Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Catholic traditional theology, Catholic liberal politics.

I have been thinking extensively over recent poll results that show that American Catholics are more accepting of homosexuality than any other religious group in America. Here's one result breakdown:

You have to scroll pretty far down to see the religious results, but they're there. In all, it's a very interesting article.

At any rate, it's interesting to note a dichotomy in Catholic thought on these issues. If you speak to a person who self-identifies as Catholic, and politics become the nature of the conversation, it's inevitable that you will suddenly be hearing a lot of liberal views (especially if they're younger). But when it comes to articles of faith, you'll get a very traditional, very conservative defense of things like transubstantiation, confession, the Marian dogmas, etc. In any other setting, in mainline Protestantism and charismatic Evangelicalism in particular, when you encounter strong and avid defense of matters of faith, you get very conservative politics that go along with it. Is this an expression of a disconnect between Catholic teaching and the laity's application to the world? I posit that it's not, and there is a very reasonable and rational explanation for this.

Generally speaking, post-reformation churches are Once-Saved-Always-Saved (generally). It is a common, unifying article of theology that the grace of Christ pardons all sins, past, present, and future. So, you are forgiven if you sin. It makes matters such as sexual sin (fornication, homosexual interaction, adultery, etc.) a lot easier to discuss frankly. In Catholicism, however, we do not believe that you are guaranteed immediate heaven simply because you were baptized. We believe we must take responsibility for our actions, no matter the sacraments we have received. Because, if we willingly indulge in sin with full knowledge of the sinfulness of our behavior, we run the risk of going to hell. Not a pleasant thought.

So why do we suddenly show a rise in support for things like gay civil unions? Mind you, Catholics tend to get uppity when you use the term "marriage" and don't support it as much. But that's a discussion for another day. Well, as the survey results point out, the rise in support is mostly amongst those who do not attend Mass weekly. And the less one attends Mass, the more noticeable the change. At first glance, this looks like a lot of Christmas and Easter Catholics taking surveys. At a deeper level, it's not just the Christmas and Easter Catholics. It's the younger Catholics. The ones who have not yet finished growing physically, mentally, or spiritually.

Catholicism approaches the nature of sin in a very convoluted matter. Most Catholic parents will be generally frank with their children in regards to sexual behavior. But outside this closed familial setting (and even between the various children of the family), the subject is strictly taboo. The closest thing I have ever heard in a priest's homily concerning sexual behavior was an explanation that Mark was not condemning marriage, but saying it's not for everyone. By contrast, you are almost guaranteed on a fairly regular basis in a Protestant or Evangelical church a lecture on sexual sin. The difference is that Catholics, in preparing their children for the world, equip them with the knowledge, but then immediately try to shield them from what that knowledge pertains to. Problem? Well, yes and no.

A friend of mine referred to Catholics as the "whores of Christendom". And the stereotype of the Catholic school girl/boy is not ill-founded. There is a tendency amongst Catholic youth to lose their virginity earlier than most, or to suppress their sexuality until very late and lose their virginity far later. We are the outliers in surveys for losing your v-card. Why is this? We are equipped early with the knowledge of how our bits work. We are also indoctrinated from an early age that it's simply not something to talk about. Friends, family, that girl you like on the bus, nope. We're not discussing it. Sex does NOT exist. So when a Catholic encounters it for the first time, there are really only two choices available: indulge or run. This initial reaction will determine future reactions for years to come.

What are we doing, then? On a deeply psychological level, we are experiencing intellectual dissonance. What we are doing doesn't make logical sense, even within our own mental framework. But anything dealing with mental dissonance of any kind shows that the more you engage such dissonance, the quicker it resolves itself. Hence, the ones who run from their early sexual experiences don't lose their virginity until their thirties. Those that engage immediately find themselves more ready to handle a mature sexual relationship earlier than their peers. Dissonance in music operates in much the same way. Ignore it, and the grating lack of proper harmonization continues. Engage, fight it, and overcome it, and you get chord resolutions that sound delightful. Much more delightful, even, than if the dissonance didn't exist in the first place.

So, in response to our bizarre method of "Inform, then Suppress", we are actively arming ourselves with the ability to engage that which we have to struggle against. Early Christian mystics made similar statements. To overcome sin, you must understand it, or remove yourself from the world entirely. The only way to understand would be to engage it. Latin Christendom didn't like this approach to much, so we argued to suppress it. But in Orthodoxy and the Eastern Churches, you have the concept of the Holy Fool who sleeps with dozens of women, eats meat on Fridays in Lent, and is still considered holy. In the West, you have a serious plethora of monastic orders.

But for those of us who cannot join a monastery or a convent, we are, in our own way, acting out the role of the holy fool. We may end up in the confessional way more than our priests would like, but what we are seeing is that sin is sin and no sin is worse than any other. This is a realization that is lost entirely in those churches that make it their mission to "cure" homosexuality or otherwise spend inordinate amounts of time battling it. All sexual sin is fornication. So the pulpit from which the fiery sermons of "gays in hell" originate should also be condemning premarital sex in high schools, divorce, adultery, and every other form of sexual sin. But if this was so, homosexuality would be lost in the din. So Catholicism, in its way, recognizes that sin is sin and doesn't try to adopt a particularly strong issue on one over all the others. And it allows the laity to engage in a way that is forbidden elsewhere, and develop a much more mature understanding of the world around them.

There isn't a change in Catholic teaching. The homosexual union would still be seen as sinful in the eyes of the Church. But to treat a fellow human being as less than equal would go against everything Christ stood for. And the laity, I feel, is realizing this and finally expressing it. Thank God for the Holy Fool, and the engagement of sin to overcome it, rather than the complete ignorance of sin found in so many other communities.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

A non-biblical, non-traditional, reasonable defense of Catholicism

I got the idea for this post from reading a philosophical discourse on the ontological argument for God's necessary existence. It didn't delve into established philosophical schools or even establish a logic proof (those are fun!) one way or the other. It made a succinct and simple appeal to logic and reason. Why should I do the same for Catholicism? Two reasons.

1. Biblical defense of the Church is limited, because we also hold Sacred Tradition to be, well, sacred; and
2. Biblical defense relies heavily on how one interprets the scriptures.

For example:

"I name you Peter, and upon this rock I will build my Church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it" (paraphrased).

The Catholic interpretation is that the physical and spiritual Church was established as a unit. I have an earlier post about a holistic treatment of these two concepts and my own musings on the hypostatic union being mirrored in the Church. I believe such a concept to be sound exegesis and not in conflict with Catholic doctrine. No Bishop has come forth to say that I have erred, so we will assume it to be sound.

The Protestant and Evangelical argument is that this foundation applied only to the spiritual Church, and so, by the time the physical Church was hijacked/corrupted/lost/supplanted/usurped/etc. by the Fourth Century, it didn't matter because Christ was talking about His spiritual Church only (and we get yelled at for over-complicating Scripture).

This presents a problem. Catholics use this a proof text for the legitimacy of the Church itself, regardless of Tradition. Protestants write it off because, simply, they need an explanation for why God would have waited 1500 years (or more in many cases) to reveal the "true" Church in the face of such a long-reaching and fundamental corruption. It is this insurmountable conflict of interpretation that necessitates a Scripture-free defense.

So, let's begin.

In the first, we have two suppositions:
1. God is infinite, and there is no other being greater or more perfect than He (also the foundational supposition of the ontological argument)
2. God was made incarnate in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, who inspired the Gospels and the whole of the New Testament.

Building upon these, the Church that is developed from this person is largely reliant on two things: the written record of his life, and the handing on of information from first hand accounts. The historical record holds that Christianity in its early years spread rapidly throughout the Levant, Egypt, and Anatolia--modern day Turkey. Seutonius refers to it as a minor sect and mentions it only one time in his classic biographical "Twelve Caesars". So given its rapid spread (which, taking the Epistles as historical documents, suggests a rapid spread into Anatolia within a single generation, let alone the many generations separating the Apostles from Seutonius), its influence within the Roman Empire was low even after such a monumental expansion.

We do not have the development of an established scriptural canon until (possibly) the Council of Hippo in 393 AD, which we know was reaffirmed at the Councils of Carthage in 397 and 419. The Decretum Gelasianum, if correctly associated, describes the Council of Rome in 382 issuing an identical canon. So, it is a reasonable (and arguably correct) assumption, that until the Fourth Century saw general agreement on the canon of scripture, a great deal of discrepancy necessarily existed. This also sheds light on the necessity of the Epistles that make up the bulk of the New Testament.

Within a largely illiterate and spread-out community, it would have been impossible to enforce orthodoxy of belief without some kind of clarification on a number of issues. Examples of early controversies are the requirement of Christians to adhere to Mosaic Law (covered in Acts), the nature of Jesus of Nazareth (fully human, fully divine, both, or neither), the role of works and grace in the plan of salvation, etc. Without an established canon, there was only one authority to which the new Christian sect could turn--Apostolic authority.

It is for this purpose, and this is generally agreed amongst the majority of Christian denominations, that the Apostles fanned out and established their various bases (or, more properly, Sees) throughout the Christian world. Notable ones are Alexandria, Jerusalem, Antioch, and Rome, among others. Each of these Sees were overseen by a Bishop who was tasked with enforcing orthodoxy amongst its jurisdiction, and each of these Bishops could trace their lineage back to one of the original Apostles. It was because of this that the Bishops could speak authoritatively on matters of faith and orthodoxy, and it is for this reason that it was Bishops who assembled and still assemble at the various councils to establish doctrine and dogma.

Of great importance for those who subscribe to the corruption-of-the-Church theory is that, though Constantine called the Council of Nicaea and proceeded to declare Christianity the state religion of the empire, not being a Bishop meant he could not vote on anything that came up in the council. For all intents and purposes, the same Apostolic authority that gave the Bishops the right to be present also gave them the special privilege of deciding what came of this particular council. No interference from Constantine allowed.

It is only after the Council of Nicaea that a strict reference to scripture is made possible within Christian exegesis and theology, because it is only in the post-Nicaean world that Christians could exercise their faith openly without fear of repercussion. It is also only in the post-Nicaean world that written records weren't constantly in danger of being confiscated and otherwise destroyed. Hence the incredible lack of documentation of the intervening years between 33AD and 325AD. Almost three hundred years of development and barely any shred of evidence to prove that anything happened outside the scriptural record. Until one remembers that the Bishops spoke with the authority of the Apostles, and didn't have an established canon to reference at all times. Time to delve into that thorny business of the Bishop of Rome.

It will be remembered that the Apostles fanned out and established their bases of operation. Each chose an administrative successor, who was thus ordained and raised to the status of Bishop to be able to oversee his jurisdiction. Peter established himself in Rome. How long or how well established this power base was is understandably under debate, considering Peter is, himself, a sainted martyr. But this is where not only Sacred Tradition, but also those scant fragments of documentation from the first few centuries AD, start to shed light.

Pope Saint Clement, around the year 80, wrote an Epistle to the Corinthians. Corinth was not under the jurisdiction of the See of Rome. Yet they appealed to Rome for Rome's intervention, and Clement consented. In it, he writes "But if any disobey the words spoken by Him [Christ] through us [gotta love the Royal "We"], let them know that they will involve themselves in sin and no small danger." Barely fifty years after the death of the Christian Messiah, the Bishop of Rome (still the official title of the Supreme Pontiff) was exercising special jurisdiction over the other Apostolic Sees.

Why would this be important? If Jesus had established His Church solely in the spiritual sense, and the established norm for Church-wide decision making was the council, the role of any individual Bishop would have necessarily remained purely administrative at the respective local level. If Jesus established his Church both in the spiritual and physical sense, and issued this powerful decree to a single Apostle, it stands to reason that he was naming not only the CEO of this new faith, but he was issuing a powerful statement about succession of leadership. Where the Twelve had looked to Jesus as their spiritual guide, after His death, they were to look to where Peter established himself. They were to look to the only Bishop to have been awarded the title "Vicar of Christ". They were to look to Rome.

Now wait just a second, says the Sola Scriptura nay-sayer. Even a spiritual Church needs to be led by somebody, because you can't be calling councils every twenty minutes! This is true. But if Christ was only establishing a spiritual Church, and did not establish a physical hierarchy to run the worldly affairs of His spiritual Church, then the only authority in the lack of any authoritative canon would still have been the Apostles. Or worse yet, a Messiah who did not, does not, and seems likely never to have a telephone. So we return to an earlier point--who then speaks with authority than the Apostles? Who then speaks with authority when the Apostles have died but their successors? And who advises with authority in the interim between councils than the successors of the one Apostle who was given the greatest responsibility of all in being the rock upon which the Church was to be founded?

At this point, it becomes moot whether or not Jesus was speaking of a strictly spiritual, physical, or united Church because the point remains valid that authority had to come from somewhere in the absence of Jesus, and then it had to come from somewhere else in the absence of the Apostles in the time before the canon was established. Vis-a-vis, the Bishopric, and the special status afforded Peter and his successors.

Another historical document from the period that makes explicit reference to the succession of Peter (establishing in the first two Centuries Apostolic Succession as an historic fact) is "Against the Heresies" (180 AD) by Pope Saint Irenaeus:

"The blessed apostles, then, having founded and built up the Church, committed into the hands of Linus the office of the episcopate . Of this Linus, Paul makes mention in the Epistles to Timothy [2 Timothy 4:21]. To him succeeded Anacletus; and after him, in the third place from the apostles, Clement was allotted the bishopric."

From here, history takes over and you can read all about the development of the Church after Nicaea. The various councils that established all the doctrine and dogmas of the Church have all drawn their authority from the same source as the earliest Bishops who had to make rulings and decisions in the absence of a scriptural canon. Because this can not be adequately refuted without twisting and reinterpreting scripture, one must necessarily ignore history to alter this basic philosophical and reasonable authority.

It is for this reason that most Protestant Churches refute Apostolic Succession entirely. If they accepted it, then they have to explain why, for the better part of Christian history, the successors of the Apostles had been getting it wrong. Likewise, they lose any authority to rule on Sacred Tradition, and must similarly abandon it. This secondary effect makes it easy to simply ignore historical articles and records contained in the writings of the Church Fathers. If the Church Fathers lacked any kind of authority, how could they record history correctly? From here, the errors of Consubstantiation and (the worse error) denial of the Real Presence, denial of confession, denial of Mary's perpetual virginity and immaculate conception, and all other errors of Protestantism stem.

To defend Catholicism without reference to the Bible requires only two suppositions:

1. God is infinite, and there is no other being greater or more perfect than He (also the foundational supposition of the ontological argument)
2. God was made incarnate in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, who inspired the Gospels and the whole of the New Testament.

Whereas to adequately defend Protestantism and post-Reformation theology at all, a third supposition is required:

3. The Biblical Canon has always, and without alteration, existed from the time of the Apostles until the present day.

Without this third supposition, a whole host of problems arises in explaining how the body of scripture can be authoritative if it didn't exist as a body until after the "corruption" of the physical Church.

And history, no matter how scarce and faded the record, refutes this third supposition entirely, invalidating any arguments (and doctrines) derived therefrom. Ultimately, occam's razor comes into play here. In the absence of objective truth, the simplest explanation must be correct. A rational, appeal to reason in defense of Catholicism 1) uses only two suppositions, and 2) does not rely on the interpolation of hypothetical, entirely faith-based phenomena and interference, whereas a rational, appeal to reason in defense of Protestantism 1) uses three suppositions, and 2) must allow the interpolation of hypothetical, entirely faith-based phenomena and interference. The former is simpler. The latter is complicated. For all its pomp and glory and ritual that is confusing to people who don't have a handy Catholic friend to explain it, Catholicism is the simpler defense, and therefore stands on a more solid foundation.

I'm going to end this not with a Lady Gaga reference, but with the Prayer for Pope Benedict XVI. I hold true that he is the successor of Peter. He is the Bishop of Rome and Vicar of Christ, and is guided in all things by the Holy Spirit to speak infallibly on matters of faith and morals, and I encourage his work, and pray for the Holy Spirit to continue to guide his way.

Lord, source of eternal life and truth, give to Your shepherd, the Pope, a spirit of courage and right judgement, a spirit of knowledge and love.

By governing with fidelity those entrusted to his care may he, as successor to the apostle Peter and vicar of Christ, build Your church into a sacrament of unity, love, and peace for all the world.

We ask this through our Lord Jesus Christ, Your Son, Who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, forever and ever. Amen.

(Prayer sourced from