Thursday, October 22, 2015

Bishop to Bishop

Third letter to Henry Dobson, Bishop of Hunstanton. (The first is #6 and the second #36.)

Friday, March 11th, 1977

Dear Harry,

It was most kind of you to come and see me. I thoroughly enjoyed your visit. You are always so stimulating. Besides, you save me the trouble of wading through the latest nonsense: you expound it so succinctly and clearly yourself.

I am of course sorry that you will not promise to ordain my men in case of necessity. I suppose that I should not have hoped for more than your favourable prejudice. We humans have an itch to distrust God’s Providence. He will see to their ordination as He has to their vocation.

You know, during the course of conversation I think we touched on one of the basic problems in the Church today. I was holding forth on the fact that the Church is guardian of the Faith and the present crisis arose because what she enjoins and permits in practice is not readily recognizable as an expression of the Faith she guarantees. Hence we could arrive at the absurd situation in which practicers have lost the Faith whereas the faithful refuse to practice. It was your answer to this which seems to me so important. You said: “There is only one object of Faith: the Church. I am baptized into the Church and it is she who gives me Faith. On her authority I believe all other doctrines. She can deal with them as she likes, since she is the only constant. Christ revealed no doctrines but a praxis: His Kingdom of the Church.” We left it at that.

Few people, I think, could formulate the argument as honestly and clearly as you. Nevertheless, I believe it expresses the basic attitude of countless Catholics today, not of the “modernists” but of those who simple obey. It is a very ecclesiastical argument, akin to the patriotism in “My country right or wrong.” But is it true?

I suspect the it rests on two articles in the old catechism:

1. Faith is a supernatural gift of God enabling me to believe without doubting whatever God has revealed. 2. I am to know what God has revealed by the teaching, testimony and authority of the Catholic Church.

If one puts those two articles together, one gets the impression that Faith as a supernatural gift merely empowers a person to believe what the Church teaches and the objects of Faith are provided by the Church. It is therefore the Church which justifies the Faith and not the Faith which justifies the Church. Hence the Church must be obeyed in all things, even if she is quite clearly hiding her light under a bushel. It automatically becomes right and proper that the light should be shaded because legitimate authority in the Church has said so. I do not think that is an unfair or distorted presentation of the case, is it?

But surely it is evident that such an argument is tautological or a vicious circle? I am to know what God had revealed by the authority of the Church. And how am I to know that the Church has such authority? Because the Church says that God has revealed it. It is patently nonsense.

You will notice that you yourself admit it to be nonsense. You said: “Christ revealed no doctrines but a praxis: His Kingdom, His Church.” You thereby concede that there is at any rate one object of Faith logically prior to the Church: the authority of Christ. And once you admit that, all the rest follows. Is His authority divine? Is He God incarnate, the Second Person of the Trinity, born of the Virgin Mary, etc.? Indeed, one of the things which follows from your prior faith in the divine authority of Christ is the authority of the Church. It does not work the other way round: you do not believe that Christ receives His authority from the Church. The Church is the guardian of God’s revelation but not its source. She herself is one of the objects of Faith: I believe in One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church.

Therein, it seems to me, lies the crux of the present crisis. I mean the crisis between honest Catholics, such as I believe both of us to be. I am not referring to heretics who have lost the Faith although the Church no longer excludes them. I mean you and me. Faced with the same crisis, we react in diametrically opposite ways. Your immediate reaction, along with the overwhelming majority of churchmen, is to save the Church and the Faith will look after itself. Mine, along with a heavy percentage of the laity, is to save the Faith and let the Church look after herself. We cannot both be right. Indeed, each day the gulf between us is growing wider. If we pursue our ways indefinitely we shall come to the point when the faithful are legal schismatics and the obedient factual heretics.

At this point I can hear you say: “Don’t talk rot, Edmund. It is your metaphor which deceives you. We are not going in opposite directions: we are merely looking at the opposite facets of the same coin. Even if I grant you the logical priority of Faith over the Church, in practice he who defends the Church defends the Faith and he who defends the Faith defends the Church.”

In normal times this would by and large be so. I say “by and large” because history provides plenty of examples of excessive use of ecclesiastical authority. Quite apart from mediaeval excommunications, in our own day some of your friends might feel that Pius XII went a bit far when he demanded internal assent to the Five Ways of proving the existence of God. But at the moment of time it is patently untrue to say that in defending the Church one is automatically defending the Faith and this for two reasons: a) the Faith is ambiguously formulated; b) heretics are no longer excluded from the Church. The fact is that the Faith is exclusive whereas the Church has become inclusive. She has changed Our Lord’s lapidary sentence, “He who is not with me is against me,” into the coward’s whine, “He is my friend who bullies me.”

We do not have to look very far for the result, my dear Harry. Concerning the defence of the Faith, over the past ten years have you promoted priests who refuse the term and doubtless the meaning of “Transubstantiation” and talk of “a Personal” instead of “The Real Presence”? I have. What have you done about clergy who openly preach contraception? A little more, I hope, than I—which is practically nothing. Has your natural chivalry, if not your conviction, led you to defend the Mother of God against those who who “put her in her place”? It has not me. Have you remonstrated with those who refuse to administer the Sacrament of Penance except by appointment but insist on Penitential Services? As a matter of fact I have, but I trust you have done it more firmly. Have you stamped on priests who refuse to give infant Baptism for a variety of specious reasons including the denial of Original Sin? I have done little more than wag a reproving finger accompanied by a rueful smile. Have you even defended the authority of the Papacy and your own against the democratic rights of the People of God? Curiously enough, you probably less than I, which is not saying much. I call a halt to this catalogue not from lack of ammunition but of patience. The fact is, and we know it, that in our own dioceses it is not we who defended the Faith: it has been left to pathetic little groups of layfolk, helped or hindered by a stray priest, to do so.

It is a very different matter when it comes to enforcing the New Outlook. Have you promoted a priest who has stuck to the Immemorial Mass? Of course not and, to my everlasting shame, neither have I. What has been your attitude to priests who mumble that Vatican II failed to face the facts and that post-Conciliar legislation has been disastrous; who refuse to be brainwashed by attending compulsory study-days; who jeer at Bishops’ Collegiality, the National Conference of Priests and the new structures generally; who will not give Communion standing and in the hand; who administer Extreme Unction as of yore; who will still say the Breviary, the Rosary and make their meditation; who . . . ? have you reserved key positions in your administration for such men of probity and principle? No more than I have, Harry. We have looked after the Church all right but not after the Faith.

The crowning example is Archbishop Lefebvre. He has been attacked from all sides, yet nobody has dared impugn his Faith and accuse him of being unorthodox. In fact, if only he would utter the tiniest, wee little heresy, authority could indulge in charity and all would be forgiven. The trouble is that the old devil won’t, so there is nothing to forgive. Thus he gets suspended and threatened with excommunication on the trumped up charge of disobeying ecclesiastical law.

My own case is not without its interest. I do nothing which I have not got a perfect right to do. I endeavour to mend the divisions of my diocese precisely by appealing to the unity of Faith against the “divisiveness” of praxis. This so horrifies authority that it first reveals the fact that I am dying and then will not let me die in peace. I have here on my desk a letter from Klushko summoning me to Rome. Perhaps he hopes that the voyage will kill me! Of course I shall not go. If he is all that keen on a chat, he can come to Stamford.

Somewhere towards the start of this epistle I said that we might end up in the absurd position where practicing Catholics had lost the Faith whereas the faithful refused to practice. We are there already. Although, as a bishop, I am rather cut off from intimacy with the laity, among my personal friends I know a surprising number of people in that position. I shall give you an example. It is one among many but it happened to hurt me quite particularly.

When I was a little boy the only other Catholics in our vicinity were the Fogartys, a very devout and respectable family from Galway. Mr. Forgarty was a cowman on a neighbouring estate. One of the children, Kate, was my age. I have known her all my life and love her dearly. She married an excellent Catholic fellow from Epping. Whenever I had to drive up to London, I tried to arrange to have lunch with Kate and her husband on the way. The last time I did so was in October. I was a bit early and Robert, the husband, had not returned from work. “Oh, Edmund! I am so glad to get you alone,” said Kate. “It’s about Robert. Can’t you say something to him? He refuses to go to Mass, he who was so regular. He slangs the priests for everything. It’s such a bad example for the grandchildren, etc.” Robert duly turned up. Kate retired to the kitchen to serve up lunch. “Glad to get you alone,” said Robert. “It’s about my wife. Can’t you put some sense into her? Madge, that’s my eldest granddaughter, is going out with a non-Catholic. She says he needn’t become a Catholic and they can get married in the Protestant church. She’s put her on the pill, too, getting my Madge into wicked ways. And she’s gone all politics. Communist, that’s what I calls it. She spends her time at meetings and comes home full of hate. There’s no more family Rosary. I say it by myself while they watch the telly. She’s a right pagan, she is. And she takes Our Blessed Lord in her hand as though He were a bit of chewing gum. I can’t watch her: it makes me sick. She says she’s not a Roman Catholic: ‘I’m an Adult Christian.’ is what she says. And it’s all the fault of those bloody priests. They’re not Catholic, they’re devils, breaking up happy homes, that’s what they are.” Etc. . . . At lunch all I was able to do was to verify that both had spoken the truth. Kate practiced but had lost the Faith. Robert was faithful, even devout, but nothing would induce him to practice. How sad! And this is quite common, as you know full well.

Well, I suppose I shall have to answer Klushko. Before I do so, however, I should like to make my position clear.

The visible Church, the Kingdom, the community of the People of God—whatever you like to call it—is not the source but one of the objects of Faith; neither is she the sole nor even the primary object thereof. What she is, on the other hand, the the guardian of Faith by divine authority. As such she is infallible in proclaiming what the Faith is. Being composed of mortal men, however, she is lamentably fallible in putting the Faith into practice. This capacity for practical error is just as present in the Church’s administration as in her individual members. The Church is infallible but not impeccable. Where there is conflict between her Faith and her practice, as is clearly the case today, the faithful have no alternative but to cling to her Faith and discard her practice. My position is surely as reasonable as it is clear: I judge the Church’s fallible practice in the light of her infallible Faith. In theory, my dear Harry, you are either maintaining that the Church is impeccable—which is nonsense—or that one should cling to her practice and abandon her Faith.

Fortunately, however, we none of us live by theories and I know that Harry Dobson is just as good a Catholic as he knows is

His devoted friend,
Edmund Forester.

— Bryan Houghton, Mitre and Crook, 1979, pp. 185–190.