Does this sound familiar? When confronted with the exact same criticism, proponents of the “New Theology” at Vatican II delivered a very similar response. Although their theological opinions were indeed novel, they appealed to the often cherry-picked writings of certain Church Fathers to show that these were not their own ideas. They even developed a French word for this tactic called “resourcement.”
The Vatican II innovators, as well as John XXII, knew that in the early days of Christianity, the Deposit of Faith was complete but existed in a more general form. As time passed different novel doctrines were espoused that needed to be condemned. As a result, the true doctrine was clarified and made more precise to specifically exclude these false interpretations. Thus Catholic doctrine always “develops” (in the true sense of the word) in one direction: towards more precision and clarity, not towards more ambiguity.
Indeed, the Catholic doctrine on the Beatific Vision had already “developed” for 1330 years under the Holy Ghost before John XXII entered the picture and this development was decidedly against his own position. Thus, Pope John leapt over the past 1,000 years of Church Tradition and instead appealed to Scripture and the Early Church Fathers in order to justify his novel teaching as “traditional.” Since Scripture and the Early Church fathers dealt with the Beatific Vision in more general terms and imagery, these were ripe for “reinterpretation.”
Fr. O’Daniel continues:
[Pope John maintained] that he had preached simply as a private theologian, not as Head of the Church, defining a doctrine to be accepted as of faith; that, consequently, his opinion, being given as that of a private doctor, was subject to the judgment and decision of the Church to be approved or condemned, as it may be found true or false; that, furthermore, the question was open to discussion, and every theologian was free to accept and to advocate whichever side of the controversy he should judge to be the true one. He did not, therefore, give any ex cathedra decision binding the consciences of the faithful…
This should also sound familiar. When pressed, even the most ardent conservative apologist will admit that neither Vatican II nor any post-conciliar pope has issued any ex cathedra decision. Second, although the Vatican has insisted on the acceptance of “Vatican II” without defining what precisely that means, it, at least in word, admits Catholics and groups like the Fraternity of St. Peter to hold to a Traditional view of doctrine as long as they do not condemn the predominate post-Conciliar view or those who hold to it as wrong or in error.
However, as we have learned well in our time, what is stated as official policy on paper is often far different than the factual reality of the time. For instance, someone in the future will look back on our own day and see that Summorum Pontificum recognized the right of every priest to celebrate the Traditional Mass. In practice, however, many priests are still denied that right and punished for exercising it. A similar divergence existed between law and practice in the 1330’s. Fr. O’Daniel explains:
The Pontiff, however, was far from being as unbiased in his judgment and impartial in his actions as he fancied. Despite these declarations, as is shown by the difference of treatment accorded its supporters and adversaries, he continued to entertain a strong predilection for the opinion he had advanced. On the one hand, as a contemporary informs us, to support it was a sure passport to honors and preferment; while, on the other, to oppose it, whether by word of mouth or in writing, meant papal disfavor, or even punishment. For one it meant imprisonment. Despite, too, the vehement protests that poured into Avignon, and the general dissatisfaction excited by his sermons, particularly those of November 15, 1331, and Jan. 5, 1332, he sought, for a time at least, to defend and to disseminate the doctrine they contained. At his command numerous copies of his second sermon were made, and a copy given to whosoever desired to see the Pope’s side of the controversy.
Thus, according to the words of Pope John XXII, one was very free to publicly disagree with his novel doctrine and advocate against it. Doing so, however, might mean the end of one’s career or even prison. This calls to mind the present-day case of Fr. Manelli, the co-founder of the Franciscan Friars of the Immaculate. On paper, Fr. Manelli was free to encourage the use of the Traditional Mass and Traditional doctrine in his order. In practice, however, he finds his order taken away and himself under house arrest as a result.
The Reaction of King Phillip
Vatican II ensured the demise of the Catholic State. It is practically non-existent in our own day. Thus there is currently no Catholic head of state who can provide pressure on an erring Pontiff to change his ways. Not so in the 1330’s.
Fr. O’Daniel explains how the French King, Phillip VI, reacted to the new doctrine of John XXII:
The reports of the strong opposition to the new doctrine on the part of Phillip VI of France, the Christian ruler most favorably disposed to John XXII, and the faculty of the University of Paris seem to have been the cause of no little uneasiness to the Pontiff. Letters still in existence show a considerable correspondence on the subject between Avignon and the King. In the latter part of 1333, Gerard Odonis or Eudes, minister general of the Minorites, and Arnold of Saint Michael, a papal penitentiary and one of the few Dominicans who stood with John in this matter possibly influenced by the many favors he had received at the hands of that Pope, left Avignon on a mission of restoring harmony between England and Scotland, and on their way stopped in Paris to consult with Philip. While there the Franciscan general, availing himself of the opportunity, made an attempt to gain over the French monarch to the Pope's cause and to win adherents among the professors of the University. The attempt proved a complete failure. The Dominican, frightened by the tumult and scandal caused by Eudes' sermon, sought to appease the anger aroused by it and to excuse the Pontiff by showing the scriptural and patristic authorities on which he had based his opinion. So intense, however, was the feeling against the Minorite general, largely due, it would seem, to an impression that he and his companion had been sent to Paris for the express purpose of making propagandism for John XXII, and that the mission to England was only a pretence to justify their coming to Paris, that Philip declared he considered him a heretic, and that, unless he retracted his scandalous assertions, he would have him burned at the stake. He is also said to have made threats against John himself.
Two things can be said about Phillip VI on this issue. First, he knew Pope John XXII was wrong. Second, he wasn’t afraid to tell him so. As for the Neo-Catholic apologist’s admonition that the pope’s teaching must be submitted to with docility, let’s just say that if Phillip VI lived today, he would be permanently banned from Catholic Answers’ Forum.
Pope John, seeing that Phillip VI was obviously a self-absorbed, promethean, neo-pelagian, did not take very kindly to the rebuke:
Feeling keenly the action of Philip and the University, John wrote the former, November 18, 1333, censuring him for his inordinate zeal before the question as to whether the beatific vision is granted to worthy souls immediately on their death, or is delayed until after the final judgment, should be decided by the Church. He also declared he had only advanced the opinion attributed to him as probable and supported by authorities both scriptural and patristic; admonished the King that the question is still, and must be, open to free discussion; informed him that Peter Roger, Archbishop of Rouen, had been commissioned, subject to the royal approval, to present his (John's) case and authorities before the theological faculty of the University; and requested that they be allowed full liberty of discussion.
Here we see Pope John nearly 700 years ago, demonstrating the same apparent contradiction recent popes have demonstrated between what is said and what is done. In practice, Pope John vigorously defends his own doctrine as correct, even writing a treatise to that end and distributing it. He also sends emissaries to Phillip VI and the University of Paris, one of whom preaches a sermon espousing the doctrine and the other of which defends it to Phillip using Scripture and the Fathers. In addition John favors those who accept his doctrine and punishes those who do not. Do these sound like the actions of a man who is humbly positing his own opinion, open to correction and disagreement?
But yet, when his actions in promoting his doctrinal error are challenged, he seems to retreat back to his official position of only wanting “free discussion.” Even so, one can see the authority John XXII ascribes to his own view apparently growing. Whereas before his own doctrine and the Traditional doctrine were presented as equal options, Pope John now refers to his doctrine “as probable.”
The Dominicans of the 1330’s: A Model for Our Time
One of the most fascinating parts of this historical saga is the role of the Dominican order. At no time in Church history would you find a more fierce loyalty, respect, and defense of the Roman Pontiff than the Dominicans under John XXII. Yet these Dominicans were keenly aware that their first loyalty was to the Catholic Faith and to the Office of the Papacy rather than to the individual man.
The Office of the Papacy was established by Christ Himself. Its purpose is to pass on and zealously safeguard the Deposit of Faith to succeeding generations of Catholics. As long as the Pope was loyal to this mission and used his authority for its God-given ends, the Dominicans would defend him to the death and undergo any hardship in order to obey and serve him.
But, however, if the unfortunate day should come when the Pope began to espouse his own new doctrine as an alternative to Tradition, these Dominicans, Catholic to the core, knew they had an obligation to publicly oppose even the Pope on this point.
That the Dominicans of this time, almost without exception, vigorously resisted their own dear friend who himself had just canonized the Dominican hero, Thomas Aquinas, is a testament to the truly Catholic response, at great personal cost, that these men experienced during their own Church crisis.
Fr. O’Daniel explains:
So few, indeed, were the exceptions, that it may be said the theologians of the Order of St. Dominic rose up as a body in favor of the time-honored, traditional Catholic teaching, boldly withstanding John's propositions. Neither fear of feeling the weight of papal displeasure, nor hope of reward, had any influence on the Friar Preacher, when there was question of an error against Catholic faith. He was the Pontiff's most pronounced and outspoken antagonist. The spectacle of an order, whose sons had braved every danger and with unflinching courage borne untold sufferings in defending the Holy See against Louis of Bavaria, now resisting with the same unyielding fortitude and fearless spirit the Roman Pontiff himself in his apparent efforts to propagate a doctrine they adjudged contrary to faith, elicited from that German monarch this splendid encomium: " Verily, the Order of Preachers is an order of truth." And it was certainly inspiring to see an order, equally indifferent to favor and dishonor, to loss and gain, withstanding with all its might, in the interest of Catholic truth, a Pontiff who had been one of the best friends it had known in the more than a hundred years of its existence, who had shown it every favor and every mark of affection, for whom it entertained the deepest love and esteem, and to defend whom its brethren had hesitated in the face of no peril.
Who were some of these noble Dominicans who stood up to John XXII? Read the stories of three unheralded Catholic heroes in Part III: