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

Thursday, May 31, 2007

Another philosopher converts

Robert C. Koons, Professor of Philosophy at the University of Texas at Austin and a lifelong Lutheran, announces that he is entering into full communion with the Catholic Church. He thus joins his colleague in the same department, J. Budziszewski.

I'm beginning to think we need a Catholic philosophers' group blog.

Hope of Salvation for Infants who Die Without being Baptised

I've got a lot to say, as usual, especially about the filioque debate. But after a 15-hour workday I'm a bit under the weather and too tired to say it right. So, for now, just click on the title for the report of the Vatican's International Theological Commission.

Wednesday, May 30, 2007


A kind and supportive reader has pointed out to me an error in my post of Saturday, May 19, entitled "Angels and Asceticism." I wrote that the excellent study After Asceticism had been authored by "The Linacre Centre," which is a British bioethics outfit sponsored by the UK bishops. The true authorship is by The Linacre Institute, the bioethics arm of the Catholic Medical Association in the United States. Apologies to those fine folks.

Palamas and Composition

Brandon Watson of Siris studies St. Gregory Palamas' argument to the effect that the essence/energies distinction does not violate the doctrine of divine simplicity. He concludes by observing:

One thing that is striking about this is that from a Thomistic perspective this is exactly how one should argue in order to show that the distinction does not violate divine simplicity. On Thomas's view, simplicity is noncomposition; and all compositio is in some way or another compositio actus et potentiae, a composition of actuality and passive potentiality (cf., e.g., SCG 1.18). If the distinction introduces no potentiality, it introduces no composition, and thus does not violate the doctrine of divine simplicity.

Indeed. I wonder what the Energetic Procession crowd would say about that.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

The filioque VII: replies to the Catholic objections

Several of my weightier Catholic commenters have strongly objected to a key claim I've made in the course of my effort to get beyond the filioque impasse between Orthodoxy and Catholicism: i.e., that there's a sense in which it can be said that the Son is begotten ex Patri spirituque, inasmuch as the Father originates the Son and the Holy Spirit "only in relation to each other." I confess to a bit of dismay about that; I expected most of the objections to come from the Orthodox, not the Catholics. If my ecumenical project is to gain any traction, it is obvious that I need to reassure my Catholic brothers on this score. Hence this post.

As I've said before, it is not my purpose to offer greater insight into the inner life of God than the Church has enjoyed before. Such an ambition would be absurdly hubristic. My aim is only to reconcile the ways of speaking that are normative in West and East respectively. But that cannot be done just by repeating old affirmations and seeking to draw out their deductive implications: that method has been tried many times before, even at general councils, to no lasting effect. The real challenge is to construe certain premises that both sides either already accept or
can accept as legitimate theological proposals, so as to get a helpful result both sides can live with. In my view and that of some theologians from both sides, that requires a new affirmation which, without adding anything to the deposit of faith, would constitute an authentic instance of doctrinal development. Such an affirmation is actually on offer; but I shall save its specific form for the end.

Since most of the objections seem to me to be missing the point, I shall only address what seem to me to be the two most important. To that end, I point out that the Vatican itself is on record as proposing an idea logically equivalent to mine.

In a much-discussed 1995 white paper from the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, we read (emphasis added):

If it is correctly situated, the Filioque of the Latin tradition must not lead to a subordination of the Holy Spirit in the Trinity. Even if the Catholic doctrine affirms that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son in the communication of their consubstantial communion, it nonetheless recognizes the reality of the original relationship of the Holy Spirit as person with the Father, a relationship that the Greek Fathers express by the term ekporeusis.5

In the same way, if in the Trinitarian order the Holy Spirit is consecutive to the relation between the Father and the Son, since he takes his origin from the Father as Father of the only Son,6 it is in the Spirit that this relationship between the Father and the Son itself attains its Trinitarian perfection. Just as the Father is characterized as Father by the Son he generates, so does the Spirit, by taking his origin from the Father, characterize the Father in the manner of the Trinity in relation to the Son and characterizes the Son in the manner of the Trinity in his relation to the Father: in the fullness of the Trinitarian mystery they are Father and Son in the Holy Spirit.7

The Father only generates the Son by breathing (proballein in Greek) through him the Holy Spirit and the Son is only begotten by the Father insofar as the spiration (probolle in Greek) passes through him. The Father is Father of the One Son only by being for him and through him the origin of the Holy Spirit.8

The Spirit does not precede the Son, since the Son characterizes as Father the Father from whom the Spirit takes his origin, according to the Trinitarian order.9 But the spiration of the Spirit from the Father takes place by and through (the two senses of dia in Greek) the generation of the Son, to which it gives its Trinitarian character. It is in this sense that St John Damascene says: "The Holy Spirit is a substantial power contemplated in his own distinct hypostasis, who proceeds from the Father and reposes in the Word" (De Fide orthodoxa I, 7, PG 94, 805 B, ed. B. Kotter, Berlin 1973, p. 16; Dialogus contra Manichaeos 5, PG 94, 1512 B, ed. B. Kotter, Berlin 1981, p. 354).10

Though inspired by St. Gregory of Nazianzus, the highlighted statement does not have magisterial force, for it was not made by an organ of the magisterium. Neither has it been the explicit and ordinary teaching of the Church in the past; rather, I take its appearance in the document as a proposal for authentic doctrinal development. From that standpoint, the mere fact that a Vatican commission has attempted to advance discussion by such means, and has not in any way been reigned in for it, shows that Rome sees the proposal as within the ambit of Trinitarian orthodoxy.

Assuming it is orthodox to say that the Father begets the Son only "by" breathing forth the Holy Spirit "through" the Son (whatever 'through' may mean here, which is a distinct question), then there is a sense in which we may say that the Son "comes forth" or "proceeds" ex Patri spirituque, i.e. from the Father and the Holy Spirit. That does not mean, nor should it mean, that the Holy Spirit originates the Son in the same way as the Father, as if the two could be said to act in exactly the same way in producing the Holy Spirit—any more than the Holy Spirit's coming forth or proceeding from the Father and the Son does or should mean that the Son originates the Holy Spirit in the same sort of way as the Father, in the sense of dual procession. It means that the Father and the Holy Spirit beget the Son "as from one principle," that principle being the Father as spirator, just as the Father and the Son breathe forth the Holy Spirit "as from one principle", that principle being the Father as Father of the Son. Besides reaffirming the monarchy of the Father, that sense of "as from one principle" permits and calls for saying that the Father originates the Son and the Holy Spirit only in some sort of relation to each other.

Getting clear about that is essential for my purpose, since the most serious criticism of my proposal was that it is incompatible with certain conciliar affirmations. Thus, Robert Kovacs pointed out that, in the bull of union with the Copts (1442) promulgated by Pope Eugene IV, it is professed as the faith of "the holy Roman church" that "the Father alone from his substance begot the Son; the Son alone is begotten of the Father alone; the Holy Spirit alone proceeds at once from the Father and the Son" (emphasis added). But that is only to say that "begetting" is what the Father does to originate the Son as distinct from what he does to originate the Holy Spirit. It is not to say, nor does it entail, that the Father's origination of the Son by "begetting" has nothing to do with the Father's origination of the Spirit by "breathing forth." And the same considerations apply to other conciliar statements Robert quotes; otherwise, the statement I've highlighted from the Vatican white paper would be heretical, which cannot reasonably said.

The other major objection to spirituque that I need to consider was registered by Brandon Watson:

I can understand saying that the Son is related to the Father and the Spirit, so if that's all you mean, I agree; but this is not the same as saying that the Son is begotten from the Father and the Spirit, which is what seems implied by the word itself. Everyone must admit the former; the latter seems dubious, particularly if we affirm the Filioque, because the Filioque restricts what can be said about the Son's generation by identifying a distinctive characteristic of the Spirit that must be preserved in distinguishing the other Two. The Son's relationship to the Spirit must reciprocate the Spirit's relationship to the Son, not run parallel to it. Otherwise we seem not to have done anything to distinguish the Spirit's procession from the Son's begetting.

The force of that objection is clear: to affirm spirituque is obliterate the distinction between how the Son is originated and how the Spirit is originated. But as Brandon suspects, I think that is "sticking at words." Construed as I've been explaining, spirituque is an indirect logical consequence of what the Vatican statement affirms, i.e., that the Father begets the Son "by" breathing forth the Holy Spirit "through" him. Given that statement, it can also be said that the Father begets the Son "in" the Holy Spirit; from that, it follows that the Son is begotten by the Father "and" the Spirit as from one principle. It must not of course be said that the Spirit begets the Son by the same activity as the Father, any more than it may be said that the Son breathes forth the Spirit by the same activity as the Father; saying either would be incompatible with the monarchy of the Father. What can and, I believe, should be said is that the Father's origination of the Son only takes place in virtue of the Spirit's, just as the Father's origination of the Spirit only takes place in virtue of the Son's. The latter gives us an orthodox sense of filioque; the former gives us an orthodox sense of spirituque. That kind of parallelism does not preclude the kind of reciprocal relation that Brandon rightly notes, for what is denoted by 'in virtue of' differs in the two cases, and differs in a way that preserves whatever other relation obtains between the Son and the Spirit specifically . So it does not run afoul of his objection.

For the position I'm defending, I am much indebted to a paper I'm fond of recommending: Fr. Thomas Weinandy, OFM Cap., “Clarifying the Filioque: The Catholic-Orthodox Dialogue,” Communio 23, no. 2 (1996): 354-367 K. Then lecturing at Oxford, Weinandy wrote that paper in reaction to the Vatican document and as a followup to his book The Father's Spirit of Sonship: Reconceiving the Trinity; currently he heads the USCCB's Committee on Doctrine. As an ecumenical proposal, Weinandy concludes his paper with the following suggested reformulation of the Creed:

We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord the Giver of Life, who comes forth (ejkporeuvetai) from the Father as the one in whom the Son is begotten and who proceeds (proei'si) from and through the Son in communion with the Father, and together with the Father and the Son is worship and glorified.

That's the "new affirmation" I believe would signify having got beyond the filioque impasse. Perhaps that's what we should be discussing at this point.

Monday, May 28, 2007

My Memorial Day rant

Amid the cookouts, the car races, and other distractions, some of us pause to remember and pray for those who have given their lives so that we might live in such freedom as we retain. I am grateful to our war dead and to those who actually do something in public to honor them. I pray for them today. That is why I am more disgusted than ever about what's become of what they died for. I think everybody should be.

I am disgusted by the fact that the stock market hovers around record highs as the poor get poorer and the world grows ever more dangerous. Quite frankly, the haves are celebrating being haves while saying to hell with everything and everybody else. Now I'm no socialist; on what are called "social issues" in American politics, I'm about as conservative as they come. And nobody outdoes me in wanting to see Islamism fought on every level. That is why I have come to believe that, whatever the weakness of the initial case for war, whatever the irrationality and ingratitude of the factions in Iraq, we must not now cut and run, leaving that tortured country to the tender mercies of the two Psychos-in-Chief, a.k.a. bin Laden and Ahmadinejad. But on economic matters, I don't believe that the status and the attitude of the haves throughout the world, including our own country, are any more practically sustainable than morally acceptable. Most of them are smart enough to know that, deep-down. But they don't care. They're just getting all the gusto while they can. The only thing that might justify such callous selfishness is despair that behaving differently would make any difference. But despair is only justified when the behavior it motivates makes it self-fulfilling. Such a justification is not itself justified.

I am disgusted by the fact that the Republican Party cannot seem to field a pro-life presidential candidate who has a realistic chance of winning the nomination. Like many Catholics, I gave up on the Democrats a long time ago; today, the closest thing to a pro-lifer they have in the presidential field is Hillary Clinton. Not only is she not very close; she's one of the few living, breathing human beings I've ever had a nightmare about. (Just hearing her voice sets my teeth on edge, and I haven't even heard her swear like a stevedore the way a few people I know have.) I like Sam Brownback, a pro-life Catholic from an evangelical background who would appeal to both groups in the general election without being a knee-jerk right-winger. But he has no chance of beating Giuliani, who's about as pro-life as Planned Parenthood, or McCain, who would rather talk about almost any other topic. I also like Fred Thompson, who is running a brilliant non-campaign campaign. But neither he nor Brownback could raise enough dough to impress the kinds of people who carry the most weight in the Party. Once again, the bulk of the money and publicity won't go to the best of the lot. That's just how it is these days. The GOP is corrupt through-and-through and will deserve to lose, if it does lose.

Above all, I am disgusted by the fact that the majority of Americans, including the majority of American Catholics, don't understand what freedom is anymore. It is not what Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, writing for the SCOTUS majority in Planned Parenthood vs. Casey (1992), said:

At the heart of liberty is the right to define one's own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life. Beliefs about these matters could not define the attributes of personhood were they formed under compulsion of the State.

The sort of liberty ostensibly being defined above is not just the individual's religious liberty relative to the state. If that were all that is at stake, it would not be especially controversial. No, what's being propounded is an increasingly common philosophical opinion about the role and scope of freedom in defining "the attributes of personhood." O'Connor—and, worse, Justice Anthony Kennedy, an ostensible Catholic who quoted that passage approvingly a decade later in Lawrence v Texas sodomy case—is saying that one is a person only if one enjoys "the right to define one's own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and the mystery of human life." But if ethical monotheism in any historically recognizable form is true, we persons enjoy no such right. We are of course free to make the attempt to do what it's said we have a right to do; and we've learned that it's unwise for the state to prosecute people who attempt the thing badly. But to the extent that the result deviates from what God has ordained to be the case, it is illusory. That is why Pope Pius IX was right to say that "error has no rights." Hence the state can be under no moral obligation to foreswear premising its policies on anything God is believed to have ordained; even Thomas Jefferson referred to "the laws of nature and of nature's God;" and as persons, our most fundamental choice in this life is whether or not to conform to precisely that. The choice to conform to what God has ordained is the choice to conform to reality, which is a precondition for freedom in life in much the same way that learning how to swim is a precondition for freedom in a deep pool or lake. The choice to reject what God has ordained is a choice of slavery to an idol—ostensibly to the Imperial Self, but in the final analysis to somebody's raw desires, which will not consistently be our own, and wouldn't allow for any more real freedom even if they were consistently our own.

And yet we Americans continue consuming, fornicating, aborting, divorcing, defrauding, bullshitting, and being entertained as though freedom were what Anthony Kennedy says it is. We're out of control. So of course we're always having to pass more laws, and harsher penalties for breaking them, in order to protect ourselves from each other. We have the world's largest prison population in both absolute terms and relative to our population. Meanwhile most of us who are not in jail are fat, or overstressed, or dissatisfied, or some combination thereof. And we're lucky to get 50% turnout in any given general election. This is the land of the free and the home of the brave?

To the extent it's still free, it's because of the brave. I wonder how many of them turn in their graves.

Pentecost, vocation, and two models of church

Sorry for the week's absence, dear and vast readership. There's been a great deal to blog about; but as Pentecost approached, I grappled with my periodic depression about my standard conundrum: how to earn a living by doing what I love and the Church needs. What I have now, and have had for a long time, is purely secular work whose only meaning to me is that of purification and penance. (True, it does prevent me from being jailed as a "deadbeat dad," but that only means I've adopted a more prudent form of penance.) I note that blogging has earned me some tips, for which I am most grateful, as well as a few accepted invitations to publish conventional pieces; but that, after all, doesn't quite add up to a living, nor have I ever thought it would. After prayer and conversation with a few anointed people this past week, I'm no clearer about how to resolve the conundrum beyond efforts I've already been making. Those people tell me not to give up on following my passion, which I suppose is sound enough advice, but not especially enlightening. Adherence to it calls for faith; and while my faith in the teaching of the Church remains unwavering, my faith in my own temporal future has been pretty well ground to powder. Oddly, though, neither have I kept on feeling depressed. That is the Holy Spirit's doing.

For one thing, I went to confession last Saturday evening on the spur of the moment, without even recalling that it was the eve of Pentecost. There was nothing unusual or egregious to confess; yet afterwards I realized how necessary the exercise had been all the same. I hadn't been praying enough; the cacophony of the world outside, and of my own resentments within, had been poisoning me; I had reverted to my second-nature cynicism about life and thus ceased to trust God. The certainty of mercy following repentance, which entails trust, changed that—at least for a time and, one ever hopes, for good.

Then there was the word of God given for the Solemnity of Pentecost itself. I keep on returning to how, according to the first reading from Acts, the Holy Spirit starts to reverse Babel. The original story of the Tower of Babel is probably an etiological myth, though I wouldn't be surprised if it grew out of a true story, perhaps one of a grandiose public-works project gone bellly-up for want of effective communication among contractors. Like the Middle East in general, Iraq hasn't changed that much. But regardless, it is abundantly clear that what St. John the Divine calls "the world" is full of chaos and confusion, even as those empowered by the Spirit exhibit unity and certainty. You can see the contrast even between families: many are fragmented by their TVs, their iPods, their hectic leisure schedules; a few, headed by fathers who are spiritual leaders, are kept together by prayer: in church, at the dinner table, and doubtless elsewhere in or about the home. The miracle related in Acts, which there's no good reason to doubt actually occurred, is clearly meant as a sign of the same sort of unity: that of the Church, of which a healthy domestic church is but a cell. But such unity is possible only if one confesses Jesus as Lord and waits for his Spirit. That means prayer, such as the nine days of prayer—the "novena"—among the Apostles as they awaited the descent of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. And such prayer entails an implicit trust that the grace of the indwelling Spirit continues to renew for me.

Yet how, in general, is such trust really possible today? Few if any of us have seen or heard the risen Jesus; none have heard the Apostles preach; biblical scholars don't agree on how much the actual Apostles were involved in writing the various "gospels," canonical and non-canonical; there is no longer any church that the baptized all agree is "the Church;" and since the so-called Enlightenment we have witnessed the relentless march of secularism as an all-encompassing ideology, not merely of government which is not theocracy. It sometimes seems we must say, with the relativists, that it's all a matter of choosing what appeals. And pace some analytical epistemologists, belief is in some cases voluntary. We hold many of the beliefs we do because we choose—often for good reason, sometimes for bad—to put our trust in the authority with which they are presented, even though we are not in a good position to verify them for ourselves. But whom do we trust in order to be sure that we have been drawn into the very life of God? Well, God of course. But how do we know that's whom we're really trusting?

People often appeal to their own experience; but without being situated within a wider context of authority, that does not really answer. "The varieties of religious experience," to use William James' phrase, are countless and not easily classified; and even experiences with ostensibly similar phenomenal content are often interpreted by different people in mutually incompatible ways. A cacophony of individual "experiences" and testimony thereto raises more questions than it answers. It is a Babel—ultimately, a Babel of relativism and indifferentism. It won't serve to unify people because, taken just by itself, it confuses without clarifying.

Among Protestants, it is common to appeal to "the Bible" as the normative authority for interpreting religious experiences. To some extent, that is helpful. Assuming that the Bible is somehow divinely inspired, which is a big assumption, that mini-library materially contains what's necessary to know for our salvation. But again, absent some normative authority for resolving disputes about what that really is on various points, appealing to the Bible only pushes the problem back a level. Even if, per impossibile, we had complete agreement on what the original human authors intended in each and every case, we probably wouldn't be much closer to agreement on what the Holy Spirit intended in each and every case. The literal sense is not eo ipso the canonical sense; if it were, we'd have some irresolvable contradictions on our hands, which I doubt we want to say God intended; and even if we didn't have those, the content of the faith would be largely a matter of opinion. Christianity is not primarily the religion of a book, or even of a special set of books. As the Pope says, it is not even primarily a doctrine: it is an "encounter with a Person." And how are we to encounter that Person reliably, so that we can trust him?

At this point some people, including but not limited to Orthodox believers, appeal to Tradition, i.e. to all that is "handed down" to us by Christ from the Apostles. The Bible, they say, is only the most authoritative written expression of that wider Tradition in light of which the Bible itself must be interpreted. That is true. But in order to identify the content of that wider Tradition, we need to identify an authoritative bearer of Tradition; it's no good appealing to something called Tradition as a way of resolving doctrinal disputes if we can't say whose tradition and why. Now the only candidate for such an authoritative bearer of Tradition is "the Church." So then the question becomes: how to identify "the" Church, given the myriad of churches?

The importance of that question is why, during my career in the blogosphere, I have so often broached ecclesiological issues. Whether one believes the answer or not, the Catholic Church has a clear, consistent, and non-arbitrary answer to the question, one that is grounded in history even though not proven by appeal to historical data alone. That is one very important reason why I'm Catholic. But I am not writing this to convince anybody of the Catholic answer to the question; that would be absurdly overambitious even for me. I'm writing to make clear that the question cannot be credibly evaded.

The most common way of evading it, at least among devout Christians of the evangelical and pentecostal varieties, is to appeal to what is often called "the witness of the Holy Spirit." Thus, in his response to my article "Why Beckwith Matters", Rev. Rick Phillips says:

Whereas Liccione and other Roman Catholics see the divide as consisting between ecclesiastical and individual authority, Reformed theology sees a divide between church authority and the authority of the Holy Spirit. We are not relying on private interpretation, but on the witness of the Spirit to the Word in the church to the people of God.

The question I would pose in response to that is this: if the witness of the Spirit is indeed distinguishable from that of individual interpretation of the Bible on the one hand, and from that of "ecclesiastical authority" on the other, how is one so to distinguish it? Everybody who sincerely believes the version of Christianity to which they subscribe believes they are led to do so by the Holy Spirit and are thus bearers of the witness of the Holy Spirit. But that doesn't even begin to settle the question who is right so to believe. Nor is there any agreed, publicly accessible method for settling the question. That is why, in such a context as this, appeal to the witness of the Holy Spirit as opposed to both private interpretation and the teaching authority of the Church utterly begs the question. The Catholic and Orthodox churches also, after all, claim to bear the "witness of the Spirit to the Word in the church to the people of God," while believing their own dogmas to be part of that witness. But of course the differences within Christianity remain; and there is no way, prior to assessing the claims of a given church to divinely bestowed authority, to identify who really bears the witness of the Holy Spirit to the word "in the church."

Such difficulties make me glad to be Catholic. If we understand what the Catholic Church claims to be, and accept it, we don't have those difficulties. Of course we have many other problems in the Catholic Church, as everything involving human beings does. But I have excellent reason to trust that, whatever does or doesn't happen to me as an individual member of the Mystical Body of Christ, his Bride on earth, I am just such a member and can remain one as long as I choose to. That makes my trust in the worthwhileness of my life possible even when the visible evidence thereof isn't very persuasive. Why? Because I can reasonably trust that I remain in loving encounter with the Person whom life is all about.

Nevertheless, it's often been said that American Catholics are experientially Protestant inasmuch as their religious sensibilities are formed, almost by osmosis, in a culturally Protestant environment. I think that's largely right, and the phenonomenon affects our experience of church in particular.

In Protestantism, a church is essentially a voluntary association of individuals whose religious opinions happen more-or-less to coincide; "the" Church, on this model, is the invisible collection of people through the ages who have got and stayed right with God; and one hopes, with fingers crossed, that the Church and the churchgoing set roughly coincide. In Catholicism, however, "the Church" is something visible: those among the baptized who are in full communion with the Bishop of Rome; "a" church is an organ of that body, which might or might not have remained in full communion with the Bishop of Rome, and thus might or might not be fully integrated into the whole. That selfsame Church is the Bride of Christ, one body with him in a mystical marriage, and thus is the Mystical Body of Christ. What "the" Church teaches with her full authority, therefore, just is the teaching of Christ, and thus is what "the Spirit witnesses to in to the Church to God's people." That is why what the Church proposes for our belief is coextensive with divine revelation, and the decision to accept it is the gift of faith bestowed by the Holy Spirit. Any church built on any other conception of church has no such authority and therefore, to the extent its doctrine and church order differ from those of the Catholic Church, is teaching mere religious opinion. Even when the members of such a church do hold what is of faith, they do not hold it by faith, save to the extent they rely on the authority of the Catholic Church—which many do more than they realize.

This Pentecost, I pray that a lot more people come to realize that. And I'm not doing that just because, if the prayer is answered soon, I'd have a better chance of getting the sort of job I want. That might only mean that I'm mistaking my own desires for those of the Holy Spirit. No, I'm praying that way because it's always a good and joyous thing when Truth is acknowledged. It might even help people trust each other more again.

Saturday, May 19, 2007

Angels and asceticism

I was delighted today to read about Fr. Marcello Stanzione and his militia. He got me thinking. I wish he'd get the whole Catholic world thinking.

Whenever I go to a bookstore, I see a book about angels. Every year I see one that I haven't seen before. Over the decades I have seen more books about angels than I can count—mostly by non-Catholics. Several years ago angels were all over the media: very much in fashion, often for the wrong reasons. But I can't recall when I last heard a peep about angels from the pulpit of a Catholic church in the United States. Everybody seems interested in them except the parish clergy. OK, Richard Dawkins isn't interested either.

The older I get, the more things I don't understand, and this is one of them. That interest in angels is often ill-informed and sometimes ill-motivated is irrelevant; in fact, that's a problem the Church should be addressing with the truth. Angels are real, active, and important. Scripture, Tradition, and classical theology have a good deal to day about them: the good ones and the bad ones. And they're as relevant today as ever. I often invoke my guardian angel and my patron saint, Michael the Archangel, marshal of "the heavenly hosts." Experience has firmly convinced me that they are active in my life: protecting me, strengthening me, bearing me up in spiritual combat with their evil counterparts, and with the evil in my own soul that gives those evil counterparts too much of a chance. I am by no means unique among Catholics—or Orthodox or Protestants, for that matter. I even know a few well-educated and sophisticated people who are convinced they have seen angels. The ministrations, and the appeal, of angels are not only ecumenical but universal. Yet in this age of post-Vatican-II universalism, very few Catholic clergy care. Why is that?

I suspect it has a common cause with the falloff in asceticism that has been noted by the Linacre Centre and that partially accounts, in their view, for the sex-abuse scandal. Sexual abuse aside, is it any surprise that a substantial minority of ordained Catholic men have left priestly ministry to marry? For that matter, is it any less surprising that materialism and sexual immorality among lay Catholics are not markedly less prevalent than among the general population? But it's the clergy that must set the tone. And among the middle-aged-and-over secular priests in the developed countries, which of course includes bishops, there just doesn't seem to be the lively sense of the supernatural that you can still find in certain quarters, such as Africa. It does remain alive in certain religious orders, ecclesial movements, and individually pious souls; but in most of the contemporary Catholic world, there just isn't much sense of the supernatural anymore. That's why there isn't that much asceticism among the clergy. Why be motivated to war against the flesh if that's not going to lead to visions of the Uncreated Light, to virtue that matters in ways people can understand, or indeed to much else besides lower bills for comestibles and entertainment? And that's why they don't seem interested in angels, or in certain other things that come with a sense of the supernatural. The stuff's out there but not on the radar screen.

From what I hear, they don't even talk about angelology and demonology in the seminaries either. More's the pity. They should heed priests like Fr. Stanzione.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Salvation at the golden mean

Consider the following two propositions:

(1) Only those who, by the time they die, have freely and explicitly put their faith in Christ are saved.

(2) Only those who, by the time they die, have freely and explicitly rejected Christ are damned.

For want of better terms, let's call (1) the "rigorist" position and (2) the "laxist" position. Rigorism and laxism have each had their adherents; in this age of relativism and its religious correlate, "indifferentism," (2) seems to have many adherents among Catholics. Not all such Catholics would even consider themselves "progressives." But on any authentically Catholic account, both (1) and (2) must be deemed false; the truth must lie somewhere in between, at a golden mean between rigorism and laxism. I don't know that we can state that mean accurately, and I don't even know whether anybody has tried. But it's worth a try, if only to stifle some useless controversies. To that end, first let's dispose of the extremes.

(1) is false because, for one thing, it doesn't take account of what the Church says happens to people who die after valid baptism but before having had the opportunity to make morally significant choices. It is simply taken for granted in the ordinary teaching of the Church that all such "infants" are saved, which means they will inevitably share the bliss of the divine life forever. So if you have a child whom you baptized but who died in infancy, feel free to ask for their prayers. Or if your baptized child is so developmentally disabled that they might never be able to attain true moral responsibility, worrying about their salvation is certainly less justified than worrying about those of "normal" children. It's probably less justified than worrying about your own; if you don't worry about the latter, you should—at least at some stage.

The faith in virtue of which such "infants" are saved is vicarious. Thus the faith that valid baptism requires is credited to the recipients in virtue of that of adult Christians who take responsibility for them. Of course that doesn't apply in the case of adults who die without ever having been in a position to make an informed choice for Christ. That's why Pius XII, after a long period of doctrinal development, adopted the idea of a possible "baptism of implicit desire" for such people. Fr. Leonard Feeney, a Boston Jesuit beloved by many traditionalists, didn't like that idea at all; in fact, he denounced it as heretical. But as evidenced by a footnote in Lumen Gentium §16, the Fathers of Vatican II liked it and thought it orthodox. And of course there's a question recently brought to the fore by the Vatican's statements about limbo: can "infants" who have died without baptism be saved, perhaps by vicarious baptism of desire? I and others would say yes, but that answer raises trad hackles; after all, limbo was not a long-popular theologoumenon for nothing. I shall return to that issue as I seek to close in on the golden mean.

(2) is false because the evidence is overwhelming that people can become confirmed in true evil, and die in it, without knowing about Christ—or at least without knowing enough about Christ to make an informed and explicit choice one way or the other. That, after all, is why he came to save us, and why it is an imperative of love to preach the Gospel "to all nations." Indeed, the fact in question is part of the evidence for the doctrine of original sin. According to that doctrine, we are each (the usual two exceptions being understood) conceived in a state of alienation from God for which we are not personally culpable, but which entails certain disorders that make some-or-other actual sin inevitable once free choice becomes possible. To sin is to disobey God and act as his enemy; to die unrepentant, and thus in a state of enmity with God, is to be damned, regardless of how ignorant of revealed truth one may be. And each of us who can make choices would end up damned were it not for the unmerited divine grace won for us by the Pasch of Christ. It may be that there would be no possibility of damnation without the possibility of salvation; but that doesn't affect the fundamental point, which doesn't even require knowledge of divine revelation.

As a pointer to the golden mean, now consider this: just as it's possible to be damned without knowing Christ enough to make an informed and explicit choice to reject him, some are saved without knowing Christ enough to make an informed and explicit choice to put one's faith in him. As I've already implied, all that is taken for granted by the ordinary teaching of the Church, even though we don't know exactly who falls into either category, other than infants who die baptized. The only live question is this: whatever may be necessary for an individual's salvation, must it be supplied by the time they die?

A clear and doctrinally binding answer to that question would go a long way to specifying the golden mean. But unlike most trads, I don't think there is such an answer. There are more or less plausible speculations at the margins.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Enough to make a grown parodist weep

From Diogenes at "Off the Record."

Wicked, wicked. But they deserve it. I love it.

The Good, the Bad, and the Confusing

Over the past week, there's been a bit of Catholic news epitomizing what's good, what's bad, and what's confusing about the state of contemporary Catholicism. The confusion arises from the clash of the good with the bad. We need to ponder that more.

During the Pope's trip to Brazil, there was a flap about whether Catholic politicians who support legal abortion are "excommunicated." That's a live issue in Brazil now because the government, in the persons of both President Lula de Silva and the legislature, is expanding the kinds of cases in which abortion is legal. We saw an earlier version of this movie in the U.S. during the 2004 election campaign; as then, the man who is now pope only said what ought to have been obvious. But as this sort of thing just isn't obvious to journalists, especially secular journalists, a flurry of "clarifications" ensued from those around the Pope.

Basically, the claim is that those who procure, carry out, or otherwise "formally cooperate" in abortion excommunicate themselves; public officials who support legalizing abortion are formally cooperating in abortion; therefore, such officials are, in a certain sense, "excommunicated." But what sense? In canon law, that kind of excommunication is called latae sententiae, i.e. "by broad judgment" not requiring a specific judgment or decree; call that 'ELS' for short. ELS is distinct from excommunication ferendae sententiae, i.e. "by judgment carried out," which must be expressed in a specific decree; call that 'EFS' for short. What a lot of people don't seem to understand is that stating when ELS holds does not constitute EFS. Stating when ELS holds does not bring about a state of affairs that didn't obtain prior to the statement; it merely describes a state of affairs that already obtains, given canon law and certain people's actions. But EFS does bring about a state of affairs that didn't obtain prior to the statement; that's why, in certain cases other than abortion, formal decrees of excommunication are occasionally issued by bishops or the pope. Thus, in saying that Catholic politicians who formally cooperate in abortion are "excommunicated," all that's being said is that such people have made themselves unworthy to "communicate," i.e. to receive the Eucharist. Such a statement does not make such people unworthy or otherwise impose penalties on them. It merely points out what is already and objectively the case.

That's the good news. The bad news is the reason why so many people don't get the good news: in practice, the clergy often do not behave accordingly. The pope, the bishops, and even some among the lower clergy can say until they're blue in the face that people who formally cooperate in abortion are unworthy to receive the Eucharist; but many bishops and priests will give the Eucharist to such people all the same, citing as justification that they can't be sure, in individual cases, whether the communicant is unworthy at that moment. That is a tiresome, hypocritical, and highly destructive dodge. Most such politicians are utterly unrepentant and make no bones whatsoever about that fact; so until most bishops and priests actually withhold the Eucharist from such people, the Church's claim that such people are unworthy to receive the Eucharist will not be taken seriously, and they will be understood to be "excommunicated" only when decrees of EFS are actually issued to that effect. Thus the clash between the good news and the bad news generates a huge amount of confusion, for which the bishops have only themselves to blame.

The solution is simple: withhold the Eucharist from those who, by their public actions and statements, formally cooperate in abortion. A scattering of bishops, both in the U.S. and abroad, do just that. But spreading that solution is not easy because it requires a courage that is in relatively short supply. We witnessed the lack of such courage during the coverup of the sex-abuse scandal. When will they learn that, in matters spiritual, clarity requires integrity and credibility requires both?

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

The filioque V: replies to objections

Unsurprisingly, my account of the filioque has come in for a certain amount of criticism. Yet I am gratified that the criticism has been less hostile than it often can be in this area. It merits response.

Here I shall consider three criticisms. The first and most important concerns my actual argument; it comes from a Christian philosopher and fellow "filioquist" who has not stated his ecclesial affiliation. The latter two concern the filioque's dogmatic authority, and come from Orthodox believers.

I. In a post entitled "Interposition," philosopher Brandon Watson of Siris actually registers two objections to my account as outlined in "The filioque IV: the issue narrowed further." The first is that my claim that it can also be said that the Son is begotten ex Patri spirituque, "if true (I'm actually not convinced it is), would be a reductio ad absurdum of the account." The second is that, contrary to what I hold, filioquists need not reject the Cappadocian principle ('CP' for short) that every divine property must be either individual, and thus unique to a particular hypostasis, or common to all three and thus "of the nature."

On reflection, I think the second objection is right. I had taken CP to entail, in conjunction with the doctrine of the monarchy of the Father (DMF), that there is no sense in which it could be said that either the Son and the Spirit have anything to do with each other's origination from the Father as hypostases. And I had adopted that construal because the Eastern Christians with whom I have most often discussed the filioque issue do so, or at least seem to do so. But Brandon has shown why, logically speaking, one needn't construe CP as I and they have.

The upshot is this. All sides agree that the Son and the Spirit are each "God from God" (cf. St. Anselm), and thus each can be said to have the property of being God by derivation. But that is not a violation of CP; for it is equally generally agreed, as a requirement of orthodoxy, that the modes of origination of the Son and the Spirit respectively are not precisely identical. Although both "come from" the Father, who is their sole fons et origo, the Son is "begotten" and the Spirit is "spirated"; so, aside from what, exactly, that difference consists in, we must say that there is a difference. Accordingly, the fact that the Son and the Spirit each have the property of "being God from God" is only what Brandon terms a "notional" identity; in reality, the respective modes of derivation are different, and thus the modes of origination by the Father are different. So if the Son does have something to do with the Spirit's origination from the Father, the uniqueness of personal properties ad intra is preserved for the Son and the Spirit—provided that the something in question is not ekporeusis, which has already been conceded to be the unique, personal property of the Father. Following St. Gregory of Nyssa's account, Brandon labels that something as "interposition" and fleshes out a bit about what that meant for Gregory. The details of Gregory's account are interesting, but I shall not review them here. It seems to me that several possible "filioquist" accounts could observe the same stricture that Gregory's does and be at least as illuminating.

The advantage of such a result, besides its truth, is ecumenical: it does not require Eastern Christians to give up CP. I confess to feeling a bit sheepish for missing that. For the reasons Brandon gives, all the present result requires is rejecting the criticism offered by St. Photios in the Mystagogia that the filioque violates CP. And the reason why it doesn't violate CP is also a reason why it doesn't violate DMF.

By the same token, however, I can't make much sense of Brandon's other criticism of my account. My main claim has been that the Father originates the Son and the Spirit "only in relation to each other." From that, I concluded, there is a sense in which the Son is begotten ex Patri spirituque. But that is only to say that the Spirit has something to do with the Father's origination of the Son, even as the Son has something to do with the Father's origination of the Spirit; it is not to say that the sense in which the Spirit has to do with the Son's origination is the same as the sense in which the Son has to do with the Spirit's origination. Indeed, Brandon himself hints at the relevant sense of spirituque (emphasis added):

To say that the Spirit is from the Father and the Son is as much to say that the Father is together-with-the-Son in the procession of the Spirit, just as to say "Paul and Silvanus" is as much to say "Paul-with-Silvanus". This is why there is only one spiration; the spiration is always from the Father; but the Son is with the Father in the Spirit's being breathed forth by the Father, and thus distinctively interposes without detriment to the Spirit's full Godhead. The Son, on the other hand, is in being begotten together-with-the-Spirit from the Father (begotten from the Father and the Spirit), and together-with-the-Father in the Spirit's proceeding, as the only-begotten who has the same Spirit as His Father.

I don't think the boldfaced text is saying anything different from, still less incompatible with, what I've been saying. In fact, I agree with everything Brandon says. Once my mistake about CP is corrected, we're saying pretty much the same thing.

II. Now for the simpler of the two objections from the Orthodox.

In a long thread at Energetic Procession, I had written: "
In fact, I do think there are problems with the filioque. E.g., I have said many times that I believe Rome needlessly wounded Church unity by inserting the phrase into the Ecumenical Creed" in AD 1014 under pressure from the "Holy Roman" Emperor. That's something I've said, in substance, many times both online and off. But a man who names himself "David" and identifies himself as a Catholic philosopher "on the verge of becoming Orthodox" objects to that as follows:

Strictly speaking, this is not a position open to a Roman Catholic, for the council of Florence declares (session 8): “In the first place, then, we give them the holy creed issued by the hundred and fifty bishops in the ecumenical council of Constantinople, with the added phrase and the Son, which for the sake of declaring the truth and from urgent necessity was licitly and reasonably added to that creed”Strictly speaking, this is not a position open to a Roman Catholic, for the council of Florence declares (session 8): “In the first place, then, we give them the holy creed issued by the hundred and fifty bishops in the ecumenical council of Constantinople, with the added phrase and the Son, which for the sake of declaring the truth and from urgent necessity was licitly and reasonably added to that creed.”

I treat that objection as "Orthodox" because it comes from somebody leaning to Orthodoxy and entails a conclusion I've heard before from some Orthodox: that Catholics cannot self-consistently affirm the truth of the filioque and the unwisdom of its addition to the Creed.

The argument itself, however, is a non-sequitur. In no sense are Catholics bound to accept the judgment that the filioque had been added to the Creed "from urgent necessity" and "reasonably." For one thing, the decree being cited had only juridical not dogmatic force. It was meant to establish only that the Council of Basel be "one" council, which indeed it became even as it was eventually moved to Florence and Ferrara. What Catholics are bound to accept, by giving the assent of faith to, is the proposition that the dogma of the filioque defined by the Council of Lyons (1274) and in due course by Florence (1442) is true. Of course I render such assent precisely as a Catholic. But that is altogether different from saying that Rome's original insertion of the phrase in 1014 was a sound move in some practical sense. Logically, one who accepts the dogmatic infallibility of general councils, and hence the truth of the filioque in particular, can affirm the former while denying the latter. That's just what I do.

III. The final objection I shall consider comes from—who else?—Perry Robinson, and is that, by Roman standards themselves, the council held at Constantinople in 879-80 binds Rome. Among other things, that council forbade any attempt to "add" to the ecumenical creed of 381; and historically, the the filioque is the only candidate for such addition. This issue has come up before between Perry and me; here, I link to the latest iteration of it.

There are two difficulties with his objection: one historical, one logical. The historical has been cited deftly by Greg DeLassus (emphasis added):

In his work The Photian Schism, Francis Dvornik [a Jesuit—ML] quotes the letter which Pope John VIII sent to Patriarch Photios wherein he recognizes Photios as Patriarch and the Constantinopolitan synod of 879-80 as a legitimate ecumenical council rescinding the synod of 869-70.

Basically, in his letter, John accepts Photios and his council conditionally. John intructed that his legates should insist on certain assurances from Photios. If his conditions (including that Photios acknowledge Roman supremacy) are met, then the council is accepted. If his conditions are not met, then the council is rejected. So, were John’s conditions accepted by Photios and the Constantinopolitan church? We have no letter in reply from Photios to John which would make his acceptance explicit. As such, given that John’s reception of the 879 synod is conditional on such acceptance, we cannot say with any precision that Rome did or did not receive the 879 synod as authoritative.

The relevant text of the letter reads: Nam et ea, quae pro causa tuae restitutionis synodali decreto Constantinopoli misericorditer acta sunt, recipimus. Si forasse nostri legati in eadem sinodo contra apostolicam preceptionem egerint, nos nec recipimus nec iudicamus alicuius existere firmitatis.

Now given that Rome eventually repudiated said council, we may conclude that in due course she judged the conditions not to have been met. Hence, the council can be said to have bound Rome only if one asumes that its authority obtained with or without Rome's consent. Catholics as such cannot accept that assumption. And given the broader issues between Catholicism and Orthodoxy, such an assumption would only beg the question against the former.

But even supposing, for argument's sake, that Rome really had accepted the council of 879-880, there remains the logical question whether the condemnation of adding anything to the confession embodied in the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed of 381 ('NCC' for short) is dogmatically binding by Rome's own standards. That would indeed be the case if the condemnation entails that the filioque is, in fact, false, or otherwise adds anything of substance. But the pertinent conciliar text entails no such result. In the translation and with the emphasis Perry uses, here's the most pertinent passage:

If one dares to rewrite another Symbol besides this one, or add to it, or subtract from it, or to remove anything from it, and to display the audacity to call it a Rule, he will be condemned and thrown out of the Christian Confession. For to subtract from, or to add to, the holy and consubstantial and undivided Trinity shows that the confession we have always had to this day is imperfect. It condemns the Apostolic Tradition and the doctrine of the Fathers. If one, then having come to such a point of mindlessness as to dare do what we have said above, and set forth another Symbol and call it a Rule, or to add to or subtract from the one which has been handed down to us by the first great, holy and Ecumenical Synod of Nicaea, let him be Anathema.

The key thing to note about that is its conditionality. Its condemnation extends to the filioque only if it be granted that the doctrine of the filioque "adds to the holy and consubstantial and undivided Trinity" and thus shows that the earlier confession is "imperfect." But that is precisely what Rome does not grant.

The position of the Catholic Church is that the filioque does not "add" to the doctrine of the Trinity as developed by councils acknowledged as ecumenical by East and West. The Roman claim is that the phrase filioque merely helps to make explicit what was implicit in NCC, the "symbol" being referred to by the above condemnation. But it follows that the "confession" embodied in NCC is "imperfect" only if Rome's later adding the filioque to NCC implies that she holds there is something wrong with the confession NCC embodied when it was issued in 381. No such implication holds, nor does Rome think it does. NCC was a perfectly adequate and orthodox response to the issues of its time, and its original text remains perfectly true. It just doesn't say everything true that later contingencies might call for saying. Now as I've said before, I believe that Rome's later judgment that the filioque was worth adding to NCC was pastorally unsound. But that doesn't affect the question of the truth of the doctrine expressed by that phrase.

As always, the key issue lurking in the background here is that of "development of doctrine." In a spirit quite similar to that of certain Catholic traditionalists and Protestant fundamentalists, Perry and some other Orthodox deny that there is any legitimate DD. I shall shortly resume addressing that issue in its own right.

Monday, May 14, 2007

Why Beckwith matters

The religion blogosphere has been abuzz for a few weeks now about the reversion of a prominent evangelical intellectual, Dr. Francis J. Beckwith, to the Catholicism of his childhood. That event is particularly gratifying to me as a fellow philosopher. Beckwith's publication record puts me to shame; I wish I had written many of his pieces myself. And there has been more for me in all this: the long, passionate discussion thread on the linked post was by turns amusing and sad. It wasn't that, mixed with the messages offering congratulation and empathy, one found many expressing disappointment and outrage; that was only to be expected. The funny thing was the bitter debates that the negative comments ended up sparking between some commenters themselves. At one point, there was even intra-Orthodox fighting. Such singular lack of perspective, characteristic of Internet comboxes, is the stuff of which humor is made. It's easy to make fun of such people. But there is a more serious and instructive kind of criticism to consider.

Cynthia R. Nielsen, a Protestant academic blogger whom I much respect, and Fr. Al Kimel have drawn my attention to the "thoughts" on Beckwith's "return to Rome" posted by Carl Trueman, Professor of Church History at Westminster Theological Seminary. That Trueman's tone is unfailingly respectful and generous is what enabled me to attend to the questions he raises. Tracking Beckwith's brief explanation, those concerned:

First, the role of patristic writings. Second, the issue of justification. Third, the common theological ground of Catholicism and Protestantism as having been originally determined by the church. Fourth, the weight of all this evidence pointing to the `safer bet’ option of backing the Catholic Church.

Trueman's remarks are revealing indeed. About the first two, the divergence is about interpretation, primarily Scripture and secondarily the Fathers themselves. In my view, the details of such debates are unimportant; apparently, that is Trueman's view too. Thus he says, re the patristic record: "
the real issue of how to read the early church fathers is, for Beckwith as for Newman, a matter of church authority" (emphasis added). And the same re justification:

Doctrine develops even for Catholics, as Newman made clear, and could have developed into Luther (as the work of, say, Heiko Oberman on late medieval nominalism has shown). That it did not do so points us again not so much to specific problems in the history of dogma per se, but to the issue of church authority.

The phrase "could have developed" is instructive. From the standpoint of Church history alone, it is indeed a matter of opinion whether the Catholic understanding of justification could have ended up as Luther's. I happen to believe it could not have, because I believe that Luther's account of justification was unprecedented when developed. It is not found in any of the Fathers and, to my mind, constitutes an innovative way of interpreting Scripture. That is why Luther had to say that the Letter of James is "an epistle of straw." But again, this is all a matter of opinion: Beckwith himself even holds that both the Tridentine and the Reformed conceptions of justification are "defensible" on the basis of the scriptural and patristic record. So the real question, as is so often the case, is by what authority, if any, one is to choose between them.

For a Protestant such as Trueman, that does not at first appear to be the question. Thus, regarding the third issue he raises, he says:

I do indeed rejoice in the common creedal heritage of Catholicism and Protestantism. But I do not believe the creeds because the church approved them. Now, let me nuance that. I find myself in basic agreement with Heiko Oberman on the nature of the Reformation struggle over authority. He argued that the clash between Rome and Protestants was not a clash between tradition and Scripture alone, but a struggle over the nature of tradition. Protestants (and, indeed, some Catholics at that point) held to the notion that there was one source of revelation from which the church’s tradition flowed, namely, Scripture; and that this tradition (which Oberman calls T1) was thus always in principle corrigible by Scripture. There were others in the Catholic Church, however, who argued for a two-source theory of tradition, Scripture and extra-scriptural revelation as recognized or defined by the church (T2). This distinction is important as it allows me, as a Protestant, to acknowledge my debt to tradition in an honest and realistic manner without being required to submit to the church as ultimate authority. My approach to creeds, therefore, is decidedly that of a T1 adherent: I take them very seriously because they are the work of the church at a corporate level, but I only believe them because they seem to have done the job of making sense of Scripture for at least 1500 years and continue so to do. Thus, they command my adherence but no longer and no further than they continue to be a credible and consistent synthesis of what Scripture says.

On Trueman's view, which is hardly uncommon, the historic creeds are authoritative not in virtue of the ecclesiastical authority with which they were promulgated, but because they conform to Scripture interpreted independently of such authority. Now, I believe that such a conception of creedal authority entails that creeds have no authority at all. For the interpretation of Scripture apart from the teaching authority of the Church is always a matter of opinion—unless one holds the insupportable view that extra-scriptural tradition, apart from the authority of the Church which preserves it, is clear and cogent enough to be authoritative in itself. Hence, the question of the extent to which the creeds conform with Scripture, if considered apart from church authority, is itself and only a matter of opinion; and that in turn means that creeds cannot command the assent of faith as distinct from opinion. One can, by means of one's religious opinions, hold what happens to be of faith; but as Thomas Aquinas argued, one does not thereby hold it by faith. Indeed, one cannot do so. Hence, creeds can function well as expressions of consensual opinion when they were promulgated; but they cannot command the assent of faith, and hence have no authority other their de facto historical weight. That weight can and does vary, as we see in Protestantism—some of whose branches dispense with creeds altogether.

The account of tradition briefly adumbrated by Trueman, by which he supposedly explains why he continues to hold a Protestant view of the creeds, is singularly unpersuasive. Its confessional content contrasts with what he as a Church historian must surely know: that whatever else it may be, such as the inspired word of God, the NT itself is a product of a tradition predating it, and thus of the Church to which that tradition had been entrusted. Therefore, neither the T1 nor the T2 way of relating Scripture and tradition is historically accurate.

A more accurate picture would be what I'll call, for convenience, T3: Tradition is expressed both scripturally and extra-scripturally, but Scripture is the most normative written record of Tradition. T3 has the added advantage of according Scripture a place on which all the major branches of Christianity can and do agree: it is the norma normans, not the norma normata, for our reception of what was "handed on" by the Apostles—i.e., Tradition. But the idea that Scripture has always functioned as such a norm, which is entailed by both T1 and T2, just isn't historically accurate. The NT aside, even to this day Protestantism does not agree with the older, apostolic traditions about whether the so-called "Apocrypha" belong in the OT. The latter were to be found in the Septuagint, used by the Apostles themselves in the composition of the NT; but Luther decided that the rabbis were right to eventually exclude them in favor of only those works originally written in Hebrew. Now if we can't even agree on how the canon of Scripture is to be determined, how are we going to agree on the authority of Scripture relative to extra-scriptural tradition? And if we can't agree on the latter, then how is it even helpful to say that the credibility of the historic creeds is to be determined by their conformity with Scripture? Once again, the issue boils down to authority: by what authority, other than private interpretation, is the normative role of Scripture to be understood?

Given the evidently un-Protestant way in which Beckwith has learned to approach that and related questions, his re-poping was inevitable, and Trueman recognizes as much without denouncing it. What I don't understand is why Trueman thinks that Beckwith, despite an integrity that Trueman praises, has a problem here nonetheless. This concerns the latter's remarks on the fourth point enumerated above:
"...the weight of all this evidence pointing to the `safer bet’ option of backing the Catholic Church."

About that, Trueman writes:

I would fire one shot across the bows at this point: while the issue of authority is too complicated to engage in a satisfactory way here, it is important to say that, for all of the crowing over the chaos in Protestantism by various Catholic ex-Protestants, I know of no more practically flexible and ultimately meaningless notion of authority than that which has historically been practiced by the papacy. Protestantism’s chaos may be more evident at an institutional level; but maybe that just makes it more honest about its condition. I do not say that in order to be rude (though it may well not seem too polite!!) but simply to point to what is for many Protestants the obvious elephant in the Catholic room.

From a certain point of view, that's fair enough. The question of what is a "safer bet" given the historical and textual evidence is certainly one of opinion, and opinions such as Trueman's are defensible as such, even as Beckwith's is defensible. And it would be unfair to object that Trueman doesn't explain, in his relatively brief post, what he means by claiming that papal authority as "historically" exercised is "ultimately meaningless." I suspect he's done so elsewhere, and I wouldn't be surprised if Beckwith knows where. But by the same token, the disagreement is fundamentally conceptual: what would it mean to say that the papacy has "meaningful" authority? And does the Catholic doctrine of the papacy mean that? I have often found that what the Church's opponents are complaining about is a caricature of their own devising, not the actual teaching of the Church. And I'm sure that's what Beckwith would say to Trueman—otherwise he could not in conscience become a Catholic.

Beckwith's reversion matters because it shows people once again that one can be sympathetic with Protestant concerns, even to the point of having become a Protestant, while freely deciding to submit to the authority of the Catholic Church. That is the greatest challenge that Protestant academics such as Trueman—or Cynthia Nielsen or Ben Myers, for that matter—face in dialogue with Catholics.

Sunday, May 13, 2007

The Pope in Brazil

I tried watching a few of his public appearances on EWTN, which has good coverage online too, but I soon lost patience with the constant interruptions for applause and cheers. Of course, Benedict carried on with a serene smile and twinkle in his eyes. He's so much holier than I. Which is half the point, really.

The other half is what he was there for. The occasion is the "Fifth General Conference of the Episcopate of Latin America and the Caribbean." The reason is to buck up the Church in Latin America, which has been steadily losing people to pentecostal and evangelical Protestantism. That drain is one of the two major concerns of the bishops, the other being social injustice. The Catholic Church in Latin America and the Caribbean has been doing a slowly but steadily improving job on the latter; but that seems to have had little effect on the former. That's the dynamic I hope the Pope explores with the bishops.

On an intellectual level, that drain is almost incomprehensible to me. For reasons I've explained before, I have never found any version of Protestantism intellectually credible; for me, the only serious choices are Catholicism and Orthodoxy. That's cost me in a way, since my employment prospects would be much better in most Protestant churches than they are in the Catholic or would be in the Orthodox. Yet as I survey the sociological landscape of Catholicism, I can well understand why cradle Catholics who are not versed in ecclesiology, or indeed who are not well-catechized in any respect, would be seduced by pentecostalism and evangelicalism. Both forms of Protestantism take the experience of the individual believer very seriously; both lack the sharp division between laity and clergy so characteristic of Catholicism, so that formal ministry is more easily undertaken and more widely diffused; and congregations tend to be small, so that people know and support one another more closely than is the case in large, impersonal Catholic parishes. In short, these churches make people feel that they matter. And that matters a lot more, in marketing terms, than actually being "the" Church.

I don't know what the Church can do about that other than harboring more saints, such as Rose of Lima, or martyrs, such as Archbishop Romero. That's why the Pope is right to take on the Brazilian government about abortion and to emphasize the indissolubility of marriage. The same goes for the Church in the more "developed" countries of North America and Western Europe. What we need are more saints. We've had the sex-abuse scandals, the godawful liturgies, the casual heterodoxy, and the mass apostasy because we haven't had enough people, including enough clergy, who know and take seriously what it means to take up the cross and follow Jesus. We are Americans, or professionals, or nice people, or too many other things, before we are Christians. Only when that changes will the Church stop losing more people out the back door than she gains through the front. Only what can and would cost us terribly as individuals will build up the Body of Christ.

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Not talking about God

For reasons well-known to my vast readership, one of the blogs I read often is Energetic Procession, the most academic in the Orthodox blogosphere. It is authored primarily by Daniel "Photios" Jones and Perry Robinson, graduate students in theology and philosophy respectively, with whom I have had regular interaction both here and at Fr. Al Kimel's Pontifications, where I am an occasional contributor. Recently, Fr. Al banned what he termed "Orthodox polemicists" from his site, including Perry (and, I take it, Daniel). So I checked EP to see what reaction, if any, there had been to that move. I observed quite a reaction—enough to convince me that no good purpose could be served by my adding to it. But I also noticed that my name came up several times in more directly theological discussions. That was well, as I had been wondering why, despite having shown a modicum of interest in the earlier parts of the series, Photios and Perry had registered zero reaction to my latest filioque article. Now I know.

In Perry's words:

No model that Liccione or anyone else in the literature has even mapped onto the Orthodox view either in terms of the essence energies distinction, which they FINALLY admit is not the private opinion of some Orthodox but the teaching of the Church or in terms of God as not being pure being. Nor has there been any significant advance on the Filioque since everything Liccone [sic] has done ignores or subverts the Nicene and Cappadocian teaching that God is not being and so necessity is not predicable of God at intra [sic], not to mention the idea of persons as relations in the first place. Here he and others are inventing theology rather than preserving it.

So, Perry believes that my proposal is a non-starter.

His last charge above I shall leave aside for the time being. Those who have contributed, or strive to contribute, to authentic development of doctrine are always charged with innovation or invention—i.e., with trying to add to the deposit of faith—by people who deny there is such a thing as authentic development of doctrine; and Perry is one of those people. But that is a different debate, to which I've contributed before and soon will again. Nor shall I here discuss the "idea of persons as relations," an Augustinian-Thomistic idea which was not mentioned in my articles and does no heavy lifting in them.

The assertion that the essence/energies distinction (EED) is "the teaching of the Church" is more interesting but too vague to be of much use. Clearly, the Palamite councils affirmed EED; and the affirmation appears in the Synodikon of Orthodoxy, even if that section of it is not often used liturgically. But that is not in dispute. The operative question for the present purpose is which particular construal of EED, if any, is binding on all Orthodox on pain of heresy, and whether that construal, whatever it may be, is logically incompatible with the filioque on the sort of construal of that doctrine I've been advocating. The answer is far from clear or uncontroversial, and one doesn't even have to examine my argument at all to see that. For instance, many Orthodox reject this or that canon of the 1672 Council of Jerusalem, whose acta also appear in the Synodikon. That council seems to have at least the same level of authority as the Palamite councils, yet Orthodox who insist on swallowing the latter whole don't do the same with the former. To an extent, the question what is not a matter of opinion seems to be a matter of opinion.

As I've argued before, a Catholic as such can readily affirm EED if 'divine essence' be taken to mean what-God-is-irrespective-of-what-he does, which is an abstraction from reality. But none of that, of course, satisfies Perry and like-minded Orthodox. They seem to believe that EED must be construed in a sense incompatible with Catholic dogma, and that sense of EED is taken to be that of St. Gregory Palamas, which he developed out of the Cappadocian—specifically, St. Basil's—in the heat of the hesychast controversy. Now, since I'm not Orthodox at all, much less an Orthodox bishop, I have no standing to say whether that particular construal of EED is normative and binding for Orthodoxy. But the way it looks to me, the dispute is primarily scholarly and permits a certain range of permissible opinions. I find no reason to believe that Orthodox believers as such must affirm EED in a sense logically incompatible with Catholic dogma, such as the filioque (or, more directly, absolute divine simplicity). Nor do Perry and like-minded Orthodox theologians have the authority to settle such a question. Hence, to hold that it's settled all the same is just "party spirit."

What most intrigues me about Perry's comment, and what I shall focus on, is that he plainly considers it a defect that I "ignore" the "Nicene and Cappadocian teaching that "God is not being." And if indeed it is a consequence of the teaching thus denominated that necessity is not "predicable of God ad intra," then I can indeed be said to "subvert" that teaching too. But there's a lot less than meets the eye in such charges.

In the first place, it is at best unclear what Perry means by calling said teaching "Nicene." It does not appear in the documents of the first Council of Nicaea, a gathering most famous for confessing that the Son is homoousios (of the same substance as) the Father; and nothing that council did say logically entails the proposition that "God is not being" ('GNB' for short). Indeed, if the Greek term being translated as 'being' in GNB were ousia, which is sometimes translated as 'being', then the homoousios can be taken as logically entailing that God is being. Moreover, the Cappadocian Fathers (i.e., Sts. Basil the Great, Gregory Nazianzen, and Gregory of Nyssa) didn't even begin writing until well after that council. Of course, by the time one gets to Constantinople I (381), it's a somewhat different story. Influenced by the Cappadocians, at least one of whom took part in it, that council adopted a creed that came to be used in East and West as "the" Ecumenical Creed. An expanded version of the Creed of Nicaea, the Creed of 381 included a verbatim quotation of the words of Jesus as recorded in John 15:26: the Holy Spirit "proceeds" (ekporeuetai) "from the Father." But having read several scholarly histories of early Christian doctrine, I detect in the decrees of Constantinople I neither explicit affirmation of GNB nor anything which would logically entail such an affirmation.

The case that the Cappadocians as a class held GNB is of course stronger. But here as elsewhere, the problem is one of interpretation. Specifically, the challenge for Perry and his like-minded friends is coming up with a construal of GNB that is clearly ascribable to the Cappadocians, binding on Orthodox, and in the final analysis incompatible with the treatment of the filioque I've been developing. I am not in the least convinced the challenge can be met. Here I shall give just a few reasons why.

In discussing Gregory of Nyssa's Life of Moses, for example, Orthodox philosopher David Bradshaw says: "Gregory identifies God with true Being, yet denies that God as Being is an object of conceptual knowledge." In context, Bradshaw makes clear what he means by 'true Being' and 'conceptual knowledge', and I have no problem either with his exegesis of Gregory or with Gregory's actual claim. When it is said that God as true Being is beyond conceptual knowledge, it is not being asserted that God as true Being falls under no concept; otherwise, one could not say without self-refutation that what-God-is is somehow manifested in his energies. Rather, it is being said that God as true Being vastly outstrips our concepts and is thus incomprehensible. Aquinas and other Catholics giants would, and did, happily agree, while at the same time affirming an analogia entis. So we don't yet have a relevant construal of GNB.

There are of course passages, in the Cappadocians and in later Eastern fathers, where God is said to be "beyond being." And if God is beyond being, then of course he is not being. But what is the relevant sense of 'being'? The phrase 'beyond being' originates in Plato, who used it to refer to "the Form of the Good" as source of all being. But the Cappadocians can hardly be considered uncritical Platonists; and even if they were, the term 'being' in the present sense is being used to refer to the meta-class of particulars, not to just whatever can be said to exist. That God is not identical with the meta-class of particulars goes without saying; that God is not being among others is also granted all around, including by Aquinas and other influential Latin theologians. So we still don't have a relevant construal of GNB.

Patristic exegesis or no, I can't think of a relevant construal of GNB that would make the slightest bit of sense. In one sense of 'being', a being is whatever can be truly said to exist, in the sense of the existential quantifier; that is why Quine said: "To be is to be the value of a variable." Thus for some x, x is God, and in that sense God is a being. It would be nonsense to deny that. But there, we're talking logical existence, not Being in some metaphysical sense yet to be clarified. So 'being' in this sense does not supply a relevant construal of GNB.

What Robinson et al, including Bradshaw, really object to is the Thomistic version of absolute divine simplicity (ADS), according to which God's "being" or esse, the divine actuality, is somehow identical with God's essence. ADS has many consequences for the rest of theology, including triadology. But I've addressed that topic before; indeed, my very first interaction with Perry online, two years ago, was about what he alleged to be one of its deleterious consequences. But just as, back then, I don't think he showed what he thought he'd shown, here I don't think he's even established the relevance of his main point to what I've been attempting. My use of modal notions in triadology cannot be said to "subvert" a doctrine whose relevant sense, never mind whose normativity, hasn't even been established.

To her who has, more will be given...

Jesus said: "To the one has, more will be given; from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away" (Mark 4:25). Bracing, that. Many years ago, I thought of writing "Mark 4:25" as a bit of graffiti above the doors of banks and other financial institutions. I thought myself very clever in a worldly, cynical sort of way for noticing how "the prince of this world" apes spiritual truth in this fashion. Everybody to whom I've ever said: "They should post that verse at the doors of every bank" has gotten the joke. But the latest bit of aping outstrips even my worldly cynicism.

As tout le monde surely knows by now, Paris Hilton is going to jail for 45 days. Apparently, she violated her probation on a previous conviction. Something to do with drunk driving. It hardly matters, really. As a Hollywood publicist quoted in my news source says: "The premise of her fame is being naughty. This is a career move for her. It simply fuels the fascination. She can only win with this." Indeed. If you're rich and famous enough, going to jail for the right sort of crime can only make you more famous and, in consequence, richer. To her who has, more will be given. But can you imagine what would happen to an ordinary person, without fame or riches, after finishing such a sentence? She or he will have lost their job, if they had one, and will have quite a hard time landing another—or at least another decent one, for a good while. Even what little they had will have been taken away.

To be fair, another publicist admitted that the Paris' latest career move will serve as such only "in a sick and demented way." Deep down, the worldliest among us know what's over the top even when they can't resist flogging the spillage. But it doesn't stop. Heck, you don't even have to be an airhead to profit from this sort of thing: Martha Stewart did time for lying about a stock deal and has since launched a successful TV show. Nor is the phenomenon new: the Borgias got even richer from making a mockery of the papacy. And anybody who's read Catullus knows that the Romans had perfected the art long before the Church became legal.

It has been said that original sin is the only mystery of faith that is empirically verifiable. Intellectual purist that I am, I never used to believe that. But I'm starting to.