In a recent bible study we were discussing Blessed John Henry Newman and his writings on the philosophical concepts of assent and certitude. During that conversation we had a real life demonstration of what those mean as two of the women involved began to vocally and emphatically declare purgatory a nonsensical idea. To those ladies it did not make sense because it didn’t feel like the kind of thing the God they had in their minds would do to someone. After a lively discussion in which many different metaphors and similes were used to try and elaborate the reality of purgatory to them both, they still could not assent to the teaching. They also remained obstinate in the fact they refused to do anymore reading on the subject and were just ‘too old to change.’
That seems to be the attitude of the American society as a whole as of late, and it has definitely infiltrated the ranks of the Catholic church in America. The entire notion impinges on something that many do not take seriously, the authority of the Church itself and more especially of the chair of Peter, to ‘bind and loosen.’ Pope Benedict in his book Called to Communion goes as far as to say that the very words used by Jesus as he installs Peter as the Prime Minister of His Church has “cosmic and eschatological significance.” Peter, much like these two ladies in my bible study, has moments of both the Spirit and the Flesh. So much so that we see a cycling of both in the very narrative in which Jesus hands Him the keys. In one moment Peter's statement that Jesus is the Christ is attributed to ‘not the flesh and blood, but the Spirit. Then a few lines later as Peter decries Jesus destiny to be crucified in Jerusalem, Peter’s statement is of flesh and blood and Jesus labels him a satan, and tells him to get behind him.
This simple illustration of what it means to follow the Spirit reminds us that every man makes mistakes. When we leave the Church up to our feelings, up to our emotions, we too often stand in opposition to God’s plan, to which we must be reminded that we should ‘get behind Him.’ Feelings, while valid and important, can often lead us to do things that God himself has shown us to be wrong. That’s why, as we tried to teach the two ladies in the study, assent is just as important if not more important than certitude. In realizing that the Holy Spirit is in charge of our Church we must, even when we do not understand, assent to those teachings that are Dogma and doctrine. It does not mean we cannot discuss them, elucidate on them, or further understand them. It does mean that we must at some point submit and say “I just don’t understand, but because it has been revealed to the Church as Tradition, I assent to it and hope one day to find certitude.”
That is why the notion of the Church as a living memory is so valuable to me. Pope Benedict writes so eloquently when he says “In both her Sacramental life and in her proclamation of the Word, the Church constitutes a distinctive subject whose memory preserves the seemingly past word and action of Jesus as a present reality.” The living, organic nature of a Church that exists throughout all of time but still expresses itself in the moment, is a powerful thought. While still a mystery beyond human thought, finds a way to elucidate the very nature of what it means to be Church. It’s not enough for my own personal thoughts, feelings or interpretations to reveal what God has in store for all of mankind. They must match both the written and oral Tradition of the living Church, as it is stored in the Sacred Deposit of faith. Tradition, Scripture, and the Magisterium; along with the lived out experience of the people of Faith throughout all of Christendom, must be in agreement with those things we now start to ponder.
That’s what it means to be in Communion with the Church. It’s popular today to use the phraseology “I’m Catholic but” or “I’m Catholic, except for.” There is this notion that has steadily gained grown since the time of the reformation that somehow it’s merely a personal relationship with Christ and Christ alone. When we examine the Scriptures and the lived experience of the Church fathers we find that is simply not true. Christ came to give us a Church, a gathering. In that Church he established the Twelve, representing a new Israel. With a new Israel He established a new center of worship, a new temple, His own Body. To be in Communion then means not just in communion with God and God alone, but with God and God’s community.
It’s funny though, that even though many will agree with that statement, they mean clearly the community they can see and feel. For many parts of the Christian world the idea of Church is merely those alive. That discounts how many Christians have lived before and their experience of God and understanding of His revelation through the Incarnation of Christ. It is only when we begin to encounter Christ on His own terms that we begin to see the truth of what Christ has intended. A Church with the authority to make proclamations, safeguard the truth (both oral and written), and bring people to life with both Jesus and His Body. That’s what it really boils down to: God and us, not just God and me. It is a personal relationship yes, but not just personal.
The danger of what these ladies are attempting to do, is that heresy often breeds heresy. Deviation at one point of doctrine often leads to a collapse of even more. We have seen that with the 40,000+ denominations in Christendom today. What began as a reformation that had many important reforms in mind, became over time a dissolution of the faith till in many ways certain denominations no longer even resemble the faith that the Apostles handed on to their followers. When we decide that we are the sole decider of what is authentic faith and that our emotions are the guide, we make ourselves to be God. We then find ourselves no longer in communion but at an arm's length, and potentially no longer even part of the body, but an outsider looking in and hoping to be chosen when the teams pick sides.