Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Catholic fundamentalism

To judge by the reaction that I and others get from many Catholic commenters, I think one basic problem is that many Catholics are getting their version of Catholicism, not from Catholic theologians, but from lay Catholic apologists, including some recent converts to the faith. (Not to mention Catholics who get their theology from Mother Angelica.) These apologists paint a fundamentalistic picture of Catholicism. They think that Evangelicalism is fraught with uncertainties, and Catholicism is the deus ex machina which sweeps away these alleged uncertainties. When you read a Catholic theologian, by contrast, he will frequently present a far more nuanced and concessive view. For example, let’s contrast the version of the Magisterium we’re treated to in lay apologetic circles with some of the caveats in Cardinal Dulles’ exposition:

“Bishop Cardoni, in his votum on infallibility at Vatican I, made the point that the pope is seriously obliged, under pain of sin, to take the necessary means to ascertain that his [dogmatic] definition in fact conforms with the Christian revelation…The inseparability of the definition from the process raises questions as to whether we are here confronted, in effect, with a new condition [of infallibility]. What if it were evident that in a given case the pope did not have access to certain essential data or did not take the requisite measures to ascertain what was in Scripture or tradition? Are we to assume that a miracle would supply for the diligence lacking to the pope?” “Moderate Infallibilism,” P. Empie et al eds. Teaching Authority & Infallibility in the Church (Augsburg 1980), 89-91.

“In response to questions such as these, many appeal to divine providence as assuring that the pope will not abuse his powers as supreme teacher in cases involving infallibility…Although accepted by many theologians from Joseph Leutgen to Karl Rahner, this argument from divine providence has some weaknesses. In general, it is hazardous to appeal to what God in his providence would or would not permit. He has permitted doubts and disagreements to persist for some time about who is the true pope, and this would seem to be an evil at least as great as a particular error in papal teaching,” ibid. 91.

“Further, the argument appears to assume too hastily that an erroneous papal teaching under the claim of infallibility would destroy the faith of the universal Church. Why could not the faithful find ways of recognizing the error through theological criticism being brought to bear on the pronouncement, through the unfavorable reaction of the bishops and other pastors, and through the inward teaching of the Holy Spirit which, according to Vatican II, gives a certain inerrancy to the faith of the entire people of God (Lumen gentum 12)?” ibid. 91.

“Perhaps in our day, thanks to a greater appreciation of the many ways in which the Spirit instructs the Church, we should recognize that adequate investigation of the sources of revelation is a true condition for an infallible teaching,” ibid. 91.

“Again, Vatican I did not rule out the view of most theologians since the Middle Ages that it is possible for a pope to fall into heresy or schism. If he did so, he would presumably be incapable of validly exercising his office (since heresy and schism, if externally manifested, automatically excommunicate from the Church). Thus, any alleged definitions issued by a schismatical or heretical pope would be invalid. But it is not always easy to determine what deviations amount to heresy or schism. Hence in some cases it could be doubtful whether the pope were validly defining,” ibid. 92.

“In view of the transcendence of the content of faith, one may properly hesitate to employ expressions such as ‘revealed doctrines,’ although such expressions appear in some church documents (e.g. DS 3803, defining the Immaculate Conception). It must be recognized that the categories used in ecclesiastical definitions are human and that the definitions therefore fall short of adequately expressing the content of revelation itself. Dogmas must be seen as human formulations of the Word of God, formulations not undialectically identified with the revelation they transmit. Thus it is possible that one and the same faith may be expressed in formulas that stand in tension with one another and, indeed, that seem contradictorily opposed,” ibid. 93.

“Did Vatican I assume too rapidly that the faithful were abjectly dependent for the content of their faith on the authoritative teaching of the pope, so that if he erred they would all be led inevitably into the same errors? Do we today count more, as suggested above, on the many ways in which the Holy Spirit teaches the faithful and on their capacity, thanks to these resources, to detect the errors even of a pope? If so, can we not admit more conditions to infallible teaching than were explicitly recognized by Vatican I?” ibid. 95.

“Regarding the concepts and terms in use at Vatican I, it may be sufficient to point out that these depended very much on the presuppositions and perspectives just examined. The fathers at that Council had a highly authoritarian mentality; they saw truth as descending from above, that is to say, from the highest pastors in the Church, through subordinate or local pastors, to the simple faithful in the pews. They had a relatively static view of the universe and operated more easily with juridical and metaphysical than with historical or psychological methodologies. These factors must be borne in mind when the contemporary reader, from the standpoint of a more dynamic and empirical approach to reality, reads in the conciliar texts terms such as ex cathedra, ‘irreformable,’ ‘definition,’ and ‘infallibility’,” ibid. 96.


  1. "When you read a Catholic theologian, by contrast, he will frequently present a far more nuanced and concessive view. For example, let’s contrast the version of the Magisterium we’re treated to in lay apologetic circles with some of the caveats in Cardinal Dulles’ exposition"

    Good point Steve. And to build off your point, oftentimes the purported "nuance" is so convoluted that it often makes Catholic doctrine appear to die a death by a thousand qualifications.

  2. You seem to be highlighting three concessions in Dulles' book:

    (1) A Pope might fall into heresy and schism, at which point he would cease to be Pope. That is true.

    (2) The conditions for infallibility laid down by Vatican I might not be sufficient conditions; there might be other necessary conditions. For instance, perhaps if we can determine that the Pope didn't study the question enough before defining, his definition might not be infallible after all. This is nonsense.

    (3) Verbal formulations of doctrine do not exhaust meaning of the truths they express. This is true, and I would assume that you would agree.

  3. ben douglass said...

    “(3) Verbal formulations of doctrine do not exhaust meaning of the truths they express. This is true, and I would assume that you would agree.”

    Hi Ben,

    No, his position seems to be more radical than that. He regards human language as inadequate to express transcendent truths.

    Speaking for myself, I don’t share his scepticism in that regard. However, Vatican II does make a similar concession about human concepts and human formulations, so even though I don’t go along with that myself, it’s sufficient for purposes of an internal critique.

  4. Do you believe that we can predicate attributes of God univocally, or only analogically? I affirm the latter. The statement "God is good" is not univocal because the divine goodness transcends the creature's conception of goodness. The statement really means "whatever is called good in creatures subsists in God in a more exalted manner."

    If this is all Dulles is saying, he is well within the bounds of traditional Catholic theology. I'd hav to read him for myself to determine if he's saying anything more radical.

  5. Hi Ben,

    Dulles seems to be expressing himself in terms reminiscent of Kantian epistemology. So I don’t know if he’s a neo-Thomist, a la Rahner or Maréchal. Dulles is very prolific, so he way well have explicated his religious epistemology elsewhere.

    As to your question for me, that’s a good question, but a very intricate question. I’d begin with metaphysics, not epistemology. I agree with the Medieval exemplarist tradition that God’s nature is imitable. So there’s an ontological analogy between divine and human nature. God is like us in certain respects. Of course, the divine mode of subsistence is sui generis, which affects the way in which God is like (or unlike) us. I agree with the Leibnizian definition of creation by limitation.

    Moving from ontology to epistemology, I’m not as much of an empiricist as Aquinas, Scotus, or Occam. On the other hand, I’m not a pure Platonist either. My position is midday between Augustine and Aquinas (roughly speaking).

    I believe in sense knowledge. But I also believe in innate universal ideas. I don’t think all our knowledge derives from sensory input. Rather, I think sensory input doesn’t so much cause us to discover new ideas, but to recognize and refine innate ideas, learning how they are concretely exemplified in time and space.

    For example, I don’t necessarily regard infinity as an idea which we arrive at by extrapolation from finite series. I think it’s possible to begin with the idea of an actual infinite, of which a potential infinite is a limit.

    Put another way, I don’t regard certain ideas like timelessness or spacelessness as essentially privative. As a linguistic convention, we may express these ideas using negations, but I don’t think we have to arrive at the idea by that process.

    I’d also distinguish between analogy and metaphor. All metaphors are analogies, but not all analogies are metaphors. An analogue watch and a digital watch (or sundial) are analogous, but one is not a metaphor for another.

    So while our knowledge of God is analogical, it can also be literal rather than metaphorical. Of course, Scripture uses divine metaphors, but not all God-talk is inherently metaphorical And, at a high enough level of abstraction, an analogy (or metaphor) is univocal.

    There’s no necessary antithesis between analogy and univocity. If you begin with an analogy, and abstract away the disanalogous features, you can arrive at a point of (conceptual, not ontological) identity.

    I don’t think that God-talk is essentially different from other, mundane analogies (e.g. different kinds of timepieces).

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