Friday, January 31, 2014

Against an Arrogant Church

If there's one thing that the Traditional Church gets accused of, it's arrogance. Time and again, I hear complaints of the RCC hierarchy being deemed "out of touch" and "dismissive" of modern values. I hear of my brother priests (in various jurisdictions) being described as "arrogant" or "hypocritical" or "having their heads too heavenly bound so that they are no earthly good." Priests do get a lot of stick, and sometimes rightly so. We have to remember that the sacramental grace of being alter Christus does not extend to the weakness of our fallen humanity.

But is the Church really arrogant? How do people say that it is? Well, much of this comes down to morality. The Traditional Church is necessarily morally absolutist and absolutism is something that is socially frowned upon. It is almost taboo to be certain of something these days. The main evidence of this seems to be the claims that "atheists cannot be good people" and "only Christians can be good people". Indeed, the objection is raised that the Church has no business pronouncing judgment upon an individual since it has no claim to be the sole arbiter of morality.

This is where the claim of arrogance comes in, for what is arrogance defined if not the inflation of one's own importance? The Church in regarding herself as the sole arbiter of morality would certainly be a pretty hefty claim, but is it indeed an exaggeration?

First, let us be clear that moral absolutism is the claim that objective moral values exist independently of time and culture. The Church must believe that absolute values exist because it believes in an absolute God. Notice please that the monotheistic version of the Euthyphro argument fails to hold when it comes to the existence of God.

Plato's Socrates states "Is the pious loved by the gods because it is pious, or is it pious because it is loved by the gods?" This supposedly makes Piety either arbitrary or renders the gods impotent against Piety. These days one might substitute the word "good" for "pious". This is pretty effective against the capricious Greek gods, but what about the True God Himself? As Boethius and Aquinas effectively point out, God is His own goodness. Goodness comes from Him by His very nature of being God. Hence Goodness is neither arbitrary nor above God.

If what is good comes from God, then that good must be absolute because it is of God who is absolute, and the existence of moral absolutes is proven.

So the Church is clearly bound by the morality she receives from God and if so,then she cannot promote any morality other than that which is necessarily imposed upon her. This is not arrogance. One cannot define arrogance as being absolute - this is a very modern phenomena. Arrogance is about assuming that which is above one's capabilities. The Church is not doing that at all. It is abiding by the morality that comes from the Absolute. Arrogance in this situation would be trying to change that morality for something else.

The problem here is when the Church tries to do just that, or when priests acts as one for whom morality is flexible. that's the real arrogance. As I said above, we are all fallen. I cannot really speak for other priests but I am acutely aware that I am fallible and that I have sinned. That doesn't mean that I am aware of all my sins.

However, I can still say "Murder is wrong" without being branded arrogant, because that is the moral fact. What I cannot do is pronounce the sentence of murder on any specific killing unless I am in possession of all the facts. Not all killing is murder, but all murder is killing. I can still say "Murder is wrong" even if I have just stabbed someone to death in front of my Diocesan Synod. To say that my claim doesn't hold because of what I have done is an ad hominem response and doesn't affect the argument.

Yet, the fact remains, I cannot possibly make the blanket generalisation that all killings are murder and I invite my readers to think of as many circumstances as they can. A sweeping generalisation is as much an invalid argument as an ad hominem attack if it cannot be shown to be generally true. Sweeping generalisations are likely to be the product of arrogance since they demonstrate an inflated grasp of the situation.

The Church is not arrogant if it holds to moral absolutism, nor is it arrogant because it intends to proclaim the goodness of God. It is if it tries to apply that morality without careful thought or in situations where she cannot know. We have to remember that there is none good save God Himself. Let us therefore just commit ourselves to bringing the goodness of God into the life of the world rather than trying to point out where it is not. If there is good already there, then more will change nothing. If there is no good there, then the good we bring will improve the situation.

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Reflexive Catholicism

Moreover, in the Catholic Church itself, all possible care must be taken, that we hold that faith which has been believed everywhere, always, by all. For that is truly and in the strictest sense Catholic, which, as the name itself and the reason of the thing declare, comprehends all universally. This rule we shall observe if we follow universality, antiquity, consent. We shall follow universality if we confess that one faith to be true, which the whole Church throughout the world confesses; antiquity, if we in no wise depart from those interpretations which it is manifest were notoriously held by our holy ancestors and fathers; consent, in like manner, if in antiquity itself we adhere to the consentient definitions and determinations of all, or at the least of almost all priests and doctors. (St Vincent of Lerins: Commonitorium, chapter 2)
Fr Chadwick has been ruminating on the Vincentian Canon which I've quoted above. St Vincent was writing between the third and fourth Oecumenical Councils at a time when the Monophysite controversy was raging before it was condemned at the Council of Chalcedon in 451. He writes in order to help the Church find a way of detecting heresy citing the great Heretics,  Novatian, Sabellius, Donatus, Arius, Eunomius, Macedonius, Photinus, Apollinaris, Priscillian, Iovinian, Pelagius, Celestius, and Nestorius, all of whom were denounced by the first three Oecumenical Councils. 

Of course, the great phrase defining "Catholic" as "quod ubique, quod semper, quod ab omnibus" is probably not as easy to apply when Church Fathers or Schools of Theology disagree. The Alexandrian School ultimately produced Arius, and Apollinaris was linked to the School of Antioch. The two schools of themselves were quite orthodox and produced a tension from which our view of the person of Our Lord Jesus Christ was revealed and clarified somewhat; yet they produced extremists whose work required the Councils to resolve.

I can only leave intellectual theology to my betters such as Fr Chadwick and his readers. My question is somewhat more pernickity. St Vincent produces a general statement, and general statements have to apply generally. That's the trouble with Universals.

If one says "Only physical evidence determines the truth" then where is the physical evidence which will determine the truth of that statement? If there's no such thing as absolute truth, then is the statement "there is no absolute truth" an absolute truth or not?

So, the question is, does the Vincentian Canon satisfy the Vincentian Canon? Can we say that "Moreover, in the Catholic Church itself, all possible care must be taken, that we hold that faith which has been believed everywhere, always, by all. For that is truly and in the strictest sense Catholic, which, as the name itself and the reason of the thing declare, comprehends all universally. This rule we shall observe if we follow universality, antiquity, consent. We shall follow universality if we confess that one faith to be true, which the whole Church throughout the world confesses; antiquity, if we in no wise depart from those interpretations which it is manifest were notoriously held by our holy ancestors and fathers; consent, in like manner, if in antiquity itself we adhere to the consentient definitions and determinations of all, or at the least of almost all priests and doctors." has been believed everywhere, always, by all?

If we can, then we have a self-consistent definition of Catholicism. If not, then the Vincentian Canon possesses no evidence to be part of the Catholic Faith. If Arianism fails the Vincentian Canon, then we can legitimately doubt that Arianism is Catholic. So what if the Vincentian Canon fails the Vincentian Canon?

Fortunately, it seems from the Commonitorium that St Vincent is setting up the basis upon which the Orthodox Churches understand the Faith. What can be considered more truly Universal than an Oecumenical Council? After all, the whole point is for the Bishops from all around the world to gather together in order to find consensus on matters of Faith in order to preserve the Faith and promulgate it into all territories. Thus in an Oecumenical Council, we have quod ubique in the gathering of the world's bishops, the quod semper in their intention to find and preserve the "faith which was once delivered unto the saints" in a consensus giving us the quod ubique. Thus we see that it is very much the raison d'etre of the Oecumenical Council to produce the Vincentian Canon. If the Councils are thus Catholic, so is the Vincentian Canon and thus it can be regarded as a proper universal statement.

This might be an exercise in raising futility or tautology to a high art for some folk; however, it does actually demonstrate the reliability of St Vincent's definition of "Catholic" as something the Early Church understood before it was thus phrased and as something accepted afterwards. We can accept this definition in good Faith. It means that any Church that accepts the doctrine of the Seven Oecumenical Councils of the Undivded Church is truly Catholic in principle. From the Eighth Council (the fourth in Constantinople) we see the beginnings of the schism which came to a head in 1054.

It also means that we can rule out the weaker definitions that have been promulgated since then. I've already said that the Catholic Church is not a church for anyone but for everyone. "Catholic" cannot mean "all-inclusive" because that would mean that it could include atheists and other religions which rather defeats the central tenets of Christianity. That's certainly not to say that non-Christians are irredeemable. Indeed, if the prayers of the Church at Mass are answered then the possibility does exist. For, at the offering of the Chalice we prayer that it may ascend as a sweet-smelling savour for our salvation and for that of the whole world. 

This does actually bring out another aspect of the Catholic Church that is indeed universal. It should harbour the love of God for all of God's Creation. Time and again do we see the Church fail to do just that and inso failing, it fails to do what Our Lord demanded to be done always, everywhere and by all. That is just the fallibility of Man. The Church may indeed teach infallibly even if it is a case of "whatsoever they bid you observe , that observe and do; but do not ye after their works: for they say, and do not." 

One must remember that St Ignatius of Antioch said in his letter to the Church in Smyrna. "wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church" (ὥσπερ ὅπου ἂν ῇ Ἰησοῦς Χριστός, ἐκεῖ ἡ καθολικὴ ἐκκλησία.) We also have the famous ubi caritas et amor, Deus ibi est. Thus the Catholic Church cannot exist where no love is. Without love, it really is all men dressing up in silly clothes and speaking old-fashioned words with no consideration for the meaning. 

If we really do mean that we are catholic with either a C or a c, then we really need to be changing ourselves to become conveyors of the love of God into our communities. We are the ones that have to be for everyone, holding the Catholic Faith in our hearts as well as our minds so that all people can know Christ in us whoever we are, Jew or Greek, bond or free, male or female. One certainly does not have to be a Catholic Priest for that, for this is all our calling as Christians.

Monday, January 13, 2014


Sermon preached at Our Lady of Walsingham and St Francis on the first Sunday after Epiphany 2014


Ben has been found

wandering around Bluewater

having run off from his parents.


He is twelve years old,

an only child

and from Inverness in Scotland.


He last saw his parents 3 hours ago

when he wandered off to look at

what was happening in Winter Wonderland

and they have clearly not noticed

that he’s gone.


He has been given no mobile phone,

no money

and no idea where his parents are.


Doesn’t this seem like

 a case of neglect to you?


Should we inform Social Services?



 For those of us who seek

to promote the notion of the functional family,

the loss and discovery of Our Lord in the temple

must come as a bit of an embarrassment.


We are presented with

Our Lord deliberately staying away

from His parents

in order to do what He wants to do.


Even then it takes Mary and Joseph

a day to realise that He is not with them.


Just think of it.

We Christians hold

Our Lady and St Joseph up

as model parents,

and we make the categorical claim

that Our Lord is sinless.

Does this running away

 mean that the Holy Family are just as,

 if not more dysfunctional

than the average family in Medway?


Does this mean that Our Lord Jesus

is not as sinless as one might think?



Twelve year-olds

are actually quite interesting creatures.


A twelve year-old

may have completed their first year at secondary school,

so they are much more confident

about what’s going on

but they still have a sense

of the inquisitive.


They want to know things

and do indeed take the trouble to find out.


They have not yet had that rush of hormones

that makes the fourteen year-old

find thinking hard and communication more so.


Twelve year-olds are at their most articulate

and communicative.


They will certainly want to know

where they have come from,

giving rise to some potentially difficult questions

for Mum and Dad to answer.


Our Lord at the age of twelve

is no different from any other twelve year-old.




We simply do not know when Our Lord

 becomes aware that He is the Son of God

or how He knows it,


We do know that He knows He is the Son of God

 by the age of twelve.


We must remember that Epiphany

means “Revelation” or “Manifesting”

and the whole life of Christ is spent revealing

the truth about God and His love for us

in word and in deed.


That does not mean that

God’s revelation of Himself to us

 is going to be complete.


There will always be things

that we don’t know about Our Lord.


What we do know is that

Jesus leaves Mary and Joseph

to go to the Temple to find His Father.


 He goes to His Father’s house.






Again, we do not have the full reason,

but we do find Jesus sitting with

the thinkers and teachers and academics

and both asking and answering

some deep theological questions.


It is clearly imperative for Him

to “be about His Father’s business”

whatever that business is.


It is business that clearly goes

above normal family relationships

and yet it is business which

Our Lady and St Joseph

simply do not understand,

and neither do we – not fully.


There are times when the family life of Jesus

does not answer our questions

about how to be a good family

as carefully as we like.


Many people try to live their lives by WWJD

 – “what would Jesus do?”


If we go strictly by this,

 the example of Jesus here for twelve year olds

seems to be to run off from your parents

 to the nearest Church

at the next available opportunity!

When your child is the Son of God

and He seeks to be in the place

where His Father’s presence is closest to us,

this is perfectly reasonable.


Surely it is a child’s right to see his father!



 if your child is not the Son of God,

running off anywhere without telling anyone

is just not the right thing to do.


The family life of Our Lord Jesus

is not meant to be an absolute model

for the good family.


 So what does make a family a good family?




You know the answer to that already!


It’s Love, that wonderful unconditional love!


Any family that

truly and unconditionally loves

each of its members

 is a good family.



This must involve God somewhere

because God is Love.


Our Lord may run off to the Temple

without telling His family,

but that doesn’t mean He doesn’t love them.


It means that in order to love His family,

He must find His Father.


Love is His Father’s business,
            though we cannot fathom
                      the depths of that Love.


St John tells us,

“Beloved, let us love one another:

for love is of God;

and every one that loveth is born of God,

and knoweth God.


He that loveth not knoweth not God;

for God is love.


In this was manifested the love of God toward us,

because that God sent His only begotten Son into the world,

 that we might live through Him.


Herein is love,

not that we loved God,

but that He loved us,

and sent His Son to be

the propitiation for our sins.”

We might not understand that love fully,

but we can certainly trust Our Lord

when he says “seek and ye shall find”.




There are often times when it seems

 Jesus has run off and left us, His adopted family,

 without any reason.


Clearly, like Our Lady and St Joseph,

 we need to seek Him

and to help others when they are seeking Him.


How can we make sure that our Church

is going to be the place - a good family!

- in which people can find Him?