Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Catholicism in the dock

I'll be doing a few posts on a recent introduction to Catholicism: Thomas Joseph White, The Light of Christ: An Introduction to Catholicism (CUA 2017). I believe this is regarded as the best contemporary overview of Roman Catholicism, so it's a good foil. 

This constancy and universality of Catholic tradition are features that no historian can fail to notice (34).

To the contrary, many church historians notice the inconstancy and provinciality of Roman Catholic tradition. After all, many church historians are Protestant or Eastern Orthodox. For that matter, modern Catholic church historians acknowledge dramatic discontinuities. 

Nor can critics of Catholic tradition avoid making use of some king of tradition of their own. On a practical level, the rejection of tradition is not a realistic option for anyone who takes scripture seriously. For as soon as we begin to articulate what we think scripture means (or any other book for that matter), we inevitably set a precedent that can be accepted, denied, or qualified by another. In this way, every text that has a seminal role in human culture also acquires traditions of interpretation down through time, and these are embodied in turn in living communities that promote them or distort them, alter them creatively or develop them homogeneously, reject them or maintain them…To remain constant in any teaching down through time, any community that wishes to maintain its own unity must not only have principles, but also develop a commonality of vital intellectual teaching that is passed on to others across time and place.

The Catholic Church does not dispute whether scripture is to be read within tradition or to be read outside of it, but whether it is to be read according to the human traditions of a John Calvin (some of  whose key teachings function practically as a magisterium of reference for many over centuries) or through recourse to the Catholic tradition and established teachings of the Church. The realistic question is not whether we will have a tradition, but which one are we to have (34-35).

i) The claim that critics of Catholicism can't avoid referencing a tradition of their own is at odds with the common assertion that Protestants are guilty of proposing theological innovations. But a theological position can't be simultaneously traditional and innovative.

There's a first time for everything. It's quite possible for a theologian to make a break with the past.  

ii) However, White objection misses the larger point. The question is whether tradition is regarded as intrinsically authoritative and unquestionable. Tradition as an argument from ecclesiastical authority, that isn't subject to review. 

That's quite different from tradition as an interpretation of Scripture that appeals to reason and evidence rather than authority. There is moreover, a difference between interpretations that become traditions and traditions that prejudge the meaning of Scripture.

There are traditional interpretations in the sense of a tradition that starts out as an interpretation of Scripture, then becomes traditional, and something that starts out as a tradition, then casts about for prooftexts to retroactively validate a tradition that developed independently of Scripture.

In addition, some traditional interpretations become dogma. The tradition is frozen in place and becomes the foundation for a theological skyscraper. But that's different from a traditional interpretation that remains subject to scrutiny. Traditional interpretations that must prove themselves to each new Christian generation. Traditions that are responsive to logic and evidence. 

iii) It's true that some Protestants pay lip-service to sola Scriptura. But that's because humans are social creatures, so theological tribalism is a powerful impulse. Yet there's the same dynamic in Catholic affiliation. If the correct interpretation of Scripture is ascertainable, then sooner or later someone will come up with the correct interpretation. It's not inconsistent with sola scriptura for the right interpretation, whoever is the first to publish it, to become a traditional interpretation. 

To expect each person to adjudicate for himself each and every possible Christian teaching within the course of a lifetime is absurd. Consequently, we do depend upon interpretations of others inevitably, and our own interpretations do contribute to those of a larger community. We are bound to receive the greater part of our understanding of revelation from a life in community with others (35).

It doesn't occur to White that his objection cuts both ways. Each cradle Catholic or convert to Catholicism can't adjudicate for himself each and every possible Christian teaching within the course of a lifetime. They rely on others to do the sorting and sifting for them. But then, isn't their preference for Catholicism just a coin toss? They haven't systematically compared and contrasted the competing theological alternatives. 

Therefore, God has established in the Church from the beginning a living stream of apostolic tradition that is continuously maintained and safeguarded by divinely instituted authority. Had he not done so, a thousand incompatible interpretations of scripture on major issues would proliferate inevitably among Christian believers and splinter them into a disbanded set of divided communities (35).

i) How many interpretations there are is irrelevant. The salient question is whether there's a best interpretation. The most reasonable interpretation. Does the evidence point to the superiority of one interpretation? 

ii) White can't legitimately stipulate that Catholicism is the solution, for Catholicism is itself one of the myriad contenders. 

Furthermore, without such a unified tradition maintained down through time, no one person would ever be able to come to a comprehensive set of judgments about the truths of the faith, simply due to the sheer volume of enigmatic questions posed from theological controversies down through the ages (35).

i) Catholic apologists always frame theological/hermeneutical diversity as a problem for Protestantism. A problem generated by sola Scriptura. Yet that only follows if in fact Catholicism is the true alternative. But what if Catholicism is false?

What if the problem, or situation, is generated, not by Protestantism, but by reality? What if that's the actual situation God has put us in?

To take a comparison, consider the problem of evil. Atheists say that problem is generated by Christian theology. 

But Christians counter that the problem is generated, not by Christian theology, but by reality. That's the actual situation God has put us in.

As I see the world, sometimes God intervenes and sometimes he doesn't. There's a seeming randomness in divine intervention. Who gets the healing miracle and who doesn't. Who gets his prayer answered and who doesn't. Who gets divine guidance and who doesn't. Who gets a divine sign and who doesn't. 

I'm not saying it's actually random. More like God's special providence surfaces from time to time. But on the face of it, it often appears as though God has thrown us back on our own resources. Divine guidance is not continuous but occasional and unpredictable. There's no oracle that answers all our questions. 

ii) White is appealing to an idealized version of Catholicism. A paper theory. But to an outsider, the behavior of the Rome church is indistinguishable from an organization that lacks supernatural direction. An organization that's making things up on the fly. That changes position in response to unforeseen developments. A fumbling, bumbling, stumbling organization with pretensions to divine superintendence. 

The Church is not above scripture. She is only ever subordinate to scripture. But under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, the advocate that was promised to her… (35).

i) Catholic apologists and theologians say the church is subordinate to Scripture rather than above it, but if, according to them, the Magisterium is the arbiter of what Scripture means, then Scripture means whatever the Magisterium says it means. So that puts the Magisterium above Scripture. Scripture can never act as an independent check on the Magisterium if the Magisterium is the definitive interpreter. 

ii) Moreover, in Jn 14-16, Jesus didn't promise the Spirit to "the Church", much less the pope or the Roman Magisterium, but to the Eleven. This is a classic example of how Catholics read out of Scripture what they first read into Scripture. 

Catholic appeal to Scripture is circular inasmuch as Scripture is only allowed to mean whatever meaning the Magisterium assigns to Scripture. But in that event, how do they establish the authority of the Magisterium in the first place? 

Modern biblical scholarship, when done well, achieves modest results…None of this is trivial, but none of it proves that Christianity is true either. For that, supernatural faith is necessary because the subject matter of Christianity is a mystery that transcends natural human reason (25).

What would be stranger–in fact illogical in its own right–would be the claim God has revealed himself most certainly but that we might just as certainly deny the capacity of the Church to identify his teaching with any certitude. If the Church cannot teach infallibly, then we are in fact required to say something absurd of just this kind: "God has revealed himself, but the Church can never say with assurance what God has revealed" (37). 

i) To begin with, suppose our interpretations do fall short of certainty? But unless all interpretations are equally uncertain, why is that a problem?

ii) White appeals to "supernatural faith", which seems to function as a makeweight. "Supernatural faith" closes the gap between evidence and certainty. But even if we grant that paradigm, how does that principle select for Catholicism? Why can't Protestant epistemology appeal to "supernatural faith"?

iii) White is shooting a hole in the bottom of his own boat. If, by his own admission, scholarship falls short to proving Christianity, then even by his own lights, the case for Catholicism can only achieve probability rather than certainty. At this stage of the argument he can't invoke the infallibility of the church to bridge the gap since that in itself is one of those hotly-contested issues where he relies on his fallible interpretation of the historical sources. 

iv) Catholic apologists are looking for a mechanism to secure assurance. They locate that mechanism in the Magisterium.

But what about divine providence? We might compare the relationship between providence and theological/hermeneutical diversity to a passenger ship. Ultimately, the passengers only need to be going in the same direction in the sense of boarding the same ship. Some heretics miss the boat. Once on board, the ship takes all of them to the same destination, unless some of them jump overboard (apostates).

Once on board, there's a sense in which passengers going in different directions as well as the same direction. They're continuously moving in different directions. Up and down different decks. Moving from stem to stern, port to starboard. Walking in circles around the deck. 

Yet they're all headed in the same direction insofar as they are going wherever the ship is going. So long as Christians are heavenbound, why is hermeneutical certitude required? 

A second event is depicted in Acts 2. Here, fifty days after the resurrection of Christ (the "Pentecost"), the Spirit is sent upon the apostles gathered in prayer with the early Christian community and the Virgin Mary, the Mother of God. The apostles are given illumination and fortitude, as well as charismatic gifts to preach the gospel to all the nations, without fear of persecution or death (181).

Although the Spirit is given to the apostles at Pentecost, that's inclusive rather than exclusive to the apostles. The Spirit is given to Christians in general, including revelatory dreams and visions (Acts 2:16-17). Throughout the Book of Acts, the gift of the Spirit is common property of Christian converts, including supernatural phenomena. There's no clerical/lay dichotomy in that regard. 

This means that after the time of the apostles there cannot be any additional new revelation that adds to the initial apostolic deposit of faith. The Church can understand more explicitly and conceptually what was contained implicitly and intuitively in the apostolic doctrine. But this "development" of Church doctrine can only take place because it stems from what is truly contained in the primal revelation of the apostolic Church (182).

A basic problem is that modern Catholicism tries to combine two divergent paradigms. The deposit of faith represents the traditional paradigm. That's fixed. Complete. 

But modern Catholicism has added the theory of development. That leads to special pleading, where theological innovations are reclassified as theological developments.

Chosen by Christ himself as the "Rock" upon whom the faith of the Church rests, Peter…(185).

If you consider the rocky setting where Jesus said that, I think the primary reference is not to Peter, but to the symbolism of Caesarea Philippi, a rocky borderland between Jewish Palestine and pagan territory, having historic associations with Baal-worship and Pan. I take Jesus to be saying that he will build his church behind enemy lines. The Church invades the kingdom of darkness. 

[Peter] is portrayed throughout the NT as the central authority of the early Church, the primary apostolic teacher, upon whom the others depend for the final decisions in matters of governance (185). 

It's demonstrably false that throughout the NT, Peter is the central authority, the primary teacher on whom all others depend for final rulings in church governance. For the first few chapters in Acts, Peter takes the lead. After that, others like Stephen and Philip step in. Then Peter is eclipsed by Paul, because Paul is more talented than Peter.

The NT has two letters attributed to Peter. In mainstream Catholic scholarship, sanctioned by the Magisterium, Petrine authorship is denied. Most of the NT was composed by writers other than Peter. The Book of Acts contains some Petrine speeches, but mainstream Catholic scholarship regards the speeches in Acts as fictional. My point is not to agree with that but to respond to modern Catholicism on its own terms. And even if we take a more conservative position, the dominant and predominant NT teaching is from teachers other than Peter. 

1 comment:

  1. If this was written in 2017, it seems that Catholic apologetics hasn't advanced too much.