[Photo by Jacquelyn Griffin)

Sunday, October 3, 2010

How Good Men Commit Bad Acts

The recent beatification of John Henry, Cardinal Newman caught my attention, and reawakened my interest in this leader of the First Oxford Movement. As I'd previously written, my initial encounter with Newman through his Apologia Pro Vita Sua had not been entirely satisfactory; Newman's self-admitted fierceness (which seems to me to have continued after his conversion), and his rather odd love of authoritarian structures (also in both periods of his life) were rather off-putting to me. But in the wake of the announcement of the beatification, and in light of my own recent reading of Richard Hooker, I became more interested in Newman's concept of the via media, and both re-read portions of the Apologia and ordered a copy of The Via Media. I'm glad I did; my copy, includes the 1877 preface, in which Newman, now a Roman Catholic for over thirty years, essentially sought to recant and rebut so much of the main work which slighted his new church. This lengthy (94 pages) essay is highly instructive.

Aside from the merits of the Via Media itself, this Preface is worthy of consideration. In particular, the Preface provides me with what I think is confirmation and clarification of a hypothesis I expressed in November 2009 regarding the participation by multiple popes in the systematic cover-up of sexual abuse by priests. As we now know the crisis extends to Belgium, Ireland, and indeed throughout Europe, I think the issue warrants another look.

As I wrote then:
[Roman Catholic] ecclesiology is fundamentally flawed in its agoraphobically top-down model, one which prizes the interests of the institution so highly, and which cannot ever admit error or failure--individuals fail the Church, the Church itself cannot err. By identifying itself completely with the Body of Christ, the Church heavily disincentivizes itself from acknowledging systemic problems--the "rogue priest" model is the only one that the Church can bear to recognize, because to do otherwise sets up a cognitive dissonance between its theological claims and its behavior. That gap, perceived outside the Church as the rankest hypocrisy, is in fact denial of the most psychologically necessary kind. To believe it, one must shift the topic from the cover up to the offense itself, perpetrated by a number of priests not much greater than that percentage of abusers in society at large, a defense the Church has made at the highest levels. But it is, of course, the concerted cover up over decades by men widely deemed holy and even heroic within Christendom--John XXIII, a hero to liberal Catholics, and John Paul II, a hero to conservatives, to name but two.
I accepted as an axiom, and still do, that these Popes were not villains, but had somehow been led to complicity with these terrible, and in fact illegal, acts by something else. I hazarded the guess that
The fact is, having one man, and a small circle of princes, responsible for the preservation of a 2,000 year institution which it believes to be the true incarnation if Christ's Body on Earth is to put an insupportable burden on that man and that circle of men. It cannot be maintained, because it attributes perfection to the necessarily imperfect. And that leads to covering up the gap between the Heavenly Image and the Earthly Reality.
In the "Preface" to The Via Media, Newman explains how the institutional roles of the Roman Catholic Church leads to realpolitik, and coercive behavior, from the Church, which seems to be immoral:
When our Lord went up on high, He left His representative behind Him. This was Holy Church, His mystical Body and Bride, a Divine Institution, and the shrine and organ of the Paraclete, who speaks through her till the end comes. She, to use an Anglican poet's words, is " His very self below," as far as men on earth are equal to the discharge and fulfilment of high offices, which primarily and supremely arc His.

These offices, which specially belong to Him as Mediator, are commonly considered to be three ; He is Prophet, Priest, and King; and after His pattern, and in human measure, Holy Church has a triple office too ; not the Prophetical alone and in isolation, as these Lectures virtually teach,butthree offices, which are indivisible, though diverse, viz. teaching, rule, and sacred ministry.
Id. at xxxix-xl.

He writes that:
Christianity, then, is at once a philosophy, a political power, and a religious rite: as a religion, it is Holy; as a philosophy, it is Apostolic; as a political power, it is imperial, that is, One and Catholic. As a religion, its special centre of action is pastor and flock; as a philosophy, the Schools; as a rule, the Papacy and its Curia. . . .

Truth is the guiding principle of theology and theological inquiries; devotion and edification, of worship; and of government, expedience. The instrument of theology is reasoning; of worship, our emotional nature; of rule, command and coercion. Further, in man as he is, reasoning tends to rationalism; devotion to superstition and enthusiasm; and power to ambition and tyranny.

Arduous as are the duties involved in these three offices, to discharge one by one, much more arduous are they to administer, when taken in combination. Each of the three has its separate scope and direction; each has its own interests to promote and further ; each has to find room for the claims of the other two; and each will find its own line of action influenced and modified by the others, nay, sometimes in a particular case the necessity of the others converted into a rule of duty for itself.
Id. at xl-xli.

Newman goes on to give the example of scientific truth and Galileo:
Galileo's truth is said to have shocked and scared the Italy of his day. It revolutionized the received system of belief as regards heaven, purgatory, and hell, to say that the earth went round the sun, and it forcibly imposed upon categorical statements of Scripture, a figurative interpretation. Heaven was no longer above, and earth below; the heavens no longer literally opened and shut;purgatory and hell were not for certain under the earth. The catalogue of theological truths was seriously curtailed. Whither did our Lord go on His ascension ? If there is to he a plurality of worlds, what is the special importance of this one ? and is the whole visible universe with its infinite spaces, one day to pass away? We are used to these questions now, and reconciled to them ; and on that account are no fit judges of the disorder and dismay, which the Galilean hypothesis would cause to good Catholics, as far as they became cognizant of it, or how necessary it was in charity, especially then, to delay the formal reception of a new interpretation of Scripture, till their imaginations should gradually get accustomed to it.

As to the particular measures taken at the time with this end, I neither know them accurately, nor have I any anxiety to know them. They do not fall within the scope of my argument; I am only concerned with the principle by which they were conducted. All I say is, that not all knowledge is suited to all minds; a proposition may be ever so true, yet at a particular time and place may be "temerarious, offensive to pious ears, and scandalous," though not " heretical " nor " erroneous." . . .

Now, while saying this, I know well that " all things have their season," and that there is not only " a time to keep silence," but " a time to speak," and that, in some states of society, such as our own, it is the worst charity, and the most provoking, irritating rule of action, and the most unhappy policy, not to speak out, not to suffer to be spoken out, all that there is to say. Such speaking out is under such circumstances the triumph of religion, whereas concealment, accommodation, and evasion is to co-operate with the spirit of error;—but it is not always so. There are times and places, on the contrary, when it is the duty of a teacher, when asked, to answer frankly as well as truly, though not even then to say more than he need, because learners will but misunderstand him if he attempts more, and therefore it is wiser and kinder to let well alone, than to attempt what is better.

Id. at li-lii.

He then goes on to explain that the use of command and coercion, as with suppression of information, can go into other areas:
Apostolicity of doctrine and Sanctity of worship, as attributes of the Church, are differently circumstanced from her regal autocracy. Tradition in good measure is sufficient for doctrine, and popular custom and conscience for worship, but tradition and custom cannot of themselves secure independence and self-government. The Greek Church shows this, which has lost its political life, while its doctrine,and its ritual and devotional system, have little that can be excepted against. If the Church is to be regal, a witness for Heaven, unchangeable amid secular changes, if in every age she is to hold her own, and proclaim as well as profess the truth, if she is to thrive without or against the civil power, if she is to be resourceful and self-recuperative under all fortunes, she must be more than Holy and Apostolic; she must be Catholic. Hence it is that, first, she has ever from her beginning onwards had a hierarchy and a head, with a strict unity of polity, the claim of an exclusive divine authority and blessing, the trusteeship of the gospel gifts, and the exercise over her membersof an absolute and almost despotic rule. And next, as to her work, it is her special duty, as a sovereign State, to Consolidate her several portions, to enlarge her territory, to keep up and to increase her various populations in this ever-dying, ever-nascent world, in which to be stationary is to lose ground, and to repose is to fail. It is her duty to strengthen and facilitate the intercourse of city with city, and race with race, so that an injury done to one is felt to be an injury to all, and the act of individuals has the energy and momentum of the whole body. It is her duty to have her eyes upon the movements of all classes in her wide dominion, on ecclesiastics and laymen,on the regular clergy and secular,on civil society, and political movements. She must be on the watchtower, discerning in the distance and providing against all dangers; she has to protect the ignorant and weak, to remove scandals, to see to the education of the young, to administer temporalities, to initiate, or at least to direct all Christian work, and all with a view to the life, health, and strength of Christianity, and the salvation of souls.

It is easy to understand how from time to time such serious interests and duties involve, as regards the parties who have the responsibility of them, the risk, perhaps the certainty, at least the imputation, of ambition or other selfish motive, and still more frequently of error in judgment, or violent action, or injustice.
Id., at lxxx-lxxxi.

Newman noted the respect for individual conscience which marked the early church, including St. Augustine in his earlier writings, only to be replaced with a belief in forced conversion in Augustine's later works. (Preface at lxxxii). (Alas, he's correct on this point). This supercession, it must be said, marks the shadow side of his own belief in the development of doctrine.

Finally, Newman reaches the culmination of this long train of reasoning:
Again: with a view to the Church's greater unity and strength, Popes, from the time of St. Gregory I., down to the present, have been earnest in superseding and putting away the diversified traditional forms of ritual in various parts of the Church. In this policy ecclesiastical expedience has acted in the subject-matter of theology and worship.

Again: aActs simply unjustifiable, such as real betrayals of the truth on the part of Liberius and Honorius, become intelligible, and cease to be shocking, if we consider that those Popes felt themselves to be head rulers of Christendom and their first duty, as such, to be that of securing its peace, union and consolidation. The personal want of firmness or of clear-sightedness in the matter of doctrine, which each of them in his own day evidenced, may havo arisen out of his keen sense of being the Ecumenical Bishop and one Pastor of Christ's flock, of the scandal caused by its internal dissensions, and of his responsibility, should it retrograde in health and strength in his day.. . . The principle, on which these two Popes maybe supposed to have acted, not unsound in itself, though by them wrongly applied, I conceive to be this,—that no act could be theologically an error, which was absolutely and undeniably necessary for the unity, sanctity, and peace of the Church; for falsehood never could be necessary for those blessings, and truth alone can be.
Id. at lxxxii-lxxxiii (emphasis added).

So, in fact, Cardinal Newman adds two insights to my hypothesis of last year. First, he explains theologically why a sometimes brutal realpolitik is imported into the Church--the "regal function" requires it, to prevail. Second, he provides the missing rationalization--the notion that whatever establishes the betterment of the Church must be, in a real sense, the truth (or at any rate, the good situationally speaking), because it resulted in betterment for the church. (The reasoning is both circular, and profoundly unscriptural; Psalm 73, anybody? Or, in the present case, Matt 18:1-6?)). He also adds a third point, though, which I had not weighed at all; he explains and contextualizes the papal dread of scandal, which sometimes led the Vatican to spend more time stigmatizing those speaking the truth than those enabling and committing the abuse.

(Edited for clarity)