Project Canterbury

Liberal Catholicism and the Modern World

Edited by Frank Gavin

Milwaukee: Morehouse, 1933.


Professor of Dogmatic Theology, General Theological Seminary

A BETWEEN freedom and authority, in the Catholic tradition, one should be prepared to expect no even balance, with just as much urging of the one as of the other. Our Lord's earthly life was short, the Apostles could not stay long together in Jerusalem but were soon scattered about over a very miscellaneous lot of civilizations, gained converts rapidly from a very miscellaneous lot of religions, and in their writings left no fixed system of theological beliefs or code of ethics. The chances were all in favor of freedom from the start, a freedom that would diverge from the type (the type being so slightly set and established) until "Christianity" might mean almost anything. Already in the New Testament there are signs of anxiety over perversions of the Gospel, things going by the name of Christianity but not true to type. Gnosticism was a very early heresy, and it was extremely free from any disposition to conform to type; it was called a heresy then, but we should probably not call it Christianity at all now.

So an anxiety to keep the Gospel straight shows itself in St. Paul and St. John for instance. And although St. John gives us the great phrase about the truth--"and the truth shall make you free"--he shows plainly enough that he does not mean that the truth shall make us free to call anything the truth that happens to strike our fancy. From then on, the anxiety and urgency is to keep the Christian message true to type, true to the Gospel. Liberty of interpretation is not generally urged; it is left to take care of itself after the Gospel has been safeguarded. Urging freedom, shouting the battle cry of freedom, is a comparatively modern thing. Freedom in regard to practice, liberty as against legalism, certainly is a Pauline battle cry, but not so much freedom in regard to belief. And so it has been generally: freedom of practice has been justified earlier than freedom in belief. "Liberal Catholic" is a name first given to political, not doctrinal, liberals.

In that great age of the Church, the later second and early third century, when so many of the secondary characters of the Church were established, the age of St. Irenaeus, Tertullian, Victor, St. Clement of Alexandria, and Origen, the assertion of authority for the maintenance of the Gospel in its genuineness became most definite. The authority urged as the test of the Tightness of anything taught or done in the Church was the authority of the Apostles, more and more firmly expressed in the threefold standard--the apostolic canon of the New Testament, the apostolic "rule of faith" (Apostles' Creed), and the apostolic succession of bishops in the local churches founded by Apostles. All three of these were at that time approaching a permanent form.

Apostolicity, then, was the great authority word. Perhaps its force may be best appreciated if we reflect that, unless we can trust the Apostles to have transmitted our Lord's Gospel substantially as He intended it, we have no means of recovering that Gospel, and it is lost forever.

Apostolicity is the standard faithfully to be maintained. But this carries with it, it would seem, the implication that we are free to go on from where the Apostles left off, provided our goings on do not conflict with the apostolic nucleus from which we have started. This is an implication, not often clearly expressed. But it was expressed by Origen, at any rate. First he says, "That alone is to be accepted as truth which differs in no respect from ecclesiastical and apostolic tradition." But at once (all in the Preface to his De Principiis) he goes on to say that the Apostles, who spoke with the utmost clearness on some things, on others "merely stated the fact that things were so, keeping silence as to the manner or origin of their existence, clearly in order that the more zealous of their successors, who should be lovers of wisdom, might have a subject of exercise on which to display the fruit of their talents." And Origen, who stated the "rule of faith" more explicitly than any other of his age, yet used to the full the liberty he claimed to "display" his speculative genius on matters not concluded in the authoritative creed. Such, then, is Apostolicity, faithful adherence to the faith originally set forth by the original disciples of our Lord.

As the Church grew, another great form of authority became more prominent, viz., Catholicity, which meant at first, of course, the world wide, as opposed to the local, then that which was in union with the world wide, as opposed to the schismatical, and then what was in agreement with the world wide, as opposed to the heretical. Catholicity we have certainly as a great idea of the Councils; in St. Vincent it takes the form "what is believed everywhere, and by all or almost all." St. Augustine bespeaks it when he says, "The whole world is a reliable judge." In the medieval scholastic works the authority of what is Catholic in this sense is always recognized, and even beyond what is dogmatically laid down there is grave respect for the "common opinion."

Yet, as in the case of Apostolicity, the criterion of Catholicity implies a liberty of opinion which the whole Church has not defined. A medieval scholastic theologian often dissented from the "common opinion." His successors have made much use of the "pious opinion," which is not certainly revealed but is harmonious with what is revealed and has otherwise something to say for itself. And the same sort of freedom appears in their idea of different "senses" or meanings of the revealed faith (chiefly Scripture); the strictly historical meaning is revealed and may not be denied, but over and above this literal meaning one may find various "spiritual" senses. The Schoolmen made considerable use of this liberty, and still do, even in a Church that has regularly been most anxious, strict, rigorous, even panicky in its rigorousness, for authority and uniformity.

Now if we take these two ideas, Apostolicity and Catholicity, as the main forms in which the Church (in the "Catholic tradition") has stated its criteria of what was genuine Christianity, I think we can find, upon analysis of them, that they represent the two great aspects of all Church authority in matters of faith, if not of all authority whatsoever.

Authority in belief, i.e., of course not power to coerce (which has nothing to do with belief but only with profession of belief), but a high presumption of credibility, is either (1) the authority of the expert over the unlearned, or (2) the authority of the whole over the part.

(1) The expert has an aristocratic authority. He knows better than most, because he either has studied his subject thoroughly, or has better brains than most people, or has had (perhaps by mere chance) a better opportunity to know the matter in question; he was an eye-witness, or in some way was in an exceptionally favorable position for knowing. In the Church, this sort of thing is found in the great Christian thinkers and writers, the saints, in their measure the bishops, but most especially the Apostles. Apostolicity is one form of the authority of the expert over the less learned. If anyone is a prophet, is inspired, he has the same general kind of credibility--he has been put into a position to know more about the matter than others do. If Christ has promised and given special guidance to His Church, to lead it into all truth, that is similar.

(2) But experts notoriously do not take an all round view of things: some do so more than others, but no one man really can "see it whole." The expert sees his specialty out of all proportion to the rest of the universe. It is a dreadful thing when a large body of people is ruled by specialists. So there is a counter authority, quite indispensable for matters of vital concern, in the great body of people who have to live as sanely as they can together, and take what account they can of the various departmental expert guidances at hand, so as to fit them together into a whole. Over against the aristocratic authority of the expert rises the democratic authority of the whole. The expert must consider "what Jones will swallow," when Jones means Everyman. The witnesses must convince the jury. The partial must be reconciled to other partials in the whole scheme of things. The "so we preach" even in St. Paul's case must be complemented by the "so ye believed."

What corresponds in the Church to this authority (credibility) of the whole (receiving, hearing, weighing, judging) over the part (even a very expert part) is the principle of Catholicity. The word "Catholic" has the word "whole" in it. An Ecumenical Council is one that represents the whole Church, and is accepted by the whole Church as representing it. Historicity, the principle that the essentials of Christianity are the things found in its history as a whole--not the merely temporary phases of belief and practice, not the merely biblical, nor the merely medieval, etc., but the great patterns that run through the whole stretch of Church history so far--historicity so understood is an aspect mainly of Catholicity, though the ascertaining of what is true history is, of course, the work of experts. Even revelation, though "special" revelation falls mostly under the form of artistocratic expert authority, has in "general" revelation the notion of what is evident unto all men who observe the general course of nature, and so has an aspect of Catholicity. Apostol-icity discovers, Catholicity reads the papers and weighs and judges of the general bearing of the discoveries. Apostolicity puts forth theses, Catholicity synthesizes. Apostolicity is inspired; Catholicity "tries the spirits." And so on.

It will appear from the above that these are contrary the one to the other, but not contradictory. There is a tension, and always will be until we all have the Beatific Vision, a tension between different kinds of authority (credibility), each of which is deeply, steadily, sound and right. When there is such a tension between authorities, freedom has its chance, in the form of a choosing between authorities, even if it be a choosing both, in the best adjustment one can make. That is freedom in the better sense, not freedom against authority, but freedom between authorities. For freedom against authority (i.e., credibility) would mean believing against all the credibilities. The individual against authority, if at all reasonable, must examine himself whether, in the matter in question, he be himself so very credible to himself: i.e., he must consider himself as another authority, and you come back to a tension between authorities, and freedom to decide between them.

In the Catholic tradition, as in any other tradition, there is freedom of the whole Church to modify the findings of its experts in the interests of wholeness, and there is freedom of the expert to find new aspects of the truth in modification of what is commonly accepted.

The latter is the more familiar to us, i.e., the freedom of the gifted individual to strike out in new paths not recognized by the whole body. This romantic figure of the lone explorer after truth has been sufficiently held up to our notice. Here is, we think, the essence of Apostolicity, the witness of the expert, asserting itself somewhat at the expense of Catholicity, the acceptance of the laity.

But we do not so easily notice the other freedom (i.e., the choice of the other authority), that of the Church as a whole to deal with the new paths of the experts according to the general scheme of life as the whole people have to live it. The principle may be illustrated by something non-theological. Our modern civilization is beset with prescriptions of the medical profession, platforms of the political profession, programs of the psychological and educational profession, expert advice from dentists, insurance agents, beauty specialists, etc., any one of which, if taken with entire seriousness, would use up just about all our time, energy, and money. But we, the people, do not so take them. We obey so far and no further because "life is too short." In some such way the Catholic body responds with a sort of whole sanity, not very consciously and still less logically, but very really and wholesomely, to new propaganda in belief and conduct. It is an assertion of freedom, surely, to do so; only it is not the freedom of the individual against the community, but a sort of corporate freedom of the community against the individual. It may not forcibly suppress him, but it does not follow him all the way.

The freedom of the modern as against the ancient, or rather the freedom to be modern instead of ancient in beliefs and practices, may be an assertion of the authority of the expert, of the latter day saints, as it were, over the general body. But when the modern age is taken as an age in a historic whole, the liberty to assert modernness is tempered by the liberty to assert wholeness--at least a greater approximation to wholeness in virtue of a greater continuance of the history--against book-of-the-month-ism. In either case, the liberty consists essentially in choosing between authorities, i.e., credibilities. But we must not go further in a matter with which a paper on Modernism would probably be concerned to speak more at length.

This paper is concerned with the classifying of the various forms of authority claimed in the Catholic tradition as falling under two great principles, the superior credibility of the expert, and the superior credibility of the whole community; and it is hoped that the naturalness of both modes of authority, their likeness to the kinds of authority rightly claimed in spheres other than that of religious knowledge, will be apparent. Each authority asserts its liberty in some measure to go counter to the other, and there is liberty in the interplay of the two. They are in the very fullest sense organically united, despite tensions. Both are ultimately based upon the conviction that the truth makes an absolute demand to be believed: the truth is absolutely credible and authoritative. But on the other hand nothing could be more free than the assent one gives to what one knows is true. (Assent here is considered as concerned with belief, whatever be the emotional reluctance and distaste accompanying it. When we cry out, "I won't believe it I" we are not really maintaining freedom of belief.) It would surely be a travesty upon freedom to make it consist of calling anything I may happen to believe at the moment "the truth for me."

In regard to freedom and authority for matters of conduct, the same principles are as valid as for matters of belief. Surely no action could be more free than doing what one most wants to do, seeking the object that one most desires. And right here the Catholic tradition speaks of God as just that Object, if we only knew it--God the supremely desirable, the infinitely satisfying end of human activity. So that God is the absolute authority for our conduct and the goal of our most perfectly free "pursuit of happiness" both, because He is Absolute Goodness.

It is true that in the Catholic tradition there is a stronger tendency always to insist that such and such is the truth, and you will be most free, your mind will go straight to its home, when you believe this; it is not so apt to encourage you to experiment about, hoping that you will hit upon the truth, your mind's home, some day, without prejudging what that truth will turn out to be. Likewise it tends to say that such and such conduct is divinely commanded, and you will find your greatest happiness in obeying; it is not so apt to encourage you to experiment with your desires, hoping that you will hit upon the Supremely Desirable some day, without prejudging what that Supremely Desirable will turn out to be. Thus the freedom and naturalness of truth and right are veiled under authoritative statements of what is true and right, and, so veiled, seem distant abstractions. But in spite of this, the true (if transcendental!) liberty is there. It begins with authority but it ends in freedom; it trains you by authority, but it trains you for freedom, the freedom to believe and to act according to your true nature. The Catholic tradition may be mistaken in some points, it cannot be omniscient on any point, about your true nature and the true nature of the universe and God; but there is no mistaking what it means, and that is that one who believes what is really true is the most free of all free thinkers, and that one who does what is most desirable is the most free agent alive.

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