Catholicism: 'revealed by God, not devised by man'

Catholicism: 'revealed by God, not devised by man'

Fr Graham Leonard (former Anglican Bishop of London)

Received into the Catholic Church last year (see 'AD2000', June 1994, p.5), the former Anglican Bishop of London, Dr Graham Leonard, was subsequently "conditionally" ordained a Catholic priest. He was recently received in audience by Pope John Paul II in Rome.

In his response to a recently published book - 'What Is Catholicism? An Anglican Responds to the Official Teaching of the Roman Catholic Church', by David L. Edwards, (Mowbray, 1994) - Fr Leonard has written a defence of the Catholic position specifically for 'AD2000.'

The Very Rev Dr David Edwards has held many high positions in the Church of England, e.g., Dean of King's College, Cambridge, Chaplain to the Speaker of the House of Commons and Dean of Norwich. He has written extensively on religious topics, including 'What Anglicans Believe' (Mowbray) and the three-volume history 'Christian England' (HarperCollins).

The purpose for which Dr David Edwards' latest book What Is Catholicism? An Anglican Responds to the Official Teaching of the Roman Catholic Church was written is not readily apparent. Yet it is essential that this should be discerned if the extent to which it is achieved can be assessed. Its main title What Is Catholicism? leads the reader to look for an exposition of Roman Catholicism critically considered by an Anglican. The book provides neither. Its sub-title, used by itself, would be a more accurate description.

Dr Edwards has written two prefaces, one addressed to Anglicans and the other addressed to a future and unknown Pope. The former refers to the problems which Anglicans face in their attitude to Protestant bodies on the one hand, and to the Roman Catholic Church on the other. Where, if anywhere, do we stand?, says the author. Is our tradition merely an ambiguous compromise with little reference to truth?

I think that it is fair to say that Dr Edwards does not attempt to answer these questions but, in what he describes as an attempt to be helpful, offers the difficulties of Anglicans to the contemporary Roman Catholic Church:

"I believe that in the twenty-first century our true position will emerge as our connection develops with contemporary Roman Catholicism, officially or unofficially. Through this process we shall find some consolation for our own distresses in the discovery that thoughtful people in other churches cannot escape the challenges which have so troubled us ... We should not feel lonely in our own unsettlement, and perhaps some of my discussions and tentative conclusions may be of assistance" (Preface No.1, p.v.)

Of such an offering, many Roman Catholics will murmur the words of Virgil, "timeo Danaos et dona ferentes." It is not unfair, particularly in the light of the last sentence of the first Preface, to say that one purpose of the book seems to be to encourage dissidents in the Roman Catholic Church.

In the second Preface, addressed to a future and unknown Pope, Dr Edwards refers to various issues which he discusses in the body of the book - infallibility, sex and gender, the authority of the Bible and the Church, and priesthood. While admitting that it would be a "major miracle" if it happened, he hopes that the future Pope might make his own some of the answers which are outlined in the book and act upon them. With this in mind, he says that the future Pope has the "dangerous duty" to convene the Third Vatican Council.

It would not be unreasonable to suppose that with such ambitions, Dr Edwards would establish a clear basis for the authority upon which he seeks to advise the Pope. His intentions are reminiscent of those of a Canon of Durham, George Townsend DD, who in 1850 set out for Rome with his wife to promote Christian unity by converting the Pope to Protestantism.

Unsuccessful journey

The story of his unsuccessful journey is related by Monsignor Ronald Knox with his customary lightness of touch. Canon Townsend's aim was to persuade Pope Pius IX to summon a new Council, to supersede and undo the Council of Trent. He based his actions on the authority of the Canonical Scriptures and of the first four General Councils as recognised in the Act of Uniformity of 1558.

Dr Edwards in his desire to convert the future Pope makes no such claim. Indeed he cannot do so. Following the decision of the General Synod to authorise the ordination of women to the priesthood, the Church Society sought a Judicial Review as to whether the Synod had exceeded its powers. The Judgement made it clear that the effect of the Worship and Doctrine Measure of 1974 was to give the General Synod the power to do what it liked, no matter what the content of the formularies of the Church of England might be, and that Parliament would endorse the exercise of that power.

It is to Dr Edwards' credit that he does not appeal to the formularies. He is quite open in stating the authority upon which his judgments are based. In chapter 2, "The Truth about the Bible", there is a section entitled "Scripture and Tradition." He recognises that the Bible needs to be interpreted:

"Particular texts need to be understood in the light of the Bible as a whole. Their literal sense needs to be studied but we need also to study their significance 'in Christ,' their significance for our conduct and their significance for our eternal life."

He continues: "We have to decide what this message carrying this significance is by selecting what seems to us most important in the Bible." He then asks a most significant question: "Who then are the 'we' who must decide?" He recognises that "We are not at all likely to be spiritually or intellectually equipped to give a wise answer if we rely exclusively on our own resources" and that "We need a community around us and that community needs its living tradition."

However, having recognised the need for Tradition he then confuses the role and authority of the Church in determining the content of the Faith and the extent to which it is accepted by the individual, as if the content were to be determined by the latter. Dr Edwards says that we must use the minds given to us to make our own judgements about the truth: "By the guidance of the Holy Spirit working through a joint operation between our community, our reason based on knowledge, and our conscience based on experience, we have to say what Scripture or Tradition means to us in life and death."

Content of the Faith

But to say what they mean to us is not the same as to say what they are and what is the content of the Faith.

Anglicanism has appealed to such a combination of tradition, reason and conscience in interpreting Scripture, describing it as "diffused authority," to determine what the Faith is. As I have said, Dr Edwards recognises that we are not at all likely to be equipped to make wise decisions about the Faith for ourselves. It must also be said that such a concept of authority will not take the strain of the pastoral needs of ordinary men and women who cannot be expected to assess the merits of the various and latest ideas of scholars. One effect of such an approach is to make everyone his own pope.

The preservation of the Apostolic Tradition, as the Church seeks to bring successive cultures under the judgement of revealed truth and relate it faithfully to each generation, requires that the contributions of saints and scholars, of theologians and historians, should be assessed by the Church.

The magisterium reflects the fact that the Faith is revealed by God and not devised by man, though expressed by human minds. It has the responsibility of deciding which interpretations and expositions of doctrine are consonant with the Catholic Faith. It is an integral element of Catholicism. Yet Dr Edwards only considers it in the context of certain issues on which he objects to its decisions, such as infallibility and sexual ethics. He does not give us a discussion of the magisterium in principle.

While recognising in generous terms "The True Glory of Catholicism" in chapter 1, he sees it as the "duty of many of us who care seriously about the truth in Christianity, to study this Catechism [the Catechism of the Catholic Church], testing its truthfulness as best we may. We are 'impelled' and 'bound' to do so. It is very difficult, and therefore rare, to be rigorous without being uncharitable, and to speak the truth in love."

It would, however, be useful to know on what basis he justifies what are on his own admission his personal judgements. He criticises the inclusion in the Catechism of beliefs and practices which he would not regard as fundamental, but does not hesitate to press upon the Pope and the Catholic Church his solutions to a number of questions on which he takes issue as, for example, the relationship between unity in faith and sacramental communion. Dr Edwards criticises the Pope for being authoritarian but does not shrink from exercising his own personal authority.

We are happy to read that he is convinced that Catholicism "has a very long and a very great future, with the Bishop of Rome as its most influential unifier, teacher and pastor."

In answer to the question which provides the first part of the title of this book, I would quote the words of the great Cardinal Henri de Lubac who could certainly not be described as an integralist. Having spoken of St Paul in his magnificent book Catholicism, he writes: "The Holy Spirit who guided the Apostle is the same who still guides the Church, and speaks by the voice of the modern Popes. The path to which it commits us is the only safe one. To follow it is neither naivete, nor syncretism, nor liberalism; it is simply Catholicism."