What Hath Socrates to do with Melchizedek?

James Schall is a smart man but reading him makes me wonder if an important difference between Protestants and Roman Catholics is the lens through which each side views Jesus. Is Jesus part of the narrative of the West that begins with the Greeks? Or is Jesus the culmination of the law and the prophets?

Schall seems to adopt the former:

The trial of Socrates is replicated in the trial of Christ. In both cases, we have noble and good men before the courts of the best cities of their time. The governor/judge at Christ’s trial even wanted to know what “truth” was, or at least he asked about it. In the reflections of Plato on the trial of Socrates, we have the human mind at its best knowing the issues that must be confronted by a mind. In the case of Christ, the history and explanation of who He was, who He claimed to be, lies in what we now call “revelation.” This revelation stretched through long periods of Hebrew history.

This history even had an account of “the beginning.” The heavens and the earth were said to have been created by God “in the beginning.” It is strange, but when the Gospel of John began its explanation of who Christ was, it also used these words “in the beginning.” But this beginning is one step back from the beginning in Genesis. The world begins in the Godhead, in the activity of the Father who sends the Word, His Son, into the world.

The account of revelation itself contains intelligibility. It can be understood in its outlines. The curious thing about this revelation is how it addresses reason. Indeed, Christian revelation first presented itself not to other religions but to the Greeks, to Athens, to philosophy. It could not properly begin unless it met human reasoning at its best. Revelation is mind addressed to mind as mind—insofar as it knows what it can know, and what it cannot.

Thus, when revelation read Plato, it encountered something familiar. It knew of the death of Christ, the just man rejected and killed by the state. The experience of Christ followed that of Socrates and, as I argue, completed it. Plato was right. Ultimate justice is not found complete in any actual city. But it exists nonetheless. When the young Plato asked if the world was created in injustice, he sought to save justice. Here, political philosophy and revelation meet on their own terms, but terms intelligible to each other. The logic of reason and the logic of revelation meet and supplement each other. In the end, the world is not created in injustice.

The completion of Plato lies in the resurrection, in the reality that sees not just the immortality of the soul but the acting person as the source of all reason. Revelation completes the logic of reason because it answers a question that reason by itself is unable to answer.

That is not how the New Testament writers conceived of Jesus’ relation to what went before. Consider Hebrews:

Now if perfection had been attainable through the Levitical priesthood (for under it the people received the law), what further need would there have been for another priest to arise after the order of Melchizedek, rather than one named after the order of Aaron? For when there is a change in the priesthood, there is necessarily a change in the law as well. For the one of whom these things are spoken belonged to another tribe, from which no one has ever served at the altar. For it is evident that our Lord was descended from Judah, and in connection with that tribe Moses said nothing about priests.

This becomes even more evident when another priest arises in the likeness of Melchizedek, who has become a priest, not on the basis of a legal requirement concerning bodily descent, but by the power of an indestructible life. For it is witnessed of him,

“You are a priest forever,
after the order of Melchizedek.”

For on the one hand, a former commandment is set aside because of its weakness and uselessness (for the law made nothing perfect); but on the other hand, fa better hope is introduced, through which we draw near to God.

And it was not without an oath. For those who formerly became priests were made such without an oath, 21 but this one was made a priest with an oath by the one who said to him:

“The Lord has sworn
and will not change his mind,
‘You are a priest forever.’”

This makes Jesus the guarantor of a better covenant. (Hebrews 7:11-22)

Seeing Jesus in relation to Socrates or Melchizedek could explain why Roman Catholics stress philosophy more than Protestants emphasize the Bible, or why Roman Catholics regard virtue and human nature more like Plato and Aristotle than Protestants who follow the prophets and Paul on sin and sanctification.

But why Roman Catholics don’t take the Old Testament more seriously, since their observance of communion stresses sacrifice and long OT lines, is a mystery.

Instead of a Shrug, Concern

James Schall has a concern about Pope Francis’ apparently intentional ambiguity:

The “concern” is not so much to “prod” the good Holy Father into answering his mail. Others have tried this approach and failed. Rather it is to articulate the core “concern” that many normal people have about their Church under Pope Francis’ leadership. The Argentine pope certainly attracts crowds and generous media attention. He is seen kissing little babies, waving, smiling, and talking earnestly with almost anyone from scientists to politicians to mullahs and rabbis. We all recall his visit with the late Fidel Castro.

Pope Bergoglio has been on some twenty travels out of Italy and all over the known world. He dutifully attends to papal liturgical, diplomatic, bureaucratic, and ceremonial functions. At almost eighty, he seems full of energy and zest. He appears in public to enjoy being the pope. He even gets annoyed. He is human. The people he seems to like the least are practicing Catholics and the poor ecclesial bureaucrats who have to do all the thankless grunt jobs in the Church. He certainly has a good press. The crowds at papal audiences seem down, while observers do not yet detect any remarkable “Francis effect” in increased vocations, conversions, or Mass attendance.

But none of these issues seems to be what most concerns people. We are used to maintain that the principle of contradiction binds us to the truth of things. Catholicism is a religion that takes mind seriously. Revelation and reason do not contradict each other. These affirmations about reason and revelation indicate a certain confidence in our Catholicism. When spelled out, what the faith teaches makes sense in all areas. We can articulate what we are talking about without claiming that we grasp absolutely everything about the mystery of being. In fact, we claim that we do not understand everything in all its intelligibility. We do not confuse ourselves with the gods.

What we can figure out by ourselves makes sense also. We hold that what was revealed by Christ still holds and was intended to do so over time. Among these teachings and practices that were revealed was that of the consistency over time of the content of revelation.

Given Roman Catholicism’s understanding of reason and revelation, why put all of your eggs in the papacy basket? Schall’s understanding of Christian truth is one that Protestants share (mainly). His papalism does not follow in practice or theory:

In this tradition, the Jesuit theologians, Francisco Suarez and Robert Bellarmine, at least considered the problem of a hypothetical pope who did not affirm what had been explicitly handed down. In general, they held that a pope who might enunciate any heretical position would cease ipso facto to be pope. But this was an opinion. The one or two instances in the history of the Church, when a given pope did state something dubious, were usually considered, on examination, to be merely private opinions or not taught infallibly. So the consistency record over time is pretty impressive from that angle.

In this light, the “concern” that exists today is whether the promise to Peter that what Christ did and held would be kept alive in its fullness. The Church thus must avoid contradicting itself; that is, teaching one thing in one generation or area and its opposite in another. We are not concerned here with equivocation or impreciseness. If some pope did cross this line, we can at least suspect that he would not admit it or see the point. If he had the issue pointed out to him and saw its import, he would simply acknowledge what is the truth and be done with it. Otherwise, a drawn-out struggle would follow to decide who is right.

In other words, if reason and revelation are such (relatively) reliable guides, why then glom the bishop of Rome on top of such reliability? Does Father Schall really need the papacy’s help to tell what’s true or to be faithful to the truth? Or is the pope like the English monarchy, something you trot out when you need pomp and ceremony?

Own that great pretty good intellectual tradition.

Liberal Education After the Fall

Must a student be baptized before pursuing the true, good, and beautiful? That questioned occurred after reading Fr. James Schall’s summary of Tracy Rowland’s lecture on Roman Catholic education.

For Rowland and Schall, the Trinity informs the study of everything and so Christianity is at the foundation of any genuine education:

…the basic Catholic approach to education is that there “exists a relationship between the human intellect, the theological virtue of faith, and the transcendental of truth; there also exists a relationship between the human will, the theological virtue of love, and the transcendental of goodness, and there exists a relationship between the human memory, the theological virtue of hope and the transcendental of beauty.” The transcendentals—one, being, good, true, beautiful—are predicates we can apply to everything that is. They reflect in our being the inner relation of the three persons within the Trinity.

It is possible to pass through schools, even at the graduate level, and not really learn much of truth or of what is important. This result can happen also in Catholic schools. Thus, we need graduates who actually have “Catholic intellects, Catholic wills, Catholic imaginations, and Catholic memories.” They need to be conjoined in a proper order of soul. We want to know the truth, to control our own disorders, to imagine what can enlarge our vision. A Catholic memory will know of its saints and their foibles, of glories and tragedies.

But I wonder why a Christian approach to education, one that takes Genesis 3 and the triumph of Augustinianism over Pelagianism seriously, wouldn’t first start with fallen human nature and the incapacity for those, either unregenerate or unbaptized (depending on your communion), to see the Trinity in the true, good, and beautiful because unbelievers are turned in on themselves. In other words, doesn’t a Roman Catholic view of education presuppose that professors and students are baptized and belong to the same communion?

Schall goes on to explain that Rowland acknowledges that not all students have the same intellectual capacities:

This is not an evil, but an aspect of a common good that makes it possible to participate in a broad range of goods and fruits of labor, and insights of others. Some will be more gifted intellectually than others. Some will have greater hearts, be more insightful, or possess skills or virtues that are good. Not everyone is a genius. Indeed, studies show that only about twenty percent of students are able to grasp subtle abstract points of knowledge. The teachers and schools must know and attend to the differences.

An educational egalitarianism that presupposed that all students have the same capacities, talents, and discipline will probably end by teaching very little to neglect the real needs and skills of actual students. Some students will be more attracted to truth, others to goodness, others to beauty, and still others to all sorts of practical and unexpected things. “Human lives can turn into narrative wrecks if educators produce people who can think at high levels of abstraction but are emotionally retarded or who lack sapiential experiences, or who conversely are emotionally sensitive but have no intellectual framework with which to make judgments about their inner life.”

But imagine the narrative wreck that comes with a failure to acknowledge that students can’t understand the Triune God without a prior work of grace, that all students try to suppress the truth in unrighteousness apart from God’s saving work.

If Christian education is going to be redeemed, doesn’t redemption need to be part of the conversation?

Is Anyone Reliable?

First the light show at the Vatican.

Then the statement that evangelism of Jews is out.

Now some of the Roman Catholic intelligentsia say that Muslims and Christians worship the same God (even though they gather on different days of the week and one prays in Jesus’ name, along with Mary). Francis Beckwith, former head of the Evangelical Theological Society, squishes:

So the fact that Christians may call God “Yahweh” and Muslims call God “Allah” makes no difference if both “Gods” have identical properties. In fact, what is known as classical theism was embraced by the greatest thinkers of the Abrahamic religions: St. Thomas Aquinas (Christian), Moses Maimonides (Jewish), and Avicenna (Muslim). Because, according to the classical theist, there can only in principle be one God, Christians, Jews, and Muslims who embrace classical theism must be worshipping the same God. It simply cannot be otherwise.

But doesn’t Christianity affirm that God is a Trinity while Muslims deny it? Wouldn’t this mean that they indeed worship different “Gods”? Not necessarily. Consider this example. Imagine that Fred believes that the evidence is convincing that Thomas Jefferson (TJ) sired several children with his slave Sally Hemings (SH), and thus Fred believes that TJ has the property of “being a father to several of SHs children.” On the other hand, suppose Bob does not find the evidence convincing and thus believes that TJ does not have the property of “being a father to several of SHs children.”

Would it follow from this that Fred and Bob do not believe that the Third President of the United States was the same man? Of course not.

Paul Moses at Commonweal writes that Wheaton College, in putting on administrative leave, Dr. Larycia Hawkins, has succumbed to anti-Muslim bigotry because Miroslav Volf has written (noting looking to a Protestant for support):

Muslims and Christians who embrace the normative traditions of their faith refer to the same object, to the same Being, when they pray, when they worship, when they talk about God. The referent is the same.

But it wasn’t so long ago that some Roman Catholics were saying that Islam was not a religion of peace (which would seem to make it a different religion from Christianity even though I demurred). Wasn’t it Joseph Pearce who wrote:

The fate of the liberals in the future Eurabia does not look good. May the God in whom they do not believe help them. And may he forgive my own irresistible sense of schadenfreude at the whole pathetic scenario. As for me, I’m with Mrs. Burrows against the world and all the fallacious “peace” it has to offer. With Shakespeare’s Mercutio, I end with a note of defiance to Islam and its liberal enemy: A plague a’ both houses!

And didn’t Fr. James Schall also highlight the distance between Islam and Christianity?

What has to be faced by everyone is not the ‘violence’ of Islam, but its truth. We may not ‘like’ a jihadist view of the Quran. But we denigrate the dignity of ISIS and other violent strains in both Sunni and Shiite branches of Islam that clearly see that their interpretation of Islam has legitimate roots in the Quran, in Islamic history and in the judgment of many authoritative commentators.

So I’m left wondering. Do Roman Catholics celebrate the victory of Christendom at the Battle of Lepanto or not?

P.S. And Jerry Falwell Jr. is beyond the pale?

Papal Social Gospel

That is the conclusion that has settled after some time of absorbing Evangelii Gaudium, namely, that Pope Francis may not be a liberationist, a liberal, or a Vatican II rebel, but he is doing something different from his predecessors. (As if it were everyone but the magisterium’s job to read the tea leaves of papal pronouncements.) And it — the consensus on Pope Francis — does involve the economy (stupid).

First, Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry comes straight out with criticisms of Francis’ understanding of economics, but then applauds the church’s capacity to create synergy between the permanent things of the gospel and the passing circumstances of this world:

. . . it’s simply not true that if we in the West stopped wasting food kids in Africa would have it. It wasn’t true when my parents told me so** to make me clean my plate, and it’s still not true. And pretending it is is, well, infantile. And not in a Matthew 18 way. And we can “rescue” this Francis comment by elevating it to the theological level, by saying that by wasting food we are, in a powerful sense, being ungrateful towards God’s good creation and being selfish. And that perhaps if we rid ourselves of this ungratefulness we will be made holier by grace and better able to follow Jesus’ command to feed the hungry. And I believe this is true! But that’s not what Francis is saying or, at the very least, it’s not only what he’s saying.

Second, it shows that so much can be accomplished at the level of social doctrine without getting into econo-philosophical debates about “free markets” and “trickle-down economics.” You don’t need to reform or reinterpret or innovate Catholic social doctrine to say that corruption of government officials is scandalous.

Third, because if there is any institution in the world that should put this issue front and center, it’s the Catholic Church. First because, as I’ve said, it’s already well within the bounds of Tradition and flows naturally from the Gospel.

In the Bible I read, Jesus says things about food and hunger that make me think correlating the gospel’s spiritual and eschatological categories with physical hunger and food is not the best interpretation (but I am only a Protestant with an opinion):

Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give to you. For on him God the Father has set his seal.” 28 Then they said to him, “What must we do, to be doing the works of God?” 29 Jesus answered them, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.” 30 So they said to him, s“Then what sign do you do, that we may see and believe you? What work do you perform? 31 Our fathers ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written, ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat.’” 32 Jesus then said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, it was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven, but my Father gives you the true bread from heaven. 33 For the bread of God is he who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.” . . . 35 Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst. (John 6)

But apparently, as John Allen reports, Pope Francis is more on Gobry’s side than mine:

. . . Francis had already given himself a major birthday present 24 hours before by shaking up the membership of the Congregation for Bishops in order to lay the groundwork for a new generation of “Francis bishops.”

In the United States, attention was understandably focused on the nomination of Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington, D.C., and the effective removal of Cardinal Raymond Burke, president of the Apostolic Signatura, the Vatican’s supreme court. Putting in the moderate Wuerl and taking the strongly conservative Burke off couldn’t help but seem a signal of the kind of bishop Francis intends to elevate in the United States.

As pope, however, Francis is responsible not just for the 6 percent of the world’s Catholic population that lives in the United States, but the whole shooting match, 1.2 billion faithful all over the planet.

In that regard, it’s worth looking at the other appointments Francis made Monday to the Congregation for Bishops — 30 in all, including 12 new members and confirmations for 18 prelates who already sat on the body.

For the sake of analysis, two assumptions need to be stipulated:

The 12 new members best reflect Francis’ personal touch, given that most of the 18 confirmations were for Vatican personnel whose jobs generally entitle them to a seat at the table;

The kind of man Francis picks for the Congregation for Bishops is, in effect, a proxy for the kind of bishops he wants this panel to identify.

If those postulates are correct, we can draw some early conclusions about what a “Francis bishop” looks like — ideological moderates with the broad support of their fellow bishops and a real commitment to the social Gospel.

(Allen goes on to comment on the Pope’s specific choices for bishop.)

Arguably the most sobering assessment comes from James Schall, a figure well regarded (and rightly so) by conservative Roman Catholics. Schall is as cautious as he is careful:

. . . if I am asked what is the overall impression left by this Exhortation, I have to say that it is very much “this-worldly” oriented. It points horizontally, not vertically. The inner life of the Godhead is not much spoken of. When the Father is mentioned, it is always in the context of the love of the neighbor whom God loves in Christ. Unlike Benedict in Spe Salvi, there is little attention given to “eternal life.” When Francis mentions the “kingdom of God,” he does not, as one would expect, cite Augustine. He mentions actual cities and is rather surprised by them. When Augustine talked of “the City of God,” he said that it began among us, but could not be achieved in this world. No existing city would ever be this Kingdom. Augustine, with good reason, was leery of the ambitions of the cities of this world.

Of course, this emphasis on actual cities is Aristotelian. We are social and political animals. What concerns Francis, if I might put it that way, is the second great commandment. He obviously does not deny the first, the love of God. But Francis’ attention is given to God’s love as it exists among us. But he thinks not enough response is given to it. He wants to improve the world by emphasizing the joy of Christianity that we can experience in our lives and worship. The love of neighbor is an active thing. This pope believes in action. He talks of contemplation at times, but with overtones of Ignatius of Loyola’s simul in actione contemplativus; we behold God’s action in the doing of what needs to be done.

Pope Bergoglio is much more oriented to modernity, to modern culture, than the previous two popes. He cites John XXIII, and sometimes Paul VI, though he certainly cites John Paul II and Benedict—and de Lubac, Guardini, Newman, Bernanos, and the various documents of episcopal conferences. He is open to modern science. He is aware of skepticism, relativism, and atheism, but he has a certain sympathy for their adherents.

So what do I think the Pope is doing with his strong emphasis on missionary activities? He lightly touches the difficulty of political obstacles in most nations of the world to allow for much real missionary work. He mentions the basic right of religious freedom and its lack in many nations. He does not name many names. So his missionary activity first begins at home. The “joy” of the Gospel is designed to be a beacon of light in the world. It can only be seen if believers themselves see it.

Modernity is, briefly, the position that no truth is found in things or in ourselves. We are free because we are liberated from all religion or philosophy that would limit our freedom, individual or corporate. Religion of any kind is an enemy to this liberty. Once this freedom is established, man can go forward, as Benedict pointed out, to create a world in his own image. Man is not made in any image of God. He makes himself in his own image. Once free of any transcendent claim, man is free to create a truly “human” world that has no outside demands of a god or nature. Science and politics with this background will be able to make man into what he ought to be.

What Pope Francis seems to be doing in this Exhortation is, as it were, to present an alternative to modernity within modernity. This alternative is itself inner-worldly. That is, the emphasis is on the effects of Christianity as it truly ought to be lived in the here and now.

Whether Schall is comfortable with this shift is another matter since he mentions that “another legitimate version” of the Christian life — an alternative to Francis’ — is to be “hated precisely because [Christians] do live as Christ asked them to live.”

Schall offers another check upon Francis’ apparently optimistic embrace of modernity:

. . . at bottom, what this Exhortation seems to be is, indeed, an answer to classical modernity that, when spelled out, does everything modernity hopes for, only better and more securely because it is rooted in the real nature of man and is open to the gifts that have come to us in revelation. The Pope’s impatience has its charm. It also has its dangers. After all, most men who have ever lived on this planet have lived in very imperfect circumstances. The Church was for them too. Few lived in really fully developed economic and political orders with scientific and technological support that enabled man the leisure and time to create a civilization. Paul VI called it a “civilization of love,” and Pope Francis would probably call it the same.

So it looks like Francis is increasingly showing himself to be in line with a Vatican II spirit that was eager to embrace the modern world and extend Roman Catholicism out of the ghetto, parish, and parochial school to the wider world of suburbia, universities, and middle-class life. Which raises the question if the pope is identifying more with middle-class life and the kind of social structures that created it than he is with the poor. That was surely the case with the Protestant Social Gospelers, a group from to which Jason and the Callers should have paid more attention.