THE ‘THINKING CATHOLIC’
Paul J. Griffiths’s “Under Pressure” (May) reintroduced me to a controversy that has long engaged my thinking. The struggle between Blaise Pascal’s brilliant mind and his adherence to papal edicts has some resonance today. But I fear Griffiths’s characterization of the pressure that “the magisterium” should place on the “thinking Catholic” belies some advances that have been made concerning matters of fact and questions of purported faithful adherence.
Griffiths poses the question of authority in the Church in terms of a unitary magisterium (my term) that collapses the teaching of “bishops” with papal decrees. Those supposedly doctrinal decrees occurred in a political context in which the actions of Popes Innocent X and Alexander VII were notoriously influenced by the machinations of Cardinal Richelieu, and then the young Louis XIV. Catholic thinkers interested in reform were backed into a corner by aristocratic politicians as much as by any papal authority (the state and Church being sickly intertwined until the French Revolution).
Defining the task of a “Catholic thinker” (a theologian perhaps?) as “recognizing that you are more likely to be wrong than the Church is” begs several questions that some reflection on important advances in ecclesiology might cast light on. Cardinal Newman’s more expansive notion of the teaching office of the Church gave priority to the schola theologorum as an essential component of articulating what comprises the faith of the whole Church. Subsequently, theologians (many of them French) contributed valuable insights from the deeper theological tradition that ended up—despite their persecution by Roman magisterialists—making the teaching Church “think harder.”
Much of the results of this thinking then led to Vatican II’s doctrinal and moral teachings, which stood earlier statements of the so-called ordinary magisterium on their head. They did so because of theologians who thought harder about issues of fact: that humans have rights of conscience, that Judaism perdures as a genuine faith, that the Church rejects nothing that is true and holy in even non-theistic faiths. All of these developments occurred because theologians thought harder about the inadequacies of what popes (and bishops) had long held and proclaimed. This makes Griffiths’s description of “the Catholic thing” not wrong, but just too one-sided.
Paul E. Dinter
I found the article on Pascal to be an interesting and thoughtful exposition of a complicated situation. Yet nowhere did the author acknowledge that the whole dispute between Pascal and the Roman authorities was playing out against the background of the ongoing activities of the Inquisition in France. The chance of imprisonment and of being denied a Christian burial would have been a real component in Pascal’s decision-making. For us, holding a divergent opinion in public simply means the possibility of being trolled on Facebook; for the French philosopher it could have meant being consigned to eternal damnation.
Paul Griffiths provides an interesting survey of the ins and outs of magisterial teaching for Pascal and in a way for us, too. The heart of the matter is captured in his statement that you would be in trouble “if you find the Church teaching It’s not possible for women to be ordained to the priesthood while you find yourself believing that it is possible.” That is what I and many Catholics find the Church now teaches. We also believe that the teaching is neither infallible nor irreformable. Teachings of the magisterium have indeed developed and even changed over history and will continue to change. The list is long. One might start by surveying the very admirable changes in Church’s teachings about the study and meanings of sacred Scripture. And there is “no salvation outside the Church,” which is still on the books, but does not mean what it seems to say.
FOLD UP THE TENT
Paul Griffiths’s piece on Pascal and the magisterium is a maddening blend of luscious prose, fine historical narrative, and ultimately flawed theology. If I correctly understand his point—brought home in his brilliant final paragraph—I am to consistently apply my God-given ability to reason out whether something is true or false, and diligently pursue that which is true. Fine. But if the Church disagrees with me because it invented evidence that simply doesn’t exist (Jansen’s “errant” texts, in this case), I am to fold my tent, concede my point, and abandon what I know to be completely, obviously, and patently true. Merciful heavens! I now better understand Martin Luther, and the millions of contemporary Catholics who possess at best only a nodding respect for Church authority. Please tell me I’m wrong, and that the truth still does “set us free.”