The Catholic Revival and the Kingdom of God
Addresses and Papers Delivered at the Sixth Catholic Congress of the Episcopal Church, Philadelphia, October 22 to 26, 1933
Milwaukee: Morehouse; London: A.R. Mowbray, 1933.
Authority in the Kingdom
WILL SPENS, C.B.E.
Master of Corpus Christi College
BEHIND all the particular controversies which have affected the Catholic Revival in the Anglican communion lies the question of the nature of the authority to which it appeals. At the beginning, the leaders of the movement made their appeal to the Prayer Book, as against neglect or denial of statements in its formularies or of the implications of its provisions for worship and for the sacraments. Men refused to admit that the sacraments were truly means of grace, save at most as edifying symbolism; and they could be answered by reference alike to the language of the articles and catechism and to the stark assertion of the Baptismal Office, "seeing that this child is now regenerate." Auricular Confession was attacked as wholly alien to the Church of England; and it could be replied that the Prayer Book made provision for private confession in articulo mortis and expressly enjoined resort to such confession in certain other cases. If the Ornaments Rubric did not cover all that was claimed, it covered so much on any legitimate interpretation that the triumph of the Ritualists could only be avoided by a judgment of the judicial committee which brought lasting discredit upon that court.
Yet from the beginning there were two difficulties in adopting the view that the Catholic Revival involved no more than insistence upon wholehearted acceptance of the principles of the English Reformation, as finally embodied in the Prayer Book of 1662. In the first place, the Prayer [119/120] Book did not teach, even if it did not contradict and its principles might ultimately imply, doctrines and practices to which the movement was utterly committed. The existence of the adorable Presence through the Blessed Sacrament, the doctrine of the Eucharistic Sacrifice, the practice of reservation, express prayer for the dead, and the recognition of the prayer of the saints afford obvious examples. In the second place, those engaged in promoting a Catholic Revival were of a necessity precluded from assigning finality or infallibility to the conclusions of a single age in a single country. They had no immediate answer, and only a debating advantage, as against critics who were wise enough to assert that the Prayer Book retained traces of "Popish superstitions" and that the Church of England had in later years properly set these aside both in official teaching and in its daily life.
As a consequence appeal was made from the Prayer Book, but in accordance with the principles of the Prayer Book, to the Scriptures, and since these received varied interpretations and on certain points were admittedly silent or indecisive, to the Scriptures as interpreted by the Fathers and by the undivided Church. There, until recently, the issue rested save that all serious controversialists came gradually to recognize the existence and legitimacy of development of doctrine, even if they disputed as to the extent and criteria of legitimate development. What I am concerned to do in this paper is to criticize the adequacy of the appeal even to the undivided Church and to argue that if following the Prayer Book we appeal to Scripture, so following Scripture our ultimate appeal must be to religious experience and the religious consciousness; I am concerned also to argue that if we pursue that course we will find good ground alike for adherence to those beliefs which we mean when we speak of Catholicism, and for our conviction that we are more than justified in finding our spiritual home in the Anglican communion.
 It is obvious that acceptance of the Christian religion, and of the Scriptures, involves the belief that the Holy Spirit is vouchsafed to the Church. On the other hand belief that the Church will thus be guided into all truth does not necessarily exclude even grave error in the accepted teaching at any given stage in the process. It may be that the guidance of the Spirit manifests itself in assisting human effort, in so assisting it as to secure the ultimate correction of such errors as arise, rather than in precluding the existence of error at every stage. There is much in God's dealing with man which suggests that this might be the case and there is a single fact which is well nigh conclusive in favor of the view that it must be the case. Apostolic teaching as embodied in Holy Scripture taught, and taught as a matter of grave importance, the imminence of the Second Advent. It is indeed the fact that the manner in which this error was corrected without grave loss to the life of the Church affords an admirable example of the guidance of the Spirit. It is difficult, however, to exclude the possibility of serious error even in the teaching of the undivided Church when such error existed in apostolic teaching, and in apostolic teaching which was canonized in Scripture. In that crucial instance the guidance of the Spirit was operative not in preventing but in overcoming error; and the success with which the mistaken teaching was set aside depended on the fact that even apostolic teaching was not regarded as infallible.
There is a further consideration. Even if divine truth were expressed in any age in the best possible manner, that expression is limited and conditioned by the thought of that age. With the advance of thought and the questioning or rejection of the assumptions of the past, the issue necessarily arises as to how far these assumptions may have affected dogmatic conclusions and as to how far in consequence these conclusions have become open to doubt. New considerations came into view. Old assumptions are challenged and pass [121/122] away. We need the assurance of a living and authoritative voice that the dogmatic conclusions of an earlier age need not be modified; or, if in this or that instance it is the case that they ought to be modified; we need authoritative guidance as to the modifications which are required and which will conserve the Christian faith.
Two important attempts have been made to recognize that necessity. There is first of all the claim that found its classic expression in this connection in Newman's essay on Development of Doctrine, that the papacy affords just such a living voice as is required to decide between true and false developments of doctrine and, it may be added, as is required to give assurance in this or that case that no developments or modification are necessary. To that claim I will return. There is in the second place the contention, not infrequently made by members of our own communion, that even if the Church be divided we can rely on the common teaching of its different branches. Unless, however, the Church be so defined as to exclude the great Protestant bodies it is obvious that the extent of common teaching is too small to give what is required. Even so the measure of common belief affords indeed an impressive challenge to unbelief. If the Barthian revolt wins acceptance in Protestant theology the measure of agreement may be substantially increased. But when all is said, it is only if consideration is confined to the Roman, Orthodox, and Anglican communions, and scarcely even then, that it is possible to argue that there is agreement over a sufficient field to afford a living voice capable of dealing with our problems and controversies. Such a limitation is inadmissible, however, since it involves a circular argument. It presupposes conclusions which are themselves disputed and for which authority is required. If Protestant opinion is to be set aside or discounted, on the ground presumably that it does not issue from a full Christian life, there are ultimately involved particular judgments as to the place of the [122/123] sacraments and as to the place of the episcopate. No two issues admit of or have aroused more controversy, or more urgently require to be faced on the basis of a sound conception of doctrinal authority, rather than to be prejudged in the search for such a conception.
There remains the Roman claim: and there is no ground on which the Catholic Revival in the Anglican communion has been more criticized or in respect of which it is more superficially open to criticism than in regard to that claim. The Revival has manifestly learned from the Roman Church, and is content to do so. As a result it is constantly subjected to the charge that it accepts the great bulk of Roman doctrine rejecting only such dogmas as involve or imply submission to the holy see; and that this selection of what is and what is not accepted is dictated rather by a desire for the Catholic devotional system combined with unwillingness to accept submission to Rome as the necessary and proper price. We are told that this attitude is at worst contemptible and even at best irrational and indefensible. We are all familiar with such criticism. There is one and only one answer: but that is an answer which if it can be maintained is conclusive. It not only can be maintained as I believe, but would seem to afford the only conception of doctrinal authority which gives sound grounds for belief.
As I have implied (and as is, I think, obvious) the Catholic Revival has tended to accept such Roman doctrines as seem to be involved directly in acceptance of the Catholic devotional life and it has tended to reject those Roman doctrines which are less closely related to the devotional life and have manifestly arisen, at least in the main, in the excogitation of a particular system. Further, what rationalization we have found for the acceptance of this or that doctrine, I think it is the case, and I think we are all conscious of this, that we have really been moved to hold these doctrines precisely because they seemed to be involved in the adoption [123/124] of a devotional life and devotional practices of the value of which we are convinced by experience. We stand justified, and more than justified, if the extent to which a doctrine is necessarily involved by a proved devotional life is in fact the measure of the authority which that doctrine possesses and if the Catholic system has its authority precisely because, and only as far as, such a relation to experience in fact exists.
The Roman Catholic conception of authority is, of course, quite a different conception. It holds that the guidance of the Church by the Spirit is given in such a manner, and with sufficient independence of human cooperation, as to secure that in every age, however dark or quarrelsome, any dogma is infallible if it has been promulgated in certain ways. Further, a practical infallibility, the belief that the need for revision need not be seriously considered, exists in regard to a large range of traditional theology over and above those dogmas which have been so defined as to be strictly infallible. I am not going to labor certain obvious difficulties: for example the relatively narrow range to which the claim for papal or even conciliar infallibility must be reduced if it is to be capable of defense. I am concerned rather with the grounds for criticizing any such way of looking at authority. What is our usual and strongest ground for believing that a particular person or body speaks with special authority? Is it not that in a number of cases independent evidence has confirmed what we have been told by that person or by that body of opinion? So far has such confirmation proved lacking in regard to the official teachings of the Roman Church, that the best apologists of infallibility are careful to explain that infallibility is not to be expected in regard to matter capable of determination by human reason. Mistakes in science and mistakes as to the historical criticism of the Scriptures are thus dismissed. Think how different would be the case for the Roman conception of authority had the [124/125] Church proved right, and unexpectedly right, when secular learning afforded a check on its pronouncement; or even, if the Church had made clear from the first that it did not claim to speak with supernatural authority in these fields instead of only abandoning a claim to do so when that claim became manifestly untenable.
Such considerations do not of themselves negative the Roman conception. Since infallibility is asserted only, or primarily, where no independent check is possible, it follows, however, that the claim must be based on a priori grounds or on direct argument from the teaching of our Lord. The usual a priori argument is that God could not have left man without certain guidance. Do we know enough to say that with any certainty? If but only we would honestly have expected God to allow the suffering and the evil which are in the world, we might presume thus to judge as to how God ought to and must treat man. He has allowed evil in the world and even in the highest places in the Church, and is there any certainty that he would not have allowed error, and that error even the most official promulgation of dogmas? Turn to the argument from our Lord's teaching. Waive the difficulty that unless you assume the authority of the Church which you are trying to establish you cannot be certain of the authenticity or even of the authority of His teaching; and consider the texts ordinarily quoted as guaranteeing the Church's infallibility. Does any one of these necessarily imply more than that in the long run the Church will come to all truth and that in the long run she will triumph? Test our Lord's promises in another direction. If you do not admit that these promises refer to the end and not to each and every stage how can you reconcile them with the promise that the gates of hell will not prevail against the Church—the wiping out, for example, of the great Church in North Africa?
Do not suppose I am arguing against the great authority [125/126] of Catholic doctrine as it is held in the Roman Church, in the Orthodox Eastern Church, and in our own Catholic tradition. God forbid! What I am arguing is that this authority has a different basis and is of a different character, that the authority of Catholic doctrine rests not on official pronouncement but on its relation to experience. Test that conception in turn by the teaching of our Lord. "Do men gather figs of thistles?" "If any man will do His will, he shall know of the doctrine whether it be of God!" The gravest scriptural objection to the Roman doctrine of an oracular infallibility is not that the texts which are used to establish it are inadequate to do so. It is that there is in the texts to which I have referred positive teaching of another conception of authority in relation to doctrine, a conception definitely related to experience rather than to official pronouncement, definitely empirical rather than oracular. The great Catholic tradition in theology, wherever it exists, has its authority in accordance with Scripture, in virtue of its relation to the Christian life, and insofar only as it directly ministers to that life, directly issues from it, and is directly implied by it.
I cannot attempt in this paper what is, as I conceive it, the fundamental task of Catholic apologetics; the justification of the view that insofar as a doctrine issues from and coordinates the Christian life, and insofar as it fits into a theological system which does so over the widest possible field that doctrine is entitled to intellectual acceptance. I must be content to urge, as I have, that such a view is at once the only possible ground for the authority of doctrine and the conception of authority which our Lord Himself taught.
But I wish if I may to point out some of the implications of that view:
In the first place this is no lower or less certain conception of authority. What matters about authority is not the number of issues it settles if there are adequate grounds for its [126/127] acceptance, but that there should be such grounds and grounds which commend themselves to thoughtful men. Is there any field to which authority is so freely conceded, or the authority of which is so secure as in the case of science? It is a similar authority which I am claiming for the Catholic faith. In each case the grounds for the acceptance of particular conceptions are found in the extent to which they fit into the system of thought which affords men such guidance over a wide range of experience. In each case this is held to imply not merely pragmatic value but insight into the ground and causes of experience. The main difference lies in the closer interconnection which exists between belief and experience. The difficulty which this difference presents affords a special problem for apologetics. It has important implications but I am convinced, and increasingly convinced, that it is largely superficial, and that it in no way invalidates the analogy between the case for accepting the authority of science and the cause for accepting the authority of the Catholic faith. I would wish to safeguard that remark by only one qualification. Theology has a closer analogy to geology than to the physical sciences. Each is concerned with great formative events, and must be largely controlled by the evidence which we possess as to these: in the case of theology, by the scriptural evidence as to the Incarnation and as to that age which immediately followed upon Pentecost. That qualification is important since it justifies insistence on the supreme importance of Scripture as a test of theology.
Secondly there is the question as to how much reconstruction in theology such a view is likely to involve. In the middle ages, the formative period of peculiarly Roman theology, men tended in every field of thought to excogitate systems developing the implications of authoritative precepts, rather than continually reconsidering these precepts and testing their development by reference to the facts of experience. Medieval science and medieval medicine followed that course as [127/128] well as medieval theology. In each case progress was made because even so experience determined thought in some particular degree, but progress was made rather in spite of than because of the authoritative method. In the case of theology even in the middle ages, and even more in the patristic age, experience had in fact played a much larger part than in medieval science. Where theology was directly related, for example, to prayer and worship, the theologians consciously or unconsciously, but very definitely, conformed to experience, even to the point of too great readiness to accept popular cults at their face value. In consequence, insofar as medieval or patristic theology is directly related to the Christian life and to worship, it is likely to need far less reconstruction than would otherwise have been the case. Further, and this is the peculiar claim of Catholicism, Catholic piety, and in consequence Catholic theology, is in fact synthetic. It is not too much to claim that in part through the influence of its early history, but quite clearly not only for that reason, Catholic theology at its best embodies and in a real measure synthesizes the ideas which have been vital in other religions. That again so far from affording ground for criticism gives added weight to Catholic theology by extending its basis in experience. Reconstruction is likely, however, to be necessary in three special fields. It follows from what I have said that there is the large range of theology which is not very directly related to religious life. There is the issue with which I have been immediately concerned, namely the theoretical questions as to why and within precisely what limits the Catholic tradition is authoritative as opposed to the practical question as to whether it does in fact afford us the best available knowledge of God and of God's dealing with man. There are a number of other questions which are important but again not very directly related to prayer and worship and growth in holiness, for example questions of jurisdiction, detailed doctrines as to the angels and the Last Things, and a detailed [128/129] doctrine of creation. Secondly there is the fact of the Reformation. On such a view as that which I have tried to suggest we are justified up to a point in insisting not only that Catholic as well as Protestant piety must be justified by any true doctrinal system but that the ideas which are vital to Protestant piety are conserved in Catholicism while the converse is not the case. We may even be justified in asserting that Catholicism leads to sanctity and saves from sin a far wider range of human types and that this gives strong support to the Catholic doctrinal system. But when all is said we have to recognize the existence and significance of the Reformation as a revolt of the religious consciousness against medieval theology. We have to seek a synthesis, for example, in our doctrine of the sacraments and in our doctrine of the Church, which on the one hand will preserve all that has proved to be of value in the Catholic doctrine and on the other hand will remove all legitimate grounds for that revolt. It is among our strongest grounds for hope that at present much is being done to meet this need and that not only in the Anglican but in the Roman communion. I would mention in particular the work of Billot on Sacramental Causality and that of De la Taille on the Eucharistic Sacrifice. In the third place there are these possibilities opened out by the advance of philosophic and scientific thought. Grant that medieval theology represented, as a whole, the best account of God and of God's dealings with man which was possible in terms of the thought which was then available. The advance of thought ought to render possible clearer insight and ought to enable us to overcome old difficulties and old antinomies. I believe that to be conspicuously the case in regard to the doctrine of the Real Presence, the doctrine of creation, and even the doctrine of the Last Things.
I would conclude by pointing out two practical results of the view of authority which I have tried to put before you. In the first, if we are dealing with authority analogous [129/130] to that which we accept in the case of science, then the authority for any particular doctrine depends on the consensus in favor of this doctrine being a free consensus. The significance of the acceptance of a doctrine is gravely weakened if there is ground for the suspicion that this acceptance is determined by pressure or even by excessive conservatism. It is a relatively small matter whether or not we are justified in our position by such considerations as I have tried to put before you. To God's judgment we in any case commit ourselves, having need for repentance only insofar as we have not tried to understand and follow in His ways. It is not a small matter if the test of doctrine which the Catholic Revival in the Anglican communion has applied consciously or unconsciously is in fact a true test. Our position has certainly not been adopted through ecclesiastical pressure or as a result of conservatism. Its existence and growth bear therefore very special witness to the truth of Catholicism. Further, so long as we are true to the Anglican tradition of allowing great freedom of thought and of speculation, the conclusions of our theologians will continue to have a very special importance just because of this freedom. On the other hand insofar as speculation is not governed by reference to Christian experience or does not recognize that any possible doctrinal system must affect a synthesis of all Christian experience, Catholic as well as Protestant, that speculation does not demand serious attention. It is for this reason that we have the right to ignore much Protestant theology, however honest and however free.
In the second place and lastly, there is another implication as grave as it is obvious. It is for us to bear witness by our lives to the truth of our beliefs. We have to show that these beliefs, if faithfully followed, do in fact lead to freedom from grave sin, to positive and active virtue: and to the vision of God. It was thus that the Tractarians convinced men in the face of far greater difficulties. In a sermon [130/131] preached in the University Church in Cambridge on July 14th of this year there was a warning which I venture to quote: "The trend of the Catholic Revival has been from moralism to pietism." The preacher had been insisting on the importance of being stern with ourselves and of making sacrifices to help others. He was warning us against the danger that a variety of "devotions," and over-concern with these, might become a substitute for effort to help those in necessity or tribulation. He had the right to call us back to the examples of the Tractarians. A young Fellow of my own college, he had thrown up a brilliant academic career and a relatively large income to become a curate in a slum parish.
The Catholic Revival will be judged, and rightly judged, by the extent to which it issues in those virtues which all revere and does this in so marked a degree as to leave no doubt that its followers walk by grace. To visit the fatherless and the widow and to keep ourselves unspotted from the world is not the whole of religion, but these and similar virtues are an acid test. May God's grace so be given us that we fail not in that test, and that we so live as to draw others to the Catholic faith.