Wednesday, 15 April 2009

Always, everywhere and by everyone: what we believe

Over the last couple of weeks I've become embroiled or looked in on, a couple of places in debates about new theological ideas presented as if they were truths of the faith, when in fact they are at best mere speculation (and in some cases clearly outright erroneous).

The attraction of the new...

One example is a debate over at Sentire Cum Ecclesia blog, with someone trying to argue that the Council of Trent's declaration of the superiority of celibacy and virginity no longer applies. A second example is on an email group, where people were being urged to pray for a happy death for those who were already dead, despite the Church's longstanding teaching that we should pray for them on the assumption that they are in purgatory, rather than trying to retrospectively affect history. And over at Acatholica there are so many examples of this type of thing that I don't know where to even start!

So I thought it might be worth recapitulating a few basic principles about the nature of what we must believe.

The conservatism of faith

One of the biggest problems we face in the Church is the modern love of novelty. In academia, for instance, the publish or perish imperative almost forces the generation of novel ideas.

For the last several decades, virtually anything pre-Vatican II (and post Constantine!) was regarded as a dangerous accretion that needed to be stripped away so that we could recover the true faith.

Yet, as Pope Benedict XVI has repeatedly pointed out, in fact the faith works in exactly the opposite way: what we have to believe is what the Church has always taught, because the deposit of faith is that entrusted to the apostles to be transmitted down the centuries to us, safeguarded by the Magisterium. The Magisterium, it needs to be remembered, does not have the power to change, add to or subtract teachings. Rather its power is to interpret and teach what catholics have already believed, defining, if necessary, exactly what that entails.

Development of doctrine

It does sometimes appear that new teachings arise and become defined as part of the faith. But in reality what this reflects is the growth in understanding of Scripture and Tradition, for example through study and contemplation, and in response to error arising.

The essential principle is always that what is taught definitively now has always been at least implicit, so that we should be able to recognise the genealogy of a doctrine. If a new teaching can't be reconciled with what has gone before, or understood in a 'hermeneutic of continuity', then it has to be regarded as suspect (noting of course that it is the Magisterium's view of continuity or otherwise that ultimately counts, not our individual assessments!).

So when it comes to the Church's teaching on abortion, contraception and euthanasia, for example, we can look back to the early Church and see that it is indeed life issues that were one of the clearest distinguishing marks of the early Christians, as the famous letter of Diognetus, dating from around 100-150AD makes clear :

"Christians are indistinguishable from other men either by nationality, language or customs. They do not inhabit separate cities of their own, or speak a strange dialect, or follow some outlandish way of life.... And yet there is something extraordinary about their lives.... Like others, they marry and have children, but they do not expose them..."

Loss of memory is the new barbarism

One of the reasons why novelty has so flourished in recent years is, I think the systematic destruction of the catholic sub-culture, including institutions such as monasteries. The late Dom Gerard Calvet OSB, in his book Tomorrow Christendom talked about the need to instill a horror of novelty in his monks. Civilisation, he argued, depends on memory. To St Benedict, the person knocking at the monastery gate - whether one of the old breed or today's modern variety - is more or less a barbarian, with no past, tradition or memory, for the defining characteristic of barbarism is discontinuity.

So when confronted by an idea that looks odd, the first test should always be whether it can meet the test proposed by St Vincent of Lerins, of being at least consistent with 'That which is believed everywhere, in all times, by everyone'.

1 comment:

Felix said...

memory is essential for rational thought. So it's distressing that history is largely being dropped from the schools

and keeping the records has been a traditional strength of the public service, but this is also being abandoned as we seek for "creative new approaches"