Wednesday, January 13, 2010


The renowned Newman scholar Ian Ker comments that when Newman was asked why he left the Anglicans to become a Catholic, he would reply because he saw the ancient apostolic Church and the current Catholic Church as the same person, but one in infancy/adolescence and the other as an adult.

I can personally understand this sense of 'discontinuous continuity'—I have encountered students or young parishioners from other parishes that I haven’t seen in perhaps 20 years—they may have been children when I last saw them, but they are young adults now. Typically, they greet me, and my whole comment (never totally spoken!) is “Hello! Good to see you! Who are you?” I have changed far less, from their point of view, than they have from mine.

This brings me to today’s memorial, that of St. Hilary of Poitiers, a bishop and doctor of the Church. He was a pivotal theological in the 4th century West, a precursor (so to speak) of St. Augustine. But how different the Church looked back then!

Hilary was born right at the time the Constantine declared Christianity to be a legal religious cult. He was chosen to be bishop of Poitiers (in what is now west-central France) while still a layman (this at least trumps Ambrose, who was proclaimed bishop of Milan while an un-baptized catechumen!). He taught and preached and wrote in defense of the teaching of the Church that Jesus was fully divine as well as fully human, and since this view was disputed by the party in favor with the emperor, Hilary was exiled for 4 years to what is modern-day south-central Turkey).

Think of our bishops—how many of them risk deportation and exile because of their teaching of the truths of the Faith? Of course, these days no one would be popularly “chosen” to be bishop at all (these things happen in the Curia in Rome), much less as a layman. Hilary wrote massively in defense of the Faith—most of our bishops simply have too many administrative responsibilities to be writers or theologians in this sense.

Then, too, this was part of the “glorious period” when the Church (to use the famous phrase of Pope John Paul II) ‘breathed with both lungs’—in East and West, the orthodox Faith was being defended by those who stood together: Hilary with Athanasius (coincidentally, for this posting, the great theological hero of John Henry Newman). Yet it was a time of Church v. State: the first Christian emperor, after all, called and presided over the Council of Nicaea in 325 (as an unbaptized lay catechumen); his son Constantius wished (for political reasons) to side-step that Council’s doctrinal decision, and orthodox bishops suffered as a result. This cannot happen today (at least, not in the United States): bishops hre are ridiculed and dismissed instead of being exiled.

Plus ├ža change, plus la meme chose… The Catholic Church is still the Catholic Church. Different episcopal appointments, different punishments, but still the need for commitment to stand for the Faith. Would Hilary recognize us? Do we recognize him? The answer is yes, once we begin to recite the “Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed” together…

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