The situation seems so contemporary it is nearly painful. A British school inspector, a Catholic layman, wrote a piece for the Catholic periodical The Rambler arguing that Catholic schools, which received state funding, should welcome government inspection. Though the bishops of England had taken no public position, the argument came up against their very decided opinion that school inspections would amount to government interference in the life of the church. For publishing an opinion on church affairs independent of the bishops, The Rambler was threatened with ecclesiastical censure. John Henry Newman, the most famous convert in England and an Oratorian priest, believed that the maturity of the church depended on an educated and vigorous laity. So to prevent the suppression of The Rambler, he agreed to serve as its editor.
In an editorial, Newman apologized to the bishops, writing that before promulgating the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception, Pope Pius IX had taken into account the faith and devotion of the laity. Newman pleaded for a similar sensitivity on the part of the English hierarchy. “It is at least natural,” he wrote, “to anticipate such an act of kind feeling and sympathy in great practical matters.” All the same, the hierarchy remained unhappy, and Newman was forced to resign. Before taking his leave in 1859, however, he published, unsigned, an essay that attempted to justify a fuller participation of the laity in the life of the wider church.
Sympathy in Practical Matters
“On Consulting the Faithful in Matters of Doctrine” was newly edited and republished in 1961 on the eve of the Second Vatican Council and has since become a minor classic. It argues that the church does not consist of pastors attended by dutiful faithful, but that it is rather “a conspiracy of pastors and faithful” (pastorum et fidelium conspiratio) in which the faithful should have a respected place justified by their proven witness to Christian orthodoxy. In the bishops’ relationship with the laity, Newman argued, “there is something...which is not in the pastors alone.”
The burden of Newman’s proof for the role of the laity came from the accumulation of evidence he presented of the erring of bishops and the fidelity of the laity in a number of doctrinal controversies in the ancient and modern church, but especially the Arian heresy of the fourth century, on which he was an expert. During much of that period, he wrote, “there was a temporary suspense of the functions of the ‘Ecclesia docens,’” the teaching church. “The body of Bishops failed in their confession of faith.” Agreeing with the Italian theologian Giovanni Perrone, S.J., Newman argued “the voice of tradition may in certain cases express itself, not by Councils, nor Fathers, nor Bishops, but ‘the communis fidelium sensus’”—that is, the shared sense of the faithful.
Newman backed his position with 22 thumbnail sketches of defection on the part of the hierarchy and 20 instances of faithful witness by the laity. In a later summary (in 1871), Newman concluded, “taking a wide view of history, we are obliged to say that the governing body of the church came up short and the governed were pre-eminent in faith, zeal, courage and constancy.”
Newman’s point was not to praise the one group and shame the other. It was rather to assert their importance to one another, to affirm their lived unity in the one body of Christ. In particular, he wanted to urge upon the hierarchy an intellectual as well as affective consideration for the laity. He proposed that the magisterium is “more happy” when it has “enthusiastic partisans” than “when she cuts off the faithful from the study of her divine doctrines and the sympathy of her divine contemplations, and requires from them a fides implicita in her word.” When the teaching office leans excessively on its authority, it mistakes commanding for teaching. “In the educated classes,” he counseled, such use of the pastoral office “will terminate in indifference and in the poorer in superstition.”
Policy Deliberations Today
As Pope Benedict XVI formally beatifies John Henry Newman this week, it seems that neither Newman’s reading of church history nor his articulation of the place of the faithful in the full life of the church has been held against him. As Catholics in the United States, in the wake of the passage of health care reform legislation, consider the scope of episcopal authority in public life and the freedom of religious and lay people in the same sphere, it would be good to take a look again at Newman’s argument. Since the modern church has repeatedly held that the church’s witness in secular affairs belongs properly to the laity, his appeal to bishops for affective and intellectual alertness to the judgment of the laity seems to apply in a special way to deliberations on public policy. The Rambler essay, after all, aimed to back the freedom of thought and speech of the faithful in public affairs.
Newman’s prediction about the negative consequences of excessive reliance on episcopal authority have proved prophetic. As one close observer has lamented of the reception of some especially stern episcopal comments last spring on health care reform, “The Left no longer listens to the bishops, and the Right only listens to learn whether the bishops are saying what they want said.”
Healing the tensions now fracturing the U.S. church would be aided by restraint in extending teaching authority into political decision making and by a greater realization of the need to persuade both the faithful and non-Catholic audiences as free people of mature judgment. Especially as preparation of the 2011 statement by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops on political responsibility gets underway, the exercise of the teaching office on matters of public ethics needs to be adapted, as has been done for several decades past, to addressing an educated, mature and responsible community of laypeople, clergy and religious. We would do well to remember, too, the particular danger Cardinal Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI, feared episcopal conferences would face through engagement in public affairs—namely, that they would become too closely entangled in the political rough-and-tumble of the day, thereby obscuring the light of the Gospel for the world.
A revival of the church in the United States as “a conspiratio of pastors and faithful” will begin with expressions of that natural consideration of which Newman wrote. It will be augmented by renewed recognition of the proper role of the laity in public life, with space for their prudential judgment with respect to public policy decisions; and it will be fully realized when there is wide consultation and cooperation by the bishops with Catholics of varying shades of opinion in bringing the Gospel to life in our increasingly secular culture.