Episode – 0 – *sentire cum ecclesia*

Click here to download or listen to Episode – 0 – of Thinking with the Church

What does “Thinking with the Church” mean? – What does it mean to think with the Church?

The Latin expression – if this is a little hifalutin, well, I’m sorry I’m not sorry – from which the English is roughly translated is: sentire cum ecclesia.

It is a dense expression.

The verb, Sentio, sentire, is a rich and a prolific one – it says a lot on its own, and it sired lots of children in all the Romance languages and in just about every language that Latin has influenced. In English, we have words like: “sentence”; “sentiment”; even “sense”, all of which either come directly from, or are etymologically related to the Latin, sentire – and the interesting thing about the Latin word is that it “says” all the things that the single, individual words we listed a moment ago each say: so, Sentire means at once “to feel”, “to speak a complete and well-ordered idea”, and even “to pronounce a sentence” in the judicial … sense … – all in a way that “makes sense”.

Said simply: sentire cum ecclesia means to see the world as the Church sees it – to think with the mind of the Church – to feel with her sensibilities – to speak and act with her words and out of her thoughts and ideas.

On one level, this sounds easy – easy, that is, until one actually tries to do it. Then, one is brought up almost instantly against a whole host of problems, not least of which are: “What ‘does’ the Church think about THIS?”; “Does the Church even HAVE an opinion about this matter?”; “Does the Church need to have an opinion about this matter?”; “Is there pertinent teaching available to guide us in thinking through this?”; “If there is, then what is it, and how ought I to let myself be guided by it?”.

Even when there are ready answers to some or all of those questions, there are very rarely easy answers to any of them.

In fact, Christians – and Catholics especially, but by no means only Catholics – sometimes find themselves wondering, and even saying, “I wish the Church would just make up her mind and TEACH US!” … about this or that or the other thing: from what to do with fertilized, frozen embryos; to whether going to Mass on the vigil of a Holy Day of Obligation, when the day on which one actually goes to Mass is also a day of obligation, covers BOTH obligations, or only one (and if only one, then WHICH ONE?!?); to how many angels can dance on the head of a pin.

Careful what you wish for.

You might get it – and rarely is any authoritative pronouncement of the Church received – even and perhaps especially by those who clamored most loudly for it – with anything like perfect satisfaction.

In fact, most of the time, throughout most of her history, the Church has been happy to let people argue.

Arguing is going to be a big part of what we do here at Thinking with the Church.

By no means will arguing be the only thing we are to be about here – it might not even be the primary thing, unless you will allow argument to be a means of discovering the truth of the matter – and really that is what argument ought to be, and really is when it is at its best, and when we are, too.

Catholics have a peculiar way of thinking about things: peculiar, that is, in that ours is a universal way of thinking.

Isn’t that a paradox?

Not necessarily: if this way of thinking is peculiar, that is, proper to the Catholic tradition and having a sort of claim of its own on the Catholics who practice it, it is nevertheless neither unique, nor inaccessible to people who do not share or subscribe to Catholic claims regarding the basic structure of the world (“We believe in one God, the Maker of Heaven and Earth, of all things visible and invisible…) and the ultimate reason of things (“For God so loved the world…”).

Indeed, its very universality – the universality of the claims Catholicism advances and by which Catholicism professes to live as true – requires Catholics to engage discussion and debate in the public square by way of publicly available arguments, i.e. by way of reason deployed in a manner that does not require even notional assent to the data of faith in order to be comprehensible and even cogent.

This is not an easy task, though it is one that, as far as public life in a society that claims to love and to have and to want to keep a decent measure of ordered liberty is concerned, all citizens – of every tradition of faith and religion, and none at all – all share together and in equal measure.

As Benedict XVI put it when he visited the United States in 2008, “[Freedom] also demands the courage to engage in civic life and to bring one’s deepest beliefs and values to reasoned public debate.”

Take careful note: it is freedom that requires such courage, not Catholic faith specifically, nor even religious conviction broadly considered.

Nevertheless, the measure to which Catholic faith is compatible with ordered liberty in society will always be established in the concrete by the measure to which Catholics actually do display such courage in public life.

The difficulty for Catholics – not only for Catholics, though for Catholics especially – is that we very often disagree about which of our convictions ought to guide us in our consideration of a given public question, and about where our faith is guiding us in this or that public matter, great or small.

This ought not be a surprise to anyone, since Catholics are and always have been people who – to say it with the great 20th century journalist, G.K. Chesterton – agree about everything, and disagree about everything else.

The matter is complicated, however, by an ineluctable, often troubling and even embarrassing fact: the “everything” about which Catholics agree is an intricate weave of truths the Church teaches, which do not come to us all directly from a single source.

Some of the things the Church teaches as true are things the Church has learned directly from God, e.g. that He is one nature in three persons, and teaches as true because God has revealed them to the world through the Church; in fact, it took a good deal of thinking to understand that God had taught the Church about His Triune nature, and still more very messy and often quite bloody history had to happen before we had hashed out exactly what that teaching means and does not mean, especially regarding the Second Person of the Trinity – but I digress.

There are other things that the Church teaches because they are true and that we know to be true quite apart from a direct and immediate Divine didactic intervention.

For example: that there is a cause of, and an order to all that is, and that we are capable of knowing a good deal about that order and about the principle by which things are ordered – and examples of some of the things that we know about the order of the universe are that good is to be done and evil to be avoided, and therefore that it is wrong – for example – deliberately to destroy innocent life.

We know also that human life begins at conception – this is not a matter of religious conviction, as is so often erroneously claimed – for if real assent to the truth of revelation were necessary in order to recognize the intrinsic evil of procured abortion, then, quite frankly, advocates of legal abortion would have a much stronger case; we know that  defrauding a worker of his just wage is not only wrong, but one of the worst things one human can do to another.

I almost said that we know these things quite apart from being Catholic – but that is not quite right.

We can understand all the things I mentioned just now without any recourse to or mention of the Catholic faith, or Christianity – or we might come to understand them even if we did not have Christianity in any form – and this, in point of fact, is what people did before Christ came and founded His Church.

When Christ came and founded His Church, one of the things that “proved” – if I can put it that way – to people that His followers were not all wet – at least in what they thought and what they taught – was that they thought and taught the things that everybody knew already.

(That’s not to say Pagans always did the right things, or even ordered their societies in a way that made it easy for people to see what was right and do it: they didn’t – certainly, no more than we do today. Indeed, they were every bit as attached to the customs and practices they had in their day, which ran counter to their own understanding of “good morals”, as we are to our own in our day. The point is: they knew, and they made very few bones about it.)

(I’m painting in broad strokes here, and with a broad brush, too. Any historian of antiquity worth his salt could dig into the nooks and crannies of daily life in the ancient, pre-Christian world, to find all manner of “little differences” that made all the difference in the world. For our present purposes, all I can or ought to do is note it, and move on – with a promise to come back to it.)

There was nothing new in Christian morality insofar as what Christians thought was right and what they thought was wrong; the main difference was in Christians’ proclamation of a carpenter’s son as the incarnation of the very principle of intelligibility – the uncreated source of order and rector of the whole cosmos took on the nature of the chief animal creature in the order of His creation, and He did so out of love.

That’s something.

What it is not, though, is an easy answer any of life’s hard questions.

Even though Christianity taught nothing new as far as right and wrong were concerned, it did expand the scope of moral action to include – even chiefly – our duty to God the Father and Creator of All, and it enlarged the circle of moral community to the point of embracing the whole human family – a notion of which only a small number of learned men were aware and of which only a small fraction of that small number of men were in any meaningful sense convinced.

As we mentioned just a short while back, it took some doing to work out even the bare bones of the meaning of the incarnation – what it was and what it wasn’t, what it meant and did not mean.

Life in the ancient world was hard, and busy, and brutal – and Christians’ outwardly unintelligible internal debates and inwardly wrenching attempts to be in the hard and busy and brutal world without internalizing its coarseness, business, and brutality – made for serious complexities for which no one was really prepared.

In our day, it appears that little has changed.

When everything is so complex, everything else is inevitably complicated, and we owe it to ourselves, to our fellows in religion, and to our fellows in citizenship, to be mindful of the complexities as we engage in discussion and debate about matters touching what we used to call, “the public weal” – whether these be internal doctrinal matters or questions of order, discipline, or even basic right-and-wrong in society.

For example: The Church teaches us it is an act of charity to welcome the stranger, but she does not tell us how to conduct that charitable activity – upon which our salvation mysteriously and at once doubtlessly depends – in a manner consistent with our duty as citizens to obey the laws and our duty as participants in the government of our republic to make laws that provide for the common defense and promote the general welfare.

The danger in taking principles meant to be guides to forming prudential judgment, and erecting them into principles of conduct from which policy directly flows, is clear and present: it leads in short order both to irresponsible citizenship and to ineffective Christian witness.

In many political societies – especially in my own United States, but by no means only there – we have come to a sort of surreal point in our national life, in which we are willing to let ourselves be “sold” on political and religious leaders who “speak my language” and “represent MY views” etc.

I am not speaking of mere demagoguery here.

This willingness today comes coupled with our unwillingness to expose the leaders with whom we tend broadly and generally to agree, to the caustic process of critical examination.

At precisely the same time, we are almost eager to believe the absolute worst about the people – not just people in positions of political and religious leadership, but our neighbors and our friends relatives, as well – with whom we broadly and generally disagree.

For Christians generally and for Catholics in particular, this is especially potent poison: the more we go in for it, the greater our exposure to an old, but dangerous accusation, namely, that Christianity is not a religion suitable to republican virtue, and that the morality it teaches is in fact inimical to the morals of a republic.

In the midst of our needful debate and discussion of the proper attitude to adopt toward the world in its turns, let us recall the reply of St. Augustine of Hippo, the architect of the first Christian response to sustained attack from sources claiming Christianity incompatible with republican virtue:

“Let us be such soldiers, doctors, lawyers, agents, laborers—in a word, such citizens as Christ commands.”

“Then,” St. Augustine instructs, “let those who call Christ’s doctrine incompatible with the State’s well-being … dare to say that it is adverse to the State’s well-being; yea, rather, let them no longer hesitate to confess that this doctrine, if it were obeyed, would be the salvation of the commonwealth.”

Here, Catholics have a tremendous opportunity once again to prove, contra Paganos, that Catholic religion is not only not inimical to the morals of a republic, but can – if practiced – in fact have a quite salutary effect thereupon: indeed, the Catholic Church is the bearer, the caretaker, the champion of the greatest intellectual tradition that ever there has been or shall be; that tradition has always inspired those in it to dedicate themselves to the task of making subtle and particular distinctions within the unity of truth, to seek and always be in awe of the infinite nuance necessary and possible within the oneness of knowledge, to live in the confidence that comes from knowing that the world is larger (the Church wiser, and God greater) than one’s own powers of apprehension.

Indeed, true religion has always inspired men and women to think all the good they can of those with whom they find themselves in disagreement; to mark and toe the line between the position and the one who holds it; to pronounce judgment only in the case of gravest necessity, and only for the best of all possible motives, i.e. the salvation of souls (the salus animarum, which in the present context also has the added incentive of serving the salus rei publicae).

If we can do that tolerably well together, we will be on our way to toward the kind of thinking that is thinking with the Church.

What we are going to try to do – what I hope we can do through “Thinking with the Church” – is to show – in the interviews and round-table discussions with officials of the Roman Curia, professors from Rome’s Pontifical universities, and Catholic thought leaders from every area of intellectual and cultural life – what thinking with the Church sounds like.

The goal is to give listeners a chance to hear and understand how the Church thinks at the highest levels of governance – and by creating a genuinely interactive listening community, to make it possible for everyone to participate in the kind of thinking that thinking with the Church is.

Just exactly how we are going to do this is still something we are figuring out – and we hope – I hope – that you will help us figure it out together.

So, don’t be a stranger.

God bless you all.

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