The Impact of Infallibility and the Future of Catholicism
Editorial FAITH Magazine July-August 2006
Church Teaching and Parish Life
The idea of ‘Church teaching’ as the primary source of doctrinal and moral guidance seems to impinge less and less on the consciousness of the average Catholic parishioner in the UK. Given the Catholic claim that the Church’s Magisterium is organically and apostolically linked to Christ’s messianic authority—his commission from the Father to proclaim the final and plenary Truth to the world—this is surely a great cause for concern.
This decline in the impact of the Church’s teaching authority among ordinary Catholics seems to apply not just to controversial and perhaps predictable issues such as questions of sexual morality, the debate over women priests or intercommunion with non-Catholic Christians. It now applies across the whole range of Catholic doctrine and apologetics.
When it comes to core issues of belief and morality, the people in our parishes increasingly regard the Magisterium as just one voice among others to be considered. Church teachings are seen as the opinions of the institution which, along with other publicised views, may or may not command respect and attention, according to their perceived relevance to one’s own life. Church teaching, no matter how often or how solemnly it may be defined, is no longer the decisive factor that commands the conscience of the faithful in many cases.
Decline in Catholic Culture
During an address in Rome last April entitled “The Presentation of the Magisterium of the Church in the World of the Media” Archbishop Amato, secretary to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, spoke of the “extreme cultural poverty of the majority of the Catholic faithful”. This, he suggested, has allowed the media to present the Magisterium convincingly as just a human institution, whose authority rests on purely human insights and motivations. He concluded that “professionals are required, especially lay people, who know the two languages: of communication and of theology.”
Although we agree that many Catholics suffer from cultural impoverishment, in our opinion the task of restoration is much more than just one of communication. The impoverishment of the Catholic laity is more than just cultural. It is rooted in a profound intellectual and spiritual crisis over the nature and identity of Catholic Christianity altogether.
The claim to infallibility is yet another area where the intellectual coherence and pastoral power of Catholic theology is in urgent need of development and renewal. We need to demonstrate that the Church’s charism of infallibility is a fundamental aspect of the presence and impact of Divinity within human history, deriving directly from the fact of the Incarnation. In this issue we publish a fascinating study of the theology of Dom Gueranger, who promotes this insight in a similar way as our own late editor Fr. Edward Holloway.
Popular Perceptions and Secular Propaganda
To the secular mindset, the very idea of Church authority belongs to an outdated and oppressive monarchical model of community. And centuries of anti-clerical propaganda have prejudiced the popular imagination—even among many Catholics now—so as to effectively divide Christ from his Church. The widely held perception of an unwieldy and remote Vatican is felt to be hard to equate with the image of Jesus the gentle preacher by the lake of Galilee. Of course these perceptions beg many questions both about the true nature of the Vatican and about the real preaching of Jesus.
Yet constant reminders in the media, both secular and Catholic, about the ‘iniquities’ of the Inquisition and the Crusades, or supposed Papal ‘mistakes’ over usury, Galileo and so on, continue to undermine the confidence of the Catholic faithful in their own ecclesial heritage. We publish corrective views about slavery and usury later in this edition.
Unfortunately—one could say tragically, even scandalously—further disorientation of the faithful arises from dissent on important issues where authoritative Catholic Tradition ought to be decisive, even at the highest level inside the Church. Luke Gormally’s topical and timely corrective note about Catholic teaching on the concept of ‘lesser evil’, which we also publish in this issue, is occasioned by exactly this sort of question.
What is at stake is far more than just conformity to ecclesiastical authority and the spirit of obedience. The core of the issue is this: “Life in fact can never be grounded upon doubt, uncertainty or deceit; such an existence would be threatened constantly by fear and anxiety. One may define the human being, therefore, as the one who seeks the truth.” (Fides et Ratio, 28).
This may explain the widespread retreat into subjectivity in modern pastoral life, eg. the emphasis on “feel-good” liturgies. For the liturgy is also linked to issues of truth and magisterium. Liturgy is the public expression of Divine Truth accepted and lived out joyfully by the members of Christ. It celebrates the active, dynamic and, yes, authoritative Presence of God the Word, Incarnate as Sacrifice and Sacrament of salvation.
Of course we all want Parish liturgies to be warm with devotion and the spirit of familial charity, but in the end no amount of getting “high” on incidentals can stave off the disorientation of conscience and the sense of spiritual dissipation and anxiety caused by the Word-uncertain, the impact of a Christianity that is tentative and relativistic in matters of faith and moral doctrine.
Historic Christianity claims to answer definitively the human search for meaning and truth. It claims to offer a Light by which we can focus and direct our deepest yearning for freedom and for loving. If we really believe what we say in the Creed, that Jesus is ‘God from God: Light from Light: true God from true God’ then we must also expect him to teach an objective faith and a definitive moral way. And the same objective certainty that lives in Christ must also live infallibly in the solemn declarations of his Church.
Those who reject the possibility of infallibility per se, dismissing the idea of any voice that can speak with divine certainty in human history, cannot really have pondered or accepted the literal truth of the Incarnation. For if God lives on earth among men, then that infallibility which belongs to him by right and title of being must find expression in the ongoing work, or 'economy', that is the Church he founded on the apostles.
Truth is not only his possession and identity, it is his vocation: “I came into the world for this, to bear witness to the Truth” (Jn 18:13). It was a very modern and secular agnostic Pontius Pilate who dismissed this claim with a puzzled shrug: “Truth, what is that?” (Jn 18:14). Jesus did not intend the Truth he brings into the life of the world to die with him on the cross. The Incarnation and its consequences were to abide in the world as an institution; indeed as The Institution, which he established for ministering both his Grace and his Truth to the ends of the earth and until the end of time.
The End of the Reformation Era
Across 'Western' or European culture—what used to be known as Christendom—and its derivative cultures around the globe, we are witnessing the end point of a movement that began with the Reformation. At the heart of the Reformation lay the principle of 'private judgment'. This effectively took the defining power of the Word of God out of the public fabric of society. It did not at that time reject the Word outright, but deposed its living articulation through the teaching Church and enshrined the Word in the written text of the Bible alone.
But who is to say what The Book really means? The Holy Spirit speaking in the conscience of every believer? That is the answer given by most "Bible believing" Christians. But what when those voices contradict? Ultimately who knows where and when the Spirit speaks to men with final authority? What the Reformation really achieved, therefore, was to replace the Apostolic College centred on Peter—divinely appointed to preserve and interpret Scripture and Tradition through the ages—not with The Bible as an alternative source of infallibility, but with the subjective mind and heart of every reader.
Secularism The Consequence of Private Judgment
The fruit of this has not only been the inevitable splintering of Protestant denominations, but the eventual triumph of rationalism, relativism and secularism. For if the only truth is every man’s personal judgement, the only authority is the consensus of public opinion at any moment in history. This is the end to which the era of “private judgment” in matters of faith has inexorably led.
Every believer makes God in Jesus according to his own image and likeness and accommodates divine teaching to his own tastes and standards. If this is the final outcome of that dynamic, missionary Gospel Jesus entrusted to the Apostles, then it is a great sadness, but really no surprise that Christianity appears to have run into the sand at the beginning of the Third Millennium. If this is all we have to offer, then the best we can hope for is that Jesus will join the pantheon of gods, gurus and buddhas in the mystical East and perhaps be admired in the West as one of the ‘great souls’ of history, but no more than that.
This is certainly not the same Gospel that converted the Roman Empire, surviving wave after wave of bitter persecution. It is not the Faith that made Britain and Ireland into islands full of saints and courageous missionaries during the Dark Ages and later rebuilt a glorious civilisation in the European Middle Ages. Such achievements can only come from God’s Word accepted as living and objective certainty in the Magisterium of the Church, and the Majesty of that same Godhead humbly adored in living and objective reality in the sacraments. Catholicism alone answers this description.
The Need For A Renewed Catholic Vision
But this thought should give us no cause for triumphalism. The Church is the custodian of Truth, not its author. She also has a duty to deepen her understanding of Revelation and to explain it anew in every age. And she can at times, for a while, fail in that duty. In 1978 Edward Holloway wrote in this magazine:
“This synthesis of Christian thought is not the Faith: it is the frame through which the Faith has been presented and focused in the Western Catholic Church. The last time it was an adequate frame through which to focus definitions of faith and morals, was the First Vatican Council of 1870. From that Council developed the period of ‘Fortress Vatican’ which lasted until 1960. From that fateful date the Holy Spirit, speaking through the Pope and the Fathers of the Council (not the periti) told the Church that a new frame was needed, both to safeguard the ancient treasury of the Faith, and to draw forth from that treasury ‘new’ things for this age, as well as the old things.
“It has been the tragedy of the Church that men blew up the portcullis of the fortress and filled in the moat with a happy zest, before they had any new strategy or new formulation of thought through which to focus anew and to develop anew the riches of the Faith. So many of the bishops did not know that the old mould of Scholasticism would not do as the means to recast the ideas and the ideals of the Aggiornamento. Besides, any new mould had to be adequate to safeguard the old, and still objective and utterly divine teaching of the Church.
"A large number of the theologians, and some very influential European prelates did know that the old mould would not do, but they had no alternative mould to offer, except what is technically called ‘Modernism’ or rationalism in theology. That is why the theology and cult of the Subjective is sweeping the Church: there have been no fruits, only increasing divisions and disintegration. Obviously the will and leading of the Holy Spirit is to be looked for elsewhere…”
In Search of New Coherence
What we needed then, and what we need all the more urgently now, is to see the meaning of The Magisterium of Christ with fresh eyes and a larger vision. We must trace the outlines of the Majesty and Magistry of the Mind of God through the whole of sweep of Creation from quarks to the brain of Man—and see in the process that modern scientific discovery is the ally not the enemy of this insight. We must follow this same Divine Word, Who is both Light and Joy for men, as he builds up both the Church and the Scriptures through priest, prophets and saints in the Old Testament. Above all we must ponder with renewed depth the full significance of the Incarnation of the Word, literally and personally, in Jesus Christ and all that flows from this Mystery. So we must also come to understand, withrenewed wonder and gratitude, how the Magisterium of the Word made Flesh lives and speaks in the Church with divinely guaranteed infallibility in the essentials of belief and moral principle until the end of the world.
Only through such a vision will we be able to recover that profoundly human attitude of listening to revelation, which is given to us in an equally human way through the Church. We all need to listen to the Word of God before we can proclaim it. We must be learners and followers— sheep who listen to the voice of the Shepherd—before ever we become teachers and leaders. Time and again history has proven the point that if we do not listen to Christ’s infallible voice speaking in his Church, then some fallible, culturally appointed cult figure will command our attention—and they always turn out to be false prophets.
Timothy Finigan’s analyis of Opening Up: Speaking Out in the Church in the book reviews section of this issue shows us a striking example of precisely this malaise which threatens the heart of British Catholicism and already grips the heart of British culture. The resultant confusion and uncertainty—even immorality—undermines the ability of large numbers of Catholics in this country to commit to a counter-cultural religious movement and blocks many of the young from discerning a vocation to the religious life.
False Ecumenism Undermines The Faithful
W e also have to say honestly that the direction taken by ecumenism in this country has been singularly unhelpful, if not positively destructive, in this matter. This is not to say that there cannot be and should not be a genuine ecumenism which could reunite all Christians around a renewed vision of the fully divine Messiah.
Most Catholic parishes trustingly contribute to the improvement of ecumenical relationships through shared spiritual events. Thankfully we have shed the ghetto mentality of the recent past and the point scoring approach to apologetics that often went with it. But among the ordinary laity there has been little growth in a true understanding of Catholicism in relation to the various forms of non-Catholic Christianity.
All that has happened is that most of our people have been subconsciously drawn into following more or less the mental outlook of the Reformation. It is not uncommon to meet Catholics who have tacitly adopted a vaguely evangelical Christianity. They see the Bible as the ultimate authority and the last line of defence against Christianity dissolving into the relativism of the surrounding culture. So they hold Scripture to be a more secure source of certainty than the Church.
Misleading Uses Of Scripture
Th is impression is reinforced by some diocesan schemes designed for use by small discussion groups in parishes, which encourage debate about scriptural passages without any doctrinal framework or guidance. RCIA programmes can all too often be of the same non-directive, non-doctrinal character. No one explains that the Bible is actually the Church’s book. We all too easily forget that the Scriptures derive from and can only be understood properly in the light of the Apostolic Faith. So it is more true to say that the Bible is based on Catholicism than the other way around.
More and more of our people are losing the Catholic instinct which interprets the Bible ‘with the Mind of the Church’. Therefore they do not benefit from the true formative power of the inspired text. Rather than building sound faith, such unguided use of scripture easily creates more confusion than clarity.
By default rather than by design, many Catholics are drifting into the same mind set as the average secular humanist. While this grieves us, it should not surprise us, for it is the unavoidable effect of relativism in theology and pastoral practice which has its roots in the Reformation philosophy of private judgment which has held sway among Catholics for some decades now.
The Journey of Faith that Leads to The Light
It is shocking to the modern mind that the Church claims to know better than the individual, even to know better than the intellectuals of the day. Yet if we truly believe that the Incarnation is the crowing glory of creation, of history and of humanity, then we have no need to fear that Church teaching will somehow rob us of our intellectual initiative or suppress our true selves.
The Word always rings true in the deep recesses of the human spirit. In an unfallen world it would always have been welcomed with joy, but the reality of sin means that it is most often heard either with a sadness borne of honesty that leads to repentance and peace, or else by a shrug of dismissive indifference and then by bitter and angry rejection—well, the Lord spoke frankly about the lethal danger that lay down that road!
To be “orthodox” in attitude does not simply mean that one’s opinions happen to coincide with the Magisterium. This is a common prejudice among those who routinely dissent from the Magisterium. In fact those who uphold the Church’s teaching on difficult and controversial points may not have always understood why the Church teaches what she does. When faced with perplexity the orthodox mind concedes that the Church is right, then through prayer and reflection comes to understand and experience the liberating power of the Truth she teaches.
Submission of the Mind to the Divine Word is not slavish or unreasonable. St. Peter said to the Lord: “To whom else shall we go, you have the message of eternal life” (Jn 6:60). At first for the Prince of Apostles this was an act of pure faith in the darkness and crisis of the moment. But by journeying through that darkness in trust and attentiveness, the doctrine of the Master gradually filled his mind with the most fulfilling vision of Man in God. We can read it for ourselves in his letters which form part of the New Testament itself.
"Whatever You Bind On Earth"
In terms of dogma, moral doctrine and indeed of Church discipline, there is no higher court on earth than that of Peter and his successors. Immediately above it stands the court of Christ and the Sanhedrin of the angels, who validate in heaven whatever the supreme Apostolic office binds or loosens upon earth (Mt 16:19). Does this mean that the office of Peter is immune from scandal or sinfulness in its office holders? Not at all, as the tragic witness of history has sometimes shown, although we have been blessed in recent centuries with many Popes of outstanding personal holiness.
Through all the ups and downs of history, the office of Peter stands at the head of the Church on earth. It is not the whole Church, of course, but it is the essential focus of communion in Truth, because it is in fact the office of “The Master’s Voice”—the Magisterium—in public proclamation of the Word.
The Church: A Sign of Contradiction
Christ rightfully claims his place at the heart of humanity and at the heart of every human being, calling them to live the life of perfection in communion with Him. But, just as when he preached in Galilee and Judea, his Magisterium will be both welcomed and resented throughout the centuries.
It will elicit cries of outrage among the Sadducees and Pharisees and incredulity among the nations for the “impossible” doctrines of perfection that are preached. But it will also be welcomed with joy by many as the Light to enlighten the Gentiles and the Glory of your People Israel, that brings Life and Life in its fullness.