A few readers think I'm being too harsh on Hull, or misreading him, so I thought it might be timely to post again on this book since it does go to the core of some important current theological debates, in particular, the question of whether a Council or a Pope could advocate outright error.
I'm a few chapters further advanced than when last I wrote, but I'm still only part way through it, so read my comments with that in mind: I may want to amend my views in the light of what he says further on, as well as alternative assessments of his work provided by commenters!
Why I'm struggling with Hull's approach
That said, I have to admit that the more I read this book, the more annoyed I have become with it, because on those parts of the history he discusses that I know something about, his treatment of events seems very selective indeed, generally favouring the Eastern Orthodox view of history over the Western.
It is not that his view necessarily contradicts defined dogma: Hull is mostly (but not always) fairly careful to assert his personal agreement with defined Catholic doctrine (albeit not necessarily Ordinary Magisterium or the weight of Western theological opinion) where appropriate.
Nonetheless, his approach does, I would suggest, lead one to a position that I think is at odds with the Western Catholic tradition. Now maybe that's fine if one is an Eastern Catholic. But does it really bolster the case for the Traditional Latin Mass which very much represents the patrimony of the Western tradition?
Hull seems to think that insistence on the primacy of the universal church over the local, and the universal jurisdiction of the papacy in relation to the liturgy inevitably leads to an insistence on uniformity. Pope Benedict XVI, I would suggest, has provided an alternative, and I think superior, approach to resolving these tensions which is worth keeping in mind as one assesses Hull's arguments.
More fundamentally, I'm worried that some of Hull's positions, taken to their logical conclusion, do lend support to positions that are outright erroneous.
Selective history: the case of the filioque
Hull's chronicling of the history of the contest between East and West, and liturgical development is certainly interesting. But it seems to me to frequently omit any discussion of some fairly crucial points, and not infrequently to accept uncritically the Eastern version of events.
Hull's discussion of the addition of the filioque (the stipulation that the Holy Ghost proceeds from the Father 'and the Son') to the Creed is a case in point (pp75-78 in particular).
The Eastern objection to the filioque is twofold: first that it was added to the Creed without the approval of an Ecumenical Council; and secondly, they consider the statement itself to be heretical.
Hull does take the Western view that the filioque is perfectly orthodox. And he acknowledges that the addition of the filioque to the Creed was given early papal approval, by Gregory I.
But he provides no context as to the reasons for its addition, namely to combat the Arian heresy which was rife in the West in sixth to seventh centuries (including in the Frankish territories), but which had long since been utterly extinguished in the East.
Instead he presents it mainly as yet another political stab at the East by the Frankish court.
In reality, as the expanded Creed spread across Europe, theologians inevitably integrated it into Western theology: hardly surprising then that later Councils chose to reaffirm it, rather than drop it in the interests of ecumenical relations as Hull seems to advocate!
The Bulgarians and cultural customs
In terms of selectivity, when Hull discusses the battle between the Eastern and Western Churches over the use of the vernacular in relation to the conversion of Bulgaria (pp90-93), he completely ignores the important and extremely relevant to the topic distinction the Pope of the time made between different types of customs.
I have to say I'm not quite sure why a traditionalist would be so strongly making the case for vernacular languages, and arguing against the subsequent Latinization of many dioceses, as he does.
But I assume the reason why he ignores the associated debate on which customs have to be adopted and which ones are optional is because it runs rather counter to his claims as to the duty of the papacy to protect 'immemorial customs' (whatever that might mean) - for this debate included the famous decision that permitted Bulgarian women to continue wearing trousers, notwithstanding (Jewish and) Christian 'immemorial'(?) customs on what constituted men's and women's clothing!
England's Greek Archbishop
In some cases, I think he just misses the point. He cites the appointment of an apparent 'minder' for the remarkable seventh century Archbishop of Canterbury Theodore of Tarsus, lest he introduce any Greek customs into England, for example, as an example of anti-Greek cultural sentiment amongst the Latins.
What he omits to mention is that the 'minder' in question, was Theodore's friend Abbot Hadrian, who had actually turned down the job himself and suggested St Theodore, a Greek refugee monk from Tarsus, in his stead. In reality the Pope's insistence that he accompany his friend seems to have been more of a case of 'you're not going to get out it that easily'.
Indeed, that the Pope was willing to appoint an Eastern rite native Greek speaker to such an important diocese is hardly evidence of anti-Greek sentiment! In fact his Greek status was arguably something of a conciliatory gesture to the Irish Church at the expense of the extreme Romanizing party in the period immediately after the Council of Whitby, at which the Irish had agreed to conform to Roman practice on issues such as the date of the celebration of Easter.
And indeed, the new Archbishop did prove able to unite both parties (albeit not without some major battles along the way), not least by passing on his own Greek scholarship and personal knowledge of the Holy Land, and thus laying the foundations for the mini-renaissance in that land that was to produce scholars such as Bede and Alcuin.
Nor did he in fact fail to introduce 'Greek' customs: amongst other things, he is almost certainly responsible for the introduction of the litany of the saints to the West!
But by far the most serious of the problems with Hull's historical treatment that I've come across so far, from a Catholic perspective, I would suggest, relates to his discussion of alleged papal heretics.
The papal doctrine of universal jurisdiction over the Church rests on that Scriptural promise that the Church will rest on Peter, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. And over the first millenium of the Church's history, even the Eastern Churches generally accepted the continuing orthodoxy of Rome as a reference point (in between long bouts of schism due to the Eastern adoption of assorted heresies that is).
Since the definition of papal infallibility at Vatican I there has been considerable theological debate on whether or not (and if so how far) a pope can err in his non-infallible teaching.
I'm certainly with Hull in opposing ultramontanism, the view that absolutely everything a pope says or does must be right. I would certainly agree that a pope can be imprudent, fail to defend the faith, use arguments to justify something that don't really stand up, teach in a way that obscures rather than enlightens, and make very bad pastoral decisions indeed.
But I think it is a step too far to suggest, as Hull does, that suggest that he can teach outright error. Hull cites five cases of alleged papal heretics (pp143-4) often cited by extreme traditionalists. In my view not one of them stands up to scrutiny.
Five cases where the Church was preserved from papal error...
The first case he cites is St Peter himself, over the dispute with St Paul over the imposition of Jewish practices on gentile converts. Yet this was not a question of doctrine but of practice. What this case actually seems to demonstrate is the long tradition of something Hull rails against, namely allowing practices of a culture and religious tradition to continue in the initial period of evangelization for reasons of mission (indeed, St Paul himself had one of his converts circumcised in order to avoid trouble with the synagogues they were visiting) but suppress them later as far as possible.
This second case concerns Pope Liberius' alleged signing of an Arian creed; in fact, despite exile, imprisonment and torture, he never did: the document claiming to be by him on this subject has long since been demonstrated to be a forgery.
He claims that Pope Honorius I was posthumously condemned for heresy: in fact the was condemned for that all too familiar modern sin, failure to teach, which is not quite the same thing: instead of soundly condemning what was clearly heresy he obfuscated.
He also cites the case of Pope Sixtus V. But in fact that pope died (rather suddenly!) before he could officially promulgate a revision of the Vulgate containing serious errors.
The interesting case of Pope John XXII and the beatific vision
In fact perhaps the closest run case is probably that of Pope John XXII, who set out the theory that the souls of the just would not enjoy the beatific vision until the Day of Judgment.
It should first be noted that he cannot be judged a formal heretic for his views on this subject for exactly the same reason as St Thomas Aquinas cannot be judged a heretic for his rejection of the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception: one cannot be adjudged a heretic against a doctrine that has not yet been formally defined. And John XXII made no attempt to formally define doctrine on this topic; the issue was decisively resolved by his successor.
More importantly though, Pope John XXII expressly stated his views as a 'private theologian' rather than as pope: he explained that his sermons on the subject 'were not intended to define doctrine but simply to begin discussion on a difficult theological issue' (Warren Carroll, The Glory of Christendom, Vol 3, pp372). In other words, what he said was not magisterial teaching. Moreover, he eventually retracted his opinion.
Ubi Petrus vs the sede view of the world
So can a Pope actually actively lead the faithful astray when he teaches officially on doctrine?
Whatever your theological views on this subject, I don't think that the history Hull cites provides any support for this contention.
Moreover, Hull goes a dangerous step further.
Hull argues that in the cases above, the dictum 'where Peter is, there is the Church' ceases to apply, so that in the case of Pope Liberius, for example, "the true Church became the small band of Christians gathered around the persecuted and excommunicated Bishop of Alexandria [ie St Athanasius]" (p144).
Sorry, but it seems to me that this is straight up sedevacantism: the Catholic Church has never accepted that there have been periods where the seat of Peter was vacant due to the heresy of a pope, quite the contrary.
In my view, those who hold that a pope can in fact be a heretic have one thing in common: they tend to assert that 'we [and not he] are the Church'.
At one end of the spectrum this camp takes in extreme traditionalists and sede-vacantists; at the other liberals who hold that doctrines can actually change, and the majority rules principle applies.
It is equally dangerous at both extremes.
For a genuinely Catholic history....
I haven't bothered to dig into some of the history Hull discusses that I'm less familiar with, but I strongly suspect that if I did I would find similar errors, omissions and very selective treatment of what actually occurred. Certainly I've noticed that almost all of his references are very old indeed, and yet there is a lot of very good, more recent scholarship around on many of the topics he deals with.
Of course, what is driving this selectivity is a particular theological perspective, and I'll say more about Hull's ecclesiology (he is basically on the side of Cardinal Kaspar in the famous Kaspar vs Ratzinger debate on the primacy of the local vs the universal church) and his, in my view erroneous, view of what constitutes the Tradition in a subsequent post.
In the meantime, if you want to read an actually Catholic history that deals with these issues, I would strongly recommend Warren H Carroll's A History of Christendom series. As well as being highly readable, entertaining books, this series provides an excellent sketch of the history of many key doctrinal points, as well as answers to many of the common lines of attack on the history of the Church. A set of books for every Catholic should own in my view...