The Worse, the Better

It’s an odd argument, but in the Pope Francis era it seems to be more prevalent. It runs something like this:

He’s a lousy husband, angry, selfish, a slob, and abusive, but that makes him the husband God gave me all the more.

He’s a terrible employee — late for meetings, lies to customers, refuses to adhere to company policies, but he’s the co-worker God gave me.

He’s an awful king — he suspended habeus corpus, requires citizens to hostile to hostile and uncivil soldiers, forces us to pay taxes without giving us a voice in tax policy — but he’s the king God gave us.

And so, when it comes to the church, the fact that an institution so bad has existed so long is proof that it is the institution Christ founded.

For instance:

In the satirical writings, dialogues, of the 14th c. Italian author Boccaccio there is story about a Jew who has to go to Rome for something. The local Bishop has been trying to get the Jew to convert the Christianity. Knowing the Jew was about to see the Church at its worst in Rome, the corruption and moral turpitude of many of the clerics and religious, even Popes like the Borgias, the Bishop despaired that the Jew would ever covert on his return. However, once returned from his trip, the Jew went to the Bishop and said, “I’m ready to convert now!” The Bishop, flabbergasted, replied, “You went to Rome and you saw how horrid things were there… and you still want to join this Church?” “Yes”, said the Jew. “I figure that with so many wicked and corrupt people hard at work trying to destroy the Church, it shouldn’t have lasted 14 years, much less 14 centuries. It has to be of divine origin!”

Or again:

It was exhilarating, that moment when it hit me: “I’m going to become Catholic.” But as I experienced more of the modern church, and began RCIA, Patrick Coffin’s greeting to converts, “Come on in! It’s a mess,” started to make sense.

So did the words of Hilaire Belloc, which no longer seemed merely witty:

The Catholic Church is an institution I am bound to hold divine but for unbelievers a proof of its divinity might be found in the fact that no merely human institution conducted with such knavish imbecility would have lasted a fortnight.

Even more:

Worrying about the daily confusion and sorrow Pope Francis introduces into our lives can impede us from working on our first priority—which is living our Catholic life in Christ as fully as we possibly can. With only exceedingly rare exceptions, we are in no position to offer correction to the Holy Father. Therefore, it will do us little good to engage in endless arguments over what is wrong, whose fault it is, and how the problems posed by the current papacy might be resolved. And not only will this do us no good, but it can be a significant source of scandal to others, most of whom will have little or no awareness of the issues at stake.

I’d like to suggest that it is time to turn the corner on Pope Francis. Most of us have no cards to play in the game of improving the papacy. But we do have our own callings, our own God-given talents, our own opportunities to engage in the spiritual and corporal works of mercy, to teach the truth and to foster the good. When we can use something Pope Francis has said or done in our own Catholic service, then we should—all the better! But when we cannot take our inspiration from Pope Francis, we can still reference Our Lord and the Church He founded. We do not need to come up against Francis and grind to a halt. That’s what I mean about turning the corner.

I do not presume to know papal theory well, but am aware that reservations about papal authority were much more substantial in the Middle Ages than they are in the post-Vatican I church where infallibility is now dogma. In fact, important medieval philosophers like Marsilius of Padua and William of Ockham (does that make me Darryl of Hart?) made arguments against the tyranny of the papacy that would seem to be relevant for Roman Catholics today.

But the apologetic that the deficiencies of the church only prove its necessity and durability defy Thomistic logic no matter how tight the syllogisms are under Bryan and the Jasons Kangol cap.

Here’s why: if the church is deficient, how do you then know that its truth claims are not also deficient?

Because the reality remains: She is the bride of Christ, and the Truth is found nowhere but in Her. Conversion to the one true faith remains the greatest, most life-altering decision a person can make—even if things are a bit of a mess.

In point of fact, the truth about conditions in the church come almost entirely from sources external to the magisterium, which sort of pokes a hole in those audacious (warning, Bryan Cross has removed the article about Papal Audacity) claims about the magisterium’s infallible protection of the truth.

Reverse Whiggism

It comes from the bottom of the magazine pile, but Michael Brendan Dougherty shows what it would be like to have J. Gresham Machen trapped in a Roman Catholic convert’s body:

. . . read Richard Weaver on William of Ockham. Find some of Hilaire Belloc’s wilder statements that The Faith is Europe and Europe is the Faith. Go page through Warren H. Carroll’s “A History of Christendom.” You can find these notions informing the fiction of Robert Hugh Benson who thought that the re-adoption of a few Christian principles would bring back the colored uniforms and heraldry of medieval guilds. Or pick any number of pamphlets by the enthusiastic prelates of the Society of St. Pius X. The great signposts are all there, Ockham, 1517, Westphalia, 1789 and all the rest. Suddenly you have what Lilla very aptly describes as a “an inverted Whiggism—a Whiggism for depressives.”

I’ve had this view articulated to me even by a Jewish scholar at Bard College, who told me that the Reformation ruined everything after I had given him hints that I was initiated enough to hear this.

There are a couple of fallacies hiding behind this line of thinking. Chiefly, this reverse Whiggism seems to take it for granted that the point of Christianity is Christendom, as if Jesus was born in Bethlehem to build Chartres and compose the Summa Theologica. And therefore everything from 1295 to now is a story of punctuated decline.

I like Chartres and the Summa fine but Christ’s kingdom is not of this world.

And, I think even at one point Lilla almost falls for the other error crouching behind this way of thinking when he writes “despite centuries of internal conflicts over papal authority and external conflicts with the Eastern Church and the Turks, the Roman Catholic Church did indeed seem triumphant.”

Really? Certainly there were eras and areas where the Church had the kind of comfort to develop its own kind of medieval hipster ironies.

But we’re really fooling ourselves if we think the Catholic (or catholic) orthodoxy had a kind of super-hold on Europe, and we just stupidly abandoned it. People now treat the monastic movement like it was some kind of naturally occurring balancing act that just kicked in once Christianity got imperial approval. No, it was the response of certain Christians to what they felt was an age in crisis. Theological competition was not a novelty of the Reformation. After all, the Church councils did not slay Arianism by force of argument. They merely announced a hoped-for death sentence for a heresy that took centuries to vanquish.

Roman Catholic spirituality of the church without Yankees banners, indeed.

If Jesus' Kingdom Is Not of this World

Does that mean that Europe is heaven?

From a while back, Michael Brendan Dougherty explains that Jesus didn’t die to save western civilization:

Or read Richard Weaver on William of Ockham. Find some of Hilaire Belloc’s wilder statements that The Faith is Europe and Europe is the Faith. Go page through Warren H. Carroll’s “A History of Christendom.” You can find these notions informing the fiction of Robert Hugh Benson who thought that the re-adoption of a few Christian principles would bring back the colored uniforms and heraldry of medieval guilds. Or pick any number of pamphlets by the enthusiastic prelates of the Society of St. Pius X. The great signposts are all there, Ockham, 1517, Westphalia, 1789 and all the rest. Suddenly you have what Lilla very aptly describes as a “an inverted Whiggism—a Whiggism for depressives.”

I’ve had this view articulated to me even by a Jewish scholar at Bard College, who told me that the Reformation ruined everything after I had given him hints that I was initiated enough to hear this.

There are a couple of fallacies hiding behind this line of thinking. Chiefly, this reverse Whiggism seems to take it for granted that the point of Christianity is Christendom, as if Jesus was born in Bethlehem to build Chartres and compose the Summa Theologica. And therefore everything from 1295 to now is a story of punctuated decline. . . .

But we’re really fooling ourselves if we think the Catholic (or catholic) orthodoxy had a kind of super-hold on Europe, and we just stupidly abandoned it. People now treat the monastic movement like it was some kind of naturally occurring balancing act that just kicked in once Christianity got imperial approval. No, it was the response of certain Christians to what they felt was an age in crisis. Theological competition was not a novelty of the Reformation. After all, the Church councils did not slay Arianism by force of argument. They merely announced a hoped-for death sentence for a heresy that took centuries to vanquish.

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?