The Catholic Via Media

The Catholic Via Media September 4, 2009

Anglicans are fond of the term ‘via media’ or ‘the middle way’ to describe their church. The theory is that the Anglican Church steers a middle course between Catholicism and Protestantism. This middle way is inclusive. There is room for everyone, and differences of doctrine and moral principles need to be tolerated so that this broad ‘middle way’ will be able to accommodate everyone. Cardinal Newman observed that the famed ‘via media’ was never more than a theory. In fact the Anglican Church is not so much a middle way as it’s own way, and that way, to be sure, is broad and accommodating. It includes Christians who believe and behave in a Catholic manner. It includes Christians who believe and behave in a Protestant manner. It includes Christians who believe and behave in a Liberal manner. But we mustn’t imagine this is a broad way in which they all travel together. They really exist as self contained groups within the larger group. The Anglican Communion is more of a confederation of contradictions than it is a community of faith.

The other evening I was telling my conversion story to a parish group and I explained how I grew up in sectarian Christianity. The Protestant Evangelicalism I grew up in was fissiparous and full of independent denominations, independent congregations and independent Christians who didn’t really belong to any group. Within this sectarianism you usually found unity of belief within any one congregation or denomination, but you did not find unity of form. That is to say, each group was an independent and autonomous collection of individuals.
When I became an Anglican I left sectarian religion and was looking for the ancient apostolic Church. The Church of England seemed a good bet. They had the old buildings, the ancient spirituality, the liturgy and the history to back them up. Furthermore, they were not split off into countless independent congregations and denominations. They seemed to have a center that would hold. However, what I discovered was that I had gone from the sectarian error to the latitudinarian error. Latitudinarianism is that heresy that allows members of the group to believe whatever they like (and behave however they like) because they do not want to be exclusive.
As Newman observes, one either falls into the sectarian error and sacrifices unity of form for unity of doctrine or one falls into the latitudinarian error and sacrifices unity of doctrine for unity of form. Both of these are extremes. So where is the true via media between them?
Only with an infallible authority can one maintain both unity of form and unity of doctrine. The via media between them is actually found within the Catholic faith. With an infallible authority one has the teaching authority that can maintain unity of doctrine, and with an infallible authority as the figurehead the church can also maintain unity of form.
The critic will say, “Ah yes, but you Catholics are also divided among yourselves. You have traditionalists and liberals and charismatics and Franciscans and Jesuits and Benedictines and the list goes on and on and on.” Yes and no. Yes, we have many differences of opinion and sadly, we do not always enjoy unity of doctrine with every Catholic. However, that is not the point. The point is that with an infallible authority we have the resource and focus for unity of form and unity of doctrine.
This unity is not the same thing as uniformity. Catholics may disagree with the infallible authority, but the authority is still there. They may disobey and dissent, but there is something to disagree with and dissent from. In the Catholic Church the authority that is there provides a rock on which to build.
As current events are showing, all the other houses are built on shifting sand.
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