Heretical thought…will ever be foreign, strange,….to the pious but uncontroversial mind; for what have good Christians to do, in the ordinary course of things, with the subtle hallucinations of the intellect?
So Newman tells us in The Grammar of Assent. He was adressing a particular problem relating the assent of ordinary Christians to articles of faith defended by the Church against the products of what we might call ‘controversial minds’. It was hard not to think of his words when reading the products of the mind of the former Irish President, Mary McAleese, widely disseminated throughout a range of media last week.
She clearly would have very little time for John Henry Newman’s kind of fidelity to the teaching of Jesus Christ and His Church.
Why, Newman asks, should the refutations of heresy – and Mrs McAleese’s utterings are full of that old-fashioned phenomenon – be our objects of faith? if no mind, theological or not, can believe what it cannot understand, in what sense can the Canons of Councils and other ecclesiastical determinations be included in those credenda (things to be believed) which the Church presents to every Catholic as if apprehensible, and to which every Catholic gives his firm interior assent? He was defending the genuineness of the faith of people who assented whole-heartedly to the doctrines of Christianity even though they did not or could not fully understand them in a rational way.
There is clearly a great deal in the teaching of the Catholic Church and in its refutation of contrary teaching – on priestly celibacy, on the possibility of ordaining women, on the nature and meaning of other sacraments as well, on sexual morality – which Mary McAleese cannot understand and because she cannot understand it she proposes her own alternative teaching.
Mrs. McAleese and many of her kind – for example her fellow-travellers in that not-so-merry band, the Association of Catholic Priests – has great difficulty giving assent to any principle of the Catholic faith and morals which is out of sync with modern liberal wisdom, particularly if it contravenes the rather mindless principles of equality which that wisdom currently embraces.
She and they have no time for a Church which has a duty, as Newman expresses it, to act as “the pillar and ground of the Truth,” a Church manifestly obliged from time to time, and to the end of time, to denounce opinions incompatible with that truth, whenever able and subtle minds in her communion venture to publish such opinions.
Newman suggested considering a scenario in which certain Bishops and priests began to teach that Islamism or Buddhism was a direct and immediate revelation from God. She would be bound to use the authority which God has given her to declare that such a proposition will not stand with Christianity, and that those who hold it are none of hers; and she would be bound to impose such a declaration on that very knot of persons who had committed themselves to the novel proposition, in order that, if they would not recant, they might be separated from her communion, as they were separate from her faith.
Now it is very unlikely that these sort of measures are going to be taken against Mrs. McAleese – particularly in view of the hue and cry which has followed the mild requirements being made of certain priests who are teaching within the fold of the Church views quite at variance with accepted doctrine. But surely the implications of Newman’s writing should not be lost on her and others holding similar views. There is unlikely to be a de jure separation sought but is there not already a clear de facto separation in place? If it is not clear should it not be made so – as bishops in the US have requested from those politicians who have set their face against the moral teaching of the Catholic Church on a number of issues?
Civil servants are expected to publicly support and implement the policies of their governments – and if they do no they are asked to leave their office. Why is the same standard not accepted for and by the “servants of the servants of God”? Mrs. McAleese holds no office in the Catholic Church – although there is a suspicion that she might like to – but she does profess to be in communion with it. In this profession there is a huge contradiction.
In the case of the masses of the faithful Catholic population faced with the choice of following the innovators of doctrine or following the Church as understood by Newman he was clear that in such a case, her masses of population would at once take part with her, and without effort take any test, which secured the exclusion of the innovators; and she on the other hand would feel that what is a rule for some Catholics must be a rule for all. Who is to draw the line between who are to acknowledge that rule, and who are not? It is plain, there cannot be two rules of faith in the same communion, or rather, as the case really would be, an endless variety of rules, coming into force according to the multiplication of heretical theories, and to the degrees of knowledge and varieties of sentiment in individual Catholics.
A-la-carte or pick-and-choose Catholics now seem to resent being called such but in doing so they are just trying to have their cake and eat it. As Newman explained:
The “One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church” is an article of the Creed, and an article, which, inclusive of her infallibility, all men, high and low, can easily master and accept with a real and operative assent. It stands in the place of all abstruse propositions in a Catholic’s mind, for to believe in her word is virtually to believe in them all. Even what he cannot understand, at least he can believe to be true; and he believes it to be true because he believes in the Church.
In the end of the day that is what it comes down to and is it not about time that we began to shout it from the roof- tops so that it will be clear to everyone in this Year of Faith. Is it not time for those who wish to be authentic Catholics to make it very clear with Whom they stand and Whose standard they follow?