Perhaps the greatest trauma of my school-days were the art classes. They would sit us down with some rather stiff paint brushes and a few pots of paints, and tell us to paint something. I don’t think that there was any other subject where so little instruction was given. When we began Latin, our teacher didn’t just throw us a copy of the Aeneid and tell us to get on with it.

However, I suspect that I could have sat at the feet of Michelangelo for a dozen years and been no better off. My lack of talent in the visual arts was innate, complete. While other boys would come up with a passable imitation of a cloud or a horse, or whatever it was, my efforts would prompt the derision of my peers and the kindly silence of the master. How I used to dread those classes, as others must have dreaded P.E. or double maths.

Yet having no skill in painting needn’t stop one talking about it. Who would not, asked Plutarch, rather contemplate a sculpture of Phidias than sculpt it? And even if he was only being (as Maritain says) a snobby pagan, I suppose that someone who doesn’t know a hammer from a chisel may still commission a marble.

So, here are four paintings that I should like someone to paint. All involve meetings that have really happened, but which, as far as I know, have not yet been represented in this way.

The first is a meeting between Newman, Pusey and Keble. It didn’t happen in the hey-day of the Oxford Movement, but long after Newman had converted. An elderly man now, and finding himself once more in Oxford, he made an unannounced call on his dear Keble, whom he hadn’t seen since 1845. He didn’t know that Pusey, whom he also hadn’t seen since then, and with whom his relations were particularly strained, was visiting at the same time. When the front door was opened, Newman and Keble were so uncertain of who the other one was that they had to show each other their cards; and Pusey, siting inside, spontaneously shrank back from Newman’s gaze.

What a painter could do with that scene: doubt, dawning recognition, painful affection, and unbridgeable separation, would be portrayed on all their faces.

The next two meetings happened a bit later, both in the late 1880’s. One of them also involved Newman. A very old man now, and a cardinal, he was giving out the prizes at the Oratory school. One of the successful school-boys was Hilaire Belloc. What a meeting: the old man, with his frail body and penetrating gaze, the young man, with a certain fine unconscious arrogance, each admiring and pitying the other, while unbeknownst to either the torch of Catholic England was passed on!

The other is quite famous. It occurred when Therese of Lisieux, I think at the age of 14, visited Rome with a group from her parish, and got to see Pope Leo. Instead of just kneeling to kiss his ring and moving away like the other pilgrims, she placed her hands on the old man’s knees and looked up imploringly into his face, asking him to let her enter Carmel, until finally she had to be dragged off by the Swiss guards.

Like the meeting of Newman and Belloc, this would be a study in contrasts. Only here there would be a note of humour: armed guards having to deliver the pontiff from the importunity of a school-girl, and in the background her parish priest fretting. ‘I told them all quite clearly that no one was to speak to the Holy Father. That Martin girl is simply impossible. She’ll come to a bad end, that’s only too plain.”

The final one was photographed, but I do not know that it has been painted. It is the meeting of Archbishop Lefebvre and Padre Pio, not long before the latter’s death. The archbishop had made the pilgrimage to San Giovanni to ask St Pio’s prayers for the seminary he was intending to found. He asked the Capuchin for a blessing, but St Pio naturally said, in effect: ‘Me bless an archbishop? Of course not; it is you who must bless me’, and he knelt to receive it.

If an artist painted that right, I think we should have the impression of two prophets, each with an incommunicable burden, brought together by divine providence for a brief moment to their mutual solace, as the chaos and darkness grew around them.

So, I have had the ideas: and is that not the principal part of every work of art? As for the bit with the camel hair and the wet stuff, well, I leave that to others.

By a Feeneyite I mean one who holds that to be in a state of grace it is necessary not just to have an explicit faith in Christ and the Holy Trinity but also to be right about what visible society is the Church founded by Christ (if any follower of Fr Feeney should chance to read this, I apologise if I have characterised his position wrongly.) The passages in St Thomas that raise this question come in his treatment of the virtue of faith, and in particular whether one who disbelieves one article of faith can have supernatural faith in another article. The statement that perhaps most strongly supports the Feeneyite position is in the De Caritate, article 13 ad 6 :-

The formal object itself [formalis ratio obiecti] in faith is the first truth manifested by the teaching of the Church, just as the formal object of a science is the proofs that establish the conclusions; and so just as someone who knows by heart some geometrical conclusions doesn’t have the science of geometry if he doesn’t assent to the conclusion on account of the arguments that prove them… so the one who holds things that belong to the faith while not assenting to them on account of the authority of Catholic doctrine does not have the habit of faith.

The discussion in the Summa 2a 2ae q. 5, a. 3, apparently written a year or two later, is slightly different, though very similar:-

The formal object of the faith is the first truth insofar as it is manifested in sacred Scripture and the doctrine of the Church. Thus, whoever does not adhere, as to an infallible and divine rule, to the doctrine of the Church which proceeds from the first truth manifested in sacred Scripture does not have the habit of faith, but  holds those things which are of faith by some means other than by faith [he then gives the same illustration about knowing the conclusion of a science and not the proofs.]

The difference is that the treatment in the Summa introduces the Scripture into the discussion of the formal object of faith. That might seem to provide room for one who wanted to argue that for St Thomas it was possible for some person to have faith without explicitly adhering to the Catholic Church; they don’t have the whole ‘rule of faith’, but they have enough of it – the First Truth revealed in Scripture – to make an act of faith.

The problem with this is that a formal object is indivisible. The whole point of talking about formal objects is that they are what make an act a certain kind of act rather than another kind of act. If you could take something away from the object and still have the same kind of act – in this case, an act of faith – then clearly the original object wasn’t the formal object at all. And whenever St Thomas speaks of the formal object of faith, whether or not he mentions Scripture, he always mentions the Church. You can’t take away inhering to the Church as to an infallible rule and still have an act of faith, for St Thomas (in theory you could, but not in the actual order of things willed by God.)

And yet, according to the Holy Office, an implicit desire for membership of the Church can be enough to ground an act of faith. Are these two positions reconcilable? Can someone who is not a Catholic and who has not resolved to become a Catholic nevertheless be adhering to the Catholic Church as to an infallible rule?

I think he can, provided that he admits that the Church founded by Christ is infallible and that it still exists, even though he is confused about where it is. Similarly, one can have trust in the veracity of one’s mother even if one should be unsure which of two identical twins is one’s mother (unlikely, I know, but that doesn’t lessen the force of the analogy.) It is sufficient if one has a definition of one’s mother that per se distinguishes her from every other person (e.g. ‘the woman who gave birth to me’), even if at the moment it does not allow one to pick her out here and now. If both twins make the same statement, for example about when one was born, and one believes it, then one can be said to be believing it on account of the veracity of one’s mother even though one doesn’t know who one’s mother is. On the other hand, if they make contradictory statements, it would not be reasonable to accept either of them for as long as one remained in doubt as to which woman was one’s mother; one would be running the risk of disbelieving one’s mother; one could no longer be said to be adhering to her words as to an infallible rule.

To apply the analogy to Christendom. If someone adheres to a doctrine taught by the Catholic Church and by various separated bodies, it seems possible that one is adhering to it on account of the infallible authority of the Catholic Church, even if one cannot empirically identify the Catholic Church. On the other hand, where the Catholic Church and the other bodies make contradictory statements, if someone assents to the statement made by the non-Catholic body, he cannot be said to be adhering to the Catholic Church as to an infallible rule, and therefore, according to St Thomas, he cannot have faith. John Henry Newman in 1840 wanted to believe everything taught by the Church founded by Christ, only he wasn’t sure where that Church was. But I think it very likely that he had supernatural faith.

Criticisms welcome.

I have just been re-reading Newman’s Lectures on the Present Position of Catholics in England. Was there ever a preacher of his stature, I wonder, who also used humour so successfully in public speaking? Fulton Sheen has humour, but he uses it as a technique to lessen tension, and as a captatio benevolentiaewith Newman it arises spontaneously from the excess of his indignation; it is part of his clear vision of the incongruity between what is and what ought to be.

But the main thing that struck me on this reading was how open he is in his detestation of the Whig party. It is not simply this or that Whig policy that he speaks against, but the party itself. The idea that priests should stay out of party politics was clearly not one that was familiar to him. Perhaps we need priests to speak out against the Whig party today; which I suppose, in England, means against the Conservatives, Labour and the Liberal Democrats.