Crises, Tiding & Revelations: The Catholic Moment in England

The following meditations were presented by Doctor Graham Leonard at Littlemore, England.

I hope that I may be forgiven if I begin with some personal remarks. I think that I have reason for doing so, speaking as I am in Littlemore of one in whose relationship to God a consuming concern for truth was inextricably related to his awareness of himself as a person created above all to obey God.

I was brought up in a religious atmosphere which was in many ways similar to that of the Newman household. “Newman,” says Fr. Ian Ker, “grew up as an ordinary member of the established Church of England. His parents belonged to what their son was later to call ‘the national religion of England’ or `Bible religion,’ consisting ‘not in rites or creeds, but mainly in having the Bible read in Church, in the family, and in private.'” The grounding in the Prayer Book Catechism which I received laid emphasis on the moral duties which were incumbent upon those who sought to live Christian lives. Roman Catholics were regarded with mystified respect and as living on another planet.

I then came under the influence of evangelical Christianity, which, while emphasizing the centrality of the Cross, made so much of the need for conversion and justification by faith that what mattered was whether one was aware of being saved. Fr. Ker quotes Newman as saying, “He who aims at attaining sound doctrine or right practice more or less looks out of himself; whereas in laboring after a certain frame of mind, there is a habitual reflex action of the mind upon itself . . . for, as if it were not enough for a man to look up simply to Christ for salvation it is declared to he necessary that he should be able to recognize this in himself.” It was precisely this expectation, which if unfulfilled brought charges of being unconverted or unsound, which led me to look elsewhere, though not at that time to the Roman Catholic Church which was regarded as propagating unbiblical error.

Looking back over my childhood, what is astonishing is that, in spite of what I have said, I cannot remember a time when I was not conscious of the figure of Cardinal Newman. How this came to be I cannot tell. That Newman’s writings were in my father’s library is surprising, but there they were. It was partly through his hymns such as “Praise to the holiest in the height” and “Lead, kindly Light” and later through the “Dream of Gerontius,” which I read long before I heard Elgar’s music. I have here the copy which I used to read. A surreptitious visit to the London Oratory during my early teens which both terrified and fascinated me led me to learn something of Newman and the Oratory.

 

When I came to hear Rudolf Otto’s description of the numinous, “mysterium tremendum et fascinans,” it spoke to me of Newman, that enigmatic and compelling figure who, while deeply involved in the ecclesiastical affairs of the time, also seemed to move above them and to stand for true religion, based on an intense awareness of God as the End of our being and of the capacity of man to know God through the Gospel.

Why do I begin in this way? During the years which followed, when I was at Oxford, when I was in the army, when I was at theological college, when I was ordained, then working as a priest and as a bishop as one who believed that the Catholic faith could be lived in the Church of England, it seemed as if Newman was there as guide and mentor. Not that he was ever-present in my thoughts. I cannot call myself a student of Newman, though I constantly turn to what he wrote. It is as if, from time to time, he has brought and brings a new insight, directing me to a particular line of thought. So it was that, some twenty and more years ago I came to speak of what I called a “fundamental realignment” which has been gaining momentum since the Second World War. I spoke of it in 1987 in the Green Lecture at Fulton, Missouri, and did so in these words:

To put it in very basic terms, it is a realignment between those, on the one hand, who believe that the Christian Gospel is revealed by God, is to be heard and received and that its purpose is to enable men and women to obey God in love, and through them for creation itself to be redeemed. On the other hand are those who believe that it can and should be modified and adapted to the cultural and intellectual attitudes and demands of successive generations — indeed originates in them.

It is a realignment which cuts across existing denominational differences. It exists within churches as well as between them.

In my lecture, I drew attention to three arguments which are adduced to support the second position. First are the arguments based on cultural relativism, by which it is maintained that all judgments about historical events are culturally conditioned and cannot convey objective knowledge. The second argument criticizes what is called “propositional theology,” and maintains that such truth as there is in the events of redemption lies in the events themselves and in the existential impact they make upon us, not in any propositions which seek to express their meaning. Thirdly, belief in what is called “an interventionalist God” is rejected. Man is, in effect, left to his own devices, as he seeks to live within the overall purpose of God. I came to realize that, in his own peculiarly distinctive way, Newman had anticipated such arguments and dealt with them. I called my lecture “The Tyranny of Subjectivism” because such a subjective attitude to truth locks us into the thought forms and attitudes of our time. The real difference between the two positions is whether man is to be so incarcerated or whether, by obedience to God and the pattern of the universe He has created and sustains, man is to receive the true and creative liberty of the sons of God.

Newman predicted the effects of secularism, already evident in his day, and anticipated our present situation. But he also shows how the Church must face the crisis which Father Richard John Neuhaus has diagnosed as a crisis of unbelief. As Neuhaus has written:

The greatest threat to the world is not political or economic or military. The greatest problem in the Church is not institutional decline or disarray. The crisis of this time and every time is the crisis of unbelief. With a sense of urgency that the world, and much of the Church finds embarrassing, Rome persists in asking, ‘When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?’ The Pope is exercised not about dissent but about apostasy. He is attempting to chart a Christian course that is not so much against modernity as it is beyond modernity. The only modernity to be discarded is the debased modernity of unbelief that results in a prideful and premature closure of the world against its promised destiny.

Neuhaus has described the present situation as “the Catholic Moment” by which he means that the realignment of which I have spoken demands that the Church should be true to her nature, and, recognizing that the crisis is one of unbelief, must unashamedly proclaim that the justice, liberty, and human fulfillment which men seek are to be given only through the Gospel, which is the gospel of truth. This, as Newman made clear, demands the proper exercise of the Magisterium, which decides what interpretations and expositions of doctrine are consonant with the Catholic Faith. Anglicanism has appealed to what is called “diffused authority” but, to my mind, it has now been amply demonstrated that such a concept will not take the strain and is inadequate to meet the pastoral needs of ordinary men and women, who cannot be expected to assess the merits of the latest ideas of scholars. The preservation of the Apostolic Tradition as the Church seeks to bring successive cultures under the judgment of revealed truth and to relate it to each generation, requires that the contributions of scholars and saints, of theologians and historians, should be assessed, related to each other, and, when need arises, corrected. The lack of a magisterium leads to fragmentation. Its exercise integrates.

It is for these reasons that the publications [of Newman works] which are before us today are to be so warmly welcomed.

 

William Oddie’s admirable introduction to his new edition of the Apologia directs us to that unity of a person with his theology which makes Newman such a compelling figure. Yet he does not compel by manipulation. While stating the facts and pressing his arguments remorselessly, by what Fr. Ker describes as “the (almost) disconcertingly calm, limpid tone of the author’s conversational, indeed confidential voice,” Newman leaves the reader in no doubt that the response must be his own personal one.

William Oddie notes that the underlying themes of today’s controversies are in some ways remarkably similar to those of Newman’s day. It is much to be hoped that this excellent new edition will bring many to appreciate that what is at stake is the revealed nature of the Christian Gospel and to the truth that obedience to that Gospel brings freedom, not restriction.

 

Our debt to Fr. Ker is already immense. It is increased by his Newman and the Fullness of Christianity. In it he not only brings further illumination to the development of Newman’s thought, he relates it specifically to the present situation. He sets it in the context of Pope John Paul II’s call for the evangelization of Europe during the 1990s. He demonstrates how Newman’s call for reform in the Catholic church has been fulfilled by the Second Vatican Council. He says that “the positive elements in the non-Catholic varieties of Christianity, as Newman experienced them, have still to contribute to the more perfect and effective realization of the fullness in Catholicism.” This is especially encouraging for those of us who believe that the Catholic Moment calls for us to be reconciled to the See of Peter if the true and eternal Gospel is to be proclaimed and who believe that this can be achieved without our denying what is true in our present allegiances. That there is good in the Anglican tradition which should not be lost is made evident in Fr. Nichols’ book, The Panther and the Hind, which I am very glad to commend again. He, too, insists that, if integration of those who stand by revealed doctrine is to be achieved, it will come to pass only by acceptance of the Magisterium.

Let me end by repeating the words from the Instruction on the Ecclesial Vocation of the Theologian issued by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in 1990 which Fr. Nichols quotes in The Panther and the Hind, words which finely express the mind of Newman himself: “Service to the ecclesial community brings the theologian and the Magisterium into a reciprocal relationship. The latter authentically teaches the doctrine of the Apostles. And, benefitting from the work of theologians, it refutes objections to and distortions of the faith and promotes, with the authority received from Jesus Christ, new and deeper comprehension, clarification, and application of revealed doctrine.

By

Graham Douglas Leonard (1921 – 2010) was a British priest. His principal ministry was as a bishop of the Church of England but, after his retirement as the Bishop of London, he became a Roman Catholic, becoming the most senior Anglican cleric to do so since the English Reformation. He was conditionally ordained to the priesthood in the Roman Catholic Church and was later appointed a monsignor by Pope John Paul II.

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