Do you have friends or family members who have left the Church, their stated reasons displaying a grave misunderstanding of what the Church teaches? Do you find yourself upset by what is being taught in the name of the Church, things which contradict known Church doctrine? Over a hundred years ago, so did St. John Henry Newman. His sermon, Submission to Church Authority, speaks to the situation we are in today. As a convert to Catholicism, he had to work through many of these same questions before he made his own “submission” to the Church of Rome.
For example, there is currently a push for ecumenism, with many seeing this as the higher good, suggesting that some of the “hard” teachings of Catholicism be relaxed for the sake of unity. It is instructive to see how Newman dealt with this issue. He writes:
“Men, who have themselves separated from the Church, sometimes urge a union among all Christians [when] they say, ‘We dissent from you; yet we will cast aside our forms (or doctrines) if you will cast aside yours. Thus there will be mutual concession. . . . ‘”
To this Newman responds: “Nay . . . there cannot be a like heart and spirit . . . between us and them, for obedience to the Church is one part of our spirit. Those who think much of submission to her authority, as we do, plainly do differ in spirit from those who think little of it. Such persons . . . in fact, ask us to give up something, while they give up nothing themselves; for [it] is not much to give up which a man sets no value upon.”
He explains that those who have already left the Church have already rejected Church teachings, so they have nothing to give up for this supposed unity. He writes: “All they give up is what they themselves disparage. . . . They call it a human invention . . . [and desire that] we call it so also . . . it must be a sacrifice in us to give it up, such as they cannot possibly make. They cannot make such sacrifice, because they have made it already, or their fathers before them, when they left the Church.”
Newman powerfully reminds us . . . “those who differ from us . . . strip themselves of what we consider an essential of holiness . . . the Ancient Rule. Then, being unclothed, they are forced to array themselves in new forms and ordinances. . . .” These new ordinances Newman equates to a type of new, inferior garment which is like “exchanging the fine gold for brass.” These new garments, or new doctrines, are doomed to “wither.”
St. Newman then speaks to the next proposition from those who seek false unity who say: “Faith is not a matter of words, but of the heart. It is more than the formal doctrine . . . surely external order must not lie upon us as a burden, stifling and destroying the true inward fellowship between Christian and Christian.” Newman counters that if each Christian uses his own private judgment to decide what does or does not constitute faith, there can never be true fellowship because “. . . if everyone follow his own rule of fellowship, how can there possibly be ‘one body’ and in what sense are those words of the Apostle to be taken?”
St. Cardinal Newman writes beautifully and logically of Church doctrine: “ . . . [doctrines] are precise and definite. Once broken, they are altogether broken. There are no degrees of breaking them; either they are observed or they are not. . . . if we leave the Church in order to join what appears a less formal, a more spiritual, religion elsewhere, we break a commandment for certain, and we do not for certain secure to ourselves a benefit.”
Another reason given by many who leave the Church is that certain teachers within the Church seem to teach error. This shows, they say, that the Church cannot be what she claims. Again, Newman clearly explains that this is a risk our Lord took when putting humans into the divine institution. For even though, St. Newman explains, those in error may teach false doctrine, still the very truth of the doctrine binds them anyway.
Lastly, he asks: How are we to interact with our “separated Brethren,” those within and without the Church?
“ . . . we must not keep aloof. We are not bound . . . to court their society, but we are bound not to shrink from them when we fall in with them . . . [unless] they be the actual authors . . . of division. We are bound to love them and pray for them; not to be harsh with them, or revile or despise them, but to be gentle, patient, apt to teach, merciful, to make allowance, to interpret their conduct for the best . . . we feel that, if we and they are to be one, they must come over to us”
Newman sums up this complex sermon by urging our obedience to the Church, having in mind the Church’s teaching authority and the Tradition of the Apostles. He gave personal example by obedience to his bishop and to the pope. And we will find their teaching explained in the Catechism of the Church.
Now, more than ever, it is important that each Catholic know and understand the true teaching of Holy Mother Church. Do you participate in continuing education so that you will not be led astray by false teachers? Are you able to explain why you believe the tenets of the Church to those who do not understand? But do not despair! “These things I have spoken unto you that in me you might have peace. In the world you shall have tribulation: but be of good cheer; I have overcome the world.” St. John 16:33.