Infallibility: The Church as the "oracle of God"
The former Anglican Bishop of Rochester, Dr Michael Nazir-Ali, has been ordained to the Catholic priesthood by Cardinal Vincent Nichols, Archbishop of Westminster. He will serve in the Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham, set up for Anglicans who seek union with the Catholic Church. All who were ordained in the Anglican Communion must receive ordination in the Catholic Church to continue their ministry.
Days earlier he was received into the Catholic Church. At that ceremony, Dr Nazir-Ali said:
I believe that the Anglican desire to adhere to apostolic, patristic and conciliar teaching can now best be maintained in the Ordinariate. Provisions there to safeguard legitimate Anglican patrimony are very encouraging and, I believe, that such patrimony in its Liturgy, approaches to biblical study, pastoral commitment to the community, methods of moral theology and much else besides has a great deal to offer the wider Church.
I am looking forward to receiving from the riches of other parts of the Church, while perhaps making a modest contribution to the maintenance and enhancement of Anglican patrimony within the wider fellowship.
He is the third bishop from the Church of England to join the Catholic Church this year. In December of 2019, former Church of England priest Gavin Ashenden was also received into the Catholic Church. Ashenden had been ordained a bishop in the Christian Episcopal Church, a breakaway Anglican denomination, in 2017.
Dr Nazir-Ali laid out his reasons for becoming a Catholic in a column in the Daily Mail. It came down to this, the unity of doctrine:
The Catholic Church is a truly united global organisation, which gives it strength. The Anglican Church has become splintered, a loose collection of churches, many of whom have conflicting interpretations of Christianity. Even when the Church manages to agree on things, these decisions don't seem to carry much weight – people go off and do it their own way.
The source of Catholic unity while being global is recognised as flowing from its exercise of authority invested in the successor of the apostle Peter. The matter of infallibility within the Catholic Church, has been from the beginning a provocative doctrine for Anglicans, and a matter of a famous defence (given in part below) by former Anglican priest John Henry Newman, who became a Catholic, was ordained a priest and made a cardinal, and, in 2019, was declared a saint.
Cardinal Nichols spoke at Dr Nazir-Ali's ordination about the doctrine of infallibility:
[T]he gift of the Holy Spirit ... affects the birth of the Church, a birth renewed, again and again, at every Eucharist. From here spring two key characteristics of the Church: its cohesion and its mission. Neither is easy to put into practice and sustain.Indeed, the first practical problems emerge immediately for the infant Church. The first: how to replace Judas, whose heart had been totally corrupted by greed. It is not without consequences that the first words spoken on this matter were the words of Peter, leading decisively to the course to be taken. The gift of the Petrine ministry is part of the gift given to the Church to sustain its cohesion of life and action.
So too in its mission. We read in the Acts of the Apostles that after the great event of Pentecost, as the mission of the Church explodes into life, it is Peter who ‘stood up with the Eleven and addressed them (the crowd) in a loud voice’ (Acts 2:14). Already the challenge of the mission of the Church is clear, for that crowd consisted of people ‘from every nation under heaven’. Our mission is always shaped by the interface between the joy of the Gospel truth and the history and culture of those to whom it is addressed. That dynamic, too, comes under the guidance of the Successor of Peter and those around him, and one with him, in the ministry of oversight.
Dr Nazir-Ali was born in Pakistan in 1949 and has both British and Pakistani citizenship. He holds many academic awards, including from the universities of Karachi, Oxford and Cambridge. He has taught and researched at a number of institutions and continues to teach and supervise research. He was appointed Bishop of Rochester in 1994, resigning in 2009. Since then he has been director of a centre that prepares Christians for ministry in situations where the Church is in danger from persecution. He is the author of many books. He has been married to Valerie since 1972 and they have two adult sons.
The quality of the man, his learning, and his courage in following the guidance of the Holy Spirit, remind observers of John Henry Newman, who left the Anglican Church to became a Catholic in 1845. In 1864, he published his celebrated Apologia Pro Sua Vita, defending himself from vicious personal attacks for what was seen as a deceitful defection.
Newman writes beautifully, with intellectual power, and with passion. This section gives his view of how infallibility is a power that energises the bonds of unity, a unity that speaks of God's care for all people, not just those in the Church:
Starting then with the being of a God, (which, as I have said, is as certain to me as the certainty of my own existence, though when I try to put the grounds of that certainty into logical shape I find a difficulty in doing so in mood and figure to my satisfaction,) I look out of myself into the world of men, and there I see a sight which fills me with unspeakable distress. The world seems simply to give the lie to that great truth, of which my whole being is so full; and the effect upon me is, in consequence, as a matter of necessity, as confusing as if it denied that I am in existence myself.
If I looked into a mirror, and did not see my face, I should have the sort of feeling which actually comes upon me, when I look into this living busy world, and see no reflexion of its Creator. This is, to me, one of those great difficulties of this absolute primary truth, to which I referred just now. Were it not for this voice, speaking so clearly in my conscience and my heart, I should be an atheist, or a pantheist, or a polytheist when I looked into the world.
I am speaking for myself only; and I am far from denying the real force of the arguments in proof of a God, drawn from the general facts of human society and the course of history, but these do not warm me or enlighten me; they do not take away the winter of my desolation, or make the buds unfold and the leaves grow within me, and my moral being rejoice. The sight of the world is nothing else than the prophet's scroll, full of "lamentations, and mourning, and woe."
To consider the world in its length and breadth, its various history, the many races of man, their starts, their fortunes, their mutual alienation, their conflicts; and then their ways, habits, governments, forms of worship; their enterprises, their aimless courses, their random achievements and acquirements, the impotent conclusion of long-standing facts, the tokens so faint and broken of a superintending design, the blind evolution of what turn out to be great powers or truths, the progress of things, as if from unreasoning elements, not towards final causes, the greatness and littleness of man, his far-reaching aims, his short duration, the curtain hung over his futurity.
[Or] the disappointments of life, the defeat of good, the success of evil, physical pain, mental anguish, the prevalence and intensity of sin, the pervading idolatries, the corruptions, the dreary hopeless irreligion, that condition of the whole race, so fearfully yet exactly described in the Apostle's words, "having no hope and without God in the world"—all this is a vision to dizzy and appal; and inflicts upon the mind the sense of a profound mystery, which is absolutely beyond human solution.
What shall be said to this heart-piercing, reason-bewildering fact? I can only answer, that either there is no Creator, or this living society of men is in a true sense discarded from His presence. Did I see a boy of good make and mind, with the tokens on him of a refined nature, cast upon the world without provision, unable to say whence he came, his birth-place or his family connexions, I should conclude that there was some mystery connected with his history, and that he was one, of whom, from one cause or other, his parents were ashamed.
Thus only should I be able to account for the contrast between the promise and the condition of his being. And so I argue about the world;—if there be a God, since there is a God, the human race is implicated in some terrible aboriginal calamity. It is out of joint with the purposes of its Creator. This is a fact, a fact as true as the fact of its existence; and thus the doctrine of what is theologically called original sin becomes to me almost as certain as that the world exists, and as the existence of God.
And now, supposing it were the blessed and loving will of the Creator to interfere in this anarchical condition of things, what are we to suppose would be the methods which might be necessarily or naturally involved in His purpose of mercy? Since the world is in so abnormal a state, surely it would be no surprise to me, if the interposition were of necessity equally extraordinary—or what is called miraculous.
But that subject does not directly come into the scope of my present remarks. Miracles as evidence, involve a process of reason, or an argument; and of course I am thinking of some mode of interference which does not immediately run into argument. I am rather asking what must be the face-to-face antagonist, by which to withstand and baffle the fierce energy of passion and the all-corroding, all-dissolving scepticism of the intellect in religious inquiries?
And in these latter days, in like manner, outside the Catholic Church things are tending,—with far greater rapidity than in that old time from the circumstance of the age,—to atheism in one shape or other. What a scene, what a prospect, does the whole of Europe present at this day! and not only Europe, but every government and every civilization through the world, which is under the influence of the European mind! Especially, for it most concerns us, how sorrowful, in the view of religion, even taken in its most elementary, most attenuated form, is the spectacle presented to us by the educated intellect of England, France, and Germany!
Lovers of their country and of their race, religious men, external to the Catholic Church, have attempted various expedients to arrest fierce wilful human nature in its onward course, and to bring it into subjection. The necessity of some form of religion for the interests of humanity, has been generally acknowledged: but where was the concrete representative of things invisible, which would have the force and the toughness necessary to be a breakwater against the deluge?
Three centuries ago the establishment of religion, material, legal, and social, was generally adopted as the best expedient for the purpose, in those countries which separated from the Catholic Church; and for a long time it was successful; but now the crevices of those establishments are admitting the enemy. Thirty years ago, education was relied upon: ten years ago there was a hope that wars would cease for ever, under the influence of commercial enterprise and the reign of the useful and fine arts; but will any one venture to say that there is any thing any where on this earth, which will afford a fulcrum for us, whereby to keep the earth from moving onwards?
The judgment, which experience passes whether on establishments or on education, as a means of maintaining religious truth in this anarchical world, must be extended even to Scripture, though Scripture be divine. Experience proves surely that the Bible does not answer a purpose for which it was never intended. It may be accidentally the means of the conversion of individuals; but a book, after all, cannot make a stand against the wild living intellect of man, and in this day it begins to testify, as regards its own structure and contents, to the power of that universal solvent, which is so successfully acting upon religious establishments.
Even the Bible is liable to be used against God. It has been said: "Enter as a Christian a university course on biblical studies, and for sure you will leave it an atheist." Newman continues:
Supposing then it to be the Will of the Creator to interfere in human affairs, and to make provisions for retaining in the world a knowledge of Himself, so definite and distinct as to be proof against the energy of human scepticism, in such a case,—I am far from saying that there was no other way,—but there is nothing to surprise the mind, if He should think fit to introduce a power into the world, invested with the prerogative of infallibility in religious matters.
Such a provision would be a direct, immediate, active, and prompt means of withstanding the difficulty; it would be an instrument suited to the need; and, when I find that this is the very claim of the Catholic Church, not only do I feel no difficulty in admitting the idea, but there is a fitness in it, which recommends it to my mind.
And thus I am brought to speak of the Church's infallibility, as a provision, adapted by the mercy of the Creator, to preserve religion in the world, and to restrain that freedom of thought, which of course in itself is one of the greatest of our natural gifts, and to rescue it from its own suicidal excesses.
And let it be observed that, neither here nor in what follows, shall I have occasion to speak directly of Revelation in its subject-matter, but in reference to the sanction which it gives to truths which may be known independently of it,—as it bears upon the defence of natural religion. I say, that a power, possessed of infallibility in religious teaching, is happily adapted to be a working instrument, in the course of human affairs, for smiting hard and throwing back the immense energy of the aggressive, capricious, untrustworthy intellect....
And first, the initial doctrine of the infallible teacher must be an emphatic protest against the existing state of mankind. Man had rebelled against his Maker. It was this that caused the divine interposition: and to proclaim it must be the first act of the divinely-accredited messenger. The Church must denounce rebellion as of all possible evils the greatest. She must have no terms with it; if she would be true to her Master, she must ban and anathematize it. [...]
It is because of the intensity of the evil which has possession of mankind, that a suitable antagonist has been provided against it; and the initial act of that divinely-commissioned power is of course to deliver her challenge and to defy the enemy. Such a preamble gives a meaning to her position in the world, and an interpretation to her whole course of teaching and action.
In like manner she has ever put forth, with most energetic distinctness, those other great elementary truths, which either are an explanation of her mission or give a character to her work. She does not teach that human nature is irreclaimable, else wherefore should she be sent? not, that it is to be shattered and reversed, but to be extricated, purified, and restored; not that it is a mere mass of hopeless evil, but that it has the promise upon it of great things, and even now, in its present state of disorder and excess, has a virtue and a praise proper to itself.
But in the next place she knows and she preaches that such a restoration, as she aims at effecting in it, must be brought about, not simply through certain outward provisions of preaching and teaching, even though they be her own, but from an inward spiritual power or grace imparted directly from above, and of which she is the channel. She has it in charge to rescue human nature from its misery, but not simply by restoring it on its own level, but by lifting it up to a higher level than its own. She recognizes in it real moral excellence though degraded, but she cannot set it free from earth except by exalting it towards heaven.
It was for this end that a renovating grace was put into her hands; and therefore from the nature of the gift, as well as from the reasonableness of the case, she goes on, as a further point, to insist, that all true conversion must begin with the first springs of thought, and to teach that each individual man must be in his own person one whole and perfect temple of God, while he is also one of the living stones which build up a visible religious community.
Such truths as these she vigorously reiterates, and pertinaciously inflicts upon mankind; as to such she observes no half-measures, no economical reserve, no delicacy or prudence. "Ye must be born again," is the simple, direct form of words which she uses after her Divine Master: "your whole nature must be re-born; your passions, and your affections, and your aims, and your conscience, and your will, must all be bathed in a new element, and reconsecrated to your Maker,—and, the last not the least, your intellect."
This power [of infallibility], viewed in its fulness, is as tremendous as the giant evil which has called for it. It claims, when brought into exercise but in the legitimate manner, for otherwise of course it is but quiescent, to know for certain the very meaning of every portion of that Divine Message in detail, which was committed by our Lord to His Apostles. It claims to know its own limits, and to decide what it can determine absolutely and what it cannot. It claims, moreover, to have a hold upon statements not directly religious, so far as this,—to determine whether they indirectly relate to religion, and, according to its own definitive judgment, to pronounce whether or not, in a particular case, they are simply consistent with revealed truth.
It claims to decide magisterially, whether as within its own province or not, that such and such statements are or are not prejudicial to the Depositum of faith, in their spirit or in their consequences, and to allow them, or condemn and forbid them, accordingly. It claims to impose silence at will on any matters, or controversies, of doctrine, which on its own ipse dixit, it pronounces to be dangerous, or inexpedient, or inopportune. It claims that, whatever may be the judgment of Catholics upon such acts, these acts should be received by them with those outward marks of reverence, submission, and loyalty, which Englishmen, for instance, pay to the presence of their sovereign, without expressing any criticism on them on the ground that in their matter they are inexpedient, or in their manner violent or harsh.
And lastly, it claims to have the right of inflicting spiritual punishment, of cutting off from the ordinary channels of the divine life, and of simply excommunicating, those who refuse to submit themselves to its formal declarations. Such is the infallibility lodged in the Catholic Church, viewed in the concrete, as clothed and surrounded by the appendages of its high sovereignty: it is, to repeat what I said above, a super-eminent prodigious power sent upon earth to encounter and master a giant evil.
And now, having thus described it, I profess my own absolute submission to its claim. I believe the whole revealed dogma as taught by the Apostles, as committed by the Apostles to the Church; and as declared by the Church to me. I receive it, as it is infallibly interpreted by the authority to whom it is thus committed, and (implicitly) as it shall be, in like manner, further interpreted by that same authority till the end of time.
I submit, moreover, to the universally received traditions of the Church, in which lies the matter of those new dogmatic definitions which are from time to time made, and which in all times are the clothing and the illustration of the Catholic dogma as already defined. And I submit myself to those other decisions of the Holy See, theological or not, through the organs which it has itself appointed, which, waiving the question of their infallibility, on the lowest ground come to me with a claim to be accepted and obeyed.
Also, I consider that, gradually and in the course of ages, Catholic inquiry has taken certain definite shapes, and has thrown itself into the form of a science, with a method and a phraseology of its own, under the intellectual handling of great minds, such as St. Athanasius, St. Augustine, and St. Thomas Aquinas; and I feel no temptation at all to break in pieces the great legacy of thought thus committed to us for these latter days.
St. Paul says in one place that his Apostolical power is given him to edification, and not to destruction. There can be no better account of the Infallibility of the Church. It is a supply for a need, and it does not go beyond that need. Its object is, and its effect also, not to enfeeble the freedom or vigour of human thought in religious speculation, but to resist and control its extravagance. What have been its great works? All of them in the distinct province of theology:—to put down Arianism, Eutychianism, Pelagianism, Manichæism, Lutheranism, Jansenism. Such is the broad result of its action in the past;—and now as to the securities which are given us that so it ever will act in time to come.
Such glorious words! I find it hard to edit Newman's piece to an easy length. However, in essence, he uses intellect and passion to state that the Catholic Church, in the person of the pope and bishops, in the midst of the cloud of believers, is the "oracle of God", and "it is because of the intensity of the evil which has possession of mankind, that a suitable antagonist has been provided against it; and the initial act of that divinely-commissioned power is to deliver her challenge and to defy the enemy." Secondly, as has just been said, it is for the cause of "edification" of all humankind.
He writes further on this topic in his Apologia, and his thoughts are so relevant that they gave rise to some of the Church's declarations about its character and mission in the documents of the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965).
 As for John Henry Newman, for anyone to be declared a saint, that is, someone who the Church holds has achieved everlasting life with God in heaven, events arising from their intercession to God that can only be explained as miraculous must be accepted after investigation. For Newman, two Americans gave evidence of the miracles that occurred in their lives after they prayed to Newman to intercede to God to help them in their time of need. See here for details.