Author Archives: Alan Fimister

The Spectre of the Byzantine by Derya Little


Dr Derya Little is a Turk and an American Citizen. Raised in Islam she embraced atheism as an adolescent but was converted to Christianity by an evangelical from the US while a student in Ankara. Later she came to see that the Gospel could only be defended from the standpoint of Catholicism and was received into the Catholic Church during her doctoral studies at the University of Durham. She is married with several children and now resides in the United States. She recounts her story in her recent book From Islam to Christ: One Woman’s Path through the Riddles of God (published by Ignatius Press).

The superhero of my childhood did not wear a cape or bounce from building to building. Instead he wielded a long sword, hit the bullseye each time with an arrow, and was a mighty horse master. The villains of these movies were not laughable fictional characters like the Joker or Hydra, but real evil men who lived centuries ago: murderous Byzantine kings or ruthless Christian soldiers. We were told that these infidels were always pining for our hard-earned lands, and were ready to pounce at the first sight of weakness. Their corrupted religion and decadent ways were nothing but cautionary tales.

Just like most of Islamic teaching, the secular education in Turkey whitewashes all the blood and the gore that comes with conquering lands. In the sterile pages of history textbooks from elementary school to university, the Turkish advance into the Christian lands is taught as the natural expansion of empire. Often, there is a lengthy account of how just and fair was Ottoman rule and how the majority of conquered peoples would prefer to live under the Sultan’s rule and pay the jizya, rather than remain the subjects of the Christian king.

The denial has to be constant and active, because even today wherever one travels in Turkey there are remnants of a life lost. The first time I travelled to Cappadocia, near ancient Galatia, I was surprised to see all the ancient carvings of Christian symbols and icons. These church walls belonged to a time when Turks were still shamans. Often, there was hateful graffiti sprayed or scratched over the paintings, by the youth who had swallowed the Muslim and nationalist indoctrination about how Christians subverted the religion Allah sent to Prophet Jesus.

However, a few of us, under an icon in the dark church, wondered, staring at the blessing hand of Christ, why there were no longer any of these so-called deviants around to fill all the churches. Then a history teacher would fill us in about how Muslims brought cleanliness and civilization to these backward lands, and converted the all-too-willing Christians to the one true faith of Allah. We would nod in agreement, and forget the questions that nudged us some minutes prior.

The Christian heritage in Asia Minor is inescapable. Traces of icons, churches, images of the Blessed Virgin are everywhere. But with careful attention given to making sure that all Muslim students develop a certain revulsion towards all things Christian, an entire population can easily ignore these whispers from the former owners. After all, Muslim Turks are infinitely superior to the blasphemous Christians who dare to claim Jesus was God. That revulsion often turns into iconoclastic violence. Christ’s image is scored or painted over, and swearwords graffitied in buildings where mass was offered millennia ago.

One does not even need to mention the fate of the Hagia Sophia, where the residents of Constantinople hid during earthquakes, thinking that angels held up its massive dome in the absence of columns. It was customary to turn the biggest church into a mosque when a Christian city was subdued. If anything, Mehmed the Conqueror was true to his word when he fixed up the cathedral and converted it into a mosque, where he attended the first Friday prayer.

In spite of five hundred years of denial the shadow of Byzantine religion and culture follows the visitor to Istanbul wherever he goes. The Christians are gone, either killed, converted or forced to flee, but the spectre of their former empire finds the new masters in unexpected places.

I was almost twenty years old when I met a Christian who practiced her faith. Up until then, both my secular and religious education had taught me that Christianity was a Western invention, foreign to our culture, to our lands. When I told her this, the poor American woman had a confused look on her face, no doubt wondering whether I was joking or serious. She opened her Bible and showed me the map in the back. It was a map of Turkey. I thought, probably they always include a map of the country where the Bible was published. It would be a map of China, if we were in China. It is laughable, of course, but that was the extent of the indoctrination I had received despite my atheism. It was simply unbelievable that the God of the Christians had lived so close to my home, and St. Paul had travelled along the trails not far from the mountains of my childhood to bring the Gospel to the gentiles.

Most Turks, of course, go about their lives without giving a second thought to the people who used to live in the lands they now occupy. The history they hear glorifies the conquests and erases any wrongdoings for years until the fictional bad guys of movies become the reality. The Byzantine Christian becomes something to be feared and abhorred.

There is an annual pilgrimage at the Byzantine Catholic convent near my house. A few years ago, my Muslim father joined us for the yearly festivities of mass, confession and halushka. Surrounded with icons that he was taught to detest, and vestments that he was taught to fear,   he did not speak or eat all day. For the infidel’s food is not halal, even without meat. As the family went about joining in the rituals, no doubt he felt betrayed and alone. The wall that was built by Islam and Turkish nationalism had done its job.

That continuous work of denial and revision creates a society that never sees beauty in Christian art, never accepts that Ottomans might have wronged anyone and still suspects all who bear the sign of the cross. The lands that St. Paul scaled with his preaching, where St John cared for the Mother of God, and which St Helena crossed to retrieve the Cross have now become one of the hardest soils for the Gospel.

There is hope, however, and Our Lord reaches the hardened hearts of Turks despite the near-death of the missionary spirit. There are more Turkish Christians now than ever before, and as Islam tightens its noose, in this age of free and accessible information, Christ’s light becomes brighter.

Meanwhile, let us raise heaven with prayers for the conversion of Turks, and bountiful missionaries to gather the harvest.

Dignitatis Humane Colloquium: Dialogos Institute Collection Volume I

Dignitatis Humane Colloquium- Dialogos Institute Collection Volume I

This book contains the papers given at a historic conference on religious liberty that took place in 2015 in Norcia, Italy, in the presence of Cardinal Raymond Burke, under the auspices of the Dialogos Institute. 8 Catholic scholars from around the world met to discuss this most controversial of theological questions. Their papers focus on Vatican II’s ‘Declaration on Religious Liberty’, Dignitatis humanae, setting it in its historical and doctrinal context. The speakers debate the meaning of this document and its compatibility with other teachings of the Catholic Church. This book contains the introductory address given by Cardinal Burke, and the speeches given by the participants, revised and in some cases augmented by themselves. It concludes with an original essay arising out of the papers and subsequent discussions, in which Dr Alan Fimister of the Dialogos Institute attempts an original synthesis of the insights of the various speakers. The 2015 Dignitatis humanae colloquium was a unique occasion which brought together orthodox Catholic speakers which greatly differing views on a complex and fascinating subject. No serious student of the Church’s teaching on religious liberty, on the role of Church and State, or on the social kingship of Christ will want to be without this volume.



This summer at the Shrine of St Augustine of Canterbury in Ramsgate, Kent the Dialogos Institute held its second Colloquium on the doctrine of Limbo. Discussion was lively and extremely well informed. The proceedings will be published some time in 2018. In anticipation of the Colloquium the Director gave an interview to Diane Montagna on Aleteia and wrote a piece on the theme of Limbo for the Catholic Herald.  This provoked a response to which he replied. The doctrine of Limbo is a particularly appropriate subject for the Dialogos Institute as we like to focus upon questions about which there legitimate disagreement is possible and profitable among orthodox scholars. It is also an area in which a bipulmonary perspective is especially fruitful.


Capital Punishment and the Infallibility of the Church – John P. Joy

In a two-part essay at Public Discourse (here and here), E. Christian Brugger has responded to Edward Feser and Joseph M. Bassette’s new book on capital punishment (By Man Shall His Blood Be Shed: A Catholic Defense of Capital Punishment). Feser and Bessette argue that the Church’s traditional teaching on the moral permissibility of the death penalty is irreformable and that it is therefore illegitimate – indeed, “close to heresy” – for any Catholic to assert that the death penalty is intrinsically wrong (they allow that Catholics may legitimately disagree about the prudence of employing the death penalty in any particular circumstances). Brugger claims that they are wrong; and that capital punishment is intrinsically wrong. But he is wrong.

In his response to Feser and Bassette, Brugger attempts to show that the Church has never infallibly taught that capital punishment is morally permissible in principle. But in order to do so he relies on an excessively narrow conception of the ordinary magisterium.

Brugger relies on the text of Lumen gentium 25 in setting out what he takes to be the four necessary conditions for the infallible exercise of the ordinary and universal magisterium and argues that the traditional teaching of the Church regarding the morality of the death penalty fails to meet any of them. (Really? The bishops have never maintained the bond of communion among themselves and with the successor of Peter?)

The text he cites is this (with his enumeration):

“Although the individual bishops do not enjoy the prerogative of infallibility, they nevertheless proclaim Christ’s doctrine infallibly whenever, even though dispersed through the world, but still (1) maintaining the bond of communion among themselves and with the successor of Peter, and (2) authentically teaching matters of faith and morals, (3) they are in agreement on one position (4) as definitively to be held.”

But, Brugger claims, not many bishops have ever authentically taught the legitimacy of the death penalty, and only very few taught this as a doctrine that must be definitively held. Regardless of the truth of these claims, however, Brugger’s fundamental mistake is to assume that the infallible teaching of the ordinary and universal magisterium can only be found in the explicit statements of the bishops.

Admittedly, one could easily come to such a conclusion from reading this text in isolation, but the fact is that the ordinary and universal magisterium encompasses much more than this.

The Origins of the Term ‘Ordinary Magisterium’

The term ‘ordinary magisterium’ originated with Joseph Kleutgen, a neo-scholastic Jesuit theologian of the middle of the nineteenth century. He was concerned to combat the tendency of many modern theologians (especially in Germany) to assume that if a doctrine had not been defined by a judgment of the Church, then it was a matter of free opinion. Against this idea, he wanted to reassert the fundamental authority of Scripture and Tradition against an excessive reliance only on the explicit judgments of the Church. But he also wanted to uphold the Catholic principle of ecclesiastical mediation against the Protestant principle of Private Interpretation. His solution was to describe the living tradition itself as a mode of exercise of the magisterium. The term ‘ordinary magisterium’ is not meant to describe a certain kind of magisterial document. It is meant to describe the living tradition itself, and especially meant to highlight the authoritative nature of the Church’s transmission of divine revelation apart from and in addition to the explicit magisterial statements of the hierarchy.

In proof of the authority of the living tradition-ordinary magisterium, Kleutgen appeals to the practice of the ancient fathers of the Church, who did not hesitate to accuse Marcion, Arius, Nestorius, and many others of heresy even before their doctrines had been condemned by a judgment of the Church; in fact, it was precisely this vigorous opposition that eventually led to their formal condemnation. Yet how could this be if the faith of the Church were unable to be known with certitude apart from her formal judgments? The fathers of the Church who opposed Arius, for example, seem to have acted on the assumption that the co-equal divinity of Father and Son was sufficiently taught by the Church such that its denial constituted heresy even prior to its solemn definition at the First Council of Nicaea. In Kleutgen’s terminology, it was already infallibly proposed as a dogma of faith by the ordinary magisterium prior to its solemn definition by the extraordinary magisterium. And the fathers of the Church were not gathering citations from the authentic teaching documents of every bishop dispersed throughout the world. They were citing the clear teaching of Scripture and the Tradition received from the apostles.

Identifying the Teaching of the Ordinary Magisterium

The teaching of the ordinary magisterium may be seen in many places, but most clearly in Scripture itself. Kleutgen writes:

“The Church, initially through her constant and ordinary magisterium, subsequently also through explicit conciliar definitions, has declared that the Holy Scriptures, as we have them now, are the genuine and unadulterated word of God. Thus she has also proposed to us for belief their entire contents as the revelation of God. Therefore, as soon as we cannot doubt that something is contained in the Scriptures, so we are also certain that this is taught by the Church as revealed truth.” (Die Theologie der Vorzeit, 1st ed., 49)

And even for those passages in Scripture which are not sufficiently clear in themselves, says Kleutgen, the Council of Trent refers the faithful not to the explicit judgments of the Church but to “that meaning which she has always held and holds” and to “the unanimous interpretation of the fathers,” or in other words, to the living tradition.

So when Kleutgen says that Catholics are bound not only by the extraordinary magisterium but also by the infallible teaching of the ordinary magisterium, he means that Catholics are bound not only by the formal judgments of the Church, but also by the word of God itself handed down in the Church through her living tradition. In addition to the plain sense of Scripture, therefore, one ought to look for the teaching of the ordinary magisterium in the teaching of the fathers, who are the privileged witnesses of the Church’s tradition, and then also in the writings of other prominent doctors and theologians, the monuments of antiquity (e.g. graves with their inscriptions, churches with their altars and paintings), the customs, laws, and liturgies of the Church, and the decrees of individual bishops and local councils (Ibid., 51). In other words, the teaching of the ordinary magisterium is to be sought in all the traditional loci theologici; and the statements of individual bishops comes only at the end of the list.

Finally, because the investigation of all the sources of theology may often be long and arduous, Kleutgen also proposes “a short and easy path for recognizing, even in difficult cases, whether something belongs to the general faith of the Church” (Ibid., 57). This is the unanimous consensus of the most prestigious theologians. His basic claim is that, when all the most prestigious theologians agree that something is a dogma of faith, even though not determined by a solemn judgment of the Church, they are witnesses of the fact that it belongs to the general faith of the Church. And although the theologians themselves are certainly not infallible, “their testimony, when it is so explicit and unanimous, must be held as unobjectionable” (Ibid., 58).

As examples of dogmas never defined by explicit judgment but taught infallibly by the ordinary magisterium, Kleutgen includes: that Christians have the moral duty to love their neighbors; that pride is a sin and humility a virtue; that God is infinite according to his nature, that he is all good and all knowing, that he foresees the free actions of men; that he freely created and rules the world; that creatures not only receive their existence from him, but are also held in being by him; that his providence extends over everything; that the fallen angels are all damned; and that the souls in purgatory are unable to grow in virtue and merit.

Are we unable to present all eight beatitudes with confidence as doctrines of our Lord or must we choose only those few which are partially reflected in judgments of the Church? Can we not present the flight of our Lord to Egypt as part of the faith with as much confidence as his birth and crucifixion? May we not believe in the sending of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost and our Lord’s prior promise of this sending just as we believe in the divinity of the Holy Spirit as divinely revealed truths? According to Kleutgen, we can and indeed we must.

By Brugger’s standards, all of these doctrines would apparently be up for grabs.

Vatican I on the Ordinary Magisterium

Kleutgen’s new term ‘ordinary magisterium’ was soon picked up and introduced into the official vocabulary of the Church by Pope Pius IX in the apostolic letter Tuas libenter (1863) and then by Vatican I in the constitution on the Catholic faith Dei Filius (1870). The influence of Kleutgen on these documents is clear not only from their contents, but also from the historical records in the Vatican Archives. Kleutgen was even directly involved in the drafting of Dei Filius as a peritus at the council. His influence is most clearly felt in ch. 3, which states:

“Wherefore, by divine and Catholic faith all those things are to be believed which are contained in the word of God as found in Scripture and tradition, and which are proposed by the Church as matters to be believed as divinely revealed, whether by her solemn judgment or in her ordinary and universal magisterium.”

When this text came up for discussion at the First Vatican Council it was met with some opposition. Several bishops objected that it should be moved to the schema on the Church instead of that on the Catholic faith. One bishop argued that it was simply false because doctrines taught by the ordinary magisterium are not to be believed with Catholic faith. Many bishops objected (prophetically, as it turns out) that the term ‘ordinary magisterium’ is obscure and ambiguous. The only bishop to voice support for the text initially was one who thought the term ‘ordinary magisterium’ was meant to be understood in reference to the papal magisterium (a misunderstanding which was then urged by others as further proof of the obscurity and ambiguity of the term).

Bishop Martin of Paderborn intervened on behalf of the deputation responsible for drafting the text in order to respond to these objections. He defended the use of the novel term ‘ordinary magisterium’ by pointing out that it had already been used by Pope Pius IX in Tuas libenter.

After this, several more bishops commented (more approvingly) on the text and expressed their understanding of the ordinary magisterium in various ways as consisting in the daily preaching, liturgical prayers, method of conducting and defining business in the episcopal courts, and in the Roman congregations; as being exercised under the authority of the hierarchy, through pastors and teachers, through bishops and parish priests, through the words of preachers, through orthodox theologians, through approved books, through liturgical books and catechisms, etc.

Granted, none of this detail enters into the final text of Dei Filius, nor is the meaning of the term ‘ordinary magisterium’ explained in any more detail in Tuas libenter, and it is not even used in the text of Lumen gentium, which is Brugger’s only source. The fact is that the Church has offered very little explicit clarification of the term ‘ordinary magisterium’ even while insisting on its authority. But it is sufficiently clear that the way in which it was used and intended to be understood by Pius IX and the First Vatican Council (which are cited in a footnote on the relevant passage of Lumen gentium together with a commentary by Kleutgen himself) is quite a far cry from Brugger’s more limited notion of the ordinary magisterium consisting exclusively in the explicit magisterial statements of the bishops.

What Feser and Bassette have done in their recent work on capital punishment is to build an impressive case for the irreformability of the Church’s traditional teaching by amassing evidence of the teaching of the ordinary magisterium in all its dimensions. To argue that not much of this evidence comes from explicit magisterial statements of bishops is beside the point.

Dr. John P. Joy is the President of the St. Albert the Great Center for Scholastic Studies. He is the author of the forthcoming “On the Ordinary and Extraordinary Magisterium from Joseph Kleutgen to the Second Vatican Council” (Dec. 31, 2017).

Religious Liberty


The Colloquium on Dignitatis Humanae held in Norcia over All Saints 2015 presented all the main orthodox views on the document. By orthodox I mean that no one accepted that an authoritative and binding document of the Church’s magisterium could overthrow the teaching of a previous document of the same or a higher authority. There was of course plenty of room for discussion as to the relative authority of the various texts in question. Broadly there were two approaches to the problem the playing down of the extent or level of the authority of Dignitatis Humanae or the construction of the text is such a way as removed the apparent contradiction with the previous magisterium. Fr Brian Harrison, Fr Dominique and Fr Basile were ‘constructionists’ while John Lamont and James Bogle were ‘minimalists’. While nether man exuded approval for the Declaration, John Rao and Roberto de Mattei’s approach was historical. Thomas Pink really stands alone with his, what might be called, ‘gordian’ solution. Consensus was tricky especially (as so often happens) as the time for discussion at the end was too short (mea culpa). Of course, the minimalist contention does not touch per se upon whether the document can be reconciled with the preceding magisterium only on whether it needs to be. It might be that it does not need to be and yet it can be. However, it would be fair to say that the minimalists were both unconvinced that it can be.

Although there were subtle differences between the readings of the three constuctionists their approaches were compatible and in the case of the two Frenchmen very similar. One area in which Frs Basile and Dominique seemed to part company was the question of conscience. In section 3 of the Declaration it asserts “In all his activity a man is bound to follow his conscience in order that he may come to God, the end and purpose of life. It follows that he is not to be forced to act in a manner contrary to his conscience. Nor, on the other hand, is he to be restrained from acting in accordance with his conscience, especially in matters religious.” This may be taken as an explanation of the earlier line “no one is to be forced to act in a manner contrary to his own beliefs” in the most authoritative sounding passage of the Declaration. The role of conscience is crucial because, while the Declaration maintains that immunity from coercion persists even for those whose err in their beliefs, it makes no mention of those who deliberately act contrary to their beliefs. A formal heretic ex hypothesi acts contrary to his conscience not merely on the basis of an erroneous conscience. Thus the punishment of formal heretics by the temporal power in former times would seem not to fall under the censure of the Declaration (whether by accident or design).

A similar question arises in regard to the meaning of the term ‘religion’. Section 4 of the Declaration states,

Provided the just demands of public order are observed, religious communities rightfully claim freedom in order that they may govern themselves according to their own norms, honour the Supreme Being in public worship, assist their members in the practice of the religious life, strengthen them by instruction, and promote institutions in which they may join together for the purpose of ordering their own lives in accordance with their religious principles.

It would seem from this passage that ‘religion’ only extends to monotheism. While the ability to diagnose formal heresy is beyond the power of the state and thus the scenario arising from the construction of the phrase “in accordance with his conscience” arises only in the context of a Catholic state recognising the jurisdiction of the Church, the ability to recognise idolatry and to proscribe it belongs to reason alone. The constructionists have on their side, therefore, the claim that the Declaration when read correctly allows for the punishment of formal heresy (as identified by the ecclesiastical tribunal) in a Catholic state and of idolatry in any state. All it does not permit is the forcible conversion of the un-baptised to Catholicism or the proscription of erring monotheism among them. Neither of these prohibitions are novelties.

John Lamont, on the other hand, might well deny that the latter is no novelty. In this regard the October 598 letter of St Gregory the Great to Fantinus, Administrator of Palermo in which St Gregory Dialogos asserts that the removal from Jews of their places of worship is “contrary to justice and equity” assumed a particular importance. John Lamont also alleges that the weight of patristic authority is behind an inherent right on the part of the state to supress religious error. This claim brings him up against the gordian position of Thomas Pink that the Declaration refers only to the abstract competence of the state qua state and so does not touch upon the powers of the state as instrument of the Church. Pink’s case for this is very strong both in terms of the discussions and statements surrounding the drafting of the text and the fact that Paul VI and a significant proportion of the council fathers were Maritainians and did indeed demonstrably deny such competence to the state qua state. The problem posed for this interpretation by Lamont is that it would seem that the fathers do indeed attribute such competence to the civil power and so the gordian solution merely exchanges one error for another.

It seems to me that this objection to Pink is easily overcome by reference to St Augustine’s doctrine in De Civitate Dei. It is part of the essence of a true polity that it worship the one true God in the manner which He has appointed. Every state is thus obliged to discover the true religion and embrace it corporately. As it happens the true religion is Catholicism and part of the revelation upon which Catholicism is founded is the reservation of judgement in religious matters to the spiritual power. The state does indeed have of its own nature competence in religious maters but the only true polity without qualification is the City of God, the Catholic Church. It is through adherence to the Catholic Church that temporal polities receive their perfection as human societies. As Pink often emphasises, Leo XIII teaches that the proper relationship between Church and state is that of soul and body. It is the nature of the body to be united to the soul. Without the soul there is no human body. Thus it is part of the essence of the state to coerce in religious matters but in this order of providence it is also part of the essence of the state to exist within the Catholic Church; a civil power that is not united to the Church thus lacks de facto this right that belongs in the abstract to the state. As St Augustine says “there is no justice save in that commonwealth whose founder and ruler is Christ” and “kingdoms without justice are but criminal gangs”.

The error of the Maritainians lies not their analysis of the competence of the state in abstraction from the Church but in their contention that the realisation of this separation in reality could be legitimate or desirable. This contention is not made in the Declaration however much its authors may have assumed it. For the body when separated from the soul does not become some other sort of body it perishes and decomposes. There are other living bodies than human ones but the human body cannot turn into them directly. It must first be slain and then devoured. Thus the states of Christendom had to be overthrown by revolution in order to be transformed into the bestial latrocinia of secular modernity (see: Daniel 7).

With a healthy dose of St Augustine there was therefore, it seems to me at least, a virtual if not an actual consensus underneath the great diversity of views expressed at the colloquium. Whether the participants would agree or not is another question entirely.