Illustration credits (left to right): Portrait Study of Sir Thomas More, by Hans Holbein the Younger (1527);Henry VIII of England, by unknown artist after Hans Holbein the Younger (ca. 1537-57); Pope Clement VII, by Sebastiano del Piombo (1526).
On a Small Point of Doctrine | Fr. James V. Schall, SJ | Homiletic & Pastoral Review
He (Sir Thomas More) gave up life itself, deliberately; he accepted violent death as of a criminal, not even for the Faith as a whole, but on one particular, small point of doctrine—to wit, the supremacy of the See of Peter. (Hilaire Belloc, “The Witness to Abstract Truth”)1
Saints die for all sorts of reasons and in all sorts of ways. Some are thrown to the lions or crucified; others die in bed. Some affirm the Real Presence, others the Trinity. We sometimes think that it might be nobler to die upholding the truth of the Incarnation than in upholding, say, chastity, as Maria Goretti did. But the truth is that Catholic teaching is a whole; the denial of any one of its teachings, when logically stretched out, undermines the whole order. And someone will always be found to stretch it out. Not only is this teaching of the coherence of the whole true on the revelational side of Catholicism’s content, it is also an integral whole on its philosophical side. Both reason and revelation belong together in one coherent whole. Indeed, we can say that if even one central doctrine, taught or understood as infallible, is, in fact, clearly untrue, the whole edifice falls. Belief would be no longer feasible.
In fact, men like Thomas More died for upholding a specific teaching of revelation. Today, if we are not in Muslim lands where doctrine is still the public issue in persecuting Christians, we are more likely to be discriminated against or persecuted for issues that are, at bottom, of reason. We have come to a point where the issues troubling the public world about Catholicism have little to do with the side of the faith that concerns the Mass, the Holy Spirit, grace, or the existence and structure of the Church. Except for the permanence of sacramental marriage, the main public problems concerning marriage and family, virtue and vice, are issues of reason. Revelation may confirm reason, but the issues themselves—be it contraception, homosexuality, euthanasia, abortion—are based in reason.
The modern world now understands that the best way to attack the Church is, not through its supernatural claims and positions, but through its natural groundings. The Church does not claim to have an official philosophy. But it maintains that any philosophy that does not acknowledge or reach the objective reality of the world cannot be compatible with Catholicism. This latter position is based on the fact and affirmation that the Second Person of the Trinity, true God, became man in this world at a given time and in a given place. If we cannot be certain that the world exists or that our minds have a coherent relation to it, we cannot be certain that Christ dwelt amongst us. All, thus, becomes doubt or illusion.
This concern about reason, we might note, is the exact reverse of the original Catholic approach to evangelization, to how to present itself to the world.