Index > Interconfessional Dialogue > M-RC > Dever Rep. 1971 | CONT. > sec. 7
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  section 3 (SPIRITUALITY) - select
  section 4 (CHRISTIAN HOME AND FAMILY) - select
  section 5 (EUCHARIST) - select
  section 6 (MINISTRY) - select
Authority - sec. 7
  section 8 (THE WAY AHEAD) - select


   99. Problems connected with authority have exercised the commission from the beginning of our conversations, and have cropped up during our discussions of other themes, e. g. ministry, Eucharist. We do not feel that our direct discussions on this theme have been more than exploratory, opening up rather than exploring the question deeply. We believe that discussions on this subject will be a necessary item on any future agenda of ‘Roman Catholic/Methodist conversations.

   100. From the beginning of our discussions it was recognized that problems of authority were implicit in some of the deep "crevasses" between us, and notably the Mariological dogmas and the doctrines of the Infallibility or Indefectibility of the Church on the one hand; while on the other hand the whole question of the origin and development of Methodism as a work of the Spirit, of an extraordinary and prophetic character, has at some point to be related to the Catholic view of church order and of its understanding of the authority of Christ in His Church. We agreed to postpone these important questions because it seemed to us fundamentally important to begin, not with our differences and disagreements, but with our agreements and with that fundamental unity without which all our conversations would cease to be conversations between Christians.

   101. Yet we realize that those questions do bear on the problem of authority, and have to be faced in our hope of approaching our goal of genuine communion between our Churches in sacris. Thus one of the most hopeful conceptions in recent discussion has been the concept of a hierarchy of truths: the possibility that because we might hold and affirm truths which are central and which concern the heart of the Christian gospel, we might live together on this basis, while differing in many lesser things, and while we still search for agreement and understanding in others. But the question then arises-is our agreement in obedience to Christ, our acceptance of the authority of the Scripture, our acknowledgment of the apostolic faith as witnessed to in the creeds of the Ecumenical Councils-are these the hierarchy of truth at its indispensable, top level? Or must, say, the dogmas laid down in 1856 and 1870 be included among the indispensables? It will be remembered that Newman stressed the importance of the word "irreformable" in relation to 1870 and interpreted this to mean that once the Church has made up its mind, and declared itself, then, however much the meaning of this pronouncement might be modified in a later context, such doctrine must be accepted by the faithful. If this is so and the Mariological dogmas and infallibility are regarded as necessary to any communion in sacris, the way ahead is obviously going to be long, precarious and uncertain. We mention this not because we have studied this issue but to show why further discussions on the nature of authority cannot finally ignore these problems.

   102. We began therefore by our common acceptance of the paramount authority of Christ in His Church (Cf. § 35) and asked what kind of authority was consonant with the Incarnation, that is with the condescension of God to become man, to enter history, and so to put himself, it seems "at risk", suffering the consequences of living among sinners in a sinful world, and indeed doing this to the very limit (Phil. 2:1-11) - and in the Cross seeming to put Himself at the mercy of history. To this question asked by Methodists at the first Cambridge colloquium, a paper was read from the Catholic point of view which further defined the authority of Christ as the authority of the Gospel. Thus if the gospel partakes of the authority of Christ, Christ who lives with His people and is present with them, ruling and guiding them, it becomes clear that this simple acceptance of the authority of Christ is bound to lead - to the consideration of subsidiary "authorities" and even perhaps to a hierarchy of authorities recalling what has been said earlier about a hierarchy of truths.

   103. Thus the distinguished Methodist historian, Sir Herbert Butterfield, at the end of his study of Christianity in history, sums up the whole matter with the words "Hold to Christ, and for the rest be uncommitted" intimating not only that commitment to Christ is the heart of the matter but that such commitment leads to whole areas of Christian freedom. This is entirely in harmony with Catholic teaching that authority is not absolute but God-directed and that it is a service aimed at the unfolding of the free, human, Christ-directed personality. But when the implications of this apparently simple commitment to Christ are examined they are seen to involve consideration not only of the apostolic kerygma and the Scriptural witness to it, but also the continuing investigation of the mystery of salvation, and the connection with it of the mystery of His own person, which occupied so massively the thought of the Church in the first centuries and of which the great Christological treatises of the Fathers and the creeds and confessions of the great Councils bear witness. It is similar with another apparently simple statement-the famous toast of Newman "The Pope and Conscience - but Conscience First".

   104. That Christians have a duty to obey the voice of conscience at all costs, that it is one of the ways in which God speaks directly to men, and that all Christians have the duty to respect the consciences of others, are matters on which we might easily agree. But again investigation shows that the matter is not as simple as this, though historical polemical oppositions of "authority" and "conscience" have often induced the simplification. We know what crimes have been committed in the name of conscience, including some of the more terrible war crimes of the People of God. We understand the meaning of Philip Melanchthon's saying "a good conscience is the invention of the Devil". In other words, the conscience itself needs to be enlightened, instructed, corrected, informed, by the Holy Spirit indeed, but a Holy Spirit showing himself in many ways, and using the Holy Scriptures on the one hand, and the discipline of the Church on the other; nor can the individual conscience be isolated from the mind of the whole Church, from the "consensus fidelium" insofar as it exists and can be ascertained in matters of faith and morals. An informed Christian conscience makes a responsible decision in the light of the example, the principles, the life of Christ; of the experience of the Christian community from Christ to the present; of the guidance and authoritative teaching of the Church; while the consciences of societies outside the Church, and the insights and compelling perceptions of all men may have their importance for the individual. No doubt in the end each man must have this freedom to obey his conscience against the whole world, and certainly against the decisions and commands of any "Establishment". But just as certainly no man's conscience is an island, entire of itself.

   105. Our acceptance of the authority of Christ, of the gospel, and of the witness to the gospel in the Scripture and in the creeds poses a whole series of questions concerning the relation of Scripture and tradition which we have noted, but which we have not explored. An important paper pointed us to the Fourth Gospel and to Christ's claim to bear witness to the truth and this might well be further explored in relation to two other Johannine utterances, that "the truth shall make you free "that is, the authority of Christ in his witness to truth is always a liberating one, and comes to deliver men from legalism, not to entangle them further in commandments of men.

   106. Again in the light of Christ's washing the feet of his disciples, his "I have called you friends" speaks of authority in terms of service and discipleship from which all thought of triumphalism is removed. Christ's disciples are his friends because they are to know and understand what the Lord has done and be able to imitate him. In Pauline terms which come close to the heart of John Wesley and the original Methodist testimony (but no less close to, say, the tale of St. Benedict) Christ's authority is manifest in the faith not of servants but of sons - sons who share in the glorious liberty of God's children. Only an authority given in love and received in love expresses the deepest meaning of the word for Christians: By comparison all uses of the word in terms of the tale of the Gentiles, of juridical and political usage, are beside the point. Here Methodists would say that half-a-dozen more John XXIIIs and Paul VIs in the next century would do more than anything to dispose of a thousand years of conflict and misunderstanding.

   107. Thus, an important paper read at Lake Junaluska set our questions amid a general crisis about the nature of authority in our modern world, and we might add the fact that in two important fields, in education and in the home, it is authoritarian and "paternalistic" view of authority which are being most sharply challenged. Nonetheless (however much the historic expression of the authority of Christ in his Church throughout the centuries may need to be re-appraised in terms of the new insights of recent times) for us the problem of Christian authority must be sought and expressed within the Christian dimension.

   108. This paramount authority of Christ in the Church has in fact been regarded by both our Churches as exercised in varying and diverse modes, and it is perhaps an omission that in our conversations, though the attempt was made, tardily and with insufficient time for success, at Lake Junaluska, we never listed side by side our hierarchies of authorities and studied the place of the varying elements in them in our list of priorities. Both Churches, e. g., acknowledge an authority of conscience, also an authority of discipline exercised by the proper courts of the Church; all accept the authority of Scripture, but within this authority there are many questions some of which have not been and some of which may never be finally resolved. The various elements in the holy tradition, which we all accept and on which our continuing life as Churches also depends - theologies, liturgies, devotion, the sacraments, preaching of the Word and study of the Bible, the authority of the ministry and of Pope and bishop or of the Methodist Conferences and ministry - it is likely that the two lists of authorities might not turn out to be as dissimilar as we might expect. But almost certainly we should place them in a differing order and lay more stress here on one element and there on another. Indeed until we have done this, the problem of authority remains an abstract one, perhaps an obsessive one in which we spend too much time talking about the problem of the problem, certainly one unrelated to the enduring purpose of our conversations, which is to bring us into living relation and communion with one another.

   109. Another possible field of useful discussion would be those "principles of the Reformation" to which the Deed of Union of the Methodist Church in Great Britain explicitly refers, but which it does not further define. Without wishing to revive what was bitter controversy, not so much-at this point in the 16th as in the 19th century (when on an Ultramontanist view private judgment was regarded as an individualist arrogance which was the root of all schisms while Protestants saw it as the great bulwark against a blind and irrational acceptance of priestcraft) there are one or two important matters on which agreement can be registered and about which affirmations should be made.

110. Thus, many Protestants would have seen the heart of the doctrine of private judgment in the affirmation (the priesthood of all believers meant the same thing at this point) that no priests can intervene between a man's soul and God. And yet this view has never been more unreservedly stated than in a great passage in Newman's Apologia:

"From a boy I had been led to consider that my Maker and I, His creature, were the two beings luminously such... I know full well now, and did not know then that the Catholic Church allows no image of any sort, material or immaterial, no dogmatic symbol, no rite, no sacrament, no saint, not even the Blessed Virgin herself to come between the soul and his creator. It is face to face ‘solus cum solo' in all matters between man and his God. He alone creates: He alone has redeemed: before His awful eyes we go in death: in the vision of Him is our eternal beatitude" (§ 177.1. 5-14). The "Dream of Gerontius" is a commentary on this. Later in the same work Newman observes: It is the custom with Protestants writers to consider that whereas there are two great principles in acting on the history of religion, authority and private judgment, they have all the private judgment to themselves and we have... authority... but this is not so... Catholic Christendom is no simple exhibition of religious absolutism but presents a continuous picture of authority and private judgment alternately advancing and retreating as the ebb and flow of the tide" (§ 237 1.7).

   111. Also in the Apologia and again in his famous essay on the function of the laity in matters of doctrine he points out how again and again in Church history the breakthrough in creative thought has come from an individual or small group of Christians. Methodists, on the other hand, also recognize that private judgment alone is not enough. The very recognition of doctrinal standards - Scripture, the principles of the creeds and Reformation, and in a narrower sense Wesley's sermons, as preaching standards; the whole discipline of the Church as exercised by the Conference over ministers and laity; the Conference's whole process in ordaining those who believe themselves to be inwardly called of God, by confirming and accepting this in the name of the Church - all these are ways in which private judgment and authority are seen to belong together and to safeguard one another.

   112. Discussion therefore of the relation of private judgment to authority might fruitfully lead to consideration of two other related problems. The first is the place of reason in the hierarchy of authorities. John Wesley's "appeal to men of reason and religion" shows that for him a renewal of inward religion could not safely be left to emotion without the critical safeguard of reason. He thought in terms of his own century and we as the heirs of so many recent genuine advances in philosophy and psychology could (perhaps) no longer think of reason exactly as did the men of his age. Nor can we revert to any kind of scholasticism, Catholic or Protestant. Yet in a world which at the moment is being swept along (and much of the Church with it) by vast tides of irrationalism, ought not our two Churches from their own tradition to be speaking words of sane and moderate common sense, and eschewing the current violence of the tongue and an emotive romanticism which seems to drag us to the edge of dire danger? (Cf. § 30).

   113. The other question concerning private judgment is one which from the time of John Oman has been regarded as important among Protestants the view that truth has not simply to be accepted but seen to be true. Methodists might ask, did even Our Lord expect to be believed on his own "say so" or because he was bearing witness to a truth which men might understand and prove by trying it out for themselves - and so discovering that they were building not on sand but on a rock? Is not here part of the meaning of being "friends" of Christ and "sons of God"? Does not God will all his children to see and understand and know to the fullest and uttermost of their capacity? Does not then the saying of a great Evangelical Temple Gairdner "let us believe the maximum" become intelligible, since new beliefs are not so many fetters on the mind but magic casements opening on ever new enthralling vistas of truth?

   114. Catholics, while by no means rejecting all of this, might in turn ask whether faith is not primarily a relation to persons, not propositions. Though it necessarily implies also a faith in assertions (in truths; in propositions) this is not something isolated, but encompassed and sustained by the person who is believed, Christ. Any statement of the kind "I believe that..." is based upon the authority of the person at the center of the belief, Christ, and upon the assurance derived from thence.

   115. Yet we might agree that Catholic as well as Protestant history shows the importance of the "Ulysses factor" in the Christian way - the creative importance of men who explore truth for its own sake; at all costs and wherever it may lead. On the other hand there are implications for the problem of authority and private judgment in the fact that the wholeness of the Christian faith is so many-sided that no individual can wholly comprehend it for himself.

   116. The Catholic would recall here that, if creation is already a kind of revelation and self-disclosure of God (Rom. 1-18), there is an essential difference between the inadequate knowledge of God attainable through creation and the self-disclosure of his mystery through revelation. God is not only the object and goal of faith, but through his self-revelation is its principle and ground. Faith is a pre-eminent way in which the biblical word is manifested, "It is no longer I who live but Christ who lives in me". There is much for further discussion here, if only to dispel misunderstandings, surviving suspicions that Catholics demand some blind submission of the intellect while Protestants cherish a wilful and arrogant individualism.

   117. Of the ways in which authority both safeguards and limits freedom we have had little discussion, yet it is evident that here too there lies before us an important task. It has been said that Vatican II while having noble statements about liberty has added little to a Christian rationale of toleration, a toleration based not on indifferentism but on a sense of the truth of Christianity and its final efficacy for all men, combined with a reverence for the dignity and liberty of the consciences of others. Protestants have not lived up to what they have said about this but at least such documents as Milton's "Areopagitica" put forward a view of truth in freedom which has unexhausted implications for our two Churches in relation to other Christians and to the modern world.

   118. We have tried to indicate that a fruitful beginning has been made with a subject so important that it must surely be continued, if not on these then on other lines, in any continuing conversations.

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