Saturday, November 02, 2019

Cardinal Müller on Catholicism and Protestantism

This will be a long post. The length is mainly due to the fact that it's running commentary on some things that Cardinal Müller said is three recent articles. If you wish to expedite the reading process, you can just skip the quotes.

Cardinal Müller represents the conservative, intellectual wing of the hierarchy. So it's useful to see how he defends Catholicism and critiques Protestantism. I always like to study the best of the competition:

His work on the development of dogma is, we can say, nothing short of genius. In it Newman developed principles for the historical continuity and identity of revelation under the conditions of finite, human knowing, within the believing Church, founded by Christ and preserved in—and attended ever more deeply into—truth by the Holy Spirit.

Actually, he developed principles that turn tradition into silly putty. 

After this Newman could no longer shy away from the insight that it was the Catholic Church of the Roman pope (so disdained in England)—and not the Anglican national church, which had existed since the sixteenth century—which stood in real continuity with the Church of the apostles. 

The Anglican church, considered as a package, only existed since the 16C. But by the same token, post-Vatican II Catholicism, considered as a package, only existed since the 1960s. Modern Catholicism has a combination of traditional elements and theological innovations. You won't find the package of post-Vatican II Catholicism in the ancient church. Indeed, that's why the theory of development was hustled in to paper over the divergence–which has becoming increasingly pronounced since Newman's day. 

With his extraordinary knowledge of the Bible and of the Church fathers…

Did he have an extraordinary knowledge of the Bible?

…he could not escape the conclusion that the Catholic Church is located in full continuity of doctrine and Church polity with the Church of the apostles, and that Protestant charges of corrupting the apostolic faith or of supplementing it with unbiblical elements of doctrine rather fall back on themselves. In his Apologia Newman wrote: “And as far as I know myself, my one paramount reason for contemplating a change is my deep, unvarying conviction that our Church is in schism…

How can you be in schism in relation to another denomination (Catholicism) that's constantly reinventing itself? The 1C Roman church differs from the 5C church of Rome, which differs from the medieval church, which differs from the Tridentine church, which differs from the church under Pius IX, which differs from the church under Pius XII, which differs from the church under John-Paul II, which differs from the church under Francis? In relation to which church of Rome are you in schism? 

…and that my salvation depends on my joining the Church of Rome.”

That's the traditional paradigm. To be saved you must be a communicant member of Rome, in submission to the pope. But surely Cardinal Müller doesn't believe that, even if Newman did. So a basic premise of Newman's conversion has been posthumously retracted. 

He also rejected that we could pragmatically settle for the splintering of Christendom with the notion that there are several branches on the Church’s one tree. 

How about this metaphor: Rome was a dying tree which disseminated seeds that took root to grow into new, vibrant, fruitful trees (many Protestant denominations). 

Yet the plurality of communities around now cannot count as a partial realization of Christ’s Church; the Church of Christ is indivisible. And indivisibility—which expresses itself visibly in the Church’s unity of belief, its sacramental life, and its apostolic constitution—belongs inexorably to the essence of the Church. The goal of the ecumenical movement is not, then, a manmade merger of ecclesial confederations. It is rather the restoration of full communion in faith and of the bishops as successors to the apostles, as it has been realized historically and continuously since the beginning in the Church, which “is governed by the successor of Peter and by the bishops in communion with him” (Dominus Iesus 17).

Is the church indivisible? What does that mean? The church is certainly differentiable in time and space. It doesn't exist all at once or all in one place. 

Let's play along with Newman's acorn-to-oak metaphor. An oak produces acorns. A fraction of the acorns germinate and become oak trees. Eventually the original oak tree dies. It predeceases them. They replace it. But they're the same kind of tree. So there's generational continuity between the original oak tree and its descendants. What about that as a model of the church? 

Whoever takes seriously the incarnation must also take seriously the Church as the work of God and beware any manipulation by ideologically stubborn pressure groups. 

Evangelicals don't deny that the church is the work of God–indeed, the ongoing work of God. 

The visible Church is the concretization of the Word of God’s incarnate presence in Jesus Christ. 

It is in Catholic ecclesiology, but not in NT ecclesiology. 

Because Israel bears a salvation history, because the incarnation happened, because Christ has really given up his life on the cross for the salvation of the world and has really risen again—thus there is also the concrete obligation faithfully to obey revelation, which makes present the confession of faith in the promise of salvation, in the sacraments, and in ecclesial authority of the apostles’ successors in the episcopate. It is within the context of these confessions that Newman wants to be understood.

Because the visible, sacramental Church and the invisible community of the faithful belong together indissolubly, Newman had to pose the question: Which among the visible Christian communities now on offer can rightly lay claim to an identity of confession of faith and of historical continuity?

i) To begin with, the Catholic church can't rightly lay claim to an identity of confession of faith. 

ii) In addition, Newman was operating with an Anglo-Catholic paradigm. But low-church evangelicals like me don't make that paradigm our frame of reference. Suppose we try a different paradigm. Since Newman likes an organic, botanical analogy, let's run with that. Trees have lifecycles. The parent tree disseminates the next generation. Then the parent tree dies. The next generation repeats the same cycle. So there's a lineage of trees, where each derives from a parent tree. And they're all the same kind of tree. That's a way to illustrate Protestant ecclesiology, using the same organic, botanical metaphor as Newman, but developing that in a different direction. 

iii) A basic problem with the church of Rome is that it's not the same tree over the centuries. It becomes diseased and mutates. 

The challenge to individuals to seek truth and to face up to their obligatory power had increased enormously since the days when European rulers could still determine the religion of their subjects. 

That's worth pondering. Private judgment is more inescapable than ever. 

Here again Newman is impressively relevant. The declaration Dominus Iesus rejected the so-called pluralist theory of religion that relativizes Christ and the Church as irreconcilable with the fundamentals and substance of the Catholic faith. This theory about the equality and similarity of several forms of mediation and several mediators is based on epistemological relativism and skepticism. It assumes that every person can, with the help of his ancestral religion and culture, overcome his selfishness in order to engage his fellow human and to open himself to reality, which is always grander than anything we in our finitude can think or do. This is the salvation communicated to every religiously-minded person irrespective of whether he, before the ever-vanishing horizon of reality, imagines God as a personal God or an impersonal numinosum, or whether after death he anticipates a personal resurrection or a biological resuscitation of corpses, as unity with the one-and-all of being or else nothing beyond personal consciousness.

For Newman it was clear that the Christian confession of the universal salvific will of the one God and of the uniqueness of Jesus Christ’s revelation (cf. 1 Timothy 2:4ff) does not denigrate pre-Christian religions by absolutizing a tradition unique to the Christian West. Whoever debunks as unproven and indemonstrable the fundamental dogma of relativists, metaphysical skeptics, and agnostics for whom a historical self-revelation of God is impossible will also confess that God is already at work in the human pursuit of truth and in all religions’ desire for salvation. Thus in Jesus Christ “all people are saved and come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Timothy 2:4).

The church of Rome has shifted from exclusivism to inclusivism. Indeed, it used to have a very austere version of inclusivism: you had to be in submission to the pope to be saved. You had to receive sacraments from Roman Catholic priests to be saved. 

Now, however, Catholicism has switched to inclusivism. But where's the bright line between inclusivism and religious pluralism? In both, non-Christian religions can be a bridge to heaven. 

The Church as sacrament means being taken up into the sonship of Christ, who as head makes the Church his body, uniting individual believers as a community and imparting to it all the charisms and ministries to fulfill its mission of the world’s salvation. 

Even if we grant for argument's sake that the Church is a sacrament, how does that entail that the church is taken up into the sonship of Christ? 

Commissioning his apostles, Jesus also commissions their successors, that is, the bishops, together with the successor of Peter, the pope, as their head. 

How does it follow that by commissioning the apostles, he commissions the post-apostolic generation? How does Jesus personally choosing the disciples vouch for bishops he never chose? 

There is agreement among all Christians that Holy Scripture is the Word of God. But since this Word is conveyed in human language, it does not have the evidence (quoad se—in itself) that the Protestants want to attribute to it. Rather, there is need for a human interpretation on the part of the teachers of the faith whose authority comes from the Holy Spirit. Toward those who hear the Word of God, these teachers represent God’s own authority, making use of human words and decisions (quoad nos—to us). The task of authoritative teaching and governing cannot be left solely to the individual believer who in his or her conscience comes to accept a certain truth. After all, revelation has been entrusted to the Church as a whole. Therefore, the Magisterium is an essential part of the Church’s mission. 

i) It's unclear what he's saying. Is he saying the Bible lacks the evidence in itself for its own inspiration? If so, how is that an implication of the fact that revelation is expressed in human language? As it stands, the inference is invalid.

ii) Yes, Scripture needs to be interpreted, but is Cardinal Müller saying that anything in human language is so ambiguous that we can't ascertain what it probably means? But if he's that skeptical about human language, then that sabotages the teaching of the Catholic church, which is conveyed through human language. It's self-defeating for him to impute fatal equivocation to human language in general.

iii) Although there are many ambiguous statements in Scripture (at least for modem readers), that's offset by the redundancy of Biblical teaching. 

iv) It's true that not all Bible readers are equally competent. The Protestant hermeneutic doesn't imply parity between all Bible readers. The interpretation of each individual is not on a par with every other individual. Some readers have far greater natural aptitude and expertise. 

That's not the point of contrast with the Catholic alternative. The problem, rather, is that Rome claims the ability to bypass transparent, responsible methods of exegesis and substitutes the sheer ecclesiastical authority to posit the meaning. Interpretations not answerable to rational scrutiny. In Protestant exegesis, by contrast, interpretations must be justified by reason and evidence. We should go with the interpretation that has the best exegetical supporting arguments.   

In our creed we profess our faith by making use of human words. These words are subject to a certain change, as far as the mode of expression is concerned. This is possible and indeed necessary, since, as St. Thomas clearly states, “the act of the believer does not terminate in a proposition, but in a thing” (STh II-II 1,2, ad 2). Inasmuch as the teaching of the apostles—and thus the teaching of the Church—is the Word of God in the words of human beings, the Word of God takes shape and develops in the Church’s consciousness of her faith, quite analogously to the way each of the faithful undergoes a spiritual and historical development under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. To be sure, the mission of the Holy Spirit does not consist in creating new doctrines, but in making present in the Church the fullness of the revelation of Jesus Christ (cf. Jn 16:13).

i) In exegesis, we should interpret words based on what they meant at the time of writing.

ii) Perhaps Cardinal Müller intends to say there's sometimes we need to update our formulations, or adapt them to different cultures. If so, that's not a point of contrast with Protestant theological method. 

Of course, as a Catholic, one cannot ignore the developed doctrine of the Church in order to attend solely to the supposedly pure doctrine of Scripture. The parable of the prodigal son, for example, does not give a catechetical instruction on the sacrament of repentance in its matter (repentance, confession, satisfaction) and form (absolution by the priest). If one were to look at Scripture alone, one could then conclude that, since the son did not actually get around to confessing his sins, neither do we need to do so. However, opposing Scripture against the Church in this way would mean completely to ignore the words of Christ, who entrusted the apostles—with Peter as their head—with the faithful preservation of the entire deposit of faith.

That's very revealing. So he thinks the parable of the prodigal son is a prooftext for auricular confession to a Roman Catholic priest! It's certainly understandable why you'd need the authority of the Magisterium to justify such a creative reinterpretation of the parable! 

It is only through the power of God that Peter is able to preserve the whole Church in fidelity to Christ, even when Satan shakes and sifts her, so that the wheat may be removed from the chaff. As Jesus says, “But I have prayed that your own faith may not fail” (Luke 22:32). In his supreme magisterium, the pope unites the whole Church and all its bishops in the same confession: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Mt 16:16). And it is precisely in this confession that he is the rock on which the Lord Jesus continues to build his Church until the end of the world. It is, then, clear that the pope’s words are at the service of the whole Tradition of the Church, and not the other way around.

Traditional Catholic prooftexts that wildly overgeneralize. 

One must keep in mind that doctrinal statements have varying degrees of authority. They require varying degrees of consent, as expressed by the so-called “theological notes.” The acceptance of a teaching with “divine and Catholic faith” is required only for dogmatic definitions. 

i) And is there an infallible list of dogmatic definitions? 

ii) Why are there varying degrees of authority? If Christ entrusted to the church of Rome a living teaching office, if the church of Rome enjoys special divine guidance and protection from error, why is it necessary to sift doctrinal statements? Why doesn't the Holy Spirit protect all doctrinal statements from error? 

This does not mean that one may reduce the magisterium to a private opinion, so as to dispense oneself from the binding power of the authentic and defined teaching of the Church (cf. Lumen Gentium 37). It only means that one must understand well the precise meaning of authority in the Church in general and the role of Peter’s ministry in particular. This is especially true when the conflict does not arise between the pope’s teaching and one’s own vision, but between the pope’s teaching and a teaching of previous popes that is in accordance with the uninterrupted tradition of the Church.

Here he seems to be shadowboxing with Pope Francis. Ironically, his very public dispute with Pope Francis unwittingly demonstrates that Cardinal Müller's paradigm of ecclesial authority is just a paper theory that bursts into the flame the moment it comes into contact with the intransigent reality on the ground. 

In commenting on Pope Francis’s apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia, some interpreters advance positions contrary to the constant teaching of the Catholic Church, by effectively denying that adultery is always a grave objective sin or by making the Church’s entire sacramental economy exclusively dependent on people’s subjective dispositions. They seek to justify their claims by insisting that through the ages there has been a development of doctrine under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, a fact that the Church has always admitted. To substantiate their claims, they usually appeal to the writings of John Henry Cardinal Newman, and in particular to his famous Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine (1845).

Does the Catholic church have a "constant teaching"? That's elastic, both by "doctrinal statements with varying degrees of authority"–as well as the retroactive promotion of later teachings or demotion of earlier teachings by the almighty doctrine of development. 

Newman was an expert in patristics, and he was at first suspicious of later teachings developed in the Middle Ages. It was these that for a long time kept him from converting to the Roman Church. They seemed to him incompatible with the basic principles of Christianity, or at least not derivable from Holy Scripture and the earliest tradition of the Fathers. For him the Catholic practice of venerating the Blessed Virgin and the saints appeared to contradict the idea that Christ is the only mediator between God and humanity. Other examples of teachings that Newman considered exclusive to Catholicism and not based on Scripture and the Fathers are the following: papal primacy, the doctrine of transubstantiation, the sacrificial character of Holy Mass, purgatory, indulgences, religious vows, and the sacrament of Holy Orders. These were the main issues causing controversy during the Reformation.

So much for the "constant teaching" of the Catholic church. 

At first Newman considered Anglicanism as a middle way (the “via media”) between the Reformer’s complete denial of tradition and—as he then saw it—the Catholic absolutization of tradition. However, his patristic studies made Newman realize that there had already been a development of doctrine during the time when Christianity was not yet divided. The need for such a development results from the nature of historical revelation. It is a consequence of the presence of the divine Word in our human words and understanding. The councils of the first eight centuries formulated the Trinitarian dogma of the one God in three persons and the Christological dogma of the hypostatic union of Christ’s two natures in his divine person. These definitions were the outcome of a long and difficult development of doctrine. Likewise, the dogmas of original sin and the absolute gratuity of grace resulted from the Church Fathers’ great intellectual work, by which they successfully defended the Church from destructive heresies such as Modalism, Arianism, Monophysitism, and Pelagianism. Had these heresies won the day, all of Christianity would have been destroyed. Now the way to combat them was precisely to find new formulations of doctrine, such as, for instance, the pronouncement against Apollinarianism concerning the Incarnation and the assumption of all of human nature by the eternal Logos: “What is not assumed is not saved.”

It's unclear how all that follows from divine revelation in human language. 

As far as the substance of the articles of faith is concerned, it is impossible to add or subtract anything. In the Church’s efforts to combat heresies and to come to a deeper understanding of revealed truths, there can, however, be an increase in the articles of faith. The filioque, for example—that is, the definition of faith that the Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son—does not add anything to the Trinitarian faith. This formulation merely gives a clearer expression of a truth that is already known, namely that the Spirit is not the second Son of God. 

Yet that attempts to differentiate the persons of the Godhead by using a crude mechanical analogy. Like tiered fountains where a spout on top pours water into the first tier, which in turn overflows into the second tier. But why think the internal structure of the Godhead is remotely like that? Not to mention the dubious prooftexting? 

The deepest reason for the identity of Revelation in its ecclesial continuity is given in the hypostatic union, i.e., in the unity of the human and divine natures in the one divine person of Jesus Christ. The many words he spoke, revealing God’s plan to us through the medium of human language (cf. Joh 3:34; 6:68), are united in the hypostasis or person of the one Word that is God and has become flesh (cf. Joh 1:1, 14). The Word of God comes to us through the preaching of human beings (cf. 1 Thess 2:13); it is made present through human words, with their grammar and vocabulary. Therefore, it is possible and necessary to grow individually and communally in our understanding of the revelation that has been given to us once and for all in Christ. It is clear, then, that Catholic theology has always recognized the fact and necessity of the development of dogma. It is part of Christianity’s essence as the religion of the incarnate Word—the religion of God’s self-revelation in history—to affirm the identity of the doctrine of the faith along a continuous process by which the Church comes to an ever more differentiated conceptual comprehension of faith’s mysteries. 

There's a bait-n-switch. Astute evangelicals don't deny that our understanding of the Bible may improve over time. The problem with Catholicism is not that abstract idea, but the lack of substantive continuity–as well as biblical grounding–in so much Catholic teaching. Many doctrines or dogmas that aren't logical implications of biblical revelation–not to mention many reversals of traditional teaching. 

This revelation is contained in the deposit of faith—that is, in the apostolic teaching—which in its truth and in its entirety has been entrusted to the Church to be faithfully preserved and interpreted. The proper method for interpreting revelation requires the joint workings of three principles, which are: Holy Scripture, Apostolic Tradition, and the Apostolic Succession of Catholic bishops. The Roman Church in general and her bishops in particular should be the last to follow the Gnostic’s suit by introducing a novel principle of interpretation by which to give a completely different direction to all of Church teaching.

Which assumes that Cardinal Müller's sect is the standard of comparison. Understandable from his point of view but hardly persuasive to evangelicals. 

One may think here of the Protestant Reformation. Its new formal principle was Scripture alone. This new principle subjected the Catholic doctrine of the faith, as it had developed up to the sixteenth century, to a radical change. The fundamental understanding of Christianity turned into something completely different. Salvation was to be obtained by faith alone, so that the individual believer no longer required the help of ecclesial mediation. In consequence, the Reformers radically rejected the dogmas concerning the seven sacraments and the episcopal and papal constitution of the Church. 

i) The classic Protestant position isn't salvation by faith alone but justification by faith alone and salvation by grace alone.

ii) Depends on what you mean by "ecclesial mediation". Due to aptitude and training, some people have a better grasp of Scripture than others. So laymen ought to consult good Bible commentaries and systematic theologies. The problem is when representatives of the church claim to have the intrinsic, unaccountable authority to determine the meaning of Scripture. But the process of exegesis should always be open to rational scrutiny. 

The Magisterium must seek to present a convincing case, showing how its presentation of the faith is in itself coherent and in continuity with the rest of Tradition. The authority of the papal Magisterium rests on its continuity with the teachings of previous popes. In fact, if a pope had the power to abolish the binding teachings of his predecessors, or if he had the authority even to reinterpret Holy Scripture against its evident meaning, then all his doctrinal decisions could in turn be abolished by his successor, whose successor in turn could undo or redo everything as he pleased. In this case we would not be witnessing a development of doctrine, but the dire spectacle of the Bark of Peter stranded on a sandbank.

I did a separate post on that:

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