Faith in the Church

In his essay Faith and Doubt, Cardinal Newman argues that it is perfectly right for the Catholic Church to forbid her children to doubt her.  Not only must we accept what we currently understand to be Catholic doctrine, we must put faith in the Church herself as the “oracle of God”, and we “…must come, I say, to the Church to learn; you must come, not to bring your own notions to her, but with the intention of ever being a learner”.  I’m sure my own lack of confidence that in a year’s time the Church will still teach her true doctrine on sexual morality would seem to Newman already a sinful faithlessness.  The man who coined the phrase “development of doctrine” didn’t anticipate that kind of doubt, but I can surmise what he would have thought of it.  What of the great conservative Catholic hope that true doctrine will remain “on the books” (like the prohibition of usury, male headship, and the social kingship of Christ) even when forgotten and contradicted by the fallible teachings and practices of the bishops and pope?  No doubt Cardinal Manning would be horrified by this idea of constructing one’s own Catholicism from old texts in defiance of the Church’s contemporary voice.  Newman, the historian of Arianism, might have been a bit more sympathetic.

How difficult it has become to have a simple faith in the Church!

It is, then, perfectly true, that the Church does not allow her children to entertain any doubt of her teaching; and that, first of all, simply for this reason, because they are Catholics only while they have faith, and faith is incompatible with doubt. No one can be a Catholic without a simple faith, that what the Church declares in God’s name, is God’s word, and therefore true. A man must simply believe that the Church is the oracle of God; he must be as certain of her mission, as he is of the mission of the Apostles. Now, would any one ever call him certain that the Apostles came from God, if after professing his certainty, he added, that perhaps he might have reason to doubt one day about their mission? Such an anticipation would be a real, though latent, doubt, betraying that he was not certain of it at present. A person who says, “I believe just at this moment, but perhaps I am excited without knowing it, and I cannot answer for myself, that I shall believe tomorrow,” does not believe now. A man who says, “Perhaps I am in a kind of delusion, {216} which will one day pass away from me, and leave me as I was before”; or “I believe as far as I can tell, but there may be arguments in the background which will change my view,” such a man has not faith at all. When, then, Protestants quarrel with us for saying that those who join us must give up all ideas of ever doubting the Church in time to come, they do nothing else but quarrel with us for insisting on the necessity of faith in her. Let them speak plainly; our offence is that of demanding faith in the Holy Catholic Church; it is this, and nothing else. I must insist upon this: faith implies a confidence in a man’s mind, that the thing believed is really true; but, if it is once true, it never can be false. If it is true that God became man, what is the meaning of my anticipating a time when perhaps I shall not believe that God became man? this is nothing short of anticipating a time when I shall disbelieve a truth. And if I bargain to be allowed in time to come not to believe, or to doubt, that God became man, I am but asking to be allowed to doubt or disbelieve what I hold to be an eternal truth. I do not see the privilege of such a permission at all, or the meaning of wishing to secure it…

And now you see why a Catholic dare not in prudence attend to such objections as are brought against his faith; he has no fear of their proving that the Church does not come from God, but he is afraid, if he listened to them without reason, lest God should punish him by the loss of his supernatural faith. This is one cause of that miserable state of mind, to which I have already alluded, in which men would fain be {226} Catholics, and are not. They have trifled with conviction, they have listened to arguments against what they knew to be true, and a deadness of mind has fallen on them; faith has failed them, and, as time goes on, they betray in their words and their actions, the Divine judgment, with which they are visited. They become careless and unconcerned, or restless and unhappy, or impatient of contradiction; ever asking advice and quarrelling with it when given; not attempting to answer the arguments urged against them, but simply not believing. This is the whole of their case, they do not believe. And then it is quite an accident what becomes of them; perhaps they continue on in this perplexed and comfortless state, lingering about the Church, yet not of her; not knowing what they believe and what they do not, like blind men, or men deranged, who are deprived of the eye, whether of body or mind, and cannot guide themselves in consequence; ever exciting hopes of a return, and ever disappointing them;—or, if they are men of more vigorous minds, they launch forward in a course of infidelity, not really believing less, as they proceed, for from the first they believed nothing, but taking up, as time goes on, more and more consistent forms of error, till sometimes, if a free field is given them, they even develop into atheism. Such is the end of those who, under the pretence of inquiring after truth, trifle with conviction…

And now, my brethren, who are not Catholics, perhaps you will tell me, that, if all inquiry is to cease when you become Catholics, you ought to be very sure that the Church is from God before you join it. You speak truly; no one should enter the Church without a firm purpose of taking her word in all matters of doctrine and morals, and that, on the ground of her coming directly from the God of Truth. You must look the matter in the face, and count the cost. If you do not come in this spirit, you may as well not come at all; high and low, learned and ignorant, must come to learn. If you are right as far as this, you cannot go very wrong; you have the foundation; but, if you come in any other temper, you had better wait till you have got rid of it. You must come, I say, to the Church to learn; you must come, not to bring your own notions to her, but with the intention of ever being a learner; you must come with the intention of taking her for your portion, and of never leaving her. Do not come as an experiment; do not come as you would take sittings in a chapel, or tickets for a lecture-room; come to her as to your home, to the school of your souls, to the Mother of Saints, and to the vestibule of heaven.

8 Responses

  1. […] Source: Throne and Altar […]

  2. In the same vein, Newman has a brilliant satire on those who believe that the teaching of the Church is something to be searched for in the records of the past rather than something to be heard and accepted in the living present.

    He imagines one of the Tractarians (such as he had been) saying, “I began myself with doubting and inquiring, I departed from the teaching I received; I was educated in some older type of Anglicanism; in the school of Newton, Cecil, and Scott, or in the Bartlett’s-Building School, or in the Liberal Whig School. I was a Dissenter, or a Wesleyan, and by study and thought, I became an Anglo-Catholic. And then I read the Fathers, and I have determined what works are genuine, and what are not; which of them apply to all times, which are occasional; which historical, and which doctrinal; what opinions are private, what authoritative; what they only seem to hold, what they ought to hold; what are fundamental, what ornamental. Having thus measured and cut and put together my creed by my own proper intellect, by my own lucubrations, and differing from the whole world in my results, I distinctly bid you, I solemnly warn you, not to do as I have done, but to accept what I have found, to revere that, to use that, to believe that, for it is the teaching of the old Fathers, and of your Mother the Church of England. Take my word for it, that this is the very truth of Christ; deny your own reason, for I know better than you, and it is as clear as day that some moral fault in you is the cause of your differing from me. It is pride, or vanity, or self-reliance, or fullness of bread. You require some medicine for your soul; you must fast; you must make a general confession; and look very sharp to yourself, for you are already next door to a rationalist or an infidel.”

  3. I doubt there ever has been such a thing as “blind faith,” because faith is trust and trust follows upon an assessment of trustworthiness. When my beliefs and behaviors are grounded in “faith,” they are grounded in the testimony of a witness whom I have reason to believe speaks with authority. My reasons for believing this may be poor reasons, but these reasons are not themselves taken simply on faith. I do not trust a man simply because he tells me he is trustworthy.

    When I acknowledge the teaching authority of the Church, I do not do this simply because the Church claims to have this authority. I do it because I have what I believe are good reasons to believe that the Church is a trustworthy witness in matters beyond my private judgment, and among those reasons is the fact that I have found that the Church is a trustworthy witness in matters that are not beyond my private judgment. If I found that the teachings of the Church were riddled with manifest falsehoods in matters that are plain, I would have to conclude that there was probably similar mendacity in what to taught about matters that are not plain. This might lead me to reject the Church as a false teacher, or to reject one set of teachers as a False Church.

    This is not something to be undertaken lightly, but it seems to me that the sedevacantist position is always a last resort. If the “Church” begins teaching doctrines that flatly contradict what the Church has always taught, it is not the Church that is teaching.

  4. […] Bonald is a constant source of strength and comfort for Catholics living with our present set of less than perfectly stalwart Bishops. His makes a quick poke at Pope Francis Mau-Mauing his own Flak-catchers. Democracies tend to elect politicians, and even limiting the franchise to Cardinal Electors is not wholly immune from this effect. And also, lest we let cynicism carry us away, with reliance upon Bl. Cardinal Newman, a meditation on Faith in the Church. […]

  5. JMsmith wrote, “When I acknowledge the teaching authority of the Church, I do not do this simply because the Church claims to have this authority.”

    Père Garrigou Legrange put it rather well, when he said, “I believe the Church to be infallible because God revealed this; and I believe God revealed it because it is affirmed by the Church. In the second proposition “because” is not taken in the same sense as in the first, for it does not signify the formal motive of faith, but only the indispensable condition of faith, that is, the infallible proposition of the object of faith.”

    Bl John Henry Newman wrote his Grammar of Assent, in defence of the proposition that we can be certain about concrete matters of fact, that is, that we can give unconditional assent to such propositions.

    Thus, I am certain that Great Britain is now an island; I cannot even imagine myself coming to doubt it. I do not hold it as a deduction from premises, but, rather, it underlies the way we all carry on our lives. Some philosophers call this the unity of indirect reference – the inhabitants do not go around telling each other they are living on an island, but it is the underlying assumption or explanation of countless things they do say. Similarly, I am certain that I shall one day die, although we have no experience of the future and the counter-examples of Enoch and Elijah notwithstanding.

  6. Reading that LeGrange quote just frustrates me. I dont think he put it well at all. Both “becauses” seem the same to me.
    When geniuses explain something, usually the explanation is only accessible to other geniuses (who could figure it out for themselves) so guys like me have to wait for an interpreter who is willing to spend the time to explain the explanation. He’s usually a bright non-genius who understands why the concept is difficult, such understanding being below the reach of a genius to grasp.
    I believe the Church, because God commissioned Her and guarantees Her.
    I believe God commissioned Her because if there’s a God, He is capable of editing the Bible, wherein it says that He did so commission Her.
    I believe there’s a God, having been convinced by CS Lewis that Jesus is He.
    So the Bible is reliable because God exists. God commissioned the Church, because the Bible says so. Therefore the Church is infallible (whether She claims it or not) because of Her commission.

  7. TCA

    The first Christians believed the Apostles’ claim that they were messengers from God and this before a line of the New Testament had been written. If they believed that, they were logically bound to believe not only what they had already heard the Apostles teach, but what they might teach them in the future. Moreover, they could ask them about anything they did not understand.

    Now, surely faith cannot have meant one thing in the First Century and another in the Twenty-first? The fact is that Christians believed the bible on the authority of the Church, not vice versa. What other reason is there for believing that the Epistle of James is inspired and the Epistle of Barnabas is not?

    Then, as Bl John Henry Newman argues, “It is antecedently unreasonable to suppose that a book so complex, so unsystematic, in parts so obscure, the outcome of so many minds, times, and places, should be given us from above without the safeguard of some authority; as if it could possibly, from the nature of the case, interpret itself… How are private readers satisfactorily to distinguish what is didactic and what is historical, what is fact and what is vision, what is allegorical and what is literal, what is idiomatic and what is grammatical, what is enunciated formally and what occurs obiter, what is only of temporary and what is of lasting obligation?”

  8. MPS, is Garrigou Legrange saying that God has revealed the Church’s infallibility to him, personally, and the Church’s affirmation is a secondary confirmation for him? So, he has the gift of faith in God and the Church, and so believing the Church when it claims infallibility makes sense, because he already believes this to be the case?

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