Friday, December 16, 2016

A difference, to be a difference, must make a difference

Reposting an exchange I recently had with a Catholic church historian on Facebook:

1. In my experience, when Catholic apologists attack the Protestant faith, they stress the certainties afforded by a Magisterium, but when Protestants attack the Catholic faith, Catholic apologists suddenly take refuge in uncertainties. Any evidence that might falsify Catholicism is relegated to something insufficiently authoritative. Certainty, which had been so accessible when attacking the Protestant faith becomes inaccessible when Protestants counterattack. Now you see it, now you don't. When Catholic apologists are on the offensive, they advertise certainty. When Catholic apologists are on the defensive, they play hide and seek.

2. You ask, what constitutes sufficient evidence? It depends. Sufficient for what?

Let's distinguish between reasonable belief and dutiful belief. I have many beliefs for which I have sufficient evidence to be justified or warranted in which I believe. 

That, however, is different from the claim that God requires me to believe certain things. I can and do believe many things without having a divine obligation to believe them. 

Catholicism takes the position that in addition to Biblical revelation, I'm duty-bound to believe Catholic dogmas. It is sinful to disbelieve them. Indeed, it may be a mortal sin. For instance:

We declare, pronounce, and define that the doctrine which holds that the most Blessed Virgin Mary, in the first instance of her conception, by a singular grace and privilege granted by Almighty God, in view of the merits of Jesus Christ, the Savior of the human race, was preserved free from all stain of original sin, is a doctrine revealed by God and therefore to be believed firmly and constantly by all the faithful.

Hence, if anyone shall dare -- which God forbid! -- to think otherwise than as has been defined by us, let him know and understand that he is condemned by his own judgment; that he has suffered shipwreck in the faith; that he has separated from the unity of the Church; and that, furthermore, by his own action he incurs the penalties established by law if he should are to express in words or writing or by any other outward means the errors he think in his heart. "Ineffabilis Deus"

By the authority of our Lord Jesus Christ, of the Blessed Apostles Peter and Paul, and by our own authority, we pronounce, declare, and define it to be a divinely revealed dogma: that the Immaculate Mother of God, the ever Virgin Mary, having completed the course of her earthly life, was assumed body and soul into heavenly glory.

Hence if anyone, which God forbid, should dare willfully to deny or to call into doubt that which we have defined, let him know that he has fallen away completely from the divine and Catholic Faith. It is forbidden to any man to change this, our declaration, pronouncement, and definition or, by rash attempt, to oppose and counter it. If any man should presume to make such an attempt, let him know that he will incur the wrath of Almighty God and of the Blessed Apostles Peter and Paul. "Munificentissimus Deus."

What is sufficient evidence to justifiably believe something has a much lower threshold than what is sufficient evidence that I have a sacred duty to believe something, failing which I have sinned (perhaps a damnable sin, no less).

3. You said:

Just as you say that the "church of Rome" is a 'short-sighted, uninspired institution,' so many atheists insist that the Bible is nothing more than a collection of ancient books containing a savage 'Iron Age' (or sometimes, less accurately, 'Bronze Age') view of the world.

i) One problem with that analogy is that unless the evidence for Catholicism is comparable to the evidence for Scripture, it's reasonable to make allowances for Scripture that I wouldn't or shouldn't make for Catholicism. 

ii) Moreover, Another problem with your comparison is that when I interpret the Bible or defend the Bible, original intent is one of my hermeneutical principles. (Prophecy is a partial exception inasmuch as prophecies are forward-looking, so the perspective of the prophet isn't the only salient consideration. There's the timeframe of the prophet as well as the timeframe of the predicted event. So we have to take past and future viewpoints into account.)

By contrast, reinterpreting traditional positions is the opposite of original intent. So your comparison is disanalogous. You compared criticisms of Catholicism to criticisms of the Bible. 

ii) Furthermore, it would be necessary for you to unpack that comparison in detail. Hypothetically speaking, the Bible (indeed, Christianity) is falsifiable. Take Paul's statement about the Resurrection. 

Now, if (ex hypothesi) we discovered the bones of Jesus in the tomb, some theologians would say Christianity is still true. We just need to redefine the Resurrection. But Paul, for one, denies that Christianity is that flexible. Because it's based on ostensible historical events, it can't remain true if the foundational events never happened. 

I keep making this analogy because your complete dismissal of the unbeliever's perspective is one of the most consistent features of your posts. And, alas, even Jerry, who should know better, has been falling into the same error. You keep attacking Catholicism on grounds that logically refute Christianity as a whole.

Correct me if I'm wrong, but I'm guessing that you're a theological moderate. You don't subscribe to the inerrancy of Scripture. You don't think Gen 1-11 is historical. You don't think the Exodus happened, or if it did, it was nothing like Biblical descriptions. I'm guessing you don't think the Gospels are consistently historical. 

If so, your comparison is predicated a flexibility in your own position that's not analogous to my own position. The problem is with an ad hoc plasticity, which we impose on past events or past statements, rather than deriving from past events or past statements, whereby we make these adjustable to the perceived demands of modernity. Interjecting enough fudge factors that you can never say something was wrong or fundamentally wrong. It's an intellectual compromise that works for some people, but a makeshift compromise that lacks any principle other than indefinite adaptability.

I keep making this analogy because your complete dismissal of the unbeliever's perspective is one of the most consistent features of your posts.

I don't simply "dismiss" the unbeliever's perspective. I go out of my way to find the best exponents of atheism, then present a detailed critique of their arguments.

4. I don't always need to reinvent the wheel. When I cite supporting material by, say, Cardinal Dulles, that's a sympathetic source. I'd add that on Facebook it's more convenient to cite online material. That's something readily accessible to readers in a way that print media is not. 

Of course, Dulles isn't going to say the Magisterium falsified its claim to be a divine teaching office. As a Catholic prelate, he's committed to the system. So he and like-minded defenders will invoke escape clauses to show how these radical changes are someone consistent with essential continuity. Escape clauses invented on the spot for just that purpose. 

But in the course of his historical overviews, he lays out evidence for drastic changes in traditional positions. If that's consistent with the divine guidance of the Magisterium, what would be inconsistent with divine guidance? Within Catholicism, with its ace in the hole regarding gradations of authority, what would ever count as evidence against the system? 

5. Another problem is that these reassessments of traditional theology are necessarily retrospective. No one living in the Middle Ages (say) would understand these positions the way they've been domesticated by modern Catholic theologians, popes, and bishops. As a result, everything in Catholic theology is up for grabs, since the standard of comparison is no longer the past or present, but the future. Not what is or has been, but what might be. 

The church of Rome is like Neurath's ship, which undergoes constant remodeling after it leaves dry dock. You can no longer say what Catholicism is or means because that's subject to some unforeseeable future revision or reinterpretation. What is ever truly definitive? What is ever truly authoritative? 

6. Let's begin with a principle. Gertrude Stein famously said "A difference, to be a difference, must make a difference."

One way of testing whether the church of Rome has a divine teaching office is to ask what difference the presence or absence of a divine teaching office would make in Catholic historical theology. There must be a discernible difference. Let's begin one example I cited, from Cardinal Dulles. Among other things, he says:

The views of Augustine and Fulgentius remained dominant in the Christian West throughout the Middle Ages. The Fourth Lateran Council (1215) reaffirmed the formula “Outside the Church, no salvation,” as did Pope Boniface VIII in 1302. At the end of the Middle Ages, the Council of Florence (1442) repeated the formulation of Fulgentius to the effect that no pagan, Jew, schismatic, or heretic could be saved.

A major theological development occurred in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The voyages of discovery had by this time disclosed that there were large populations in North and South America, Africa, and Asia who had lived since the time of Christ and had never had access to the preaching of the gospel. The missionaries found no sign that even the most upright among these peoples had learned the mysteries of the Trinity and the Incarnation by interior inspirations or angelic visitations.

Pope Pius IX incorporated some of their ideas in two important statements in 1854 and 1863. In the first, he said that, while no one can be saved outside the Church, God would not punish people for their ignorance of the true faith if their ignorance was invincible. In the second statement, Pius went further. He declared that persons invincibly ignorant of the Christian religion who observed the natural law and were ready to obey God would be able to attain eternal life, thanks to the workings of divine grace within them.

Paul Knitter makes the same point:

i) That's not a development of doctrine, but a retraction of a traditional position that had been reaffirmed by two ecumenical councils and Pope Boniface VIII. That isn't "nuance". That's not a logical development of the principle. Rather, that's a radical departure from the principle. 

ii) If, moreover, you maintain that it's somehow internally consistent, you can only do so be resorting to radical skepticism concerning how official church teaching can be understood. That's not how the principle was understood in the Middle Ages, at the highest levels of the Magisterium. If past Magisterial statements can be that drastically reinterpreted, then there's no presumption that our understanding of modern Magisterial statements is any more stable in light of some future reinterpretation. 

iii) At best, it could be argued that this was an attempt to reconcile the traditional principle of "Extra ecclesiam nulla salus" with the belief of some Medieval theologians regarding God's universal salvific will. Yet that would mean you had a tension in Catholic theology between the traditional position (Extra ecclesiam nulla salus) and a newer, emerging position regarding the scope of God's salvific will. 

But how would this outcome be any different if the Catholic church never had a divine teaching office in the first place? Indeed, isn't this logjam exactly what we'd expect from an organization that can't see ahead, and therefore stakes out untenable positions from which it must later extricate itself? 

Even supposing that's consistent with a divine teaching office, it's equally consistent with no divine teaching office at all. What's your evidence to distinguish the effects of a divine teaching office from its absence? When modern Catholic theologians begin retrofitting Catholic theology in light of unforeseen contingencies like the discovery of pagans in the New World, how is that distinguishable from an organization that made the wrong call the first time around? 

7. Let's take another example: What's the official ecclesiology in Vatican II? Is it the more collegial, conciliarist model that the majority of bishops voted for, or is it the more ultamontane model in the "explanatory note" of Paul VI?

Paul VI was clearly alarmed by what the bishops promulgated, so he overruled it with his explanatory note. Yet these two competing models of ecclesiology bump up against each other in the final edition. Both were codified at the same council. 

If you think that train wreck is consistent with a divine teaching office, that's equally consistent with the absence of a divine teaching office. What appreciable difference did the stipulated divine teaching office make to the results? Indeed, wouldn't we expect a divine teaching office to be able to head off that train wreck in advance, rather than letting the two trains collide, then leaving it to onlookers to decide which has the upper hand?

8. Here's another example:

Before Mary’s bodily Assumption into heaven was defined, all theological faculties in the world were consulted for their opinion. Our teachers’ answer was emphatically negative... ’Tradition’ was identified with what could be proved on the basis of texts. Altaner, the patrologist from Würzburg...had proven in a scientifically persuasive manner that the doctrine of Mary’s bodily Assumption into heaven was unknown before the fifth century; this doctrine, therefore, he argued, could not belong to the ‘apostolic tradition.’ And this was his conclusion, which my teachers at Munich shared. This argument is compelling if you understand ‘tradition’ strictly as the handling down of fixed formulas and texts...But if you conceive of ‘tradition’ as a living process whereby the Holy Spirit introduces us to the fullness of truth and teaches us how to understand what previously we could still not grasp (cf. Jn 16:12-13), then subsequent ‘remembering’ (cf. Jn 16:4, for instance) can come to recognize what it had not caught sight of previously and yet w as handed down in the original Word, Milestones (Ignatius, 1998), 58-59.

Notice that this involves a twofold theological innovation:

i) To begin with, the particular doctrine (Assumption of Mary) is a theological innovation. It was unknown before the 5C. 

ii) In addition, the theory of development is a theological innovation. It represents a fundamental break with how the church of Rome used to define sacred tradition. Notice that the Assumption of Mary was promulgated despite unanimous opposition of Catholic theological faculties at the time. That's not just because the doctrine itself lacks traditional pedigree, but because the justification is yet another theology innovation. 

iii) It will hardly suffice to say "Catholicism allows for theological development" when that, in itself, represents a repeal of the traditional criterion.

9. Or consider how Mark Daviau blew off the question of whether the Leonine-era strictures of the PBC regarding the historicity and traditional authorship of Scripture are still in force. He indicated that the PBC strictures regarding the Pentateuch and Isaiah are passé. He was less clear about the PBC strictures regarding the Gospels. 

So there's another dilemma: were those pronouncements authoritative or not? If Magisterial teaching can become defunct in barely a century, what confidence should Catholics have in Magisterial teaching generally? What's the official status of the anti-modernist policies promulgated under Pius IX and Leo XIII? Has that been "developed" out of existence? If so, the evolution of Catholic theology is moving at light speed.

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