On General Norms of Theological Interpretation and "Dissent":
(A Historical Lesson and a Question For Mark Shea and His Ideological Allies)
Readers of this humble weblog (referring to Coalition For Fog) are aware of how Mark Shea has treated those who have taken issue with his theologically unsound (to put it nicely) interpretation of Veritatis Splendour on the issue of torture. I was among those who sought to make a careful examination of this subject using general norms of theological interpretation and while my writing on this subject is not the issue I want to focus on in this posting¹, it suffices to note that Mark Shea would probably find problems with how I approached that subject. According to Mark, I am probably a "dissenter from the magisterium" for the methodology I utilized and the stand I took.
I want therefore to have my methodology on a subject not dogmatic to be compared to the historical example to be noted below. From there, I want to ask Mark if he would take a similar stand against someone who had similar scruples about a solemn definition of dogma that some of us have had on theological matters nowhere near as weighty — in the former case, I refer to the definition of papal infallibility from Vatican I:
I saw the new Definition yesterday, and am pleased at its moderation—that is, if the doctrine in question is to be defined at all. The terms are vague and comprehensive; and, personally, I have no difficulty in admitting it. The question is, does it come to me with the authority of an Ecumenical Council?That is correct folks, Fr. John Henry Newman had some serious scruples about papal infallibility not only prior to its definition (as we all know) but even afterwards. My question for Mark and those who approach issues as he does is this:
Now the prima facie argument is in favour of its having that authority. The Council was legitimately called; it was more largely attended than any Council before it; and innumerable prayers from the whole of Christendom, have preceded and attended it, and merited a happy issue of its proceedings.
Were it not then for certain circumstances, under which the Council made the definition, I should receive that definition at once. Even as it is, if I were called upon to profess it, I should be unable, considering it came from the Holy Father and the competent local authorities, at once to refuse to do so. On the other hand, it cannot be denied that there are reasons for a Catholic, till better informed, to suspend his judgment on its validity.
We all know that ever since the opening of the Council, there has been a strenuous opposition to the definition of the doctrine; and that, at the time when it was actually passed, more than eighty Fathers absented themselves from the Council, and would have nothing to do with its act. But, if the fact be so, that the Fathers were not unanimous, is the definition valid? This depends on the question whether unanimity, at least moral, is or is not necessary for its validity? As at present advised I think it is; certainly Pius IV. lays great stress on the unanimity of the Fathers in the Council of Trent. 'Quibus rebus perfectis,' he says in his Bull of Promulgation, 'concilium tanta omnium qui illi interfuerent concordia peractum fuit, ut consensum plane a Domino effectum esse constiterit; idque in nostris atque omnium oculis valde mirabile fuerit."
Far different has been the case now,—though the Council is not yet finished. But, if I must now at once decide what to think of it, I should consider that all turned on what the dissentient Bishops now do.
If they separate and go home without acting as a body, if they act only individually, or as individuals, and each in his own way, then I should not recognize in their opposition to the majority that force, firmness, and unity of view, which creates a real case of want of moral unanimity in the Council.
Again, if the Council continues to sit, if the dissentient Bishops more or less take part in it, and concur in its acts; if there is a new Pope, and he continues the policy of the present; and if the Council terminates without any reversal or modification of the definition, or any effective movement against it on the part of the dissentients, then again there will be good reason for saying that the want of a moral unanimity has not been made out.
And further, if the definition is consistently received by the whole body of the faithful, as valid, or as the expression of a truth, then too it will claim our assent by the force of the great dictum, 'Securus judicat orbis terrarum.'
This indeed is a broad principle by which all acts of the rulers of the Church are ratified. But for it, we might reasonably question some of the past Councils or their acts.
John Henry Newman: Private Letter (circa July 24, 1870) as quoted in his Letter to the Duke of Norfolk from Chapter 8 On the Vatican Council (circa December 27, 1874)
Was John Henry Newman a "dissenter from the magisterium" or was he engaging in a valid theological inquiry on an issue where he had some scruples as to its legitimacy???
Those who review the approach outlined by the Vatican on how a theologian should approach issues of difficulty will see not only in Newman's approach but also the approach that I and not a few others took on the whole subject of the so-called "intrinsic evil of torture" will notice a similarity which is not accidental.
I cannot note offhand the various people who may have approached this issue as I did but I know Victor Morton and Fr. Brian Harrison did. We all know how Mark responded to them so the question must be asked anew:
Did Fr. John H. Newman in outlining his problems with the Vatican I papal infallibility definition engage in "dissent from the magisterium" or was his methodology of inquiry acceptable???
If Mark says no, then he owes an profound apology to Victor, Fr. Harrison, and yours truly for any insinuations whatsoever that we were "dissenting." If Mark says "yes", then I am curious to know if he has ever lambasted Newman as a "dissenter" and why the Vatican far from censuring him for this has shown an ever-increasing degree of honours conferred on him. To note them briefly before ending this post:
- In 1847, Pope Pius IX honoured Newman with a D.D. degree (doctor of divinity).
- Pope Leo XIII made Newman his first cardinal in 1879 four years after his Letter to the Duke of Norfolk where he outlined the above statements of doubt on the validity of the Vatican I definition in the weeks after it was promulgated.
- Popes Pius X, Pius XI, and Pius XII all spoke respectfully of Newman — the latter saying that he had no doubt Newman would one day be a canonized saint.
- Pope John XXIII and Pope Paul VI both spoke highly of Newman — Paul VI called the Second Vatican Council "the Council of Newman"- and both explicitly said they wanted to beatify him.
- Pope John Paul II also wanted to beatify Newman but his cause has not gotten that far yet so he had to settle for a 1991 declaration of Newman as "venerable."
- Newman's thoughts permeate several texts promulgated by Pope John Paul II including the section in the Catechism of the Catholic Church in the section on "conscience" and the encyclical letter Fides et Ratio on faith and reason.
- Like all his aforementioned predecessors, Pope Benedict XVI is quite fond of Newman and may well be the pope to beatify him. (As the postulator of his cause for sainthood announced that they had a miracle ascribed to Newman's intercession in October of 2005.)
¹ On Torture and General Norms of Theological Interpretation Contra Certain "Apologist" Fundamentalist Hermeneutics--Parts I-III (circa October 13, 2006)
² Granting for a moment the premise that Pope Pius IX was always suspicious of Newman -a statement I have seen in enough places and without a counter-assertion to thereby view as the probable view of Bl. Pius IX.