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

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Of what use is "the Vincentian Canon"?

Let me say at the outset that I believe there is an important use for the Vincentian Canon. I did not always believe that. I believe it now because, as we shall see toward the end of this post, the Pope does, and I greatly respect his intellect as well as his office. But I don't think that will satisfy my critics. Of that, I should probably be glad. But what's the use of the thing?

On this blog, I have more than once criticized the rather frequent citation of the Vincentian Canon against the Catholic Church, even though the canon itself speaks of "the Catholic Church" as that church whose faith the VC was intended to help identify and clarify. Progressive Catholics, traditional Anglicans, and most Orthodox—i.e. people who, for different reasons, reject the idea that the Roman communion just is the Catholic Church—are wont to task Rome for requiring more of believers than some common doctrinal core that is alleged to have been "held always, everywhere, and by all." And the VC is said to forbid, with great authority, requiring any more of believers than that. Now, my most recent defense of Rome on this subject was occasioned by a critique made by Continuing-Anglican priests Robert Hart and Matthew Kirby, who hold forth at The Continuum. And I answered Fr. Kirby's criticism of my argument by pointing out that the allegedly Roman "doctrine of manifest unity," which he claims fails to meet even Rome's critieria for having been definitively taught, is not in fact the doctrine Rome teaches. Yet as Fr. Al Kimel has pointed out, I neglected to also directly rebut Fr. Kirby's criticism of my remarks about the use of the VC itself. Since I consider this issue very important, I shall now remedy my neglect.

Rather than simply re-quote my argument, which was originally made to a different person in a different context, I shall sum up my position here for greater clarity.

The following from St. Vincent of Lerins (ca. 434 CE), which includes both the VC and an explication of its use, is true:

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. We shall hold to this rule if we follow universality [i.e. oecumenicity], antiquity, and consent. We shall follow universality if we acknowledge that one Faith to be true which the whole Church throughout the world confesses; antiquity if we in no wise depart from those interpretations which it is clear that our ancestors and fathers proclaimed; consent, if in antiquity itself we keep following the definitions and opinions of all, or certainly nearly all, bishops and doctors alike.

But the VC is not literally true. It is not literally true that every tenet taught by the Catholic Church has been believed "everywhere, always, and by all," even restricting the universal quantifier "all" to formal members of the Catholic Church. For there have always been heresies aplenty among those who are, or at least started out as, formally members of the Catholic Church. But given that the VC is true all the same, there must be rules of application for the VC which, if followed, exhibit the sense in which the VC is true. St. Vincent indeed states several of them. Yet my main point is that one such rule is implied by St. Vincent's words and must be this: the doctrinally true referent of the term 'the Catholic Church' must always be understood and followed in order for the VC itself to be truly understood and reliably applied.

That is the point which Fr. Kirby criticizes as follows:

...Dr Liccione’s rendering of the Vincentian Canon is in danger of being reduced to a useless tautology, and one that Catholics could not accept inasmuch as it would imply all past appeal to this principle was an invalid circular argument. That is, if it is true one cannot appeal to the Vincentian Canon to judge a controversial doctrinal issue without first successfully determining exactly who or what churches are definitely orthodox and Catholic (so that their consent counts), then one must determine who is on the “right side” of any disputed matter before one can use consensus to determine which is the right side! That really would be incoherent.Indeed, the numbered argument I have given above as, I think, an accurate summary of our friend’s position does not use the Vincentian Canon in consistency with this tautological interpretation. Instead, it attempts to show that, even without knowing a priori who is the OTC, one can use the principle of St Vincent of Lerins to conclusively reject Anglo-Catholicism. Hence, any polemical attempt to deny the right of Anglican Catholics to appeal to the Canon in support of their teaching and identity, such as Manning’s infamous reference to the treachery of an appeal to history or his glorying in the triumph of dogma over history, is unreasonable.

As I understand him, Fr. Kirby is making two criticisms: (1) If I really stuck to my main point, my position would be incoherent; (2) Given why I don't stick to my main point, Continuing Anglicans are free to cite the VC to justify their ecclesiology, which it was my purpose to reject.

Perhaps the best way for me to begin answering Fr. Kirby is to explain just why I have maintained the point he criticizes. My first and lesser reason is that to reject or ignore it is to downplay the context in which, and the purpose for which, St. Vincent wrote. He was writing primarily for a literate minority of Catholics at a time when the Western Empire was disintegrating and the Church, in the East as well as the West, was rife with heresies. St. Augustine, for example, had died in 430 while still fighting, among other evils, Donatism and Pelagianism. In 431, the third "ecumenical council" (at Ephesus), amid street riots and bitter episcopal machinations, anathematized Nestorius and thus caused a schism that has lasted down to this day. We do not know whether St. Vincent, a Western father, knew about that council when he wrote. But his purpose in that tumultuous time was clear: to give thinking Catholics a reliable criterion for determining whether a given controversial doctrine expressed the faith of the Catholic Church (his term, mind you) or not. To insist that one need not know what the term 'the Catholic Church' antecedently refers to in order to apply the VC reliably for such a purpose is to make an argument that St. Vincent did not make and, I would venture to say, would not have accepted. Why that's so is the second and major reason for my position.

Consider how St. Vincent himself goes on to recommend applying his "canon":

What then will the Catholic Christian do, if a small part of the Church has cut itself off from the communion of the universal Faith? The answer is sure. He will prefer the healthiness of the whole body to the morbid and corrupt limb. But what if some novel contagion try to infect the whole Church, and not merely a tiny part of it? Then he will take care to cleave to antiquity, which cannot now be led astray by any deceit of novelty. What if in antiquity itself two or three men, or it may be a city, or even a whole province be detected in error? Then he will take the greatest care to prefer the decrees of the ancient General Councils, if there are such, to the irresponsible ignorance of a few men. But what if some error arises regarding which nothing of this sort is to be found? Then he must do his best to compare the opinions of the Fathers and inquire their meaning, provided always that, though they belonged to diverse times and places, they yet continued in the faith and communion of the one Catholic Church; and let them be teachers approved and outstanding. And whatever he shall find to have been held, approved and taught, not by one or two only but by all equally and with one consent, openly, frequently, and persistently, let him take this as to be held by him without the slightest hesitation.

The methodology St. Vincent recommends in the above paragraph could not even get off the ground if the person applying it did not already know what the term 'the Church'—i.e. the Catholic Church—concretely and specifically refers to. That emerges even more clearly when we attend to what St. Vincent does with the phrase 'the ancient General Councils'.

Which councils did he mean? Surely not the well-attended Council of Antioch in 268, which among other things considered how to speak of the divinity of the Son in relation to the Father. That council sharply rejected using the term homoousios, "of the same substance," to describe that relation; yet fifty-seven years later, the council which is universally deemed the first "ecumenical" council, at Nicaea, adopted that very term to combat the Arian heresy that had arisen less than two generations after the Antiochene council. Even so, by the time St. Vincent wrote his canon, the Arian heresy was still very much alive, despite the efforts of the only other "ecumenical" council to be held before St. Vincent came of age: that of Constantinople in 381, a purely Eastern council which had not yet been acknowledged by Rome as universally binding by the time St. Vincent wrote. So, what does St. Vincent think the authority of "general councils" consists in?

He simply could not have meant that their authority derived from any unbiased student's being able to see, on the basis of other criteria, the conformity of their creeds with what had "been held always, everywhere, and by all." Why not? Because he was recommending that we consult general councils precisely in order to determine what had thus been held, and precisely at a time when some orthodox but controverted doctrines were by no means held "everywhere and by all." On St. Vincent's methodology, then, the authority of "general councils" to determine which statements were "orthodox,"—i.e. which statements truly expressed the faith of the Church—could not, either logically or historically, have derived simply from some clear and general recognition that the statements approved by such councils expressed what had been "held always, everywhere, and by all." It's rather the other way round: the dogmatic decrees of general councils are what enable Catholics to recognize what had been "held always, everywhere, and by all" to begin with.

Given as much, St. Vincent was appealing to the authority of such councils to speak for the Catholic Church as a whole and thus define the faith of the Church as a whole. That authority is not, to be sure, entirely independent of the deposit of faith it claims to hand on definitively, nor did St. Vincent believe it to be thus independent. He knew that the teaching authority of the Church is not above the Word of God but only serves it. By the same token, however, the authority of general councils as convocations of bishops speaking for the Church as a whole had already been, by St. Vincent's time, long acknowledged to be that of the successors of the Apostles. The teaching authority of the Apostles was abundantly clear in the New Testament, and was long understood by Tradition to have been passed down to validly ordained bishops. The authority of the Magisterium to interpret the deposit of faith in an authentic, binding, and definitive manner was already, itself, understood to belong to the deposit of faith. But such authority would be nugatory if its exercise stood under judgment by people who simply decided for themselves whether or not the dogmatic decrees of a given general council conformed to what had been "held always, everywhere, and by all."

This of course immediately raises the question how, for St. Vincent, an authoritative "general council" is to recognized as such. Is it just the sheer number of bishops attending it and approving its decrees? Not exactly: the Council of Rimini (359), called to once again address the Arian controversy that Nicaea had fail to quell 33 years earlier, had more bishops in attendance than Nicaea and ended up approving an Arian creed! That result was what caused St. Jerome to observe: "The whole world groaned in astonishment to find itself Arian." Presumably St. Vincent, who accepted Nicaea, rejected Rimini too. Well then, how are we to know that one big council is to be accepted as authoritative and another not? St. Vincent is silent on that question, although I doubt it is coincidental that Pope Liberius was known to have annulled the decrees of Rimini a few years after it adjourned. Neither do I think it coincidental that Pope St. Leo the Great taught, less than thirty years after the writing we have from St. Vincent, an understanding of the papacy that can only be described as "Vatican I in nuce" (to borrow a phrase from Fr. Kimel). Regardless of the criteria by which we distinguish truly ecumenical councils from latrocinia, however, my point about the role of the former in using the VC stands.

How about when there is no "general council" to settle a question? St. Vincent answers by recommending, in effect, that we diligently seek a consensus patrum. But such a consensus is not to be sought among just any old writers claiming to be Christian; it is to be sought only among "teachers approved and outstanding." Approved by whom? Well, who else than the authorities of the Catholic Church? Outstanding among whom? Among those Catholics who are not Catholics in name only, but who humbly submit their judgments to the Magisterium and those writers whom the holders of the Magisterium recommend. When a consensus is to be found among such approved and outstanding writers on a matter pertaining to the deposit of faith, then we can identify and embrace the faith of the Church as such in their consensus.

An example of how the Magisterium itself employs the VC illustrates what that involves. Consider then-Cardinal Ratzinger's CDF responsum ad dubium on Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, a document of John Paul II's which had ruled that the Church's lack of authority to ordain women priests was a doctrine to be "definitively held by all the faithful."

This teaching requires definitive assent, since, founded on the written Word of God, and from the beginning constantly preserved and applied in the Tradition of the Church, it has been set forth infallibly by the ordinary and universal Magisterium (cf. Second Vatican Council, Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium 25, 2). Thus, in the present circumstances, the Roman Pontiff, exercising his proper office of confirming the brethren (cf. Lk 22:32), has handed on this same teaching by a formal declaration, explicitly stating what is to be held always, everywhere, and by all, as belonging to the deposit of the faith.

Notice how Ratzinger ended: OS's teaching is to be "held always, everywhere, and by all." That is a clear allusion to the VC, and it is a fair allusion because it had already been said that OS's teaching was "from the beginning constantly preserved and applied in the Tradition of the Church." Knowing that the VC is not literally true as a description, in this or in most other cases, Ratzinger transforms it into a prescription. But it is a prescription founded in large part on the methodologies St. Vincent himself recommends. I am thus led to believe that the VC is useful not as a empirical method of polling the Christians of the past, still less of the present, than as a normative method of ascertaining the faith of the Catholic Church by synthesizing the statements of her duly constituted authorities and those they approve. Such a normative method is highly useful for those willing to accept it. But it would not make sense without the visible, historical Catholic Church, and her teaching authority, taken as givens.

Hence, pace Fr. Kirby, my position is not "incoherent." The way one knows who has the authority to settle controversial doctrinal issues is not, as Fr. Kirby says I say, to first "determine who is on the right side." That would be Protestantism, and I am not a Protestant because I don't believe that such a stance, if generalized, is compatible with the gift of faith. The way one knows who has the authority to settle doctrinal controversies is simply to locate the Catholic Church, which is where the the authority to determine what the right side is abides. Nor do I abandon that position for the sake of using the VC to reject Anglo-Catholicism, while prescinding from the question which ecclesial communion is "the" Church. I believe it is inherently implausible—VC or no VC, Catholic Church or no Catholic Church—to claim to know who and where "the Church" is while rejecting the ecclesiological self-understanding of each of the communions one claims to be branches of the Church. And I believe St. Vincent would support me in that, if he were still concerned with ecclesiological polemics.

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