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Chapter Six

THE CHURCH LEARNED

In this chapter I will look at the Church's intelligentsia.

The work of Catholic thinkers and scholars is of roughly two kinds: presenting, explaining and defending the Catholic faith; and relating it to the naturally acquired knowledge current at a particular time. The first is the easier task and carries fewer temptations. Nevertheless it is not altogether free of them. Officially authorised guardians of the faith can easily become intellectual autocrats. This chiefly means that they will be unwilling to give sufficient weight to the ideas or criticisms of other and possibly rival schools of thought.

Although there were several different schools of Thomism in the pre-conciliar years, as we shall see later, one in particular had received semi-official approval, and the failings of some of its more autocratic exponents has had perhaps at least something to do with the mauling and near overthrow that Thomism has suffered since the Council. What the autocrat taught was no doubt true, but the manner of saying it could be repellent, because what is holy and mysterious was treated as obvious and self-evident.

Another danger for authorised guardians of the faith was professionalism. The faith had ceased to be a living fire burning in the teacher's "veins and belly". It had become "My subject", "What I am qualified in". The students then received, not something breathing and beautiful which fired their love, but what appeared as either a hyper-ingenious intellectual crossword puzzle, or a heap of bones and dust. In both cases the results would be disastrous. Clever students were tempted to see theology or whatever else they were studying chiefly as a subject to exercise their wits on. The rest were likely to feel, at best, indifference; at worst, dull dislike.

The professional will also be tempted to see all ideas, good or bad, as in the first place interesting products of the human mind. This means that. when heresy makes its appearance, his reaction will be much like that of a doctor towards illness and death. You don't lose any sleep over it. It is all part of the day's work. And if the heretic is a colleague you stay on friendly terms with him.

However, in this chapter I am more concerned with the theologians and scholars whose vocation called them to work of the second kind, those dedicated to reform and aggiomamento.

Why did so much of this rampart of the heavenly Jerusalem collapse in heaps of rubble when the modem world marched around it and blew its trumpets? In Part IV, I shall be looking at the intellectual background. Here I will glance briefly at some spiritual and psychological problems.

One of the chief hazards for scholars of every kind is "not being able to see the wood for the trees".

When we look at any of the things God has created, perhaps the most striking thing about them is the contrast between their simplicity and intelligibility when taken as a whole, and their complexity and obscurity when examined in detail. This is why there are biologists who cannot see any essential difference between men and animals, and ordinary folk who can. Peering at the details produces a kind of myopia about the whole.

It is the same with the faith. In its outlines it is so simple that children can grasp it, yet no single library contains everything that has been written about the details. Moreover, here too, studying the details can result in short­sightedness about the totality.

It was for some such reason, according to Newman, that during the Arian crisis of the fourth century, the ordinary faithful often gave a clearer testimony to their beliefs on certain points than theologians, including some of the Church Fathers. The faithful simply gave back what they had been taught, Newman tells us, without their understanding of the grand design having been clouded by complexities and subtleties. Similarly, when the Anglo-Irish Jesuit convert Fr. George Tyrrell started to preach heresy from the pulpit of Farm Street Church in London at the start of this century, the first person to notice was a lay brother.

Another pitfall for learned men of all kinds is the temptation to fall in love with their subject. The archaeologist, Sir Leonard Cottrell, commenting on this weakness, remarked good-humouredly that he had known Assyriologists who thought the ancient Assyrians, as depicted on their bas-reliefs, handsome.

When a Catholic scholar falls too deeply, in love with his subject whether Buddhism, Protestantism, palaeontology, or sociology it will come to rank higher in his heart than the faith. He will then be tempted to adapt the faith to fit in with the exigencies of "my subject".

Nationalism can also distort a scholar's or thinker's judgement. A famous national figure will be overvalued just because he is a compatriot. We can see this, yesterday and today, in the pressure from German Catholics to have the Church baptise Kant and Hegel, and from the French to have her give her blessing to Descartes and Bergson.

It is strange, when one comes to think of it, that Catholics are not taught to be more concerned for the spiritual welfare of "the Church Learned"; that there are not religious orders specially devoted to praying and making sacrifices for its members, since their work is so necessary and they occupy what, in regard to faith, is one of the most exposed positions in the Church. The world of speculative ideas and massive accumulations of fact is the place where it is easiest to fall into a pit or be swept over a cataract, the implications of new ideas and facts not usually being apparent until quite some time after first appearance. Or we can compare them to soldiers in an observation post continually under heavy shell-fire.

As they study new books and learned publications, they live (often without realising it) under a barrage of temptations of a kind most of the faithful never experience. "Oh, what a brilliant idea! But what happens to the doctrine of grace? Perhaps I should pray before reading further. No, I haven't time. It's more important to get on with my work. Laborare est orare. The Church could be wrong. It's never been defined. How could a stupid bishop without a doctorate be expected to understand such a subtly nuanced concept?"

The danger is not so much that they will take a wrong path  anyone can make a mistake but that, having taken it, they press ahead ignoring warnings.

For Catholic scholars, their unfailing protection is, of course, readiness to submit their conclusions to the Church's teaching authority.

Part of the mystery of the Church is that, in arranging how his truth is to be handed on, God made Greek philosophers, or anyone resembling them, subordinate to Galilean fishermen. The three wise men kneeling before Divine Wisdom made visible as a baby provides a prototype. A Pope or bishop may be personally learned, but his learning does not add anything to his authority as pope or bishop. His authority to pass judgement on the ideas of even the most brilliant thinker, where those ideas touch on faith and morals, comes solely from the fact that he is a successor of one of Our Lord's little-educated working-class apostles. St. Paul the brilliant "university type", was brought in later, but only after a big dose of humiliation.

For Catholics, the purpose behind this plan is not difficult to see. Everything in God's designs is directed to keeping us small in our own esteem, since this is the only way into the kingdom of heaven, and no one needs more help in this matter than clever men and women. (Over the entrance to every Catholic university could well be carved St. Therese of Lisieux's words: "God has no need of any human instrument, least of all me.")

But this ultimate subordination of "philosophers" to "fisherman" is not something the clever find naturally easy to accept. With a strong sense of the  supernatural they will. But if faith starts to decline it starts to stick in the throat. Then, instead of seeing themselves as servants of Christ and his Church, they become, without realising it, servants of worldly powers like William of Ockham in the 14th century when he fled from Avignon to the court of Louis of Bavaria of the spirit of the times, or of their own opinions and ambitions.

One of the most revealing things about some of the theologians who have come to fame since the Council is their apparent indifference to the confusion into which they have plunged the simple and lowly. As long as they can write what they please they do not seem to care what the consequences are. If doctors had acted like this, leaving behind a trail of corpses and invalids, they would have earned not reputations but infamy.

But, of course, they do not accept God's plan for the Church. The world having entered the age of the expert, they imagine they should be running it, the way many secular experts seem to think they should be running civil society. It is the great dream and illusion of intellectuals. Real intellectuals almost never rule except briefly in periods of disaster and chaos. The nature of their gifts incapacitates them for it. Thinkers who are also natural rulers, like Calvin and Lenin, are rarities (thanks be to God), and the world usually sighs with relief when they are taken away.

The second fact Catholic scholars easily lose sight of if their outlook becomes de-supernaturalised under the influence of their studies, is the unique nature of divine revelation. Coming as it does from God, it cannot be the subject of uncontrolled debate like black holes or nervous diseases. It is true that in helping the magisterium expound and develop it, Catholic scholars need sufficient freedom to do their work properly, and that the Church recognises and encourages. In his encyclical Divino Afflante Spiritu, Pius XII defended this necessary freedom; the faithful, he said were not to assume that every new idea a theologian or scholar put forward was suspect just because new. Nevertheless, when it comes to the faith, Catholic scholars cannot enjoy the unrestricted academic freedom enjoyed by their secular counterparts, however much they long for it. It would be equivalent to saying either that God could not be trusted, or that he had not guaranteed the Church against error. Actually, secular scholars do not enjoy unrestricted academic freedom either. Would a scientist who taught Ptolemaic physics keep his job at Harvard or Cambridge?

Here the Catholic scholar is exposed to temptation of a special kind; fear of his non-Catholic colleagues, of the raised eye-brow, the amused little laugh at the learned meeting or in the university common-room. "Oh, I apologise,  Father. I was forgetting you have to ask the Pope's permission before you agree to that ... "

Father, instead of answering courteously but firmly that he is happy to submit his ideas on any subject impinging on faith and morals to the judgement of his bishop or the Holy See, since if God has made a revelation he will obviously have arranged for it to be protected from human vagaries, wilts interiorly. Why should he have to take into account the opinions of a local prelate with the cultural sensitivity of a pneumatic drill, or a lot of Italians in Rome who know nothing about science? What a burden it is, having to cart the faith about in these civilised surroundings like a shabby old trunk filled with worn out clothes.

If Catholic scholars are to remain faithful today, they are going to need an extra strong formation in detachment from human respect.

Revelation differs from other kinds of knowledge in yet another way. In other kinds of study, intelligence, imagination and hard work are usually enough. Philosophical errors and defects of character will certainly affect results to some degree. Freud's pride, for instance, blinded him to what was obvious to the humbler Alfred Adler. Nevertheless, natural gifts and qualities by themselves can achieve striking results. However, for the study of theology, the Bible or Church history, other things are necessary.

First, to understand fully, one must believe. Unbelieving historians who study the Church know far more about its life and teachings than most Catholics do, but in a deep sense they miss the point about what they know. The same begins to be true of Catholic scholars when doubts set in. They must be men of prayer, their hearts set on advancing in virtue.

When, instead, a Catholic scholar allows himself to become proud, cynical, sardonic or dried up, something the nature of scholarly work easily inclines men to, his understanding of the Church and the faith is certain to be flawed, no matter how wide-ranging his knowledge. An exceedingly lofty opinion of his scholarly powers seems to have been what carried the 19th-century German historian Döllinger out of the Church and made the English historian Lord Acton a very restive member within it. How many Catholic scholars today really believe that faith is a gift they can lose, or a virtue they can sin against?

No doubt most of these remarks about the temptations and natural difficulties besetting Catholic scholars are fairly obvious. But if they are not kept in mind it will be much less easy to understand why this century has seen not only a movement for reform but also a great rebellion of scholars and theologians. As the period of the Councils of Constance and Basle shows, few things are so dangerous for the Church as a reform, or attempted reform, in which a large part is played by insufficiently spiritual men. In these disasters, the causes are always moral and spiritual before they are intellectual.
        

Copyright © Philip Trower 2003, 2017


Version: 15th March 2017

 

 


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