Friday 12 April 2013

Thinking with the Church

By Adam Hincks, S.J.

With the election of Pope Francis as the Bishop of Rome, questions about Jesuits and Ignatian spirituality have surfaced in both religious and secular circles. In light of this, the contributors of Ibo et Non Redibo have decided to launch a blog series on Ignatian spirituality. In six blog entries, we will attempt to introduce some key principles by which Jesuits live, and how these insights may be useful to the Church and to the world. The previous five entries addressed discernment of spirits, A.M.D.G. or Magis, men/women for others, holy indifference, and depth and creativity. The following is the sixth and final entry.

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If we wish to proceed securely in all things, we must hold fast to the following principle: What seems to me white, I will believe black if the hierarchical Church so defines. —Saint Ignatius of Loyola

This famous statement by St. Ignatius represents a mentality that is deeply unpopular in our culture. It rubs against two powerful currents of the Zeitgeist: the belief in the absolute autonomy of individual conscience and a deep-seated mistrust of authority. And yet Ignatius thought that his point was so important that he included a whole section on the topic in his Spiritual Exercises, entitled “Thinking with the Church”.

It is helpful to remember that Ignatius lived in the early modern era, a time that has shaped all of us who follow. It was the period that saw the Protestant Reformation, with its accent on the unmediated encounter of individuals with God. European intellectuals were rediscovering and adopting the sceptical traditions of antiquity. Philosophy was on the path to being revolutionised by Descartes and his successors who would make introspection the basis for reliable knowledge. In the New World and the Far East newly-discovered civilisations and cultures challenged old European assumptions. Ignatius and his first Jesuit companions were no strangers to all these currents. They were seasoned travellers and they had degrees from the finest institution of higher learning of the day, the University of Paris, where they had received a modern, humanistic formation. Ignatius even studied for a time at the same college that produced radicals like Erasmus and John Calvin.

Ignatius was immersed in his time but was not defined by it. Like all great saints, he was primarily defined by the gospel of Jesus Christ. Thus, Ignatius was a modern who was not uncritical of modernity. And though his spirituality emphasized an intense, personal relationship between the individual person and God―which is strikingly modern in spirit―Ignatius was convinced that this relationship had to be firmly embedded in the Church. It is for this reason that he emphasized the virtue of “thinking with the Church”.

The principle Ignatius expresses in the quote above was an edgy way of articulating an ecclesiological vision that is sharply opposed to individualism. Notice that he does not say, “I must believe that black is white if the Church says so.” He says, “What seems to me white, I will believe black if the hierarchical Church so defines.” In other words, Ignatius’s words are a caution that individual judgement is not as trustworthy as we often naïvely think it is. Truth is not what seems but what is.

Why though, does Ignatius think that the Church should be the arbitress of truth? He continues by explaining:
I must be convinced that in Christ our Lord, the bridegroom, and in His spouse the Church, only one Spirit holds sway, which governs and rules for the salvation of souls. For it is by the same Spirit and Lord who gave the Ten Commandments that our holy Mother Church is ruled and governed.
In other words, the Church gains its trustworthiness from the fact that it is ultimately governed and guided by God. If it be objected that this may be fine and good in theory but that in reality the Church has given many reasons not to be trusted, we should recall that in Ignatius’s time, there was ecclesial corruption, worldliness and selfishness on levels that would shock us today. After all, many of the impetuses for the Protestant Reformation came from the scandalous behaviour of some members of the Church hierarchy. Ignatius himself was often caught in the cross-fire: he was imprisoned and called before inquisitions on no fewer than three occasions in his life, usually for less than pure motives.

Remarkably, in the face of all of this, Ignatius remained confident that the Church is not a merely human institution, but that she is what Scripture teaches: the spouse of Christ. Just as Christ was incarnate as a man and lived among people who were good and evil, happy and sad, guilty and innocent, and yet still accomplished his mission of salvation, so today God works through his spouse the Church, accomplishing salvation in and through her despite all the imperfections of her members. Ignatius’s attitude is then, marked by deep faith and hope, and he calls us to share in them.

Most of Ignatius’s rules for thinking with the Church were specific responses to his own times. He urges the faithful "to praise practices" that were being abandoned by Protestants, like the veneration of saints and relics, but to avoid needless controversies by making uninformed comments on topics like predestination. He warned people not to gossip publicly about incompetent superiors or clergy, but rather, if really necessary, discretely to raise concerns with the competent authorities. In sum, Ignatius’s rules call us to be ardent, responsible and charitable members of the Body of Christ.

How today can we take to heart the Ignatian call to think with the Church?

First, we can make the difficult self-examination of how willing we are to submit our judgement to Church hierarchy. This is a proposition that might be literally revolting to some: all the more reason to challenge our knee-jerk reactions―agere contra, or “act against”, as Ignatius would say. Lest there be confusion, it should be pointed out that the Church only claims competency to pronounce on faith and morals―thus, we can dismiss any fears that the Church can make binding judgements about why the dinosaurs became extinct or what the inflation rate should be during a recession. On the other hand, when it comes to faith and morals, to what extent are we willing to accept Second Vatican Council’s teaching that is fully in continuity with Ignatius’s ecclesial vision? In Lumen Gentium we read: “In matters of faith and morals, the bishops speak in the name of Christ and the faithful are to accept their teaching and adhere to it with a religious assent.” The Council made many similar exhortations―and of course, balanced them by also presenting teaching on the important role of lay expertise and the meaning of the sensus fidelium. But often the temptation today is to lay all the stress on the latter and downplay the call to authentic obedience―and obedience is surely the harder of the two for our culture.

The second way we can think with the Church today relates to how we react to real abuses in the Church. The Ignatian response is charitable, responsible and, whenever possible, discrete. It does not tolerate gossip or slander. If you are frustrated with a Church teaching, consider speaking to a spiritual director rather than venting online. If you think a pastor is abusing his authority, consider not just walking away but respectfully addressing your concerns using established channels. If you tire of a Church that seems to have little to offer you, turn your gaze inwards and ask what you have to offer the Church.

Franz-Josef Bode - Priesterjubiläum

Let us finish by opening the topic up a bit further. The phrase I have been using, “thinking with the Church”, is the normal translation of the Latin “sentire cum Ecclesia”. But the verb sentire has a wide semantic range and can refer not only to intellectual activity but also to physical sensations. In other words, “feeling with the Church” is a translation that is, I believe, authentically complementary to “thinking with the Church”. In one of the quotes above, Ignatius used the traditional formula “Holy Mother Church”. Not only are we called to be of one mind with Mother Church, but also of one heart. For the Church’s heart is espoused to the Lord, who has promised her: “Surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age” (Matt. 28:20).


  1. Very well written, Adam. I especially like the section wherein you talk about 'seems to me' (re. our personal judgments), very insightful.

  2. Catholics in general have innate cult characteristics. What your St. Ignatius of Loyola actually said in summing up the mindset that he and some of you possess was, "If the Church shall define anything black to which our eyes appears white, we ought in like manner pronounce it to be black."

    That's absurd. Don't believe your eyes?

    In true Jesuit fashion, you're adept at obfuscation and sophistry. It's not 'seems to me', it's 'to which our eyes appears' white we call black if the Church says so. If you believe there's a God who created you, living like that is a slap to his face. He gave you eyes to see with, so see!

    I recall US Senator Rick Santorum bloviating on what a manifest evil contraception was while opposing Obamacare. Fair enough. Then, sometime later when Jorge Bergoglio was elected pope, some were reporting that he viewed birth control less rigidly than his predecessors. Lo and behold, Santorum was there on the news waxing eloquently on how he's open to re-examining his position. To him, contraception was a manifest evil not for some objective reason but because popes (up to that time) said it was. If one came along who said it was now okay, it all of a sudden became okay. Granted, I don't believe your new pope had any intention of changing your rules. Nevertheless, the willingness to consider something which had hitherto been considered a manifest evil by this prominent, well educated, powerful Catholic troubled me greatly. That, my friend, is classic cultish behaviour which could have been inspired by Jim Jones, Charlie Manson or Ignatius of Loyola.

    Put a pointy hat on the head of a donkey and a crook in its mouth and most devout Catholics will consider every bray and hee-haw as 'what the Church defines'. Personally, I think your hierarchical infrastructure reinforces cult-like behaviours and inhibits thinking (as well as seeing, hearing) even in people who are supposedly intelligent.

    1. Friend, it's not clear to me that your comments have directly engaged with any of the actual arguments that I made in this article, so I'm not sure how to respond.

      Nevertheless, the crux of the matter is the relationship between seeing and knowing. You seem to be assuming two things: first, that seeing is knowing, and, second, that a “hierarchical infrastructure … inhibits thinking”. Neither of these is at all obvious. This article was meant to explore such assumptions.

      The pieces I wrote here and here are somewhat related to these two issues, for what they're worth.

  3. We, the Jesuits, besides of the three habitual vows, we must especially respect a fourth, more crucial than those of obedience, poverty and chastity: we also promise unconditional submission to the pope. That is why I am forced to choose to be cast into everlasting condemnation with the pope, instead of being saved with all your immutable truths.