Vatican II - Voice of The Church
Vatican II - Voice of The Church

Authority in the Church Today
Bishop Butler in Wimbledon, 17 February 1970

By Arthur Wells

The Southwark branch of the Guild of Catholic Doctors recently invited Bishop Butler to speak on “Authority in the Church Today”. The Bishop’s distinguished part in the Council as Abbot of Downside remains fresh in mind, and now as a principal spokesman for the English and Welsh hierarchy, particularly to the press, he has become a popular figure. This accounts for the capacity audience of over 300 in the Sacred Heart parish hall, Wimbledon, South West London. What follows is not a report of what was a closely woven discourse, but rather a personal view - written shortly after - of the possibilities opened up by Butler’s line of thinking and of the reactions aroused in those who heard him.

To an avid follower of his commentaries on the affairs of the Church Bishop Butler’s talk produced no surprises, but the precision and clarity of his exposition of the perceived conflict between authority and freedom were reinforced by a wonderful delivery which added a new dimension, making the evening a special occasion. Almost from the outset he showed a way through the apparent authority/freedom impasse, which to me, at least, suggests a clear line of progress for the development of the life of the Church, of personal responsibility and for ecumenism. He could not accept that authority and freedom were in opposition, since authority is not the same as power. For instance, Calvary, he said, was a supreme moment of authority, but Our Lord had no evident power. Truth is the ultimate authority.

This suggests to me that authority in the Church must inevitably be a moral authority, and as such can hardly be at variance with conscience, as our membership of the Catholic Church is dependant on our conscience which obliges us to belong. It also suggests that even a fully paid-up Catholic conscience has room for movement if there are areas of teaching where the ordinary magisterium lacks absolute certainty. The individual then has the right and duty to study and weigh the situation, and he should act in accordance with informed conscience. This is a heavy personal responsibility, and prayerful exercise of this responsibility can hardly fail to produce a more mature individual. If this process is fostered and becomes widespread at all levels, the exercise of and response to authority in the Church is more likely to produce a collegial atmosphere and a true community of faith, in place of the pyramidal juridical shape which perhaps has served its term. Then, one might conclude, our separated brethren will see a Christian community which welcomes to full membership all who subscribe to the full certainties of the faith and gospels, but where members are not repressed or expelled for exercising prayerful private judgement on matters where full certainty is absent. What good might this not do for the cause of unity?

Would truth, or the authority of the college of bishops, or the essential elements of the Primacy of Peter suffer as a result of this sort of freedom? Would any reasonable man refuse reasonable elements of discipline or even paternalism if they were appropriate to the time and place?

Crucial to Bishop Butler’s theme was the question whether the certainty of infallibility applied to a particular teaching of the Church. There could be no degrees of certainty. A teaching could be more or less probably infallible, but it was either certainly infallible or it was not.

[Because of the lapse of some 35 years, it is perhaps necessary to recall that in 1968 – only some 18 months prior to the Wimbledon lecture – Pope Paul VI issued the encyclical Humanae Vitae].

Early in the talk the Bishop said that he could have used as an example a hypothetical encyclical teaching that to lie was invariably immoral. In this he appeared to assume, and no doubt correctly, that Humanae Vitae was still fresh and raw in our minds, and used his example to analyse the extent of its [the encyclical’s] authority. He did not propose to give any consideration to the contents of the document, nor did he wish to enter into consideration of the probable truth of the teaching. He was concerned to examine its certain infallibility, and drew the personal conclusion that certainty was lacking, and wound up by quoting the Council teaching on conscience in “The Church in the Modern World” (Gaudium et Spes 16).

After the talk Bishop Butler gave the opportunity for questions, and many of his “collegial” and “open” answers drew spontaneous bursts of applause from the audience. The questioners seemed to divide fairly evenly between papal-authoritarians and collegialists – and when one of the former drew the fire of a collegialist for an incomplete, and therefore biased, quotation from Lumen Gentium on the limitations of infallibility, the Bishop suggested they should resolve the matter after the meeting, raising one of the many laughs of the evening.

Two questions however remained unanswered: the first from a volunteer worker for the homeless, suggesting that it was all very well for middle-class Wimbledon to sit around weighing the pros and cons and indulging in semantics, but most poorer Catholics in difficulty only knew that they had too many children and no roof over their heads; Humanae Vitae and the consequent casuistry posed an evidently excruciating dilemma for many bishops, but provided no comfort for the flock. This was a heartfelt appeal to which the Bishop was diplomatically silent, while the Chairman tactfully moved on.

The second was possibly naïve, but nevertheless apposite: why keep thrashing around on what the Holy Father meant and whether it was infallible? why not ask him? The Chairman, no doubt realising that we had indeed asked him and that he had caused it to be said that it was not infallible, decided that this was the moment to close the meeting.

It was indeed a memorable evening, very good-humoured, reminiscent of a huge family group, and discussion continued long after, ranging from “Can anyone show me a church still in communion with Rome?” to a conviction that the Holy Spirit had restrained the Holy Father from making Humanae Vitae infallible. Clearly we have to get used to living with great diversity – but no one went so far as to want to dispense with the Primacy of Peter.

For my part, the most significant question of the evening was on the nature of truth. The Bishop expressed himself as one of those who believe that truth does not change, although the understanding of it may well change, depending on our era and standpoint.

My own comforting thought in these times of painful readjustment is that whereas we think of the earthly Church as being very old, it may nevertheless be still relatively young, and furthermore it may be maturing. At the very least, one cannot rule out the possibility of a growth in maturity of understanding, any more than the possibility of a recession, but history seems to be in favour of the former.

Today we have become too prone to expect both the intricacies of nature and the infinite to be made clear to us in cut and dried parcels. St Paul writing to the Corinthians and referring to a “dim mirror” or a “glass darkly” should put us right, particularly when it is recalled that even the best mirrors produced by first-century technology were no doubt dim indeed, and somewhat distorting.

[It may be noted that Bishop Butler continued writing extensively on Authority, on Conscience and on the relation between the two. A fairly late article by him for The Tablet was entitled The Authority of Love.]

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