This fictional correspondence from one bishop to another bears a date of 1977:
…You know, during the course of conversation I think we touched on one of the basic problems in the Church today. I was holding forth on the fact that the Church is guardian of the Faith and the present crisis arose because what she enjoins and permits in practice is not readily recognizable as an expression of the faith she guarantees. Hence we could arrive at the absurd situation in which practicers had lost the Faith whereas the faithful refused to practice. It was your answer to this which seems to me so important. You said: “There is only one object of Faith: the Church. I am baptized into the Church and it is she who gives me Faith. On her authority I believe all other doctrines. She can deal with them as she likes, since she is the only constant. Christ revealed no doctrines but a praxis: His Kingdom the Church.” We left it at that.
Few people, I think, could formulate the argument as honestly and clearly as you. Nevertheless, I believe it expresses the basic attitude of countless Catholics today, not of the “modernists” but of those who simply obey. It is a very ecclesiastical argument, akin to the patriotism in “My country right or wrong.” But is it true?
I suspect that it rests on two articles in the old catechism:
1. Faith is a supernatural gift of God enabling me to believe without doubting whatever God has revealed.
2. I am to know what God has revealed by the teaching, testimony and authority of the Catholic Church.
If one puts those two articles together, one gets the impression that Faith as a supernatural gift merely empowers a person to believe what the Church teaches and the objects of Faith are provided by the Church. It is therefore the Church which justifies the Faith and not the Faith which justifies the Church. Hence the Church must be obeyed in all things, even if she is quite clearly hiding her light under a bushel. It automatically becomes right and proper that the light should be so shaded because legitimate authority in the Church has said so. I do not think that is an unfair or distorted presentation of the case, is it?
But surely it is evident that such an argument is tautological or a vicious circle? I am to know what God has revealed by the authority of the Church. And how am I to know that the Church has such authority? Because the Church says that God has revealed it. It is patently nonsense.
You will notice that you yourself admit it to be nonsense. You said: “Christ revealed no doctrines but a praxis: His Kingdom, His Church.” You thereby concede that there is at any rate one object of Faith logically prior to the Church: the authority of Christ. And once you admit that, all the rest follows. Is His authority divine? Is He God incarnate, the Second Person of the Trinity, born of the Virgin Mary, etc.? Indeed, one of the things which follows from your prior faith in the divine authority of Christ is the authority of the Church. It does not work the other way round: you do not believe that Christ receives His authority from the Church. The Church is the guardian of God’s revelation but not its source. She herself is one of the objects of Faith: I believe in the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church.
Therein, it seems to me, lies the crux of the present crisis. I mean the crisis between honest Catholics, such as I believe both of us to be. I am not referring to heretics who have lost the Faith although the Church no longer excludes them. I mean you and me. Faced with the same crisis, we react in diametrically opposite ways. Your immediate reaction, along with the overwhelming majority of churchmen, is to save the Church and the Faith will look after itself. Mine, along with a heavy percentage of the laity, is to save the Faith and let the Church look after herself. We cannot both be right. Indeed, each day the gulf between us is growing wider. If we pursue our ways indefinitely we shall come to the point when the faithful are legal schismatics and the obedient factual heretics.
At this point I can hear you say: “Don’t talk rot, Edmund. It is your metaphor which deceives you. We are not going in opposite directions: we are merely looking at the opposite facets of the same coin. Even if I grant you the logical priority of Faith over the Church, in practice he who defends the Faith defends the Church.”
In normal times this would by and large be so. I say “by and large” because history provides plenty of examples of excessive use of ecclesiastical authority. Quite apart from mediaeval excommunications, in our own day some of your friends might feel that Pius XII went a bit far when he demanded internal assent to the Five Ways of proving the existence of God. But at this moment of time it is patently untrue to say that in defending the Church one is automatically defending the Faith and this for two reasons: a) the Faith is ambiguously formulated; b) heretics are no longer excluded from the Church. The fact is that the Faith is exclusive whereas the Church has become inclusive. She has changed Our Lord’s lapidary sentence, “He who is not with me is against me,” into the coward’s whine, “He is my friend who bullies me.”
— from Mitre and Crook, by Bryan Houghton