Sunday, July 14, 2019

A Path from Rome

In this post I'll be quoting some passages from Anthony Kenny's intellectual autobiography, A Path from Rome (Oxford 1986). He's a former priest who left the priesthood due to intellectual doubts. He later became an important philosopher. As a gifted young man he received a topnotch Catholic education, by the standards of the day. And I daresay the standards were probably more rigorous back then than they are today, for prospective priests:

Any violation of the Catholic sexual code was, of its nature, a mortal sin; a sexual sin could be venial only if there was some lack of knowledge or consent involved. This meant that a voluntary dwelling on a sexual fantasy put one in danger of Hell if not promptly repented and confessed. It became an agonizing question whether one had, on a given occasion, "consented" to the fantasy; and consent seemed such an ethereal, elusive event, difficult for even the most intrepid introspection to pin down with certainty. 

As a child I had been puzzled by the catechism's denunciation of "the irregular motions of the flesh"; with the onset of puberty, I became a little clearer about what it was that the sixth commandment existed to stop me doing. However, though there were frequent exhortations to purity, clear information about what sex was and what it was for played no part in the syllabus. (That is not quite correct: sex instruction was imparted, along with the relevant part of moral theology, to 23-year-old divines the year before their ordination)…I remained ignorant of the nature of human reproduction until I was about fifteen. Then, one day during the vacation, I confessed to my parish priest that I had sinned by reading a pious book on the Virgin Birth for an unworthy motive, namely  to discover about birth and conception. The priest, a mild, unconventional and very erudite Benedictine, was not as shocked as I expected. He gave me a very thorough explanation of the mechanics of sex and reproduction in a concrete but unprurient manner. I was much luckier than several of my companions at Upholland who remained ignorant of sex until eighteen or later…

Most people who have never heard confessions imagine that it must be an enthralling experience to listen to people confiding their most shameful secrets. In fact the hearing of confessions consists of hours of tedium occasionally relieved by embarrassment. Interestingly wicked people never go to confession at all; most of those who go do not realize what their real sins are. So most confessions are repetitions of short catalogues of unimportant and humdrum sins. The moments of embarrassment most frequently occur in connection with the confession of sexual sins. The priest is obliged to satisfy himself that every mortal sin has been confessed specifically; it will not do , for instance, for the sinner to accuse himself of being unchaste, he must specify whether he is guilty of adultery, fornication, &c. Consequently, if a penitent says "I did something dirty", the confessor must embark on a series of questions to elicit the nature of the sin. 

I did indeed become depressed and worried about the prospect of continuing my studies for the priesthood. More and more of what I was taught seemed either muddled or incredible. The proofs we were offered for the existence of God all seems to contain serious flaws; many of the philosophical theories we were taught seemed implausible constructions invented to shore up particular theological doctrines. 

All material bodies, we were told, were made up of substance and accidents; the substance appeared to be an invisible metaphysical core around which the accidents clustered like wrapping…the metaphysics we were taught appeared to save the coherence of transubstantiation only at the cost of calling in question our knowledge of every ordinary material object. For all I could tell, my typewriter might be Benjamin Disraeli transubstantiated; since all I could see were mere accidents, and I lacked any metaphysical eye to see through to the real substance. 

In ways like this the philosophy we were learning came to seem less and less credible, and its incredibility connected directly with specific Catholic dogmas…The implausibility of the philosophy did strain the student's faith in the dogmas themselves; if they needed support from such a ramshackle philosophy, how could they be sound in themselves?…I was also full of foreboding about the life I was committing myself to; I began to realize what misery could lie in a life devoted to the spread of doctrines in which one only half-believed. 

So when the Council of Trent says that the substance of the bread and wine turns into the substance of Christ's body and blood, it simply means that the bread and wine turns into the body and blood. But why does the notion of turning into crop up at all? There is no mention of it in Scripture. It was introduced by Aquinas as the only possible explanation of the presence of Christ's body under the appearances of bread and wine after the consecration: Christ is there because something which was there has turned into him. But, Aquinas insists, and after him the Council of Constance, the accidents which remain, the whiteness and roundness, do not inhere in Christ; if they'd, then Christ himself would be white and round. But the principle that the accidents inhere in no substance, however, leaves one problem: among the accidental categories of Aristotle is the category of place. "…is on the altar", for instance, is an accidental predicate. But if the accidents which once belong to the bread do not inhere after consecration in the substance of Christ's body, then it appears that it by no means follows from the presence of the host on the altar that Christ is present on the altar. Thus the doctrine of transubstantiation appears in the end to fail to secure that for which alone it was originally introduced, namely the real presence of Christ's body under the sacramental species. 

It was an essential part of having the virtue of faith, without which neither charity nor salvation was possible, that one should believe all the defined doctrines; one could not pick and choose. To fail to believe even one was not only sinful in itself, it called in question one's belief in all the other doctrines: for one could not be believing them with the correct motive, namely that they were revealed by God through Christ and his Church. That is why, for a Catholic, a doubt about any doctrine is, in a manner, a doubt about every doctrine.

The whole account of faith given by the Church troubled me…to accept something as an arcticle of faith one had to accept a number of historical facts: as that the article had been defined by the Church, that the authority claimed by the Church had been conferred on it by Jesus in well-known passages of the Gospels, that the Pope was the successor of St Peter and spoke with the  authority given to him. Now these historical assertions were vulnerable to the progress of history and exegesis, and many of them were hotly controverted by scholars of standing. And if these "preambles of faith" could not be objects of irrevocable assent, how could the faith which rested on them be irrevocable?

I was assigned to treat the topic of development of doctrine. Catholics were taught that revelation had ceased with the death of the last Apostle, and that the Faith was unchanging. How was this to be reconciled with the manifest variation in the theological beliefs recorded during the long history of the Church?…It was easy to say the doctrine of the Church could change only in accidental matters not in essential ones. For it look as if only after the event could we tell which elements at a given time were essential. If so, something now regarded as essential, e.g. the wrongness of contraception, might turn out with hindsight to have been accidental. If a doctrine is defined, then it must be definable. And if definable, it must be contained–whether we should ever have guessed this for ourselves or not–in Scripture and tradition. For revelation ceased with the death of the last Apostle. If we accept these criteria, then no difficulty can be brought against the doctrine of the immutability of faith. The only trouble is, that our criteria render the doctrine impregnable only at the cost of making it vacuous. For we say–in order to avoid Modernism–that the Church teaches only those doctrines that are contained in Scripture and tradition. Then we ask: which doctrines are contained in Scripture and tradition? In order to avoid both the inadequacy of private judgment and the difficulties of Church history, we reply: those doctrines are contained in Scripture and tradition which the Church teaches. We have come round in a circle. 


  1. "I was assigned to treat the topic of development of doctrine. Catholics were taught that revelation had ceased with the death of the last Apostle, and that the Faith was unchanging. How was this to be reconciled with the manifest variation in the theological beliefs recorded during the long history of the Church?"

    The CC pays a lip service to its teaching of having in possession the "faith deposited once for all." I cannot imagine now that I completely believed this nonsense back then as a Catholic knowing fully well that many of the recent dogmas in the RCC popped out of nowhere.

    All informed Catholics I know, person or by their works, still believe it and strangely I know exactly how convinced they might feel about it as I was one such person not too long ago. What worked for me was a paradigm shift in my thinking. Without that, I would have perhaps still justified this cr*p.

    1. In the average conservative Catholic, do they have any thoughts about development of doctrine as articulated by Newman? When talking about "no salvation outside the church" by converts, I tend to see them talking about this, but at other times it sounds like they believe the priesthood & papacy was there from the beginning.

    2. Uninformed Catholics dont care about these discussions but informed Catholics have an intuitive sense about Newman's thesis as it is alluded to in many a Catholic apologetics/exposition. I have not encountered a single Catholic who had any doubt about the sanity and the validity of Newman's thesis. In fact, it made perfect sense - the understanding of Trinity, for example, was a classic undeniable case.

      Newman basically says that every Catholic doctrine that is formed, or will be formed - is already present in scripture and sacred tradition - but it may not be as manifest as some of the other more "clear" doctrines like the divinity of Christ, etc. The seed is there - as the Catholic faith is not a changing faith in terms of adding to the deposit of faith.
      So all doctrines are there, per CC, from the beginning. That is by definition. All doctrines, however, may not be clearly manifest from the beginning.

      As far as I can tell, most Catholics believe that the priesthood and the papacy are more clearer of the doctrines out there in that they are, say, 70-75% clearly revealed in scripture and understood as such in the early church. The modifications to these over the years is just the Church clarifying the remaining 25-30%.
      According to Catholicism, the CC merely clarifies already existing doctrines (even in seedling form) with the passage of time.

    3. I was talking to a Catholic during the pope's visit to Philly who seemed to be pretty knowledgeable. He wanted to use development when I brought up that there wasn't an early papacy. I called him on that pretty quickly.

      When they use the Trinity to prove development of something that didn't exist early on, that's just too much.