Academic journal article Theological Studies

Bossuet and the Consenses of the Church

Academic journal article Theological Studies

Bossuet and the Consenses of the Church

Article excerpt

The first Vatican Council's solemn assertion that the pope's infallible definitions of the faith do not derive their "irreformability" from the consensus of the Church continues to stimulate research into the historical controversy which the council intended to settle. The decree Pastor aeternus states that the definitions of the Roman Pontiff are irreformable "ex sese, non autem ex consensu Ecclesiae (of themselves, and not from the consensus of the Church)."(1) With these words, the council explicitly rejects the Fourth Article of the Declaration of the Gallican Clergy of 1682, which expressly stipulates that the consensus of the Church is essential.(2) Pastor aeternus was meant to close the door forever on any view, Gallican or any other, which might seem in any way to allow an appeal from the pope to the episcopate, either assembled in council or dispersed throughout the world.(3)

This is one of those situations where the study of the primary sources in the background of a controversy is as illuminating as the need for it is evident. For example, Hans Urs von Balthasar, surveying some individuals in the history of the Church who had expressed even slight reservations about the absolute supremacy of the Roman Pontiff, says that the Gallicans wanted "to qualify every papal decision, be it by an appeal to a council or by a stipulation that the directives must be accepted by the whole Church (bishops and flock) to be valid."(4) He does not cite any source for this, and could not do so, for Gallicanism does not stipulate the consent of "the flock" to papal pronouncements, only that of the episcopate. Neither does von Balthasar cite any Gallican source in calling Bossuet "sincere" though grossly mistaken in teaching Gallican views,(5) nor when he says that the "ex sese" clause of Vatican I was necessitated by the "equivocation" and "one-sided insistence on rights on the part of the Gallicans."(6) Von Balthasar is typical of authors alluding to Gallicanism: they simply do not cite Gallican sources, and seemingly see no need to do so.(7) But careful study of these sources is very instructive, and ignoring or misrepresenting what they really say about a matter like the consensus of the Church is not helpful in understanding the divergent historic viewpoints on papal infallibility. The present study attends closely to the concerns and ideas of a leading Gallican theologian, noting how his views on this ecclesial question are much more nuanced than those attributed to the Gallicans by their critics.

BOSSUET AND ECCLESIAL CONTROVERSY

Jacques-Benigne Bossuet (1627-1704), bishop of Meaux from 1681, was one of the leading prelates of the Church of France in the 17th century. Remembered today perhaps mainly as a great orator, the Eagle of Meaux, he was also an author of serious theological and historical works, personal associate of King Louis XIV and tutor to the Dauphin, actively involved in a number of controversies, and a very important exponent of the ecclesiology of Gallicanism.(8) A special meeting of certain French bishops and priests produced, on March 19, 1682, the Declaration of the Gallican Clergy (Gallican Articles).(9) Bossuet was the main redactor on behalf of the group of this Declaration, and some years later wrote a massive (1372 octavo pages) Defensio Declarationis Cleri Gallicani, published after his death. This work of great erudition is the main source of the present article.

With the partial exception of the one area of ecclesiology, Bossuet has been generally recognized as an eminent Roman Catholic author, writing in the historic mainstream of Catholic thought. Gustave Lanson said of him in 1891: "Catholic, severely orthodox, he professes on all points the doctrines that the councils and the uniform tradition of the Church have authorized; his theology is Catholic theology."(10) Patrick Riley notes that Bossuet defended that Roman Catholic orthodoxy against Protestant and rationalist thinkers of many kinds. …

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