Sunday, March 03, 2019

We're not Donatists!

I recently read a comment thread about Andrew Sullivan's review of Martel's bombshell expose:

In fairness, Sullivan has his own ax to grind. He uses the book to push his own agenda. So does Martel. But that doesn't change the facts.

In the comment thread, Catholics pushed back by taking refuge in the claim that Catholics aren't Donatists. As such, scandal can never discredit the Catholic church. They accused Protestants who cite endemic clerical sodomy of strawmanning the Catholic position. Here's some background info:

During the persecutions, any Christian who renounced Christianity, made offerings to the Roman state gods and/or the Imperial divine cult, and who burned any sacred Christian texts they may have had, were spared. Those who refused — especially those caught with Christian texts that they refused to hand over or destroy — were usually killed. That texts were often used to determine who was Christian and who wasn’t, meant that the clergy — those Christians most likely to have such things — were particularly vulnerable to the persecution.

While some Christian clergy resisted and were martyred, many did not. They renounced Christianity, allowed their books to be burned, and were spared.

Donatus and his faction declared the lapsed clergy ineligible to perform the sacraments, and that any which they may have performed, were invalid. The opposing party declared, again, that lapsed clergy could be restored to full authority — including the performance of sacraments — after having performed appropriate penance. They based this idea on the concept of forgiveness for all.

Novatianism was similar to Donatism. That counter raises several issues:

1. There are generally two ways to evaluate a position. One way is to assess the position on its own terms. Is the position internally consistent?

Even if a position is internally inconsistent, that doesn't necessarily falsify the entire position. But it means the proponent needs to modify or surrender some element of his position to relieve the self-contradiction and restore inner consistency. 

2. Another way is to assess the position in reference to criteria external to the position. Is the position factually erroneous? Is the position unethical? Is the position evidentially unsupported? 

Suppose Gnosticism is internally consistent. Suppose Mary Baker Eddy's idealism is internally consistent. That doesn't make the position immune to refutation. It just means you must evaluate the position by criteria independent of the position. But that's something we do all the time.

Likewise, Islam has a doctrine of abrogation to harmonize contradictory statements in the Quran. But even if that's coherent, it doesn't render Islam unfalsifiable from other lines of attack. 

It's not a straw man to say a position is demonstrably false even assuming that it's internally consistent. A purported prophet might have a message that's logically coherent, but if he makes erroneous predictions, that falsifies his position. 

3. If the truth of Rome's exclusive claims is in dispute, then appealing to Rome's position on Donatism is circular. That presumes the authority of Rome to condemn Donatism (and Novatianism). But what if certain kinds of scandal call into question the authority of Rome? It begs the question to appeal to Rome's ex opere operato position if the legitimacy of the Magisterium is the very question at issue. 

What if Rome's ex opere operato position is an ad hoc face-saving device to shield its claims from possible falsification? To revert to my earlier comparison, even if Mary Baker Eddy's idealism is hard to disprove directly, that doesn't make it credible. Idealism is a very convenient way to shield your position from empirical disconfirmation, but what if that's the problem? What if the fact that Christian Science is unaccountable that regard is blatant special pleading? 

4. Catholic apologists erect an absolute dichotomy between saying and doing, where nothing Rome does can falsify its claims. Only if Rome says the wrong things can that falsify its claims. And even that's in the highly qualified sense that Rome is divinely protected from dogmatic error. 

But why should we accept the radical dichotomy between saying and doing? Why should we believe God created a religious institution to which we owe our unconditional allegiance, where no quality or quantity of evil can possibly discredit that institution? Is God so limited that that's the best he can do?

Suppose the pope mandates homosexual orgies at Mass all around the world. He isn't teaching anything. He isn't make that a de fide belief. It's just a directive. But according to Catholic apologists, that wouldn't discredit Roman Catholicism. 

5. Finally, the position on Donatism is a red herring. For low churchmen like myself, the objection is not that a dominant homosexual subculture in the Catholic hierarchy and priesthood invalidates Catholic sacraments. The objection isn't framed in sacramental terms. The objection doesn't operate within a paradigm of valid or invalid sacraments.

The question raised by systematic scandal, pervasive institutional corruption, is why that has to be the One True Church? Is a dominant homosexual subculture in the clergy a necessary condition for the One True Church to exist? What makes that better than denominations which don't suffer from that problem?

1 comment:

  1. Perversely the faithful tend to look at things as the church of Rome must be the one true church because it is still standing after all it's scandals.

    The Borgia pope used to have orgies inside the Vatican. One pope used to toast Satan. Lots had illegitimate children. A papist will say but the disciples had Judas.

    A papist will say God would of destroyed it long ago unless it was the one true church.