15 May 2020

"The Synodal Way": S Gregory Nazianzenus and S John Henry Newman's comment

A.D. 382: "S Gregory [Nazianzenus] writes: 'If I must speak the truth, I feel disposed to shun every conference of Bishops; for never saw I synod brought to a happy issue, and remedying, and not rather aggravating, existing evils. For rivalry and ambition are stronger than reason - do not think me extravagant for saying so - and a mediator is more likely to incur some imputation himself than to clear up the imputations which others lie under"(Epistola 129). It must ever be kept in mind that a passage like this only relates, and is here quoted only as relating, to that miserable time of which it is spoken. Nothing more can be argued from it than that the Ecclesia docens is not at every time the active instrument of the Church's infallibility.'"

This is from On Consulting the Faithful in matters of Doctrine by Saint John Henry Newman. I have said before, and I shall say again, that we can have no surer practical guide during times of ecclesial disorder than S John Henry. This is because of his deep understanding of the previous periods when the Church had been similarly afflicted. And his own immersion in the events surrounding Vatican I. And rememember that he is an extraordinarily subtle and precise thinker and writer. (His analysis of the Syllabus of Errors is perhaps the sharpest exammple of this.) In the piece I have printed above, I would draw yout attention to the last fourteen words. Each one of them is careful, and carefully weighed.

I would add a word of my own: A Catholic is obliged to be in communion with the See of S Peter (both when, as now, it is occupied, and also when, as during interregna, it is unoccupied). One is under no strict obligation to like the currently reigning Pontiff, nor to agree with him, nor to think that he is a man of prudence (although I think it is a mark of the mens Catholica to give him the benefit of any real doubt). Many bishops, and even cardinals, did not like Benedict XVI, did not agree with him, did not admire his prudence. Indeed, not a few of those hierarchs, as soon as Benedict abdicated, came crawling out of their lairs and said so. Presumably, as soon as Francis is either buried or abdicated, the same thing will happen.

You have to be in communion with him and to accept anything he defines ex cathedra to be the teaching of Christ. When, in his Ordinary Magisterium, he affirms the Church's teaching (and Francis has sometimes done that) you are thankful for it. When you have a problem with some word or action, you lean over backwards to see it in the best possible light. But your duties of faithfulness to Christ do not mean that you have to be pathologically sycophantic towards whoever happens to be at any particular time the current bishop of Rome. Still less, towards those who appear to speak on his behalf.

And we need to avoid the temptation to panic every time some daft bishops, or even some daft cardinal, says or does something ... daft.

This Pontiff has given encouragement to people to speak with parrhesia. I think we should accept him at his word.

But I do wonder why so many bishops have come to the conclusion that he doesn't really mean that.


IanW said...

Succinctly put.

K. M. Young said...


I read you daily and I want to thank you for your witness to the Truth in these dark times. That said, I do have a question for you somewhat related to this topic. It seems to me that Francis, in his change to CCC 2267, is attempting to communicate a binding change to the Church’s teaching on capital punishment. The change, indisputably contrary to the established teaching of the Church, also seems to carry the marks associated with an infallible exercise of the magisterium. Francis presumes to speak for the Church, on a matter of faith or morals, and rules out the traditional teaching as “per se contrary to the Gospel.” Am I mistaken in seeing this as a violation of infallibility?

erick said...

Wonderful post.

However, there is something that I always thought peculiar that Newman, as far as I know, never commented on. That is, for the duration of the first 1,000 years of Christendom, there is a 1:1 ratio between (a) a Pope being thought to be a heretic and (b) openly removing one's communion from him. Arguments which say that everyone must remain in communion with the see of Peter even if he is a heretic don't seem to come up until recent history. Since Gratian, the exception to "the first see can be judged by none" was heresy, and even then the idea was that there would be a sufficient amount of bishops to attend to it. However, what we have nowadays is not just the fear of a Pope being a heretic, but also an Episcopate which doesn't see the right, nor the need, to do anything about it.

Mick Jagger Gathers No Mosque said...

Upton Sinclair observed : It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on his not understanding it.

Applying Sinclair's observation to the Prelature's silence about the Heteropraxis of Our Pope and Our Cross, we could say

It is difficult to get a Prelate to object to heteropraxis when his position depends on his silence.

Todd said...

If you could be so kind as to direct me to Newman's commentary on the Syllabus of Errors, it would be greatly appreciated.

Calvin Engime said...

@K. M. Young: I do not think the change to the catechism is infallible, but if anyone is convinced that it is, I would suggest the seeming contradiction can be reconciled in the way Christian Washburn proposes by focusing on Francis' statements that what he means does not contradict past teaching, and his use of the word "today": https://www.stthomas.edu/media/catholicstudies/center/logosjournal/archives/2019/22.1Washburn.pdf

@Todd: Newman discusses the Syllabus in the Letter to the Duke of Norfolk: http://newmanreader.org/works/anglicans/volume2/gladstone/section7.html