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

Monday, July 07, 2008

"Why they still don't get it:" replies to objections

As I expected, Fr. Robert Hart and one of his Continuum colleagues, Fr. Matthew Kirby, have replied to my post "Why they still don't get it," where "they" refers to the Continuum. They did so in comboxes both to that post and to one at the Continuum, where my post was re-posted for convenient discussion. I was pleased to see, in the latter combox, contributions by my friends Fr. Al Kimel and Scott Carson; the latter has even followed up with a post of his own, delightfully entitled Have a Hart, whose moderation is commendable. Having been taken to task for my "sanctimonius triumphalism" (Scott's description of what I've been criticized for), I see the moment now to respond to my main critics.

Fr. Hart believes I have misunderstood his position, and accordingly has urged me to study his ample posts relevant to "Roman Catholicism" where, I was assured, my misunderstanding would be dispelled and I would find the refutations of all my arguments. Having duly made the study, I find that most of the arguments he constructs, along with most of his supporting material, are both old in themselves and familiar to me—from the time in college when I was exploring the question whether to be Protestant, Orthodox, or Catholic, and from my more recent participation at the now-defunct blog Pontifications, whose newer version Fr. Kimel writes here. I shall clear away some of the kicked-up dust so as to focus what is worth debating.

The dust cloud is what is taken to be the evidence of history. Obviously Fr. Hart does not see historical arguments for "the papal claims" as intellectually compelling; nor do I think he ought to, for I don't either. But given that he has called Joseph Ratzinger "as close to being infallible as any one man can get," I should think Fr. Hart would hesitate to deny that said claims are intellectually defensible. That is as it should be. For neither I, Fr. Kimel, Prof. Carson, the Pope himself, or the many Roman-Catholic minds as great as the Pope's and greater than mine would presume to say that the evidence of history proves the Catholic doctrine of the papacy as that has developed over time. We believe said doctrine to be an article of faith and therefore to be assented to by the gift of faith. While considerations of history, and of reason generally, are and must be relevant to deciding whether to accept said gift and what comes with it, no such considerations could in themselves be decisive and thus compelling; for an article of faith expressing a truth knowable only by divine revelation cannot be subject to rigorous demonstration without ceasing to be an article of, precisely, faith. Much the same could, of course, be said about Eastern-Orthodox ecclesiology from a strictly Orthodox standpoint. In fact, on scholarly grounds alone, a number of mutually incompatible ecclesiological doctrines are defensible—in the sense of not being obviously contrary to purely historical fact—including Fr. Hart's. A matter such as this is not going to be decided by how much data we have in hand or even by how "reasonably" one particular inquirer interprets data that others have too. For even when the parties have the same set of data in hand, they operate within competing theological paradigms for interpreting the data. Which paradigm one adopts is thus underdetermined by the data and shapes how one sees the data. If things were or even could be otherwise, then after nearly two millennia of Church history and several recent centuries during which more and more data have been emerging for scholarly discussion, Christians would have less, not more, dissensus over theology generally and ecclesiology in particular. But in fact we have more than ever. Where, then, are we to look if not to the evidence of history?

Well, it would be a start to ask just what ecclesiologically significant questions the evidence of history fails to adjudicate. One such question is whether to be Protestant or Catholic.

I agree with Newman that "whatever be historical Christianity, it is not Protestantism. If ever there were a safe truth, it is this." A respectable case can be made that either Catholicism or Orthodoxy is the faith-once-delivered, even though no set of historical data could objectively suffice to decide between their competing ecclesiological paradigms. But there just isn't anything called "Protestantism" on behalf of which one could make such a case. I think so not because I am an expert Church historian—I am not—but because it seems evident to me that "Protestant" denominations share too little positive doctrinal content with each other for something called "Protestantism" to present a clear doctrinal alternative to the indisputably apostolic communions. Aside from the existence of some sort of deity, and the importance of Jesus in showing us something about the deity, the only point on which they all seem to stand is, well, protest against the idea of any particular, visible church's being protected from error by God when it invokes its real or imagined authority to hand on divine revelation.

Now I have argued, in effect, that Fr. Hart is a Protestant rather than a Catholic. In more than one place, however, Fr. Hart has insisted that he is both Protestant and Catholic. Needless to say, one can reconcile such contraries by going beyond ordinary usage and construing the terms so that they cease to be contraries. That is what Fr. Hart does. But I have no wish to debate lexicography. I'd rather get right to the crux of the matter.

See here, which is a comment of his under one of his RC posts. He begins by quoting another commenter, and then responds.

The fault is not in the Scriptures but in the desire to part with its authoritative interpreter—the Church.

On this point traditional Anglicans are in complete agreement (and I dare say that my lengthy quotations for Hooker have demonstrated this fact). The disagreement is about how we know the infallible teaching of the Church. To the RCC it is by the teaching authority of the Roman Magisterium, whereas to us it is the 1,2,3,4,5 and Scripture, Right Reason and Tradition ("the Church with her Authority"). This, we say, is not embodied in one man, but in the consensus of the Church when it was united in the first millennium, regarding those doctrines that all of us, when really up against it, not only believe, but would die for.

Now all parties to this particular discussion agree that "the Church" is the "authoritative interpreter" of Scripture. All agree that the Church, qua such an interpreter, teaches infallibly when she addresses a point of faith or morals with her full authority. Disagreement, as Fr. Hart points out, arises over the question how we know what is the infallible teaching of the Church. I would add, and I don't think Fr. Hart would dispute, that disagreement also arises over the question what the referent of the phrase 'the Church' really is in this context, with the emphasis on "the". As we shall see, the two questions are closely related and the latter is just as important as the former.

Regarding the first, Fr. Hart has seriously mischaracterized the Roman-Catholic meta-teaching about "how we know." In some of the ipsissima verba, the actual teaching is as follows (emphasis added):

Sacred tradition and Sacred Scripture form one sacred deposit of the word of God, committed to the Church. Holding fast to this deposit, the entire holy people united with their shepherds remain always steadfast in the teaching of the Apostles, in the common life, in the breaking of the bread and in prayers (see Acts 2, 42, Greek text), so that holding to, practicing and professing the heritage of the faith, it becomes on the part of the bishops and faithful a single common effort. (7)

But the task of authentically interpreting the word of God, whether written or handed on, (8) has been entrusted exclusively to the living teaching office of the Church, (9) whose authority is exercised in the name of Jesus Christ. This teaching office is not above the word of God, but serves it, teaching only what has been handed on, listening to it devoutly, guarding it scrupulously and explaining it faithfully in accord with a divine commission; and with the help of the Holy Spirit, it draws from this one deposit of faith everything which it presents for belief as divinely revealed.

It is clear, therefore, that sacred tradition, Sacred Scripture and the teaching authority of the Church, in accord with God's most wise design, are so linked and joined together that one cannot stand without the others, and that all together and each in its own way under the action of the one Holy Spirit contribute effectively to the salvation of souls. (Dei Verbum §10).

Therefore, Fr Hart's contrast between the role of "the teaching authority of the Roman Magisterium" and "Scripture, Right Reason, and Tradition" depends on a fundamental misstatement of how "the Roman Magisterium" sees the relationship between itself on the one hand and "Scripture and Tradition" on the other. Of course he could defend his view by maintaining that he sees through the teaching, i.e. that knows the real, underlying doctrine of the Magisterium behind the official teaching of the Magisterium itself. I have often observed this tack among those who reject what they believe to be the claims of the Church of Rome. But it is necessarily implausible to claim to know that what the Roman Magisterium means is incompatible with what it says. So the actual teaching should be taken at face value. Yet if it is so taken, then Fr. Hart's intended contrast between the Roman Magisterium on the one hand and "Scripture, Right Reason, and Tradition" on the other is merely a covert begging of the question. As for "Right Reason," no party to the dispute is going to say either that Right Reason is irrelevant or that their own reasoning fails to conform with Right Reason. (Indeed, Roman Catholicism is often accused of relying too much on "reason" as distinct from "faith.") And so I shall leave aside the altogether sterile question whose reasoning conforms to Right Reason. I shall also leave it to Fr. Hart to adjust his position, or at least his arguments, in light of actual Roman-Catholic teaching.

Pending that, if wants to see himself as both Protestant and Catholic, he has to do two things: affirm that something called "the Church" infallibly teaches the faith-once-delivered (the "Catholic" part), yet at the same time deny that any particular, visible church, such as the Church of Rome through her Magisterium, has in fact always done so over time when teaching with its allegedly full authority (the "Protestant" part; though it is not in dispute that all churches have erred when teaching with less than such alleged authority.) That, as I continue to read him, is just what Fr. Hart does, though in a manner I haven't found convincing since I decided, in college, to remain Catholic rather than become Orthodox. And that is the crux of my dispute with him. I do not believe, and have never been able to believe, that the affirmation can be made consistently with the denial.

I've already produced, in my previous post on this topic, an argument for that position that Fr. Hart's colleague, Fr. Kirby, analyzes well into what he calls "a valid and powerful one, granting all its factual premises." For the benefit of readers, the best way to clarify my disagreement with both worthy clerics is to defend the one factual premise of mine that Fr. Kirby rejects and, with it, my argument.

Here is how Fr. Kirby formulates that premise:

Whether one limits one’s survey (i.e., one’s search for Catholic consensus) to the Catholic Church of the First Millenium before the schism between East and West, or the RCC since then, or the EOC since then, or even a hypothetical combination of the EOC and RCC, in each case there is a consistent dogmatic consensus that the unity of the OTC (i.e., "the one true Church") is always outwardly visible and thus that any outward separation of jurisdictions cannot possibly leave more than one of the separated bodies inside the OTC. That is, East and West always have asserted and still do assert a doctrine of manifest unity (DMU) of the OTC.

Fr. Kirby goes on to criticize that premise as follows:

The problem is that premise 2 is simply false. There is no binding DMU and there never has been. The DMU, at most, has been a common opinion or sometimes has been asserted or assumed in official but non-infallible teaching contexts. But the actions of the Church (using any of the hypothesised identifications above) and the statements of various of its theologians and bishops (in good standing) in the past have often been manifestly inconsistent with such an absolute position. And I have made this very point before and given the relevant evidence on this weblog in 3 parts.

The problem with Fr. Kirby's criticism, even as he expounds it more extensively in other writings of his that he cites, is that his construal of the DMU fails to observe a crucially important distinction contained within the Roman Magisterium's official teaching, even as the matter is left to opinion alone within Orthodoxy.

By way of stating the content of the DMU, which he rejects, Fr. Kirby says that the One True Church (OTC) "is always outwardly visible and thus that any outward separation of jurisdictions cannot possibly leave more than one of the separated bodies inside the OTC." Regarding Orthodoxy, that seems a fair-enough generalization of the doctrinal state of things. But even though the Orthodox regard their communion as the OTC, they lack consensus on the precise ecclesial status of the Roman communion, otherwise and more commonly known as "the Catholic Church." As Fr. Kirby rightly puts it, "they know where the Church is, but not where she isn't." Admittedly a vocal minority, including the monks of Mt. Athos and Fr. Justin Popovich, sees the Catholic Church as a satanic counterfeit of a church, with papism and (on some versions) the filioque as the fons et origo of all the ills of "the West." But the majority seem to see the Catholic Church, though indeed as heretical and schismatic and thus not part of the OTC, yet nonetheless as possibly quite helpful for her members' salvation. A few are even willing to see the Catholic Church pretty much as the Catholic Church sees the Orthodox communion. What, and how, is that?

A careful reading of Vatican II's Dogmatic Constitution on the Church (Lumen Gentium), along with the "ecumenical" decrees related to it, makes three points clear:

(1) The Catholic Church sees herself as the OTC, i.e. that body in which the Church of Christ visibly and continuously "subsists" as a perduring whole;

(2) All the same, the Orthodox churches in schism with the Catholic Church are "true, particular churches" that are in real but "imperfect" communion with the Catholic Church;

(3) As such, the Orthodox communion "belongs properly" to the Catholic Church, i.e., ought to be in full communion with the OTC.

Without the use of the word 'Orthodox', all of that is reiterated in the CDF's most recent "instruction" on ecclesiology, which I quoted in full and discussed at length here last year.

Pace Fr. Hart, this is not Rome's branch theory. According to branch theory, neither the Roman nor the Orthodox nor the Anglican communion, indeed no visible communion of churches, can rightly claim to be, simply, the OTC. But Rome has time and again insisted, with her full authority, that she is the OTC; and her version of the DMU follows from her ecclesiological self-understanding. Yet, on that version and pace Fr. Kirby, it does not follow that the Orthodox communion is simply "outside" the OTC. Rather, for Rome the Orthodox communion consists of true churches that are in imperfect communion with the OTC. Thus, in relation to the OTC, the Orthodox communion exists ectopically as it were, but still with a real connection of sacramental grace and authentic Christian faith. That teaching was never clearly formulated in Magisterial teaching prior to Vatican II; but the very historical evidence Fr. Kirby cites against what he calls "the DMU" serves rather effectively to show that Vatican II's teaching about Orthodoxy is merely a making explicit of Rome's practical stance toward the Orthodox all along. Accordingly, the problem with Fr Kirby's formulation and rejection of the DMU is that the DMU he formulates and rejects is not the DMU that Rome teaches. It fails to note Rome's adoption of the idea of partial communion, and thus fails to formulate the version of the DMU which she holds and which, accordingly, I hold.

As I indicated above, Fr. Hart has complained that I misunderstand him. Perhaps I have, even though I don't think so. But I think it pretty clear that Frs. Hart and Kirby have misunderstood how Roman-Catholic ecclesiology has developed. By thus misunderstanding my own ecclesiology, they have failed to appreciate the force of my argument against theirs. In this as in so many debates, the hardest work for the antagonists is simply getting clear on what each other means.

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