Docility, Intelligence, and “Sentire cum Ecclesia”

One of the things that people often say to me when they learn that my motto is “Sentire cum Ecclesia” is: Why do you need someone to tell you what to think? Why can’t you think for yourself?

The simple answer is that I am in fact quite capable of thinking for myself, but it’s nice to have the help of a two-thousand year old tradition so that I don’t have to start from scratch with every issue that arises.

But there is also the fact that a lot of what passes for “free thinking” is in fact practiced by what a friend of mine calls “deep thinkers in the shallow end of the pool”. “Thinking with the Church” means diving in the deep end, entrusting oneself to the baptismal waters of the Church, so to speak. There is a lot of room to move at that end of the pool, and I haven’t yet dived so deep as to touch the bottom!

In that line, I was glad to find this entry on the First Things blog by Elizabeth Scalia (aka The Anchoress): “Bone Setting the Faith needs the Wrap of Reason”. I read it soon after having a conversation with a work-colleague who is experiencing difficulty accepting the Church’s teaching that ordination can only be validly conferred upon a baptised adult male (it’s the “male” part my colleague has difficulties with).

Someone had written to Elizabeth saying:

“I know the Church puts a high premium on docility, humility and the emptying of self,” he wrote, “but common sense tells me that none of those should involve self-lobotomizing. Please tell me I’m not wrong.”

That word “docile/docility” comes from Pope Benedict, who uses it quite a bit to describe what our attitude should be toward the Church’s teaching. It’s a word that most today hear in a negative sense, but he holds it up as a virtue. Why? Elizabeth explains that it isn’t about getting people to “fall in line” with Christ, but inviting people to “fall in love” with him and his Church. For many of us there will be doctrines of the Church that are not self-evident. We have to research, read, reason and pray about the Church’s teachings. Her experience, like mine, is that when she has taken the time to do this, she has

“always come down on the side of Catholic orthodoxy; never because she has simply dished it out and I’ve eaten it, but because she has made a sound argument that fed me in my totality: mind, spirit, and sinew.”

She writes:

Look at our saints and you see that the Church’s true exemplars—the apostles, the doctors of the Church—were men and women who were rarely in “perfect conformity” to their times or trends, inside church or outside. They were innovators and reformers, but not unbounded; they were neither like the “Spirit of Vatican II” Catholics—busily decrying everything that came before them as outmoded and unattuned to the times—nor like the staunch traditionalists who seem to believe that perfect fidelity to the past breeds a perfect future. Instead they took everything that came before, and built on it—added to the whole structure of faith, while tidying up what was corroded or decorative without meaning…

Teresa of Avila, Catherine of Siena, Elizabeth Ann Seton and Dorothy Day all called themselves “obedient daughters” of the church. All were intelligent women with a wide and sophisticated view of the world, all were innovators but not unrestricted in scope, who worked within the bounds of the church, whose Christ-led wisdom they had allowed to become bone-set within them. Although they were very different women, of different temperaments and abilities, living in different eras, each one of them would give you the same answers on the big issues of faith, life, sacraments, and redemption.

And considered together, they are perhaps the best argument I could possibly make against any notion that being Catholic means conforming oneself to a narrow path of non-thinking.

Here, here!

About Schütz

I am Catholic, married to Cathy, father of Maddy & Mia. Since 2002, I have been the Executive Officer of the Ecumenical & Interfaith Commission of the Archdiocese of Melbourne. I was once a Lutheran pastor, but a "year of grace" and soul-searching led me into the Catholic Church. It was a bumpy ride, but with the support of my (still Lutheran) wife, I was finally confirmed on June 16, 2003.
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12 Responses to Docility, Intelligence, and “Sentire cum Ecclesia”

  1. RJ says:

    We have to think for ourselves, but not idolize ‘thinking for ourselves’.

    Intelligence involves openness to truth, docility to truth. One of the reasons ‘thinking for ourselves’ is good is that it prevents us from giving easy credence to human authorities who are all-too-easily mistaken or mendacious. But really thinking about it (instead of blindly accepting society’s idolization of the individual intellect) we see that ‘thinking for ourselves’ isn’t an absolute value. Its value stands or falls with its relationship to truth. Being more attached to a truth simply because we ourselves have discovered it, rather than received from someone else, risks being an ego trip.

    The question of divine faith confronts the ‘autonomous intellect’ with a unique moral decision, because here what is at stake is God, the First Truth and source of all truth. We can’t judge the legitimacy of unconditional (so-called ‘blind’) faith in divine teaching by our normal standards. The individual intellect rightly makes critical assessments of merely human authorities, because these are liable to error. But not so, divine authority.

    While it makes sense for us to be ‘docile’ in a certain sense to human authorities who have expertise that we lack in some particular field, the kind of absolute ‘docility’ the Catholic Church calls for in regard to her dogmas could only be justified if we had come to the conviction that she speaks with this more-than-human authority, that as the Body of Christ she incarnates supreme truth, divine truth (at least in those teachings claimed as infallible and of divine faith).

    Granted, her two-thousand-year tradition could be a factor in reaching the rational conviction that her claims to divine authority were valid. But in the final analysis I don’t believe the Church’s teachings simply because they are ancient tradition, or held by a large body of wise and holy people, but because they are divinely guided. Ultimately, it is this latter motive itself of divine authority which is decisive in the supernatural virtue of faith, which involves an absolute submission to divine truth.

    I think the process of coming to Catholic faith is this: the Holy Spirit/reason/whatever other lights there may be on the path to truth – all lead some individual to a clear moral certainty that the Catholic Church speaks with the voice of God. (And thus faith is never truly ‘blind’, because of this personal certainty, which by God’s grace is ongoing, if we remain faithful.) But at that point, the individual faces the moral imperative to ‘step beyond reason’, to cease making ‘thinking for themselves’ the absolute, to allow themselves to be lifted by grace from ‘their private perspective’ into ‘God’s perspective’. Reason points us, in the end, beyond reason.

    “Since we are totally dependent upon God, as upon our Creator and Lord, and since created reason is absolutely subject to uncreated truth, we are bound to yield by faith the full submission of intellect and will to God who reveals himself…we believe that what he has revealed is true, not because the intrinsic truth of things is recognised by the natural light of reason, but because of the authority of God himself who reveals them, who can neither err nor deceive.” (First Vatican Council, Dogmatic Constituion on the Catholic Faith ‘Dei Filius’) By thus dying to itself, reason reaches the fullness of truth it was searching for in the first place, by entering into union with God the First Truth. This ‘conformity’ to the First Truth is anything but narrow: by opening us to the fullness of truth, it enables a much more fruitful ‘thinking for oneself’, as we see in the great Doctors of the Church.

    Of course faith never actually contradicts true reason, but it can certainly appear to. When I was a teenager, at one point I came to what seemed to me a clear rational conclusion that the Trinity was an impossible contradiction. I was faced with a straight choice between (in a certain sense) ‘blind faith’ in the dogma, or ‘thinking for myself’, taking my own finite reason as the absolute standard. I thank God I chose the former. With due respect to the Anchoress, if the acceptance of Catholic dogma is contingent on the Church providing what seem to me ‘sound arguments’ for specific individual teachings, then I am still operating simply on the level of natural reason – even if it so happens that my reason has always so far coincided with the Church’s teaching. Great to study the arguments and internalize them, no question. But my assent can’t be conditional on that. And I don’t believe it was for any of the great women she mentions.

  2. Tony says:

    I find it very hard to respond to these posts and comments under the theme of ‘Sentire Cum Ecclesia’, they all seem so ‘out there’ to me.

    The test comes when we have issues that we find hard to accept. A classic example in our age is the church’s teachings on sexuality. So, for example, when the church constructs arguments based on human reasoning and evidence to say that one form of ‘family planning’ (based on what it describes as ‘natural’ means) is … sort of … OK and says another is wrong … always wrong, you have to employ your own reason to assess that.

    When I say ‘my own reason’ I mean being as open as I can to all reasoning and experience.

    When I do that, I believe that the church has got it wrong in critical areas. No amount of ‘Sentire Cum Ecclesia’ has, so far, convinced me otherwise.

    It’s usually at this point that one or two correspondents invite me to join another church, but I remain because I think one day the church will come to its senses.

    • RJ says:

      Tony,

      I think the distinction between ‘infallible’ and ‘authoritative but non-infallible’ teachings is crucial here. The Magisterium itself admits the possibility, in exceptional cases and with various provisos, of legitimately withholding assent to teachings from the latter category (CDF, ‘Donum Veritatis’, 24-31). The ethos described in those paragraphs 24-31 is very much ‘sentire cum ecclesia’, yet with respect shown for difficulties theologians may have, and describing how one can still be ‘thinking with the Church’, even while withholding assent on certain specifics of non-infallible teaching.

      Which of these categories (infallible or non-infallible) the particular teachings on sexuality fall into is a separate and debated issue which I think might muddy the waters here. The purpose of my own comment was to try to help clarify the nature of faith itself, and ‘Catholic faith’ in particular. I chose the example of the Trinity, because it was from my own personal history, because it was less emotionally charged than other possible issues, and because it didn’t lend itself to tangents concerning whether this was really an essential matter of Catholic faith or not (thus allowing the focus to remain on the nature of faith itself).

      (I’m not sure whether you would have issues with the whole idea of infallibility itself, even on matters such as the Trinity. Anyway, you give no direct indication of such, so I’ll assume we’re on the same page here. Without infallibility admitted at some level, I think Catholicism dissolves into thin air.)

      The very nature of faith as I understand it involves reason ‘dying to itself’ in a certain sense – though in order to rise again to the fullness of truth. As you say, the test comes for each of us when there are issues we find hard to accept.

      In the case of non-infallible teachings, there is a bit of an ‘escape hatch’ (if we want to think of it in that way – though bearing in mind that actually, it’s truth that sets us free, and there’s a general presumption, albeit open to exceptions, that the Holy Spirit guides the Magisterium into truth even in teachings not proclaimed definitively).

      But the first thing we need to do is to honestly investigate and assess whether some teaching we have an issue with actually has been taught infallibly or not. If the answer is yes, then I think we face a basic existential decision on which our salvation may hinge – whether to take God’s word as final, or human opinions as final (whether these opinions are our own private speculations, or the opinions of others – based on their own ‘reason and experience’ – that have commended themselves to us and that we’ve made our own). This is the decision to reaffirm faith, or to reject faith.

      (Some might query what is a certain ‘equation’ I’m making here between ‘God’s word’ and ‘infallible Church teachings’ (and there are various nuances there that could be added), but I think coming to a broad acceptance of that ‘equation’ is precisely what it means to make the journey to specifically ‘Catholic’ Faith from just ‘faith’ in a less specified sense.)

    • Schütz says:

      The psalmist said “In your light we see light” and St Anselm said “Credo ut intelligam”. This is where true (but not mindless) docility comes in. We enter in the Church’s teaching trusting first and foremost that the Church has the Spirit of God. In this spirit of trust, we willingly hear what the Church teaches. We then apply our reason to that doctrine, not primarily to judge whether the doctrine is true or not, but in order to understand the teaching which is true. In this way, we find the teaching to be “reasonable”, and receive it with gladness. This is not, of course, the path of the skeptic (and believe me, I can walk that path when I want to). But neither is it the path of blind or unthinking faith. It is the path of docility, rationality, trust and “Sentire cum Ecclesia”!

      • Tony says:

        Again, it’s all a bit remote for me.

        On an issue like contraception I have to assess — as openly and (yes!) as humbly as I can — the notion that all but a very few forms of ‘family planning’ are intrinsically evil.

        That’s a very high bar!

        When my experience and my thinking (along with the experience and thinking of so many others) show me that such a proposition can’t be upheld, I can’t assent to it because, to the best of my capacity to understand these things, it is not truth.

        • Schütz says:

          Not a high bar at all, Tony, granted the basis for the Church’s teaching, ie. that each individual marital act must be open to the possiblity of life. It is false logic to say that the requirement that each particular act must be open to life means that Christian couples may ONLY engage in sexual activity when they are fertile. The motive still comes into question, of course, but basically the Church is saying plan your families by all means, but use means in accordance with the design of God and not means that frustrate that design. Even my non-Catholic wife was able to accept the teaching on this basis. It WAS an issue we had to work out when I became Catholic. It was the one aspect of Catholic doctrine that I had to wrestle with most, but again, docility to the Church’s teaching enabled me to understand its meaning. My wife’s naturopath (her mentor in all things health and medical related), although not a religious person herself, actually advocated natural planning rather than artificial means, as being far more in tune with the nature of a womans body. Artificial birth control is a notoriously male-dominated concern. That’s another side to the whole argument I won’t go into here. Be open to Truth, Tony, even if you find it at first unpalatable…

          • Tony says:

            Not a high bar at all, Tony, granted the basis for the Church’s teaching, ie. that each individual marital act must be open to the possiblity of life.

            A good example of how silly the logic is IMO. We are told, in different contexts, that condomns have a failure rate. It therefore follows that couples using condoms can be still open to the possibility of life.

            If a couple manages to use NFP successfully, they may achieve very high reliability rates. But they too have to make a decision to be open to life if it happens, despite their intention to ‘space’ (church-speak for contracept) their families.

            The clear implication is that it’s the intention not the means that is most important.

            It is false logic to say that the requirement that each particular act must be open to life means that Christian couples may ONLY engage in sexual activity when they are fertile.

            Not sure I made that argument.

            The motive still comes into question, of course, but basically the Church is saying plan your families by all means, but use means in accordance with the design of God and not means that frustrate that design.

            Again, that’s arbitrary. Why is NFP any more ‘unnatural’ than condoms? More broadly, why is the ‘according to God’s plan’ benchmark not applied to other human activities?

            Even my non-Catholic wife was able to accept the teaching on this basis. It WAS an issue we had to work out when I became Catholic. It was the one aspect of Catholic doctrine that I had to wrestle with most, but again, docility to the Church’s teaching enabled me to understand its meaning. My wife’s naturopath (her mentor in all things health and medical related), although not a religious person herself, actually advocated natural planning rather than artificial means, as being far more in tune with the nature of a womans body.

            I have no argument with that, I think it’s a very good thing to encourage people to use means that are not going to be a risk to health. On that basis, however, you couldn’t exclude condoms.

            Artificial birth control is a notoriously male-dominated concern. That’s another side to the whole argument I won’t go into here.

            Again, if we did ‘go there’ we’d probably find many areas of agreement, but it’s not relevant to the substance of the church’s position.

            Be open to Truth, Tony, even if you find it at first unpalatable…

            I will resist responding with something just as patronising.

            On your follow up comment: Transubstantiation is not built on ‘rationality’ it is ultimately a matter of faith. Birth control is (allegedly) built on a rational foundation and on that, IMO, it fails.

        • Schütz says:

          I could add, that I find it a bit difficult to comprehend how it is possible for a Catholic who assents to the rationality of the doctrine of transubstantiation on the one hand to then balk on the rationality of the teaching on birth control on the other. At least the latter involves no miracles or appeal to divine revelation to substantiate it veracity but only an appeal to the natural law.

          • catherine says:

            David the doctrine of transubstantiation is easy to acccept as has no impact on the ease with which people live their lives, whereas the Churchs teaching on contraception , if rigidly adhered to may result in people experiencing the population explosion in their own homes.

            I have some familiarity with the Church’s teaching on contraception and although I can see some merit in it, I certainly would not adhere to the Church’s teaching if I was sexually active as I do not consider it is practical for many people. One cannot be a little bit pregnant.

            Barrier methods of contraception do not kill an embryo as conception does not take place, so why can they not be permitted? NFP uses the nonfertile period as a “natural” barrier and if rigidily followed has a high sucess rate, as good as artifical contraception.

            The Church appears to be saying that a couple should give themselves entirely to each other (including their fertility). I would agree that a husband or wife should not deprive the other of the chance to have a child, but if both parties are in agreement that they do not wish to have children/more children, I consider that is their decision to make.

            Some women have terribly difficult pregnancies for physical andor psychological reasons and may go on to to have postnatal depression/ postnatal psychosis etc . Now if a woman has already had a child and knows that she is not cut out for childbearing it seems wise to make sure she does not have any more children. The reality is that marriages may break down under stress, does the Church want marriages to break down and have single men and/or women left struggling to care for their kids?. I know of Catholic women who have had their tubes tied and felt very guilty about it, biut they felt they were acting in the best interests of their health and the welfare of their existing children e.g. one woman had 4 kids because she felt she could not cope with any more and when her husband was mentally unwell, he would not take No for answer.

            Furthermore, when women are over 40, there is greater likelihood that they will have a child with a chromosomal disorder, including but not limited downes syndrome. These children are going to require special care and attention and their mothers and fathers may already have their work cut out caring for their existing children. Older couples are also more likely to have children with autism and schizophrenia as sperm deteriorates with age. Do older parents want to be driven to the brink of despair caring for special needs children in their old age?

            The Church’s teaching on contraception may be a nice ideal for those who feel they can adhere to it to follow.However, given that it has not be proclaimed to be infallible, I certainly believe that couples should consider their physical and mental health, financial resources, the state of their marriage and the welfare of their existing children, before slavishly following the teaching of the CHurch on this issue.

            • Tony says:

              Well said Catherine, but I wasn’t really trying to hijack this string into the whole contraceptive controversy.

              I was trying to demonstrate — ably illustrated by your own words — how the church’s view is not seen as ‘rational’ or even reasonable by so many.

              The church’s arguments just don’t wash with so many and the kind of notion that it’s because it’s ‘unpalatable’ is symptomatic of that lack of real substance.

              So, frankly, it doesn’t matter to me if it is infallible or not, it matters if it is truth.

      • RJ says:

        David:

        I would add that it can still happen that in particular cases God does not give us the light to directly experience a given doctrine as ‘reasonable’ – but we rightly keep believing it. In one sense I think such faith could be called ‘blind’, since we trust our Teacher on this specific point in defiance of what our own private ‘lights’ would indicate if we weren’t taught otherwise. Yet in a broader view our faith is not truly blind, since we have every reason and enlightenment for thinking that our Teacher is utterly trustworthy.

        It’s probably not the best way of communicating to go round extolling ‘blind faith’, I admit – but often when people decry what they call ‘blind faith’, they are really decrying nothing other than faith itself, and replacing it with rationalism and private judgment, so some clarification has to be made.

        I give as examples two believers who entered into ‘blind’ acceptance of doctrines whose difficulties they had not overcome, simply because they had every reason for trusting their teacher:

        ‘I am far of course from denying that every article of the Christian Creed, whether as held by Catholics or Protestants, is beset with intellectual difficulties; and it is a simple fact, that, for myself, I cannot answer those difficulties. Many persons are very sensitive of the difficulties of Religion; I am as sensitive of them as anyone; but I have never been able to see a connexion between apprehending those difficulties, however keenly, and multiplying them to any extent, and on the other hand doubting the doctrines to which they are attached. Ten thousand difficulties do not make one doubt, as I understand the subject; difficulty and doubt are incommensurate. There may of course be difficulties in the evidence; but I am speaking of difficulties intrinsic to the doctrines themselves, or to their relations with each other. A man may be annoyed that he cannot work out a mathematical problem, of which the answer is or is not given to him, without doubting that it admits of an answer, or that a certain particular answer is the true one…

        ‘People say that the doctrine of transubstantiation is difficult to believe; I did not believe the doctrine till I was a Catholic. I had no difficulty in believing it, as soon as I believed that the Catholic Roman Church was the oracle of God, and that she had declared this doctrine to be part of the original revelation.’

        (Blessed John Henry Newman, ‘Apologia Pro Vita Sua’)

        ‘After this many of his disciples drew back and no longer walked with him. Jesus said to the Twelve, “Will you also go away?” Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life; and we have believed, and have come to know, that you are the Holy One of God.”‘ (Jn 6:66-69)

        • Schütz says:

          Good references, RJ. Very good. I was thinking of the John 6 passage as I wrote. I had forgotten the JHN reference, but it is quite apposite. Especially at the end, what he demonstrates is “docility” before the Church’s authority – or rather, God’s authority, of which the Church is the “oracle”.

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