Introduction: The Context of the Question
In 1850, Blessed John Henry Newman gave a series of lectures to Anglicans of the Oxford Movement who wanted the Established (Anglican) Church to adopt pre-Reformation beliefs and practices. In one of these addresses, he pointed out that the Establishment hostility to this movement meant they had to make a choice:
But, first, there is a point to be cleared up. Either the movement is not from God, or the Establishment is not: we must abjure our principles, or abandon our communion. If we abandon our communion, we do so as denying that it is from God; if we continue in it, we do so as not denying it.
John Henry Newman, Lectures on Certain Difficulties Felt by Anglicans in Submitting to the Catholic Church (London: Burns & Lambert, 1850), 139.
This point wast they needed to make a choice between fidelity to one or the other because they couldn’t have it both ways. If they thought the Anglican Church was manmade, they needed to go where this Apostolic Church of God existed (Rome). But if they thought the Anglican Church was from God, it meant they had to abandon their movement because the Anglicans rejected their movement. They couldn’t have it both ways. His point was, if they wanted to follow God, they had to embrace the Catholic faith and not try to pretend Anglicanism was a third branch alongside Catholicism and Orthodoxy.
The Application: Do We Declare the Church Manmade to Defend Our Movements?
His dilemma is relevant today for the movements tempted to dissent from the Catholic Church. Whether it is a case of radical traditionalists claiming they can disobey the post-Vatican II Church in favor of their movement, or whether it is a Catholic conformed to the world who wants the Church to change her moral teaching where it is inconvenient, we have to ask, what is manmade? The Catholic Church? Or one of these movements claiming she went the wrong way?
Blessed Cardinal Newman asked this to encourage people to go to the true Church. I repeat it to encourage people to stay in the true Church.
If the Catholic Church comes from God, then obedience to God means obedience to the Church. She has the authority to address new situations or change disciplines on how to best serve God and guide the faithful to Him. In that case there are no breaks when the Church intends to teach. Individual (or groups of) bishops, priests, religious and laity can fall into error. But if we stay in communion with the successor of Peter, we stay in communion with the Church God promised to protect. In such a case, movements rejecting the authority of the Church must be manmade and are rebellious against God, not faithful to Him.
On the other hand, if the Catholic Church is manmade then it only has the authority we choose to give it. If we don’t like something, we’re free to reject it. The problem is, there’s no reason for anyone else to accept what you accept. The radical traditionalist who likes the period between the Council of Trent and 1958 only has a preference. There’s no reason it’s any more valid than the parts they reject. Likewise, the dissenting Catholic who objects to certain teachings and invokes a “higher” belief taught by the Church has no basis for invoking that “higher belief.” If the Church is only manmade then the truth of her teaching depends on the human wisdom of the teacher. And, like every other human teacher, people often disagree about their value and relevance.
So, if the Church is manmade, she has no more standing than a political party or a think tank. Some of her ideas may be right, but we’re free to disagree about what those right ideas are. The Extraordinary form of the Mass is no more or less valid than a Clown Mass and dissenting with the Church on abortion is no more wrong than dissenting from the Church on social justice.
But if God founded the Catholic Church, then it matters a great deal whether we obey or disobey, whether we trust her evaluations in modern times or reject them.
The Conclusion: Claiming the Church Broke From Your Movement is Absurd and an Excuse for Dissent
To avoid the consequences, the person who rejects a certain part of Church teaching when it goes against his preference usually tries to claim the Church broke away from what God intended when the Church taught what they didn’t like. The radical traditionalist argues that the Church went wrong somewhere between 1958 (the election of St. John XXIII and 1970 (when the Missal changed). The secularized Catholic claims the Church went wrong in teaching “X is a sin” usually tries to argue that God intended the Church to be democratic and when Church teaching is against them, it’s “breaking” with what Jesus intended.
But if the Church can break and fall into error, then it undermines the authority of the teachings dissenters want to invoke. How does one know the Church didn’t break earlier? After all, that is what the non-Catholics argue.
Trying to support a particular movement changing what the Church should be and trying to justify it by saying the Church itself fell into error at a certain moment in time (when it disagreed with you) is to declare the Church a manmade institution that can break and err. The Church has always claimed her teaching has been unbroken. The teaching has developed, but it has never contradicted itself. Moreover, the teaching authority of the Church has remained unbroken. Again, if one wants to argue that it has broken under Pope Francis, one has to acknowledge it could break under a previous Pope. But if God protected the Church from breaking and teaching error in the past, we can trust Him to protect it now and in the future.
This brings us to the modern version of Blessed John Henry Newman’s dilemma.
- If the Church is from God and rejects these dissenting movements, then we too must reject them if we would be faithful to God.
- if the Church is not from God, then our favored dissenting movements have no more authority than any other dissenting movement we might despise.
The only rational choice is to stick to our belief that Church came from God, not man, and trust Him to protect the Church from teaching error, especially where souls are at stake. Otherwise, we are lost, never knowing which one of many competing interpretations of what God teaches is correct.