“How long, O Lord, wilt thou forget me unto the end? How long dost thou turn away thy face from me?”
Supporting The WM Review through book purchases
As Amazon Associates, we earn from qualifying purchases through our Amazon links. Click here for The WM Review Reading List (with direct links for US and UK readers).
This is based on a 2016 article, edited and expanded throughout by S.D. Wright, with the permission of the author. A more extended addition is indicated with square brackets. Photo by Austrian National Library on Unsplash.
What can we learn from the apologetic arguments of recent history, and their relationship to dogmatic theology?
The external facts of the Catholic Church – such as her unity in the profession of faith, her unity in communion and worship, her unity in government, and her marvellous (indeed miraculous) history – are employed in two distinct ways by theologians.
The first of these ways is to take externally verifiable facts as proofs of the Church’s divine origin and claims. The facts used are usually the more visible aspects of the four notes of the Church mentioned in the Creed – unity, holiness, catholicity (universality) and apostolicity.
This is an apologetic method. It relies upon reason, and concludes by leaving the reader on the cusp of faith.
It also aids those who already have the faith to grow in faith and love of the Church.
As an example of a mere high-school textbook from before Vatican II, Archbishop Sheehan’s Apologetics and Catholic Doctrine calls this approach “the simpler method” of proving the Church’s credentials, and states that it is already familiar to Catholic school children.
The second way of employing these external facts is by way of expressing or explaining divine revelation as it relates to the Church.
This is the method of dogmatic theology.
This way begins not with those facts as mere facts, but as the data of divine revelation, teaching us about of the nature and characteristics of the Church. It proceeds to demonstrate that the true Church, as described by revelation, must necessarily always exist, and must necessarily always exist in a certain way (united, holy, etc) – and indeed does so.
It concludes – although this is not essential to its purpose – by showing that the actually existing Roman Catholic Church today is the Church established by Our Lord Jesus Christ.
Comments on the methods
The first method (the apologetic one) is replete with arguments that are very difficult to make with any cogency – at least, not without extensive explanations which were hitherto unnecessary.
For example, the Vatican Council of 1870 declared that the Church, by reason of her manifestly miraculous propagation, unconquerable stability, and perpetual fruitfulness, is a proof of her own divine origin.
This still remains true, of course: but the factual data, during this present period of darkness, are such that these points cannot now easily or credibly be put forth as proofs, in an apologetic sense. For example, it is now very difficult to base an argument for the Church on any kind of remarkable, visible unity of faith.
Understanding the situation with the apologetic argument helps us to understand why the flood of conversions prior to Vatican II dried up so dramatically afterwards, and why so many scandalised souls lost their faith and left the Church in the same period. What has occurred is that an increasingly large body of men who have openly left the Church (or who have never been her members) continued to be taken to be her members and officers, and were not expelled or definitively denounced as they should have been. The imposition of this body of men, eclipsing and at the same time posing as the true Church, rendered the true Church discreditable in the eyes of many.
The apologetic approach based on the Church’s external facts is therefore difficult to apply in practice, for the duration of the crisis. But of course, once the crisis is over, the Church’s glorious vindication will be a new proof of her divine origin – which will be a great compensation for our present difficulties.
[S.D. Wright: This does not mean that we have none of the classical apologetic arguments available to us. We saw that Archbishop Sheehan called this “the simpler method” of proving the truth of the Catholic religion and the identity of the true Church, and he also discusses “the more elaborate method.” Having proved the existence of God, this more elaborate method starts by showing the following of the writings of the New Testament:
“[C]onsidered simply as ordinary human compositions, [they] are truthful and trustworthy; hence we accept as a faithful report the account which they give of Jesus, His words and works.”
Having proved this, the more elaborate method finds that these documents show that Jesus claimed to be God; that he proved his claims with miracles and prophecies; that he founded one Church to continue his work, declaring that she would continue for all time; and that he gave this Church “certain well defined marks or characteristics, so that she could be clearly known to men of all ages.” It then examines the various religious bodies claiming to be the true Church, and proves that these marks are found in the Roman Catholic Church alone.
Naturally, if we prove, even on merely historical grounds, that the Church founded by Christ is perpetual and indefectible, then it must still be here. And if yesterday we could prove with certainty that this Church is the Roman Catholic Church, then she must still be the true Church today. Those arguments which established her claims cannot stop being true; nor can the disproven claims of the schismatic Orthodox (for example) be re-proved true by default.
The questions, of course, are whether the body currently headed by Francis – which at least apparently lacks those marks – is the indeed the Roman Catholic Church or not; and if not, where does this Roman Catholic Church exist today. These questions may seem absurd, but it has been a key contention ever since Vatican II, and was voiced repeatedly by men such as Archbishop Lefebvre.
There is more that can be said on how we can establish with certainty, in spite of our current situation, that the Roman Catholic Church is the true Church – but this is outside of the scope of these notes. Further reading is available, but for now, let us repeat that such certainty is still possible.]
End of S.D. Wright’s section.
So much for apologetics. By contrast, the second method of approaching these external facts – of dogmatic theology – simply tells us what the Church is, and what she remains. She is a unity, objectively visible, of those baptised men who outwardly profess the same faith, remain in peaceful communion with each other by sharing in the same sacrifice and sacraments, and are subject to the hierarchy. She is, in the same sense, holy, universal, and apostolic. These truths cannot and never will be lacking in force. They are matters of sacred doctrine – ultimately, of divine revelation.
When this crisis eventually passes, another great compensation will surely be a greater clarity as to how these properties, attributes and notes remained during this period of obscurity.
This distinction between apologetics and dogmatic theology is relevant to our current controversies in three ways.
1. Testing theories
First, the dogmatic theology related to the Church gives us a clear understanding of the nature of the Church, and enables us to test the claims of various theories about the crisis.
Returning to the questions already mentioned, it allows us to test theories about where the Church is, and where she is not. For example, some theories assume or assert that the Church consists of a disunited assembly (if that’s not an oxymoron) of men who:
- Profess any “faith” they like
- Worship in entirely incompatible ways – so much so that traditionalists will not assist at the Novus Ordo, and many of those attending the Novus Ordo will not assist at Tridentine Masses
- Obey completely different laws – for example, traditionalists go to Mass on Sundays and Holy Days (and not on Saturday evenings), fast in Lent and don’t eat meat on Fridays – whereas the vast majority of those attending to Novus Ordo have little sense of any ecclesiastical laws at all.
Any theory involving the Church being a collection of men disunited in this way is false.
Those who assume, believe or promote this theory generally do not state it in clear terms – and regrettably, some even spend their time attacking those who point to the facts and suggest solutions.
The elephant in the room is that the state of the Church poses serious theological problems. Anybody who doesn’t recognize this frankly and fearlessly has no role to play. He cannot aid others, for he himself is living in a fantasy world.
2. Continuation of the hierarchy
Second, dogmatic theology itself constitutes what we believe about the Church, entirely separately from any question of factual observation.
That is, we believe that the Church is infallible, indefectible, hierarchical, holy, visibly united, and so on – and we believe this, even if the darkness of the current crisis makes it difficult to verify these truths in the concrete. In such a circumstance, the faith remains – and we believe.
As an example, we believe that the Church retains her hierarchy, even if it is difficult to verify this – because this is what we are required to believe. Or, to put it more modestly, we are not inclined to assert that the hierarchy has disappeared, just because we can’t see it.
There are some who seek to disprove other conclusions (or indeed this one) by demanding that we name the remaining members of the hierarchy – but this betrays a lack of clarity of thought, and shows that they have not understood the logical landscape.
We do not hold onto the idea that the Church still has her hierarchy because we have read about this or that “good bishop”; nor do we base our theories on what might appear to be far-fetched theories about unknown bishops. Rather, we think that, as far as we can understand from the Church’s doctrine and theology, the hierarchy must always exist in act. Possible solutions are posited after we have grasped what appears to be a necessity of faith. This possibility of such solutions shows that we have no need to deny the existence of the hierarchy; and even if one or more of these solutions are proved to be false or impossible, then the situation has not changed one iota, in dogmatic and logical terms.
We know that there must be some solution, somewhere.
It should not need to be added – but in this era perhaps nothing can be taken as so obvious that it can safely remain unsaid – that it is one thing to say “I believe what the Church teaches, even if I cannot currently verify it in the concrete,” and it is another thing to say something is false, simply because we are struggling to verify it at present; and it is another thing again to rethink the faith on the grounds that some tenet does not fit a theory.
Unfortunately, many do both. On the contrary, we believe in the continuing existence of the hierarchy, just all traditionalists believe in the infallibility of the Church: many traditionalists cannot say exactly, in the face of apparent evidence, how it is that the infallibility of the Church is verified; they just know that it is indeed verified, because faith tells them so.
However, we cannot deny manifest facts in order to make them fit in with our theory. Nobody can believe, whilst retaining his sanity, that the current claimant to the See of Rome, and the bulk of the bishops, are carefully guarding the deposit of faith – so on what grounds would we believe that such men are true successors of the apostles?
3. An eclipse of the Church
Third, the apologetic argument, based on things like the four notes of the Church, sheds a great deal of light on the current crisis – precisely because of the difficulties of applying it in the current situation, or verifying it in reference to what appear to be the facts.
In itself, these difficulties can be seen as pointing towards the true explanation of our current crisis.
The reason that so many of have lost the faith is the great, standing scandal of the “New Church” – but this scandal is also a confronting reality. It forces us to take seriously the more profound analyses of the crisis, and to humble ourselves before the permissive will of Providence. This is a tremendously healthy thing.
Archbishop Lefebvre, in his last words for publication before he died, referred to the idea that the Church will be eclipsed. His true students take that notion seriously.
An eclipse is the imposition of a foreign body in front of another. We have already seen that a body of non-Catholics are obscuring the true Church and making it difficult to see who her true members and officers are. This is precisely because these non-Catholics are taken to be her members by so many, and have not been expelled by authority as they should have been. This is the eclipse.
This is a masterstroke of Satan, designed to scandalise souls and strip them of faith.
The key point of this brief note is to fix in our minds the different ways in which the same data are used in the field of apologetics and of dogmatic theology.
Dogmatic theology tells us that the Church must always be united in faith, communion and government – and, understood as a separate point, this unity is so striking that it has (hitherto) been used as an apologetic argument.
Our inability or difficulties in using these apologetic arguments in our current situation does not somehow disprove dogmatic theology. Rather, they call for us to make an act of faith, and to then look for an explanation as to how the truths of dogmatic theology can be reconciled with our current situation.
Whether intentionally or not, those who are rethinking the doctrine of the Church so as to defend the claims of the “New Church,” or any other theory, are aiding in the deception.
HELP KEEP THE WM REVIEW ONLINE!
As we expand The WM Review we would like to keep providing our articles free for everyone. If you have benefitted from our content please do consider supporting us financially.
A small monthly donation, or a one-time donation, helps ensure we can keep writing and sharing at no cost to readers. Thank you!
Subscribe to stay in touch:
Follow on Twitter and Telegram:
Also on Gab!
 Archbishop Michael Sheehan, Apologetics and Catholic Doctrine: a course of religious instruction for schools and colleges, M.H. Gill, Dublin, 1962, p 9. Also for UK readers. Available from the Internet Archive.
 Ibid. 6
 Ibid. 6
 Ibid. 7