Thursday, September 21, 2017

Catholicism of the mind

Bryan Cross:

Today some Protestants publicized what they call a “Reformed Catholic Confession” that at least 250 have signed as of today. Much of the content of this Confession, of course, is common ground with the doctrine of the Catholic Church. And at least one of the intentions of the authors of this Confession seems to be growth in unity among Protestant Christians, for which I’m thankful. But this Confession neither bears any authority nor is formally or explicitly intended to be authoritative. Insofar as it is entirely a non-authoritative statement of the signers, it does not face the problems I described above with Clark’s position. Hence for that reason, just as with all the other Protestants confessions made over the past five hundred years, it is merely an historical record of what the signers presently believe, a sort of publicized theological snapshot or ‘selfie’ of the present theological position of persons brought together by their interpretive agreement with those who share the same general interpretation as themselves. Regarding the problem of ad hoc ‘catholicity,’ see the section with the heading “Ad hoc catholicity” in Matt Yonke’s article “Too catholic to be Catholic?: A Response to Peter Leithart,” and the section titled “Confidence and the Consensus Criterion” in my reply to Christianity Today‘s Mark Galli, along with comment #16 under that post. And see the last paragraph of my reply to Carl Trueman in comment #89 under Brantly Millegan’s CTC review of Brad Gregory’s The Unintended Reformation.

However, insofar as this Confession sets itself up implicitly as an arbiter for all other Christians (or even for all Protestants) of what is or isn’t “catholic,” and is or isn’t “mere” Christianity, it arrogates to itself an authority it does not have, and thereby faces the problems I described above with Clark’s position. For example, this Confession treats Catholic doctrines concerning the Eucharist, ordination, baptism, Tradition, etc. as not part of what is “catholic” and “mere Christianity,” while it treats sola scriptura and the first four ecumenical councils as inside the bounds of “catholic” and “mere Christianity.” And this “catholicity” excludes Church Fathers as well. Tomorrow, for example, we (Catholics) celebrate the feast of the Church Father St. Chrysostom. But what St. Chrysostom teaches about the priesthood and about the Eucharistic sacrifice is incompatible with the “mere Christianity” of this “Reformed Catholic Confession.” In other words, this Confession is not sufficiently ‘catholic’ to include St. Chrysostom. And because not only St. Chrysostom but all the Church Fathers taught doctrines that are Catholic and incompatible with Protestantism, this Confession excludes them as well. So this implication not only raises a red flag, but it also raises the question of who has the authority to determine what is and is not ‘catholic,’ and what does and does not belong to Christianity.

The Church Fathers all believed and taught that the authority by which such questions were to be answered rested in the bishops who received this authority in succession from the Apostles. The authors of this Confession performatively arrogate this particular authority to themselves by what they include within the Confession and what they exclude from it. And throughout Church history there have been heretical and schismatic groups that did the same, banding together around their shared heretical beliefs (mixed with orthodox doctrines), and arrogating to themselves the authority to determine what is and isn’t orthodoxy, catholic, etc. Such groups and their confessions fade into history over the centuries, even as the Church carries on. Lumen Gentium teaches that many elements of sanctification and of truth are found outside of the Church’s visible structure; these elements, as gifts belonging to the Church of Christ, are forces impelling toward catholic unity. (Lumen Gentium, 8) May those elements and truths continue to impel our Protestant brothers and sisters toward the true catholic unity which is full visible communion with the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church Christ founded.

i) I agree with Bryan that by framing the issue in terms of "catholicity", the document draws ad hoc distinctions. Of course, that's true of ecumenism generally. 

ii) But notice how Bryan can't think outside of his "authority" paradigm. Like Catholic apologists generally, he suffers from tunnel vision as he obsessively recasts the issue in terms of "authority" rather than truth or evidence. Why does a creed need to be authoritative rather than true? Put another way, why isn't truth inherently authoritative? 

The relevant question shouldn't be "who has the authority to determine X", but whether the statement is true, and whether we can assess the truth or falsity of the statement by available evidence. By what "authority" did Bryan decide to convert to Catholicism? Not by Magisterial authority, for at that stage of his investigations and reflections, he wasn't convinced of Catholicism. He had to exercise his (gasp!) private judgment. In his personal fallible opinion, the church of Rome is the One True Church®.

iii) In addition, for converts like Bryan, their reference point isn't the empirical Catholic church. The object of their faith isn't the Catholic church as it actually presents itself in the course of church history. Not an audible, visible, verifiable organization, but the church as it exists in their minds. The Roman church as an idealized mental construct or mental projection. The Roman church as a philosophical solution to what they perceive to be the philosophical problem of Protestant epistemology. They don't convert to Catholicism based on evidence for Catholicism. Rather, they convert to Catholicism despite evidence to the contrary. They are captivated by a pristine idea that magically transcends the contradictions of Catholic history. 

iv) Incidentally, Bryan was raised in Pentecostalism, and he's publicly discussed the death of his 3-year-old son in 1995. One wonders if that wasn't the catalyst that triggered his exit out of Protestantism and eventually into Catholicism. He was raised in a theological tradition that inculcates expectant faith in miraculous healing. So that tragedy wasn't supposed to be in the cards. For many people, their childhood religion remains their frame of reference. Even if they rebel against their childhood religion, that's the standard of comparison. They continue to measure the alternatives by that yardstick. 

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