Friday, September 25, 2009

A Reader Responds: Standing Newman on His Head

One of the interesting experiences I sometimes have with this blog is an experience of synchronicity involving several other bloggers who talk about issues that engage the passion of all of us as a group. I've just had one of those synchronistic experiences in a three-way dialogue with two other bloggers. I'd like to relate that now, in one of my "a reader responds" postings.

In response to what I wrote yesterday about Archbishop Burke and his anti-Obama political crusade gussied up in fabulous religious garb, Colleeen Kochivar Baker of Enlightened Catholicism writes,

The whole tenor of some voices is really reminiscent of the reign of Pio NoNo. Hell and damnation from the pulpit, promotion of the personal piety of cloistered nuns, siding with the hugely wealthy at the expense of the poor and middle class, and the purposeful promotion of creeping infallibility in the Papacy.

No wonder the big push is on to co opt Cardinal Newman. It's almost mandatory the Church bring him in the exalted fold before people actually read what he wrote. Perhaps he is truly the Saint for our time.

As Colleen was sending that comment to my blog, I was over at Michael Bayly's Wild Reed blog, reading and responding to his recent summary of a 2003 National Catholic Reporter article by Arthur Jones, in which Jones interviewed Richard Sipe. Sipe argues that the stage is set for a new Reformation in the Catholic church, because the sensus fidelium, the faith held by "ordinary" lay folks in our "ordinary" everyday lives, has moved in a direction decisively counter to what the church is teaching at an official level in the area of sexual ethics.

A vast majority of Catholics in the developed nations of the world reject the official Catholic teaching on contraception. Increasing numbers of Catholics also do not accept the church's teaching that homosexual acts are ipso facto unnatural and immoral, gravely sinful no matter when and in what context they occur.

I find the response to Michael's posting about the sensus fidelium fascinating, because several respondents completely turn on its head one of the classic sources affirming the sensus fidelium, the theology of 19th-century Catholic theologian Cardinal John Henry Newman. Newman's work noted that, in the period of controversy in the early church in which the Christian community sought to hammer out an understanding of christology (specifically, an understanding of how humanity and divinity connect in Christ), a large number of bishops held the Arian position that was eventually condemned by the church, while the laity held what eventually became the orthodox christological position.

Though Newman is very clear about this issue--in fact, much of his theology revolves around his reflections on what these historical findings portend for the development of doctrine--two posters responding to Michael's posting want to maintain that Newman's theology of the sensus fidelium is actually about the magisterium's inability to be wrong, ever, and that the magisterium (i.e., the bishops) held the orthodox teaching during the Arian crisis, while the sensus fidelium was unorthodox!

And so I responded to these comments on Michael's blog with the following comment:

Great article, Michael. I'm amazed at how a number of respondents in this thread completely turn Newman on his head, when it comes to the sensus fidelium and the Arian crisis.

As Newman repeatedly and clearly points out, it was the faithful--lay believers--who held onto what became the orthodox definition of Christ's nature, when a majority of bishops (the magisterium, to use Liam's term) were Arianists.

As John J. Burkhard notes in "The Sensus Fidelium" in Gerard Mannion and Lewis Seymour Mudge's (eds.), The Routledge Companion to the Christian Church (London: Routledge, 2008), "Newman, for instance, was famous for his claim that during the second phase of the Arian crisis, when many of the bishops accepted Arian compromise formulas for expressing the faith in Christ, the faithful rose to the task of witnessing to Christ's full divinity by refusing to have anything to do with such compromises. Increasingly, then, a doctrine of the role of the faithful as a true source of the church's faith became a part of the Roman Catholic theology of faith" (pp. 561-562).

My God, what are they teaching in these right-wing Catholic colleges nowadays, if they can take Newman's theology of the sensus fidelium and his history of the Arian crisis and try to argue that this theology and that history argue for the perpetual rightness of the magisterium and the wrongness of the laity in matters of faith and morals?

And then I logged into recent comments on this Bilgrimage blog to find that, while I was responding to Michael's posting and discussing Newman's theology of the sensus fidelium, noting that there seems to be a move afoot in some Catholic quarters to turn Newman's theology on its head, Colleen was responding to my posting yesterday by noting that there's a "big push" on to co-opt Newman and to "bring him into the exalted fold" before people actually read his theology.

I call this exchange synchronicity. It's that spark of insight shared by a number of bloggers day by day that keeps me going. It convinces me that many of us who are blogging about these issues are part of a wider community of thought and faith than we often realize, as we sit blogging in our individual locations.

And that's a good thing to recognize, when the odds against our marginal little communities of discourse seem stacked so largely in favor of those who hold the reins of power firmly in their hands.