On reaching Consensus: Richard Neuhaus

Centrists / Religion

In the 1990’s Richard Neuhaus wrote a longish explanation of the path he followed as he went from being a Missouri Synod Lutheran to becoming a Roman Catholic. As he followed his path he came to questions about the development of Church Doctrine in a way similar to that of John Henry Newman.

Here are Neuhaus’s thoughts on Augustine’s words “securus judicat orbis terrarum” (the secure judgement of the whole world) which is the same passage that Newman claimed pulvarized the Via-Media:

The question of authority, the question of Who says so?, has been with the Church from the beginning. In Corinth some invoked Peter, some Paul, some Apollos, and some Christ. And so it was later with the Montanists, the Arians, the Nestorians, the Valentinians, the Donatists, and on and on. A sure mark of a heretical and schismatic community, said St. Augustine, is that it names itself by a man or an idea rather than by the simple title “Catholic.” Also centuries later, for example in the sixteenth century, those who had sense enough to know that the Church did not begin with their new theological insight tried to reconstruct Christian history to fit their views. Thus the Lutheran Matthias Illyricus Flacius compiled the Magdeburg Centuries; thus followers of John Knox claimed to have reestablished the polity of the New Testament Church; thus the “Landmarkist” historiography of American Baptists who trace the lineage of the one true Church through Cathari, Waldensians, Lollards, Albigenses, and all the way back to Jesus himself. All such efforts attempt to answer the question of authority. Some are less ludicrous than others, but none is plausible. As St. Augustine and all Catholic teachers have known, the teaching of the Church is lived forward, not reconstructed backward.

St. Augustine appealed to the securus judicat orbis terrarum—the secure judgment of the whole world, by which he meant the Catholic Church. Yes, but what do you do when that judgment is unclear or in heated dispute? Augustine’s answer is that you wait, in firm communion with the Catholic Church and in firm confidence that the Holy Spirit will, as promised, clarify the matter in due course. The point is that apostolic doctrine cannot be maintained over time without apostolic ministry, meaning ministry that is both apostolic in its origins and apostolic in its governing authority. This argument is brilliantly advanced in his polemic against the Donatists, who appealed to St. Cyprian as precedent for refusing to recognize the sacraments of the traditores, those who had lapsed in time of persecution. Yes, answered Augustine, the holy Cyprian was confused, and admitted as much; but he awaited clarification by the securus judicat orbis terrarum. The one thing he would not do, unlike the Donatists, was to break communion with the Catholic Church.

The Church is holy in practice and correct in doctrine, said the schismatic Donatists, and therefore it cannot exist in communion with the unholy and erring. It follows that the Donatists are the true Church. To which Augustine replied:

If, therefore, by such communion with the wicked the just cannot but perish, the Church had already perished in the time of Cyprian. Whence then sprang the origin of Donatus? Where was he taught, where was he baptized, where was he ordained, since [you claim that] the Church had been already destroyed by the contagion of communion with the wicked? But if the Church still existed, the wicked could do no harm to the good in one communion with them. Wherefore did you separate yourselves?
“Wherefore did you separate yourselves?” Augustine’s question echoes down through the centuries, directed at all who have separated themselves from communion with the Catholic Church. Today the criticism is heard that the Catholic Church, for all its magisterial authority, will permit almost anything in teaching or practice so long as one does not formally break communion with the Church. There is truth in that, although I think it not a criticism but a compliment. While what Lutherans call the publica doctrina, the public teaching, of the Catholic Church is lucidly clear, it is true that the Church bends every effort, puts the best construction on every deviant opinion, in order to avoid what Augustine calls “the heinous and damnable sin of schism.” For instance, in the twenty-three years of the supposedly authoritarian pontificate of John Paul II, the number of theologians publicly censured can probably be counted on the fingers of one hand, and the only schism has been that of the integralist Lefebvrists of France. Disagreement, confusion, and false teaching can do great evil, but the remedy for such evil is always to be found in communion with that body that is gifted with the charism of providing securus judicat orbis terrarum.

There’s very little that I find I disagree with here, with the exception of course that my understanding of Catholic is different than Neuhaus (or Newman’s) understanding and would include all the catholic expressions of the Body of Christ. (Which would be those that are described by the thinking of Huntington in the Quadrilateral.)

Read the rest of the article here: “Richard Neuhaus: How I become the Catholic I Was.”

The Author

Episcopal bishop, dad, astronomer, erstwhile dancer...


  1. Ironic given Neuhaus is what has become known as a John Paul catholic. His neo-conservatism can’t even handle Benedict XVI who is too liberal for his tastes, muchless, acknowledge where some quite powerful members of the John Paul catholics have been put on notice for molestation. Neuhaus in his concern for doctrine has increasinly become more a man promoting a type of authoritarianism than authority, which in the Body of Christ is always limited and subject to challenge by fellows who are brothers and sisters in Christ.
    This still says nothing about what is meant by consensus being thrown about on a matter that cannot be conflated with apostolic doctrine. Again, we are not dealing with apostolic doctrine in our present debate, unless perhaps radical differences in our understanding of the workings of grace (and therefore our human condition) along with how we use Scripture (not simply how we interpret it), which I think are at the root of our present disagreements. I find it interesting, on the level of ideology, that when one take on grace doesn’t work, we shift to the Articles or to Calvin. No matter what to keep things in line and orderly.
    What is needed in our time is Church authorities with enough humility to recognize that more than once “reality has kicked back” when the Church presumed to have the whole truth and be far more tentative in pronouncements about undifferentiated matters, meaning there is room for more than one practice and thinking on such matters, as we discover what is the truth on the matter–this requires an understanding of a hugely generous God which I think many Christians do not have.
    What I see is Anglo-catholic sorts pushing for an understanding that looks an awful lot like thinking Christianity is a well-worked out physic theory rather than a living into the discovery which gets us finally to theories. Anglocatholic sorts are using “consensus” in a way that looks an awful lot like Roman Catholicism, a more diffuse fallibility that acts infallibly, and frankly, if speaking with the likeness of infallibility on undifferentiated matters is what I found most useful toward the truth, I would have remained Roman Catholic.
    At heart what those who propose a consensus model suggest is center versus dissent. What I’m sayings is that as adult Christians we disagree and can disagree as adults.
    See my posts: All Our Ducks In A Row: Consensus and Reception?
    An Act of Uniformity: Shall We Finally Have Our Trent?”

  2. Amen to disagreeing as adults, but part of that is respecting the decisions of the community both at the national and the international level even if they seem like steps backwards.

  3. Respecting does not mean agreeing with, nor that we must all be uniform in practice in order to have unity. We have moved from treating advisory statements on this one issue and this only as law. Why not nuclear weapons? That after all was discussed at Lambeth 1998. That would require, of course, a far more serious Church. Lambeth has been used in my opinion mostly to foreclose discussion with lgbt Christians. The wording of the resolution was designed just for that purpose, to close up the decision, with a “bone” thrown to conversation. I’ve yet to see serious conversation and I doubt I will.
    Besides practices have varied on quite more serious matters, baptism for example between Rome and Carthage. That we develop uniformly after figuring it all out is an ahistorical understanding of how Christianity has in fact changed. Too often the consensus of the past has masked deep and nasty and vicious behavior and words toward a minority or group of persons, and consensus alone is no measure of truth. Consensus is not objective, and may be prone, as Reinhold Neibuhr pointed out, to greater sins than those of the individual because they are systemic and often systematic. I have yet to hear from those using consensus almost ad nauseum what are measures of a godly consensus? I would say scapegoating and minimizing violence toward the minority organ and speaking of the minority organ as a “them” are markers of an ungodly consensus, and I see these in our present consensus on lgbt Christians not only from conservatives, but from liberals who include “them”. So what of a godly consensus, what does that look like? What are markers for a godly consensus?
    Again, if any other groups of persons and their culture(s) were treated like this at this time in our Church, we would be raising a stink, but really there is a certain colonialism in much of this discussion. I just read Fr. Nick’s piece on Einstein, and it seems to me that as an lgbt person, who has had to be more scrupilous about my sexual being than most heterosexuals ever have to, I feel like we’re dealing with multiple churches within the Church at this time. Just as we still haven’t dealt with the racism that led to African-descent persons leaving the Episcopal Church following the Civil War, in the same way in the mean time, to some extent, lgbt Christians have to do some matters as Church sometimes without official sanction as we live out our lives eucharistically.

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