Card Newman and Gary Wills

Gary Wills argues in “New Pope? I’ve given up hope” (NYT, Feb. 12, 2013) that Catholic laymen and women should decide on what constitutes Catholic doctrine. He forgets that Jesus chose Apostles who in turn appointed bishops to leads the local churches. For a long time Wills has been rejecting Papal authority and infallibility. His refutation of the doctrine of Papal infallibility begs the question. He argues that ‘since the Popes confirm what other Popes have taught about faith and morals is true then Papal infallibility must be wrong.’

He fails to make his case. And in his article he disregards any analysis of the truth of doctrinal claims. If the Pope said contraception is not wrong, and abortion is fine then Wills would likely think that Papal Infallibility is correct. Regarding this doctrine Wills should read Newman’s famous Letter to the Duke of Norfolk.

Wills refers to Cardinal John Henry Newman to bolster his case for popular vote on doctrinal matters. But he does not understand Card. Newman, who bases his whole thinking about the sense of the faithful on adherence to the content of Faith handed down through the centuries, that is, Tradition. In his Consulting the Faithful in Matters of Doctrine explained that “consulting” means that the faithful witness to what has been Catholic belief. He explains that if a theologian “were expressing himself formally, and in Latin, he would not commonly speak of the laity being “consulted” among the preliminaries of a dogmatic definition, because the technical, or even scientific, meaning of the word “consult” is to “consult with,” or to “take counsel.” But the English word “consult,” in its popular and ordinary use, is not so precise and narrow in its meaning; it is doubtless a word expressive of trust and deference, but not of submission. It includes the idea of inquiring into a matter of fact, as well as asking a judgment. Thus we talk of “consulting our barometer” about the weather:—the barometer only attests the fact of the state of the atmosphere.”

After this clarification, Newman goes to the heart of the matter: “In the preparation of a dogmatic definition, the faithful are consulted.” Doubtless their advice, their opinion, their judgment on the question of definition is not asked; but the matter of fact, viz. their belief, is sought for, as a testimony to that apostolical tradition, on which alone any doctrine whatsoever can be defined.”

The Church believes in the sensus fidelium (the Christian sense of the Faithful). The faithful have a “Christian sense” that contraception is wrong; that marriage is between a man and a woman, that priests are spiritual fathers – that’s why they are men, etc. But the faithful are taught by the teaching office of the Church, which resides in the bishops together with the Pope.

In case there is any doubt how Newman understands the teaching office of the Church we read in his article Consulting the Faithful in Matters of Doctrine: “I think I am right in saying that the tradition of the Apostles, committed to the whole Church in its various constituents and functions per modum unius, manifests itself variously at various times: sometimes by the mouth of the episcopacy, sometimes by the doctors, sometimes by the people, sometimes by liturgies, rites, ceremonies, and customs, by events, disputes, movements, and all those other phenomena which are comprised under the name of history. It follows that none of these channels of tradition may be treated with disrespect; granting at the same time fully, that the gift of discerning, discriminating, defining, promulgating, and enforcing any portion of that tradition resides solely in the Ecclesia docens.”

Yes, bishops “vote” at Church councils to decide on whether some proposition or truth is to be considered a dogma or doctrine of faith. The bishops are leaders among the faithful entrusted by God with the charism of teaching the faith authoritatively. Laity can teach but they do not have the same charism. But lest someone think this unfair, one should note that there are safeguards for the bishops’ teaching: they must act in accord with the Tradition that comes from Jesus Christ; at a synod or council they must act as a body, and with the approval of the Holy Father. As Newman explains there are also limits to what the Pope can declare infallible teaching. All this gives assurance that the Pope and bishops will teach what is right. It is not the despotic monarchy that Wills tries to paint.

The Pope and bishops cannot agree on something as doctrine, which contradicts a previously held doctrine. They accept development in doctrine that is in keeping with doctrine taught by Jesus and his Apostles. Wills does not get it. I doubt he has read Newman’s Development of Christian Doctrine or if he has he empties Newman’s teaching.

Wills, like many others, cannot believe in papal authority and infallibility because he wishes matters of faith and doctrine to be a question for popular debate and vote.

There is hope in the Church because it is God’s family, and because God leads his children to constant conversion, but each one needs to look to himself to see how he or she is responding to God’s call. God will provide his Church with another Successor of Peter to guide it, as Pope Benedict XVI has done so wisely, through the moral relativism and doctrinal “poll taking” approach of contemporary society.