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

Tuesday, October 31, 2006

"The enemy of my enemy..."

A friend has just brought to my attention a screed written by a Lutheran pastor criticizing Lutheran colleagues who convert to Orthodoxy. What I found both striking and amusing about it is that most of his criticisms—indeed all of the major ones—are often directed against Catholicism from various quarters. Some of his criticisms of Orthodoxy apply with as much (better: as little) justice to Catholicism; the rest are often made by Orthodox themselves against Catholicism. Nifty.

I become more and more convinced that ecumenism, as the work of the Holy Spirit, proceeds more in spite of us than because of us. Lest I be discouraged, I remind myself that that's true of salvation in general.

Monday, October 30, 2006

The Democratic Party at prayer

So the National Conference of Catholic Bishops were called by conservatives in my youth. Since then the abortion issue, and a few others relating to basic morality, have made things more complicated than that. Today's Democratic Party can be counted on to favor protecting by law certain practices that the bishops (accurately) tell us are intrinsically immoral—as distinct from the Republican Party, which can be counted on to favor other things that are only immoral most of the time. Nice choice we have this November.

But the mantle of Democratic-Party-at-prayer has been taken up by yet another Catholic organization: The National Coalition of American Nuns. Read their "open letter" to Catholic voters. The code-words are unmistakeable; the only purpose served by their use is plausible deniability. And the purpose is served well: they can't be held accountable for endorsing the party that any non-ostrich knows they're endorsing.

Ah, the good old days.

Sunday, October 29, 2006

A married Catholic priest on celibacy

Ordained to the priesthood in the Latin Church under the Pastoral Provision in 1983, Fr. Ray Ryland has much to say in defense of the Church's current and ancient norm of celibacy for priests. Check out this veritable arsenal of replies to the usual pap I'm sure you've heard from more "progressive" Catholics.

The Pontificator on limbo: Part V

While the ITC's report on limbo impends, the Catholic blogosphere has been abuzz with discussion of the once-common teaching. As I anticipated when I posted my own article on the topic more than a year ago, theological traditionalists have been coming out of the woodwork not only to defend the permissibility of belief in limbo but to insist that Catholics retain that increasingly unpopular belief. In the fifth installment of his series on the topic, Al Kimel the Pontificator takes two of them on.

I could not agree with his incisive critique more than I do. The gathering defense of limbo reminds me of why I could never be a true-blue Catholic trad: like the Pharisees, they limit God's love and mercy in the name of that Tradition which proclaims it to us. But what I've called "the curve of authentic development" of doctrine is away from them. Limbo was itself an amelioration of St. Augustine's doleful theory of massa damnata; the only ostensible Catholics who still insist on that theory are known as Jansenists. There are still a few of them around.

Kimel has conveniently condensed his limbo articles into one page at Pontifications called "Limbo." That page has already grown into an article worthy of conventional publication. I hope to see it as such.

Exorcism and gratitude

Yesterday I finished re-reading Malachi Martin's Hostage to the Devil after a thirty-year hiatus, including the author's Preface to the Revised Edition. I found it as shocking and revealing today as I did then, when it greatly bolstered my faith. Last night, my first thought after the needed recovery period was, naturally enough, depressing: few people know the truth about such things, and even fewer care. I didn't understand why and asked God to show me. I took for granted that knowing why would also help my faith.

Sure enough, the answer came when I read Fr. Martin Fox's homily for Mass today. In it, he says:

Jesus healed tons of people—where were they on Good Friday? How many, today, look at the Cross, and say,“hey, thanks Jesus!” and they go their way? It’s not easy to look at the Cross, and know you’re not ready to respond. (By the way: that’s why many mock the Cross, why they destroy the Cross, why they don’t want it around.) At the center of the Mass, here is how fully He shows us his Cross:It becomes real, right here, on the altar—his suffering and death, happens right here!

We don't want to hear the message of the Cross even after we've been professing it with our lips and experiencing it, within and outside Mass, all our lives. We don't want to be reminded that there are no shortcuts to real happiness, i.e. to the eternal life to which we are called by the Gospel, and into which we are initiated in baptism. The only path is death: not merely physical death, but the death of the "old Adam," the self corrupted by original sin. Accomplished in principle for us by Jesus, that spiritual death is the work of a lifetime for us. Physical death is both the natural end of that old Adam and the outward sign of what we must freely undergo in our souls if we are to be reborn as the selves God created us to be. As I have learned by reading exorcism transcripts from Martin and others, that's why Satan and his wretched kingdom "mock the Cross, destroy the Cross, don't want it around" (to use Fr. Fox's phrases). Even as a symbol, a physical object, the Cross challenges that self-will which led to Satan's rebellion and irremediable downfall in illo tempore, which lives on in us as an effect of original sin, and which will lead us straight into the infernal Kingdom if we don't cooperate with God in its crucifixion.

Now I know why I often have such a hard time being grateful to God at the Eucharist. Eucharistia is Greek for 'thanksgiving', but I don't want to thank God for the Cross. In fact, most of the time I feel that my life....well, sucks. Oh sure, I'm happy to thank Jesus for undergoing horrific torture and execution for me; but I don't want to avail myself of the opportunity he thereby gained for us, which is embrace the Cross as our own in daily life by the power of his Cross. I know I have to be crucified in my own little yet all-too-painful ways, but I don't want to be and am not grateful for the necessity of the process. I'm only grateful for the result of accepting the Cross; but I can gain the result only if I stop running from the Cross.

I don't need an exorcism beyond the daily renewal of my baptismal vows. What I do need is to pray humbly enough not to fall back into the sort of attitude that once made the greatest of angels into the Devil. To that end, all I can sometimes do at Mass is ask for the grace to be grateful.

What one finds in the Deus absconditus

Pondering the Pope's controversial Regensburg lecture, I was struck less by the side remarks about Islam than by the broader philosophical point being made for the benefit of Western intellectuals, secular and religious. Richard John Neuhaus puts it well:

At Regensburg and elsewhere, Benedict has carefully made the case that modern rationality is itself dependent upon, and inexplicable apart from, the understanding of reason and the rationality of the world produced by Christianity’s appropriation and development of the Hellenic philosophical tradition. This truth is well understood by Lee Harris, author of Civilization and Its Enemies and The Suicide of Reason. Harris is no particular friend of Christianity, but he understands the boldness and crucial importance of the challenge Benedict is raising to intellectuals of the West. Writing in the Weekly Standard, he says:

In his moving and heroic speech, Joseph Ratzinger has chosen to play the part of Socrates, not giving us dogmatic answers, but stinging us with provocative questions. Shall we abandon the lofty and noble conception of reason for which Socrates gave his life? Shall we delude ourselves into thinking that the life of reason can survive without courage and character? Shall we be content with lives we refuse to examine, because such examination requires us to ask questions for which science can give no definite answer? The destiny of reason will be determined by how we in the modern West answer these questions.
Benedict knows that Christian history has had its own experience with the sundering of faith and reason. At Regensburg, he cited the influence of John Duns Scotus (1266–1308) and some of the Protestant Reformers who proposed a Christianity liberated from the philosophical thought that they viewed as alien to Christian faith. In the case of Scotus and others, this leads, he said, “to the image of a capricious God, who is not even bound to truth and goodness. God’s transcendence and otherness are so exalted that our reason, our sense of the true and good, are no longer an authentic mirror of God, whose deepest possibilities remain eternally unattainable and hidden behind his actual decisions.”

I have added the emphasis in those last few sentences, ones that criticize Duns Scotus and others for what philosophers call their "voluntarism" about God. Such voluntarism is what certain Christian thinkers have in common with Islam. Pope Benedict identifies voluntarism as the basis of the idea that God is ultimately not bound by anything we can recognize as reason, by what the Stoics called "Logos"—a term that, not entirely accidentally, St. John the Evangelist used for the pre-existent Christ. That idea in turn leads inevitably to divorcing faith from reason, which is the problem Benedict sees as one shared by both Islam and the modern West.

Theological voluntarism hinges on a very sharp distinction between God's "absolute power" (potentia absoluta; 'PA' for short) and his "ordained power" (potentia ordinata; 'PO' for short). PA is the notion that there is absolutely no limit, not even one of logic, to what God can do, abstracting of course from what he has done; PO is what we can, consistently with logic, say God can do given what he has done. Now surely there must be some sort of distinction between PA and PO. For once it be granted that God is both all-powerful and free, the range of what he can, in general, do must be immeasurably wider than the range of what he can do given what he's already done. But I've never had much use for how voluntarists draw the distinction. It seems to me that if God's PA were what voluntarists say, then nothing sensible can be said about God in himself as distinct from how God has manifested himself. And that in turn implies that there is no explanation, even in principle, for how God has chosen to manifest himself other than the unconditioned decree of his will. Both creation and revelation thus appear arbitrary whether or not they actually are.

The problem I've described is not limited to Islam and certain Western-Christian thinkers. Under the influence partly of the Cappadocian Fathers (fourth century) and mainly of the Pseudo-Dionysius (fifth or sixth century), many Byzantine-Christian thinkers have insisted that God-in-himself is absolutely unknowable and ineffable. Thus, the divine "energies"—i.e., God-as-manifest-in-his-contingent-actions—provide no basis for saying anything informative about the divine "essence"—i.e., God-as he-necessarily-is-in-himself, beyond and behind his energetic manifestations ad extra. For reasons I don't have time to describe, that has not often led Orthodox and Eastern-Catholic thinkers into voluntarism. In my book and the Pope's, that's a good thing. But whether we're talking Byzantine apophaticism, Western voluntarism, or Islam, the result is the same in one respect: in the final analysis, it cannot be said that the God behind revelation is of a nature that is, or even could be, revealed by revelation. In himself, God is absolutely hidden and must remain, for us, Deus absconditus. About such a God, nothing informative can be said—now even by way of analogy drawn from the data of divine revelation itself. Let's call that result 'DA'. It's a result yielded by voluntarism too. But regardless of source, DA has always struck me as both philosophically and theologically absurd.

What's philosophically absurd about DA is, of course, that one cannot produce an argument for it without doing what it claims is impossible: saying something informative about God-in-himself as distinct from God-in-action. What's theologically absurd about it is that, if it were true, then divine revelation would not reveal anything beyond its own content; hence, nothing is revealed other than the revealing, which rules out saying that God reveals himself, in addition to his relationship with us, in revelation. That, I suspect, is the main reason why so many Orthodox, such as the ninth-century patriarch Photius, have objected to the idea that the economic sending of the Spirit by the Son ad extra is a revealed analog of the immanent or theological procession of the Holy Spirit ad intra. If DA, then nothing which is not explicitly said in Scripture and the ante-Nicene Fathers about the procession of the Holy Spirit can be said at all.

Although I have problems with such Catholic theologians as Karl Rahner and Catherine LaCugna, I must agree with them in one respect: God as revealed is God in himself. Thus, the economic or revealed Trinity is the immanent or theological Trinity. That's not to say that how God has chosen to reveal himself, in creation and grace, is the only way he could have done so given what he necessarily is. He didn't have to do anything ad extra at all, and the way he's done it isn't the only we he could have. But whatever God might have done, the reasonability of that love which is God would always shine forth as the revelation of God-in-himself.

Saturday, October 28, 2006

The gnosticism of branch theory

To judge from the comboxes, many of the more articulate readers of this blog are veterans of ecclesiological debate, even if not professional ecclesiologists. (It's OK that they're not pros; for reasons that should be obvious, it's very difficult to earn a living as an ecclesiologist. I know of only one layman, Richard Gaillardetz, who does so; and of course I have serious problems with his views.) Such people, and presumably some other readers too, are aware of what ecclesiologists call "branch theory." A few even profess it. The basic idea of branch theory is that, while the "one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church" ('OHCAC' for short) referred to in the Apostles' Creed indeed exists and is even visible, it is not identifiable with any one "communion" that claims "apostolic succession"—in a traditional sense of that phrase—for its hierarchy. Rather, the Catholic, Orthodox, and Anglican communions each are branches of OHCAC, which existed in her full integrity only in the first millennium, prior to the Great Schism between East and West.

From this point of view, the reunion of such branches is a spiritual imperative; hence a certain sort of ecumenism, for branch theorists, is a moral imperative. But there is a very good reason why their kind of ecumenism has a great deal of difficulty gaining traction: it does not square with the self-understanding of either the Catholic or the Orthodox churches, and is a minority view even within the Anglican Communion. Branch theorists know that, of course, and respond by arguing that their ecclesiology is more firmly grounded in the actual doctrine of all three communions than the prevailing self-understanding within those communions. The apparent gnosticism of such a view is by itself reason enough to reject it; but merely pointing that out is not an argument. My purpose here is to adumbrate such an argument briefly, in two steps.

On the positive side, consider the fact that, in its dogmatic constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium, the Second Vatican Council famously asserted that the Church of Christ "subsists in" the Catholic Church, i.e., the communion of churches in communion with that of Rome. That was a verbal departure from many previous magisterial affirmations that the Catholic Church just "is" the Church of Christ. But employing that same "hermeneutic of continuity" which has been employed since Vatican II by the present and the previous pope—who were both present and active at that council—it is not difficult to explain why the verbal departure is only a development, not a negation, of the older doctrine.

The Catholic Church has always regarded the "Eastern" and "Oriental" Orthodox churches as "true, particular churches" with apostolic succession and valid sacraments. She has also insisted that she is "the" Church. How are those affirmations to be reconciled? By pointing out how it's possible that the whole can exist without the full integration of some of the parts. True, particular churches "belong properly" to the Catholic Church as parts of her which, in the case of some Eastern churches, are unduly detached from the whole. Even if such parts are in "imperfect" communion with her due to schisms brought on by sin on all sides, the whole OHCAC "subsists in" the Catholic Church inasmuch as she continues to exist as a subsistent whole therein, though wounded by the partial detachment of some of her parts, which in turn retain significant "elements of truth and sanctification" belonging properly to OHCAC and thus to the Catholic Church.

From a Catholic standpoint, then, there is no basis for branch theory. For the alternative picture presented by branch theory has it that OHCAC does not at present exist as an integral whole anywhere, which is incompatible with the doctrine of the Catholic Church. Branch theorists hold instead that the detachment of true, particular churches that are proper parts of the whole means that the whole itself no longer subsists, and thus does not continue as a subsistent whole, but is rather a collection of parts called "branches." The idea that OHCAC exists as a collection of visible communions rather than as an integral whole in one, visible communion is what allows branch theorists to insist that their view does not undermine the traditional dogma of the Church's "indefectibility." But that brings me to my other, negative reason for rejecting branch theory.

Branch theorists such as Fr. Matthew Kirby of The Continuum like to argue that, by the theological criteriology of Catholicism itself, the Catholic Church has never "infallibly" taught that OHCAC subsists in the Roman communion as an integral whole. They also like to argue that the Roman communion cannot be OHCAC because, even though OHCAC as a whole is infallible when teaching on matters belonging directly to the deposit of faith, the history of Catholic doctrinal development shows that Rome has negated certain doctrines that, by any fair criteria, would have met the criteria for having been taught "definitively" and thus "infallibly taught by the ordinary magisterium" ('ITOM') for short. Last week, Kirby and I debated the question whether Catholic development of doctrine on the punishment of heretics is an example of such a negation. I of course maintained it wasn't, and Kirby maintained it was. You can judge the result for yourself by following the combox.

On the question at hand, the procedure is reversed. Kirby has made clear that, according to him, the doctrine that the Catholic Church "is" OHCAC has never been either solemnly defined or ITOM. I of course would maintain the opposite. I don't have time to do that here. But I want to end by reminding readers that branch theorists have a very long row to hoe. They have to show that the way they apply Catholic theological criteriology is more reliable, by Catholicism's own standards, then the way the Catholic Magisterium itself has been applying it. That's what makes their view what Newman called "private judgment." And that's why it can't possibly be Catholic.

Friday, October 27, 2006

Faith and opinion: the lost distinction

Tom Kreitzberg at Disputations writes: "My suspicion, to put it more precisely, is that a lot of American Catholics regard the Faith as a matter of opinion -- as, in fact, a matter of any number of discrete opinions held more or less firmly for any number of reasons." Indeed. While I applaud Tom's taking note of what I was forced to learn—and was already being driven half-crazy by—in college three decades ago, the truth he notes is still not widely understood even by loyal, intelligent, and practicing American Catholics.

To Tom's words, I add what I wrote some months ago:

[Many] Catholics often experience difficulties and doubts about certain doctrines inasmuch as there is no apparent consensus in the Church about whether those doctrines have in fact been definitively and thus infallibly taught by the Church. In other words, granted that the Church can teach definitively and thus infallibly, and has clearly done so in certain instances, it is not easy to identify all and only the doctrines that the Church has in fact so taught. Indeed, attempts to do so are always of limited usefulness. This is a major reason why the development of doctrine, as Newman explained it, is so important. By such a process, and often in response to error, the deposit of faith ever more clearly manifests itself in particulars where formerly it was not so clear. So long as “difficulties” about doctrines not solemnly defined take the form of being unsure what the Magisterium would decide about them were it so to decide, such difficulties are perfectly compatible with the virtue of faith. For one still retains, implicitly, that docility of mind which keeps one ready to accept as from God whatever the Magisterium does end up proposing definitively, even if that turns out to be different from what one now tentatively believes. But once a given Catholic, citing “the primacy of conscience” or some other presumed imperative, takes upon herself the burden of deciding which, among doctrines that have been consistently taught and pertain to the deposit of faith, but have not been solemnly defined, are to be accounted binding and which are not, then at that moment she has substituted private judgment for catholic judgment. Thus she has ceased to be Catholic in all but name. She is spiritually Protestant even if nominally Catholic.

For 'private judgment' substitute 'opinion'.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

EENS and limbo: the curve of authentic development

When I first pondered the Church's development of doctrine on the two issues of extra ecclesiam nulla salus ("outside the Church there is no salvation") and limbo, about which I wrote articles at Pontifications some months ago, I was tempted to spout an easy formula. Thus, the mind of the Church seems to have moved from holding that one is saved only if one chooses to be to holding that one is damned only if one chooses to be. From that viewpoint, the older idea would seem to have been that baptism, being necessary for "salvation," requires a freely chosen profession of faith in and through the Church, and that not having made such a profession meant that one could never come to know God as he is (1 John 3:2) and thus partake of his nature (2 Peter 1:4). The later idea, on the other hand, would be that the elevation of human nature wrought by the Incarnation, Passion, and Resurrection of Christ assures "salvation" unless one freely chooses, as a person, against nature and rejects that elevation. Such a development might be thought to explain why the Magisterium now holds that some people who are capable of reasoned choice can be saved without belonging in any explicit way to the Church (Lumen Gentium §16), and that it is meet to "hope" (CCC §1261) for the salvation of children who have died without baptism.

The formula in question is of course too easy, at least as far as the older idea goes. For the sensus fidelium has always been that baptized infants who die are indeed saved, with the required faith and devotion being supplied vicariously by those members of the Church responsible for the baptism. Yet that very fact points up the authenticity of the later development.

It must be admitted that, although we are bound by the sacraments, God is not. That is to say, while as members of the Mystical Body we are obligated to have recourse the sacraments when appropriate and are culpable when we don't, God's salvific grace is not limited to the formal sacraments any more than to the visible Church herself. Just as, in the case of baptism, that faith which the recipient cannot supply for himself can be and typically is supplied by the confessing and baptizing Church, so too can faith which does not entail explicit submission to or even knowledge of the Church be elicited by God through means not prescribed within the Church. While the visible Church remains the normative sign and instrument of Christ's presence in the world, and thus the necessary "sacrament of salvation and unity" for the entire human race, Christ's presence and action in the world are not limited to the visible Church even as, by divine decree, they depend on her. And so even though EENS remains true, the means of attaining membership in the Mystical Body, which subsists in the Catholic Church, are wider than we can know.

That development opens up a way to apply reasoning by the analogy of faith to the limbo question. It has long been held, rightly and infallibly, that how we have chosen in life when we die determines our fate for eternity. But in the case of baptized infants, their salvation is assured if they die before being able to make choices. Now those incapable of choice cannot love, and therefore cannot love even God; yet God is love, and those who die in his grace partake of his nature; so some sort of growth into choice must be available to those who enter heaven without having been able to choose in this life. If that's true of baptized infants who die, why could it not be true of unbaptized infants who die? If the former attain salvation by the vicarious faith of the Church, why couldn't the latter? Of course such an outcome is not guaranteed for the latter; I suppose it depends on who's praying. But we can surely entertain its possibility if we drop two old ideas: the Augustinian nostrum that original sin is personal guilt—which the Magisterium, expressing itself through the CCC, has done (cf. §404-405)—and the long-popular, epicyclical alternative that a state of purely natural happiness is in store for infants who die unbaptized.

As Al Kimel's articles suggest, such is what seems to be going on in the Church right now. It is authentic development of doctrine. It is not mere innovation, for similar ideas have long been held among Eastern Christians; neither does it negate anything taught infallibly by extraordinary or ordinary magisterium. It's the flowering you get after a needed pruning.

The Dawkins-Quinn debate

Zenit has published the transcript of the October 9 debate about the existence of God between the evangelically atheistic scientist Richard Dawkins and David Quinn, a Catholic and columnist at the Irish Independent. (The link takes you to Part II, which contains a link to Part I.) After reading it, my main question is: what's the weight class?

It isn't heavyweight. Neither man is a trained philosopher or theologian, and it shows. Each scores points but doesn't take them where they need to go. Dawkins gets a bit the better of it, but that's because he's been thinking fairly rigorously, by journalistic standards, for years. And Quinn is but a journalist. I tip my hat to him nonetheless: he did better than I would have expected. But I can think of many (including, I do not shrink from admitting, yours truly) who would have done better—well enough, in fact, to have got the better of Dawkins, who does not understand the best philosophical arguments for theism. I'd love to see him try to debate Alvin Plantinga.

Check it out yourself. I welcome comments here, and will post a few of my own this week.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

The Pontificator on Limbo, Part IV

"When I first started reflecting on the subject of limbo two months ago, I thought it was a minor matter. But I have come to realize that crucial issues are at stake—indeed, nothing less than the preaching of the gospel itself. If we doubt the intensity of God’s love for every human being, if we doubt his commitment to our good and the good of every person, if we doubt the comprehensive and transforming power of Christ’s resurrection, how can we preach the gospel with evangelical conviction?"

So the Pontificator, Al Kimel, ends his latest installment on the limbo issue. The question is indeed crucial for the reasons he gives, and others. Please read his article and comment on it here.

Monday, October 23, 2006

Non-solutions to abortion

The number of people who consider themselves pro-choice is considerable. But few are those who think abortion is a good thing. Most "pro-choicers" think it the lesser of evils for some women; the idea is to eliminate one life rather than let that one and others become seriously unpleasant. The Democrats have begun to realize that honesty about that is not a good selling point. So they scramble to come up with humane "alternatives" to abortion that would presumably discourage it.

The two most often bandied about are more money for poor women and children, and more contraception. But out in the red states, handing out contraceptives to women too young or too unstable to deal with having children sounds like a license for more rollicking sex granted to one of the less responsible segments of the population. So the talk shifts to mo' money, i.e., rolling back the Welfare Reform Act of 1996. Hillary Clinton is working her way up to that very deftly.

But not everybody in the pro-choice camp is buying it. Frances Kissling, one of the few pro-choicers so radical that she arguably does think abortion (sometimes) a good thing, has argued at length that there's no evidence that fattening the financial cushion for unwed mothers makes them less likely to have abortion.

Diogenes goes into detail and comments. Read it all.

Sunday, October 22, 2006

The Dissonance of Humility

No, I don't mean to intimate any profound spiritual musings by that title. I do mean to note something so relatively rare in the blogosphere as to be dissonant: an admission of philosophical error—by a professional philosopher, no less. I respect him all the more for it.

Over at Maverick Philosopher last week, Bill Vallicella produced an argument that, while not purporting to refute atheism, endeavored to show that the atheist has a harder argumentative job than the theist in at least one respect. Though the whole post needs to be read if any part of it is, I quote the heart of his post:

Only if the atheist’s concept of God is adequate, is the noninstantiation of this concept equivalent to the nonexistence of God. Only if the atheist's concept of God completely and with total accurancy captures the essence of God would the noninstantiation of this concept be equivalent to the nonexistence of God. It follows that the atheist must have adequate knowledge of what God is in order to deny that God exists. To have such knowledge the atheist would have to be quite the theologian! Clearly, the atheist lacks such knowledge: all he has is his concept of God, a concept that he cannot be sure is anything more than a concoction of his intellect. The atheist lacks such knowledge because we all do. The theist is in no better epistemic position: he operates with a concept of God that he cannot be sure is adequate to the divine essence.

A sophisticated theist like Aquinas does not claim to know what God is, but only that God — whom he refuses to pin down conceptually — exists. The asymmetry, then, is this. To deny God — God himself and not a mere figment of one’s imagination — one must know God’s essence. But that is what the divine transcendence makes it impossible for us to know. To affirm God, however, does not require knowledge of the divine essence, but only knowledge that there exists (in plenary mode) Something on which everything else depends for its existence (in derivative mode).

The combox on that post was lively and, for a time, of general interest—though it eventually petered out in a debate about the causal requirements for successful reference, which is typical of philosophers and would only interest philosophers. The really striking thing, however, is that Vallicella revised the post with this "update":

The commenters have convinced me that the argument in this post is no good. But I'll let the post stand because some of what I say is right, and because I don't want to deprive my critics of their target. My argument has this most excellent anti-Continental virtue: it is clear enough to be refuted.

Bravo! A philosopher humble enough to admit he's been refuted! That's rare enough in philosophers and even rarer in the blogosphere. The dissonance of it is mellifluous; I'm envious, which is a sign I'm not as humble as he. This man has at least one virtue, the sine qua non of all the others. And you don't have to believe the ancient doctrine of the "unity of the virtues" to know he has others too.

Given that I am woefully deficient in said virtue, however, I want to suggest an improvement in Vallicella's argument. He has now acknowledged that the atheist needn't be sure he's got all and only the concept of God right in order to be sure that he's produced an argument against the existence of God. All the atheist needs to focus on is some-or-other concept C that all parties to the debate would agree God falls under if there is a God at all; then the atheist could argue that nothing falls under C; and since God is C if there is a God at all, there being no C entails that there is no God. So the question now becomes: what would be the atheist's candidate for C?

My sense is that the choice is nowhere near as easy to make as some atheists suspect. Some have suggested, as a candidate for C, the compound: "all-just and all-merciful." That's a dud for reasons that a parable of Jesus' makes clear. And in any case, whichever candidate for C the atheist picks, it wouldn't be enough for the atheist to claim that nothing happens to fall under C; he would have to argue that nothing could fall under C. And that's in virtue of something about what God is if there is a God at all.

In support of that I quote myself, from a paper where I critically evaluate various kinds of argument for God's existence and adumbrate my own:

Modal arguments are sometimes classed together under the heading 'the ontological argument'; but for reasons I cannot discuss here, I shall leave aside ontological arguments that are properly so-called. Modal arguments are called such because they employ the logical modalities of possibility and necessity, and may be generically framed in the following simple argument:

(1) If God possibly exists, then God necessarily exists
(2) God possibly exists
(3) Therefore, God necessarily exists.

The first premise may seem odd, but it has to be true. It means that if anything could be God, then there is a God that exists eternally, uncausably, and unpreventably. That is because God cannot be a contingent being: God is not the sort of thing that happens to exist but might not have, or that happens not to exist but might have. God cannot come to be or cease to be: God cannot be caused to exist, or just pop into existence, or die. However extraordinary, no such being could be God, but would be only one more item of our world. The same goes for any alleged God who undergoes change; such a being would not be God, but another constituent of our world, though perhaps a pretty special one. Whatever would count as God would have to be eternal, uncausable, and unpreventable, so that it always exists, never really changes, and could neither come into existence nor pass out of existence. Hence, if it could exist at all, it must exist.

The simple modal argument I have presented is obviously valid. But since Hume, many philosophers have been inclined to reject its conclusion, and hence its second premise, as false on logical grounds alone. Their argument goes like this: no existential statement (i.e., no statement to the effect that such-and-such exists) could be a necessary truth; for a necessary truth is one whose denial entails a contradiction, and no statement of the form 'x exists' entails a contradiction; hence no statement of the form 'x necessarily exists' is true; hence it cannot be true that God necessarily exists. And given (1) as well, we may also conclude that God does not possibly exist—i.e., that (2) is false.

But that argument is itself invalid. For from the fact—if it is a fact—that no existential statement is such that its denial entails a contradiction, it does not follow that any statement of the form 'x necessarily exists' is false. In particular, to say that God necessarily exists is not to imply that 'God does not exist' entails a contradiction; it is rather to imply that, given the sort of thing God would be, God exists eternally, uncausably, and unpreventably if at all. The word 'necessarily' in this context is not about the modal status of the statement 'God exists', but is rather a shorthand description of how God exists if God exists at all. So if (3) is false, that is not because it is saying something that logic alone can teach us is false.

The real problem with the modal argument is that there seems to be no reliable, publicly available method for verifying premise (2) that does not require prior knowledge that God exists. In general, we find out that a thing possibly exists (i.e., could exist) in one of two ways. The first is to extrapolate from what one knows to exist. That, e.g., is what astronomers do when they hold that there could be life on some planet orbiting some other star; given what we know about the physical universe, that is a reasonable view, even if it turns out to be false. The second way to find out whether something could exist is simply to find out that the thing does exist, from which it follows trivially that the thing could exist. Obviously, to verify (2) by finding out that God exists would render the modal argument useless as an argument. But from what may we extrapolate in order to make it reasonable to think that God could exist? God is not the sort of thing, like life on a planet, that might not have existed if indeed it does exist, or that exists by first coming to be.

In view of this, some theists would argue that God, though not physically possible, is logically possible. Thus, given a complete description of the concept of God, we would find that God is, in a certain sense, like planets but unlike things that are both black-all-over and not-black-all-over. Like the former and unlike the latter, the claim that there is a God would not entail a contradiction; hence God could exist (is possible). But of course, there is no agreement on just what such a description would entail or on whether we could fully understand it even if we could agree on all that it would entail. Short of knowing that there is a God, there seems to be no reliable way to find out just what God is; if so, then one cannot know that God's existence is possible without knowing that God exists. It seems we are at a loss here. By itself, the modal argument does not get us very far—though it does highlight something about what God is that must always be kept in mind.

A new Orthodox blog

Fr. Stephen Freeman, well-known to Pontifications readers as a co-writer at that blog, has started his own: Glory to God for All Things.

I don't usually recommend blogs that are neither Catholic nor philosophical. Those that are both get far less attention than they merit, and my modest talents are most efficiently utilized in those areas. However, I not only count Fr. Stephen as a friend but I also know him to be unusually irenic and ecumenical for a convert to Orthodoxy (from Anglicanism, in his case). I can already tell that the new blog of this prayerful and intelligent priest will be spiritually beneficial for those who take the trouble to follow it. By all means do!

The Pontificator on limbo, Part III

Yesterday I posted that Al Kimel's recent treatment of the limbo issue had been noted with some approval by Richard John Neuhaus at First Things. I neglected to point out, however, that Fr. Neuhaus had also cited law professor Robert Miller's defense of the traditional doctrine. Kimel has now replied to that defense with, I must say, a deep and balanced article at Pontifications.

Given that the Vatican's International Theological Commission is about to issue the result of a long consideration of the limbo issue, the present blog discussion should and will provoke further thought in those with the time to follow it. By all means chime in here.

Saturday, October 21, 2006

“Even the hairs of your head are counted”

From St. Catherine of Siena's commentary on today's Gospel (Luke 12: 1-7):

God told me: “No one can escape from my hands. For I am who am (Ex 3:14), and you, you are not of yourselves; you are only insofar as you have been made by me. I am the creator of all things that have a part in being, but not of sin, which is not, and which was thus not made by me. And because it is not in me, it is not worthy of being loved. A creature only offends me because it loves what it must not love, sin… It is impossible for human beings to go outside of me; they either abide in me through the force of justice, which punishes their faults, or else they abide in me, protected by my mercy. So open the eye of your intelligence and look at my hand; you will see that I am telling you the truth.”

Then, opening the eye of the spirit so as to obey the Father who is so great, I saw the whole universe enclosed in that divine hand. And God told me: “My daughter, see now and know that nothing can escape me. Everyone here is held by justice or by mercy, because they are mine, created by me, and I love them infinitely. No matter how wicked they might be, I will have mercy on them because of my servants; I will hear the request that you brought before me with so much love and suffering”…

Then my soul, as if drunk and outside of itself in the ever greater ardor of its desire, felt at one and the same time blessed and in pain. Blessed through the union it had had with God, tasting his joy and his goodness, wholly plunged into his mercy. In pain because of seeing the offense done to such great goodness.

Dialogue 18

The pontification on limbo gets more press

Over at First Things, Fr. Richard John Neuhaus has noted with approval, if not necessarily agreement, Al Kimel the Pontificator's most recent essay on limbo. As some readers know, I've been pontificating on limbo myself and hosting comments on the real Pontificator's essays. Check out his and mine again and comment here.

Another new Pastoral-Provision priest

My favorite ex-Anglican, Al Kimel the Pontificator, has announced the date, time, and place of his ordination to the Roman Catholic priesthood this fall. I rejoice with his friends and family and look forward to being there, come hell or high water—and with my luck, it will probably be both getting there.

Anybody who, undaunted by that prospect, wishes to join me can reach me by e-mail with their proposal.

Gill on Florence, continued

The branch theorists join the discontinuants

When I wrote my series on "Development and Negation" for Pontifications, my main purpose was to rebut what I have found over the years to be the most common argument made by Christians, including some nominal Catholics, against the authority of the Catholic Church. That argument is that the Church's development of doctrine has actually negated some teachings on faith or morals that she once proposed definitively, so that her claim to infallibility about any topic is discredited. What I've recently discovered is that at least one branch theorist, an Anglican priest of the Continuum, also uses that sort of argument against the Catholic Church's claim to be "the" Church. Since the matter is of general interest, I shall deal with his argument here.

I briefly described branch theory in my post a few days ago entitled "Protestants who think they're Catholic;" the priest in question is Fr. Matthew Kirby, to whom I initially replied a few days ago in my post "Why her condemning torture doesn't discredit the Catholic Church." Debate between him and me naturally arose in the combox.

Alluding to the Church's own criteria for infallible teaching, I wrote:

Once you examine the relevant texts—and I'm sure you know what they are—you will find that the theological opinion you cite in support of your position is not implied by those criteria. To criticize the Catholic Church for having "definitively" taught something that does not meet her own criteria for definitive teaching is a tiresome begging of the question.
Fr. Kirby replied:

Not implied by those criteria? Not absolutely necessitated, perhaps, but more than compatible! If the Church (through its virtually universally accepted everyday teaching, juridical decrees and constant example for centuries) authorises, condones, defends in its apologetics, practices according to its law, and even occasionally commands a certain act, then it is definitively teaching that such an act is not intrinsically sinful. Otherwise we would be saying that "the Church as a whole, authoritatively and persistently could command or permit an action that is objectively mortally sinful" without this reflecting on its teaching office, infallibility and indefectibility. Do you really believe this?
Although Kirby's entire comment exquisitely illustrates the sort of distilled private judgment I described and criticized in my PTC post, I want to focus for now on the passage quoted just above.

He repeatedly uses the phrase '...definitively teaching...'. But just how does the Catholic Church herself use it? She uses it in Lumen Gentium 25:

Although the bishops, taken individually, do not enjoy the privilege of infallibility, they do, however, proclaim infallibly the doctrine of Christ on the following conditions: namely, when, even though dispersed throughout the world but preserving for all that amongst themselves and with Peter's successor the bond of communion, in their authoritative teaching concerning matters of faith and morals, they are in agreement that a particular teaching is to be held definitively...
Regarding the particular moral topic at issue, the teaching that one might argue was once presented as definitive tendendam was one that I formulated and labeled in the earlier post as 'HP'. For clarity's sake, I reformulate here as:

(HP*) Guilty of as grave a civil crime as any, heretics should receive punishment commensurate with those for the gravest of civil crimes, if that be necessary for the common good.

Now given the passage from LG 25 I quoted just above, all teachings presented by the episcopal college as "to be definitively held" are infallibly taught by the ordinary magisterium ('ITOM' for short). So the only relevant question is whether HP* meets the Catholic Church's own criteria for ITOM.

Well, in my earlier post I had argued that the antecedent "if-clause" makes HP* a material conditional, and that history had taught the Church that the antecedent is always false. That makes HP* what logicians call "trivially" true, so that even if HP* were ITOM, that would not matter. The same experience that has taught the Church that punishing heretics with extreme violence is never necessary for the common good has also led her to realize that the intrinsic evil thereof is a precept of the natural law. But in point of fact, HP* could not be ITOM. It depends on the assumption that heresy is a civil crime on the order of murder or treason; but even when that happens to be true by legal fiat at certain times and places, it isn't always and everywhere true.

Now as I said to Kirby, the Pope doesn't think HP* is ITOM, and neither did Vatican II—else they could not have produced and approved the Declaration on Religious Freedom, Dignitatis Humanae. Regarding the criteria for ITOM, and beyond the magisterial texts cited by Kirby in his comment, the two most noteworthy are then-Cardinal Ratzinger's responsum ad dubium on Ordinatio Sacerdotalis and the current Code of Canon Law, §749.3.

The former says that the following holds of OS's proposition "the Church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women":

This teaching requires definitive assent, since, founded on the written Word of God, and from the beginning constantly preserved and applied in the Tradition of the Church, it has been set forth infallibly by the ordinary and universal Magisterium (cf. Second Vatican Council, Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium 25)

That means that a teaching's being "founded on the written word of God" and being "from the beginning constantly preserved and applied in the Tradition of the Church" are sufficient for its being ITOM according to the criteria set forth in LG 25. But can the quoted phrases be said of HP*? I don't know of anybody who says they can be, for the very good reason that they can't be. HP* forms no part of the univeral subject matter of the deposit of faith and morals; it is a historically contingent political judgment, like Pope John Paul II's teaching that the conditions for legitimate use of the death penalty are "rarely if ever" satisfied in modern society.

Well then: could other criteria, such as the ones Kirby cites, suffice to satisfy LG 25's criteria for ITOM? That is a matter of opinion, like limbo. Many bishops and theologians used to believe that limbo, as hypothesized by Thomas Aquinas, had been ITOM. It had indeed been presented to the faithful as the consensus view of theologians and bishops for centuries. But the Pope, the same man who commented as quoted above on women's ordination, doesn't think that the consensus on limbo ever sufficed to make it definitive tendendam and therefore ITOM—and the view that limbo is ITOM is now held by a dwindling minority within the Church.

The question what is a matter of opinion and what is binding on the faithul is critical here. The Code of Canon Law (1983; can. §749.3) says: No doctrine is understood as defined infallibly unless this is manifestly evident. In context, it is clear that that refers to what's putatively ITOM as well as to what's solemnly defined by the extraordinary magisterium. Thus, unless it is "manifestly evident" that HP was taught definitively and thus is ITOM, it is not to be understood as such. But if this remains a matter of opinion, then it's not manifestly evident in the relevant sense.

Now one might argue as Kirby does: that, by some criteria such as those he cites, which have indeed been used by some theologians, a key assumption made by HP* is manifestly definitive tendendam by LG 25's criteria. That assumption is that punishing heretics with extreme violence is "not intrinsically evil." If that were correct, and given that HP* is not ITOM, then contra Vatican II, then the assumption that's definitive tendendam according to the Catholic Church is not ITOM either. That result would discredit the Catholic magisterium's distinctive claims for itself.

But that is way too far a stretch. A moral blind spot that is manifest as an assumption of juridical practice does not a teaching definitive tendendam make. There's nothing in the Catholic magisterium's criteria for ITOM, or in canon law itself, to suggest otherwise. And so Kirby's argument (see above) is reduced to an attempt to impale me on the horn of a rhetorical dilemma.

Of course I believe that the history of this topic shows that the Church was wrong, and grievously so, for over a millennium on this topic. The Church was wrong not to realize that torturing and killing heretics is neither necessary for the common good nor morally licit in itself. But that doesn't mean that her failure bound the consciences of the faithful then any more than now. Whatever certain juridical decisions may have taken for granted, it never was heretical to deny that heretics must be burned. To suppose otherwise is a mere category mistake, and to argue otherwise is to beg the question.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

That council: the facts, ma'am

At Pontifications, Al Kimel has posted two lengthy excerpts from Joseph Gill, SJ's fascinating book The Council of Florence (1982). The passages recount the course of discussion on the filioque clause ("and the Son") inserted into the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed by the Catholic Church during the Middle Ages. Next to that of papal primacy, the filioque is probably the most vexed issue dividing the Catholic and Orthodox churches from each other. Florence's treatment of it was important because that council effected a reunion of the churches that, while real, was short-lived because it was never "received" by most Orthodox and ended up being formally repudiated by Orthodox synods before much time passed. I don't know of any exposition of Florence's discussions that even approach Gill's for thoroughness and accuracy.

Like most worthy books in my fields of interest, Gill's is currently out of print and was quite expensive when it was in print. I've only read it in a library where I had no borrowing rights. But it is essential reading for those who, like Kimel,me, and many others, hope to see progress toward breaking the impasse.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Fornication just keeps getting riskier...for men

Once people are past college age, there's little point in trying to advise them about sex and none in giving unsolicited advice. But in the former career I work to resume, I found myself willy-nilly advising many adolescents and young adults about sex. While a handful of people walking this earth would find that fact richly amusing—not without some reason, I admit—I am convinced not only that the content of my advice was sound but that it's getting sounder all the time. And as usual, it's the truly ironic developments that are making it so.

I do not refer to what's obvious to many and should be obvious to all: the often-mutual manipulation, the heartbreak, the STDs, the unwanted pregnancies, etc. Even when none of those things occur, fornication consists in telling a lie with one's body. Sexual intercourse without marriage says, with the body, "I give myself unreservedly to you" when in fact one is doing no such thing. The use of devices to avoid pregnancy and/or STDs not only reinforces the lie but, by truncating sex itself, accelerates the tendency to separate true love from real sex. That alone corrodes one's character by reducing one's ability to love in the deepest sense of the term. But current cultural trends are adding legal risks to this spiritually lethal mix. That's what has me more worried than ever.

The United Kingdom has just passed a "reform" of the rape law that, in effect, places the onus on men who have sex with women they've been drinking with to prove that the woman has consented. If she cries rape later and he can't prove in trial that she consented, then he is guilty of rape. Never mind the sexism of such a law; apparently it didn't occur to Parliament to make the law gender-neutral, as it ought to be if passed at all, which it oughtn't to be. I knew firsthand in college of two cases where it was the man, and only the man, who had by design been taken advantage of in such a fashion by the woman (and in one case, by her friends too). And that was three decades ago, before women had attained the sort of sexual and legal superior...oops, I mean equality they have by now. Never mind that this law effectively makes men, if accused, guilty until proven innocent. The law reflects a cultural trend that's been gathering steam for a generation: just being sexual outside of marriage is getting almost as risky for men as it has always been for women. The Puritans are back, albeit for the wrong reasons.

There are the sexual harassment laws, of course. Morally disedifying but usually harmless acts that many men would welcome more of from women in almost any setting—leering, making passes, etc.—are actionable offenses if directed by men to women at work. Everybody who cares knows that few male workers bring sexual-harassment suits against female co-workers or bosses, and most who do have a hard time being taken seriously. But most men on the job know that letting their glance linger on a miniskirted pair of female legs could cost them a pink slip at the very least. And believe me, that has an effect.

The new British rape law is a harbinger of more to come: abstracting from the pub culture, feminists want to see it emulated in some fashion all over the world, and left-wing governments will in due course give it to them. In that case, men in the relevant situations had better get a consent form signed in triplicate by their inebriated partner in fornication. Yeah, right. If one cares at all about risk, the only realistic alternative to that unlikely prospect is abstinence. In either case, every square centimeter of posterior is covered.

That's what our world is coming to. And I have to say it's not entirely a bad trend. One of my favorite contemporary philosophers, J. Budziszewski, has coined the phrase 'the revenge of conscience'. There definitely is such a thing, and it is making itself felt like a groundswell in our age. That's why fornication just keeps getting riskier for men.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Protestants who think they're Catholic

A few days ago, I noted without complaint that I "inhabit the peculiar world of ecclesiological polemics." Here I lament that, having inhabited it for decades, it's taken me way too long to realize that there's more than one sort of Protestant who thinks they're Catholic ('PTC' for short). I would have spared myself and them much needless confusion had I realized it sooner. By providing the taxonomy now, I hope to spare others similar confusion.

The sort whose existence I first learned of is formally Catholic but materially Protestant. Although they nominally belong to the Catholic Church, their attitude toward the teaching authority of said Church is virtually indistinguishable from that of Protestants. Thus they reserve the right to decide for themselves which teachings are "essential" expressions of the faith-once-delivered and which are revisable human opinions. That attitude effectively reduces the entire content of revelation to human opinion, i.e. what Newman called "private judgment." As I argued in my essay Faith, Private Judgment, Doubt, and Dissent, that is the real "Protestant principle."

As a staple of orthodox Catholic apologetics, CINOs (Catholics in name only) are too familiar to be worth belaboring here. But there are two other sorts of PTC whose subtlety is often missed in ecclesiological debate.

One is the sort of PTC that Richard John Neuhaus was while still a Lutheran pastor who had not yet seriously considered conversion to Catholicism. He believed, rightly, that he had to have good reason not to be a member of the Catholic Church; accordingly, he believed that his brand of Lutheranism, the "evangelical-catholic" brand, was as close as one can get to professing the faith of, and trying with his co-religionists to embody, the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church referred to in the Nicene Creed. Eventually, of course, he came to realize that such a thing was a mere idea—a beautiful idea, an idea more or less shared by some very intelligent members of his party within Lutheranism, an idea that had summoned forth his and their loyalty. Now as recounted in his recent book Catholic Matters, he eventually realized that his loyalty was simply to his idea, "which is no loyalty at all." That's when he was set on the path to real Catholicism. But I have encountered more than one person, both in my past as a student and in my recent career as a blogger, who still manages to believe that, while they are formally Protestant, in the sense of belonging to a Protestant church, they are materially more catholic than either the Catholic or the Orthodox churches. They believe they know Scripture and Tradition quite well enough to know the faith-once-delivered in its fullness, and thus that the Catholic and Orthodox churches, unlike their own party within their Protestant denomination, have at some point fallen away from it. This is a more refined form of self-deception than you find in most CINOs, but it's just as deep. It's also important to know it when you see it, so that time isn't wasted thinking you're dealing with a garden-variety Protestant.

The third and most refined brand of PTC is what was once called a "High" Anglican and is nowadays best exemplified by "Continuum" Anglicans. Most of those are branch theorists: people, mostly men and often clergy, who believe that the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church does not subsist in any single, visible communion but rather ramifies into the three "branches" of Catholicism, Orthodoxy, and Anglicanism. Of course the Anglicanism in question is their party within Anglicanism, which is only one; and branch theory depends crucially on the assumption that members of that party know better than either the Catholic or Orthodox churches what the ecclesiology of both churches truly entails. Like the finest vodka, this is private judgment distilled so effectively that one hardly knows when one is drinking it. It can make you drunk before you know it. That's probably why its irony is lost on those who profess it.

The antidote to all this sort of thing is the scandal of particularity. Whether you're Catholic or Orthodox, you believe that your church is "the Church." I don't know of any honest way round that. There's no way to identify the faith of the original, undivided, catholic church that does not entail identifying some visible communion as that church; otherwise, one ineluctably lands in a fantasy church woven from private judgment. That kind of self-deception will always be with us; but as long as we see it and name it, we can limit its victims and debate its perps more efficiently.

Monday, October 16, 2006

Giving politics a faith lift

Bishop Thomas Olmstead of Phoenix has published online a new booklet entitled Catholics in the Public Square, the first of a series on various hot Catholic topics to be published by major American prelates. Here's the first line of the Zenit story where I learned about this: "All Catholics have a duty to bring faith to the forefront of political debates..." While the booklet is really about the role of the laity generally, the political angle will gain the most attention. That's needed.

I dig this guy. He's got the cojones so desperately needed in bishops today. He even stood up to the lavender mafia in his own diocese, prompting several resignations of openly gay priests and their sympathizers!

More, more, more!

American Anglicanism in a Nutshell

Dr. William Tighe gives us the lay of the land at Pontifications. The most concise and factually useful overview I've seen.

Sunday, October 15, 2006

Why her condemning torture doesn't discredit the Catholic Church

You may well ask: how could anybody suppose that it does? Unless you inhabit the peculiar world of ecclesiological polemics, you would suppose that her coming to recognize that torture is intrinsically immoral is a fact that can be cited in favor of the Catholic Church. Since I do inhabit that world, however, I have come to expect the opposite supposition. So far, my expectations have been met. I want here to respond accordingly.

Ever since the bill proposing to regulate our government's treatment of captured terrorism suspects became a hot topic in Washington, the morality of torture has been hotly debated in the Catholic blogosphere. For the most part, the debate has been instructive and I have little to add to it. But one of the spinoffs in the anti-Catholic blogosphere has been the argument that the Catholic Church's development of doctrine on the topic of religious freedom, and specifically its implications for the use of torture for any purpose, effectively discredits the claim to infallibility made by her own teaching authority.

The argument comes in two stages. First, and in keeping with an approach that had been common since the time of St. Augustine, some medieval and early-modern popes approved the torture and/or execution of heretics—in some cases even ordering secular rulers to do such things; if so, then the Church's coming to learn the wrongfulness of such things shows that those popes were wrong. Second, they were wrong in such a way as to discredit the claim that the "ordinary magisterium" of the Catholic Church is somehow infallible.

While the first stage is sound, the second doesn't follow and is in fact unsound. But some forms of the argument are more sophisticated than others and merit a deeper response than has so far been given. One good example of how the argument can be mounted comes from traditional Anglican priest Matthew Kirby over at The Continuum.


(1) If a Church or communion of Churches authorises, condones and engages in an activity with virtual unanimity through its official organs of authority over an extended period of time, this constitutes a definitive teaching affirming the moral goodness of that activity.

(2) It is not possible for the Catholic Church as a whole to be in error in a definitive teaching on moral matters, any more than in matters of Faith.

(3) Therefore, a definitive teaching established by the process outlined in (1) cannot be in error if the said “Church or communion of Churches” is equivalent to “the Catholic Church as a whole”. [1 + 2]

(4) The RCC officially and generally authorised, condoned or practised torturous examinations and executions for religious ends over an extended period of time.

(5) Therefore, the RCC definitively taught that such torture was morally right. [1 + 4]

(6) Such torture is, in fact, morally repugnant.

(7) Therefore, the RCC definitively taught error on an important moral matter. [5 + 6]

(8) Therefore, the RCC is not the whole Catholic Church. [3 + 7]

Part of what irritates me about that argument is the ecclesiological agenda behind it, which is to argue for a "branch theory" according to which the Roman, Orthodox, and Anglican communions are each and equally "branches" of the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church and that none is "the" Catholic Church. The implication, of course, is that the name the Catholic Church uses for herself—i.e., 'The Catholic Church'—is deceptive. Since nobody cares that I and other Catholics find that implication deeply offensive—indeed, branch theorists would unctuously assure us that we oughtn't to be offended—I shall begin simply by pointing out that hardly any Orthodox or Catholics profess the branch theory and that many Anglicans don't profess it either. That's a problem for branch theorists because, if their theory were true, then the premises out of which it logically falls must have belonged to the faith of the undivided Church of the first millennium; and if so, then one would have a right to expect that it would actually be professed by more than one party in the putative branch that's only existed since the 16th century. But leave that problem aside for the moment: the logic of Kirby's actual argument against Catholicism is of more immediate interest.

The argument is logically valid, i.e. the inferences all go through. Modestly enough, Kirby asserts that the only premises that might be questioned are (1) and (4). I'll give him (4), which I don't think is reasonably dubitable. The only question, therefore, concerns (1). And I'll answer it now: (1) is false, unless qualified in such a way as to remove its sting.

Of course the Catholic Church doesn't teach (1) or anything like it, let alone infallibly teach it. The relevant statement taught is more like this: "Heretics should be punished with torture and/or death if their being so punished is necessary for the common good." Call that statement 'HP' for short.

Between the fourth and eighteenth centuries, most popes and prelates believed HP. Even St. Thomas Aquinas believed it. But the Church's development of doctrine has it that the torture and execution of people for their religious beliefs is a violation of their consciences, which is intrinsically evil inasmuch as it violates one of the most basic of human rights. Whatever the ostensible benefits, Therefore, it is never necessary to serve the common good by doing such an evil that good may come. That is what the Western-European wars of religion and the rise of popular government taught the Church even though should it have been obvious much earlier than that. Therefore, the antecedent of HP is always false, and churchmen of the past were wrong to believe it. But since HP itself is a material conditional, the falsity of its antecedent makes it trivially true. So even if HP does meet the criteria for having been infallibly taught by the ordinary magisterium, it is trivially true.

But in point of fact, HP does not meet the Catholic Church's criteria for having been infallibly taught by the ordinary magisterium (ITOM). Even though HP is a remote application of moral principles pertaining to the depositum fidei, it is not itself such a principle and in fact relies, like geocentrism, on an empirically mistaken belief to get where it goes from such principles. Therefore, HP does not belong to the sort of subject matter to which ITOM applies. Therefore, it's not ITOM.

Since Kirby used to frequent Pontifications, he knows what I've written there about the development of doctrine, on this particular topic and others, as well as about the related topic of the infallibility of the ordinary magisterium. Those writings show that what some critics of the Catholic Church, including some Catholics themselves, think are the relevant criteria for ITOM are nothing of the kind. The definitive way of identifying something as ITOM is the way the Church herself does it. Any other way is just begging the question.

The Pontificator and "saint" on leaving the Catholic Church

The doxing of Rod Dreher, a now-former Catholic who once contributed to a periodical I also once contributed to, National Review, has indeed got "Catholic blogdom astir" (to use Al Kimel's words). You can find Kimel's wider thoughts here, and you can comment on them at the bottom of this post; also, Dr. Scott Carson has his normally intelligent take, on which you can comment either there or here. I want to take this occasion to deal with an objection to Kimel's main point, one that's already been registered in the combox to my previous post.

Kimel concludes:
To become Catholic, to be Catholic, is to surrender one’s private judgment to the magisterial teaching of the Church. It is to believe that what the Church teaches and will teach as belonging to the deposit of revelation is from God. One may investigate the rational grounds for de fide dogmas; but one may not doubt them nor inquire whether or not they may be true. As Newman remarks, a Catholic “cannot be both inside and outside of the Church at once.”

I wonder how many priests and RCIA instructors understand what Catholic assent is. I wonder how many converts to Catholicism have been instructed in the irrevocable, definitive, full assent to magisterial teaching that is being asked of them when they enter into the communion of the Catholic Church.
Having once directed an RCIA process for three years, I hold the same view as Kimel and wonder the same things. Given the authority claimed for herself by the Catholic Church, I do not understand how any informed Catholic could hold otherwise. But of course there are objections.

Judging from his blogsite, the objector I've already alluded to is an Australian Catholic. He signs himself "saint"—not exactly auspicious, that—and gives voice to what many Catholics and non-Catholics think. Thus to Kimel's assertion that "...to be Catholic is to surrender one’s private judgment to the magisterial teaching of the Church," he retorts:

But to become Christian, to be Christian is to surrender one's whole self to Christ. But as long as you define the church on your terms - not as those baptised into Christ but only those baptised into the Catholic church; not as the ekklesia, the called out ones, the people of God, Christians, but only as Catholics - you will snot away at Rod while waiting how many years, to find a cardinal with the balls to call for Madonna to be excommunicated - like she was ever a believer. Hey let's all run off to Malawi like Madonna and buy ourselves a kid. Too bad if his father is still alive and I have the means to help him look after his own son.

I find it ironic even if unsurprising that so many Christians cannot encourage their brethren to follow Christ, in accordance with the light given them and in whatever station in life they find themselves. No, rather, we are reluctant to cut out the dead wood when we find it, blind to the log in our own eye but quick to break a bruised reed or quench a smouldering wick.

While not entirely wrong, that betrays a sort of ignorance that occasions false dichotomies and confusions.

The false dichotomy here is that between Christ and the Catholic Church. If one is Catholic, as "saint" ostensibly is, one is at least nominally committed to holding that the Mystical Body of Christ, the Ecclesia, the People of God—whichever name or description is used, the same entity is being referred to—is so joined with the risen Jesus Christ as to be one body with him, constituting "the whole Christ." That's why, while Saul was persecuting the Church, Jesus asked him on the road to Damascus: "Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?" In Lumen Gentium, Vatican II accordingly says that the true Church "subsists" in the Catholic Church.

That doesn't mean that non-Catholics can't be in some sort of communion with Christ and the Church. Indeed, LG is quite explicit that all those baptized who have not joined the Catholic Church stand in some sort of "imperfect" communion with said church: they are properly parts of the whole who are not fully integrated into the whole. But it does mean that truly submitting oneself to the Catholic Church entails truly submitting oneself to Christ. One doesn't commit to the former instead of the latter; one commits to the latter by means of committing to the former. So when one breaks communion with the Catholic Church, it's fair to raise the question whether one is breaking with Christ himself—or whether one had ever truly joined oneself to him to begin with.

The confusion in the rant of our "saint" is about Madonna, who is only one specially public example of what's happened with many Catholics. As another commenter observed, most ex-Catholics are "pagans," and Madonna is no exception. While she remains nominally Catholic, she has in fact excommunicated herself (the canonical term is excommunicatio latae sententiae) by embracing a Kabbalism repackaged for the Western consumer and committing, without repenting of, other public acts that count as blasphemy. Even if she hadn't done any of that, her lifestyle of sexual and material self-indulgence would suffice to ensure that she could receive the Eucharist only to her own condemnation, unless and until she repents. But that's not enough for "saint." No, he suggests that unless some "cardinal" summons the cojones to excommunicate her ferendae sententiae—i.e., by a specific juridical act—Catholics are hypocritical to criticize other public figures such as Dreher for leaving the Church.

Nonsense. Dreher has made his move to a true, particular church in all honesty, with considerable pain, bitterness, and intellectual wrestling that he hasn't shrunk from describing for all to read. I applaud him for that, and I've already indicated how I empathize with him. But I think he's wrong, and he certainly isn't immune from criticism. He's not just a bruised reed and a smoldering wick; he's a big boy who can take care of himself. Madonna, on the other hand, neither deserves nor gets the sort of respect that I and many others have shown Rod Dreher even when we criticize him. Any Christian who cares about the truth can recognize her for what she is—a pagan—and doesn't need the Catholic hierarchy to tell them so. Said hierarchy has long taught the reasons why she's a pagan and why, all the same, they don't need to excommunicate her as such. So I find "saint" merely confused.

I do not know whether Dreher and his wife are following Christ or not. I have known some people in my life who, for whatever reason, did not have a personal encounter with Christ as Catholics but really did when or after they left to join a different church. But their journies couldn't stop there: some eventually "reverted" to Catholicism as mature Christians; others haven't learned quite so much. I cannot judge the consciences of the latter. But the point is that the phenomenon of discovering Christ outside the visible boundaries of the Catholic Church does nothing to call the ecclesiology of said Church into question. All it does is indict Catholics, especially the clergy, for their sins. Yet Catholics have always known that the clergy are sinners like the rest of us, and that the wheat grows alongside the chaff in the Kingdom of God. So I've never envisioned anything much to be gained by leaving the Catholic Church because of the sins of her leaders. They are indicted by the very truth they are sworn to embody—the ones I profess precisely as a Catholic, and can see no way to maintain consistently as anything other than a Catholic.

By and large, the Orthodox know the same regarding their own churches too. That is probably why, with a few inevitable exceptions, Orthodox blogdom has handled the Dreher thing well. I wish I could say the same for Catholics like "saint."

Saturday, October 14, 2006

The doxing of Rod Dreher

Well, it's happened. Last May, I noted and commented on Rod Dreher's reasons for considering a move from the Catholic Church to Orthodoxy; having read my post, Al Kimel the Pontificator weighed in and thus sparked a much wider discussion than mine had. Dreher's reasons were, and are, powerful reasons. Now he's actually made the move, announced sooner than he'd preferred in a brief apologia published on his blog Crunchy Con. (I'd suggest waiting a few days before you try loading that page, though; I've only managed to do it once, yesterday, when I read the whole post. Since then the Beliefnet server seems to be overwhelmed.)

Dreher's post is authentic and heartfelt. In his shoes, I'd have been strongly tempted to do what he has done. Indeed, it would be fair to say that I can empathize with Dreher more than most committed, orthodox Catholics: as a college student I once found myself in a position pretty close to his, and almost did what he has done. I had been sexually abused by a priest as a high school student and was quite generally fed up with the "progressive" Catholic theology and liturgy which was then the norm in New York, at least for students. Since I've told the story of my flirtation with Orthodoxy elsewhere, however, I shall leave out the details here. Suffice it to say that I remained Catholic because, unlike Dreher, I could not get around the pope.

It's pretty clear to me that Dreher's rejection of Vatican I's definitions of papal authority is ex post facto. He is quite up front about the more basic causes of his conversion; the theological part of his post is just what one would expect from somebody who has already made up their mind for other reasons. I, on the other hand, could not suspend intellectual objectivity to quite the same extent. No matter how disgusted with the Catholic Church I had got, it seemed to me that the arguments for Vatican I were stronger than the alternatives. In the post I've linked above, the Pontificator explains why that matters so much. Nevertheless, the Catholic hierarchy in this country had better wake up to two facts.

First, the majority of Catholics who remain both orthodox and practicing do so more in spite of the clergy than because of them. That wasn't always true, and pray God it won't always be true. But it is, and there's nothing to be gained by not giving it due weight.

Second, many Catholics who leave the Church do so either because the clergy haven't formed them properly or because the clergy betray their trust. Dreher's case is only one of the more public, and well-explained, examples. But in one form or another, his name is legion.

Such facts are all the greater proof that nothing will improve in the American Catholic Church until the quality of the clergy, especially the higher clergy, improves significantly. In the last decade, it has improved only marginally; the majority of bishops, regardless of theology, are still more bureaucrats than shepherds. That's what has to change; if it does, all else will change with it, and for the better.

Friday, October 13, 2006

Torture and the Church

As part of my vast readership knows, one of my favorite apologetical themes is that the Church's development of doctrine has not contradicted (or: negated) any teaching that meets her own criteria for infallibility. That is one of my favorites because one of the most common arguments against Catholicism, often made by nominal Catholics themselves, is that the Church has changed her teaching on various points—thus either discrediting her own authority, or giving herself license to make other changes that would be popular today among those who desire sex with few or no consequences. One argument of that type is that the Church has changed her position on torture.

Unsurprisingly, it has become the argument du jour against the Church. The topic of torture has been much discussed lately for political reasons, and the Catholic blogosphere is no exception. See, e.g., what Tom Kreitzberg over at Disputations has been saying lately; and Mark Shea at Catholic and Enjoying It has been at it far longer, even when the topic wasn't in the news. Those discussions are good, but I am especially delighted by Zippy Catholic's, entitled "The Doctrinal-Juridical Two-Step." Here's the opening excerpt:

One of the common "gotcha" arguments around the blogosphere, which apparently is supposed to impress us, goes as follows:

1) During the Inquisition the Church prescribed rules for how torture was to be carried out.
2) Vatican II, Veritatis Splendour, and the Catechism all say that torture is intrinsically evil.


The Church has (supposedly) changed her position on torture! Who are we to believe, Pope John Paul II and the Vatican II Fathers, or Popes Innocent IV, Alexander IV, and Clement IV?

There is a fundamental difference, though, between a doctrinal teaching and a juridical decision.

There is indeed such a difference, and Zippy shows why it makes a difference. The Church has not changed her doctrine; she has developed it by better understanding and making more explicit the logical consequences of truths she has always professed. Accordingly, she has put the particular sin of torture behind her.

Kudos to Zippy. I shall include this topic in the lengthy Development and Negation treatise I shall complete once I can actually move into a place big enough to contain both my books and my computer, which should be when my car is paid off by the end of the year.

Vocations: The Serra Club

The topic of priestly vocations in the Catholic Church interests me greatly for a variety of reasons—not least of which is that, since age 16, I have wished I had one myself. (At this point the desire is vain, and some would say it always has been; but hey, we are defined partly by what we want even when it's unattainable!) Also, priests are especially important today not only for the reasons they always have been but also because they represent, for most people, the authority of the Catholic Church; yet fixed authority in general, and male authority in particular, are under ferocious attack today. Our civilization will not long survive if that does not change, and the power ex opere operato that priests have in virtue of their office is indispensable for changing it.

The primary, even the usual incubator of vocations is the family: strong, loving, mentally healthy, and deeply Catholic families. Although some of those certaintly still exist, they seem to be far fewer than they used to be. I believe that is the main reason why there are fewer priestly vocations these days than when I was a boy. But since John Paul II became pope, the vocations picture has begun slowly to improve, even in the midst of the sex scandals. One of the factors behind that is The Serra Club.

It's a lay organization whose purpose is simply to foster priestly vocations. They do it primarily by joint prayer, friendship with men considering the priesthood, and financial support for seminarians and seminaries. Upon her retirement, one member I knew in the 1990s sold her business and contributed a substantial portion of the proceeds toward scholarships for seminarians, thus enabling several young men to attend seminary who would not otherwise have been able to. I've never been a member myself because my commitments have rarely permitted me to attend meetings. But I hope that changes soon, and I urge those of you who care about vocations to join and participate if you can. There are chapters in every major diocese and many smaller ones. The web site provides the needed contact info, and most chanceries can put you in touch too.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Making up my mind on Iraq

As a Catholic who generally votes Republican purely for the sake of "social issues" such as abortion, embryonic stem-cell research, and gay marriage, I have long withheld judgment about the war in Iraq. Since late 2002, when it became clear that President Bush was bent on the overthrow of Saddam Hussein's regime, it has seemed to me that the main consideration in deciding whether the war is just was whether the evils it would inevitably produce would be outweighed by the good we could achieve. Having read Fareed Zakaria's latest assessment, which strikes me as pure realism, I am forced to agree that they won't be. Our only just course now is damage control as we slowly withdraw.

It's not that we've been militarily defeated. We haven't been. In direct combat, we win every time. We smashed Saddam's army and have killed many more terrorists and insurgents than we have lost at their hands. Most of our casualties have been caused by IEDs. Nor have any of the groups fighting us—such as Ba'athist diehards, al-Qaeda, and the Mahdi Army—won the hearts and minds of the people of Iraq. But we have still lost, politically. Despite the best efforts not only of the Americans but of many Iraqis as well, the country has descended into sectarian civil war. That's what Abu Musab al-Zarqawi had been counting on and working towards; it's small comfort that we killed him before he could be sure he had succeeded. What the civil-war-in-all-but-name has convinced me of is that too many Iraqis would rather kill each other than live together under an equitable power-sharing arrangement among regions, ethnic groups, and religious sects.

That was always the question, at least to my mind. Without a prior tradition of genuine democracy, could the Kurds, Shi'ites, Sunnis, and smaller groups live together sucessfully in a federal, genuinely democratic state that respected basic human rights? If the answer had been yes, the war would have been worth it. But the answer that is clearly emerging is no. So the war isn't worth it.

How to get out without "cutting and running" and making things even worse is an interesting question that I lack the knowledge and firsthand experience to answer. Perhaps there is no useful answer, in which case our only acceptable course would be to maintain enough of a presence for long enough to prevent the kiling from getting even worse when we finally do leave the field. But that will occasion many more casualties and probably lose the Republican Party the next presidential election.

As Admiral Kirk said while kicking the Klingon commander into the fiery abyss: C'est là vie.

Uh Oh...Now What Do We Protest?

Scott Carson over at An Examined Life has posted a spot-on reaction to the Pope's pending order that all priests, anywhere, be allowed to celebrate the "old" or "Tridentine" Mass in Latin, which apparently means by the Missal of 1962. (The two sources I have for this are the Times of London and a report this morning by Sylvia Poggioli on NPR.)

My earliest memories as a Catholic are of Mass according to that form. It's not my favorite form by any means; even after I learned Latin well, and had been attending Mass regularly for years, the Tridentine Mass always made me feel more like a spectator than a participant in liturgy. (This is emotion and aesthetic preference talking, not theology, folks.) After all, the very term 'liturgy' comes from the Greek leitourgia, meaning "work of the people," and I've loved those occasions when I've been granted the privilege of being a lector or extraordinary eucharistic minister; yet it's impossible for laity to do that, or indeed much else, in the older rite. So I prefer the Novus Ordo, the currently normative form that would be better still if celebration ad orientem were allowed in practice (it's not forbidden by the current Roman Missal) and if both Latin and Gregorian chant were more widely used (especially for the Ordinary). But I don't at all object to placating trads by no longer requiring the permission of the local bishop to use the old Mass.

Of course Benedict's move won't be good enough for purists of either Right or Left. The rad-trads of the Right won't like it because their critique of Vatican II and its aftermath goes far beyond liturgical change, and they don't want concessions on that point thrown at them as a sop. (And then there's the problem that, the further Right you go, the less agreement there is even about what form of the old Mass is acceptable; the full-grain purists would have us go back to the pristine Mass of Pius V, and nothing else). The progs of the Left won't like Benedict's move because they tend to see any concession to the trads as an attempt to roll back Vatican II and restore the bad old days under the guise of pastoral solicitude for right-wing cranks.

That purists of both wings will dislike it is why I rather like it.