The Regula Fidei & NCR

by Michael Sean Winters

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Yesterday, I offered a short review of Fr. Lou Cameli’s new book, The Archeology of Faith.  As I noted, the text is permeated by a discerning, inquisitive examination of how the Christian faith had been passed down in the Cameli family from generation to generation, going back all the way to the pre-Christian era.

In one section, in which he considers the influence of St. Francis, Cameli discusses the fede retta, or honest faith, true faith, for which Francis prayed. He writes:

This fede retta, as Francis and his followers understood it, was first and foremost a personal faith. It was also – and this is very important – an objective faith. It was something that could be known and proposed as true. It had to be as objectively true and real as the Incarnation of the Word made flesh that Francis represented in the crèche at Greccio with live people and live animals. The objective truth of faith led to the person of Jesus Christ who stood behind and within the truths that were professed.

This is indeed “very important.” Our faith in Jesus Christ is not free from our human capacity for mistakes. Our faith is, like ourselves, bounded by the times in which we live and the mental constructs with which we work. But, what “stood behind and within” our faith, and stands today, and the Church that proposes that faith to us, is something objective and true and real. If we do not believe that the Holy Spirit inspires the Church in some meaningful sense, and keeps the Church from the kind of errors that would lead souls to perdition, what are we doing?

I read the other day an article by Tod Warner at Patheos. I cannot say I agreed with everything Warner had to say, but this quote from Flannery O’Connor stood out to me:

The church is founded on Peter who denied Christ three times and couldn’t walk on water by himself. You are expecting his successors to walk on the water. All human nature vigorously resists grace because grace changes us and the change is painful…Human nature is so faulty that it can resist any amount of grace and most of the time it does. The Church does well to hold her own; you are asking that she show a profit. When she shows a profit, you have a saint.

The words “most of the time it does” certainly jump off the page. It is easy to look at the Church and see the many shortcomings, but it is less easy, and certainly less comfortable, to consider the ways we are ourselves blinded by sin and human limitations.

In an interview at America, Bishop Joseph Tyson was commenting on the left vs. right divides and, in part, his answer included these words:

Things get refracted in an odd way in the national media, a polarizing way. When you’re in a small place, I think because we’re closer together we have a better capacity at times for dialogue. And that begins with the Word of God. If we’re going to be a church in dialogue with the world we begin first by dialoguing with the Word of God. Because that’s what’s going to shape our conversation.

We begin with the Word of God and let that shape our conversation. We do not begin with the latest poll, or the latest bit of anecdotal experience, we begin with the Word of God and we let that Word shape our conversation.

Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington issued a pastoral letter last Sunday, “Being Catholic Today: Catholic Identity in an Age of Challenge.” The letter was notable for its tone of trust in the providence of God and consequent lack of defensive, culture warrior language. But, for my purposes today, I call attention to a different quality, the fact that the text is shot through and through with citations to Scripture and to recent papal and conciliar teaching. This is not the peculiar teaching of one theologian or one bishop, this is the faith of the Church that is being taught.

By way of contrast, I call attention to this paragraph from a recent NCR editorial:

It is time for church teaching to reflect what social science tells us and what Catholic families have long understood: Catholicism must cast off a theology of sexuality based on a mechanical understanding of natural law that focuses on individual acts, and embrace a theology of sexuality that has grown out of lived experience and is based on relationships and intentionality.

A friend emailed me this editorial and asked if sociology is now the regula fidei? I hope not. Christian Smith has documented the sad state of American sociology in many regards, not least in its propensity to put its secularist thumb on the scale when considering religion and religious believers.

To be fair, the verb “to reflect,” that is employed in the NCR editorial, is precisely what Catholic theology must do. Conversely, “cast off” is not what Catholic theology ever does: It develops, it stretches, it does the hard word of reconciling two different ideas which, at first sight, appear to be contradictory, and may ultimately prove contradictory, but which require an effort to see what truth the contradictory claims might share. And, the development of doctrine is not determined – thank God! – by an Irish plebiscite or a recent social science study.

I have written before and shall write again: Just because it is a Catholic who has a thought, it does not mean that a Catholic thought has been had.  When we human beings are convinced of the truth of something, no matter the source of our conviction, we hold on to it tenaciously, even if it does not easily fit, or fit at all, with the regula fidei, the rule of faith. You see this on both the left and the right. If Church teaching challenges the “laws of the market,” then the teaching must change. If the Church’s teaching on human sexuality challenges the ambient culture’s sexual mores, then the teaching must change. Is it not more complicated? Is it not the case that when what we discover in the world, whether through social science or personal experience or through the natural law, conflicts with the rule of faith, a lot of theological work needs to be done. The “signs of the times” must be surveyed in the light of the Gospel, not just accepted as a given. Sometimes the “signs of the times” are hateful. If the Church’s teaching on same sex marriage is to be governed by an Irish plebiscite, why should it not also be governed by, say, a Ugandan vote? I fear that the Gospel as we understand it might not have withstood a vote of German Catholics circa 1939. This is not the place to rehash Pope Benedict XVI’s thoughtful and powerful questions about modern democracy in his speech to the Bundestag, but those questions are worth recalling if we care about the future of democracy, let alone the future of the Church. It is the place to encourage all to ask ourselves if we are, as Pope Francis has asked us to do, really opening ourselves to what the Spirit is calling us to, or are we just trying to impose our ideological agendas on the Church?

A final thought. A Church convinced of the truth it holds can become a monster, and so Pope Francis’ continued calls for a humble Church must be taken to heart and made a constituitive part of every effort at evangelization. But, the members of the Church, especially those of us in the commentariat, must ask ourselves how willing we are to stand up to the winds of cultural change when those winds do not seem to cohere with the teachings of the Church.

In a recent, and splendid, essay by Michael Gerson, he quoted evangelical historian and thinker George Marsden, who said, “Liberals have learned that it’s difficult for the church to survive if there’s nothing that makes the church distinct from culture.” Alas, I think some liberals have not learned this lesson. But, more to the point, I do not think we should seek to be distinct from the culture, nor to conform to the culture, based on how that distinction or that conforming will play out strategically. I think we must first, and always, conform ourselves to Christ who is brought to us in the Church. Sometimes that will result in a happy accommodation with the culture, other times not. But, the key is that our Catholic theology and teaching develop according to its own methods, attentive to the signs of the times, engaged with the culture and the persons in it, especially the poor and the marginalized, but not a creature of the world, not prostrate before any data except the empty tomb, willing even to make ourselves uncomfortable at a cocktail party for giving voice to a teaching of the Church that does not sit well with elite, cosmopolitan opinion. To borrow from H. Richard Niebuhr, we should we wary lest we preach or editorialize upon “A God without wrath brought men without sin into a Kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a Cross.” That is not true or honest faith, it is not the Christian faith at all, and when all strategies and all the surveys and all the things that “we just know” today are seen in future times as quaint and foolish, as we look upon the ideas and attitudes of, say, the Victorians or the antebellum South, the Church will still be proclaiming Christ crucified and Risen, and struggling to tease out the implications of that great, troublesome, happy, challenging, truthful, and honest mystery at the heart of our faith.


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