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John Henry Newman believed in laity’s unique non-liturgical role in Church

Peter Kwasniewski Peter Kwasniewski Follow Dr. Peter

October 15, 2019 (LifeSiteNews) — This past Sunday’s canonization of John Henry Newman displayed many ironies — foremost among them, of course, that a pope known for doctrinal vagary and alliances with worldly agendas elevated to the honors of the altar one of the greatest champions of dogmatic orthodoxy, anti-liberalism, and the primacy of the supernatural in Christianity, who once said it would be better for the entire material universe to come to an end than for one soul knowingly to commit a venial sin. That would be Newman’s version of Christian ecology.

Another irony is that Newman was a staunch defender of the laity — but not in the usual postconciliar vein of parish council populism, busywork in the sanctuary, and unfettered moral conscience (generally but not exclusively in matters of sexual morality), but rather seeing that the lay faithful have a noble and dignified calling, a genuine place of their own in the Mystical Body of Christ, which is not that of the clergy or religious, and which permits them to do immense good in their own realm. Fr. Richard Cipolla expounds this point very well:

It is obvious that the vision of the [Second Vatican] Council for the apostolate of the laity is mainly within the world in which the laity live: in their homes, at work, among their friends, in their many encounters with the world in their lives as laity. They must be witnesses in their marriage, to their children, to their friends, to the many and varied people they meet, in their political life, in their intellectual life. They must take their proper role not only in witnessing to the Catholic faith but also in combatting those real forces in contemporary culture that are contrary to the Christian faith.

But notice this there is no mention of the laity taking specific roles in the liturgy that Sacred Tradition never afforded them, Tradition here understood not as a song from Fiddler on the Roof but rather as what was passed down from the Apostles themselves to the Church and down to the Church of our own time. So what happened practically is that the laity after the Council became clericalized, they became in a wonderful Italian word for altar boys, chierechetti, little clerics, as lectors, eucharistic ministers, members of liturgical committees, and so forth. The clericalization of the laity after the Council has been a disaster for the laity and the Church in general. And this is because their clericalization has prevented them from fulfilling their mission to the world as laity.

Fr. Cipolla goes on to note that the laity whom Newman admired the most historically were the countless and nameless faithful in the fourth century who, simply on the basis of holding fast to the faith they had received in baptism and at the hands of the Church, opposed the Arian heresy when most of their bishops had gone over to the side of error or simply kept their mouths shut for fear of imperial repercussions.

But there is a second and most important reason for an educated laity, especially educated in the Catholic faith. We live in a time in which the very nature of Tradition, what has been handed down to us from Jesus and the Apostles, in Scripture and through the Church Fathers and the ancient Creeds, is under attack. It is under attack not by the world of The New York Times, which is quite happy that there is dissension within the Church, for that makes the Church a much less formidable threat to the world of strident secularity. The attack is coming from those who are ordained by God to be true to the Tradition of the Church and to guide their flock during these times of tempests in the world. These men, mostly clerics, claim the right to change Tradition, including the witness of Scripture. They have taken the secular attitude that Tradition is relative and conditioned by its history. They do so in the name of mercy, but this understanding of mercy has little to do with the mercy of God. And it is here and now that an educated laity, educated both in the Faith and intellectually, must be a witness to the Faith handed down to the Church from the Apostles in Scripture and Tradition. Just as the laity were faithful to the Catholic faith at the terrible time of the Arian apostasy in the fourth century and beyond, when most bishops became heretics, so at this time the laity must be faithful to the Catholic faith in a way that is humble, firm and full of joy.

It is startling and sobering to read Newman’s account of the Arian crisis, to which he devoted an entire book. He writes:

The episcopate, whose action was so prompt and concordant at Nicæa on the rise of Arianism, did not, as a class or order of men, play a good part in the troubles consequent upon the Council; and the laity did. The Catholic people, in the length and breadth of Christendom, were the obstinate champions of Catholic truth, and the bishops were not. Of course there were great and illustrious exceptions; first, Athanasius, Hilary, the Latin Eusebius, and Phœbadius; and after them, Basil, the two Gregories, and Ambrose. … [B]ut on the whole, taking a wide view of the history, we are obliged to say that the governing body of the Church came short, and the governed were pre-eminent in faith, zeal, courage, and constancy.

Newman, ever the theologian as well as the historian, asks himself why the Lord permitted such a trial to beset the Church, why the shepherds were allowed to become wolves for a time, why good and saintly bishops were a small minority, and why the people were called upon to hold fast even against their “betters”:

Perhaps it was permitted, in order to impress upon the Church at that very time passing out of her state of persecution to her long temporal ascendancy, the great evangelical lesson, that, not the wise and powerful, but the obscure, the unlearned, and the weak constitute her real strength. It was mainly by the faithful people that Paganism was overthrown; it was by the faithful people, under the lead of Athanasius and the Egyptian bishops, and in some places supported by their Bishops or priests, that the worst of heresies was withstood and stamped out of the sacred territory.

As an historian, Newman, in fact, goes so far as to assert:

… in that time of immense confusion the divine dogma of our Lord’s divinity was proclaimed, enforced, maintained, and (humanly speaking) preserved, far more by the ‘Ecclesia docta’ [i.e., the laity] than by the ‘Ecclesia docens;’ [i.e., the hierarchy]; that the body of the Episcopate was unfaithful to its commission, while the body of the laity was faithful to its baptism; that at one time the pope, at other times a patriarchal, metropolitan, or other great see, 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 of Athanasius, Hilary, Eusebius of Vercellæ, and other great solitary confessors, who would have failed without them...

But how did the laity survive during the Arian crisis? What actions did they take to preserve the Faith and to resist the heterodox bishops?

The short answer: It was very difficult, but with God’s grace, they did whatever was necessary.

To start with, the orthodox faithful stopped their ears against the wheedling and threats of the Arian and Semi-Arian bishops, who no doubt tried to manipulate and “guilt” them, as bad bishops do today, into thinking they were being “disobedient” by not following the lead of their shepherds. Since the liturgy was often in the hands of the heretics, the laity were forced at times to stop going to their local churches and to gather outdoors or in secret. Newman relates to us that St. Basil the Great, around the year 372, wrote these harrowing words:

Religious people keep silence, but every blaspheming tongue is let loose. Sacred things are profaned; those of the laity who are sound in faith avoid the places of worship as schools of impiety, and raise their hands in solitudes, with groans and tears to the Lord in heaven. (Epistle 92)

Four years later, Basil was to write:

Matters have come to this pass: the people have left their houses of prayer, and assemble in deserts,—a pitiable sight; women and children, old men, and men otherwise infirm, wretchedly faring in the open air, amid the most profuse rains and snow-storms and winds and frosts of winter; and again in summer under a scorching sun. To this they submit, because they will have no part in the wicked Arian leaven. (Epistle 242)

And in his next letter:

Only one offence is now vigorously punished,—an accurate observance of our fathers’ traditions. For this cause the pious are driven from their countries, and transported into deserts. The people are in lamentation, in continual tears at home and abroad. There is a cry in the city, a cry in the country, in the roads, in the deserts. Joy and spiritual cheerfulness are no more; our feasts are turned into mourning; our houses of prayer are shut up, our altars deprived of the spiritual worship. (Epistle 243)

One cannot help but be reminded by these words of the many Catholics who, over the past fifty years, have had to invite priests into their homes, seek out obscure chapels, or travel long distances in order to continue to practice the traditional Catholic faith that we receive from the Church of all ages. Although in some ways the situation has improved in parts of the world, what we are seeing under Pope Francis can only make us wonder if we are heading toward days darker than the already Stygian 1970s. Priests who wish to remain faithful to Our Lord Jesus Christ should be mentally prepared for a day when, having been dismissed for refusing to collaborate with, or resigning in order not to collaborate with, the Lavender Mafia, the diocesan Liturgical Commission, a chancery directive to give Communion to adulterers, etc., they will have no choice but to leave their post and go underground. They should have a complete set of vestments, altar missal, and other required paraphernalia. They could, overnight, become like the Jesuit missionaries to Elizabethan England, except with this sinister twist: it may not be the secular government persecuting them, but the ecclesiastical.

We want to be at peace with the hierarchy. We will obey them in all that is required, but never when they oppose the Faith. We love their souls, redeemed by the Blood of Christ, and pray for their conversion as for our own, since no man alive is without sin. But the time for bashful whispered misgivings is at an end; we are living in a condition of civil war.

In his book Love for the Papacy and Filial Resistance to the Pope (pp. 153–54), Roberto de Mattei speaks of what is too often necessary in today’s situation, as well as what will always remain true:

It is not enough to denounce the pastors who demolish — or favor the demolition of — the Church. We must reduce to the indispensable minimum our ecclesiastical cohabitation with them, as happens in an agreement of matrimonial separation. If a father exercises physical or moral violence toward his wife and children, the wife, although recognizing the validity of the marriage itself, and without requesting an annulment, can request a separation to protect herself and her children. The Church permits it. In our case, giving up living habitually together means distancing oneself from the teachings and practices of the evil pastors, refusing to participate in the programs and activities promoted by them.

But we must not forget that the Church cannot disappear. Therefore, it is necessary to support the apostolate of shepherds who remain faithful to the traditional teachings of the Church, participating in their initiatives and encouraging them to speak, to act, and to guide the disoriented flock. It is time to separate ourselves from evil pastors, and to unite ourselves to the good ones, inside of the one Church in which both the wheat and the cockle live in the same field (Mt 13:24–30), remembering that the Church is visible, and cannot save herself apart from her legitimate pastors.

With these conclusions, St. John Henry Newman would certainly have concurred. May he intercede for us as we pass through what Bishop Athanasius Schneider has described as the fourth and greatest crisis the Catholic Church has ever experienced.

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Peter Kwasniewski

Peter Kwasniewski holds a B.A. in Liberal Arts from Thomas Aquinas College and an M.A. and Ph.D. in Philosophy from The Catholic University of America. After teaching at the International Theological Institute in Austria and for the Franciscan University of Steubenville’s Austrian Program, he joined the founding team of Wyoming Catholic College in Lander, Wyoming, where he taught theology, philosophy, music, and art history, and directed the choir and schola. He is now a full-time author, speaker, editor, publisher, and composer.

Dr. Kwasniewski has published seven books, including Sacred Choral Works (Corpus Christi Watershed, 2014); Resurgent in the Midst of Crisis (Angelico, 2014); Noble Beauty, Transcendent Holiness (Angelico, 2017); A Reader in Catholic Social Teaching (Cluny, 2017); and Tradition and Sanity (Angelico, 2018). Resurgent in the Midst of Crisis has been published in Czech, Polish, German, and Portuguese, and will soon appear in Spanish and Belarusian.

Kwasniewski is a scholar of The Aquinas Institute in Green Bay, which is publishing the Opera Omnia of the Angelic Doctor, a Fellow of the Albertus Magnus Center for Scholastic Studies, and a Senior Fellow of the St. Paul Center. He has published over 750 articles on Thomistic thought, sacramental and liturgical theology, the history and aesthetics of music, and the social doctrine of the Church. 

For news, information, article links, sacred music, and the home of Os Justi Press, please visit his personal website, www.peterkwasniewski.com.