Re-reading the comments on Going along with the Crowd I thought it might be useful to make some summary, personal points. Of course I write on my own authority, and anyone is free to disagree or to amplify. My concern stems from my strong belief that the unity of the Church is a matter of supreme importance. Not only is this an essential characteristic (we claim to be One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic) but we have seen how the Reformation denominations have suffered from its lack.
Unity can of course be enforced with a big stick, as it has sometimes been in the past. But this is no longer possible, if it was ever desirable. However, maintaining a proper diversity within this unity is proving tricky. I have no time for <!–[if supportFields]> SEQ CHAPTER \h \r 1<![endif]–><!–[if supportFields]><![endif]–>à la carte Catholics; indeed I find the idea to be almost a contradiction in terms. Yet they grow apace, not only in this country but, even more aggressively in the USA.
However desirable democracy may be in political life, we have to start from our basic belief that the Church was founded by Christ, and given authority by him. He clearly invested the apostles (now the bishops) with authority. Among them he singled out Peter for a special leadership role. Of course it took time for the concept of the papacy to become clear.
His bishops have, first of all, to preserve the truths of Revelation and to oversee the Church’s developing understanding of those truths. This does not mean that they have necessarily been expressed in their most perfect form or that there will be no deeper and fuller expression of them over time. But it does mean that these core truths, once declared to be settled, are protected from error. No one who denies any of these is entitled to call themselves a member of the Catholic communion.
But the Church’s Christ-given authority stretches well beyond these to questions of faith and morals which are not infallible as such. The best summary we have of these is the Catechism of the Catholic Church. No one who wishes to call themselves Catholic is entitled to disregard this teaching. However it is possible to disagree in some issues, but a great personal responsibility so to do. The first responsibility is to understand the meaning and the reasons for the teaching, and to make a sincere effort to conform. It is by no means a question of picking and choosing. The proper formation of conscience is difficult but essential.
And there are of course the disciplines of the community which the Magisterium may lay down, just as any community must have its rules to ensure good order.
The basic structure I have described can of course be exercised in different ways – just as in secular areas leadership and management approaches can differ. I have never made a secret of my belief that the exercise of the Magisterium’s authority is often bureaucratic and oppressive in practice. It was developed in a world where the clerical authorities were the educated <!–[if supportFields]> SEQ CHAPTER \h \r 1<![endif]–><!–[if supportFields]><![endif]–>élite, and the laity seen as compliant peasants. That world no longer exists. If the Church wishes to flourish and grow, it needs fundamental reforms of structure and attitude. I have already indicated in these columns what I believe some of these should be. In summary, I look to the Church developing from a hierarchy into a true community, centred around Peter. By coincidence I was re-reading an article in the “The Month” (Jesuit periodical) which I wrote on this subject in June 1966. I am not inclined to change a word. We need to continue to argue the case, but it is clear that patience will be required.
St Augustine’s dictum still holds: In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all thing, charity.
It will only take you a second to follow this link. I think you will find it entertaining and informative. (Thanks to the Editor of the CH for passing it to me.)