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

Monday, October 29, 2007

My political provocation

For the sake of generating discussion, I shall here abandon my usual reticence about partisan politics. I'm usually reticent for two reasons. First, I believe that both major American parties are, in somewhat different respects, equally far from my political principles, which are derived from the natural law and the social teaching of the Church; second, most political discussions get so tied up in disputes about what the relevant facts are that it becomes almost impossible to have a productive discussion about principles. And so I usually see little point in generating political debate on this site. But as the presidential election cycle gears up, I thought I should say something to provoke my readers into thinking about the matters people ought to be thinking about. How you end up voting is, of course, between you and your conscience.

At this point, it seems inevitable that Hillary Clinton will be the Democratic nominee. I oppose her for several reasons. One is that I oppose any candidate of either party who lacks credible pro-life credentials, and she certainly lacks them. Another is that she is a true believer in what conservatives like to call "big government" and I prefer to call "nanny government." On both philosophical and emotional grounds, I hate paternalism in government; and I don't like maternalism in government any better, especially given that, in a number of respects, America is gradually evolving into a gynocracy anyhow. Finally, Hillary is Bill's wife and has always kept her star hooked to his. Enough said.

The Republicans have several candidates who, at this stage, have a reasonable shot at being nominated. In my mind, the pivotal question is which credibly pro-life candidate has the best chance of beating Hillary in the general election. That seems to boil down to Mike Huckabee, who in my view offers the most favorable combination of accomplishment and personality needed to appeal to the general electorate. And so as of now, he's my man.

Some of you might wonder why I don't mention the elephant in the room: the war in Iraq. I don't mention it because I suspect that, as a purely practical matter, whoever is elected President next year will end up pursuing roughly the same policy as their opponent would have. Everybody wants some sort of drawdown of troops, which will happen; nobody wants to leave Iraq a playground for al-Qaeda and Iran, so that won't happen. Things like troop numbers and force posture will probably be determined by how much more success we will have achieved in Iraq between now and 2009, which nobody can confidently predict. And so, to me, Iraq has become largely irrelevant as a way of deciding among candidates.

On a more abstract level, the question most likely to interest my readers is whether short-term political issues really matter much at all, given the daunting spiritual challenges faced by Western civilization. That's the question that most interests me too.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Rabbi reveals name of Messiah

Lest anybody suspect me of triumphalism, I didn't grab that headline that from a trad-Cath rag, an Evangelical rag, or even an American rag. I got it from a periodical run by Jews—in Israel. Of course the Jews in question seem to regard themselves as "Messianic" Jews, perhaps even as some sort of Christian, though not the familiar, indigenous sort that the Israelis don't much mind because they keep their heads down when they're not leaving. Naturally, the story caused some controversy, though not violence, which is a blessing in a part of the world where religious violence, even between Christians, is very much a live tradition.

Please read the whole story. It's not that long. I'm putting the story out for my readers because I'm very curious but not very knowledgeable about this sort of thing, and am sure somebody out there can give me more information. Maybe even more reliable information. No polemics, please.


Well, Dr. Witt has apparently responded to my post of yesterday. I say 'apparently' since he does not deign to address me by name, let alone continue our debate. I can only surmise that the following is meant to apply to me among others:

I am completely uninterested in entering into conversation with those who wish to revive Tridentine or nineteenth century Catholic polemical apologetics against Anglicanism or other Reformation bodies. This is a dead horse. For those who are interested in such discussions, the libraries of seminaries are moldering with the no longer read tomes of these conflicts. As a scholar I prefer to devote my time to productive pursuits.

Harrumph! Even so, it would have been more accurate of him to say "I have become completely uninterested..." given that he did rouse himself to address my arguments once, and at reasonable length. But I suppose he's right that our exchange is destined to become the cyber-equivalent of an old pamphlet moldering in a seminary library. Leave aside the ephemerality of blogdom; only those with too much time on their hands would dig up a debate that ends in such a fashion, even when it's printed.

It's too bad, really, because there is definitely a substantive theological lesson in the exchange that somebody might benefit from learning. If you follow the long thread at TitusOneNine where the debate developed, you can discern it for yourself. But I would spare you that and, instead, shall tell you myself.

There are really two lessons: one proximate, the other ultimate. The proximate lesson is that the Anglican "reasserters"—i.e., those who support women's ordination but oppose same-sex marriage (oops, "blessings")—are in an untenable position. They can certainly make a case that the New Testament, read in isolation from irritants such as Tradition and the teaching authority of the Church, is clearly opposed to sodomy but not so clearly opposed to priestesses. On scholarly grounds alone, I believe they happen to right about that. But that is not enough even for their purpose. For one thing, a good case can be made that the same blindness that prevents many people from seeing what's wrong with WO, as a matter of sacramental efficacy, also prevents many people from seeing what's wrong with SSM, as a matter of sacramental efficacy and other things, such as the divine and natural law. The CofE priest Jeffrey Steel has a nice little summary of such a case, the upshot of which is that we have largely lost any sense of the spiritual significance of gender. And so, as a purely practical matter, the reasserters are probably fighting a long defeat even in those sectors of the Anglican Communion that, for now, are repelled by the very idea of sanctified sodomy.

But this is only one group of Protestants fighting on one front. There's an ultimate lesson here for all Protestants who can be believed when they say they want their church to retain fidelity to Scripture as "the only infallible rule of faith."

The ultimate lesson is that, lacking a visible teaching authority accepted as the voice of Christ himself when it speaks with its full authority, Protestantism as such is incapable of distinguishing between definitive, irreformable doctrine and mere theological opinion. One can talk all one likes about "Scripture" as the only infallible rule of faith; one can sometimes invoke "the plain meaning of Scripture," on more-or-less firm grounds, as a matter of what the human authors intended; and one can always hope that leaders of Protestant bodies will maintain the good sense and will power to adhere to such things. But in practice, one person's or church's "plain meaning" is another person's or church's "misinterpretation" or "misapplication," and no Protestant ecclesial authority can say otherwise as anything more than one fallible opinion among others. That is just what the endless fragmentation of Protestant bodies into "denominations" shows, regardless of who happens to be right about this-or-that point of Scripture. And that is why conservative Protestantism, of whatever form, is just liberal Protestantism waiting to happen.

As a Catholic, I do not say that with any sense of satisfaction or smugness. The Catholic Church is full of people who either don't know or don't care about the distinction between definitive, irreformable doctrine and mere theological opinion. A few of them are clergy and/or theologians who influence how Catholics think. So you can find plenty of educated lay Catholics who, citing "the primacy of conscience" or some such thing, reserve to themselves the right to decide what they need and do not need to believe precisely as Catholics. As I said earlier this week, such an attitude is the very principle of heresy. Such Catholics-in-name-only are functionally Protestant, and they make things worse by pretending otherwise. Those who have led them down that path will be judged more severely than our Protestant brethren who, for the most part, are only doing the best they are in a position to know.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Quotable for the day

"Anglicans tend to convert to Catholicism because their church isn’t what it used to be, while Catholics tend to convert to Anglicanism because their church still is what it’s always been."

attributed to Diogenes of Catholic World News

Dr Witt responds at last

In posts I wrote last Sunday and Monday, I added my voice to Prof. Scott Carson's by way of criticizing the Anglican Dr. William Witt's broad appeal to something called "the plain meaning of Scripture." WW himself did not reply here, and at this point I rather doubt he will visit. But he has replied over at TitusOneNine, a well-known, high-traffic Anglican blog; specifically, in this comment. For the sake of inviting a broader audience to the discussion, I shall reproduce herein my reply to that comment, changing it only by correcting a few typos.

I’m delighted to see that WW has finally begun to address, if not exactly to engage, my argument. Unfortunately, we haven’t got far beyond that just yet.

The implicit assumption is that apart from such an authority any interaction with the objective text is reduced to mere human opinion. The question then becomes which group of privileged knowers becomes the locus of authority, the infallible Platonic episteme of the magisterium or the uncertain doxa of the humble believer.

Once again, that mischaracterizes what’s being asserted and how it’s being argued for.

For one thing, even if I were making a mere assumption here, the assumption would not be that the Magisterium has episteme and the humble believer has only doxa. The claim is not that the Magisterium enjoys the authority of episteme, i.e. “knowledge,” as if it had the authority of those who know as distinct from those who merely believe (i.e., who have only doxa). Those who have and exercise the Magisterium do not, as individuals, enjoy a species of insight into divine revelation that is fundamentally different in principle from that of the humble believer. Many bishops, including many popes, are not professional theologians; some lay people are better theologians than most bishops; and many humble believers have greater faith in the Catholic sense of the word than many bishops and theologians. Rather, the claim of the Catholic Church is that the Magisterium, under certain conditions, is preserved by God from error when teaching about points comprised by the deposit of faith. Such authority is charismatic, not epistemic. As a divine gift, it cannot be earned; it can only be acquired by office not study; and its scope is limited.

In WW’s formulation, there is another mischaracterization of what Newman et al., including yours truly, are asserting. We do not assert that “apart from such an authority any interaction with the objective text is reduced to mere human opinion.” I for one did not say “any” interaction with the text, precisely because it would have been foolish to say such a thing. When one reads a text, for example, one normally “knows” what text one is reading, along with a bunch of coordinate facts about the text. I’ll even concede arguendo that, in some cases, a reader can “know” what a given form of words in a text says, quite apart from an expert’s telling them what it says, when what the text says clearly embodies the intent of its human author. That is a philosophical question, and one’s answer depends in large measure on what one means by “knowledge.” But in the case of the Bible, none of that broaches the real issue.

As I’ve said repeatedly, the question in the case of the Bible is not what, in any given case, the human author intended to say, which is often an interesting question but never, in itself, decisive for any matter of faith. The question is what God is saying to his people through the text; and our claim is that it is that question which cannot be reliably answered, even for purposes of doxa, without an authoritative interpreter. Moreover, we have arguments for that claim. Newman adduced some; many have adduced others, including yours truly. But the arguments can’t even be assessed fairly if one of the key conclusions continues to be caricatured.

That’s why it’s relatively easy to defend my argument against WW’s rebuttal. Consider:

(1) The post-canonical church does not have the same degree of teaching authority as the pre-canonical church and cannot for the simple reason that the authority of the pre-canonical church has the authority of apostles who were eyewitnesses of the risen Lord. We are neither apostles nor eyewitnesses. To state that the post-canonical church has this same authority is always to subvert the authority of the canonical witnesses to contemporary subjective human opinion. Whether that opinion is that of “private judgment” or of an ecclesial magisterium is irrelevant.

In the first place, there is a serious ambiguity in the statement that “the authority of the pre-canonical church was the authority of apostles.” Even if we assume arguendo that all the books in what we now call “the New Testament” were written while at least one of the Apostles was still alive, the process of distinguishing truly “apostolic” writings from others only purporting to be apostolic went on for quite some time after the Apostles had all died. The authority of the Church that formed the canon, therefore, was not identical in kind with the authority of eyewitnesses such as the Apostles. Until the fourth century, there wasn’t even any formal list of canonical books on which the Church as a whole was agreed. So, while there is a sense in which “the authority of the pre-canonical Church was the authority of the Apostles,” that is not so in a sense that would make its authority greater than that of the post-canonical Church. Hence the truth in question does not constitute a rebuttal of my argument.

By the same token, the quote from Cullman that WW uses to support (1) is inapt. The Catholic Church, and defenders of hers such as Newman, do not for a moment deny that the post-canonical Church is “subordinate” to the apostolic tradition maintained by the pre-canonical Church and applied for the purpose of forming the canon. The Church does not claim the right to alter the canon, or even to revoke definitive formulations of the truths contained in the canon. On the Catholic understanding, the teaching authority of the
post-canonical Church is thus, from Dei Verbum §10:

Sacred tradition and Sacred Scripture form one sacred deposit of the word of God, committed to the Church. Holding fast to this deposit the entire holy people united with their shepherds remain always steadfast in the teaching of the Apostles, in the common life, in the breaking of the bread and in prayers (see Acts 2, 42, Greek text), so that holding to, practicing and professing the heritage of the faith, it becomes on the part of the bishops and faithful a single common effort. (7)

But the task of authentically interpreting the word of God, whether written or handed on, (8) has been entrusted exclusively to the living teaching office of the Church, (9) whose authority is exercised in the name of Jesus Christ. This teaching office is not above the word of God, but serves it, teaching only what has been handed on, listening to it devoutly, guarding it scrupulously and explaining it faithfully in accord with a divine commission; and with the help of the Holy Spirit, it draws from this one deposit of faith everything which it presents for belief as divinely revealed.

Accordingly, the teaching authority of the post-canonical Church, through the apostolic succession of the bishops, is not “above” Scripture and Tradition, which by means of that succession hand on to us what comes from the Apostles. Rather, said authority “serves” the word of God as conveyed through those sources. The teaching authority of the post-canonical Church is only over the interpretation of what is already established as apostolic and as binding precisely in virtue of being apostolic. Hence the sort of sola scriptura claim WW offers as a conclusion from Cullmann—i.e. that “[The] apostolic norm [is] only what is written in these books"—simply does not follow from the premises offered.

WW also writes:

(2) The fundamental issue of certainty of divine revelation is whether God is in himself who he is in his revelation. If we cannot be certain that the canonical Scriptures communicate to us who God truly is in himself then we can have no certainty that they can speak to us at all. If the apostles were faithful witnesses of that which they have received, then the church needs no infallibility to hear them faithfully. The question of application is not one of epistemology or ecclesial authority, but of obedience.

I’m afraid that argument is ambiguous in itself and, on one construal, irrelevant for the purpose at hand. It is ambiguous inasmuch as, on one ready construal, it puts WW in just as precarious a position as the liberal Protestants he dismisses. Here’s why.

Eastern and Western Christianity have long differed about the extent to which God is revealed to us in the deposit of faith. In the East, the tendency is to claim that God only reveals himself to us in his “energies” (energeiae), not as he is in his essence (ousia), or “in himself”; whereas in the West, the claim has generally been that God reveals himself to us in his very essence and thus in himself. In Karl Rahner’s formulation: “The economic Trinity is the immanent Trinity.” I for one find that assertion too extreme, but that is beside the point. The issue itself is very interesting and profound; but the differing answers to it generally arise from philosophical differences: metaphysical ones about being, essence, and so forth; and epistemological ones about how to interpret religious, especially mystical, experience. The matter is essentially one of theological opinion arising from such differences, such that both “Eastern” and “Western” views fall within the ambit of orthodoxy. If WW is claiming that the very possibility of being certain that there is such a thing as divine revelation depends on resolving the East-West difference in favor of the West, then he is presenting the entire faith of the Church as dependent on adopting one particular opinion over the other. Since that cannot be right, even on his own showing, I’m inclined to doubt that’s what he’s doing.

All WW seems likely to mean is that certainty about the content and truth of divine revelation requires that what is handed down to us through Scripture and Tradition tells us about God, not merely about what some people thought and said about God. If that’s all he means, I agree. But if that is the case, nothing pertinent to the debate between us follows. So construed, WW’s point is irrelevant.

His real punch line is this:

If the apostles were faithful witnesses of that which they have received, then the church needs no infallibility to hear them faithfully.The question of application is not one of epistemology or ecclesial authority, but of obedience.

I quite agree that the fundamental desideratum here is “obedience” to the apostolic witness. But I don’t at all see how that is supposed to be an argument for the claim that “the church needs no infallibility to hear them faithfully.” If the church is fallible through-and-through, then no claim about what being faithful to the apostolic witness consists in can be accounted binding on all believers, for any such claim would have to be accounted revisable in principle. For reasons I’ve given many times above, appealing to “Scripture alone” or “the plain meaning of Scripture” just won’t do.

It may well be that “canonical theists” do not adopt any particular “epistemology,” claiming instead that “the church in its canonical commitments eschewed this kind of luxury.” But the Catholic counter-claim is that what “canonical theists” such as WW dismiss as a luxury is actually a necessity. WW would do well to characterize the arguments for that more accurately than he has.

Friday, October 26, 2007

The right kind of problemologist

In his soon-to-be-published memoirs as presented in this article, Cardinal Giacomo Biffi, one of my favorite members of the College, recalls a comic strip in which a little girl says: "I've got it. The world is full of problemologists, but short on solutionologists." How true. And judging from the excerpts, Biffi's book would indicate that he knows what sort of solutionologists we need. For good solutionologists come only with good problemologists, of whom he is one.

Consider the following, from the address Biffi gave in secret to the conclave that elected Benedict XVI in 2005. (Note that he did not yet know who would be elected.)

I would like to tell the future pope to pay attention to all problems. But first and most of all, he should take into account the state of confusion, disorientation, and aimlessness that afflicts the people of God in these years, and above all the 'little ones'. "

A few days ago, I saw on television an elderly, devout religious sister who responded to the interviewer this way: 'This pope, who has died, was great above all because he taught us that all religions are equal'. I don't know whether John Paul II would have been very pleased by this sort of elegy. "

Finally, I would like to point out to the new pope the incredible phenomenon of Dominus Iesus: a document explicitly endorsed and publicly approved by John Paul II; a document for which I am pleased to express my vibrant gratitude to Cardinal Ratzinger. That Jesus is the only necessary Savior of all is a truth that for over twenty centuries - beginning with Peter's discourse after Pentecost - it was never felt necessity to restate. This truth is, so to speak, the minimum threshold of the faith; it is the primordial certitude, it is among believers the simple and most essential fact. In two thousand years this has never been brought into doubt, not even during the crisis of Arianism, and not even during the upheaval of the Protestant Reformation. The fact of needing to issue a reminder of this in our time tells us the extent of the gravity of the current situation. And yet this document, which recalls the most basic, most simple, most essential certitude, has been called into question. It has been contested at all levels: at all levels of pastoral action, of theological instruction, of the hierarchy.

A good Catholic told me about asking his pastor to let him make a presentation of Dominus Iesus to the parish community. The pastor (an otherwise excellent and well-intentioned priest) replied to him: "Let it go. That's a document that divides." What a discovery! Jesus himself said: 'I have come to bring division' (Luke 12:51). But too many of Jesus' words are today censured among Christians; or at least among the most vocal of them.

The experience Biffi recounts in the last paragraph is one that I too have had, as an educated layman always ready, able, and willing to help teach the Faith. It's nice to know I'm not alone.

Biffi's diagnosis is correct. It also appears that he has very high regard for the present pope. Let us pray that our Holy Father be the kind of "solutionologist" that only the right kind of problemologist can recognize the need for. Dominus Iesus, and other documents issued by or under Joseph Ratzinger, have been a good start. But we need so much more than that. The Pope's personal holiness suggests that he's got it.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Too close to the truth

Professor Tony Esolen at Mere Comments posts the following satire from a reader:

SCHOOL - 1957 vs. 2007

Scenario: Jack goes quail hunting before school, pulls into school parking lot with shotgun in gun rack.
1957 - Vice Principal comes over, looks at Jack's shotgun, goes to his car and gets his shotgun to show Jack.
2007 - School goes into lock down, FBI called, Jack hauled off to jail and never sees his truck or gun again. Counselors called in for traumatized students and teachers.

Scenario: Johnny and Mark get into a fistfight after school.
1957 - Crowd gathers. Mark wins. Johnny and Mark shake hands and end up buddies.
2007 - Police called, SWAT team arrives, arrests Johnny and Mark. Charge them with assault, both expelled even though Johnny started it.

Scenario: Jeffrey won't be still in class, disrupts other students.
1957 - Jeffrey sent to office and given a good paddling by the Principal. Returns to class, sits still and does not disrupt class again.
2007 - Jeffrey given huge doses of Ritalin. Becomes a zombie. Tested for ADD. School gets extra money from state because Jeffrey has a disability.

Scenario: Billy breaks a window in his neighbor's car and his Dad gives him a whipping with his belt.
1957 - Billy is more careful next time, grows up normal, goes to college, and becomes a successful businessman.
2007 - Billy's dad is arrested for child abuse. Billy removed to foster care and joins a gang. State psychologist tells Billy's sister that she remembers being abused herself and their dad goes to prison. Billy's mom has affair with psychologist.

Scenario: Mark gets a headache and takes some aspirin to school .
1957 - Mark shares aspirin with Principal out on the smoking dock.
2007 - Police called, Mark expelled from school for drug violations. Car searched for drugs and weapons.

Scenario: Pedro fails high school English.
1957 - Pedro goes to summer school, passes English, goes to college.
2007 - Pedro's cause is taken up by state. Newspaper articles appear nationally explaining that teaching English as a requirement for graduation is racist. ACLU files class action lawsuit against state school system and Pedro's English teacher. English banned from core curriculum. Pedro given diploma anyway but ends up mowing lawns for a living because he cannot speak English.

Scenario: Johnny takes apart leftover firecrackers from 4th of July, puts them in a model airplane paint bottle, blows up a red ant bed.
1957 - Ants die.
2007 - BATF, Homeland Security, FBI called. Johnny charged with domestic terrorism, FBI investigates parents, siblings removed from home, computers confiscated, Johnny's Dad goes on a terror watch list and is never allowed to fly again.

Scenario: Johnny falls while running during recess and scrapes his knee. He is found crying by his teacher, Mary. Mary hugs him to comfort him.
1957 - In a short time, Johnny feels better and goes on playing.
2007 - Mary is accused of being a sexual predator and loses her job. She faces 3 years in State Prison. Johnny undergoes 5 years of therapy.

As Tony says, "It's a witty exaggeration of our current madness, but not much of an exaggeration, either." Indeed, what's common to all those scenarios is "the loss of trust." See Matthew 24: 12.

Mary and EENS

As some of my regular readers know, I use the acronym 'EENS' for the Catholic Church's dogma Extra ecclesiam nulla salus, which is usually translated "Outside the Church there is no salvation." As all Catholics ought to know, one of the titles that the Catholic Church has bestowed on Mary, the Mother of God, is "Mother of the Church" (see Lumen Gentium, Chapter VIII). Now in my experience, it is the ecclesiological and Mariological doctrines of the Church that cause the most protest among Protestants. After decades of meditation and debate, I have concluded that the two areas of doctrine are even more closely connected to each other than most Catholics realize, centering on the two particular points I've just described. Here I propose to sketch what I believe the connection to be. The matter would be of interest not only to some Catholics but also to some earnest, prospective would-be Catholics.

At Lumen Gentium §14, the Fathers of Vatican II restated EENS thus (the emphasis is mine):

Basing itself upon Sacred Scripture and Tradition, [this council] teaches that the Church, now sojourning on earth as an exile, is necessary for salvation. Christ, present to us in His Body, which is the Church, is the one Mediator and the unique way of salvation. In explicit terms He Himself affirmed the necessity of faith and baptism and thereby affirmed also the necessity of the Church, for through baptism as through a door men enter the Church. Whosoever, therefore, knowing that the Catholic Church was made necessary by Christ, would refuse to enter or to remain in it, could not be saved.

Now I do not propose here to re-open the decades-old debate about whether the restatement of EENS in that last sentence actually, if only implicitly, negates what the Church had taught before with her full authority. Obviously the Magisterium does not think so, and that would be good enough for me even if I hadn't studied the topic closely for myself under challenge from Catholic "progressives." But several years ago I was shocked to learn that some people believe that EENS means, objectively speaking, that only those who become, before death, explicitly and formally members of the Catholic Church can avoid hell—even if they have never had the opportunity to give informed assent to Catholicism. Nowadays, Catholics who believe that are called "Feeneyites" after Fr. Leonard Feeney, whose controversy with the Vatican over this issue in the late 1940s continues to have repercussions to this day. (Last month at Charlotte's diocesan Eucharistic Congress, I even met some habited female members of the religious confraternity he founded, the "Slaves of the Immaculata." I hadn't realized they were still in business. One of them was darn good-looking too.) A lot of Western-European Catholics between the time of Constantine and the discovery of the New World seemed to believe EENS in Feeney's sense, including churchmen—just as lot of Western-European Catholics between the time of Augustine and Vatican II seemed to believe the related, Augustinian notion that original sin involves inheriting a personal fault, not just a damaged human nature
. But as I strove to show in my essay "Development and Negation," neither belief is openly stated or even logically entailed by the actual dogmatic definitions that have come down to us. They are only theological interpretations that many favored in the past and a few still favor in the present. I do not share them; neither does the Pope and most of the rest of the hierarchy, who evidently believe that their predecessors had never formally committed the Church to them. And so the construal of EENS that I shall take as my point of departure is that set forth in Lumen Gentium.

Given as much, there remains a problem. In my encounters with non-Catholic Christians over the years, both Protestant and Orthodox, I have learned that there is a widespread impression that the Catholic Church considers assent to her Marian dogmas "necessary for salvation," which is taken to mean that nobody who fails to assent to them can avoid hell. I've never shared that impression, of course, and so never taught it when I was allowed a formal teaching role in the Church. But if the older, stricter interpretation of EENS were correct, then it would follow naturally. I want to discuss the matter so as to start bringing out what I take to be the real spiritual significance of the Marian doctrines in relation to that of the Church.

In order to give explicit assent to Catholicism and thus become formally a member of the Church, it is necessary to embrace what Scripture and Tradition hand down to us from Christ via the Apostles, i.e. the deposit of faith. Adult converts do that by affirming the Apostles' Creed in particular, and in general affirming "all that the Catholic Church believes and teaches." For that assent to be reliable, one must understand reasonably accurately what "the Catholic Church believes and teaches." But nobody's understanding is perfect, nor could it be given the staggering richness and scope of Catholic teaching. Hence not every sincere act of assent, at baptism and/or confirmation, to "all that the Catholic Church believes and teaches" is perfect in the sense that everybody knows all and exactly what they're assenting to. As a way of filling in that gap, it normally suffices to make an act of trust in the Magisterium of the Church, which is already done implicitly with the affirmation of "all that the Catholic Church...etc." And so converts commit themselves, among other things, to accepting all that the Church has taught with her full authority. The defined Marian dogmas of the Immacualte Conception and the Assumption are among those teachings. Hence, to be formally and explicitly Catholic entails accepting those dogmas—if not necessarily for their inherent persuasiveness, then at least on the teaching authority of the Church. So if formal and explicit membership in the Catholic Church were always and everywhere necessary for salvation, then assenting to those dogmas would, just as a matter of logic, be always and everywhere necessary for salvation too. The matter is one of authority.

There is a degree of truth in that, but only a degree. If, as Vatican II teaches in LG, the Church was made "necessary for salvation" by Christ, then so has the teaching authority or Magisterium of the Church, and therefore everything taught with its full authority; for one cannot consistently accept the Magisterium without accepting everything taught with its full authority. But given the Magisterium's official construal of EENS, which is a development of doctrine, it does not follow that everybody who fails to accept its authority is headed for damnation. As Vatican II construed it and the popes since have construed it, EENS need not and should not be taken to mean that formal and explicit membership in the Catholic Church, in this life, is always and everywhere necessary for salvation. Anybody who is validly baptized is, merely as such, in some-or-other degree of communion with the Church, so that they are still somehow "in" the Church and can still be saved even if, through no fault of their own, they fail to come to "know" that the Catholic Church in particular was "made necessary by Christ." In my opinion, therefore—which, along with two bucks and tax, will get you a mediocre cup of coffee at the new Starbucks in the town where I'm living—the Marian dogmas are "necessary for salvation" only in the sense in which the Church in general is "necessary for salvation." They are necessary in that they signify key aspects of how God wills that the redemption wrought by Christ once-for-all on the Cross be spread through the world. Accordingly, if one comes to accept them as a matter of faith, one cannot be saved if one goes on to reject them.

But this is not just a matter of authority. I believe that there's something about the actual content of the Marian dogmas that is important for salvation. They signify something about the nature of the Church which, from an eschatological viewpoint, is becoming more and more important. What is that?

Let's start with the general significance of Mary. As I've said before, it is by divine fiat that Mary helps, more than any other member of that Mystical Body of Christ which is the Church, to incorporate us into that Body, which began in her womb. Her "immaculate conception" in the womb of her own mother—i.e. her miraculous preservation from original sin—made her, in a unique way, what we all become at the moment of our baptism: a vessel filled with God's unmerited grace, which in the primary sense is nothing other than his divinizing love. The virginal conception of Jesus in her womb by the power of the Holy Spirit made her, in a unique way, what we are all called to be in virtue of our baptism: bearers of God in the flesh into the world. Her "assumption" into heaven at the end of her earthly life made her, in a unique way, what all the blessed will be on the Last Day. In every way her life anticipates what we are to be, and helps us get there by the very forms of the anticipation. Mary is thus sacramental a way closely related to how "the sacraments" are sacramental: she helps to bring about for the Church as a whole what she signifies to and about the Church as a whole.

Given as much, the Mariological doctrines of the Church expose for us one pole of the central dipolarity in the Church expressing what it means for the Church to be the "Mystical Body of Christ," and as such, the "sacrament of salvation" for the world (to use another expression from LG). Hans urs von Balthasar explained all this well in his The Office of Peter and the Structure of the Church, and I summarized it in my post of last year The Ecclesiology of the Body. The upshot is this: just as the clerical hierarchy, with its authority to teach and govern the Church, signifies and helps to make effective the headship of Christ in the Body, so does Mary signify and help make effective what it means to be a member of that Body. That is the most important sense, beyond anything she did while still living on Earth, in which she remains Mother of the Church. (Sacramental marriage between ordinary men and women is another standard way of signifying as much, but that is a topic more for the "theology of the body.")

Now as history unfolds, awareness of and appreciation for that polarity of mutually complementary "sacramental" signs is becoming ever more important for salvation. Just as the great Christological controversies of the first millennium were about the individual person of Christ, so the central theological issue of our time is about the nature and significance of the Mystical Body of Christ, namely his Church—which, as St. Augustine said, makes up "the whole Christ" together with the risen, individual Christ. It should therefore come as no surprise to Catholics that the pace and scope of Marian piety has been increasing in the Church during the same era in which the role of the pope as teacher and example has also been assuming ever-greater prominence for both Christians and the world in general. How so? Although I have no time here to review the history of Marian piety and the papacy over the last several centuries, never mind exhaust their significance, something important can and ought to be said.

Among Catholics, and to a lesser extent among the Orthodox and even Muslims, reports of Marian apparitions over the past few centuries have become both more frequent and more detailed than in the past. The pace of such "private revelations"—which are called "private" because they add no truth of doctrine to the public revelation given once-for-all to and through the Apostles—seems to be accelerating even in our lifetime. Now obviously, not all such reports are to be believed, and in fact the Church has not certified most as "worthy of belief." But to my Catholic mind, the Church has certified enough of them to warrant concluding that, more than in the past, Mary is finding it necessary to communicate directly with us. To synthesize the messages, what's she's been telling us is: "Get ready for something really, really big," and to do so by faithfully adopting the ordinary means available to Christians: prayer, penance, the sacraments, and love, especially love. I'm not at all sure that the Really Big Thing she means is the actual Second Coming, but neither am I sure that that matters. What matters is that things are coming to some sort of head—even more so than was manifest in the 20th century's two world wars, which were signs of what's been developing. And I think that is confirmed, at the other end of the mystical dipolarity, by how the issue of papal authority has become even more important in Christendom than in the past.

I do not mean merely that the issue of papal authority is the chief issue that continues to divide Christians. The issue has been key for centuries, but for many Christians it is only one among others. What I mean is that even in the Catholic Church herself, at least since Vatican II, the most vexed theological issue has become the relative authority of various Church teachings. Again, I do not mean primarily those Catholics who, citing "the primacy of conscience" as a Catholic teaching, reserve to themselves the right to decide what they may believe or disbelieve as Catholics. As I've explained before, that attitude is objectively incompatible with being Catholic: it is the very principle of heresy, as distinct from any particular heresy. Such people face the very simple choice whether, in all intellectual honesty, to be Catholic or not. The Catholics I'm more concerned about are those who, while accepting the authority of the Magisterium sincerely and in principle, are deeply confused about which doctrines taught by the ordinary magisterium are binding on them precisely as Catholics. It seems not only to me, but to many faithful Catholics who have been involved in catechesis, that this has been a horribly grave problem ever since Pope Paul VI decided, in the aftermath of Vatican II, to permit dissent from his prophetic encyclical on birth control, Humanae Vitae. With his formal magisterial rulings in Ordinatio Sacerdotalis and Evangelium Vitae, Pope John Paul the Great began to address the fundamental problem. And since the aide of his who is now pope had a lot to do with all that, I maintain hope that the project will continue in this pontificate, culminating in doing for the birth-control issue what has already been done for the women's-ordination issue and those of abortion, euthanasia, and capital punishment. But I don't know whether that in particular is about to happen. What I do know is that, as a purely practical matter, only the strong exercise of papal authority is likely to be able to resolve the main question that confuses many ordinary Catholics. Anything less would be dismissed as the propagation of one mere opinion among others even when, objectively speaking, the teachings to be reaffirmed have been irreformable all along.

Such a necessity is only to be expected in an era in which ecclesiology has become the main theological salient and in which Mary has become ever more palpably active in her role as Mother of the Church. Something big, bigger than anything that's happened since the first coming of Christ, is developing rapidly. And it is the Church, as Mystical Body of Christ, who will both feel and manifest it in herself. Indeed, she is doing so even now. It has become ever more necessary for Mary and the papacy, the two sharp poles of the Body, to strengthen and heal her. Then it will be ever so clearer why "outside the Church there is no salvation."

Wednesday, October 24, 2007


The California wildfires have made thousands homeless and many more refugees. I know what it is like to be either, even both at the same time. There is of course a purely natural explanation for what's going on; but as I pray about it, I get the sense that there is a spiritual message in it.

The message is that we humans, like forests and brushlands, need periodic purging. That is cold comfort for the victims who don't happen to need it, such as infants, the mentally retarded, or the chronically ill. But such is the effect of original sin that suffering rarely matches deserts. Neither our natural lives in this vale of tears, nor the divinizing action of the Holy Spirit that ought to suffuse those lives, are ultimately about justice. All people have inherited corruption from our first parents without deserving it; through his Son, God extends to all people an offer of eternal life which they can do nothing to merit. Through the wildfire that is the Spirit, God can clear away whatever in our lives is not life-giving, so that he can manifest and communicate his gratuitous goodness, thereby giving us the only sort of happiness that lasts.

If there is justice, it will be in what each person capable of choice turns out to be on the Last Day. That will be up to each of us. If we appear before the Lord Jesus on that day having offered our suffering, undeserved as well as deserved, in union with his perfect self-sacrifice, then it is most likely that justice for us will consist in our being happy with him forever. If we appear before him complaining that the whole cosmic setup is unfair, especially to us, then justice will consist in being miserable forever with the first creature to take that attitude.

From the res ipsa loquitur department

I can think of no better way to sum up what's wrong with this country than this.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Infallibility: an infinite regress?

Somewhere—I can't offhand remember where—C.S. Lewis made a witty observation about the virtue of humility. If, on reflection, I conclude that I'm humble, then I can hardly help becoming proud of the fact, in which case I vitiate whatever measure of humility I might have had. Realizing this, I acknowledge that I'm proud after all; but if I continue reflecting, I realize in turn that such an acknowledgment is humble, and then I find myself becoming proud again. And so on, to an absurd infinite regress. An introspective process like that is silly, of course; one ends up tied in a sort of knot that Satan loves to bind us with. The only way to progress in humility is to stop bothering about the question how humble one is. Just acknowledge that one is a wretched sinner who does not deserve the gift of eternal life, beg for the grace to live as Jesus wills, and strive to actually do so. In the end, God will determine whether you're humble enough to be sincere about that. The same goes, mutatis mutandis, for the virtue of faith.

Jesus promises that the gates of hell would not prevail against his Church, and that the Holy Spirit would lead her into all truth. Traditionally, the Catholic and Orthodox churches have taken that to entail that the Church as a whole is indefectible. Not only will one, catholic, and apostolic Church perdure to the end of history; that Church is and always will be holy, as the Bride of Christ whom he has made holy. One consequence of that in turn is the infallibility of the Church's teaching office, what the Catholic Church calls "the Magisterium." Whatever local or peripheral errors may and do arise, God will never permit the Church to teach with her full authority something that is incompatible with the faith "once delivered to the saints" (Jude 3). Teachings propounded with her full authority are identified in certain ways. The standard way is by dogmatic definition, either by councils ratified by the pope as binding on the whole Church, or by popes unilaterally. Thus for any doctrine P, if a council and/or pope says that "If anyone denies that P, let him be anathema," then P is a dogma taught with the full authority of the Church, and as such is set forth infallibly. That is the exercise of the "extraordinary magisterium," which affords Catholics a proximate object for the assent of faith, and thus for the virtue of faith; that entails a kind of certainty as great as, albeit of a different kind from, the sort of certainty we can have about, say, truths of arithmetic. Indeed, a formal list of doctrines so propounded could be produced, and for all I know has been produced. But there has never been much interest in such a thing, for the simple reason that it wouldn't address any particular question that remains controversial in the Church. The real controversy is about whether certain doctrines not so defined have nonetheless been set forth infallibly. In other words, the vexed question among Catholic theologians is about the extent of the ordinary and universal magisterium's infallibility ('IOUM' for short).

For reasons I've explained before, (see the sidebar, "Articles of Mine"), there clearly is such a thing as IOUM. The issue is an interesting study in the development of doctrine, for those who are interested in that sort of thing. But the objection is sometimes raised in certain quarters that assent to teachings set forth infallibly by the OUM cannot be certain, because one cannot identify with certainty just which teachings have been thus set forth. Although a few such teachings have been so identified, there neither is nor could be a list of such teachings that is both exhaustive and authoritative. There are a number of reasons for that, one of which is that such a list would function de facto as an exercise of the extraordinary magisterium, which would effectively render the OUM nugatory, which neither is nor could ever practically be the case. And that raises what some claim is a problem for the Catholic. Thus:

First, one must determine what documents and decrees could be considered infallible. Second, one must determine exactly what is or is not infallible within those documents/decrees. Is the determination of the above made fallibly or infallibly? And by whom is such a determination made?

Now as I've implied before, there can be no question for the faithful Catholic that whatever is defined as dogma by the extraordinary magisterium is to be "considered infallible" (assuming we allow the word 'infallible' to apply to statements, not just persons or collections thereof, by analogy of attribution). For that class of cases, there are clear answers in principle to above-quoted questions, and that is enough for faithful Catholics, most of whom possess no list of such teachings and feel no need to. Of course that won't be enough for somebody who is not a faithful Catholic; but the Church does not teach that whatever is said to be infallibly defined is going to be persuasive on that account to people who aren't faithful Catholics, nor should we expect it to be.

Yet even aside from the question of IOUM in particular, there is an objection to the very idea of infallibility itself. In the combox to the post I've quoted above, a reader writes:


1) I'd like to know how, since you are a fallible individual, you know infallibly that... all the decrees and definitions contained in the Ecumenical Councils concerning faith and morals...are infallible.

2) because Vatican I states that they are.

We both agree, however, that Scr[ipture] is infallible. We don't agree that RCC dogma is infallible, so your objection doesn't work.

Maybe this would be a better example of what I mean: Vatican I depends on a previous statement of the Church that it can produce infallible proclamations. 2 questions:

1) what is that proclamation?
2) How do you know the proclamation that the RCC can make infallible statements is itself an infallible statement?

It should, but apparently does not, go without saying that some of the same questions can be raised, and answered, about that infallibility of Scripture itself which is affirmed by the author. But the very first question raised by that person is silly in the sort of way that the paradox of humility is silly. Leave aside the fact that no human person, not even the pope, is infallible as a matter of personal virtue; one can never establish the infallibility of one's assent to anything, because one can always raised the question about the infallibility of the establishment, and so on ad infinitum. Moreover, such a pseudo-question has nothing to do with the infallibility with which such truths are proposed by the Church. And even the infallibility of the Church is no evidence whatever, to somebody who does not antecedently accept the authority of the Church, of the truth of what's thereby proposed. So the very last question, which invites another silly infinite regress, is not worth getting tied up in knots over either. Just as one cannot be maintain the virtue of humility by reflecting on one's humility, so one cannot maintain the virtue of faith by reflecting on the degree of certainty one's faith enjoys. For the Catholic it suffices, and ought to suffice, simply to trust that the Church is preserved by God from error about the deposit of faith when she teaches thereon with her full authority. One doesn't have to know, in each and every instance, when the Church has done that; all that's needed is to know that there have been clear instances when, according to universally acknowledged criteria, she has done so.

The problem here is one that I can't think of a better way to describe than as a kind of obsessiveness. There are some people who fear that the only alternative to having every single "i" dotted and "t" crossed is every man for himself, at least in matters of faith. This is not the way to come at the problem of authority in forming the virtue of faith. The way to come at it is not to fret about what is sufficient for dispelling every difficulty and doubt, but to ask what is necessary for the transmission of the deposit of faith as an object of faith, as distinct from human opinion.

Monday, October 22, 2007

PMS II: Siris on Carson-and-me-vs-Witt

Prof. Brandon Watson of Siris has now weighed in on the debate, such as it is, between Prof. Scott Carson and Dr. William Witt on the so-called "plain meaning of Scripture." I have already defended Scott's side in yesterday's post, and Fr. Al Kimel, whose Internet moniker remains "Pontificator," also briefly defended it as a commenter over at TitusOneNine. That position is well explained in a months-old essay written by one of the other commenters there, and it seems Brandon doesn't have much of a problem with it, at least not in principle. But he also argues that Scott and I have largely missed WW's point, so that the view we criticize is not really the view WW takes. Since Brandon knows WW personally and has discussed this range of issues with him more than once before, I take Brandon's critique very seriously. Since Scott is perfectly capable of replying to criticism on his own account, I thought I'd use this post to respond to that aspect of Brandon's critique which applies to me in particular.

Brandon writes (emphasis added):

I think Mike is on the right track, though, in recognizing that the real difference between Catholics like Mike and Scott on the one hand, and what we might (rather loosely and perhaps figuratively) call High Church Protestants like Bill (who place great weight on consensus fidelium, the Church Fathers, and the Rule of Faith), has to do with their views of the Scripture as canon in the Church, and what it means for the Church to take a text as canonical. I know that Bill, for instance, tends to think, or, at least, has indicated something like this in various contexts, that the sort of account that Mike offers involves an equivocation on the term 'Church', a failure to distinguish between the Church insofar as it wrote the Scripture (and thus insofar as it was apostolic) and the Church insofar as it accepts them submissively as canon (and thus insofar as it is post-apostolic). This certainly does suggest a different view of canon.

So that, I would suggest, is where the real disagreement lies.

Rather than quibble about whether I've understood WW correctly, I shall accept arguendo that Brandon's account of the matter is correct. So the question becomes: how would I reply to the criticism that Brandon offers on WW's behalf?

I'm willing to concede that, in the way I stated the matter in my previous post, there is at best an inferential leap and at worst an ambiguity. From what I said about "the Church" as author of Scripture-as-canon being the primary and authentic interpreter of Scripture, it does not follow that the Church as receiver of Scripture-as-canon, who as such submits to what God tells us therein, is the primary and authentic interpreter of Scripture. Such a distinction between the "apostolic" and the "post-apostolic" Church does indeed obtain, if only as a matter of chronology. And so, to reach the conclusion I profess, one must rely on the premise that the post-apostolic Church-as-receiver of the canon has the same degree of teaching authority that the apostolic Church-as-author of the canon had and has. Simply to assert such a premise without argument would beg the question.

Now that Brandon has brought up that issue, I recall having had pretty much this same debate with WW last year in a long combox at the old, now-defunct version of Fr. Kimel's blog Pontifications. Like Fr. Al on his own account, I wish there were a way to recover all that, and indeed much else that I wrote at Pontifications; but that is a whole 'nother story, which I won't bore readers by fussing about. Here I shall simply restate what I recall as the gist of what I wrote, which is also implicit in what I posted yesterday.

First, I would point out that the chronological difference between the-Church-as-author-of-the-canon and the Church-as-receiver-of-the-canon tells us absolutely nothing about their respective degrees of teaching authority. From the fact that the canon was formed on the teaching authority of the former, it does not follow that the latter lacks such authority, any more than it follows that the latter has such authority. So the question that needs addressing is this: why should we believe that the post-canonical Church exercises the same degree of authority in interpreting the canon of Scripture that the pre-canonical Church exercised in forming the canon of Scripture?

One might understand almost everything I've written before about Catholic-Protestant issues as a contribution to answering that question. But for now, I shall offer a more focused answer: we should believe that the post-canonical Church has the same degree of teaching authority as the pre-canonical Church because, absent such authority, it is impossible to transmit the deposit of faith as an object of faith, as distinct from human opinion. St. Thomas Aquinas put the same point thus: "he who does not adhere to the teaching of the Church as to an infallible rule, may hold what is of faith, but he does not do so by faith." My reasons for saying that are presented fairly economically in my essay Faith, Private Judgment, Doubt, and Dissent. But that essay is all the same due for revision and expansion in response to a criticism I've encountered fairly often. I don't know whether WW himself would adduce that criticism, but I shall address it briefly here, mainly as an invitation to shift the focus of discussion to what I regard as the most fundamental issue.

The criticism is this: if we hold that the post-canonical Church has as much teaching authority in interpreting Scripture as the pre-canonical Church had in forming it, then we haven't solved the hermeneutical problem that invoking that authority, i.e. the Magisterium, is meant to solve. All we've done is shift the problem of interpretation to the pronouncements of the Magisterium itself, leaving us every bit as much in the throes of "private judgment" as the poor Protestant who professes sola scriptura as a rule of faith. Hence it's better just to leave supreme interpretive authority to Scripture itself as a product of the apostolic Church, and avoid the arrogance involved in attributing that same degree of authority to the Church through the ages.

All I have time to do here is adumbrate an answer for the purpose I've already stated. On the Catholic conception of the post-canonical Church's teaching authority, the Magisterium not only interprets Scripture authoritatively; it authoritatively interprets Tradition and its own pronouncements as well. Unlike the static canon of Scripture, which is the most authoritative written record of Tradition, the Magisterium continuously and dynamically clarifies and refines the expression of what is handed down to us through Scripture, Tradition, and dogma. By means of such development of doctrine, it makes the consensus fidelium ever more explicit, and thus affords an indispensable norm for interpreting not only Scripture and Tradition but itself. That is the hermeneutical advantage of viewing the post-canonical Church as having the same degree of teaching authority as the pre-canonical Church.

Now I know the objections to that picture because I've often dealt with them before. The most common objections center on the idea of development of doctrine. Some object that there's no way in principle to distinguish DD from "addition" to the deposit of faith, which is by all accounts forbidden; others object that the Catholic Church, in developing doctrine, has in fact negated certain doctrines previously propounded by her own teaching authority. I've taken great pains before to answer such objections. But perhaps there are others, especially to my claim that the Magisterium affords a hermeneutical advantage. I'm all ears.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Prof. Carson vs. the Protestants on the "plain meaning of Scripture"

It is with keen interest that I've been following Prof. Scott Carson's series of essays centering on the general question how Scripture is to be interpreted. Those include, in chronological order: Scripture, Meaning, and Interpretation; Theory-Ladenness: A Case Study; and most recently, Authorial Intent. As useful background, I also recommend his earlier post Why Privileging Private Judgment Is A Sin Against Unity. Much of his effort is an extended argument against what he calls "the non-Catholic view" that there is such a thing as "the plain meaning of Scripture" that is "equally available to any well-informed, rationally competent reader." I am happy, if unsurprised, to find myself in agreement with the substance of that argument, one that will stimulate my thinking for a needed expansion and revision of my old, related essay Faith, Private Judgment, Doubt, and Dissent. But in this post I want to jump in on Scott's side by way of responding to two counter-arguments put forth by educated Protestants in their comments.

The first is one that I've encountered before in debate with Protestant theologian Dr. William Witt, who offers it anew, this time against Scott, in the combox of this post at TitusOneNine. Although I think Scott has mounted an effective reply to WW in Authorial Intent, I want to put the matter a bit differently in order to bring out WW's error in a way that frames the fundamental issue more clearly to me, and I hope to other readers.

WW insists, in two different comments actually, that the text of Scripture is "inherently intelligible." None of the disputants, including yours truly, would disagree with that; indeed, Aquinas says that the entire deposit of faith is contained at least "materially" in Scripture, from which it follows that Scripture is intelligible in itself, even though not always "formally" to us without further ado. Both the Catholic and the Orthodox churches have always affirmed that, or what amounts to that; and in that sense, we may agree that Scripture is "inherently" intelligible. Nor would WW deny that "Scripture needs to be read in the Church," as both Catholicism and Orthodoxy insist. Indeed, he says "That’s what it is for." So where's the disagreement?

WW goes on to say: "This does not mean that the Church provides the Scripture with its intelligibility, or that the Church cannot misread the text." Here's where the problem arises. WW's assertion entails in turn that something called "the plain meaning of Scripture" (PMS) is somehow available to readers independently of how the Church interprets Scripture. Scott seems to think that that has the further implication that "PMS is something that is equally available to any well-informed, rationally competent reader." And I agree with Scott that the history of biblical interpretation amply demonstrates the falsity of such a notion. But as I write, I'm not sure that WW would think such a notion worth the effort to defend. He's too smart for that. So I'm more inclined to read his statements as ambiguous, themselves admitting more than one interpretation that must be considered important for the debate.

To deny that "the Church provides the Scripture with its intelligibility" might just be meant as a logical consequence of the belief that nothing other than Scripture makes Scripture intelligible. If that's what's meant, then Scott has shown on strictly philosophical grounds that it's false. But it might instead mean that some agency other than either Scripture or the Church makes Scripture intelligible, with the obvious implication that the Church must conform herself to what that agency makes clear in, or through, Scripture. There are two candidates for such an agency: the human authors and the Holy Spirit, which latter is assumed to be the ultimate inspiration and author of Scripture. Of course WW and most everybody else would want to say that, somehow, both agencies together provide Scripture with its inherent intelligibility. So let's go with that.

If we take the human authors as proximate providers of intelligibility, on the assumption that what they meant is what the Holy Spirit, as ultimate author of Scripture, meant to convey by inspiring them, then the way to understand Scripture is simply to understand what the original human authors in each case intended. But that is, or would be, largely useless as a guide to knowing what it is that God has authoritatively revealed and that is somehow conveyed, in its entirety, through Scripture. Although knowing just what the human authors intended is often useful, even important, for learning what God wants us to learn through Scripture, only experts can have adequately informed opinions about human authorial intent, because much knowledge about historical context, cultural milieu, literary forms, and the like must come into play for the purpose of discerning such intent. One might argue that there is, or at least can be, consensus among experts about such things, and that such would suffice for a kind of epistemic authority assuring the rest of us about what the plain meaning of Scripture is in disputed cases. But that runs up against the notorious disputes among scholars themselves; even when there is agreement, it is provisional and subject to differing theological interpretation. So, to rely on the epistemic authority of biblical scholars for the sake of learning the plain meaning of Scripture provides us only with opinions that most believers aren't even in a position to form for themselves. Some opinions are more, some less defensible; but regardless, none of that suffices to afford us an object of divine faith, unless one wishes to reduce divine revelation to a matter of opinion, which no party to the debate wishes to do.

The fact is, as Scott argues, that there is no way round deferring to the consensus fidelium of, and within, the Church, for determining the most important meaning of Scripture, which is the canonical sense. Scripture is a collection of books written in most cases by people who did not know each other; what each meant severally is not necessarily the same, and in many cases probably is not the same, as what their statements mean when interpreted in light of the rest of the canon, which is in turn a lot closer to what the Holy Spirit intended to convey. The authors of the New Testament, moreover, were conscious of writing only within and as members of the Church, using a tradition they had inherited precisely as such. The formation of the New Testament canon took a long time and used prior, ecclesial criteria of orthodoxy as a norm for deciding which books did, and which did not, belong in the New Testament. Accordingly, the Church had the faith whole and entire before she had those parts of "inspired Scripture" that distinguish her Scripture from Judaism's. She even determined, by her own authority, whether what's now called the Old Testament was to be accounted Scripture in any normative sense; that's what the second-century Marcionite heresy was mainly about. The authority of the Church, in short, is necessary and sufficient for knowing what counts as Scripture. By the same token, the Church is necessary (though not always sufficient) for understanding what the Holy Spirit intended to convey by means of the human authors of Scripture; for it is only in and through the Church that we get a canon which telling us what God proposes for our assent, as distinct from what the human authors of those texts, taken severally, meant or thought.

Now obviously none of this means that every interpretation of Scripture that prevails in the Church at any given time is correct. In that sense, WW is right to imply that the Church "can misread the text." But the only alternative to the difficulties WW runs into is to hold that, when the Church interprets Scripture with her full authority, which is precisely what speaks for the consensus fidelium, she is affording both authentic and true interpretation, preserved from error by the same Holy Spirit who inspired the writing of the texts and the formation of the canon.

What I'm driving at, in the end, is what I often drive at: for knowledge of the content of what God has revealed—as distinct from the gift of actually believing it—there is no alternative to a Church with an unbroken, true Tradition and a Magisterium divinely preserved from error when it interprets Tradition with the Church's full authority. Of course the latter two are not independent of Scripture, which infallibly expresses Tradition and, along with it, norms the Magisterium. And so I close with a statement I often quote:

10. Sacred Tradition and Sacred Scripture form one sacred deposit of the word of God, committed to the Church. Holding fast to this deposit the entire holy people united with their shepherds remain always steadfast in the teaching of the Apostles, in the common life, in the breaking of the bread and in prayers (see Acts 2, 42, Greek text), so that holding to, practicing and professing the heritage of the faith, it becomes on the part of the bishops and faithful a single common effort.

But the task of authentically interpreting the word of God, whether written or handed on, has been entrusted exclusively to the living teaching office of the Church, whose authority is exercised in the name of Jesus Christ. This teaching office is not above the word of God, but serves it, teaching only what has been handed on, listening to it devoutly, guarding it scrupulously and explaining it faithfully in accord with a divine commission; and with the help of the Holy Spirit, it draws from this one deposit of faith everything which it presents for belief as divinely revealed.

It is clear, therefore, that sacred Tradition, Sacred Scripture and the teaching authority of the Church, in accord with God's most wise design, are so linked and joined together that one cannot stand without the others, and that all together and each in its own way under the action of the one Holy Spirit contribute effectively to the salvation of souls.

Only Nixon...

If you're old enough, you know how to complete that phrase to make a sentence: "...could go to China." Back in the early 70s, any liberal or Democrat who suggested normalizing relations with mainland China (or "Red China," as it was called back then), inevitably at Taiwan's expense, was dismissed as a lily-livered sellout by conservatives and Republicans. When President Nixon, not yet crippled by Watergate, went ahead and actually did it, his party took it like men, retroactively deeming it a needed, Realpolitik counterweight to the badder-still Soviets. It usually takes one of your own, not one of "the others," to change your own's mind. Three news items this week remind us how true, and important, that is.
  • J.K. Rowling, author of the hugely successful Harry Potter series, recently announced that "Dumbledore is gay." What does that matter? Here goes:
Rowling, finishing a brief "Open Book Tour" of the United States, her first tour here since 2000, also said that she regarded her Potter books as a "prolonged argument for tolerance" and urged her fans to "question authority." Not everyone likes her work, Rowling said, likely referring to Christian groups that have alleged the books promote witchcraft. Her news about Dumbledore, she said, will give them one more reason.
  • It appears that the sexual abuse of minors is a problem even more pervasive in the nation's public schools than in the Catholic Church. The news licensing that inference comes from The Associated Press, a redoubt of the secular liberal media. Of course, when defenders of the Church said as much, they were dismissed as special pleaders lacking evidence. Well, now a truly disinterested party has said it. I wonder how much of a stink will be made about the ugly reality. I'm not holding my breath, or my nose.
  • In his hard-hitting book Education’s End: Why Our Colleges and Universities Have Given Up on the Meaning of Life, a liberal humanities professor at Yale has blamed the parlous state of the humanities in our universities on three factors: "the research ideal," "political correctness," and "constructivism" (that third one is otherwise known as "post-modernism"). Conservatives have been complaining about PC and pomo for years, earning mostly ridicule in secular academia. Now that a liberal on the PC/pomo payroll has registered much the same complaint, perhaps the ridicule will let up. Well, maybe tone down a bit.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

The New Girl Order

Reminded anew that people I admire post comments there, I was perusing Touchstone Magazine's blog the other day and came across a reference to an article by Kay S. Hymowitz at FrontpageMag.com entitled "The New Girl Order." As a man whose personal life has been deeply affected by contemporary ideological feminism, I read the article out of curiosity, knowing Hymowitz by reputation as a staffer at the respected, conservative Manhattan Institute for Policy Research. What I read confirmed something I have observed on a small scale and only sensed as a global trend. Read it for yourself. If it is even close to being accurate, the trend it describes is an ominous one for the future of the human race.

Taking an airport anecdote as a point of departure, the article summarizes what has become a mountain of data. They show that, as young women around the world become better-educated, more ambitious, and better paid, on average, than their male counterparts, they are enjoying the single life more and longer than their mothers did or could, marrying ever later if at all and producing ever-fewer children. Although most young women will never quite attain the level of consumption and promiscuity celebrated in Sex and the City, it apparently won't be for want of trying. Such is the New Girl Order, and it is totally international. The culture of the NGO (pun intended) is recognizable, and fairly homogeneous, wherever you go.

Concomitantly, the birth rate in most developed countries, and even in the major cities of India, is now below replacement level. Within a generation, fewer workers will have to support more retirees than ever before; in Spain by 2030, no less, the ratio will be one-to-one! That alone should tell us that the NGO is unsustainable: the longer it continues, the fewer people there will be to sustain it, so that there will come a point not merely of diminishing returns but of no return. Even in the short and medium term, the damage to relations between the sexes will be incalculable, further compromising the human race's ability to reproduce itself.

The damage will be caused, is indeed already being caused, by the fact that most women are not keen on the idea of being married to men of lesser status and wealth than themselves. To be sure, some women don't at all mind being married to men of lesser status and wealth than themselves. And that is not at all a bad thing. I was once married to a woman of greater status and wealth than myself, and it was her love and support that made my own best accomplishments possible. She didn't mind that any more than I did. But there is no evidence that, in the aggregate, most women want such an arrangement any more than most men do.

One of the most successful bloggers around, Arianna Huffington, once propounded the following "anti-syllogism": Men love women. Men love money. But men don't love women with money. She was unable to explain why, on the whole and with exceptions, all three statements are true. But the explanation is ready to hand, and it also serves to explain why, on the whole and with exceptions, women don't love men without money. The explanation is partly biological and partly spiritual.

In evolutionary terms, women are hard-wired to prefer men who are likely to be good providers of resources, and men are hard-wired to prefer women who are likely to bear and nurture a healthy brood. Given that our choices are not rigorously predetermined by biology, there are of course exceptions to that. But on the whole, the evolutionary wiring works as it always has. As a result, women are drawn to men who communicate strength: those whose appearance, carriage, or other personal qualities send the signal that they can successfully bring home the bacon and protect their families. That is why many women are so drawn to the "bad-boy" type despite their better judgment, and why many women totally lose respect for husbands who can't cut it in the workplace. Conversely, men seek mates who are either physically attractive or warm, genuine, and nurturing—ideally, both. A lot of men don't mind being with a woman of greater wealth and status so long as she is warm, genuine, and nurturing; if the latter is there, the former is gravy—and pretty good gravy. But a few golddiggers aside, what draws us is not the money and the power, but the heart: it's not that men don't love women with money, it's that men don't love women for the money. Similarly, a lot of women don't mind being with a guy who isn't particularly attractive or sensitive, so long as he's of a higher level of wealth and status than she. If he's gorgeous and/or sensitive, that's gravy—and pretty good gravy. But it's not the main thing for most women.

I know it is most un-PC to say such things, but observation only confirms it. Whatever they may say for fashion's sake, most people don't for a moment believe in the equality of the sexes, understood as exactly equal rights and privileges for men and women, with little or no social presumption about fixed gender roles. In the West and increasingly elsewhere, most people of both sexes actually believe that women should have more rights and privileges than men as a way of compensating for their relative vulnerability, especially as (actual or potential) bearers and nurturers of children. The way the family courts operate is ample evidence of that just by itself; but there are other facts establishing it as well. Here I do not say that's good or bad; I simply point out the fact, which entails that feminism has become frankly sexist, eschewing only the word. Given as much, there's no reason to suppose that the growing hordes of single young women with education and money are disposed to bring themselves down by marrying and bearing children to men not as accomplished, wealthy, or interesting as they. Some will, but most won't. They'll have children out of wedlock or not at all; and if they do marry, they will divorce and remarry in a restless search for ever-receding fulfillment. That will mean that the rates of marriage and childbearing throughout the world remain inversely proportional to the level of education and freedom that younger women have.

As if that weren't enough, there's the spiritual side of all this. If traditional Christianity is true, as most of my readers believe, then the following (from Ephesians 5) reflects God's plan for marriage from the beginning, and must be heeded (emphasis added):

21 Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ.

22 Wives, be subject to your husbands as you are to the Lord. 23For the husband is the head of the wife just as Christ is the head of the church, the body of which he is the Saviour. 24Just as the church is subject to Christ, so also wives ought to be, in everything, to their husbands.

25 Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, 26in order to make her holy by cleansing her with the washing of water by the word, 27so as to present the church to himself in splendour, without a spot or wrinkle or anything of the kind—yes, so that she may be holy and without blemish. 28In the same way, husbands should love their wives as they do their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. 29For no one ever hates his own body, but he nourishes and tenderly cares for it, just as Christ does for the church, 30because we are members of his body.32. This is a great mystery, and I am applying it to Christ and the church. 33Each of you, however, should love his wife as himself, and a wife should respect her husband.

That model corresponds with our evolutionary hard-wiring. That is to say, what women are generally attracted to in men and vice-versa facilitates living that spiritual model, which in God's plan builds upon the biological. Yet I ask you: how many believers today actually know and heed that? Some do, but most don't and wouldn't want to. If that is so for believers, how much more so for the enthusiastic members of the NGO, most of whom can hardly be accounted believers whatever their formal religious affiliation, if any. Even if they wanted to, a lot of those women wouldn't be able to find men to have that kind of marriage with. They wouldn't be able to respect them enough.

The upshot is that the stronger and more pervasive the NGO gets, the fewer families will form, grow, and perdure in a healthy manner. And that means the human race won't either. I'm amazed that the message doesn't seem to be registering. I wonder when it will.