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Magisterialism

In contemporary, orthodox, Catholic circles I think there has developed a strange notion of the Church’s authority, and therefore, a strange notion of what it means to be Catholic.  What got me thinking about this was the recent kerfuffle between Michael Voris and Mark Shea.  Voris, in his usual bold manner, argued that Fr. Barron is wrong about the possibility of no human person going to Hell.  Mark Shea responded by denouncing Voris for attacking a priest who is advocating a position that can be held in the Catholic faith, calling Voris’ video “poison.”  Now, this article is not about Voris’ or Shea’s style of expression nor about Balthasar’s theology regarding Hell.  Rather, I want to address what seems to be very strange assumptions in Shea’s argument, assumptions that I think are very common and have troublesome consequences.

Shea emphasizes that both Balthasar’s position of good hope that none will be sent to Hell and someone like Ralph Martin’s contrary position are possible within the Catholic faith because neither position has been condemned or endorsed by the magisterium.  He writes, “The problem is, as we discuss here at some length, Barron is not ‘wrong’ in his speculations just as Benedict is not wrong. They (and numerous other Catholics) are guilty of no dissent against Church teaching whatsoever.”  Now, let’s assume for a moment that the Church has not pronounced definitively on this issue.  The Church had never pronounced that Christ was consubstantial with the Father before Nicea in 325.  Does that mean that to deny this before the council was just fine.  No, not at all!  Rather, the Church deemed its denial so dangerous that it had to be condemned at an ecumenical council.  We do not receive the Faith primarily through councils; we receive it through the much broader web that is tradition.  Authoritative acts of the magisterium would rarely occur if there were no heresies.  They are meant as correctives.  Before the Protestant Reformation, the canon had never been infallibly defined.  Yet, when the reformers did begin to doubt the canon of scripture, the Church did not say, “Well, it’s never been defined so you can doubt it as a Catholic.”  Rather, it responded by vigorously condemning this dangerous error, which upon the Church’s condemnation, became a heresy.  The lack of magisterial endorsement or condemnation of a position only means that we usually cannot accuse a person advocating that position of heresy.  The position might still be an error, and a grave error at that!  The Early Church warred with itself for hundreds of years for the sake of undefined doctrines.

Moreover, one person is right and one person is wrong.  When popes, saints, and theologians taught about Hell, they were not presenting a merely personal opinion.  They were stating the opinion because they truly believed their opinion to be true and the opposite position to be false.  Sure, the Church had not taught infallibly on it, so they could not claim it as part of the deposit of the Faith that must be adhered to for salvation.  But this does not mean they did not believe it to be true or its denial dangerous.  Yet, this is not even touching the difficulty of whether the Church has spoken on the issue, a position for which Boniface (in his usual rational, non-polemical, and well-researched style) at UnamSanctamCatholicam makes a very strong case here and here.

Everything I have been describing provides a good image of a false understanding of the magisterium that is held today.  It is certainly held in good faith by people who saw the excesses of dissent after Vatican II and reacted against it.  Nonetheless, it is not quite an accurate view of the Magisterium.  If the Magisterium is silent on a position, it does not follow that there really should be no concern over the truth of the position.   The Magisterium is not Revelation; it is one means by which we can gain knowledge of the content of Revelation.  The silence of the Magisterium on an issue only means that one is not guilty of formal heresy on that issue.

The magisterium is elevated to a position that it was not intended to fulfill.  Often, it is even treated as inspired like Sacred Scripture is inspired.  I once heard a well-educated Catholic become shocked when someone asserted that Vatican II should have dedicated an entire document to Mary.  This person explained that if the Holy Spirit wanted a document on Mary, He would have provided one.  Of course, this is not how the Holy Spirit’s actions in councils works.  He does not inspire every document, paragraph and word.  Rather, he protects the Church from teaching heresy and enables it to make infallible definitions if it so choses (which it did not chose to do at Vatican II).  Moreover, the magisterium cannot endorse a “spirit” or rhetorical style.  If recent encyclicals do not speak in a scholastic language, that does not mean that the scholastic language is unhelpful in the modern world.  It does not even mean that it wouldn’t have been better in a scholastic language!  Nor are we required to believe that all acts of the magisterium are prudent.  In piety, this should be the natural assumption; however, upon much research and thought if we arrive at the opposing conclusion, this is okay!  Popes are not infallible when they decide to call councils, write encyclicals, or canonize saints; rather, they are infallible when they invoke the gift of infallibility within these contexts.  Nor are conclaves infallible when they elect a Pope or popes when they appoint bishops.  We must trust that there is no heresy in a council or encyclical, that every canonized saint is in Heaven, and that formal definitions are true, but we do not necessarily need to believe that any of these decisions were prudent.

Bl. Cardinal Newman thought it possible that papal infallibility was part of the deposit of revelation, but also thought it would be tremendously bad to define it at Vatican I.  He wrote in a letter to Bishop William Ullathorne,

“With these thoughts before me, I am continually asking myself whether I ought not to make my feelings public; but all I do is to pray those great early Doctors of the Church, whose interession would decide the matter, – Augustine and the rest, – to avert so great a calamity.  if it is God’s will that the Pope’s Infallibility should be defined, then it is His Blessed Will to throw back the times and the moments of that triumph He has destined for His Kingdom, and I shall feel I have but to bow my head to His Adorable Inscrutable Providence.”

Of course, after the definition, he accepted the teaching and the Church, but he did not turn around and declare his joy at the definition.

Finally, there is a tendency not only to overly exalt the magisterium, but to overly exalt today’s magisterium.  To deviate at all from conciliar and post-conciliar teachings is considered nearly schismatic, yet authoritative magisterial statements before the council are entirely ignored.  In them, we find that the Pope cannot be reconciled with modernity, progress, and liberalism, that man has no right to error and thus no right to religious liberty, that states have the duty to confess the Catholic religion, that those who lack visible membership in the Church cannot be saved unless they are struggling under invincible ignorance, that the authority of rulers is derived directly from God and not through the people, and many other doctrines that are simply ignored because they are difficult and old.

All of this amounts to a sort of hyper-magisterialism, where the present magisterium is given far too much weight, and past magisterial teachings are often ignored.  Because of this, “traditionalists” are accused of heretical tendencies, when (usually) all they are doing is believing what the Church has always taught and worshipping how it has always worshipped.  When they challenge tendencies in the modern Church, they do so on theologically solid ground because they have a balanced view of the Magisterium that allows for imprudence and imperfection and does not assert the Magisterium’s existence where it does not exist.

So, to return to where we began.  Shea could have argued that Voris was dangerously wrong in his view of Hell.  Or he could have argued that he is correct in his view of Hell, but overestimates the importance of his view.  He could have argued any number of things except what he did argue, which was essentially to tell him that he has no right to say what he is saying.  Voris has a right to say Balthasar and Fr. Barron are wrong and he has the right to think that their error is dangerous.  He may be wrong when it comes to the facts, but in principle his position is possible and it certainly cannot be condemned for the reasons Shea rejects it.  I chose this example because it highlights something very prevalent in the Church.  It is an over-exaltation of the present magisterium so that in this case, even its silence takes away our right to take the issue seriously.  Moreover, it ignores previous magisterial teaching and the general sense of the faithful (as linked to earlier).  In summary, we are being bound too tightly by the present magisterium and too loosely by the pre-conciliar magisterium.

I hate to end an article in such a critical manner, and so I’ll make one more comment.  Let’s not let the Benedict moment pass.  For the first time since the council, traditionalists and conservatives (if we must use labels) dialogued in a calm manner.  Conservative and traditional Catholics share both faith and charity and so there is no reason to descend into polemics all over again.  Why not attempt to break past the rhetoric and cooperate as brothers with important disagreements rather than tribal warlords locked in generational feuds?  In order to do this, though, we need to come to some agreement about the Magisterium.  We need to restore the modern magisterium to its proper role.  If someone doubts the prudence of the liturgical reforms or the clarity of a document of Vatican II, we must let him!  He can do so while holding the Faith; He thinks these things as a Catholic and, he would contend, precisely because he is a Catholic.  Moreover, we need to take seriously the past acts of the magisterium; Pope St. Pius X is just as important as Bl. Pope John Paul II.

The differences are not always trivial; no, they are often very large and involve the salvation of souls.  Even still, this is one form of dialogue which can truly be fruitful, since it is done in the bosom of the Church.

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Silence and the Divine Speech

According to St. Thomas Aquinas, the Son proceeds from the Father by “intellectual enunciation.”  That is, by understanding Himself, He eternally and perfectly speaks Himself as a Word.  This is no metaphor.  The Word of God is not like human words.  Rather, human words are like the Word of God; our words are the shadows, and His is the reality.  Just as the Father is the One from whom all fathers are named, so the Word is the One from whom all words are named.  In your speech, therefore, you imitate the divine fecundity and the procession of the Second Person of the Trinity.  Each and every word you utter is more significant than the whole cosmos.  There is more dignity and majesty in a single word than there is in the greatest of natural wonders.

Paradoxically, this should not cause sinners to desire to speak, but to be silent.  Perhaps it will be different in Heaven, when we know that each word will imitate the Divine Word upon whom we gaze.  In the Church Militant, however, it is different.  When we injure the dignity of the spoken word, we in some sense strike out against the Word of God.  Yet, when we speak a word as a member of the flesh and bones of Christ, we glorify the Word of God.  There is good precedent for the silent life.

St. Joseph, likely one of the greatest saints, is also the silent saint.  He was the spouse of the Mother of God, and in this way, he shared in Mary’s goods, namely, her inestimable grace.  Yet, he remained silent.  Bossuet writes, “Jesus was revealed to the Apostles that they might announce Him throughout the world; He was revealed to St. Joseph who was to remain silent and keep Him hidden.  The Apostles are lights to make the world see Jesus.  Joseph is a veil to cover Him; and under that mysterious veil are hidden from us the virginity of Mary and the greatness of the Saviour of souls . . . He Who makes  the Apostles glorious with the glory of preaching, glorifies Joseph by the humility of silence.”

Fr. Garrigou Lagrange writes, “Perfection consists in doing God’s will, each one according to his vocation; St. Joseph’s vocation of silence and obscurity surpassed that of the Apostles because it bordered more nearly on the redemptive Incarnation.  After Mary, Joseph was nearest to the Author of grace, and in the silence of Bethlehem, during the exile in Egypt, and in the little home of Nazareth he received more graces than any other saint.”  He further explains, “The beauty of the whole universe was nothing compared with that of the union of Mary and Joseph, a union created by the Most High, which ravished the angels and gave joy to the Lord.” Yet, he remained silent.  He kept the mysteries hidden.

Such silence when he has such a Gospel to proclaim! What could justify it? So many souls to save and not a word!  Yet, this seems to be ordained by God, for Joseph does not even live to see Jesus’ death and resurrection.  And it is not only scripture that is silent but tradition as well.  Only during the past few centuries has St. Joseph begun to significantly venerated by the Church.   Pope Pius XI, after describing the earthly missions of St. Peter and St. John the Baptist, explains, “Between these two missions there appears that of St. Joseph, one of recollection and silence, one almost unnoticed and destined to be lit up only many centuries afterwards, a silence which would become a resounding hymn of glory, but only after many years.”  The cult of St. Joseph is relatively young, and it is fitting that the one silent in scripture would also be silent in the Church until a late hour.  But at that hour, he has interceded for us. Just as he defended Christ’s body on earth as his foster father, so he is now defending the Church as the West turns against Her, and one can wonder where the modern world would be without his prayers.

There are other silent ones during the time of Christ. While He sends the Apostles out to preach, He withholds His mother, who lives with St. John seemingly in some isolation.  Both say very little in scripture.  The “beloved disciple” is with Jesus wherever he goes, but he speaks few words.  Yet, he is the only apostle who remains at the cross.  St. Peter, on the other hand, rebukes Jesus for teaching His disciples about his coming passion and even interrupts His transfiguration “for he did not know what to say,” yet thought he had to say something.  John silently rests his head on Jesus’ chest, while Peter in his speech denies Christ three times.  St. Joseph, St. John, and the Blessed Virgin Mary represent those closest to Christ, and the accounts of their lives convey mostly silence.  Fr. Garrigou-Lagrange says about Joseph, “The humble carpenter is glorified in heaven to the extent to which he was hidden on earth,” and the same can probably be said about the other two great saints.

Yet, silence on earth is only a preparation; we are being trained to shout for joy in Heaven.  David’s prayer, “O Lord, open thou my lips, and my mouth shall show forth thy praise,” therefore, will only be fully answered in the next age.  Our lips must remain shut until the Lamb is revealed and the age is fulfilled, not because it is wrong to open them, but because they cannot yet be opened.  Now, our words are acorns.  Then, they will be trees, and birds of the air will dwell in their branches.  The words that we speak now are incomparable to the words that we will speak then for we can only speak according to our knowledge.  Now, we speak in signs and shadows for we know God only by such things.  Then we will speak in Spirit and Truth, for the divine essence will directly enlighten our mind.  Now, we possess the Word in hope; then we will possess Him in glory.  Who can imagine what our tongues will utter when we witness and assist at the procession of the divine Word from the Father?  What words will we offer worthy of such a Word!  We will see Speech as it truly is, proceeding as the Divine Utterance from the Divine Utterer.  What is truly a marvel is that our words will enter into this Heavenly liturgy, perfected and elevated as words spoken not by mere men, but by the Mystical Body of Christ – the totus Christus.  Our words will be spoken by the Word, as He is spoken by the Father, and they will only be worthy of Him because they are spoken by Him, in us.  When we witness and participate in the Divine Speech and the Divine Love, when we assist at the inner life of the Trinity, when we know and love the Divine Speaker and Lover as He knows and loves Himself, how minuscule will our many earthly words appear?  These words are not words, but shadows of words.  Rumor is, however, that the blind and mute have been cured so that one day, they will see God and shout to Him!

So, let us be silent with Mary, Joseph, and John, speaking no more than is good for body and soul, so that one day, we may be united to the Word spoken by the Father, when our praise will pour out like wine.

The Catholic Language

“It is worth considering whether the real civil disobedience must not begin with our language.” -Richard M. Weaver, Ethics of Rhetoric

Words

“The true conservative is one who sees the universe as a paradigm of essences, of which the phenomenology of the world is a sort of continuing approximation.  Or, to put this in another way, he sees it as a set of definitions which are struggling to get themselves defined in the real world.” -Richard M. Weaver, Ethics of Rhetoric

After spending a considerable time reading Aquinas and then entering back into the present world, I often find that I am struck by words that I have never been struck by before.  For example, when I hear the words participation or analogy immediately a plethora of associations pour into my mind.  The same occurs with scripture.  When I hear the word crown or throne, so many Biblical associations come to mind.  The word that catches my attention has the strange effect of uplifting my spirit and exciting my intellect.

When you understand that a tree is not simply a collection of matter and energy into a certain shape, but rather the material manifestation of the form tree, and that there is a definition of a tree, things become much more exciting.  You know that a tree is something that grows.  And although it remains fundamentally the same throughout its life, the acorn looks nothing like the mature tree.  Moreover, the relationship of the form tree to other forms creates even more associations in the mind.  I am reminded of Cardinal Newman and his development of doctrine, particularly of the development of Marian doctrine, in which the seed doctrine of her being “the mother of Jesus” blossoms down the centuries, unfolding out of an acorn and into to the tree of her assumption into Heaven.  I am reminded of Mary herself, and how she could at once grow in holiness while being perfectly holy throughout her life.  Her soul grew like a tree does; it always can be a perfect tree, but the full grown tree is more perfect than a baby tree.  Indeed, the mature tree is even an image of God, offering shade and repose for the wary, having realized all of its potencies for growth and fulfillment like God who is pure Act and has no potency to fulfill.  Yet, the tree will die and sow new life in the form of seeds, and out of its death life will come.  God’s understanding of trees would be  far too great to comprehend.  Words are big things because forms are big things, and forms underly reality.  Our words signify our ideas of things, which are themselves the existence of those things in our intellect.  If words excite us, it is because things excite us.

We must therefore remember that words are beautiful and useful only because they accord with reality.  If our distinctions are wrong in our language, our vision of reality will be wrong as well.  Medieval theological language was not simply an accident of the time; rather, it was self-consciously employed by theologians based off of a philosophical system that they believed accorded with reality.  If we believe that there are real distinctions in the world, then we must believe that there is an ideal vocabulary that best approximates those distinctions.  Moreover, when society exists under the reign of a true philosophy as it did during the Middle Ages, we should expect language to become more accurate.  However, when society exists under the influence of false philosophy as it does today, we should expect language to become less accurate.  The vocabulary we use conveys our philosophy.

Arguments

“In other words, the rhetoric content of the major premise which the speaker habitually uses is the key to his primary view of existence.” -Richard M. Weaver, Ethics of Rhetoric

It is not only our vocabulary, but our arguments as well, that make known our philosophy.  I will pose a hypothetical syllogism.

1. All boys are bad.

2. Tommy is a boy.

3. Therefore, Tommy is bad.

Weaver makes a strong case in Ethics of Rhetoric that the conclusion does not determine the fundamental beliefs of a person because it is specific.  If we were interested in the character of Tommy, we would be interested in the conclusion, but if we were interested in the character of the hypothetical interlocutor, we would be interested in why he thinks Tommy to be bad.  Is he bad because he drives a Hummer and Hummers are evil because of their pollution?  Is it because Tommy is a Marxist and all Marxists are bad?  No, Tommy is supposedly bad because all boys are bad.  The major premise of the argument revealed the philosophy of the interlocutor.  Once again, therefore, language is not a neutral as it may first appear.  The arguments we use convey our underlying philosophy.  If someone we meet is against abortion, we may or may not share a philosophy with them; the sharing of opinion may simply be accidental.  They may be against abortion because they are a pacifist who thinks violence is never justified (and thus what is wrong is not the taking of an innocent life, but the use of violence at all) or a Buddhist who wants to avoid making choices (and thus what is wrong is not murder, but the making of a choice).  All arguments carry an implicit philosophy by virtue of the major premise which contains the universal proposition.  The arguments we employ even concerning things other than our philosophy convey that philosophy.

Emphasis

If all of our vocabulary is strictly chosen to abide by reality and all of the major premises of our arguments are in accordance with reality, we can still not convey ourselves properly.  Consider, for example, if we usually turned to this argument to oppose abortion:

1. The happiness of women is good.

2. Abortion reduces the happiness of women.

3. Abortion is therefore bad.

It is a fair argument, factual in its premises and with a strong conclusion.  One can also imagine many occasions in which this argument would be needed, perhaps even on the sidewalk in front of an abortion clinic.  Yet, if this was our standard argument to friends, family, and in public, it would convey something inadequate.  It would appear that our main concern about abortion is that the mother would be unhappy; rather, it should be about the child.  The major premise does not only contain one of our philosophies, but if used repeatedly, it contains our main philosophy.

For an example of how an emphasis in vocabulary can also convey a philosophy, imagine if a nation responded to an ongoing genocide frequently as a crime or as a tragedy.  If the criminal aspect of the genocide were emphasized, we would expect some sort of action to prevent the continuation of the crime.  If, however, the tragic aspect were emphasized, we might expect a more passive response.  Both words, however, are true descriptions of the genocide; it really is both criminal and tragic.  Yet, which word we chose to use conveys what exists already in our mind.

Rhetoric

My point is that language is not a neutral; it is not mere clothing that can be draped over any philosophy. Rather, language is a product of philosophy and it is manifested in vocabulary, arguments, and rhetorical emphasis.  The language of the Church must therefore remain somewhat fixed – especially as it is exercised by those speaking in some manner officially for the Church.

If a Kantian approaches a parish priest, the priest can sit down and work with his philosophy to show him that the religious experience is necessarily part of human consciousness, and this might help the Kantian to approach the faith.  Yet, the Kantian will not get the impression that the priest is a Kantian; rather, he will realize the priest has adopted his philosophy momentarily to show how even Kant’s subjectivism cannot escape the religious experience.  However, if the Church in its official proclamations teaches from Kantian premises, even if it arrives at orthodox conclusions, it will have conveyed the impression that it is Kantian even if it is not.

If a humanist approaches the same priest, the priest can sit down and talk on and on about sin’s damage to human dignity without speaking nearly as much about the cross.  If the humanist begins to convert, then the priest can guide him from the partial understanding that he gave him to a fuller understanding of original sin and Christ’s atonement for sin.  However, if Church leaders and documents place much more emphasis on sin’s damage to human dignity than to Christ on the cross, it will seem that the Church considers sin’s damage to self-fulfillment worse than sin’s offense against God.

Dialogue in which we indulge another’s assumptions and sentiments in order to help guide them to the truth is very good! But this must be done in unofficial settings, where it is clear to the other person that you are not teaching them your philosophy, but trying to meet them halfway.   Yet, whenever the Church speaks through her leaders, she speaks in a sense magisterially – as a teacher, not a partner in dialogue.  Her language must be universal and in perfect accord with her philosophy.  If she continually emphasizes one aspect of the faith over another, it will seem that she thinks that aspect to be more important.  If she continually uses the language and universal propositions of the modern world, it will seem that she shares the philosophy of the modern world.

Renewal in the Church therefore depends partly on the restoration of her language so that the content of the Faith, the deposit of Revelation, can be passed on with clarity.  It is not enough to teach orthodox conclusions; we must teach orthodox conclusions in an orthodox manner.  I will close with a beautiful, precise, and scholastic passage from Pope Pius XII’s Mystici Corporis. This passage not only teaches the truth, but teaches it in a Catholic manner, conveying the whole majestic, military, intellectual, and mystical spirit of the Faith.  Thus we not only learn about Catholic doctrine, but we are formed by the Catholic spirit that gives rise to and proceeds from that doctrine.

“Therefore, Our most learned predecessor Leo XIII of happy memory, speaking of our union with Christ and with the Divine Paraclete who dwells within us, and fixing his gaze on that blessed vision through which this mystical union will attain its confirmation and perfection in heaven says: “This wonderful union, or indwelling properly so-called, differs from that by which God embraces and gives joy to the elect only by reason of our earthly state.”[162] In that celestial vision it will be granted to the eyes of the human mind strengthened by the light of glory, to contemplate the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit in an utterly ineffable manner, to assist throughout eternity at the processions of the Divine Persons, and to rejoice with a happiness like to that with which the holy and undivided Trinity is happy.” (80)

All Christian history is sacred history, but it seems that this admits of a distinction.

First, there is what I will call hypostatic history, that is, the history of God’s action in the world by virtue of the hypostatic union of the divine and human nature in Christ.  The Gospels relate this history.  This is the primary sacred history not only because it is the direct action of God through the human nature of Christ, but because it is the history that is the source and summit of the rest of sacred history.  The life of Christ on earth is the cause of the Church’s life of grace, which I will call mystical history.  

Mystical history is the history of God’s action in the world by virtue of the mystical union of Christ and the Church.  The books of the New Testament outside of the Gospels relate this history.  This is the secondary sacred history because it is the indirect action of God through separate, though in some sense united, beings and because primary sacred history, Jesus’ actions during his earthly ministry, cause the existence of this sacred history.

However, non-Christian history still retains a share in Christ’s actions.  However, he does not act by virtue of his human nature or by virtue of his human Church.  He does not act as an imminent agent, but as a removed agent.  It is not by Christ’s human nature, nor by His presence in souls through grace, but rather by his providence that He drives this history, which I will call providential history.  Obvious examples, like the preparation of the gentiles for the understanding of the Gospel through Greek philosophy, come to mind; however, all non-Christian history falls under this category.

But how much of these histories can be known by us?

Much of hypostatic history, indeed all that is necessary for salvationis made known to us with the perfect certainty of faith through the deposit of revelation entrusted to the Church in scripture and tradition.

The very beginning of mystical history is made known to us by the records of the New Testament once again with the perfect certainty of faith.  Cannonizations of saints, being infallible exercises of the papacy, also give us certain knowledge of small pieces of this history.  And although we cannot have supernatural certainty concerning much else, there is a great deal more about sacred history that we can learn by submitting to the Church with religious and rational piety.  For example, we can learn of Marian apparitions and stories of the exercise of heroic virtues by the saints.  We can also, whenever we find something characteristic of the Church, praise it as good, like the formulation of the dogmas, the revision of liturgies, or the calling of ecumenical councils.  These sorts of deductions, though not doctrinally defined, seem so close to the faith that we would be very concerned if a Catholic denied them.  Moreover, we can speculate more dimly still through the meditations of saints and our own meditation.  I have often wondered if the Church’s history would not endure the same spiritual conversions that all saints do – that is, the dark nights of the senses and of the soul.  Perhaps the Roman persecution of the Church was our dark night of the senses, and the persecution of the end times will be the dark night of the soul.  I have heard others suggest that the history of the Church will fold back on itself, once again returning to persecution near its end but not before passing through a new Arian crisis, the current crisis in the Church.  However, these can only be pious speculations.  They neither are strict deductions from certain principles nor are they confirmed by the infallible teaching office of the Church.

Providential history is least known to us.  What is the meaning of China?  What have the massive civilizations of the East that have such a wild history without Revelation have to do with God’s plan on earth?  An example that comes to mind is the troublesome existence of the Americas.  If the Americas did not exist, we could see how God’s plan of the continents and nations could be fitting.  Three central races (those of Europe, Africa, and Asia) representing the three sons of Noah and the Triune communion of Persons who created this triple communion of races.  The imprint of the Trinity would be very clear in the races of men.  Moreover, these three races all connect with each other precisely in Israel.  But this is not so because we have the strange phenomenon of the Americas.  Why is there a fourth region?  Why is there this mysterious race, though largely gone now?  And why did it remain unknown until so late in history? What is the meaning of the Americas in God’s plan?

I have laid out this system in order to pose a question.  Does contemporary theology emphasize each of these categories in due proportion?  Insofar as contemporary theology is modernist, it places each of these three histories on an equal plane.  God, it is at least implicitly suggested, has moved in Catholicism as He has moved in all religions.  All history is reduced to providential history.  An over-contextualizing of hypostatic history denies the inerrancy of scripture and argues that it is merely the author’s or community’s attempt to explain his or its experience of God.  The same is true for the dogmas created by the Church through its mystical history.  There is no participation in the life of God; rather, the Church like the rest of the world is grappling to understand God.  Even though this sort of modernism has been consistently condemned by the Church, it remains an exceedingly common opinion both by theologians and lay Catholics.  It is clear therefore that not enough has been done to end this modernist tendency.

However, there is another tendency that has not been condemned by the Church yet I think is very unhealthy.  It does not deny or even downplay hypostatic history.  Nor does it deny mystical history, but it does downplay it in a way that implicitly denies it.  Some positions that come to mind I have listed below in no particular order.

  1. The Church was in a dark age between Constantine and Vatican II.
  2. The Enlightenment and the French Revolution, though at first resisted by the Church, eventually proved to be very fruitful and many aspects were adopted by the Church.
  3. The Tridentine rite inhibits lay participation in the mass.
  4. The use of polemical rhetoric is antithetical to evangelization.
  5. The traditional understanding of the doctrine no salvation outside the Church was incorrect and was corrected by the modern Church.

Now, I think these claims must be wrong because of the Church’s character.  Because it exists in mystical union with God, its history must be a mystical history.  This necessarily means that it will not be characterized by falsehood or evil, but by truth and goodness.  The history of the Church is the history of the growth of a saint, and although she may fall into sins from time to time, the Church’s life will not be characterized over the long term by sin, but by grace.  Returning to the aforementioned propositions:

  1. The Church was in a dark age between Constantine and Vatican II.  It is no coincidence that this vision of history accords so well with the protestant vision of history.  Protestant theology rejects mystical union with God; therefore, it does not need to admit of any pattern of holiness or growth in the Church.  A Catholic vision, however, must insist in the fundamental goodness of the Church – that she cannot engage in systematic error for most of her existence.
  2. The Enlightenment and the French Revolution, though at first resisted by the Church, eventually proved to be very fruitful and many aspects were adopted by the Church.  If the principles of the Enlightenment and French Revolution concerning the best form of government and the fundamental rights of man are not only true, but essential to human society, this means that the Church, even with all of her saints and doctors, was ignorant of issues of fundamental human justice for almost her entire existence.  Moreover, these fundamental rights were discovered by men who rejected the Faith and indeed persecuted the Church.  Once again, given the character of the Church this is hard to imagine.  Given a protestant ecclesiology however, it poses less difficulty.
  3. The Tridentine rite inhibits lay participation in the mass.  This is similar to the first proposition.  It condemns too much and praises too little.  If the novus ordo is to be praised, the case cannot be that the norm for the Church (Tridentine) was bad but this is now good.  Rather, the case would have to be made that the Tridentine rite was extraordinarily beautiful and good and the novus ordo was an almost unbelievable flowering of something already so magnificent.
  4. The use of polemical rhetoric is antithetical to evangelization.  From St. Peter to the twentieth century, polemical language, alongside dispassionate dialogue, has always been used by the Church.  Polemics cannot be condemned in principle any more than the Tridentine rite can.  In other words, we cannot accuse the Church in its popes, doctors, and saints of obstinately committing a sin against evangelism for its entire existence.
  5. The traditional understanding of the doctrine no salvation outside the Church was incorrect and was corrected by the modern Church.  Pope St. Pius X warned about interpreting dogmas in a way that the authors of the dogmas did not intend, and Pope Pius XII warned against emptying this dogma in particular of its content.  For a doctrine to develop, it must be consistent with how it was first meant.  The doctrine is now used in a way that would be unrecognizable to the Church for its first 1900 years of existence.

In summary, none of these propositions can be true because the Church is the mystical body of Christ.  She is more holy than sinful, truthful than erroneous, and beautiful than ugly.  Because she is mystically united to Christ, her history is characterized not by sin, but by grace.  The past cannot be tossed out as simply as we have done.  The problem with propositions like these is not that they are heretical.  The problem is that they only make sense given a protestant ecclesiology that does not see the Church as a saint growing towards perfect holiness, but a sinner struggling and falling in and out of habitual sin for its entire existence.  This is characteristic of so much of the modern crisis of the Church; heresies are formally denied while the implications of them are upheld.  Perhaps this is why we find ourselves in the midst of the modernist heresy, condemned and suppressed a whole century ago!  We condemned the modernist propositions, but then we tolerated the implications of the heresies, which if believed could lead us only back to the original heresy, that heresy which Pope St. Pius X described as “the synthesis of all heresies.”

We sometimes hear the rhetorical question, “Do you think you are more Catholic than the pope?”  We should rather be asking ourselves, “Do you think you are more Catholic than the Church?”  Surely we are all partially the product of our age, and we need to put great effort into finding the bosom of the universal Church and shedding whatever non-Catholic sentiments we find within ourselves.

Nominalism and . . . [1]

This is the first post in a series of reflections about the effects of nominalism.  This post is just an introduction to the topic of nominalism.

The philosophy of nominalism became powerful through William of Ockham in the 14th century.  Although it had precursors before then, they either did not go as far as Ockham (as in the case of Bl. Duns Scotus) or they had less of an impact than that of Ockham (as in the case of Roscellinus, who was a Tritheist).  Nominalism denies the existence of forms, essences, or universals.  When we call a dog, “a dog,” we do not mean that he has the essence or form of dog, but rather, that he is sufficiently similar to other things we have named dog that it is useful to call him that.  The name of a thing does not signify its essence; instead, it signifies a group of individual things whose similarity to one another is such that it is helpful to group them under one mental concept.  It is useful to name tall things that grow and develop bark and leaves “trees” even though it is just a name, and that categorization of the world does not describe anything fundamentally true.  Names are approximations used to help us speak about the world, not signifiers of underlying, metaphysical or “ontological” reality.  Many thinkers, from a variety of backgrounds, see nominalism as the root of the destruction of the medieval Christian synthesis and the origin of the modern world, including Richard Weaver (an Episcopalian southern agrarian who was involved in beginnings of the National Review and the author of Ideas Have Consequences), Etienne Gilson (lay Catholic philosopher), and Michael Allen Gillespie (philosopher at Duke University and author of Theological Origins of the Modern World), and many, many more.  In conservative Catholic theological circles, this seems to be a generally accepted fact.

This series of posts will select issues more-or-less at random, sometimes philosophical, sometimes theological, to show how they are related to nominalism.  This will usually involve showing how the error is derived from nominalism and how realism, a belief in the real existence of forms/essences/universals, can resolve the problem.  Below are three quotes from the three aforementioned authors on nominalism that will give some indication of the magnitude of the effects of nominalism.

“The defeat of logical realism in the great medieval debate was the crucial event in the history of Western culture; from this flowed those acts which issue now in modern decadence.” -Richard Weaver, Ideas Have Consequences

“Nominalism sought to tear the rationalistic veil from the face of God in order to found a true Christianity, but in doing so it revealed a capricious God, fearsome in his power, unknowable, unpredictable, unconstrained by nature and reason, and indifferent to good and evil. This vision of God turned the order of nature into a chaos of individual beings and the order of logic into a mere concatenation of names. Man himself was dethroned from his exalted place in the natural order of things and cast adrift in an infinite universe with no natural law to guide him and no certain path to salvation.” -Michael Allen Gillespie, The Theological Origins of Modernity

“In philosophy itself, this apprentice sorcerer [Ockham] has, not at all created, but unleashed and encouraged forces which he himself could not possibly control after setting them free.” -Etienne Gilson, History of Christian Philosophy in the Middle Ages

Rome or Moscow

C.S. Lewis speculated in That Hideous Strength that perhaps the spiritual and material worlds are growing farther and farther apart as the apocalypse approaches.  In this great divorce, the interaction of these two spheres becomes increasingly limited to the silent, invisible transformation within the redeemed soul.  For this reason, in the novel Merlin can no longer play with magic as he once did, though it is doubtful that it ever was entirely good to do so.  While this is mere speculation and Lewis did not mean it to be taken as a sincere theory, the idea that all things gradually tend to their own final ends and thus grow increasingly divorced from one another is certainly true.  A recently converted man will be very similar in behavior to an unconverted man.  Even a mature Christian can be difficult, to an outside observer, to distinguish from an unbeliever.  Yet, these two paths end in extremes.  A condemned man will be quite different from a glorified man.  If a thing has an orientation, it has an aim; and if it has an aim, it will eventually arrive there given enough time.

Once we may have been able to cling to Orthodox churches as a conservative force against the coming tide of modern ideology.  No more – the walls have collapsed and contraception and divorce have stormed the temple.  Once we may have been able to cling to Southern agrarianism.  No more – the protestant ethos was unable to guard the chivalric ideal from modern progress.  Once, Enlightenment deism may have seemed to be a refuge against those seeking totalitarian rule.  No more – it has not only allowed despotism, but it has developed into it.  None of these places could ever have been a refuge for our souls, but it may have seemed that they could have been a refuge for our civilization.  Great minds of the past set up their towers within these cities and the gates seemed to hold.  Whittaker Chambers, Alexandr Solzhenitsyn, Richard Weaver, and CS Lewis, for all their genius, did not see the futility of their fortresses.  These intellectual systems are now reaching their end, not by dying, but by transforming, by becoming more fully what they always were.  Constantinople, Geneva, Canterbury, Washington, and Paris all become Moscow in the end.  Truth can either be held in full or not at all.  If you knock the tiara off the Pope’s head, all Christendom will eventually perish.  If you deny one tenet of the faith, you may die upholding all but that one tenet.  But if your child does not repent, he will die upholding most of the tenets.  His child will accept some of the tenets.  And his child will accept none.

It is a call to Rome.  We have for centuries dabbled in every major Western city, hoping to find stability and strength there.  But none has lasted – none but Rome.  We can no longer hold to the excluded middle of Western liberalism, protestantism, and Enlightenment philosophy because it no longer exists.  Libertarians, Calvinists, and “conservatives” have lost and the hour is so much later than they think.  Only one ark still stands, and its hour is grave.  One cardinal openly calls for women deacons.  Another announces the general salvation of Muslims.  Vocations, mass attendance, and sacraments continue weakly.  Yet this ark will not sink.  This ark will not sink because it has never sunk – and it will soon be the sole defender of Truth.  We will have come round full circle.  Right now, it is Athanasius contra mundum, but it will soon be Rome against the world.  Look not for places of refuge outside of St. Peter’s protecting prayers for God has entrusted him with the keys.