“Flying Vic” is, I believe a Vicar in the Church of England. He seems a very nice fellow. He takes the time to read this blog and contribute courteous and thoughtful comments. I’m glad he’s here. He’s submitted a rather long comment on my post–the Protestant Dilemna– that I thought worth publishing along with my replies.

Vic writes:

Father, your question that you “ask all Protestants” reveals your own longing for that ‘certainty’ that is sought in accepting the authority of another. When I read the word ‘longing’ and see the word ‘certainty’ in quotes. I sense that this is a polite way of saying, “Poor you–somehow emotionally and intellectually too weak to deal with uncertainty and you clearly need the security blanket of ‘certainty’. I may be reading too much into the words, but if this is the sentiment it would not surprise me. Most liberals hold exactly this view about those who hold dogmatic beliefs. And behind that longing is the wish that there may be one single Truth that can be expressed unequivocally in human language. This is not actually true. The Catholic understanding is that the ultimate Truth is a mystery beyond human expression. However, we do believe that the expression of that Truth which is revealed by God can be expressed in, albeit, limited human language. The unspoken premise underlying the question is that you believe Roman Catholics have possession of that truth and have the authority to claim exclusive right of ownership. This is a straw man. We do not believe this at all. Instead we believe that God’s Truth is spread out across creation, across the expressions of all human religions and across the entire sweep of history and philosophy and learning and the arts. Catholic Truth is one part of that whole vast Truth–we don’t contend that it includes all Truth–there is still much to be learned and much to be gathered wherever God’s truth lies it is Catholic Truth and we embrace it. However, we do affirm that the revealed truth that is stated within the Catholic religion is true as far as it goes. What is disconcerting in Vic’s expression is the suspicion that Vic doesn’t actually believe in such a thing as Divine Revelation. Instead I wonder if he holds the typical modernist view that religion is a provisional thing, formed in certain historical periods by the longing human heart and cultural conditions and certain circumstances. As such it is a human construct–an expression of humanity’s longing for immortality–but certainly not infallible divine revelation.

For all sorts of reasons I think your question is flawed; but to answer it as it stands: I have no authority to believe that my interpretation of anything is ‘right’ – certainly not to the extent that I may categorise all others as ‘wrong’ – beyond that promise in Scripture that the Holy Spirit will lead God’s people into all truth. Yes, this is my point. Neither do I think I have such authority, but I believe the Catholic Church does. Undoubtedly there will be some who are in error, just as there will be some on the path to the truth who will close their minds to the possibility of any further understanding. Every day each one of us will make our major and minor moral decisions based upon our judgement and understanding of what is right – we can live no other way. Well, actually there is another way. Those of us who live within the Catholic tradition would say that what we believe and how we behave is very clearly stated for us in the Scriptures as interpreted by the Church’s Magisterium. Our personal judgment and conscience are to be formed by the teaching of the Church. Vic’s words here do give us a glimpse into the Anglican mind however. It is a mind of great goodwill and fine intent. If there is no clarity and no definition the lack is made up in a certain good natured, English sort of optimism and confidence that “We’ll muddle through in the end.”  If we are wise, however, we will remain open to the possibility that the Holy Spirit may lead us into a different and deeper perception of the truth and of what is right – and we will led to change (or clarify?) our mind. Indeed. This is not alien to Catholic thought. How this happens is outlined in Newman’s Essay on the Development of Doctrine.

You bring in to your question Mormons, Methodists, Moonies, Baptists, Pentecostals and Episcopalians, as if this kind of catalogue makes it self-evident that the lack of an over-arching and defining authority must be wrong. But is it? Where there is life there is profusion and variety. Where God has created conditions for growth in our garden there is growth indeed; but we are pleased to call it in its native state a jungle or a wilderness. Along comes a gardener…and in due course there may be in place of the ‘jungle’ a pattern of manicured lawns and precisely ordered flower-beds. That pattern may very well look beautiful to the human gardener, but who is to say that it conforms to what God either likes or intended? This is a choice passage. Pure Church of England. Nowhere on earth have I discovered a race of people who can so ably turn a tragedy into a triumph, praise their losers as heroes and their theological and ecclesial chaos as the beauty of a primitive jungle. This passage reminds me of the Dean of Kings College, Cambridge while I was there who seemed to be mistaking his agnosticism for the dark night of the soul.

We must draw the conclusion that Vic really does think that it doesn’t matter what religion you are as long as you are sincere. If that is not the case, (even a little) then there must be some border or boundary–some way of defining what religion is better or more true than another, and to do that you must have an authority to determine that boundary. If there must be an authority to determine that boundary, then my question to Protestants remains valid. 

However, this again does indicate a deeper philosophical disparity. We must draw from Vic’s jungle metaphor that the profusion is good and healthy and that one cannot make value judgments of any religion, therefore all religions must be equally valid. If all religions are equally valid, then I suspect this also indicates that he does not believe that one is divinely revealed, and that they all are human constructs of some sort. If none are revealed, and all are human constructs, then his conclusions are right and we may simply choose one which we like best or make a new one up if that pleases us. However, if one is revealed by God, then it is incumbent on us to determine which it is and why and why one might be more true than another and which one that is, and then cling to it.

You are pleased to invest your ‘authority’ question with ultimate significance, implying that “we have the answer, we have the authority, but you do not.” You write, “the commenter must tell us what authority declares that his preferred version of Anglicanism is the correct one.”

Why? For your soul’s salvation. I wonder also if Vic therefore thinks this is an irrelevant question. If what I suspected is true, and he believes that religion is a human construct then any idea of a soul’s salvation or damnation becomes moot. There is no such thing–or if there is such a thing as damnation it can never be linked with what one believes–only perhaps what one does. But if damnation is according to what one does, not what one believes, how does one determine what the right thing is to do? Without an authority and without divine revelation who can say that this is wrong and that is right? If Vic does not claim any authority to determine what is right or wrong in matters of belief why does he have the authority to determine what is right or wrong in matters of morals?

I may be reading too much into a short comment, and if I have mistaken Vic’s views I am more than happy to be corrected and hope in my blunt comments not to have offended against charity.