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

Friday, February 16, 2007

Ecclesiological heckling

In a post I unfairly called "defensive" a few days ago in my own post Parasitic Catholicism, Fr. "WB" of Whitehall really gave eloquent and sensitive expression to the intellectual dilemma of educated Anglicans who want to be Catholic but find themselves unable to think of the Catholic Church as...well, as the Church. Having read enough of Newman and others to be familiar with the issues involved in that dilemma, I did not find any new theological arguments in Fr. WB's post; but I was deeply impressed with both the sincerity and the subtlety of his mind. That is why I was all the more struck by the speciousness of an argument, offered by one of the commenters, for rejecting the idea that the Catholic Church is the Church.

Orthodox philosopher Perry Robinson, who seems to be growing ever more radical in his dislike of natural theology, development of doctrine, and certain other ideas ordinarily associated with Catholicism, wrote in the combox as follows on our present topic: "The Vincentian Canon refers to all apostolic sees since in them the deposit of faith was made personally by the Apostles. Rome then isn’t Catholic any more than the Anglicans." Here is yet another argument that the Catholic Church is not the Church: she's not the Church because she isn't Catholic. In effect, her very name is deceptive.

This is the sort of thing I call "ecclesiological heckling." Admittedly, some Catholic apologists, wrongly, treat Orthodoxy in the same way. But two wrongs don't make a right; and in light of Vatican II's development of ecclesiology, the attitude in question has been steadily receding among Catholics in favor of recognizing Orthodoxy as a communion of true, particular churches. When arguing against Protestantism, for instance, I myself consistently stress that a Protestant, even one of the Anglican variety who thinks they're Catholic, should not merely supersede private judgment and make way for the virtue of faith, but can do so as well by becoming Orthodox as by becoming Catholic. The difference between the latter two branches of Christianity, it seems to me, is a difference of degree within the same kind; whereas both differ from Protestantism as faith differs from opinion, so that the difference really is one of kind. The gravamen of the arguments Fr. Al Kimel and I offer against Anglo-Catholicism—i.e., against the theological option well-represented by Fr. WB—is precisely that, lacking embodiment in a church that is historically and doctrinally continuous with the apostolic church, Anglo-Catholicism is a creation of private judgment and therefore a form of Protestantism. But Perry's argument implies pretty directly that Catholicism itself is in no better a position vis-à-vis private judgment than Anglo-Catholicism. The argument is so specious that it tells only as a heckle.

Perry premises a tendentious interpretation of the 5th-century Vincentian Canon, whose invocation in contemporary theological polemic I rejected a few months ago as "sloganizing." The present premise is an example of what I have in mind. The VC states: "Now in the Catholic Church itself we take the greatest care to hold that which has been believed everywhere, always and by all. That is truly and properly 'Catholic,' as is shown by the very force and meaning of the word, which comprehends everything almost universally." Now that is obviously untrue if taken fully literally; some qualifying interpretation of it has to be given if its original, contextual meaning is to be explained fairly, and I gave that interpretation in my earlier post. Specifically, one needs to know what counts as "the Catholic Church" in order to know what the relevant logical extension of "everywhere, always, and by all" actually is. According to Perry, what relevantly counts as the Catholic Church for VC purposes is the set of sees founded by the Apostles. Now, was it literally true in the 5th century that each and every such see was always orthodox according to the VC? Of course not. At that time, the apostolic sees of Alexandria, Antioch, and Jerusalem, as well as that of Constantinople, had been falling in and out of what even Orthodoxy considers heresy for at least a century. So if the VC is usefully applicable at all, it is applicable only to that communion of churches which, as "the" Church, had remained in the true Faith indefectibly. And which Church was that?

The question cannot be convincingly answered simply by an historical appeal to what this or that collection of sees, even apostolic sees, had "always" held. It can only be answered, if at all, by a theologically prior identification of what counts as "the" Church, so that the unfortunate heresies sometimes infecting this or that occupant of such sees do not weigh against identifying the relevant collectivity, the Church. But that identification, of course, is precisely what is at issue here. Accordingly, there is no convincing way to apply the VC while remaining ecclesiologically neutral. What counts as "the Catholic Church" for purposes of ascertaining how VC should be interpreted cannot be effectively addressed by interpreting and applying the VC in a manner logically independent of one's ecclesiological commitments. Use of the VC to call into question the catholicity of the Catholic Church, or of the Orthodox Church for that matter, is sheer question-begging. That's exactly why I do not spend time arguing that Orthodoxy is not catholic. There is no criterion of catholicity, in terms of which the respective ecclesiologies of Orthodoxy and Catholicism can be judged, that is neutral with respect to those ecclesiologies.

That fact is indeed one of the major reasons why some very intelligent, well-informed, and spiritually serious Anglo-Catholics are unimpressed with the claim of either the Roman or the Orthodox communions to be "the" Church. I believe such Anglo-Catholics to be mistaken, and I have elsewhere explained why. But they are not going to be helped beyond their Protestantism with arguments against Catholicism that very little effort is needed to expose as worthless.
blog comments powered by Disqus