Rorate Caeli

Originality in explaining the Truth: Newman's relevant words to the Synod on the Family

by Father Richard G. Cipolla

A cursory reading of the Instrumentum Laboris for the upcoming Synod on the Family does not inspire confidence in the working proceedings of the Synod itself.  It is heavily dosed with orthopraxis jargon in a catena of the results of the questionnaires that were solicited from both clergy and laity.  But the Instrumentum quite rightly asks the question of how the Church should teach about and to the Catholic family in a secular age that no longer responds to the vocabulary and imagery of a Christian world-view.  A writer for this blog recently expressed here his unease about paragraph 30, in which is discussed the need for the teaching on Natural Law to be updated and made meaningful to Catholic families and to the non-Catholic world as well. 

It is obvious that one way to accomplish this “updating” of explanation of the Natural Law is by re-defining traditional terms so that they come to mean something else that is more acceptable and palatable to a post-Christian world.  We have seen this happen quite strikingly, and in a very short time period, to the word “marriage”.  The secular courts in this country and elsewhere in Europe have deliberately taken what this word has meant, at least for the West, for millennia, and have substituted the traditional understanding of the complementarity of the sexes and hence marriage as between a man and a woman with an understanding of marriage driven by gender ideology and by a militant opposition to any religious understanding of marriage.  And this done by fiat. It is indeed quite frighteningly similar to that conversation between Alice and Humpty Dumpty in Lewis Carroll’s brilliant Through the Looking Glass, and What Alice Found There:  meaning determined by despotic edict.  And certainly paragraph 30 of the Instrumentum can raise serious qualms about how explanations of Natural Law with respect to marriage and the family will be brought up to date by the Synod fathers.  It is difficult to see how, as the Instrumentum suggests, that explanation of Natural Law be couched in terms from Scripture and the Liturgy.  Quite apart from the negative knee-jerk reaction of the secular world to the notion of Revelation, one wonders seriously how what goes on in the liturgical context in most Catholic parishes can contribute to a recasting of language to explain Natural Law to a non-believing world.

Blessed John Henry Newman wrote in many contexts about the use of language in doctrinal statements.  I offer the following excerpt from his essay on “The Benedictine Schools” in the collection known as Historical Sketches, volume 3, as food for thought on this question of the recasting of the language used to talk about Natural Law with respect to marriage and the family. As usual, Newman does not give a clear outline of what has to be done and how. He instead gives us the basis for such an enterprise.  In this section Newman contrasts the theology of the  “Benedictine School” with the theologians of the Patristic era.

Their theology was a loving study and exposition of Holy Scripture, according to the teaching of the Fathers, who had studied and expounded it before them. It was a loyal adherence to the teaching of the past, a faithful inculcation of it, an anxious transmission of it to the next generation.  In this respect it differed from the theology of the times before and after them.  Patristic and scholastic theology each involved a creative action of the intellect;(….)Origen, Tertullian, Athanasius, Chrysostom, Augustine, Jerome, Leo, are authors of powerful, original minds, and engaged in the production of original work.  There is no greater mistake, surely, than to suppose that revealed truth precludes originality in the treatment of it.  The contrary is acknowledged in the case of secular subjects, in which it is the very triumph of originality, not to invent or discover what is not already known, but to make old things read as if they were new, from the novelty of aspect in which they are placed.  This faculty of investing with associations, of applying to particular purposes, of deducing consequences, of impressing upon the imagination, is creative; and though false associations, applications, deductions, and impressions are often made, and were made by some theologians of the early Church, such as Origen and Tertullian, this does but prove that originality is not coextensive with truth.  (..) Nor is it an inferior faculty to discriminate, rescue and adjust the truth, which a fierce controversy threatens to tear in pieces, at a time when the ecclesiastical atmosphere is thick with the dust of the conflict, when all parties are more or less in the wrong, and the public mind has become so bewildered as not to be able to say what it does or what it does not hold, or even what it held before the strife of ideas began. In such circumstances, to speak the word evoking order and peace, and to restore the multitude of men to themselves and to each other, by a reassertion of what is old with a luminousness of explanation which is new, is a gift inferior only to that of revelation itself.