Thursday, September 27, 2007

John Bekkos

Until today I had never heard of John Bekkos, but I already like what I know about him. I learned what little I do know from Peter Gilbert, who has a blog that appears to have John Bekkos as a central point of discussion. The blog is called De unione ecclesiarum, and you may find a short summary of some of Bekkos's views here.

Bekkos was the Patriarch of Constantinople during the so-called Union of Lyons (1275-1282), and many of the opinions that Gilbert has collected strike me as quite congenial to my own views. I look forward to learning much more about him, and exploring our common heritage.

Budweiser is Better Beer Anyway

The Catholic League is calling for a boycott of Miller Beer, and I fully support them. I'm such a radical--I love boycotts. Off the establishment! I'm sick and tired of being hassled by the man!

In the present case, there are two very good reasons to support the boycott beyond the pure thrill of it. First, Miller Beer has historically bent over backwards to avoid offending certain groups, including Muslims, but they have no problem giving their full advertising endorsement to an event that is blatantly anti-Christian and arguably extremely offensive to most decent folks. There are some really sick dudes involved, but you gotta love that giant ice-phallus.

Second, Miller Beer sucks. Budweiser, the American knock-off of the really wonderful Czech beer Czechvar, is much better if one insists on drinking the swill that is American mass-produced light lager (though you should drink Czechvar if you can get it--it's a real beer). Even Michael Jackson called it a classic. No, not the Michael Jackson who probably wishes he could attend the Folsom Street Fair, the Michael Jackson who was, until he died recently, the eminent beer critic.

More PAPpy Thoughts and Reflections

Both Fr. Al Kimel and Shane of Scholasticus (I'm very sorry to say that I don't know his last name, but what the heck, we're all friends here) have done me the honor of commenting on my PAP post of yesterday. I'm afraid that, at least to the best of my sorry-ass understanding of things, there is no way to link to their particular comments, so I will be referring here to their remarks simply by saying "In Fr. Al's comment" and "In Shane's comment", or else by quoting from them directly here in this post. I apologize to both of them for treating their individual comments together here, but I've been thinking of them in tandem all morning, and it seemed to me that the issues raised in each are related in a sufficiently strong sense as to be answerable under a single heading. And I apologize to my readers, if I actually have any beyond Fr. Al and Shane (if even they are reading) for a post that is really nothing more than an extended comment on the comments on an earlier post.

I will begin by treating them separately, though, starting with Fr. Al (all deference to our clergy, after all--I think I owe him some kind of brown-nosy sort of submissiveness just as a matter of brainless devotion to authority [Shane: that was a joke.]).

Fr. Al's comment really was a longish quotation, with a request for comments, from Cardinal Newman's An Essay in Aid of a Grammar of Assent, a wonderful little book from 1870 that I have blogged on before (here, here, and here) and heartily recommend to all Newman fans and, indeed, to anyone who is interested in the epistemological problems underlying Newman's conception of the development of doctrine.

I certainly agree with what Newman says in the first paragraph quoted in Fr. Al's comment--indeed, it seems to me to be a recapitulation of the point I was making in my post.

In the second paragraph, however, there is a worry. This is, of course, the old problem of the development of doctrine, and I discovered back when we were all discussing this last December and January that not all Catholics really see this precisely the same way. As some of my readers may know, I favor the idea of non-ampliative abduction as a means of developing doctrine, while Dr. Michael Liccione, with whom I discussed this issue in a series of posts here and at his blog Sacramentum Vitae, seems to me to favor ampliative abduction.

However that may be, I think one must be very careful when talking about what people ought to believe or must believe on the basis of what they claim to believe already. A rather prodigious body of scholarship has shown that many fully rational, well-educated people will reject a given assertion, q, even while asserting [(if p then q) and p]. Some of the literature interprets this as evidence that people are not, as a rule, very rational, but I take a different line. In my view, people are generally quite rational in the sense of being able to give reasons for their beliefs, but the reasons they give are not always subject to universal acceptance because they depend upon non-cognitive factors in a given individual's psychology. It is just possible, for example, that my friend the Presbyterian minister really believes that he did not commit adultery.

Granted, if I understand the meaning of the numbers from 0 to 9, the meaning of "+", and the meaning of "=", then there is a sense in which I "ought" to know every possible sum; but of course, that is an infinite number of things and there is no way that I can really actively believe all of them. So I take Newman's point to be that, as doctrine develops, there will be rational accounts of how the developed doctrine is consistent with already existing doctrine. Those accounts will take the form either of deductions or (non-)ampliative abductions. Now, deduction requires intellectual assent from everyone on pain of irrationality, but no inductive inference can make such demands; we may at best say that a strong induction demands intellectual assent from everyone on pain of seeming strange to our fellow rational agents. But some people, notoriously, do not mind being perceived as strange by their fellow rational agents, indeed, there are those who ardently seek such status.

From the point of view of the Protestant, the most problematic teachings of the Church are the abductive developments, and in all honesty I cannot say as how I blame them for being nervous about such inferential models. Surely all Protestants accept the doctrine of the Double Procession, which follows logically from the doctrine of the Trinity (I apologize here in advance to those of my Orthodox brethren who find this idea ludicrous; I will content myself with the reflection that these brethren would at least agree with me as against the Protestants on the point of the authority of the Tradition, just so long as we bracket the means by which we believe that Tradition to develop). The teaching on the Immaculate Conception of Our Lady, however, as deductively obvious as it seems to us, will appear to most of them to be an abduction, and a preternaturally weak one at that.

So the question that Shane would like for us to address is this: why should a reasonable person, who has taken it as his duty to learn about and understand as completely as possible the content of his religion, simply agree to endorse a teaching such as the Immaculate Conception if, in his heart of hearts, he believes it to be false? This is, it seems to me, a perfectly reasonable question, but it depends upon certain ambiguities, ambiguities that I attempted to highlight in my post of yesterday. The first ambiguity has to do with the nature of authority itself. There is a temptation to think that when one is told that a teaching is "authoritative" all that is meant is that we have to believe it whether we want to or not. This is not the correct understanding of the term, however. A teaching can only be authoritative if it is true, and we demand assent to authoritative teachings not because of the office of the person promulgating the teaching but because of the truth of the teaching. In the hands of arguments such as the one Shane presented at Scholasticus, this question of the truth of the doctrine gets turned into a question of trusting a particular doctrine-promulgator, which is a category mistake of the first order. Shane asks not, Why ought I to believe a true teaching--he is quick to point out that he is happy to admit that some folks may know things he doesn't know, and he will take their word in certain circumstances, and he also agrees that of course it is reasonable to accept a teaching that is true. Rather, Shane asks, Why ought I to trust the Pope to be teaching the truth when I, who am also a reasonable person, do not see that what he has to teach really follows from what we already believe?

There are a number of interesting epistemological problems presented by this sort of question. Shane is, essentially, trying to defend a principle of private judgment according to which he is within his rights to determine for himself whether the Pope, or any other instrument of the Ordinary Magisterium, really is teaching what is true rather than what is false. In other words, Shane puts his own private judgment about matters of faith and morals on a par with the collective judgment of the Church as a whole about matters of faith and morals. Possibly Shane does not see it this way; possibly he thinks, No, I'm putting my private judgment on a par with the private judgment of Joseph Ratzinger, the German theologian, or whoever it is that happens to be living in the Papal palace. But that, again, is to mistake the authority of the particular person who happens to hold the office for the authority of the office itself, understood qua instrument of the Ordinary Magisterium. The two things are not identical; indeed, they are not even analogous. So, as interesting as it might be to explore something like this, we may actually put aside for the day the question of how it would be that Shane, or any other person, could go about coming to have knowledge that he knows more about matters of faith and morals than some other person, whether the Pope or anyone else. In his comment, Shane completely ignored my point about the difference between the orthodox faith and the Gnostic heresy, but the capacity to judge the difference between them raises this very interesting epistemological puzzle: how does one know that one knows, and more specifically, how does person A know that he knows more than person B about matters of faith and morals? Shane does not offer any hypotheses about how we are to feel as secure as one would want to feel in such grave matters, but, as I remarked above, this question is irrelevant anyway, since we are not comparing person A with person B here, but person A with institution C.

It may be the case that some Protestants simply misunderstand what the teaching office of the Pope actually is. Some may think that the obligation to submit to his teaching authority is nothing more than an obligation to prefer another individual's private judgment to one's own. I will grant that, if such were really the content of the obligation, it would indeed be unreasonable. But that is not at all the content of the obligation. The passage that Fr. Al quotes from Newman goes on to elaborate what the content of the obligation is:
He who believes that Christ is the Truth, and that the Evangelists are truthful, believes all that He has said through them, though he has only read St. Matthew and has not read St. John. He who believes in the depositum of Revelation, believes in all the doctrines of the depositum; and since he cannot know them all at once, he knows some doctrines, and does not know others; he may know only the Creed, nay, perhaps only the chief portions of the Creed; but, whether he knows little or much, he has the intention of believing all that there is to believe whenever and as soon as it is brought home to him, if he believes in Revelation at all. All that he knows now as revealed, and all that he shall know, and all that there is to know, he embraces it all in his intention by one act of faith; otherwise, it is but an accident that he believes this or that, not because it is a revelation. This virtual, interpretative, or prospective belief is called a believing implicitè; and it follows from this, that, granting that the Canons of Councils and the other ecclesiastical documents and confessions, to which I have referred, are really involved in the depositum or revealed word, every Catholic, in accepting the depositum, does implicitè accept those dogmatic decisions.
Perhaps plenty of Protestants will be happy to accept this much, but some will add, "But I still do not have any reason to trust the Pope, even forgetting about his personal judgments and attributing his sayings rather to the institution of his office. He is still just a man, after all, and he may perhaps misunderstand the teachings that have come down to him. Why is it a matter of virtue for me to abandon my own judgment and trust in his?"

The beginning of the answer to this question is to remind the questioner that if the Pope really is mistaken in his understanding of what has come down to him, then he is not really teaching authoritatively. It is only the correctly understood, true teachings that we have a duty to accept. So then, given that, what do we do if we just don't trust the man? Why should we assume that he is right, when in our heart of hearts we believe differently? I suppose one could appeal to humility here, and ask how it is that one knows for sure that one is right just because one has assumed that one has thought through the problem very carefully. So has the Magisterium, after all, and the Magisterium reflects the thinking and deliberation of generation after generation of Christians of all stripes, lay, ordained, theologians, philosophers, moralists, etc.; and I know from my own sad experience that, at least in the case of my own students, whom I believe myself to have taught very well, folks often assume that they are right when they are, in fact, mistaken. Indeed, it seems to me to be a very common occurrence that the more certain one is that one is correct the greater the probability that one has missed something. But appealing to humility here may seem to the Protestant to be rather ad hoc, and surely the Catholic can come up with something more compelling than mere special pleading.

If the Protestant were to reject what Newman says, I think, he would be in a very dire position--he would really need to come up with an answer to my problem of orthodoxy vs. heresy. But I think Shane accepts what I was suggesting there: indeed, we must trust in the teaching authority of the Church, as reflected in the Apostolic doctrines, whether they be expressed in the texts of the New Testament, the decrees of the Ecumenical Councils, or the consensus fidelium. The harder question is, why should we regard the teaching authority of the Papal office to be a part and parcel of that, which is what the Catholic really demands. The Catholic will often appeal here to the fact that, it is part of the deposit of faith in the Ordinary Magisterium that the Papal office fills that role. Historically this was always widely believed, but of course history also works against the Catholic here, because American Protestants in particular are, well, Americans, and they tend to be individualists who were raised in a culture that does not look kindly on "parking one's brains at the door" and letting the Pope think for you. It is curious, of course, that the American Protestant is willing to let the Church think for him, and dictate to him that he absolutely must believe, for example, "in one holy, catholic, and apostolic church" or that "there is one Baptism for the forgiveness of sins", etc. The Church may dictate, but the Pope may not. I suspect that the reason for this apprehension about the Pope has to do with the fact that, by the very nature of the office itself, it is a single individual who is promulgating the teaching, and Americans, as a rule, think that every opinion is sacred, and who is this particular person to be dictating to me? It seems to escape their notice that the Councils of Nicea and Constantinople consisted of individual men who wrote down credal formulae that they then dictated to the rest of us. If you believe the Creed, you have to ask yourself, "on what authority do I accept the Creed as true?" Is it really because you have examined for yourself all the points contained in it and have verified, by means of your own rational faculty, the truth of all that it says? If so I can only say, I admire your balls! Surely we accept the Creed because of its antiquity and the sheer authority of the men who formulated it. They were in a position to tell us what to believe, and that position was theirs due to the teaching charism of the Church.

So the principle difference between accepting teachings from the Creed and teachings from the Papal office appears to be reducible to accepting teachings from a corporate body of men as opposed to accepting the teachings of a single man. And yet, if properly understood, the Papal office is not a single man, it is itself a corporate institution that is peopled by many men, albeit it is so populated diachronically rather than synchronically. To assert, without argument, that synchronically constituted institutions are to be preferred to diachronically constituted institutions, however, is to beg the question against the Catholic.

Now here we must address a rather peculiar problem that is specific to Shane's comment on my post of yesterday. Because it turns out that he doesn't, in fact, accept the teaching authority of the Councils uncritically:
My position is that accepting X as true, just because the magisterium teaches it and claims to have an infallible teaching authority, is an act of blind faith. As such, the point of my argument is that blind faith embodies submission to authority in a vicious way. So yes, my argument does boil down to: ‘blind faith’ is bad, but with several (I thought fairly clear) distinctions drawn to avoid committing the protestant to the fallacious view you take to be my conclusion that any and all submission as such is bad.
I will begin by agreeing wholeheartedly that "blind faith is bad", and I will re-assert the fact that no reputable Roman Catholic theologian says otherwise. The point here appears to be that even the Magisterium is not above being judged by the private cognitive faculties of the individual Christian, and that means that every Credal statement, every doctrine of the consensus fidelium, is open to the scrutiny of each and every generation of Christians who, on the authority of nothing more than their own private judgment, may accept or reject these teachings at will. I will just pause to say that I don't believe that very many Protestant theologians will endorse such a radical view, but that may not be relevant to everyone. After all, if you're all for private judgment, then why not go all the way?

One reason for not going all the way, of course, is obvious: someone may determine that, according to their own principled reasoning, God is not Three Persons but Two. There would be no way to "refute" such a person, since according to the private judgment argument the only criterion of correctness is consistency with one's own private judgment. Just so long as one's private judgment follows the constraints of logic, then it cannot be "refuted" in any meaningful sense, since the constraints of logic do not constrain one's starting points. In other words, we are back to the problem of orthodox vs. Gnostic heresy. According to this sort of private judgment argument, there is no such thing as heresy; or else everything that one does not think for oneself just is heresy.

This is a puzzle that Wittgenstein made much of in his Philosophical Investigations. There, he argues that there can be no such thing as a "private language", that is, a language in which the system of signs and references and predicates is entirely private. The reason is that language is essentially a public phenomenon: when someone misuses a word, he is corrected by the other members of the language using community. If I call an apple an orange, someone points out my mistake, and tries to get me to refer to apples as apples. If I persist in my error I will never be understood by my fellows. How will they know that I want to eat an apple if the only thing I ever ask for is oranges? Similar, imagine a language that is entirely internal to my own mental life. For example, my internal belief that "This headache I am having today is worse than the one I had last week." The semantic content here is expressed in English, of course, but the references are entirely private: this headache I am having today, the one I had last week. Only I know what those are like because only I experienced them. But how do even I know that the headache I am having today is worse than the one I had last week? In the case of a private language, there is no one to correct mistaken uses of the language. I rely on my memory to judge the difference between the two pains, but how do I know that my memory is serving me correctly? Who will correct me if I am mistaken? If Wittgenstein's intuition here is correct, it is not possible to have a meaningful private language of this kind.

In the case of private judgment the difficulty is very similar, though not identical. The difficulty is simply that, when the criterion of correctness is private judgment itself, there is no mechanism for correction when private judgment is mistaken. (Indeed, private judgment cannot possibly be mistaken!) This difficulty is, in my view, fatal to the whole project.

Is the alternative really nothing more than "blind faith in the Magisterium"? No, not if "Magisterium" is understood properly. When understood properly, faith in it is never blind. In particular, the Catholic assumes a large community of believers who all share a final end, and the pursuit of that end is moved forward by the commonly shared revelation and the commonly shared rational faculty that is distributed among individuals. The individual instantiation of the rational faculty is indeed under private control, but the control we apply to it is governed by the criterion of judgment that comes from the community, a standard that is outside of each one of us as individuals and yet constituted by contributions from certain individuals. The rational faculty guides us individually, but the community corrects us when we err.

I can see no reasonable way around this, or I myself would be a Protestant. I happily await an illustration of how this view fails; in particular, I would love to hear a story about how one could possibly choose between orthodoxy and the Gnostic heresy on the private judgment account. I fear that my desire for that story will be on a par with my desire to beat Tiger Woods at golf.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007


Fr. Al Kimel and Dr. Michael Liccione have already left comments on Shane's recent post about submission to authority at Scholasticus, but I thought it would be useful, at least for me, to work through the argument there to see what's what. We are told at the outset that
The question I’m asking is whether submission to authority as such is a virtue. I’m raising this question to investigate a common claim from catholic apologists that a catholic espouses a virtue of submission by not questioning the authority of the pope while the protestant is guilty of a vice of hubris, or somesuch, for failing to do the same.
Already there is a rather unfortuante ambiguity, because surely every Christian, of whatever stripe, will acknowledge that "submission to authority as such is a virtue", since it is of the essence of Christianity to submit ourselves to the authority of Our Lord Jesus Christ, and if there were anything wrong with submitting to authority "as such" it would be wrong to submit even to the authority of Our Lord. So it is not "as such" that he wants to examine submission to authority, but rather, as his own title makes rather explicit (though strangely set off in parentheses), submission to human authority, specifically papal authority. That much is clear from the second half of the quotation, where he mentions "catholic apologists" who claim that "a catholic espouses a virtue of submission by not questioning the authority of the pope."

This latter claim is probably more to the point, but it is also hopelessly vague, because we are not told who these "catholic apologists" are, or by what criteria we are to recognize them as faithfully representing the catholic position in this matter, nor are we told what is meant by the claim that "a catholic espouses a virtue of submission by not questioning the authority of the pope". This is unfortunate because if it is read in one way it is manifestly false (it is not the case that a Catholic could never question the authoritativeness of any papal teaching whatsoever; in particular, it is a recognized fact that Popes do sometimes fall into error and attempt to teach heresy, in which case it is the duty of the Catholic faithful not to assent to said teachings), if read in another way it is trivially true (if a teaching is authoritative in and of itself, regardless of its source it would be heresy to reject it).

But let us assume, in spite of these initial difficulties, that what is being questioned here is whether there is something like a moral duty to defer to the Pope's judgment in matters of faith and morals. Even put this way the question is rather simplistic, but I think it is fair to say that, as simplistic as this particular statement of the problem is, it is a problematic point nonetheless, at least in so far as it often serves as a sticking point between Protestants and Catholics (and indeed, between Catholics and some Orthodox; but the issue there is really quite different because, as we will see, the position being defended at Scholasticus seems to be that mere human teachings can never be fully "authoritative", which is not a view that would be congenial to any Orthodox Christian). Before delving any farther into essay, however, I should point out that the author appears to be defending a position that is roughly equivalent to, though not identical with, a sola Scriptura principle; the difference lies in what the author appears to think a viable recourse to private judgment in adjudicating possibly incompatible interpretations of the Scriptures. For an illustration of why sola Scriptura is an incoherent doctrine, see my post here. Since the argument in the present essay appears to depend on some unique and rather interesting arkhai, I am going to treat it as though it were a separate and stand-alone sort of argument.

The author begins with what he characterizes as "an incredibly brief moral psychology":
Human beings pass through various stages of dependency in life. As children we need our parents’ guidance and we need our teachers to tell us things whose ignorance would endanger us: don’t touch the fire, you have to go to eat vegetables to be healthy, and so forth. As we grow, however, we come to depend on our parents and teachers less and less. Some children can cling too long to childhood and want their parents to continue to do things for them which are no longer appropriate. Likewise parents can cling to their children and refuse to acknowledge that the child has grown independent. Young children are easily lied to because they depend so strongly upon their parents that they are used to simply doing as they are told. Along with the independence of maturity, however, it is necessary for a young adult to develop a critical attitude towards the commands and wishes of other people in order to avoid being bilked. We call the lack of this critical faculty naïvité. The naive person is obviously liable to many harms from strangers but she is also equally likely to suffer from her inability to distance herself from the prejudices and failings of her own upbringing. Naïvité in the adult then is a vice because it prevents its possessor from living well.
I would say that, in addition to being "incredibly brief" this "moral psychology" is also incredibly naive, indeed, it is really more of a "folk moral psychology" than a genuine moral psychology, but perhaps most accounts of moral psychology have their folk element. What is more important from the perspective of the argument at hand is that this passage really tips the author's hand and reveals what, in the end, will be the greatest weakness of the overall position he is trying to stake out. Judging from the rest of the post, there is a principle being built up here that I will call the Principle of Adolescent Posturing. According to PAP, it is appropriate for children to be under the authority of their parents because, well, their parents know better than they do what is best for them. So far, so Aristotelian. But as children grow in maturity and rationality, they become capable of reasoning for themselves, and it would be unseemly for them to depend too much on others for making prudential judgments, since adults who defer to the judgment of others are, in a sense, failing to take responsibility for things that they ought to take responsibility for:
To submit to someone else’s authority might have several meanings. [A] In the first place, I might have my own opinion about some matter, but trust that my interlocutor knows better than I and therefore I defer to her judgment. [B] Or it might mean that I have no interest whatsoever in the issue at question and I am willing to let another person’s statements stand because I’m not interested in pursuing the topic any further. [C] Or, in the third place, it might mean that I still maintain my previous opinion but I would be bringing trouble on my own head by publicly airing that opinion for some political reason.
The position marked here as [A] is described as the reason why a child might defer to an authority, but it cannot be the reason why an adult does so:
an adult must be able to make his own decision about, for instance whom to marry, what profession to pursue and so forth. He might solicit his parent’s advice about these questions and place a degree of faith in their judgments. But here the relationship has changed because he is in a position to critically reflect on the reasons his parents adduce for their judgments and he may find them insufficient. For instance, a man who breaks off an engagement with his fiancée because his mother told him so for no other reason than that she was his mother and she told him so is not a virtuous person. He is emotionally retarded by his excessive dependence on his mother. In this case it is clear that his submission to his mother’s authority is vicious rather than virtuous.
Real men, apparently, are not going to submit to the authority of others because, dammit, real men know as much about everything as anybody else.

Herein lies the problem. I will pass over the manifestly poor analogy (comparing the decision whether to accept a particular teaching of the Magisterium to the question whether one ought to marry a particular person or make some other purely prudential judgment) and focus on the overall thrust of the passage. On the one hand, the question at issue is whether it is virtuous to submit to the authority of another human being, in this case, the Pope. On the other hand, we are told that, as a matter of principle, one ought not to submit to the authority of another human being because, quite frankly, when it comes to matters of faith and morals, one man's rational faculty is as good as another's, and to let the Pope decide for you what to believe is to abrogate one's responsibility in making such momentous decisions. It is difficult to envision a more clear-cut case of begging the question than this. The author entirely neglects the question of expertise, even though in his own examples it is the question of knowledge and expertise that determines whether or not it is virtuous to follow the (authoritative) advice of another. In the case of children, it is quite clear that parents have greater wisdom and expertise, and they are to be obeyed. It is nevertheless quite obvious that parents sometimes make mistakes, and give their children bad advice. The fact that such things happen does not, in and of itself, vitiate the general principle that it is usually a good idea for children to do what their parents tell them to do. In the case of medical expertise, we find a similar situation. Someone with absolutely no medical knowledge or training who is told by someone who is a genuine expert in medicine that he needs to take a certain medicine, have a certain operation, follow a certain regimen, etc., ought to heed that advice. And he ought to heed it whether or not he agrees with it, because in many instances the doctor simply knows better than he does what is good for him. This is not to say that doctors never make mistakes or that they never give bad advice, but if we are trying to decide what is virtuous and what vicious on a virtue-ethics account of moral psychology, then it is quite obvious that the person who, as a matter of habit, never does what his doctor tells him unless he himself thinks that it's the right thing to do, is not regarded as virtuous but as stubborn and, in some cases, downright stupid. The person, by contrast, who regularly follows his doctor's advice, even when he doesn't fully understand the reasons behind that advice, is regarded as prudent at the very least, and at worst not to be blamed if something goes wrong.

In the case of faith and morals, then, if we are to continue with the virtue-ethics based account that the author has himself adopted here, it seems clear that it is mere question begging to assert, without any argument whatsoever, that there can be no such thing as an expert in matters of faith and morals. And yet this is precisely what our author would have us believe:
a new student must rely heavily on the research of others and his ability to do so is counted a virtue, but the mature scholar who does so is thought to be slavish. To avoid belaboring the point, I think it suffices to say that the notions of what counts as maturity are contextual, but they all involve the development of some power or ability.
In short, our author simply denies the possibility that a mature, grown up person could possibly be in need of the help of an authoritative expert when it comes to matters of faith and morals. Every individual person, on this account, just is an expert in matters of faith and morals, at least when it comes to what each individual person ought to believe in these matters. This is a straightforward rejection of the Catholic position for no better reason than that it contradicts the non-Catholic position. This is petitio principii at its finest.

One seeks in vain throughout the essay for a more sound, principled reason to reject the Catholic position, but sadly none is forthcoming. While stated in slightly more polite terms, this argument is nothing other than the old "check your brains at the door" canard that is the favorite of anti-Catholic bigots. It is nothing short of a fallacious ad hominem: these Catholics, the argument seems to say, are just not thinking for themselves, and to the extent that they are refusing to do what the rest of us grownups have to do every day, they are acting viciously, not virtuously.

Now, it would be another matter if the author had provided reasons for thinking that the Pope simply is not an expert of the requisite kind. If it could be shown that the papal office simply does not have anything like an authority analogous to the authority of a medical school, then we would have reasons for not submitting to the authority of the Pope, but we would not yet have any reason to reject the notion of submission to authority tout court. The great irony here is the emphasis placed by our author on the need for growing in maturity:
I think that God wants (and perhaps even expects) us to grow in knowledge and love of him. In other words, each and every Christian is supposed to be growing towards a maturity in the faith that would allow him to make practical judgments about church teaching.
I tagged this argument the Principle of Adolescent Posturing because it is the mark of the adolescent to fail to understand the existence of rational authorities beyond his own ken. I have a 13 year old son, so believe me when I say that the rejection of perfectly sound reasoning simply for the sake of "being a man" about something really is the hallmark of the adolescent who is posturing. And yes, among the things my son often says to me is that I don't, in fact, know any more about anything than he does, and that he can figure things out for himself just fine, thank you. Sound familiar?

Before I start posturing myself and wind up engaging in my own brand of ad hominem, what principled reasons does the Catholic have for asserting that there is such a thing as authoritative teaching when it comes to matters of faith and morals, and that this authority is embodied in the Ordinary Magisterium? This is a very interesting and important question; indeed, the answer one gives to it will often mark the difference between the Catholic and the non-Catholic. It was, in fact, a question that I pondered often myself when I was still an Anglican: it is fair to say that it was thinking about this very question that led to my conversion. At that time I was finishing up my PhD in classics, so the nature of the early Christian community and its texts and teachings formed a part of my every day studies. It seemed quite clear to me that one did not become a Christian without the aid of authoritative experts. The neophyte was not told to simply go off into the desert and contemplate the question "What do I think Jesus was like?" but rather was educated in the faith by people who, presumably, knew the faith better than the neophyte. In the very earliest stages, these experts would have been the Apostles themselves, and it is difficult to imagine not taking any of them at their word, not trusting in their authority, even if one had been a follower of Jesus oneself. Indeed, we are aware of competing groups in the earliest Christian communities, and it seems to be the case that the communities that formed around the Apostles were the ones that survived to produce the texts that we now have in the New Testament. Other communities continued to thrive, and they produced texts of their own, such as the Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Peter, and the like. Why do we (orthodox) Christians accept the authority of the canonical texts, but we do not accept the authority of the Gnostic and other heretical texts? Principally it is because the canonical texts were the ones that were accepted by the communities that produced them, and we ally ourselves with those communities in accepting their texts. But those texts are the byproduct of the teachings of those communities, and in accepting those texts rather than the Gnostic texts we are accepting the teaching authority of those communities over the alleged authority of the Gnostic communities.

There are some who claim that the canonical texts are the only "inspired" texts, and we accept them not because they are the product of a particular community but because they are inspired. But of course the texts themselves do not make any claims to being inspired that cannot be found in the Gnostic texts as well, so to believe the one claim of inspiration rather than the other is rationally unwarranted without the added witness of a particular community that one endorses as having the special charism of handing on the orthodox faith to future generations.

What is the nature of that witness, exactly? After all, the Gnostic communities had preaches and teachers, and they were attempting to hand on a version of the faith as well. Is it, as our author would have us believe, nothing more than a matter of individual judgment, made separately and uniquely each and every generation, to decide which set of texts to accept, which teachings to adopt, which beliefs to hold de fide? Am I to believe that our author has himself examined each and every one of the surviving Gnostic texts, and has decided literally on his own authority, and for no other reason, that it is the canonical texts of the New Testament that are authoritative? If so, how on earth did he come to know that? Frankly, I'm not at all sure that he has in fact conducted such an investigation, but even if he has I see no compelling reason for him to choose orthodoxy rather than heresy on the basis of these texts alone. Some folks may say things like "Oh, the canonical texts present a much more plausible picture of Jesus than the Gnostic texts," but that really is a desperate little argument, grasping at the frailest of straws. There's nothing in the canonical gospels that is intrinsically more plausible than anything in the Gospel of Thomas, for example. People accept the canonical texts, whether they like to admit it or not, for no other reason than that these are the texts that the Church has preserved for us. In short, the texts are accepted on the basis of the Church's authority to determine the content of our faith.

Ah, but "we are the Church". Sure we are, but we are not a bootstrapping Church, we are a Church that is built upon the foundations of earlier generations, and we accept, by faith, the teachings of the earlier generations, whether in the form of Conciliar pronouncements, papal teachings, or synods of bishops. Show me a Protestant who accepts the doctrine of the Trinity, and I will show you a Protestant who is accepting the authority of mere men to tell him what to think. Show me a person who rejects the doctrine of the Trinity because it's not in the Bible and he cannot make sense of it and will not having anybody telling him what to believe, and I will show you a person who has left the fold of Christianity entirely.

Some claim that certain non-obvious teachings, such as the doctrine of the Trinity, really are in the gospels, just not directly--but anybody with a mind of their own can find them for themselves, no need for the Church to dictate them to us. This is mere wishful thinking, of course, but even if it were true, it raises the difficult problem of relativism. Anything that is not directly stated is going to be something in need of interpretation, and while some folks may think they've found the doctrine of the Trinity in the New Testament somewhere by indirect evidence, we know from sad experience that whole communities have grown up around folks who decided that, as a matter of fact, that doctrine is not in the New Testament either directly or indirectly, and these communities think that they are right and that everybody else is wrong. Surely even our author would agree that both sides on this particular issue (the truth of the doctrine of the Trinity) cannot be right, but if it is true that they cannot both be right it is equally true that if we are to accept as authoritative only our own private judgments about the faith then there will be know way to adjudicate the question of what to believe. It will not do to say "Well, the doctrine of the Trinity is true for me, but not true for them," because that makes evangelization impossible. What are the neophytes to be taught? We can't just send them off with a Bible and say "Decide for yourselves," since that is like sending a first year medical student out into the hospital with a medical textbook and telling him to "heal those people yourself". They need guidance, and they need it from those of us who are already well established in the community that we are trying to bring them into. But if we are arguing amongst ourselves about what it means to belong to the community, who are we going to put in charge of telling the neophyte what it means to belong? We need to decide what the teachings are before we can teach them to anyone else.

All of this may be persuasive to some, but it obviously is not persuasive to everybody. Still, it is a view of what it is for the Church to be the thing that it is--the Body of Our Lord--that is widely shared in Christendom. Much more widely shared, in fact, than the alternative view. Still, we have a slightly different question at hand here, one about which there is much less of a consensus: What about the Pope? It is one thing to argue that a community of humans--the Church--has some authority over us and we ought to obey that authority as a matter of virtue, but it is quite another to say that we ought to defer to the authority of a particular person within that community, namely the Pope. But it is precisely here that things begin to be much less interesting, because if the argument is over whether one ought to obey the Pope then the fallacy changes from being one of begging the question to being one of ignoratio elenchi. As it happens, the way this particular position is being staked out depends upon a rather serious misunderstanding of the nature of the Pope's authority and of the Catholics' moral duty to defer to that authority. It is not qua particular human being that the Christian owes intellectual assent to papal teachings, but qua authentic Magisterial teaching. In fact, plenty of Popes have taught things that were not authentic Magisterial teachings, and nobody ever had any duty to submit themselves to such teachings. When a Pope teaches heresy, he ceases to be Pope, and there is certainly no virtue involved in submitting oneself to the teachings of a heretic who is not the Pope but who claims to be.

To "be Pope" is a predicate that involves a deeper ontology than merely sitting in a particular chair at St. Peter's in Rome. Perhaps it is a feature of Americanized Protestantism that a lot of American Protestants seem to think that "to be Pope" is like--or ought to be like--being the President--it's a role you're elected into and then you pass laws and write position papers and everybody is supposed to stand up when you enter the room but it's really all just for show and he ought to be more like the British monarch, a kind of figurehead that we show respect to but we don't really need to pay any real attention to. But that isn't what it is "to be Pope". That's what it is to be the Archbishop of Canterbury, maybe, or the Presiding Bishop of the ECUSA, but not the Pope. To be the Pope is to fill a certain role in a larger ontology that is a part of the overall economy of salvation, and you can't just teach any old thing from that position. You can only teach what is as a matter of fact, not as a matter of private judgment, authoritatively true. As soon as your teachings begin to reflect nothing more than your own private judgment, they begin to be less authoritative. Now, of course, a particular Pope may have private judgments that are perfectly consistent with what is authoritatively true, but they are not authoritative in and of themselves simply by virtue of being his private judgments. If it can be shown that his private judgments do not follow, in a certain way, from what is authoritatively true, then the necessity to be obedient to them is much less.

A good example here is the Papal teaching on the death penalty. The Church does not say that capital punishment is per se wrong, but beginning with John Paul II the popes have argued that it is never necessary, and that it ought to be avoided. That "ought to" represents a private judgment that there are "better" ways to punish capital criminals than by killing them. That may, as a matter of fact, be true, and I believe that it is true, but others disagree with me, and they are not acting viciously simply by virtue of the fact that they are disagreeing with two Popes as well as with an armchair pontiff like me. This is an empirical matter in which the Pope may have more knowledge than I do, but he may not. His charism extends to the protection of the deposit of faith, not to prudential judgments about what sorts of punishments have the net best effect on the overall security of the common good. More to the point, if a Pope were to teach that the death penalty is per se wrong, he would be mistaken, and I would have no duty to accept his statement.

So the Catholic is not to grant intellectual assent to the Pope's teachings on the grounds that they are the private judgments of a person who just happens to be the Pope and we have a slavish desire to do whatever that person says we should do, no matter what he says. The duty is to the office, not the person, so the duty can never be to any particular instantiation of private judgment but must always be to what is universal, namely, the Ordinary Magisterium itself. And if there is a Church at all in the sense that was argued for above, there is an Ordinary Magisterium, and if there is an Ordinary Magisterium at all, there is a duty to defer to it, and the Pope qua Pope is not an individual but an instrument of that Ordinary Magisterium. hence we have a duty to submit to his authority whenever he speaks authoritatively. Indeed, Catholics disagree amongst themselves all the time about which Papal pronouncements have what degree of authority. If the Pope's authority were absolute, such disputes would be moot.

The Principle of Adolescent Posturing balks at this line of reasoning, and says that it is fine to do what the Pope says if your own judgment says the same thing, but if your conscience tells you to do something else, you will be acting viciously if you obey the Pope and violate your own conscience. The fallacy here is an equivocation on the term "conscience", because properly speaking every Christian, even those who most strongly disagree with me on the whole Papal thing, would agree that it is never right, for example, to kill violently and with great pain and suffering an innocent human child who presents no threat to anyone else and who is, in fact, just minding his own business and being virtuous in his own right. But if I happen to believe that my "conscience" is not only giving me permission to do just that but, indeed, is requiring me to do that because I am psychotic and believe the person is "out to get me", clearly I am not within my rights to do what my "conscience" is dictating. Everyone will agree that the conscience that is to be obeyed is the properly formed conscience that is not acting irrationally. Well, just what is that, if it is not a conscience that has been properly brought into the Christian community by the process that I discussed earlier for the neophyte? If my conscience is telling me that it is OK for me to fornicate with my neighbor's wife because "we really love each other, and he's a jerk", then my conscience is, in a word, "mistaken". And before you start accusing me of dredging up straw men, let me just tell you that I had a friend who was an ordained, married, Presbyterian minister, who told me with a straight face that he and another woman were having a relationship but that it was not adultery because they had not had vaginal intercourse. They had done just about everything else you can imagine, but they had not done that, and he regarded the definition of "adultery" as "vaginal intercourse", therefore he had not done it and therefore he had not sinned. What about the betrayal, I asked. That was when I heard the bit about "we really love each other" and "my wife is..." well, you can just imagine. I think he was well intentioned, I really do, and I really think he believed every word he said, but I do not believe his conscience was well formed.

On this view, the conscience that tells you to disobey the Pope when he is speaking authoritatively is not to be trusted, and you are not violating any principle by refusing to submit to the authority of your own conscience when your own conscience is not properly formed. Indeed, the view that one's own conscience is always right strikes me as nothing more than another manifestation of the PAP.

This is much longer than either I intended or, perhaps, than was strictly necessary, but I think it is important to see that the argument on offer is both ideologically motivated and flawed by several fallacies. It may be possible to make an argument against submitting the authority of the Pope, but the present argument is not that argument.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Hurry, Father, For I Have Sinned

Carl Olson of Ignatius Press's Insight Scoop blog has a post up on that Wall Street Journal article by Alexandra Alter that I blogged on the other day. In a comment there, blogger Ed Peters (of fame) makes the following point:
Are parish priests up to the resurgence in confession? Some signs say no, in particular, the apparent inability of some priests to distinguish between the dynamics of sacramental confession and those of personal counseling. On a monthly basis, the former should take about five minutes, while the latter can easily run 20 or 30 minutes. Parish priests who, on a regular basis, are only getting to four or five people in an hour on Saturday afternoons (leaving a line of another dozen would-be penitents) need this explained.
This is, I think, partly true, but only partly. On the one hand, my own experience verifies the worry that the line between confession and counseling is growing ever blurrier in the American confessional, and it's blurring on both sides of the line. It's blurring on the penitent's side because it can be tempting, I think, to give some "background information" when confessing, and indeed there are certain occasions where it is necessary to do so if your confession is to be valid. (To confess to a "sin against chastity", for example, will almost invariably elicit a clarificatory question from your confessor, since that is a rather broad and amorphous category.) It's blurring on the confessor's side because, the more detail one gets from one's penitent, the more one has to work with in giving "comfortable words" of "spiritual advice".

Ed Peters suggests that this blurring is not ideal, and he may be right about that, but on the other hand, the "five minute" confessions that he mentions seem to me to leave a lot to be desired. When I have lived in larger, urban areas, I have had to wait in lines at confession, and I have sometimes been amazed at how quickly they moved along. In one parish I attended in New Jersey the line often stretched all the way through the (very large) church and out the front door, but one found oneself at the confessional in about 20 minutes. Now, that church was rather cavernous, and sounds traveled easily, and as one got closer to the confessional one could actually hear the penitents whispering at the grate. One tries not to listen, of course, but the closer you get the harder that is. (It is a curious feature of human cognition that, whenever you hear words in your native language, it is impossible to not understand them. Try it sometime. You can try to shut out the sound, but once the sound enters your ear, you understand it.) All of which is just to say, look, it's not like I was eavesdropping or anything--mê genoito!--but I couldn't help but notice that some people just knelt at the screen, said the confiteor, got absolution, and were out the door before you could say "and to my paper-shredder."

This scenario, in addition to presenting a rather good case for closed-door confessionals, illustrates the limitations of seeing confession, as some people appear to see receiving Holy Communion, as a mere rote activity that should be blazed through quam celerrime. I remember having a similar feeling about a Mass I used to attend that was said in accordance with the rubrics of 1963. Being the fan of Latin that I am, I tried following along in my missal and I noticed two things: first, whenever the priest was saying words loudly enough for the congregation to hear them, he was saying them so badly that he could not possibly be understood by anyone in the congregation, even those who were fluent in Latin. Indeed, I thought it quite possible that God himself had no idea what the poor fellow was trying to say. Second, it was manifest that during those parts when the priest is to pray the canon silently, he was not actually "praying" it at all, even in his own mind, because he was done too quickly. Maybe he thought he could substitute the words "et cetera" for the things he was to pray silently, and it would count as a semantic equivalent.

I think that, in general, when one tries to hurry things in this way one is at the greatest danger of falling into a rote activity that is bordering on the meaningless. Now, rote prayer need not be meaningless: when one prays the rosary, for example, it is not necessary to dwell lovingly on every clause of every prayer, for these prayers are particularly intended to be said by rote, so that the mind may contemplate the mysteries. But that sort of meditative recitation of rote prayer is quite different from what one is about at the confessional. When one is confessing one's sins, one ought to be quite careful to express, in words, precisely how one has turned away from God, and it does not seem to me to be possible to do that by mere rote recitation of either the confiteor or, indeed, a laundry list of generic sins. One needs to call to mind precisely how one has gone astray, making it explicit to one's confessor and thereby to God. In a sense this should be obvious: since God is omniscient, he already knows exactly how you have gone astray before you even think about going to confession; making it explicit is a Sacramental act, it is an act whereby we make manifest, in outward form, what is taking place inwardly. It is a sign, in other words, and signs that are not intentional do not signify (for example, if an ant crawling in the sand were to trace out a line that resembled Winston Churchill, we would not say that the ant had "drawn a picture" of Winston Churchill precisely because the ant is not capable of intending such a thing). So the words in the confession must not be rote or they will be meaningless (in that sort of a context).

It seems to me that a middle road is available here. A quick confession that contains enough background information to (a) disambiguate our sins and (b) explain to our confessor the nature of our remorse so that he may assess its relevance and adequacy. This sort of confession, it seems to me, will take longer than five minutes, even if done once a week. But it will require far better catechesis than folks seem to get out of their ordinary religious education.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Circular Theologies

An argument Philip Kitcher makes in his new book strikes me as a strange combination of excess ambition and superlative naivety. He says, in effect, that science poses an insurmountable problem for Christianity in particular because of the doctrine of Atonement. Putting aside the difficulties posed by the so-called problem of evil, which is an issue falling under the rubric of theodicy, he asserts that the very role of evil in the Christian story of redemption is made wildly implausible by a science that posits an age of over 13 billion years for the universe. What role could evil and suffering have played in a universe where there was no life to suffer or to be at the receiving end of evil?

The argument is overly ambitious because, like most of the arguments one finds among the folk atheists hawking their wares these days it is put forward as an argument that will do such great damage to the cause of religion that the poor, benighted faithful will having nothing intelligent or persuasive to say against it, and certainly nothing that will have any effect on the scientifically minded. But it is remarkably naive for the very same reason. In fact, to think that this argument is any good at all, one must antecedently adopt a theological point of view, that is, one must have some sort of a view about what evil is, what its roll is supposed to be in the economy of salvation, and what Christians think is the role of God and Man in the whole picture. If one should take the further step of endorsing this argument, that is, if one should find this sort of argument persuasive, it can only be because one has adopted a theological perspective in which the objections make sense. And yet, most sophisticated Christian theologians would not find this argument the least bit troublesome, because they would not endorse any of the views required in order for this argument to go through. Granted, there are probably plenty of folk Christians out there who may find themselves wondering what sort of an answer, if any, could be given to this sort of argument, short of denying the validity of the scientific Weltanschauung to begin with. (It's really irritating to me just how many such folks there are out there, too, even in supposedly enlightened circles.)

This phenomenon is not new. We have already seen it in the form of the reductive explanation argument. This is the view that, since evolutionary biology sufficiently explains the origins of life, religion has thereby been proven false. Of course this does not follow at all unless one antecedently adopts a theological view that is incompatible with the truth of evolutionary theory. Some religious folks do, indeed, adopt such a view, but it is curious that virtually all folk atheists adopt the view. Well, actually, it's not all that strange, since by adopting it they prove their point. Very convenient. But again, the more sophisticated Christian theologians adopt no such view and, in fact, the truth of evolutionary theory is not the least bit incompatible with the truth of the Christian religion.

Of course, in both of these cases--the Kitcher argument and the reductive explanation argument--the folks do not really adopt the theological point of view as their own view, since they are not theists at all and hence, a fortiori, they are not Christians. Instead, it is a theological view that they project onto all Christians (if not all religious sentiment entirely). Where they came by this theological view is hard to say. Since they are mostly atheists, it seems fair to say that they didn't learn it at Sunday school, or from their parents, or in religious education classes. Probably they just made it up by reading other folk atheist literature and perhaps the evangelical tract here and there. When I was in college I knew students who would study for exams by getting the Cliff's Notes versions of the assigned materials, and this is about the level of sophistication we're getting from these folk atheists, so it seems pretty clear that they have no actual training in genuine Christian theology, and what little background they do have in it is used principally as a weapon to use against more sophisticated positions, so it is all a rather massively question-begging exercise from the get go.

Such is not the case with another form of circular theology, the form that is known among Christians as the sola Scriptura principle. I've already shown how this principle is incoherent, but its incoherence lies in its circularity. That is, you must already believe Scripture to be the only source of authoritative teaching in order to assert that it is. This begs the question against the orthodox view, of course, but question begging is not the sort of thing that fundamentalists generally shy away from. In this kind of case, the circular theologian adopts a theological perspective that he does endorse, and then uses it to prove the merits of his own theological stance and the disadvantages of others. It is every bit as question begging as Kitcher's argument against religions of atonement.

There is a final kind of case that has only recently come to my attention: the textual critical argument. This one is perhaps related to the sola Scriptura principle, but it is not quite identical to it. Like sola Scriptura it is employed by theists who do endorse the view, but it has to do with the text of the scriptures rather than the semantic content. It is often deployed by folks who already accept the sola Scritpura principle anyway but, as we shall see, this makes for rather strange bedfellows.

I can probably best address this argument by means of a couple of examples. The first is drawn from my new "Recovery Version" of the New Testament. The text of the oratio Dominicalis (I use the Latin for rhetorical effect: it irritates fundamentalists) in the Gospel of St. Matthew ends with the expression "but deliver us from evil" (alla rhusai hêmas apo tou ponêrou). If you've ever been at Mass with Protestants, however, you know that they don't usually stop there. The congregation will fall silent, except for one or two voices saying, usually loudly at first but quickly dying out into silence: "for thine is the...". That was how I learned that prayer, too, at my mother's knee, and even some Catholics add that doxology in their private devotions. There's nothing wrong with adding it, of course, but there is a view in some quarters that one is not actually adding anything, that is really how the prayer ends. The usual story one hears against this view is that the doxology was a part of the liturgical celebration that followed upon the public recitation of the prayer, and so the prayer and the doxology became confused and, at a time when manuscripts of the New Testament were still being copied out by hand in scriptoria some sleepy-eyed monk accidentally added it into the manuscript he was copying out. That's the usual story. If you're one of the folks who wants it to be part of the original prayer (I'm not so sure why one would care, but I suppose if one had learned it that way and didn't like the way Catholics said it and wanted some sort of evidence in favor of one's own practice, well...), the "Recovery Version" and other versions like it will come to your aid. The "Recover Version" prints the doxology right after the prayer and says in a foot note "This sentence is omitted in the earliest MSS."

As a general rule, it is fair to say that the mere fact that a MS is early is not necessarily a compelling reason to regard it as authoritative, so, at least on general principles, there is nothing all that wrong with adding this sentence, as long as there are in fact some MSS that support it. In this particular case, however, there are two reasons for omitting it, both compelling. One is that we actually have reason to believe that we know where the doxology actually came from: liturgical practice rather than Our Lord's own teaching. Second, while it is true that a few manuscripts contain parts of the doxology, none of them has it in its entirety and all of them are considerably late. So why stick it in there? Possibly because one likes it better that way, or perhaps one thinks one has arguments to support reading the text that way. Either way it's a judgment call that can be reasonably disputed. The difficulty is, folks who adopt circular arguments like these are ipso facto not being very reasonable. When I was teaching at Rutgers I attended a Bible study that was run by fundamentalists. They were a great bunch, and I thoroughly enjoyed my time with them, even--or perhaps especially--during discussions of the differences between fundamentalism and Catholicism. One of them subscribed both to the sola Scriptura principle and to the textual critical argument. He was a firm advocate--as I am myself--of the Authorized Version, but his reasons were rather different from mine. Whereas I like its English prose style and am willing to overlook its textual bizarreness, he wanted to claim that its text is the only accurate version of the New Testament. One of the other fundamentalists actually disagreed with him. This other fellow was a graduate student in classics, and knew all about the textual history of the New Testament, and he argued that the Authorized Version, as nice as it is, could never be considered an "accurate" text since it was based on inferior manuscripts. The first fellow claimed that, on the contrary, those allegedly inferior manuscripts were actually superior. Why? Because they were the ones the Authorized Version translated, and the Authorized Version is the best version. Further questions were directed to the fellow but he deferred to God's will in the matter, and that was that.

A second example is in order here, though strictly speaking I think this particular case can count as a full-fledged circularity in its own right. I'll call it "primitivism", because it's the view that the only "authentic" Christianity is the most genuinely "primitive", that is, it is the form of Christianity practiced by the Apostles themselves, the first (primus) Christians. This may sound rather like what Pope Pius XII called "archaeologism", but the view I have in mind is a predominantly fundamentalist one. Again, it is related to sola Scriptura because, hey, what better place to find out about "primitive" Christianity than in the New Testament? There are a couple of reasons to be wary here right from the start. The first is that the earliest New Testament document, St. Paul's letter to the Thessalonians, dates to A.D. 50, nearly 20 years after Our Lord's death. The Gospel accounts of Our Lord's life and teachings were not committed to writing until nearly 20 years later, sometime after the destruction of the Temple in A.D. 70. During the 20-40 years between the death of Our Lord and the beginning of the written record of the "primitive" Christian community, a lot of interesting developments may well have taken place. We know that there were rival visions of Christ's life and work, and of course the surviving accounts are the accounts of the victors in that rivalry. It seems rather hopelessly romantic to think that we can ever reconstruct what is usually intended by the term "primitive Christianity".

Suppose that we do, however. Suppose, if you like, that the practice described in the Acts of the Apostles (written down around the year 85, by the way, nearly two generations after the death of Our Lord) represents the "primitive" Church. In writing down these practices, St. Luke was merely acknowledging a state of affairs that had evolved over time. Nowhere does he claim that what he represents is something that will remain unchanged in any way. He claims only that he is going to write down what has been handed on in a certain order, so that his readers may better understand where the Church is and how it came to be there. This is no different from what many other historians of the time claimed to be doing, and none of them was asserting that history had or ought to come to a stand still. Furthermore, like the sola Scriptura principle, the primitivist argument presupposes that the primitive Church herself would have endorsed primitivism, which seems a rather far fetched idea, at least on the basis of the evidence we have. One could perhaps point out that the primitive Church thought that Our Lord's return was imminent, hence there would be no time (or need) for doctrinal or practical development. To say that there was no time nor need for development, however, is not to say that development is forbidden should it turn out to be the case that Our Lord's return was not as imminent as they thought.

The pattern here is clear: adopt a theological perspective, then use it to support your own theological perspective. Clearly circular, but perhaps not all that different from what we are always forced to do: adopt certain dialectical starting points from which to argue for our deeper hypotheses. It could be that this is simply a necessary feature of human reasoning. Whether the Magisterium itself can be held to be free of such difficulties is a problem I will save for another day.

Friday, September 21, 2007

...and to you, my paper-shredder...

There is an article in today's print edition of the Wall Street Journal (subscription required) about how confession is making a "comeback", even among certain Protestants.
To make confession less intimidating, Protestant churches have urged believers to shred their sins in paper shredders or write them on rocks and cast them into a "desert" symbolized by a giant sand pile in the sanctuary.
Now, before you get all superior about this, let me tell you that when I was living in North Carolina I attended an Ash Wednesday service at an otherwise Roman Catholic parish where we were instructed to write our sins on little slips of paper, which were then collected in a bowl and set ablaze at the foot of the altar, so let's just say that liturgical weirdness is not restricted to your garden-variety Protestant wackiness.

The author of the article, Alexandra Alter (nope, I'm not kidding, that really is her name) suggests that this renewed interest in confession is due, at least in part, to "aggressive marketing" by churches and the current popular culture fascination with therapy and self-help. As explanations go this one, I suppose, is no worse than any other just-so story one could dream up after a little desultory poking around but, like any other fundamentally empirical investigation into a non-materialist phenomenon, it falls rather flat. My own view, supported by no empirical evidence whatsoever, is that confession has been falling off in popularity in the materialist West because the materialist West is populated by materialist Westerners. People who, for the most part, aren't particularly introspective to begin with and, when they are, have a tendency to blame things other than their own free choice of the will when they find that something has gone wrong. And one statistic cited by Alter struck me as particularly relevant to American Catholics. Only 26% said in a recent poll that they had been to confession in the past year. Only 26% in the past year, when any well-educated Catholic knows that, whatever else you may think about confession, you know that you're supposed to go at least once a year. Contrast that 26% who went to confession with the nearly 100% percent who go up to receive Holy Communion every Sunday, and you begin to realize that there is a kind of cognitive disconnect in your average American Catholic's head between the need for reconciliation with God and Man and the unitive meaning of the Sacrament of Eucharist. In short, the vast majority of American Catholics (roughly 74%, apparently) do not understand their faith well enough to practice it correctly. (But then, polls about abortion and contraception already told us that, or worse.)

What's up with that? Is it just the straightforward fact that, in our narcissistic society, nobody thinks that s/he really does anything that's all that bad? Or do they think that receiving Holy Communion is just something you do at Church on Sunday, a purely symbolic act and not the miraculous reception into one's own body of God himself in substance under the veil of bread and wine? Perhaps they don't fully understand what sin really is, or why it needs to be confessed, or perhaps they haven't got that Sacramental view of life that is the Christian's particular gift. Whatever the reason, it's a shameful situation. People who haven't been to confession in a year but who receive Holy Communion every Sunday as though it were mere ritual ought to be ashamed of themselves. Few of them are; some of them are probably extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion (though they will call themselves "Eucharistic Ministers" and think of themselves as doing their parish a favor).

Well, it looks like I need to go to confession myself now, what with all that judgmental dissing of my co-religionists and all. The good news is, when I go tomorrow afternoon, I won't have to wait in line.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Rhetoric Is Fun

For the most part I agree with Edward Oakes's assessment of the prognosis for Summorum Pontificum, which you can find at the First Things blog. He argues that disputes over liturgy are nothing new in the Catholic Church, and compares some of the background issues behind Summorum Pontificum to the Jansenist reforms of the Synod of Pistoia of 1786. Although I largely agree with his conclusions, however, there were certain aspects of his essay that brought a smile to my lips because, as clever as this Jesuit is, his rhetoric did not escape my gimlet eye.

The fun begins in the very first paragraph, where Oakes writes:
I cannot predict at this early date how much of a demand there will be for the Mass of Blessed John XXIII (otherwise, and somewhat inaccurately, known as the Tridentine Latin Mass), or what beneficial effects this new legislation will have on the way the ordinary form is celebrated, officially known as the Mass of John Paul II (which is a modest revision of the much more significant changes to the Mass enacted after Vatican II by Paul VI).
In this one sentence Oakes manages to say things that are (a) indisputably true and (b) inevitably irritating to Traditionalists. Indeed, it is probably the very truth of these statements that will most irritate. First, he says he has no idea how many people actually want to go to the Mass said under the older rubrics, yet Traditionalists have argued for years that what they call the "novus ordo" is plagued by low attendance while what they call "Tridentine rite" Masses are bursting at the seams. This demographic argument has been, in fact, a central pillar in their call for greater latitude in permitting the older rubrics. Second, note the nomenclature used here: what the Traditionalists call the "Tridentine Rite of the Mass" Oakes is calling "the Mass of Blesseed John XXIII". Some Trads don't think that John XXIII is very blessed, and none of them thinks that the older rubrics were really his. Indeed, some of them, in calling for a return to older rubrics, don't really mean the Mass of 1963 anyway, they mean the Mass as it was said under Pius X. To these Trads John XXIII is Bad News, and John Paul II is even worse news, so to call what they name the "novus ordo" the "Mass of John Paul II" is also going to chafe. If only he had written "the Mass of Servant of God John Paul II" Oakes could have twisted the knife even further.

Oakes twice mentions the view--possibly one he shares but he never explicitly endorses it--that the liturgical reforms of the immediate post-Vatican II years were not an "unmitigated or universal success", but it is interesting that the first time he says this it comes right after dropping the name of Lefebvre. True, he does not say that only Lefebvrites were calling for the older rubrics--indeed, he is explicitly saying that they were not the only ones. But what if he had written "It's not only the schismatic, possibly heretical, folks who want this...". Well, who else would want it, is a question that might occur to some after a start like that. He goes on immediately to tell us who else he has in mind:
Especially in countries where the vernacular translations have been clumsy or even inaccurate, dissatisfaction was bound to increase by the year, at least among those sensitive to the beauties of their native tongue.
I see, so it's in those countries where the translations were "clumsy" (I've only ever heard folks under the thumb of the ICEL say this about the vernacular--does that mean that we're talking only about English speaking countries here?) that folks were most upset, or, well, the folks who are particularly sensitive to linguistic issues in their own language, you know, the eggheads and such. Regular folks didn't care, and goodness knows there weren't any substantive worries involved, just dissatisfaction with "clumsiness".

From a rhetorical point of view, however, things are just getting started. At this point, Oakes moves on to the theme he will develop at most length--the rather unfortunate similarity between those who prefer the older rubrics to the Jansenists. Citing a book by the 19th century writer Antonio Rosmini Oakes zeros in on the question of "the division between people and clergy at public worship" as a problem calling for particular comment.
For part of the problem with the implementation of liturgical reforms after Vatican II has been that, at least for critics of that reform, there is now too little distinction between people and clergy at worship.
It's not clear what the referent is for "critics of that reform", but there is indeed a suggestion that it is perhaps they who are the ones raising all the fuss, and that there is not necessarily any particular objective reason behind that fuss: it may well be nothing more than one small part of a general Trad package. Then this:
Not many Catholics, I have discovered, are sufficiently aware that one of the earliest calls for liturgical reform came from the Jansenist-influenced (and later condemned) Synod of Pistoia (1786). This synod notoriously affirmed such key Jansenist doctrines as these: that unbaptized infants go to hell (not limbo) and that the grace of redemption cannot be found outside the confines of the Catholic Church. But that same synod also decreed that there should be only one altar in each church, Latin should be replaced (at least in part) by Italian, and the cult of the Sacred Heart (an explicitly anti-Jansenist devotion) should be suppressed. It also adopted other “liberal” positions such as: the authority of the hierarchy derives from the consent of the governed, and the jurisdiction of the bishop is independent of the pope’s.

“Irony is history’s tastiest dish,” says one shrewd observer, and never has that been more true than when we are speaking of liturgical reform. For nowadays those most comfortable with post–Vatican II reforms show not the slightest trace of Jansenism, while the Lefebvrists not only object to those reforms but do so precisely because they fear that the identity of the Church as the sole ark of salvation has been undermined by Vatican II’s openness to ecumenism and the modern world.
Passing over in silence the quasi-approving reference to a postmodernist account of philosophy written by a semiotician who wrote his own biography for Wikipedia (man, you'd never find me doing anything so self-serving), I note that there is a curious dichotomy on offer here. There are those, apparently, who are "most comfortable with post-Vatican II reforms", and these folks do not show even "the slightest trace of Jansenism". On the other hand, there are "the Lefebvrists", who object to certain reforms "because they fear that the identity of the Church as the sole ark of salvation has been undermined by Vatican II's openness to ecumenism and the modern world." That, I take it, is the "irony" in the present situation, that those who see themselves as defending an authentic teaching of the Church against modernism are doing much the same thing that the Jansenists did, that is, these folks who perceive themselves as bastions of orthodoxy are in fact acting like heretics.

If you were hoping that there would be some juicy details regarding the Jansenism of today's Trad-leaning Catholics, I'm afraid you're in for some major disappointment.
For example, at present, when the wine is consecrated into the blood of Christ, the priest says (here quoting Christ’s own words) that this blood will be “poured out for you and for all.” But soon the priest will, according to reliable reports, have to use the more accurate translation and say that it will be “poured out for you and for many.” Does this new and apparently more restrictive translation mean that the Church is now giving official sanction to the Augustinian/Calvinist doctrine of limited atonement, one that the Jansenists made the first principle and foundation of their heresy?
This is followed by some canned remarks from Pope Benedict XVI about not trying "to set limits on God's behalf". Now, I've already commented on the so-called "pro multis" controversy at some length, so I won't rehash my feelings about that here. I will only point out two things. First, Oakes is either mistaken or just being disingenuous when he writes that he is "quoting Christ's own words" as "poured out for you and for all" (my emphasis). In the Gospel of Matthew he says "this is my blood of the new testament that is poured out for many (peri pollôn)", and he says virtually the same thing in the Gospel of Mark, and literally the same thing about his blood being poured out peri pollôn. In the Gospel of Luke, he says only that his blood is poured out huper humôn, "for you", which on a "Lefebvrist" reading might actually mean that it was poured out only for the Apostles themselves. St. Paul, when discussing the agapê meal ritual in 1 Corinthians, doesn't bother to mention just for whom the blood has been poured out, he quotes Our Lord as saying only that we ought to "do this" as a "commemoration". (The Gospel of John, you will recall, has no institution narrative.) Now, don't get me wrong, none of this is intended to show any support for those who are get themselves all worked up over the "for all" translation of "pro multis". I don't, in fact, have any sympathy for the view they defend. I mention this mistake on Oakes's part only to illustrate the way in which he is thinking and writing about this particular issue. (Possibly what Oakes intended to say is that the priest, in saying these words, is supposed to be saying Christ's own words, that is, he is acting in persona Christi, but of course the issue, from the point of view of those who are getting all worked up about this, is how to translate the normative Latin version of the Mass into the vernacular; it is also partly about whether, and how well, the normative Latin version of the Mass translates the actual words of Our Lord as they are recorded in the Greek New Testament. But on both counts, the words are literally translated as "for many", not "for all".)

Second, it is worth noting that a genuinely "traditionalist" approach to ecclesiology would not make as much hay of this issue as either the self-styled "Traditionalists" or their critics, such as Oakes, do. The genuinely traditionalist Catholic knows perfectly well that Christ died "for everyone", not just "for many", and he knows, too, and accepts, that this is what the Church teaches. However, the traditionalist also knows that the Church's teachings were not changed by the second Vatican Council, they were merely clarified, so that whatever we are to think about nulla salus extra ecclesiam, our thinking needs to be in the context of an authentic understanding of the development of doctrine. (For a really good example of that kind of thinking, I recommend Mike Liccione's essays.)

I have emphasized from the start that I am largely sympathetic to the position that Oakes is staking out in his essay, and I will draw to a close here by emphasizing that point again. To draw attention to a particular rhetorical approach to a position is not to express either agreement or disagreement with the position being staked out. But it does, I hope, illustrate a phenomenon that I think is rather unfortunate, and that is the fact that certain extreme factions have had the luxury of defining, for certain other factions, how a particular view is to be regarded in the media. Granted, there's always a risk involved when one decided to tackle a complex issue in a (gasp) blog post or online essay. The danger of oversimplifying for the sake of clarity in exposition is very real and, critics of long boring blog posts might add, basically worth it if it means getting the message across more quickly and painlessly. As a result, even one's friends and allies sometimes say things that make you go "hmm."

I count myself among those who think that the liturgical reforms since 1970 have not been an "unmitigated or universal" success, and even though I have some ideas about what would, at least in my opinion, be the best way to improve things, I really don't have any idea how much of this is going to play out in the end. But I fully agree, in the end, with one final point that Oakes makes:
I look forward to discovering how many Catholics will follow the pope’s lead here, in obedience both to Summorum Pontificum and to the theology that animates it. In other words, will Catholics come out of Mass as truly converted Christians, eager to engage the world already loved by God (John 3:16) and redeemed by the cross (1 John 2:1-3) and whose cult transforms the culture? Or will they think of salvation as a zero-sum game, to be hoarded as a precariously won personal possession, made valuable only if others are damned? The answer to that question will not just determine the reception history of the motu proprio but will largely set the course for the future of the Church as well.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Circular Authority

Bryan Lane states the obvious. His point is similar to one I made about the so-called Sola Scriptura principle here, but more concisely put.

HT: Fr. Al Kimel.

Oh, Stop Grovelling! I Hate It When They Grovel!

DarwinCatholic has a great post about strategies for translating the Mass into English. Tolle, lege!

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Hello, My Name Is Scott, And I'm A Biblioholic

Stopping by the new student center here at Ohio University for a latte on my way to my office, I saw a sign offering "Free Bibles". Always the bibliophile, I'm a sucker for any kind of free book, even heretical translations of Scripture, so I wandered over to the table to see what was on offer. They were giving away rather nice paperback New Testaments. I say "rather nice" because, if you've ever been on a college campus at this time of year, you're probably familiar with those little, tiny, green or orange New Testaments handed out for free by the Gideons to any and all takers. Those are "nice" in the sense that they contain the Authorized Version, which is beautiful in spite of being a translation of the wrong text, but the books themselves, from an artefactual standpoint, are an abomination. They're too small, for one thing, defeating even my $960 graduated lenses, and to call the green and orange colors of the cover butt-ugly is to insult the beauty of butts everywhere. In fact, I'm looking at one right now as I write this, and it's all I can do to keep myself from flinging it out the second-storey window of my office onto the unsuspecting pagans passing by below. They seem to me to constitute an exception to an otherwise universal rule. But the book I picked up today, while not so beautiful on the inside, was very well put together, and I just had to have one.

I asked the man at the table what translation was in the book, hoping for either the Authorized Version or the older Revised Standard Version (if anyone prefers the New Revised Standard Version, let him be anathema). He said it was the "Recovery Version". I was a little startled, but I assumed that what he meant was that it was a special study edition of the bible intended for folks in recovery. Technically that kind of thing would not be called a "version", however, since the word "version" refers to the "turning [from one language to another]" that is a translation. So I just said that I'd never heard of it, and I asked him what was being recovered. To my surprise he said "Certain truths that have been lost or left out of other versions."

Now this really piqued my interest. I was dying to ask him what those "truths" were, but I have a class to teach at 9:00 and a latte to drink before then, so I didn't want to get into any extended dialectic regarding "truths" as defined by Living Stream Ministry, the publisher of the "Recovery Version" ("Outline, footnotes, charts, and references by Witness Lee"). The sorts of people who hand out free bibles tend not to be the sorts of people who are impressed by credentials in epistemology; if anything, being a philosophy professor is likely to garner one some rather unkind eyebrow raising and pointedly spoken words such as "Really?" and "Oh." So I just grabbed a copy and was about to abscond with it when I was asked to fill in a form with my name, address, telephone number, and email address. Now, lest you think me a complete sucker, I will say that I knew immediately that this was going to generate a lot of junk mail, both of the electronic as well as the gastropod kind, and probably a fair amount of junk phone calling as well, but every purebred bibliophile out there will already know that of course I filled out the form, and I even used a fair approximation of my real name and address, because, well, hey, there's a free book at stake here, people!

Sadly I had to run off to teach a philosophy of science class before I could start my grand quest for the missing truths that have finally been revealed by Witness Lee and the Living Stream Ministry (the "Recovery Version" was first published in 1985, so I suppose these freshly recovered truths are technically not all that fresh any more). When I returned to my office I began to peruse the book, along with the Living Stream Ministry website. They have a "Statement of Faith" there (a phrase that always sends fundamentalist chills down my spine), and so I checked it out. I noticed that it was varguely Niceno-Constantinopolitanish in its details, but I couldn't help notice that there was a peculiar use of the word "Trinity" in there, and I began to suspect that I was on the trial of the missing truth.

Living Stream Ministry is connected to the so-called "Local Church" movement, a quasi-Christian sect that had its origins in China in the early 20th century under the leadership of "Watchman Nee" and "Witness Lee". Both had been influenced by Anglican missionaries and, as a consequence, their theology is not entirely wacko, but, like many sects that get their principal impetus from a kind of cult of personality surrounding a founder or founding group, it is not exactly what I would call a mainstream sect. They are vaguely trinitarian and decidedly "reformed", if by that one means "has no conception of what a proper ecclesiology, christology, or theology of sacraments should look like". After reading through some of the commentary in my new "Recovery Version" of the New Testament I have to say that I found little to surprise me. On many issues it said rather standard things, on questions having to do with the important and meaning of the sacramental life for Christians, it was decidedly heretical. Oh well; it's still a nice book. The translation was not terrible, but it wasn't very nice, either. It read rather like the old "New American Standard Version", an excruciatingly literal translation that appeared about 30 years ago and is great if you're learning to read Hebrew or Greek and need a crib but is worthless for general reading, liturgical use, or inspiration.

So what will I do with this book, now that I see that it is basically useless as a New Testament? It's only value is aesthetic, and even that is rather low. I can't give it to a student, because I don't believe in giving students books that are misleading or otherwise bad to try to learn from. I realize that this is a rather paternalistic attitude, but given what happens when I try to be paternalistic towards my own son why not just be paternalistic towards kids who aren't going to fly off the handle at you? It's pretty much my only venue these days. So I'll continue to hand out those little Gideon New Testaments that have been collecting in my office, even though they are ugly as sin; at least their contents are not sinful. And at least that way I can get one more ugly book out of my collection of beautiful books.

Homily for Requiem Mass of Michael Carson, 20 November 2021

  Readings OT: Wisdom 3:1-6, 9 [2, short form] Ps: 25 [2] NT: Romans 8:31b-35, 37-39 [6] Alleluia verse: John 6:39 [...