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

Sunday, August 16, 2009

There's "good" personal and "bad" personal

Anybody involved with blogs, whether as author, commentator, or reader, knows how common it is for personal static to drown out what's worth hearing. That's what I call the "bad"personal." Since it's long been my policy to avoid indulging in that sort of thing, I am rarely a target of it myself. But there's also a way of getting personal that, while still critical of the person, is also intellectually illuminating. I now find myself the target of such "good personal." I shall explain what that means and how my readers can learn from it.

I've been following Arturo Vasquez's four-part series "The Hollow Victory over Jansenism" (here's the link to Part IV, the most interesting) with considerable interest that is reflected in my combox contributions. I call my readers' attention to the issues involved because they go a long way toward explaining the sad division between Catholic "traditionalists" on the one hand and Catholic "neo-conservatives," among whom I am often numbered, on the other. Thanks largely to the Vatican's ongoing efforts to reconcile the Lefebvrite "Society of St. Pius X" with the Church at large, it has become well-known that trads and neo-cons differ with each other on a range of issues as much as (or, at least, as bitterly as) they both differ with progressives. The most contentious have to do with ecclesiology: ecumenism, religious liberty, limbo, the meaning of the dogma extra ecclesiam nulla salus (EENS), and the relative authority of various magisterial but non-dogmatic doctrines. In the combox to the above-linked post, Arturo refers to me to several recent posts of his on the topics in question. But as he implicitly recognized in one of the posts in question, a given Catholic's stance on the pertinent issues depends on where he stands on a more fundamental theological question: that of how nature and grace relate to each other.

That foundational issue had become a huge bone of contention among Catholic theologians between the two Vatican councils. Though I don't agree by any means with everything in the 20th-century nouvelle theologie that so influenced Vatican II, I do agree with such representative figures as Maurice Blondel and Henri de Lubac on at least one point: there has never been a state of "pure nature." All human reality, from our first parents onward, has been penetrated by and oriented to grace. A state of pure nature is of course hypothetically possible, given divine power and goodness; but that is not in fact the case; and given the actual oikonomia, it never has been or will be the case. That means, among other things, that how humans choose to use their "natural" powers and order "natural" realities always has supernatural implications, either for better or for worse. Accordingly, and for reasons given by Ratzinger and others, every human being will end up, forever, either fully united with or fully alienated from God. If that is so, then (as Fr. Al Kimel and I argued in a series of articles a few years ago), no limbus infantium could be permanent; and the non-existence of pure nature has larger ecclesiological and political implications too.

The essence of the matter is that, on a non-extrinsicist picture of the nature/grace relation, the visible Church herself, not merely the "seven" sacraments, must be seen as "sacramental" in the sense intended by Vatican II in Lumen Gentium. Thus, although the Church is the visible, ordinary means of transmitting to humanity that "grace and truth" of which the crucified-and-risen Christ is the source, the reality of such grace and truth in the world is far wider than its explicit manifestation in the Church. It suffuses all humanity to a degree sufficient for the salvation of each and every human being, and indeed suffuses the cosmos itself. Within the context of such a sacramental vision of reality, the Church's visible reality and witness is necessary for each and for all; for in the divine economy, she is indispensable for bringing about what she signifies. But people of good will who are inculpably ignorant of that very fact can still belong to the Church implicitly. Of course, and for obvious reasons, many trads are at best uncomfortable with such an affirmation. But they can't reject the idea of "imperfect communion" with the Church without rejecting the magisterial interpretation of EENS that has been steadily developing since Pius IX's Singulari Quidem and that became clear with Pius XII's 1949 condemnation of Feeneyism. Only the Feeneyites, and a smattering of other rad-trads, seem willing to go that far.

Accordingly, I believe the general trad dislike of modern ecclesiology to be radically misplaced. Trads understandably lament the "disenchantment of the world" that has accelerated since the 16th century, and which they blame the modern Catholic Church for worsening by a descent into a kind of ultramontanist rationalism; but they disagree with me and the "nuptial-mystery" theologians about how theology can contribute to the world's re-enchantment. And we're not going to resolve the disagreement here or anytime soon. But our disagreement on this score tends to mask a yet more fundamental disagreement about how such disagreements are to be resolved. That is what brings in the "good personal."

I have noticed that, in the combox to Arturo's above-linked post, none of the criticisms directed (explicitly or implicitly) toward me engage any of my actual arguments on the specific points at issue, despite my having developed and publicized such arguments for several years. As I've often seen before, my critics simply disparage my general "development-and-negation" approach by suggesting that I proceed like a "lawyer" who, though he might or might not be using philosophy, is certainly not doing theology. One commenter doesn't even bother with that much professional respect, suggesting instead that I suffer from a hitherto-unheard-of mental handicap: "I think some of these highly apologetics-focused professorial Catholics deserve some sort of neoscholastic asperger diagnosis." I would find all this rather baffling if I had not already come to recognize that the underlying theological difference here is of such a kind that it simply cannot be addressed in terms held in common by all sides. The only terms left are essentially aesthetic and personal.

That's what I mean the "good personal." The good personal is good inasmuch as it signifies that the intellectual gulf is not perceived for what it really is, so that one side can only explain it in essentially personal terms. I shall explain the gulf here by starting with a bit of intellectual autobiography.

Ultimately, I reject Protestantism in all its forms because I don't think any form of Protestantism can supply a consistent and non-arbitrary way to distinguish the content of the deposit of faith itself from theological opinions about the data of divine revelation. Of course there's always Orthodoxy; but after a lengthy flirtation with Orthodoxy in college, motivated by hard personal experience with several aspects of post-Vatican-II American Catholicism, I ultimately stuck with the Catholic Church because her way of applying the needed distinction struck me as clearer and more consistent than Orthodoxy's. But having educated myself about Catholicism's way of applying that distinction, I found by the mid-1980s that I could align myself neither with the progressives nor with the traditionalists.

I could not align myself with the progs because they wanted to jettison a number of important doctrines which, unlike limbo or the desirability of a confessional state, the Church had taught consistently for as far back as we have records. That attitude struck me then, as now, as incompatible with being self-consistently Catholic; and the way progressive Catholicism has developed since Vatican II confirms for me that it is fundamentally incompatible with "the Catholic thing" itself. But I could not align myself with the trads either. I could see neither how certain past teachings they preferred are more inherently plausible than, nor how such teachings were supposedly more authoritative than, those which Vatican II, an ecumenical council, had embraced in the course of reversing or sharply modifying past teachings. The options for trads, it seemed to me, were either (a) to reject the Council's distinctive doctrinal developments as heretical, which is what Archbishop Lefebvre did; or, less radically, (b) to treat those developments are mere opinions of lesser weight than those which they had supplanted. Option (a) seemed plainly schismatic—an impression confirmed by my personal experience with rad-trads. And that alone made it unacceptable to me. But option (b) raised another question: Were the issues in contention really just matters of opinion about which Catholics were free to differ, or did the distinctive teachings of the Council call for at least the "religious assent" of Catholics—to use the Council's own phrase?

Unless and until that question is clearly answered, one cannot know whether option (b) is ultimately acceptable for loyal, self-consistent Catholics or not. And if one cannot know that, then one cannot know whether (b), the less-radical trad option, is theologically tenable or not. That's one of the two major theological reasons why, despite my disgust with the prog "culture of dissent" and the widespread debasing of the liturgy, I was leery of post-Vatican-II Catholic traditionalism. My other reason was this: unless and until the question in question is given a clear answer by the Church, one cannot even explain clearly why the progs are wrong to believe that the Church could radically change her teaching on their pet issues (which mostly come down to sex and power). In the final analysis, it was my consideration of that hard fact which led me to reject post-Vatican-II Catholic traditionalism as well as progressivism. To borrow a phrase from the present pope, which the late Richard John Neuhaus was among the first to take up, I came to see both progressivism and traditionalism as hermeneutics of discontinuity, when what is so desperately needed is a "hermeneutic of continuity."

If a clear answer to the above-posed question is to be had, it must be given by "the Church." But who speaks definitively for the Church on doctrines not formally defined? There is not, because there could not be, a clear consensus fidelium on that issue; for this is simply not the sort of issue on which such a consensus could even be formulated without the intervention of the Magisterium. That's why I came to see the meta-magisterial moves made by Wojtyla and Ratzinger during the 1990s as so important: Ordinatio Sacerdotalis and the CDF responsum thereon; the formal confirmations, in Evangelium Vitae, of certain teachings of the "ordinary and universal magisterium" (OUM); and the further specifications in Ad Tuendam Fidem and Ratzinger’s “Doctrinal Commentary” thereon. By making more explicit the general criteria by which to distinguish definitive from non-definitive teachings of the OUM, they made clearer why the progs are wrong. But by the same token, they also caused me to believe that the distinctive doctrinal developments of Vatican II are weightier than trads typically believe. That the Council defined no dogmas—as a "pastoral" council, it pronounced no anathemas on those who dissented from its distinctive doctrinal developments—did not and could not mean that said developments were mere theological opinions that Catholics could safely reject or ignore. The Council taught that the teaching of the OUM commanded "religious assent" from Catholics even when not presented as definitive tendendam; and that tenet applied both to itself and to the other distinctive teachings of the Council, precisely because the dogmatic constitutions of the Council were clear instances of the teaching of the OUM by any criterion. To deny that the Council's distinctive doctrinal developments command religious assent, as the trads seemed to me committed to doing, placed them in the same position as the progs: holding that only dogmas defined by the extraordinary magisterium require assent from Catholics as a moral obligation. That position is untenable for several reasons, all of which I have expounded at length on this blog.

Most trads would not go so far as to claim that my position, which they often call the "neo-con" position, is actually heterodox. As I said in the combox to Arturo's post, the dispute is really about whose approach, i.e. that of the trads or that of the neo-cons, plays into the hands of the progs. I hold that, if one rejects the above-described meta-magisterial developments, or at least brushes them aside as irrelevant, then the progs win willy-nilly. For that's just what the progs themselves do to create space for their dissent. Trads, in my experience, counter that argument of mine not by addressing the specific ways I apply those developments, but by insisting that the very appeal to such developments is mere legalism, or ultramontanism, or otherwise misplaced rationalism. Or something like that. The irony, of course, is that that is just what many progs accuse trads of.

What's really needed is a way for trads and neo-cons to converge on a hermeneutic of continuity. Given the current gulf, I suspect that will only happen organically, by a slow return to the permanently valid riches of Catholic tradition, rather than by disputation. But that process has begun to accelerate under this pontificate. As it gathers momentum, the gulf signified by the "good personal" will gradually close toward unity.
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