What would the Saints think?

In a recent article at Catholic Answers, Devin Rose drew attention to the fact that many of the saints recognised as such by Protestants were, if judged according to Protestant criteria, believers in and preachers of a corrupted gospel. Saint Francis of Assisi, Saint Augustine of Hippo, Saint Thomas Aquinas (just to name a few of the more ‘ecumenical’ saints) all believed in things that would be unconscionable for most Protestants – the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist, Purgatory, the infallible authority of the Church (and of the Pope), the special place of the Blessed Virgin Mary in the economy of salvation, and the belief that we can ask the saints in heaven to intercede for us.

This brought me back to a question I have pondered many times, and which I think any non-Catholic should ask themselves: if any of the saints (it works best if the saint in question is a personal favourite) walked into your church today and heard the sermon, read the material at the entrance, spoke to the minister about the core beliefs of that church, etc, what would they think? I am inclined to believe that they would have a great deal of trouble accepting the claims advanced that this or that church held to the fullness of the Faith, or that it represented any sort of recovery of apostolic truth, contrary to the perceived corruptions and elaborations of Rome.

One could of course say that there is much in contemporary Catholicism that saints from a variety of ages would not accept either – the Apostles for example would not know anything of the majesty of the Tridentine Mass, and Saint Therese of Lisieux (for example) would be taken aback by the stripped down nature of much contemporary liturgy. However, it is clear that throughout history different approaches to worship have been used, and different things have been emphasised – the Church is Catholic (i.e.; universal) after all, it is not an unchanging monolith, and the Roman rite is one amongst twenty-three that exist and operate in communion with Rome.

The point at issue is what the Mass is – i.e.; a genuine re-presentation of Jesus’ sacrifice of Himself to the Father, fully present in body, blood, soul and divinity, in which we sacramentally participate. This is not a definition that the vast majority of Protestant churches could agree with, and yet it is one that all the saints would recognise as being true. And this discrepancy between the articles of faith recognised by the saints throughout the ages and the various churches which (to some degree) recognise them as Christians worth imitating is problematic for the Protestant. As Thomas Howard puts it in his book On Being Catholic:

‘But then what of the questions that bedevil “traditional” Christian groups? Did Jesus die for the elect or for the whole world? John Calvin will tell you one thing, John Wesley, another. Is the bread at the Lord’s table only bread, or is it the Body of Christ? Zwingli will tell you one thing; Luther, another. Is the Church to be governed by elders and general assemblies or locally, by democratic vote of the congregation itself? The Presbyterians will tell you one thing, and the Congregationalists another. Will there be a “secret rapture” of believers exempting them from the great tribulation to come upon the world, or must the Church brace herself for just such tribulation? A hundred voices clamour here.’

From Chapter 14 of On Being Catholic, reprinted at Ignatius Insight.

            This sort of disunity on fundamental issues of the Faith is something which the saints would absolutely not recognise, and which leads to the one point at which I think they would be most surprised during these hypothetical visits – the repudiation or marginalisation of the authority of the Church, and in particular, the Pope. The idea that issues such as the manner of Christ’s presence in the Eucharist (or whether he is really present there at all) should be a matter of debate, or even up for the individual communicant to decide, would be inconceivable for any of the saints – this is an article of faith, to be believed by all, and if anyone is to decide on how Christ is present therein, it is up to the Church to say so, not the individual.

Saint Augustine of Hippo – often cited by in support of various Protestant doctrines – said that ‘I would not believe in the gospel myself if the authority of the Catholic Church did not move me to do so’. In this he sums up the whole essence of the problem here, and the thing that any ‘visiting saint’ would find strangest when consulting ministers, hearing sermons, etc – the idea of separating the deposit of faith from the Church in which it was deposited, and of eschewing the only authority able to say definitively what that Faith is and what are valid expressions and developments of it.

Similarly, regarding papal authority there would be a great deal of confusion as to how the various churches could have revoked unity with the See of Saint Peter, for whatever particular reason given. In a speech given at the University of Athens in 1962, the then archbishop of Canterbury, Michael Ramsey, gave a speech where he said:

Passing through the Reformation our Church was the same Church. We hold that its identity and continuity remained. It still remained, so we believe, the Church of St. Augustine and St. Theodore of Tarsus; it possessed still the Scriptures, the Creeds, the Sacraments, the mystery of the threefold Apostolic Ministry, the faith of antiquity. But though the same Church, it was a Church reformed. Its communion with the Papal See of Rome was now broken.

Would Saint Augustine of Canterbury himself recognise the Church of England as having ‘passed through the Reformation…the same Church’ and that ‘its identity and continuity remained? Given that Article XXXVII of the Anglican Thirty-Nine Articles states that ‘the Bishop of Rome hath no jurisdiction in this Realm of England’ and that he was sent to England as an emissary of the Pope (Gregory the Great), I highly doubt it, at least on that point (which is a pretty significant one).

Then, if one looks back to the early Church Fathers for support, we have people such as Saint Irenaeus of Lyons saying (with reference to Rome):

With that church, because of its superior origin, all the churches must agree, that is, all the faithful in the whole world, and it is in her that the faithful everywhere have maintained the apostolic tradition

More patristic endorsement of the supremacy and authority of the Bishop of Rome can be found here and here. The point is that all the saints would have a very hard time understanding how the various churches could recite the Creed, claiming to be part of ‘one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church’ and yet cast off things that they would consider to be absolutely essential to the Faith, paramount amongst these being the authority of the Church to determine the content and boundaries of it.

Whilst it is obviously the case that they would be appalled by some of the sermons preached in the more liberal churches (endorsement of same-sex marriage and abortion, for example), they would be perplexed, at the very least, by what all Protestant churches have rejected. The witness and teachings of the saints may not mean much to some churches and their members, but for those for whom they do mean something, the highly Catholic nature of their Christianity, particularly their humble submission to the Church, and recognition of communion with the Pope as a fundamental sign of catholicity, should certainly raise a question or two.


11 thoughts on “What would the Saints think?

  1. Fantastic post Michael!
    It is a fascinating and imaginative question you pose. How could any intelligent and honest Protestant of the multiple different churches (and counting) that broke away from the Rock of Peter admit the saints of old would not be aghast and horrified to see what had happened to the Bride of Christ? The saints would see all these groups simply as heretics, destroyers, who had refused to follow and obey the teachings of the pure and holy Church Christ founded under the God-given authority of Peter and his successors.

    Michael Ramsey’s affirmation that you quote actually makes me laugh. There are many good Christian Anglicans (don’t get me wrong) but their church is founded on a lustful ambitious temporary king who broke away from the One True Catholic Church and declared his decision in no uncertain terms! Ramsey says: “But though the same Church, it was a Church reformed…” No, it was DE-formed from the true Bride of Christ – the Protestant deformers of the first years after Henry VIII’s reign made quite sure of that. Over time they might have gradually sidled back to imitating Catholic rites in many of their practices, but Vatican I made it quite clear that their orders were “null and void” and that they were not in communion with the Pope and Catholic Church.

    This question of the historical evidence of its heretical break from the authority of “Peter” is what has led many outstanding Anglicans to return to “the fold” especially in the last two centuries – Bl. Cardinal Newman and G.K. Chesterton perhaps being the best known – but many are from other branches of Protestantism too. Their testimonies and witness have greatly enriched the Catholic Church, showing how even out of error, Our Lord can bring good.

    • Thank you Kathleen!

      The question of Anglicanism’s historical origins is indeed a big problem, and the cause of many for leaving it. Blessed John Henry Newman himself famously said that ‘to be deep in history is to cease to be Protestant’ – this, and the realisation that the Church of England was just one amongst many Protestant churches and not really Catholic, was what finally did it for him certainly.

      As for Michael Ramsey, I have read a few things by him over the years, because he was recommended to me as being the best apologist for Anglican ecclesiology. When I read what he had written on the matter though, I very little actual argument for Anglicanism’s catholicity, and instead found statements very similar to the one I quoted above – bare assertions that, despite the manifest significant changes that had occurred during the Reformation (and which are still very much part of the Anglican ‘DNA’), the CofE was still somehow the same church.

      In fact, when arguments were presented, they didn’t seem to advocate any particular ecclesiology at all – instead, a strange admixture of ‘we’re all one in Christ, even if we don’t appear so here on earth’ (i.e.; the Protestant invisible Church argument) and affirmation that the universal Church is a visible institution were ventured. I still for the life of me can’t work out how these two are reconciled, but that seemed to be the essence of Ramsey’s arguments, such as they are.

      Having said that though, Ramsey also comes across (both through his writings and reports of him as a person) as a very faithful man who loved Jesus and was committed to following His will as best as he knew how. This is, for me, the great tragedy of the Reformation – there are (as you say) many good and faithful Anglicans, and Christians from other denominations, who sincerely love the Lord and seek to follow Him. Yet, because of the prideful actions of some men a few hundred years ago, they are separated from the fullness of that relationship with Him that they seek.

      Particularly with respect to the CofE, it is still often the case that it is seen as ‘our’ church, and national sympathies get in the way of people seeing clearly on the matter, so that it becomes much easier to overlook the problems inherent in the Anglican model and tell oneself that it is ‘Catholic’. I have even heard, as an argument for the CofE, that it has a parish system, and that therefore its ministers are there for everyone, within and without the Church, as if this did not happen in Catholic England, and does not happen in Catholic countries now! An accident of history has led people to feel comfortable with the CofE – it is part of the English imaginative background, and thus very hard to let go of (or leave).

      Thus, as I said, many good and faithful people are committed to churches via bonds of sympathy and familiarity that run very deep (Newman apparently wept considerably whilst writing his Apologia Pro Vita Sua), and often obscure their search for Truth, preventing them from even looking for the Tiber, let alone crossing it. This is the great, tragic, and painful legacy of the Reformation.

  2. On a re-read of my above comment yesterday I am a little ashamed by its bellicose tone!

    One thing is obvious, if the Catholic Church at the time of the Protestant Reformation had been a paradigm of holiness and devotion, it is doubtful the Reformation would have had much effect on the majority of Catholics at that time. It is precisely because the Church, though “pure and holy” in all her teachings (we have Our Blessed Lord’s words for that) is far from being so in her weak and limited members. The Church has produced thousands upon thousands of amazing saints who have greatly edified Christ’s Mystical Body, but we have also had some notorious sinners. We know that the Church in the early 16th century was full of them! It was really only after the damage had been done, and many Catholics had left to join Protestant sects that She began to purify Herself of so much laxity and betrayal among her members. After the Protestant Reformation She arose more holy than ever.

    The saints who lived through the Church’s low times would not have left Her to start their own churches, for they would recognise that this would be an act of treachery! Instead they would (and certainly did) work on reforming the minds and hearts of her bishops, priests, and then the laity, from within Her solid walls.

    In other words: you don’t run away in battle, but stick to fight it out till the battle is won! 🙂

    • What you say about ‘notorious’ sinners within the Church and this not being a reason to leave and start another church is very true – especially pertinent is what you say about those saints who lived through the Church’s other ‘low times’. The Church had become tainted with worldliness at other times throughout her history, and one could make a good argument for their having been more corruption at other times than in the 1500’s, and yet people stayed then and reformed from within, without disrupting the Body itself, or changing doctrines.

      The big difference with the Protestant Reformation was I think in the political situation that existed at the time as well. Heads of national states were beginning to grow more and more powerful, and became more desirous of power that didn’t have to answer to Rome. Thus, in the ‘Wars of Religion’ later on you have alliances between Catholics and Protestants when it served the interests of the nation, over and against either the Pope or the Emperor (c.f.; Cardinal Richielieu – if he had placed the interests of the Church above that of his country, France would perhaps not be quite as anti-clerical as it became later, and secular as it is now).

      England I think is the paramount case, in that there was very little desire for reform at all – compared to previous eras, there was very little corruption in the Church, priestly vocations were high, and public devotions were carried out with great frequency and fervency. When Henry VIII decided that he wanted his way and was willing to break with Rome to do so, there were many people around him (Thomas Cromwell in particular) who benefited greatly from a.) the transfer of lands and income from the monasteries to the crown, and b.) the lack of exterior controls (i.e.; from Rome) over what they could do.

      So, despite the constant claims that the CofE was and is not an Erastian church, it seems clear that it was the State that forced the Reformation onto a people who didn’t want it, the State that ultimately benefited from this and gained control over what the church now believed and practiced, and the State that subdued anybody who didn’t fall into line (including various bishops who remained loyal to Rome).

      So I think there is a double tragedy here in fact – firstly, that people decided not to stick it out and reform from within the Church, and also secondly that what genuine desire for reform that existed at the time was exploited for political ends, and it was these factors that triumphed in (what would eventually become) Protestant countries. The world beckoned, the world coaxed (and made its arguments sound oh so very reasonable), and they chose the world.

      • Yes Michael, I think you are correct in what you say about the Catholic Church in England at the time of the Reformation, but on the continent I think it was not as pure and holy (among her members) as she should have been. When St. Ignatius and his followers started the counter-Reformation, he was dismayed to discover how lax many members of the clergy had become! The laity though were hungry for his “words of eternal life” (i.e. unadulterated Catholic teaching) and rallied to his cause. One could say that it was thanks to the loyalty of the faithful laity that the Reformation (Deformation 😉 ) could be driven back in large areas of continental Europe.

        Politics, power, wealth, ambition etc. also played a big part in the whole thing – you are quite right to point this out. The old child of Adam in each of us is always there.

        • Thank you Kathleen – that is indeed an important correction. Although in the particular case of the ‘Deformation’ (I like that!) the political ambition of nation states and the gradual dissolution of Christendom caused by this were a big factor, this is not to deny that there was indeed a great deal of laxity amongst the clergy on the continent, which is always a shame.

          As I said though, I think the real tragedy in the whole affair is that clergy had become lax before, the Church had become worldly before, but in those previous cases reform took place from within. In fact, the various movements of the Counter-Reformation could be said to have their impetus not in a reaction to Luther et al at all, but rather in the general spirit of reform already taking place at the time – it is just that people like St. Ignatius of Loyola, St. Teresa of Avila, St. John of the Cross, etc humbly submitted to the Church and carried out reform in view of and under the jurisdiction of the proper authorities.

          Luther however, saw himself as the final authority – he was right and everyone else (including 1500 years of Church teaching) was wrong – and had the arrogance to follow through on that impulse. The genuine issues regarding lack of rigour in priestly training and the abuses of indulgences, coupled with the simmering political atmosphere, made it possible for his arrogance to act as a catalyst for what followed.

          What’s ironic about him and Calvin though is that when they repudiated Church authority, they didn’t then mean that authority could be dispersed amongst the laity or anything like that (despite Luther’s writings on ‘the freedom of the Christian’) – they thought that THEY should be listened to instead of the Church. This degree of conceit and lack of humility never ceases to amaze me, and I think is a good example that pride really is at the root of all our sins. As you say, the old child of Adam in each of us is always there, and that was certainly shown well in the case of Luther and Calvin!

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