These comments from Thomas Merton, which I owe to Prof. Gregory Hillis, match my own feelings. That someone will comment unfavourably on Merton, and that they will do it from the conservative position Merton describes, is inevitable- and prove Merton’s point. Too much of the reaction to Amoris Laetitia shows a closedness to each other. From the liberals I so expect it that, sadly, it ceases to even worry me. Their desire to turn the Church into a creature of their imaginings is so strong that they fail even to grasp the poverty of their imagination. That so many conservatives seem to match Merton’s description does worry me because, on the whole they are on the right side of things. What custom and practice have sanctified we should be slow to want to change, and what is doctrine and dogma cannot be changed. But how sad it is that some here cannot see that it is out of argument and discussion that so much of our dogma and doctrine have developed.
When Arius began to explain to us why the New Testament supported his argument that Christ was a creature, he crystallised a line of thinking which had a long pedigree, and in so doing provoked others to explain why he was wrong. But even the decision of the Fathers at Nicaea that he was wrong, failed to settle the argument. This was not because the Church was full of heretics, it was because Arius’ line of argument spoke to simple minds who could grasp that if God created every thing and he had a son, he must have created the son too. That was far more comprehensible than the idea of God being uncreated and the Son being uncreated, and the Son and the Spirit proceeding from the Father. Had Athanasius and others not kept the argument going, we should not have arrived at the agreement we did on the Trinity and the Creed. Had he and the Arians been capable of discussing this without throwing anathemata about and using force, who knows, it might even have been settled in a better way, but the point stands – discussion, even heated discussion, is better than suppression and no discussion.
It is sometimes objected that all of this is too much for the general public – as though somehow the search for greater understanding of the Truth is some gnostic enterprise to be carried on in private between consenting adults. It was not so in the time of Athanasius, and cannot be so in a world of mass literacy. Catholics have always interpreted the inessentials, and sometimes the essentials, in different ways, and the Church, unlike some of those who claim to be it or to speak on its behalf, has encompassed a wide variety of styles of worship and even interpretation. Those who are of a decided opinion can find this process uncomfortable, but it is inevitable – unless one wants to proceed as we used to on a basis of banned books and an absence of free speech. As the Merton quotation shows, there are those, on all sides who, it seems would feel happier with this. They cannot it seems to me, call Christ in aid of that – which is why his church proceeds the way it does.
It is out of discussion and debate that deeper understandings of the truth have emerged – even, sometimes, by ways no one could have expected. We either have faith that the Church is what it claims – in which case it cannot lose the Truth – or we don’t, in which case why are we in it?