Thursday, April 30, 2009

Infallibility and the Church - One More Time For Now

TF suggests that I missed the point in an earlier post where I replied to a post of his. I certainly concede the fact that this is possible. But this could be due to error on my part, or to a lack of clarity on his, or to some combination of these two. The only way to resolve the matter, of course, is to revisit "the scene of the crime." So let's do that. Warning - this will probably be a lengthy post.

The first thing that you, my reader, must do, is to read TF's first post. Go ahead. I'll wait. :-)

Okay, now that you have done so, let's see if I can summarize what TF said in it:
  • 1st paragraph - statement of the problem: an archbishop's reported error.
  • 2nd paragraph - concession that orthodox ("conservative") Catholics don't agree with the error, followed by a question: "Doesn't this event say something about the fallibility of your magisterium when an archbishop and top-ranking German bishop ... can say something like this?"
  • 3rd paragraph - Rhetorical question combined with his emphatic certainty about the answer: "a lot of my Roman Catholic readers ... will exercise their private judgment and reject the public teaching of this important bishop within their church."
  • 4th paragraph - Statement of his wish that Catholics would become Protestants, with a denial of the infallibility of bishops of any sort
The post concludes with a sort of postscript, consisting of various concessions and assertions:
  • concedes that the archbishop is liberal;
  • concedes that (some number of) Catholics disagree with and criticize the archbishop's opinion;
  • insists that the archbishop has more authority to proclaim the teaching of the Church than the average Catholic;
  • "having ecclesiastical authority doesn't lead one to correct doctrines";
  • Assertion of "absolute assurance" re: the Bible
Here is a list of what I think one could justifiably claim as the points that he appeared to be making:
  • The Catholic view of the Magisterium's infallibility is compromised by the archbishop's error
  • Catholics who reject the archbishop's error are exercising "private judgment" to do so, and really ought to admit that his error has compromised Catholic teaching about the infallibility of the Magisterium
  • Assertion of the archbishop's authority to teach in the Catholic Church
  • Denial of a connection between ecclesiastical authority and correct doctrine
  • Assertion of sola scriptura
Does it seem reasonable, based upon his post, to suppose that these were his points? I think so. What do you think?

Now the first thing that should be obvious is that my relatively short reply here didn't address literally everything in TF's post. Nevertheless, we'll look at what I said, and I think that it will be clear that what I did cover was really the "meat and potatoes" of his post. I think it will also be clear that if I missed his point, the blame does not rest on my shoulders but rather on his failure to clearly state his point.

If you haven't already done so, you should now go and read my reply to TF.

All done? Good.

Here's a summary of what I wrote:
  • 1st quotation from TF (his question from his second paragraph; see above)
  • replies to that question (see below)
  • 2nd quotation from TF (his 3rd paragraph; see above)
  • replies to that (see below)
  • Affirmation that if the news report is true, it appears that the archbishop is wrong
  • Conclusion - re-affirmation that the answer to TF's question in the 2nd paragraph is "No"; observation that TF appears to have misunderstood Catholic teaching

We'll get to the specifics of my replies to the quotations in a moment. First, though, I want to observe the possibility that because I didn't respond to literally everything in his post, I might have "missed the point" because it was contained in the stuff I didn't address. I do not believe this to be the case, as we shall see, but more importantly I think that the "meat" of TF's first post is contained in what I did address. I'm happy to leave that to the judgment of the reader. In any case, though, I think it is beyond question that TF's statement of the point(s) in a subsequent post simply are not to be found in the first post.

I'm getting ahead of myself. Here's a summary of what I said by way of reply to TF's first post. With regard to the first quotation, I replied by:
  • observing that the question in the first quotation suggests a lack of understanding of Church teaching;
  • granting arguendo that the article in question is accurate;
  • asserting that the archbishop's errors do not imply anything about the magisterium's infallibility;
  • defending that assertion from history, from the CCC, and from Vatican II.
With regard to the second quotation, my response was that it was a false dilemma: we are not bound by a choice between the archbishop's errors and private judgment.

So - did I miss the point of the portions of his post that I quoted in my reply? I don't think so. But I will leave it to the reader to judge. It might be instructive to revisit the list above of what I suggested were TF's apparent points in his original post. You will see that I denied and argued against the first (whether the archbishop's error compromises the Magisterium's infallibility), and that I denied (and argued against) the second (that we exercise "private judgment" in denying the archbishop's error). No Catholic would question a bishop's duty to teach, so I would affirm the third point (although that authority doesn't extend to teaching that which is contrary to the faith). I ignored the fourth point, concerning TF's denial of a connection between ecclesiastical authority and correct doctrine. Perhaps by his peculiar expression ("having ecclesiastical authority doesn't lead one to correct doctrines") he meant to concede that on the Catholic view the archbishop's position doesn't guarantee that his teaching will be infallible. If so, then I did indeed miss this point, but in my own defense I will claim that it was poorly put. Catholics don't talk about the question in those terms. What do you think? Lastly, I ignored the fifth point (his assertion of sola scriptura), which was really a statement of his own position; and I agree that this is his position :-) Am I obliged to address every point he makes? I don't think so. What do you think?

The last thing I'll say about it for now is that if TF's entire point was contained in that lone, ill-put observation, then I think I could be mostly if not entirely exonerated of the charge of "missing the point" because of a failure to comprehend. I will let the reader judge.

At any rate, TF thinks that I did miss the point - if not of those quotations, at least of the post as a whole. He said so in a followup post here. You should go read it now.

Okay, now that you've read it, let's take a look. After claiming that I missed the point, he writes:
Reginald seems to have mistakenly concluded that I imagine the Roman Catholic position to be that individual bishops (other than the bishop of Rome) are infallible. Of course that's not what I think or what my previous post suggested.
That's good to know, but that is hardly clear from his original post. Let's take a look at that the question from the second paragraph of that first post again:
Doesn't this event say something about the fallibility of your magisterium when an archbishop and top-ranking German bishop (no, not the one in the Vatican - yet) can say something like this?
Now I ask you, gentle reader: if a man suggests that an archbishop's error "says something" about "the fallibility of your magisterium," would you be inclined to suppose a) that he thinks it does, or b) that he thinks it doesn't?

The fact is, as I pointed out, an individual archbishop's errors say nothing about the infallibility of the Magisterium. Personally, I would say that TF's question suggests that he thinks the contrary. Because the only way that an individual bishop's errors could "say something" about the Magisterium's infallibility is if infallibility extended to the individual bishop. But it doesn't, as I showed. But if he knows that this is not what the Church teaches, why ask us a question that insinuates that this is what the Church teaches?

He insists in his followup that he knows what we believe about this, and based upon his summary of the teaching in that second post I have no reason to doubt him. I submit, however, that this is by no means clear from anything he said in the original post. What do you think?

TF goes on in the second paragraph (after reasserting that I missed the point) to tell us what the point(s) of the original post was/were. Excellent! I thank him for this, since I have seen other Protestant critics of Catholics say that we "missed the point" without ever telling us what the point was supposed to be. He says:
The point is not that the Archbishop in the story is fallible: the point is that he's dead wrong. He's wildly wrong. He's ridiculously wrong. And Roman Catholicism hierarchy has by and large approved of this guy - he holds a position of high regard within the German branch of the Roman Catholic church - and is not about to do anything regard these teachings of his.
It's not exactly clear to me where "the points" come to an end in the followup post, but as far as I can tell this is it. Let's address them one by one.

The point is not that the Archbishop in the story is fallible: Actually, I didn't say that it was. Rather, it's the starting point. TF would have us draw certain conclusions from the fact that the archbishop is fallible. One of those conclusions, as far as I can tell, is that the archbishop's error "says something" about magisterial infallibility: namely, that the magisterium does not possess infallibility. What else would one suppose from TF's suggestion that it does "say something"? I surely don't know. What do you think? But in that case, I think that my response was completely to the point: what he said suggested to me that he misunderstood the doctrine, and so I explained the doctrine. It's good to know that he apparently does "get it," but once again I'd say that this was not even remotely clear from the post. So - if I "missed the point" in this respect, it seems that it was not my fault. What do you think?

[T]he point is that he's dead wrong. He's wildly wrong. He's ridiculously wrong. Let's agree that he is. But again, this is only the starting point of TF's original article: that the archbishop was wrong. Perhaps TF wants to suggest that being "wildly, ridiculously, dead wrong" is somehow different by way of degree from merely being "wrong". And I'm willing to grant that for some purposes that might make a difference - but not when it comes to the infallibility of the Magisterium. This should be clear from my original reply, so I won't belabor it here. Even if it is different by way of degree, though, that's still hardly more than the starting point of his post, it seems to me. In this case, he would want us to draw conclusions about the Magisterium's infallibility based upon the fact that this archbishop is "wildly, ridiculously, dead wrong" - but the archbishop's errors have no bearing on it at all. None.

Furthermore, if this really was the/a point of the post, then the only reply necessary would be: "Yes, TF. The archbishop was wildly, ridiculously, dead wrong, if the news reports are accurate." But TF goes on to say much more than this, which is why it seems unlikely that this was the/a point of the post rather than (as it seems to me) a starting point.

So - have I missed the point? I don't think so. What do you think?

And Roman Catholicism hierarchy has by and large approved of this guy - he holds a position of high regard within the German branch of the Roman Catholic church - and is not about to do anything regard these teachings of his. But when he gets together with a bunch of his colleagues (and his supervisor the pope) who seem to have no problem letting him spread his errors via the public media (after all - he's still in office, isn't he?)... This seems to be not a point of his original post (since he made no argument in favor of it) but rather a silent assumption of it (since he made no explicit mention of it). These things being so, is it reasonable to say that I "missed the point" about this? I don't think so. What do you think?

Let's assume, though, that I did miss this point. This, too, says nothing about the infallibility of the Magisterium. The execution of discipline (or not executing it) is not a part of the Church's teaching about its own infallibility, which extends (under specific conditions) to its teaching on matters of faith and morals. Period. Now TF would no doubt say that he knows this, and I'm glad if he does. But if that is so, what part does a question of church discipline - as this unquestionably is - have to do in a post that is obviously devoted (as his was) to the subject of infallibility? Is it any wonder, then, that I missed this point (remember, we're assuming that I did), given the subject matter of his post? Would my "miss" be a function of my failure to comprehend, or of a lack of clarity in his post? What do you think?

Now that's the end of what it seems he is calling "the points" of his first post. I conclude this because he never again mentions anything as being a point of the first post, and because the next thing he does is to address me personally - something that he did not do in the first post.

Reginald is willing to believe that this collection of men is not only not highly likely to err but actually to the contrary is infallible! Well, I'm a Catholic. And given the right conditions - spelled out by the Magisterium - yes, I certainly do believe that they are infallible when they speak. I wouldn't be Catholic if I didn't :-)

Presumably this fact would not be exclamation-point-worthy, though, if it wasn't somehow surprising or unexpected that I, a faithful Catholic, believe this. I suppose that TF explains that worthiness in the first sentence of the next paragraph.
It should be obvious to any reasonable person that when you get a bunch of fallible men who tolerate gross errors by their colleagues together, you are not going to have a body that produces infallible decisions.
I'm afraid that TF is not going to like this, but declarations like this really make it difficult to draw any other conclusion than that he is misinformed as to the nature of the infallibility claimed by the Church.

Perhaps the best way of showing what I mean is to change the wording slightly:
It should be obvious to any reasonable person that when you get a bunch of fallible men together, you are not going to have a body that produces infallible Scripture.
See the point? Now of course TF will say (and he did, in his first post) that Scripture is inspired by God. Likewise, we Catholics say that the infallibility of the Magisterium is something that is done by the Holy Spirit. It is a supernatural thing no less than the inspiration of Scripture. TF obviously disagrees. This is neither the time nor place for attempting to persuade him otherwise. In any case, it ought to be no more shocking to suppose that fallible men are used by God to infallibly proclaim the truth through the Church than it is to suppose that fallible men (like David the murderous adulterer, or Paul the accomplice to murder, or Peter the coward) were used by God to write the Bible. We would of course agree that by nature fallible men are no better equipped to govern in an infallible Church than they are by nature able to write down God's word infallibly. But with God all things are possible, aren't they? :-)

Unfortunately, however, Reginald (and others) simply accept the idea that their church is infallible as an article of faith and refuse to submit their teacher (their church) to the higher authority of Scripture Well, the original post seemed to be addressed to us Catholics. But here it seems that TF has turned to addressing his co-religionists. Yes, we Catholics do believe the infallible dogmas of our Church. That's what makes us Catholic. We are non-Catholic to the extent that we do not. And as Catholics, we flatly reject the false Protestant idea of "sola scriptura" that TF evidently has in mind here. We disagree. He says we're wrong; we say he's wrong. Yes.

(even denying - some of them, I cannot say whether Reginald has done this yet - that Scripture IS a higher authority). Well, let's clear it up for him. :-)
"Yet this Magisterium is not superior to the Word of God, but is its servant. It teaches only what has been handed on to it. At the divine command and with the help of the Holy Spirit, it listens to this devotedly, guards it with dedication and expounds it faithfully. All that it proposes for belief as being divinely revealed is drawn from this single deposit of faith." [CCC §86; emphasis added]
But 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. This teaching office is not above the word of God, but serves it, teaching only what has been handed on, listening to it devoutly, guarding it scrupulously and explaining it faithfully in accord with a divine commission and with the help of the Holy Spirit, it draws from this one deposit of faith everything which it presents for belief as divinely revealed.

It is clear, therefore, that sacred tradition, Sacred Scripture and the teaching authority of the Church, in accord with God's most wise design, are so linked and joined together that one cannot stand without the others, and that all together and each in its own way under the action of the one Holy Spirit contribute effectively to the salvation of souls.
[Dei Verbum 10; emphasis added]
Now, that is really all I have to say about the subject for now (and I know that you, gentle reader, have had your patience terribly tested, so I thank you for getting this far!) I am unlikely to say more even if TF responds to this. I believe that my original reply was a succinct answer to the apparent points of his original post. I believe that if I did in fact miss something it was due more to a lack of clarity on his part than to a failure to comprehend on my part. I believe that the points he suggests in his second post that he was making in the first are either non-existent in it, almost completely hidden, or really more in the way of starting points to what he really had to say, and that I can hardly be held responsible for "missing" them.

As to whether I am right about all for you, my reader, to decide. :-)

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Object Lesson - Platonism and the Monophysites

Here is yet another interesting snippet from Pelikan's The Spirit of Eastern Christendom (vol. 2 in The Christian Tradition).
[Excluded by Monophysite teaching] was any notion that the union was not merely a union of two natures but of two ousias, divine and human; for if "ousia" were taken in its usual and proper significance as referring to that which was common to all members of a class, a union of ousias would mean that "the Holy Trinity has become incarnate in all of humanity and has become composite with our entire race," which would be blasphemous (p. 58).
But this could only be objectionable, if I understand things rightly, if we have first presumed that the "ousia" of humanity is a thing having real existence - following Plato.

In this way I think we can see that philosophy informs theology. Because of certain philosophic preconceptions they held, the Monophysites stumbled over the two natures of Christ. Something similar could be said for the Nestorians; they held (cf. p. 39ff.) that a hypostasis is part of the nature, so that it would be impossible for Christ to possess a single hypostasis and at the same time to possess two natures; Pelikan quotes them as saying that it was "'an insane error' and 'a corruption of our faith'" to suppose otherwise.

This is why it's important to hold to the dogmas of the Faith above all else, and it's why reason must submit to the Faith too. Christ has two natures, but he is one person; hence the Nestorians should have accepted that their notion of human nature was erroneous on the question of the hypostasis. Christ has two natures, but he is not incarnate in all humanity; hence the Monophysites should have modified their view of what a union of the two natures implied.

In a day or two I'll have another example of how dogmas necessarily inform our conclusions about other things.

A Real Discussion-Killer

I read something today that I found to be a little surprising. I will refrain from identifying the author, because it's possible that I might be misunderstanding him. Even if I have, though, I think that the words as I interpret them are probably representative of enough people that it doesn't really matter who said them.
[Absolute certainty about things we say that we "know"] is only attainable through revelation.
I paraphrased the portion in brackets because there was some ambiguity in the source, which read more like, "To have knowledge is to know with absolute certainty."

Heh. That ("knowledge is knowing with certainty") reminds me of an old B.C. cartoon in which one of the characters opens Wiley's Dictionary and looks up the word "pollution." The definition: "The result of polluting." So he turns to the definition of "polluting" and reads there: "to pollute". So he turns to the definition of "pollute" and reads: "to cause pollution." At that point he sets fire to the dictionary, which belches forth a polluting smoke cloud. :-) Of course the point is that if a definition is self-referential, it's pretty hard to get out of the circle.

Maybe this is not an entirely fair way to characterize that definition of "knowledge," but it seems pretty hard to avoid. On the other hand, I suppose it's probably difficult to talk about "knowing" without becoming self-referential at times, so I'm not going to hold anyone's feet to the fire about that. Suffice it to say, though, that this is one source of my uncertainty about whether I've understood the author. :-) Maybe a better way of expressing the thought would be by way of contrast: it's not actual knowledge if you do not possess absolute certainty about it. Hence a property of knowledge is that the one who possesses it has absolute certainty about the subject of his knowledge.

[By the way, Aristotle characterized "knowledge" in pretty much the same way - namely, that one of its properties is that it is certain. He said that a lot of what people say they know really doesn't amount to much more than opinion. He didn't say that this knowledge came by way of revelation, though. But I digress.]

Our author says that "knowledge" defined like this can only be had "through revelation." There is a little fuzziness here, too. Does he mean that absolute certainty is available only "through" the Bible, or "through" direct revelation from God? Let's consider each possibility. If he means that we can obtain absolute certainty only through the Bible, then it seems to me that what he has said is unintelligible. If he really means that, then by the very nature of the case sensory perceptions are ruled out as a source of absolute certainty, and if that is so, then how will we get absolute certainty from the Bible? We must make use of our senses in some way in order to read or hear or touch (e.g., through Braille) Scripture; if we cannot have absolute certainty from what our senses tell us, then it is likewise impossible for us to have it about what we read or hear or touch in the Bible. The consequence of that, of course, is that absolute certainty would be absolutely impossible; hence the definition would leave us with no hope for any absolute certainty whatsoever.

If that's the case, then there really isn't a point in debating much of anything, is there? Everyone's opinion is as good as anyone else's, and those who claim otherwise would be blowing smoke in your eyes. Consequently it seems to me that this view is a real discussion-killer.

The second alternative is that he means we can only have absolute certainty by way of direct divine revelation. Now I certainly agree that this is a way of obtaining certainty, on a Christian understanding of things; but it should also be said that there are some silent assumptions about God here (and really, the same assumptions must be in force if we get certainty from the Bible, too): namely, that there is only one God, and that he is perfectly good and truthful (so that no evil god could tell us lies by means of direct revelation). Hopefully you see the obvious questions here:

Where do we get these ideas about God? How do we know (with absolute certainty) that God is trustworthy?

Hopefully it will be obvious that these are not idle questions for the man who insists that we can obtain certainty only through revelation (whether directly or through Scripture). He needs to have some reason to know that God is trustworthy, but on his own terms he has none, it seems to me.

Hopefully it will be equally obvious that I do not subscribe to this view of the question, although I suppose I probably held to something like it when I was a Protestant. I think that in fact we can have certainty about at least some things, and possibly even many things. A good example is the law of non-contradiction. A given thing 'A' cannot be 'X' and 'not-X' at the same time and in the same respect. We can know this with certainty. It is a logical impossibility. And speaking of logic, we can also know with absolute certainty the conclusion of a syllogism. If all men are mortal and Socrates is a man, then Socrates is mortal. Given the truth of the premises, the conclusion is likewise certain to be true.

This sort of knowledge doesn't come to us by way of revelation; it comes to us by way of reason. And so we can jump to the sed contra: We do not obtain absolute certainty solely by way of revelation, but also by means of reason. We can know, for example, that God is perfectly good (and consequently truthful); and because we can know this, we can trust his revelation to be absolutely truthful as well.

(that's a ridiculously brief summary of something that St. Thomas spends pages and pages discussing, both in the Summa Theologica and in the Summa Contra Gentiles)

This does not mean that reason is omnicompetent. We cannot deduce literally everything. But we can obtain certainty about many things by way of reason, and we would be foolish to suppose otherwise.

We can also obtain certainty by way of our senses. I know for certain that there is a keyboard in front of me, and that I am using it to type this sentence. Some folks are prone to say that our senses are not reliable, but I submit that these people do not spend much time fretting over whether the substance on their dinner plate is steak or grass clippings. If they were serious about their uncertainty, they certainly (!) would be worrying about that meal. :-) And how will they get that certainty out of the Bible if he can't trust his senses?

Monday, April 27, 2009

Object Lesson - John 2.19 and the Nestorians

Recently I have appealed repeatedly to CCC §113 as a necessity when we interpret the Bible:
Read the Scripture within "the living Tradition of the whole Church."
Here's another good example. In volume 2 of The Christian Tradition, Pelikan writes that John 2:19
was in many ways the key passage in the Nestorian definition of the nature of the union between divine and human in Christ. ... [T]he leading Nestorian theologian of the seventh century declared: 'Thus we adore God in the temple of his humanity, because he dwells in it as in a temple, united with it eternally' (p. 40).
So how, solely on the basis of sola scriptura, is such an interpretation going to be upended? Why was that man wrong in making that verse a keystone of his theology - in thinking that this saying of Jesus was entirely clear and worthy to use in interpreting the rest of the Bible?

It can't be done. As I said, unless we accept the trinitarian formulations of Nicaea and the Christological formulations of later councils, all of which form a crucial part of the Tradition of the Church, and unless we read the Bible with this Tradition in mind, and interpret it according to this Tradition, we have no basis for saying that the Nestorians were wrong. It's just our opinion against theirs.

Baptists can do this - because they accept those trinitarian/christological formulas. So can Presbyterians and Lutherans and Methodists. But it's silly to say that the Bible alone refutes the Nestorians apart from a tradition of interpretation. We can only say that it emphatically does so because we have accepted the witness of the Church as to the true meaning of the Bible with respect to christology. Sola scriptura is not enough.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Which is greater - Faith or Charity?

Pelikan makes an interesting point in Mary that I've never encountered elsewhere, but is certainly an intriguing one.
[T]he Reformers, beginning with Luther, taught that authentic Christian love was dependent on faith and therefore, despite the identification of love as 'the greatest of these,' [1Cor. 13:13] assigned to faith the central position in that triad and therefore assigned to the word of God what must be called a sacramental function: as the sacraments were, in a formula that the Reformation took over from Augustine, a 'visible word,' so the preaching and teaching of the word of God could have been called an audible sacrament. Thus Calvin, in a carefully crafted discussion, defined 'faith to be a knowledge of God's will toward us, perceived from his Word.' [p. 159f.]
On Pelikan's reckoning of things, then, it seems that the Protestant reformers have turned things on their heads for the sake of their novel view of justification (and of faith, for that matter, which they seem to have understood in a way that was, if not completely new, at least atypical).

But St. Paul says that faith without charity is nothing (1Cor. 13: 2). St. John says "he that loveth not abideth in death" (1Jn. 3:14). Hence we say that it's not mere belief that saves us. Christ is our Saviour, but he does not save us apart from what we do.

I'm going to have to agree with Mr. Shea

Mark Shea has been standing tall for years for an unconditional condemnation by Catholics of the "enhanced interrogation methods" (aka "torture") of the Bush Administration. I have no particular inclination to jump into the fray at this late date, just because he, and Zippy, and others have been doing the heavy lifting and anything I would say would be (at best) piling on or (at worst) trivial in comparison.

One thing I'd like to add my "Hear hear!" to, though, has to do with our attitude towards the prohibition of torture. Although this post doesn't address it specifically, in the (gigantic) combox it comes up again.

Rather than asking, "What are the limits on extraordinary interrogation? What can we do to suspects or prisoners without crossing the line into torture?" We should simply treat them humanely. Period. If you do that, you don't have to worry about the rest. What does "humane" demand? It demands charity, and it demands doing unto others as we would have them do unto us.

It seems to me that to ask "How far can we go with interrogation techniques"-type questions is indistinguishable from the Pharisaic attitude that resulted in questions like "How far can I walk on a Sabbath without violating the Sabbath?" The "Sabbath day's journey" resulted from this.

Don't ask what harm you can do. Just don't. And don't do harm, either.

Or so it seems to me.

Object Lesson - Christology and Mariology Run Amok

Pelikan points out in Mary that one consequence of the Protestant reformation was the revival of some forms of heresy concerning Christ and the Blessed Virgin.
Orbe Phillips [one of the radical Reformers/Anabaptists], rejecting the idea that 'the body of Christ had been made by Mary (as the world thinks and says with such want of understanding regarding it),' asserted instead that 'God, the Heavenly Father, prepared for Jesus Christ his only begotten Son, a body (Heb. 10:5), but not of corrupt human seed (Luke 1:35), rather of his incorruptible seed.' For, he continued, 'it is impossible for the flesh of Christ to be formed of the seed of Mary; for neither the seed of Mary, nor that of any earthly creature can by any means be the true living bread that came down from heaven...or be so called.' [p. 156f]
Now of course this was not the prevailing opinion of the Protestant reformers. But it should be said that unless we "read the Scripture within the living Tradition of the whole Church" (CCC §113) we have no moorings to prevent us from reaching false conclusions such as these. As we've seen before, letting Scripture interpret Scripture is no solution to this problem precisely because (apart from Sacred Tradition) there is no solid reason to interpret one passage in light of another (rather than vice versa). The Bible does not contain the keys to help us with this.

Now it should also be said that Protestants actually do read the Scripture within their own traditions. This is why Baptists reach Baptistic conclusions, and Presbyterians reach Presbyterian ones, Methodists reach Methodist ones, and Lutherans reach Lutheran ones. And the fact that they have inherited a great deal from the Mother Church whence they came is why they are right about many things. I suppose the appropriate question to ask, then, is: why would we accept any of these traditions, coming 1500 years or more after the founding of the Church, in preference to the Sacred Tradition of the Catholic Church that has been there from the beginning? The Protestant reformers rejected this, preferring to formulate their own theological traditions, but - as we see in the case of Orbe Phillips above - once Sacred Tradition has been abandoned, there is no good reason to stand with Luther or Calvin rather than to go off on one's own.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Irenaeus - Mary is the Second Eve

The identification of Mary as the second Eve - paralleling Christ as the second Adam - is almost as old as the Church herself. St. Irenaeus, writing in the second century, says:
And just as through a disobedient virgin man was stricken down and fell into death, so through the Virgin who was obedient to the Word of God man was reanimated and received life. For the Lord came to seek again the sheep that was lost; and man it was that was lost: and for this cause there was not made some other formation, but in that same which had its descent from Adam He preserved the likeness of the (first) formation. For it was necessary that Adam should be summed up in Christ, that mortality might be swallowed up and overwhelmed by immortality; and Eve summed up in Mary, that a virgin should be a virgin’s intercessor, and by a virgin’s obedience undo and put away the disobedience of a virgin. [St. Irenaeus, Demonstration of the Apostolic Preaching, 33; emphasis added]
As Pelikan says in comment upon this remarkable passage,
It was absolutely essential to the integrity of the two narratives [viz., that of Genesis 3 and Luke 1] that both the disobedience of Eve and the obedience of Mary be seen as actions of a free will, not as the consequences of coercion, whether by the devil in the case of Eve or by God in the case of Mary. [Mary Through the Centuries, p. 43]
He continues:
It is avoid the impression that [Irenaeus] cited the parallelism of Eve and Mary so matter-of-factly without arguing or having to defend the point because he could assume that his readers would willingly go along with it, or even that they were already familiar with it. One reason that this could be so might have been that, on this issue as on so many others, Irenaeus regarded himself as the guardian and transmitter of a body of belief that had come to him from earlier generations, from the very apostles. [ibid.; cf. also Pelikan, The Emergence of the Christian Tradition, 241]
It's likewise important to emphasize the importance to the parallel of the Blessed Virgin's fiat being no less free than was Eve's sin. Pelikan returns to this theme on p. 87 of Mary:
As free will could not be taken away from Eve in order to say that she was not accountable for her actions, so it could not be taken away from Mary either, in a misguided attempt to make the grace of God seem greater by minimizing or denying the human free will.
And once more from St. Irenaeus, this time from Against Heresies:
That the Lord then was manifestly coming to His own things, and was sustaining them by means of that creation which is supported by Himself, and was making a recapitulation of that disobedience which had occurred in connection with a tree, through the obedience which was [exhibited by Himself when He hung] upon a tree, [the effects] also of that deception being done away with, by which that virgin Eve, who was already espoused to a man, was unhappily misled—was happily announced, through means of the truth [spoken] by the angel to the Virgin Mary, who was [also espoused] to a man. For just as the former was led astray by the word of an angel, so that she fled from God when she had transgressed His word; so did the latter, by an angelic communication, receive the glad tidings that she should sustain (portaret) God, being obedient to His word. And if the former did disobey God, yet the latter was persuaded to be obedient to God, in order that the Virgin Mary might become the patroness (advocata) of the virgin Eve. And thus, as the human race fell into bondage to death by means of a virgin, so is it rescued by a virgin; virginal disobedience having been balanced in the opposite scale by virginal obedience. For in the same way the sin of the first created man (protoplasti) receives amendment by the correction of the First-begotten, and the coming of the serpent is conquered by the harmlessness of the dove, those bonds being unloosed by which we had been fast bound to death. [Against Heresies, V.xix.1; emphasis added]
Note that Pelikan (Mary, p. 87) rightly insists on the fact that Mary's free choice is a necessary aspect of the parallel between her and Eve.

So we see that Mary was understood to be the second Eve no later than the second century.

Object Lesson - Hermeneutics Run Amok

If one won't be constrained by the Church's Tradition, his understanding of the Bible is liable to run aground.

Pelikan gives us, in his book on Mary, an example:
It is worth remembering that some centuries [after the early Middle Ages], by a somewhat similar process [referring to that by which the Blessed Virgin came to be identified as the woman of Revelation 12], some descendants of the Protestant Reformation had no compunction about identifying the 'angel having the everlasting gospel' in the Book of Revelation [14:6-7] with the person and ministry of Martin Luther. [p. 33]

A more egregious and sad example could be found in the example here. The author makes a case, based upon the Bible, for refusing to call himself a Christian or be involved in Christianity anymore. Note: he's not an atheist; he has gone down the road of sola scriptura and private judgment, and this is where it has led him. It's a sad story (and a bit bizarre at times).

This is an almost textbook case of why we must "read the Scripture within the living Tradition of the whole Church" (CCC §113). It is an essential fence for us, keeping us sheep from wandering astray.

Development of Doctrine, "Sola Scriptura," and Nicaea

Recently I remarked on the fact that Scripture must be understood within in the context of Sacred Tradition. Pelikan makes effectively the same point in his book on the Blessed Virgin.
To reject [the development of doctrine with regard to Mt. 16 and the papacy] on the argument that it was a development and that development was in itself unacceptable made it difficult for the biblical exegesis of the Reformation and post-Reformation periods to contend with those on the left wing of the Reformation who, sharing the insistence of the 'magisterial Reformers' on the sole authority of Scripture, rejected the reliance on trinitarian doctrine of Nicaea as a necessary presupposition and method for reading biblical texts.

For having thus developed out of Scripture, the trinitarian perspective had in turn become a way - or rather, the way - of interpreting Scripture. As it was systematized at least for the West chiefly by Augustine, this method of biblical exegesis was cast in the form of a 'canonical rule (canonica regula)'...[A]ny passages that, taken as they stood, appeared to contradict church doctrine were subject to the 'canonical rule' and required careful handling...If the Protestant Reformers and their descendants were willing to hold still for such a manipulation of New Testament passages in the interest of upholding such a doctrinal development that had come only in later centuries - and they were - what stood in the way of such manipulation when the passage was 'This is my body' or 'Thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church'? [p10f.; emphasis in original]
Just so. You can't have it both ways: to reject doctrinal development when it is unpleasant to you, and to accept it when it satisfies you. Even less helpful is to reject it entirely: for then you have no reasonable grounds for condemning those who use the principle of letting Scripture interpret Scripture in ways that you don't like, either. In the end such an approach reduces hermeneutics to a matter of personal taste: "I'll have a Trinity Cola" becomes, in the end, a matter of preference like others' predilection for Arian milkshakes. It's a poor foundation for the truth.

If the gates of hell do not prevail against the Church (and they don't), then our attitude ought to be more like this: "This passage of the Bible seems to me to say [X], but that would be contrary to what the Church has always taught. I must be mistaken, because the Church can never be." To say this demands that we possess and exercise the virtue of humility.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Infallibility and The Church

In reaction to a dubious declaration by a German archbishop, TF says:
Doesn't this event say something about the fallibility of your magisterium when an archbishop and top-ranking German bishop (no, not the one in the Vatican - yet) can say something like this?
No. But the question suggests that the questioner doesn't understand what the Church teaches about infallibility.

Let us grant for the sake of argument (but see here for a cautionary tale about that) that the story as reported is accurate and that the archbishop's views are contrary to the Church's teaching. If this is so, it implies nothing about the doctrine of infallibility. Because the archbishop's views as an individual aren't guaranteed to be infallible.

He would not be the first archbishop to fall into error, either. Various patriarchs of Constantinople and Alexandria beat him to that distinction centuries ago, just to name two historical examples. But the doctrine of infallibility didn't extend to their views, either.

What the doctrine says is this:
"The Roman Pontiff, head of the college of bishops, enjoys this infallibility in virtue of his office, when, as supreme pastor and teacher of all the faithful - who confirms his brethren in the faith he proclaims by a definitive act a doctrine pertaining to faith or morals.... the infallibility promised to the Church is also present in the body of bishops when, together with Peter's successor, they exercise the supreme Magisterium," above all in an Ecumenical Council. When the Church through its supreme Magisterium proposes a doctrine "for belief as being divinely revealed," and as the teaching of Christ, the definitions "must be adhered to with the obedience of faith." This infallibility extends as far as the deposit of divine Revelation itself. [CCC §891]
It's pretty clear, I'd say, that the individual declarations of an archbishop aren't guaranteed to be infallible.

The same thing is said even more clearly in Lumen Gentium:
Although the individual bishops do not enjoy the prerogative of infallibility, they nevertheless proclaim Christ's doctrine infallibly whenever, even though dispersed through the world, but still maintaining the bond of communion among themselves and with the successor of Peter, and authentically teaching matters of faith and morals, they are in agreement on one position as definitively to be held. This is even more clearly verified when, gathered together in an ecumenical council, they are teachers and judges of faith and morals for the universal Church, whose definitions must be adhered to with the submission of faith. [LG 25; emphasis added]
TF continues:
I could ask: who are you going to believe, a high-ranking official in your church or your own private judgment, but I know that for a lot of my Roman Catholic readers they will exercise their private judgment and reject the public teaching of this important bishop within their church.
It's not a question of choosing between myself and the archbishop, even if he has publicly espoused error. He is not guaranteed to be speaking infallibly on his own. We confess not every word that he might say, but everything that is taught by the Church, and this man's opinions are not assumed to be coextensive with that teaching.

Certainly if the article is correct, the archbishop would seem to have caused scandal, and that would be a grave evil. But it would prove nothing about the doctrine of infallibility that the Church actually teaches. TF has apparently misunderstood us.

[Update] Some may have seen a followup post I briefly had up as a further interaction with additional comments by TF. I have removed it. I believe that this post is sufficiently clear as a brief presentation of the subject matter, and nothing I've seen him post up to now warrants further clarification.

[Update #2] Just so there is no confusion: TF has published a reply to the post that I removed this morning (within 45 minutes or so of having posted it). Sorry folks, nothing to see here. This post stands on its own.

[Update #3] After several days of consideration, I have changed my mind and published a new post (much different from the one I previously deleted) on this topic. My expectation is that it will be the last.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

What General Councils Do

General (or Ecumenical) Councils are not innovators.
The bishops do not come together in order to think up something new out of their own minds, but in order to be witnesses of the teaching received from Christ and handed out by the Church. [Pesch, Praelectiones Dogmaticae, I:313; quoted in Hughes, A History of the General Councils, p. 17]
They do not make things up. They declare what the Church has always taught. This is not a contradiction of the principle of development of doctrine; it's a necessary part of it. As the Church's understanding grows, it becomes necessary at different times to declare clearly what in the past may perhaps have been less clear.

We can see this, for example, with the first Council of Nicaea. The Fathers assembled there did not invent the doctrine of the Trinity; rather, they formulated a way of declaring what the Church has always taught, in such a way as to distinguish it from error.

It's particularly useful by way of example to point out that the doctrine of the Trinity is by no means indisputably clear in the Bible. That was really part of the problem, because Arius appealed to Scripture in defense of his errors.

Some Protestants will say that by letting Scripture interpret Scripture, the errors of Arius are obvious. But this is special pleading. First we would have to know what portions of the Bible ought to direct our understanding of the Godhead, and that is by no means something that the Bible itself explains. It can only come from the Tradition of the Church.

For example, if Arius appeals to John 14:28 ("...the Father is greater than I"), why should we not agree that this verse is entirely clear? Why do we not let this Scripture guide our interpretation of other passages about the Godhead?

The simple fact is that there is no good reason not to do so if "sola scriptura" is the rule by which we measure things. The Bible doesn't include a key that says which are the "clear" parts and which are the "unclear" ones that must be understood in the light of the "clear" ones, and different men have different conceptions of what is clear and unclear. The only rule that can assist us here is to understand the Bible according to what the Church has always taught - which is exactly what the Fathers did at Nicaea, and what the Church teaches us today.
Read the Scripture within "the living Tradition of the whole Church" (CCC §113).
This is why Nicaea did not innovate. This is how we know that its Trinitarian interpretation of Scripture (inherited by most Protestants) is no novel thing. It was an expression of that living Tradition. This is why Arius was wrong. He interpreted the Bible contrary to the living Tradition.

Scripture, Tradition, and the Magisterium are inseparable. We need them all.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Linguistics and Nominalism

I have long had something of an interest in Bible translation. At one time I seriously considered a career as a Bible translator. For reasons I don't remember now that notion pretty much died on the vine, but not before I had done a fair amount of study on the subject. I will never forget the article in a respected journal that defended the translation "Pig of God" for a people group who had never seen sheep and had no word for "Lamb". I was outraged. I still get upset about it when I think about it :-)

The root of the problem was of course in the philosophy of Bible translation that informed such a decision. It was grounded in modern linguistics. I've read guys like Eugene Nida and Jan de Waard, and I've read stuff by Moises Silva, among others, and they all make a reasonable argument for a dynamic equivalence philosophy of translation. I'm not saying that they're dummies: they're certainly not. But because their conclusions followed so naturally and reasonably from their premises, and because "Pig of God" was always a most foul stench in my nostrils, I felt compelled to conclude that the problem isn't with the reasoning; it has to be with the philosophy or theology of language beneath the translation philosophy, and beneath the linguistic theory. Unfortunately I'm not a philosopher or theologian of language (nor a linguist, nor a philosopher nor theologian of any other stripe, for that matter).

So I had a problem: a thing with what I consider to be noxious effects, but which was coherent as far as I could tell, and whose presuppositions I could not get at. I asked my Greek instructor about this matter when I was in graduate school, and he said that to his knowledge no one had done any work on a theology of language. So my problem seemed intractable, my formal education came to a conclusion, and my prospects for resolving the matter were dreadful.

And then along came David Knowles and his book The Evolution of Medieval Thought. Towards the end of the book, he writes of Nominalism:
A given thing, a dog or rose, evokes in the human mind a mental 'sign' ... which is the same in all men, as is a laugh or a cry; each race of men then gives to this sign a verbal sign or term or name in its own language, which we attach to our mental image and which recalls that image to our mind. [p. 322]
Bingo! This is exactly the way, as far as my linguistic "knowledge" goes, that linguists and translators talk about language!

This seems to me and my limited understanding of things to suggest a link between Nominalism and modern linguistics (and consequently with modern theories of Bible translation as well). I don't have any kind of resolution of this problem yet, but at least I have a direction to go when I get round to the thing again.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Liars at the Door

Today we had a pair of LDS missionaries come to the door. They've been here before, but this was the first occasion when I happened to be the one to answer the door.

After the initial pleasantries of establishing where we all stand (introducing themselves as LDS missionaries, and I for my part introducing myself as Catholic) they said that they were interested in [rough paraphrase here] "helping people come closer to Christ." I informed them that I appreciated their sincerity, but that we were not interested in becoming LDS.

And this is the point at which the story gets a little ugly, at least in my opinion. Because they both assured me that they weren't really interested in making converts.

Yes, they said that.

Well, I had to argue with them to get them to admit what they were really doing. They're missionaries. This means that they have a mission (hence the name), and that mission is to make more LDSers. So they had to concede that, yes, that's what they're really doing. So then I told them once again that we're not interested in converting. And off they went.

What the heck is going on with LDS missions if their missionaries are lying to people? Frankly, I find it hard to believe that this was an incidental offhand remark: I'm pretty sure they are sufficiently well-trained in their spiel that this was unlikely to be an innocent gaffe by a newbie. Indeed, given the fact that they never send out two newbies together but rather pair up the greenhorns with veterans (which is a sensible approach), and given that they both initially insisted they weren't trying to make converts, it seems very likely that they were trained this way.

I'm pretty shocked and disgusted by the whole thing. I don't mind them coming to my door as much as I do the fact that they were apparently trained to lie to me.

Beware the LDS missionary. He's represents a "gospel" that is contrary to the Catholic Faith, and he will apparently lie to you in order to get you to join up.

[Update]: I'm pretty bothered by this lying bit, so I did a little Googling. First hit: here. The author, apparently a former LDSer who is now a Protestant, says that he told more lies as an LDS missionary in the 1970s than he can remember. Number one on his list: "We're not trying to convert you." He continues:
I didn't trade the Southern California sunshine for the Dakota snow merely to build interfaith relations. My calling was to teach the church-approved missionary lessons and then baptize the people I taught.
Of course it was. And a little honesty is a lot better way to say hello than lying to my face.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

A few observations about St. Anselm's Ontological Argument

Many, many years ago I read Sproul, Gerstner, & Lindsley's book Classical Apologetics. This fact is etched upon my brain. I no longer have the book, so I may be a bit off on the pagination here, but I spent something like a week or two trying to understand pp. 92-103. The subject was St. Anselm's ontological argument, and I just couldn't get it in the way that it was being presented by the authors. Some important things happened in my educational growth as a result.

Probably the most significant was that I found myself asking the question, "What if the problem isn't with me? What if this is incomprehensible...because it is incomprehensible?" It turns out in retrospect that my objection was really about 700 years old, because St. Thomas had already been there: having an idea of a thing in my mind doesn't imply anything about whether that thing actually exists outside of my mind. Consequently there doesn't seem to be any useful apologetic force to the argument.

(As an aside, I'm still pretty shocked that Sproul seriously thought it could be useful in proving God's existence to the unbeliever. I recall that he denied it was legerdemain or smoke and mirrors, but I couldn't see any way to clear the air and get out of the funhouse.)

I'm not a philosopher by training, but it seems to this armchair analyst (perhaps after having read Knowles) that St. Anselm's argument hinges upon a view of creation with Platonist hues. The whole thing might make more sense if we were to concede the notion of innate ideas: if the ideas in our brains had some original, external existence apart from us, then it might make more sense to talk about a necessary Being who must exist if I can conceive of Him.

Knowles has some useful things to say about the argument in pp. 102-106 of The Evolution of Medieval Thought (heh. It's amusing that he too can't avoid the rhetoric of magic when discussing it: "[M]any will have an uneasy feeling that a logical sleight of hand has been brought off at their expense." p. 103). One particularly interesting thing is that
Anselm himself specifically, and in the same context [of defending the argument], recognized the difference between a mental and a real existence.

Realization of this has led some to maintain that the argument is not a merely logical one - the analysis of a concept - but an epistemological one. It is said that Anselm held so firmly the Platonic realism, according to which the idea is the only reality directly cognisable by the mind, that for him the presence of the idea of God in the mind implied the existence of the subsistent idea of God - that is, of God Himself, since there is no distinction of any kind in God. [p. 104; emphasis added]
Aha! Well, that might explain the whole thing a bit better, even if I don't agree with the saint about Platonic realism. I'd much rather that the nature of the disagreement be one of such substance as this than be forced to wonder whether Anselm was a poor logician.

Knowles proceeds to discuss other possible resolutions to the question, including Gilson's.
Anselm, he points out quite rightly, held that the mind could arrive at truth, which was the adequacy of the mental concept to express the being external to the mind. In other words, the external being is the cause of the concept and its truth, not vice versa. If therefore a being is not only existent, but necessarily so (as is God by definition), and is in fact the only being necessarily existent ('than which no greater can be conceived') then the only true concept of this Being will be one that agrees with its definition, and the mind will recognize the adequacy of the concept and the necessity of the existence of its object as soon as it as been presented to the mind. [p. 105; no reference to where in Gilson's work this hypothesis is presented]
This seems to maybe put a Thomistic-ish spin on things, and I'm not really sure that it is as satisfactory as the prior one I discussed. Certainly I don't think that on Gilson's reckoning Anselm's argument has any useful force with non-Christians. Knowles goes on (ibid) to say that it was not really intended for that purpose, though.

Interestingly, he also says that "Bonaventure and the Augustinians in general accepted it, as strengthened by the doctrine of the divine illumination of the intellect, while Aquinas and the Aristotelians rejected it...Ever since, indeed, it has been a touchstone of Realism, and as such accepted in one form or another by Descartes, Leibniz and Hegel, and rejected by Locke, Kant, and Thomists of every kind" (ibid).

This suggests to me that locating the difficulties about the argument for me in the fact that I'm much more inclined towards Thomism than towards Platonic realism is the Right Thing to Do. It's unlikely that I'll be the one to find out by researching the question, but it would be interesting to know if Sproul is more Platonist than Aristotelian in his epistemology. Given his enthusiasm for Anselm's argument, I suspect that he is.

Friday, April 17, 2009

That's Just What I Was Saying

Having skipped over the Reader's Digest Condensed Encyclicals, I started reading Rasmussen today, and I came across this:
Christ gave the Apostles the guidance of the Holy Spirit to judge matters of faith and morals, not to answer every question that could ever be asked. [p. 41]
Exactly! But that's just what I was saying last August - especially in Part Two (well, it's part of what I was saying).

Not every question merits an answer. Not every question has an answer that can be comprehended by the one asking it, and sometimes no man can grasp the answers. We're limited, while God is infinite. We do not need to have every question answered that comes to mind. This is where humility must come into play. The Church teaches that which we need to know in order to be saved, even if we do not understand all of it.

Another Reading List Update

I finished Pelikan's 3rd volume (which, by the way, is excellent) and was ready to start Fremantle's Papal Encyclicals. I was looking forward to her book because it appeared (mark that word) to offer encyclicals in handy-dandy book form - suitable for reading in the car while waiting for one's wife to exit her favorite store :-) - that are otherwise not easily available.

Imagine my dismay when I started flipping through it, only to discover that Fremantle was apparently trained by the folks at Reader's Digest: the encyclicals were abridged!

Boot to the head.

Why on earth would anyone want an abridged encyclical? Why would anyone want a whole book full of them (300+ pages!)? I don't get it.

So anyway, I've cleared another book from my shelf, and our parish library gets another donation. :-) And I'm getting closer to starting on reading Dante, which is something I've been looking forward to for a while.

Sola Scriptura as a Humanistic Principle

My conversion to the Catholic Church is surely not unusual in that one of the initial goads I suffered was a realization that "sola scriptura" is an invalid principle by which to hope to learn the truth of divine revelation. Aside from the problem of uncertainty, which is an inescapable concomitant of sola scriptura (well, either uncertainty or a terrible dilution of any realistic sense of the unity of the truth), something I think I've come to understand a bit more clearly is that sola scriptura is an intrinsically humanistic principle. Consequently it is fundamentally alien to Christianity. Or so it seems to me.

In saying this I do not mean to suggest that Protestants are non-Christians. Let's get that out of the way now. I do not think that, nor have I ever thought it. But it's one thing to be Christian by virtue of one's Baptism (which is, of course, that which constitutes one as a Christian) and another thing entirely to subscribe to the Faith as it has been passed down through the ages. It's no secret that Protestant belief is marked by errors that have been condemned by the Church, but this does not mean that properly baptized Protestants are not part of the Body of Christ. They certainly are.

Furthermore, it should be said that Protestants believe the Truth about a variety of things. So when I say that sola scriptura is a humanistic principle, this should not be construed to mean that I think Protestants' use of it always and everywhere results in them arriving at false results. Notwithstanding these caveats, it still remains the case that sola scriptura is not a fundamentally Christian principle, as far as I can see.

The reason for this is that sola scriptura necessarily implies that some human being is resorting to the Bible and making judgments about what it teaches: man is making himself the measure of the truth in God's Word; he is deciding for himself what the content of divine revelation is. This is intrinsically humanistic.

It should not be surprising that this is so. Protestantism arose during the Renaissance. How could it be that Protestantism, in rejecting the authority of the Church, was somehow not doing so thanks to the humanistic influences of the age? It's unreasonable to think that Luther & Co. successfully separated themselves from the spirit of the age entirely. Luther was an Ockhamist as even Bainton admitted. And as I observed in that post, it's not credible to suggest that Luther's training did not influence his theology.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

The Importance of Humility

There are many truths that may be discovered by the use of reason alone. There are others that may be known only by faith. When it comes to truths we know by way of reason, it is extremely important that we remember what St. Thomas has said about this - namely, that it is difficult to arrive at truth by way of reason. Given this fact, and given that we are limited both in our gifts and resources, it is wise for us to bear in mind the words of Sirach:
Do not try to understand things that are too difficult for you, or try to discover what is beyond your powers. Concentrate on what has been assigned you, you have no need to worry over mysteries. Do not meddle with matters that are beyond you; what you have been taught already exceeds the scope of the human mind. For many have been misled by their own presumption, and wrong-headed opinions have warped their ideas. [Ecclus. 3:21-26, JB]
St. Thomas, pray for us that we may be humble, understanding our own frailties as we seek to understand what we may, remaining steadfast at all times in the Faith of the Church.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Knowles - Augustine's Epistemology

Warning - I'm by no means equipped to write very much about this subject; this post will be for the most part merely a reference for a few notes about it.

David Knowles devotes a chapter to St. Augustine in his book The Evolution of Medieval Thought (as an aside, there are some preposterous prices for this book on Amazon; I paid seventy-five cents for a copy in average condition, but some folks are apparently asking as much as $240.00 for it! I'm obviously in the wrong business - or maybe those sellers are :-) It's a great book - but there is no way I'd pay $240 for it). He doesn't do this because he considers Augustine a medieval author; rather, he does so because of Augustine's tremendous influence on medieval thought.

Knowles explains that St. Augustine's epistemology is a difficult subject, owing partly to the fact that he knew very little of Plato's writing and none of Aristotle's (p. 40). He seems to have been influenced more by Plotinus: "There is a practical rule which rarely fails the commentator on Augustine's philosophy: it is that when a source for his thought is wanting the Enneads of Plotinus should be searched" (p. 43).

Knowles writes that (although Augustine is not terribly consistent about it) for the most part the saint viewed cognition as driven primarily by divine illumination of the intellect (p. 40f). For Augustine "all perception and knowledge arises within the soul; the soul is not acted upon directly by the external world, nor does it 'abstract' anything from that world in the process of cognition" (ibid).

Knowles remarks that there is sharp disagreement among scholars about St. Augustine's epistemology, and since I can barely wrap my head around it, I'm going to leave it at that for now.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Object Lesson - Do Not Trust The Media

There is a simple rule of thumb when dealing with media reports: do not trust them. Alternatively, we should resort to Reagan's maxim with regard to the Soviet Union: "Trust, but verify."

Unfortunately TF has apparently stumbled on this by taking a media report at face value. He has written a post based upon an article appearing on the "Indian Catholic" website. That article claimed that Pope Benedict had used quotations from Hindu sources in what TF called Benedict's "'Good Friday' meditations."

Trust, but verify: I checked the papal archive at the Vatican website, but could find nothing that sounded even remotely like this. This seemed strange, since documents for Easter (two days later) are already there. So I resorted to the next best thing for this sort of information: Zenit. Ta da!

Here is Zenit's article on the occasion (oh, and here is the official program for it - in Italian [large PDF warning] - which I was finally able to dig up). And as you can see (if you visit the Zenit link), the Indian Catholic article on which TF relied seems to have been confused. First of all, the occasion wasn't "Good Friday Meditations and Prayers." It was the Stations of the Cross, or Via Crucis. Secondly, the article says that the Pope "led" these things, but that's imprecise with respect to the present subject. Yes, he presided, but (as we shall see) that doesn't mean that he was responsible for the content of all that was said.

Thirdly and most importantly, the meditations for the various stations were composed not by the Pope, but rather (as the Zenit article makes clear) by Archbishop Thomas Menamparampil of Guwahati, India. Furthermore, as the program makes clear (even this much is obvious without being able to read Italian), and as is borne out by the Zenit translation, the Pope didn't even read the various meditations during the Stations; rather, they were (presumably) read by the archbishop himself. In any case they could not have been read by the Pope, since the meditation for the First Station includes the following:
Pope Benedict XVI says that even in our times "the Church does not lack martyrs."
Since the Pope isn't exactly notorious for third-person references to himself, we may safely conclude that he did not read the meditations. So we see that the Pope didn't write the meditations in question, and he didn't read them during the Stations.

Of course, this pretty much makes a hash out of TF's remarks, which were based on bad information. It's fair to say, though, that his comments were relatively measured, particularly in comparison to those whose comments he has thus far approved for the post. TF asked:
Will we see clarification from the Vatican? I am guessing not.
Will we see clarification from TF? I am more hopeful about him than - for whatever reason - he seems to be about the Vatican. But time will tell. In any case, the Vatican has nothing to "clarify," as far as I can tell.

No doubt some will still find reason to criticize the Pope over this, despite the fact that he wasn't the author of the material in question. Some people will never be satisfied with what Catholics do or say, just because we are Catholic, and the Pope gets more of that unjust treatment because of his office. So I'm not going to bother trying to defend everything that appears in the meditations and prayers in question. I will, though, point out that the reference to Gandhi was actually highlighting the fact that Gandhi borrowed from Christ (scandal!). TF also seems to have found a particular quotation from a Hindu writing ("Lead me from the unreal to the real, from darkness to light, from death to immortality") to be suspicious, but in the context of the Stations it is clear that it was presented not by way of "plundering or joining" the Philistines (as TF put it), but rather was explicitly described as an ancient Indian prayer, in a portion of a meditation devoted to various human reactions to death and tragedy. That meditation goes on to explicitly declare "that the reality is Christ" (emphasis in original) - a rather unambiguous Christian reply to that ancient prayer.

Lastly, as TF understands, all truth is God's truth. There can be no contradiction between truths, and surely it goes without saying that truth may be found in every culture - whether Christian or not. There may not be much to be found sometimes - so far as we can tell - but it's not possible to survive in this world while at the same time denying literally all truth. And there is nothing wrong with "plundering" that truth, as TF put it, or with commending those who hold it for the fact that they do so.

Ironically (given certain folks' remarks about the story TF posted), the prayer immediately following the reference to Gandhi started with this:
Lord, often we judge others in haste, indifferent to actual realities and insensitive to people's feelings! We develop stratagems of self-justification and explain away the irresponsible manner in which we have dealt with "the other." Forgive us!
Amen. Lord, have mercy. Pray for us, holy Mother of God, that we may be made worthy of the promises of Christ.

Marks of the True Church

A common definition of the "true church" among Protestants is that it may be identified by three "marks": the preaching of the gospel, the right administration of the sacraments, and the proper exercise of church discipline. Aside from their historical novelty (at least in comparison to the four creedal "notes" of the Church - that it is one, holy, catholic, and apostolic), there are problems with at least some of these "marks" that really seem to make them unsuitable as a means for identifying "a true church."

With regard to the first, it depends first of all on a definition of what exactly the gospel is. The Catholic Church proclaims the gospel faithfully, but the average Protestant might not agree that she does. This fact indicates that this first "mark" is toting baggage that isn't declared up front, for it depends upon an idea of the gospel's content.

The obvious question that comes to mind is, "what is the gospel that a 'true church' proclaims, by which it may be identified as 'true'?" And of course a second question is, "Who says that is the definition of 'gospel' that we must use?" Hence we see that this "mark" reduces to subjectivity, and consequently doesn't seem to be terribly helpful.

The second "mark" doesn't fare much better, unfortunately. A lot is left unsaid, and the devil is in the details, so to speak. At least some Protestants might reject the Catholic Church outright on this "mark" for no other reason than that the Church recognizes seven sacraments (whereas most Protestants say there are only two). Even setting that aside, what qualifies as "right administration" of whatever the sacraments are? Does that allow for multiple baptisms? Does it allow for grape juice? Does it involve particular understandings of the meaning of each sacrament, and if so what are those meanings? It's totally inadequate to appeal to the Bible about this, since Protestant opinion varies wildly. Here too then it appears that this "mark" doesn't really help.

The third "mark" is fraught with similar issues. Who decides what merits the exercise of discipline? Are any "lapses" at all of discipline sufficient to tag a denomination as a "false church," or is there a threshold? If there is a threshold, who says what it is? Does this apply only to denominations, or does it also (or instead? Why? Who says?) apply to specific congregations within denominations?

Who has standing to declare a particular congregation or denomination as a "false church?" Is it just anyone? If not, who is it?

Given these problems, it seems pretty clear that these "marks" aren't really helpful for more than a "rule of thumb" evaluation; even if judgment is passed on their basis by some ecclesial body of some sort, one wonders why anyone not somehow subject to that body would pay any attention to its opinion.

It seems to me that the creedal notes of the Church are a much better way of taking the measure of any group that claims to be "the church," and have the authority of an ecumenical council behind them (really, of several councils, since at least the first few of them ratified the decisions of previous ones by affirming all that prior councils had taught). This doesn't mean that there are no difficulties involved in applying even this definition, but it's not so fraught with difficulties as the "marks".

Church Discipline

A certain Protestant takes understandable exception to a failure of discipline in the the Filipino Catholic Church. I am by no means going to defend the situation he describes, which is a notorious one. On the other hand I'm not going to stand by and let his characterization of Protestant church discipline go unremarked, either.
I can guarantee you one thing, my church would show no hesitation in excommunicating such men for rendering false witness of "their" Savior, thus showing they have no Savior at all other than themselves.
Glad to hear it, but let's not pretend that this gentleman's experience in his own congregation is representative of Protestantism generally. It may not even be representative of his own denomination, assuming that he's part of one.

What's to stop Mr. Inveterate Protestant Sinner from picking up his blocks and going to some other Protestant congregation down the road if he's called on his behavior? Hmmm...exactly nothing. And if he moves to a congregation lacking institutional ties to his old one, what force will any excommunication done in the old one have? And I wonder what the odds are that church discipline will be exercised in the first place? And given the propensity of Protestant denominations (or even congregations) to split over various and sundry doctrinal or ethical issues, is it even reasonable to suppose that discipline related to doctrinal disputes would be likely to have much force in most cases among Protestants?

On the other hand, I've been part of a Bible-believing Reformed denomination where (presumably) discipline was taken seriously. Take, for example, the congregation where a single mom was excommunicated...because she didn't homeschool. Yes, I'm serious. No, the congregation didn't offer to subsidize this by making up the income she would have lost by staying home to teach her kids. Did I mention she was a single mom?

Or take the example of another congregation in the same denomination where laymen had to beg the session to exercise discipline in the case of a member who was sinning flagrantly and publicly. If congregants hadn't forced the issue, nothing was likely to have been done at all.

Or take the congregation in the same denomination that excommunicated a group of men for something or other. At least one of the men moved to a different congregation in the same presbytery where his excommunication was ignored (to my knowledge the matter never went up for appeal to the presbytery).

Or we could take the example of the presbytery that included a congregation known for holding views on certain confessional matters that were certainly not heretical by WCF standards but which were (and are) out of the mainstream in that denomination. Upon receiving a request from that congregation's session to receive "weaker brother" treatment with regard to their views during meetings of presbytery, the presbytery responded not by disciplining them, and not by honoring the request, and not by explaining why they didn't feel the request was worthy of either discipline or being honored, but by dumping the request in the ashcan of parliamentary procedure so that a "yes" or "no" would not be necessary. Impressive!

The point here isn't to say that denomination is bad, bad, bad (particularly since I don't think that it is). The point is not that our critic's congregation isn't maybe the Eden of church discipline, either. The point is that discipline problems exist everywhere. They always have, and they always will. It's unfortunate to say the least. But in the real world - where the sinners include not just those that you or I might think are worthy of excommunication, but the men responsible for exercising discipline, too - things are messy. On top of that, we don't always have all the facts when we are criticizing the ones responsible for discipline, and the very exercise of discipline is a prudential one. Yes, it could be done more consistently. No, it will never be perfect, particularly in the eyes of picky laymen like me. Mother of God, pray for us.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Laborem Excercens - Worker Rights and Maximum Profit

John Paul II's encyclical Laborem Exercens is devoted to the subject of human work, particularly with regard to man's work in modern society. In it he has this to say about the relationship of employees and profit:
The attainment of the worker's rights cannot however be doomed to be merely a result of economic systems which on a larger or smaller scale are guided chiefly by the criterion of maximum profit. On the contrary, it is respect for the objective rights of the worker-every kind of worker: manual or intellectual, industrial or agricultural, etc.-that must constitute the adequate and fundamental criterion for shaping the whole economy, both on the level of the individual society and State and within the whole of the world economic policy and of the systems of international relationships that derive from it. [LE 17; emphasis in original]
The reason why this is so is that economies are not ends in themselves; they exist for the good of the people whose commerce drives them. Similarly the goods of creation exist for the good of people, and it is a distortion of the order of things for "maximum profit" to be the principal goal of business.

On a related note, there are many irritating aspects of modern business that are oriented not toward real justice, but toward the satisfaction of procedural justice. The myth in view of those who establish such policies is that if procedures are followed uniformly then justice will be done. This is false to the extent that it has become the sole measure of whether justice is done. Justice cannot be identified with jumping through procedural hoops. Sadly, though, the average HR department seems to have reduced business obligations toward staff down to a matter of filling out the right forms at the right time.

Back in the Saddle

Easter has come and gone; I hope that yours was as good as ours. We were privileged to observe as certain family members joined us on the sunny side of the Tiber. Theirs were somewhat surprising conversions, though in retrospect perhaps they were the least entrenched in the Gallery of Unlikely Prospects that is our family. I say "prospects" as though we have been "prospecting," but that's not the case; we have left alone those kin who have pretty much made it clear that they don't want anything to do with the road to Rome. This "hands off" stand has made these conversions all the more happy for us.

Lent has been a time when I have been successful in doing a fair amount of reading over the last couple of years, and 2009 was no exception. I've got material for at least twenty posts. Yay! Now all I need is the time to write them. Ugh. :-(

I would be remiss if I failed to point out that Mike Burgess has been doing some fine writing in response to sundry posts by TF. I've got no links to TF's stuff, but Mike's work can be found here, here, and here. I commend it to you. There is something badly messed up about a psychology or philosophy that supposes one can read or hear the gospels without forming a mental image of Christ. Mike does the proper skewering.