I touch a subject which is likely to tickle a nerve here or there. It is about a fundamental conception of the Church in its dimension of being compared with the government of a country, the analogy of the State. In history, countries have been ruled by monarchs, republics, evil dictators, constitutional monarchs and other systems of government. All these systems are put in place by different means: the King or Queen is placed on his or her throne by God on account of having been born a son or daughter of the late reigning Monarch. Men like Hitler, Stalin, Mussolini and others were as absolutist, if not more, but they arrived in their positions of power by brute force or by having manipulated the democratic system to their advantage. The USA and most European countries are ruled by republics and an elected President. The British Isles and the few remaining islands still forming the remnant Empire still have the Monarchy, but our government functions very much like a republic at the level of the Prime Minister, the Government and Parliament.
The Catholic Church has an elected Pope, but whose election is restricted to the College of Cardinals, and the Cardinals are named by the previous Pope. Though the Conclave has had its rules changed a little over the centuries, this system goes back centuries and seems to work very well. The election of the Pope is attributed to the Holy Spirit working through the agency of the assembled Cardinals. Very often, the result is a surprise, as when Cardinal Giuseppe Sarto was elected in 1903 and took the name Pius X – whereas the more liberal-minded Cardinal Rompolla was expected to be elected, but was vetoed by the Austrian emperor (who had the right to do such things in those days).
Things were never so simple in the Catholic Church, which was never simply a Monarchy with a pyramid-like structure. Since the second half of the nineteenth century, the tendency has been to consider all power as coming from the Pope, and the role of diocesan bishops and parish priests would simply be to apply the Pope’s power in their designated jurisdiction. I have been considerably influenced by reading Orthodox works and the famous book of Ignaz von Döllinger, The Pope and the Council. The Pope’s authority to sanctify, teach and govern the Church is ontologically no more than that of any bishop – he has this power because he is a bishop. We Anglicans on our way to the Ordinariates accept the teaching of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, and this teaching upholds the balanced position of Vatican I concerning the infallibility of the Pope under precisely defined conditions and his primacy of jurisdiction. We must be careful to avoid confusion between law and ontology: primacy of jurisdiction is a canonical concept, not metaphysical.
Is democracy in the Church possible? Is it desirable? Democracy, in its Greek etymological meaning is rule by the people. In reality, the theory is that the people approve of their rulers through a majority vote, but afterwards have to wait until the next general election to have a new ruling government. In the Church, it is more like a Monarchy, but which consults the lever levels – in theory. Any human organisation that depends on consulting at all levels gets bogged down by the committee spirit and institutional inertia. Subsidiarity has its downside. Everything depends on what and who we are consulting. Winston Churchill once said, "The best argument against democracy is a five minute conversation with the average voter". The Church of England is a victim of having put its doctrinal teaching authority in the hands of those who think such things are subject to a vote and institutional expediency. Who has not have the frustrating experience of long and drawn out discussions at a parochial church council about changing the vestry light bulb or repairing the gutters? I have often had the thought that man is collectively a stupid and bestial species, and brilliance and creativity can only come from individuals. I tend to think along those lines, but creativity and social organisation are two different things. The man who has gone through the process of individuation in the Jungian meaning of that word will tend to have as little to do with corporate structures and accept them merely as a necessary constraint!
I have a handy little volume in my library, Newman’s On consulting the faithful in matters of doctrine, from The Rambler, vol. I, new series, Part II, July 1859, pp. 198-230 – published by Collins (London) in 1986. More than half this volume of only 118 pages is dedicated to John Coulson’s introduction, and Newman’s writing begins only from page 53. Here I shall summarise a few ideas from Coulson’s introduction and go off at a tangent into some reflections.
This question of the role of the laity in the Church's profession of faith and development of her theological reflection, for Newman, goes together with the theory on doctrinal development, the hermeneutic of continuity as the present Pope calls it. He attached importance to the role of the laity, something – as we have seen – can cut two ways. We live in a time when we are dogged by excesses and abuses of democracy in the Church, unlike Newman’s time, when the Church was perceived like an absolute Monarchy with an absolute Pope who “felt infallible” and said to a dumbfounded Dominican Cardinal La Tradizione son’io (I am Tradition). To appreciate the spirit that reigned in the second half of the nineteenth century, do a Google search for “sedevacantists” and other tendencies of traditionalist Catholics, peppered with a good dose of conspiracy theories and the kind of stuff I read only a couple of days ago in a comment right here on this blog. I for one am not prepared to go into those butt-head questions.
In those days, Newman’s ideas colluded to an extent with those liberals who were influenced by Auguste Compte, Darwin, other offspring from the Enlightenment and liberalism. To the intransigents, Newman must have appeared as a fledgling Modernist! Döllinger also had his grain of salt to add through his friendship with Lord Acton. What seems to be the issue for Newman is not having meetings with numbers of lay people to see how they would like to modify the Church’s teachings at whim, but rather a notion of encouraging intellectually talented lay people to study theology and have a role in influencing the clergy.
There is an event that was of great significance to Newman, his meeting with Archbishop Ullathorne in 1859. Newman was forthright with his view that he found the Irish folk too docile. Ullathorne asked “Who are the laity?”, to which Newman answered to the effect of saying that the Church would look foolish without them. The real issue for Newman was the sense of frustration of being a convert, above all an intellectual in a Church ruled by despotic clergy lording it over a mass of indifferent or superstitious laity. Without some intellectual formation, it takes little to sway people to Protestantism or, in our own times, atheism.
Churches have become “democratic” over time since the beginning of the twentieth century, and we see the same results: secularised liturgies, female clergy, the LGBT agenda, divorce and remarriage, contraception and abortion, and many more things. Did all these things come from the deepest concerns of the laity, or were they clerical in origin and disguised to look like lay agendas? This is what we see in the Anglican Communion, the Union of Utrecht and the more liberal quarters of western Catholicism. Yet, in our experience, lay people are often doggedly and intransigently conservative. Does the infallibility of the body of the Church extend beyond the Pope and the College of Bishops, to ordinary priests and the people?
How is the common accord of the laity ascertained without its being “tainted” by clerical manipulation? In history, it was often the laity who brought the Church out of heresies like Arianism, and Newman gives other examples from the Church’s history. Newman came out with the disturbing statement that there was a temporary suspense of the functions of the teaching Church, since the body of the Bishops in speaking variously, one against another, failed in their confession of the faith. There are times in the history when the Church is “eclipsed”. I have read this sort of thing from certain kinds of traditionalist Catholics who believe (or deduce from false reasoning) there has been no real Pope since 1958, but the discussion is obviously not at the same level. What Newman was saying that when things went badly wrong with the functions of the Pope and the bishops, it was for the faithful to express their faith and loyalty to Tradition. The faithful together are a deposit of faith through the consensus of faith at an intuitive and instinctive level.
I have always been impressed by Newman’s saying that the Church is better off with enthusiastic support from the laity, and not the laity in a state of subjection, “implicit faith” and blind obedience, “which in the educated classes will terminate in indifference and in the poorer in superstition”. I do think that this alienation of the laity, not only the popular classes, but also the university-educated bourgeoisie, led to the massive reaction of after World War II of the laity, the parochial clergy and religious against the high clergy. People do appreciate being treated as adults. Here in Europe, I see that the alienation of the faithful from the Church is almost total, about 95% and almost that proportion in other countries too. There are evidently lay people and lay people, ordinary folk and “clericalised” people who are for all intents and purposes clerics, but simply not ordained!
Newman is often perceived as a Romantic dreamer with little practical or pastoral sense. The evidence points to this view as being mistaken. He saw his ministry other than that of the Sacraments as essentially one of raising the intellectual level of the laity, at least the bourgeoisie. This would bring about a sense of collaboration and co-responsibility between clergy and laity.
All that sounds wonderful in theory. Here in France, country parishes are run by groups of laity, mostly of a certain age and formed in the various lay movements of the 1950’s. I have seen them form cliques of a clericalism that far exceeds the tyranny of the most self-important priests and bishops. This can only bring me to the conclusion that the lay faithful are naturally liberal and progressive, they have been manipulated into an ideology that does not represent the laity or Newman’s whole idea is wrong and the Church essentially consists of the clergy. I am certainly at odds trying to discern the essential character of the laity other than the fact that it is nearly totally alienated from religious practice in a classical parochial setting.
One phenomenon has grown in our midst since Newman’s time, that of dialectical thinking: either / or, one extreme against the other to produce progress. To an extent, the thesis antithesis synthesis of Hegel is not wrong when seen to operate in history. It perfectly describes the oscillation between political parties at general elections between typically conservative / establishment and socialist ideologies. Pressure from socialism forces conservatism to moderate its inertia and introduce reforms to ease pressure on the poorer popular classes, and conservatism acts as a brake to stop socialism going too fast or recklessly in the deconstruction of the established order. It is the same thing in the Church. In Newman’s day, the dialectic separated and united the clergy and the laity. Today, we witness the clash between progressivism and conservatism, and like Pope Benedict XVI, I try to discern the synthesis as the warring extremes alienate me.
The class struggle of Marx is largely based on Hegelian dialectics, as the Nazi “struggle” (Mein Kampf) was based on Nietzsche’s nihilism but also to some extent also on Hegel. We cannot eliminate such dialectics, as they are present in nature. There is conflict between fair weather and rain, summer and winter, the predator and the prey, global warming and cooling conditioned by the activity of the sun and other cosmic events, and so forth. We can, however, transcend them and seek the synthesis in Christ, in a high and elevated vision. This is the challenge for us Christians in our transfiguration and rising above the brute mechanistic forces of fallen nature. We cannot deny the existence of these dialectics, but we can try to live above them through creation and the aristocracy of the spirit – the same freedom as Oscar Wilde found as he languished in a cell at Reading Prison before catching a boat to France at the earliest opportunity.
Newman witnessed an excess in the power of the clergy, between the height of Ultramontanism and Irish priests playing little tin gods. We in our time see the clergy manipulated by ideologically-driven groups of lay people and political correctness. When will the madness end? The answer is that it will not. It is for each one of us as persons to exercise our creativity and to beat the mechanism, that humanity may triumph over Leviathan, even if only for a short time. Will we see a return to the nineteenth century and its clericalism against which the anti-clericals fought? I doubt it, in our lifetimes, and am reasonably optimistic that what is left of Christendom will find a new via media in the foreseeable future.
Pope Benedict XVI may only be with us another year, perhaps another five or ten. I would like to see him live to 100 years, but this seems unlikely. I feel that his pontificate may prove to be merely a brief respite like the restoration of Catholicism in England under Queen Mary in the mid sixteenth century before Queen Bess kicked out Sarum and English Catholicism once again. Perhaps, the next Pope will tell us that the party’s over and we will go back to the 1970’s and combine reinforced clerical celibacy with Orwellian dystopia and joyless liturgies with the beaming smile of a new Bugnini! That Pope would then have to set up in Argentina or Brazil, since Europe would have even less interest in that than our joyful Benedictine respite! I have no more idea of the future than anyone else, and the future is not ours. However, dystopia can be with us or as far away as utopia.
Ordinariate Anglicans and cradle Catholics will weather the same storm as our forefathers and our great grandchildren. Rose vestments precede Good Friday, and the bareness and desolation of the seemingly perpetual Holy Saturday are followed by Easter and Pentecost.
The more I think about all these things, the more I realise that there is no human solution to create something good that will last for more than a few short decades, about the time of an average person’s life span. I have more faith in the creative abilities of individual persons in composing music, writing philosophy and literature, painting, sculpting, designing machines and works of civil engineering, science, technology, looking after a parish and its people, getting on with our ordinary lives. Collectivities have to be tolerated, as personhood is defined by relationship and love for others. As John Donne said, “No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main”.
This is the Mystery of the Church, participating in the Redeemer’s acts and in God’s divinity, but yet living with man’s sins and shortcomings that can go as far as eclipsing the Mystery behind stupidity and iniquity. Such is the way it has always been and always will be this side of Eternity.
We might as well make of it what we can, but let’s be down to earth about it!
* * *
Update: I would like to draw your attention to a highly appropriate article on the Young Fogey's blog – Liberal Clericalism. Contemporary with Newman, we find the shining example of the Curé d'Ars:
In a world of rusty and broken clericalisms, he [the Curé d’Ars] restored a shining sacerdotalism; if a clericalist is a man who uses the priesthood, a sacerdotalist is a man who is used by the priesthood. And thus the hierarchical constitution of the Church is a bureaucratic artifact to the clericalist, while it is charismatic to the priest. The clericalist pursues a career of which mediocrity is the safeguard, while the sacerdotalist pursues a mission of which ardent love is the token. Consequently, the priestly soul is in the world but not of it, as the clericalist caste is of the world but not in it.
Lay domination is as clerical as domination by clerics. What makes the difference is a Christ-like understanding of the priesthood and a real understanding of what it is to be a lay Christian. I savour that last sentence of the quote above, which can also apply to the devout lay man or woman:
The priestly soul is in the world but not of it, as the clericalist caste is of the world but not in it.
* * *
Be sure to follow our Moderator at Eccentric Bliss
, his personal blog!