“Thinking with the Church” – from the beginning


During the Easter-tide, the fundamental lessons of faith come pouring forth from the gospel each day. There are many to be learned from the story of Thomas’ doubt. I have garnered from Father Chevrot and John Henry Newman a lesson concerning the problem of “private judgement.” For Newman the issue of private versus communal standard for truth became a turning point in his conversion to the Roman church. The protestants had no recourse to avoid the fragmentation and subjectivizing faith. Father Chevrot says of St Thomas that “he tried to subordinate his faith to a personal experience: and God does not submit to such compulsions.Thomas wanted to establish his conviction by himself, and the Lord left him to himself, that is, to his radical inability to reach the light by himself.” (The Third Day, p. 84)

Evidently, Thomas heard his brothers testify to their vision of the risen Lord; they undoubtedly went over the scriptures with Thomas, as our Lord had done with them. But no, Thomas could not see it, he could not interpret the scriptures as his brothers laid out, as they were instructed by the Lord. he must see it himself, think it himself. So when our Lord did appear he said “Thou hast learned to believe, Thomas, because thou hast seen me. Blessed are those who have not seen, and yet have learned to believe.” As Chevrot comments, private judgment could not be allowed the right to prevail against the judgment of the Church. We share the blessedness of the faith of the apostles, now represented by the Bishops.

Chevrot says further: “Precisely by not separating yourself from the Church, whose testimony will allow you yourself to lay the foundation of your convictions on certainties. A fact is certain and a doctrine is true independently of your faculties of observation or reasoning. . . . The Church is the only place where you will find Jesus Christ in the fulness of his being and his teaching in its strict exactitude. The Church does not suppress our enquiries, she enlightens them; she does not destroy our judgment but guides it. She curbs our presumption, condemns our prejudices and points out our error. She teaches us, who have neither seen nor heard the Master, what the apostles saw and heard, so that we may enjoy the blessings of believing.” (The Third Day, pp. 86-87).

The doubting of St Thomas is salutary for us — we are blessed to share the faith of the apostles, anchored in their sober and communal witness to the life and teaching, the suffering, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Here is Newman’s explanation that faith precisely means faith in the apostolic message, excluding the possibility of “picking and choosing” doctrines at will. Newman saw “cafeteria Catholicism” way before its time — saw how it would subvert true faith:

“This is what faith was in the time of the Apostles, as no one can deny; and what it was then, it must be now, else it ceases to be the same thing. I say, it certainly was this in the Apostles’ time, for you know they preached to the world that Christ was the Son of God, that He preached to the world that Christ was the Son of God, that He was born of a Virgin, that He had ascended on high, that he would come again to judge all, the living and the dead. Could the world see all this? could it prove it? how then were men to receive it? why did so many embrace it? on the word of the Apostles, who were, as their powers showed, messengers from God. Men were told to submit their reason to a living authority.

Moreover, whatever an Apostle said, his converts were bound to believe; when they entered the Church, they entered it in order to learn. The Church was their teacher; they did not come to argue, to examine, to pick and choose, but to accept whatever was put before them. No one doubts, no one can doubt this, of those primitive times. A Christian was bound to take without doubting all that the Apostles declared to be revealed; if the Apostles spoke, he had to yield an internal assent of his mind . . . No; if a convert had his own private thoughts of what was said, and only kept them to himself, if he made some secret opposition to the teaching, if he waited for further proof before he believed it, this would be a proof that he did not think the Apostles were sent from God to reveal His will; it would be a proof that he did not in any true sense believe at all.

Immediate, implicit submission of the mind was, in the lifetime of the Apostles, the only, the necessary token of faith; then there was no room whatever for what is now called private judgement. No one could say: “I will choose my religion for myself, I will believe this, I will not believe that; I will pledge myself to nothing; I will believe just as long as I please, and no longer; what I believe to-day I will reject tomorrow, if I choose. I will believe what the Apostles have as yet said, but I will not believe what they shall say in time to come.” No; either the Apostles were from God, or they were not; if they were, everything that they preached was to be believed by their hearers; if they were not, there was nothing for their hearers to believe. . . . for the word of the Apostles, which made the one true, made the other true too; they were nothing in themselves, they were all things, they were an infallible authority, as coming from God. The world had either to become Christian, or to let it alone; there was no room for private tastes and fancies, no room for private judgement.”

(“Faith and Private Judgment” click here Discourses for Mixed Congregations)

for other spots where Newman discusses private judgment, click here.

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