‘The Church, in the course of centuries, tends perpetually towards the fullness of divine truth,” says Vatican II of the Tradition of the Apostles (Dei Verbum 8). Nothing to frighten the horses there, but the passage has its critics – not for what it says but what it doesn’t say. Broadly, the critics claim that no proper distinction is made between the essential core of Tradition (capital “T”), and the traditions which the Church develops from time to time. Thus there is no slot for such secondary traditions which remain open to reformation.
An example of these is the tradition that unbaptised infants cannot ipso facto get to heaven, and so Limbo is the solution. That tradition started roughly with St Augustine and lasted until – well, yesterday.
It is not the length of the tradition but its relationship to Tradition which counts. And this sometimes cannot be clearly discerned until the repudiation of a tradition confirms that it must, after all, have been tangential.
We cannot dismiss these critics as the gadflies who love to point out the Church’s blemishes. Among them is the late Cardinal Albert Meyer, the acknowledged intellectual leader of the American hierarchy. He was a member of the commission drafting the document. A second was the Faith and Order Commission of the World Council of Churches (1963). A third was a certain Tübingen professor, Joseph Ratzinger – writing in 1969.
At least so Professor Francis A Sullivan SJ, from Boston University, tells me in his paper “Catholic Tradition and traditions” in The Crisis of Authority in Catholic Modernity (OUP), into which I have been dipping on your behalf from time to time.
Sullivan looks at two representative cases. The first is slavery. The subject was covered in this newspaper on March 23 2007, and can be roughly summed up by the Holy Office Instruction of June 30 1866: “Slavery itself, considered as such in its essential nature, is not at all contrary to the natural and divine law, and there can be several just titles of slavery and these are referred to by approved theologians and commentators of the sacred canons.”
There have, of course, been many strictures on the abuses of slavery, but Sullivan argues that the principle was never condemned directly; it was only with the Church’s deeper understanding of human dignity – as expressed in the Catechism and in the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church (2003) that it was manifestly, yet still only implicitly, thrown into the bin.
The second issue – the rights of human beings to the exercise of their own religious belief, and acceptance of its potential salvific value – is another doctrine which was only able to emerge with the growth in the Church’s own understanding of the human condition. It is a doctrine of significance to this newspaper which fought, in effect, a running battle with much of the clerical establishment during the 1950s to promote this insight.
Unlike slavery, whose condemnation was largely a done deal in the minds of decent people by the 20th century, the belief that “error has no rights” (a statement strictly without meaning) was actively promoted.
The latest concordat giving special privileges to the Catholic Church under Franco was only signed in 1953. Its dismantling took some 20 years following the Council, and much dragging of feet. There are those who believe that the tendency of the Church to colonise via secular power is so deep laid that, even now, it would snap back in place at the drop of a mitre.
Sullivan cites, as an example of a tradition which potentially might be reformed, the application of celibacy as the norm for the secular priest. I find this example too slight; I think there is more meat in the Church’s tradition that telling a lie can never be excused. Again, we are thinking of a long tradition: St Augustine was more than clear on the subject. And the Catechism (2482 ff) is explicit: “To lie is to act or speak against the truth in order to lead someone into error.”
But this was a revision of the position taken in the previous edition, which read: “To speak or act against the truth in order to lead into error someone who has the right to know the truth.” Those last nine words make a difference of substance. I will argue that the previous edition was correct. That is, the teaching should not be based on structure of speech (“the purpose of speech is to communicate the known truth to others”) but on the relationship between persons, and what is owed by one to another. By definition one cannot owe truth to someone who has no right to it.
But how do mere laymen dare to suggest that a revision of the Catechism may be wrong? This brings me to Sullivan’s last point. There is no such thing as mere laity. Just as we are innately able to recognise the moral law through reason so we are able through faith to cling to the Word of God, penetrating it more deeply and applying it more thoroughly to life.
So says Vatican II, and Aquinas tells us that the divinely infused light of faith enables the faithful to assent to what accords with this faith and to reject what does not (references on Secondsightblog.net) We may not be a democratic community, but we are a witnessing community.
And though my light of faith may be as small as a mustard need, it may still be bright enough to discern this question. Tell us what you think.
The reference to Aquinas (above) is: ST 2a 2ae, q.2, a.3, ad 2