Sunday, March 27, 2011

The Consensus of the Faithful as the Voice of the Infallible Church

This year The Catholic Spirit, the official newspaper of the Archdiocese of St. Paul-Minneapolis, celebrates “a century of Catholic journalism.”

Reflecting on this milestone, associate publisher Bob Zyskowski opined that an “essential characteristic” of any Catholic newspaper is that it should strive to reflect the community it writes for. In other words, it should “tell their stories, report on their joys and their sorrows, write about what matters most to them.” Wise words.

Unfortunately, however, for many Catholics within the Archdiocese who have serious concerns of conscience around numerous church policies and practices, and who accordingly are open to discussing and implementing reform,“what matters most to them” receives scant attention in The Catholic Spirit. Indeed, their efforts to simply gather together and talk openly and honestly about important issues in the life of the church have been denounced in the pages of the paper. This is, of course, a major reason for the establishment of The Progressive Catholic Voice: to serve as an “independent and grassroots forum for reflection, dialogue, and the exchange of ideas within the Catholic community of Minnesota and beyond.”

There was a time, however, when The Catholic Spirit did indeed share the perspective of all Catholics – including those drawn to discern and embody the church’s capacity for reform. And some of those who shared such a perspective and who regularly wrote for the newspaper were actually members of the clergy. The Rev. Marvin R. O’Connell was one such regular contributor. His column was entitled, “Tracts for the Times.” O’Connell is a priest of the Archdiocese of St. Paul-Minneapolis, a professor emeritus of history at the University of Notre Dame, and the author of the award-winning John Ireland and the American Catholic Church and several other books, including Blaise Pascal: Reasons of the Heart.

I believe it would be a worthwhile endeavor for The Catholic Spirit, during its 100th anniversary year, to republished a range of past articles – including some of those written by O’Connell. A good one to start with would be the following, the focus of which remains as relevant today as when it was first addressed by O’Connell in 1969, when The Catholic Spirit was known as The Catholic Bulletin.


Consensus of Faithful Infallible, Newman Said

By Rev. Marvin R. O’Connell

The Catholic Bulletin
September 19, 1969

In 1859 John Henry Newman published a magazine article called “On Consulting the Faithful in Matters of Doctrine.” Like much of what Newman wrote, this piece played its part in a contemporary controversy, the relevance of which has long since passed away. But, as was so often the case when Newman was arguing about a particular issue, he spoke on the level of principles applicable to times, places and situations far different from his own.

The genesis of “On Consulting the Faithful” is not, however, without interest, because it had to do with a problem with which we are all too familiar. During the 1850s the precarious condition of English elementary education prompted parliament to set up an investigating commission, one of whose tasks was to find out how effectively government subsidies were being spent in denominational schools. Among these subsidized, religiously-affiliated institutions were the Catholic schools.

The English bishops were very suspicious of the commission and refused to cooperate with it. Unhappily, they did not make their position known to the country at large nor to their own people, and so there had grown up among Catholic laity – especially among the better educated and more articulate – strong support for the commission. The feeling was that the commission could bring about a general improvement in elementary education, from which the Catholics – the poorest of poor minorities – could not but benefit.

When the bishops condemned the commission as an instrument of state intrusion into the strictly religious sphere, a good many Catholics were not only angry at the condemnation itself, which they considered ill-advised, but embarrassed as well at finding themselves, because of the bishops’ prior secretiveness, far out on a limb. A lot of bitter things were said, and Newman’s comment was relatively mild. But the context within which he spoke caused a new furor which pushed the school issue into the background.

“Acknowledging most fully the prerogatives of the episcopate,” he wrote, “we do believe, both from the reasonableness of the matter and from the prudence and considerateness which belong to them personally, that the bishops really desire to know the opinion of the laity on subjects in which the laity are especially concerned. If even in the preparation of a dogmatic definition the faithful are consulted, as lately in the instance of the Immaculate Conception, it is at least as natural to anticipate such an act of kind feeling and sympathy in great practical questions.”

Were the faithful indeed to be “consulted,” not only in practical matters to which they brought special expertise and interest, but “even in the preparation of a dogmatic definition?” The very casual way in which he asserted the principle no doubt helped whip up the storm that now fell upon Newman’s head. The bishops’ reaction was unequivocal: it is “absolutely unnecessary,” they said, “that the reasons for our own actions should be explained and that the Catholic community should be informed of the grounds of our proceedings.” The most prominent English theologian, told him that it was at least proximate to heresy.

And so, by way of defense, Newman wrote “On Consulting the Faithful.” Learned and closely argued as it is, filled with historical lore and citations of Latin and French authorities, the article is difficult to summarize. Yet its central thesis is clear enough. To consult the faithful means that, since the truths of revelation reside within the baptized community, the belief of the people is a testimony to the apostolic tradition upon which any doctrine is defined.

In 1854, when he was contemplating the definition of Our Lady’s Immaculate Conception, Pope Pius IX insisted that he could not act until he ascertained the views of the Catholic people on the subject. This, said Newman, was only one in a host of examples that might be cited in support of consultation. The most spectacular working out of the principle came in the fourth century, when under pressure from the Roman government, the church’s shepherds collapsed into Arianism. It was the people who sustained the belief in Christ’s divinity.

As Newman put it, “The body of the episcopate was unfaithful to its commission, while the body of the laity was faithful to its baptism; at one time the pope, at other times general councils said what they should not have said, or did what obscured and compromised revealed truth; while on the other hand it was the Christian people who, under Providence, were the ecclesiastical strength.”

Crucial to Newman’s point in his understanding that the consensus of the faithful is the voice of the infallible Church. Nor that the consensus is itself infallible; it is rather one indication of the real judgment of the church – the church composed of both teachers and the taught – which is infallible.

– The Rev. Marvin R. O’Connell
“Consensus of Faithful Infallible, Newman Said”
The Catholic Bulletin
September 19, 1969

Recommended Off-site Link:
No Place for Dialogue in Archdiocesan Newspaper – Michael Bayly (The Wild Reed, November 14, 2007).

See also the previous PCV posts:
The Call of the Baptized: Be the Church, Live the Mission
Richard Gaillardetz on the Need to “Wrestle with the Tradition”
Church Teaching and the Individual Conscience
St. Paul-Minneapolis Catholic Archdiocese Releases New Strategic Plan: Who Was Consulted?
Communicating with Leadership
Let Our Voices Be Heard!
It’s Critical That Catholics Find Their Voice
Creating a Liberating Church (Part 1)
Creating a Liberating Church (Part 2)
Creating a Liberating Church (Part 3)
Catholicism: A Changing Church – Despite Itself
A Return to the Spirit

Image: “Sensus Fidelium” by Annette Falk Lund.


  1. Let's get over the obsession with the idea of infallibility. Contemporary philosophy and science or reason and and evidence refute such a notion. We are on a journey of discovery of the truth not an invention of the truth.

  2. PS See I used two 'and's which just shows how fallible one is!