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

Monday, February 26, 2007

Ooops, I did it again..

Two Orthodox bloggers have posted reactions to my recent series of posts reacting to the Ochlophobist's recent series of posts on pansexualism, Orthodoxy, and contraception. John of Ad Orientem and Fr. Gregory of Koinonia have both focused on the third and shortest of my series: "Does Orthodoxy allow contraception or not?" In a way I find that disappointing, since I was hoping more for reaction to my argument that allowing barrier-method contraception, as some Orthodox clergy and theologians do, is a mistake. What I've got instead is are instructions on ecclesiology from John and on pastoral economy from Fr. Gregory. But I suppose I asked for that, because I went and did again something I used to do as a teacher: I closed by raising a question. Whenever I do that, it's the question—not my position or arguments—that gets the attention.

John spends a fair amount of time explaining why I'm mistaken to expect a straightforward answer to the question, at least at this stage in history. Orthodoxy, you see, just does take a long time to settle controversial issues, if and when they are settled; it doesn't have things dictated from a single center like that church. It has bishops, after all—not just "one bishop" with an army of "mitred assistants." But once things are settled, that's it. So maybe I should ask again in a few generations, or centuries.

Such an approach, John suggests, is advantageous for ruling out a kind of "development of doctrine" that allows Rome to reverse previous doctrinal commitments swiftly and unilaterally, and thus confusingly, under the guise of "development of doctrine." So, once Orthodoxy does reach some sort of consensus on this issue, we can be confident it won't change its tune.

The digs at Rome are not only unnecessary in themselves but unhelpful from John's own viewpoint. He knows quite well that I've expended much effort showing that the Catholic Church has changed no teaching in such a way as to negate any teaching that meets her stated criteria for infallibility. To my knowledge, he has not criticized that effort. Of course, as his example he picks one of the specific issues I did not address, namely capital punishment: Rome used to approve it under certain circumstances as necessary for both the good of society and the satisfaction of justice; nowadays, says the CCC, it is "rarely if ever necessary." I didn't address that topic because I consider it obvious that what's changed is pastoral judgment in the light of changing social conditions, not any moral principle that had been taught from the beginning. That is a perfectly legitimate "development" for the better. On the specific issue of contraception, by contrast, the traditional ban has been reaffirmed with better reasons than had been given in the past. How is any of this a less trustworthy process than what Orthodoxy is undergoing regarding contraception?

Given the technological and intellectual options available today, I'm not so sure that Orthodoxy is going to reach on consensus on an issue it doesn't consider church-dividing enough to warrant a "great council." Indeed, it seems to me that Orthodoxy has been moving away from the old consensus about birth control. What was once unquestioned is now considered debatable. Unless John can predict with confidence that the outcome of the debate is also going to be a reaffirmation of the ancient doctrine, which Rome continues to uphold, he is in no position to compare Rome's handling of doctrinal development in morals unfavorably with Orthodoxy's. Any attempt to do that merely evades the interesting questions.

To his credit, Fr. Gregory does not evade and saves his dig at Catholicism for the end. Essentially, his argument is that while the traditional teaching against all forms of contraception is true, good pastoral sense calls for the spiritual father to take people's weakness and levels of spiritual development into account. What's wrong in itself is often the lesser of evils given where people are; the job is to apply economy while doing everything possible to encourage the kind of healing, ascetical regimen that Orthodox praxis embodies. Catholicism is then taken to task for failing to do the latter.

Well now. Given all the ignorance, weakness, and cultural poison out there, Fr. Gregory's application of economy is understandable; whether or not it is actually justified in Orthodox terms, I am unqualified to say. Although it leaves me unsatisfied, I can't pretend that Catholic priests do a better job. To the dig, however, I have no better reply than that of The Sarabite, Arturo Vazquez:

Give the blessing, Father.

These are very strong words, and I would hope that we would better reflect on them. It seems a bit of a broad generalization, does it not? After all, how many people in Orthodox countries actually keep the four fasts of the Church? How many actually go to church? Russia, I know, has very, very low church attendance, and I doubt that most people in Orthodox countries are practicing.

Among practicing Orthodox, what you say is the case. But you would be suprised how it is the case among serious, practicing Catholics as well. Broad generalizations do not help; our pious faithful are just as pious as your pious faithful. It is a matter of how seriously one takes one's faith. Maybe the Orthodox Church has the theoretical tools to better understand the question, but the result is always the same if genuine holiness is there.

And I think accepting the consequences of marital intercourse is very ascetical indeed. It probably takes a greater level of faith than weakening oneself from fasting.

Indeed. I would add that, if a couple is living as they ought, then the best form of birth control is children. Loving God's gifts of children as they ought leaves parents with too little energy for going at it like bunnies.

The next question I was going to ask is why so few Orthodox seem able even to field a serious question from a Catholic without getting in a dig or two at Catholicism. Don't they realize how unattractive that is? But I hereby unask the question—or at least disinvite answers. They would only reinforce what I already know the answer to be, which I wish were otherwise.
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