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Current controversies and Fr. Fortescue’s exegetical principle

It is not merely contrary to common sense, but contrary to Catholic orthodoxy, to suggest that on some moral or theological matter the Fathers of the Church all misunderstood scripture or that the Church herself has for centuries done so.

In his book The Early Papacy: To the Synod of Chalcedon in 451, Fr. Adrian Fortescue argues that the essential Catholic claims about the authority of the pope can all be found in patristic texts from the period referred to in the title.  You may or may not agree with him about that, but the papacy is not my topic here.  What I want to call attention to instead is a general exegetical principle Fortescue appeals to at the start.  He writes:

Before we quote our texts, there is yet a remark to be made.  Nearly all these quotations are quite well known already.  This does not affect their value.  If a text proves a thesis, it does not matter at all whether it is now quoted for the first or the hundredth time…  Naturally, people who deny [what we believe]… also have something to say about them.  In each case they make what attempt they can to show that the writer does not really admit what we claim, in spite of his words… The case is always the same.  We quote words, of which the plain meaning seems to be that their writer believed what we believe, in some point.  The opponent then tries to strip his words of this meaning… The answer is that, in all cases, we must suppose that a sane man, who uses definite expressions, means what he says, unless the contrary can be proved.  To polish off a statement with which you do not agree by saying that it is not meant, and leave the matter at that, is a silly proceeding.

There is another general issue here.  These early Fathers are witnesses of the belief of their time.  Now, the value of evidence increases as it is multiplied.  We must take the value, not of one text, but of all put together.  Here we have a great number of texts that all make for the same point.  The fact that all do make for the same point suggests the reasonable interpretation of each.  All can be understood naturally, supposing that their writers believed [what we believe]… If you do not admit that, you have to find a different, often a most tortuous, interpretation for each.  The rule of good reasoning is that one simple cause that accounts equally for all the phenomena is to be supposed the real one, unless it be proved false. (pp. 53-54)

For ease of reference, I am going to give the label “Fortescue’s Principle” to the thesis implicit here, though of course I am not thereby suggesting that it was original to Fortescue.  We can formulate it as follows:

Fortescue’s Principle: If a large number of texts from a certain period are all naturally read as teaching that p, and were for centuries afterward commonly understood as teaching that p, then there is at the very least a very strong presumption that they do in fact teach that p.

This principle is a matter of common sense.  It is, of course, possible that the natural interpretation of some particular text considered in isolation might not be the correct interpretation.  But the probability that it is incorrect decreases dramatically if lots of other texts from the same general time and place say the same thing on a natural interpretation.  To think otherwise, you’d have to believe that writers in general in that time and place just didn’t know how to express themselves clearly, and somehow all tended to misstate things in exactly the same way – which merely adds improbability to improbability.

For example, no one doubts that (say) nineteenth-century socialists were critical of capitalism and that nineteenth-century abolitionists were opposed to slavery.  If some contemporary historian came along and argued that we have for a century and a half been misinterpreting all the relevant statements from that period, no one would take him seriously.  It wouldn’t matter if he produced clever exegesis of this or that particular text that purported to show, based on nuances in linguistic usage, that some reading other than the natural one was possible.  The idea that all the relevant texts have been systematically misunderstood for that long is just too silly to credit.

Something like Fortescue’s Principle is implicit in the First Vatican Council’s teaching that “in matters of faith and morals… that meaning of Holy Scripture must be held to be the true one, which Holy mother Church held and holds” and that “it is not permissible for anyone to interpret Holy Scripture in a sense contrary to this, or indeed against the unanimous consent of the fathers.”  It is not merely contrary to common sense, but contrary to Catholic orthodoxy, to suggest that on some moral or theological matter the Fathers of the Church all misunderstood scripture or that the Church herself has for centuries done so.

All the same, Fortescue’s Principle is routinely violated by theologians who don’t like some doctrine that has always been understood to be the teaching of scripture and the Church Fathers, but who don’t want to be accused of rejecting the authority of scripture and the Fathers.  Worse, such violations of Fortescue’s Principle are shamelessly presented as if they were applications of good scholarly practice, when in fact they are contrary to it.

Here’s how the sophistry works.  First, some revisionist biblical or patristic scholar cobbles together a strained reinterpretation of a text that has always been taken to teach some traditional doctrine.  This is usually done with a great show of learning, heavy going about what the Hebrew, Aramaic, or Greek “really” says (never mind the fact that two millennia of theologians who also knew the relevant languages understood it the traditional way), and so on.  Then, other revisionist scholars casually and routinely cite this reinterpretation as if it has somehow established once and for all that the traditional interpretation is mistaken (when in fact the very most that can be said is that the novel interpretation might be defensible, though often even to say that much is too generous).  Similarly strained and tendentious reinterpretations of other texts are developed, and then also casually cited by other revisionists as if they too were definitive.

Before you know it, the revisionist scholars present this jerry-rigged collection of far-fetched reinterpretations as if they constitute the settled scholarly wisdom, and as if anyone who dissents from it hasn’t gotten the news or is otherwise out of touch.  Appeals to or defenses of the traditional interpretations are dismissed as hackneyed (“Oh, that again!”), or as shallow and non-scholarly exercises in “proof-texting.”  The whole thing is a gaslighting exercise.

For example, this is now a stock rhetorical ploy of theologians who don’t like traditional Christian teaching about sexuality, but who’d prefer to avoid contradicting scripture outright.  The tactic is to pretend that all the relevant texts have for centuries been misinterpreted, and that modern scholars have finally revealed their true import.  The proposed reinterpretations have easily been refuted by Robert Gagnon and other scholars, but that matters not a whit to the revisionists.  Their desire is not in the first place to determine whether modern attitudes really are consistent with scripture, but rather to find a way to make scripture consistent with modern attitudes – or at least to kick up enough dust that non-experts can be made to think that there is some doubt about what scripture really says.

Or, to consider examples familiar to regular readers of this blog, consider capital punishment and the doctrine of eternal damnation.  The manifest teaching of scripture and the Fathers is that the state can at least in principle licitly resort to capital punishment (even if some of the Fathers urged against its use in practice).  As Joe Bessette and I demonstrate in our book on the subject, you simply cannot reconcile the extreme thesis that capital punishment is always and intrinsically immoral (as opposed to ill-advised in practice) with scripture and the Fathers.

Accordingly, theologians who want to push this extreme position without explicitly rejecting the authority of scripture and the Fathers have tried to come up with novel interpretations of the key texts.  None of these considered individually is terribly plausible, as I have shown in the cases of the reinterpretations defended by writers like BruggerGriffiths, HartFinnis, and Fastiggi.  But even if one or two of them were defensible, the idea that the true import of all the relevant scriptural and patristic evidence has been misunderstood for two millennia is simply too silly for words, a clear violation both of Fortescue’s Principle and of the teaching of the First Vatican Council.

Eternal damnation is also manifestly taught in scripture and the Fathers in text after text after text.  In order to deny this, you have to believe that not just one or two passages, but the entire tradition has been misunderstood for centuries.

The gaslighting and dust-kicking-up represented by violations of Fortescue’s Principle is in fact not true exegesis at all, but eisegesis – reading some meaning into a text rather than out of it.  It is bad enough when theological modernists engage in this tactic, but as some of the examples cited above indicate, it is occasionally resorted to even by otherwise orthodox Catholics.  Perhaps without realizing it, they thereby abandon a principle which in other contexts they would find essential (as Fortescue himself does) in upholding the basic claims of the Church.

(Editor’s note: This essay originally appeared, in slightly different form, on the author’s blog and is reposted here with his kind permission.)

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About Dr. Edward Feser 47 Articles
Edward Feser is the author of several books on philosophy and morality, including All One in Christ: A Catholic Critique of Racism and Critical Race Theory (Ignatius Press, August 2022), and Five Proofs of the Existence of God and is co-author of By Man Shall His Blood Be Shed: A Catholic Defense of Capital Punishment, both also published by Ignatius Press.


  1. “What Jesus (or anyone else) ‘really’ meant” hit its modern stride with the advent of “the New Christianity” heralded by Henri de Saint-Simon in his book with that title published in 1825. Originally known as “the Democratic Religion,” the “new things” of socialism and modernism — the same thing, according to G.K. Chesterton — claimed to strip away all the distortions imposed by priests and kings and restore the real message of Jesus that preached the Kingdom of God on Earth through the abolition of private property, marriage and family, and organized religion. Modern(ist) prophets of the New Christianity shift the basis of belief from reason guided and illuminated by faith and vice versa, to faith or reason alone. As Fulton Sheen noted in “God and Intelligence,” this shifts everything from knowledge to opinion, and “alters the seat of authority, inverting the natural and the supernatural, putting the human abstraction of the collective above man, and man above God. This is why the First Vatican Council, the Oath Against Modernism, and Humani Generis, among other documents, all affirm that God and the natural law may be known by the force and light of human reason alone.

  2. Words mean what they can be shown to have meant to those who used them. For instance, it is a matter of historical fact that for the first one thousand eight hundred years of church history, the “least ones” of Matthew 25 referred exclusively to Christians, and not to anyone and everyone who may have suffered some deprivation. But try to tell that to people today, and watch what happens. For the modern Christian, words in the Bible mean “what they mean to me”, without any objective reference.

  3. Thank you Dr. Feser.

    The “contemporary-cult” or what I shall call “McCarrick-cult” most definitely operates in the deceitful manner you have described here.

    This certainly flows from the arrogance and deceit motivating the “McCarrick-cult,” who with McCarrick, in 1967, published the cult manifesto “The Land of Lakes Statement” declaring that their “Catholic” universities were unbound by “any authority.”

    The legacy of this 50-year-long cult of deceit is today’s “CHURCH OF SEX ABUSE AND FINACIAL FRAUD.”

    Such men refuse the authority of scripture and tradition, as dies their mentor McCarrick. This leaves them with no moral authority whatsoever, and reduces their appeal to authority to the only false god they truly worship, which is their own personal authority as mere office holders.

    Such man are the office holders of “The Decapitated Body,” to employ the theme used by Fr. Robert Imbelli in his essay “No Decapitated Body,” where he reluctantly admits of the widespread and high reaching apostasy of the contemporary Church establishment. Imbelli’s essay was published in the journal Nova et Vetera, with link here:

    A Church that does what the “McCarrick-cult” does, and rejects scripture and tradition in favor of mere office holders, as avowed by the deceitful Rev. Rosica, spokesman of the Pontiff Francis, does not worship the Holy Trinity, nor does it obey or imitate The Good Shepherd.

    It is a cult of frauds, who live as parasites eating the Body of Christ from the inside, as they work in darkness to subvert his kingdom of heaven.

    Such men are the dry wood prophesied by The Lord on a Friday in Jerusalem, 2000 years ago. They are fit for a consuming fire. I pray in God’s mercy that his Church be liberated from such men as these, and I pray that all such men enslaved to the idolatry of mere office holders might be saved from their errors by the light of Christ.

  4. Thank you for this article. I agree that we should follow the general consensus of the Fathers on matters of theological debate among scholars. The Magisterium, though, needs to assess which teachings of the Fathers are open to revision and which are not. On the question of capital punishment, Pope Francis has noted: “From the earliest centuries of the Church, some were clearly opposed to capital punishment” (encyclical, Fratelli Tutti, October 3, 2020, no. 265). Perhaps the most significant of these opponents was Pope St. Nicholas I who, in his November 13, 866 letter to the Bulgarians, writes: “….And just as Christ has led you from eternal death — in which you were held bound — to eternal life, just so with diligence and in every occasion (omni occasione) you are to save from death not only the innocent but also the guilty, in accordance with the most wise Solomon: Save those who are led to death; and do not cease freeing those who are brought to execution’ (Prov. 24:11).” (Pope Nicholas I, Epistula 97, cap. 25; PL 119, 991; referred to in Fratelli Tutti, 265). In your book co-authored with Joseph Bessette, you describe this as a “prudential” judgement. This is not correct. Pope St. Nicholas I asks that the guilty be saved from death for theological not prudential reasons. Scholars can debate whether there was a clear consensus of the Fathers regarding the theoretical morality of capital punishment. Neither the Fathers nor the Church, though, ever taught infallibly that the death penalty MUST be used. Today, the Church teaches that its use is inadmissible because of a development (inter alia) in the understanding of the dignity and inviolability of the human person. This is what the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith teaches; this is what Pope Francis teaches; and this is what the Catholic bishops in communion with the Roman Pontiff teach. I know some Catholics disagree with this teaching. Their opinion, though, is not authoritative. The revised teaching of CCC 2267 represents an authoritative teaching of the ordinary Magisterium. It is also a teaching reaffirmed by a papal encyclical (i.e. Fratelli Tutti). As an authoritative teaching of the ordinary Magisterium, it needs to be adhered to with religious submission of intellect and will according to Lumen Gentium, 25 and the 1983 Code of Canon Law, no. 752. I am sorry if you and others disagree with this teaching. I, though, will follow the teaching of the Church on this matter. The revised text of CCC, 2267 does not say “Pope Francis teaches” but “the Church teaches.” As Catholics we should follow the teaching of the Church according to the mind of the living Magisterium.

    • When Pope Francis initially documented his rationale against the death penalty most observers familiar with canon law, theological definition were puzzled with his strange use of the word inadmissible. Pope Francis nowhere that I’m aware of defines the death penalty as intrinsically evil. The reason I submit Robert is that he’s aware of the historically definitive affirmation of the penalty and wishes to circumvent error. What he says, as documented is that as inadmissible there are instances in which it might be admissible. Despite change to the Catechism what he is teaching is not remarkably different from what John Paul II held.

    • “Today, the Church teaches that its use is inadmissible because of a development (inter alia) in the understanding of the dignity and inviolability of the human person. …The revised text of CCC, 2267 does not say ‘Pope Francis teaches’ but ‘the Church teaches.'” This is the “Development of Doctrine” approach, yes. But doctrine develops, it does not reverse or collapse. Otherwise, tradition is a wax nose, a la the Mormons, and in 50 years we will indeed have Pope James Martin blessing same sex unions and claiming old teachings on sexuality contradict the dignity of humans.

      • The Catechism is not of itself an infallibly pronounced magisterial document. There are sections that contain infallible doctrines, although there are many other sections that are teaching [doctrine] that is authoritative but not infallible. The new Catechism 2267 stating that the death penalty is inadmissible, is not an example of the Church teaching infallibly. That is because Pope Francis never made a formal infallible pronouncement to the Church from the Chair of Peter that the death penalty is an intrinsic evil.

    • You say: The Magisterium, though, needs to assess which teachings of the Fathers are open to revision and which are not.

      The crux of the matter is this: No one pope should seek to revise matters that many other popes and numerous other magisterial teachings have taught over extended periods of time. Such actions undermine the inherent value and unity of the papacy itself. I submit this: A papacy which dares suggest his words are a better revision than those of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ in Scripture? Laughable, ludicrous, insane, without a shred of credibility.

  5. As long as we have convictions, predilections even if not directly related to science it’s virtually inevitable that for the vast majority their science will be slanted. Revisionist historians are commonplace examples of rewriting history as with White supremacy theory that America was founded on the principle of slavery evident in a Virginia 1640 statute. Except that the Constitution contains Jefferson’s All men are created equal, the basis for which constitutionalists argue led to emancipation. And that there are, as Dr Feser writes, objective historical as well as biblical scientists as demonstrated by Fr Adrian Fortescue. Feser wastes no words in getting to the meat of the matter, citing Vat I, “That it is not permissible for anyone to interpret Holy Scripture in a sense contrary to this [in matters of faith and morals the meaning of Holy Scripture must be held to be the true one, which Holy mother Church held and holds] and or indeed against the unanimous consent of the fathers.” Benedict XVI presaged this in Jesus of Nazareth, demonstrating the error of not simply Bultmann’s demythology, also the exegetical distancing from the explicit, even suggested spiritual content of texts. That of course centers on a moral way of life consistent with Christ’s revelation. Pope Francis’ new paradigmatic interpretation of the Gospels is the preeminent issue related to Fr Fortescue’s principle of veracity. Although Francis hasn’t made magisterial pronouncements he frequently suggests, for example, Christ did not definitively confirm condemnation to eternal punishment for the unrepentant. Pope Francis’ painting of a naked Christ lifting to his shoulders a naked Judas [apparently an Archbishop Vicenzo Paglia gift] may be considered indicative of his personal leaning. Along with much else that is more explicit it goes to a doctrine of unconditional mercy elicited from reconstructed scriptural interpretation inconsistent with the consistent.

  6. Here is the Latin version of CCC 2267, found on the Vatican Website, and is translated by Fr. George Welzbacher in The Catholic Servant, December 2018

    Quapropter Ecclesia, sub Evangelii luce, docet “poenam capitalem non posse admitti quippe quae repugnet inviolabili personae humanae dignitati”[1] atque Ipsa devovet se eidemque per omnem orbem abolendae.

    The Church teaches that the death penalty is inadmissible in as much as (not because) it could be (not it is) an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person.

    Notice: this leaves the door open for an exception.

    • Thank you for raising this translation issue. When introducing a reason or a cause, the Latin word “quippe” can be translated as “for,” “because,” or “inasmuch as” (see Lewis and Short’s New Latin Dictionary, 1907). “Because” is certainly a legitimate English translation of “quippe” for the revised text of CCC, 2267. Other vernacular translations of “quippe” (of this text) also bear this out. The Italian has “perchè” and the Spanish has “porque.” Each of these has the primary meaning of “because.” The French has “car,” which can mean “for” or “because.” The German has “weil,” which means “because,” as”, or “since.” I don’t think translating “quippe” as “because” or “inasmuch as” makes that much difference with regard to the meaning of the revised text of CCC, 2267.

      It is true that “repugnet” is in the subjective not the indicative. This, though, could be explained by the common Latin use of the subjunctive in a relative clause introduced by “quippe.” The vernacular translations of “repugnet” in Italian, Spanish, and German all have the indicative not the subjunctive (attenta, atenta, and verstößt). The French has “attente,” which could be either indicative or subjunctive. It’s also important to note that the footnote to the revised Latin text of CCC, 2267 cites the October 11, 2017 address of Pope Francis to the Pontifical Council for the New Evangelization. This address was given in Italian, and it makes use of the indicative not the subjunctive in the key passage: “la pena di morte è inammissibile perché attenta all’inviolabilità e dignità della persona” (the death penalty is inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person). The footnote provides the proper understanding of the Latin text.

  7. This is very significant and very good. Perhaps Dr. Feser is familiar with Cardinal Newman’s “The Grammar of Assent?” That is probably where his argument above came from at least indirectly.

    I came across something on a website that “redefined” sodomy to include all types of sexual perversions (including the “standard” understanding of the word) based on a single quote from a saint. It is highly doubtful that this was correct. Of course, there are different words for the different essences of the sins and thus the degree of guilt will be different depending on the act. Sodomy would be different from fornication, rape, etc.

  8. When asked earlier for clarification on the GOSPEL OF LIFE (1995, n. 56), Cardinals Ratzinger and Avery Dulles reaffirmed continuity with past teachings, and the legitimacy of retributive justice and defense of the public order (not simply rehabilitation).

    Cardinal RATZINGER responded: “Clearly the Holy Father has not altered the doctrinal principles…but has simply deepened (their) application…in the context of present-day historical circumstances” (National Review, July 10, 1995, p. 14; First Things, Oct. 1995, 83).

    In the now notorious July 2004 letter to former-Cardinal McCarrick, Ratzinger wrote: “Not all moral issues have the same moral weight as abortion and euthanasia….There may be a legitimate diversity of opinion even among Catholics about waging war and applying the death penalty, but not however with regard to abortion and euthanasia.”

    Cardinal Avery DULLES concluded that traditional teachings on “retributive justice” and “vindication of the moral order” are not reversed by John Paul II’s now very strong “prudential judgment” regarding the use of capital punishment. The pope simply remained silent on these teachings. (“Seven Reasons America Shouldn’t Execute”, National Catholic Register, 3-24-02).Silent…

    So, the QUESTION for the Gospel of Life: why did Pope St. John Paul II remain silent on the [retained?] traditional dimension of retributive justice? “Qui tacet consentire videtur, ubi loqui debuit ac potuit” (“He who remains silent, when he ought to have spoken and was able to, is taken to agree”—Ancient Latin maxim.) St. Thomas More put it this way in the film A Man for All Seasons: “The maxim is Qui tacet consentit: the maxim of the law is ‘Silence gives consent.’ If therefore you wish to construe what my silence betokened, you must construe that I consented.’” And, equally (?), what too of FRATELLI TUTTI (2020) and even the Church on the still-shaded meaning of “inadmissible”?

    As for possible rehabilitation and conversions, we also have this from Samuel Johnson: “Depend upon it, sir, when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.”

  9. What about justice for the victim? For the inviolability and dignity of the victim. Pope Francis has made statements opposing life sentences. During the clerical abuse crisis the Church practiced catch and release which enabled more abuse and the damaging of more people. Too much repentance free mercy and forgiveness. Sanctioning the abuser was the only thing that corrected the situation.
    Justice without mercy can be unjust, and mercy without justice can be merciless. I wonder if Pope Francis and the Church hierarchy are on speaking terms with justice? There appear to be people who are bound and determined to see that there is no justice in this world or the next.

  10. Dr Feser believes in the Objective Truth whereas moderns, progressives contend that truth is subjective, personal opinions are true even if contradictory. No small wonders that the adherents of the liberal church would not be familiar with Scripture verses or Reason that do not support their personal agendas. As for “Fortescue’s Principle” one suspect they would appeal to the gnostic principal that if the Church Fathers knew then what we know now the Fathers would agree with us.

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