Thursday, March 15, 2007

On Rallying Cries

Fr. Al Kimel of Pontifications has drawn my attention to a post at a blog called Reformed Catholicism (where, apparently, at least one person thinks that the title of Augustine's Retractationes means "retractions"!) that argues, in effect, that the truth is out there. One may seriously disagree with certain elements of the Reformed tradition, it is suggested, but they are certainly right to criticize the tendency of some Roman Catholic apologists to begin from the assumption that the Roman Catholic Church is "the Church" and only then to investigate the history of the Church in an attempt to fit the facts to the hypothesis: "it’s high time that popular Catholic apologists take the time to offer real arguments for the legitimacy of their understanding of Church history."

Well. I hope Fr. Al wasn't too offended by that, since it makes it rather obvious that the author never reads Pontifications. Be that as it may, I couldn't help noticing that the blog has a little motto in the upper-right corner: "quod semper, quod ubique, et quod ab omnibus." That, in case your Latin is a little rusty, is a misquotation of the so-called "Vincentian Canon", a little nuga posited by St. Vincent of Lérins in his "Commonitorium" (II.3) as a means of distinguishing between true and false Tradition. The actual text is "quod ubique, quod semper, quod ab omnibus creditum est." Perhaps the actual order of the elements doesn't matter too much, since most people who quote it want to use all three elements as part of a single test of "catholicity", that is, a test for what really does count as "the Church". Since St. Vincent was writing in the 5th century the "semper" had a decidedly more limited extension than it does now, but his own view was that Scripture was more important than Tradition, and the Church's authority was invoked only for the purpose of determining what the correct interpretation of Scripture was. No danger of question begging there! He did not rule out the possibility of doctrinal development, as he explicitly states in the "Commonitorium" that the truth of Scripture becomes more fully explicated in the process of history.

Since the "Commonitorium" is the first text to assert this principle it would not be unreasonable to wonder whether the Vincentian Canon itself can pass its own test: was this Canon itself "believed everywhere, always, and by all"? Possibly, though there is no empirical evidence in support of such a claim, nor is the meaning of the principle itself obviously clear. Since St. Vincent himself endorsed the principle of the development of doctrine through historical exegesis, did he himself intend the Canon to exclude exegesis as well as eisegesis, as some would maintain? What sort of test is required to ascertain whether a particular belief really has been held by everyone in all times and places? What level of authority is required to interpret claims to have satisfied the test? The problems go on and on: the Canon creates many more difficulties than it solves, though it does offer some degree of hope to those who find comfort in a priori principles.

In any event, it does make for a rather nice rallying cry. Interestingly it is used as such by Reformed Protestants, Orthodox, and Roman Catholics alike. Nobody seems to dispute the value of the Canon; what is disputed is rather its meaning and application. Sadly, the Canon itself cannot settle such disputes without begging the question, and any other method of settling them would, if the Canon is being defended, need to pass the Canon's test - - which obviously cannot be applied until disputes about its meaning and application are settled.


Grano1 said...

Scott -- there's an interesting discussion of the Vincentian Canon and the Commonitorium in Thomas Oden's book "The Rebirth of Orthodoxy." Oden, a formerly liberal Methodist who 'discovered' the historic Church, sees it as a good guide for Protestants in their examination of the Fathers and historical theology.

Scott Carson said...


Thanks for the reference. I think it's a good guide, too, actually. What worries me about it is that it seems to be structured in a way that is very reminiscent of the Protestant sola Scriptura principle. But I agree that it provides us with a good sufficient condition for assessing whether a particular practice is catholic.

Juan Oliver said...

Thanks, Scott, for this excellent summary. As I look at the current controversy over the orthodoxy of the (Episcopal) bishop-elect of Northern Michigan, Kevin Thew Forrester, your analysis and summary is most helpful.