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

Saturday, February 28, 2009

Getting jihad

Whether coincidentally or by design, Ruth Gledhill has answered my criticism that she and her set give a pass to militant Islam while holding an anti-Papist prejudice against a far less objectionable practice of the Catholic Church. Check it out. She has begun to express awareness of what today's jihad is really about: destroying the Jews, restoring Muslim purity, and conquering the West. My conservative friends should drink to Ruth for that post, especially if it is representative of what religiously progressive Western journalists believe as a group.

Many Western liberals prefer to ignore the fact that our enemy is not "terror" in itself. Our enemies are not just a scattering of religious fruitcakes who happen to commit crimes for their cause. Terrorism is a tactic in what they conceive as a generalized jihad. The tactic is employed to cow people into submission. Unapproved Muslim regimes are to be overthrown, Israel "wiped off the map," and the West ejected from the House of Islam. In due course, a revived caliphate will be established. It will move on to conquer the House of War, the world of the "infidels." That is the strategic vision of radical Muslim movements, whose motivations and aims are expressly religious. This is a multi-generational religious war that we will lose if we do not see it as such. Nor will we win by pulling punches, bestowing more foreign aid, and encouraging piecemeal democratic reforms. We can win only if the masses in the House of Islam adopt and pursue a different vision of Islam. They must be convinced that Islam should not be the violent, cynical scourge that al-Qaeda, the Taliban, the mullahs of Iran, Hamas, and Hezbollah have turned it into. They must eventually find that Muslim totalitarianism is no more to their liking than Western decadence. Given what Islam has historically been, we cannot ensure such a result by anything we do or become. We can only resist being cowed, defeat the jihadis in battle, and otherwise avoid making things worse. Ultimately, change will have to come from Muslims themselves.

Still, Ruth isn't quite ready to maintain the needed focus. Referring to the Holocaust-denying SSPX Bishop Richard Williamson, she writes:

The outrage in the West over Williamson is not motivated by anti-Catholic prejudice. We have been guilty of that over history and of course the persecution of Catholics in the past and in the present where it occurs is something needing repentance.

The Williamson episode signifies something far greater and more dangerous, and the above gives an indication of what that is. 'Never again,' is the slogan we should all adopt. And we must all say it, and teach our children to say it, again, again and again.

I agree with Ruth that the Catholic Church ought not to tolerate anti-Judaism. In fact, since Nostra Aetate she has not. The Vatican's refusal yesterday to accept Williamson's half-hearted "apology" is one more bit of evidence of that. Indeed, the current flap only confirms the view of many traditionalist Catholics, who are supersessionists to a person, that the Vatican has gone too soft on the Jews and compromised the Catholic Faith in the process.

What people like Ruth need to realize is that the Pope cannot please all the people all the time. What he does, and is doing, to calm Jewish fears will earn him the opposition of many Catholic trads and many Muslims. It also needs to be understood that the polity of the Catholic Church is not entirely like others.

People are not excommunicated just for being prejudiced against the Jews or anybody else. People are not excommunicated for being dotty conspiracy theorists. People aren't even excommunicated for being nasty people. People find themselves excommunicated for certain things they do. Typically they excommunicate themselves, by doing things such as cooperating in abortion or living in adultery; that's called excommunication latae sententiae. Sometimes they are excommunicated formally, or ferendae sententiae, by doing things such as getting themselves ordained without permission. Williamson was excommunicated in 1988 along with his fellow SSPX bishops because the founder of that society, Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, ordained them against the express wishes of the Pope. His excommunication has been lifted for the same sort of reason that Pope Paul VI and Patriarch Athenagoras of Constantinople lifted the mutual excommunications of the two sees that had occurred in 1054: to remove an obstacle to full communion between the SSPX and the Holy See. That is why Benedict XVI never bothered to consider Williamson's views on the Jews. They weren't seen as relevant to the issue at hand. And I don't think they should be seen as relevant to the issue at hand.

Again, this is not to say that anti-Judaism should be tolerated. It shouldn't be, and it isn't. Thus, merely removing the formal excommunication of SSPX bishops isn't going to restore objectively full communion between the SSPX and Rome. The real obstacles are doctrinal, and they're unlikely to go away. Supersessionism is one of those doctrinal obstacles; and the Vatican might want to use the Williamson flap as a way to emphasize that. But I believe it's far more important to confront Muslim-traditionalist anti-Jewishness than to confront Catholic-traditionalist anti-Jewishness. The trads don't want to see a new Dark Ages in Western Europe and elsewhere any more than we do; but if the West doesn't get its act together and stem the tide of radical Islamism, that's exactly what we will eventually see.

Friday, February 27, 2009

Confession as solidarity

It is disappointing, if inevitable, that most images of the Sacrament of Reconciliation show a priest sitting in one half of a big dark box and separated by a grille from the shame-faced penitent kneeling in the other half. That's why I've used an image of a different method. Although many people still "go to confession" in the box, utilizing a soft-gauze, emotionally unthreatening anonymity, most churches and priests now offer other physical formats too. They should. For even when conducted in complete anonymity, the sacrament is a communal celebration. It ought to be. For that reason, I prefer that it seem to be—especially in our culture, where individualism runs rampant and even good Christians like to pretend that their repentance is only between "me and Jesus."

As a semi-monthly penitent, and a weekly one during Lent, I sit face-to-face with my confessor. That's because what I need is more like a conversation than a mutual recitation. I want to be clear about the journey on which I've stumbled. For my habitual sins are so humdrum that it would bore even me to restrict myself to listing them, and the Spirit occasionally leads to me to see this-or-that sin as unusual or grave enough to be interesting. Yet I know that many priests prefer as much brevity as possible. Sometimes that's because they are fortunate enough to have a long line of penitents to deal with, and sometimes it's because they don't set aside enough time to hear confessions in the first place. Sometimes that in turn is because they simply hate hearing confessions, especially when, as is likely, they find themselves with a penitent who has little to say and less to confess but rattles on anyhow. So I've learned to be concise. But I avoid lines when I can, and I don't confess to priests who otherwise won't have a conversation. I want to confess why I've been backsliding, and I want to do it before somebody willing and able to tell me whether, and if so how, I'm kidding myself. I don't want to do that because I fancy myself better able to handle the truth than others. I don't compare myself with others in such ways. Rather, I want to risk being told I'm kidding myself because the Church I love, the Mystical Body of Christ in which we are all family, needs me to be honest with myself. I need to see how I've been wounding her; for if I can see that, then I am better motivated to change than I would otherwise be. Then, when I receive absolution, I feel I am being welcomed back to the family I've hurt.

Although my dislike of "the box" is admittedly a subjective preference, I don't believe it is merely that. That degree of anonymity was not normative for rites of reconciliation in the early centuries of the Church; for reasons I lack time to explain, it took a long time to become the norm. Until rather recently, though, that was not a problem. Most people were Catholic because that's what they, along with everybody they knew and indeed the very culture, had always been. The people's sense of Catholicism as "us" was lively in the sense that mattered. When it could be had, sacramental confession was seen almost as a form of good citizenship. That's not to say there weren't plenty of sinners and of the lukewarm. But there was still the sense that an individual's spiritual sloth was bad for "us" as well as for the individual. That's why, today, I favor a more physically open style of confession. You get the sense that you're speaking to and hearing from the family, even if most of the actual individuals would rather not hear what you're saying any more than you would like them to.

Catholic culture, to the extent such a thing still exists, is not much like that anymore. Americans, especially, want people to mind their own beeswax. Cars, computers, and now video games have made that easier than ever to do. It it no accident that the sense of the Church as a mystical body, as a covenant family, has declined at the same time. To some, she is primarily the hierarchy or the institution and only secondarily "the people of God." That is unfortunate, though not universal. Yet nowadays, among many Catholics who do have a lively sense of "us" as the Church, a sense of sin arises only within a political matrix. In "progressive" parishes, sin is seen mostly as "structural," as a systemic failure to embody those social teachings of the Church which are not somehow connected with sex and/or procreation. With the exception of the grossest felonies, pretty much everything else is seen as more a matter for therapy than repentance. So, most prog Catholics rarely if ever celebrate the sacrament of reconciliation. But even among more orthodox Catholics, sin is seen almost exclusively as a private, individual matter. Even though they reject the Protestant mantra: "I don't need a priest between me and God," they see the priest who represents Christ as keeping sin and forgiveness between "me and Jesus." It's no wonder that so many regular penitents prefer the box and hope they get a penance that won't involve their interacting with anybody but Jesus.

It is not that I judge those who do. That would be silly and pretentious. But I do think that priests need to emphasize the corporate consequences of sin, and the corresponding need for concrete acts of repentance that often involve doing things to help repair the damage sin does to others. Clergy and catechists must also stress the importance of the confessor as representing the Church, the Mystical Body of the Lord, wounded by every sin her members commit. Celebrating the sacrament with that in mind might be one of the most important ways in which we pray for each other. That would be "solidarity" which goes beyond even that kind which is called for by the principle of Catholic social teaching so labeled. It would instance the solidarity of the communion of saints.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Sacramental contradiction

This year, I want to greet Ash Wednesday with the observation that Lent is sacramental. I don't mean that the Church ought to make it the "eighth" sacrament—as if the Church would care if I did mean that. I mean that Lent is an efficacious sign. By signifying in small ways certain kinds of things we should be doing year round, our Lenten practices increase our power to do them year round. One of the most important of those things is repentance; the word itself is another name for that conversion which ought to be ongoing and daily. For those who follow and meditate on current ecclesial events, meditating on one such event should help us realize how we all need to be repenting, and thus converting.

Ruth Gledhill, religion correspondent for the London Times, is a "Facebook friend" of mine. In no way does that mean personal acquaintance; we have never met, and I doubt we ever will. It's more like a networking relationship for me, and I'm grateful to her for assenting to that. Gledhill's writings are timely in the best sense; her name is well-known, and her face is even pretty. But above all, her views are so predictably "progressive" that she affords a blogger like me ample fodder for comment. On her blog yesterday, she posted what was for me an astonishing commentary on the recent flap over SSPX Bishop Richard Williamson. Since it's the performance as a whole that I find so astonishing, I suggest you read the whole thing, and watch the video, before you read this post further. It won't take long.

Gledhill is angry. So am I, albeit for very different reasons. She is angry because she finds it grotesque that, on the one hand, the official policy of the Catholic Church is to deny communion to unjustly abandoned spouses who proceed to divorce and remarry, while, on the other hand, the Pope has lifted the excommunication of a Holocaust denier who has now physically threatened a reporter in an airport. In fine prog style, she thinks Williamson ought to have stayed excommunicated while remarried single parents ought to be readmitted to communion forthwith. And so:

Sadly, the Holy See will never understand that as far as the public is concerned, to the millions who will watch this unseemly brawl on television over the next few days, to the thousands of innocent men and women denied communion because of the Church's inhumane disciplines on remarriage, the Church appears to be descending into a new dark age when anti-Semitic hooded thugs with eyes shielded from the light by dark glasses are welcomed into the fold. Meanwhile 'ecclesial communities' such as my own are condemned as 'not proper churches' and Archbishops such as Rowan Williams are not permitted to receive communion in Catholic churches.

Sorry, I forgot: it's an additional outrage that Rome does not recognize the Anglican Communion as a "church" in the strict sense of the word, but only as an "ecclesial community." Apparently, the Vatican has not mollified liberal Protestants by saying only that the Church of Christ "subsists in" the Catholic Church, rather than repeating the older formula that the Catholic Church just is the Church of Christ. Nope, it's an outrage that the Catholic Church still regards herself as "the" Church, the Church in which the Church of Christ exists as a unitary whole, with other Christian bodies united to her only in varying degrees. It's small comfort that people like Gledhill testify unwittingly to the hermeneutic of continuity rejected by the likes of the SSPX.

Collectively and in Gledhill's view, such outrages constitute a massive failure of "witness." The Catholic Church just doesn't "get" witness: "Maybe you actually do have to be a Protestant to get what witness really means." Hmmm. I thought progressive Anglicans were inclusivist and tolerant in theology. If that remark instances inclusivism and tolerance, I'd hate to see Ruth being exclusivist and intolerant. Maybe we'd see that if she saw fit to comment on the Q'uranic law which calls for killing apostates from Islam. That law is no dead letter: there are Muslim countries which carry it out in earnest. Or how about the "honor killings" of young Muslim women who happen to be caught fornicating? Or the tendency of Muslim mobs around the world to go berserk when somebody in the West publishes something snarky about the Prophet? Or when Benedict XVI himself quoted, for purely illustrative purposes, a 14th-century Byzantine emperor who, having been taken hostage by a sultan, made a bitter remark about Islam to his captor? Where's the outrage from liberal Christians about all that? Maybe I've missed it. Or maybe I just don't get the fact that witness means judging the Catholic Church by liberal Protestant standards while giving a pass to people who want to supplant all forms of Christianity with Islam.

Perhaps the most telling paragraph is the last, meant as a message to the Pope as he welcomes Williamson back into the fold:

Supping with sinners is all very well. But shouldn't the sinner show some sign of repentance first? Someone needs to buy the Pope some very long spoons indeed, and perhaps both him and Bishop Williamson some proper glasses, to make them see.

So it's taken for granted that Williamson is a sinner with whom the Pope should sup only with a very long spoon. But what's the sin, and how do we know Williamson is guilty?

It might seem that the sin is racism: Ruth does brand Williamson as an "anti-Semitic thug." But anti-Semitism is racism against Semites, who include Arabs as well as Jews. As far as we know, Williamson is not anti-Arab. He's anti-Jewish. That's a religious prejudice, not a racial one. But why is Williamson anti-Jewish? Well, it might have something to do with his traditionalist theology, which is "supersessionist" on the question how the Old Israel relates to the New, the Church. But that doesn't explain much. For not all supersessionists are anti-Jewish—certainly not to the point of being willing to blind themselves to the Holocaust. So, what might explain Williamson's being a Holocaust denier?

I'm not sure. Everything I've read and heard about the man suggests that he is thoroughly dotty, like many conspiracy theorists. Perhaps, then, Williamson is just mentally ill. Another bit of evidence for that hypothesis is that he clearly has a lot of anger to manage. Of course, the evidence is not a slam-dunk. It doesn't prove he's mentally ill. But the same goes, mutatis mutandis, for the hypothesis that he is a sinner worthy of staying excommunicated for being anti-Jewish. We don't know that Holocausts deniers are sinners just for being anti-Jewish; probably some are, but some are mentally ill as well or instead. Often, a person's being mentally ill diminishes or eliminates their moral responsibility for their beliefs and/or actions; so if Williamson is mentally ill, then there is room for doubt that he is guilty of mortal sin for his holding admittedly contemptible views about the Jews. How, after all, does anybody know how morally responsible he is for this nonsense of his, which he shares not only with the Supreme Leader of Iran, but also with not a few Palestinian Muslims, a people with whom the religious and political Left are very sympathetic? Is it anti-Jewish to sympathize with a people the majority of whom think it's perfectly alright to rocket Israeli civilians daily? I would not venture to say that. But I've read pieces by Jews who do say it; and after the very real Holocaust, I hesitate to blame them.

It would be easy to say that, once again, I just don't get it. Gledhill, a liberal Protestant, believes it's wicked of the Catholic Church to adopt the juridical presumption, defeasible by annulment, that divorced Catholics who remarry are living in adultery; but she thinks it obligatory to judge and sentence Catholics like Bishop Williamson, whose anti-Jewishness is indeed quite objectionable, but might be explained just by his being very dotty. I hate to say it, but what we have here is anti-Papist religious prejudice. It's just assumed that the Catholic Church's teaching on the indissolubility of marriage, which is the key premise of her policy about divorce and remarriage, is false—and not only false, but wicked to believe and act on. That assumption is religious prejudice. But Williamson's religious prejudice is deemed wicked because it's—what? Religious prejudice? Maybe that's the reason, maybe not; but I do see that the question why the prejudice is held doesn't matter to the Ruth Gledhills of the world. Whoever holds it is ipso facto "a sinner."

On second thought, however, I do get it. Gledhill is merely expressing the values of her set, i.e. the values of religiously progressive Western journalists. That her values don't quite cohere rationally makes her no different from most members of her set. And it's at just this point that the lesson for each of us during Lent comes to the fore: it makes her no different from most of us.

Most Catholics, most Christians for that matter, have values and attitudes that do not cohere with the faith they profess. Of course they are unwilling to admit as much; if they were, they'd be motivated to change. Having emerged from the immigrant ghetto and joined the "mainstream" over the last fifty or sixty years, American Catholics are as guilty of incoherence as anybody, and more than many. For many of us, worldly values and attitudes are now prejudices taken for granted. We judge the Church by the values of our "set" in the world, not vice-versa. Usually, such values and attitudes have never been exposed to informed, objective examination themselves. That's easy to explain, but impossible to justify. People don't like examining and critically evaluating their prejudices. That would mean thinking, as opposed to quite a number of more entertaining activities; worse, it would mean admitting that what we like being may not be what we ought to be. That is why the discipline of Lent is so vital. By denying ourselves things we like, and using the space created thereby to love more sacrificially, we get out of our comfort zones and admit that we need repentance—not just for a season and ritually, but every day of the year.

And so I feel no sense of moral superiority when I savage Ruth Gledhill and her set. She and they are merely one illustration, and not the most important one, of a universal human tendency that Lent exists to help root out. By observing our Lenten rituals with the humble yet acute awareness that we are all wretched sinners, we might open ourselves to the grace of being taught just what our most insidious sins are. Being taught as much takes grace because the sins in question are more deeply rooted than we think. But the truly serious Christians will often seem a bit dotty for wanting to root out of themselves the kinds of sins most people are happy to live with. The truly serious Christians willingly embrace the sacramental contradiction of dying to self in order to live more abundantly. In other words, they live the Paschal Mystery. That's the kind of dottiness we need more of.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Picking your hermeneutical circle

On February 5, I posted a piece called "The authority question restated." I argued that the uncommitted inquirer, seeking the full and true presentation of the deposit of Christian faith (DF) as an object of faith rather than just of opinion, faces a choice between three mutually incommensurable "hermeneutical circles": the Protestant, the Orthodox, and the Catholic. Each such circle can be viewed as a set of criteria for identifying the objective content of the DF precisely as an object of faith not opinion; as such and necessarily, each HC identifies an authority of ultimate appeal for distinguishing between true and false doctrine. Despite the rather considerable range of readers with whom I have discussed such matters, the only serious objection I got in the combox to my characterization of the three circles was from a Catholic who suggested that my characterization of the Protestant HC made that HC seem too irrational to be true. But I got no similar objection from Protestants—indeed no objection at all, despite the eagerness of some Protestant readers and their sympathizers to engage me on closely related matters, such as "the development of doctrine." I shall accordingly proceed on the assumption that my brief characteriztion of the Protestant HC, at least for present purposes, is fair.

In my post of February 20, I set forth epistemological criteria for assessing proposed doctrinal developments: "consistency," "capaciousness," "parsimony," and "others depending on the subject matter." On my account, if a proposed instance of DD, call it 'D', does a good job of satisfying such criteria, then D counts as a good "abductive" explanation of its proper subject matter; and D's being such an explanation is in turn a good reason to view it as belonging to the DF. Yet no such reason is or could be compelling as an argument for an article of faith; for abduction yields only probability and thus, in itself, licenses only opinion. To treat D as an article of faith as distinct from opinion, one needs to incorporate D into one of the three HCs, thus giving its content the stamp of some authority which, ex hypothesi, is beyond appeal. But the very next day, in an interesting reply to my recent efforts, Jonathan Prejean urged:

But why not simply join the battle plainly at this point? The Catholic hermeneutical circle is the abductive explanation for the objective sensus ecclesiae. The difficulty with claiming this or that doctrine developed by abduction, even if that doctrine happens to be the authority of the Pope, would to me take too narrow a view of the strength of abduction. If we are going to use abduction as a criteria for what to believe in this or that other case, then why not use abduction to determine the best global theory of authority?

What's interesting about JP's move is that it invokes abduction not merely as a means to assess the rational justifiability of this or that particular instance of DD, but also as a means to evaluate each of the HCs as a whole against each other. As a Catholic, he naturally sees the Catholic HC as abductively superior to the alternatives, and on that score I would ultimately agree with him. I would even agree that the species of abduction known as "inference to the best explanation" can be a fair way to evaluate the three HCs against each other. But I have a deep reservation about proceeding in such a fashion for purposes of debate, as distinct from dispassionate inquiry; and the reasons for that reservation suggest to me an alternative approach that the uncommitted and dispassionate inquirer might find useful.

The problem is this. Even granted that the data which each HC is offered to explain can be relevantly and accurately characterized independently of commitment to one of the HCs, each HC perforce organizes and interprets the data in its own terms. Thus, given the same large and detailed set of data, an adherent of any one HC will organize and interpret them in a way designed to fit within the HC to which he is committed. The most common example of the difficulty that poses is the centuries-old, indeed interminable debate over what non-Catholics call "the papal claims." Given the same first-millennium historical data drawn from Scripture, Tradition, the resolution of schisms, various statements of the Fathers, and the practice of ecumenical councils, Protestants and Orthodox will organize, interpret, and in due course explain that data differently from, indeed incompatibly with, how Catholics do. Thanks to the efforts of church historians and other scholars, there might be very considerable agreement as to what the raw data are; but there is no theologically significant agreement on what the raw data mean. The same goes for many other points of doctrinal contention between the three main traditions of Christianity.

That is why debate, even if it occasionally induces this-or-that individual to change their mind, will ultimately resolve nothing between the three main traditions as a whole. And that is just what we should expect, given that the data are interpreted from within the three mutually incommensurable HCs defining the three traditions. In the very nature of the case, it is not possible to rationally induce somebody committed to one of the three HCs to see the others as doing more than begging the key questions. Indeed, an adherent of any one HC will often see the others as viciously circular. That presents a problem for the uncommitted and dispassionate inquirer seeking to determine which of the HCs is abductively superior to the others, at least regarding that aggregate of data which interests her; for it is virtually impossible to organize and interpret the data in any theologically significant way without committing oneself to one of the three HCs. Professionals engaged in non-confessional "religious studies" can and do offer helpful perpectives, but those do not and cannot settle any of the theologically significant questions.

In view of that difficulty, I'd recommend splitting up the choice for the dispassionate and uncommitted inquirer. Rather than undertake to compare each of the three HCs directly and severally against each other, as abductions from agreed-upon and putatively neutral data, it would be more fruitful to divide them into two pairs of alternatives and only then abductively evaluate the members of each pair against each other.

The first pair consists of the Protestant HC on the one side and the Catholic and Orthodox HCs on the other. On my account of the Protestant HC, the complete objective content of the DF can and ought to be reliably identified, via Scripture, in a way that is entirely independent of the question whether some visible, historically continuous body called "the Church" has inherited from the Apostles their divinely-bestowed office of teaching in a manner that binds all believers. For once one has been given—by scholarship, the Holy Spirit, or both—the right hermeneutic for interpreting Scripture, then employing that hermeneutic will yield up the "inherently intelligible" content of Scripture as the Word of God, and thus obviate the need to rely on merely human ecclesial authority. Indeed, the Word of God will come to be seen as convicting any such authority of hubris if it claims for itself any more authority than that of handing on the raw data of the DF and reminding people of the ancient hermeneutic rendering them intelligible and adequate as an expression of the DF.

The Orthodox and Catholic HCs, on the other side, each insist that something called "the Church" has received from the Lord the same degree (though not the same kind) of authority as the Apostles to teach in a manner binding all believers. That is because both traditions take such a self-understanding on the Church's part to belong, itself, to the objective content of the DF "given once for all to the saints" and handed on to us through the apostolic succession of the bishops. There are of course important differences between Catholicism and Orthodoxy on the questions just how that authority is to be recognized and by whom it is exercised; and as I said in my post on authority, those differences are great enough that each communion, the Roman and the Orthodox, sees itself rather than the other as "the" Church. I shall return to that difference shortly; for now, I want to bring out what the uncommitted and dispassionate inquirer needs to consider toward the goal of deciding between the two pairs.

The choice presented by the first pair is between denying and affirming that the DF includes a belief that some communion of churches called "the Church"teaches with a living, authoritative voice enjoying the same degree (though not kind) of authority as the Apostles. Another way to put the same point would be this: the choice is between denying and affirming that the objective content of the DF includes that special, epistemically crucial point about the authority of the receiving subject of the DF, namely God's people, the Church.

I would further suggest, nay insist, that the question the inquirer first needs to ask herself here is which choice better facilitates the assent of faith as distinct from and beyond opinion. The preferable choice is the one that better facilitates the former. But one may well ask why I frame the choice in such terms.

The purpose of comparing all the HCs with respect to abductive quality is to determine whether any of them is a more reasonable HC to adopt than its competitors. Assuming that each HC is meant to cover the same set of data—in this case, those of Scripture and Tradition—each can be evaluated in abductive terms: the more reasonable one to adopt is the one with the best abductive qualities such as internal consistency, capaciousness, parsimony, and the like. The more "reasonable" an HC is by such measures, the more suited it is to facilitating the assent of divine faith as opposed to mere opinion.

Now I believe that there is a genuine, rationally justifiable choice, in terms of relative abductive quality, between the two members of the pair I've been describing. But for the reasons I've given above, they cannot by themselves settle the choice in a rationally compelling way. Things could hardly be otherwise. The logic of the situation entails weighing inductive probabilities rather than exhibiting deductive necessities, and the measure of such probabilities will always be imprecise and uncertain opinions. Precisely because they are opinions, they cannot substitute for the assent of faith. The relative, abductive quality of such opinions will only tell us which HC is the more reasonable one to adopt, and therefore which is better suited to facilitating the assent of faith.

The other pair of choices is that between the Orthodox and Catholic HCs themselves. Even if one rejects the Protestant HC, thus affirming that the DF posits the living, unitary voice of "the Church" as an authority beyond appeal in matters of doctrine, one has still not settled the question which of the two communions, the Roman and the Orthodox, is "the Church" and thus speaks with the authorized voice. In order to settle that question for herself, I would suggest, the uncommitted and dispassionate inquirer who has got thus far needs to shift focus from the full range of abductive criteria I named above to those of capaciousness and simplicity in particular. Which HC explains "the most with the least," and thus yields the most elegant explanatory model?

I put the question that way for several reasons—the most important of which is that I believe there is little to choose between the two HCs on the question which better facilitates the assent of faith as distinct from opinion. As far as I can tell apart from the criteria of capaciousness and simplicity, they both facilitate the assent of faith equally. For, apart from how they respectively satisfy said two criteria, both are equally reasonable. But once again, and as I've explained before to my Orthodox interlocutors, I don't believe that applying even those two particular abductive criteria by themselves is enough settle the question in principle, even though it did work for me in practice. If one could "prove," from agreed-upon but theologically neutral data, which communion is "the Church," then the thing would almost certainly have been done by now and the loser would have withered away accordingly. That hasn't happened and isn't going to happen. But I've said enough to imply that, to my mind, the choice between Protestantism and the two older traditions is an easier one than the choice between the two older traditions. In my next post, I shall explain why I find that to be so.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

What Do the Readings Really Say?

That is the title of one of the two new blogs created by the St. Louis Bertrand Chapter of the Dominican Laity of the Province of St. Joseph. (Caveat: we've already checked with Fr. Zuhlsdorf, so please don't tell us to.) I have done the first post, on today's Gospel reading in the ordinary form of the Roman Rite, entitled Why doesn't God heal all the faithful?

May all be duly edified.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Me too, Lord?

For several days, I pondered writing a great deal about two moves the Pope has made recently: lifting the 1988 excommunication of the SSPX bishops, and reminding La Pelosi that for her, as a public official, to think of the killing of unborn children as a genuine right is incompatible with her duty as a faithful Catholic. Both papal moves are demonstrably unlikely to bear fruit; for that reason it's easy to see them, cynically, as cynical provisions of "political cover." Thus one might say that the Pope seeks only to insulate the Holy See from blame: blame for the steadfast refusal of the SSPX bishops to accept the doctrinal developments of the Second Vatican Council, and thus for what will likely remain a de facto schism; blame for the steadfast refusal of many Catholic politicians to insist that the youngest and most vulnerable members of the human race have a right not to be killed for their parents' convenience. Knowing that neither refusal will be softened in the foreseeable future, the Vatican is perhaps comforting itself with the thought: "At least we said the right things. What do you want us to do, bring back the Inquisition?" But as Lent approaches, I find myself being led to an explanation that is at once less cynical and more daunting.

The explanation I have in mind resurrects a biblical reminder that most Catholics prefer to ignore, or even to ridicule as pre-scientific cosmology: "For our struggle is not with flesh and blood but with the principalities, with the powers, with the world rulers of this present darkness, with the evil spirits in the heavens" (Ephesians 6:12). The "evil spirits in the heavens," and specifically "the prince of the air" (Eph 2:2), are no mere creatures of myth, suitable now only for use as metaphors. They exist in the ordinary sense of the term, and they do whatever they can to plague us. In this media age, when waves of electromagnetically encoded lies and filth are "on the air" all the time, how can a faithful Christian not believe that we struggle against the Prince of the Air?

I thought of that as an explanation for what will be the inevitable failure of the Pope's recent moves as I followed the controversy about SSPX Bishop Williamson's filthy, Holocaust-denying lie. Nobody would have paid much attention to that tiresome crank if the Pope hadn't recently lifted his excommunication; as it turned out, a media firestorm obliged the Pope to issue the ritual condemnation at precisely the time that arduous efforts at reconciling the SSPX to the Vatican were being made. This is the sort of embarassment that is quietly engineered by the Prince of the Air. The same goes for the spectacle of American Catholic politicians snuggling up to the Pope while eagerly supporting not only the Roe regime—effectively an unlimited abortion license—but in particular a president who sees nothing wrong with killing infants born alive after botched abortions. The only effective way to show the world that such anti-evangelization is incompatible with being a faithful Catholic would be to excommunicate the anti-evangelizers. But that, naturally, would resurrect the charge of "Inquisition!" and spark an even greater PR disaster. So now we have a situation in which most Jews resent the Pope's lifting the excommunication of a hateful man, and most Catholics would resent the Pope's imposing excommunication on a class of hateful politicians. Clever, that prince.

In point of fact, many faithful Christians—Catholic, Protestant, and Orthodox—grapple palpably with the demonic. I'm not talking about mere temptation, which we all struggle with; often enough, Satan's minions will tempt us, but we do such a good job of succumbing to temptation that, even more often, all Satan has to do is leave us alone. Yet beyond all that, I know by experience that the things recounted in this recent Inside Catholic story are not all that uncommon. People who have such experiences often get brushed off by clergy, who mostly suspect a lack of appropriate psychiatric meds; and it is anticipation of such a reaction which explains why some of those who suffer most never bother turning to their clergy at all. The dean of Rome's exorcists, Gabriele Amorth, is sickened by that fact and has been trying to change it for a long time. In 2005, he convinced the newly-elected Pope to approve a special exorcism-training course in Rome for priests around the world. It was successful enough to occasion at least one other such course in Rome, from which my current diocese has benefitted in a way I'm not at liberty to divulge. But most bishops would rather have nothing to do with the whole nasty business. Some don't believe in it at all. Others simply know little about it and want to know less. Either way, the Church ends up with a lot less "deliverance ministry" than people need. She won't use some of her own best weapons.

Even so, I find myself perversely disappointed that I am not one of those who face the demonic in ways impossible to keep mistaking for something else. Tom Hoopes, author of the above-linked story from Inside Catholic, remarks that Satan is like the space-alien leader in Independence Day who responds with one word to the President's efforts to negotiate on humanity's behalf: "Die." Hoopes advises: "The next time you face a temptation, remind yourself that you're cooperating with the malevolent will of a highly developed insect that hates you yet wants to be with you forever. You'll find your old reliable sins lose a little of their allure." Indeed. And it's a lot easier to give oneself that reminder if one is palpably experiencing diabolical phenomena.

This is not to deny that I did, once. Decades ago, I was walking along Broadway in New York with a close friend who had just emerged from a Italian movie about an evil town during World War II. He was visibly shaken, explaining to me that he felt the presence of...well, of Old Scratch. I reminded my friend that Jesus had defeated Satan, so that faith in Jesus empowers us to make Satan buzz off by telling him to buzz off. At that moment, I was knocked to the ground with a shout by a sharp blow to my sternum. The blow came from no visible source; we were the only people walking on that side of the block at the time. When I opened my shirt to check for injury, we both saw a large red welt disappear before our eyes. I was uninjured.

Say that I'm nuts if you want. I know I'm not. I had received an unmistakable gift from below, and I still don't know what I had done to warrant such attention. I hadn't said anything that many Christians didn't say to each other every day, and I certainly wasn't holy enough to pose much of a threat to the Prince of the Air. I'm still not, which might explain why I haven't experienced any palpable diabolic infestation since. Sometimes I'm almost envious of saints, such as Padre Pio or Gemma Galgani, who rather often found themselves beaten by devils making no effort to conceal their own identity. I'm told that, in Padre Pio's case, the devil was the V.I.P. himself. At least such people had unmistakable confirmation of how much good they were doing!

But on second thought, I have experienced the diabolical since then. Not so long ago, I endured a a period of severe depression in which I realized that I was losing everything, and almost everybody, I cared about. Accompanying all that were public calumnies and detractions which, though individually explicable in purely human terms, did not strike me as collectively explicable in any terms other than the diabolical. Praying and meditating about it in the context of my life's general collapse, I came to realize that I had opened myself by my own choices to all the spiritual evils I was suffering. When made, those choices had seemed very plausible, almost inevitable, to me; but I now realize I had willfully let myself be deceived. Hell didn't need to beat me or do anything obvious. All it needed was for me, in my pride and lust, to cast aside my cross. That's just what I did, and in so doing opened myself up to much gratuitous mischief. Much of my life since has consisted in paying the price for it.

What's the lesson? It's partly that, for a disciple, there is no escape from major crosses. The only question is whether they will be borne willingly and thus fruitfully, or unwillingly and thus uselessly. But it must also, and more controversially, be said that even that majority of Christians who don't experience palpable manifestations of demons are vulnerable to the unseen forces of evil. You don't have to see spinning heads or green puke to recognize that. All you have to do is open yourself up. Some people do it by dabbling in witchcraft or the occult. Others simply believe their own bullshit about how they are living. But even if you aren't doing any of that, don't imagine it can't happen to you. If you stay close to God in prayer, the sacraments, and loving those who need your love, it probably won't happen to you. But if you don't, you might find out too late that it has.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Minns and Irenaeus: a reply to an objection

Yesterday, I wasn't planning to make my next post a continuation of the previous one. There are many issues of interest to Catholics being discussed in the blogosphere. They need to be discussed, and I want to contribute to that discussion. I shall do so tomorrow. But as my best interlocutors are those who discuss development of doctrine (DD) with me, I see a need here to reply to one of them, "Ioannes," who wrote below in the combox to my previous post:

Dr Liccione:

...neo-Catholics from Newman onward have turned the deposit [of faith] into a nebulous construct more anchored in present fancy than spanning from the past to today. Tradition is in principle cut adrift from historical reality. What the apostles passed on to their successors is no longer a proclamation, sacraments, and a body of teaching. It is more abstract: a special authority to define the truth which accompanies a unique receptivity to the Spirit who makes present the mind of Christ. Teachings are apostolic in the fullest sense which have no demonstrable connection to the apostles. Why? Because they are contained in the many-sided idea of Christianity which the apostles (though perhaps themselves perceiving it dimly) somehow transmitted. This idea their successors are just faithfully re-articulating even when, as it must look from the outside, they happen to discover their novelties in it. I am not a fan of Orson Scott Card, but a passage from Speaker for the Dead comes to mind:

"...I know all the arguments of your Calvinism, but even John Calvin would call your doctrine stupid."

"How do you know what Calvin would--"

"Because he's dead," roared Andrew, "and so I'm entitled to speak for him!"

There is, however, no humor in Rome's boast. When in her fashion she claims to speak for the apostles, she is deathly serious, and those who disagree have fallen away completely from the divine and catholic faith.

The epistemological merits of the neo-Catholic stance are one question. Whether that position corresponds to the catholic Christianity of the fathers is another. I am not prepared to weigh in on philosophical matters where you have by far the greater expertise. I will only say this: I do not recognize the face of the early Church in Newman's romanticized Romanism. The exercise which gave rise to this thread is a case in point. I cannot help but think St Irenaeus would be as baffled reading your version of his thought as he would be reading Dei Verbum. Indeed, I believe you were on surer footing when you implied that Irenaeus may well have been mistaken about the nature of catholic tradition, with Vatican II a more reliable guide than he to how the Church's teaching office operated in his day. Better to forgo the historical gymnastics altogether, in favor of a hermeneutic which renders them superfluous.

What Santayana (quoted by Kirk) said of the old liberal order offers an ominous parallel for the neo-Catholic ascendancy: It "was like a great tree with the trunk already sawed quite through, but still standing with all its leaves quietly rustling, and with us dozing under its shade." The new tradition has likewise cut out the foundation. All who value Rome's influence where it is genuinely beneficial should hope to God that the new view of tradition falls before the old edifice does.

I'm struck by how scandalized John is by the Catholic Church's developed understanding of her own teaching authority. And let us make no mistake: the claims of Rome have been a scandal to many for over a millennium. For some, the scandal has only been exacerbated by the assertion of the ecumenically-minded Second Vatican Council that "...the task of authentically interpreting the word of God, whether written or handed on, has been entrusted exclusively to the living teaching office of the Church, whose authority is exercised in the name of Jesus Christ" (Dei Verbum §10). As a Catholic, I imagine the scandal to be rather similar to that which Peter afforded many educated Jews of his time. But I must now address Ioannes.



I think it's the emotion elicited by finding oneself scandalized that explains why you're letting your rhetoric outrun your arguments. The Catholic Church most certainly affirms and maintains "a proclamation, sacraments, and a body of teaching" handed on from the Apostles. That's why she put together, preserves, reads, studies, and preaches on the Bible; that's why she celebrates and administers all her sacraments, which are founded on practices described in the New Testament; that's why she continues to propound ancient moral teachings—such as that on contraception, which from the 1st century until 1930 was taught consensually throughout Christendom, but which now earns her the execration and ridicule of most Christians, never mind "the world." The question at issue between us is how, and to what extent, the Apostles' "body of teaching" can be developed by that Church which is led by their successors. In other words, given that the Church maintains a whole lot of stuff from the Apostles, are their successors ever authorized to teach, as belonging to the deposit of faith (DF), doctrines that we have no record of the Apostles' having taught?

Let's get one red herring out of the way: distinctively Catholic doctrines (DCDs) are not mere "present fancy." The filioque, the papal claims, purgatory, the dogmas of the Immaculate Conception and the Assumption—such DCDs reflected the consensus fidelium in the Roman communion for centuries before they were formally defined as dogma. As Jaroslav Pelikan showed in his (as it were) magisterial studies of DD, such DCDs and others arose as answers to questions which themselves naturally arose out of earlier data we both agree are relevant and important. The interesting question we face, then, is not how "new" such DCDs are, but rather whether, as developments, they can plausibly be said to belong to the DF.

Your position is that authentic development can only consist in "demonstrating" some connection of a proposed development to the Apostles. I have asked you before what kind of argument would count as such a demonstration. Your answer has been that, given the perspicuity of the Scriptures, such a demonstration must consist in exhibiting how the proposed developed arises by some form of "rational necessity" from the words of Scripture. I then asked you whether that kind of necessitation must consist in deductive necessity: i.e., given the actual words of Scripture, no more and no less, must the proposed "development" follow as an ironclad logical consequence?

As I recall, you denied that deductive necessity is always necessary. But in the absence of deductive necessity, what sort of necessity is there? Even when acceptable, inductive arguments do not yield their conclusions of necessity, but only as probabilities. So either you stick to deductive necessity and thus stand on the formal sufficiency of Scripture—which result strikes me as a reductio ad absurdum—or you grapple with the question what sort of inductive argument is acceptable, though short of being logically compelling.

I have long argued that a species of induction, namely "abduction" or "inference to the best explanation," is the standard form of DD's context of justification—as distinct from its context of discovery, which cannot and should not try to eliminate the charismatic element. It is the quality of the abduction, seen in light of the analogia fidei and thus to some extent charismatically, which suggests the difference between mere theological opinions and development of the Church's collective understanding of the DF.

In general, explanations are evaluated in terms of a certain set of criteria: e.g., consistency (is the explanation consistent with what we already know?), capaciousness (does it cover everything that calls for explanation?), parsimony (does it avoid making assumptions and positing entities beyond what's necessary?) and other criteria depending on the subject matter. But the application of such criteria, though partly objective, is also subjective to some extent. In an ecclesial context, the application relies to some extent on the sensus ecclesiae. The consensus patrum is certainly an expression of the sensus ecclesiae; but is it the only normative one? If so, why? If not, what else is there? I remain firmly convinced that, the more seriously one grapples with such questions, the more reasonable the teaching of Vatican II on DD will come to seem.

You write: I believe you were on surer footing when you implied that Irenaeus may well have been mistaken about the nature of catholic tradition, with Vatican II a more reliable guide than he to how the Church's teaching office operated in his day. Better to forgo the historical gymnastics altogether, in favor of a hermeneutic which renders them superfluous.

I am willing to entertain the possibility that I have read too much into Irenaeus, but I don't believe he was "mistaken about the nature of catholic tradition." Rather, I believe Minns and Congar are mistaken to assert that, for Irenaeus, the "sure charism of truth" resides not in the subject of the tradition, the church or its leadership, but in the objective tradition itself. I maintain that, for Irenaeus, there can't be a choice between one and the other; it had to both. But the Minns-Congar view is barely plausible because Irenaeus was not as explicit about the teaching authority of the apostolic succession as the logic of his own position required him to be. Part of my argument for that assertion may be found in my previous post. I shall not only restate it but also augment it here.

If the question which teachers in the Church were faithful to apostolic tradition could be answered without attributing the apostolic teaching charism to the Apostles' successors, then the question what hermeneutic to adopt for interpreting Scripture and Traditon as a unified whole could only remain a matter of opinion, even if the succession lists made the "orthodox" hermeneutic a more justifiable opinion than that of the Gnostics at the time. But it could not have been Irenaeus' intent to leave things at that. For the nature and authority of the Church was itself part of the "objective content" of the apostolic tradition, and therefore part of the DF. Accordingly, the answer to the question who was empowered to speak for and to the Church with her full authority could not remain a matter of opinion. Whatever the answer, it belonged to the DF.

That, in the final analysis, is no different from what Vatican II taught in Dei Verbum and Lumen Gentium.


Thursday, February 12, 2009

Fr. Minns, St. Irenaeus, & the Development of Doctrine

This is the third time I have undertaken to defend the Catholic understanding of DD (cf. Vatican II, Dei Verbum §8; henceforth 'DV') from criticism by non-Catholic scholars. My fellow theology geeks will probably enjoy the fact that this effort will, of necessity, be the longest so far. Other readers can endure as they will.

My first two efforts analyzed and rebutted arguments by the Orthodox scholars Andrew Louth and John Behr. The latter post and its combox led to further, lengthy discussions with the two authors of the blog Fides Querens Intellectum, namely “Kepha” and “Ioannes”. To cut a long story short, Ioannes seems inclined to believe that the Church father St. Irenaeus’ view of Scripture and Tradition, as expressed in his Against Heresies (late 2nd century; henceforth 'AH'), is incompatible with DV's teaching on DD. Ioannes’ source for an argument to that effect is the book Irenaeus by the Dominican priest Denis Minns (G. Chapmen, 1994), to which Fr. Behr briefly refers in his own book The Way to Nicaea. If true, Ioannes' point would be rather embarassing for Catholics. That is partly because DV itself cites Irenaeus as a source for its teaching, and partly because the present pope, as a young peritus to Cardinal Frings at Vatican II, had a measure of direct and indirect influence in the drafting of DV—a document whose substance he continues to endorse because, if only by his understanding of magisterial authority, he is bound to. I'm also a bit piqued by Fr. Minns' interpretation because I love the Dominican charism and have sort-of fallen in with a chapter of the Dominican Laity (formerly known as the "Third Order" Dominicans.) In this post, then, I shall analyze and critique Minn's interpretations of AH and DV on the relevant points. (David Waltz, BTW, has been critiquing Minns' book on other points.) I shall argue that the combination of (a) Minns' error in interpreting DV and (b) Irenaeus' ambiguity about what is "novel" causes Minns to read into Irenaeus an incompatibility with DV's teaching on DD that just isn't there.

This is not to deny that, on the whole, Minns' scholarship on Irenaeus is balanced and sensitive. I especially benefited from his account of how much Irenaeus' theology was shaped by the exigencies of his polemic against the various brands of heretic that plagued the Church in his time, chiefly the Gnostics and the Marcionites. Irenaeus would probably have been quite at home in the chaotic, hard-nosed world of Internet religious polemics, some of which are fueled by the very sort of Gnostic ideas that he so successfully opposed. Indeed, the past several decades have seen a resurgence of such ideas, especially that of a dichotomy between the exoteric and esoteric sides of Christianity. I saw it all coming back in 1978 when Elaine Pagels, with whom I was taking an introductory course on the New Testament at Columbia, was readying the final draft of her book The Gnostic Gospels (still in print, three decades later). My roommate at the time, an older and wiser man, was preparing a seminar challenge to Pagels' account, in her final draft, of the relationship between the Gnostics and the orthodox church authorities. I did some research for him that he found helpful in what I considered his successful effort; but at the time I did not trouble to read more than a few snippets of Irenaeus, an odd omission given that Irenaeus was and remains a favorite target of Pagels' for his defense of "patriarchal" authority in the Church over against the Gnostics, who gave women a more prominent place. I had mostly contented myself with studying Irenaeus' theodicy, which I had viewed and continue to view critically. But now that I've just finished reading a lot more of AH, I feel I have rectified my youthful error.

As Minns points out, the main polemical exigency facing Irenaeus around 180 was that the Gnostics claimed the authority of apostolic tradition for their teaching just as "the Great Church"—i.e., the Catholic Church—did for her own. As bishop of Lyons, he was dealing with that claim right within his own diocese. Why was that such a serious problem?

Despite the various flavors and permutations of Gnosticism, spawned in ever-greater abundance by the outsized egos and speculative bent of its leaders, the Gnostics were in general agreement that the true God, the Father of the Lord Jesus Christ, was not the "God" who had created the physical universe (and hence the human body in particular). The latter, the God of the Old Testament, was thought to have been a mere demiurge, a jealous, vengeful rogue unfit for true worship, a prison warden useful only for the moral instruction of the ordinary run of "the faithful" who could not attain the "knowledge" (gnosis) enjoyed by the elect. This was the fundamental point of doctrine at issue between Irenaeus and all his main opponents. For in denying that the God of pre-Christian Judaism was the Father of Jesus Christ, the Gnostics were at one with the Marcionites, even though the latter were not Gnostics strictly speaking because they did not lay claim to esoterically acquired gnosis.

What made the Gnostic-Marcionite doctrine so plausible to so many Christians was a hermeneutic of a kind I've become very familiar with in other contexts during my blogging years: what the present pope, in a very different contemporary context, has called a "hermeneutic of discontinuity." The heretics of the mid-1st century argued that there was no way to reconcile what they saw as the capricious, vindictive character of the God of the Old Testament, the God regarded by the Church as the Creator of all, with that of the all-loving God claimed by Jesus, the Word and Revealer, as his "Father." The Gnostics claimed possession of an esoteric gnosis that could explain the discrepancy in terms of a higher synthesis unknown to the dull, bumbling leaders of the Church; for his part, Marcion simply threw out much of the Scriptures. The heretics brought a lot of people along with them.

Indeed, Marcion and his followers were quite prominent in Rome in the middle of the first century, and there is some evidence to suggest that what Catholics call "the Apostles' Creed" was originally formulated as a baptismal profession of faith with precisely the aim of excluding the Marcionites from the Church. (That creed begins: "I believe in God, the Father Almighty, Creator of heaven and earth; and in Jesus Christ, his only Son, Our Lord..." This was also to be a major issue in the Albigensian heresy centuries later, which was St. Dominic's first major assignment from the pope.) At any rate, and within Irenaeus' living memory, Marcion had been condemned and excommunicated, along with his followers, by the Bishop of Rome, Anicetus. It was the first major schism in the Roman Church's history; by the time Irenaeus wrote AH, Marcionism was well on the way into the dustbin of history. Yet Marcion's point of doctrinal agreement with the Gnostics had spurred Rome's crystallization of the biblical canon; for Marcion rejected nearly all the books of the LXX, which the Church had retained in its full integrity, and most of what we now call the NT, favoring only a truncated version of Luke and the clearly authentic letters of Paul. That fact was prominent in Irenaeus' mind, and he drew the right conclusion from it: the church catholic, exemplified by the church "of pre-eminent origin," that of Rome, had "the Scriptures" whose doctrinal content was at one with that of apostolic tradition and—even more important—equally available to all. Developing the hermeneutic of continuity such a move required was, and would remain, a huge theological task. But the die had been cast—and there were still the Gnostics.

Minns puts the challenge they presented, and its importance, quite well (emphasis added):

..for ordinary and gnostic Christians alike, Christ was the revealer, and therefore the authenticity of the doctrines of both groups had to be established by appeal to a tradition going back to Christ. For both groups, this tradition was normally guaranteed by reference to the Apostles. Hence many of the gnostic texts which have survived, like the books of the New Testament, claim authorship by one or another of the disciples of Jesus. The gnostic Ptolemy told Flora that, if God permitted, she would learn more in the future, when she was "counted worthy of the apostolic tradition which we also have received by succession, because we can prove all our statements from the teaching of the Savior."

So long as both sides insisted that theirs was the authentic tradition, no progress could be made. How was one to differentiate between two contradictory sets of beliefs both claiming to have been handed on from the same set of Apostles? If Irenaeus was to meet the challenge of the gnostics he would need to establish a claim that he held the authentic Scriptures and the authentic tradition and that his opponents did not (p 118).

That differentiation could not be made by mere appeal to "the Scriptures" any more than to "tradition." For the gnostics claimed that they had the authentically apostolic "tradition" in light of which the "Scriptures" were to be interpreted with real "knowledge." So, what was the solution? Continuing on page 118:

[Irenaeus] achieved this by calling into play the succession lists of the leaders of the various churches of supposedly apostolic foundation and showing that the apostolic tradition of these churches had predated the novelties of the heretics....As Irenaeus puts the case, if Christ had handed on any secret teaching to the Apostles, then that teaching would have been preserved in the churches founded by the Apostles, for they would surely have handed on anything they had received from the Lord, secret or otherwise, to those whom they had appointed to be leaders of the churches in their place. But we do not find the secret tradition of the gnostics in those churches, and therefore, these so-called traditions are simply inventions of recent date, while the doctrines actually found in churches of apostolic foundation are the doctrines passed on, in all their fullness, to those churches by the Apostles, and thus from Christ (AH III.3.1-2; V.20.1-2).

The appeal to the apostolic succession of church leaders is what brings authority into play as a touchstone of orthodoxy. Those leaders who were demonstrably and publicly successors of the Apostles could be reasonably presumed to have received and handed on the undiluted apostolic teaching; while the Gnostics' only claim to apostolic "succession" was their claim to somehow know better than the official leaders what the Apostles had really received from Christ. Irenaeus' move here was crucial at this stage of DD, where the link between orthodoxy and ecclesial authority was made more explicit than before. For the Roman and Orthodox communions, the concept and doctrine of apostolic succession has retained just that kind of importance ever since.

In just this respect, Irenaeus was the first major contributor to what I call "meta-doctrine," i.e. the development of doctrine about doctrine. As far as we know, he was the first theologian to argue explicitly that the "true doctrine," the orthodox faith, was that which was received, held and professed publicly and in common by the communion of churches led by those who enjoyed a publicly verifiable apostolic succession. Given that kind of succession, the only reasonable conclusion was that there was no esoteric "tradition" or "knowledge" or "Scriptures" whose import was contrary to that claimed by the official leaders of the Church. And that is just what we would expect if, as the Catholic Church has always insisted, divine revelation was given publicly to all for the salvation of all.

Notice that Irenaeus did not appeal to ecclesial teaching authority as, itself, an article of faith. For even though it was at least an implicit point of faith that those who had demonstrably succeeded the Apostles in church leadership shared in the Apostles' teaching authority, Irenaeus needed an argument for that belief in order to avoid begging the main question at issue between the Church and the Gnostics. His argument was a good one; but it was not rationally compelling, for its conclusion did not follow from axioms or premises that all parties to the dispute accepted. The argument was rather that, given the public "succession lists," it was far more reasonable to accept the Church's than the Gnostics' claim to have preserved and taught the truth handed on from the Lord himself. But the Church's claim, even though rationally plausible, could only be accepted as an article of faith. For if it were to be accepted as an opinion only, then orthodoxy and gnosticism would perforce have been presented to the faithful as mere opposing opinions; and that would have been incompatible with the kind of authority Irenaeus was producing an argument for accepting. As Fr. Richard John Neuhaus (may he rest in peace) was fond of saying: "Wherever orthodoxy becomes optional, it will sooner or later be procribed." Treating orthodoxy merely as a more reasonable opinion than others would have been tantamount to rejecting it. That's because an argument for orthodoxy had to be, among other things, an argument for accepting the kind of ecclesial authority whose claims for itself transcended mere opinion. In Irenaeus' circumstances, it had become essential to cite, as a touchstone of orthodoxy, the consensus of churches led by those who had acceded to publicly verifiable apostolic succession. For only such leaders could plausibly lay claim to sharing in the teaching authority of the Apostles themselves.

That such an understanding of the epistemology, as it were, of faith was crucial for Irenaeus becomes evident through Minn's quite cogent account of how Irenaeus cited the traditional "rule of faith" in the Church against the heretical doctrine shared by the Gnostics and the Marcionites. After quoting AH III.4.2, Minns writes:

The heretics are very clever in their manipulation and distortion of the Scriptures, but they will not mislead anyone, Irenaeus says, who holds fast to 'the unchanging rule of truth, which was received in baptism' (AH I.9.4). Irenaeus several times refers to this rule of truth, and its connection to baptism suggests a creedal formula. However, it does not appear to have had a fixed form, but to have been adaptable to the polemical context in which it was invoked. Its fundamental features are that there is but one God, who created everything from nothing by his Word, and who is the Father of Jesus and the author of the whole history of salvation.

Irenaeus' claim here is not that there is a "rule of truth" accepted in some one, particular form by all who bore the name 'Christian'. For such a rule had no fixed form, and could accordingly be interpreted away or even replaced by clever heretics claiming apostolic authority. Rather, his claim was that the core doctrinal content of that profession of faith which was required, by the church leaders enjoying verifiable apostolic succession, from those receiving baptism was, in its generally accepted sense, logically incompatible with the doctrine held in common by the heretics. A variously formulated "rule" which all the same possessed such a core doctrinal content required, for its status as a touchstone of orthodoxy, that the rule in some-or-other form be that which was imposed by those who enjoyed verifiable apostolic succession—and who thus could make a stronger claim to apostolic authority than the heretics.

Such is the understanding of ecclesial teaching authority for which DV §7 cites Irenaeus: But in order to keep the Gospel forever whole and alive within the Church, the Apostles left bishops as their successors, "handing over" to them "the authority to teach in their own place." (Note 3: AH III, 3, 1). It can be safely said that, to this extent at least, Vatican II's understanding of the Church's general teaching authority is the same as Irenaeus'.

But according to Minns, there is a crucial point of difference between Vatican II, which presents the ordinary teaching of the Church about her own authority, and Irenaeus on the question of DD.

DV §8 says (emphasis added):

This tradition which comes from the Apostles develops in the Church with the help of the Holy Spirit. (5) For there is a growth in the understanding of the realities and the words which have been handed down. This happens through the contemplation and study made by believers, who treasure these things in their hearts (see Luke, 2:19, 51) through a penetrating understanding of the spiritual realities which they experience, and through the preaching of those who have received through Episcopal succession the sure gift of truth. For as the centuries succeed one another, the Church constantly moves forward toward the fullness of divine truth until the words of God reach their complete fulfillment in her.

The words of the holy fathers witness to the presence of this living tradition, whose wealth is poured into the practice and life of the believing and praying Church. Through the same tradition the Church's full canon of the sacred books is known, and the sacred writings themselves are more profoundly understood and unceasingly made active in her; and thus God, who spoke of old, uninterruptedly converses with the bride of His beloved Son; and the Holy Spirit, through whom the living voice of the Gospel resounds in the Church, and through her, in the world, leads unto all truth those who believe and makes the word of Christ dwell abundantly in them (see Col. 3:16).

Thus says Minns (emphasis added):

It is fundamental to the logic of Irenaeus' argument that tradition cannot change, grow, or develop. It is not, in this sense, alive. Since the faith is everywhere one and the same it is equally immune from improvement in the discourse of an eloquent leader of the Church as it is from diminution in the mumbling of an inarticulate one (AH I.10.2). Bishops and teachers of the Church are not there to develop the tradition; there are there simply to hand it on. W. Wigan Harvey, whose edition of Adversus Haereses was published twelve years after [Newman's] Essay on the Development of Doctrine, refers pointedly, though anonymously, to...Newman's book in a note to the text of Irenaeus which I have just paraphrased. 'At least here', he says, 'there is no reserver made in favour of any theory of development. If ever we find any trace of this dangerous delusion in Christian antiquity, it is uniformly the plea of heresy' (28). He quotes Tertullian in support: 'The Valentinians allow themselves the same license as Valentinus, the Marcionites as Marcion: to invent belief at their own whim' (29). Harvey accurately reflects Irenaeus' position. A tradition with the potential to develop would ideally suit the gnostic cause, and be utterly fatal for Irenaeus' (p.119).

And on p. 134, Minns quotes DV §8 and remarks:

We have seen how different this is from Irenaeus' understanding of the tradition. For him, as Yves Congar noted, the 'sure charism of truth' resides not in the subject of the tradition, the church or its leadership, but in the objective tradition itself (3). A developing, or changing, tradition clearly requires an arbiter to determine what is an authentic development and what is not....For Irenaeus, the function of leaders of churches, and especially of churches founded by the Apostles, is to witness to the unchanging tradition. They are to be obeyed not because they have authority to interpret Scripture or Tradition, but because their succession from the Apostles guarantees that what is taught in their churches will be one and the same as that which is taught in every other church which possesses the unchanging tradition.

As plausible as that may seem, however, there are two serious difficulties with Minn's interpretation of Irenaeus here, which is incompatible with my own.

As we have already seen, the logic of Irenaeus' main argument against the Gnostics did not permit him to cite knowledge of fixed, authentic apostolic tradition that could be verified as divine truth independently of ecclesial authority. If, according to Congar and Minns, that's what Irenaeus nonetheless tried to do, then either they've got him wrong or, if they've got him right, he was being self-inconsistent. I'd rather believe the former.

The way Irenaeus rebutted the Gnostics' claim to teach the authentic apostolic "tradition" and possess the authentic apostolic "succession" was to show that it was more reasonable, given the public succession lists, to accept the Church authorities' claim thereto than to accept the Gnostics' claim. Therefore, it was not as though one could compare what the Church authorities taught, on the one hand, with "the Scriptures" and/or the "rule of faith" from "tradition" on the other, to see whether what the Church authorities taught had been handed on from the Apostles unchanged. Rather, one could reliably identify what had been handed on from the Apostles only by reverting to what the successors of the Apostles did in fact consistently teach, both in their application of the "rule of faith" and in their interpretation of what themselves called "the Scriptures." Accordingly, the way to discover the authentic, uncorrupted content and meaning of what had been handed on from the Apostles was simply to discover what those who were demonstrably the successors of the Apostles consistently taught as interpretations of the rule of faith and of the Scriptures. Attempting the task in reverse would have left the orthodox with nothing but question-begging against the Gnostics.

That result renders Minn's interpretation of Irenaeus on DD almost entirely idle. Given the logic of Irenaeus' overall argument in AH, the uncorrupted deposit of faith, or the "unchanged" apostolic "tradition," could only be reliably identified as that which said collegium had always and consistently taught with the aid, and as authentic interpretations of, Scripture and the "rule of faith." Hence, if by "development" or "growth" one means purporting to add to the tradition some-or-other doctrine which the Apostles would not have recognized as divinely revealed, or subtracting something which the Apostles had taught as divinely revealed, then it follows almost trivially that what the authorized successors of the Apostles always and consistently taught just was the unchanging, "undeveloped" deposit of faith handed on from the Apostles. There was no standpoint, independent of true ecclesial authority, by which the fidelity of such authority to the apostolic tradition could be judged. The only way to verify such fidelity was to determine whether this-or-that individual Church leader, or subset of Church leaders, was teaching what the collegium of the successors of the Apostles had consistently taught as divinely revealed, with the teaching authority which it had inherited.

But this is only the secondary difficulty with Minn's interpretation. The primary difficulty arises from Minns' misreading of Vatican II.

From the text of DV §8, which I've quoted above, one may reasonably infer that what the Fathers of Vatican II meant by such terms as "develops" and "progresses" and "moves forward," as applied to Tradition, is not addition to or subtraction from the deposit of faith, but the Church's collective growth in the understanding of Tradition, of what has been handed on from the Apostles. There is no basis for inferring that Irenaeus would have opposed such a notion in principle. He himself has his own theological ideas—e.g., about humanity's prelapsarian state, about theodicy, about millenarism, and other points—some of which, in my opinion, are aids to deepening our understanding of the DF and some of which are not. What he opposed, vigorously, as "novelties" were ideas constituting either idle speculations unmoored to the DF—which the Gnostics went in for on a huge scale—or doctrines that were logically incompatible with the DF as professed by leaders enjoying publicly verifiable apostolic succession—which, as we saw above, is exactly what both the Marcionites and the Gnostics held regarding what was perhaps the most fundamental point of the DF.

Nevertheless, Vatican II itself is partly responsible for Minns' misinterpretation, which is a very common one. According to that misinterpretation, the Church (perhaps in the person of the pope) can and may reverse teachings propounded with diachronic consensus for as far back as we have records—such as those on women's ordination or birth control. On this view, "development" can and sometimes ought to include negation of what the collegium of bishops has always and consistently taught. That is the view which Irenaeus opposed with all his might. But in keeping with DV, the present pope and his predecessor have opposed it too; for no other interpretation of "development" is compatible with the Magisterium's self-understanding. DV's language is defective because does not exclude the aforesaid misinterpretation as a matter of logic. Its language does not distinguish between "development" of Tradition as a process of "handing on" and development of the content of what is "handed on."

Tradition as a process can and ought to develop or grow, because the process of handing on the content of the DF can and ought to include ever-deepening understanding of that content, of what is "handed on," along with ever-more refined expressions of it that are adapted appropriately to historical context. But such a "growth in understanding" (DV §8) may never include propounding as divinely revealed what has not been, or negating what has been presented in the past as divinely revealed. By failing to resolve the verbal ambiguity of "tradition" as process and tradition as content, Vatican II failed to rule out, explicitly, a "hermeneutic of discontinuity" of the kind that Irenaeus faced in his own day, and that the Catholic Church faces today, albeit over different issues. But of course, one of the beauties of DD is that each historical stage of it helps to resolve ambiguities left by the previous stage. That's what the great christological and trinitarian debates of the fourth and fifth centuries did; in my opinion, that's what we need to do again today about morality and ecclesiology. The study of how St. Irenaeus dealt with the discontinuants of his own day should aid us in that task.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Dr Witt on material & formal sufficiency

It's been brought to my attention that Dr. William Witt, who teaches systematic theology at the Trinity School for Ministry, has reformulated his critique of my view of the relationship between Scripture, the development of doctrine (DD), and ecclesial teaching authority (or: magisterium). I say 'reformulated' because he and I have had at least two exchanges on this topic in the past. Although our respective positions have not changed, I see that WW has advanced the discussion by stating his own ex professo view, and his critique of mine, in a way that is clearer to me than before. The discussion between him and me is certainly of interest to readers who have appreciated pertinent discussions of DD that have often been seen on this blog.

It goes without saying that WW's position and mine are mutually incompatible. I am a Roman Catholic; he is a conservative Protestant of the sort who, in my previous post, I identified as an adherent of the Protestant "hermeneutical circle." And yet, for reasons I have yet to fathom, he tries to enlist St. Thomas Aquinas in his cause. Thus WW:

I think the real issue of disagreement has to do with the question of the inherent intelligibility of Scripture. Followers of Newman often speak of the sufficiency of Scripture in terms of a “material” sufficiency. On the page on my blog titled “Who Are Those Guys?” I speak of how, as I read Aquinas, Arminius and Barth, they do theology as a penetration into the mystery of the inherent intelligibility of revelation as witnessed to in Scripture. I see the same kind of approach in Eastern theologians like Athanasius or Cyril of Alexandria.

Such an understanding of Scripture’s inherent intelligibility presupposes that the sufficiency of Scripture is not material, but formal. The difference here is between a blueprint to make a building, and the bricks of which the building is made. A merely materially sufficient Scripture is like a pile of bricks that can build anything from a cathedral to a tool shed, but the bricks themselves possess no inherent intelligibility (formal sufficiency) in one direction for another. The intelligibility derives from outside the bricks. Conversely, a blueprint is inherently intelligible, and thus has not material but formal sufficiency to create a specific building, whether cathedral or tool shed.

In terms of development, the claim that Scripture is materially sufficient presumes that the intelligibility of revelation derives from elsewhere than Scripture itself. A definitive magisterium (or external tradition) is necessary to decide what to do with the bricks. Without the magisterium it is impossible to know whether the bricks were intended to be a cathedral or a tool shed.

I cannot comment on Arminius and Barth, Protestant theologians whom WW knows far better than I. But for starters, I can and will say and unequivocally that Aquinas, while indeed affirming the "material sufficiency" of Scripture in the sense explained by WW, in no sense affirmed the formal sufficiency of Scripture. That is partly why Aquinas, like Newman and even Vatican II after him, most certainly did see a magisterium as necessary for interpreting Scripture reliably.

Consider this from ST IIaIIae Q5 A3 resp (emphasis added):

Now the formal object of faith is the First Truth, as manifested in Holy Writ and the teaching of the Church, which proceeds from the First Truth. Consequently whoever does not adhere, as to an infallible and Divine rule, to the teaching of the Church, which proceeds from the First Truth manifested in Holy Writ, has not the habit of faith, but holds that which is of faith otherwise than by faith.

The context of the questio from which the above quotation is taken suggests that we may put Aquinas' point as follows: Although it is quite possible to discern "the First Truth" in Scripture without adhering "to the teaching of the Church as to an infallible and divine rule," one can only do so as a matter of opinion rather than by the virtue of faith. Hence, even if Scripture is somehow "inherently intelligible," one who affirms the truth that is intelligible in Scripture while rejecting the Magisterium has only a set of opinions about the content of the deposit of faith, rather than the kind of certainty entailed by true faith. I agree with that view. As far as I can tell, it was the view of John Henry Newman too. As for Vatican II, see Dei Verbum §7-§10.

The distinction between apprehending the "First Truth" by opinion and doing so by faith may seem irrelevant to some, but it is actually of the utmost importance. Opinion is fallible and provisional, whereas the content of the deposit of faith, as the proximate object of the theological virtue of faith, is not and cannot be a matter of opinion. Many people imagine that one can get around this by saying that Scripture is "formally sufficient" for expressing the DF and making assent to its content a matter of faith. This would mean that, for purposes of apprehending the DF by faith, nothing need be added to what Scripture explicitly says; all one has to do is "get" the blueprint, perhaps as a kind of gestalt perception, and the rest follows. But that, in my view, just isn't credible.

Protestant scholars of WW's bent are forever frustrated and disappointed by the fact that even those Protestants who would, in general, agree that Scripture is "inherently intelligible" at some architectonic level—and might even find the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed helpful—often hold or reach doctrinal conclusions so different as to be, or become, church-dividing. Thus even when they do agree, the agreement doesn't last long enough to prevent others from eventually dissenting, hiving off to form their own church, and leaving a rump behind to rest on the old, unrevised "confession." Given the denominational proliferation occasioned by such differences, it would seem that Scripture, though inherently intelligible, is actually intelligible only to—well, to whom? That's my point. WW and some others seem to believe that if only Protestant church authorities would recognize and accept the best scholarship—as understood and expounded by men such as himself—and were willing to inculcate its results firmly enough to keep the pastors convinced enough to teach faithfully enough to keep the faithful convinced enough, then the inherent intelligibility of Scripture would shine forth globally enough to constitute actual intelligibility. In fact, WW seems to believe that something very much like that happened during and after the roaring, sometimes violent theological controversies of the fourth and fifth centuries. Thanks to men such as Athanasius, the Cappadocians, and St. Cyril, the Trinitarian and Christological orthodoxy that was painfully hammered out during that time demonstrated the inherent intelligibility, and therefore the formal sufficiency, of Scripture as a proximate object of faith!


I apologize to some if I've already overstated the irony, but others might need to have it pointed out. Almost a century-and-a-half of intellectual effort was needed to overcome the pre-Nicene theological vagueness, itself almost three centuries old, that occasioned Arianism and other forms of subordinationism. Was the resulting clarity and cogency really so great that Christians no longer needed to defer to the authority of general councils in order to identify the "orthodox" faith? Was it just obvious, by the latter part of the fifth century, that the credibility of orthodoxy consisted so much in its hermeneutical superiority to the alternatives that simple obedience to ecclesial teaching authority was unneeded? To anybody who knows church history, such questions virtually answer themselves. There were "heresies" not only before and during but also well after Nicaea and Chalcedon—and there still are. Indeed, as Dorothy Sayers so wittily showed, many people today (Catholics as well as Protestants) who accept and read the Bible as the Word of God also adhere to one of the ancient heresies without realizing it. But if Scripture were intelligible in the way and to the degree that WW says, then the cure for heresy would simply be a more thorough, more prayerful reading of the Bible. The failure of such a cure could only be explained by lack of "education" or, perhaps, sheer cussedness—i.e., by the kinds of factors which Protestants in the mid 1500s were already citing to explain their own divisions, even leaving aside their issues with the Whore of Babylon, aka the Church of Rome.

Well, it's not always or even usually like that. Even when people read the Bible correctly, and thus hold what is "of faith," they do not do so "by faith" unless they let themselves be guided, implicitly or explicitly, by the living, authoritative voice of the Church. Otherwise, even God's own truth can only be held as one opinion among others, and is thus legitimately susceptible to reversal (where have we heard things like: "The Holy Spirit is doing a new thing"?). At least that's what Aquinas thought, and I believe it.

Even so, I think even Aquinas went too far in affirming the "material sufficiency" of Scripture. For Scripture can be seen as the inspired word of God only because the same Holy Spirit who inspired it had the Church certify the writings it comprises as the pre-eminent written record of "Tradition" (i.e. of all that was handed down from the Apostles under his guidance) that could be read aloud in church. Scripture is therefore not, as the cessationists would have us believe, substitutable salva veritate for Tradition; it only constitutes the Word of God for us together with Tradition. I can therefore accept the joint material sufficiency of Scripture and Tradition, but not their separate material sufficiency. And to get formal sufficiency?

You need what Aquinas says: adherence to the teaching of the Church as to "a divine and infallible rule." I said that's what you need; I didn't say that's all you need. I like my CCC for that. But even the CCC...