14 November 2015

"The temporary suspense of the function of the Ecclesia Docens"

I've been thinking about this elegant and careful phrase with which Blessed John Henry Newman, not writing theologically but factually as an historian, described the period of the Arian ascendancy. I take it in the sense in which he subsequently clarified his use of it, and not otherwise.

I suppose we had a good example of this phenomenon of 'suspense' in the pontificate of Blessed Paul VI, in the period between his setting up of a Commission to consider the question of Contraception, and his very courageous subsequent reaffirmation of the Church's Magisterial Teaching with the publication of Humanae vitae.

I presume we are in another such period now. The question of  the admission of adulterers to Holy Communion was magisterially dealt with as recently as 2007 in Sacramentum Caritatis para 29; it had  received synodical and papal clarification in each of the last two pontificates; and is embedded in the Catechism. But a 'suspense' began when it was opened up to synodal debate; and that 'suspense' will end when this or a subsequent Roman Pontiff or an Ecumenical Council reasserts the teaching of the Magisterium (or possibly when the error, having run its course, dies a natural death).

Our learned Patron Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman made clear that he in no way implied the cessation of the Magisterial teaching or office during a 'suspense'. The Dogma of Nicea remained de jure fully in force; but was simply not treated as such by many bishops and so did not 'function'. The bishops remained ex officio guardians and teachers of the Faith; but de facto failed to guard and to teach it.

Things now are very similar. The teaching of the Magisterium is still, obviously, formally still vigore pleno; but numbers of unfaithful or negligent bishops behave as though it were not.

During a 'suspense', does the episcopal ministry of those bishops who are heterodox on this one point still call for religiosum obsequium on other matters? Or is one obliged to consider their entire episcope vitiated by just one point of formal heterodoxy?

Personally, I have a strong sense of the logical coinherence of the whole body of Christian teaching. Once you start unravelling the Church's doctrine, it seems to me, there will be no end to it. Hence, with a dubiously orthodox bishop or pope, one may rejoice in those portions of doctrine which he still appears to teach, but one will not be able to rest ones adhesion to those portions upon the fact that he does still teach them. "I do not say to you that you must believe X because bishop or pope Y teaches it; you must believe X because it is the defined teaching of the Church. Thus, if tomorrow, Y weakens his adherence to X, that will not, by so much as a nanogram, weaken your continuing obligation to believe X. It follows that Y's current assertion of X in no way strengthens your ground for believing X".

Thus a pope or bishop who has suspended his adherence to any part of the corpus of doctrine has put into suspense his entire magisterial ministry.

I emphasise that, throughout this piece, I am seeking not to give answers but to articulate questions. They are questions which I would very much prefer had not been put before us.

But they have been.


Melinda said...

Thanks for linking the current issues to the bigger picture, as always. A "temporary suspense of the function" is a very helpful and somewhat calming way to think about it. It seems to me like it falls upon the laity, then, to live out more courageously the Church's life-giving doctrine so that as few souls as possible are lost meanwhile.

Rose Marie said...

The suspension of the function of Ecclesia Docens has been a fundamental feature of the last 50 years. There were few, if any, sermons preached on not believing in the Real Presence, or not going to Confession, or not marrying in the Church (or at all), or not accepting Humani vitae. The strategy was simply not to teach and, surprise, very soon people no longer believe.

Rose Marie said...

Humanae vitae. Well, really, Father, how could you let that pass? I need you to keep me from embarrassing myself!