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

Monday, June 30, 2008

Why they still don't get it

The Continuum is a traditional-Anglican blog whose contributors have, of late, grown gloomier than ever about the prospects of salvaging the Anglican Communion. Given the events surrounding this year's Lambeth Conference, that is probably inevitable. And I am very sympathetic with the concerns of the Continuum. But as a Catholic, I can't help noticing something pivotal that they still don't get.

Consider this peroration from a recent post there by Fr. Robert Hart:

Can they not see that the confusion of sexual identity comes from the world, not from the Holy Spirit? Can they not see that if a person's sex is irrelevant to the sacrament of Holy Orders, they cannot then make it relevant to the sacrament of Matrimony? If Connie can be a priest and father to God's people, why can Adam not marry Steve? If the entire Tradition of receiving God's word as taught from the beginning, when the earliest Fathers interpreted scripture, can be overthrown for the first, how can it hold its authority for the second? In fact, for anything?

Spot on, Padre. Given how women's ordination opens the way to gay marriage, both signify rejection of the Great Tradition—not just this or that aspect of it, but the very raison d'etre of it. Thus, Fr. Hart also says what I have long argued in my own way: "[t]he issue is one of rebellion against the authority of Almighty God, and the denial of his word. But, that rebellion did not begin when Gene Robinson's consecration was approved in 2003. It began when orthodoxy went from being taught authoritatively to being merely tolerated as one option among many." As a Catholic, I see the fundamental issue in Anglicanism today as the one raised by "progressive" Catholicism too.

For Anglican "reappraisers" and Catholic "progs," orthodoxy has become just "one option among many" in the Church. The more charitable among them might fitfully tolerate orthodoxy in the name of that deracinated form of Christian charity known as "inclusivity"; but having forsworn the very possibility of anybody's teaching orthodox doctrine irreformably, they resent anybody's purporting so to teach it. That is why my experience over the last thirty-five years has been that, when I present a clear, constant, yet currently controversial teaching of the Catholic Church as irreformable, progs see me as falsely arrogating to myself and my party within the Church the right to impose certain opinions and values on the rest of the Church. Having been reduced among them to a matter of opinion, they can neither receive nor present orthodoxy as such. Many of them no longer even know what the concept truly involves. Even when some orthodox doctrines are retained by the more temperamentally conservative among them, the authority with which those doctrines have been propounded, and which extends to other doctrines too, is no longer understood as such. Such people might, for a time, remain orthodox per accidens, in a historically transitory way; some surely do; but no member of their set of religious opinions is any longer, indeed cannot be, understood as permanently and definitively normative for the Church as a whole. For such a mentality, that Great Tradition which is the proximate object of "orthodoxy" becomes, sooner or later, a mythology outliving its time. That is the mentality destroying the Anglican Communion, and would destroy the Roman too if the progs had their way.

On that much, Fr. Hart and I are probably in full agreement. Nevertheless, his basic criticism of the Anglican reappraisers (and, to a degree, the "Global-South" reasserters as well) is, at bottom, not only my own about Catholic progs, but also of any and every brand of Anglicanism—and therefore of the brand he so eloquently represents.

After the peroration I block-quoted above, Fr. Hart invokes an old standby:

I believe in the word of God, as revealed by the Holy Spirit and received and understood by the Church Quod ubique, quod semper, quod ab omnibus creditum est- "What has been believed everywhere, always and by all."

That last quotation-within-a-quotation is the well-known "Vincentian Canon." Some time ago, I complained on this blog about use of the VC as "theological sloganizing," but what I was reacting to in that post is not precisely what Fr. Hart is doing. What he's doing with the VC is something I criticized in a related post a few months later.

Against an argument adduced by Orthodox scholar Perry Robinson, I wrote (emphasis added now):

The VC states: "Now in the Catholic Church itself we take the greatest care to hold that which has been believed everywhere, always and by all. That is truly and properly 'Catholic,' as is shown by the very force and meaning of the word, which comprehends everything almost universally." Now that is obviously untrue if taken fully literally; some qualifying interpretation of it has to be given if its original, contextual meaning is to be explained fairly, and I gave that interpretation in my earlier post. Specifically, one needs to know what counts as "the Catholic Church" in order to know what the relevant logical extension of "everywhere, always, and by all" actually is. According to Perry, what relevantly counts as the Catholic Church for VC purposes is the set of sees founded by the Apostles. Now, was it literally true in the 5th century that each and every such see was always orthodox according to the VC? Of course not. At that time, the apostolic sees of Alexandria, Antioch, and Jerusalem, as well as that of Constantinople, had been falling in and out of what even Orthodoxy considers heresy for at least a century. So if the VC is usefully applicable at all, it is applicable only to that communion of churches which, as "the" Church, had remained in the true Faith indefectibly. And which Church was that?

The question cannot be convincingly answered simply by an historical appeal to what this or that collection of sees, even apostolic sees, had "always" held. It can only be answered, if at all, by a theologically prior identification of what counts as "the" Church, so that the unfortunate heresies sometimes infecting this or that occupant of such sees do not weigh against identifying the relevant collectivity, the Church. But that identification, of course, is precisely what is at issue here. Accordingly, there is no convincing way to apply the VC while remaining ecclesiologically neutral. What counts as "the Catholic Church" for purposes of ascertaining how VC should be interpreted cannot be effectively addressed by interpreting and applying the VC in a manner logically independent of one's ecclesiological commitments.

Now Fr. Hart is neither Orthodox nor Catholic, precisely because he does not believe that either the Roman communion of churches or the Orthodox communion of churches is identical with "the" Church of Christ. Fr. Hart is, rather, what many theologians would call a "branch theorist"—a term he rejects because he believes his ecclesiology to be true doctrine, not mere theory. Thus he believes that the Roman communion, the Orthodox communion, and the Anglican Communion (of the good old days before women's ordination and sanctified sodomy, of course) are each "branches" of "the Catholic Church," i.e. the one Church of Christ. Correspondingly, he believes that the doctrinal content of orthodoxy is the faith of the "undivided" Church of the first millennium, which each of those branches has managed to preserve, though not always without an admixture of error. Of course, on this showing the Episcopal Church and perhaps even the Church of England are no longer part of the Catholic Church as Fr. Hart understands that term, precisely because they have abandoned the Great Tradition. Only the really traditional Anglicans, those whose position is exactly his or as close as makes no difference, still belong to the Catholic Church as that term is understood by branch theorists like himself. So in Fr. Hart's eyes, not only do neither of the two ancient communions claiming to be "the" Church count as such; only his minority party within the communion counting as the junior branch of the Church understands what the "one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church" ('OHCAC' for short) professed in the Nicene Creed actually comprises. In effect, Fr. Hart purports to profess orthodox ecclesiology while rejecting the ecclesiological self-understanding of each of the three historic bodies he recognizes as branches of OHCAC. Even somebody who finds such a stance appealing for its irony has to see something amiss here. In my reply to Perry Robinson, I've already pointed to what's amiss.

I described the upshot in yet another post: "Like the finest vodka, this is private judgment distilled so effectively that one hardly knows when one is drinking it." As I explained in my essay Faith, Private Judgment, Doubt, and Dissent, what I mean by 'private judgment' is precisely what John Henry Newman meant. Since branch theorists believe they understand better than anybody else what the phrase 'one, holy, catholic and apostolic church' really means, they believe they understand what orthodoxy—i.e., adherence to the faith of said church—really entails better than either of the two ancient communions with unassailable claims to apostolic succession. Although such a position is absolutely untenable, it explains why branch theorists also merit a description that most of them believe applies to Anglicans less traditional than they: 'Protestants who think they're Catholic'.

My friend and fellow philosopher Scott Carson puts the problem better still:

...it is the great Protestant Burden, it seems to me, to maintain two incompatible ideas at the same time. On the one hand, it must be maintained that something called "the Tradition" is not to be located in any one time or place, but in all times and places, that is, it is what has been believed by everyone everywhere. That's what "catholic" means, after all: "universal". On the other hand, it must be maintained that, when it comes to deciding what, exactly, fits this description--well, then it's confined to one time and one place: it's me. If you start to do or to teach something that is not all that consonant with what I and my cronies have been doing and teaching, clearly the only explanation is that you have departed from "the Tradition". I can prove this, too, by showing you the documents and other artifacts that constitute the evidence of "the Tradition" and interpreting them for you in the proper way, not in the heterodox way that you interpret them. If you insist, for some perverse reason, that I am interpreting them wrongly, then I will just point out to you that their meaning is plain and that you are the one jumping through hermeneutic hoops to get it to come out your way, while I am simply looking at all the data in the plain light of day, with no interpretive lens other than sheer rationality.

Scott recognizes, of course, that such a game is not limited to Fr. Hart and his allies. A lot of people play it for very serious purposes. What must be kept in mind, however, is the mentality according to which neither of the two ancient communions with unassailable claims to apostolic succession can cogently claim to be the OHCAC, and therefore cannot rightfully demand adherence to their authority as necessary for orthodoxy, i.e., for adherence to the faith-once-delivered. According to said mentality, only certain people who have made a sufficiently careful study of theology and church history know what OHCAC, and with it orthodoxy, truly are. This kind of Protestantism is the opposite of unthinking fundamentalism and emotional pietism. But it is Protestantism all the same. The tragedy of it is how effectively it prevents its adherents from knowing that. It's why they still don't get it.
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