In the internet age everyone can be their own pope. But asserting one’s own authority to pronounce on authentic Church teaching is a dangerous business

Authority is something Western society has a problem with. We like to make our own minds up, and even in Britain, once famed for its deference, everyone is their own expert.

In terms of religion, this is a very Protestant attitude. You go to the Bible, you find your proof text and you cite it, usually to support a position you have already taken up. This is not the Catholic attitude. We know what Scripture is because it was canonised by the Church, which also possesses the authority to expound it correctly, situating the texts within its traditions.

The Magisterium has a teaching authority, which is expressed in many ways, including encyclicals. But, as reaction to the most recent papal encyclical, Laudato Si’, showed, even Catholics have a tendency to think that such teaching is something they can take or leave. Indeed, as with so much of the reaction in some quarters to Pope Francis’s comments, there was a tendency for commentators to assume they were more Catholic than the Pope – something which seems to happen a great deal with Francis.

Popes are neither impeccable nor infallible in all they say, but it should be borne in mind that a papal encyclical is part of the ordinary magisterium, to which, as the Vatican II text Lumen Gentium reminds us, “religious submission of mind and will must be shown … in such a way that his supreme magisterium is acknowledged with reverence.” That means acknowledging the authority of the Magisterium, and, even when we disagree with some of what is said (acknowledging that on politics, economics and science, there is no question of infallibility applying), we should do so in a manner which shows respect.

In the age of the internet, every man can be his own pope. The natural human urge to think one knows best can be supplemented instantly by the riches of cyberspace. People unskilled in hermeneutics and the contextualisation of documents, and who are unaware of the ways in which doctrine develops across time, but who feel something is wrong with the Church, can easily find ways of proving their feelings are right (often at the same time as mocking the emphasis by Catholics like Pope Francis on the importance of feelings). To assert one’s own authority to pronounce on authentic Catholic teaching in the face of those who are properly authorised to do so, is at best disrespectful and, at worst, to risk schism.

Within the long history of the Church we see unity on essentials, but also room for diversity on inessentials. There is a great deal of leeway for discussion, definition and development, even on essentials, as we can see from a study of the history of the doctrine of the Trinity. Just because some use the word “development” as a Trojan horse for innovations in tune with the spirit of the age does not mean that there is not such a thing as a legitimate development as defined by the Magisterium.

Cardinal Newman provided seven principles by which we might recognise true development: does it preserve the type of the original; is there a continuity with the original type; does the development assimilate into that original type, extraneous matter; does it follow on logically from the original; can we see from the past how the development fits in; is it conservative in nature; and, finally, does it contribute to the vigorous growth of the Church. The “Church of Rome”, Newman commented, “can consult expedience more freely than other bodies as trusting to her living tradition”. If we understand him aright, this is not, as his opponent Charles Kingsley commented in a similar context, an argument that the Church does not value truth for its own sake, but rather one which says that the rock of Peter provides a firm basis for a teaching Magisterium.

If, in imitation of the sin of our first parents, we seek to be wiser than God, then we too fall away from the right path. Newman harboured no roseate notions about a mythical golden age in which all bishops had agreed on everything – even the essentials; no man who had studied the Arian controversy in the depth he had could have suffered from such an illusion.

Newman’s own life bore witness to the obtuseness with which those holding authority could proceed, and he felt keenly the unfairness of the suspicion with which he was regarded by Pio Nono. But he did not give way to rebellion – even when he did, in fact, know better. One reason the award of a cardinal’s hat delighted him was that it removed the stain from his reputation. Another was that it did so in his lifetime. His faith told him that if the Church was what he knew it to be, then all things worked for the good.

Prof John Charmley is head of the Institute for Interdisciplinary Humanities, University of East Anglia

This article first appeared in the latest edition of the Catholic Herald magazine (24/7/15)

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