The Religion of the Plain Man / by Robert Hugh Benson


V -- Infallibility


"IT is very well," says John, "to compare I the Catholic Church to a tree, and to explain its apparent changes by development; but the theory has its disadvantages. Chief among these is the risk of wrong development, or deformity. How am I to know whether, for example, Transubstantiation is not a growth upon the Vine, that has no right to be there? How can I tell that the Petrine claims are not of the same nature, and that the Pope, as we see him to-day, is not a kind of tumour upon the mystical body, that has arrogated to itself the functions of a head?"

1. But, as he considers the matter, the probability of deformity appears to him to be at least very unlikely.

As amatter of fact, the Church of Rome is in possession of the world in a way in which no other institution is in possession. It numbers at least half the entire Christian world, and this half is endowed with a unity entirely lacking in the other half. Non-Catholics are united in one point only, namely, in their denial of the Papacy; Catholics are united not only in their view of the Papacy but in all other points of doctrine as well. This Church also, which John now calls Catholic, has provided saints in quality and quantity such as no other institution has ever produced; it is of all ages, countries and characters; it has a continuity in which its fiercest enemies can point to no breach; and, lastly, these two points which he has advanced as being possible deformities are not merely small external growths which can be detached from the body without injuring its life -- they are of its very essence and vitality. As the Papacy is the heart of its doctrinal systerif, so Transubstantiation is the heart of its devotional life. From both pour out a stream of faith and prayer that reach the furthest fibres of its being. Cut these two things out of the Catholic Church, and the whole body perishes.

If then for the purposes of argument it is granted that these two points are instances of wrong development, John will have to acknowledge that GOD Almighty, who promised that His Church should not be prevailed against by the gates of hell, has allowed one half of those who call themselves Christians to be fundamently perverted in their dogmatic and devotional life, and the other half to be so internally divided that they neither reckon themselves nor are reckoned by the world as forming one body at all. According to this view then the Creator of the world, who preserves millions of trees in health and perfection, has allowed His heavenly Vine to be rent by disease and schism; He who brings man's natural stature to health and maturity has permitted the mystical Body of His Son to become as that of a leper and a cripple.

"Yes," answers John to his own thoughts, "I must confess that it appears to me unlikely that Almighty GOD would allow His Vine to be so poisoned by error. I should have expected of Him that He would have given it some safeguard, some instinct of choosing good and refusing evil,{1} such as He has given to man's natural life, and even to senseless vegetables which He has enabled to draw out of the soil what is good for their life and to reject what is useless or poisonous. It is this instinct which I understand by the word infallibility, that is, an unerring power of distinguishing between what is true and what is not, between what affects doctrinal and devotional life for good or for evil, between what can be healthily incorporated and what must be resolutely refused. But, on the other hand, GOD does not always do what seems likely and probable; H is ways are past finding out. Let me consider therefore what are possible alternatives to this endowment of infallibility which the Roman Catholic Church claims for itself."

2. On reflection he finds that they are three in number.

(i) The infallibility of nobody. (ii) The infallibility of everybody. (iii) The infallibility of some body other than the Roman Catholic Church.

He considers them one by one.

(i) The infallibility of nobody.

The articles of the Church of England state that infallibility is to be found in no one body, and that the Church of Rome has erred, as also have the Churches of Antioch and Jerusalem, even in matters of faith.{2} Neither does the Church of England apparently believe that infallibility is to be found in all of these acting together, although she pays a great deference, in her words, to what she calls Catholic Doctors. She believes, then, in a general kind of way, in the guidance of antiquity,{3} but she does not believe in its guaranteed immunity from error.

John finds himself therefore, so far as he follows her teaching, in the following situation:

Nineteen hundred years ago there lived, it is reported, one called JESUS CHRIST. After His death a number of His admirers wrote His history, relating many marvels and adding comments. These histories were sorted out by a body of persons liable to error (for even general councils, says the Church of England, are so liable{4}), and summaries called creeds were drawn up by these same fallible authorities. Since those days a thousand further questions have been answered, and a body of doctrine has gradually taken shape under the hands of men unsafeguarded against mistake. To this body of doctrine he is bidden to give his adherence.

Yet what reason has he for doing so? Gradual development is repudiated because of the probability of human error creeping in -- the Church of Rome is attacked for that very reason. He is asked therefore to give supernatural faith to the results arrived at by fallible men concerning the life and person of One concerning whom there has ever been enormous controversy, whose history was written by persons whose only claim to authority is the sanction given them by fallible councils, and who Himself lived in the East, an uncritical district in an uncritical age.

What kind of security is there that the account of that Person is to be relied upon, that His words and deeds are truly reported? Why should not those fallible councils have fallen into grievous error, including untrustworthy narratives in their so-called canon of Scripture, and excluding as heretical true comments on that life and Person? Perhaps the Gospel according to St John has no claim to authority! Perhaps the Church of England may be utterly wrong in thinking JESUS CHRIST divine! Perhaps the whole matter is a beautiful delusion from beginning to end!

Yet, even assuming that JESUS was GOD, the state of affairs is not much better; for, according to this theory of the fallibility of everybody, we may have wholly misconstrued the meaning of His words and acts; we are asked to give an unquestioning faith to things distinctly questionable; and JESUS CHRIST who brought usa revelation has provided no means of preserving it unimpaired.

"I may as well," cries John, "give it all up at once, and confess that unless there is somewhere on earth an authority that speaks infallibly, it would have been much better if I had never been tantalized by a glimpse of a truth which I am unable to apprehend."

(ii) The infallibility of everybody.

This, in effect, is the claim of many Protestants. Every man, they say, who has received the gift of faith, and who prayerfully cultivates it, is illuminated from on high with a power of discerning between true and false, and of rightfully understanding the Holy Scriptures.

"Now if," says John, "I am told that the Pope's infallibility is impossible to believe, how can I be expected to think the infallibility of, let us say, two hundred million persons is easier of belief? Is not this straining at a gnat, and swallowino a very large herd of gigantic camels? Besides, these infallible individuals differ diametrically on points of faith. General Booth is certainly a sincere and prayerful man, and he tells me that baptism is an unnecessary piece of ceremonial; while Dr Guinness Rogers urges it as at least very important. The Wesleyans are infallible when they tell me that I am free to choose or refuse GOD; and the Calvinists are infallible when they tell me that I am nothing of the kind. And so forth.

"I am therefore in a worse position than ever; for it is even more bewildering to believe that GOD demands from me faith in a large number of not only irreconcilable but flatly contradictory propositions, than that He has taken no steps at all to secure the infallible transmission of His revelation in JESUS CHRIST."

(iii) The infallibility of somebody other than the Roman Catholic Church.

Now the principal exponents in England of this last alternative are to be found among those whom their enemies call "Ritualists."

Briefly, as John has learnt in the past, the theory is as follows:

The infallible Church of GOD consists of those bodies of Christians, acting together, who hold the old creeds of Christendom and have retained at least the threefold order of ministers, bishops, priests and deacons. Roughly speaking, these may be enumerated as the communions of Rome, Moscow and Canterbury. These three circles, however, are not absolutely coincident; each has its own peculiarities, and it is only in that part where all three overlap that complete security is to be found. For example, all three communions hold, at any rate in their written formularies, such doctrines as those of the Real Presence and the sacrament of Penance{5} (to mention points of controversy). Other doctrines such as the sacrifice of the Mass, invocation of saints, and prayers for the dead, while held explicitly by Rome and Moscow, cannot be demonstrated, say the Ritualists, as actually and literally incompatible with the formularies of the Church of England, even though until the last seventy years very nearly all, and at the present moment more than half of her children, following at any rate a possible interpretation of her "Articles," strenuously deny them.{6}

"But let us waive all these questions," says John, "and take the Ritualistic theory as proved. In what condition does it leave us?

"To my first question, How does this infallible authority -- i.e., the agreement between Rome, Moscow and Canterbury -- utter her voice? the answer is, For the present she speaks by silent agreement, in the future it is to be hoped that she will speak by a general council.

"Again (waiving the matter of the Twenty-first Article, which expressly states that general councils 'may err, even in things pertaining to GOD'), I ask: Is there any kind of possibility, humanly speaking, that such a general council will ever be gathered? How is such a council possible when one of the three partners repudiates the jurisdiction and position of one of the others, and the jurisdiction, position and orders of the third; when the second partner repudiates the first and third altogether; and only a small section of the third partner believes in the theory at all? Is this any more than a paper-theory, that may be maintained for purposes of argument, but which is utterly useless to people like myself, alive at this moment, who want to know what to believe?

"As for the 'silent agreement,' I asked not about silence, but speech. I asked how this infallible authority speaks, not what she may be believed to imply; for implication is an uncertain ground to go upon. I may take one view of what she implies, and you may take another. Where then is the voice that will decide between us? You do not find it in your own bishops, for you do not obey them, but appeal from them back once more to this 'silent agreement,' or to the future speech of a council that you know will never meet. Is not this tangle insoluble? Are we not at the whirling edge of a vicious circle?

"Yet again, I will waive all this and take your theory for granted.

"I understand that you do, as a matter of fact, base your acceptance of the Real Presence, the sacrament of Penance, and so on, upon this agreement of what you call the Church Diffusive; in fact you base your whole faith upon it. I must ask then a very fundamental question: Does this theory of silent agreement itself find support from what you call the Catholic Church? Do Rome, Moscow and Canterbury accept the positions into which you thrust them? Do they acknowledge that infallible authority resides in the overlapping of their respective tenets, and nowhere else? For it is impossible to base individual doctrines up on a foundation which is itself repudiated by itself."

"I must confess," answers the Ritualist, "that Rome and Moscow, to say nothing of Canterbury, do refuse the theory. Rome arrogantly claims to be the whole of the Catholic Church; Moscow claims to be alone orthodox."

"Then," cries John once more, "I have to accept this theory upon your authority alone. You base your authority upon this theory, and this theory upon your authority. Have you ever heard of the Indian theory of the universe? The world stands on an elephant, the elephant upon a tortoise; and the tortoise, apparently, upon the world!

"My dear sir," continues John to his imaginary Ritualist, "you really must let me alone. I am more bewildered than I can describe. You forget that I am not a scholar like yourself. To my poor brain your theory appears like the dream of a professor who never leaves his college. And yet I am quite aware that you do magnificent work in practical life; that you sacrifice yourself nobly for GOD's poor, that you teach them uplifting doctrines, and set them an example that we should all do well to follow. But in your theory you are a dreamer; it is a city in the clouds that inspires your Journey; it moves before you, changing its shape with every wind that blows; never descending to dwell among men. For myself, I cannot walk in its light; I need a Jerusalem which has GOD for its architect, and which, though its head reaches to heaven, yet has its foundations and gates upon earth. For the twentieth time, I am a simple man; and with all the good will in the world I cannot honestly believe in a living authority which has undergone petrifaction, in a vine which consists of branches severed one from another, in a speaking voice which is dumb, in a republic which has no president, in a life which offers no proof of its existence. I admire your works, I am astonished at your ingenuity; but I cannot believe in your theories. I shall be obliged if you will let me alone, and allow me to look at the Penny Catechism once more."

"The Church has a visible Head on earth -- the Bishop of Rome, who is the Vicar of CHRIST. He is the shepherd and teacher of all Christians, and he cannot err when, as shepherd and teacher of all Christians, he defines a doctrine concerning faith and morals to be held by the whole Church. . . The Church has marks by which we know her. . . She is one because all her members agree in one faith. . . and are all united under one Head. . . She is distinguished by the eminent holiness of . . . many thousands of her children. . . She subsists in all ages, teaches all nations. . . She holds the doctrines and traditions of the apostles. . . and derives her Orders and Mission from them. . . She cannot err because CHRIST promised that the gates of hell shall never prevail against His Church; that the Holy Ghost shall teach her all things, and that He Himself will be with her. . . even to the consummation of the world."{7}

"Ah!" he cries, "at least I understand this theory. GOD has not left us comfortless: He has planted His Vine and safeguarded her against error. He has established an authority which speaks with His voice.

"And the whole of my observation confirms the theory. It is written not on paper, but in the lives and hearts of men. I see a unity here, unlike any other unity in the world; I hear a voice consistent with itself and louder than all the cries of conflict, and a message that is the same for simple and wise alike; I see a Figure moving through the ages, overshadowing every country, and bearing on herself the marks of the LORD JESUS; and I hear millions of voices acclaiming her as divine. Her children are not required to be infallible; they are not asked to expect personal illumination from heaven on all points of doctrine; one thing only is given -- certitude that she is what she claims to be; one thing only is asked -- a simple act of faith in her mission.

"It seems to me when I pass from other theories to this that I am coming out from candlelight to day, that I am descending from a trapeze to the solid ground, that I am passing from a riot of anarchy into the presence of a quiet king. Scholarship is not asked of me, nor eloquence, nor ingenuity; no more is required than was required of Mary and Martha and James and Andrew, and which all can give -- that, looking upon this Figure, I should recognize it as from GOD, listening to the message I should acclaim it as divine; and that my highest joy and widest freedom should henceforth be found in sitting at those feet, resigning my self-will, and learning what the LORD GOD will say.

"But whether I can do all that is another question.

"For I have one vast difficulty yet to solve," says John; "and it is one that, unless answered, will knock the whole affair on the head. Is it not a fact that this infallible Church has been obliged more than once to recede from her position, and to deny what she once defined? If a single instance can be proved of this, the whole beautiful edifice falls at once.

"What about Galileo?"

It would delay us too long to follow John in his researches; but, briefly, this is the answer that he receives from a priest to whom he betakes himself:

"The Church never condemned Galileo. It was only the Inquisition."

"But is not the Inquisition one channel through which the Church speaks?"

"Not in that sense," answers the priest. "The Church only speaks infallibly in one of two ways: either through a General Council confirmed by the Pope, or through the Pope speaking by himself. It is all in the penny Catechism."

But the Pope assented to the condemnation of Galileo!"

"Not as Pope."

"Why, this is bewildering," cries John. "How am I to tell when the Pope speaks infallibly?"

"From the penny Catechism. Listen, my dear sir.

"'When I say that the Pope is infallible, I mean that the Pope cannot err when, as shepherd and teacher of all Christians, he defines a doctrine concerning faith or morals to be held by the whole Church.'{8} Do you see? Firstly, the Pope may be heretical in his private opinions or statements, as John XXII was, if it is true that he really said and meant that the saints do not see GOD. But that has nothing whatever to do with infallibility. He is not defining a doctrine to be held by the whole Church. Secondly, the Pope may make a mistake even in a solemn public utterance if it is not on a matter of faith or morals. For example, Pius X may be wrong when he thinks it good for the Church that Catholics should vote in government elections, and tells them to do so. (I do not say that it may not be better for us to obey even when we think he is wrong, because, after all, he is our religious superior, and is likely to know more about the matter than we; but we do not obey him then as infallible, but only as authoritative.)"

"Yes, yes, Father Brown; but how about Galileo? That was on the faith, because the Pope said it was distinctly heretical! And, you know, the earth does go round the sun after all!"

"Yes, but he was not speaking as 'the shepherd and teacher of all Christians,' but only as the chief official of the Inquisition. The king may give his assent to a resolution of the Privy Council, but that does not make it law. It is not the 'royal assent'; he does not speak 'as king,' but only as the chief person in the Privy Council."

"Oh! " says John.

"Yes, sir; I know it is surprising. But, after all, we must be allowed to know what we believe better than our enemies. Shall I go on?"

"If you please."

"Well, then, General Councils and Popes are only infallible on matters of faith and morals, and under the conditions I have described. And the reason is that faith and morals are the two vital functions of the Church. You told me a few days ago that unless there was an infallible authority somewhere, you did not see how it was possible to know what Christianity really is. I agreed with you.

"But all our affairs are not absolutely vital. Physical science is not. What is vital is only our religious belief and the morality of our actions; in other words, our faith and morals. Therefore the Church only claims infallibility in those things.

"Again, theologians may make mistakes even in those things, and so may the faithful. But then theologians are not infallible, nor are the faithful. What we must have, as you rightly said, is a final, infallible authority which declares to us as much of the mind of GOD as is necessary for us to know.

"Once more -- Popes and General Councils may state their definitions obscurely or feebly; we do not claim that 'GOD is the author' of their decrees in the same sense that He is the author of Scripture: we only claim that those definitions are true, and not untrue; otherwise, as you said, Where are we?"

"Yes, yes," interrupts John, "I see that. But then, if the Pope always was infallible, how comes it that he was ever resisted? Why did Meletius and Cyprian resist him? Why are councils necessary? Why didn't the early Christians simply appeal to the Pope and have things settled?

"That is an enormous question. Let me answer it by an allegory.

"You mentioned to me some days ago that you understood the theory of development. Very well. When a child is young, his head is his head, and is, in one sense, the ruler of his body. But the limbs don't quite realize it. He tries to walk, and falls down, because the limbs are not yet in full conscious relations with the brain. They are vitally one with the brain, and are, as a matter of fact, generally controlled by it; but the full realization of all that that means has not penetrated to his toes. So he tumbles.

"Gradually, however, the process of centralization goes on; the limbs learn that only by entire obedience to the head do they enjoy real security and liberty. That is the process that is called, in regard to the Catholic Church, the 'Romanizing' of nations; it means that while the Pope has always been the head, yet all that that implies is not fully and really understood by all the members of the Church. (The Gallican movement was retrograde, not progressive, therefore.) We may say then that the Vatican decree of '71, defining the Pope as infallible, was a kind of attaining of the majority; the Church, in a sort of way, 'came of age'; just as when a boy becomes a man, it implies that the slightly clumsy, undeveloped age is passed; he now knows explicitly, what has always been an implicit fact, that his head is his head, and must rule every movement of his toes and fingers."

"Stop! stop!"

"One moment. With regard to councils there are more ways than one in which a child may speak. He may speak by gestures of his whole body as a sign of attraction or repulsion; and, when he is a child, he does generally so speak. It seems to him more emphatic. As he grows up his gestures become fewer and his words more frequent. When he is perfectly self-controlled, he may manage to do without gestures at all.

"Now a council is like a gesture; it is the whole body making a decisive movement. (Not that the Pope's mouth did not speak, too, quite often enough, and authoritatively enough, to shew us what the early Christians thought about him.) But as the mystical Body of CHRIST develops, there are still gestures. The Church at this moment is poised in an emphatic gesture that we call the Vatican Council -- never yet dissolved; but the mouth talks more frequently. Possibly some day ---"

"My dear father, you needn't say any more. I see the line --"

"It is only an analogy, remember; and there is no perfectly adequate human analogy to a divine fact."

"But it is enough for the present; I must think it out. Good night."

Gradually, then, the bewilderment passes, and John beholds a great sight.

He sees a vast mystical figure, lying athwart the world. The head rests in Rome, crowned with thorns; the body wounded, but not broken -- stripped, indeed, of its own gorgeous raiment, but living -- lies upon the earth. The great arms and feet stretch across land and sea. Even in far China tender fingers are groping, gathering souls into them. One common blood of faith and prayer pulsates from the beating heart through all nations, uniting them in a supernatural life such as the world has never seen. Sometimes by a slow movement the figure shifts itself from some poisonous vapour, declaring its nature by the action of the whole frame; sometimes by a word, awful and majestic, issuing from that thorn-crowned head, clamours and disputes are silenced. That huge being has taken nineteen centuries to come of age; and with that climax has followed peace. The limbs that tossed a thousand years ago in a fever of unrest lie quiet under the supreme control of the infallible mind; and the world that has helped to wound them so grievously stands astonished at the undying vitality, the incessant energy the enormous recuperative power more evident to-day than ever before.

And still the world that should have exhausted his malice comes to the assault again and again, carrying calumny as his sword, Protestantism as his shield, and not ashamed to use the rack and the gallows when all else fails to wound.

And the huge mystical figure shrinks in pain; for, if one member suffer, all the members suffer with it, and yet survives; and the imprisoned head turns weary eyes to heaven as if to cry, "How long?" And back again from heaven comes the answer, as an echo from Galilee of that cry that brought that life into being:

"Thou art Peter . . . The gates of hell shall not prevail . . . I will give unto thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven."{9}

{1} Cf. Isa. vii, 15.

{2} Article XIX.

{3} Cf. Preface to Book of Common Prayer, "Concerning the Service of the Church," etc.

{4} Article XXI.

{5} Cf. Book of Common Prayer, Catechism, Ordaining of Priests, etc.

{6} Cf. Articles xxii, xxxi, etc.

{7} && 86-101.

{8} & 93.

{9} Matt. xvi, 18, 19.

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