Papacy: Believed by All the Doctors and Fathers, at All times, and in ALL places??

A point that I bring up in my 5th segment in the series responding to objections to the Papacy, and which Dr. Gavin Ortlund, who is well educated on this subject, surely knows, but which I found useful in rehearsing:

Often, inquirers into Catholicism test the coherence of Catholic claims of continuity with the past by pointing to the dogmatic texts of the Church have which have, at least a few times, stated that at least one criterion for true doctrine is that it passes the Vincentian Canon, i.e., that is catholic which has been held by 𝐚𝐥𝐥 the fathers, in 𝐚𝐥𝐥 times, and in 𝐚𝐥𝐥 places. The dogmatic constitution of the Church given by Vatican Council 1 (1870), for example, utilizes this text when speaking to the subject of Papal authority. Almost instantly, researchers think the standard has been violated when they find early church teaching that contradicts later dogmatic formulae.

There have often been some unfortunate misunderstandings about this. For starters, let’s cite St. Vincent himself:

“Moreover, in the Catholic Church itself, 𝐚𝐥𝐥 𝐩𝐨𝐬𝐬𝐢𝐛𝐥𝐞 𝐜𝐚𝐫𝐞 𝐦𝐮𝐬𝐭 𝐛𝐞 𝐭𝐚𝐤𝐞𝐧, that we hold that faith which has been believed everywhere, always, by all. For that is truly and in the strictest sense Catholic, which, as the name itself and the reason of the thing declare, comprehends all universally. This rule we shall observe if we follow universality, antiquity, consent. We shall follow universality if we confess that one faith to be true, which the whole Church throughout the world confesses; antiquity, if we in no wise depart from those interpretations which it is manifest were notoriously held by our holy ancestors and fathers; consent, in like manner, if in antiquity itself we adhere to the consentient definitions and determinations of all, 𝐨𝐫 𝐚𝐭 𝐭𝐡𝐞 𝐥𝐞𝐚𝐬𝐭 𝐨𝐟 𝐚𝐥𝐦𝐨𝐬𝐭 𝐚𝐥𝐥 𝐩𝐫𝐢𝐞𝐬𝐭𝐬 𝐚𝐧𝐝 𝐝𝐨𝐜𝐭𝐨𝐫𝐬 (consensionem quoque itidem, si, in ipsa vetustate, omnium vel certe pene omnium sacerdotum pariter et magistrorum definitiones sententiasque sectemur)” (Commonitorium 2.6)

Notice he says “all 𝐩𝐨𝐬𝐬𝐢𝐛𝐥𝐞 care”, which already introduces that he is not speaking with a hard-wooden inflexibility, and then notice he says “at the least of 𝐚𝐥𝐦𝐨𝐬𝐭 (certe pene omnuim) all priests”. We already know, therefore, that St. Vincent is speaking without strict inflexibility. In fact, we especially know this if we look to see where else he says this “almost” and see what he means. When describing the episcopal representation of the East at the 3rd Ecumenical Council (Ephesus 431), he describes it in the following manner:

“[…] he [Nestorius]tramples upon the Council of Ephesus, that is, on the decisions of the holy bishops of 𝐚𝐥𝐦𝐨𝐬𝐭 𝐭𝐡𝐞 𝐰𝐡𝐨𝐥𝐞 𝐄𝐚𝐬𝐭” (33)

This is obviously not literal since there were those who did not agree with the decrees at Ephesus 431. Elsewhere, St. Vincent describes how far reaching the Arian crisis had infected the West:

“So also when the Arian poison had infected not an insignificant portion of the Church but 𝐚𝐥𝐦𝐨𝐬𝐭 𝐭𝐡𝐞 𝐰𝐡𝐨𝐥𝐞 𝐰𝐨𝐫𝐥𝐝 (sed pene orbem), so that a sort of blindness had fallen upon almost 𝐚𝐥𝐥 𝐭𝐡𝐞 𝐛𝐢𝐬𝐡𝐨𝐩𝐬 (adeo ut prope cuntis) of the Latin tongue” (4.10)

“Elsewhere, he says when “𝐚𝐥𝐦𝐨𝐬𝐭 𝐭𝐡𝐞 𝐰𝐡𝐨𝐥𝐞 𝐰𝐨𝐫𝐥𝐝 (pene mundum) was overwhelmed by a ruthless tempest of unlooked for heresy” (5.13)

Obviously, there were many exceptions to this. And so, while St. Vincent makes free use of the “all” category, he doesn’t literally mean that. He means a clear moral majority over time. A developing consensus that doesn’t forbid exceptions. In fact, he is quite well informed that there had not been a universality since the day of Pentecost since he catalogs heretics and their heresies, and even exposes the error of St. Cyprian on rebaptism, a premiere Saint in the early Last West, even consigning those who agree with the otherwise venerable Martyr to eternal hell. When comparing St. Cyprian with the Donatists on rebaptism, St. Vincent says they both taught the very same error, but only the latter are condemned for it:

“And O marvellous revolution! 𝐓𝐡𝐞 𝐚𝐮𝐭𝐡𝐨𝐫𝐬 𝐨𝐟 𝐭𝐡𝐢𝐬 𝐬𝐚𝐦𝐞 𝐝𝐨𝐜𝐭𝐫𝐢𝐧𝐞 𝐚𝐫𝐞 𝐣𝐮𝐝𝐠𝐞𝐝 𝐂𝐚𝐭𝐡𝐨𝐥𝐢𝐜𝐬, 𝐭𝐡𝐞 𝐟𝐨𝐥𝐥𝐨𝐰𝐞𝐫𝐬 𝐡𝐞𝐫𝐞𝐭𝐢𝐜𝐬; 𝐭𝐡𝐞 𝐭𝐞𝐚𝐜𝐡𝐞𝐫𝐬 𝐚𝐫𝐞 𝐚𝐛𝐬𝐨𝐥𝐯𝐞𝐝, 𝐭𝐡𝐞 𝐝𝐢𝐬𝐜𝐢𝐩𝐥𝐞𝐬 𝐜𝐨𝐧𝐝𝐞𝐦𝐧𝐞𝐝; 𝐭𝐡𝐞 𝐰𝐫𝐢𝐭𝐞𝐫𝐬 𝐨𝐟 𝐭𝐡𝐞 𝐛𝐨𝐨𝐤𝐬 𝐰𝐢𝐥𝐥 𝐛𝐞 𝐜𝐡𝐢𝐥𝐝𝐫𝐞𝐧 𝐨𝐟 𝐭𝐡𝐞 𝐊𝐢𝐧𝐠𝐝𝐨𝐦, 𝐭𝐡𝐞 𝐝𝐞𝐟𝐞𝐧𝐝𝐞𝐫𝐬 𝐨𝐟 𝐭𝐡𝐞𝐦 𝐰𝐢𝐥𝐥 𝐡𝐚𝐯𝐞 𝐭𝐡𝐞𝐢𝐫 𝐩𝐨𝐫𝐭𝐢𝐨𝐧 𝐢𝐧 𝐇𝐞𝐥𝐥. For who is so demented as to doubt that that 𝐛𝐥𝐞𝐬𝐬𝐞𝐝 𝐥𝐢𝐠𝐡𝐭 𝐚𝐦𝐨𝐧𝐠 𝐚𝐥𝐥 𝐡𝐨𝐥𝐲 𝐛𝐢𝐬𝐡𝐨𝐩𝐬 𝐚𝐧𝐝 𝐦𝐚𝐫𝐭𝐲𝐫𝐬, Cyprian, 𝐭𝐨𝐠𝐞𝐭𝐡𝐞𝐫 𝐰𝐢𝐭𝐡 𝐭𝐡𝐞 𝐫𝐞𝐬𝐭 𝐨𝐟 𝐡𝐢𝐬 𝐜𝐨𝐥𝐥𝐞𝐚𝐠𝐮𝐞𝐬, 𝐰𝐢𝐥𝐥 𝐫𝐞𝐢𝐠𝐧 𝐰𝐢𝐭𝐡 𝐂𝐡𝐫𝐢𝐬𝐭; or, who on the other hand so sacrilegious as to deny that the Donatists and those other pests, who boast the authority of that council for their iteration of baptism, will be consigned to eternal fire with the devil?” (6.18)

Notice, St Vincent, the very author of the famous omnium-dictum of universality as a criterion for the true faith, can point out that the “blessed light” among “ALL’ holy bishops, St. Cyprian, could be in contradiction to the universal faith, and yet be sanctified and canonized.

The point here is that when Popes and Councils use the Vincentian canon to refer to the catholic faith, they are, like St. Vincent, using a moral majority as “all” (omnia/universalis), and it allows for exceptions even among the Saints, Doctors, and Martyrs.

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