Voice of the People, Sensus Fidelium and The Synod

The Referendum vote in Ireland is a watershed in so many ways. The result, 62-38 in favour of gay marriage, has changed not only the Irish politico-religious context but will also have ramifications far beyond that small island nation bordering the eastern Atlantic Ocean.
The Archbishop of Dublin, Diarmuid Martin, noted that it called for a ‘reality check’ by the Catholic Church. The Tablet reported that he “… told RTE afterwards that “the Church needs a reality check right across the board [and to ask] have we drifted away completely from young people?” The Vatican Secretary of State Pietro Parolin said that the referendum overwhelmingly backing marriage equality last weekend, was a “defeat for humanity…I was deeply saddened by the result”. I don’t know how to react to that for surely the gay community is part of humanity.
Whatever arguments are put forward on either side of the question, we must address our reaction to a referendum vote where the voice of the people opts for a particular path in contradiction to established authority, be it the government elected by the people or the Church structure that has formed us and in which we have our being.
In a democracy there will always be tension between the two. In the last few days, the State of Nebraska in the US has overturned the Governor’s wish to maintain the death penalty by a vote in the State legislature. A report in the New York Times noted that:
“Nebraska on Wednesday became the first conservative state in more than 40 years to abolish the death penalty, with lawmakers defying their Republican governor, a staunch supporter of capital punishment who had lobbied vigorously against banning it.
After more than two hours of emotional speeches at the Capitol here, the Legislature, by a 30-to-19 vote that cut across party lines, over-rode the governor’s veto of a bill repealing the state’s death penalty law. After the Repeal measure passed, by just enough votes to overcome the veto, dozens of spectators in the balcony burst into celebration”.
Not a Referendum but the voice of the people nevertheless. The Church, whilst not a Democracy in the political sense, must have regard for the Sensus Fidelium of the people. Acceptance comes through an agreement in conscience by each person, the final arbiter of faith. Newman’s boast that he would drink a toast to the Pope but would drink to conscience first is often quoted.
“I add one remark. Certainly, if I am obliged to bring religion into after-dinner toasts, (which indeed does not seem quite the thing) I shall drink—to the Pope, if you please,—still, to Conscience first, and to the Pope afterwards”.
Recognition of the rights of gay people whose sexuality, determined by birth is different from that of the majority, is fundamental to our recognition of their human rights as individuals belonging to the people of God. How we express that recognition is central to the current debate.
The Irish Referendum result is a world-first, where citizens, rather than the Legislature, have expressed their acceptance of the reality of the lived experience of Gay people.
We might draw a tenuous but real relationship with the forthcoming Synod, where issues of the family will be discussed by those whose experience is observational rather than lived, however sincere, dedicated and insightful they might be.
We can only hope that the voice of the people is recognised in their debate and reflection, for if the outcome of the Synod is to be accepted within the body of the Church, it has to be accepted by the pilgrim people to whom it seeks to offer support and guidance.
In the meantime, the voice of the majority, a significant majority, of Irish people cannot be swept to one side and dismissed. It is too important to ignore if honesty and integrity are to be maintained.
Chris McDonnell

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16 Comments

  1. Joe O'Leary says:

    These google quotes are a plague — I suppose they must turn up in students’ essay quite a lot — there is an online service for checking them, said to be quite good — Joe BIden in his message to the Irish people about the referendum ended with a google quote from Yeats — rather unnerving when you remember that he is only a heartbeat from the nuclear button — and there have been quite a few close shaves (remember how the Franco-Prussian war began with the interpretation of a telegram).

  2. Joe@13.
    I have a great friend a priest who is a scripture scholar,I must check with him in future;but leaving aside Thomas Aquinas to have True Faith in God is beautiful.

  3. Joe O'Leary says:

    Another fake google quote there. “To one who has Faith no explanation is necessary. To one without Faith no explanation is possible.” This is very far from Aquinas.

  4. Gentlemen Please………People don’t care how much you know. They just need to know how much you care.
    To one who has Faith ,no explanation is necessary. To one without Faith no explanation is possible. Thomas Aquinas.

  5. Con Devree says:

    #9
    John Henry Newman’s letter to Bishop Ullathorne shows that the assertion at #9 needs fixing.
    He believed strongly in Papal Infallibility. “I have for these 25 years spoken in behalf of the Pope’s infallibility…” [Letter to Alfred Plummer, July 19, 1872.] He made several such avowals, always on the understanding that infallibility was a negative gift – infallibility is a protection from error. Christ “willed the Gospel to be a revelation, acknowledged and authenticated, to be public, fixed and permanent… He framed a society of men to be its home, its instrument and its guarantee … The rulers of that association are the legal trustees, so to say, of the sacred truths which He spoke to the Apostles by word of mouth.” (Letter to Duke of Norfolk).
    The Church’s teachers had to be protected from error if the revelation is to be safeguarded and handed on by human beings. Infallibility was therefore, in principle, involved from the beginning in the very idea of Christianity. (Ian Ker, “John Henry Newman,” 687)
    Newman had a torrid objection to the proclamation of Papal Infallibility as a dogma. There were several reasons, based not on theology, but on imagined practical outcomes and negative human responses. Dogma was of no consequence to him. He was ready to admit that it might be numbered among those truths included in the deposit of divine public revelation. His language pertaining to those urging Vatican I to define the dogma was, to say the least, robust, most likely out of fear that the definition would be too strong. As with all the canonised, this period reveals that Newman was human with human weaknesses.
    The Vatican Council, in July 1870 promulgated the doctrine of Papal Infallibility while the Council was still in session. Eventually in August Newman confided his attitude as pleased with its moderation, its vagueness and comprehensiveness. “Personally I have no difficulty in admitting it.” Later we find: “if I were called upon to profess it, I would be unable, considering it came from the Holy Father and the competent local authorities, to refuse to do so.” Reservations yes, but Papal infallibility OK!
    Newman’s activities in the run up to August 1870, were not well received in Rome. The then Cardinal Prefect of Propaganda later wrote to Archbishop Manning (one target of Newman’s wrath) on the subject of censurable propositions in the Letter to the Duke of Norfolk. Manning, displaying a certain magnamity, pleaded: “The heart of the Reverend Fr Newman is as right and as Catholic as it is possible to be.”
    Ironically, many theologians have used Newman’s work of this period, to promote conclusions on Papal Infallibility which oppose those of Newman himself.

  6. Prodigal Son says:

    For Newman conscience is not an autonomous reality but a sanctuary by which God implants his own law into all his rational creatures’ souls. Conscience is a person’s capacity for truth: the capacity to recognize precisely in the decision-making areas of his life – religion and morals – a truth, the truth. Conscience and truth belong together in partnership, they support and enlighten each other, obedience to conscience leads to obedience to the truth.
    “Follow your own sense of right, and you will gain from that very obedience to your Maker, which natural conscience enjoins, a conviction of the truth and power of that Redeemer whom a supernatural message has revealed”. (Parochial and Plain Sermons, Vol. VIII, Rivingtons 1878, 120. “I am a Catholic by virtue of my believing in a God; and if I am asked why I believe in a God, I answer that it is because I believe in myself, for I feel it impossible to believe in my own existence (and of that fact I am quite sure) without believing also in the existence of Him, who lives as a Personal, All-seeing, All-judging Being in my conscience”.
    “There are two ways of regarding conscience; one as a mere sort of sense of propriety, a taste teaching us to do this or that, the other as the echo of God’s voice. Now all depends on this distinction – the first way is not of faith, and the second is of faith”. (Sermon Notes, Herefordshire – Notre Dame 2000, 327.)
    Conscience is an authoritative voice that gives relentless commands. These commands demand obedience; “…for, beginning with obedience, they go on to the intimate perception and belief of one God. His voice within them witnesses to Him, and they believe His own witness about Himself…” (Sermons Preached on Various Occasions, London 1908, 65f.)
    He/she who willingly practices obedience to the voice of conscience will not find it difficult to accept revelation in obedience of faith. Why could Lydia, a seller of purple goods, accept the preaching of Saint Paul so quickly so as to be the first European to come to the faith (cf. Act 16:14)?
    There is an essential difference between conscience and faith. But obedience to one’s conscience prepares the heart for faith in the particular revelation of God. In revelation man will “find all those vague conjectures and imperfect notions about truth, which his own heart taught him, abundantly sanctioned, completed, and illustrated.” Faith purifies and enlightens conscience and changes it from a simple orientation to faith to actually being orientated by faith.
    “But the sense of right and wrong, which is the first element in religion, is so delicate, so fitful, so easily puzzled, obscured, perverted, so subtle in its argumentative methods, so impressible by education, so biased by pride and passion, so unsteady in its course, that, in the struggle for existence amid the various exercises and triumphs of the human intellect, this sense is at once the highest of all teachers, yet the least luminous; and the Church, the Pope, the Hierarchy are, in the Divine purpose, the supply of an urgent demand”. (Certain Difficulties, i.e., letter to the Duke.. 252 f.)
    God has entrusted his revelation to the Church and takes care that it is infallibly preserved, interpreted and transmitted in and through the Church. If a person has accepted the mission of the Church in faith, nothing else but this person’s conscience commands him to listen to the Church and the Pope. The mind will be led “by an infallible succession from the rejection of atheism to theism, and from theism to Christianity, and from Christianity to Evangelical Religion, and from these to Catholicity”. Grammar of Assent, 499.)

  7. Joe O'Leary says:

    Paddy, Newman actually believed in papal infallibility before the Council, but hated the way it was being pushed through. In response to the scandal the definition caused among Catholics (Döllinger) and Anglicans (Gladstone) he pointed out that the doctrine of papal infallibility emerging from the Council was a very minimal one compared with what people might have projected under the notion of papal infallibility before the Council.
    145 years later we see that papal infallibility is a Cheshire Cat doctrine, self-deconsructing. In the whole sweep of history we can now identify only two candidates for the status of papally infallible utterances, including the one-line declaration of the Assumption by Pius XII in 1950 (which does not contain the word “infallible”). It is not even clear if the Marian definitions of 1854 and 1950 really meet the conditions for an infallible papal decision — such decisions are supposed to terminate a fluctuation of opinion but those doctrines at the time were not subject to any such fluctuation of opinion. Now they look more like utterances of devotion than serious doctrine.

  8. Perhaps I am being a complete simpleton here, but I always assumed that the reason Newman did not challenge infallibility more vigorously was simply because he had just joined the Church and you cannot join a new club and immediately start disagreeing with the rules.

  9. Joe O'Leary says:

    The early Ratzinger picked up Newman’s hints about all of this. He agreed that it is no longer possible to accept the condemnation of the proposition that ‘The dogmas presented by the Church as revealed are not truths that have fallen from heaven: they are an interpretation of religious facts that the human mind has acquired by a laborious effort’ (Lamentabili, prop. 22). According to Ratzinger, Lamentabili condemns radical evolutionism or historicism, but ‘individual theses, taken in themselves, can have an entirely good sense’; the document of Pius X adds nothing to Vatican I, but in practice it has led to ‘a dismissal of the question itself’ concerning the historicity of dogmas (10). Quotations are from Joseph Ratzinger, Das Problem der Dogmengeschichte in der Sicht der katholischen Theologie. Cologne, 1966.

  10. Joe O'Leary says:

    “Newman fully accepted the definition of infallibility developed in Vatican I.”
    Quite, but he brought out its extremely restrictive character, and this interpretation has prevailed. He did the same for the doctrine of the Trinity, limiting it to nine propositions (The Father is God, the Son is God, the Spirit is God, the Father is not the Son, the Son not he Spirit, the Father not the Spirit, the Son is from the Father, the Spirit from Father and Son; there is one God). Since doctrine is so binding and considered necessary for salvation, Newman believed it must be kept to its absolute binding minimum.
    “Ask Newman about the word “direct.” He chose his words carefully.”
    The very point I was making.
    “Conscience cannot come into direct collision with the Church’s or the Pope’s infallibility; which is engaged in general propositions, and in the condemnation of particular and given errors” implies that it can come into “indirect” collision. It can collide with the inopportunity of an infallible teaching (Newman was among the inopportunists in the build-up to Vatican I), or the interpretation or implementation of the teaching. The condemnation of the errors of Jansenism, for example he would probably see as unopposable: but the claim to find those errors in the writings of Jansenius (Cum occasione 1653) or the choice of propositions to illustrate these errors ( Unigenitus 1713) could be contested. Again the general spirit of the condemnation of Modernism could be embraced while contesting the mode of procedure of the Vatican and the exact descriptions of the alleged errors. (It’s another question whether any of these particular papal documents actually entail infallibility.)

  11. It is a funny thing, or is it, that Popes, Cardinals, Saints, University Lecturers, all men, all have this intricate knowledge of ‘freedom of conscience’. For something as important to people’s lives as freedom of conscience is, why is there not an encyclical written expounding its truth and relevance to people’s lives, like Humanae Vitae? Maybe it is not spelled out for us because spelling it out for us would liberate us from fear, fear of exclusion, fear of excommunication.

  12. Newman fully accepted the definition of infallibility developed in Vatican I.
    Ask Newman about the word “direct.” He chose his words carefully.
    He distinguished between two types of Papal Authority – prudential statements (to which lifting the “glass” applies) and Magisterial teaching representing the “the Divine Law … the rule of ethical truth, the standard of right and wrong, [the] sovereign, irreversible, absolute authority in the presence of men and Angels,” as dealt with in Lumen Gentium 12.

  13. “While Newman’s warnings are very valuable, the revolutionary point of what he says is that Catholics enjoy freedom of conscience even over against papal authority (a point repeated more emphatically by Joseph Ratzinger).”
    Thanks Joe
    That’s exactly what I was trying to say.

  14. Joe O'Leary says:

    “If in a particular case conscience is to be taken as a sacred and sovereign monitor, its dictate, in order to prevail against the voice of the Pope, must follow upon serious thought, prayer, and all available means of arriving at a right judgment on the matter in question.”
    I think Paul VI said the same about the reception of Humanae Vitae, but he could have said it more clearly.
    “Conscience cannot come into direct collision with the Church’s or the Pope’s infallibility; which is engaged in general propositions, and in the condemnation of particular and given errors.”
    Why the word “direct”? And given Newman’s minimalist interpretation of infallibility (which has prevailed) this does not set terribly tight limits to freedom of conscience.
    “Primâ facie it is his bounden duty, even from a sentiment of loyalty, to believe the Pope right and to act accordingly.”
    Again, “prima facie” means that normally a Catholic will not question papal decisions, but in some cases he or she should or must.
    “If this necessary rule were observed, collisions between the Pope’s authority and the authority of conscience would be very rare.”
    But not non-existent.
    While Newman’s warnings are very valuable, the revolutionary point of what he says is that Catholics enjoy freedom of conscience even over against papal authority (a point repeated more emphatically by Joseph Ratzinger).

  15. Prodigal Son says:

    A few extra comments from Newman’s letter to the Duke of Norfolk:
    “The Divine Law is the supreme rule of actions; our thoughts, desires, words, acts, all that man is, is subject to the domain of the law of God; and this law is the rule of our conduct by means of our conscience. Hence it is never lawful to go against our conscience.”
    “The Divine Law, then, is the rule of ethical truth, the standard of right and wrong, a sovereign, irreversible, absolute authority in the presence of men and Angels.”
    Newman clashed with the counterfeit version of conscience. He writes:
    “When men advocate the rights of conscience, they in no sense mean the rights of the Creator, nor the duty to Him, in thought and deed, of the creature; but the right of thinking, speaking, writing, and acting, according to their judgment or their humour, without any thought of God at all…. in this age, with a large portion of the public, it is the very right and freedom of conscience to dispense with conscience, to ignore a Lawgiver and Judge, to be independent of unseen obligations.”
    “If in a particular case conscience is to be taken as a sacred and sovereign monitor, its dictate, in order to prevail against the voice of the Pope, must follow upon serious thought, prayer, and all available means of arriving at a right judgment on the matter in question. … Unless a man is able to say to himself, as in the Presence of God, that he must not, and dare not, act upon the Papal injunction, he is bound to obey it [the Papal injunction], and would commit a great sin in disobeying it.”
    Newman emphatically points out that conscience is not a judgment upon any speculative truth or abstract doctrine. Conscience is one’s best judgment, hic et nunc, (here and now) on what is to be done as being good, or to be avoided as being evil. “Hence,” he concludes, “conscience cannot come into direct collision with the Church’s or the Pope’s infallibility; which is engaged in general propositions, and in the condemnation of particular and given errors.”
    Moreover, he writes:
    “Primâ facie it is his bounden duty, even from a sentiment of loyalty, to believe the Pope right and to act accordingly. He must vanquish that mean, ungenerous, selfish, vulgar spirit of his nature, which, at the very first rumour of a command, places itself in opposition to the Superior who gives it, asks itself whether he is not exceeding his right, and rejoices, in a moral and practical matter to commence with scepticism. He must have no wilful determination to exercise a right of thinking, saying, doing just what he pleases, the question of truth and falsehood, right and wrong, the duty if possible of obedience, the love of speaking as his Head speaks, and of standing in all cases on his Head’s side, being simply discarded. If this necessary rule were observed, collisions between the Pope’s authority and the authority of conscience would be very rare.
    Of course should the Pope command that every priest take up jogging he would not be acting infallibly no deadlock with conscience arises.

  16. Joe O'Leary says:

    The governments and embasssies of Europe are also enthusiastic about the Irish vote — gay marriage is seen as the way forward. The elites for once are fully on the side of the people, and both are giving gay citizens a recognition and acceptance that is unprecedented.
    Though I think this positive gain is irreversible, it would have been a good idea to maintain civil partnerships as an alternative alongside marriage, as in France, since many gay couples might not want to be called “married”. Of course égalité would demand that this be available to heterosexual couples as well, and in France its huge popularity about heterosexual couples who do not like the heavy weight of marriage is rather unnerving.

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