I have been mulling over Captain Thin’s response to my posts – very deeply in fact – and I finally think I may be able to respond. Let me preface this by saying that, in “real” life (as on this blog), Captain Thin has been a very supportive friend as I have been going through my sundry crises. This, of course, makes it all the harder to disagree with him, not only because I know how deep the ecumenical bonds between us are (and it pains me to focus primarily on the disagreement), but also because these matters cut to the very heart of us. For all the civilized tone that I hope we have been able to maintain here – in Christian charity – disagreement is still deeply painful, since the very fact of Christianity compels us to see the people we are arguing with as people rather than mere arguments; and even moreso when the people we are arguing with are some of our closest friends. All that being said, I would not for a moment expect a friend to agree with me simply for my sake, nor would I find it easy to be friends with someone who expected this of me – all that to say that, far from a distraction from our friendship, the theological debates and discusssions that Captain Thin and I have are part of the cement of our friendship; we have been known to get together to watch Dr. Who and end up being distracted from it by wonderful theological conversations; certain parties have also beaten us over the head with pool noodles on account of us continuing at length a good theological discussion when everyone else was ready to go out for coffee. All this to say that the disagreement I put forward here is a very painful thing and a very important part of our friendship all at the same time.
But let me proceed. From what I can tell, Captain Thin’s primary problem with the Roman Church is its close association of the church with an institution. This, in his argument, ignores the invisible church that exists both inside and outside institutional churches; moreover, it condemns many faithful believers to a set of anathemata announced at Trent. Quoting Donne, he notes that, since Trent, faith is become pricey and costs more, that is, things that people used to be able to get away with believing in an older, pre-tridentine church have now been codified and condemned. Quoting Luther, he situates the Church in her people, and not in her wood and stone.
On the anathema question, I am grateful to Louis Thomas, who posted a helpful link under Captain Thin’s post. Basically, this post clarifies that the anathemata put forward at Trent are not automatically put into effect; that is, the statement does not categorically apply to people, but only does so when matters have been investigated regarding the person charged, and when the church has formally charged them. Moroever, the state of anathema more or less is a description of excommunication (not necessarily saying anything about eternal salvation, but rather referring to one’s relation to the earthly Catholic church), and it would seem redundant to tell Protestants that they are not part of the Catholic church – one would imagine they already know as much, and that that by definition is what makes them Protestant.
Furthermore, as the Catechism makes clear (see sections 817-19), the Tridentine condemnation of Protestants it seems would not usually apply (except indirectly) to Christians who hold contrary beliefs in the present, insofar as their Protestantism is inherited rather than borne of open and deliberate rebellion against the church; indeed, such Christians are part of ecclesial communities and are recognized as fellow Christians by the Catholic church. Of course, what Captain Thin charges is that, while this is what the church might put forward in the present, its assertion is inconsistent with its beliefs about the deposit of truth in tradition; indeed, in his assessment, such a statement is not really a clarification of doctrine, but rather a clever manipulation that pretends that Catholics have always been saying the same thing when they really have not.
Frankly, I don’t feel I have quite enough knowledge and experience at the moment to be able to gauge on my own the degree to which the Catholic treatment of this matter is clarification and the degree to which it is manipulation – I feel that dealing with things like this is a very complex matter – but conversely, I’m not sure Captain Thin has given quite enough evidence to convince us of the contradictions with which he charges the church. The reason I say this is that I have encountered very similar arguments concerning the Bible. Skeptics will find little bits here and there and pit them against each other and make big deals of them etc., and the charge is usually that, since the Bible is internally inconsistent, it cannot be the word of God. In fact, it seems that the Bible itself even perhaps dares us to think about this, giving us as it does four different versions of Christ’s life (surely it would be easier for an authoritative holy text to only have one). But I have come to be glad of these alleged “contradictions,” precisely because the thing I trust least in the world is straightforward answers, because they fail to capture the complexity of the world. It would be much safer and simpler if, say, God had given us the four spiritual laws rather than a Bible. But it would not be a full response to the complexity of the human condition – a complexity in part created by God, and in part due to sin. This means that the conclusion to which I have come regarding life is not that I should seek the least contradictory and most internally consistent answers, but rather that I must seek the answers where the truth that I see of them is enough to convince me to trust the bits I don’t get, and where the complexity of the answer correlates to complexities we find in actual life.
Of course, all these things are value laden, and really all I can say about Cathoic tradition is that, what looks to Captain Thin like a clever dodge, looks to me like an attempt to reckon with a complexity that must be reckoned with by any Christian. I mean, as Christians, we do in fact believe we have a revelation from God – which one might simplistically equate with direct and unmediated access to the truth, not buffeted by the permutations of history. And yet somehow also the church very much is buffeted by history and is not simply given a truth that can pretend to be extra-historical. This, by the way, seems to me very much in keeping with the manner of a God who reveals himself through Israel (rather than directly through extra-historical illumination), and through the Christ who takes on flesh in history. In fact, in all these things, there are problems. When is Israel being (as it is) the chosen people, and when is it behaving in terms of its historical context (that is, should we recreate an Old Testament Judaism or not)? What bits of Christ’s life are pointers to direct Christian behavior, and what historically contextual (for instance, should we make a ritual of spitting and putting mud in the eyes of the blind to heal them in the same way we might promote the ethics of the sermon on the mount?)? These are complicated things, and one might dismiss them as internal inconsistencies in the Christian story (surely truth must be simpler than that?), except that we find our own lives reflecting the need for an answer this complex. Even the task of understanding what our selves are and how we might reconcile that with times when we seem to behave or think in different ways (cf. Romans 7) suggests that some version of such a complicated synthesis is working in us (whether we know it or not) as soon as we get up in the morning; If I had to respond to someone who charges that Christian faith is too complicated and casuist, I would not have him or her examine Christian doctrine, but rather examine him or her self, and then gauge whether the complexity of Christianity answers the complexity he or she sees in him or herself. This, I think, is what made classical philosophy such a wonderful prep school for Christianity, with the Delphic motto, “Know thyself.”
But to return to the question of the church: from my perspective – from what I have seen in church history, of the modern church etc. – the clarificatory aspect of tradition is not simply a clever dodge but an attempt to deal with the same complexities dealt with in Israel’s history and the life of Christ; what might it mean to communicate the eternal truth of God through finite forms, as God seems so bent on doing? Again, it would take far too long to outline what makes me see this in Catholic history, but that is okay; it has become clear to me that, whereas in Protestant circles one can maintain the illusion of a complete apologetic – a watertight proof – the Catholic church, by virtue of her largeness, catholicity, and bounty, cannot ever be singly defended. She is a large country with many borders, and one finds oneself able perhaps to defend the border by which one enters (if that), but also finds that one must trust by faith that the rest of the realm is in God’s care and is being defended as necessary.
Such, then is my response: the function of tradition in the Catholic church only looks like a dodge when one holds it up to an unrealistic expectation of “consistency” that neither reflects the complexity of Judeo-Christian history, the Bible, or life itself. I had meant also to write about some problems with giving the invisible church precedence over the visible – and why wood and stone, though perhaps not the defining materials of the church, are still an integral part of her. However, this post being too long already, I will leave that task for another time.