It’s been a tough few years for those who’ve had to learn from Pope Francis that they’re not the ultramontanists they thought they were. Those who could, from 1978 to 2013, point to papal teachings as non-negotiable supports for what they knew to be core doctrines of the faith now often can’t. Their habit of pointing to Rome, as if to say, “Look, if you disagree with me, you disagree with the rock upon which Christ himself built the Church,” is now fraught with cognitive dissonance. Now, as often as not, the people pointing to Rome are on the other side—people who, in the eyes of yesterday’s ultramontanists, have no business defending the doctrine of the church.
I’d like to suggest that this new tension with the institutional church is—or has the potential to be—a healthy one. We need only look to Blessed John Henry Newman for a good account of the theological fruit that can ripen in conditions of conflict. It’s a uniquely Catholic gift, according to Newman, to have the capacity for such conflict. And it’s precisely this gift that allows the real idea of Christianity to take root and develop organically in history.
Newman often speaks of real ideas as living things that grip both the intellect and the imagination. Sometimes they may also give rise to conflicts between the work of theologians and the teaching authority of the Catholic Church. It’s fitting that “life” is Newman’s term of art for what causes a real idea to seize those who encounter it. This vital principle is at the heart of his thinking on the creative theological impulse. The active mind cannot help being changed by the ideas that take root in it. Far from stifling this natural tendency toward development, the church’s authority encourages it. More importantly, it creates a space for it to flourish.
But encouraging its growth also involves pruning. Left without care, shoot after shoot of new green stems appear until nothing but a tangled mess remains. To use another analogy, the church’s authority acts like the boundaries and rules of fair play for a game of baseball. Without rules or boundaries, there is no game. Without any boundaries, it’s not clear what would count as a correct solution to a theological problem, just as it’s not clear what would count as “safe” if one couldn’t find the bases or home plate of a baseball diamond.
For this reason, Newman writes in his Apologia Pro Vita Sua that the church must “denounce rebellion as of all possible evils the greatest” while at the same time affirming that “the energy of the human intellect ‘does from opposition grow’; it thrives and is joyous, with a tough elastic strength, under the terrible blows of the divinely fashioned weapon, and is never so much itself as when it has lately been overthrown.” Here Newman is sketching a grammar of theological conflict. To be authentically Catholic, that conflict cannot involve rebelling against the church’s proper authority. The word “rebellion” suggests a rejection, an active attempt at overthrow, subversion, or destruction. On the other hand, “opposition” need not mean anything so pernicious. While it’s possible to oppose an enemy, it’s also possible to be on opposing sides in a game of chess, or to find oneself opposing a friend in a debate. Such opposition implies no enmity, but it does involve confrontation—and we are better for it. Our games, our arguments, are never as finely honed as they are in the face of opposition. Being beaten back and defeated in a game or an argument is often as invigorating as victory. The pronouncements of a pope should be received even if—perhaps especially if—they knock us back. It’s no test of fidelity to the church if you find yourself continuosly in agreement with it. It’s in those moments when a person finds her judgment to be opposed to church teaching that we can take the measure of her fidelity.
Newman writes, “It is the vast Catholic body itself, and it only, which affords an arena for both combatants in that awful, never-dying duel.” And why is it that this can only take place within the bounds of the Catholic Church? Mainly because within its bounds it isn’t necessary to always begin at the beginning. The authority of the church itself is the guarantor of our starting point in theology, which for Catholics begins in medias res. The case for the Protestant theologian is quite different, and Newman believed it is ultimately unsustainable. The key distinction comes early in his An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine, when he begins building the case for the antecedent probability of an infallible authority. There he says: “The absolute need of a spiritual supremacy is at present the strongest of arguments in favor of the fact of its supply. Surely, either an objective revelation has not been given, or it has been provided with means of impressing its objectiveness on the world.” In short, the church must be capable of saying what is and is not revelatory. A foundational claim of Christianity is that the Triune Lord has revealed himself to us, and that this is an objective state of affairs. The church’s authority serves an adjudicating role that guarantees the objective content of this revelation.
The question of objective revelation is critical. Revealed doctrines serve as first principles for all subsequent theological reasoning. It is the mistake of “liberalism,” as Newman defines it, to subject “to human judgment those revealed doctrines which are in their nature beyond and independent of it.” Taken to its logical conclusion, this kind of theological liberalism arrives in the same place as “natural religion.” Both rely on the subjective authority of private judgment. The principle of private judgment is one Newman develops more fully in a sermon titled “Faith and Private Judgment,” in which he argues that the infallible authority of the church has an apostolic origin.
Either the Apostles were from God, or they were not; if they were, everything that they preached was to be believed by their hearers; if they were not, there was nothing for their hearers to believe.... The world had either to become Christian, or to let it alone; there was no room for private tastes and fancies, no room for private judgment.
The appropriate Christian response to this revelation is submission, not judgment. Without submission, there is no faith. To judge for oneself what constitutes revelation is not faith, according to Newman.