Sunday, April 10, 2005

Do-it-yourself popery

Dave Armstrong, a lay Catholic apologist, has replied, sort of, to a couple of things I posted on my blog a while back.

Last July, I had commented on a list of books in defense of Catholicism posted, as I recall, at his old Erasmus website. In his reply, he refers the reader to his annotated list at That, at least, is what I remember, so that further comment would draw us into an exercise in comparative higher criticism, which goes beyond the parameters of my original commentary.

I shall, however, venture a few replies. Armstrong draws attention to the Catechism of the Catholic Church. However, a catechism is, by common definition, a popular manual of Christian doctrine, and not a work of apologetics, in the sense of fundamental theology. It does not, therefore, afford a counter-example to my claim.
In addition, Armstrong says the following: >>

<< [This is strange logic indeed. By this "reasoning," a Protestant could argue:
1. The Bible is the sole infallible authority in Protestantism.
2. Laymen can make a case that the Bible is what it is.
3. This presents the striking phenomenon of a non-biblical defense of a Bible-heavy institution.
4. Therefore, who needs the Bible?
How does it follow that something is not necessary simply because an entity outside of it argues that it is true and necessary? >>

Unfortunately for Armstrong, his argument from analogy breaks down at the very point where it needs to hold fast. Protestant theology affirms the right of private judgment whereas Catholic theology denies it. Hence, there is no parallel between a lay Catholic apologist and a lay Protestant apologist at the relevant point of comparison.

<< Furthermore, the very magisterium that Mr. Hays absurdly attempts to pit against Catholic laypeople, has itself made it very clear that those laypeople have a definite, important role in apologetics and catechesis and evangelism: Vatican II: Decree on the Apostolate of Lay People (Apostolicam Actuositatem). That magisterial document states:

. . . the Council earnestly exhorts the laity to take a more active part, each according to his talents and knowledge and in fidelity to the mind of the Church, in the explanation and defense of Christian principles and in the correct application of them to the problems of our times.
(ch. II, section 6)] >>

Quoting from the magisterium to prove the consistency of his practice merely begs the question.

i) Cardinal Ratzinger, for one, is quite aware of the tension: “The faith no longer seemed exempt from human decision-making but rather was now apparently determined by it. And we knew that the bishops had learned from the theologians the new things they were now could the bishops in the exercise of their teaching office preside over theologians when they, the bishops, received their insights only from specialists and thus were dependent on the guidance of scholars?” J. Ratzinger, Milestones (Ignatius 1998), 133.

ii) The logical tension remains. An institution which denies the right of private judgment in favor of the magisterium is dependent on the private opinion of extra-magisterial consultants for dogmatic guidance.

And the same tension is evident when the magisterium delegates the explanation and defense of the faith to the laity.

By way of reply, Armstrong says that:

<< [only insofar as we are in harmony with what that magisterium teaches, as the Council explained in my citation above. And -- to be clear -- we lay apologists have no "authority" per se: we only have more or less degrees of truth in what we assert is the Church's teaching. If we defend what is actual Church teaching, then our activities are perfectly legitimate and fully Catholic, and indeed highly encouraged by the Church -- as the magisterium confirms] >>

Armstrong is now propping up one question-begging assertion with another. When the laity speaks for the magisterium, rather than vice versa, how do we know that what they say on behalf of the magisterium is, in fact, harmonious with magisterial teaching?

In reply to my statement that the real Roman Catholicism is represented by the likes of Rahner and Raymond Brown, Armstrong counters that:

<< [Raymond Brown was not even an orthodox Catholic in many beliefs. Yet Mr. Hays wants to lift him up as an example of "real Catholicism," while in effect denigrating the above monumental figures] >>

This reply is striking on several counts:

i) Among the “above monumental figures” listed by Armstrong is Socrates. So Socrates was an Orthodox Catholic, but Raymond Brown was not. I'm afraid that this leaves me a bit mystified by how Armstrong defines the outer bounds of orthodox Catholicism. Does the name of Socrates crop up in the False Decretals somewhere? I must have missed that.

ii) Ratzinger would be another one of the “monumental figures” whom I implicitly “denigrate.” This also raises mysterious questions as to how Armstrong draws the lines. In #59 of his “150 Reasons Why I am a Catholic,” Armstrong had said that “Liberal Protestantism, and evangelicalism increasingly, have accepted "higher critical" methods of biblical interpretation.“

Yet Cardinal Ratzinger, for one, has also accepted higher critical methods of biblical interpretation. Just consider the following statement: “The moment when creation became a dominant theme occurred during the Babylonian Exile. It was then that the account that we have just heard-based, to be sure, on very ancient traditions-assumed its present form,” J. Ratzinger, In the Beginning (Eerdmans 1995), 10-11.

Now anyone conversant with the history of higher criticism can see that this is just a variant on the old Graf-Wellhausen Hypothesis. If Ratzinger had written this during the papacy of Pius IX or Leo XIII, he would have been defrocked.

iii) Back to Brown--didn't his publications receive the Nihil Obstat, Imprimi Potest, and Imprimatur before going to press? But that isn't good enough for Armstrong. You see, when push comes to shove, he doesn't put his faith in the official review process and accountability system which the magisterium has put in place to ensure that Catholic authors are orthodox. That is why Armstrong is, at bottom, a skin-deep convert. All he's done is to exchange sola Scriptura for lay Popery.

iv) Of course, if Armstrong doesn't like Raymond Brown, there are plenty of other examples to prove the same point. What about Joseph Fitzmyer, very much the higher critic, who's a member of the Pontifical Biblical Commission, no less. Or what about Cardinal Koenig, who persuaded the Vatican II Council to recant on the Church's traditional adherence to the plenary inspiration of Scripture? How high up the latter would Armstrong like to go?

Regarding my 3-part series on “Back to Babylon,” all Armstrong can do is to say that I make “many absurd statements,” and then quote a short passage. Unfortunately for Armstrong, adjectives (“absurd”) are a poor substitute for reasoned argument, and quoting something someone has said hardly amounts to a refutation of what he said. Had he backed up his adjectives with something resembling a counter-argument, then that would be different, but as it stands, there is no choo-choo pulling his caboose.

Finally, Armstrong rounds out with an ad hominem inquiry regarding my credentials. This is odd coming from Armstrong. What are his credentials? He is not a bishop or even a priest. He doesn't teach theology at a Catholic university.

Well, Dave, just between you and me, I'm the last surviving member of the Illuminati. Our order can trace its ordination in unbroken apostolic succession straight back to the last true Pope, Urban VI. You can find all this meticulously documented in the Ethiopic version of the False Decretals. I conceal my true identity so that hit-men from Opus Dei don't erase me from the space-time continuum. It's a lonely existence, but someone's got to do it, and I've been assured a reduced sentence of 52 years, 7 months, 3 weeks, 2 days, 5 hours, 4 minutes, and 59 seconds in Purgatory for my supererogatory efforts.


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