By Fr. NIGEL LARN
Director of the Catholic Enquiry Centre
AT the Enquiry Centre we are said to have one of the biggest letter boxes in the area. Certainly we have sometimes been rebuked for cramming pillar boxes with our outgoing mail. We now have a system of dividing this fairly evenly between several streets. Otherwise our neighbours cannot get their correspondence When we send our leaflets to non-Catholics each week, the Post Office has to come in a special van and collect them.
Hundreds of letters go in and out of our office every day. Sonic reach the desk of the priest who is answering theological questions. These queries are mostly from non-Catholics who are enrolled on our Course. Some of them come from stray enquirers who may have seen one of our advertisements somewhere.
PEOPLE have sometimes asked me 'whether we ever get really difficult questions. Very seldom. Many of the questions that come our way are stock ones. We have been told many a time that these questions are dead. This, however, is no answer to the enquirer who asks them. We have a large number of duplicated answers for these recurrent themes. We always send a personal letter with the duplicated answer, because the question. as asked by an individual, may have a particular twist, and, in any case, a personal touch is often more important than the theological information that we impart.
WHEN I first came to work in the Enquiry Centre, one of the questions which surprised me most was this. "Why do you Catholics believe that all non-Catholics go to Hell?" It is not always expressed in quite such abrupt languase. Sometimes the enquirer may say that he is con
cerned about the salvation of nonCatholics, How can God have created so many people who have, according to Catholic theology, little or no hope of salvation?
I think many Catholics never mention to their non-Catholic friends that those who are in good faith, whether they be Protestants. Jews or Muslims, etc., can be saved. They do not mention this simply because they take it for granted that everyone knows that we think this.
Possibly it is a vague hangover from the theological expression "outside the Church no salvation" It is not that the non-Catholic has actually heard this expression, but he may have heard views that percolate from a misunderstanding of it.
The phrase correctly understood is true of course. These nonCatholics who are saved. arc saved, in some sense through the Church and have some sort of relationship with it, even if this is only a relationship of implicit desire: In other words, a nonCatholic could be saved because he would join the Catholic Church if he knew that it was the true Church. But he does not know it, and this is no fault of his own.
EARLY in our Course
of Leaflets. in fact at the fifth one, we come to the doctrine concerning Papal Supremacy and Papal Infallibility.
The position of the Pope as the head of the Church, both now and throughout history, does not seem to worry very many of our correspondents. But the moment we mention that he is infallible the non-Catholic enquirer usually feels himself floundering hopelessly.
It is extremely difficult to explain to someone, unfamiliar with Catholic doctrine, exactly what we mean by Papal Infallibility. It is not so much that people reject this idea once they understand it correctly. It is rather that they have preconceived ideas as to what it means, which almost blind them to its real content.
First of all, the enquirer usually thinks that infallibility is a personal gift or characteristic of the Pope himself, Just as the Pope may have brown eyes or blue eyes, so he is infallible. Then they are in a pretty pickle to understand how bad Popes could have been infallible. How can the gift of infallibility and moral evil go together in the same person?
WE have to repeat again and again that infallibility is not a gift. It is a promise of divine intervention if the Pope were about to make a mistake in officially defining a doctrine. It is, therefore. a negative form of assistance. It is not the same as inspiration. It does not mean that the Pope knows all the answers. It means that when he gives one, fulfilling all the conditions of infallibility. we can be sure that he is right.
These points seem obvious to a Catholic. The more obvious they seem to h et, the less stress he may lay upon them in expounding them and so the less easily will a nonCatholic come to understand them,
This one point seems to be the greatest difficulty with regard to
Papal Infallibility, There is. of course, a vague feeling that the Pope defines new doctrines. Also that he engages in this form of activity frequently, as if we might any morning at our breakfasttable find in our daily paper that the Pope has defined a new doctrine we had never heard of.
Occasionally, of course, the enquirer, with a certain inconsistency, would seem to wish that Papal Infallibility was really like this — "Why does the Pope not forbid the atomic bomb?". "Why does he not condemn all war as wrong?". "Why does he not say which side was right in the last war?".
All of this serves to underline the fact that the limitations of Papal Infallibility, as defined at the Vatican Council, need to be carefully stressed. as also the infrequency with which Papal pronouncements of this kind are made. Our correspondents are often amazed to hear that infallible definitions of doctrine have occurred perhaps fourteen or so times in twenty centuries of the Church's history.
WI 1AT are some of the other questions which frequently fall from our post-bag'? From the point of view of people, as well as Age and social standing and geographical area, our correspondents represent a cornplete cross-section of the population. Therefore. there are con vinced and practising members of various churches. as well as lapsed members of these churches. There are those who are attached to no form of religion. though believing in God and Jesus Christ. as well as those who find it difficult to be licve in God at all. Naturally, from this last class, we get the most basic and in some ways the most interesting questions. How do we know that God exists? Is there any proof of this'? One feels that the enquirer is most genuinely searching for some real proof of God's existence.
The answer that we can give him may not altogether reassure him because he has, in advance. a too restricted opinion of proof, He is thinking of proof, perhaps. in apurely scientific or mathematical way. Metaphysical proof is something, which, perhaps, from the kind of education he has undergone. he finds very difficult to grasp. The first step, of course, is to make him sec that metaphysical proof is something different from scientilic or mathematical proof, even though as yet he cannot understand what it is.
OTHERS, however, do not have this difficulty because, after all, metaphysical argument always has a firm basis in common sense, It is fair to say that the "man in the street" can often appreciate the validity of the traditional arguments for God's existence, He may then be puzzled by the empirical fact that there is so much evil in the world.
Again one has to bring him back to the basic facts that God does exist and that He is good and that this is proved, Whatever may appear to the contrary of this in the world, does not dis-prove it, though there is a certain element of mystery here which no theologian pretends to be able to explain completely away.
The enquirer's difficulty is not, perhaps, so much a reluctance to accept mystery in certain places, as a tendency to exaggerate evil, particularly, for example, the evil of physical disaster, such as might be brought about by the hydrogen bomb.
One might just mention that other frequent worries cover as wide a variety of subjects as how can we be free if God knows everything and knowts what we are going to do?; the bad old Inquisition, and sometimes. when the enquirer has been to some extent satisfied on this point, what about present-day persecution of Protestants in Spain?
Here I think we have an instance of a far too naive acceptance of everything that is alleged in the Press at its face value. So much so that perhaps the fairest and most concise answer to this question is. "well, there just isn't one". On a more doctrinal level, the doctrine of Transubstantiation provokes many questions. Few will dispute the words of Christ in this regard, but imagination without faith still boggles.
AN'priest who sets out .to answer these queries will need a great deal of sympathy and patience and a sense that he is dealing with a person rather than a question. We receive many letters of gratitude from those we have tried to help in this way. But it is often the kind word rather than the theological content of our letter which is singled out for thanks.
People must feel that we care.
For all those who are on our Course we need prayers. Their difficulties in coming to the Faith can be removed in the ultimate analysis only by grace. Grace comes in response to prayer.
We have, throughout the country, several thousand Promoters and Sponsors of the Catholic Enquiry Centre. This is their task — to pray daily for those who are receiving Our Course, Without an organised body of prayer like this behind us. the Catholic Enquiry Centre could not carry on its work.
We also owe a great deal to the sacrifices which our Promoters make in collecting one shilling a month from their group of friends, and sending this on to us. This is our main line of financial support. It is by our prayers and our sacrifices that the conversion of England will be achieved.
Anyone who would like to enquire about the Promoters' Scheme should write to the Catholic. Enquiry Centre, 120, West Heath Road, London, N .W