22 May 2019

PARRHESIA: Blessed John Henry Newman's views on aggressive insolent factions

As we prepare for the Canonisation of Blessed John Henry Newman, I can think of no better, nor more relevant, topic for thought than our great Blessed's Parrhesia with regard to what magisterial authorities of the Church were up to in Rome.

Early in 1870, B John Henry received a letter from his bishop William Ullathorne about the disgraceful bullying going on at the [First] Vatican Council. He replied with words which became justly famous: "Why should an aggressive insolent faction be allowed to 'make the heart of the just to mourn, whom the Lord hath not made sorrowful?'" ... words which spring easily to mind when one thinks about the synodical goings-on in Rome during this last couple of years and the Exhortation Amoris laetitia which emerged from those flawed processes. Seven months later, on 23 July, Newman saw the Definition of papal infallibility five days after it had passed through the Conciliar Aula. He was relieved, even delighted, at its "moderation"; it afforded him no problems; but "does it come to me with the authority of an Ecumenical Council?" 

Newman did not instantly accept it as such. He wanted to know what the conciliar minority would do. This was important, because unanimity, at least 'moral' unanimity, was accepted as essential for the validity of a conciliar definition of doctrine. If the Fathers "allege in detail acts of violence and deceit ... if they declare they have been kept in the dark and been practised on, then there will be the gravest reasons for determining that the Definition is not valid."

We may not possess 'our Cardinal's' immense erudition. But we are subject to the same moral imperatives as those by which he was moved to speak as he did.

After Vatican II, Cardinal Heenan (who deserves rehabilitation; he was an Archbishop of Westminster a cut above most of them) complained (Sire pp 200-201) that "During the last two weeks of the Council the fathers were called upon to cast their votes before they could possibly have studied the text and context, much less the implications, of the amendments".

Sadly, the Fathers of Vatican II, who were indeed subjected to acts of violence and deceit, kept in the dark and practised on, made no such corporate protest as would (in Blessed John Henry's view) have nullified the Council. Nor, even more sadly, did Parrhesia move them to make formally any individual protests. Even Archbishop Lefebvre's subsequent repudiations of the texts he had signed were not articulated until it became clearer, well after the Council, whither the Church was being led. Let us not condemn these men; it is easy for us very much lesser men to be wise half a century after the event. But the fact remains: they did not protest; they did not repudiate.

Not, of course, that this failure to protest mattered or matters too desperately, since Vatican II, unlike Vatican I, claimed to define no dogmas. Even less competent is a Synod (still less a mere episcopal Conference) to assert doctrinal or legislative authority. Nor, as I have repeatedly pointed out, does an Exhortation ex sese have exalted Magisterial authority. If it repeats what the Church has immemorially taught and practised, then it is  for that reason magisterial; if it were to bear manifest signs of shameless rupture, the reader would have to draw the necessary conclusion and repudiate it.

But what if such a document appears to hint at, to leave a loophole for, to wink salaciously in the direction of, the new, the heterodox, the ruptured? In this case, we should interpret and accept it solely in terms of previous magisterial documents which we can employ to clarify its ambiguities and fill up its lacunae ... while regretting that our Holy Father was too timid, possibly even too craven, to use this opportunity to speak, with Parrhesia, that Truth which is in Christ; the Truth which is Christ; the Truth of whom the Roman Pontiff is the Vicar. We should most certainly not behave like the Graf von Schoenborn, who at that News Conference condescendingly talked about 'Development', dishonestly mentioned Newman, and disgracefully shut Parrhesia down.


This is a time when we, laics and clerics and bishops, are called upon to speak with the same Parrhesia that Blessed John Henry employed. If Eminent gentlemen who, in Newman's words, wear the royal hue of empire and of martyrdom, attempt to bully, to intimidate, to misuse their status to silence any who speak out, we should remember 'our Cardinal's' condemnations of an aggressive insolent faction

We have the Holy Father's own reiterated encouragements of Parrhesia as our defence and inspiration. Not to mention Canon 212.

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