A Paradigm of Unfolding
An Analogy between Christ’s Holy Shroud and Divine Revelation – by Fr Armand de Malleray, FSSP
All along Church history, new doctrinal statements are issued as part of the Magisterium, in fulfilment of the Church’s teaching mission. In what sense are they new? Never can such pronouncements contradict earlier ones. They can only make more explicit what has always been part of Divine Revelation, consisting of Scripture and Tradition. The Hierarchy of the Church and Her theologians gradually unfold Revealed Truth, after the parable of Our Lord: ‘Every scribe instructed in the kingdom of heaven, is like to a man that is a householder, who bringeth forth out of his treasure new things and old’ (Matthew 13:52). The data is not to be invented or imported, even less construed, but merely expounded under the guidance of the Holy Ghost: ‘The Paraclete, the Holy Ghost, whom the Father will send in my name, He will teach you all things, and bring all things to your mind, whatsoever I shall have said to you’ (John 14:26).
To explain the development of Catholic doctrine, we offer an analogy between unfolding Christ’s Holy Shroud and developing Christ’s Revelation. The purpose in each case is to display the full figure of Christ, either visually on the cloth, or doctrinally through magisterial promulgations. On Easter morning then, St Peter, St John and St Mary Magdalene found the empty linens wrapped together in the empty tomb. Some time on that day, they would have taken with them the precious relic. Back home in the Upper Room, with what emotion they would have slowly unfolded the linens, gradually displaying the Master’s silhouette: first His shoulder, then His elbow, now His foot and then His Head… Everywhere, their eyes would meet so many wounds, all endured for their redemption – and ours.
Please note that it is irrelevant to our analogy whether or not the Turin Shroud is indeed the one in which the Saviour lay buried. What is certain is that there was such a shroud, and that none more scientifically convincing than the Turin one has surfaced.
Upon Christ’s folded Shroud as within Christ’s Revelation, the entirety of the message is present from the start – albeit hidden. Consequently, the Church cannot add anything new to the data given. She can only unfold Christ’s silhouette and make explicit His Good News. She bears witness to growth, like a mother to the child in her womb, or like astronomer Father Georges Lemaître theorising universal expansion (later known as the Big Bang theory). In each case, a core is given and development follows. How long will the unfolding of Christ’s Revelation take? It will take until Christ’s return. The completion of this work of patience, love and humility will mark the end of time. Then Christ will appear before all eyes, as if His eyelids on the Shroud opened, radiating His Good News as a reward of glory for the just, and as retribution for those who will have shut their minds to His truth and their hearts to His mercy.
1- Considering the Holy Shroud
What does the Holy Shroud look like? It is a depiction of Our Lord’s tortured Body (both back and front), spread across the 14.5-feet-long by 1.4-foot-wide linen cloth, with such accuracy that this sacred relic has been termed ‘The Fifth Gospel’. The Holy Shroud – presently kept in Turin, Italy – is the most tested object in the world. The scientific findings, due to their number and complexity, now constitute a distinct branch of science called sindonology, after the word ‘sindon’, the Greek word for ‘shroud’.
Let us recall a few sindonological discoveries. It took nineteen centuries to realise that the Shroud is a photographic negative: inversing paler and darker areas reveals the actual picture. Further analysis established that the depiction results from irradiation, not from the application of pigments upon the linen material. Later on, the image was found to be three-dimensional, allowing the shaping of a resin model of Our Lord’s Body as when it was lying wrapped in the Shroud. Anomalies such as the absence of thumbs on either hand were explained, while microscopic examination found diverse pollens from the Middle-East stuck in the fibres of the cloth.
Thus, the Holy Shroud of Christ yields its secrets by stages, and yet, all information has been present on the material since Easter morning. Similarly, Christian doctrine develops across time, even though Christ’s Revelation was completed when Christ’s last apostle died. For example, in 451 the Council of Chalcedon defined that Christ had two natures, the human and the divine ones, under one single divine self. But these truths had been contained in Christ’s Revelation from the start. Another example: in 1215 the Council of Lateran defined the Eucharistic change as Transubstantiation, not inventing a new belief, but explaining an original truth. Hence, just as no genuine scientist would add to the Holy Shroud data from without, equally, no Catholic theologian can ever increase Christ’s Revelation. Scientists will apply to the Holy Shroud modern technology and the resources of their intellect to infer further evidence. Similarly, Catholic theologians rely on their skills and inspiration to draw new conclusions from pre-existing truths. In either case, new investigations can only build upon earlier findings.
The following episode in the Shroud examinations illustrates this principle a contrario. In 1989, Carbon 14 tests seemed to establish that the Holy Shroud dated from the middle ages. But leading researcher Raymond Rogers changed his mind on discovering that the samples tested were not part of the original material. They belonged instead to the repairs undergone by the Shroud after the 1532 fire in Chambery. In other words, medieval cotton threads had been expertly woven into the original linen fabric to mend fire damage. This applies analogically to the work of theologians probing Christ’s Revelation. Any theological statement one may proffer in contradiction with Christ’s Revelation rests upon unauthentic premises (and fosters a non-Catholic agenda). Like the Carbon 14 findings, such unorthodox statements may sound convincing when issued, but like them, they are flawed at some level, hence unscientific.
2- Why Holy Church takes Her time
Holy Mother Church tells us all truth about God. She does not tell it all at once though – for three reasons. First, God is infinite, whereas our human intelligence is limited of its nature, and obscured by sin, so that we need time to explore the truth. Second, unlike angels who understand by intuition or immediate grasp, we humans reach the truth gradually, from consequences to causes. Third, the Church reacts to historical circumstances: whether adverse ones such as heresies and wars, or favourable ones such as the deeds of saints or even the discoveries of scientists. By God’s Providence, the Church’s response to circumstances leads Her to focus on this or that specific aspect of the revealed truth, while further aspects will only be examined later on. For instance, the Church’s pro-life teaching was greatly developed in the past fifty years in response to institutionalised abortion.
These three factors help understand the development of doctrine. Development here expresses inner growth and precludes addition from without. This is the capital point to understand: whenever the Church makes a new pronouncement, it is never new in relation to God’s Revelation, but only in relation to contemporary believers. For example, when the Divine Motherhood of Our Lady was defined at the Council of Ephesus in 431, it was new inasmuch as the Church had not until then committed Her authority to affirm this fact dogmatically. But that truth was already contained in God’s Revelation, rather than added to it later on. Long before it was promulgated as a dogma, the divine Motherhood existed as a fact, from the instant when the Blessed Virgin Mary had answered ‘Yes’ to Archangel Gabriel at Her Annunciation. The dogmatic promulgation at Ephesus did not create the fact. It only provided formal assurance of orthodoxy. For this, the inhabitants of Ephesus in thanksgiving took to the streets, holding torches and singing hymns. Believers of all ages may react similarly when further aspects of God’s Revelation are displayed by Holy Mother Church through Her Magisterium.
3- God’s Love Letter
God’s Revelation is like His love letter to His immaculate Bride, the Church. For a letter to be safely transmitted, the sheet of paper requires folding into an envelope (or many sheets, because God has a lot to tell to His beloved). When a young woman receives a letter from her fiancé (ink on paper being more personal than emails on a screen or instant messages), she does not see the sentences and words, nor his handwriting and signature, until with her own fingers she delicately extracts the sheets from the envelope, and lovingly unfolds them for her eyes eventually to meet the written signs. Even then, although she can guess that he wrote gracious things about their shared love, she is not able to grasp in one glance the detail of his communication. It takes unfolding and reading time – until the beloved returns.
With this comparison in mind, we may ask ourselves: what are the fingers with which Holy Mother Church unfolds God’s message of love? They are the theologians and the Magisterium. The Church’s fingers are Catholic believers of either sex mandated by the Holy See to apply their sound philosophical and theological training to probing Holy Scripture and Tradition. These people examine the Deposit of Faith according to their individual temperaments, skills and interests, under the inspiration of the Holy Ghost and in response to historical circumstances. In that sense, their inquiries entail novelty and subjectivity. But the object of their investigation can never be a product of their imagination, a fanciful innovation or an artificial addition, however clever or expedient it may sound. On the contrary, whatever they find has to be just that: found – not imagined. They can deduce, not invent.
Holy Mother Church, then, has loving fingers. Now, what is Her love letter? Upon what sheet and within what sealed envelope did Her Beloved Jesus imprint His message of passionate love? It is upon a burial sheet, sealed within a stone cavity. On Easter morning, the Risen Spouse let His angel break the seal from His tombstone; and His first pope found the empty shroud that covered the dead Lord’s Holy Face and Body: ‘the napkin that had been about his head, [was] not lying with the linen cloths, but apart, wrapped up into one place’ (John 20:7). Christ’s message was folded, so that even Simon Peter did not behold the full silhouette of the Saviour at the time. Later on that memorable day however, the Vicar of Christ would have taken away with him for safekeeping the folded shroud – the material witness of the Resurrection, which is the core of the Christian Revelation as St Paul affirms: ‘if Christ be not risen again, then is our preaching vain, and your faith is also vain’ (1 Cor 15:14).
4- Truth knows no expiration date
Certain dogmatic pronouncements can be more important than others, but they cannot contradict past ones. Some well-meaning Catholics believe, more or less consciously, that referring to Councils earlier than the twenty-first one (also the latest: Vatican II, 1962-1965) is disloyal. They mistakenly assume that what was defined in centuries past loses its relevance with time; or worse, that truths of old become toxic after a number of years, like pharmaceutical drugs past expiration date. On 19th November 2013, Pope Francis proved such assumptions erroneous when he commemorated the 450th anniversary of the Council of Trent, writing to his extraordinary envoy Walter Cardinal Brandmüller:
‘It behoves the Church to recall with more prompt and attentive eagerness the most fruitful doctrine which came out of that Council convened in the Tyrolese region. Certainly not without cause, the Church has for a long time already accorded so much care to the Decrees and Canons of that Council that are to be recalled and observed… Graciously hearing the very same Holy Ghost, the Holy Church of our age, even now, continues to restore and meditate upon the most abundant doctrine of Trent… You will exhort all who shall participate in this event, that, souls joined together with the soul of the Most Holy Redeemer, they may be fully conscious of all the fruits derived from this Council, and that they may unite themselves in bringing these fruits to others and in propagating them in every way.’
Thus, five centuries after the Council of Trent, the successor of Peter affirms the perennial validity of the truths defined in its documents, and commands them to be ‘propagated in every way’, following Pope John Paul II’s similar praise of ‘the perennially valid teaching of the Council of Trent’ (Encyclical Ecclesia de Eucharistia §15, 17 April 2003).
Still, it cannot be denied that of late, disconcerting statements have been issued by the hierarchy of the Church at every level. Even though no formal heresy has been promulgated, traditional teaching on marriage for instance, or on death penalty, or on salvation through Christ only, is undermined. How are the laity and clergy to react in such situations? The Code of Canon Law (1983) states that: ‘They have the right, indeed at times the duty, in keeping with their knowledge, competence and position, to manifest to the sacred Pastors their views on matters which concern the good of the Church. They have the right also to make their views known to others of Christ’s faithful, but in doing so they must always respect the integrity of faith and morals, show due reverence to the Pastors and take into account both the common good and the dignity of individuals’ (Can. 212 §3).
5- The Sense of Faith equips us to discern
A document of particular relevance to this question, The Sense of Faith in the Life of the Church, was published under Pope Francis by the International Theological Commission of the Holy See on 10th June 2014, explaining how the ‘sense of faith’ (in Latin sensus fidei) enables the baptised to assess doctrinal truth. We will now quote extensively six paragraphs from this document:
‘49. The sensus fidei fidelis is a sort of spiritual instinct that enables the believer to judge spontaneously whether a particular teaching or practice is or is not in conformity with the Gospel and with apostolic faith. It is intrinsically linked to the virtue of faith itself; it flows from, and is a property of, faith. It is compared to an instinct because it is not primarily the result of rational deliberation, but is rather a form of spontaneous and natural knowledge, a sort of perception (aisthesis).
- The sensus fidei is the form that the instinct which accompanies every virtuetakes in the case of the virtue of faith. ‘Just as, by the habits of the other virtues, one sees what is becoming in respect of that habit, so, by the habit of faith, the human mind is directed to assent to such things as are becoming to a right faith, and not to assent to others.’ Faith, as a theological virtue, enables the believer to participate in the knowledge that God has of himself and of all things. In the believer, it takes the form of a ‘second nature’. By means of grace and the theological virtues, believers become ‘participants of the divine nature’ (2 Pet 1:4), and are in a way connaturalised to God. As a result, they react spontaneously on the basis of that participated divine nature, in the same way that living beings react instinctively to what does or does not suit their nature.
- Three principal manifestations of the sensus fidei fidelisin the personal life of the believer can be highlighted. The sensus fidei fidelisenables individual believers: 1) to discern whether or not a particular teaching or practice that they actually encounter in the Church is coherent with the true faith by which they live in the communion of the Church (see below, §§61-63); 2) to distinguish in what is preached between the essential and the secondary (§64); and 3) to determine and put into practice the witness to Jesus Christ that they should give in the particular historical and cultural context in which they live (§65).
- ‘Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God ; for many false prophets have gone out into the world’ (1Jn 4:1). The sensus fidei fidelis confers on the believer the capacity to discern whether or not a teaching or practice is coherent with the true faith by which he or she already lives. If individual believers perceive or ‘sense’ that coherence, they spontaneously give their interior adherence to those teachings or engage personally in the practices, whether it is a matter of truths already explicitly taught or of truths not yet explicitly taught.
- The sensus fidei fidelisalso enables individual believers to perceive any disharmony, incoherence, or contradiction between a teaching or practice and the authentic Christian faith by which they live. They react as a music lover does to false notes in the performance of a piece of music. In such cases, believers interiorly resist the teachings or practices concerned and do not accept them or participate in them. ‘The habitusof faith possesses a capacity whereby, thanks to it, the believer is prevented from giving assent to what is contrary to the faith, just as chastity gives protection with regard to whatever is contrary to chastity.’
- Alerted by their sensus fidei, individual believers may deny assent even to the teaching of legitimate pastors if they do not recognise in that teaching the voice of Christ, the Good Shepherd. ‘The sheep follow [the Good Shepherd] because they know his voice. They will not follow a stranger, but they will run away from him because they do not know the voice of strangers’ (Jn 10:4-5). For St Thomas, a believer, even without theological competence, can and even must resist, by virtue of the sensus fidei, his or her bishop if the latter preaches heterodoxy. In such a case, the believer does not treat himself or herself as the ultimate criterion of the truth of faith, but rather, faced with materially ‘authorised’ preaching which he or she finds troubling, without being able to explain exactly why, defers assent and appeals interiorly to the superior authority of the universal Church.’
6- Filial Concern
These authoritative quotes from a theological document published by the Holy See as recently as 2014 may surprise for their boldness. They stress clearly that the undiscriminating acceptance of any doctrine is not Catholic. On the contrary, genuine worship of Christ as Truth Incarnate leads every believer to assess what is presented as truth, even when uttered by those acting in Christ’s name. The touchstone of orthodoxy is continuity with what has always been professed and believed in the Church of Christ: ‘For the Holy Spirit was promised to the successors of Peter not so that they might, by his revelation, make known some new doctrine, but that, by his assistance, they might religiously guard and faithfully expound the revelation or deposit of faith transmitted by the apostles’ (Vatican I, Pastor Aeternus Chapter 4).
With this in mind, one understands how considering the hypothesis even of a heretical pope is not in itself imprudent or disrespectful. Eminent and saintly theologians have done so, for the sake of guiding souls in times of perplexity. Cardinal St Robert Bellarmine stated that: ‘A Pope who is a manifest heretic, ceases in himself to be Pope and head, just as he ceases in himself to be a Christian and member of the body of the Church.’ It is one thing for a sovereign pontiff to allow the spread of falsity by other prelates, or even to support it privately, or to be quoted as such – it is another for him to teach formal heresy with all the marks of authority required to bind the Church to his error. St Bellarmine believed that Christ would preserve His Church from the latter evil.
We should all filially pray for this, while making better use of the wealth of safe doctrinal resources provided on the Internet. At the tips of our fingers, we can gain access for free to the texts of the twenty-one Councils and numerous papal encyclicals, but also the Fathers of the Church and the works of sound theologians and spiritual authors. All such doctrinal riches are offered us as the gradual unfolding of Christ’s Revelation. Nothing can be changed or added to Christ’s Revelation, since it was completed at the death of His last apostle. But much can be deduced from the same Revelation, through the humble and loving process of explicating pre-existing truth, according to our analogy with the unfolding of Christ’s Holy Shroud.
As our reader may have noticed, bringing together Christ’s Revelation and Shroud rests upon a motive stronger than an analogy. The Shroud indeed bears witness to the Revelation in the most realistic manner. It is significant that Easter Saturday’s Gospel quoted above shows St John waiting outside the tomb for St Peter to enter first. Again, the respective positions of the linens are noticed as if through St Peter’s eyes. Who more than Christ’s Vicar has authority to guard, pass on and expound the treasure given by the Risen Lord? On that same Easter day, as we learn, the Lord ‘appeared to Simon’ (Lk 24:34). There were no witnesses. Or perhaps, the Shroud was the witness, as we now attempt to picture, offering this meditation to conclude our essay.
Alone at last in the Upper Room, Simon had unfolded the long strip of cloth, nowhere more fittingly than across the trestles of the Last Supper table. Three nights earlier, upon another cloth, the Lord had made Himself truly present under the Eucharistic species at the first Holy Mass. The Eleven and He had walked thence to Gethsemane. Before cockcrow, Simon had thrice denied his Lord. Since then Jesus had died and was risen.
Back in the Upper Room on Easter day, Simon was on his knees at the far end of the long linen rectangle. His eyes slightly higher than the level of the cloth swollen in successive waves upon the trestles, the fisherman would look at the maculated Shroud as a seaman at a vast archipelago spread across a limitless map. Wide or tiny, each bloodstain was an island, mystically bearing the name of each and every sinner, redeemed through the wounds of the Lamb.
Which stain bore Simon’s name? It could not be less than three, one for each denial – and so many more… In St Peter’s soul, contrition connected the reddish shapes of various sizes like the stars under which he was reborn, as in a new constellation named Absolution. It was probably no surprise to Simon then, when he became aware of Christ’s bodily presence, standing at the other end of His unfolded Shroud. The contrite Vicar had opened his soul to the Saviour already. Christ confirmed His pardon and left, until they met again by the Sea of Galilee.
His Vicar remained on his knees looking across the bloodied sheet, while on either side of the table of redemption hundreds of men materialised, imitating his posture: his successors. What were there names, their races and languages: Clement, Anaclet, Alexander, Fabian, John, Stephen, Pius, Leo, Gregory, Benedict… Francis? How many of them would the Fisherman have until Christ’s glorious return? The Lord would not fail to assist them, as He had done for him, that each might be faithful: ‘But I have prayed for thee, that thy faith fail not: and thou, being once converted, confirm thy brethren’ (Luke 22:32).
Simon would pray for them, that they might ‘feed Christ’s sheep’ (John 21:17) in the pastures of truth unadulterated, whatever the cost. In order to save though, truth must not only be believed, but also implemented by all believers. Every genuine Pope to Christ’s flock would also have to ‘teach them to observe all things whatsoever the Lord had commanded His apostles’ (Matthew 28:20). The Mother of the Lord had ordered it so, at the wedding in Cana. She did not command merely to believe whatever Christ would say, but to do it: ‘His mother saith to the waiters: Whatsoever he shall say to you, do ye’ (John 2:5).
Presently, Peter felt her hand gently resting on his shoulder. No nail had pierced that hand, but a sword had pierced the immaculate heart of the Mother who, standing behind him, silently assured forgiveness to the kneeling penitent, and promised assistance to Her Son’s first Pope, now rising. Within fifty days, She would be with Peter and the ten others in this very room, when the Holy Ghost would be sent upon them, turning every believer into an ‘epistle of Christ… written not with ink, but with the Spirit of the living God; not in tables of stone, but in the fleshly tables of the heart.’ (2 Co 3:3).
How long would the unfolding of Christ’s Revelation take, until His return in might and glory? A few years; a few centuries; or millennia? One thing was certain: all that was ever to be proclaimed through dogmatic promulgations in the ages to come was already lying there, before Simon’s tearful eyes, spread across the linen cloth of the Risen One. His message was imprinted on His Shroud: apparently flat, but unfathomably deep if measured in mercy – transcendentally high if gauged with joy. □