Ireland’s Association of Catholic Priests & The Hermeneutic of Continuity
April 13, 2012 8 Comments
‘Why is it that the churches where their every ‘remedy’ has been introduced are not thriving? Worse than that, why have they shrivelled up even faster than the churches that have not altered their teachings?
I have never heard a satisfactory answer to this question from liberal Christians.’
Ireland’s Association of Catholic Priests (ACP) has published opinion polling data to a clamour in the Irish media. These findings show majorities of lay Irish Catholics in favour of the ordination of women and other innovations contrary to both Tradition and Magisterium, but also classically characteristic of liberal Christianity. This note inquiries not solely into the under-appreciated radicalism of the ACP, but more especially into the deficient intellectual probity of its campaign. These observations apply also to similar campaigns being waged in many parts of the world and to those aiding them, in some cases perhaps opportunistically for motives of their own.
In questioning the probity of the campaign for liberal Catholicism, let us not start with any assumptions that could be disputed in good faith. That is to say, I do not here for the purpose of assessing the ACP take it as self-evident that the Catholic Church possesses revealed truth, that magisterial doctrine is true, or that the Pope possesses teaching authority by virtue of his standing in succession to St. Peter as the Bishop of Rome. Let us ask merely whether the campaign being pursued by the ACP alongside others is defensible on the level of mere coherence, non-self-contradiction, and intellectual honesty.
We are confronted most immediately with the spectacle of a collective of priests commissioning an opinion poll. Questions necessarily ensue.
Should the poll have found that a majority of Irish Catholics reject the ordination of women, would the ACP have accepted the result? Let us rephrase the question to exclude speculation about what the ACP might or might not do in certain eventualities. Ought the ACP to have accepted the result, we should say, were a majority of Irish Catholics to reject the ACP’s own campaign?
We answer this question using only the ACP’s own implied ratio decidendi. Their referral of doctrinal matters to opinion polling demonstrates a belief that polling data is doctrinally authoritative. To be consistent, this must be true whatever opinion polling might return by way of a result.
The most obvious observation is that opinion polling, which is to say public opinion, is not stable. Results obtaining today may not obtain in the future, and may contradict the past. This would mean that the Catholic Church was correct not to ordain women in 1900, is correct to ordain women in 2012, and will be incorrect in ordaining women in 2100, should opinion polling then show settled opposition to the ordination of women. This is absurd.
Or, we may ask whether the ACP’s referral of doctrinal matters to the judex of opinion polls has any limiting principle built in. At no point has the ACP stated that in which, on their account, the core of Catholicism consists; that is to say, never has the ACP clarified that which, in their account, is not up for negotiation or alteration. If there were no such core, anything particular to the Catholic Church could in principle be altered or discarded. No core means that the Crucifixion of Jesus Christ, or the doctrines of the Resurrection and the Eucharist, or the authority of Sacred Scripture, would all, and much else besides, in principle be liable to be discarded at the point when a majority of lay Catholics should renounce them, whether through the mechanism of a priest-commissioned opinion poll or otherwise.
If that were in principle possible, there could be no Church in the sense of a claim to embody transcendent truth. In other words, if everything is negotiable in principle, nothing is stable; no basis exists on which Catholicism could with any intellectual honesty assert its self-definition as being a religion rather than merely a volunteer community group with a rich artistic and architectural heritage.
Let us presume that the ACP would indeed, if it spoke to the question, agree that there is a core of Catholicism that is beyond negotiation, or alteration according to the vagaries of what a scarcely catechised laity might tell pollsters over the telephone. If this non-negotiable minimum exists, it necessarily, according to no more than the rules of logic, remains non-negotiable even if it is some day contradicted by an opinion poll. Indeed, it remains non-negotiable even if contradicted by the settled opinion of Catholic laity over a protracted period of time. If the ACP were to accept that the Resurrection of Jesus Christ never has been, is not, and never will be something the Catholic Church can be required to deny, that would remain true for centuries. No quantity of centuries’ worth of opinion polling would overturn the Catholic Church’s requirement to uphold that doctrine, even if polling results throughout the centuries returned a contrary viewpoint.The consequence is unavoidable from the admission that in principle there must be a non-negotiable core doctrine of Catholicism: ultimately, no number of opinion polls could ever prevail against it. We can by now see the intellectual fraud perpetrated by the Association of Catholic Priests. Their method of proceeding to address the question of the ordination of women and other questions requires the Church to deny its right to make any claims to truth, in other words, to remain a religion rather than an unnecessarily-vested liturgical counterpart to secularism’s denial of the possibility of revealed truth.
While some reactionary fringe groups have contrived to portray our association as a small coterie of radical priests with a radical agenda, we have protested vehemently against that unfair depiction. We are and we wish to remain at the very heart of the Church, committed to putting into place the reforms of the Second Vatican Council.
If opinion polling is a legitimate vehicle for deciding the future of Catholic doctrine, we may ask by what right the Association of Catholic Priests constitute themselves as the spokesmen of Irish priests. Their membership is a very small fraction of the number of priests in Ireland. In other words, an overwhelming majority of Irish priests have rejected the option of becoming members of the Association of Catholic Priests. Logically, according to its own rules of adjudicating such decisions, the ACP should bow to the majority opinion and either disband itself or speak the doctrine of the Catholic Church as stands.
The defensive tone in the above quotation is striking. A small number of petulant Irish priests have undemocratically appointed themselves as spokesmen for Irish clerics in defiance of their own rules of reasoning, while proceeding in such a manner as would catastrophically dissolve any teaching authority on the part of the Catholic Church by asserting what could be termed the hermeneutic of majoritarianism.
That this intellectual fraud should be wrapped in language resonant with the characterisation of its priestly members as persecuted dissidents is grotesque and shaming, coming after a century in which brave priests bearing witness to the Gospel and their priestly ordination died for the Church and for the Lord under conditions of unprecedented darkness and persecution of the Church, conditions which still afflict the Church in some parts of the world today.
Liberalism in religion is the doctrine that there is no positive truth in religion, but that one creed is as good as another, and this is the teaching which is gaining substance and force daily.