripture contains the Word of God" and have "certain knowledge that the New Testament contains the doctrines of Christ."[3] For England, not only had the Christian Church existed prior to the writing of the New Testament, but "it was upon the authoritative testimony of that that the was received."[4]

As he treated the Church's role in testifying to what was Scripture and in later interpreting Scripture, England displayed surprising erudition, in regard not only to areas of dispute among biblical scholars but also to the positions of the various Reformers. In the process, he indicated that he did not slavishly accept everything in tradition as of equal weight. He noted that many of St. Jerome's contemporaries rejected the final chapter of the Gospel of Mark and that scholars had argued that John 8 was taken from a non-Johannine tradition. He was aware that the Reformers disagreed whether, if Hebrews was not written by Paul and if the authorship of 1 Peter, Jude, and even Revelation was uncertain, they should be included in the canon. England contrasted such disagreement among non-Catholics with the certainty among Catholics that these books were indeed inspired and contained revelation.[5] More important to him than linking inspiration with known authorship, including the Pauline authorship of Hebrews, was the role of the Church in testifying that these books were inspired and in preserving the doctrine that was written down.

In explaining the continuity between the teaching of the Church before the writing of the New Testament and its interpretation of what was contained in the Scripture, England struck the chord that was at the basis of episcopal collegiality-the infallibility of the Church. If the Church's teaching before the Christian Scripture was not infallible, he argued, then there was no infallible way of knowing what should be included in Scripture. As he put it:

If the Church was not then Infallible, she might have taught error for true doctrine. When the Scripture was written, it was by the teaching of the Church that writing which contained the Word of God was separated from that which did not contain it. If the Church was not infallible in distinguishing the truth from the error, might have given to us error for truth.

For England, there were two alternatives. One either had an "aggregate body infallible" or made "every individual infallible," which would lead to "a thousand contradictions, and all these contradictions will be true." In short, interpretation of Scripture would become strictly subjective with no objective norm. In contrast, England asserted the objective role of the Church, for

upon our doctrine, we have an aggregate body, which has existed in unbroken succession from the days of Christ to the present day, testifying to us with infallible and authoritative certainty what are the doctrines which he taught, and in what books they may be found, and what is the meaning of the doubtful and obscure passages. And this body has not, in any one of those cases, during eighteen centuries, contradicted its testimony upon any of those heads.[6]

At the end of the century, some theologians would again assert the infallibility of the Church in defense of biblical scholars.

England by no means implied that there was no change in the church from its beginnings. In some ways, he even anticipated John Henry Newman's motion of the development of doctrine, at least in the sense of seeing the Church of his day in organic continuity with the church of the apostles. Christ "wrote nothing," he declared, but entrusted His teaching to the apostles who, in turn, associated others in spreading the Gospel. These successors to the apostles

were duly instructed, and by the faithful were fully recognized; and whose doctrine, given in public, was, by all those who had heard the original Apostles, declared to be the same which they had from the beginning. The body of the teachers and of hearers is thus continued, like the human face, continually changing by loss and increment, but still always the same, though always in process of insensible change of the particles of which it is made up. This body of the Church pervades several nations, sometimes at war, sometimes at peace, having conflicting interests, discordant tastes, mutual prejudices, tongues generally unintelligible to each other.[7]

In summary, England asserted that "We . . . believe the great body of the Bishops, in union with their head, will, with infallible certainty, testify to us the doctrines of God."[8]

Most of the American bishops of the time shared England's view that the infallibility of the Church was exercised through the body of the Bishops. In 1833, they gathered for the Second Provincial Council. In their pastoral letter, probably drafted by England, they addressed the relationship between Scripture and Tradition. In regard to Scripture, they stated: "We know not that it is the word of God, except by the testimony of that cloud of holy witnesses which the Saviour vouchsafed to establish as our guide through this desert over which we journey towards our permanent abode."[9] The bishops as a body continued to share that early charism in preserving what had been handed down. As the pastoral stated:

Thus the recorded testimony of those ancient and venerable witnesses, who in every nation and every age, proclaimed in the name of the Catholic Church, and with its approbation, the interpretation of the Holy Bible, whether they were assembled in their councils or dispersed over the surface of the Christian world, is an harmonious collection of pure light. . . [10]

While England was the leading figure in the American conciliar development, he was not alone in his theological views.

One of the other bishops at the council was Francis P. Kenrick, then coadjutor Bishop of Philadelphia and later Archbishop of Baltimore. Widely regarded as the country's leading theologian, he published the first edition of his in 1839. There, he gave his most articulate view of tradition. Like Carroll and England, he held that there must be "a full and adequate rule of faith within the Christian economy," which, he wrote,

must necessarily be referred to the time of Christ and the Apostles, and then suit the condition of men through all ages: but the Scripture of the New Testament, as a rule of faith, cannot be referred to the age of Christ, nor to the beginning of the apostolic preaching: for it is evident that many years elapsed before anything was consigned to writing. The apostolic writings are not known to have been collected together until the second century; and some were not recognized by some churches for another four centuries.

He noted, moreover, that there were various texts and versions of Scripture in use in different churches.[11]

Kenrick's sources for his treatise were the fathers, Catholic and Protestant writers in England, several nineteenth-century German Catholic theologians, with only a rare reference to St. Thomas Aquinas or other scholastics. In introducing the notion of "tradition," he strongly recommended that his readers consult Johann Adam Mohler's Again like England, he explained that the "written word" could not "be the basis for a perfect and unique rule of faith; for it needs both a witness and an interpreter." That rule of faith was "the harmonious preaching of the Apostolic ministry, public and solemn doctrine." That "rule" which bishops "follow in the very act of teaching is , that is the very doctrine of their predecessors, the very faith of the whole Church, derived all the way from the Apostolic age."[12]

Kenrick made it clear that by "tradition" he did not mean some "vague vestige of the past celebrated in the memory of some people." The ", which is the rule of our faith," he wrote, "is contained in the greatest part in Scripture, and celebrated back through the ages in the monuments and documents of Christian antiquity, and the custom and public worship of the Christian faithful throughout the world."[13] Not only was much of Tradition "contained in the Scriptures, which we know to have been written under the divine outpouring," but, if "the basis of tradition is removed, the whole structure of revelation would seem to fall into ruins" and some would even be led to "impugn the inspiration of Scripture."[14]

In expounding what he meant by inspiration, Kenrick was straightforward and centered primarily on the acceptance of the books as inspired rather than on how inspiration operated on the writer. Well aware of the debates raging outside the Church on the meaning of inspiration, he asserted that "with the Church as witness and teacher, Catholics hold the inspiration of Scriptures." Even those who denied the authority of the Church, he argued, were forced to admit that the "certitude of the inspiration of all the books, can scarcely . . . be found without the authority of the teaching Church."[15] Scripture and the living authority of the Church, then, were inextricably linked to preserve revelation.

Kenrick did not embrace any particular theory of inspiration, but he did treat of its extent, especially in regard to the relationship between science and the Bible. He argued:

The Scriptures, by divine counsel, are written down, in order that, learned in what pertains to salvation, we might know the works and benefits of God toward men, and the obligations which we ought to assume. In regard to physical things, the sacred writers used the accepted modes of speaking; somewhat popular phrases, borrowed from the appearance of things, but to which another meaning was connected.[16]

Kenrick, then, came close to the teaching of the Second Vatican Council that God spoke "through men in human fashion" and that "the exegete must look for that meaning which the sacred writer, in a determined situation and given the circumstances of his time and culture, intended to express and did in fact express, through the medium of a contemporary form."[17] Significantly, Kenrick did not hold that Scripture always had to be interpreted literally.

Kenrick's norm for the proper interpretation of Scripture was the consensus of the fathers.[18] This concept, though not original, shaped his approach to the continuing teaching authority in the Church. The Church of the Apostles and of the Fathers continued to be under divine guidance in such a manner that one or even many bishops could fall into error, but "infallibility" or "the privilege of inerrancy" continued to reside "in the body of the bishops, under the presidency of the Roman Pontiff."[19] In short, just as the consensus of the Fathers was the norm for the interpretation of Scripture, the consensus of the bishops, in unity with the pope, was the norm for the teaching of the Church. In his translation of the Pentateuch, Kenrick later made an analogous application of this notion of consensus to the acceptance of scientific data. "We feel bound to respect the judgment of the learned," he wrote, "when they agree so decidedly in declaring the results of their investigations." Disagreement among the learned, however, would "detract much from the weight which they might otherwise have, and our veneration for the sacred text does not allow us hastily to abandon its letter, or absolutely to embrace what does not appear to harmonize with it."[20] In other words, as a bishop as well as a theologian, Kenrick was well aware that discoveries in science and other fields might alter the perception of what in Tradition had to be preserved as essential to doctrine and what was merely historically conditioned.

Kenrick became Archbishop of Baltimore in 1850 and died in 1863. But his theological orientation lived on. At the Second Plenary Council in 1866, presided over by Archbishop Martin J. Spalding, the bishops adopted a decree that made direct reference to episcopal collegiality:

Bishops, therefore, who are the successors of the Apostles, and whom the Holy Spirit has placed to rule the Church of God, which He acquired with His own blood, agreeing and judging together with its head on earth, the Roman Pontiff, whether they are gathered in general councils, or dispersed throughout the world, are inspired from on high with a gift of inerrancy, so that their body or college can never fail in faith nor define anything against doctrine revealed by God.[21]

Within three years, this decree and the theology of Tradition that went hand in hand with it was challenged. At the First Vatican Council in 1870, Francis Kenrick's brother, Archbishop Peter R. Kenrick of St. Louis, became one of the most outspoken American opponents to the definition of papal infallibility. Reflecting the theological approach of his brother and England, he argued that the role of bishops was to preserve orthodoxy and not take sides with theological schools of thought. Since there was no consensus among theologians about papal infallibility, he asserted, it remained a theological opinion that could not be elevated to the level of a doctrine even by the action of a council. In passing, he applied the same arguments to the dogma of the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin Mary, defined by Pius IX in 1854. It remained a theological opinion, he said, since theologians of the caliber of Thomas Aquinas had denied that it was a doctrine. His final submission to papal infallibility occurred only in January 1871, when he accepted the doctrine "solely and singly on the authority of the Church," that is of the bishops gathered in council.[22] Like his brother, therefore, Peter Kenrick envisioned authentic Tradition as the constant teaching of the Church from the time of the apostles. True to his brother's position, he recognized that he as an individual bishop could be in error. But the concept of episcopal collegiality and the dynamic notion of tradition that accompanied it had also undergone change at the council.

II. Vatican I and Tradition as Deposit

In addition to defining papal primacy and infallibility, Vatican I took a new theological tack on the theology of tradition in relationship to Scripture. Where England and Francis Kenrick had emphasized tradition as the lived experience of the Church and the process of preserving the correct interpretation of Scripture, the council declared that "all those things are to be believed with divine and Catholic faith which are contained in the word of God, written or handed down, and which the Church, either by a solemn judgment, or by her ordinary and universal magisterium, proposes for belief as having been divinely revealed."[23] The "doctrine of faith," the council continued, "is like a divine deposit handed on to the Spouse of Christ, to be faithfully guarded and infallibly declared."[24] From tradition as the totality of the Church's living experience, it now became something static.

The new theological orientation was largely the work of Johannes Franzelin, S.J. By stressing Tradition as content, moreover, the council further accentuated papal authority. As the late Cardinal Yves Congar, O.P., noted, when the council referred to the "Spouse of Christ" as the recipient and custodian of Tradition, it "understands here above all the magisterium, especially that of the Roman Pontiff."[25] Pius IX himself had encouraged the identity between tradition and the papal magisterium with his unfortunate, but well attested, statement "La Tradizione son'io."[26] The council, moreover, truncated the Tridentine formulation of the relationship between Scripture and Tradition and thus implied that they were two separate sources. Trent had stated that the "Gospel" of Christ was "the source of all salutary truth and moral discipline" and that this truth and discipline were "contained in Scripture and unwritten traditions."[27] Instead of speaking of "salutary truth and moral discipline," Vatican I declared that "revelation" was contained in Scripture and unwritten traditions.[28] This new theology of Tradition would significantly alter the Church's understanding of previous magisterial pronouncements. When linked so closely to the emphasis on the papal magisterium, it contributed to the eradication of the practice and theology of episcopal collegiality in the American Church.

After Vatican I, if any bishop was aware of the earlier theology of collegiality or tradition, he failed to express it. The American bishops met in the last of their ten national councils in 1884, but they dealt with practical, rather than theological, matters. In the divisions that occurred in the American hierarchy in the 1890s, however, there were some theological overtones and some of them related to the new approach to the interpretation of the magisterium, particularly in regard to Church-State matters.

In 1864, Pius IX had issued his Syllabus of Errors. Among the condemned propositions was that "the church should be separated from the state and the state from the church." Archbishop Spalding of Baltimore issued a pastoral letter stating that the pope "evidently intended" his words "for the stand-point of European radicals and infidels," who sought to undermine the Church. Far different, he argued, was the First Amendment that laid "down the sound and equitable principle that civil government, adhering strictly to its own appropriate sphere of political duty, pledged itself not to interfere with religious matters, which it rightly viewed as entirely without the bounds of its competency." Spalding distributed his pastoral not only to the American hierarchy and government officials but also to Roman officials, from whom he requested a clarification. While he never received the clarification he desired, he also received no rebuke.[29] In 1887, Cardinal James Gibbons of Baltimore, when taking possession of his titular church of Santa Maria in Trastevere, also had no qualms about stating that the progress of the American Church was due, "under God and the fostering vigilance of the Holy See, to the civil liberty we enjoy in our enlightened republic."[30] Within a decade, however, Gibbons and his followers were embroiled in the controversy over "Americanism" and found themselves confronted with a theology that insisted that it was Catholic teaching, a "thesis," that there should be a union of Church and State. The situation in the United States, therefore, was only a tolerated "hypothesis." In 1897, Monsignor Denis J. O'Connell fell into the trap of attempting to argue that the American "hypothesis" worked at least as well as the Catholic "thesis."[31]

Leo XIII condemned Americanism in 1899 and introduced an era of intellectual slumber into the American Church. American Catholic theology lost sight of collegiality and a dynamic concept of tradition and embraced the notions that the pope was the sole source of authority and that Scripture and Tradition were separate sources of revelation. But there were still vestiges of the older theology. It arose in terms of historical criticism of the Scripture during the crisis known as Modernism. This time theologians, not bishops, attempted to show what was and what was not authentic tradition.

Three theologians in particular addressed the question of tradition in the context of debates over inspiration, John B. Hogan, S.S., founding president of St. John's Seminary in Brighton and later president of the Divinity College at the Catholic University from 1889 to 1894, Henry Poels, an Old Testament scholar at the Catholic University, and Francis Gigot, S.S., a promising exegete at St. Mary's Seminary in Baltimore, and later St. Joseph's Seminary, Dunwoodie. In 1891, Hogan began a series of articles in the , which he later published as a book entitled In the context of discussing the current debate over the doctrine of inspiration Hogan located the problem in the conflict between two different methodologies, that of the theologians and that of the biblical scholars. While he acknowledged that either side could go to extremes, his sympathies clearly lay with the biblical scholars, for, "because of all the work that has been done on the Bible in recent times, with results which are no longer seriously questioned, theologians have to acknowledge, however reluctantly, that henceforth much less can be built on the Bible than has been done in the past." For Protestants, this might cause "dismay," he concluded, but Catholics could "contemplate it with perfect equanimity. Their faith is based, not on the Bible, but on the Church."[32] One could substitute a dynamic notion of Tradition for his use of "Church" and find that he shared the company of England, Kenrick, and, of course Mohler.

The most prominent-and most tragic-figure among the progressive scholars in the American Church was the Dutch-born Henry Poels. Like Hogan and other contemporaries, he argued that Christ "did not found His Church upon dead writings but upon living teaching," the transmission of which was entrusted to "official teachers."[33] Although he acknowledged that revelation had been entrusted only to the authors of Scripture, it was also clear to him that there had been "an '' of Christian doctrine" from the first to the twentieth century. Like Hogan, he also foresaw conflict with theologians. While there could be no valid evolution or development of doctrine which was not "a branch of the tree of Christ . . . ," he wrote, "for the theologians, who study the principles, branch and bud are one; while historians compare the tree in its maturity to the mere sapling."[34] Development of doctrine was virtually incompatible with the concept of tradition with which Poels and his contemporaries were contending. But this was not the cause of his undoing.

What brought Poels to grief was a product of the new theology of Tradition and the interpretation of the magisterium of the Church. In 1906, the Pontifical Biblical Commission issued its response stating that Moses was "substantially" the author of the Pentateuch. It reached this conclusion in part from a literal interpretation of Trent's decree on the canonical books of Scripture which referred to the "five books of Moses."[35] In a private audience, Poels had subsequently promised Pius X that he would not teach against the Biblical Commission's response and there the matter seemed to rest. A year later, however, in a bizarre and complicated turn of events, his case became entangled with that of another professor at the Catholic University, Charles Grannan, at loggerheads with the rector, Denis J. O'Connell, the erstwhile leader of the Americanist movement. Grannan had also had an audience with the pope, but did not discuss the biblical question. When O'Connell later saw the pope, he noted the difficulties he was having with a certain professor, whom he did not name. Thinking O'Connell meant Poels, the pope then declared, erroneously, that he had demanded that he resign. He then demanded that Poels take an oath stating that in conscience he believed in the Mosaic authorship. When Poels refused, he was dismissed from the Catholic University in 1910.[36]

Poels was not the only American scholar who had supported progressive historical criticism and floundered on the Biblical Commission's response on the Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch. Gigot had taken a similar approach. In 1900, he was teaching at St. Mary's Seminary in Baltimore, where he published his In it, he emphasized, like Hogan and Poels, that Catholics had less to fear from modern criticism than Protestants, for "Catholics built their faith primarily on the teaching of a living Church, whereas Protestants rest their whole belief on the written word of God."[37] Implicit in his argument was that tradition was not so much content, as the process of handing on the living faith. But it was Gigot's subsequent scholarly work that led to controversy.

In 1901, he published his In that work, he displayed his sympathies for those scholars who held that the Pentateuch was not written by Moses, but was a compilation from at least four sources.[38] In regard to the Jewish and Christian tradition of attributing the Pentateuch to Moses, he added that it had no "theological binding force," since there was "no positive decision declaring it an article of Catholic belief." He acknowledged that the Council of Trent spoke of "the five Books of Moses" and its fathers probably did believe Moses to be the author, but the real intent of the council was to define "only the question of the and character of the books enumerated."[39] In short, when interpreting the magisterium, Gigot distinguished between what was actually defined in a dogmatic formulation and the historical context of those who formulated it. Gigot was, of course, following the opinion of the great Dominican exegete, Marie-Joseph Lagrange on this point, but he drew the attention of his Sulpician superiors in Paris.

Edward Dyer, S.S., the American vicar-general for the Sulpicians, sought to defend Gigot against his Parisian authorities. In particular, where they accused Gigot of denying the "common teaching" of the Church in regard to the Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch, Dyer made a significant contribution to the proper theological understanding of the "common teaching" of the Church. Gigot's two books, he noted, had caused no controversy in the United States and Gigot's American superiors, including Dyer himself, had all encouraged their publication. "We believed," he continued, that not only was there nothing dangerous in these works, but rather that there was nothing contrary to our grand rule about the teaching in our seminaries: that it is the teaching commonly received from the Church which ought to be set forth.... But this rule cannot mean that this common teaching is to be presented as if it had almost the value of definitions of faith, as is too frequently done. It ought to be presented with its true theological note, otherwise we fall into the error which we intend to avoid, and we do not give the doctrine of the Church. If we gave opinions their true value, if we also presented other theories, as much as possible, with their true theological note, would there be such disturbance of the spirit and even of faith, when it becomes necessary to abandon some positions held for a long time by the poorly instructed masses, even ecclesiastics, as if they were some necessary teaching of the Church?

In short, Dyer was warning that Church officials should be cautious in accepting all the Church's "tradition" as of equal weight with doctrine that was to be preserved and even defined. He, nevertheless, concluded his letter by informing the superior general that Gigot had promised to remove from his second volume any expression which displayed a personal tendency in favor of the new theories.[40]

As Gigot was preparing the second volume of his for publication in 1904, he accepted a post on the faculty of St. Joseph's Seminary at Dunwoodie, then staffed by both Sulpicians and diocesan clergy of New York. His case then became involved with that of , founded by the faculty in 1905. Dyer protested the founding of the journal at this particular juncture, whereupon Gigot and three other Sulpicians withdrew from the Society and became diocesan priests. Relieved of the need for special censorship in Paris, Gigot then published his second volume of the . The , the most progressive and scholarly publication in the history of the American Church up to that time, ceased publication in 1908, a victim of the condemnation of Modernism.[41]

Gigot and Poels were not the only ones to reflect on the nature of tradition in light of the Biblical Commission's response on the Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch. Baron Friedrich von Hugel in England and Charles Augustus Briggs, a leading Protestant exegete at Union Theological Seminary in New York, published their exchange of reflections on the significance of the response. Both argued for a more dynamic understanding of tradition. Briggs asserted that the decision represented a change in the Catholic Church's attitude toward traditions that had been unexamined, for the Church has never committed itself officially to the Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch; and to recognize that Hebrew laws and institutions were a development of a divinely guided Theocracy, rather than given all at once to Moses at the beginning of the Hebrew Commonwealth, suits the Roman Catholic position as to Christian Dogma and Institutions, better than the usual Protestant position that we must build on the New Testament alone.[42]

Briggs thus aligned himself with the way Lagrange and Gigot had analyzed the alleged binding force of the traditional attribution of the Pentateuch to Moses. He furthermore blamed this change in attitude to the type of scholasticism then dominant in Rome. Amassing his own scholarly arguments against the Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch, Briggs concluded that to continue to attribute the Pentateuch to Moses "does not belong to authoritative tradition, but to unverified and unauthorized tradition."[43]

Von Hugel's response picked up on the term "Bibliolatry," the title of Briggs lecture at Union Theological in 1891 that led to his dismissal from the Presbyterian ministry. Like Hogan and Gigot, von Hugel attempted to reflect on the nature of the Church in relation to Scripture. Like Hogan, moreover, his use of the term "Church" seemed interchangeable with "Tradition" in the older, more dynamic sense. "Catholicism," he declared,

is essentially a "Church and Bible," not a "Bible only" religion.... The Church, the Community of believers, first Jewish and then Christian, produced the Bible even more than the Bible produced the Church. And hence the old war-cry of Protestantism, "the Bible and the Bible only," is ceasing, one gladly thinks, to characterize the actual religious convictions of the most historically-trained present-day Protestants. In any case such Bibliolatry is not Catholic.[44]

Briggs and von Hugel had focused principally on challenging the commission's grounds for its decision, but underlying that decision was a theology of Tradition that demanded a literal interpretation of the magisterium.

Louis Billot, S.J., was the most prominent proponent of that theology in the early twentieth century. He joined the faculty of the Gregorian University in 1888. In 1911, he was named a cardinal, but was forced to resign in 1927, because of his support of He died in 1931, but he left behind his theological legacy. In 1904, he published ). He located all the errors of Alfred Loisy and the other Modernists in Immanuel Kant's notion of relative truth. To this he opposed the immutability of dogmatic propositions in which concepts were similar to the letters of the alphabet put together to form words. Contrary to Loisy's statement that "the concepts which the Church presents as revealed dogmas are not truths fallen from heaven," Billot argued that concepts, though human in origin, once put together to form doctrines proposed to faith on the authority of God who reveals, do in fact come from heaven. Billot's book was to go through four editions, the last of which was published in 1929. But a clue to his orientation can be seen in the change in the title of the second and subsequent editions. He renamed his work The concept of the "immutability of Tradition" was worlds apart from the lived experience of the Church, espoused by Kenrick, Hogan, Gigot, and others. Yet, such a notion of immutable Tradition was taught at the Jesuits' Woodstock College up to the 1950s.[46]

Billot, of course, had his collaborators and imitators. His type of theology would contribute to the intellectual slumber of the American Church. George Bull, S.J., Dean of the Graduate School of Fordham University, summed up this mentality in 1938. The purpose of secular graduate schools, he said, was "to add to the sum of human knowledge." The purpose of a Catholic graduate school was different, for the Church was already in full possession of the truth. Bull took pride in the Church's intellectual alienation from contemporary culture. "The Catholic mind," he said, had a "totality of view, as an attitude, a spontaneous direction, a thing taken for granted whenever it thinks at all. . ." That "totality of view" was

the simple assumption that wisdom has been achieved by man, and that the humane use of the mind, the function proper to him as man, is contemplation and not research.... in sum, then, research cannot be the primary object of a Catholic graduate school, because it is at war with the whole Catholic life of the mind.[47]

And there was no place better to find the true expression of that "totality of view" than in pre-Reformation Catholicism, especially as expounded by St. Thomas.[48]

The ideas of Billot and his fellow neo-Thomists would have had little impact on the American Church, however, if there had not also been an ecclesiastical reform of the Church along Roman lines. When Leo XIII condemned Americanism in 1899, he not only addressed a letter to the American hierarchy; he also acted. Vatican officials were intent on appointing bishops in the United States who were known for their loyalty to Rome in accordance with the new theological understanding. William H. O'Connell was the first of a new breed of American bishops who owed their advancement to Roman patronage and not to nomination by their American peers. He embodied the trend toward Romanization of the hierarchy, as he became successively Bishop of Portland in 1901, coadjutor Archbishop of Boston in 1905, Archbishop in 1907, although his name never appeared on the canonical lists of candidates. In 1911, he was named a cardinal.[49]

There was only one vestige of the older collegial practice of the American hierarchy, the National Catholic Welfare Council. Formed in 1919, it consisted of the entire hierarchy which was to meet annually. It was condemned in 1922 through the influence of O'Connell and Cardinal Dennis Dougherty of Philadelphia. After the overwhelming majority of the bishops protested this decision, however, the organization was allowed to continue under a new name, the National Catholic Welfare Conference (NCWC). The American bishops now had a practical expression of but no theological basis for episcopal collegiality.[50] What was also lacking in both episcopal and theological circles was a dynamic understanding of Tradition.

III. Rediscovery of the Theology of Tradition

As the American Church approached Vatican II, it was in theological disarray. At Woodstock College in 1943, John Courtney Murray, S.J., had begun reflecting on the American separation of Church and State and on the nature of religious liberty in the context of papal teaching since Leo XIII. He foundered upon the rock of the theology of Tradition that gave a literal interpretation of the magisterium and that rejected historical context and the development of doctrine. His principal opponents in the United States were Monsignor Joseph C. Fenton and Francis Connell, C.Ss.R, at the Catholic University of America. In Rome, their principal ally was Monsignor Alfredo Ottaviani, who in 1953 was elevated to the cardinalate and named pro-secretary of the Holy Office- the aging Cardinal Giuseppe Pizzardo continued to hold the position of secretary. In March of that year, he gave an address stating that the true Catholic teaching was that there should be a union of Church and State, wherever Catholics were in the majority. He went on to express his abhorrence for the "erroneous theories . . . being set forth also in America," but he did not mention Murray by name. Ottaviani's speech was never published in its entirety and received public notice only in the summer. That notice, however, was sufficient to cause Cardinal Samuel Stritch of Chicago to have qualms about a toast he had offered to American liberty at the dedication of the new building of the North American College. His caution exemplified how far the bishops of the twentieth century had gone from the mentality of their predecessors a century before. Here was the ordinary of Chicago fearful of holding a position contrary to an unofficial statement of Ottaviani, who was at the time not a bishop.[51]

In 1955, under fire from his conservative opponents in the United States and Rome, Murray ceased writing on religious liberty. In the meantime, biblical scholarship experienced a resurgence, especially in the early 1950s, but it too confronted opposition from Fenton and Connell. In 1958, the opposition increased with the appointment of Archbishop Egidio Vagnozzi as apostolic delegate. For him, the denial of such aspects of the Church's tradition as the authorship of the four Gospels was tantamount to denying their inspiration. The situation was analogous to that which confronted Gigot and Poels at the beginning of the century in regard to the Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch and stemmed from the same theological interpretation of the magisterium.[52] American Catholic theology was at an impasse. What was needed was a catalyst, and this came with John XXIII's convoking of the council.

When the first council's session opened in 1962, the American bishops constituted one of the largest hierarchies in the Church- 246 Americans attended its sessions at one time or another. They were scheduled to hold their annual meeting in October, but were informed that "the Holy See prefers that national groups do not hold meetings in Rome." Cardinal Amleto Cicognani, the Secretary of State who had been apostolic delegate to the United States, granted permission for the annual meeting to be held at the North American College, but on the condition "that no news releases be given to the Catholic or secular press and that no one of the American Bishops discuss the holding of the annual meeting with bishops of other countries."[53] The American bishops held their meeting, but, more importantly, they observed other hierarchies ignoring curial misgivings and meeting to discuss not only domestic issues, as the Americans were doing, but the agenda for the council. What the Americans had was a practice of collegiality; what the Europeans, in particular, had was a theology. The Americans were learning.

For the Americans, their primary concern and, ultimately, their major contribution to the council was the declaration on religious liberty. Yet, during that first session, the principal theologian of the topic, Murray, was left at home, while his opponent, Fenton, had been named a to the council. In April 1963, between the first and second sessions of the council, Cardinal Spellman of New York had had Murray named a [54] In subsequent sessions, Spellman would lead the Americans in recovering the American collegial tradition at least in regard to religious liberty, but that story has been told elsewhere. What has not been examined was the renewed theology of tradition, which provided the basis for interpreting the magisterium in a way that would allow the adoption of the declaration on religious liberty.

At the first session, the bishops received a schema on the "Sources of Revelation," representing the theology dominant since Vatican I. Only through John XXIII's intervention, was that schema rejected, and it would be two more years-and another pope-before a new schema was presented to the bishops. Between the first and the third sessions of the council, biblical scholars had won significant battles. At the third session, the bishops were presented with an essentially new document on revelation that linked Scripture and Tradition more closely. While Americans addressed various aspects of the new document, it was Cardinal Albert Meyer of Chicago, a biblical scholar, who more directly spoke to the issue of Tradition. On September 30, he made the first of two interventions. He especially praised the schema for "the manner in which it presents sacred tradition as being something alive, dynamic and whole, i.e., consisting not only of doctrinal declarations, but also the cult and practice of the entire Church." Probably without realizing it, he was embracing what had been an American position. He approved of the schema's extending Tradition "beyond the limits of the infallible magisterium," but, like Dyer and other theologians at the beginning of the century, he felt that that extension needed clarification to indicate that "such tradition is subject to the limitations and defects of the Church Militant, which is the Church of sinners and which knows divine realities through a mirror darkly."[55] In other words, not all tradition was true, and some, in fact, was false. Meyer returned to this theme in his second intervention six days later.

On October 5, Meyer repeated some of the arguments he had already made about Tradition. Pointing to the "evidence of failings" in the history of the Church, he recommended that there be inserted into the section on Tradition a passage stating:

Nevertheless, this living tradition does not always and in all things advance and grow. For when the Pilgrim Church contemplates divine matters, it can fail in some respects and actually has failed. For this reason, it carried within itself Sacred Scripture as an abiding norm, one against which it can measure its own life and thus unceasingly correct and improve itself.[56]

Meyer was sensitive to the ecumenical dimensions of the constitution, and, therefore, wanted to stress the primacy of Scripture as a regulating norm. In his formulation that tradition "carried within itself Sacred Scripture as an abiding norm," however, he picked up the thread of thought so familiar to England and Kenrick in the nineteenth century. It would be a year, however, before the bishops gave their final vote on the schema, by which time Meyer had died.

On September 20, 1965, the bishops had begun voting on the sections of the schema on revelation. On September 24, Francis McCool, S.J., an American professor at the Biblical Institute and member of the American Bishops' Press Panel, addressed the assembled journalists. Acknowledging that he realized their attention was focused on the Declaration on Religious Liberty, which had been approved on September 21, he pointed out the significance of the schema on revelation. During the previous "three historic days" of voting, he stated, "the Second Vatican Council has placed its seal of approval on several points which theologians have seen with new clarity in the course of the last hundred years." Tracing the history of the discussion of Scripture and Tradition, he noted:

After Trent, some Catholic theologians developed the theory that Scripture and Tradition were complementary sources and that, therefore, Scripture alone was an incomplete source. Though this view won a certain predominance in the manuals of the nineteenth century, other Catholic theologians more recently have proposed another explanation of the relation between Scripture and Tradition. All of divine revelation is contained in both, though, naturally, in different ways. When Vatican II began, this draft, then entitled "On the Sources of Revelation," presupposed as established the first of these two positions-which caused the turmoil in which that draft was rejected. Now, two sessions later, the Council is content to reaffirm the position of Trent- revelation comes to us in both Scripture and tradition. It asserts that both are intimately related, indeed intertwined with each other. But it has reserved for a future Council the exact determination of what these relations are.[57]

By speaking of what "other Catholic theologians more recently have proposed," McCool seems to have been unaware that this theology was that of Kenrick and American bishops in the nineteenth century.

On November 18, by an almost unanimous vote-2,115 to 27-the bishops approved the Constitution on Divine Revelation, . It received Pope Paul's approval and was promulgated the same day. In the section pertaining to the transmission of revelation, it stated that "Sacred Tradition and sacred Scripture make up a single sacred deposit of the Word of God, which is entrusted to the Church." It belonged to "the living teaching office of the Church alone," however, to give "an authentic interpretation of the Word of God, whether in its written form or in the form of Tradition." But the constitution made it clear that "this Magisterium is not superior to the Word of God, but is its servant. It teaches only what has been handed on to it."[58] Tradition was thus given a much more dynamic meaning than it had had in Roman theology since Vatican I. As Joseph Ratzinger noted, "it is not difficult . . . to recognize the pen of Y. Congar in the text and to see behind it the influence of the Catholic Tubingen school of the nineteenth century with, in particular, its dynamic and organic idea of tradition."[59] That "idea of tradition" had been, of course, the one that John England and Francis Kenrick had expressed.

The Constitution on Revelation had not introduced something new for the American Church, but in fact had returned to the teaching on tradition of the early nineteenth century. Yet, there were still problems. While Scripture and Tradition were now seen as a single source of Revelation, and while there were instructions to exegetes for the interpretation of Scripture, there were no similar norms given for the interpretation of Tradition. John England in the 1820s had made the distinction that the Epistle to the Hebrews was inspired even if it was not written by Paul. He thus did not feel obliged to adhere to the literal interpretation of the magisterium of Trent in attributing the letter to Paul. At the beginning of the century, Edward Dyer sought to defend Francis Gigot against charges of deviating from the common teaching of the Church in regard to the Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch. At Vatican II, among the Americans, only Cardinal Meyer seems to have seen the danger of an uncritical acceptance of Tradition, although he focused primarily on practice and devotion. As the lessons of the debates over Church and State and of the repression of biblical scholarship during the Modernist crisis remind us, however, not everything that the Church has taught, that is not all of tradition, is on the same level of authority. In these post-conciliar years, the doctrine of tradition is perhaps still developing and will need a close link with the reemergence of episcopal collegiality before it will again have the full dynamic sense it had over a century ago. To do this, it may be necessary for the Church to encourage theologians and others to study tradition in order to determine what is doctrine to be preserved and what is historically conditioned.


1. Thomas O. Hanley, S.J. (ed.), (3 vole.; University of Notre Dame Press, 1976), I, 111.

2. 137-138.

3. Ignatius Aloysius Reynolds (ed.), (5 vols.; Baltimore: John Murphy & Co., 1849), I, 62.

4. , 63.

5. , 63-64.

6. , 64.

7. , 67.

8. , 74.

9. Hugh J. Nolan (ed.), Huntington, Ind., 1970), 51.

10. , 52.

11. Francis Patrick Kenrick, (4 vols.; 2nd ea.; Baltimore: John Murphy & Co., 1858), I, 282-283.

12. 288.

13. , 289.

14. 300-301.

15. , 302.

16. 306.

17. , no. 12, in Flannery, 757.

18. 365-370.

19. , 227-228.

20. Francis Patrick Kenrick, (Baltimore: Kelly, Hedian & Piet, 1860), 17-18.

21. (Baltimore, 1866), 41.

22. Peter R. Kenrick, (Naples: 1870), 40; also in Mansi, Lll, 453-481. See also Gerald P. Fogarty, S.J., "Archbishop Peter Kenrick's Submission to Papal Infallibility," , 16 (1978), 206.

23. DS, 3011.

24. DS, 3020.

25. On Franzelin's theology of Tradition and his influence on the council, see Yves M.-J. Congar, O.P., (New York: Macmillan Company, 1966), 196-198. See also See Walter J. Burghardt, S.J., "The Catholic Concept of Tradition in the Light of Modern Theological Thought," 48-49.

26. Roger Aubert, , vol. 21 of (Paris: Bloud & Gay, 1952), 354.

27. DS, 1501.

28. DS, 3006. See Congar, 198.

29. Thomas W. Spalding, (Washington: The Catholic University of America Press, 1973), 242- 243.

30. John Tracy Ellis (ed.), (3 vols.; Wilmington, Del.: Michael Glazier, 1987), II, 462-463.

31. See Gerald P. Fogarty, (Stuttgart: Anton Hiersemann Verlag, 1982; Collegeville: Michael Glazier, 1985), 155-156.

32. 480-481.

33. Henry Poels, "History and Inspiration. II. The Fathers of the Church," , 11 (Apr., 1905), 153.

34. 156-158.

35. DS, 1502.

36. I have dealt with the Poels case more at in my (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1989), 96- 119.

37. Francis E. Gigot, S.S., (New York: Benzinger Brothers, 1900), 517.

38. Francis E. Gigot, S.S., (New York: Benzinger Brothers, 1901), 85-141.

39. Gigot, , I, 32.

40. SAB, Dyer to Lebas, Baltimore, Jan. 18, 1903 (copy). Dyer noted on the top of the letter that he had sent the original on Jan 21, 1903.

41. See Fogarty, , 119-139.

42. Charles A. Briggs and Baron Friedrich von Hugel, (London: Longmans, Green and Co., 1906), 5-6.

43. , 16.

44. , 48.

45. Gabriel Daly, O.S.A., (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1980) 176. See also 174n. for a summary of Billot's life.

46. Walter J. Burghardt, S.J., "The Catholic Concept of Tradition in the Light of Modern Theological Thought," (n.p.: The Catholic Theological Society of America, 1951), 61.

47. Quoted in Michael V. Gannon, "Before and After Modernism: The Intellectual Isolation of the American Priest," in John Tracy Ellis (ed.), the (Collegeville, MN: St. John's University Press, 1971), 358-359.

48. For the best summary of the influence of Thomism on American Catholic culture, see William M. Halsey, the (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1980), 138-168.

49. For the best treatment of this, see James P. Gaffey, "The Changing of the Guard: The Rise of Cardinal O'Connell of Boston," , 59 (1973), 257-270. See also Fogarty, , 195-207.

50. Fogarty, Vatican and the American Hierarchy, pp. 220-228. For the most detailed account of the early years of the NCWC, see Douglas J. Slawson, (Washington: The Catholic University of America Press, 1992), especially 45-178.

51. , 370-376. Ottaviani was named a bishop in 1962, on the eve of the opening of the council.

52. Fogarty, 281-310.

53. Primeau Papers, Tanner to "Your Excellency," Rome, Oct. 11, 1962.

54. Fogarty, , 390-392.

55. Vincent A. Yzermans, (New York: Sheed and Ward, 1967), III.

56. , 114.

57. 103-104.

58. Flannery, , no. 10, 755-756.

59. Joseph Ratzinger, "Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation: Origin and Background," in Herbert Vorgrimler (ed.), (New York: Herder and Herder, 1969), III, 184.

Taken from the Fall 1996 issue of "The Catholic Historian", published by Our Sunday Visitor, Inc., 200 Noll Plaza, Huntington, IN 46750, (800) 348-2440.

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