Page 4, 2nd April 1965

2nd April 1965
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Page 4, 2nd April 1965 — Protestant view of Authority
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Locations: Los Angeles, St. Louis

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Protestant view of Authority

How do our separated brethren see the issue of personal freedom in the Church? Where for them is authority located? Here, ROBERT McAFEE BROWN, an American observer at the Council, gives his answer.

1WHERE, for the Protestant, is authority

located? The Catholic answer to this question is probably almost automatic: in "the right of private judgment", which usually means to the Catholic that the Protestant is "free to believe whatever he wants to believe".

The Protestant lives in a kind of spiritual anarchy, in which nobody is under the authority of anything save the compulsion of his own inner spiritual insight. Since these insights will vary from individual to individual, there is no guarantee beyond coincidence that two Protestants will agree on any matter of faith.

This, I have discovered. is what many Catholics feel Protestantism "really is". It is the point at which 1 find greatest difficulty in trying to convey to the Catholic anything of the ethos of the Protestant faith. It is on the matter of authority that communications between us becomes most difficult.

I think that what I have described above is a stereotype of the Protestant faith, though I sympathise with the difficulty the Catholic has in moving beyond it. Perhaps the way to begin dispelling the stereotype is to suggest that, despite the obvious differences between us at this point, we are actually a lot closer to one another than either of us has realised. For if it is a Catholic stereotype of Protestants to think that Protestantism is really spiritual anarchy, it is (I am daily more persuaded) equally a Protestant stereotype of Catholicism to think that authority in the Catholic Church is so clearly and precisely defined that there is no problem: if the Catholic isn't sure about something. all he has to do is read a "Catholic book," or ask somebody in the hierarchy, in order to get the answer. This is Catholicism's advantage over Protestantism, that it provides a degree of assurance the Protestant cannot claim, since it has possession of the truth in an unambiguous way.

THUS THE STER EOTYPE. As I look at Catholicism. however, I don't find the stereotype describing what I see. For if a Catholic has a problem, the answer he gets depends on whom he asks. And he doesn't necessarily get the same answer if he asks two people or three. If he asks Cardinal Bea he gets a different answer than if he asks Cardinal Ruffin!. If he reads Pacem in Terris he gets a different slant than if he reads Humani Generic. If he consults Mater et Magistra he learns something other than he learns by consulting the Syllabus of Errors. Living in Los Angeles, to change the figure, isn't the same as living in St. Louis. And vice-versa.

Now I. know that there is an answer to this. It is that on essentials of the faith there is full agreement, and that the differences are difference on peripheral matters or degrees of emphasis. But even in the area of "the essentials of the faith," which are not at all peripheral. I have made the interesting and sometimes perplexing discovery that not all interpretations of those essentials coincide. As I have remarked more than once in this context, I would like very much to know the Catholic teaching on irreformability, papal primacy, collegiality. and any number of similar items of ecumenical import. But here, too, different tutors tell me different things. Vatican 1, 1 learn from no less an authority than Pope Paul, is incomplete. Cardinal Bacci's interpretation of primacy is not that of Cardinal Suenens, nor does Cardinal Ruffini's view of the possibility of sin in the Church coincide with that of Cardinal Meyer, even though the two of them sit practically next to one another at the cardinalpresident's table in St. Peter's.

I AM NOT for a moment deploring this state of affairs. Indeed. it gives me great heart and hope. for it indicates clearly, as many of the Council bathers have said, that there is not one way, and one way Only, to define the faith. I am always cheered when I remember Cardinal Leger, speaking in the Council, echoing words Pope Paul had already spoken to the Protestant observers, about the dangers of doctrinal "immobilism," and the need for theological humility.

There is, to be sure, a much greater degree of doctrinal uniformity and verbal agreement among Catholics than among Protestants. But if I wanted the kind of theological securitas that typical Catholic apologetics claim that Mother Church provides—the Church knows all the answers and can tell you exactly what they are—I would not become a Roman Catholic but a Southern Baptist. No fear of "immobilism" there: no reticence about knowing exactly what every verse of Scripture means; no timidity in consigning to the outer reaches of hell any who would destroy that least jot or title of the faith once delivered to the Baptist saints.

THE CATHOI IC, in other words, if he is a reasonably well-read Catholic who has gone beyond the Baltimore Catechism to Karl Rahner and jean Danielou and Hans Kung and any other official peril of the Council, is not simply presented with the answer. He is confronted with a variety of ways of interpreting any given matter of doctrine and finally he must, in the interior of his own heart, make his own act of assent. Nobody else can make it for him, and though the Church and his spiritual directors can help him a great deal, finally the decision is his. And, as Catholic theology has long thought, he must make it in conformity with the dictates of his own conscience. He cannot pretend to believe what in actual fact he finds it impossible to believe, Even though his conscience be objectively in error, its subjective integrity must be honoured.

This, at least. is how 1 understand the situation with which the Catholic is confronted as he tries to relate himself to the teaching authority of the Church. If I am grievously in error in this description, I ought to be corrected.

But if I am not, then I find the situation of the Catholic to be much closer to the situation of the Protestant than I used to imagine it to be. The remaining differences have to do not so much with the external influences that form the Protestant's decision, as with their structural visibility. When I am confronted by a matter in which my faith is tested, either as to its orthodoxy or as to its relevance to the twentieth century world, there are at least three factors that must enter into my attempt to determine the authenticity of that faith.

THE FIRST TESTIMONY with which I must be confronted is the testimony of Holy Scripture. This has always been, for the Protestant, the major resource of Christian insight. Is that which I allirm consistent with Scripture or is it not? If it is not, then the burden of proof is certainly upon me. Sola scriptura was the Reformers' rally cry, "by Scripture alone". I don't think we can say that today without cheating, unless we say it in the way the Reformers really meant it, which is Scripture as interpreted by the testimony of the Church through the ages.

So the latter, Christian tradition, becomes a second resource of authority for the Protestant. We cannot approach Scripture "cold," as though there had not been nineteen centuries (or more) between us and it. And when we seek enlightenment from Scripture we must seek it not just as individuals, but in the context of the community of faith. How did the early Fathers interpret this text'? What did Augustine make of it? Luther? Calvin? How. in the light of their testimony, are we to interpret it today? The danger at this point, of course. is that we will he too selective in those to whom we choose to listen. and it is encouraging that the new ecumenical climate is making it possible for Protestants to listen more openly than before to Aquinas and Loyola and Newman. (That we have joined hands long since in the circle of Biblical studies is one of the facts of the ecumenical revival too patent to need further elaboration at the moment.) THIRDLY. THE PROTESTANT has to bring the message of Scripture, as seen in the light of tradition, into his own situation, and appropriate it in and for his own personal experience. Now he may, on occasion, have to dissent from the tradition. Once again, if he does so, the burden of proof is on him, although he will usually find that there have been those within the tradition who uphold his hard-won conviction. He may come to feel that what has been a minority report for centuries is now, in the fullness .of time, crying out for expression—a neglected emphasis that the Spirit is at last trying to thrust upon the consciences of men.

I hope that Catholics will find much in the above description to which they can offer a muted if not resounding "Amen.and the difference between us, as I am trying to suggest, is not so much in the process by which the authority imposes itself upon us, as in the degree to which the terms of that authority are externally and structurally manifested. There iv a clearer understanding in Catholic faith of what "the Church teaches" about a given passage of Scripture, for example, although that understanding. even if it does not formally "change," at least undergoes "development" and rethinking—as the very existence of the Second Vatican Council witnesses. And the price for setting oneself against the received teaching is in Catholicism, a higher price than is formally observable in Protestantism.

FOR THE CATHOLIC, I presume. the supreme act of spiritual pride is to set oneself above the teaching Church: who is that individual who can claim that his insights are superior to those incorporating centuries of Christian reflection within the ongoing life of the Church'? But the Protestant must put it a bit differently. He must go on to say, in a way the Catholic cannot quite say, that the Church herself may be guilty of spiritual pride and even Of apostasy, and that there may come times when, in the name of Christ and for the sake of Christ, a word must be spoken against the Church. If churchmen are saying that Hitler can be followed, there must be a Barmen Declaration to challenge those within the church who say so. If the Sanhedrin tells Peter and the other apostles to stop preactilng the risen Christ, Peter can only reply, "We must obey God rather than men" (Acts 5:29).

This. I think. is the final resting place of Protestants on the prickly question of authority: we must obey God rather than men—even the "men" in the Church, if and when obedience to God and men come into conflict. as they may. They came into conflict in Germany in the '30s. They come into conflict in many parts of the South, and the North, in the '60s, Martin Luther King's "Letter from a Birmingham Jail," written to eight clergymen who disapproved of his actions, is a good example of the spirit of authority in Protestantism. Dr. King does not say that he is acting on his own personal whim. He claims to be standing in the heritage of all those who, in the name of God. protest injustice. and so he cites Amos and Paul, Aquinas and Augustine, Martin Luther and John Bunyan, along with many others who make clear to Dr. King that on the issue of racial injustice in Alabama in the 1960s, the burden of proof is not on those who are disobeying unjust laws, hut on those who are silently acquiescing to them. And since the latter can be found in great numbers in the Church, the Church at this point must be called to account by those who love the Church.

THUS A RECOGNITION that the Church is always in need of Reform, that it is always in some degree distorting as well as displaying the gospel, must be built into a Protestant understanding of authority. kccle‘ia semper reformanda. the church always to be reformed. remains a Protestant watchword. The encouraging thing ecumenically is that this watchword is likely to emerge in the long sweep of history as the watchword of Vatican IL even though the historians may pronounce it aggiornamento.

There is another place at which the relationship of Protestantism and Catholicism to the issue of authority can be contrasted. This has to do with what happens when either church. through its duly appointed officials, exercises its authority against an individual.

Let US take an example, not at all hypothetical. A Catholic priest or a Protestant minister is removed from his pulpit. What happens? In my own denomination, to speak concretely. such actiOn is exercised by a regional judicatory known as the presbytery, a kind of corporate bishop with power to call. ordain, install and remove men from the pulpit. The minister in question, however. will have the privilege of review before his presbytery. If the action against him is sustained, he can then appeal to a higher judicatory. the Synod, comprising all the presbyteries within a given area, usually the State. Should he fail in this appeal also. he can still appeal to the highest judicatory, the General Assembly, composed of representatives of presbyteries from all over the country. (Beyond the General Assembly, there is no court of Presbyterian appeal save the throne of heaven, and vindication from that source must he presumed to conic eschatologically since it does not come temporally.) The point is that there is recognition that the "moderator. Fathers and brethren" of the presbytery or Synod might have erred, and that a final process of review must be possible. Perhaps the man is not guilty of heresy. Perhaps the penalty is too severe. Perhaps, indeed, the presbytery and not the man was at fault.

NOW WHEN THE PROTESTANT looks at the Catholic scene, this process of review does not appear to him to be a real possibility. A priest is removed from his parish by his bishop because (let us presume) the priest believes in civil rights and the bishop does not, or at least does not believe civil rights to be appropriate subject-matter for a sermon. The priest in this situation appears to have no recourse whatever. There seems to be no machinery by means of which the merits of the situation may be argued before those who are disinterested. It does not seem likely that a pope is going to depose a cardinal on the basis of objections lodged by a diocesan priest, the structure of Roman Catholicism being what it is. The Protestant consequently bleeds for a Fr. DuRay (to maintain the pretence no longer), wishing that there were ways in which his voice. so sorely needed, could speak loudly and clearly on behalf of the downtrodden and oppressed in what is far from being "the best-integrated city in the United States," the chancery office notwithstanding.

The difference, in these two cases, goes hack, I think. to the degree to which ecelesia Aemper reformunda is a present possibility in the Church. Might it not be that the voice of a parish priest, crying out for justice for the Negro, is closer to the gospel—to Scripture. to the tradition of the Church. and to the conscience of man—than an attitude which does not recognise the existence of the problem? Ought there not to be ways in which the sound of that voice can be heard, rather than stifled?

The Protestant feels constrained, in the name of the gospel, to respond to the question with a vigorous affirmative. And he would hope that there will be increasing ways in which the Catholic can similarly respond, so that authority, surely necessary in the Church, can be exercised creatively rather than destructively. Perhaps, indeed, it is in the degree to which we acknowledge "the right of dissent" as a right, that we are still most grievously divided from one another.

(The Commonweal)




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