Monday, June 15, 2020


This I wrote and posted in two parts back in 2008 entitled "Preaching: Why we do it" Parts 1 & 2. Here it is combined and re-posted.

"For Christ sent me not to baptize, but to preach the gospel: not with wisdom of words, lest the cross of Christ should be made of none effect. For the preaching of the cross is to them that perish foolishness; but unto us which are saved it is the power of God."
- I Corinthians 1:17, 18

"If any man speak, let him speak as the oracles of God."

- I Peter 4:11

I know that some priests consider preaching to be a necessary evil, straining to get through a mere seven-minute homily. One priest asked me how I felt about preaching (why are we Americans so obsessed with how we feel anyway?), and I told him how much I feel at home and in my element when in the pulpit. Like Jeremiah, the word of God is a fire in my bones, and I simply have to proclaim it. He shook his head, and he told me how it was with him: "I try to play it down, so it doesn't get in the way of the sacrament." I told him I was not buying it. The word of God and the sacraments of his Church are never in competition, and without sound preaching, how do we prepare people to receive the body and blood of the Lord? I did not say, but thought later, that of all the excuses for dereliction of duty, a sanctimonious one has to be the most odious. Recall that last part of the Imperative Prayer in the Ordinal: "And be thou a faithful Dispenser of the Word of God, and of his holy Sacraments; In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen."

Before I make my major point, I want to ask why it is that any priest has trouble thinking of what to say in a sermon? For crying out loud, we have the greatest writers of all behind us. Moses, David, Isaiah, James, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, along with Peter and Paul, to name a few. Everything they wrote came straight from the Holy Spirit. As the papal document Dominus Iesus put it so well about the books of scripture: "These books have God as their author." Just lean back into the scriptures, pray for the power of the Holy Spirit, and let the truth flow out like living water. You have it in you: The part that is knowledge by diligence, and power and charisma through the laying on of the bishop's hands.

Is the sermon merely a little instruction, something mild and short and tasteful? Too many Anglo-Catholics have decided that good preaching is a Protestant sort of thing; so, to prove what good Catholics they are, they aspire to be lousy preachers. All too often they accomplish their goal. Have they never heard of the great Catholic preachers in the ancient Church? Was Chrysostom so named (Golden-Tongued) because he offered forgettable seven-minute homilies? Furthermore, why do we preach at all? And, for that poor clergyman who feared that he might compete with the sacrament, it is because of the sacrament that your preaching must be excellent.

I believe we ought to take a good look at where the sermon is placed in our Liturgy (yes, in our Liturgy, not as an extra tacked onto it). It is followed directly (in the BCP we use) by the Offertory, and prayer. But this leads to the General Confession. What is this all about? The General Confession is a prayer of cleansing, followed by a General Absolution that only a priest may say, which rubric itself shows that the act is sacramental, not merely ceremonial. Unless it is intended as a real Absolution it would not be reserved to the priesthood. Look at the words which preceded it:

"YE who do truly and earnestly repent you of your sins, and are in love and charity with your neighbours, and intend to lead a new life, following the commandments of God, and walking from henceforth in his holy ways; Draw near with faith, and take this holy Sacrament to your comfort; and make your humble confession to Almighty God, devoutly kneeling."

In good Evangelical terms, we may call this an "Altar Call." The difference is, "we have an altar"1 unlike many others. The call goes out to the people that in order to approach in a few minutes, to eat and drink the body and blood of Christ, their hearts must be cleansed, their consciences must be healed from sin. This is the laver, and it is the fountain of cleansing in Christ's blood.

After the General Confession, note what is said by the priest, with the rubric itself included here for your attention:

"¶ Then shall the Priest (the Bishop if he be present) stand up, and turning to the People, say,
ALMIGHTY God, our heavenly Father, who of his great mercy hath promised forgiveness of sins to all those who with hearty repentance and true faith turn unto him; Have mercy upon you; pardon and deliver you from all your sins; confirm and strengthen you in all goodness; and bring you to everlasting life; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen."

Look at both the call to confession and the Absolution, and notice the conditional nature of both. It is no small matter that the 1979 so-called Prayer Book, in its Rite II, removed the conditions, and made the whole thing a matter of mere priestcraft and magic. The General Confession must be accompanied by the sincerity of true repentance, a condition that is always necessary for the efficacy of the sacrament of Absolution, whether General or private.

The call to Confession is conditional as well, a reminder before the confession is made that "hearty repentance and true faith" must be present at this point. To replace this Call with something else, such as I have heard among even Continuing Anglicans, is a grave mistake. I have heard it replaced often with this insufficient and disappointing formula: "Let us pray for the whole state of Christ's Church, beginning with the words of the General Confession." Then the Prayer for the Whole State of Christ's Church is skipped, and the Confession is said without this eloquent invitation that our Anglican fathers had the wisdom to provide.

Consider the importance of this: The people are about to come forward for the Food and Drink of Eternal Life. 2 They are about to receive one of those two sacraments that are "generally necessary to salvation."3 The sermon that precedes this must have an aim not unlike the best preaching of some of the finest Protestant Evangelists, such as Billy Graham. These men see the purpose of their preaching as no less than the salvation of souls, the difference between something far more important than life and death. The difference, as I said, is that "we have an altar" and on that altar the sacrament of Christ's body and blood, "the food and drink of eternal life." Our altar call has this substantial reality that theirs lacks. All the more reason, because the people come forward to eat and drink Christ, and they are in a state that is either worthy or unworthy. They must first have their consciences cleansed, their souls washed by a sincere confession "with hearty repentance and true faith," so that the priestly Absolution is received into the good ground of a believing heart. So, they come, they eat and drink, and they live forever.

Preach as though the souls of those who hear you depend on what you say. Endeavor to bring them, by your words face to face with Jesus Christ. For, indeed, "in so doing thou mayest save thyself and them that hear thee."4


Let us now focus on the rhyme and reason for entering the pulpit in the first place. These are practical items.

1. Preaching must be pastoral.

A good sermon need not be the most clever, the finest writing, nor a brilliant display of theater or performing arts. On the other hand, it must not become merely a ceremonial routine, something to get through because, well, there it is in the rubrics. A good sermon must come from a pastoral heart, and be delivered by a father who loves his congregation and wants to feed them. It must come from a physician who wants to heal wounds, diagnose illness, and provide a cure. This is why I advise you who preach, not to look at the ceiling, the door to the church, or any other fixed point, but to move your eyes across the congregation, engaging people face to face, while you speak to their minds and hearts. This is about feeding them, curing their souls, helping them to know the Father and Jesus Christ whom he has sent (John 17:3). It must never become anything less, and it is your responsibility to see that it does not.

2. Preaching must be theological

By "theological" I do not mean academic, since the challenge in preaching is not to speak to scholars and theologians, but to communicate to everyone. That, far more than academic speaking, is the more difficult. By "theological" I mean that it must be based on the revelation of God in scripture, and it must bring out the true meaning.

Believe it or not, people really do want to understand their Faith. Some clergy think that people will choke on theology, and that it is best not to present it to them. The people have just said the great Creed of our Faith, a creed filled with the most profound words that summarize the whole Bible, and therefore contain the height and depth of Divine revelation. It is a literary puzzle also, jumping from metaphor to direct statement of fact; for example: "...light of light, very God of very God..." If they can say these words, they deserve some explanation. And, it is your responsibility and office to teach them.

The Incarnation, which includes the entirety of the Gospel, is theology- real theology as revealed by God. In order to meet the needs of the people, in line with point number one above, this is the medicine, and the food.

3. Preaching must be Biblical

You are called and ordained to preach the Word of God, not your own ideas; not even your own good ideas. The scriptures have been read to the whole congregation, and you have no need to find anything else for your material. Furthermore, you must not draw from any other material as your main text and direction. You must draw out the meaning of the scriptures.

At the risk of looking egotistical, I will quote another earlier post:

"While walking the earth, the Son of God proclaimed that the Old Testament scriptures were, in fact, actually testifying about Him. After His resurrection He expounded on the meaning of all the scriptures as the things concerning Himself, and opened the minds of His disciples to understand them.

"So, too, the New Testament is rich with the reports of Christ’s actions, His words, His life, His death and His resurrection. They tell us, also, who He is: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God… And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, (and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father,) full of grace and truth. (John 1:1,2, 14).” It goes on to tell us how His Incarnation is extended in this world through time and space by His Church, founded by Him and indwelt by His Spirit. The doctrines of that Church are forever enshrined in the Epistles, and our hope made firm by the last prophetic Revelation.

"This is the hammer that breaks the rock in pieces, a fire that bursts forth and blazes, consuming everything, and making new life. It is a power that transcends every natural force, and every embellishment of those forces, electric or atomic. “The voice of the Lord is mighty in operation; the voice of the LORD is a glorious voice…the voice of the LORD shaketh the wilderness (Psalm 29: 4, 7 BCP).” The scriptures kill and make alive, meeting the truest and deepest needs of man. And yet, many clergymen struggle very hard, trying to think of something to say. Why?

"Every seminary everywhere ought to teach a very important principle: It is not the duty of the clergy to blunt the sharpness, to soften the hammer, or to quench the fire. Woe to the preacher who protects the people from the word that kills, because he protects them also from being made alive- truly and forever alive. Woe to the preacher who acts as a buffer, deflecting the force of the scriptures to soften the blow, because in protecting from the stroke, he prevents the healing. If his labors in the pulpit amount to a lifetime of standing between the people and the word of God, reducing its effect, taming it and making it polite, presentable and harmless, he will have nothing to show for it in the end but wood, hay and stubble instead of gold, silver and precious stones.

"It far easier to preach if a man will ride the scriptures like a wave, letting them make their own point, and arrive at their own destination (informed by the Tradition of the Church). If the passages that have been read speak of life and death, then elaborate on life and death. If they speak of repentance then preach that men should repent. When they encourage faith, proclaim faith. When they warn of Hell and the judgment to come, then blow the trumpet as a faithful watchman on the walls. When they comfort, speak as a pastor who feeds the sheep. Let the meaning of the scriptures be expounded to their full effect, proclaiming from them the truth that affects the eternal destiny of the souls in your care."

There it is: 1. Pastoral 2.Theological 3. Scriptural.

One last word of advice: If all this seems a bit too much for a mere man, all the better. Pray earnestly for the guidance and power of the Holy Spirit, both in giving you grace and power to preach, and to the people the grace to hear and receive. None of us can afford anything less than prayerful dependence on the Holy Spirit.

1. Hebrews 13:10

2. John 6: 53-58

3. Anglican Catechism: "Question. How many Sacraments hath Christ ordained in his Church?

Answer. Two only, as generally necessary to salvation; that is to say, Baptism, and the Supper of the Lord."

4. I Timothy 4:16

Thursday, June 11, 2020

The Vigano Letter

To my colleagues who are impressed by Cardinal Vigano’s recent letter to President Donald Trump: How has it escaped your notice that the letter contains a dualistic heresy in which God, by being locked in an “eternal” struggle with evil, is portrayed as merely equal to that evil? If the struggle is eternal, therefore unresolved forever, if Satan is God’s “eternal enemy,” so that God never wins, how can this be the God we believe in? It can’t be! So limited a being isn’t our God. How has this not clued you in to the logical realization that Vigano (a slanderer of note) speaks by another spirit - a spirit of error? So, his letter goes on by teaching you to be wary of human beings as your enemies, “children of darkness,” instead of as sinners in need of the Gospel, and as objects of God’s love, as well as of yours? How does it not flatter your pride to be told that you are “the children of light” not because you are in Christ, but because you back a particular politician?

It is all so very wrong. In the words of Jesus, I tell some of you: You know not what spirit ye are of. I urge you not to respond to me until you have sought God in prayer. If the light that is in you is darkness, how great is that darkness.

Wednesday, June 10, 2020


And it shall come to pass afterward, that I will pour out my spirit upon all flesh; and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, your young men shall see visions: And also upon the servants and upon the handmaids in those days will I pour out my spirit.- Joel 2:28,29
When I read the Prophets for the first time, long, long ago, I noticed that their books were not filled mostly with predictions; I had thought they would be, and saw quickly that such is not the case. They contained predictions as part of the content of prophecy; I paid special attention to those predictive prophecies that were directly foretelling the coming of Christ. But, the role of the prophet was not to act like some kind of fortune teller; it was to be the mouth of God. I also noticed that a very large portion of their prophecy, indeed, the largest content of certain prophets, especially Amos, was to speak directly about justice and injustice to the poor. Through them God spoke to the conscience of fallen men.
          The word translated “justice” is also translated “righteousness.” The word is Tsadakah (צְדָקָה). In the novel, The Chosen, by Chaim Potok, the old Rabbi who led his people to the United States decades earlier, accepts the decision of his son not to follow in his footsteps, but to become a psychologist. From the 1982 movie version, I can still hear Rod Steiger as the Rabbi, saying, “So, become a psychologist already. When you go into the world you go as a Jew, and you keep the commandments of a Jew. My son is a Tsadok, he is a righteous man; and the world needs a righteous man. It is good.”
          The prophets of the Old Testament, therefore, spoke the word of God directly about justice or righteousness. They cried out mostly against two evils: Idolatry and injustice to the poor. We cannot know what they sounded like, except that often the scriptures say they “cried out.” Indeed, it is difficult to imagine much of their words spoken without passion. Jeremiah tried to hold God’s word inside him, but found he could not.

Then I said, I will not make mention of him, nor speak any more in his name. But his word was in mine heart as a burning fire shut up in my bones, and I was weary with forbearing, and I could not stay.  Jer. 20:9

So, when they spoke passionately about justice, what did it mean? To modern Americans the working definition of “justice” is often limited to punitive measures taken by the authorities. But, the prophets spoke of justice/righteousness as the same thing, and as on behalf of the poor, the widow, the orphan, those imprisoned (rightly or wrongly, it doesn’t specify) and the stranger from a foreign land. Where else do we see those categories, but in the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats?

“…Then shall the righteous answer him, saying, Lord, when saw we thee an hungred, and fed thee? or thirsty, and gave thee drink?  When saw we thee a stranger, and took thee in? or naked, and clothed thee Or when saw we thee sick, or in prison, and came unto thee?  And the King shall answer and say unto them, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me…Then shall they also answer him, saying, Lord, when saw we thee an hungred, or athirst, or a stranger, or naked, or sick, or in prison, and did not minister unto thee?  Then shall he answer them, saying, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye did it not to one of the least of these, ye did it not to me….”  (See Matthew 25:34-46)

Look again at the Old Testament, this time the words of Isaiah.

“Woe unto them that decree unrighteous decrees, and that write grievousness which they have prescribed; To turn aside the needy from judgment, and to take away the right from the poor of my people, that widows may be their prey, and that they may rob the fatherless! And what will ye do in the day of visitation, and in the desolation which shall come from far? to whom will ye flee for help? and where will ye leave your glory? Without me they shall bow down under the prisoners, and they shall fall under the slain. For all this his anger is not turned away, but his hand is stretched out still.”  Isa. 10:1-4

What is meant by “the right” of the poor in that passage? For people living by the Torah, in ancient Israel, many commandments answer the question. To begin with, freedom from debt and help with the circumstances caused by poverty. This was the Law in Deuteronomy chapter 15. It included the foreigner who came as a refugee (Deut. 10:19). There are other similar passages in the Law of Moses, and those commandments obligated the people to open their hands in generosity to the poor.
          It is of interest that in the modern United States, the poor have certain rights prescribed by our laws. But many years of experience with the poor on the frontlines, so to speak, has taught me that they are denied even those rights by an impersonal and uncaring system locking them in endless appeals if they are disabled. What is required by law to take place as quickly as possible instead drags on for years. I have known people to die while living in the stressful anxiety of trying to get their rights to a basic income and some kind of healthcare, all of which is denied them for a long time. It is also clearly observable to me, having worked many years as a legal/medical investigator, and now as a priest finding that I continue to serve the poor as what seems an inescapable calling, and that when I bring up the rights of the needy, and the obligation of Christians not to turn a blind eye to their needs, but to open their hands, that my fellow believers, more often than not, hear and respond in love as they are able. It is good, and beautiful to behold.
          But, this does not mean that the Church - which in real life is the local church trying to get by on a budget - can take the place of the Social Security Administration or of Social Services. It is not possible, and never has been possible. Unfortunately, like so many issues of morality and justice, care for the poor cannot be wholly divorced from politics. So it is, that some people argue that we should not be taxed to care for the disabled; that the church would do a better job. How unrealistic that is. Most of our local parishes and missions cannot do much more than we are doing, helping the poor members of our own churches as well as helping poor strangers who come to us and ask in times of need.
But, if you swallow an ideological reason not to be generous, such as blaming all poverty on the people who have been trapped in it, or perhaps some misguided Libertarian objection to taxation, the chances are very good that you also will not give a penny to a starving family. You might give a thousand dollars for something like a stain glassed window; but you would never give a penny to the poor. Or so I have observed. The same people who argue that the church, instead of government, should shoulder the burden of feeding, housing and providing medical care to the poor who cannot make ends meet on their own, would never contribute for that purpose themselves, even if the whole idea was not a complete fantasy to begin with. And, it is a fantasy. Churches simply do not have that kind of money.
One thing of which you can be certain is that the Church, from the Day of Pentecost forward, is the modern home of prophecy. It was Peter, on Pentecost, who quoted those words of Joel that I have placed at the heading of this article. What does that mean for us? It means that the Church must be the voice of moral guidance, and that the clergy (among whom are Apostles, Prophets, Evangelists, Pastors and Teachers - Eph. 4:11) need to speak directly and with moral clarity. Just as we must speak on other issues of justice and morality, such as the Divine requirement that we protect innocent life in the womb, just as we teach people how to live morally in a true marriage rather than to give license to the flesh, so we also must be willing to pick up the mantle in those words, “I will pour out my spirit upon all flesh; and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, your young men shall see visions.”
That means we cannot escape all that is meant by that powerful word in the vocabulary of the prophets, Tsadokah – justice that is also righteousness. If you find yourself always or by impulse to be on the side of the rich and powerful, or if you find yourself supporting a system or program or ideology or party that denies the right of the poor and needy, you had better pay attention to the Bible much more than you have before: Hear the word of the Lord. You see, this is about a sin we often ignore. You cannot escape guilt if you turn a blind eye to the needy. Moral issues often spill over into politics; that is the nature of things. It is for the Church, led vocally by the clergy, to provide moral guidance with clarity. The old Rabbi was right: The world needs a righteous man. Who, if not followers of the Son of Man?

Saturday, May 30, 2020


Click on the illustration for the link.

Wednesday, May 20, 2020

The Ascension Day

Click on the illustration for the link.

Saturday, April 04, 2020


Sermon preached by Fr. Hart Palm Sunday, April 5, 2020, at St. Benedict's Anglican Catholic Church in Chapel Hill, NC. CLICK HERE.

Community and Isolation

See the video at this link.

Tuesday, March 24, 2020

Saturday, February 22, 2020

Inconveniently difficult truth

The article below was written as a response to an essay in First Things. I submitted it to that magazine, but they chose not to run it. And so I post it here.

I would like to apologise for the extreme infrequency of my contributions. For various reasons, including attaining a Masters degree by research, I have withdrawn from the 'blog for a long time. Also, since one of the main original purposes of this site was to bring Continuers closer together, the sacramental reunion of the G4 has made my participation less urgent, as my theological priorities are strongly ecumenical. Nonetheless, I hope this article is useful to our readers.

On another matter, I would like to commend the video address "False Choices" by Fr Hart, linked from a previous post. I have just watched it and urge you all to do the same if you have not already seen it. God bless.

In her recent article, “A paper church”, Julia Yost decries Pope Francis' leadership for forcing orthodox Catholics to engage in an elitist hermeneutics that explains away rather than explaining his statements. While St John Paul's catechetical adventures on the topic of capital punishment also come in for criticism, the rot that has purportedly set in is seen to have done so only “[i]n recent decades”. One might summarise her article as the heartfelt cry, “We can't become like those awful Anglicans!”

Too late, Julia, too late. In the need to interpret some teachings in minimalist fashion, or with heavy qualifications, or as temporary mistakes, or as conditioned by circumstances, Roman Catholics have long anticipated Anglo-Catholics.

Now, to be fair, I do have sympathy for her argument that the Catholic Faith should not be reduced to a “paper religion”, which would imply that the real, authoritative teachings are an esoteric, subtle refinement of official statements that are misleading if taken at their surface-meaning. And I fully accept that Pope Francis' “magisterial” musings and symbolical actions are sometimes, to put it gently, unnecessarily confusing.

However, despite these sympathies, and my firm belief that the average Christian does understand the essentials of the Faith to a sufficient degree not to be “superficial” in their confession, we all need to face reality. And the reality is that, not only among the hoi polloi but among their teachers in the Church, there have often been grave errors, misinterpretations, and unbalanced emphases, including some related to official teaching, partly because its wording can lend itself to misunderstanding on occasion. To put it another way, while God protects the church from outright error in dogma, he does not protect it from all the other foibles related to human documents and interpretation.

Indeed, this problem has become only more obvious since Vatican II among Roman Catholics (RCs), whether for traditionalists who heavily criticise the Council, “conservatives” who affirm it via the “hermeneutic of continuity”, or “liberals” who embrace the purported “spirit of Vatican II” and see the documents themselves as open-ended pointers to a trajectory of revolution. However, the problem for RCs clearly predates this Council, as I will show later. But let us first deal with the more recent examples.

The original article exhibits the belief that subtle, esoteric re-interpretations of past Church teaching were not the Roman way until Pope Francis, or, to a lesser extent, Pope John Paul II. But this is clearly contrary to fact. Ever since Vatican II, any attempt at a “hermeneutic of continuity” has required very subtle distinctions and re-interpretations indeed.

For some of the most popular examples of these apparent(?) discontinuities, the teachings on torture, slavery, usury and capital punishment, I leave the reader to other authors' discussions. Instead, let us just consider ecumenical dialogue, joint prayer with non-RCs, and the possibility of salvation outside the Communion of Rome.

For Pope Pius IX (in Mortalium Animos), the efforts of Protestants to “treat with the Roman church ... upon the basis of equality of rights and as equals” is something that Catholics “cannot in any way adhere to or grant aid to”. He also taught that: "… one who supports those who hold these theories and attempt to realise them, is altogether abandoning the divinely revealed religion." Whereas Vatican II’s Unitatis Redintegratio describes as “[m]ost valuable” “meetings of the two sides … where each can treat with the other on an equal footing”.

An instruction addressed to the Catholics of England by Cardinal Allen in a letter of 1592 said that praying with Protestants was “forbidden by God’s own eternal law” and “by no means lawful or dispensable”, a judgement he noted was confirmed to him by Pope Clement VIII. On the other hand, the same document of Vatican II mentioned above says that such prayer is “desirable”.

From the Council of Florence we have this: "The most Holy Roman Church firmly believes, professes and preaches that none of those existing outside the Catholic Church ... can have a share in life eternal; but that they will go into the eternal fire which was prepared for the Devil and his angels, unless before death they are joined with her". At Vatican II the “separated churches” are “means of salvation”.

I will leave it to RCs to argue about whether each of these apparent discontinuities can be salvaged from contradiction by clever exegesis, or whether the resolution lies in simply admitting that the either the earlier or the later statements must be abandoned as non-infallible statements that also happened to be simply wrong. In either case, what is required of anyone arguing in good faith is frank admission both that there is apparent contradiction and that the only way out is via subtle distinctions regarding meaning or authority that will seem esoteric and surprising to ordinary folk.

But this problem did not start with Vatican II. Unam Sanctum (US) is a papal bull considered by many RCs to be infallible in its concluding definition: “Furthermore, we declare, we proclaim, we define that it is absolutely necessary for salvation that every human creature be subject to the Roman Pontiff.” Note the word “absolutely”. Quite apart from inconsistency with statements of Vatican II, this definition suffers from a syllogistic reductio ad absurdum, if taken at face value. The first premise below derives clearly from the common man's understanding of subjection to the chief religious teacher, the second is a logical corollary of the definition of US.

1. To disobey the Pope's commands or contradict his teachings is not to be subject to him.
2. One can not ever, under any circumstances, be saved (in a state of grace) if one is not subject to the Pope.
3. Thus, to disobey the Pope's commands or dispute his teachings in any way is to be unsaved, ungraced, i.e., outside Christ and his Church, and thus is always objectively evil.

But both before and after Vatican I, let alone Vatican II, RC theologians have consistently taught that there can be occasions when disobeying papal commands or contradicting (or withholding assent to) a papal teaching can be permissible and, in fact, virtuous. Among the clergy and theologians of old we have Lapide, Pope Pius IX, Pope Adrian II, Pope Paul IV1, Cano, Prieras, Cajetan, de Victoria, Suarez, and Bellarmine, et al. But in more recent times we have Bishop Christopher Butler and the Pope Emeritus himself, among many others.

So, it appears that subjection to the Pope is considered only conditionally or relatively necessary to salvation in terms of informed, long-standing RC theology, but that US says it is absolutely necessary. “Absolutely” and “relatively” are contradictory by definition. Now, wooden literalism is hardly ever wise but an “interpretation” that takes a word to mean its exact opposite is, at the very least, subtle and esoteric. I suspect ordinary RCs may have always had trouble squaring that circle, if it had been brought to their attention. It is perhaps fortunate that for much of the Middle Ages such interacting decrees and ideas probably remained an irrelevant “paper religion” to the average pious peasant.2

In all of these cases one might of course appeal to the “development” Newman so relied upon to defend Roman Catholicism. But at some point one risks justly receiving that famous reply from the classic comedy, The Princess Bride: “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”

Can there be a disconnect between educated believers and the rest in areas of ecclesial life outside explicit doctrine as well? Interestingly, Ms Yost doesn't actually deny the existence of superstitions among ordinary RCs. Instead, she accepts their reality and, surprisingly, says only positive things about them. But not all popular superstitions are to be winked at. Idolatry and obsession with material relics is spiritually degrading and enervating, as it takes the Christian's focus away from the true centre of his faith, the living Christ. That this was once a real problem for RCs needs no confirmation from Protestant authors, the evidence being easily found in Erasmus and Colet, for example.

But it was not just a case of popular abuses. Aquinas (S.T. P3, Q25, A3&4), in teaching that earned the imprimatur and nihil obstat, said that the worship of latreia was due to images of Christ and the Cross. But the Seventh Ecumenical Council says that only the honour of proskunesis is permissible to any image, including the Cross. Whatever gloss is put on the former kind of statement by apologists, it is undeniable that the effect on the common believer of such justification filtering down was deeply problematic. That the official dogma of the RCC is and was orthodox I do not deny. That the everyday religion of its members always matched this dogma during the late Middle Ages I do deny. The disconnect was real, and the doctrinal truth in this matter often remained a paper religion to the masses.

What is my point then? That the Catholic Faith has always been expressed in a way that must seem Pickwickian to ordinary Christians? That many magisterial acts and words can not be taken at face value or may even need to be rejected? That all doctrines are justifiably up for grabs due to past inconsistencies? No, yes and no.

The Creeds are genuinely understandable affirmations, though even here there are unavoidable metaphors and mysteries.3 And beyond the Creeds, there is much firm, consistent and clear teaching that is entitled to our deepest trust and certitude.

Nevertheless, some teaching that carries the label of infallibility for RCs will need to be accorded assent with qualifications that, while able to be exegeted as non-contradictory, show that the dogma as originally written was undeniably prone to misunderstanding. Teachings that were highly authoritative but not infallibly proposed nor universally consistent from earliest times may simply have to be admitted to be errors.

This will require a dogmatic theology that appears too critical or even minimalist to some. The fear that such admissions will give too much room to those who wish to conform the Church to the world, the flesh and the devil is perfectly understandable. After all, isn’t one of the favourite arguments of some “liberals” that none of the teachings on sexual morality they dislike has been or can be definitively taught?4 But the truth is that the best defence against such infidelity within will not come from unreflective approaches to dogmatic texts any more than it will come from unrestrained ultramontanism. Unfortunately, “liberal” criticisms of the “creeping infallibilism” coming from Rome have, even from a traditionalist viewpoint, validity.5 This creep not only undercuts present orthodox resistance to error, it has often been sending the Vatican in precisely the wrong direction for decades in response to the heterodox. To put it another way, this is a defensiveness that has now left the faithful defenceless.6

Where is safety to be found then, whether for the scholar or for the “vulgar”? Not in papal absolutism, not in a “magisterium of the moment”, not in textual rigidity or mere institutional loyalty. These facts have become increasingly clear but, taken as a whole, they will perhaps not please either the conservative or traditionalist RC. On what basis can they resist the genuine compromisers of the Faith, as opposed to faithful if speculative theology that challenges?

St John Paul showed the way forward in one of his most important and symbolical actions. In the Apostolic Letter Ordinatio Sacerdotalis he definitively ruled against the priestly ordination of women not by an act of the Extraordinary Magisterium, but by pointing to the “constant and universal Tradition of the Church”, as has been noted by Cardinal Ladaria on behalf of the CDF.

The broad, living stream of the Tradition, with its mutually interpreting currents and eddies across time and space is where all must look. The whole Church needs the whole Church, including the breadth of its history. Where the consensus is universal and clear, those rejecting it from within the Church need not be argued with nor need they be subject to new canonical or doctrinal statements, as if everything was uncertain till such “clarifications”. No, instead, the Church should simply have the courage to say “You have undeniably rejected the Faith, you have cut yourself off from the Church. The verdict is manifest, your attempts to obscure certainty have failed. Goodbye.”

And such a process would in fact be aided by appeal to the constant and continued teaching of the Eastern Orthodox and others. An ecumenical Catholicism that recognises, not just in subtextual actions7 but in official teaching, that those outside canonical boundaries may have been put there unjustly, such that they never really exited the Una Sancta spiritually, is a Catholicism that can accept a genuine scope for varied opinions in non-essentials, access resources deep and wide, correct internal errors and fight the good fight.8

So, as we have noted above, instead of issuing new decrees or looking for such, Rome and RCs could simply appeal to universal consensus, East and West, to prove that all who wish to overturn traditional moral teaching are manifestly heretical and self-excommunicate, and withdraw all communion from them without further ado. The same approach could be applied to those who push for the ordination of priestesses, and hence clarify that ecumenical Catholicism reveals the pointlessness of Rome or the Orthodox continuing their discussions with the Anglican Communion and the need to concentrate instead on the faithful remnant that is Continuing Anglicanism.

But benefits would also accrue in terms of dealing with the past. A Roman Church burdened with the history of a previous centuries-long magisterial consensus on the moral soundness of ‘coercion and torture for Jesus’ could then, for example, contentedly note the fact that the Eastern Orthodox part of the Church did not create an apologetics or doctrinal position to justify such acts as the Latin Church did, thus defeating the appearance of universality, even temporarily.

It could also recognise that the Anglican rejection of any suggestion that the Sacrifice of Christ was plural or repeated was a justifiable reaction to certain theories of the Mass that hypothesised a new, distinct immolation of Christ in the Eucharist, while noting that such theories have died away and that Rome also stresses that there is only one redemptive Sacrifice. As it is, Julia Yost’s article shows no appreciation of this historical context, and no understanding of the other evidence in the earliest Anglican formularies that gave not just Newman but many others legitimate reason to interpret Anglican teaching as supporting Eucharistic Sacrifice. Other of the Thirty Nine Articles, the Book of Common Prayer and official apologetical texts from the Elizabethan period taken together affirm that the Eucharist sacramentally signifies the Sacrifice of the Cross and conveys its effects, which is exactly what is sufficient to make it a sacrifice, according to Aquinas.9

In any case, there is no getting around the fact that ecclesial teaching, whether Anglican, Eastern or Roman will sometimes contain statements that, while they can be parsed in conformity with truth or relativised as to authority, are problematic and leave plenty of room for doubt and misunderstanding. Admitting this rather than circling the wagons or throwing stones in glass houses is surely the best option. Theology can be difficult, including dogmatic theology. Just accept it.

1 See his Bull, Cum ex Apostolatus Officio, which teaches that a Pope who has deviated from the Faith can be contradicted.In assessing Our duty and the situation now prevailing, We have been weighed upon by the thought that a matter of this kind is so grave and so dangerous [to the Faith] that the Roman Pontiff, who is the representative upon earth of God and our God and Lord Jesus Christ, who holds the fullness of power over peoples and kingdoms, who may judge all and be judged by none in this world, may nonetheless be contradicted if he be found to have deviated from the Faith.”

2 In case the reader thinks that a literal interpretation was never taken seriously by anyone, or that nothing else in the magisterial tradition could support such papal positivism to the ordinary follower, I give just two of many possible examples which would manifestly support such absolutism:
“[W]here there is holiness there cannot be disagreement with the Pope” [Address to the Priests of the Apostolic Union, Nov. 18, 1912, Pope Pius X]
Thus, it is an absolute necessity for the simple faithful to submit in mind and heart to their own pastors, and for the latter to submit with them to the Head and Supreme Pastor.” [Epistola Tua, Pope Leo XIII]

3 Obviously, for example, “light from light” does not refer to photons, “ascended into heaven” could be misunderstood as a long astronomical journey, and what “everlasting life” means in detail is confessedly unknown (1 John 3:2).

4 E.g.: “There is virtual theological unanimity that concrete moral norms do not pertain to the church’s infallible teaching competence.” R.A. McCormick, S.J., in Readings in Moral Theology No.6: Dissent in the Church, Curran & McCormick (eds), p.426, 1988.

5 Giving the liberal Romans their due is a necessary part of honestly dealing with the crisis. Unless the real problems that existed before Vatican II in the RCC are admitted – against which RCs understandably reacted and for the purpose of dealing with the Second Vatican Council was called – those who wish to throw out the baby with the bathwater will succeed in portraying the orthodox to the ordinary faithful as dishonest or spiritually blind.

It shouldn’t be a a great strain, for example, for any RC to accept that the official papal condemnation of the statement that “[i]t is contrary to the will of the Spirit that heretics be burned” in Exsurge domine was an objectively evil act that undermined the RCC’s moral credibility. Or that Pope Pius IX forcing the Melkite Patriarch to place his head under his foot in retaliation for qualifying his acceptance of Vatican I was the very kind of leadership against which Christ warned (cf. Matthew 20:25f, 2 Corinthians 1:24). Likewise, it shouldn’t be difficult for the orthodox to admit that sometimes the critics have helped the Church to correct itself.

Admitting old errors or misplaced emphases, along with an overarching weakness for authoritarianism, will allow the orthodox to be taken seriously. Otherwise, in the face of an idealisation of the Latin Church’s past, merely quoting or citing the more egregious examples will be enough to discredit Catholicism itself for an honest enquirer. Also, unless the reasons for modern over-reaction are understood, the orthodox will not be able to communicate effectively to persuadable liberals: those who are perhaps not critical enough of innovation, but are not revolutionary in spirit or intent either.

6 While the CDF in its Instructions on the Ecclesial Vocation of the Theologian did try to carve out a space for dissent by theologians from non-infallible teaching, it was a non-public, minimal space that appeared to have nothing to do with ordinary Catholics. If this is not an elitist approach to hermeneutics, what is? One cannot help but ask the question, if a mediaeval theologian or ordinary RC had vociferously objected to Inquisitorial torture as plainly wicked and anti-Christian, would they have sinned according to these standards?

7 E.g., recognitions by Rome of Saints who were outside the communion of Rome, such as St Meletius of Antioch, St Isaac the Syrian and St Gregory of Narek.

8 Some will respond angrily to such suggestions with the cry “extra ecclesiam nulla salus!” or start scoffing at the manifest absurdity of Anglican “Branch Theory”. I have dealt with these objections here. Basically, to believe that the Church must be both one and visible does not require belief that its integral unity is perfectly visible. Especially since it almost never is.

9 Knowledge of the historical and theological context reveals that the significance of the plural terms in Article XXXI relates to an aversion to any concept of repeated or supplementary sacrifice, an aversion clearly referred to in the same article where it says “there is none other satisfaction for sin” than the Sacrifice of the Cross. The same point is specifically reiterated in Anglican Canon Law in the next century where there is an affirmation of the term “altar” for the “Lord's Table” but a denial Christ is “again really sacrificed” (cf. Hebrews 6:6, 10:10), which Rome was thought to teach. Also, the very same Articles affirm that the Eucharist is a sacrament of Christians' redemption by the Cross (XXVIII), while defining a sacrament as an “effectual sign” in a previous Article (XXV), a theological term of art meaning that it effects what it signifies. So, the Articles on their own teach that the Eucharist signifies Christ's sacrifice and conveys its effects. The authorised apologist for the Church of England at the English Reformation, Bishop Jewell, also accepted openly in those apologetics that the Sacrament was an “image” of the One Sacrifice. This combination of sacramental signification and conveyance of the sacrifice in its effects is, as noted above, exactly what Aquinas says makes it a sacrifice (S.T. P3, Q83, A1).

Similarly, the service is termed a “sacrifice of praise” in the classical Anglican liturgy (a phrase taken straight from the Gregorian Canon) in the same sentence in which intercession is made for “the remission of sins and all other benefits” of Christ's Passion for the “whole Church”. So, Newman was perfectly justified in interpreting the Anglican formularies as teaching a doctrine of Eucharistic Sacrifice, albeit one rejecting any repetition of the Cross, any renewal of Christ's actual suffering and death. More to the point, this was not some weird innovation of his, but a reflection of the explicit teaching on the Eucharist of many Anglican bishops and theologians before him, as one discovers in Tract 81. That he later renounced this eirenic approach does not change the facts outlined above.