End Notes: Primus Inter Impares

There seem to be two kinds of Catholic, those who will believe nothing and those who will believe anything. Of course there is another kind as well, those who believe what the Holy Catholic Church teaches.

If the Holy Father ever gets around to reading the South Bend Tribune he will find in the December 19 issue a letter from someone who claims a personal magisterium. The writer has decided, and hereby announces, that a male priesthood is not a matter of faith and that therefore he can go on being a good Catholic while rejecting all Vatican declarations to the contrary. But of course if he is right, the pope and two thousand years of tradition are wrong. In all consistency the writer should have excommunicated the pope and declared that long tradition an aberration.

When Luther strode up to the entrance of the cathedral at Wittenberg and nailed his theses to the door, he knew which side of that door was in and which was out. He knew it was a pretty serious thing to accuse the pope of heresy. Luther had his faults, but failure to understand the principle of contradiction was not among them. He knew that if he was right, the pope was wrong. And vice versa. His deed implied that an Augustinian monk had equal status in the Church with the pope in declaring what was and what was not the faith. But if one Augustinian monk, why not another? Why not the laity? Private interpretation and the sovereignty of one’s conscience are the road to a theological pluralism that might give even dissenting theologians pause.

The “encyclical” printed in the South Bend Tribune can have only autobiographical significance. The writer no longer accepts what the Church teaches. His sad effort to elevate his theological and ecclesiological confusions into a measure for others is simply more autobiographical data.

A Church in which all are popes is like an army with nothing but generals. “the people of God” becomes an empty phrase meaning only whatever anyone says it means. If we all get to decide what the term “Catholic” means, well, then of course we can all claim to be Catholic in whatever sense we choose to give the term. I suppose I could be heavyweight champion of the world on that basis—maybe even a theologian.

Those who hunger for private revelations, who jump in the van and head off for every reported apparition of the Blessed Virgin Mary, may look worlds apart from the kind of Alice in Wonderland Catholics just described—and doubtless in most cases they are. One purpose of miracles is to confirm the faith, and doubtless this is what many pilgrims are after. But this presumes that miracles actually take place at these sites.

The rule on private apparitions is that the Church will decide on their authenticity—or their inauthenticity. A little reflection on that makes it clear that it is the purported messages that must conform to the magisterium, not the reverse. Yet many seem to think that new doctrines are being revealed in such apparitions and that the pope had better sign onto them quick, or else. One Canadian priest has been conducting a vitriolic and increasingly anti-papal crusade because, he claims, the pope has not complied with Mary’s demand at Fatima that Russia be consecrated to her Immaculate Heart. The subtext is that, once this is done, all sorts of wonderful things will happen. For this man, Fatima has become the revelation to which the Church must conform.

There is a great deal of theological confusion here—and it bears a good deal of similarity with the creative Catholicism discussed above. In both cases, there is something prior and superior to the magisterium to which the magisterium must bend. In the first case, the feverish certitudes of a writer in South Bend; in the second case, the alleged messages of Mary in this farmyard or that filling station.

Devotion to Mary is the essence of Catholicism. The dogmatic constitution on the Church culminates in a chapter dealing with Mary as the Mother of the Church. Her feasts and festivals are scattered through the liturgical year. There is absolutely nothing new that we have to learn about her, her role in the Church, or what we must do to be saved. Authentic apparitions like Lourdes and Fatima confirm and defer to the Church and teach nothing the perusal of a penny catechism would not tell us.

My own weakness for private revelations and apparitions is the quite human one of wanting to know what’s coming up next in world history. I have found a remedy for this curiosity that by and large works. Today, I tell myself, was tomorrow only yesterday. Would yesterday have been any better if I had known then about today? Gamblers will of course cry “Yes!” But life, pace Pascal, is not a gamble.

We have but one teacher, Christ, and the Church he founded. In confused and feverish times, this is a consolation for which we should be eternally grateful.


Ralph McInerny was a popular writer, philosopher, and teacher, as well as the co-founder of Crisis Magazine. He passed away on January 29, 2010.

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