It is well known that St Thomas More vigorously resisted the Reformation in England and ultimately paid for that resistance with his life. It is less well known, but still known that he had formerly attached himself enthusiastically to many of the things for which the reformers stood–a vernacular Bible, for instance, and with Erasmus he had derided the superstitious behaviour of pilgrims at St Thomas’ shrine in Canterbury.
By the time he came to write his Dialogue Concerning Heresies in 1529, his perspective had altered somewhat. He still thought a vernacular Bible would be a good thing, but a properly translated vernacular Bible, as opposed to Tyndale’s tendentious renderings of certain terms: ‘community’ rather than ‘Church’; ‘elder’ rather than ‘priest’. As part of his thought process, he had to consider just what made Tyndale’s versions ‘wrong’ and the traditional understandings ‘right’.
He pondered whether it could be the authority of the Pope, or the authority of a Council. But in the end, for More it all came down to ‘the common consent of Christendom’.
Eamon Duffy writes in his Reformation Divided:
It is notable that in the Dialogue this appeal to the common life of the church as the ultimate criterion of Christian authenticity never becomes merely or mainly an appeal to hierarchy, or to the teaching authority of the clergy. Though he insisted that Peter was Christ’s Vicar and head of the Church, ‘and alway synce the sucessours of hym continually.’ More never once appeals to the teaching of a pope or a council to clinch his argument. Though the authority of ‘the olde holy fathers’ is repeatedly invoked in defence of current practice, it is always as a witness to the shared faith of the Church as a body. ‘I take not one doctour or twayne but of the consent and comen agreement of the olde holy fathers’ expressing the ‘comen consent of the chyrche’. Even when More’s argument might seem to be leading him inexorably towards an appeal to clerical authority, he steers instead towards this insistence on the shared belief of the whole Church. p59
This isn’t unlike St Vincent of Lérins’ ‘quod semper, quod ubique, quod ab omnibus’, but I think it’s better than that. St Vincent is quite easily answered by saying that there are lots of people who don’t agree, so it can never really be semper, ubique or omnibus. Common consent says something subtly different; it implies that there can be disagreement, but that the body of consent will carry the truth forwards.
Chesterton’s ‘Democracy of the Dead’ comes closer. Truth cannot be arrived at by simply taking a vote among those currently living, or, worse, a powerful selection of those currently living or worse, a powerful self-selection of those currently living. The whole Church, militant on earth, suffering in Purgatory, triumphant in heaven, has to be consulted. It’s what we call Sacred Tradition.
In recent centuries we have come to see things a bit differently. The Pope, the Vicar of Christ, has come to be seen as the all-powerful discerner of the truth for the entire Church. There are various degrees of solemnity attached to his various teachings, and the higher the degree of solemnity, the more powerfully it binds the consciences of the faithful. A remark to a journalist on a plane might be distressing, but can be respectfully disagreed with. A note published in the Acta Apostolicae Sedis is an official act, and can’t be dismissed but is to some degree binding in conscience.
Well, that theory has now been tested hard—some might say to destruction. A publication in AAS has now been set in apparent opposition to the ‘common consent of Christendom’. There are those who argue that it doesn’t contradict established teaching, those who argue that it does and dislike that, and those who argue that it does and think it’s wonderful.
This is to some extent distressing, sure, but it hasn’t disturbed my faith one bit. It has just reassured me that St Thomas More was right, that the locus of the truth of the faith is not the teaching of one individual, even if he be the current Pope, but is the faith of the entire common corps of Christendom. People, even popes, teach truly when they teach according to that faith, and untruly when they don’t. Popes have a special role to strengthen the brethren, to define infallibly should it ever be necessary to expound with ultimate authority the faith of the common corps of Christendom, but they are not the fons et origo of the Church’s faith, still less its master, and not God’s direct mouthpiece on every possible subject. As someone clever once said—as it happens, a Pope teaching according to the faith of the common corps of Christianity—the Pope should be a gardener, not a technician.
St Thomas More has more to say on the subject of how the Church stays true to her teaching, the mechanism by which it holds to the faith. That I'll address in another post.