The Authority of the Church

Author: Most Rev. John Murphy


Most Rev. John Murphy

Pastoral Letter of Most Rev. John Murphy, Archbishop of Cardiff (Wales).

It is hard to give tongue on any subject these days without being immediately labelled. And this is particularly true in all the discussions, disputes and differences which have arisen since Vatican II. One is immediately classified as either progressive or reactionary, liberal or conservative, gathering or scattering. Everyone must stand up and be counted. Even the uncommitted find themselves assigned by unsolicited editing to one camp or the other; there is no middle of the road. And the normal Catholic who wants nothing else save to obey the Church and fulfil all that the Catholic Faith demands of him, finds himself, willy nilly, faced with a choice, It was all so simple before. Now everything is involved, and he has to be personally committed. Although the actual combatants in this golden age of theological journalism are few, and their active followers even fewer, all the People of God are conscripted into the ranks with the usual stock phrases, "No Catholic in tune with this post-conciliar age," or alternatively, "No Catholic with any reverence for the past." Actually, the normal Catholic has no desire to be unfaithful either to the post-conciliar age or to the traditional past. He just wants to do the right thing. But he is offered some startling contrasts which cannot both be right. "Do I follow the Church?" or "Do I follow my own conscience?" says the bewildered Catholic. The range of goods on the theological counter with everything from the celibacy of the clergy to the pill has never been so wide, never so bewildering.

"It had to happen"

Where does the normal Catholic stand in all this? What must he make of it? It will help us in resolving this dilemma if we keep firmly in our minds two fixed points. In the first place, no matter how progressive, how reactionary or how middle-of-the-road we may be, we must keep on repeating to ourselves a simple truth; "it had to happen". All the changes, all the accommodations, all the reappraisals, all the mental adjustments which we ourselves have had to make painfully during the last few years, all this a necessary adjunct of Vatican II. It had to happen; it could not have been avoided. It should not have been avoided. But having said that, we must likewise keep on telling ourselves another truth even more important, that none of these things needed to happen in the way they did, with a cleavage of loyalty, a revolt against authority, a revolt against tradition, a setting up of conscience against the Church. None of these things ever arose, or were part of Vatican II. The grass roots of Vatican II never produced that cockle. None of that can be blamed on the Holy Ghost or Vatican II.

True and false ecumenism

How, then, did it all happen? It arose in this way. Vatican II had placed upon us all the necessity of restating Catholic doctrine in a way which carried a meaning to contemporary society. There were all sorts of reasons for this. But the primary reason was that of compassion and love. The Church, like Christ, had compassion on the multitude. It wanted to share its treasures with the world. It realized that the Church and the world had drawn apart and were speaking a different language. Pope John had prepared the way for this, and the Council was an acceptable time for implementing it, offering the truth to the world in its own language and without rubbing their noses in it. The whole ecumenical movement was born of this compassion, a sincere and lively compassion. But its very compassion, if misplaced, could be its worst enemy. We carry the precious gift of the Faith in frail ecumenical vessels, and any false concealment, any false accentuation born of false compassion, and we have a heresy on our hands. The ecumenist who, knowing that a particular truth of the Faith carries little meaning or conviction to contemporary man, thereby plays it down or conceals it, instead of painfully searching for a language which would be relevant, is a false shepherd who feeds nobody but frightens everybody. He may not have angry sheep on his hands, but he still has hungry ones. "Send her away for she crieth after us" said the Apostles to Christ concerning the Chanaanite woman. But it was a false compassion and a false ecumenism. They were more concerned with saving her embarrassment than with giving her the Faith and the miracle she asked for. Christ, on the contrary, appears to be cruel and to be baiting her. "I am not sent but to the sheep that are lost of the house of Israel;" "It is not good to take the bread of the children and to cast it to the dogs", he says; all positively rude and unecumenical, and for the moment we are almost ashamed of the truth and of Christ. But in the end, it is Christ, not we ourselves, who is compassionate and ecumenical. We with our false compassion would have spared her and sent her away without her Faith and her cure. It is Christ who gives her both. "0 woman, great is thy faith. Be it done to thee as thou wilt."

Theological picking and choosing

There will always be in every movement the false prophets who want to clean up the problem by sweeping it out of sight; who seek the slick solution, the quick anodyne, the ready aspirin. Remove the pain and forget the cause. Solve the mixed marriage problem, admit the validity of Anglican Orders, allow joint churches, pulpits, divorce and the pill, and all will be well. All won't be well. We have removed the very troubles which drive men to seek unity. Non-Catholic ecumenists are often more aware of this than we give them credit for. Archbishop Ramsey, praying in the Sistine Chapel, asks God "to enable us to feel the pain of our division." His predecessor, Archbishop Fisher, once warned the World Council of Churches that "united action can become a narcotic rather than a stimulant." And the Secretary of the same World Council, Dr. Visser t'Hooft warned everyone against "ecumenical varnish covering up real differences." It was said of George Bernard Shaw that he sought the amusing rather than the truthful. It could, likewise be said of false ecumenism that it is more concerned with avoiding the embarrassing than promoting the truthful. All of which has produced a theological unilateralism, a picking and choosing, embracing one truth and ignoring another which upsets not only the delicate balance of the Faith; but the delicate conscience of the faithful. The Liturgy, for example, must always hold its primacy over private devotions and every effort must be made to secure this. But if, in securing it, there is any denigration or extermination of private devotion, then we are creating a dangerous back eddy which could threaten even the Liturgy itself.

Again Altar should balance with Table, Sacrifice with Meal, Tradition with Scripture, Sacramental Priesthood with the Priesthood of all believers, Freedom with Responsibility, Personal Conscience with the Laws of the Church. All these are complementary, as the red and white corpuscles of the blood stream, and any violent change in the blood count here, and we have a cancer of the Faith.

Roped to the magisterium

All of which reduces itself to the vital question. Granted that we must restate all the doctrines of the Church in this new language, how do we perform this delicate operation without any lack of balance, without any false accentuation, without any false compassion? The overriding necessity here is to recognize that speaking this new language is the most difficult task that the Church has ever assigned herself. We are exploring new country, cutting new trails, balancing truth on a razor's edge. It is flatly impossible to do this without being tightly roped to the magisterium of the Church. This is a "must". Unfortunately, quite a number of writers look upon the magisterium as a beetling encumbrance to be circumvented, rather than a fixed cleat through which all movement is belayed. Strange ideas of intellectual freedom drawn from other disciplines demand a free climb, stripped of all the trappings of the magisterium. And all this in the uncharted regions of the Faith which soar above the level of scientific demonstration, and where every climber is blind and a potential danger, unless he is roped to the magisterium. This faculty, like any other faculty, has its disciplines, and avalanches are caused by fools who disobey them. The magnificent Pauline phrases, "the glorious liberty of the children of God"; "the freedom wherewith Christ has made us free" have been given a new and dangerous twist, a freedom to disobey. This was never envisaged. It was obedience which made us free. It was embracing the law with love and personal commitment which changed it from a cold and barren law into an expression of love. Again, personal commitment has been so twisted that it becomes our old friend 'private judgement' under a relevant disguise which cloaks its old heretical undertones. It has been used as just another name for doing nothing, accepting nothing, obeying nothing, unless one can see the reason for it and can be 'personally committed’.

In the eye of the hurricane

"The time will surely come when men will grow tired of sound doctrine, always itching to hear something new, so that they will provide themselves with a continuous succession of new teachers, as the whim takes them." That time has surely come. We should not be afraid of it. It could be a challenge as well as a danger. If the ears are itching, it is up to us to speak our old doctrines in a language which takes care of the itch. This is never easy. It is not made any easier by those who are too ready to see heresy in very turn of phrase, or by those who are too ready to repudiate the magisterium. In this renewal, the magisterium is our only fixed point, Even a revolution must revolve around something.

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
20 June 1968, page 5

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