Some Catholic ‘traditionalists’ have about the same relationship with the Catholic tradition as the BNP with the English Conservative tradition

Pope Francis in silhouette during a private audience today (AP)

Well, Pope Francis continues to fascinate us all, and to unnerve some, even including old died in the wool papalists like me; though I still have a pretty unshakeable confidence that all is well. Pope Francis, though truly God’s Vicar, is only human (actually, his frankness on that score is part of his fascination for the non-Catholic world) and like ordinary human beings he (though no pope can be ordinary) is still open to errors of judgment, especially when it comes to such problems as making appointments to senior positions (Pope John Paul made several misjudgments of that kind: all of them, to my mind gloriously neutralised by his inspired appointment as prefect of the CDF of a certain Joseph Ratzinger).

Fr Tim Finigan, probably with all this in mind, had a characteristically clear-minded post on Sunday (how does he find the time?), headlined ”Assent and papal magisterium” – this piece comprised, he said, “a few notes concerning the papal magisterium from classical Catholic theology”.

He reminds us of what we already knew, or should have known: “when the Pope defines ex cathedra a doctrine concerning faith or morals, he enjoys that infallibility with which Our Lord willed the Church to be endowed. To these definitions, we must give the assent of faith.” So far so clear. And: “The Pope also teaches with an authentic magisterium (teaching authority) that is not infallible. Examples of such teaching are the encyclical letters of the Pope, and decrees issued by the Holy See in forma specifica”. This is also clear enough and, for Catholics at least ought to be uncontroversial.

But: “decrees of the Holy See may be issued merely in forma communi. This approval means that they are legitimate, authentic and to be promulgated. But this approval does not make such statements to be formal decrees of the Supreme Pontiff. To such statements or decrees, we must give obedience, though we may internally disagree with them“.

The trouble with that “internal disagreement”, however, is that there are plenty of people who think that they are loyal Catholics, but who think that that disagreement automatically entitles them to say that their conscience authorises their public opposition and disobedience. As I shall argue, not for the first time, they have a fatally defective understanding of the word “conscience”.

Non-infallible papal decrees, says Fr Finigan, “are inferior to ex cathedra statements but, as part of the authentic magisterium of the Supreme Pontiff, they do not require the assent of faith but they do demand our religious submission of mind and will. Lumen Gentium n.25 affirms this.” (My italics).

Hence, he goes on:

if you are troubled by some statements that Pope Francis has made in his recent interviews, it is not disloyalty, or a lack of Romanita to disagree with the details of some of the interviews which were given off-the-cuff.

Naturally, if we disagree with the Holy Father, we do so with the deepest respect and humility, conscious that we may need to be corrected. However, papal interviews do not require either the assent of faith that is given to ex cathedra statements or that internal submission of mind and will that is given to those statements that are part of his non-infallible but authentic magisterium.

In the case of Blessed John Paul II and Benedict XVI, there were liberal commentators who rubbished the authentic magisterium, contradicted the traditional teaching of the Church, and generally treated those Popes with disrespect. We must never do this to the successor of St Peter. In giving a reasonable opinion which may disagree with an informal and off-the-cuff remark, we must always retain that Catholic spirit which respects the person and the office of the Supreme Pontiff, the successor of St Peter. We are neither ultramontanes nor gallicans but loyal Catholics in the tradition of St John Fisher, St Thomas More, St Catherine of Siena, St Vincent of Ferrer and others who from time to time respectfully took issue with some of the statements or actions of the Vicar of Christ.

Fr Finigan is arguing here against people who have been understood by most Catholics who try to be faithful sons and daughters of the Church to be either wholehearted secularists or (much worse) disloyal and self-willed Catholics: those who have over recent decades “rubbished the authentic magisterium, contradicted the traditional teaching of the Church, and generally treated [popes John Paul and Benedict] with disrespect.”

The Catholics who worry me far more, however (at least we know where we are with the Tabletistas), are those who claim to be traditionalists, but who accept no duty whatever always to “retain that Catholic spirit which respects the person and the office of the Supreme Pontiff, the successor of St Peter”. They despised and disrespected Popes Benedict and John Paul (preposterously claiming they were liberals): and now they disrespect Pope Francis. They think of themselves as traditionalists and theological Conservatives. As far as I can see, they have about the same relationship with the Catholic tradition as – to make a parallel with the world of secular English politics – the British National Party has with the English Conservative tradition. They have, among other things, the same ideas about “conscience” as the theological liberals: their conscience tells them to do and think whatever their own self-will tells it to tell them. They, too, probably invoke Newman, as the liberals do, saying “I shall drink – to the Pope, if you please, – still, to Conscience first, and to the Pope afterwards.”

Those are the final words, of course, of Section 5 of Newman’s Letter to the Duke of Norfolk, the disloyal Catholic’s banner, which allows them, so they think, to invoke the hallowed name of John Henry Newman, the greatest defender in modern times of the Catholic tradition, as their spokesman. They deceive themselves: Newman would have rejected such a gross misuse of his words with anger and scorn. They have not, of course, actually read the Letter to the Duke of Norfolk. It is a long document: you need all day to read it. But simply to take Section 5 (some 4,500 words long), it is not possible to read it without, in paragraph 3, coming across this:

[The traditional Catholic] view of conscience, I know, is very different from that ordinarily taken of it, both by the science and literature, and by the public opinion, of this day. It is founded on the doctrine that conscience is the voice of God, whereas it is fashionable on all hands now to consider it in one way or another a creation of man. … When Anglicans, Wesleyans, the various Presbyterian sects in Scotland, and other denominations among us, speak of conscience, they mean what we mean, the voice of God in the nature and heart of man, as distinct from the voice of Revelation…. They consider it, as Catholics consider it, to be the internal witness of both the existence and the law of God. They think it holds of God, and not of man, as an Angel walking on the earth would be no citizen or dependent of the Civil Power.

The voice of conscience is emphatically distinct from our own inclinations and desires, which it will often contradict and countermand. “Conscience,” insisted Newman, “is not a long-sighted selfishness, nor a desire to be consistent with oneself; but it is a messenger from Him, who, both in nature and in grace, speaks to us behind a veil, and teaches and rules us by His representatives. Conscience is the aboriginal Vicar of Christ, a prophet in its informations, a monarch in its peremptoriness, a priest in its blessings and anathemas, and, even though the eternal priesthood throughout the Church could cease to be, in it the sacerdotal principle would remain and would have a sway”. And the conscience of a Catholic will be guided and formed by the Church’s Magisterium. It will lead him to disobey or argue against papal teaching only with extreme reluctance. Back to Newman:

Lest I should be misunderstood, that when I speak of Conscience, I mean conscience truly so called. When it has the right of opposing the supreme, though not infallible Authority of the Pope, it must be something more than that miserable counterfeit which, as I have said above, now goes by the name. If in a particular case it is to be taken as a sacred and sovereign monitor, its dictate, in order to prevail against the voice of the Pope, must follow upon serious thought, prayer, and all available means of arriving at a right judgment on the matter in question. And further, obedience to the Pope is what is called “in possession;” that is, the onus probandi of establishing a case against him lies, as in all cases of exception, on the side of conscience. Unless a man is able to say to himself, as in the Presence of God, that he must not, and dare not, act upon the papal injunction, he is bound to obey it, and would commit a great sin in disobeying it.

Finally, in Fr Finigans’s words, which I repeat once more, “we must always retain that Catholic spirit which respects the person and the office of the Supreme Pontiff, the successor of St Peter”. Far too many Catholics, especially some self-proclaimed traditionalists, appear to take pleasure in speaking of Pope Francis with the grossest disrespect, even contempt. They are no more “traditionalist” Catholics than a member of the English Defence League is a loyal Englishman.