Voluntarism Redux?

The news of Francis’ washing the feet of a Muslim woman has revealed a new wrinkle in my understanding of papal supremacy. Those in fellowship with the Bishop of Rome are not entirely sure what to make of the pope not complying with established procedures in the liturgy prescribed for Holy Thursday. Here is one report that features discontent among traditionalists:

The church’s liturgical law holds that only men can participate in the rite, given that Jesus’ apostles were all male. Priests and bishops have routinely petitioned for exemptions to include women, but the law is clear.

Francis, however, is the church’s chief lawmaker, so in theory he can do whatever he wants.

“The pope does not need anybody’s permission to make exceptions to how ecclesiastical law relates to him,” noted conservative columnist Jimmy Akin in the National Catholic Register. But Akin echoed concerns raised by canon lawyer Edward Peters, an adviser to the Vatican’s high court, that Francis was setting a “questionable example” by simply ignoring the church’s own rules.

“People naturally imitate their leader. That’s the whole point behind Jesus washing the disciples’ feet. He was explicitly and intentionally setting an example for them,” he said. “Pope Francis knows that he is setting an example.”

The inclusion of women in the rite is problematic for some because it could be seen as an opening of sorts to women’s ordination. The Catholic Church restricts the priesthood to men, arguing that Jesus and his 12 apostles were male.

Francis is clearly opposed to women’s ordination. But by washing the feet of women, he jolted traditionalists who for years have been unbending in insisting that the ritual is for men only and proudly holding up as evidence documentation from the Vatican’s liturgy office saying so.

For the attempt by a conservative to justify Francis’ actions, see this.

The question that Francis raises is whether the pope is bound by church law and teaching or whether by virtue of his supremacy, power, and infallibility whatever he does is right.

One answer might be the one favored by the Callers who are my instructors in all things conservative Roman Catholic. When talking about papal infallibility, for instance, Bryan Cross is quick to note that this authority is carefully prescribed:

If it were true that (a) the ratified decisions of ecumenical councils regarding faith or morals, taught definitively to be held by all the faithful, contradicted each other, or (b) that the definitive papal proclamations to be held by all the faithful on matters of faith or morals contradicted each other, or (c) the teachings in (a) contradicted the teachings in (b), that would not only be a “serious problem” for the doctrine of magisterial infallibility; it would demolish the entire Catholic paradigm. But none of those three has occurred, and Horton does not even point to an alleged case where one of those three occurred.

Have councils erred? Yes. Think of the Robber Council of Ephesus in 449, or the Council of Rimini in 359. But they did not err when the conditions in (a) were met. Have popes erred? Again yes. Think of the errors of Pope Vigilius and Pope Honorius, and the way Urban VIII handled the Galileo case. But no popes have erred under the conditions specified in (b). The Catholic doctrine of magisterial infallibility is not falsified by errors of the sort just mentioned, because it is a highly qualified doctrine, such that divine protection from error is assured only under very specific conditions.

This reading of infallibility implies that the pope does not have unlimited power. It means that popes do actually sin and err, and that they are bound but notions already defined that specify the nature of sin and error. In other words, popes need to submit to a rule of law and teaching. At least, that is one way of reading Cross’ version of the hierarchy.

Another answer to the question of relations between papal supremacy and the rule of law might invoke medieval debates about voluntarism, a no-no in the history of Christian theology according to some historical theologians. I am no expert on nominalism, realism and the debates of late medieval theologians, but among nominalists developed the idea of voluntarism, a view which located moral goodness more in God’s will (whatever he does is right) than in an abstract set of laws (which God established and needs to follow). This view of God, the argument goes, became one that the Protestants used to assert that God’s ways transcended the church’s rules and authority. As such, voluntarism was the fast track to undoing papal authority.

Theological voluntarism or Divine Command Theory holds that an act is rendered moral neither by its consequences (utilitarian or consequentialist ethics) nor by its nature (deontological ethics), but instead merely by virtue of its being commanded by God. According to William of Ockham, probably the most famous proponent of Divine Command Theory, murder would have been moral had God commanded it; and moreover, it is hypothetically conceivable that God might “change His mind” and alter the moral order by deciding to start commanding murder.

By decoupling morality from rational analysis of the nature of acts and their consequences, then, Divine Command Theory implies that we cannot know moral truth except by divine revelation.

To many atheists, that is the sum of all religious ethics, especially religious sexual ethics: x is right and y is wrong simply because God says so. Christina committed this error throughout her lecture, referring to various religious teachings on sexuality as random sets of taboos. While atheists are free to ground moral judgment in human wellbeing, she explained, religious ethicists classify an act as right or wrong based on whether their sacred text tells them that “God likes it” or not.

That might not be such a mischaracterization of Divine Command Theory, and, in fairness, it is true that there have been prominent theologians who have embraced some version of theological voluntarism—the original Protestant Reformers, for instance, borrowed heavily from Ockham’s philosophy.

So a question that Francis’ acts raises for those who defend it because a pope is not subject to the law is whether a danger exists of repeating the error of volutarism. If Ockham and the Reformers were wrong to view God as transcending the law, is it not equally wrong to put the pope in that position? And for those intellectual conservatives who regularly blame Ockham and voluntarism for the collapse of Christendom, is it possible that a certain view of papal supremacy contributes to a similar dynamic, that of separating divine law from the institutions that are supposed to embody (even incarnate) it?

This question reminded me of a post that Ross Douthat wrote in response to David Bentley Hart about contemporary gnosticism and atheism.

Having spent a fair amount of time reading the various manuals of therapeutic spirituality for my recent book on American religion, I came away convinced that the Deepak Chopras and Eckhart Tolles and Elizabeth Gilberts are, indeed, enchanted “with the self in its particularity” — but that they’re also eager (desperately so, at times) to reconcile this enchantment with the God Within with the traditional monotheistic quest for the God Without, rather than treating one as a substitution for the other.

There’s no question which of the two Gods these authors ultimate privilege — hence the tendency toward spiritual solipsism that Hart rightly identifies. (If the God you find within disagrees with the God of your scriptures or your traditions, well, so much the worse for your scriptures or your traditions.) But this privileging does not amount to anything like a true denial of transcendance.

After reading this I thought some about private revelations and the rejection of such notions in the Reformed confessions. Scripture is the norm for Protestants. God stands above Scripture. He has not revealed everything in Scripture. But what he has revealed is true and it reflects his mind. It is not a shadow even if it does not reveal everything that God knows. For that reason, Protestants are very squeamish about adding to Scripture, whether private revelations or new writings or traditions of men.

But if you are not so bibliocentric, if you believe an apostle or an officer has access to truth that does not exist in Scripture (or even tradition), what standard do you have for evaluating whether the apostle or officer or tongues-speaker is speaking the truth? I don’t know if defenders of Francis worry about placing an authority beyond common or accepted standards of truth and goodness the way that Protestants have and do. But if they don’t, are they in danger of re-doing Ockham?