Wednesday, February 20, 2019

Unity, Continued: Dogma, And The Mechanisms Of Certainty

I know that many theologians and converts have written on these subjects better than I could, but I still want to look at the problem of dogma and the question of certainty as I essentially understood it on the eve of seeking full communion with the Catholic Church.

One of the more mystifying developments in Catholic and Reformed dialogue in recent years is the abandonment of certainty in matters of dogma among the Reformed. Indeed, there seemed almost a tendency to spiritualize the lack of knowing as a sort of virtue, that it was somehow inappropriate to desire certainty in faith. On the contrary; our most cited definition of faith in the Scriptures in the letter to the Hebrews presupposes it (11:1). It could be said of all the "heroes of faith" that they acted upon what they knew, even if it wasn't plain to their reason. And what did they know? They knew that God was speaking and had spoken, and that He would not deceive them.

To get right to the point, it's wildly inappropriate to stake my eternal soul on something I do not think to be certain. Let's dispense right away with any notions of faith or religion that conceive of these things as coping mechanisms or as reflections of our self-awareness. As a consequence, realize that if I ever had said that Catholic dogma was a damnable heresy, I was saying that it would cost people their souls to believe it. Plenty of people do, and insofar as they believe it sincerely, I respect it. Yet this reality is why ecumenical dialogue--aimed at finding agreement in revealed truth--is an invitation to explore the bases for certainty in any purported revealed truth, not an attack on certainty as such.

In personal terms, I would have said it this way: "How do I know that these particular truths of Reformed theology as I understand it are true?" I wasn't after the quality of my relationships in a Reformed congregation, or the zeal of my colleagues and teachers at my Reformed seminary; I take it as a given that everyone I have ever known has believed what they shared with me in matters of faith to be completely true, even if they doubt themselves in the profession of it. As one example, if one believes Calvin's doctrine of the Eucharist to be true, I take it as a given that one does not believe Aquinas' to be true simultaneously. One may well seek a harmony--if it were possible--for any number of reasons, or undertake an appreciation of one or the other, for any number of fraternal and ecumenical aims, but in the end, one professes what one believes to be true, and rejects what one believes to be false.

In any case, if I had a question about my Reformed faith--historic, or immediate in the church on Sunday, I'd ask the elders. Ask any and all teaching elders, or really, anyone with applicable knowledge. Perhaps this was an invasion of the Catholic paradigm, but, If my elders are not at least situationally infallible, what's the point of asking them about any matter of revealed truth?

Same question with the Westminster Confession of Faith and Catechisms, or any other authority you can claim.

Really, we're wasting time convening all manner of Council of any form or name, if we don't know that what they come up with is ratified and vouchsafed by God Himself! This is why the argument that certainty is a fool's errand for insecure people is so stupid, and why it's probably a dodge: If God didn't say it, no reasonable person should say that it means everything for them, and everyone they know. As another example, this is why I concluded that "Derivative authority is a sham." If you say that any creed or confession is a restatement of the Scriptures, a summary, a shorthand of what they contain, you are saying that this creed or confession is maximally true, that it has the same quality as the Scriptures themselves, and the God who breathed them out! You'd have to; the pursuit of divine things doesn't have lower stakes in precisely the moments of greatest importance! It's nonsensical to call something an authority that has no authority at all. So, it was lurking out there, this question:

If I'm supposed to believe that only the Scriptures are certainly infallible, why is it that the quickest way to be a non-Christian would be to deny the Nicene Creed, or that of Chalcedon? How do I know that? I could make any number of qualifications and hedges about this, or I could claim that it's been tested and proven by the Scriptures, but functionally, if I say Nicea is true, I'm saying that God spoke authoritatively through the Nicene Creed. Most people in my world would have copped to this, as long as they weren't being inquisited by someone in authority. And in response to this evident hypocrisy, if one is willing to make common cause with radical biblicists and Reformers, who have no open fealty to these "secondary" authorities, then Sola Scriptura really does collapse into Solo. To put a sharp point on it, why use something in these crucial matters that isn't infallible, and isn't necessary? That's exactly what "Bible only" Christians would ask, and it's a great point. Funnily enough, however, I never met an advocate of "No Creed But the Christ" who didn't at least give me a pamphlet.

Back when Derek Webb sang about things that mattered, he said of the Church, in the voice of Christ, "You cannot care for me/With no regard for her/If you love me you will love the Church." So true. Tell me, though: How do I love a people, a thing, a divine family, I cannot find? Moreover, what does seem to be the most foolish of errands is to love something that exists pristine, but only in my imagination. Instead, we have to consider the possibility that we have been in fact separated from the Church Christ founded, even if inadvertently. Indeed, I had reached the conclusion that the Church--wherever it was--had to be visible, long before I submitted to her. Indeed, the pursuit of a (false) Protestant unity that includes broad evangelicalism has indeed ravaged ecclesiology. What is truly scary is to imagine losing "essentials" imperceptibly, because there is no impulse to identify the source of what we know, or to draw nearer to it, as an act of obedience to Christ. This is so even if my classification of things as "essential" and "non-essential" is ad hoc, and unworkable. Any time we find something divine that is true, it calls us back to God, and to one another.

If I'm totally wrong, and the Catholic Church is the true Church, I should be able to find out the proper terms upon which I could assent, and submit. In other words, I knew that a favorable disposition toward all who name Christ as Lord was not enough. Truth was calling me toward Himself, and toward others. In a true sense, to understand the claim of the Catholic Church upon me, I had to get as close to the inside as I could. Even before saying in effect, "I have found the Church Christ founded," I had to see what it would look like, intellectually, practically, and spiritually. In a way, from a certain standpoint, the Church is playing with loaded dice. Not all claims have equal evidences in favor. But would you expect God, who desires all men to be saved, and come to the knowledge of the truth, would want to make it exceptionally hard to find Him and His Church? There is revealed truth that absolutely travels across both paradigms, Protestant and Catholic. The first step is simply to acknowledge that fact, and then to frankly inquire and account for how a particular truth or truths got to me. Could the fact that Protestants and Catholics still agree on x be reasonably accounted for by a schism? Could this in fact be Catholic truth I am affirming?

Rejecting the notion that one is in schism from the Catholic Church usually involves, at a basic level, considering one's own dogmatic and ecclesial counter-claims as valid interpolations or developments from something earlier, which may or may or may not include the Catholic Church as a valid expression. Some of these feats of ecclesial plagiarism are truly impressive, even convincing, after a fashion. Yet the reason why "history" is so often dispositive on this question is rooted in what learning from history implies: that the God who reveals has left His footprints, so to speak, upon all human societies, and that He's still calling us back. Ecclesial deism is comfortable by definition with a god of disruption, of discontinuity, of enigmatic, inscrutable arbitrariness. The God of Israel, while not without profound mystery, has been here, quite unchanging, the whole time. I set out to follow the God of hesed as we read in the Scriptures, and I bumped into the Chair of St. Peter. More than once, an honest person asks frankly if he had ever intended to be a modern day Miriam or Aaron, rebelling against God's anointed! I saw prayers printed in a bulletin at my parish, describing Pope Francis as God's anointed (under Our Lord, ever and always) and, despite his apparent failures and human foibles, I dared to wonder if I had truly loved the pope for Christ's own sake, in obedience to God? One day, another will come, and by mercy, another, as has happened for 2000 years. We are Catholic because we believe that this successor of Peter is so by the will of God. The man is, of himself, of no account.

My, this is long! I leave you in peace to think it over.

Tuesday, February 19, 2019

Thoughts On Christian Unity (A Quasi-Response To Cara Wiskow)

Let me just start in an odd place: I'm happy to lose friends, in order to foster as much unity among all Christians (and frankly, all people of good will) as I possibly can. There may be people out there who have a vision of being Catholic that is more concerned with an image of "pure" Catholicism than with the truth. I believe both of these two statements are simultaneously true:

1. Catholics should affirm, celebrate, and rejoice in truth wherever it is found; and (all together now: "Grace builds upon nature, but does not destroy it.")
2. The Catholic Church is the one true Church founded by Christ, and all people everywhere should be in full visible communion with her. (see CCC, 811 and Lumen Gentium, 14)

I believe these two things, precisely because the Church believes them. Many people see these two statements as embracing a contradiction, but I do not. My new friend Cara Wiskow has some thoughts on Christian unity, and I appreciate so much of it, because I have been a non-Catholic and a Protestant before, and I am now a Catholic. For my part, the motivating factor in my decision to seek full communion with the Catholic Church was twofold: 1. internal inconsistencies within my paradigm of being a Christian up to that point; and 2. A thread of truth common to both my Protestant paradigm, and to the Catholic paradigm--and the Church which subsists in it--and no reasonable way to account for the common thread between them, but for the fact that the Son of God established the Catholic Church. True God of true God is but one, though somehow He is three--I bow before the blessed Mystery!--which is to say, Presbyterian Jesus does not exist. Jesus, the Son of God, loves all of us to the end at this very moment, no matter where we are, but truth binds us, and bids us always to seek it, indeed Him.

It was easier, and relatively easy, to abandon Presbyterian dogmas if and when I realized that I would not lose Christ--nor the Blessed Trinity--to abandon them. Two dogmatic claims cannot be simultaneously true, if in fact they are mutually exclusive. Consider this simple syllogism:

The Catholic Church teaches that bread and wine are totally changed substantially into the body, blood, soul, and divinity of Christ by the words of consecration in the Liturgy of the Eucharist; (transubstantiation) (see CCC, 1376)

The Catholic teaching of transubstantiation is true; (see the Profession of Faith more generally)

Lutherans do not hold to this dogma; (see here, for example)

Therefore, the Lutheran teaching on the Eucharist--as distinct from the Catholic teaching--is false.

This is but one example of disagreement. And to be fair to Lutherans, one good reason to deny the Catholic teaching is the sincere belief that the teaching is not true. I cannot and should not coerce or compel adherence to the truth proclaimed by the Catholic Church, but neither should I be neutral about whether the Catholic Church's teaching on any particular matter of faith or morals is true. The reason I believe what the Catholic Church teaches (even if I do not know it in any one particularity) is that God has spoken in Christ, and speaks authoritatively through the Church today. She cannot err in this, because God cannot err, nor can he deceive, or be deceived. (For the nature of divine faith is to assent to whatever God reveals.)

Where does that leave us, in ecumenical dialogue? It means that, when we celebrate what we hold in common, with Christians, or with anyone else, we celebrate with care. We celebrate and affirm ideas with great care, because we have an obligation to the truth, but also because we respect the freedom of another's conscience. A false unity erases difference, and refuses to acknowledge that a difference is sincerely held. It also pretends that an imperfect unity is perfect. The truth is that differences between Christians are rarely minor, and the reality of division is painful. Even though I find myself inadequate to the task of direct ecumenical dialogue with the Reformed for instance, I pray in a special way in those words of the Mass, "and gather to Yourself all Your children, scattered throughout the world." I know that literally billions of people could be in a living, saving relationship with Jesus Christ, despite their dogmatic, or even moral errors, and I pray therefore that all error be burned away like chaff, as I pray for myself, and all who are dear to me.

One reason not to accept the "branch" theory of ecclesiology is that the branch theory fails to distinguish between heresy and schism. To schism is to separate from the Church that Christ founded. A heresy is, in simple terms, to hold a false opinion concerning a matter of revealed truth. (see CCC, 2089) It is possible of course to be joined to a schism without being personally guilty of the sin of schism (see CCC, 818). I can absolutely tell you though, when I understood what schism was, and that I might be a part of one, the desire to heal that breach, firstly with respect to myself, became nearly overwhelming. The heart demands things that the intellect and conscience cannot abide, at least not right away. As CCC, 820 says, "The desire to recover the unity of all Christians is a gift of Christ and a call of the Holy Spirit." I praise God for this gift and call in my heart, and in Cara's heart! There are always dangers afoot, and many ways to err, even in this desire. But it's a good desire, and may we all be purified, so that we may enjoy its good fruit without fear.

Sunday, February 17, 2019

The Same Philosophy

"My body, my choice." A person can rightly see the error in this. A baby is another person. What if we changed it a bit? "My money, my choice." "My life, my choice." My. The same philosophy that permits the taking of a life in the womb is that which permits suicide, or paying people a substandard wage.

And, the language of the Declaration notwithstanding, there is no "general welfare" in classical liberalism; there are only sets of individuals, whose one or more interests coincide. Government is only legitimate insofar as individuals or sets of individuals deem it so. Only a lack of will to start another revolution, or the power to succeed, keeps the peace.

That's why something like, "We have an obligation to protect the environment" is met with, "What about the right of individuals to make money?" The common good is said to be preeminent over the private good, according to St. Thomas Aquinas, but liberalism exactly reverses that. Of course our nation is failing; it cannot do otherwise.