How to reply to Brian Coyne? HELP!

Brian has left a comment in the combox of my blog on Papa Benny below. I admit to being a little confused, but clarity is slowly dawning.

In his comment, Brian says:

Now — and I address this also to those who have commented in response to you prior to me — don’t go off on some tangent as some of our friends are inclined to do on the CNDB, the question I have asked there is very specific. You need to address it as it has been asked. Assume for the purposes of the exercise that Benedict has made the wrong call: how will you respond in the situation if the Pope has made a wrong call? [Brian’s emphasis] There is another discussion we can have as to what guarantees we have that the Pope is right in everything he thinks and says. That is not the question I have asked above. I’m sure answers to that question may well be addressed in your wider response which you are preparing for Catholica.

My first reaction was: “What you talking about, Brian?” Rereading his original commission, this is what he said there:

I would be very interested in publishing any commentary from you in response to my attack and arguments…

As with all our writers I am happy to publish whatever you submit and do the layouts and presentation in such a way as to enhance your arguments. I don’t apply any significant editing to any of our commentators other than the correction of typos. At Catholica we are genuinely seeking to publish a very broad, and “catholic” range of views and I am very happy to publish views that might differ to my own arguments…

If you’d like to respond to this invitation and write a contribution basically explaining, or defending, what seems to be your principal commandment of “to think with the Church” I’d be most happy to publish anything you have to write and if it leads to a higher profile for your blog then I’ll be most pleased for you…

Now I haven’t read anything in that which implies that Brian wanted me to explain and defend sentire cum ecclesia “in the situation if the Pope has made a wrong call”. That is a significant alteration of the discussion. And one hell of a challenge, given that part of the whole basis of the sentire cum ecclesia approach is the presumption, in faith, that what the Church’s magisterium (including the Pope) teaches will always be “the right call”, so to speak. How on earth am I to defend “sentire cum ecclesia” if I am supposed to presume a situation in which the “ecclesia” in fact proves to be untrustworthy? It is like trying to defend the conclusion that 2+2=4 “in the situation in which 2+2 does not equal 4”.

Maybe it would be profitable to ask in what situations the Pope could be wrong. That is easier to answer. The Pope could be wrong, for instance, in this or that exegetical speculation in his book “Jesus of Nazareth”. Afterall, he has expressly excluded (as Brian points out) this work from his teaching magisterium. That is indeed unusual for a pope, but it is no more surprising than that he should chose to exclude his preference for cats over dogs, or Mozart over Bob Dylan, from his teaching magisterium. To distinguish between levels of magisterial teaching (from nil to infallible) is nothing new, and I am frankly surprised that Brian can see this as a “change of approach” from JPII (for instance, I don’t think JPII ever expected us to regard his book “Crossing the Threshold of Hope” as a work of his magisterium–although granted, he did not expressly exclude it as such).

Of course, I fully allow that the Pope could “make the wrong call” in regard to matters that do not belong to his teaching magisterium. For instance, I think it would be true to say that John XXIII “made the wrong call” in calling the Second Vatican Council on the cusp of the world-wide revolution that occured in 1968. The Bishops of the Council committed an error of judgement by deliberately chosing to exclude any declarations of “anathema” in the Council text. I think Paul VI “made the wrong call” with “Humanae Vitae”, not in the teaching it contained, but rather in the way he allowed folk to “get their hopes up” by assuming that the Church could simply reverse its position and teach as true what it had always declared to be false. And yes, I think John Paul II did err in not giving due attention to the sexual abuse crisis when it first reared its ugly head.

All these are errors of management and judgement, but the Church has never declared Popes to be infallible in regard to such matters–only in regard to their teaching office, and even that only in certain situations. Nevertheless, since the Bishop of Rome is the Vicar of Christ and the Successor of Peter, the supreme governor of the Church, we have a duty of obedience toward him–even when, in our judgement, he appears to have made “the wrong call”. In this regard, it is not unlike St Paul’s exhortation to the Romans (Chapter 13) that they obey all lawful authority–even if that authority is the Emperor Nero.

When Christ gave the Great Commission (hardly “the Great Suggestion” as Brian would seem to allow), he declared that “all authority in heaven and on earth has been given unto me”, and he conferred that authority onto the apostles when he commanded them to “go therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptising and teaching them etc.” Indeed it is the apostles and their successors who will be judged on the day of judgement in regard to this commission, not me or you (presuming SCE does not yet have any episcopal readers…), as Christ indicates in the parable of the steward. Our part is to act in humble submission to those whom God has placed in authority over us–even when in our judgement they appear to be wrong. This is a hard discipline–but part of what it means to be a disciple.

I well remember when I announced to my parents-in-law that I was intending to leave the Lutheran Church and become a Catholic, that my honourable mother-in-law declared: “But David, they’re only men” (that last word was uttered with the scorn that only a true feminist could maintain). One is reminded of the line in Andrew Lloyd-Webber’s “Jesus Christ Superstar” where Mary Magdalene sings of Jesus “He’s just a man”.

I wonder, Brian, how you would react were I to turn the whole thing around and ask you to defend the phrase “sentire cum Jesu”–assuming that Jesus was in fact not the Messiah at all. After all, he was “just a man”… I can’t put the fact any better than Papa Benny himself: I must submit to God. But where is God? In his Son, Jesus. But where is Jesus? In his Church. Therefore I must submit to the Church. And, therefore, the Pope.

Call it the scandal of particularity, if you like. Or the Gospel of the Incarnation.

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3 Responses to How to reply to Brian Coyne? HELP!

  1. Christine says:

    I can’t put the fact any better than Papa Benny himself: I must submit to God. But where is God? In his Son, Jesus. But where is Jesus? In his Church. Therefore I must submit to the Church. And, therefore, the Pope.

    Amen to that. So what if the Pope makes some “wrong calls”. It is the Holy Spirit who guards the deposit of faith given to the Magisterium even when the Pope speaks on purely human terms.

    That deposit will endure until the end of the age.

  2. Past Elder says:

    This and the previous post’s comments are downright scary.

    Your mother in law is right. To use a phrase I picked up from rooming with Crocodile Dundee, good on her!

    I might recomment the conclusion to the Preface to the Little Catechism in this regard.

  3. Athanasius says:

    “Assume for the purposes of the exercise that Benedict has made the wrong call: how will you respond in the situation if the Pope has made a wrong call?”

    In other words, let’s start by assuming that what you believe about the Pope and the Church is a load of bollocks.

    In philosophy, this is a logical fallacy called “begging the question”: implicitly demanding that your interlocutor accept your conclusion before the debate has even started. Except in this case, it isn’t implicit, it’s explicit.

    I have a better one:

    “Assume for the purposes of the exercise that Brian Coyne has made the wrong call: how should others respond to Brian’s mistake?”

    Daft, I know. But no dafter than Brian’s offer of “dialogue”. It isn’t charitable to assume bad faith, but it’s getting harder not to.

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