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

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.

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