You will notice from my address* that I am presently at sea. The voyage is arduous and uncomfortable and there are no guarantees it will ever make port. I am, nevertheless, queasily embarked; twenty-five years of haunting the quayside are at an end.
The sea is a kind of desert, so the opportunity is presented to make a better Lent than usual. If the condition of orthodoxy in one's faith is "to think with the Church", the Christian must in addition learn to "think with the heart". Christianity is incorporation into the life of a Person – it isn’t an argument or an ideology. I am for the time being persuaded that the preoccupation with proofs and demonstrations of proofs, of controversies and their logical resolution, is radically prejudicial to “thinking with the heart”, in addition to being practically futile. "Internet religion" is, moreover, a very poor substitute for the real thing, and it's highly doubtful that the hours most of us spend strutting and fretting on this cold little stage are in any way pleasing to God, or helpful to our salvation. We could – therefore should, probably - have been praying, or just playing with our children instead. So, in addition to bodily fasting, a few weeks' retreat from cyberspace is probably all to the good. Kyrie eleison!
Another advantage of the desert, of course, is a certain enlargement of perspective one gains from being temporarily apart from the fray...
I WILL BRING OUT those passages of scripture which speak to me with perfect clarity of Our Lord’s promises to His Church, and you will decline to accept that these passages ought to be understood as the Church has always understood them. So which perspective is, on a balance of probabilities, the authentic one? No-one ever came to Scripture without some sort of hermeneutical “key” – it’s impossible. The only question is, then – which “key”? The Fathers, to whose witness I defer, acclaimed by the Church within their own lifetimes for clarity of teaching, purity of doctrine, and – most importantly of all – manifest holiness of life, reveal an unbroken, continuing tradition of interpretation from the very birth of the Church. I will therefore always strive to understand Scripture in the same sense as them. This is vitally important for me. God does not change; no jot or tittle will pass away. There is no value or point whatsoever in Scripture admonishing us to hear something called “the Church” as the “house of God and ground and pillar of Truth” if this “Church” cannot be identified with any certainty. Where, then, is this Church? There is no point in appealing, circular fashion, to Scripture, because it’s precisely the interpretation of Scripture on which we disagree. Secondary sources then - witnesses to how the first Christians themselves understood the Church and the Gospel:
The true knowledge is the doctrine of the apostles, and the ancient organization of the Church throughout the whole world, and the manifestation of the body of Christ according to the succession of bishops, by which succession the bishops have handed down the Church which is found everywhere.
One quote, plucked from among innumerable others, by different authors, all in the same vein. Note that Irenaeus, writing in the second century, already speaks of the "ancient organisation of the Church".
This Church, then, was, and must remain, visibly constituted: go to any second century town, as the Fathers again bear witness, and ask “where is the Catholic Church?” You will - now, as then - be directed to a people gathered together with presbyters and deacons under a bishop in the Apostolic succession; who teaches, governs and sanctifies each local or particular church in communion with the Universal, “holding-all” Church whose unchanging, integral faith, order and sacramental life all of its members, united to its Head, maintain. The oft-asserted notion among the “reformed” communities, of the myriad modern “denominations” being equivalent to particular churches, the sum total of which constitute the “catholic church” despite the absence of any meaningful unity of faith, sacrament or constitution is, I’m sorry to say, a fanciful and anachronistic absurdity which can’t survive a moment’s honest encounter with the first few centuries, during which the Church asserted her catholicity precisely as the note distinguishing her from schismatic and heretical sects. Nothing has changed.
Where, then, is the record of holy souls in the first centuries, raising their voices and shedding their blood for the sufficiency and pre-eminence of scripture against the rise of usurping “Catholicism”? Where are their writings? Where are their witnesses? Where, for that matter, is any indication that Our Lord intended New Testament Scripture (which He never mentions) rather than, and apart from, the “teaching Church” (of which He speaks in the most exalted terms) to provide the sole, sufficient, infallible rule of faith? From my point of view this complete absence of any “parallel tradition” is itself sufficient to render incredible the Protestant account of Christianity, before even beginning to address the hopeless internal contradictions inherent in sola scriptura itself.
On the other hand, if catholic Christianity which alone can lay claim to a historically verifiable, continuing tradition from the Apostles to the present day is a human fabrication, then everything is rendered definitively uncertain – especially Scripture, the contents of which were discerned according to the tradition and by the authority of the Church. If what Christians took for fifteen hundred years to be the “House of God and ground and pillar of truth” was never anything of the sort, then Scripture has proved an unreliable guide throughout most of the Church’s history. What use is a scripture that insists I “hear the Church”, and then leaves me uncertain about what and where the Church is? How reliable is a scripture in which God promises to lead us “into all truth” and to be with us always, prior to abandoning us almost immediately to all sorts of ruinous, fundamental errors?
Perspective, again - mine versus yours - on the subject of false “triumphalism” and the gates of hell not prevailing: from the very beginning the Church has to struggle to distinguish herself from those errant and self appointed “pastors” - the wolves in sheeps’ clothing who “gather apart”; then the terrible Arian crisis when it really did seem for while tht all was lost; the constant threat of subjection to secular authority; the schism between East and West; the Great Western Schism; the administrative and juridical chaos of the late Middle Ages; the Protestant revolt; Jansenist rigorism versus Jesuit casuistry; the Deists and rationalists; religious nationalism; Revolution, ultramontanist reaction and the disorder and degradation following Vatican II’s ill-conceived and incredible attempt to synthesise them; the long martyrdom of the East under Islam and then atheistic Communism – well yes, I agree: it would seem as though “crisis” were indeed the “fifth mark” of the Church, and that Hell has come perilously close to prevailing throughout two millennia. There she still is, nevertheless – with the same unchanging faith, the same sacraments the same constitution, the same essential unity, miraculously preserved – unless the whole of what we call Revelation is a deep and disastrous delusion.
* i.e. "Sailing to Byzantium" - the beginnings of a serious and "heart-thinking" encounter with Orthodoxy.