Letters | Episcopal Authority, Gutting Aquinas

Readers Write

Newman’s Own

John Thiel’s efforts to correct Cardinal Donald Wuerl’s misconception that bishops are the “only authoritative teachers of the faith” hit a consistently judicious and generous note (“Parallel Magisterium?” May 16). Pointing gently to the dynamics of development in Catholic teaching spearheaded by theologians, Thiel points out that Wuerl’s cramped understanding of theologians’ role in the church “runs counter to the understanding of a large majority of Catholic theologians.”

Among these theologians can be numbered Cardinal John Henry Newman, who outlined a far more nuanced view of the role of the hierarchy, situating it within the broader apostolic tradition committed to the whole church. In his groundbreaking On Consulting the Faithful in Matters of Doctrine, Newman affirmed that the tradition “manifests itself variously at various times: sometimes by the mouth of the episcopacy, sometimes by the doctors, sometimes by the people, sometimes by liturgy” none of which “may be treated with disrespect.”

In the 1877 edition of The Via Media, Newman formalized this understanding as the threefold office of the Body of Christ, in which teaching (theology), rule (governing), and ministry (worship) together constitute a virtual system of checks and balances. At the center is “the action of pastor and flock,” but serving this center are the schola theologorum, on the one hand, and, on the other, the “papacy and its curia.” But Newman also affirmed that “the fundamental and regulating principle of the whole church system” is theology, which “has in a certain sense a power of jurisdiction over” the governing and sanctifying offices—“theologians ever being in request and in employment in keeping within bounds both the political and popular elements in the church’s constitution,” both of which he saw as “far more liable to excess and corruption.”

Paul E. Dinter

Ossining, N.Y.

 

Faith & Mystery

In reviewing Denys Turner’s Thomas Aquinas (“Doubting Thomas,” May 16), Gary Gutting claims to have shown, at least to his own satisfaction, that Aquinas’s treatment of the Christian doctrines of the immortality of the soul, creation, and God as Triune is unintelligible. Indeed, he finds that in what Aquinas says about many other Christian doctrines “the specter of unintelligibility—or if you like, ‘mystery’—looms large.”

What would Gutting have Aquinas, or anyone else, say about any of the central doctrines of the Christian faith? Here’s Gutting’s advice: “A well-grounded truth of reason may require us to modify or reject what we had thought was a revealed truth. If we find...that careful formulation of what we think a revealed truth means leads to absurdity, we should conclude that the truth does not mean what we thought it did. The task then is to reformulate, not to try to convince ourselves that our failure to understand is a higher form of understanding.”

In other words, Gutting would have us “reformulate” the expression “I believe in order to understand” as “I only believe what I can understand.” Think about how St. Paul would have dealt with Gutting’s advice.

Bernard Dauenhauer

Bethlehem, Penn.

 

Wrong Reviewer

The title of Denys Turner’s book is Thomas Aquinas: A Portrait. On page 1 he explains the subtitle: “It is a profile sketched out in thin strokes of the pen, exaggerating a few features out of all proportion and omitting many more altogether. It is therefore a caricature…. My caricature, I hope, is no more distorting than any other work on Thomas Aquinas, just differently so.” Then, on the second page, Turner writes: “This work, then, is specifically not intended for professional philosophers and theologians.”

These qualifications are important for evaluating what Turner is doing and they should therefore be noted in any review. This is a book that scholars of St. Thomas will pick apart for its lack of rigorous exposition. So too will professional philosophers, for different reasons. But that is not fair to Turner because he tells you right at the beginning that his intended audience is not scholarly. Why, then, did Commonweal’s editors give the review to the kind of reviewer that Turner specifically said he was not writing for? If you had to give it to a scholar, why not a theologian familiar enough with Aquinas to be able to advise Commonweal’s readers whether Turner’s portrait was worth pondering compared to the original?

(Rev.) Brian J. Shanley, Op

Providence, R.I.

 

Popes & Emperors

There is an interesting historical perspective one can take on the emerging trend of popes canonizing their recent predecessors (“The Odd Couple,” April 11, 2014). The basic administrative structure of the church is that of the later Roman Empire. The “diocese” was an administrative subdivision created by Diocletian in the third century. With the displacement of the last emperor of the West, the bishops of Rome took over much of that structure and even assumed one of the emperors’ titles, “Pontifex Maximus”—originally held by Julius Caesar and passed down to his successors.

Roman emperors routinely deified their predecessors. That practice was obviously a nonstarter for Christians. But a Christian version of this custom, canonization, now seems to be catching on. In the long history of the papacy, few popes have been canonized other than those lost in the mists of the church’s very early centuries. But now we have Saints Pius X, John XXIII, and John Paul II, with Pius XI and XII and Paul VI waiting in the wings.

Robert Harley

Brooklyn, N.Y.

Published in the June 13, 2014 issue: 
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