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

Monday, February 05, 2007

From hell to heresy

In the December and January issues of First Things, theologians Alyssa Pitstick and Edward Oakes, SJ debated the question whether the late, great Hans urs von Balthasar was heretical for saying that Christ's descent ad infernum, professed in the Apostles' Creed, meant that he went to hell for the sake of our salvation. Like many such debates, that one seemed to me largely a matter of definition—in this case, of 'hell'. But eventually and equally typically, it turns on the definition of 'heresy' itself.

If one assumes that the term infernum always and only refers to that permanent state of alienation from God incurred by those who die reprobate, then vB was only being sloppy, not heretical. For he was saying something that he didn't believe any more than any other Christian does. To me, though, vB seemed to be arguing only that the Paschal Mystery had to include some experience on Jesus' part of radical alienation from the Father; that experience, he suggested, began on the Cross and was consummated, but only temporarily, when his soul went ad infernum. Pitstick found such a proposal incoherent, on the ground that one cannot experience, even subjectively, an alienation that ex hypothesi never existed; but I must say I find her arguments to that effect unpersuasive even apart from Oakes' replies. One can simply say that the experience of what it's like to be alienated from God suffices as the soteriologically effective kind of alienation. To the extent they have merit, Pitstick's objections better indicate how certain things should be said than what, in the end, we are permitted to say. The object lesson here extends further.

Pitstick and Oakes are now debating what heresy itself consists in. Far more than the original one, this matter is of great interest within that contentious portion of the Church known as the Catholic blogosphere.

Once again, my sympathies are more with Oakes; but as before, and as physicist Stephen Barr points out, he is being annoyingly sloppy where she is being precise. For instance, I largely accept Oakes' informal account of how the debate with Protestantism about justification "raged inside the ancient precincts of the Church" throughout the Counter-Reformation. He is right on the mark to point out that St. Thérèse of Lisieux, Doctor of the Church, expressed such truth as there was in the then-usual Lutheran understanding of justification. Thus:

I am very happy that I am going to heaven. But when I think of this word of the Lord, “I shall come soon and bring with me my recompense to give to each according to his works,” I tell myself that this will be very embarrassing for me, because I have no works. … Very well! He will render to me according to His works for His own sake.

And, in prayer:

In the evening of this life I shall appear before Thee with empty hands because I do not ask Thee, Lord, to count my works. All our just acts have blemishes in Thine eyes. Therefore I want to wrap myself up again in Thy justice, and to receive from Thy love the eternal possession of Thee Thyself.
As Oakes points out:
Not surprisingly, these passages were suppressed from the first edition of her writings (edited by her fellow nuns at the Carmel in Lisieux) but were restored by more scientifically inclined scholars in the 1950s. These restored passages brought about a revolution in the interpretation of Thérèse, showing her to be a theologian of remarkable depth and uncanny insight, though unschooled in every way except in the crucible of her own experience. In fact, it was these very passages that led Pope John Paul II to declare her a Doctor of the Church.
This is the sort of thing that helps to explain why we could get the Lutheran-Catholic "Joint Declaration" on justification. And it's not the only thing that makes me share Oakes' reluctance to call Protestants—and a fortiori, the Orthodox—"heretics."

According to Vatican II's Unitatis Redintegratio, Catholics may not presume most non-Catholic Christians to be morally responsible for rejecting, or at least doubting, distinctively Catholic doctrines. But when we use the word 'heretic' for any particular individual or group, that's exactly what we're heard as doing even when we don't intend to do it. And so the word 'heretic' should be used very sparingly if at all for non-Catholics.

But of course there is such a thing as heresy, and it's not an endangered species. Some Catholics, for example, believing what they know to be incompatible with what the Catholic Church teaches as de fide, are guilty of heresy in the formal, canonical sense of the term: "the obstinate denial or doubt, after baptism, of a truth which must be believed by divine and catholic faith" (CIC §751). The Church does not need to rule, juridically, that they are heretics in order that we may know them as such; such a ruling is merely useful for ensuring that use of the H-word be taken as more than just an expression of private opinion. A bigger problem, though, is that countless Catholics, though not heretics in the formal sense, are material heretics. I.e., some of their beliefs are objectively incompatible with de fide teaching; but since they don't know that, they can't be held subjectively accountable for heresy. Here use of the H-word is even more inadvisable; for it generates emotional responses that make it all the harder for the real truth to be heard.

Nonetheless and etymologically, the H-word is quite apt for describing the attitude of "cafeteria Catholicism." It comes from the Greek hairesis, meaning "choice." Heresy is choosing to believe this but not that tenet of what is, objectively, the faith-once-delivered; or, in the consumerist American version, it is to choose a little of this, a little of that, and none of the rest. And so, even though the present social ethos in the Church makes the H-word largely unusable, perhaps it's time for that to change. It would be part-and-parcel of the general restoration of clarity that is so desperately needed.
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