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A Philosophical Problem


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The Catholic laity in this country suffer greatly because of the failures of their bishops to deal adequately with attacks on faith and morals.  The foundation of the problem is philosophical rather than theological.

The Church's Philosophy

The Church's philosophy is grounded in the metaphysics of St Thomas, as Pope Pius XI pointed out[1].  St Thomas's philosophy is that of Aristotle refined and Christianised.  It sets forth systematically the only true explanation of the ultimate causes of things.  There alone is to be found an unshakeable foundation for the understanding of reality and how it is that we know reality infallibly.

Of every thing on the face of the earth the following distinctions can be made—

• what it is (its essence, or nature) is really distinct from the fact that it is, its existence;

within it is an ordination unto some end placed there by its author--to put it in the technical terms of philosophy, there are two extrinsic causes which determine it, an efficient cause and a final cause;

it has two basic components, its form and its matter, which is the same as to say that it has two intrinsic causes, a formal cause and a material cause: in living things the form is its soul, or vital principle;

how it acts depends on what it is, i.e., on its essence, or nature; in other words, do follows be--agere sequitur esse;

there is a proportionality between its nature, its powers, the acts that it performs and that end;

there is, thus, an internal order that governs it and places it in a more universal and external order ordained and established by the author of creation.

The philosophy of St Thomas extends to every field of reality.  It deals with being as it is found and as it comes into existence.  It explains how being necessarily depends for its continuance in existence upon a being itself uncreated and unmoved by any other; a being which orders all reality but is itself unordered by any other.  It comprehends the natural world, inanimate and animate; the unique position of man among living things, the only material being comprised of both matter and spirit; and the law peculiar to this creature who is capable of choosing his own ends.  It explains how animals know, and how man, equipped with intellect, knows in a way unique to himself.  Not only does he know things, he knows the natures of things.

In contrast to the Church's philosophy are the innumerable schools of modern philosophy which are rooted not in reality but in the subjective beliefs of their proponents.  Far from providing a sound foundation for understanding the doctrines of the faith, these schools of thought serve to undermine them.

In 1950 Pope Pius XII warned of the perils to the faith of forsaking the Church's philosophical patrimony and adopting the misguided opinions of these subjectivist streams of philosophy.  He charged the bishops and religious superiors of his time to take most diligent care that such opinions not be advanced or taught to clergy or to the faithful.[2]  His directions were disobeyed.

A little mistake in the beginning becomes a big mistake in the end.  The thought is Aristotle's; the truth it contains is obvious.  The consequences of disobedience in this fundamental matter have grown with the passage of fifty years to the point where the Church's teachings in faith and morals languish in many parts of the world because of the lack of intellectual commitment on the part of those charged with teaching them.  From a lack of intellectual commitment flows a lack of energy in enforcing the Church's teachings.  The Church's bishops, including her Australian bishops, are among those affected by the malaise.

The intellectual and executive paralysis among bishops and clergy today is thus the fruit of disobedience.  But the blame for this compound of a lack of direction, lack of conviction and acedia is to be laid primarily at the feet not of the current crop of priests and bishops, but at the feet of their disobedient predecessors.  As the sins of fathers are visited upon their children so are the sins of teachers visited upon their pupils.

Subjectivism And Realism

The great intellectual error of the modern world, a sort of atmosphere in which modern philosophy flourishes, is subjectivism.  According to subjectivism, what matters is not reality but what one thinks about reality.  Preconception and prejudgement are its characteristics.  In science, as in history, it produces schools of thought driven by ideology rather than by reality.  The media thrives in this atmosphere.  The public relations and advertising industries only exist because of it.  The opinion poll is subjectivism made precise by mathematics.

One of the corollaries of subjectivism is that appearance is everything--what matters is not that we are doing something but that we appear to be doing something.  When the Police Department, instead of having its officers patrolling highways or enforcing the law, sets up signs stating that Police are patrolling highways or enforcing the law, it is applying the tenets of subjectivism.  Preoccupation with appearance rather than reality diminishes respect for the law and those charged with keeping it.

The bishops, too, are caught up in the spirit of the age.  They want it to appear that they are upholding Catholic teaching when they are doing nothing of the sort.  Abuses occur daily in the administration of the sacraments and of the liturgy in Catholic churches throughout the country.  The bishops will not intervene to end these abuses nor will they remove the priests who commit them.  Catholic moral teaching is treated with disdain by an atheistic and secular humanist public.  The bishops will not proclaim, let alone defend, that Catholic teaching in public.  Dissident Catholics make public their disagreement with the Church's views.  They are hardly ever corrected.  Catholic education has long since passed the point of crisis; it is no longer Catholic.  The bishops will do little to restore it to its Catholic roots.  Preoccupation with appearance rather than reality diminishes respect for the faith and for those charged with keeping it.

Orthodoxy And Orthopraxis

Each bishop of the Catholic Church takes an oath of fidelity--

I, [ . . . . . ], on assuming the office of bishop promise that I shall always preserve communion with the Catholic Church whether in the words I speak or in the way I act.

With great care and fidelity I shall carry out the responsibilities by which I am bound in relation both to the Universal Church and to the particular Church (ie the diocese) in which I am called to exercise my service according to the requirements of the law.

In carrying out my charge, which is committed to me in the name of the Church, I shall preserve the Deposit of Faith in its entirety, hand it on faithfully and make it shine forth.  As a result, whatsoever teachings are contrary, I shall shun.

I shall follow and foster the common discipline of the whole Church and shall look after the observance of all ecclesiastical laws, especially those which are contained in the Code of Canon Law.

With Christian obedience I shall associate myself with what is expressed by the holy shepherds as authentic doctors and teachers of the Faith or established by them as the Church's rulers.  And I shall faithfully assist diocesan bishops so that apostolic activity, to be exercised by the mandate and in the name of the Church, is carried out in the communion of that same Church.

May God help me in this way and the holy Gospels of God which I touch with my hands.

There is no bishop who does not take this oath of allegiance to the teachings of the Catholic faith in all its elements in clear and ringing tones.  The problems arise when the bishop is required to put those teachings into practice.

A specific instance arose a year or two ago when a bishop was about to be installed in a diocese in Australia.  A member of the laity drew to his attention that he had, some years prior, defended in writing the activities at a youth drop in centre under the auspices of a Catholic parish as 'not promoting action against the teaching of the Church' when the activities in question included the distribution of condoms and the provision of pamphlets giving information about artificial contraception, oral and anal sexual activity, masturbation and a graphic display of how to fit condoms to an erect penis.  The lay person involved called on him to withdraw the remarks quoted, to acknowledge explicitly that the activities cited did promote action against the teaching of the Church and that they were inconsistent with the Church's moral teaching.  The bishop refused to do so and his installation went ahead.

Why does a bishop have a problem about doing what the Church requires?  The defect is more one of will than of intellect.  As far as the intellect goes, however, the cause lies in the failure to appreciate the principle of metaphysics adverted to above that do follows be.  If I am a Catholic, I should act as a Catholic and not as a secular humanist.  A fortiori, if I am a Catholic bishop, I should act as if I was one.  Professions of orthodoxy cannot be trusted unless they are followed by actions which bear out these professions.  As our Blessed Lord said--By their fruit you shall know them.  This lack of nexus between word and act is one of the many effects of the heresy of Modernism.


Modernism derives from the evils Pope Pius XII warned about in modern philosophy.  It began in the thinking of certain theologians of the late 19th and early 20th Centuries.  It was condemned systematically by Pope St Pius X in 1907[3].  It resurfaced in the middle of the 20th Century to flower in the activities of certain bishops and their periti at the Second Vatican Council.  It dominates the Church's life today.

What is Modernism?  It is the reduction of the Catholic Church's teaching and practice to conformity with the mores of the modern world.

May we hold that not everything in the Old and New Testaments is inspired by God, or is true?  Are we free to believe that Christ was not born of a virgin?  Or that he did not really rise from the dead?  Do we think we may depart from the Church's teaching on divorce and remarriage, on contraception, on abortion?  Or that notwithstanding this teaching, there are exceptional cases in which departures must be allowed?  May we ignore the Pope's direction that the Church cannot ordain women to the priesthood?  Do we think that faith is something personal, something felt and experienced, rather than the acceptance of something revealed by God and secured by the teaching and discipline of the Catholic Church?  A person who holds any of these views is already infected by the Modernist virus.  Its manifestations are legion, but all of them have this common element--they refuse obedience in practice to the Church's teaching in faith or in morals.

When fully developed, Modernism manifests itself as a gnosis, a superior knowledge, that the existence of a transcendent God and the appearance of His Son on earth to redeem sinful mankind is nothing but a holy fantasy and that all the asserted bases for Catholic belief in Divine Revelation can be explained materially.  Before it reaches that stage there appears an attitude of insensitivity to the Church's teachings; of disobedience to the Church's laws about the administration of the sacraments and of the liturgy; of disobedience to her teaching in moral matters; and then, of negligence in adherence to the elements of the Nicene Creed;.

The instrumental cause of the Modernist attitude is the widespread disobedience amongst the faithful towards the Church's solemn teaching on the illicitness of contraception in Humanae Vitae[4].  From systematic refusal to accept the Church's teaching in this fundamental moral matter, they soon progress to entertaining doubts about elements in its belief.  Thereafter whatever parts of the faith these members of the faithful retain they hold no longer on the authority of the Catholic Church but, as St Thomas says, by the suggestions of their own mind[5].  And what the bishops and priests among them teach is no longer the fulness of the Catholic faith but the Modernist interpretation of the faith.  Of these Von Hildebrand has well written-

[P]riests, theologians, and bishops who have lost their faith do not leave the Church, but rather remain within her-and indeed play the role of saviours of the Church in the modern world. . . The inconceivable thing is that this conspiracy exists within the Church, that there are bishops and even cardinals, and many priests and religious, who play the role of Judas.[6]

The effect of the Modernist heresy can be seen in the preoccupation of large numbers of the Australian clergy with the Third Rite of Reconciliation (general absolution).  These bishops and priests deliberately ignored the stringent limitations on the use of this form of the Sacrament of Penance and refused even to advise the faithful who attended of the conditions essential to its use.

The abuse of general absolution[7] was curtailed in Australian dioceses only after recourse was had to Rome by members, not of the episcopacy, but of the Catholic laity with the support of certain members of the clergy.  Needless to say, these members of the laity received no thanks from the bishops for intervening to protect the faith of their fellow Catholics.  On the contrary they were criticised by the bishops for doing so.  Notwithstanding specific directives from Rome[8], there are Australian bishops who still cooperate in this abuse.

Modernism-Agents And Unwitting Cooperators

We are all influenced by the foolish ideology of feminism, even those of us who reject it completely.  In the same way even the orthodox amongst the Australian Catholic bishops are affected by the Modernist heresy.  So they join the inclination to inactivity advocated by their Modernist brethren.  Caution; the fear of scandal; the doctrine of Noah's cloak; procrastination; the need for solidarity-these and other excuses are urged as reasons for inactivity or for silence when action or utterance is not only indicated but mandated.  These reasons have nothing to do with the noble virtue of prudence, but everything to do with its contrary-false prudence.

There is a sort of collective Modernism amongst the bishops, a bowing to the secular humanist, the feminist, which arises from a fear of being seen to be different, a fear of obloquy or of ostracism by their fellow Australians which operates to subvert the living out of Catholic principle even amongst the best of them.  They will not take on the federal or state governments or the secular humanist dominated media when it is essential that they do so.  They are slow to condemn erroneous laws or opinions.  If they express a Catholic view and are criticised in the media, they are quick to say they have been misquoted.

Through their silence, their inaction, their inappropriate retractions, they allow the impression to be conveyed that if the Church has a contrary view on the innumerable moral issues which arise each week to that advocated by secular humanism or feminism they will not insist upon it.  Or they allow the impression to be given that the Church's view must accommodate itself to the secular opinion.  This is Modernism in action.

The Bishop And The Conference

The bishops are all part of a 'club', the club of the priesthood[9].  They are senior members of the club chosen out of the ranks to serve.  But to serve whom?  Many priests think they are there to serve the priests.  And there is a sense, of course, in which that is correct.  They must serve their priests as they must serve all the faithful, and they must have special regard for priests.  But the peril is that the newly appointed bishop will not grasp the nettle and discipline the priests now placed under him because they are all members of the same club and are his acquaintances, if not his friends.  There is a natural tendency for the clubmember to protect his own and not to betray another clubmember.  The syndrome is found in other 'clubs' too-in the police force, the army, the public service, societies of lawyers or doctors, and in any institution which has a corporate entity.  It is this which leads a bishop to provide support even for the priest who has betrayed all that he was ordained for; to move him elsewhere instead of sacking him.  It is this which makes a bishop such an insensitive auditor to those who come to him complaining of the conduct of one or other of his priests.  These phenomena are not isolated.  They have been observed of bishops throughout Australia.

The bishops are part, too, of a second club-the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference.  The Bishops Conference is a juridical body recognised and established by the Church.  But, materially taken, it is a sort of superior club, the inner bar of the Church, with a limited and exclusive membership.  This club has certain rules, the chief of which is cabinet solidarity at any price.  At every consecration or installation of a new bishop, it is mandatory for every other Australian bishop to attend, unless he has good excuse.  No new bishop would dare refuse: the price would be ostracism by his peers.  Many attend the consecration or installation with reluctance because of reservations about the character of the appointee but none of them have the strength of character to break the chain.  What the bishops who conform, albeit reluctantly, do not realise in their naïvety is that there is a price for their conformity, and that is the subversion in them of principle brought about by this peer group pressure.

Prior to the installation of the recalcitrant bishop mentioned earlier, several members of the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference, among them archbishops, were provided with a detailed brief of the allegations against him including copies of the offending letter.  Each of them was urged to prevail upon the bishop concerned to withdraw the remarks quoted, to acknowledge explicitly that the activities cited did promote action against the teaching of the Catholic Church and that they were inconsistent with the Church's moral teaching.  Each was urged, in the event of the bishop concerned refusing to comply, to decline to attend his installation.  As indicated, the bishop refused to comply.  Not one of the bishops or archbishops so advised declined for that reason to attend.

The remarks of American comentator George Weigel in a recent book are apposite--

'When shepherds become flocks, shepherds become sheep, and something in the nature of a shepherd is gravely damaged.'[10]

Each bishop has the obligation to uphold and to defend the Church's teaching to the faithful committed to his care.  It is on his conduct towards them, after all, that he will be judged, not on his conduct towards the bishops conference.

Autonomy Of The Bishop's Power

A bishop has the fulness of the priesthood.  His authority is subject only to the direction of the Church and the authority over him of the Holy Father.  Save that he cannot separate himself from communion with the Pope, the bishop is autonomous.  As Pope John Paul has confirmed in his motu proprio Apostolos Suos[11], his authority is not subject to the local bishops conference.  Indeed the bishops conference exists to be of help to the individual bishop and not to substitute for him[12].  It may not hinder him by substituting itself for him where canonical legislation does not provide for a limitation of his episcopal power, nor may it act as a filter or obstacle to his contact with the Apostolic See[13].

It follows that one bishop is not bound by the negligence or the tendency to inertia of any of his fellow bishops nor, indeed, of the whole bishops conference.  There is no reason for an individual bishop to wait on the bishops conference to consider an issue of importance if it demands his attention.  Moreover, if he declines to give his support to a determination of the conference on a matter of doctrine, the conference may not issue a declaration as authentic teaching of the conference to which all the faithful would have to adhere unless it first obtains the recognitio of the Apostolic See[14].  Doubtless, this element of the Pope's motu proprio was included to aid in preventing a repetition of errors such as those promulgated in the pastoral letter on Humanae Vitae published by the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference in 1974 and referred to in a footnote above.

Each of Australia's Catholic bishops has a duty not just to Catholics but to Australian citizens generally for God made all men, not just Catholics.  Opportunities arise almost every week to impress the national psyche with a sense of that religious awe which ought to be part of the life of every man.  Recently, in support of a public campaign to allow people to assist others to commit suicide, a woman called Nancy Crick committed suicide in very public circumstances.  No effort was made by the bishops or by any one of them to draw to the attention of the public the consequences of her so doing--that her soul did not cease to exist on her death, as the secular humanists like to believe; that it was confronted by the ultimate judge, Jesus Christ; that she was called to account for all the good and evil she had done throughout her life, including that act of self destruction.  This is not opinion--it is reality.  It is not conjecture--it is truth revealed by God.  The response by the bishops should have been broadcast as widely as was the foolish action itself.  But it was not!

Any society which kills its weakest members is doomed.  If abortion is a sin that cries to heaven for vengeance, what must be said of the sin of creating human embryos in order to destroy them?  It is inevitable that the wrath of God will be visited on any society which tolerates or permits this conduct.  What form that wrath will take we know not.  But that it must come, there can be no doubt.  What warnings have the Catholic bishops issued to Australian society of the consequences of these sins?  None.  What warnings can we expect them to give?  None!

What Australia needs is one, only one, bishop to stand up and enunciate Catholic principle publicly and constantly, against media and government, against critics whoever they may be, including his fellow bishops.  If just one bishop in one diocese, was to preach, for example, in favour of action against the moral and civil evil of abortion and to follow that preaching up by consistent personal involvement he would incite Catholics throughout his diocese to act in such a way as to close down clinic after clinic.  St John Vianney, the patron saint of priests, said: The priest does not exist for himself, he exists for you.  If the Curé of Ars is a compelling paradigm for priests, he is even more so for bishops because bishops have the fulness of the priesthood.


The trouble with Australia's Catholic bishops is that they have lost faith in the Catholic Church as God's chosen instrument to save the world from perdition.  This is the evil fruit of Modernism, itself the consequence of modern philosophy's vacuous attempts to explain reality.  Were our bishops once seen to be effective leaders of the Catholic faithful, they would find the Catholic faithful united in following them.  Slowly, but with increasing momentum, the faithful would come to reject the mindset of secular humanism and feminism with its appalling consequences.  The effects would then flow on to the rest of society.

But they have first to believe that the Catholic solution will work.

Michael Baker

[1] We so heartily approve the magnificent tribute of praise bestowed upon this most divine genius that We consider that Thomas should be called not only the Angelic, but also the Common or Universal Doctor of the Church; for the Church has adopted his philosophy for her own, as innumerable documents of every kind attest. [Studiorem Ducem, 29.1.1923, n.11].  The contentious may deny this assertion and seek to rely on words of Pope John Paul II in Fides Et Ratio, 14.9.1998, n.49--The Church has no philosophy of her own nor does she canonise any one particular philosophy in preference to others.  The authority for this statement is given as Pope Pius XII in Humani Generis, 12.8.1950, AAS 42, 566.  A study of the text cited fails, however, to reveal any support for what is asserted.  In fact it supports the very contrary.  Moreover, Pope John Paul says elsewhere in Fides Et Ratio--The Magisterium's intention has always been to show how Saint Thomas is an authentic model for all who seek the truth.  In his thinking, the demands of reason and the power of faith found the most elevated synthesis ever attained by human thought, for he could defend the radical newness introduced by Revelation without ever demeaning the venture proper to reason. (n.78)

[2]  Humani Generis, 12.8.1950, nn. 41, 42

[3]  Pascendi Dominici Gregis, 8.9.1907.

[4] In 1974 the Australian Catholic bishops issued a 1,600 word pastoral letter on Humanae Vitae.  In the course of that letter they said this--

The encyclical On Human Life is an authentic and authoritative document of the Church, and as such, it calls for a religious submission of will and of mind (Lumen Gentium n.25). . . It is not impossible, however, that an individual may fully accept the teaching authority of the Pope in general, may be aware of his teaching in this matter and yet reach a position after honest study and prayer that is at variance with papal teaching.  Such a person could be without blame; he would certainly not have cut himself off from the Church; and in acting in accordance with his conscience he could be without subjective fault.

The statement was self contradictory for it is not possible to give religious submission of will and mind to the papal teaching and then, as a matter of conscience, to reject that teaching.  The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith required the bishops to issue a retraction.  They did so in September 1976, not by way of a pastoral letter, but as a directive issued by that Conference.  Here is the whole of it--

The Episcopal Conference informs the Directors of Catholic Family Planning Centres and Priests connected with this work, that the authentic teaching of the Catholic Church contained in Humanae Vitae that "every action which either in anticipation of the conjugal act, or in its accomplishment, or in the development of its natural consequences, proposes, whether as an end or as a means, to render procreation impossible" is "intrinsically evil" and to be absolutely excluded, binds the consciences of all without ambiguity and excludes the possibility of a probable opinion opposed to this teaching.

The retraction was given little publicity and the 1974 statement continues to be cited by dissident priests and theologians throughout Australia--and they are never corrected.  The false doctrine of the supremacy of conscience over the Church's moral teaching is touted frequently.  It is never contradicted and the terms of the 1976 directive are never repeated--by any bishop.

[5]   Summa Theologiae II-II, q.11, a.1

[6]   The Devastated Vineyard, Dietrich von Hildebrand, Roman Catholic Books, New York, 1985, Introduction.

[7] Or, rather, attempted general absolution, as the conditions for its use were never complied with: cf Extending general absolution: why such a move is out of the question, Fr Peter Joseph, AD2000, Vol.12, n.3, April 1999, pp. 10-11.

[8]   Statement of Conclusions, 14.12.1998; Misericordia Dei, Apostolic Letter of Pope John Paul II, 7.4.2002.  On 20th April 2000, the Pope found it necessary to issue a further letter to Australia's bishops Concerning the Sacrament of Penance which addressed variations of the original abuses apparently introduced in an attempt to avoid the strictures of the Statement of Conclusions.  They were directed to send a copy to all priests working in their dioceses.

[9]  This sydrome, particularly as it relates to bishops, is remarked on by George Weigel in his recent study of the crisis in the Catholic Church in the USA, The Courage to be Catholic, New York, 2002, pp.110-112.  He writes 'The ideal bishop, at least according to club dynamics, is a man who gets along, doesn't make waves, doesn't assert himself theologically, and doesn't force decisions that others may be reluctant to face.'

[10]  George Weigel, op. cit., p.214

[11] Apostolos suos, 21.5.1998

[12]  Ibid n.18.

[13]   Ibid n.24.

[14]   Ibid n.22.