The House of Mirrors – 3

First, it should be historical – in other words it should be both rooted in history and have a long-term perspective which enables it to consider the whole historical development of thought. In addition, if this authority is historical it cannot be temporary. It must have stood the test of time.

Second, this authority should be objective. It should itself be separate from any one philosophical viewpoint and be able to judge philosophical matters above the concerns of self-interest. It should also be able to give objective explanations for doing so. Third, this authority should be universal. It cannot be the authority of just one person, or nationality. Neither can it be the voice of one historical or theological grouping. It should be corporate in such a way that it transcends national, cultural and individualistic boundaries.

But if it is universal it must also be particular. This fourth trait means it must be specifically identifiable. It cannot be a vague ‘body of teaching.’ In other words it must speak with a clear and particular voice. Fifth, this authority should be intellectually satisfying. In other words it must not only be intellectually coherent within itself, but it must also be able to contend on the highest intellectual level with philosophers and theologians.

Sixth, this authority needs to be scriptural. Since Scripture is a primary witness to the revelation, this authority should be both rooted in Scripture, and founded by Scripture. Finally, this authority should claim to be divinely given. If it fulfills the other six traits, then these are a good confirmation that the authority is not ephemeral and human in constitution, but is in fact of divine origin itself.

The Catholic Church is precisely this authority. No other authority could make equivalent claims. Some authorities could claim some of the seven marks of authenticity, but none but the Catholic Church can claim all seven. The Magisterium of the Church is a dynamic source which stretches across cultures and down through time. It is a communal voice which is rooted in Scripture; and because it is a living link with the past it speaks with a continuous and developing understanding of both theology and philosophy. The universal authority of the Catholic Church thus provides an external, intellectually satisfying and divinely given check to the conclusions of individual philosophical and theological enquiry. So John Paul II quotes Vatican I and says:

“In the light of faith, the Church’s Magisterium can and must authoritatively exercise a critical discernment of opinions and philosophies which contradict Christian doctrine.” (Fides et Ratio, par. 50)

If Peter and his successors were the Rock, then I was really between a rock and a hard place. The Pope’s encyclical Fides et Ratio came out a few years after I became a Catholic, but the issues it discusses were with me not only in the daily routine of parish life, but more crucially in the gaps when there was time for thought, analysis and prayer.

My critique of Anglicanism may sound scathing. In fact I was loathe to leave the Anglican church. I was not only reluctant to leave my beautiful country vicarage and two ancient parish churches, but more importantly I hated the idea of leaving my ministry. I was supported in both parishes by good, sensible, prayerful and believing Christian folk. For all its faults I was fond of Anglicanism’s gentlemanly way of ‘muddling through.’ I actually liked most of the clergy I disagreed with. I could see that they were personable, sincere and devoted pastors. I loved the preaching and pastoral work, I relished the moments of peaceful prayer, cherished the forms of worship and times of real Christian fellowship. Read More