"You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you odd." ~Flannery O'Connor

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Bad Reason #1 not to become Catholic

The lengthy combox on my previous post "Choosing apostolic communions" comprises quite a worthy and sophisticated discussion of the issues I raised in that post. All the brightest Catholics and Orthodox who used to debate those and related issues at Pontifications contributed at a level meeting their customary high standard—all the more gratifying for being rather rare online. In the wake of that combox, and for the sake of providing a more convenient way to carry on the discussion, Al Kimel the Pontificator has posted his own substantial article on the same issues. Its title, the same as this post's, stresses the main point of my previous post. You can comment on Al's post here.

As Al frames it, Bad Reason #1 is the following claim: Sound historical scholarship clearly demonstrates that the Catholic claims about the papal office are Latin innovations and departures from the apostolic deposit of faith. That is essentially, and familiarly, the claim being maintained by most of the Orthodox contributors to my previous post's combox. Since it is also a proposition long maintained by Anglo-Catholics and other Protestants, the matter is one of broad ecumenical interest. For the remainder of this post, however, I want to eliminate a couple of red herrings introduced by Orthodox in the earlier combox.

The first was made by John of Ad Orientem, whose view of doctrinal development was the occasion for my previous post. Addressing me, he writes:

How does one discern legitimate doctrinal development from illegitimate development, or as you politely framed it, “addition to the deposit of the faith?” Once again I turn to history. Here I look for signs which to me would render a given example of doctrinal development suspect. The big red flag for me is the following question. Has the modern church effectively abandoned its earlier position or reversed itself? In several areas I again would argue a strong case can be made that the Roman Church has indeed come very close to reversing previously held positions or simply abandoning them. Some examples would include usury, extra ecclesiam nulla salus, religious liberty (Vat II), limbo, capital punishment, and torture (the topic of several of your recent fascinating posts). I actually concur with the development of doctrine on the death penalty so that’s probably a poor example. But the others are all cases where a prima facie case can be made that there has been a substantive reversal or abandonment of previously held doctrine. All of these subjects are ones on which the Roman Catholic Church had very clear and to the minds of most people firmly set doctrinal statements of belief which have seen very dramatic changes.

Apparently, John has either not read or not seen fit to reply to my little treatise Development and Negation, which sparked a great deal of discussion when it was issued in installments over at Pontifications. My thesis was, and remains, that the development of doctrine on precisely the points John cites above has never entailed negation of any doctrine that the Catholic Church once taught "definitively" by her own criteria for definitiveness. There have been reversals, of course; but when there have been reversals, they have consisted either in needed changes in pastoral practice in light of new conditions or in the abandonment of theological opinions long common but never requiring the assent of faith. If I am correct, then the Roman magisterium cannot be faulted for discrediting itself by such developments. While I'd be somewhat interested in John's reply, I do not anticipate hearing any objections different in substance from the many I rebutted in the hundreds of comments on the articles comprising my DN treatise.

The other red herring also concerns doctrinal development and was introduced by the Orthodox blogger known as The Ochlophobist. I feel a bit sheepish about calling his point a red herring, since he mostly praised my previous post and is a highly cultured, educated, and judicious man. But he also has his moments: more brusquely than but not uniquely among his co-religionists, he asserts on his own blog that "natural theology is a crock of shit." While the immediate emotional background for that assertion makes its phrasing understandable—and to an extent, I empathize even though I as a Catholic cannot but disagree—the phrasing itself confirms other indications that ThO is a man of quite strongly held theological views. One of his biggest pet peeves is the idea of "doctrinal development" in, roughly, Newman's sense of that phrase. And I have found that to be true quite generally of educated Orthodox. So, replying to his key combox comment on that topic here is also of general interest.

ThO begins by quoting Vatican I (the emphasis is mine):

"And it was to Peter alone that Jesus, after his resurrection, confided the jurisdiction of supreme pastor and ruler of his whole fold, saying: 'Feed my lambs, feed my sheep.' To this absolutely manifest teaching of the sacred scriptures, as it has always been understood by the catholic church, are clearly opposed the distorted opinions of those who misrepresent the form of government which Christ the lord established in his church, and deny that Peter, in preference to the rest of the apostles, taken singly or collectively, was endowed by Christ with a true and proper primacy of jurisdiction.”

Here's what ThO says right after that:

Yes, I know, one can nuance one’s way out of phrases such as “absolutely manifest” and “it has always been understood,” with various DD interpretive maneuvers. Add to that the fact that I have been told that I am not in a position to interpret VatI texts because I do not engage in a “hermeneutic of trust,” and I have to again bow out. Lord forbid that I might bring up the notion that the fathers of VatI seem to be using language which avoids nuance, and clearly states that a conviction that they were affirming as a matter of required dogma that which the catholic church has always clearly taught, but that does not matter. What they meant is not the truth, it is what the Church now teaches that the texts mean that is the truth, or something to that effect. After a couple of years discussing this with you all, it is clear to me that in the current doctrinal milieu of RCism a pope is very much needed. When doctrine develops, but even more important than that when the interpretation of prior doctrine is up for change, some living human being has to be available for final arbitration.

In one way, the key point being made there with more than a touch of sarcasm is similar to John's: something is wrong when, on Catholic criteria, it's OK that "the interpretation of prior doctrine is up for change" and needs to be certified by somebody "available for final arbitration." In this case, the idea seems to be that what's been up for change is the interpretation of papal primacy; thus, what was in the first millennium not "absolutely manifest" and not "always understood by the catholic church" is now, somehow, both.

But that overlooks an elementary distinction that everybody acknowledges: what is "absolutely" clear need not always be "relatively" so. Thus, what's crystal-clear in itself and to some folk need not thereby be so to all. ThO himself implicitly acknowledges this when he points out, in the same comment, that the divinity of Christ was always, and was always known to be, the faith of the Church. If we take that in the empirical sense, to mean that all Christians always believed it, it is clearly false—else the majority of bishops would not have been Arian in the mid-4th century. But if we take it in the normative sense, to mean that it was always the faith of those who held the True Faith in its integrity, then it is clearly true. That's why Nicaea's homoousion, though a new, metaphysical expression that by no means sat well with everybody, did not signify an addition to the deposit of faith. And the same goes for what Vatican I says about its account definition of papal primacy, if indeed that account is true.

Much more can and doubtless will be said. But now I must be content with opening the new combox.
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