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

Monday, February 19, 2007

Progressing to ecclesiological debate

There's a Scylla and a Charybdis in interchurch discussions, as in so many other kinds of discussions. As always, we must steer between both if we are to progress to the level of debate.

The Scylla is starry-eyed but vacuous talk of impending unity. A good example of that is the article today by Ruth Gledhill, religion correspondent for the London Times, entitled "Churches back plan to unite under Pope," the churches in question being the Anglican and Catholic. Such vacuity has necessitated almost immediate "clarifications" from the principals. One hears the air seeping from the balloon; one has heard it all too often before. Wishful thinking never dies; it just gets pricked when it becomes too puffed up. This sort of ecumenism might just be, in the words of the redoubtable Dr. William Tighe, no more than a matter of "jobs for the ecumenical boys." The trial balloons collapse every time, but the industry keeps on floating them. How else to keep the gravy train going in the form of conferences and expense accounts?

By contrast, said Dr. Tighe has recently posted a very sagacious article at Pontifications about the Thirty-Nine Articles as a basis for intra-Anglican unity today. To make a long story short, not much basis there if there ever was. The article has justifiably attracted the attention of prominent English clerics, Catholic and Anglican. That is timely because today is also the day when the Anglican primates' powwow in Tanzania has issued its final communiqué. That document, while honestly facing up to the centrifugal forces within the Anglican Communion, concludes with a vague proposal to find another mechanism for preventing schism. No mention of the Thirty-Nine Articles or anything later—save the bureaucratic "Windsor Report"—that might serve the same purpose. Well, at least such world-weary temporizing is further from Scylla than vacuous unrealism.

But then there's Charybdis. I note that Perry Robinson has replied at length, as co-author at Energetic Procession, to my criticism of him in my post Ecclesiological Heckling. One of his many statements was to repeat an old Orthodox slogan: "Better to live under the Muslims than to wear the cardinal's hat." And this from a man who is outdone by no Christian blogger in opposing Western dhimmitude in face of today's jihadism—rightly, I might add. The rest of Perry's post is written in pretty much the same spirit. What can I say, save res ipsa loquitur and Kyrie, eleison?

In the combox to that post, however, there is a more calmly argued if no less uncompromising rejection of Catholicism also made in response to my prior post. It comes from somebody who calls himself "Fr. Patrick" and who is quite clearly Orthodox. Although he evidently desires partial anonymity, I would not be at all surprised if he turns out to be an American-Orthodox cleric and intellectual well-known in ecumenical circles. Both the style and the quality of argumentation are familiar to me as being of that level. Fr. Patrick's argument is as far from Charybdis as the Anglican primates' communiqué is from Scylla: not as far as we need to be, but further than we see all too often. It calls for a reply.

In support of my criticism of Perry's use of the Vincentian Canon, Brandon of Siris wrote in my combox that St. Vincent of Lerins
...put [the VC] forward as a guideline for how we individuals can interpret Scripture in conformity with the Church -- namely, by taking into account the confession of the whole Church (everywhere), respecting the interpretations of our holy predecessors in the Church (always), and sticking as much as possible to those truths that have achieved a consensus among bishops and teachers of the Church (by all). So it's a very odd thing to use as an ecclesiological criterion a guideline for interpreting Scripture that already presupposes the Church as its reference point.
In contrast, Fr. Patrick wrote:
...the rule is to determine what is heresy and what is not, so it still applicable today. It presupposes the Catholic Church but it doesn't require one to know which body that is at the present time as long as some such body can be identified in the past and possibly exists in the present. The point of the Canon is to determine which group is teaching the Catholic Faith. As a Protestant I used the rule intuitively to find the tradition of Scriptural understanding and then found the Catholic (Orthodox) Church with it. I also rejected both Protestantism and Roman Catholicism by it as not continuing in the Catholic Faith and Tradition as shown by the historical evidence just as the rule intended. I did effectively ascertain what is the Catholic Church by applying the rule logically independent of my then ecclesiological commitments.
The difference between my position and Brandon's on the one hand, and Fr. Patrick's on the other, is logically subtle but extremely important. According to the latter, successful application of the VC presupposes only that there is a Catholic Church, somewhere or sometime or other, which affords the rule's extension. The former, on the other hand, assumes also that one must know where and what said Church is in order to apply the rule successfully.
What's wrong, I believe, with Fr. Patrick's construal of the VC is its premise: that one can and should identify the content of the Catholic Faith apart from knowing what and where the Catholic Church is, in such a way as to enable one to identify what and where the Catholic Church is. On such a showing, the content of the Faith is epistemically independent of its embodied locus; otherwise, one could not learn the former without knowing, specifically, the latter. That is precisely the premise I have consistently rejected in my writings on ecclesiology, mostly here. I reject it because, if it is true, then both Catholicism and Orthodoxy are false.
Both Catholicism and Orthodoxy hold, as part of the deposit of faith, that "the" Church, whatever and wherever she is, is the Mystical Body of Christ which, as such, shares in the teaching authority of her divine Head. Accordingly, any theological investigation that purports to identify the full, unsullied deposit of faith while prescinding from the question what specific body is "the" Church is an exercise of private judgment in the end—not merely in the beginning, where we must all begin. As such, it reduces faith to opinion—in this case, one's opinion about which body most consistently upholds the Faith, whose content one presumes to identify reliably in advance of knowing just which body is "the" Church.
Fr. Patrick's judgment is that the Orthodox Church is that church. That, after all, is why he is Orthodox. In his eyes, his judgment carries the certainty of faith because the evidence as he sees it actually "disproves" Catholicism:
St Vincent's rule in its very existence and form disproves Roman Catholic doctrine by its very absence of mentioning Rome as an authority and test for Catholicity. If among all those, that he talked with to ascertain the rule, the rule, as always mentioned, did not mention the place of Rome, in Magisterium, as now taught in Rome, which is: "In order to preserve the Church in the purity of the faith handed on by the apostles, Christ who is the Truth willed to confer on her a share in his own infallibility. By a supernatural sense of faith the People of God, under the guidance of the Church's living Magisterium, unfailingly adheres to this faith." [The quotation is from Vatican II's Lumen Gentium. —ML] I conclude that such a doctrine did not then exist. The present doctrine is inconsistent with the rule because instead of universality, antiquity and consent one only needs to look at Rome as it is now. So Rome has introduced something new and different, hence it fails the test of catholicity. Its doctrine was not taught in, or consistently with, antiquity and hence Rome does not teach the Catholic Faith without addition or subtraction, so it cannot be the Catholic Church.
But Fr. Patrick's certainty is unjustified. He assumes that what is not explicitly and consensually clear across what all acknowledge to be normative sources would be an innovation if asserted, and thus would constitute addition to or substraction from the deposit of faith. His position is thus a kind of fundamentalism. It differs from Protestant biblical fundamentalism only by admitting a carefully calibrated selection from the Fathers to the fundament. As such, and like its cousin, it assumes that development of doctrine as the Catholic Church now understands it to be is something more than and different from what the Catholic Church now understands it to be, which is a process of making formally explicit what was always materially present in its fullness but not, formally, explicit. Fr. Patrick's assumption, which is common but by no means universal in Orthodoxy, is fundamentally question-begging because making it entails already rejecting the magisterial claims, and thus the authority, of the Catholic Church. But worse still, by applying the VC in a way that prescinds from the question which communion is the Church, it can yield only private judgment. That such judgment in this case maintains itself in a decision for Orthodoxy is irrelevant. It remains what it is.
I do not of course claim that Orthodox profession as such need be like that. In general, it is every bit as much a manifestation of divine faith as Catholic profession; in some individual cases, even more so. But the type of argument against Catholicism that Fr. Patrick and certain other Orthodox use only ends up hoisting them on their own petard. And so it's not as distant from the ecumenical Charybdis as it needs to be.
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