It was, as many of you have said, splendid to hear the tones of Deacon Nick Donnelly again. In other places, a few mean-minded critics have criticised him for writing here, which is odd, given that most of those who take that view are fine with people who write things which run counter of Catholic teaching publishing; normally quite prepared to support anyone who questions Church doctrine, these people become almost ultra-Montane when they think they have a Pope who is on their side. They sense that Pope Francis might well give them some of their cherished demands, and so they are happy to see dissent from what they think he stands for crushed; they demonstrate the usual liberal hypocrisy – we demand toleration for our dissent, but demand your orthodoxy be crushed; we are free to speak, because we are on the side of progress; you should be silenced, because you are not.
As one with a long background in Anglicanism before converting to Orthodoxy, these attitudes are depressingly familiar; all change in a liberal direction is never enough; all failure to advance fast enough in that direction is a sign of bone-headed bigotry. Nor are the reasons far to seek. If you have liberal opinions and spend your life among those who agree with you, it is, as the modern Conservative leadership demonstrates, very easy to assume that your views are normative – because for you and your kind, they are – and to dismiss those who hold other views as hopelessly out of date; such is the power of group-think that it takes real courage in such circles to hold a contrary view. It is not ratiocination and the power of argument which silences some people, it is the fear of social ostracisation.
Part of the difficulty Deacon Nick found himself in was that he was protecting the Pope, from, amongst others, Peter Tatchell (who as Geoffrey pointed out recently, got a nice write-up in Faith Today); but who protects the protector? Bishops, as Newman and the Oxford Movement knew full well, tend to be, shall we say, mindful of their careers, and whilst usually willing to appease those of a liberal persuasion, have often had difficulty with orthodox critics. This placed Newman and the other Tractarians in a spot in the late 1830s. They were arguing for the authority of the Church, which effectively was also a call to arms for the shepherds of the flock, but the only opinion against which the shepherds were willing to deploy their crooks was that of the orthodox. Newman, like Dean Nick, found himself in a dilemma which had no resolution. Those who dissented on the liberal side were happy to defy ecclesiastical authority in the name of ‘freedom of expression'; those who called for a reinforcement of orthodoxy were hoist by their own petard when the bishops got worried. If one believes in the authority of bishops, then when they tell you to shut up, you really have no choice but to obey. You do not have open to you the option of writing contumacious letters demanding to know on what grounds your father in God is calling you to silence, because that is not the way your mind goes. But what do you do?
For Newman, in the end, the answer was clear – cross the Tiber. Back then Rome was a hissing and a by-word for reactionary orthodoxy, although one is minded to quote Evelyn Waugh’s complain that the Church had never quite managed to put the clock back by a minute. There is, to the orthodox, nothing ‘reactionary’ about holding to the faith ‘once given’, as given and as held by our forefathers. In fact, the Orthodox call it giving the ancestors a voice. Tradition, for orthodox Christians is vitally important, not because they oppose change, but because they see no reason to change what the Church has done for such a long time. When, as with the case of marriage as raised by Deacon Nick, it is something Christ himself has said, there really is no debate.
Those who think there is going to be a change in the forthcoming Synod remind me of those who awaited Humanae Vitae in the confident expectation that the advice of the ‘experts’ would be heeded; but Pope Paul VI knew he had no choice but to stick with the teaching of the Church. His reputation among the liberals never recovered; Pope Francis will discover the same if he holds to what Jesus said.