Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Reasons, Explanations, Orders

An explanation consists of a set of reasons, but not all sets of reasons amount to an explanation. This fact was brought home to me yesterday by a discussion of a recent statement by Pope Francis in which he re-iterated the Church's claim that it has no authority to admit women to Holy Orders. The discussion took place on the Internet, so of course it was both pointless and virtually interminable, but that doesn't mean that there's nothing to be gained from looking more closely at the question.

On his flight back to Rome, Pope Francis was asked, by Maria Sagrarios Ruiz de Apodaca, "will we one day see women priests in the Catholic church", to which Pope Francis replied:
...on women priests, that cannot be done. Pope St. John Paul II after long, long intense discussions, long reflection said so clearly. Not because women don't have the capacity. Look, in the Church women are more important than men, because the Church is a woman. It is "la" church, not "il" church. The Church is the bride of Jesus Christ. And the Madonna is more important than popes and bishops and priests. I must admit we are a bit late in the elaboration of a theology of women. We have to move ahead with that theology. Yes, that's true.
Here Pope Francis is referring to the apostolic letter Ordinatio sacerdotalis, issued by Pope St. John Paul II in 1994 and further explicated by the Responsum of Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger of 1995, in which it is declared with absolute finality that the Church lacks the authority to admit women to Holy Orders. Here is the specific wording of OS (§4):
Wherefore, in order that all doubt may be removed regarding a matter of great importance, a matter which pertains to the Church's divine constitution itself, in virtue of my ministry of confirming the brethren (cf. Lk 22:32) I declare that the Church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women and that this judgment is to be definitively held by all the Church's faithful.
Note that nothing is said here about women per se that would indicate the reason why they could not, even in principle, be admitted to Holy Orders should the requisite authority exist in the Church to confer Ordination on whomever the Church should please to confer it. Earlier in the same letter JPII mentions the teaching of Paul VI, who said virtually the same thing and grounded his position on the Tradition of the Magisterium. JPII also mentions, without quoting any of them, "other theological reasons which illustrate the appropriateness [my emphasis] of the divine provision".

Ultimately, then, the reason given for the continuing (and unalterable) ban on admitting women to Holy Orders is an ecclesiological one: the Church lacks the authority to act otherwise. This may appear to be a minor point, but that would be merely an appearance: in fact it is quite important, and you're about to find out why.

The alternative would be to give an ontological reason, to say what it is about being a female that bars one from being admitted to Holy Orders. Some theologians have, indeed, speculated about such ontological reasons, but all such speculation is not only speculative, it is also dangerously misguided. To argue that there is something about being a female that is essentially different from being a male is to move dangerously towards maintaining that there is some specific difference between the two sexes. But the Church has never taught de fide that there is any such difference, and that's a good thing because such a teaching would fly in the face of what the Church says about the essence of humankind more generally. God created man (hominem) in his own image; male and female he created them. There is one kind of thing (homo) existing in two sexes, not two kinds of things. There cannot be any specific difference between male and female—the differences that distinguish them are material, not formal, and material differences, however great, do not add up to essential differences.

To make the ecclesiological claim is not to make any particular ontological claim about women, but some have claimed that it does either entail or else "suggest" ontological claims about women. This is incorrect, and it is important to see why. The ecclesiological claim, as stated in OS, is an instance of the via negativa: it is a declaration of what is not possible, rather than a positive declaration of something that is the case. Theologically this is a much safer position to take, since it avoids possible empirical refutations of what one might claim to be the case were one to take the positive declaration route.

However, suppose someone were to suggest "Even though the Church lacks the authority to ordain women now, it might be given the authority to ordain women later." This, after all, would appear to be consistent with the claim that the teaching is ecclesiological rather than ontological, that it is about the nature of the Church rather than about the nature of women. But again this would be a mere appearance, for this possibility is excluded by the fact that Revelation is closed: it is an unchangeable matter of de fide doctrine that everything that was to be revealed about the Sacraments was already revealed in the life of Christ. So if the Church lacks such authority today, it will always lack such authority. Nice try, heretics.

As I mentioned above, the fact that the teaching is essentially ecclesiological has not stopped some pundits from finding ontological claims in the, shall we say, penumbra, of the teaching. John Zuhlsdorf, for  example, a rather flamboyant blogger, began his post on this matter with the claim "women don't have the capacity to receive the sacrament of holy orders because they lack maleness". Now, I didn't actually laugh out loud at that when I read it, but only because I wasn't altogether sure whether he saw himself as offering an explanation or a reason, and in this case his intentions would make a difference to how laughable the statement is. If we focus on the word "because" it begins to appear that he sees himself as offering at least a reason, if not an explanation. It can't be an explanation, because of course all he is really saying is that women cannot be ordained because they are not men, and that cannot be an explanation because to offer it up in that capacity would be to beg the question. "Women cannot be ordained to the priesthood." "Why not?" "Because they're not men." "But why can men be ordained to the priesthood?" "Because they're men." That's obviously not going anywhere explanatorily, but could it at least count as a reason?

If "not being a man" were an actual property, it might go some ways towards counting as a reason, but "not being a man" is not an actual property, it is a linguistic model for the privation of a specific property. Lots of things fit that description: women are non-men; pieces of chalk are non-men; the oak tree outside my office window is a non-man, etc. Some might object that this is to confuse contraries and contradictories. Being female is not the same thing as the general contradictory "not being a man", it is in fact a specific contrary property—being female, which is opposed to "being a man" as a contrary. But this cannot be either a reason or an explanation, for the reasons given above: if it is to count as a difference maker in this case, it would have to be a marker of a specific difference, something formal rather than material.

So to say "women don't have the capacity to receive the sacrament of holy orders because they lack maleness" is at best to utter a tautology. It is neither controversial nor, in this case, informative, which is to say it is neither a reason nor an explanation, it is simply a statement of the principle under discussion. So he should have left out the word "because": "women don't have the capacity to receive the sacrament of holy orders, only men have that capacity." But that wouldn't be nearly as flamboyant, nor would it satisfy the person who wants to know why women don't have the capacity to receive the sacrament of holy orders. If someone asks you, "Why doesn't this medicine make my headache go away?" it would not be much of an explanation to say "Because it doesn't". Saying "Because it can't" isn't a lot better, but it's a step in the right direction; for whatever reason Zuhlsdorf prefers the first to the second, the vapid to the tepid.

Ed Peters is not at all flamboyant, but he is a lawyer, which tempts him to say things like
Ordinatio sacerdotalis, AS IT IS PHRASED in the operative no. 4, is not a statement about women, it is not a statement about sacraments, it is, by the PLAIN TEXT OF THE DOCUMENT, a statement about ecclesiology. [CAPS in the original--maybe he's more flamboyant than I give him credit for!]
So we have a kind of legal version of sola Scriptura, if you will, a claim that the "plain text of the document" ought to settle all disputes among reasonable people. Good luck with that, my friend. As we have seen, the putative plainness of the text belies the difficulty of its interpretation. He's right, of course, that the statement is an ecclesiological one and that, perhaps, is all that a lawyer really cares about—what do I need to prove my case? But as a hermeneutical principle the solus textus approach can lead one into troubled waters. In particular, when Peters goes on to say "OS does not exclude ontological reasons, or sacramental ones; indeed it seems to suggest both in places" he makes the very mistake I have drawn attention to above, looking for the ontological in all the wrong places, possibly for all the wrong reasons.

Sunday, September 20, 2015

New Head of Vatican Observatory A Welcome Sign

Pope Francis has named Jesuit Brother Guy Consolmagno to be the new director of the Vatican Observatory (CNS story here). This is important because Brother Consolmagno has been outspoken in his support for "authentic science", science that is neither contrary to religious faith nor beholden to any particular political interests. It can be difficult to find either one of these properties in a lot of current scientific talk, especially in the popular scientific media, though in point of actual practice it can be equally difficult to find fault with the work of any one particular scientist regarding these points. The difficulty, in my opinion, lies rather in science reporting and in the trash-talk, for lack of a better term, that comes from certain quarters of the blogosphere (on both sides of the issue).

The dialogue between science and religion has not always been helped by dialogue, either from scientists who are religious or from religious writers who admire science, because it can be difficult to play both sides of this street in today's overwrought ideological climate--this is a climate one can fervently hope will change very drastically in the near future, but so far there's not much hope for that, since this climate and its potential for change are very much matters of anthropogenesis. In most cases there is never any genuine need "to play both sides of the street", but in many cases no matter what one says, there will be some audience or other somewhere accusing you of playing just one side of the street, namely the Wrong Side, the politically motivated side or the ignorant side.

I think a great deal of the blame for this situation lies at the feet of science education, though not necessarily science educators. That might seem an extraordinary thing to say: isn't it the job of the science educator, after all, to see to it that students of science are properly educated? In one sense yes, of course, but in another sense no. Every student has an obligation to learn from those who have greater expertise, but not all students approach education with this frame of mind. Many have been taught already to ignore what seems foreign to them or appears to them to contradict their deeply help shibboleths. Thus it is that we find high school and college age students already taking positions with respect to scientific controversies with social implications, even when they have virtually no education or background in the necessary science.

I'm not sure what the solution is to this problem--by the time I see students in college many of them have become rather set in their ways. The appointment of an advocate like Brother Consolmagno, however, can only be seen as a positive move forward.

Friday, September 18, 2015

A Tale of Two Linguists

The Second Vatican Council declared the Latin language to be one of the treasures of the Western Church, and decreed that it would remain the official language of the Church's liturgies, even while permitting local Ordinaries to permit the use of vernacular languages. My regular readers will remember that I am myself something of a fan of the Latin language, but my own view is that aesthetic preferences about languages should not be--indeed, cannot be--normative for everyone.

The truth of this was brought into higher relief for me this past week, when I had occasion to hear from two different amateur linguists regarding the use of Latin by the Western Church. One of them, a professor of Old Testament at the Pontifical College Josephinum and something of an all-around genius, told me that he thinks there is no future for the Latin language in the Church's liturgy and that, at least since the time of St. John Paul II, it has been declining as the de facto language in other official Church circles as well. His opinion was that this is a good thing, and he is frustrated that there are still some young students at the Josephinum who continue to cling to hopes that it will enjoy a renaissance along with the Extraordinary Form.

The other is a professor of canon law at Sacred Heart Major Seminar in Detroit, who recently wrote the following in connection with Pope Francis' recent Motu proprio, Mitis iudex:
I can't help noticing, with regret, that both sides [in the discussion of the import of Mitis iudex] are debating points being made (or not?) in an English translation (accurately rendered?) of an Italian original (is it 'the original'?). And I wonder, since when has Italian become the international language of Catholic doctrine? 
It is one thing to accept the practical necessity of Italian for running the Vatican bureaucracy (or not running it, as the case may be). But it is quite another to have Italian serve as the vehicle for proposals officially expressing Catholic doctrine, doctrines that are, by their very nature, not national or ethnic but Catholic and therefore, to recall the etymology of the very word "Catholic", universal. If the relationship between conscience and moral norms really ranks near the top of topics to be taught correctly in and by and to the Church, then should debates about the written expressions of such a topic turn on appreciating the Italian way of phrasing such teachings? I trust the answer to that question is self-evident. 
Without getting into whether Latin is the "official language" of the Church..., Latin is unquestionably the primary language of the Catholic Church and, for well over a millennium, it has been the international language of formal Church teaching. The doctrinal clarity and ecclesiastical stability that comes with the use of Latin must never be surrendered. Fundamental assertions about fundamental aspects of Church teaching should be made solely in the one language that is fundamental to the Catholic Church, Latin, on which assertions, I say, let vernacular debates blossom with fruitful abandon.
I think both of these amateur linguists are wrong, but each for different reasons. The Old Testament scholar has confused an aesthetic preference for a normative one, while the canonist has confused, well, a lot of things, but mostly he is confused about the Latin language's ability to do the job he wants it to do. So here are my thoughts on these issues and, even though I am actually a professional and not an amateur, I'm not going to pretend that my opinions on matters of language have any real normative force beyond the confines of my own Weltanschauung.

To start with the Old Testament scholar: I agree with him that the demand for Latin in the liturgy has been on the decline among the faithful, and I also agree with him that affection for the Extraordinary Form is also in the decline. I suspect, though we did not discuss this, that he and I would also agree that such affection is misplaced. However, there are some parishes (St. Agnes in St. Paul MN comes to mind) where very effective use of Latin in the Ordinary Form makes for some magnificently beautiful liturgical experiences. My own view is that this is a great thing, but mainly for those who happen to have aesthetic preferences leaning in that direction. I don't really see any compelling reason to make it the norm for all parishes everywhere, since it is simply a fact (sadly) that Latin is not understood by very many people--including many priests--and if the proponents of the Extraordinary Form did not like it when the Ordinary Form was imposed on them everywhere then they should have no reason to think that they ought to impose anything on anyone either. So my own view is, and has long been, that making Latin liturgies available is better than making them mandatory, whether in the Extraordinary or the Ordinary Form. They should at least be available where sufficient numbers of people desire them, because this is an aesthetic preference just like the desire for hymnody at Mass (something not mandated by the GIRM).

That issue, then, is a strictly aesthetic one, as far as I'm concerned. But the issue of Latin as the language of canon law or doctrinal teaching is not a strictly aesthetic one, and there is more philosophical bite to this problem.

I agree that the Church has no "official language" in the contemporary sense of that expression, but having said that there is no mistaking the fact that Latin has long been, and will continue to be, the most important of the languages in which the Church chooses to express herself, if only for reasons of historical continuity, a methodological principle that clearly guides many of the Church's policy-making decisions. Canon law is almost always promulgated in Latin, but not because Latin is the official language of the church nor because Latin has any special claim to superiority in the expression of legal norms. Our canonist suggests that there are two principle reasons why Latin should, nevertheless, continue to be used "to make fundamental assertions about fundamental aspects of church teaching": (1) Latin [preserves] "doctrinal clarity"; (2) Latin [preserves] "ecclesiastical stability". I put "preserves" in square brackets because our canonist does not use that term, instead he says that "with Latin comes" these things, which is ambiguous between the idea that Latin brings these things along with it (where they might not have existed) and the slightly different idea that Latin keeps these things in place (where they have always been). I think "preserves" will work well enough for both, though it is also somewhat unclear.

With regard to "doctrinal clarity", one must immediately point out the paucity of the Latin vocabulary when it comes to matters of doctrine. It was, for example, the lack of a well-worked out vocabulary of procession in Latin that caused the controversy over the Filioque. The Greeks had at least four different words conveying different shades of meaning that Latin tried to compress into the single verb procedere. The resulting schism was undoubtedly grounded in many other issues, mostly political, but there is no denying that the theological differences between East and West that had been accumulating over the centuries were at least in part due to the inability of Latin to provide the "doctrinal clarity" that was already present in Greek. As a matter of fact, what most admirers of the Latin language seem to be most drawn to is not its clarity, but its ambiguity--this is what makes Vergil the greatest poet in the Western canon, according to many of his interpreters: his ability to express a wide variety of ideas in a very small number of words.

The Filioque is only the tip of the iceberg in this regard, but the notorious ambiguity of Latin, combined with its meagre philosophical and theological vocabulary, is only half the problem with our canonist's (1). The flip-side of this question is the simple fact that, if what one wants is "doctrinal clarity" there is no reason why Latin in particular ought to be the default language, because once you decide that there is to be a "default language" then any language will do, especially a language like English, which continues to evolve in a natural way via the use of native speakers who are able to deliver whatever clarity is required simply by explaining, in their native tongue, what they mean by a given expression. There are no native speakers of Latin, so there is no one who has the sort of linguistic authority to say "this is how I am using the term because this is how it is used in the course of natural usage"--all that can be said is "this is how I think previous users of the term meant to use it, and so that is how I am going to use it." But that does not deliver any kind of special "doctrinal clarity" that is proprietary to the Latin language per se. There remains, however, the idea that keeping things in Latin will mean that, at the very least, we're all still talking about the same terms that were being used in the previous centuries and, hopefully, the same concepts as well, concepts that we don't want to mess up by trying to translated them into our modes of expression.

This may be what our canonist was hoping to get at with his (2). This issue of "ecclesiastical stability" is rather interesting, because it can be taken in either an aesthetic or a doctrinal sense. Certainly the use of Latin throughout the Latin rite would make for some stability with respect to liturgical practice, but that is an aesthetic issue and not one that our canonist is trying to address. Rather I think he has in mind the sort of doctrinal stability that is alleged to come along with clarity and the continuity that I was just discussing. There are a number of objections that could be raised to this point. On the one hand, if we are talking about church polity, it is not clear that either clarity of language or continuity of use will be guaranteed by Latin any more than by any other language, since I have already suggested that Latin is not sui generis in the clarity department and even when there is great clarity of meaning people in general still find ways to get into disputes about normative matters. This disagreement will not be eliminated by continuing the use of Latin, since our canonist himself has already complained about the fact that discussing issues at two or three removes from the original is a dangerous way to proceed, and all discussions about the meaning of Latin terms are by their very nature already at a remove from the original, since there are no native Latin speakers. Everyone, even the fluent Latin scholar, has a different language template in place through which his understanding of Latin is filtered.

Our canonist softens his view, somewhat, at the end, by suggesting that his proposal is really only that, since Latin is the historically most important language of the Latin church, it should remain so, and debates can be in any language you like. This reduces Latin to a kind of antiquarian curiosity, and seems to me to vitiate any claims about its inherent clarity and ability to create stability, but I'm happy to agree that it's nice to still be able to buy books written in Latin, if that's what one likes to read, and I do. So if our canonist is admitting that, after all, it's really an aesthetic question, then perhaps we aren't so far apart after all, and de gustibus non disputandum est.

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 [...