Monday, January 19, 2004

An Appeal to the Warring Houses of Montague and Capulet

In conjunction with Rerum Novarum the Dossier hereby publishes a Joint Declaration on a certain internet controversy which has recently flared up again.


In divers ways and at sundry times, events have proved to your humble servants at Rerum Novarum and SecretAgentMan's Dossier that the passionate and principled defense of one's religion can often lead to acrimony, mutual contempt, and bad blood. Among principled and passionate men, the grievances sustained seldom dissipate. Instead they develop into a Montague/Capulet struggle or, in our good American vernacular, into the feud of the Hatfields and McCoys.

Inevitably, a certain restlessness begins to inhabit sympathizers of the two sides, which sometimes manifests itself in various discussions about what, if anything, should be done. Those who desire intervention and those wish to remain aloof are unintentionally subjected to varying and sometimes mutual suspicions about their orthodoxy or their orthopraxis. We have in mind an actual instance, but will discuss it obliquely, covering matters with a thin veil in the hope that readers will see be able to see each side afresh and without undue attention to a canon of historical events or actual personalities.

Consider on one side a relatively young and intelligent Reformed amateur scholar and, on the other, a somewhat older, intelligent Catholic amateur scholar.[1] For years, a battle has raged between them in discussion formats, message boards, chat rooms, weblogs, etc. Having stood by quietly throughout all this, for various reasons it now seems appropriate to address the issue with, if you will pardon the term, a manifesto of sorts. Let us begin with the genesis of this feud.

If the participants were to be asked when it began, each would probably give a different answer. We think they bear a mutual responsibility, for whether by coincidence or design, their "battle manuals" rely heavily on imitating Hannibal's famous "double envelopment" at Cannae. In like manner, as soon as our friends engage in conflict, they fling one division of argument toward their opponent. (Respective theories replete with corroborating theses intending to prove the superior merit of their cause.) Simultaneously, they launch a second attack on their opponent's inward self, with blistering direct assaults on his perceived intellectual shortcomings or equally-galling indirect assaults on his integrity.

When such tactics are carried out repeatedly over years, these individual conflicts have grown into a "total war" that, however often it employs the tactics of Carthage, is waged with all the determination of Cicero's famous cry, Carthago Delenda Est![2] That having been said, we turn to discussing our friends and their antagonism.

The Capulet

The Reformed antagonist has a tremendous pride in his religious tradition. When he sets it against the narrower outlines of his former perspective, he sees a "treasure buried in a field."[3] Not content with the field, he has sought to extend his enjoyment of Christ's riches through study. It is an understatement to say that he has a genuine desire to learn. And his capabilities have been noted not only by your humble servants, but by several of his acquaintances in the Catholic apologetics sphere.

Those of us familiar with his writing have for some time wondered when he would see the flawed nature of some of the intellectual company he was keeping and this has, in fact, happened. Now, after having spent time amongst the tents of other Protestant partisans who do not share his historical acumen or his passion for truth, he has begun to chart an independent course among like-minded Reformed Christians who are more interested in building bridges than burning them.

We may say this even though we are fully aware that our friend believes historical acumen and a passion for truth will eventually direct the Christian away from the Roman Catholic Church that we know and love. Despite this possibility, we are compelled to hold as Catholic doctrine that our friend is "impelled by nature and also bound by a moral obligation to seek . . . religious truth."[4] We also recognize that he has been vigorous in pursuing truth even to the point of considerable personal costs at the hands of some of his fellow believers and former companions.

More to the point, we believe that despite our disagreement with his views on many signal issues, his research still must "be free, carried on with the aid of teaching or instruction, communication and dialogue, in the course of which men explain to one another the truth they have discovered, or think they have discovered, in order thus to assist one another in the quest for truth."[5] Therefore, while we see errors prohibiting us from fully embracing him as a brother in the Church of Christ, they give us no cause to reject him as though he were the kind of "false brother" so rightly excoriated by St. Paul's letter to the Galatians.[6]

Friendship neither means nor requires wholehearted endorsement. Accordingly, we must observe that our friend's dialogues often contain a lamentable rhetorical residue from years spent among the more chauvinistic and polemical members of his tradition (broadly conceived). We refer particularly to his animus towards those of our friends and brothers whom he calls Roman Catholics or, in an even more pejorative way, "Roman Catholic apologists."

Our friend is a seasoned veteran of Catholic / Reformed discussions on an astounding variety of subjects with a bewildering array of interlocutors -- including dozens of discussions with your humble servants. He has seen the garden-variety arguments, and even presentations of much greater pith and sophistication, but believes they remain "weighed in the scales and found wanting."[7] We do not quarrel with the possibility that such a judgment is conscientious, and believe that to be the case with our friend. But we would lament the fact that he often renders these decisions by means of a methodology which is a version of what may be called "dead agenting."

Essentially, "dead agenting" is the second prong of the "Carthaginian tactic" described above, an attempt to discredit a person or an organization in order to lessen or even destroy their ability to influence others. As Catholics will be familiar with the tactic as vigorously employed by some Protestant, Evangelical, or Reformed Christians -- or, for that matter, as employed by some so-called "Traditionalists" -- we pause to point out that our friend merely uses a form of "dead agenting."

Often, the "dead agenting" tactic involves spreading malicious falsehoods about the persons or views which are theologically or intellectually opposed to the person or organization using the tactic. Our friend does not do these things though many of his former companions frequently employ them to their fullest extent.[8] "War to the knife," as Nathan Bedford Forrest would say,"and knife to the hilt." That is not laudable, it is not meet, and we deplore it.

And so while we admire our friend's Christian chivalry and restraint, we note an echo of the practice remains in his frequent attempts to dismiss the views of many -- if not most -- of those he calls Roman Catholics by referring to their "ignorance," "stupidity," or "blindness" with what often appears to be blithe disregard for (a) the existence of "simple faith"[9];(b) the possibility of misunderstandings that attend written correspondence; and (c) the simple overarching fact that a devout, powerful and sophisticated theology like Roman Catholicism may for simple human reasons gain champions who, while devout, are sometimes unable to employ powerful or nuanced argumentation in their attempt to give account of the hope they have.

We realize our friend's irritating habit may be encouraged by the besetting frequency of deficient Catholic "challenges" to Reformed orthodoxy and his concomitant and quite understandable lack of time to stamp out every fire in the theological forest.[10] We also understand the need to decline an unworthy argument without appearing to concede any aspect of the issue, even if we may not always understand the frequency or manner with which our friend sometimes does this.

To his great credit, our friend recognizes that history, pace most people's presumptions about it, presents the serious student with complex and sometimes conflicting mosaics of fact, inference, and proof. But we suffer from confusion when he approaches superior historical defenses of Catholic orthodoxy with a dismissive manner and flaming excoriations of blinkered naivete; his universal condemnations effectively shelve in practice the laudable insights he has gained about the nature of history -- those very insights which, he justifiably points out, have led him to reject inferior "Roman Catholic" historical arguments.

The result is that while our friend derides "simpleminded," "stupid" and"ignorant" arguments by "Roman Catholics" because they claim that history "obviously" proves the divine origin and maintenance of Roman Catholicism, he simultaneously argues (and we can only hope he does not notice it) that history is so "obviously opposed" to "RomanCatholicism" that only charlatans or idiots would support their"Roman Catholic" faith by appealing to historical events.

We share our friend's belief that history is neither a vast collection of unilateral proof texts nor an unending swamp of useless antinomies; we believe Christ is present in history just as He is with us always, even unto the end of the age.[11] But we wish that his increased appreciation of the always-edifying and sometimes-bewildering invitation of history to the Christian mind would make him avoid easy and caustic dismissals of historical theses simply because they further the defense of a tradition to which he does not give assent.

We regard his unawareness of this difference as the unnoticed continuation of a bad habit learned from unworthy and former companions who generally regard history as merely a source of fodder for chauvinistic Jeremiads and partisan polemics. That Catholics also suffer (and make others suffer) from the same vice is no justification for continuing it oneself.

We think it is not an exaggeration to say that, under the current circumstances, our friend might well see himself as among the few who are seeking to protect and advance the ideal of a Christian society against an onrush of historical barbarians -and in cyberspace certainly contra mundum if you will. And that brings us to the next individual, our friend the Montague.

The Montague

Our Catholic antagonist has, like his Reformed foil, tremendous pride in his tradition. More, perhaps, because for him (and for us) it is not just tradition, but the Sacred Tradition of the Apostles and the fathers and doctors of the Holy Catholic Church. Unquestionably overjoyed at having found the "pearl of great price," he naturally and commendably wants to shout about it from the rooftops as well as spend his own life contemplating and learning even more about its value. As a result our friend seeks dialogue with people of every conceivable viewpoint, following the daunting model of St. Paul who sought to please all men in all things, not for his own profit, but the profit of many.

This is an admirable goal indeed, all the more admirable in the eyes of your humble servants, neither of whom has the temperament or the particular genius required to pursue it. So our friend writes and debates prolifically, with what is generally a calm and amicable tone -- although every rule admits of occasional exceptions, for even St. Paul lamented that "the good that I would I do not: but the evil which I would not, that I do."[12]

Like our Reformed friend, our Catholic friend is a veteran of debate. But his love of challenge is in some ways his Achilles' heel, particularly when he meets a likely Hector or Aeneas. We already lamented the variation of"dead agenting" which our Reformed friend is sometimes inclined to employ. Therefore, fairness bids us to consider our Catholic friend's tactical repertoire.

For one thing, he has a bold willingness to exploit the mental dimensions of struggle that implicitly accompany warfare. But this sometimes encourages him to conduct campaigns which are as relentlessly strident as the continuous play of brilliant lights and excruciatingly-loud music outside a fugitive's lair. It also sometimes results in remorseless barrages of the"shock and awe" variety which leave no opportunity for attack untaken. This is not ameliorated by the fact that our Catholic friend has a certain joie de combat which anyone experienced in the area of apologetics knows can blind one to the counterproductive result that such an approach may have.

A blaring and relentless frontal assault is not always the most effective means of dialogue, as St. Paul's abysmal failure at the Areopagus proved. Still, because it involves itself with personal factors, our friend's approach is often indistinguishable from a mockery of persons. It is in this regard a form of "dead agenting" which confines debates to a circle that is narrowly drawn around the individual, making what ought to be discussed as his argument's preceived failings into a simultaneous discussion of his preceived personal failings. This raises an issue of prudence or, if you like, proportionality,that our Catholic friend ought consider more fully than we think he has. We have often thought, and said to our friends, that they are two people whose personalities and styles of communication prohibit the simultaneous existence of mutual peace and extensive interaction between them. Even St. Paul, who started out with the hard sell (Cf. Acts 17:16ff and Galatians 2:11-21), later on mollified and refined his approach. (As he became more experienced and saw what worked best in reality and not in the abstract.) Examples of this more refined understanding can be found in 1 Cor. 10:23ff and Romans Chapter 14.

To the credit of our Reformed friend, he sometimes seems to concur with this evaluation. Our Catholic friend, however, sees this as at best a minor aspect of the matter. We must disagree with them. If we felt that this was a minor matter, we would not have addressed it here publicly - which we only do because private admonishments have proven to be in vain.

Our Catholic friend's motto often seems to be Farragut's, "Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead." He goes out with his sword held aloft, swinging at windmills as though they were giants. That is essentially what it boils down to since our Catholic friend's approach to our Reformed friend seems exclusively dedicated to the "Areopagus strategy."[13]

The predictable result is that our Catholic friend relentlessly pushes certain issues without a full appreciation of their nature and consequences, thus goading our Reformed friend to wrath and he, we might add, can give as good as he gets in the "remorseless disproportion" department. Nor is that all.

For you see, after, and even during, such exchanges, our friends mutually theorize that the problem lies in the other person having a personal animus against them that exceeds anything they direct at other, similarly committed, apologists. We are inclined to agree with half of both their judgments, and say that their disagreeable interactions are predictable and foreseeable events which ought to be avoided but which are more often sought.

Regrettably, this is often done by our Catholic friend who, tossing aside his normal and customary amiability commits himself, like a Haig or Joffre, to one more "big push" in the hope that prior experience will mean nothing and that this time an all-out barrage and frontal assault on the credibility and merits of his opponent's viewpoint will gain more than a few hundred yards.

This approach by our Catholic friend leaves us wondering whether there is perhaps an element of self vindication implicit in his approach, a desire to prove that prior efforts were not amiss, that all those past opportunities for amicable friendship did not die in vain.

We think it is an unintended effect of this approach that it commits the same error we have already noticed in our Reformed friend -- its universally-condemnatory style has the effect of maintaining that disagreement can only be sustained by ignorance (willful or otherwise) and even a certain intellectual cowardice which, oddly enough, is sometimes claimed to be "proved" by an unwillingness to continue a discussion that some might find grating, unpleasant, and ultimately unprofitable.[14]

In brief: the whole thing ends up looking like the fabled Montagues and Capulets -- dueling men who have every certainty of what they are fighting for and yet very little idea of what they are fighting about.


There are a lot of intricacies that go into dialogue but the most foundational of them is charity. It seems to us that our friends' interactions do not properly follow that queen of theological virtues. Our intention with these musings is not to "denounce" or "shame" anyone, only to lay out the situation from the vantage point of two men with weblogs who have enjoyably sparred with both our friends over the years on many different subjects.

We enjoy our friendships with both of them and variously applaud their efforts to manifest the truth of Jesus Christ in their work, their studies, and their apologetics in accordance with the dictates of their consciences. But to the extent they fall victim to the temptations and poor choices We have outlined above, we say what was said to the Montagues and Capulets -- a plague on both your houses, we will not join either side of your frenzied war.

We hope that this declaration on our part will have some degree of influence in, if not getting these two to bury the hatchet after (at least) five years of public bickering, then at least achieving a more irenic atmosphere for the rest of us.

At the very least, we enjoin our friends in the name of friendship to read no more criticism or rebuke of one or the other in these words, or attempt in any way to accept only the most pleasing half of what we have said. Both of you have gone into battle with beams in your eyes, and it would not be meet of you to fix that beam once again by misusing or misattributing either our words or their intent.


[1] The Catholic is a former Evangelical Protestant while the Reformed Protestant was at one time affiliated with Protestant Fundamentalism. By"amateur" we refer strictly to the informal, voluntary nature of their work for their faiths and nothing more.

[2] "Carthage must be destroyed!" During periods of truce or peace, Cicero would end every one of his speeches to the Senate with these words, to remind them that Rome and Carthage were locked into a struggle that could end only when one of them had been utterly, completely, and irrevocably ground into the dust.

[3] Not without, perhaps, some feeling of animosity toward the narrowness of his former outlook.

[4] Second Vatican Council: Declaration Dignitatis Humanae ¶2 (1965)

[5] Id., ¶ 3.

[6] Galatians 2:4.

[7] Daniel 5:27

[8] Which is one reason why we have never spoken kindly about them at anytime. (And why we deplore the actions that at least one of them is using on our Reformed friend at the moment.)

[9] We refer here to the phenomenon described with such eloquence and brilliance by John Henry Cardinal Newman's Grammar of Assent.Essentially, the Cardinal's essay demonstrates that a believer need not fully -- or even adequately -- articulate the theological / historical /philosophical underpinnings of his faith in order to actually believe and benefit from that faith.

To use a gross example, someone whose intellect is afflicted with a congenital defect may be extremely limited in his ability to appreciate the hypostatic union of Jesus Christ. That does not bar him from saving faith in our God, but it does forbid anyone to uncharitably deny him the respectful fellowship which must exist among believers or conclude that the limited understanding he expresses is all there is to the Christian faith.

Since we all employ "simple faith" on some matter or other, we trust that our example will be salutary on this point, particularly since our friend has often expressed his own disdain for a brand of "hyper Calvinism" which demands sophisticated theological knowledge as a prerequisite for salvation.

[10] As we might thus be led astray at this point from our chief point into quarrels about means and ends, it is enough to say that we understand there is not enough time in anyone's day to respond to all the challenges that can be issued and that we all must pick our discussions carefully.

[11] Matthew 28:20.

[12] Romans 7:19.

[13] Which is unfortunate particularly since our friend's tremendous experience with all varieties of evangelization and persons should clue him in that a different approach is needed here.

[14] This approach predictably is viewed by our Reformed friend as a"calling out" if you will: a need to prove that he is no coward by contributing his own impressive efforts to make the discussion undoubtedly grating, unpleasant, and ultimately unprofitable.

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