Thursday 4 January 2018

The Battle for the Shire

A devout and good young man is keen to join the Society of St Pius X. I can understand that. I have always wanted to be simply a priest as Catholic priests are supposed to be. If he is ordained (and he seems to me to be a strong candidate), then he will be able to minister to a largely sympathetic (to the things he stands for, I mean) congregation who will appreciate who he is and what he does. That's the way things are supposed to be between priest and people.

In Lord of the Rings, in a preface Tolkien sharply dismisses the idea that he was writing an allegory. In an allegory one thing directly stands for another; when one has the key, one understands a concrete situation. A myth, however, is something far deeper. It addresses themes which crop up again and again in human history, and tells this in the form of a story whose truth is self-apparent in its root. You can change the story, the characters, but the myth remains essentially the same.

Consider Harry Potter. JK Rowling said that the entire story had sprang into her mind at once. How clever! She conceived of a misunderstood hero who lived away from his natural parents, had extraordinary abilities, had a small group of friends who believed in him, who had a deadly enemy (whom he was the only one able to resist effectively) whom he combatted and by whom he was eventually killed, and who was then raised to life thereby saving everyone else in the story…… Of course it sprang to her mind. It is the greatest story of all, or myth if you will. No wonder a writer without remarkable literary skills managed to write such a bestseller. We all know that story, and it never fails to move us.

I'm conceiving Lord of the Rings in the same way. Right now it seems to me as if the SSPX is Lothlorien. It is necessary that Lothlorien exist, so that we never forget how things should be. Perhaps the FSSP is Rivendell, living to some extent with a foot in two worlds. But we should never forget that the real battle is for the Shire; the parishes and dioceses. If all the soldiers go to live in Lothlorien or even in Rivendell, then the Shire will fall. And if the Shire should fall, then next Rivendell will fall, and eventually Lothlorien too will go. Is Saruman the White now entrenched in Orthanc and holding Gandalf?

You see what I mean about myths?

On Preserving the Faith

For Thomas More, the thing that makes the difference is what is called by others Lex orandi, lex credendi. I mentioned how he had, with Erasmus, mocked what he regarded then as the superstitious practices of the pilgrims at Canterbury. By the time he came to write the Dialogue Concerning Heresies, he had modified his opinion substantially.

These things (pilgrimages, veneration of relics) he considered in some sense to incarnate the faith and hold it together, like a tin can holds soup. They are not the soup, but the soup will spill out without the can. If you damage people's way of expressing the faith, then the faith itself will be endangered. He saw what that had done in Germany and he feared that if the English people clamouring for the same 'reforms' were to get their way there would be a lot more damage done not just to the external expressions of the faith, but to the faith itself.

A long time ago I wrote about how the faith in Ireland was damaged in exactly this way. When the expressions of the faith (Rosaries, pilgrimages to holy wells) were derided as being unliturgical, the soup began to spill out. Yes they were unliturgical, but they were not the soup, merely the necessary can.

If these things have been used for centuries to nourish and support faith, then one needs to be very sure what one is doing before getting rid of them. They may be mere externals, but then so are flying buttresses, and without flying buttresses, cathedrals fall down.

And yes, that does apply to the liturgy too. I'm just not sure what good can be served by scooping up the soup and trying put it back into a wrecked tin. What takes centuries to build can be destroyed in an afternoon.

Tuesday 2 January 2018

St Thomas More and the Church

It is well known that St Thomas More vigorously resisted the Reformation in England and ultimately paid for that resistance with his life. It is less well known, but still known that he had formerly attached himself enthusiastically to many of the things for which the reformers stood–a vernacular Bible, for instance, and with Erasmus he had derided the superstitious behaviour of pilgrims at St Thomas’ shrine in Canterbury.

By the time he came to write his Dialogue Concerning Heresies in 1529, his perspective had altered somewhat. He still thought a vernacular Bible would be a good thing, but a properly translated vernacular Bible, as opposed to Tyndale’s tendentious renderings of certain terms: ‘community’ rather than ‘Church’; ‘elder’ rather than ‘priest’. As part of his thought process, he had to consider just what made Tyndale’s versions ‘wrong’ and the traditional understandings ‘right’.

He pondered whether it could be the authority of the Pope, or the authority of a Council. But in the end, for More it all came down to ‘the common consent of Christendom’.

Eamon Duffy writes in his Reformation Divided:
It is notable that in the Dialogue this appeal to the common life of the church as the ultimate criterion of Christian authenticity never becomes merely or mainly an appeal to hierarchy, or to the teaching authority of the clergy. Though he insisted that Peter was Christ’s Vicar and head of the Church, ‘and alway synce the sucessours of hym continually.’ More never once appeals to the teaching of a pope or a council to clinch his argument. Though the authority of ‘the olde holy fathers’ is repeatedly invoked in defence of current practice, it is always as a witness to the shared faith of the Church as a body. ‘I take not one doctour or twayne but of the consent and comen agreement of the olde holy fathers’ expressing the ‘comen consent of the chyrche’. Even when More’s argument might seem to be leading him inexorably towards an appeal to clerical authority, he steers instead towards this insistence on the shared belief of the whole Church.  p59

This isn’t unlike St Vincent of Lérins’ ‘quod semper, quod ubique, quod ab omnibus’, but I think it’s better than that. St Vincent is quite easily answered by saying that there are lots of people who don’t agree, so it can never really be semper, ubique or omnibus. Common consent says something subtly different; it implies that there can be disagreement, but that the body of consent will carry the truth forwards. 

Chesterton’s ‘Democracy of the Dead’ comes closer. Truth cannot be arrived at by simply taking a vote among those currently living, or, worse, a powerful selection of those currently living or worse, a powerful self-selection of those currently living. The whole Church, militant on earth, suffering in Purgatory, triumphant in heaven, has to be consulted. It’s what we call Sacred Tradition.

In recent centuries we have come to see things a bit differently. The Pope, the Vicar of Christ, has come to be seen as the all-powerful discerner of the truth for the entire Church. There are various degrees of solemnity attached to his various teachings, and the higher the degree of solemnity, the more powerfully it binds the consciences of the faithful. A remark to a journalist on a plane might be distressing, but can be respectfully disagreed with. A note published in the Acta Apostolicae Sedis is an official act, and can’t be dismissed but is to some degree binding in conscience.

Well, that theory has now been tested hard—some might say to destruction. A publication in AAS has now been set in apparent opposition to the ‘common consent of Christendom’. There are those who argue that it doesn’t contradict established teaching, those who argue that it does and dislike that, and those who argue that it does and think it’s wonderful.

This is to some extent distressing, sure, but it hasn’t disturbed my faith one bit. It has just reassured me that St Thomas More was right, that the locus of the truth of the faith is not the teaching of one individual, even if he be the current Pope, but is the faith of the entire common corps of Christendom. People, even popes, teach truly when they teach according to that faith, and untruly when they don’t. Popes have a special role to strengthen the brethren, to define infallibly should it ever be necessary to expound with ultimate authority the faith of the common corps of Christendom, but they are not the fons et origo of the Church’s faith, still less its master, and not God’s direct mouthpiece on every possible subject. As someone clever once said—as it happens, a Pope teaching according to the faith of the common corps of Christianity—the Pope should be a gardener, not a technician.

St Thomas More has more to say on the subject of how the Church stays true to her teaching, the mechanism by which it holds to the faith. That I'll address in another post.