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

Sunday, October 28, 2007


Well, Dr. Witt has apparently responded to my post of yesterday. I say 'apparently' since he does not deign to address me by name, let alone continue our debate. I can only surmise that the following is meant to apply to me among others:

I am completely uninterested in entering into conversation with those who wish to revive Tridentine or nineteenth century Catholic polemical apologetics against Anglicanism or other Reformation bodies. This is a dead horse. For those who are interested in such discussions, the libraries of seminaries are moldering with the no longer read tomes of these conflicts. As a scholar I prefer to devote my time to productive pursuits.

Harrumph! Even so, it would have been more accurate of him to say "I have become completely uninterested..." given that he did rouse himself to address my arguments once, and at reasonable length. But I suppose he's right that our exchange is destined to become the cyber-equivalent of an old pamphlet moldering in a seminary library. Leave aside the ephemerality of blogdom; only those with too much time on their hands would dig up a debate that ends in such a fashion, even when it's printed.

It's too bad, really, because there is definitely a substantive theological lesson in the exchange that somebody might benefit from learning. If you follow the long thread at TitusOneNine where the debate developed, you can discern it for yourself. But I would spare you that and, instead, shall tell you myself.

There are really two lessons: one proximate, the other ultimate. The proximate lesson is that the Anglican "reasserters"—i.e., those who support women's ordination but oppose same-sex marriage (oops, "blessings")—are in an untenable position. They can certainly make a case that the New Testament, read in isolation from irritants such as Tradition and the teaching authority of the Church, is clearly opposed to sodomy but not so clearly opposed to priestesses. On scholarly grounds alone, I believe they happen to right about that. But that is not enough even for their purpose. For one thing, a good case can be made that the same blindness that prevents many people from seeing what's wrong with WO, as a matter of sacramental efficacy, also prevents many people from seeing what's wrong with SSM, as a matter of sacramental efficacy and other things, such as the divine and natural law. The CofE priest Jeffrey Steel has a nice little summary of such a case, the upshot of which is that we have largely lost any sense of the spiritual significance of gender. And so, as a purely practical matter, the reasserters are probably fighting a long defeat even in those sectors of the Anglican Communion that, for now, are repelled by the very idea of sanctified sodomy.

But this is only one group of Protestants fighting on one front. There's an ultimate lesson here for all Protestants who can be believed when they say they want their church to retain fidelity to Scripture as "the only infallible rule of faith."

The ultimate lesson is that, lacking a visible teaching authority accepted as the voice of Christ himself when it speaks with its full authority, Protestantism as such is incapable of distinguishing between definitive, irreformable doctrine and mere theological opinion. One can talk all one likes about "Scripture" as the only infallible rule of faith; one can sometimes invoke "the plain meaning of Scripture," on more-or-less firm grounds, as a matter of what the human authors intended; and one can always hope that leaders of Protestant bodies will maintain the good sense and will power to adhere to such things. But in practice, one person's or church's "plain meaning" is another person's or church's "misinterpretation" or "misapplication," and no Protestant ecclesial authority can say otherwise as anything more than one fallible opinion among others. That is just what the endless fragmentation of Protestant bodies into "denominations" shows, regardless of who happens to be right about this-or-that point of Scripture. And that is why conservative Protestantism, of whatever form, is just liberal Protestantism waiting to happen.

As a Catholic, I do not say that with any sense of satisfaction or smugness. The Catholic Church is full of people who either don't know or don't care about the distinction between definitive, irreformable doctrine and mere theological opinion. A few of them are clergy and/or theologians who influence how Catholics think. So you can find plenty of educated lay Catholics who, citing "the primacy of conscience" or some such thing, reserve to themselves the right to decide what they need and do not need to believe precisely as Catholics. As I said earlier this week, such an attitude is the very principle of heresy. Such Catholics-in-name-only are functionally Protestant, and they make things worse by pretending otherwise. Those who have led them down that path will be judged more severely than our Protestant brethren who, for the most part, are only doing the best they are in a position to know.
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