Page 5, 7th August 1998

7th August 1998
Page 5
Page 5, 7th August 1998 — The debate continues

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The debate continues

THE SYMBOL at the head of this column appeared on the masthead of this newspaper in the reign of Pius XL It shows the Dragon being slain, not by the sword but by the pen: and there were no doubts then as to what the Dragon represented. Pius XI (as Cardinal Koenig reminded us last week) is most often remembered today as the Pope who published the encyclical Mit Brennende Sorge (With Burning Sorrow ), a frontal attack on Hitlerism and all its works. The encyclical appeared in 1937: but the Pope had forcefully made clear his opposition to National Socialism at an earlier period when the general tendency was to give Hitler the benefit of the doubt a time, indeed, when many (some Catholics among them) mistakenly saw in Nazism and Fascism the only convincing response to the parallel evil of Stalinist collectivism.

The Pope's anti-Nazism was from the outset passionately supported by The Catholic Herald. In January 1934, Pius XI condemned the Nazis' use of sterilisation as a means of improving the racial stock: This latest manifestation of Hitlerism", thundered the Herald, "reduces Germany to a stud farm and is a striking exposure of the depths to which a so-called intellectual nation can descend...."" The basis of the Pope's authority to confront the rulers of the world in this way was clear to this writer: "Thank God we have a Pope; a leader who, when on a matter of Faith or Morals as Teacher and head of the church of God, speaks not indeed by any power of his own, but as the Vice-Regent of the Creator and Redeemer of the world, and by the aid and guidance of the Holy spirit."

Papal authority was thus seen, not as a threat to liberty but as its most powerful defender. In our own day, by a supreme irony, another strong Pope who has courageously resisted oppressive political regimes has been characterised by some Catholics as himself manifesting totalitarian tendencies. But if this is true, how is it that there is in the Church of John Paul II so much intellectual vigour? The mark of totalitarianism is a grey uniformity, a spiritual torpor penetrating deep into the soul of those under its sway. That is not the way it is with us. The intellectual life of the Catholic Church today is characterised (as it always has been) by a ceaseless intellectual ferment, by opposing views contending for acceptance, by continuous debate. And because this debate takes place within secure boundaries, it can unfold without threatening the profound unity of faith which is still the rock on which the Church is built.

And so it has always been. "The simple question", said John Henry Newman (discussing the Church's infallibility), "is whether authority has so acted upon the reason of individuals, that they can have no opinion of their own, and have but an alternative of slavish superstition or secret rebellion of heart; and I think the whole history of theology puts an absolute negative upon such a supposition."

Newman, indeed, insisted that the Church's definitions of Orthodox belief have always emerged in response to the challenge of the ever-changing unorthodoxies of the passing age. That means that the clash of opinions is an essential part of the process whereby Catholic truth emerges.

It is also good journalism. It is, of course, essential that those in official positions should be known to be reflecting not their own private opinions but the mind of the Church. But this is a newspaper, not an official platform.

An editor of an independent Catholic organ like the Herald who sought to exclude views with which he disagreed would not only be acting in an illiberal and un-Catholic manner: he would also be guilty of producing a dull newspaper.

I hope that as your new editor I will preside over a paper which, though it will always be loyal to the Church's teachings, will never seek to stifle debate. I hope, too, that The Catholic Herald will never be boring. One thing is certain, on past form. If I fail in either of these objectives, my readers will not fail to inform me.

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