With the Synod on the family about to start, already the rumour mill is doing overtime with conspiracy theories. It was, alas, ever thus, although in times past it was only among the bishops and senior clergy, and most of the faithful got to know about it, if at all, years later. If we look for a moment at the first great schism in the Church, we shall see how it was them.
In A.D. 451 at Chalcedon, the Fathers of the Oriental Orthodox argued that the Council had agreed to a definition of the Two natures of Our Lord which was novel (in that it needed the use of new, and non-Biblical language to define it); they declined to accept it. Over the next century and a half, despite many efforts, the split proved impossible to heal and goes on to this day. The Oriental Orthodox argue that they have changed nothing; it is everyone else who has added to the ‘faith once received’. In the end this, as with all theological arguments, comes down to a question of authority: who defines what is orthodox and by what right?
The Orthodox, Chalcedonian and Non-Chalcedonian, argue for the Monarchical bishop on the Ignatian model; where the people are gathered around the Bishop, there the Church is. But what happens when Bishops fail to agree on points of doctrine and dogma? That question was regularly asked and answered in the early Church; a Council would decide. But as Chalcedon showed, there were limitations in that – what did you do when a whole section of the Church rejected the majority view? That question has never been answered.
The Catholic Church, whatever shortcomings are laid to its charge, has an answer to the question: in the final analysis the Pope is the arbiter; he speaks with the authority given to St. Peter by Our Lord Himself. Leaving aside, for now, those Churches and ecclesial communities which reject such a view, the question arises as to why the Catholic Church itself is beset with dissident groups?
In an article in the Daily Telegraph, Peter Stanford collected a set of dissident voices and assembled them into a piece questioning the whole Curia and the Pope. Those quoted, including a journalist who cried when Benedict XVI was elected, represent a not insignificant number of British Catholics whose attitude towards much of the teaching of their own Church appears close to contempt. They don’t like opposition to women priests, gay marriage, they do like opposition to celibacy and an all-male priesthood. Quite how this differs from much Protestantism seems hard for me to tell; it bears the main hall-mark of it – dissent from the authority of the Pope. All that has now changed for them is that the current Pope seems, to them, to be in agreement with some of their agenda. That he is not in complete agreement is something they tend to disregard, but which may be significant all the same.
No doubt such people would regard their dissent as ‘licit’, even as those in the SSPX would also apply that therm to themselves; has there ever been a religious dissenter who regarded himself as ‘illicit’? If, as is the case in the Catholic Church, there is a clear authority which decides this question, what are we to make of those who glory in the name of Catholic but disregard it? Are those who once supported the Pope in the form of St John Paul II and Benedict XVI now to swap places with the Stanfords of this world?