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

Sunday, June 01, 2008

To dogmatize, or not to dogmatize

During May, the month of Mary, in which I intermittently return to the Rosary, I once again pondered addressing the question whether the papacy should define as dogma the doctrine that Mary is the "Mediatrix of all Graces" (MMAG). There's even an ongoing movement asking Rome to issue such a definition of the "fifth Marian dogma." Every May some Catholics in the blogosphere and other spheres renew that debate, one which is viewed with, at best, bemused tolerance by non-Catholic Christians. For those reasons and others I had thought better of returning to the topic myself. But now I see it addressed by a thoughtful Catholic calling himself "John Cassian" (JC), who has included in his post a reference to a post of mine that I should have thought was unrelated. Bringing out the relationship is of general interest.

Let me say at outset both the sense in which I believe MMAG to be true and why I am adamantly opposed to defining it as dogma. I believe it to be true because I believe it logically follows from doctrines which the Church has already taught irreformably. First, Mary is the Mother of God and Mother of the Church. She is Mother of God because she is the Mother of Jesus Christ, who is a divine person, namely God the Son; she is Mother of the Church (as Vatican II affirmed in Lumen Gentium Chapter VIII) primarily because the Church is the Mystical Body of her divine Son and secondarily because her loving intercession, precisely as Mother, continues on behalf of all God's people. Now all grace comes ultimately from God, inasmuch as grace in the primary sense of the term is God himself graciously communicating his life to us so that we become "partakers of the divine nature." And the Church is necessary for our reception of such grace, inasmuch as the divine life God offers to all humanity is extended in and through the Church, even when it manifests itself outside the visible boundaries of the Church. As Mother of both God and the Church, therefore, Mary is the "medium" in which divine grace, embodied by the person and won by the merits of Jesus Christ, is given to all humanity. Thus she is "mediatrix of all graces." In that sense, I believe, MMAG is true.

Nonetheless I am opposed to defining MMAG as dogma because I believe such a move would do more harm than good. On the one hand, that minority of Christians, mostly Catholics, who would understand and accept MMAG don't need such a definition in order to bolster their faith. On the other, if there were such a definition, it would be so widely misunderstood and rejected that ecumenical prospects across the board would be darkened. Far from settling any controversy troubling the Church, it would create controversy where none exists and none need exist. MMAG is an essentially mystical doctrine it might someday be opportune to define, by way of addressing those impulses and intimations which explain why some people seek "the sacred feminine." But I just can't see how that time would be now.

That was pretty much my own view of the MMAG movement before reading JC's post. He opposes defining MMAG as dogma not because he thinks the doctrine false—he finds it true in a certain sense, though not quite the one I've expounded—but because he believes such a definition would only encourage what he sees as a baleful tendency across the spectrum of Catholic thought. He calls that tendency "Catechism Catholicism," which indeed infects certain quarters, though I don't disapprove of it for the reasons JC does. In his own words (emphasis added):

I think [snip] that this phenomena of "Catechism Catholicism" is part of the ongoing story of the Church's struggle to fully understand the implications of Vatican I. Regarding Vatican I, it seems clear that a strong papal primacy is part of the dogmatic patrimony of the Church...but there is a strong argument to be made that the pronouncement came at a time when Catholic culture worldwide was in the initial stages of its collapse, due to the rise of secularism/modernism, etc......the strong formulation of papal primacy allowed the average Catholic, whose grasp of liturgy and tradition was becoming more tenuous, to begin formulating the Faith in more strictly hierarchical/monarchical terms. This led to the ecclesial mess we have today, where the average orthodox Catholic formulates their ecclesiology, not primarily with reference to Scripture, liturgy, tradition, but to "canon X of CCC", or "papal document y." This is the "pope=CEO of the Church" model of ecclesiology, and one sees it in both liberal and conservative factions...conservatives, when they say things like "I wish the pope would just fire Cdl Mahony," and in liberals when they say, "I wish the pope would hurry up and ordain women,gays,dogs, etc"

In some ways, even the cultural mess that followed Vatican II can be seen as part of the outgrowth of the development of "Catechism Catholicism." I think many of the Vatican II promulgations can be seen as an attempt to undo the mess caused by the misappropriation of Vat I teaching. Hence all the emphasis on the collegiality of bishops, and the function of the laity, and the returning of the liturgy to the people and their cultures, etc......all of which is well and good, except that the laity and bishops were in full-blown cultural collapse at the time. I don't think I need to elaborate on the many unfortunate results that came from the conjunction of V2 teaching with modern Western culture of the late 20th century...

I can see what JC is struggling to articulate here, but what he means becomes clearer when he discusses Fr. Joseph O'Leary's interaction with me in the combox to my May 3 post "Development and Negation: the struggle continues." You can read that for yourself; here's what JC says:

It highlights quite nicely what I am trying to get across - namely, that misuse of the Petrine privilege can have the unintended effect of weakening the Church's authority. In the post, a conservative Catholic [he means yours truly —ML] argues with a fairly standard paint-by-numbers liberal theologian [Fr. O'Leary] over the subject of Church teaching.

The interesting thing is that the crux of the liberal theologian's argument for rejection of many critical Church teachings, such as Humanae Vitae (HV), is that they were not infallibly proclaimed, and thus subject to "development," by which he means "negation. And in a strict technical sense, he's correct - HV was not infallibly proclaimed.

It's an interesting exchange, because it shows how the misuse of dogmatic authority can contribute to all sorts of unforeseen problems. I think it would have been unfathomable to theologians 200+ years ago to make the argument that "well, it's not infallible, so we can believe what we want." Thus, one dogma (infallibility) is played off of another (contraception), because there is a mindset, rampant in both conservative and liberal circles, that the only important dogmas are ones defined from the extraordinary magisterium. The movement for the fifth Marian dogma only reinforces this unfortunate trend, in my opinion, since it seems to reinforce, this time from a "conservative" standpoint, the idea that that "it only really matters if the Pope says its true!"

I'm afraid I must agree with JC here. He's taught me something: defining MMAG right now, or indeed any new dogma, would probably have the paradoxical effect of making doctrines not so defined seem optional. I suspect that's why John Paul the Great, in Ordinatio Sacerdotalis and Evangelium Vitae §57 ff., only invoked his authority to confirm what has been infallibly and thus irreformably taught by the ordinary and universal magisterium. That's why I'm so enthusiastic about what the progs call "creeping infallibilism," a label which is their way of complaining that Rome has been reminding us of how infallibility actually does extend beyond the extraordinary magisterium.

I think JC would like my Humanae Vitae post of last Thursday.
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