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

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

A different kind of hope

Having finished it yesterday, I much enjoyed reading the Pope's new encyclical Spe Salvi. From a personal perspective, it seems to have come at just the right time in my life. Over the next few days, I shall comment on a few points that struck me as characteristically fruitful applications of academic theology to concrete matters of spirituality. But for now, I want to bask with my readers in one of those passing ironies which give cause to hope that some Catholics who are out of step with the Pope on certain vital matters can be brought round.

Joe Cecil of "In Today's News" (a blog whose orientation is better revealed by its URL: liberalcatholicnews.blogspot.com) asks: Is Pope Benedict XVI a Heretic?. Now I've had a few encounters with Joe since I began blogging two-and-a-half years ago. Specifically, we have debated women's ordination and the theology of the body; and many of my posts on other topics are written partly with people like him in mind. He is what I call a "prog": a progressive Catholic, as distinct from a "trad" or traditionalist Catholic. As I use those terms, progs and trads have something theologically significant in common: they both believe that the Church after Vatican II is, in some radical ways, discontinuous with the Church of the past. Both also diverge sharply from Rome on matters dear to their hearts. As I put it last year: "Both sets of malcontents believe that the Second Vatican Council constituted a decisive break with the Church of the past; the main difference is that the trads, decrying the break, want the Council to become a dead letter while the progs, celebrating it as the spirit of Vatican II, are impatient for the Church to complete what they take to be the Council's revolutionary work." So, when a prog like Joe reacts to a papal encyclical by asking whether the pope is a heretic, one can safely expect that he's likely to approve of whichever statement prompted the question—just as one can safely expect that trads raising the same question, which they not infrequently do on this or that topic, are likely to disapprove. In many ways, progs and trads are each other's obverse: heads and tails of the same discontinuant coin. If you see what's on one side of that coin, you can safely predict what's on the other. And that supplies a hermeneut of continuity like me with a sure compass for navigating theological questions which most directly affect Church unity.

The specific issue Joe raises under the heading of his post's title is not hard to sum up. The relevant passage from SS, which he quotes with his added emphasis, is this from §26:

The human being needs unconditional love. He needs the certainty which makes him say: "neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord" (Rom 8:38- 39 ). If this absolute love exists, with its absolute certainty, then — only then — is man "redeemed", whatever should happen to him in his particular circumstances. This is what it means to say: Jesus Christ has "redeemed" us. Through him we have become certain of God, a God who is not a remote "first cause" of the world, because his only-begotten Son has become man and of him everyone can say: "I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me" (Gal 2:20).

Unsurprisingly, Joe professes to like and agree with that. With B16's phrase 'absolute certainty' in mind, Joe then compares that passage with Chapter 13 of the Council of Trent's Decree on Justification, which begins thus:

So also as regards the gift of perseverance, of which it is written, He that shall persevere to the end, he shall be saved:-which gift cannot be derived from any other but Him, who is able to establish him who standeth that he stand perseveringly, and to restore him who falleth: - let no one herein promise himself any thing as certain with an absolute certainty; though all ought to place and repose a most firm hope in God's help.

Joe actually quotes the full chapter, culminating in the dogmatic canon:

If any one saith, that it is necessary for every one, for the obtaining the remission of sins, that he believe for certain, and without any wavering arising from his own infirmity and disposition, that his sins are forgiven him; let him be anathema.

So, when he asks whether the Pope is a heretic, what Joe is asking is whether B16's use of the phrase 'absolute certainty' in the above-quoted passage from SS is logically compatible with Trent's canon. If it isn't, then B16 is indeed a heretic.

Well, of course the two are mutually compatible and of course B16 is not a heretic. In context, the Pope is speaking of God's love for us. If that love is absolute, which it is, then we can be certain it is always on offer, ready to transform us even as it always envelops us. It is our fundament of hope, and that no matter how great our sins. Any Christian who considers herself beyond such redemption is committing the sin of despair. By means of the assent of faith, therefore, we can be absolutely certain that God loves us, even unto what might be considered folly. But God's love can heal and transform us only if we would have it so. Just as healing involves reversing the course of a disease, forgiveness involves free, sincere repentance. That is as it must be. By his wisdom as well as his love, God respects our freedom; yet given that we are sinners even when forgiven, we always retain in this life the freedom to go wrong, and to deceive ourselves about going wrong. That's because we are wounded by the effects of original sin even when freed from it by baptism. In via, we always retain a measure of what Trent calls "infirmity." If so, then as Trent implied, it cannot be a necessary condition for being forgiven that one "believe for certain, without any wavering" that one is forgiven. As B16 implied, we can indeed be absolutely certain that God's forgiveness and love is always on offer, ever pursuing us; at certain times in our lives, it is possible and even salutary to be morally certain that we are being healed by divine forgiveness and love; but given human weakness, such certainty about the fact cannot, itself, be necessary for the fact. Just as regarding oneself as beyond the reach of God's love would be to commit the sin of despair, so professing absolute certainty about one's forgiveness would be to commit the sin of presumption.

Now Joe, I believe, knows all this perfectly well. Or so much of his post would indicate. Why, then, does he ask at the end whether B16's choice of words "cross a line" into heresy? I suggest it's because Joe is confused about the referent of the words. The Pope is saying we can be "absolutely certain" that God loves us. He does not say, and does not believe, that being forgiven requires being certain one is forgiven. For one can never be "absolutely certain" that one has repented and thus done all that is necessary to receive the forgiveness always on offer.

But why would an intelligent, well-informed Catholic like Joe get confused like that? My first thought was that, being of the prog persuasion, Joe doesn't give as much weight to repentance as he should. Over the years, I've known progs who seem to believe that being forgiven does not require repentance, so that being certain God loves us entails, for them, being certain that their sins are forgiven, full stop. But Joe is too smart for that. On reflection, the only explanation for his question that I find plausible is that the hermeneutic of discontinuity just makes it too tempting to find incompatibilities that aren't there. I've seen that sort of thing too often on both ends of the spectrum—especially in the area of ecclesiology—not to suspect its presence here. But there's always hope for a prog capable of wondering aloud whether the pope is a heretic.
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