Wednesday, 18 May 2016

Taking the Shine Off Bishop Sheen

 "America, it is said, is suffering from intolerance. It is not. It is suffering from tolerance: tolerance of right and wrong, truth and error, virtue and evil, Christ and chaos. Our country is not nearly so much overrun with the bigoted as it is overrun with the broad-minded. The man who can make up his mind in an orderly way, as a man might make up his bed, is called a bigot; but a man who cannot make up his mind, any more than he can make up for lost time, is called tolerant and broad-minded...

Another evidence of the breakdown of reason that has produced this weird fungus of broad-mindedness is the passion of novelty, as opposed to the love of truth. Truth is sacrificed for an epigram, the Divinity of Christ for a headline in the Monday morning newspaper. Many a modern preacher is far less concerned with preaching Christ and Him crucified than he is with his popularity with his congregation. A want of intellectual backbone makes him straddle the ox of truth and the ass of nonsense, paying compliments to Catholics because of “their great organization” and to sexologists because of “their honest challenge to the youth of this generation.” Bending the knee to the mob rather than God would probably make them scruple at ever playing the role of John the Baptist before a modern Herod. No accusing finger would be leveled at a divorce or one living in adultery; no voice would be thundered in the ears of the rich, saying with something of the intolerance of Divinity: “It is not lawful for thee to live with thy brother’s wife.” Rather would we hear: “Friends, times are changing!” The acids of modernity are eating away the fossils of orthodoxy...
 The final argument for modern broad-mindedness is that truth is novelty and hence “truth” changes with  the passing fancies of the moment. Like the chameleon that changes his colors to suit the vesture on which  he is placed, so truth is supposed to change to fit the foibles and obliquities of the age. The nature of  certain things is fixed, and none more so than the nature of truth. Truth may be contradicted a thousand times, but that only proves that it is strong enough to survive a thousand assaults. But for any one to say, “Some say this, some say that, therefore, there is no truth,” is about as logical as it would have been for Columbus who heard some say, “The earth is round”, and others say “The earth is flat” to conclude: “Therefore, there is no earth.” Like a carpenter who might throw away his rule and use each beam as a measuring rod, so, too, those who have thrown away the standard of objective truth have nothing left with which to measure but the mental fashion of the moment...

In the face of this false broadmindedness, what the world needs is intolerance. The world seems to have lost entirely the faculty of distinguishing between good and bad, the right and the wrong. There are some minds that believe that intolerance is always wrong, because they make “intolerance” mean hate, narrow-mindedness, and bigotry. These same minds believe that tolerance is always right because, for them, it means charity, broadmindedness, and American good nature...The Church is identified with Christ in both me and principle; She began thinking on His first principles and the harder She thought, the more dogmas She developed. She never forgot those dogmas; She remembered them and Her memory is Tradition. The dogmas of the Church are like bricks, solid things with which a man can build, not like straw, which is “religious experience” fit only for burning. The Church has been and will always be intolerant so far as the rights of God are concerned, for heresy, error, and untruth affect not personal matters on which She may yield, but a Divine Right in which there is no yielding. The truth is divine; the heretic is human. Due reparation made, the Church will admit the heretic back into the treasury of Her souls, but never the heresy into the treasure of Her Wisdom. Right is right even if nobody is right; and wrong is wrong if everybody is wrong..."

Bishop Fulton Sheen, The Curse of Broadmindedness, 1931

Let me say at the outset that I agree with most of what Sheen has written above, which displays eminently logical thinking on the question of truth (by the way, if anyone wants a short and easily digestible philosophical defense of the unity of truth amidst the plurality of religions I refer you to Mortimer Adler's 'Truth in Religion' (New York, Macmillan,1990), most of which is available on Google books).  My purpose in including such a full quote, aside from the innate value of most of Sheen's thoughts, is to juxtapose the clear thinking displayed in most of the above above with the erroneous principal of the development of doctrine which Sheen espouses in these words:  

"The Church is identified with Christ in both method and principle; She began thinking on His first principles and the harder She thought, the more dogmas She developed. She never forgot those dogmas; She remembered them and Her memory is Tradition."

I have undertaken this critique because Sheen's words above are being circulated presently in the Lutheran blogosphere. 
A confessional Lutheran cannot accept that dogmas are the result of the church "thinking on" and "developing" "first principles" given by Christ. This approach loosens the church from the anchor of holy scripture and leads to the Roman dogmas of the immaculate conception and assumption of the virgin Mary, neither of which has any foundation in scripture, but both of which are justified by Roman theologians on the grounds of their being "necessary" developments of doctrine in their system. They are in turn founded upon the authority of the infallible teaching office of the papacy, another dogmatic development "necessary" because Rome does not believe the Word of God written is a clear and sufficient authority for Christian doctrine and life. Pope Benedict, when still Cardinal Ratzinger, likewise proposed that purgatory was a "necessary" dogma that would have to be invented if it did not actually exist (!).  Each of these of these dogmas serves to buttress Rome's synergism, which is one of her mistaken "first principles". Luther, on the basis of scripture, vigorously opposed this synergism in his epochal debate with Erasmus on t-he bondage of the will.

It may seem to us today, with our modern historical consciousness, that dogma has developed, but what has actually developed - 'deepened' may be the better word - is the church's understanding of the deposit of faith given in scripture, not the faith (fides quae) itself. All that the church later explicitly came to confess is already implicit in the simple NT confession "Jesus is Lord", the doctrinal content being explicated for us in the Gospels and epistles. The notion of a development of dogma/doctrine was proposed by the Anglican convert to Roman Catholicism, Cardinal John Henry Newman (pictured), as a means of deflecting criticisms already made by the Reformers, but bolstered by the scientific study of church history in the early 19th C. that Roman Catholicism had introduced doctrinal innovations that were unknown to the early church. Rome initially rejected Newman's theory, correctly viewing it as incompatible with its view of Tradition (i.e. all Tradition was Apostolic in origin), but from about the time of Vatican II it rehabilitated his theory, thus involving itself in a fatal contradiction as to its claims to authority.  


Erika Hoffmann said...

Glad to see you back again. This post took me back to a time in Adelaide, when I was very, very young. We were a Lithuanian family, part of the "nuts and bolts" lot of DP's from Germany in 1949. We were Lutheran, ulike most of our Litho folk who were Catholic.

Your article took me back to the days in our industrial suburb of Edwardstown where our family of five lived and worked. I was still at primary school and privileged to have my bed in the one room where the radio resided. With the household asleep, there was no curfew on my listening. This amazing sound box delivered music, radio plays, The Argonauts show, The Lux Radio Theatre (?) as well as a programme under Bishop Sheen's name. "More things are wrought by prayer than this world dreams of" seemed to be the opening lines of the broadcast.

At age 10 I loved the voice of this preacher and his way of story telling. Best of all was a series of sermons delivered on the poem The Hound of Heaven. I love it still. As I grew older, his influence and closeness to the Presidency became evident.

It was good to read these excerpts of Sheen's writing, and your commentary. Thank you.

Acroamaticus said...

Thank you, Erika!

Very sorry for the delay in posting your comment which got lost in my virtual pile of emails.