Francis Oakley’s recent book The Conciliarist Tradition points out the historiographical oddity that conciliarism, a major component of western ecclesiological and canonical reflection for hundreds of years, quickly slid beyond the horizon not only of Roman Catholic theology, but also of historical reflection upon the modern Catholic church. “The fact,” Oakley writes, “is that it has long been customary to portray the whole conciliar episode as nothing more than a stutter, hiccup, or interruption in the long history of the Latin Catholic Church, an unfortunate and revolutionary episode, radical in its origins and rapid in its demise.” (16) Oakley proceeds to show how common and legitimate conciliarism was as an ecclesiological position for many centuries leading up to the First Vatican Council, and suggests that greater attention to the history of authority in the Roman Catholic church in the second millennium might suggest how the ultramontanism we take for granted in 2006 might not have been, and therefore need not be, the only conceptualization of ecclesial authority which is faithful to the tradition of the church.
I mention all this as prologue to an appreciation of Richard Costigan’s important new work on nine theologians, five Gallican and four papalist, whose works carried on the debate over episcopal and papal authority over the course of three centuries. Many of the names may be familiar: Jacques-Bénigne Bossuet, Honoré Tournely, Giovanni Perrone, S.J.; others are slightly more obscure. But obscure is a relative term because, as Costigan points out, most theologians and historians are more likely to know a little about these names and about Gallicanism without actually having read a Bossuet, a Louis Bailly, or a Nicolas-Sylvestre Bergier. In a way similar to Margaret O’Gara’s important study of the French minority at Vatican I, Triumph in Defeat, and to the author’s earlier work on Rohrbacher, Costigan does those of us with more need of this knowledge than time to pursue it the service of actually reading these authors and analyzing the nuances of their positions.
In doing so, Costigan helps to clarify some important assumptions and misconceptions regarding Gallican authors. One major issue involves the Gallican conception of the consensus ecclesiae. Costigan shows the care with which mainstream Gallican authors discussed the statement of the Fourth Article that the pope’s “judgment is not unchangeable, unless it receives the consent of the Church.” (Quoted in Costigan, 18) He argues that mainstream Gallicanism did not see this consensus as necessarily subsequent, that is, in response to a papal pronouncement, but could be thought of as concomitant or antecedent, as the faith of the church, already held by the bishops, which the pope is expressing. This makes the consensus the Gallicans called for more like a contemporary understandings of collegiality than the bugaboo of “democratizing” the church. Further, Costigan shows that the writings of papalist authors such as Giuseppe-Agostino Orsi, O.P., Pietro Ballerini, Alfonso Muzzarelli, and Perrone promoted this view of ecclesial consensus as consensus consequens, raising practical and theological concerns thereof to challenge the Gallican theory. As this understanding of consensus predominates in contemporary Roman Catholic ecclesiology, Costigan’s work suggests that our current ecclesiologies may be unduly influenced by our knowledge of only one side of the debate.
A second important point in Costigan’s book involves the relative conservatism of the Gallican writers. Often the bishops' ecclesiology was thoroughly episcopalist, and in their works, “the consensus of the church” means “the consensus of the bishops.” They are far from sliding towards Protestantism, and Bossuet and Tournely were renowned in their time for their work in Roman Catholic apologetics. In distinction from the ecclesiological theories of Edmond Richer, in whose ecclesiology bishops and popes received their authority from the delegation of the Christian community as a whole, the Gallican thinkers had much more in common with their papalist opponents with regard to the overall derivation of ecclesial authority. Rooted in their study of the patristic thinkers, the Gallicans were quite traditional in the broadest sense of the term.
Finally, and perhaps significant for our understandings of intraecclesial debate, is the fact that the Gallicans and papalists maintained, sometimes grudgingly, a mutual respect. With some exceptions, the papalist authors Costigan presents respect the good faith and the orthodoxy of their opponents while maintaining a thorough argument. The Gallican positions were never condemned as heretical in this period, and Costigan’s work is an important contribution not only to our understanding of this period, but also to our understanding of how intraecclesial debate can be both critical and charitable.