REPRINTED FROM DECEMBER 2017
A world-wide group of laymen and laywomen have just issued a defence of Catholic doctrine concerning Family and Life matters. The crucial paragraph, in my view, is this:
We pledge our full obedience to the hierarchy of the Catholic Church in the legitimate exercise of is authority. However, nothing will ever persuade us, or compel us, to abandon or contradict any article of the Catholic faith or any truth definitively established. If there is any conflict between the words and acts of any member of the hierarchy, even the pope, and the doctrine that the Church has always taught, we will remain faithful to the perennial teaching of the Church. If we were to depart from the Catholic faith, we would depart from Jesus Christ, to whom we wish to be united for all eternity."
This seems to me exactly right and exactly proportionate to the present situation in the Catholic Church. By a happy disposition of Providence, this Statement hit the media at the same time as Walter Kasper's gleeful conviction that Amoris laetitia has now become irreformable and that the 'controversy' is now over. Gracious me, what ultrahyperueberpapalist views of the Petrine Ministry these Liberals do have when they get a foul wind in their sails.
And the Statement reminds me of the phrase which Blessed John Henry Newman used in the context of the Arian controversy, in which the great majority of the Bishops, the Ecclesia docens, and including the Successor of S Peter, were either heretics, or were cowed into silence or compromise by the heretics. It is the phrase I have put at the head of this post, which I take in the sense in which Newman 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.
Surely, we are in another such period of suspense now. The question of the admission of adulterers to Holy Communion was magisterially dealt with as recently as 2007, only ten years ago, 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' grew wider when PF issued a document which has been interpreted in diametrically opposed ways. The Suspense will end when this or a subsequent Roman Pontiff or an Ecumenical Council reasserts with unmistakeable clarity the teaching of the Magisterium (or possibly when the error, having run its course, happily dies a natural death).
The learned Patron of the Ordinariate, 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; not a microgram of their God-given authority to teach the Faith was lost to them; but de facto they failed to guard and to teach that Faith. The concept of suspense is not so much theological as historical; an observation that anybody can make if they just look around.
Things now are very similar. The teaching of the Magisterium is, obviously, formally still vigore pleno; but numbers of unfaithful or negligent bishops behave as though it were not. In many cases, they appear and/or claim to do so with the connivance of the Successor of S Peter.
During a 'suspense', does the episcopal ministry of those bishops who are heterodox on just 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 heterodoxy?
Looking back into the great Anglican Patrimony which Pope Benedict invited us to bring with us into Catholic Unity, I recall a phrase dear to a distinguished and erudite Bishop of Oxford, Charles Gore [1853-1932; a doughty asserter of the doctrine which was re-asserted by Casti Connubii]: "the wonderful coherence of Christian doctrine". A later, even more erudite occupant of the same See, Kenneth Kirk, [1886-1954] commented: "Gore saw Christian doctrine as a unified whole ... It was his conviction, shared of course with the great Scholastic tradition in theology, that if any single article in this totality was attacked, varied, or distorted, the attack, variation, or distortion would be seen on inspection to affect every other article to a greater or lesser degree. ... if two systems each of which can claim some real degree of logical principle are in conflict on any one point, investigation will ultimately prove that they differ on every point, though at first sight this may be anything but apparent. For each system is, by hypothesis, self-consistent, and therefore all its members are interlocked, and whatever affects one of them must affect them all."
This is still one of my own working hermeneutical tools. Accordingly, I feel a tentative hesitation, during this lamentable suspense, about taking seriously any teaching statement of an apparently less that orthodox member of the hierarchy.
I throw open the above position to discussion, totally aware of my own fallibility, and anxious to be in all things a docile subject of the authentic Magisterium of the Catholic Church.
And I applaud the statement of Fidelity to Catholic Teaching issued by these eminent and admirable laypeople.