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

Saturday, October 21, 2006

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.
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