Northern Catholicism is not without its critics

I have just been to my letterbox and found two big brown envelopes from Dr William Tighe, that indefatigable scholar from Pennsylvania. He keeps sending me books and articles, and he is obviously someone with whom I would spend a highly stimulating evening. He has sent me two criticisms of the Northern Catholicism book I mentioned a few days ago.

No piece of writing is above criticism, and this helps us to reflect and hone our critical faculties. Dr Tighe sent me a couple of articles from the 1930’s by a Father Gr, one on Northern Catholicism and Nordic Spirituality. So for now, I will comment a little on Fr Gr’s arguments whilst keeping this article reasonably brief – and do my best to represent the good Father accurately. Northern Catholicism is essentially a book produced to commemorate the centenary of the Oxford Movement – the Catholic revival in the Church of England, part of which would lead men like Newman to Rome, and bring others like Pusey and Keble to justify the Church of England’s Catholic integrity despite its role in the Reformation. Could Anglo-Catholicism model itself on the various “keep Rome at arm’s length” tendencies of France, Germany, Austria and other countries?

Fr Gr does evoke the fact this book included articles to compare the Anglican movement with other spiritual and doctrinal movements, especially in Lutheranism.

It saddens me to see the difference between Catholicism and Protestantism reduced to a question of infallible authority. If something does not unconditionally accept that authority, it is Protestant and appeals to “private judgement”. Tertium non datur, and Northern Catholicism is no more than an artificial intellectual construction. Wow! The Lutherans and Calvinists are both Protestant, but much more in the way of church culture and liturgy were preserved in the former, at least until the eighteenth-century era of dry rationalism. Let us not forget that there were some big problems in the Church in the sixteenth century.

Contrasting magisterium and private judgement so absolutely is a travesty, and something we have constantly to be on the watch for. As in many matters, I ask the question What’s in a word? Roman Catholics don’t like non-Roman Catholics calling themselves Catholics, just as the present hierarchy of the American Episcopal Church will not allow their redundant churches be used by anyone calling themselves Anglican. There can only be one kind of Catholicism – no private judgement and 100% infallible magisterium. And that kind of Catholicism has to be increasingly narrow to ensure conformity and control. If that’s so, perhaps we could consider calling ourselves Liturgical / Sacramental Protestants, though it’s not something that appeals to me – and denominationalism leads to the sectarian temptation. But it might take off the pressure. I find Northern Catholicism so much kinder than the negative overtones of the name given to those who protested against superstition, the exploitation of the simple for money and extreme corruption in the clergy. Have we not the right to be positive about something without being bullied?

Fr Gr spares no pains in defending the infallibility of his Church’s magisterium by distinguishing de fide and the kind of stuff where the Pope can screw up and keep his general credibility. Why go on about this, since the subject matter of Northern Catholicism is Catholic revival movements in Protestantism and one or two remnants of Catholicism that both remained Catholic and kept the Pope at arm’s length? We are supposed to be defining ourselves in relation to negative opposition to Roman Catholicism – and unfortunately, the Union of Utrecht fell right into that trap. We are Old Catholics because we reject… The purpose of this blog is to work out something better and more prophetic than that – and more spiritual.

The same dichotomy exists between the SSPX and Rome, the former appealing to Counter-Reformation Catholicism, which makes the whole thing more complex and its coherence difficult to discern. Archbishop Lefebvre appealed to Tradition, and Pope Paul VI appealed to his authority as an infallible Pope. I lived for many years tormented by this dichotomy and eventually arrived at the conclusion that this dichotomy has to be discarded in favour of a non-human form of doctrinal authority on pain of rejecting Christianity altogether. Souffrir passe, avoir souffert ne passe jamais as I have quoted umpteen times from Léon Bloy.

Simply, Roman Catholicism has painted itself into a corner with its We can’t be wrong therefore we are right. It cannot reverse anything without losing credibility, and it cannot keep going the same way without imploding. Christianity cannot be allowed to depend on such a paradigm of agonising contradiction. I don’t believe Christianity needs infallible authority. It needs to recover its spiritual content and understanding of the Scriptures, the New Testament, the Gospels, the writings of the Father, and not least the words and actions of Christ. Until it does, the haemorrhage will continue in our time of reason and criticism.

Was the Oxford Movement an attempt to recover the magisterium of the Church? Certainly in the case of Newman and others who went over to Rome. The French Romantics reacted the same way against eighteenth-century rationalism and came to distrust human reason. They reacted to some extent towards fideism and authoritarianism. The first to appeal to an infallible Pope in the nineteenth century were Liberals of the ilk of Montalembert, Lamennais, Lacordaire and Guéranger. Pius IX himself was something of a liberal until his stint at Gaëta in 1848 and the upheavals in the Papal States and the various surrounding states in what is now Italy.

I am less adverse to the influence of Protestantism in various expressions of Northern Catholicism. Catholic apologists have tended to demonise Protestants for “private interpretation” instead of following an infallible teaching authority operating through the agency of humans. Reformers like Luther and Calvin had their background and formation in the old religion, something lost in their spiritual descendents. As I have commented elsewhere, the essence of Reformation aspiration was the free response to God’s grace in reaction to the excessive heavy-handedness of the institutional Church and its “police”, the Inquisition. Of course, the iconoclasm and destruction of the priesthood and the Church’s liturgical life was something that was understandable but inexcusable.

There are big problems with liberal and conservative Protestantism as with the parallel movements in Catholicism, Anglicanism and elsewhere. Northern Catholicism is accused of inventing a Nordic Catholic Church (not the recent foundation in Norway under Bishop Roald Flemestad and in full communion with the PNCC) to rival the prestige and authority of Rome. Only a Roman Catholic priest would come up with such an idea. He could mock and laugh all he wanted (I presume Fr Gr is no longer of this world), but even Rome recognises (if only in theory) the legitimate differences of ethnical cultures.

Truly, if this kind of thing is still seriously disputed, the aspirations of the non-Curial elements of Vatican II (most of the Conciliar Fathers) are over and ecumenism and religious liberty are idle dreams. Not in the name of Tradition but of infallible authority. This would be the supreme irony of the traditionalists. It chills my blood to think of it.

Is the 2012 version of Northern Catholicism, as opposed to the vision expressed in that book of 1933, viable? Will it survive and endure? I have no idea. Probably not. I believe in Christ and the Gospel through their weakness and vulnerability, as with the witness of the Martyrs and the Confessors. We are not strong or infallible. Infallibility does not inspire me to faith, but fragility lived with courage, humility and fortitude does. The Redemption brought into the world strength from weakness, life from death, freedom from bondage.

Catholics and reformers alike are human and have sinned. People in every Christian “camp” have killed in the name of their God, as others in the same factions have been martyred for conscience and truth.

Christianity is either to be rejected, as the atheists do, or understood in another light. We must go beyond liberalism and conservatism – and find something that is forever fresh, new and full of vitality. I won’t live to see the day, but if I can contribute a little, that will bring consolation and hope.

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4 Responses to Northern Catholicism is not without its critics

  1. ed pacht says:

    “Infallibility does not inspire me to faith, but fragility lived with courage, humility and fortitude does. The Redemption brought into the world strength from weakness, life from death, freedom from bondage”

    Wonderful statement. I’ve been groping for words to say just that for some years now. Thank you.

    “Protestant” initially meant just the opposite of ‘protesting’ AGAINST something, but rather to TESTify PRO (in favor of) something, in favor of a Scriptural (and, indeed, traditional) view of grace. The early Lutherans demonstrated how little they were willing to give up, and how much that was nearly lost they wanted to recover. This was also the sense in which the word was used by the early Anglican divines. The Church was seen as Protestant in standing for these submerged understandings AND as Catholic in its continuity with the Church of all ages.

    Without etymological evidence I would guess that the later and now current use of “protest” in the negative sense results from the developing tendency of both ‘sides’ to spend more time condemning the other than in affirming the basic gospel.

  2. William Tighe says:

    Concerning this:

    “Fr Gr spares no pains in defending the infallibility of his Church’s magisterium by distinguishing de fide and the kind of stuff where the Pope can screw up and keep his general credibility.”

    I would like to question one word, “his,” in it. “Fr Gr” was none other than the Anglican Benedictine monk of Nashdom Abbey and liturgical scholar Dom Gregory Dix (1901-1952), who, although he twice contemplated “poping,” in 1932 and 1940, remained an Anglican until his dying day.

  3. William Tighe says:

    The author of this book:

    which is the nearest thing to a biography of Dix that has ever been written, claims that Dix didn’t “pope” because he believed that to do so he would have to profess as a truth something that he thought was an error, that Anglican Orders were “absolutely null and utterly void,” and that he also had a vocation, with others who shared his views, of working for “reunion” between the Church of England and Rome (although in a letter of 1933 he confessed that the prospect of such a reunion was “almost infinitely remote”). At one point he summarized what he thought needed to be done as (1) replacing “liberalism” in the Church of England with a return to the “classical tradition;” (2) disestablishment; (3) ‘regularising” Anglican Orders; and (4) convincing Rome that a Church of England so altered was fit for Catholic communion and the Church of England that it needed Catholic communion.

    As an interesting footnote, it seems that Dix may have invented the phrase “Continuing Anglicans” when he used that term in 1945 to characterize the stance of those who (like himself) thought that they would have to separate from the Church of England if that church accepted the original “union proposals” that, as subsequently modified, resulted in the creation of the Church of South India.

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