No one has greater need of the help of the Holy Spirit than I, and it is help which I often feel I have received. But I do not justify my decisions on the grounds of his inspiration – I need to justify them through my natural faculties. I accept that the Church is preserved by the Holy Spirit from error in infallible matters and that his general guidance supports the Church. But when he is invoked as support for specific non-infallible matters I demur. Was the Spirit there when John XXIII was elected? But how about Alexander VI? As Cardinal Ratzinger said on Bavarian television “It would be a mistake to believe that the Holy Spirit picks the pope because there are too many examples of popes the Holy Spirit would obviously not have chosen.” He said the Spirit leaves considerable room for the free exercise of human judgment, probably guaranteeing only that, in the end, the church will not be ruined.
The good priests of my parish were no doubt called by the Spirit but how about the paedophile priest? Was the Spirit behind the Inquisition, and also behind the Council declaration on religious liberty? Was the Spirit behind Pope St Gregory the Great when he said that married sexual intercourse could not in practice be performed without sin or behind the Council’s statement that it must be honoured with great reverence? Since on some occasions he may be present and on others he is apparently not, and we have no way of knowing which, there is a problem.
Until some good evidence can be produced of his presence in a specific matter it seems to be no more than a kind of superstitious magic to bolster a case by claiming his support. Like me the Magisterium has to go through the ordinary processes of judgment, and then observe the fruits. Claiming a further buttress in the Holy Spirit suggests a lack of confidence in the evidence for the teaching. It might be better to employ the humility Bernard Shaw put into Joan of Arc’s mouth (mutatis mutandis) when she was asked if she were in a state of grace: “If I do not have the Holy Spirit may God bring him to me: if I have, may God keep him with me.”
History is studded with examples of men ascribing their triumphs or defeats to the will of God. The Elizabethans put the defeat of the Armada down to the will of God; the Puritans under Cromwell similarly recognized his hand in the winning the battle of Marston Moor. The will of God has frequently been used as an excuse both by Christianity and other religions for committing atrocities.
The thoughts above are extracted from my book Autonomy and Obedience in the Catholic Church (T&T Clarke 2002). But my interest here is more personal: how do we in practice relate to the Holy Spirit? That raises a number of questions:
o Do we habitually relate to the Holy Spirit in prayer, or is he the forgotten member of the Trinity?
o Have we ever experienced his help – directly or indirectly?
o Is there a danger that we attribute our choices to the Holy Spirit when they are merely our own choices?
o What rôle does the Holy Spirit play in the Trinity?