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

Sunday, November 05, 2006

Choosing apostolic communions

Readers of Pontifications know that I've written a fair amount for that blog about how one is to choose between Catholicism and Orthodoxy—assuming those are the only choices one seriously considers, which is the position that many prospective converts from Anglicanism and other forms of Protestantism find themselves in. As I've often said, scholarly arguments pro and con, while sometimes quite helpful, can never in themselves be decisive. Catholicism and Orthodoxy comprise two ecclesiological paradigms that can each supply plausible explanations for what everybody agrees are the relevant data; yet the respective explanations are not altogether compatible with each other. Thus the choice one makes between them often comes down to which non-rational (I do not say "irrational") factors are at work. For the moment, though, I want to focus on one particular intellectual issue that seems to come up repeatedly in this context. My purpose is not to refute the opposing side, a goal which by my own showing is not really attainable; I aim instead to remove one intellectual obstacle to accepting what I, as a Catholic, profess de fide.

An Orthodox believer and ex-Catholic whom I greatly respect, John of Ad Orientem, posted the following as part of a comment a few days ago at The Undercroft:

I read until my eyes were about to pop out on the subject. But all of the theological development in the west just never sat with me. In the end I asked myself how would Leo the Great have reacted if someone had stood up in downtown Rome circa 431 and proclaimed the dogmas of the First Vatican Council. The answer I came to was that said person would have been condemned as a heretic and sent packing.

That is as succinct a way I've yet seen of putting the fundamental issue. I myself remained a Catholic because papal authority as defined at Vatican I is so thoroughgoing, and to other Christians so scandalous, that the claims thereto are of either satanic or divine origin—and I could not find reason enough to believe the former. Al Kimel has written eloquently along the same lines: see Part V of his My Road to Rome. But that can be seen as a primarily biographical point. On the strictly theological merits, I have a question for John and, by extension, to all who think along his lines whether or not they actually end up converting to Orthodoxy.

Presumably, John and many others like him have read Newman. Now we don't need Newman to know why it doesn't matter that many Jewish Christians from the first century were scandalized by Paul's claim that circumcision and other ritual requirements of the Mosaic Law were not binding on Gentile converts to Christianity. Such a "development" was after all ratified by duly constituted teaching authority: specifically, and as recounted in Acts, by the first apostolic council at Jerusalem. But if Newman is correct, it doesn't even matter that the same Christians of the time would likely have been scandalized by the dogma of the Council of Ephesus in 431 (N.B.) that Mary is the Mother of God—as the Nestorian Christians were at the very time the dogma was defined, and which propelled them into a schism that persists until this day. So if there is such a thing as authentic development of doctrine at all, we need to reframe the question that John ended up answering in such a way as to motivate his conversion.

The question is not whether, in one's own hindsight, a Christian of this-or-that time would have been outraged by a doctrinal development of his or a later time. We don't really know. And it should go without saying that the real question is not even whether doctrinal development has taken place. It has, all around. The question is by what authority any given doctrinal development must, in the end, be either ratified or rejected. Pointing out that many in the East never accepted the doctrine of papal primacy as it developed in the West, and speculating that many even in the West would not have done so before the question made itself felt, serves only to beg the question. For if papal authority is what the Catholic Church says it is, then the centuries-long development of the doctrine thereof itself entails and illustrates the legitimate exercise thereof. Of course if papal authority is not what the Catholic Church says it is, then her development of the doctrine thereof is a prime instance of inauthentic development—i.e., addition to the deposit of faith—which is a polite term for heresy. So, what we need to ask ourselves is not whether Pope Leo the Great, or some hypothetical Christian belonging to his flock at the time, "would have" accepted or rejected Vatican I. Any answer to that question is purely a matter of speculative opinion. The question is what ultimate authority in the Church is to settle the other questions as they arise.

What a given individual, be he Supreme Pontiff or humble shepherd, would say before the question arises would not be dispositive even if we could be certain what he would say. For we have no guarantee that knowing the truth into which the Holy Spirit has led the Church at a given time ensures that any given individual of that time would infer and recognize the truth into which the Spirit has led the Church at a later time. The only guarantees we have from Christ are that the later development, if taught definitively by whatever the duly constituted magisterium is, will neither contradict the former nor add anything substantive that was not there, at least implicitly, from the beginning. A very good example of that is what the authors of the Septuagint and the author of the Gospel of Matthew did with Isaiah 7:14.

As far as I've been able to tell after reading and discussing these things during my student days—yea, until my eyes popped out—Orthodoxy does not have a clear, doctrinally irreformable answer to the question what the ultimate doctrinal authority in the Church is. Some say the liturgy, on the principle of lex orandi lex credendi; some say reception by the Church as a whole; some say the councils that came to be called "ecumenical"; some even say the judgment of saintly people perceptible as manifesting the Uncreated Light. For fairness' sake, of course, it's best to take such criteria in convergence rather than in isolation; for different reasons, none taken by themselves seem to me particularly persuasive; taken together, however, they hang together nicely and account for everything almost as nicely. Yet they do not tell us who, exactly, speaks for the Church as a whole. The closest Orthodoxy gets to a final court of appeal, it seems to me, is the verdict of history—history, that is, as Orthodoxy writes it. When I point that out to intelligent Orthodox, most reply that what I'm looking for cannot be had and therefore should not be sought. Thus, while that which the papacy uniquely provides seems to me necessary and advantagous, to Orthodox it seems unnecessary and divisive. It's a clash of paradigms, not of any arguments in particular. I've already explained why, in the final analysis, I stand where I do. And I have other reasons there's no time to delve into here.

Again, I am not seeking to prove people like John wrong. For this is not the sort of question that is amenable to proof, if by 'proof' one means an argument that compels the assent of the healthy intellect, like that of the Pythagorean Theorem. I aim only to show that the kind of consideration that John apparently found dispositive is not dispositive in itself and indeed can be misleading if given more importance than I have suggested it warrants. By all means acquaint oneself with as much of the relevant historical data as you can, if you have the opportunity and ability; but ultimately, it is assiduous prayer and integrity that will lead one where God wills.
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