One of the reasons that I put off answering Brian Coyne’s insistent requests that I give a comprehensive defense of the dictum after which this blog is named (“Sentire Cum Ecclesia”) is that I knew that sooner or later I would come across a defense fully and simply formulated by a theologian of greater abilities than myself. I have, just today, found exactly this defence, in the little book by Joseph Pieper called “Scholasticism”. I have been reading Fraser Pearce’s copy of this book and intend to purchase it ASAP. I highly recommend it to you if you are not familiar with it.
Anyway, here is the passage. It is lengthy (for a blog entry) but rather pithy as an rational argument for thinking with the Church. It comes from pages 132-3 of the 1960 English translation published by Faber and Faber. The intent of the passage is to defend the reasonableness of Church’s claim to have the right to condemn propositions contrary to divine revelation. It occurs in the context of a consideration of the 1277 condemnations of “philosophism” by the bishops of Paris and Canterbury. I have divided the quotation up into paragraphs for easier understanding of the line of argument.
First: If there is something like “Revelation”, that is to say, speech of God audible to man, in which something is made known which is not knowable in any other way (I am not speaking of whether there is Revelation; yet it is clear that Christianity rests upon this fundamental assumption; but even in the pre- and extra-Christian worlds, in Plato, for example, there has always been a living conviction that “divine speech”, theios logos, exists);
and if–secondly–what is revealed in the divine speech is not immediately accessible to every man, if rather this Everyman must depend upon the divine speech’s being communicated and passed on, “handed down as tradition” from generation to generation by those who first received it (those who partook of “inspiration”,
so, then it is simply in the nature of the thing that not everyone is capable of interpreting the meaning of the Revelation. Not everyone can know what was truly meant by it.
It is necessary to conceive a definitive authority of some kind which not only preserves and passes on the tradition, but also gives a binding interpretation to it: an authority which, for example, also says what was not meant by the divine speech, and what is incompatible with it.
Precisely that is the meaning of such “condemnations.”
Like theology as a whole, they are a matter fundamentally fraught with conflict (indeed, that is to be expected), for one reason because the interpretation of the Revelation (which can be binding in many different degrees) is itself subject to the conditions of history.
Nevertheless, if and as long as men retain the conviction that God has revealed Himself to those He has chosen, they will consider it imperative that this Revelation be protected against all pollution and all misinterpretation.
that is the conclusion of his argument – and I think that (as it is stated) it is fairly watertight. You might disagree with the conclusion, but I would say that if you do it is because you disagree with one or the other or both of his first two suppositions at the beginning. This, in fact, is what I think Mr Coyne and his friends do. It also includes the important recongition of the fact (which has arisen in our discussions with Cardinal Pole and PE et aliter) that authoritative pronouncements about the correct interpretation of Revelation are “fraught with conflict” at least to the extent that such pronouncements “subject to the conditions of history”. This is a simple and inescapable consequence of an Incarnational ecclesiology. Nevertheless we have assurance from Christ himself that all along the rolling stream of time the Holy Spirit will continue to lead the Church “into all Truth”.
I am going to include a sentence or two from what follows this passage in Pieper as I think they are relevant to our current situation, and with which I think Pope Ratzinger (who, not incidentally, is an admirer of Pieper) would agree. It concerns what I have called elsewhere on this blog the “New Orthodoxy”:
…As everyone will realise, we are here touching upon a phenomenon that has become a daily occurrence in the totalitarian world these days, where “deviations” are constantly being condemned with an absolute claim to rightness–but without appeal to a standard of truth which alone can properly uphold authoritarian claims.
No such appeal is possible, nor is it even thought necessary. Men like Thomas Aquinas [whose work was included in these condemnations], or even bishop Tempier or Robert Kilwardby [the bishops of Paris and Canterbury respectively who issued the 1277 condemnations], would regard such authoritarian claims as not only a violation of the dignity of human reason, but also and above all as an absurdity from the theoretical point of view.
On the other hand, the sorry fact remains that in these times of ours there are not a few secularised intellectuals who accept both the degradation of dignity and the absurdity… All this as an aside from the subject of “condemnation of propositions”.