Fr Jonathan Munn on St Vincent of Lerins

Further to my previous article Vincent of Lerins and Organic Development concerning our understanding of Tradition in the Church, Fr Jonathan Munn has written Reflexive Catholicism. He sets Vincent of Lerins in the historical context, which is important for any theological development in the Church. The Church of the seven Ecumenical Councils must have been fascinating, though conflictual. Ordinary people talked theology in the fifth century as the Church strove to understand the mystery of the Hypostatic Union and in what manner Christ’s divinity was linked with his humanity. These questions mattered very deeply, because they would determine in what way man could be united with God and find holiness. These questions are now confined to theological faculties and seminaries, and knowledge of these questions by ordinary lay folk is scant.

The fundamental intuition of St Vincent is the consensus of the Fathers and indeed of the body of the Church. It is a supernatural notion of communion and community, the idea of Собо́рность – sobernost, meaning exactly this universal communion of the Church. The term was coined by the Slavophiles, of whom the best known was Aleksey Khomyakov. He desired to emphasise the need for being together rather than discrete individuals. This idea is present in all communities, including the western Church. This is certainly the kind of notion that drew Newman to the Oratory of St Philip Neri, a community of priests relying on friendship and common life more than authority and obedience.

Nikolai Lossky was a part of the Russian emigration to Paris that founded a most extraordinary school of theology and philosophy around the St Sergius institute of theology. These thinkers pushed for a middle way between several opposing ideas. It sounds amazingly like the via media of Anglicanism or the in medio stat virtus of Aristotle and St Thomas Aquinas. The Russians went further, looking to Hegel’s thesis, antithesis, synthesis. Lossky sought to make this idea support the common notion of the Church rather than individualism. This notion of ecclesial communion would, in the mind of Vladimir Solovyov, provide the basis of an ecumenical movement between Orthodoxy, Roman Catholicism and the Reformation. In this vision of things, the individual is called to the asceticism of putting the community before his own interests.

In this way, the individual believer submits his own beliefs to the communion of the Church and acquires a sensus ecclesiae. If this community works perfectly, there is a sense of consensus in time and space. The more belief is held in common, the more it is likely truly to be the faith of the Church and reflect the Revelation of God conveyed by the vehicle of Tradition. The ideal, though imperfectly realised, is attractive and inspiring.

On the other hand, history seems to support the notion of genius and creativity found in individual persons rather than the group. People in a collectivity (bureaucracy or party politics for example) often seems to show less intelligence and capacity for thought than the individual person of a spiritual or intellectual elite. This idea needs thought and development.

Fr Munn’s article shows this dimension of the Church as a communion. Infallibility, or infallible consensus, would be the result, not of a decision reached though negotiation and compromise, but rather through a higher level of communion in Christ. Humanity is elevated by divine grace and transfigured in one of those moments when “normal” human group behaviour does not get the upper hand. How do we tell the difference?

One way is the analogy of the tree and its fruit. Good fruit comes from a good tree. Where there is love, there is God. Ubi caritas et amor, Deus ibi est, as we sing on Maundy Thursday. Where there is no love, everything else is worthless, as we read in the great Hymn to Charity of St Paul (I Cor xiii). Fr Munn makes this vital point of our understanding of the Church.

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