Friday, June 08, 2007

Historical "dissent"

This is a guest piece from friend of the site Shawn McElhinney:

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?
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)
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:

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.)
So was this man of whom every pope since at least Pope Leo XIII² has spoken highly of a "dissenter from the magisterium" or not??? That is the question that I would like to see people such as Mark Shea answer but I am sure they will serve ice water in hell before that happens.
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.


Donald R. McClarey said...

Newman was frequently condemned for his nuanced position on papal infallibility. The pro-infallibility forces in England, led by Cardinal Manning, regarded Newman as, at best, unsound on the issue. The anti-infalliblity forces, Lord Acton among many others, hailed Newman. Both factions failed to comprehend Newman. Newman understood the history of the Church with a depth of knowledge that has perhaps never been equaled, certainly in the English speaking world. His concerns about the definition of infallibility all lay in how it was defined. Maximalists on the question literally wanted to make infallible every papal utterance touching the Faith. Newman understood that would be a disaster as popes often disagreed on points in writings that would not be considered infallible under the definition promulgated at Vatican I. On the other hand, opponents of infallibility denied the doctrine altogether. Newman was never in this camp, no matter how much members of this group eagerly lay claim to him. The definition of Vatican I, and the way in which it was implemented over the following years, eventually allayed Newman's concerns.

Eagerly seizing on a handful of papal statements, especially when those statements stand in opposition to statements of other popes, in order to belabor opponents in a matter of current controversy, is amusing in blog battles, but it is not the way in which lasting Church teaching is made. As Newman always emphasized, the Church has a very,very long history and there is quite a difference between the organic development of Church teaching and an abrupt momentary departure from it.

Shawn said...


Well said as usual. Mark and company seem to want to follow what I call the "magisterium of whim" meaning any hiccup from the pope on any subject whatsoever which looks either troubling or does not well cohere with tradition is treated as a kind of "ground zero" and everything prior to that point is not taken into consideration.

What Newman did with papal infallibility is significantly different than what some of us have sought to do with the interpretation Mark places on the subject of torture. For one thing, at least Vatican I defined the issue in question. Newman did not as we know now have a proper understanding of the matter as infallibility was more prevalent than Newman presumed{1} but he compensated for it in a healthy obedience to ecclesiastical authority in the areas where those authorities could claim his obedience.

Mark does not well understand that statements embodied in a magisterial text admit of varying degrees of weight and furthermore, they do not always read as they appear. Furthermore, there can be actual deficiencies in magisterial interventions -particularly in the prudential order. These can be either in the factors of timeliness, form, or even the content sometimes. The Vatican recognizes certain protocols to go about in dealing with these matters and if one reads their Instruction (written by then-prefect Cardinal Ratzinger), it can almost be said to have been written with Newman at least partly in mind.

Furthermore, not every magisterial hiccup is an actual authentic development of doctrine. This is something else that Instruction is clear on -those not familiar with the text I have made reference to in the posting as well as here can review my postings on torture and general norms where they will see my reference it heavily and apply the principles it contains to Veritatis Splendour on the subject in question.

The bottom line though is this: will Mark boldly declare that Newman -a man who had misgivings about the definition of papal infallibility after it was defined as much as he did before- was a "dissident" or not??? None of us whom Mark has stigmatized as "ignoring the magisterium", "treating the magisterium with contempt", "disobedient to the magisterium", etc. have done with a dogma of the faith what Newman did.

A little consistency from Mark or (at the very least) a public retraction and apology for those whom he treated so contemptuously is in order. Otherwise, he should start campaigning that the soon-to-be-beatified Newman be lambasted as a "dissenter" also. Consistency is what is required here.


{1} This was not completely his fault as the authoritative relatio from Vatican I was not actually translated into English until about 116 years after it was delivered.

Joseph D'Hippolito said...

Mark probably thinks that John Henry Newman is a reserve linebacker for UW. According to ESPN's Kirk Herbstreit, Newman should have a breakout season this coming fall...

Anonymous said...

The Blackadder Says:

I am reminded of another quote by Cardinal Newman, from the Letter to the Duke of Norfolk that may be of some relevance:

"were I actually a soldier or sailor in her Majesty's service, and sent to take part in a war which I could not in my conscience see to be unjust, and should the Pope suddenly bid all Catholic soldiers and sailors to retire from the service, here again, taking the advice of others, as best I could, I should not obey him."

I suppose this, also, would make Newman a believer in Salvation through Leviathan by Any Means Necessary, or some such thing.

Anonymous said...

Perhaps, but it no doubt makes him a hero to the Salvation by Lust through Any Oriface Necessary brigade—whether rightly or wrongly.

Shawn said...


You have chosen as your handle the name of my favourite character of all time. (Thanks to Baldrick you are not calling yourself The Black Vegetable but I digress.)

The bottom line in this posting is that Mark engages in a double standard that only someone ignorant of church history could dare entertain. Your mention of another reference in the Duke of Norfolk letter is good too but my main motivation in the one I used was to show that Shea has not lambasted Newman for his theological approach to a matter of defined dogma whereas he has a snit fit with us who on a matter of Shea's interpretation of a particular part of magisterial phrasing when we approach that matter the same way Newman did the definiton of Pastor aeternus. Ignorance of history must be bliss for Mark.

Anonymous said...

The Blackadder Says:

I'm sure that if Mark were to learn of Newman's statements, his response would be the same as when he is confronted with the fact that Jimmy Akin holds (sometimes word for word) positions that he has condemned. Quod licet Jovi, non licet bovi. Jimmy Akin is a fine upstanding citizen who, if he ever makes a theological mistake, must of course do so innocently. If anyone dare agree with him, however...

Shawn said...

I'm sure that if Mark were to learn of Newman's statements,

He will. I am going to tell him myself about it tonight.

his response would be the same as when he is confronted with the fact that Jimmy Akin holds (sometimes word for word) positions that he has condemned. Quod licet Jovi, non licet bovi. Jimmy Akin is a fine upstanding citizen who, if he ever makes a theological mistake, must of course do so innocently. If anyone dare agree with him, however...

Without question Blackadder. You have summarized the absurdity in Mark's approach to a T.