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

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Time out

Just letting my vast readership know that this shall be my last post for a while. Why?

My older daughter just had a baby; mother and child, they tell me, are healthy and happy. But as of now I cannot give them anything besides a card with my blessing. I am plagued with car problems I cannot afford to solve. I can't drive the car, can't get it through inspection, and can't even renew my registration until I pay the non-trivial county tax on it, which is a joke since the car is almost worthless as it is. In its present condition I can't sell it, and I lack the wherewithal to replace it unless I sell it. Only by my boss's indulgence with company vehicles do I have any wheels at all—which, she knows, helps to keep me in a job I have been striving earnestly for months to replace. So at the moment my supplemental income opportunities are limited to paid possibilities online. C'est la vie.

I wish I could present all this as noble suffering for Christ, but at bottom it's just the due penalty for my errors. I just don't pay enough attention to temporalities until I'm forced to. Now I am forced to. It's obvious what I have to do, and it's going to take a lot to do it, including but not limited to more fervent prayer. Blogging about anything important demands time and energy I just can't spare right now.

Thanks to all of you for your support. Blogging has been an overwhelmingly positive experience for me, and I trust this blog has been mostly that for you, my good readers. I shall return after due work, prayer, and success.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

An ecumenical symposium about...the Blessed Virgin

One of the things I love about First Things is that Fr. Neuhaus and his staff show just how it is possible to actually have an ecumenical discussion of a topic such as the Blessed Virgin. This week, they're posting a series of five "preliminary papers" on the topic under the aegis of the "Evangelicals and Catholics Together" project.

On Monday, Edward T. Oakes, SJ led off with a characteristically provocative post about the Immaculate Conception, arguing that that event is the primary instance of salvation sola gratia. On Tuesday, J.I. Packer offered a solid exegesis of Luke on Jesus' early life, with a focus on Mary. Today, T.M. Moore, head of "a spiritual fellowship in the Celtic tradition," complains that "the liturgical formulas of the Celts" go too far in moving from "adoration" to "supplication" of Mary. The irony alone is worth the read. Cornelius Plantinga and Matthew Levering will round off the week.

On Friday I will post on the Oakes piece. My hunch is that the controversy over that one is as predictable as the content of the rest.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Once condemned, now beatified

Father Antonio Rosmini-Serbati, a 19th-century Italian theologian some of whose ideas were condemned by the Holy See in 1887, was beatified on November 18. Read the rest of the story here.

I love this sort of reversal. Something similar had happened to Thomas Aquinas, some of whose ideas were condemned in 1277, fifty years before his canonization. What makes the Rosmini rehabilitation ironic as well as overdue was that his condemnation had taken place as part of Leo XIII's policy of promoting Thomism! But the fact that such a condemnation had occurred at all always struck me as a bit dissonant. In college I read a translation of Rosmini's Of The Five Wounds of Holy Church and, like nearly all of Rosmini's contemporaries, was very impressed with the book. In 1832, he was allowed to found a religious order which has endured continuously, in Italy, to this day. It turns out that his rehabilitation has been afoot in the Vatican for decades, which is probably why Rosmini could be favorably cited in John Paul II's great encyclical Fides et Ratio. Even before the rehab movement, the Church never claimed that Rosmini's intention had been anything other than to remain a loyal son of the Church; indeed, many of the condemned propositions were drawn from manuscripts he never even published during his lifetime. For all the above reasons, I have never bothered to read the actual text of the condemnation, which has not been easy for me to track down since I lost ready access to a Catholic university library. I am now resolved to read more Rosmini firsthand if I ever get more leisure than I've got.

In case you want to know more about why the Church reversed the condemnation, see the CDF nota of 2001 issued by Cardinal Ratzinger. At that time, of course, some of the usual suspects accused the Magisterium of contradicting itself, and used the occasion to fry bigger fish. In case anybody wants to sign up for my development-and-negation course, I assign the nota and that linked criticism for reading. The class assignment is to explain why the criticism of Ratzinger is more wrong than right.

Monday, November 26, 2007

When regress is progress

The University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota, has decided to sever its de jure relationship with the Archdiocese of Minneapolis-St. Paul. The occasion for its doing so is apparently the impending replacement of the diocese's moderately liberal bishop, Harry Flynn, with his impeccably orthodox and outspoken co-adjutor, John Nienstedt. One can safely infer that the University's trustees didn't want its style cramped—especially that of its theology department. Thus does another venerable Catholic institution accelerate its descent into secularization.

Still, this coming-clean has a positive side. A few years ago Archbishop Michael Miller, secretary of the Vatican's Congregation for Catholic Education, said this during a lecture at Notre Dame:

For [the pope], the measure of an institution can be judged by its Catholic integrity. If [secularization occurs], it might be a matter of truth and justice that such an institution is no longer upheld. [Pope] Benedict [XVI] and others may believe that if a Catholic institution is no longer motivated by a Catholic identity, it is better to let it go.

From that standpoint, UST's regress can and should be seen as progress. For it's usually progress to let it be known where you stand and do not stand. In this case, the progress allows the truly Catholic institutions to be seen all the more clearly as such.

Once the real work is over

Noting former British PM Tony Blair's impending conversion to Catholicism (my link is to the Torygraph story), Diogenes over at Off the Record observes:

U.S. presidential candidates, regardless of their heathendom, know they have to feign interest in religion to get elected, and typically hire consultants to coach them in the finer points of Christian doctrine, such as which half of the Bible the New Testament is found in. Europe is stuck in the opposite dilemma. Former UK Prime Minister Tony Blair, widely rumored to become a Roman Catholic soon, claims his Christian faith was hugely important to him, but that he camouflaged his interest so as not to come across as a crack-pot.

That rings true, but of course it goes deeper than that. Diogenes beats me to it:

I hope Blair does convert and embrace a sturdy orthodox Catholicism. But something is out of order when a man's religion must be kept unused and its original wrapping intact until the burdens of adulthood are past. Blair's delayed conversion is reminiscent of the Emperor Constantine's delayed baptism: just as Constantine (we're told) put off his baptism to the last days of life in order to be able to sin boldly in the interim, Blair's career has been that of a dutiful Labour Party pol—pro-abortion, pro-gay, pro-condom. It's hard not to welcome a convert, but to welcome him whole-heartedly is hard when his unrepented public life is a counter-witness to Church teaching about the social order.

I was going to say it all shows just far gone they are over there. But we're really no better over here. "Unrepented" indeed. How much repenting do we see among already "Catholic" American pols favoring policies similar to Labour's? Like Americans generally, they're just better at covering up their secular religion of materialism and sexual autonomy with ritual bows to something called "faith."

Sometimes the frank hostility in Britain to real Christianity is refreshing by comparison.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Christ the King, freedom, and divorce

For today's feast, Fr. Philip Powell, OP, preaches:

Paul reminds us and we cannot forget: “…in him were created all things in heaven and on earth, the visible and the invisible…all things were created through him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together.” Christ the Crucified rules from his cross because in him “all the fullness was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile all things for him…” Christ for us is everything. There can for us be no appeal to economic efficiency, political expediency, popular demand, or incremental progress. Christ rules by transforming cold hearts, by turning hard heads, by overthrowing obstinate wills; he rules in virtue, in strength, by being for us weak in condemnation and mighty in compassion. And we, as his body, his members can be nothing less, nothing weaker. We are subjects of a Crucified King.

I want to offer a meditation on how American Christians of all churches need to see that in relation to what is thought of as "freedom"—especially with regard to the basis of the family, which in turn is the basis of civil society.

Let's start with a set of facts that are becoming increasingly difficult to deny or even hide from: what Dr. Jennifer Roback Morse calls, in the current issue of the National Catholic Register, "the perverse incentives" of our family-law system. As I argued last July 4, the way such matters as divorce, custody, domestic violence, and child support are being handled in this country signifies a steady erosion of personal freedom in the name of a legal regime that was originally supposed to enhance personal freedom. Taking her cue from Dr. Stephen Baskerville's hard-hitting, well-argued book Taken into Custody: The War Against Fatherhood, Marriage, and the Family, she writes:

First, no-fault divorce frequently means unilateral divorce: One party wants a divorce against the wishes of the other, who wants to stay married. This fact means that the divorce has to be enforced. The coercive machinery of the state is wheeled into action to separate the reluctantly divorced party from the joint assets of the marriage, typically the home and the children. Involving the family court in the minutiae of family life amounts to an unprecedented blurring of the boundaries between public and private life. People under the jurisdiction of the family courts can have virtually all of their private lives subject to its scrutiny. If the courts are influenced by feminist ideology, that ideology can extend its reach into every bedroom and kitchen in America. Thus, the social experiment of no-fault divorce, which was supposed to increase personal liberty has had the unintended consequence of empowering the state.

That has happened to millions of people; men especially are subject to such coercion. Most of us hate it. What I didn't realize, however, is that the people who most directly exercise the authority in this system hate it too. Roback Morse continues (emphasis added):

I had an unusual opportunity to see this first-hand last summer when I did a Continuing Legal Education workshop for judges. Most of the judges had significant experience with family courts, so they were unusually well-informed. My audiences are usually amazed when I point out that family courts perpetrate greater invasions of personal privacy than any other governmental agency. Not the judges. I had expected some resistance from them on this point. After all, they are the ones doing the intruding.

When I ran through my usual litany of courts telling fathers how much money they have to spend, how little time they get to spend with their kids and who gets to spend Christmas Day with the kids, the judges were all shaking their heads. I asked: “So, do you enjoy that part of your jobs?” The audible moaning said it all: They hate that part of their jobs.

Audiences are sometimes surprised to learn that women initiate most divorces. They are even more surprised when I tell them that women aren’t necessarily worse off economically after divorce. After all, “the most quoted demographic statistic of the 1980s” was the claim that women’s standard of living falls by 73% after divorce, while men’s rises by 42%.

I usually have to take some time to refute that claim. But the judges already knew that. They all started shaking their heads when I flashed those statistics on the screen for the purpose of refuting them. One of the judges got exasperated. He stood up and said, with obvious disgust in his voice, “These women want me to throw their husbands out of the house, make him pay child support, while she keeps the kids to raise herself without interference from him.”

General nods of agreement all around the room. No fathers’ rights advocate could have said it better.

And it's not just the judges:

The court-appointed therapists, the domestic violence experts, the visitation supervisors, the teachers of parenting classes, all these experts seem to be there to help divorcing families. But on Baskerville’s telling, they simply extract additional payments from the family, and do nothing to save the marriage. He reports that even mediators find that they are not allowed to try to preserve the marriage. Their role is simply to talk the reluctant party into acquiescing. Baskerville represents all these professionals, including the lawyers and judges, as having a self-interested motive in stoking the flames of personal resentments and maintaining the divorce industry...

I have also talked to many family law attorneys who are fed up with narcissistic and myopic clients. How can it be that all these people are keeping the system going out of their own self-interest, and yet profess disdain for that same system?

I think the answer lies in what economists call perverse incentives.

No one likes the actual outcome of the system, but no one has an incentive or the ability to change it. So people go along, following the rules as laid down, trying to make marginal improvements to the best of their ability, and still being sickened by the whole sight. The incentives are so perverse that it is as if everyone were motivated by a desire to create as many divorces as possible.

So that's what it's come to in this country: in the name of freedom, justice, and "the best interests of the children," we are destroying the basic unit of civil society by means that hardly anybody likes yet most everybody feels helpless to change. We are all becoming prisoners of evil. What better evidence can there be that the wrong king is ruling our hearts? Make no mistake: if we continue on our present path, our society is doomed.

In the long run, the only alternative is to let the right King rule in our hearts. Marriages need to be saved, not destroyed. The incentives—legal, financial, therapeutic, religious—need to reflect that. But what's needed can only occur if all involved emulate the Crucified King. That cannot be begin with legislation and coercion: it must begin with conversion of hearts, one at a time; only if that happens on a large scale can the legal system be changed to reflect it. Only then can true freedom survive. This feast of Christ the King, that is what I pray for. I offer my prayer for all those, including myself, who have been part of the problem.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

What can Wuerl and Egan say now?

Archbishop Raymond Burke of St. Louis, my favorite American hierarch, has published a zinger of an article in the current issue of the world's most prestigious canon-law journal. It is entitled

CANON 915:

and has the endorsement of Dr. Ed Peters, probably the American canon lawyer whose publications—especially about marriage annulments—have been the most helpful to American Catholics who are not themselves canon lawyers. Peters has been especially helpful about the topic of American Catholic politicians who support the Roe regime; it was from him, for example, that I learned the distinction between the state of excommunication and that of mere unworthiness to receive the Eucharist.

As Peters indicates, it takes a certain background to understand all the article's references, and therefore all its arguments. More familiar with canon law than most Catholics, I myself still don't have all the necessary background; partly for that reason, I would welcome a scholarly critique of the article that would enable well-educated non-specialists like me to evaluate the case for themselves. But take it from a pro like Ed Peters: Burke's piece is first-rate stuff. And its conclusion is unmistakable. American bishops have no canonically legitimate alternative to doing what Burke himself does: denying the Eucharist to those who, after due personal warning, persist in the manifestly grave sin of supporting legal access to abortion.

Of course, that much ought to have been clear from what then-Cardinal Ratzinger wrote to the U.S. bishops during the 2004 presidential-election campaign, when John Kerry's pro-abortion stance was a real factor for many Catholics who voted. But the then-Archbishop of Washington, Cardinal McCarrick, managed successfully to obscure the message. And the US bishops' conference has pointedly refused to adopt a clear, collective pastoral policy on the matter, leaving it to each bishop's prudential judgment as ordinary of his diocese. Now as a matter of mere polity, the USCCB could probably have done little else. It is bishops, not bishops' conferences, that have jurisdiction within their dioceses. That's what allows ordinaries such as the current Archbishop of Washington, Donald Wuerl, and that of New York, Cardinal Edward Egan, to get away with refusing to impose the discipline called for by Canon 915. But that only tells us what they can do, given their authority—not what they should do, given their responsibility. Burke and a relative handful of other bishops, including my own, have made clear what they should do.

Burke is the kind of canon lawyer who most impresses me: a pastor who carries out real pastoral duties with love and courage, which includes complete honesty. In that respect he seems to me far more impressive than another important American hierarch who is also a canon lawyer: Cardinal Egan himself. To him, the Giulianis and Kerrys are "friends of mine" and for that reason won't be denied the Eucharist in his diocese. I suppose that means one shouldn't let canon law and pastoral responsibility get in the way of friendship. Perhaps a personal anecdote can shed some light on the spirituality motivating such a stance.

Twenty-five years ago, when Egan was still an official at the Roman Rota, I attended a talk he gave in New York about annulments. His argument was that the definition of marriage in Canon §1055 of the new, about-to-be-promulgated Code of Canon Law, and therefore the subsequently defined criteria for nullity, allowed for too much subjective interpretation. He said he preferred the narrower, more objective definition in the 1917 code: "a right to the body, a right both perpetual and exclusive, for the purpose of performing the actions apt by their nature to procreate children." Now it is quite true that, under that older legal definition, grounds for nullity were far narrower. That's exactly why annulments were so rare, which in turn is exactly why so many Catholics remained in sham marriages. Such a legal regime certainly made the work of tribunal judges relatively simple and allowed the Church to uphold the sanctity of marriage without much debate. But the old code included no recognition of what makes marriage a sacrament of the love between Christ and his Church, as opposed to just a contract that very few people could get out of by means short of death or homicide. Once one defines marriage in a way that does recognize what makes marriage sacramental—which is what the current code's definition does, in keeping with Gaudium et spes—the picture becomes more complicated. Jurisprudence is forced to evolve in a direction that allows many more people to nullify marriages that are not and never have been sacramental in the relevant sense. But Egan was more interested in keeping things clean and simple for men like himself than in where that left the people. And I see the same indifference in his current attitude about "personally-opposed-but" Catholic politicians who support the Roe regime.

Catholics need and have a right to a clear, consistent message about this matter from all their pastors, not just from Roman documents. Since Canon §915 facilitates such clarity and consistency, unlike how Egan once characterized Canon §1055, one would think a canon lawyer like him would see fit to enforce it. At any rate, it just won't do to send the message that support for legal access to abortion is no big deal. But that's the message being sent by bishops like Egan, whether they want to send it or not. It makes a mockery of the sacrifices so many people endure in order to be faithful Catholics. But keeping life simple and easy for members of the club is apparently more important to him than the needs and rights of the hoi polloi.

It is that same attitude in many other bishops, I am convinced, that facilitated the inexcusable coverup of the sexual abuse of minors. What's needed among the bishops is greater concern with truth, justice, and the Catholic way, as opposed to institutional self-preservation. Burke and his relatively few allies may not be supermen, but they've got the right idea.

Friday, November 23, 2007

The stem-cell breakthrough

Like many bloggers, I had planned to write yesterday about all the things I'm grateful for. But the Holy Spirit had other plans. For one thing, I realized that such a post would have been more honest as a description of what I know I should be grateful to God for than of what I actually am grateful to him for. I would have been preaching largely to myself—which would have been more for my own benefit than my readers'. So I decided to keep all that in prayer, limiting my writing to one thing I am sincerely grateful for and that people really do need to know about: the recent breakthrough in stem-cell research.

Now I have not had time to acquaint myself with such technical details of the breakthrough as a layman like myself could comprehend. Nor do I think it important for me to do so in the short term. The question of immediate as well as abiding interest is this: if the new technique holds promise of achieving the goals of embryonic stem-cell research (ESCR) without killing embryos, then why not pursue it rather than ESCR? That is a hypothetical question, but by no means an abstract one. The hypothesis is itself testable.

Does the new breakthrough really hold out the promise in question? A comment by Christopher Thomas Scott, the director of Stanford's bioethics center, suggests not:

The news today that scientists have produced human embryonic-like cells by reprogramming skin cells should not overshadow the fact that these exciting result rely on, and will continue to rely on, our understanding of human embryonic stem cells.

The guild of stem cell biology is agnostic to cell type: it does not insist on artificial distinctions among adult, embryonic and now "induced pluripotent" stem cell types. In order to fully utilize our knowledge for future therapies, discoveries from every corner of biology need to be freely shared and fully employed. Some of the genes used by these labs are also present in human embryonic stem cells: a clear example of how one area of cell biology informs another. In another example, one of the scientists, James Thomson, is well-known for his discoveries and work with human embryonic stem cells. Finally, this week's report about cloning monkey cells is a significant step towards developing custom-matched embryonic stem cell lines for research and medicine. Not surprisingly, Dr. Thomson trained at the same Oregon institute that reported the monkey cloning discovery.

The interrelatedness of these important discoveries, and the histories behind them, is testament to why we must freely pursue all avenues of stem cell research, not just some avenues.

Scott seems to be suggesting that researching adult and "induced-pluripotent" stem cells without also doing ESCR would retard, if not altogether preclude, the first two techniques. I don't know whether that's accurate, but I doubt its accuracy because it sounds like propaganda to me. It's as though the bioethicists who favor ESCR cannot, in face of the new breakthrough, think of a philosophical as distinct from a technical way meet the arguments of their opponents. In other words, it's as though the only way they can now defend ESCR is to insist that other, less objectionable forms of stem-cell research actually depend on it. But so far, it doesn't seem that's the consensus of the actual scientists.

So, is the enthusiasm of Fr. Thomas Berg, director of a rather different bioethics center, justified? I hope so, but the questions appears to be scientific. Yet that's what's so significant about the debate over this new breakthrough. The debate is more over the scientific hypothesis of my question than over the implied ethical conclusion. That's because, if it is really does turn out that there's no real need to kill embryos for the sake of therapeutically significant research, then the advocates of ESCR have lost their main argument. That very fact about the debate itself is an argument in favor of the Church teaching that Fr. Berg upholds. So if scientists with no philosophical axe to grind end up agreeing that ESCR is not essential for achieving the goals of stem-cell research generally, the argument is indeed over.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Could this be issued today?

WHEREAS it is the duty of all nations to acknowledge the providence of Almighty God, to obey His will, to be grateful for His benefits, and humbly to implore His protection and favour; and Whereas both Houses of Congress have, by their joint committee, requested me "to recommend to the people of the United States a DAY OF PUBLICK THANSGIVING and PRAYER, to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many and signal favors of Almighty God, especially by affording them an opportunity peaceably to establish a form of government for their safety and happiness:"

NOW THEREFORE, I do recommend and assign THURSDAY, the TWENTY-SIXTH DAY of NOVEMBER next, to be devoted by the people of these States to the service of that great and glorious Being who is the beneficent author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be; that we may then all unite in rendering unto Him our sincere and humble thanks for His kind care and protection of the people of this country previous to their becoming a nation; for the signal and manifold mercies and the favorable interpositions of His providence in the course and conclusion of the late war; for the great degree of tranquility, union, and plenty which we have since enjoyed;-- for the peaceable and rational manner in which we have been enable to establish Constitutions of government for our sasety and happiness, and particularly the national one now lately instituted;-- for the civil and religious liberty with which we are blessed, and the means we have of acquiring and diffusing useful knowledge;-- and, in general, for all the great and various favours which He has been pleased to confer upon us.

And also, that we may then unite in most humbly offering our prayers and supplications to the great Lord and Ruler of Nations and beseech Him to pardon our national and other transgressions;-- to enable us all, whether in publick or private stations, to perform our several and relative duties properly and punctually; to render our National Government a blessing to all the people by constantly being a Government of wise, just, and constitutional laws, discreetly and faithfully executed and obeyed; to protect and guide all sovereigns and nations (especially such as have shewn kindness unto us); and to bless them with good governments, peace, and concord; to promote the knowledge and practice of true religion and virtue, and the increase of science among them and us; and, generally to grant unto all mankind such a degree of temporal prosperity as he alone knows to be best.

GIVEN under my hand, at the city of New-York, the third day of October, in the year of our Lord, one thousand seven hundred and eighty-nine.

(signed) G. Washington

I'm Tertullian

I couldn't resist. I took the test Mike Aquilina offers over at The Way of the Fathers. It's called "Which Church Father are you?"

You’re Tertullian!

You possess many gifts, but patience isn’t one of them. You’re tough on yourself — and on others. You’re independent, too, and you don’t like to be told what to do. You wish the Church would be a little tighter in discipline. As for the pagans, you’ve pretty much written them off. Sometimes you think the Church would be a better place if you were in charge.

Find out which Church Father you are at The Way of the Fathers!

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Getting perspective on ecumenism

Is all the negativity about ecumenism I've been sensing of late just myopic on my part? The Internet, whose discussion forums breed even more logomachy than they allow, can darken the vision and mood of almost anybody who spends much time on it. I see the temptation to succumb to that as an invitation to spiritual combat—or, if you prefer, to a form of ascesis that must occasion a deepening of prayer. Indeed, when it comes to ecumenism, the Internet negativity one senses can be surreal in a way that I've only encountered regularly before in reading transcripts of full-blown exorcisms.

Last week I noted the endorsement, by two of the most ecumenically-minded and intelligent bloggers I know, of the following remark: "Catholic-Protestant ecumenism is like a very odd dinner party where everyone sits around saying polite and edifying things while waiting for the other guest to die." Again: the men who said they found that remark dead-on are two of the most earnestly and intelligently ecumenical bloggers I know. And my experience with Catholic-Orthodox ecumenism this week hasn't done much to discredit that remark.

Owen White the Ochlophobist, e.g., says the following in the course of a long post that includes a thoughtful response to me: "I would love to see the RCC end, and the Pope of Rome and any who might follow him convert to Orthodoxy..." Of course he is hardly alone in that sentiment. And I do not take its expression by him as an intended insult; this, after all, is from a man who not only knows where I stand, but who has indicated before, sincerely and more than once, that he likes and respects me. I like and respect Owen too; yet even if it were true, I would not see fit to say to him, or indeed to any member of an Orthodox church, "I would love to see Orthodoxy end." Moreover, it isn't even true. Given how I see Orthodoxy from my Catholic standpoint, I don't want it to end. I want it to retain its form of liturgy, its spirituality, its dogmas, its patriarchates and synods. I just don't think those things are incompatible with what I believe, and neither does the Pope. Perhaps that means I'm not negative enough to be accounted as much more than deluded. The Internet can bring such judgments on those who are sincere about ecumenism without compromising what they profess as the truth.

I don't think it's just the cyberworld, though. Even Avery Cardinal Dulles, once a champion of Kasper-style ecumenism, has delivered a sobering assessment of contemporary ecumenism, in the form of piece in the current First Things entitled Saving Ecumenism from Itself. The reassessments are probably in order. Thus he says:

For some years now, I have felt that the method of convergence, which seeks to harmonize the doctrines of each ecclesial tradition on the basis of shared sources and methods, has nearly exhausted its potential. It has served well in the past and may still be useful, especially among groups that have hitherto been isolated from the conversation. But to surmount the remaining barriers we need a different method, one that invites a deeper conversion on the part of the churches themselves.

Fair enough. And some might think the method of "convergence" is what I've been trying, quixotically, to follow. But I no longer believe it possible to convince non-Catholic Christians en masse, by argument, that their distinctive affirmations and practices can be harmonized with Catholicism. I will continue to produce the arguments, of course. So far, my efforts seem to have influenced a few individuals here and there for the good. But no matter how sound the arguments may be, something more spiritual is required if ecumenism is to continue as a viable project for the Church.

Cardinal Dulles describes it thus: "I have therefore been urging an ecumenism of mutual enrichment by means of testimony. This proposal corresponds closely, I believe, with John Paul II’s idea of seeking the fullness of truth by means of an “exchange of gifts.” What he says more specifically about that method is encouraging to me, but that is only a point about myself. The larger and more important point is that Dulles no more than the Pope is willing to "give up," as so many online religious controversialists urge. And that's vitally important as a form of obedience to the Lord.

Ever the catholic, affable Catholic, Dulles goes on (emphasis added):

John Paul II in Ut Unum Sint expressed a desire to work with leaders and theologians of other churches in seeking ways for the Petrine office to be exercised such that it could be beneficial to them as well as to Catholics. These other churches and communities will have to consider the ways in which they could receive the primatial ministry of the bishop of Rome. A dialogue on this subject is already underway. For some communities, perhaps, the papacy will be the final piece by which to complete the jigsaw puzzle of Christian unity.

Each party will engage in ecumenical dialogue with its own presuppositions and convictions. As a Roman Catholic, I would make use of the methods by which my church derives its distinctive doctrines. I would also expect that any reunion to which Catholics can be a party would have to include as part of the settlement the Catholic dogmas, perhaps reinterpreted in ways that we do not now foresee. Other churches and ecclesial communities will have their own expectations. But all must be open to possible conversion. We must rely on the Holy Spirit to lead us, as Vatican II recommended, “without obstructing the ways of divine Providence and without prejudging the future inspiration of the Holy Spirit.”

That is quite an extraordinary reaffirmation of the hopefulness and optimism of Vatican II, which seems largely to have been lost by the grizzled veterans of ecumenism. Of course the "reinterpretation" of which Dulles speaks cannot be the sort of "development" that logically entails negation of anything previously taught with the Church's full authority. Indeed, Dulles himself is a master of the method of explaining changes in Church teaching in such a way as to show that development never entails negation of that level of teaching. I've learned a lot from him and have followed the method myself. It is not only an indispensable task of apologetics, of "defense" of the Faith, but also a prerequisite of honest ecumenism, at least for Catholics. But it still leaves open the possibility that doctrines taught with the Church's full authority, via either the ordinary or the extraordinary magisterium, are going to be used by the Spirit to mediate insights into the faith-once-delivered that we do not now generally enjoy. If that happens—and history suggests it does happen—then the prospects for ecumenism will be all the richer.

Orthodox (non?)-ecclesiology, continued

It appears that Owen White, the Ochlophobist, had been composing his latest, and characteristically lengthy, contribution to this topic even as I had been composing and posting mine of yesterday. That leaves me a bit embarassed for closing that post by criticizing a different and weaker argument of his that he had posted in my combox. Here, I want to address what I now see as his real—or, at least, more interesting—argument. For reasons of both charity and self-interest, I won't make this post nearly as long as his. So I just want to focus on what I see as the heart of the matter.

First, he writes (emphasis added; paragraph broken up):

The spiritual ascesis Mike wants from the Orthodox is one in which we refrain from our "rejectionism" of various sorts, and develop our ecclesiology to the point where we can accept the above statements of Vat I (and the other RCC dogmas we have problems with) and state that there is nothing false found in them. In other words, Mike, as a good and devout RC, thinks that spiritual ascesis for the Orthodox will lead Orthodox to accept Roman Catholic dogma. The "radical spiritual ascesis" that Rome must undertake is what? They already think that they formally embrace all that is authentically Orthodox. Thus what can be meant here other than posturing[?]

Rome will promise not to exercise certain powers she believes she has. Rome will make formal statements against abuses in her own liturgy (which as we know, will accomplish little). Rome may even remove the filioque from her recitation of the Creed, but I assure, you, dear reader, that she will not relent from her dogmatic commitment to the filioque (thus while the filioque remains formally true, in their dogma, it is not practiced for reasons of Christian charity - absurd!). Rome's work, her "radical spiritual ascesis" is to posture herself in any way which will foster reunion without relenting a single Roman dogma. This is what Benedict XVI, Mike, and conservative Catholics on the whole intend. But couching this intent in language which suggests that we will go on a great spiritual journey together, finding our hope in a mutual development is flattery of the first order.

What they want of us is that we state that Vat I and other Roman innovations are not false. Thus our "development" is to develop into those with Roman Catholic dogma while still retaining Byzantine Rites and nomenclature. This is indeed their own formal teaching. They state that we lack nothing save our affirmation of certain Roman dogmas. Thus this "progress" so often spoken of is the progress of Rome and Orthodoxy coming to see Orthodoxy accept Roman dogma.

For reasons I needn't elaborate, it is flattering of Owen to call the ecumenical approach favored by the Pope, and myself, as "flattery of the first order." But I'm afraid that, in my case—the only case of which I can confidently speak—a distinction must be made between what I hope for and what I think it reasonable to seek directly.

I hope for what Owen says I do, because I believe Catholicism to be true in a way that does not contradict the positive affirmations of Orthodoxy. But I don't think that the cause of unity will be advanced by Catholics trying to argue Orthodox into that view. Human beings don't work that way. The cause of unity will indeed be better advanced in more spiritual ways. Owen doesn't think much of the ways I believe the Catholic Church could undertake from her side, but that is neither here nor there. What I think it reasonable to seek directly from the Orthodox side is greater clarity about its own ecclesiology. If such clarity were forthcoming, that would not necessarily improve the prospects for unity; for all I know, it might worsen them; for if the Athonites turn out to speak for Orthodoxy, then the prospects for reunion, at least on the collective level, are dim indeed. If Athonite ecclesiology truly is the ecclesiology of Orthodoxy, then the only thing left for the Catholic Church to do is die. Of course, for all I know, Orthodox ecclesiology could develop along lines similar to that which is manifest in Vatican II's teaching for Catholics. That would hold out more favorable prospects for collective reunion. But none of that is particularly germane to Owen's critique either. Owen's position is not only that Orthodoxy now lacks the ecclesiological clarity I think it reasonable to seek; he holds, in effect, that there is no objective reason for Orthodoxy even to develop such clarity.


I suppose someday I may write at length about Orthodox ecclesiology, but come to think of it I probably will not. Orthodoxy does not really have an ecclesiology in a formal, academic sense. Certain of our theologians, especially now Zizioulas, have written such, but in the end I think the Church takes such as suggested ways of conceiving things, not as theology proper (by theology proper I mean Orthodox theology proper - the manner in which we formally speak of Christ and what He has taught us, which takes place in the liturgy and its cosmic ripple effects). Zizioulas may help us grasp things ecclesial, but that grasp will remain provisional.... How do we define the Church? What are the categories? Blessed is the Kingdom.... my friend.

Mike wants "enough clarity about the meaning of the term ["the Church"] to give a clear, consensual, and consistent account of how the Roman and [Oriental Orthodox] communions relate to "the" Church, understood as the Eastern Orthodox communion."...

The Church, in a since, has no real need to know how those outside her relate to her - not because she is arrogantly triumphant, but because she is so dependent upon God's presence and grace herself that she has not the time or resources to devote to her relations with others. Her need is wholly for God. The widow of Nain has no defined relationships outside of her when her son is dead, she is nothing in this world. When her son is risen, her identity is connected to that of her risen son, or so her culture had it. When God hung dead on a tree, the icon of all reality, the triumph of the Church, what does it mean to be outside of Him who has died in obedience to the Father? God has died on a tree. What else means? Can anything else mean after that? There is only one meaningful relationship at that point, and it is Triune.

He is risen from the dead, and He proceeds to teach the pattern of the Cross in all things, on the road to Emmaus, telling of Jacob crossing his arms in the sign of the Cross as he blessed Ephraim and Manasseh, and on and on and on, the cruciform nature of the God who empties Himself in His saving of man. Christ taught the apostles, the apostles taught the fathers, the fathers teach the Church, the Church knows this hermeneutic of reality in her liturgy. Many Eastern Orthodox look at the Oriental Orthodox liturgy and think that the similarities suggest that we share the same hermeneutic, but this remains to be seen, and for it to be seen, literally seen (and heard, and touched, and felt, and smelled), the Oriental Orthodox would have to sing and pray and accept our prayers with regard to all 7 ecumenical councils as well as the prayers of the Church concerning Sts. Photius, and Gregory Palamas, and Mark of Ephesus. Most Orthodox do not look at the Roman Catholic liturgy and think that we share anything close to the same christocentric hermeneutic of reality.

The argument I can extract from that, to the extent there is an argument, is this: given how Christocentric and crucifiorm Eastern Orthodoxy is, there is no need or basis for EOs to get clearer about how "the" Church—understood as the EO communion—relates in the economy of salvation to other churches. If one becomes Christocentric and cruciform in the sort of way Eastern Orthodoxy is, then the notion that "the" Church would do well to commit herself to some doctrinal account of how she relates to other churches will melt into the irrelevance it deserves. Obversely, since the Roman liturgy just doesn't have that "christocentric hermeneutic of reality," it is quite understandable that the Catholics would, and do, go in for such a conceit. But the flattery motivated by such clarity is empty.

Frankly, I can't make any more of that argument than I could make of the argument of Owen's that I criticized yesterday. Catholicism too has its own tradition of cruciform spirituality; indeed, it could well be argued that Catholic piety and mysticism places more emphasis on the Cross, as distinct from the Resurrection, than Orthodoxy piety and mysticism does. When I attend Mass, virtually all I can think of Christ. He is constantly spoken of and celebrated; his Passion is made sacramentally present in the sacrifice of the Mass; his risen body is what I receive when I receive the sacred elements, so that I may be incorporated into both his Passion and his Resurrection. Such a liturgy, says Vatican II, is "the font and summit" of the Church's life. It is what enables the members of the Church to be transformed, individually and collectively, into Christ "for the world." If Owen does not find in that liturgy a sufficiently "christocentric hermeneutic of reality," that is because something extrinsic to the liturgy has prevented him from doing so. Like my solid bishop and like the Pope himself, I can assure him that it is there and that I experience it regularly. Yet we don't think it follows that there's no need for the kind of ecclesiological development that Vatican II exhibited. Indeed, and for reasons I've given already, the cause of that unity which is celebrated in the Eucharist could be promoted by such clarity.

I am getting the sense that theology is not the problem here. And I mean 'theology' not merely in the relatively academic sense that Catholics normally mean, but also in the more Orthodox sense, whereby theology is spirituality manifested through the intellect. I don't know what I'd call the problem, at least not at the moment. I can intuit it better than I can describe it. And I'm not motivated to describe it in words, because I cannot think of a charitable way to do so.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Orthodoxy on churches outside "the Church"

In my previous post about Catholic-Orthodox ecumenism, I identified what I consider a very important question that Orthodoxy needs to ponder for itself if ecumenical efforts are to bear long-term fruit. Thus:

As evinced by Vatican II's Lumen Gentium and Unitatis Redintegratio, as well as other pertinent documents since that council closed, the Catholic Church has undergone and fostered the development of ecclesiological doctrine in such a way as to give an account of how the EOs and OOs relate to "the Church," which is said to "subsist" in the Roman communion as a perduring whole...But something analogous does not seem to have occurred in Orthodoxy. We have Zizoulas' eucharistic ecclesiology, which dovetails somewhat with Ratzinger's theology of communio and has clearly influenced the Ravenna proceedings. But further progress in Orthodox ecclesiology is necessary if the process embodied by Ravenna is to continue. What direction could and should such progress take? That's the question that Orthodox like John need to consider.

What I'm calling for, in effect, is the sort of development in Orthodox ecclesiology that has occurred, within living memory, in Catholic ecclesiology. Any such development would, of course, assume that the Eastern-Orthodox communion is "the" Church, with the question being how other churches relate to her—just as the Catholic Church sees herself as "the" Church, with the question being how other churches relate to her. Even so, one should not assume that Orthodoxy as a whole will come to see non-Orthodox churches, especially the Catholic Church, in a way that would be a mirror image of how the Catholic Church has come to see non-Catholic churches, especially the Eastern and Oriental Orthodox communions. I know of nothing to rule out that happening, but expecting it to happen would be presumptuous. Yet I believe it can be safely said that if Orthodoxy did develop greater clarity about the ecclesial status of non-Orthodox bodies, especially the Catholic Church, then the possibilities of ecumenism would be more clearly understood on both sides. And clarity about that could only constitute progress—even if the possibilities thereby exhibited would not please everybody. Accordingly, I have invited thoughts from Orthodox readers along the lines I've called for. The purpose of this post is to describe and consider three responses.

The first two are not directly the thoughts of readers but are actually articles referenced by one of my Eastern-Catholic readers, Mary Lanser. One, from 1990 by Orthodox theologian Emmanuel Clapsis, is entitled "The Boundaries of the Church: An Orthodox Debate." If Clapsis' review of the history is substantially correct, then during the 1970s and 80s some Orthodox theologians were headed in the direction of seeing non-Orthodox ecclesial bodies in a way that would be tantamount to a mirror image of how the Catholic Church has come to see non-Catholic ecclesial bodies. Thus, on the assumption that the Eastern-Orthodox communion is "the" Church of Christ, the Roman communion would be seen as one of churches with apostolic succession, efficacious sacraments, and enough commonality with the Orthodox faith to count as genuine churches, as distinct from mere "ecclesial communities" (to use Rome's phrase for Protestant bodies) or religious organizations. Yet that line of thought, while still pursued in some Orthodox quarters, was not further developed. Unfortunately if understandably, it ran aground on the issue of oikonoumia, whose relevance is clear even though I lack space and time to explain it. Thus:

In 1976, on the recommendation of the secretariat for the preparation of the Holy and Great Synod, the first pre-synodal pan-Orthodox conference dropped the principle of economy from the list of the subjects of the coming Council of the Orthodox Church. It gave as explanation that the debate on this principle proved that the Orthodox Church had not reached a consensus on the concept of oikonomia that could permit a discussion without dangerous divisive consequences.[36] Unfortunately what they accomplished with this action was to postpone a major debate within the Orthodox Church about the ecclesiological stature of the other Christian churches. But one might also argue that this decision was wisely taken: the whole issue of ecumenicity was situated in the wrong context, that is, of discussing the principle of economy.

Clapsis concludes that, at the time he was writing, the only consensus reached was as follows:

While Orthodox theologians still maintain that the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church is fully revealed in the sacramental life of the Orthodox Church, they do not deny that God acts through other Christian churches for the salvation of the world. The Orthodox Church's canonical boundaries safeguards the truth of divine revelation as proclaimed and interpreted by the apostles and the Fathers of the Church. Its unique mission in the ecumenical movement is thus to be the main witness of catholicity of the Christian gospel.

Yet the theological cat had been let out of the bag. The broad ecumenism cut short by the ruling on oikonoumia came to be reflected in the text of the 1993 "Balamand Agreement"; see especially paragraphs 14 and 15. In his recent interactions with Pope Benedict, Patriarch Bartholomew seems to be taking that approach for granted.

But within Orthodoxy there has also been much negative reaction to Balamand-style ecumenism. The monks of Mt. Athos rejected BA with contumely, and there is even now quite a substantial "traditionalist" segment within Orthodoxy that sees Mt Athos as the keeper of the true flame of Orthodoxy. And so there is quite a number of Orthodox who see "ecumenism"—at least of the sort motivated by the ecclesiological premises of Balamand—as a heresy. A good summary of that attitude can be found in the second of the two articles Mary referenced: "Ecumenist Double Speak: The Ecclesiological Schizophrenia of the Orthodox Ecumenists" by Orthodox layman Patrick Barnes, webmaster of Orthodoxinfo.com.

I take that article seriously, as more than a mere polemical exercise, because it essentially summarizes Barnes' 2004 book The Non-Orthodox, which has been favorably reviewed in detail by a number of people—including Christopher Orr, an intelligent and well-educated Orthodox blogger with whom I have had combox interaction in the past, mainly at the old Pontifications blog. Having argued that Orthodox ecumenists are really "branch theorists"—in my own book too, a very serious charge—Barnes delivers the following as his last paragraph (emphasis added):

In conclusion, let us briefly sum up the Orthodox Church's teaching on the Church. Without question She believes that She is the Una Sancta of the Nicene Creed; that the Church is not and never has been divided; that the invisible portion of the Church is not at all the same as the Protestant idea of a "true invisible Church" but is, rather, the Heavenly Sphere of the Church, united without confusion to Her Earthly Sphere; that there is no unity whatsoever with heretical bodies; that the Holy Mysteries exist only within Her; and that without the Mystery of Baptism, the seal of the Gifts of the Holy Spirit through Chrismation, and the partaking of Christ’s Divine Body and Blood, a person is not joined to Christ or a member of His Church. In affirming this teaching of the Holy Fathers, we do not condemn heterodox Christians but leave them to the mercy of God and willingly share with them through evangelization our Holy Orthodox Faith. Such is the way of true ecumenism: speaking the truth in love, that repentance might follow in the One True Church.

Barnes holds that acknowledging the validity of any non-Orthodox sacraments, including Roman-Catholic baptism, is tantamount to the heresy of branch theory. Similarly, acknowledging any kind of unity with non-Orthodox churches, including the Catholic, is tantamount to the heresy of branch theory. Indeed there can be no partial membership in the Church: one is either in "full communion," partaking of the Mysteries, or one is no degree of communion at all. Accordingly, there could be no development of Orthodox ecclesiology that would yield a virtual mirror-image of what the Catholic Church now says about the Orthodox churches. The only justifiable goal of ecumenism would be to get non-Orthodox Christians to convert to Orthodoxy tout court.

Now for reasons I've given before, I do not and would not presume to identify either of the above-described positions as "the" Orthodox position. As far as I can tell from the outside, both Balamand-style ecclesiology and Athonite-style ecclesiology are acceptable opinions within Orthodoxy. The only proposition that seems to command some sort of consensus is that the Holy Spirit can and does operate outside the boundaries of the Orthodox Church—itself a proposition that must be held, if only because it must be confessed that the action of the Spirit outside "the" Church is what helps people into "the" Church, whatever the boundaries of the Church may be. Beyond that, however, there seems to be no agreement on whether such energeiae of the Spirit could suffice to incorporate some people into Christ even if they never become explicitly Orthodox. Therefore, there is no consensus within Orthodoxy on whether the Catholic Church in particular is a true church, with apostolic succession and valid sacraments, or is only a "religious organization" offering no genuine means of grace but only a perverted version of the truth—an organization within which the Spirit operates only with the aim of getting people out of it and into Orthodoxy.

That is the dissensus I'd like to see resolved. For if it is eventually resolved in either direction, we could all be clearer about the purposes and prospects of Catholic-Orthodox ecumenism. But the way some Orthodox seem to see it, the dissensus is irresolvable in principle. And that brings me to the third of the responses to my initial question that I'd like to consider.

In the combox to my previous post on Catholic-Orthodox ecumenism, Owen White the Ochlophobist writes:

Outside of the Church the Holy Spirit goes where He will, saves where he wills, grants grace where He wills. But it is not for the Church to formally declare what the Holy Spirit is doing outside of her, in places of such lack; it is only for her to know what the Holy Spirit does within her. She may conjecture what the Holy Spirit does outside of her, but it will remain just that - conjecture. The Bishop of Rome is the Bishop of Rome, a civic title as much as an ecclesial one. But he is not the Orthodox Bishop of Rome. The only final thing that Orthodox can say is just that, that the Bishop of Rome is not yet Orthodox.

If that is correct, then Orthodoxy cannot treat the question of the ecclesial status of any non-Orthodox body, and therefore of the Catholic Church, as anything more than one of "conjecture" and thus of opinion. Unlike what the Catholic Church articulated at Vatican II, there can be no "official," binding Orthodox answer to the question I'm interested in seeing answered. But if so, then the kinds of actions motivated by Balamand-style ecclesiology and Athonite-style ecclesiology, respectively, cannot be adequately warranted by those ecclesiologies. For if the true ecclesial status of non-Orthodox churches is only a matter of opinion, then neither the sort of ecumenism embodied by BA nor the sort of anti-ecumenism embodied by the Orthodox trads can be upheld with confidence. It all depends on whose "conjecture" is correct, and that is something which cannot be known.

Now for all I know, Owen's position might end up being the consensual Orthodox position. But if, in Orthodox terms, the question of the ecclesial status of the Catholic Church must remain a matter of opinion, then there could be no agreement in Orthodoxy about what, exactly, reunion with the Catholic Church would be reunion with. Any effort to get beyond that, to some more definitive answer, would be an illicit attempt to dogmatize what could only be theologoumenon. From that standpoint, discussion of reunion could only be discussion of when the Catholic Church would become Orthodox; for discussion of reunion on any other terms would be ruled out for assuming some-or-other answer that could only be a matter of opinion. Ironically, therefore, the practical attitude toward ecumenism entailed by Owen's relatively agnostic position ends up being pretty much the same as that of the more cocksure trads, such as Barnes.

But that is the end of the story only if Owen's argument for his position is sound. Is it?

Owen's argument depends on identifying non-Orthodox ecclesial bodies, precisely as non-Orthodox, as "lacking" something essential to being the true Church of Christ. Thus he says:

Evil, especially when we rightly understand it as the absence of good, is hard to define. We Orthodox understand other communions as lacking the fullness of faith, the True Faith of right believing Orthodox Christians, to use our tongue. But from an Orthodox perspective, such lacks can be hard to measure. It is hard to measure in terms of lack or absence.

Now Owen does go on to say that he "could list" the things that are lacking in the Catholic Church. But whether he does so or not, I find his entire line of argument puzzling. The consensual charge in Orthodoxy against Catholicism is that Rome has illicitly added to the deposit of faith in various ways so that, by embracing heresy in that fashion, she has departed from Orthodoxy. Rome thus "lacks" the faith only insofar as she has adulterated it by addition; in other words, the lack is like the spoiling of a dish by adding bad ingredients to the recipe. The use Owen makes of such an idea is, apparently, supposed to show what makes it impossible to say, as a matter of doctrine, whether the Roman communion (aka the Catholic Church) is a communio of true churches or only a facsimile thereof.

As a Catholic, I must confess to finding that line of argument incomprehensible. From the consensual Catholic point of view, the problem with Orthodoxy is not with what she affirms but with her denial of certain doctrines that the Catholic Church affirms. Hence, we see ourselves as having preserved and affirmed the same truths as Orthodoxy, differing with the Orthodox only in having made explicit, by doctrinal development, certain aspects of the faith-once-delivered to the saints that the Orthodox have hitherto failed to fully appreciate. From an Orthodox standpoint, it can be argued that such a stance involves a certain "lack," a lack of such a nature as to be immeasurable, only if the Roman "additions" are in fact logically incompatible with what is held in common, so that the "additions" actually entail negations of what is held in common. Some Orthodox have made arguments like that, and when I have occasion to I vigorously rebut them. But Owen has not. So, how he can reach his conclusion with the argument he does use is beyond me.

Of course there are other Orthodox around here who might be able to come up with a better argument than Owen has for his essentially agnostic position. But the more interesting question to me is whether that position, as opposed to those of the Balamandites and the Athonities, is the one that must be considered "the" Orthodox position.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Ratzinger, Scripture and the development of doctrine

I love Joseph Ratzinger's mind. It is the mark of a great scholar to hold apparent opposites in tension not only without contradicting himself but also by effectively synthesizing the opposites-in-tension into a bigger whole. That's what he's done in the case of explaining the relationship of the Old with the New Testament.

On the one hand, he is on record as agreeing with St. Augustine—indeed with Tradition and the New Testament itself—that "the New Testament lies hidden in the Old and the Old is unveiled in the New." The OT points objectively to Jesus Christ, who sums up in his Person all the truth contained by the OT. Yet that became clear to people only retrospectively, when Jesus "interpreted" the Scriptures for the disciples after his Resurrection (Luke 24: 25-27) and explained how, despite the hostile resistance of most of the Jewish leadership, they are ultimately about him.

And so, on the other hand, Ratzinger notes:

It is of course possible to read the Old Testament so that it is not directed toward Christ: it does not point unequivocally to Christ. And if Jews cannot see the promises as being fulfilled in him, this is not just ill will on their part, but genuinely because of the obscurity of the texts and the figure of Jesus. Jesus brings a new meaning to these texts--yet it is he who first gives them their proper coherence and significance.

There are perfectly good reasons, then for denying that the Old Testament refers to Christ, and for saying, No, that is not what he said. And there are good reasons for referring it to Him—that is what the dispute between Jews and Christians is all about. But this is not all. A great part of the purely historical and critical exegesis, likewise does not read the Old Testament in the sense of pointing forward: it regards the Christian interpretation of it as being inconsistent with the original meaning, or at rate going far beyond it" (God and the World, pg. 209)

That is why it made sense for the Jews to disagree with the early Christians about how to read what both agreed were "the Scriptures." Of course, for a Christian it would not do to say that the Christian interpretation of the OT is "inconsistent with the original meaning," if by 'the original meaning' one means what God meant to convey through the Scriptures. But if by 'the original meaning' one means what the original human authors intended, and how they were understood by their original audience, then it not only makes sense but is true to say that such "was not what was said." For the most part, the Jews insisted on identifying the latter with the former. But if Christianity is true, then the former goes "far beyond" the latter, perhaps even in some cases saying things that the original human authors would not have accepted.

The classic case of this is how Matthew 1:23 cites Isaiah 7:14 to support the claim that Jesus was born of a virgin. Matthew was relying on the Septuagint translation of the Hebrew Scriptures into Greek, which uses the term parthenos, meaning "virgin," to translate Isaiah's almah, meaning "young woman." Why that translation? After all, not all virgins are young women and not all young women are virgins. Perhaps the "seventy" Jewish scholars in Alexandria who produced the LXX believed that the Messiah would be born of a literal virgin; but then, perhaps not. We really don't know. They may simply have chosen parthenos as a decorous synonym for 'a young woman' with the implication that the Messiah would be her first-born. At any rate, we have no evidence that first-century Jews assumed the Messiah would be born of a literal virgin. There doesn't appear to have been any consensus among Jews about how to construe Isaiah 7:14 on this particular point. Yet Matthew, or at least the early Church that received his Gospel as canonical, seems serenely confident that it prophesied that Jesus the Messiah was born of a literal virgin.

This is but one instance of how the New Testament in general treats the Old Testament. The NT itself has Jesus himself explaining "the Scriptures,"—i.e., the works comprised by the LXX—as referring to him in various ways that either the original authors of the Scriptures or their audiences do not seem to have had in mind. So if Christianity is true, then the material sense of those Scriptures is far broader than what they formally say. The full material sense—what Scripture scholars call the sensus plenior—is formally brought out only in light of later events, reflections, and interpretations.

Now I've always thought that the Church's collective understanding of divine revelation sometimes develops similarly to how divine revelation itself unfolded, at least as recorded in the Bible. Although divine revelation is definitive and complete in Jesus Christ, so that the faith is "once-handed-on" to the "holy ones" (Jude 3) is complete and may not be added to or subtracted from, the Church can and does deepen her collective understanding of the deposit of faith over time. In some cases, that involves insights and formulations that cannot be deduced from earlier ones and would likely not even have been accepted by many Christians who accepted the earlier ones.

What Fr. Al Kimel says on this point deserves extensive quotation:

Place St Athanasius in the mid-second century. Would it not have been the case that many orthodox bishops would have considered his teaching on the homoousion heretical? Did not the Synod of Antioch in 269 condemn the use of the term homoousios to speak of the Son? Rightly does R. P. C. Hanson refer to the fourth century, not as “the story of a defence of orthodoxy, but of a search for orthodoxy, a search conducted by the method of trial and error” (The Search for the Christian Doctrine of God, pp. xix-xx). Clarity was achieved only by struggle, disputation, creative innovation, and dogmatic definition. Hanson even goes so far as to describe the achievement of Athanasius and the Nicene theologians as a change in doctrine: “There is no doubt, however, that the pro-Nicene theologians throughout the controversy were engaged in a process of developing doctrine and consequently introducing what must be called a change in doctrine” (p. 872). The Catholic will want to insist that this doctrinal alteration was only apparent—the Church always knows the truth of the apostolic revelation and cannot and does not propose falsehood in her formal de fide teaching—but he is happy to acknowledge that dogma does indeed develop in the life of the Church.

Or consider the doctrine of the full divinity and personhood of the Holy Spirit. How many of the Ante-Nicene Fathers explicitly believed what came to be ecumenical dogma? In fact, as Dom Gregory Dix observes, very few indeed:

The doctrine of the full Deity of the Holy Ghost offers an even clearer illustration. It was defined in 381 against the teaching of Macedonius that the Holy Ghost is not God as the Father and Son are God, but is in some way subordinate and intermediate between God and creatures. There is nothing in the N.T. which clearly indicates that the Orthodox doctrine is certainly right, or which is irreconcilable with Macedonianism in some form. Even the baptismal formula of Matt. xxviii.19 can scarcely be pressed (as it was pressed then) in such a sense, seeing that baptism “in the Name of the Lord Jesus” only is scriptural, and so late as the ninth century was still an officially accepted alternative. St. Athanasius and St. Basil both raised the question of the Third Person, but their controversy was waged with those who had followed them against the Arians. They appealed, naturally, to scripture and tradition, and it is notorious how defective in substance their appeal is found to be when it is closely examined. It is also remarkable that in the works which they wrote to vindicate this doctrine both carefully avoid even once applying the decisive word “God” to the Holy Ghost, though in this they are but following earlier writers, even professed trinitarians like Novatian, and the N.T. itself. St. Gregory Nazianzen, “the theologian” par excellence for the East, under whose presidency the Oecumenical Council of 381 actually defined the doctrine, is explicit that there were by “few” who accepted it in his day and that Athanasius was the first and almost the only doctor to whom God had vouchsafed light on this subject (Orat 21.32). Elsewhere he is even more devastatingly honest with the admission that while the N.T. plainly revealed the Godhead of the Son it no more than “hinted at” that of the Holy Ghost, which was now being plainly revealed in his own day (Orat 31.26). This is some distance from talk of “most certain warrants of Holy Scripture.” It was neither Scripture nor Tradition which imposed the dogma of 381, defined by the most thinly attended and least unanimous of all the assemblies which rank as General Councils, but the living magisterium of the Church of that age. And upon that basis only it is accepted today. That the full doctrine of the Spirit’s Godhead was then believed in some sense “everywhere” we may hope, though the evidence is not reassuring. That it had “always” been believed by some we may suppose, though the evidence is at least defective. That it had previously been believed “by all” is demonstrably untrue. An enormous catena can be formed of ante-Nicene writers from St. Clement of Rome in the first century onwards who are either Macedonian Subordinationists or who definitely make the Holy Ghost a creature. One would have hard work to find one ante-Nicene writer who consistently teaches the full Constantinopolitan doctrine—apart from the Montanist Tertullian!

The appeal to an alleged consensus of the Fathers, “that which has been believed everywhere, always and by all,” simply fails as an adequate standard in matters of doctrinal controversy; and it does so for the simple reason that it presumes a time when the Church uncontroversially, explicitly, and infallibly taught the propositional fullness of the Catholic faith. But such a golden time has never existed. The Church as Church knows the totality of the deposit of faith; but this knowledge at any given point in history is only partially discursive. Her grasp of the revelation may be described as akin to Michael Polanyi’s conception of tacit knowledge: “We know more than we can tell.” Gerald Jantzen’s summary of A. N. Whitehead is also apposite: “We experience more than we know; and we know more than we can think; and we think more than we can say; and language therefore lags behind the intuitions of immediate experience.” Newman has taught us that the Church lives in history and that her formal teaching will and must develop as new questions are put to her both by the world and by her own theologians, thus requiring her to speak in words that which is deeper than words. “The Church’s teaching lives forward,” explains Richard John Neuhaus, “and no definition, including that of councils, is entirely adequate to the whole of the truth.”

Indeed. It is just such a perspective which Ratzinger brings to the Scriptures themselves. That kind of understanding, both of the unfolding of divine revelation itself and of the subsequent development of doctrine, is distinctively Catholic. It opposes any theological perspective that precludes development beyond a certain point, such as Scripture or the Fathers. It does not negate anything definitive, but requires holding in tension apparent opposites so that new insight into eternal truth may be achieved.

The more I think about that, the more it seems to me an excellent reason to be Catholic.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Spirituque: development as recovery

In the my ongoing researches into Trinitarian theology, I've come across a very interesting article by Orthodox theologian Alexander Golitzin, published in 2001, entitled "Adam, Eve, and Seth: Pneumatological reflections on an unusual image in Gregory of Nazianzus's Fifth Theological Oration. Toward the end of that article, he writes (emphasis added):

The fact, however, that Western Christians have taken the matter further, beginning chiefly (though not exclusively) with Augustine, and have raised—legitimately, I think—the question of the Second Person's part in the Spirit's origin, brings us to what I, and several other Orthodox theologians before me, feel that the ancient Semitic-Christian tradition sketched above and presupposed by Gregory can contribute to the discussion.

Not to put too fine a point on it, this is the so-far-unaddressed question of the Spirit's role in the generation of the Son. What the old image of the Trinity as "family" reveals, together with the Synoptic baptismal narratives and Luke's account of the Incarnation, is a different Trinitarian taxis or model than the one we are all used to: not Father-Son-Spirit, but Father-Spirit-Son—or, and to borrow a phrase from Leonardo Boff, precisely an implied spirituque. 14 It is this other taxis which I take to be effectively presupposed both by the Eastern epicleseis over the baptismal font and the eucharistic elements, and by the witness of the Eastern ascetico-mystical tradition, which is to say, that it has its roots in the very deepest and, I would argue, most primordial levels of Christian faith and practice as the latter have been known in the East since—well, since the beginnings of Christianity itself.

Here, I think, we arrive at the real reasons—beneath and aside from the abstractions of divine narchia, relations of origin, and of the properties of ousia and hypostasis, or of the purely canonical question of proper or improper additions to the ecumenical creed—for that visceral, almost instinctively negative Eastern reaction to the filioque which I mentioned at the beginning of this essay. In a nutshell, the filioque as it stands, tout court, offends as it were the "inner ear" of Eastern Christian faith and practice, almost exactly in the way in which we would speak of the vertigo and nausea resulting from an injury to the fluids of the body's inner ear. Put more briefly still, the filioque strikes us Easterns as unacceptably lopsided. If it answers to a real need to explain in intra-Trinitarian terms the Son's sending of the Spirit, it does so at the expense of the Spirit's own active role and Person. The Latter becomes entirely passive and, in our eyes, this does not in consequence account adequately for the scriptural, liturgical, and (yes) mystical data of the Tradition which witness to His (or, if the reader prefers my ancient Syrians, Her) creative and generative power.

Fr. Boris Bobrinskoy has written very recently, and Fr. Dumitru Staniloae some time ago, of the need to restore a sense of the reciprocity in the relations between the Son and Holy Spirit.15 I would like to second that motion. As to the precise theological shape that reciprocity might take, or what formula might be found to express it adequately, I will not venture either to propose or to guess. Allow me instead to close not with my own words, but with those of a great Byzantine saint and mystic who wrote on the very eve of our millennial schism.

St. Symeon the New Theologian (+ 1022) testifies here, as so often in his works, to personal transfiguration in the visio dei. It seems to me that his words might be taken as summing up and encapsulating the legitimate insights of both halves of the now sundered Christian ecumene:

What is the "image of the heavenly man" (1 Cor. 15:49)? Listen to the divine Paul: "He is the reflection of the Glory and very stamp of the nature" and the "exact image" of God the Father (Heb. 1:3). The Son is then the icon of the Father, and the Holy Spirit the icon of the Son. Whoever, then, has seen the Son, has seen the Father, and whoever has seen the Holy Spirit, has seen the Son. As the Apostle says, "The Lord is the Spirit" (2 Cor. 3:7); and again: "The Spirit Himself intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words ... crying `Abba, Father!' (Rom. 8:26 and 15). He says rightly that the Lord is the Spirit when He cries "Abba, Father!", not that the Son is the Spirit—away with the thought!—but that the Son is seen and beheld in the Holy Spirit, and that never is the Son revealed without the Spirit, nor the Spirit without the Son. Instead, it is in and through the Spirit that the Son Himself cries "Abba, Father!"16

I could not agree more with both Golitzin and St. Simeon. See my earlier post on the spirituque-filioque theme.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Ravenna: the latest chapter in Catholic-Orthodox ecumenism

In my previous post I noted the recently growing, even prevailing skepticism about ecumenism. Given the weight of history, the clash of ideas, and especially the agonistic culture of the Internet, pessimism is easy. No doubt we will hear more, lots more, of it; it's become par for the course; indeed I expect to see some of it in the combox to this post. Nonetheless, be it noted now that some of the real work of Christian unity goes on with the blessing and encouragement of the Pope and the Ecumenical Patriarch. As a fruit thereof, we now have the statement on "Ecclesial Communion, Conciliarity and Authority" issued by the Joint Catholic-Orthodox Commission ('ECCA' for short). Today I want to evaluate an intelligent reaction to that admittedly modest fruit, and add my own in response.

One of the regular readers of this blog is John of Ad Orientem, an ex-Catholic who converted to Orthodoxy. On the occasion of ECCA's issuance, he has commented here and here. Both of those posts refer to the combox of a post at Cathedra Unitatis consisting of the Zenit translation of the ECCA text. John contributes his reactions there and invite us to do the same for the sake of maintaining the discussion's "coherence." Now since I'm the only blogger writing about this topic whom John has so far cited by name, I'm assuming that he is inviting my contribution. I wanted to respect his request to confine contributions to CU's combox; but as usual, what I have to say even initially will end up being far too long for a combox. And so I shall say it here, hoping to broaden the discussion while maintaining its coherence.

The last time I wrote about Catholic-Orthodox ecumenism, I tried to get beyond the easy pessimism that usually manifests itself by pointing in despair to what most participants see as the 800-pound gorilla in the room: Vatican I. I sought to argue—more accurately: adumbrate an argument—that, from a Catholic standpoint, we could move forward right in the gorilla's face. The key is getting clarity from the Orthodox themselves about Orthodox ecclesiology. Having rejected Athonite rejectionism's implicit claim to speak for Orthodoxy, I asked:

What's the alternative? Well, there really is no clear alternative one can identify as essential to Orthodoxy, in such wise as to rule out the idea that the schism is one "within" the Church rather than a matter of one ancient church leaving the Church. And herein lies the ecclesiological hope, at least from the Catholic standpoint.

After a brief review of Catholic ecclesiology's view of the Eastern churches in schism with Rome, I concluded:

Try as I might and have, I have never been able to find anything in Orthodoxy that would rule out its eventually coming to see the schism as one within the Church, even on the premise that the Orthodox Church is the Church. Whether we're discussing the ecumenical councils of the first millennium as distinct from councils of disputed ecumenicity or merely local authority, or liturgical texts that are standard throughout Orthodoxy as distinct from those peculiar to this or that local tradition, I've never encountered anything which would begin to persuade me that Orthodoxy is committed to viewing the schism with Rome as something more than a dispute between two sectors of "the"Church whose differences arise more from historical and cultural exigencies than from irreformable doctrine. In other words, I can find nothing in Orthodoxy that would commit the Orthodox communion irrevocably to viewing Rome as anything worse than the primatial Orthodox church that's exercised her primacy imprudently for too long—any more than I can find anything in Catholicism committing the Catholic Church to viewing Orthodoxy as anything worse than a communion of local churches that, for a good while now, have got a few key issues wrong and thus have refused to maintain communion with the primatial see of the Church. So as far as I can tell, it remains possible, at least in principle, for Orthodoxy to reunite with Rome along the lines of the Ratzinger proposal of 1982, without abandoning the idea that the Orthodox Church is the Church. Rome would come to be viewed among the Orthodox churches as the first among Orthodox churches and, in that capacity, as having brought the rest along to recognizing that fullness of the truth which was the common patrimony all along.

Of course I had acknowledged from the outset that such is not how most Orthodox see the matter. They haven't seen the matter that way for centuries and, for the most part, don't seem disposed to now. Least of all can Western converts to Orthodoxy be expected to see it that way. But I was and am concerned with how the Orthodox as a whole "could, self-consistently, come to see" the matter, and I had been hoping for a creative reaction engaging that point. At the time, all I got even from John was more pointing to the gorilla—as if I didn't know what was still in the room. What arouses my interest now is that John is starting to do more than that.

I want to engage him specifically because he is one of the relatively few Orthodox online who, in my experience, is not only honest and intelligent—there are plenty of those—but relatively moderate about the matter at hand and willing to devote deep thought to it. He writes:

Rome claims two very key things. First that all of the Latin dogmas proclaimed post 1054 are correct, and secondly that the Orthodox Churches are true and particular churches that are a part of the One True Church, if imperfectly. In support of this they note (repeatedly) that we have never formally anathematized those doctrines. Assuming for the sake of discussion those two claims are correct then Rome should have nothing to fear from putting it all on the table. Let a true Great Council of The Church be convened and hammer it all out. The worst that happens is it fails and we are back to where we stand today (with a few dozen more schisms on the side). That might indeed be the result. I suspect it is quite likely. The odds against agreement are staggering. But maybe, just maybe, we would see a miracle. I think the possibility of living to see a concelebrated liturgy with all of the Orthodox Patriarchs and the Pope of Rome is worth the risk. But it really comes down to this; how confident is Rome of its position? Are they willing or even able to take such a leap? What say my Roman brothers and sisters, is restored communion worth such a risk?

I applaud John for even framing the issue that way. And I'm disposed to say that, from Rome's standpoint, of course it's "worth the risk." But such an observation is idle without noting a practical consideration. Even if, in their private conversations, Benedict and Bartholomew agree that such an undertaking would be worth the risk, could it occur at all given current attitudes in Orthodoxy?

The Russian Orthodox, after all, walked out of the Ravenna discussions, ostensibly because of a dispute with the EP about patriarchal jurisdiction over the Orthodox Church of Estonia. That sort of thing is predictable given the way Orthodoxy has operated for centuries now. And the Russians are the largest segment of Orthodoxy. So it is highly unlikely, as a practical matter, that Moscow as well as all the other patriarchates in schism with Rome would agree to attend such a council and consider its decrees binding on the whole Church—even if Rome and Constantinople called for it and held it. If so, then it doesn't much matter whether Rome considers the risk worth taking or not. As things now stand, it's not a risk that could actually be taken at all, no matter how interested Rome or Constantinople would be in taking it.

Of course, I've already implied that such an obstacle is more practical than theoretical. It's how things are but it's not, as I see things, how dogma requires them to be. In order to get off the dime, then, it behooves us to consider what the dogmatic commitments of each side would logically permit in the long term, as opposed to what human attitudes prevent now. And so it is to that I now turn, as the intellectual space where hope can reside.

The first step is to get clear about the use of the term 'ecumenical' for councils. In Rome's eyes, any council whose decrees are confirmed by the pope as binding for the whole Church binds the whole Church. In Catholic parlance, such a council is "ecumenical" in the strictly normative sense of the term: it binds the whole Church de jure even if, as a purely practical matter, not all the Church is involved in formulating its decrees and/or not all the Church "receives" those decrees, in the sense of accepting them. That is why the general councils of the West held since the schism of 1054 can be called "ecumenical" in Catholic terms, even though the true, particular churches called "Orthodox" do not accept them as such—and Rome is simply not going to revoke the dogmatic definitions of any such council. Even so, such usage of the term 'ecumenical' on Rome's part is logically consistent with how the Orthodox use the term "ecumenical" for councils.

In Orthodox terms, a given council counts as "ecumenical" only if the participating bishops represent the Church as a whole and its decrees are received by the Church as a whole. In that usage, the term "ecumenical" is primarily empirical rather than normative. It tells us what is, or would be, the case, and that is logically distinct from what ought to be the case, which is what Rome's usage ostensibly tells us. Now from Rome's standpoint a given council would count as ecumenical in the normative sense ('ecumenical-N') if, in fact, it counts as ecumenical in the empirical sense ('ecumenical-E'). For a council that would count as ecumenical-E, in both Catholic and Orthodox terms, would entail Rome's assent and ratification, which from Rome's standpoint would suffice to make it ecumenical-N. And even if the Orthodox faithful as a whole did not "receive" the decrees of such a council because of Rome's assent and ratification, such a council would in fact count as ecumenical in Orthodox terms, i.e. as ecumenical-E. By common consent, any council that is ecumenical-E would also be ecumenical-N.

Given as much, the question arises: given the dogmatic commitments of each side, would it be possible to hold a council that both sides could recognize as ecumenical-N? From Rome's standpoint, the answer is clearly yes. But from the Orthodox standpoint, the answer is not so clear. For one thing, who, in Orthodox terms, would have the authority to convoke and preside over such a council? Given what the new Ravenna document says about papal primacy—which isn't all that new and certainly is not ambitious—there is only one realistic candidate for such authority. We know who that candidate is. But the scope of authority claimed by the See of Rome is precisely that the rejection of which, on the part of the Orthodox, sustains the schism. So the question who has the authority to convoke and preside over such a council is not, in Orthodox terms, so easily answered.

Beyond that, there is this question: Even if such a council were held, just whose "reception" of its decrees would be necessary for it to count as ecumenical-E? Even in Orthodox terms, it doesn't necessarily have to be reception by all the churches Rome counts as "true, particular churches." After Ephesus, the Nestorians' rejection of its decrees formed a schism that has never been fully healed; after Chalcedon, the Monophysites' rejection of its decrees formed a schism that has never been fully healed. Such is the schism of the "Oriental" Orthodox with the "Eastern" Orthodox as well as with the Roman communion. Thus the decrees of the "ecumenical" councils of Ephesus and Chalcedon were not, in fact, "received" by those true, particular churches which are now called OOs; yet that hasn't stopped the EOs from considering Ephesus and Chalcedon ecumenical-E. To my mind, and for a long time, that raises the question what EOs mean by 'the Church' when they say that reception by "the Church" of its decrees is necessary for a given council to count as ecumenical.

Despite assiduous research and discussion, I have never been able to find an answer to that question that doesn't just raise further questions. And I would not be so presumptuous as to try to answer those question for EOs themselves. But I must say what I consider incontestable: the mere fact that such questions are genuine poses a challenge to Eastern Orthodoxy to develop further insight into such ecclesiological truth as materially resides already in the faith-once-delivered. Until Orthodoxy as a whole develops greater clarity about what it means by the phrase 'the Church'—meaning the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church affirmed in the common creed of East and West—there will be no clear basis for holding a general council that the Orthodox as well as Rome could clearly consider ecumenical. I don't mean clarity about the referent of the term; clearly, to be Eastern Orthodox is to believe that the true referent of the term is the Eastern Orthodox communion, and that's not what I'm asking about. I mean enough clarity about the meaning of the term to give a clear, consensual, and consistent account of how the Roman and OO communions relate to "the" Church, understood as the Eastern Orthodox communion.

As evinced by Vatican II's Lumen Gentium and Unitatis Redintegratio, as well as other pertinent documents since that council closed, the Catholic Church has undergone and fostered the development of ecclesiological doctrine in such a way as to give an account of how the EOs and OOs relate to "the Church," which is said to "subsist" in the Roman communion as a perduring whole. As a matter of fact, John's challenge to us Catholics makes use of that development. But something analogous does not seem to have occurred in Orthodoxy. We have Zizoulas' eucharistic ecclesiology, which dovetails somewhat with Ratzinger's theology of communio and has clearly influenced the Ravenna proceedings. But further progress in Orthodox ecclesiology is necessary if the process embodied by Ravenna is to continue. What direction could and should such progress take? That's the question that Orthodox like John need to consider.