Sunday, January 11, 2004

Tim Enloe Makes My Head Hurt Again

Tim asks: I have a question for non-polemically driven (i.e., non-apologist) Roman Catholics (especially Shawn M. and SecretAgentMan!!!): His words in blue, mine in black.

Years ago some Catholics told me that it was historically demonstrable that "every heresy involves a magnification of one particular point of doctrine out of proportion to all the rest."

I think that's a good point about heresy, although I don't know what the fellow meant by "historically demonstrable." The Catholics with whom you (regrettably) seem to spend most of your time employ history the way your solo scriptura Protestants employ the Bible. Sometime I hope to have a discussion about whose perspective is producing that phenomenon. :)

Well, if that's a true maxim, then doesn't it hit the target those Catholics were aiming at -- the ultra-rigid Reformed understanding of the Gospel -- and the entire Roman Catholic concept of the Papacy?

You mean the entire concept of the Papacy? Everything -- from priest as alter Christus through conferral of the pallium to the independence of the papal states right up to infallibility and universal jurisdiction? I can't see how, but say on . . . .

That is, RCs appear to magnify their peculiar doctrine of the Papacy out of all proportion to everything else.

Over at your blog a fellow named Puritan Divine commented, "what they really mean (and the ‘They' could apply to either the R[oman] C[atholic]'s or the Reformed's you've been talking about) is: ‘[E]very heresy involves a magnification of one particular point of doctrine out of proportion to all the rest as long as you aren't talking about our system of doctrine, which is already flawless.'" I quarrel with his use of the word "flawless," inasmuch as I find the "rule of disproportion" valuable and since I don't think it requires me to say that Catholic doctrine is "flawless" by any possible standard. I do have to say it's flawless by some standard, but not by any possible standard. The qualification is especially neccessary, I think, once one realizes that "system of doctrine" refers not only to dogmatic propositions but also to a host of collateral areas such as (a) theological estimates of a dogma's impact on other, as yet unsettled, issues, (b) the praxis of catechesis or homiletics, etc.

That having been said, I think Puritan Divine's put his finger on an important issue. To identify heresy according to some characteristic disproportion (as opposed, for example, to the much-simpler method of referring to an authoritative condemnation of the proposition in question) one has to have a thorough understanding of the dogmatic system that forms the exemplar by which "proportion" can be gaged. That's hard enough when addressing fellow communicants; witness the internal (and interminable) debates between Sedevacantists, Traditionalists, "Liberal" Catholics, "Conservative" Catholics, etc. But when someone tries to take the "rule of disporportion" and apply it across confessional lines -- especially as part of an apologetic that tries to demonstrate the errors of another confession -- the rule becomes so excruciatingly difficult to apply that most attempts result in verbal hurricanes of incomprehensibility.

So when you say that "RCs appear to magnify their peculiar doctrine of the Papacy out of all proportion to everything else," you're speaking across confessional lines and I'm entitled to ask "what's everything else?" Does it include the "sola's" rejection of a discrete mediating and magisterial priesthood within the Body of Christ? If it does, then of course one can say that "the Papacy is being magnified out of proportion to everything else." But if "everything else" includes a discrete mediating and magisterial priesthood . . . . you see the problem. Whose idea of "everything else" do we start with? That's one of the reasons I keep saying that the differences between Catholics and Protestants are fundamental, which makes those differences more, not less, difficult to understand. It's not as though we're debating whether priests should be allowed to say the Novus Ordo in Latin. That kind of dispute can be (relatively) easily resolved on a theological level according to existing mutual commitments to identical principles. (The political level is another matter, as it always is). When Catholics and Protestants discuss Christianity, they're pitting so many inconsistent theological/philosophical/cultural "sub-systems" against one another that most of the conversation tends to be rash and dominated by mutual caricatures.

Doesn't this condemn them by the terms of that slogan? I mean, when I have some Catholics tell me that if they were to find out that the present RC concept of the Papacy's nature and role in the Church was not true, they might have to abandon Christianity altogether and become agnostics, am I supposed to believe that Catholics have all this really wonderful perspective on Christianity that Protestants don't have?

Tim, one of the problems here is trying to employ informal apologetics discussions like ours (discussions which are already plagued by the problems noted above) as though they were high-value theological and historical exchanges that satisfy the need to study another confession as a prerequisite to identifying its errors. Not having participated in your discussion with those Catholics, I have no idea what they meant. They might have meant that they value the papacy so greatly that if it were thrown down they'd leave Jesus behind in the wreckage. That's disproportionate, but having identified the disproportion, can we conclude without more that it's inherent to Catholicism rather than a manifestation of a particular flaw in those Catholics' understanding of the universe? Even if we take disproportion as a sure mark of heresy, we're still left with the question of whether a given disproportion proves that the individual is a heretic or that his (ostensible) confession is a heresy. Shawn at Rerum Novarum alludes to this when he writes: "There is quite the possibility that the Catholic doctrine of the papacy -- emphasized apart from coordinating doctrines -- can lead to heretical outlooks. In fact, I *know* it can so I will not merely note that it is possible.

I think it's likely that those Catholics meant something very similar to what I heard from a Protestant over on Gary Hoge's board. If I remember correctly, she said that if sola scriptura were proven false, so many things she's learned about Jesus would be called into question that she could no longer be sure about the truth of anything. Now I don't think that lady made an idol out of the Bible, or that she inflated the Bible beyond all reasonable proportion. I think she was using sola scriptura as a shorthand term for a kind of "Christian gestalt," a commitment and an experience which can't be summed up by a distinctive, but which can nonetheless be identified by means of a distinctive. It's quite possible that the Catholics with whom you were speaking used the papacy (which is, so far as I'm concerned, the Mother of All Distinctives) in that fashion. That "human factor" is another pitfall in using apologetic debates as though they were a source of calmly- and systematically-presented theology.

I have about ten unfinished posts to you. One of them involves a comment you made awhile back to the effect that Catholics are always going on and on like dentists' drills about how "interconnected" and "organic" all of our theology is when, in fact, that's not really the case at all because our theology obviously contains a lot of discrete distinctives jumbled atop each other without any necessary pattern. Among the many half-finished things I had to say was that this is far too rash if only because the natural tendency of the human mind is to impose order on chaos. If a system of theology lacks an intrinsic integrity then, so long as the willed commitment to uphold it remains, people will damn well make it have integrity, and people are pretty good at doing that. Just ask Steve Ray about William Webster, or William Webster about Steve Ray -- they'll unanimously agree that people are good at forcing theological propositions into semblances of integrity and organic unity that can be so difficult to deconstruct that one must often refuse to debate the appearance on its own terms and instead demonstrate how much mendacity was involved in creating the appearance. No one's got time tonight to hear (or write) a Grand Explanation of How the Papacy Fits Into It All (or, as Tim would have it, How It All Fits Into the Papacy), but this is worth going into because this basic, natural human tendency strongly argues for reading a claimed necessity of believing in distinctives like sola scriptura or the triple tiara as shorthand for a real necessity of believing lots of other things as well.

Talk all day long about how it's the Papacy that guarantees all the important doctrines don't get messed up, but how is this any different from a radical SOLO Scriptura Protestant who convinces himself that there is no Church at all in the absence of exquisitely defined propositional understandings of justification and the ordo salutis?

I think Shawn's reply suggests one difference -- namely that submission to the papacy involves simultaneous participation in independent theological and human realities which persist in time, whereas the solo scriptura Protestant's conception is disconnected (on its own terms, no less) from the stream of human experience. At least the Catholic can get jerked around by someone else, which (as any married person will tell you) can be a traumatically-beneficial experience, whereas the solo-scriptura Protestant is a Church of One -- he needn't act until he satisfies himself about the necessity of action. I think the questions you might really want to ask are: How is the Pope's understanding of Catholicism different from a solo scriptura Protestant's -- and if it isn't any different, and if Catholics have to do what the Pope says (gross oversimplification on my part) why aren't all Catholics effectively solo scriptura Protestants on the Pope's example? And here I realize the need to finish the last installment of Orestes Brownson and Homosexual Bishops which directly addresses that question.

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