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In every structure there exists a strong point which is simultaneously the weakest point / ©catholicukes.org.au

Dr. Kania: The Last Straw (cf. 2 Timothy 4: 3 – 4)

Without a direct appeal to Divine authority, religion becomes mere speculation, a journey through a vast and dark forest of hypotheses, – writes Dr. Andrew Thomas Kania in Church and Life.

In 1967, the Ideal Toy Company marketed a game that for a time at least became somewhat of a family tradition. The format of Kerplunk, is quite simple. An amber tube containing marbles is stood on its head and through holes in the side of the tube plastic straws are threaded; the tube is then stood right way up. The object of the game is for players, in turn, to remove the straws by causing the least collateral damage. The player who has affected the least number of marbles to fall is determined to be the winner. The strategy of the game therefore lies in choosing wisely as to which straw the player will remove by carefully studying in what way the marbles are balanced. Those who fail to do this, risk creating an avalanche – a chain reaction. The game Kerplunk highlights that in every structure there exists a strong point which is simultaneously the weakest point – strong, as the weight is supported at that point – weak, as if anything damages that critical point the structure begins to fall.

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Jean-Baptiste Henri Lacordaire O.P. (1802 – 1861), a man credited as being the catalyst of the Catholic Church’s second spring in France, grew up in a society that for all intents and purposes had cast aside the Church as an institution relevant to modern society. A man who in his adolescence had turned away from the Church in the fashion of so many of his countrymen, Lacordaire had a conversion experience whilst studying law at Dijon, having come under the intellectual influence of a priest: Hughes Felicité Robert de Lamennais (1782 – 1854). Determined then to become a priest, Lacordaire entered the Order of Preachers, and in time became known as a young preacher devoted to the Church, but also politically active – willing to courageously speak the Truth. Politically liberal, but theologically conservative, Lacordaire perceived as one of the greatest threats to the Catholic Church, the ‘after-shocks’ of the Protestant Reformation; among the highest of these ‘effects’ on his list being the Protestant questioning of the infallibility of the Church. Lacordaire explained his rationale behind defending the infallibility of the Church in the following manner: “Moreover, every religion which does not proclaim itself infallible convicts itself of error by that fact alone; for it admits that it may deceive, which is the highest degree both of dishonour and absurdity in an authority teaching in the name of God … Every false religion commences in man; and what man is bold enough to proclaim as infallible his thoughts and those of his successors? How could Luther, for example, proclaim himself infallible, he who attacked the infallibility of every Church? The man who wishes to found a new religion, that is to say, to corrupt an ancient religion – for no one but God has founded a religion upon earth – the man who entertains this design has at once to face the necessity and the impossibility of proclaiming himself infallible. If he do not proclaim himself and his successors infallible, he will not obtain the faith of his own sectaries; he will perish by reasoning, which will introduce into his doctrine infinite variations, he will be the laughing-stock of the universe. Therefore it is that inventors of false dogma conceal themselves within temples, bury their doctrine in mystery and under symbolical forms; or on the other hand, reason like the heretics, and build, on that moving sand, ephemeral churches …”. (Lacordaire, pp. 42 & 44)

St. Francis de Sales in a collection of essays directed at the Calvinist population of Switzerland and posthumously published as The Catholic Controversy, also honed in on the importance of infallibility. St. Francis would write: “For if the Church herself err, or can err, who shall not err? And if each one in it err, or can err, to whom shall I betake myself for instruction? – to Calvin? But why to him rather than to Luther, or Brentius, or Pacimontanus? Truly, if I must take my chance of being damned for error, I will be so for my own not for another’s”. (St. Francis de Sales, 1886, p. 70). As no man of sound mind would ever swallow a tonic the author of which had not first been registered by some publicly acknowledged and respected authority; why would any individual seek to follow a system of beliefs that do not rest upon a claim of infallibility? Without such a certitude, a man would be as well-advised to swallow a brew of his own concoction, rather than swallow an unknown potion cooked up by a third party. Would it not be better for the patient, if they were to be poisoned, to at least create an elixir based according to personal taste, rather than ingest an elixir based on the ‘indeterminate’ whim of another man?

This one theological tenet of infallibility is the pivotal straw for it holds above it thousands of years of sacred theology, and without this tenet there is no purpose in believing in not only the Catholic Church

Without a direct appeal to Divine authority, religion becomes mere speculation, a journey through a vast and dark forest of hypotheses. If then the Catholic Church claims for Herself infallibility (with regard matters of dogma and doctrine) Divinely established by God, this should be seen as Her unique strength; for if no one else is willing or capable of offering such an ancient certitude, why then place a bet against the Catholic Church? On the other hand it is also the Church’s great weakness. This one theological tenet of infallibility is the pivotal straw for it holds above it thousands of years of sacred theology, and without this tenet there is no purpose in believing in not only the Catholic Church, but in no other Christian community in existence today – for each of these communities draw their Faith from the Tradition and notion of an infallible Church – however much to this day they ignore the Catholic Church’s claim of infallibility. To prove, by choosing to be called a Christian, the non-Catholic Christian, however vehemently they oppose the infallibility of the Catholic Church, must unwittingly accept the tenet of infallibility, for without the Catholic Church having spoken infallibly – there would be no Sacred Scripture – for what we now know to be Scripture would be but ‘pretty’ and ‘wise’ words – but certainly not recognized to be the Word of God. For Sacred Scripture to exist – there must have been a time when an institution on earth had the universal authority, to proclaim Scripture – Sacred. To accept the Scripture as Sacred – one must also accept the infallibility of the Church.

To accept the Scripture as Sacred – one must also accept the infallibility of the Church.

Avery Dulles S.J. in his brilliant work, The Survival of Dogma reminds us that “theologically educated Catholics have always known that the vast majority of the Church’s teaching is fallible and therefore subject to error”, and that “Church authorities should not be afraid to admit, when the occasion requires, that they have been wrong”. (Dulles, 1971, p. 144). Dulles’ comment regarding the majority of Catholic teaching is true, but the same author in the same text also points out that “To function as a living society of faith and witness, the Church must be able to say within certain limits what views and attitudes are required, permitted, and excluded by Christian revelation”. (Ibid, p.108). Although Dulles, it seems, would support Bishop Geoffrey Robinson, (at least with regard laity and Conciliar initiatives); Dulles also clearly intimates that Infallible doctrine does and must exist; for without this there can be no foundation on which to build a Church. If infallible teaching does exist (for example, that the New Testament is the Word of God), then it must also be accepted, ipso facto, that the Universal Church has the inherent authority to declare these teachings to be such. To make such declarations – institutional structures are required.

To function as a living society of faith and witness, the Church must be able to say within certain limits what views and attitudes are required, permitted, and excluded by Christian revelation

The Protestant Reformers in essentially playing Kerplunk with the dogmas of the Church, failed to recognize that if there is no infallible Church, then there can be no ‘authorized’ Truth. Conversely if we accept that there exists still to this very day the infallible Church, then there can be no justifiable reason for the existence of any other Christian community outside of this Church. Thus as both Lacordaire and St. Francis de Sales so well-pointed out, when we remove the tenet of infallibility from the Church, we not only take from out of the equation an Article of Faith that may not ‘stand well with us’, we take away that one straw that prevents the entire Christian message from falling into a morass of religious relativism; by drawing this straw – we all lose; those within the Catholic Church, because of the loss to Her of the separated brethren, as well as those outside of the Church, for want of unity, and fullness of Christian Revelation through a Sacred Tradition encompassing two thousand years. Without a central and universally recognized authority claiming infallibility – there can never be one Church, the best that one can hope for is a myriad of churches all claiming to speak with equal potent – and all, essentially disagreeing with each other (so as to justify their existence), but nonetheless all striving to agree with one another over how to square the circle, and thus doing – giving the appearance of unity.

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This article was published in The Church and Life Newspaper, October 2017