Bulgakov’s Vatican Dogma (Notes)

Part I

Sergius Bulgakov has written a trenchant critique of the Vatican’s move to define the absolute authority of the pope and the dogmatization of the pontiff’s infallibility apart from the whole Church. He contends not only that real discussion was stifled at the council by Pope Pius IX himself but also that it was a council in name only. Councils have historically entailed consultation among the bishops. In fact, so argues Bulgakov, the true purpose of the council was kept secret to ensure that the absolute power of the papacy would be promulgated to all Catholics. So erratic was the pope’s machinations, rumor spread that Pope Pius IX was insane. 

Withholding the most controversial of the declarations, Pius IX stifled the minority and any real protest from the floor before the vote. The last minute addition of the phrase ex sese et non ex consensu ecclesiae ensured that absolute power would reside in the person of the pope. Those who would have protested left the council knowing that their protests would be given in vain. Dismayed at the machinations of the Vatican, the church historian and bishop Hefele wrote: “For many years I thought I was serving the Catholic Church, but I served the distortion inflicted upon it by Romanism and Jesuitism. It was only in Rome I saw with perfect clarity that what is happening there is Christian in name and appearance rather than in reality; the grain has disappeared and only the husk remains, everything is completely externalized.” So wrote the great historian before he decided to part company with the dissident scholar and church historian Ignaz von Dollinger. 

Part II

The specific charism of infallibility attributed to the pope described an authority as distinct from the body of the Church herself, placing him above her (non ex consensu). And the doctrine brought with it sacramental implications. Given the fact that this doctrine created a unique charism which was only for the successors of Peter it entailed an entire order above that of the episcopacy. This sacramental order of St. Peter could only be held by the pope. It is his own personal charism above and beyond the bishops. 

This petrine order carries with it certain problems which must be resolved. First, the principle that one cannot give what one does not have precludes any other bishop from handing down the petrine office. In other words, only the pope could “ordain” his successor. Just as a priest can only be ordained by a bishop, so also a pope can only be made by a pope. But this has rarely happened, if at all. The succession of St. Peter would be broken. Hence, the papacy would not exist today. 

Furthermore, if the pope is infallible apart from the Church or even against the body of the Church what happens to the Church’s infallibility during its vacancy. Does the Church lose its note of infallibility? If not, it would be the case that the body of the Church is infallible without the pope. Thus, we see Constance and Basel affirming that the Church can judge the pope, even deposing him. The latter was conceded by more than one pope during and after those councils. And, pace Hefele, if Constance was not authentic magisterium, Pope Martin V would never have been pope. But if it was authentic then popes are judged and deposed by councils. Bulgakov goes into greater detail regarding Constance in a later section. But to anticipate, it would be disturbing to say that Constance was heretical one moment and orthodox the next. Bulgakov protests: “a fountain sends forth both sweet water and bitter!”

Part III

In his third section of his essay Bulgakov scrutinizes the historical discontinuity within the magisterium regarding the doctrines of papal primacy and conciliarism. He asserts that the pope accepted the conciliarism of Constance via the Council of Basel in the bull Dudum Sacra in 1443. The conciliarism accepted by the pope in Dudum Sacra was a clear contradiction to the papal dogma of Vatican I. Bulgakov contends that Basel and Constance were accepted in all their sessions by more than one pope. Thus, subsequent popes did not recognize the problematic portions of these councils and Vatican I passed over them citing only Florence which supported the papal dogma. Interestingly enough, Bulgakov claims that Florence was not considered ecumenical until the 19th century and explicitly rejected as ecumenical by many of the periti at the Council of Trent. 

Bulgakov also notes that even Florence did not settle the question of conciliarism, as the pope of the time arranged an open debate on the subject right after the Council of Florence. An open debate in the Church over a doctrine implies that the said doctrine is not dogma. To support this latter point even further, Bulgakov states that although the council fathers of Basel continued to adhere to the doctrine of conciliarism, the pope and the fathers of Florence, nevertheless, reconciled with them. How could they reconcile with schismatics? Bulgakov concludes that conciliarism and the papal dogma remained an open question. 

Part IV

In his final section Bulgakov criticizes the canons of Vatican dogma. Given the fact that the canons give full power and immediate jurisdiction to the pope is essentially the only bishop of the Catholic Church. Other bishops are merely vicars of the pope, not successors to the apostles themselves. They receive apostolicity through him. The pope’s immediate spiritual power extends throughout the world over every soul, even after death through indulgences. And although apologists will state that he is bound by tradition, the Council makes it clear that no one can judge him and the interpretation of that said tradition only finally belongs to the pope. Hence, no pope can be judged a heretic. 

The decisions of a pope are irreformable apart from his will. And the limiting scope of such decision de fide et moribus (concerning faith and morals) is hardly a limitation. Any practice or truth can fall under “mores,” which refers to any human actions. Even de fide is not limiting. Any truth may bear some relation to faith, as the case of Galileo brought mathematics and astronomy under papal scrutiny. These decisions are irreformable in the Church because the infallibility of the pope inheres in the pope himself. 

Thus, the Church subsists in the pope in whom all members participate. Councils are only infallible through him and he bears infallibility without the members (ex sese non autem ex consensu ecclesiae) in opposition to the minority bishops. And to emphasize the popes break with any conciliarism, in discontinuity of tradition, Pope IX promulgated Pastor Aeternus as a bull, not as a conciliar decree stamped with his ratification. Bulgakov concludes that it was not a traditional council but merely a consultative assembly. How could a council declare that councils do not have final authority? Only the pope could do that. Councils do not have power to define dogma. Just as bishops are only bishops through the pope, so are councils only councils through the pope.

Thus, Bulgakov enters the most problematic nature of the dogma. Either the pope’s authority was one of an axiom such as the divinity of Christ or it was  a dogmatic theorem whereby we explain papal authority. Vatican I excluded the latter for it proclaimed that to be separate from the pope was to be outside the Church. Hence, papal supremacy was promulgated as an axiom, as the ground for religion as much as the divinity of Christ. But how could such an axiom be debated in a council? Axioms are not debated. They can be better understood but its veracity could not be up for debate. Vatican I debated the issue but declared it as an axiom. “The doctrine about the head of the Church may receive different expressions, but the essence of it must remain axiomatically clear and cannot possibly be proclaimed as a dogmatic novelty.” 

Bulgakov concludes his essay by pointing out the dogma itself stems from its reaction to the Reformation which has permanently changed Rome coupled with the legalism of Peter separated from Paul and, especially, John. There is only one form of evangelism open to the Catholic today, submission to the pope.

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