History and Faith in Sentire Cum Ecclesia

I hate pseudo-historians. Current hate: Elaine Pagels and James Carroll. See these comments on Constantine’s Sword and the Gospel of Judas.

In fact, let me be very daring and make a suggestion that will probably make Past Elder’s and Brian Coyne’s blood boil…

Part of “Sentire Cum Ecclesia” is that “readiness to believe” of which Trollope wrote (see quotation in side bar). One thing that distinguishes the Catholic “readiness to believe” from that of all other religions is the absolute confidence that history will bear out the dogma of the Church. This confidence includes everything from the historicity of the Resurrection to the vindication of Pius XII.

We are confident–“ready to believe”–that whatever “facts” honest historical investigation might throw in our face, it will, ultimately, bear out our Christian faith. We therefore never have anything to fear from historical investigation into the origins and basis of our belief, and are able to make the audacious claim that “to be deep in history” is to be Catholic (Newman: “to be deep in history is to cease to be Protestant”).

But how does this square with Cardinal Manning’s comment that we must “overcome history with dogma”? Isn’t that precisely what the pseudo-historians Pagels and Carroll do? Ie. fabricate or omit historical evidence to fit their ideological pre-conceptions? Assuming that Newman was being serious and Manning was being frivolous (Catholics are capable of both at times) we can understand them both to be saying the same thing, namely that if we are faced with an historical account unfavourable to the teaching of the Church, our task is to delve deeper into the historical evidence, in the complete confidence that when properly investigated, history will bear out our dogma.

Thus, when historical accounts arise that purport to disprove the historical basis of the Church’s dogma, we may be confident that at some level:

1) They may be shown to have omitted evidence favourable to the dogmatic tradition
2) They may be shown to have fabricated evidence unfavourable to the dogmatic tradition
3) In situations where the evidence is inconclusive or ambiguous they may be shown to have made a choice to interpret the evidence in opposition to the dogmatic tradition.

Now, I find it no small coincidence that, in the middle of formulating these ideas, I stumbled upon some historical evidence which supports this intuition. You may not believe this, dear Reader, but I have, in fact, never before read Pius X’s 1910 Oath against Modernism. Yet there I find exactly what I have been trying to express:

I also reject the error of those who say that the faith held by the Church can contradict history, and that Catholic dogmas, in the sense in which they are now understood, are irreconcilable with a more realistic view of the origins of the Christian religion. I also condemn and reject the opinion of those who say that a well-educated Christian assumes a dual personality-that of a believer and at the same time of a historian, as if it were permissible for a historian to hold things that contradict the faith of the believer, or to establish premises which, provided there be no direct denial of dogmas, would lead to the conclusion that dogmas are either false or doubtful.

I so swear!

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9 Responses to History and Faith in Sentire Cum Ecclesia

  1. Brian Coyne says:


    I hate to disappoint. Do you honestly want to know what my reaction was when I read: “One thing that distinguishes the Catholic ‘readiness to believe’ from that of all other religions is the absolute confidence that history will bear out the dogma of the Church. This confidence includes everything from the historicity of the Resurrection to the vindication of Pius XII.” I just instinctively threw my head and eyes back and let out the long, slow expletive “oh F—!”, But not in anger. Simply in exasperation. Do you honestly want to tell me that the institution has never changed its mind about anything? And, yes, I mean made 180 degree about faces? I am just waiting for Paul O’Shea’s forthcoming new book to hit the shelves in July. I think it contains the best evidence yet put forward by anyone on any of the subjects on which Roman Catholicism has done a complete 180 degree turn.

    I remain fascinated though by your own infatuation with this element that you seem to see as most central to the Catholic worldview. I don’t doubt for a moment that for a long, long time it was part of the world view. Neither do I doubt that some want to retain it as the world view almost as zealously as Islamic terrorists want to hold on to their worldview on how we all ought think and act.

    I’m quite prepared to put my own salvation on the line and have a wager with you — which we can settle the other side of the pearly gates — that that world view is not going to survive or, if it does, Catholicism will certainly become a total remnant and almost totally irrelevant in world affairs, the future of humanity, and the salvation of souls.

    My honest belief is NOT that the Church is going to become a remnant. I honestly expect there is going to be an enormous showdown somewhere down the track. Yes, there still will be a remnant there that will never let go of the Tridentine/Vatican I mindset, and like Islamic terrorists they eventually resort to chucking bombs in an endeavour to get their way. I don’t doubt that that mindset is even shared by very high officials within Catholicism today. I don’t believe Christ’s promise of the longevity of the institution is vested with that segment of humanity though.

    Keep peddlin’ though, mate. I do enjoy seeing all these things through your perspectives. I do think your perspectives are valuable as, compared to many, at least you are fairly articulate about them.

    Cheers, Brian

  2. Clara says:

    Hi David, the problem with the inability of some your readers to arrive at the disposition of ‘sentire cum ecclesia’ is that they have succumbed to nineteenth century empiricism – probably at the heart of modernism. They lack what Newman saw as essential to understanding the Church’s dogma – a religious imagination!

  3. Past Elder says:

    Well, since Brian had a go, I guess I’ll bite too.

    What exactly would make my blood boil here? If I were/when I was Catholic, I would agree, but not in the way you think. I would be quite sure — or at least daily try to tell myself — that history will indeed bear out the dogma of the Church, finding Vatican II one of the darkest moments in all church history. As Cardinal Felici once said, it will take the church a century to recover from fifteen minutes of insanity by the Pope (John XXIII’s “inspiration” to call a Council).

    Do you have any idea how at odds you are with the church with whom you think you are thinking? You have attached yourself to a mindset of a minority, though it includes some powerful figures, while the bulk of the church operates quite apart from all that.

    And Brian speaks well for that bulk. I find that point of view easier to deal with than “thinking with the church”. They make no bones about it: this is different, this is a change, and we are bloody glad of it because what it is a change from needed to go. And what’s more, this is not the first change, it is the latest of many, and such change is not incompatible with but actually characteristic of the organic growth of the church.

    THe kind of Catholic I was Brian finds no different than “Islamic terrorists” other than being a little behind in weaponry. I get that. It’s the message I have heard since Day One of “the changes”, a phrase needing no explanation to a Catholic, much like “the troubles” to the Irish.

    That’s cool. I don’t agree with a bit of it, but they’re clear, open and honest about what matters here and what is at stake. But this conciliar orthodox mentality is neither fish nor fowl. It claims the validity of what it replaced, yet rejects the nature of what replaced it. It won’t even admit there has been a replacement!

    Well, truly, it doesn’t matter which side wins here. Catholicism is already a remnant, totally irrelevant in world affairs, the future of humanity and the salvation of souls.

    The “progressives” just don’t get it that the world has already progressed quite well without them, and hearing a Catholic Church trying to speak to it is rather like hearing grandpa trying to be accepted by his grandsons by talking teen slang. And the “conservatives” just don’t get it that what they are conserving is not the Catholic faith and church but a “lite” version of what the progressives hold. Both are a departure from the Catholic church and faith, but at least the progressives get that about themselves rather than trying to say no, no, it’s really the same, it’s a development, both/and, on and on.

    I’d a hell of a lot rather be called one special weapons and tactics course away from being a terrorist than be told the Mass and the novus ordo are two forms of the same thing.

  4. Schütz says:

    Thanks for playing boys. Pretty much what I expected, except that for some reason you both thought I was talking about “the Unchanging Dogma” of the Church. Not really. You see (I hope you are sitting down, Brian), i actually agree that the there has been change in the teaching of the Church. Quite radical–180 degrees as you put it–some times. One example would be usary (charging interest). Another would be the morality of captital punishment. Another would be (and I am working on this at the moment) the way in which Purgatory is understood.

    But there’s exactly where Cardinal Newman comes in with his “To grow is to change and to be perfect is to change often” saying. And his theory of the development of doctrine shows what is and what isn’t valid change. Basically, change which is organic and continuous is valid–ie. it is change that continues in a line (even if not a straight line) from the original seed.

    Now I fully sympathise with those who find it hard to recognise the liturgical changes after the council as “organic” or “continuous” with what went before. And you know what? I rather agree that the changes were NOT organic at all. So, in fact, does the current pontiff. That doesn’t mean that what was arrived at is invalid or inauthentic, but it certainly does mean that it was (at least initially) arrived at in a way that was somewhat more artificial than organic–more like grafting a new branch onto an old plant (something which, as even Paul points out, our God is not completely averse to in the unfolding Heilsgeschichte). Nevertheless for it to become organic, the old branch has to in some sense accept the new grafting, and the new grafting has to take on the character of the old. THAT, I would hold, is what is happening in the present age with the new relationship between the Novus Ordo and the Extraordinary Rite.

    Anyway, apart from all that, I do acknowledge some pretty tight hairpin turns in the expression of Church teaching. Again, this is not implausible or irreconcilable with an hermeneutic of continuity. I saw a tree the other day in which a branch had begun growing down toward the ground, but new growth from this branch was pointing up again, resutling in an 240 degree angle… It all has to do with environment and context in which the plant is growing.

    But then that is precisely because the Catholic Church is an historical, incarnate entity. It would be bizarre if it were not affected by the world in which it exists. Again, this is why I have confidence in history bearing out the Church’s dogma, because always the dogma of the Church has been formulated in relation to historical events.

  5. Schütz says:

    Note to Certain Combox Posters (they know who I am talking about): If you wish to post on this blog, please engage the arguments or put forward a point of view which can be discussed. While I know it is a great way to let of steam, pure ranting and abuse will not be tolerated.

  6. Peregrinus says:

    I confess I’m a bit puzzled when you talk about “attempts to disprove the historical basis of the church’s dogma”. I mean, we can have a historical account of how a particular truth has been discerned, articulated, etc, but this is not the basis of the dogma. It’s basis is revelation; otherwise it wouldn’t be a dogma. So, for example, evidence that life evolved through Darwinian mechanisms, rather than being created in a six-day process as described in Genesis 1 does not undermine the dogma that God is the creator of all things, even though it may alter and improve our understanding of how that creation unfolded.

    Can you help me with an example of what you are talking about here?

  7. Past Elder says:

    I’m pretty sure I clicked Publish Your Comment on something that is not here, so I’m pretty sure I am the or at least one of the Certain Combox Posters.

    If you didn’t like the Luke paraphrase, OK. However, I would think it engaging of the argument and a point of view that can be discussed to say that your argument boils down to simply holding that as long as the Catholic Church is doing it it’s OK since it’s either right to start with or will turn out right.

  8. LYL says:

    Neither do I doubt that some want to retain it as the world view almost as zealously as Islamic terrorists want to hold on to their worldview on how we all ought think and act.

    Well, there’s a great comparison! Let’s see now, I’m a Catholic who actually agrees with the Church’s teaching on everything, so I’m like a muslim bomber fruitcake.

    Point taken.

  9. LYL says:

    Oh, and that Oath is a good’un!

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