Friday, May 03, 2013

Catholicism and Orthodoxy again: Chris Jones writes

On this. My first answer is in my life, it really is more traditional, more conciliar in the old sense of tradition governing itself, not the Vatican II sense, and less Pope-centered than many think Catholicism is. I have my Mass and parish; the Pope and my archbishop are distant, little to do with me really. Again, the use of papal infallibility in the past 200 years has been extremely cautious and conservative, essentially rubber-stamping what Catholics already believed about Mary. So getting upset about the Pope doesn’t make sense to me.
I too allow myself to prod you, John. Principally because I really do disagree with you, and firmly so, on the issues we argue about. But also because I see a chink in your intellectual armor that is really needless, one that you could and should address if you want to continue to speak in favor of Catholicism on a public forum.

The chink in the armor, as I see it, is this. Out of a laudably irenic spirit, you wish to portray Catholicism as more traditional, more conciliar, and frankly less Papal, than it actually is. You have always had a generous and positive attitude towards the various expressions of traditional, liturgical Christianity, and you still have. But this leads you to portray Catholicism as little more than the "best of breed" among the various traditional Christianities; the "market leader" as it were, in the smells-and-bells market. But that is too thin a reed on which to place a robust defense of Catholicism, because Catholicism is more than that. The Papacy makes Catholicism qualitatively different from the other traditional Christianities. It's not simply the "scope" of the Pope, as you so love to say; it's the centrality of the Pope in Catholicism. The Papacy is the linchpin of the whole Roman Catholic system. The Papal claims, if true, make all other traditional Christianities incomplete and inauthentic; but if false they make Catholicism disloyal to the Apostolic Tradition and therefore inauthentic.

I don't want to make you into an ultramontanist, but it seems to me that you need to be a little more "montane" than you are if you are going to be a more intellectually consistent -- and therefore effective -- defender of Catholicism. Another of your favored catchphrases is "he can't do that, he's only the Pope"; and of course I like the idea that the Pope, too, is subject to the Tradition. It's almost enough to make me a Catholic. But if you're going to take that line, it's not going to stand up based on the arguments you have made for it so far. You have to show how, concretely, the limits that Tradition places on the "scope of the Pope" work, in the real world. Without that, the picture of Catholicism that you have painted is merely one of "the best" among a variety of serviceable versions of Christianity, rather than one of a faith that is qualitatively different and uniquely genuine. And even if the notion of "the best available version" were true, it would run the risk of being merely subjective: not "the best" in any objective sense but merely John's preference.

All of this is why I keep needling you every time you claim that the Orthodox are somehow really Catholic. It is not only a mis-characterization of Orthodoxy, it's a mis-characterization of Catholicism. If your picture of a Catholicism in which the scope of the Pope is clearly and effectively limited by Tradition were accurate, your claim that Orthodoxy and Catholicism are pretty much the same would be a good deal closer to being true. Your depiction of the Papacy effectively limited by Tradition is, after all, exactly what the Orthodox have been saying they wanted for a thousand years. There may be case to be made for your "scope-limited" Papacy, but so far you haven't made that case. You need either to make that case, or get busy defending the sort of Pope that the rest of us seem to think exists.


  1. A classic example of somebody not really understanding what the lived experience of Catholicism is actually like. I think your take is truer to how the vast majority of Catholics live their faith. Liturgy, Bible, daily prayer, things like the Imitation of Christ, etc. The decrees and actions of the Pope are actually far distant as a practical matter, except of course when it comes to appointing bishops and such.

    Oftentimes, in my experience, Orthodox and Protestant (and many liberal Catholic) opponents of the papacy have an exaggerated and partisan approach to the topic. They are so intent on disproving the papacy that they don't really look to see if their arguments mirror reality. I think you are providing a good balance to that approach, which is why you keep getting engaged on the point. They are scratching where they itch, so to speak.

  2. Mark,

    I think you have misunderstood the point of what I wrote. If you read carefully, you will see that I have not actually made any arguments attempting to "disprove the Papacy"; I've challenged John to take seriously the claims and arguments the Papacy has made for itself. The understanding of the Papacy which John sets forth is one that the Orthodox could accept, and which some Protestants including a Lutheran like myself could accept. The problem is that John's view of the Papacy is not one that the Pope could accept.

    As for appeals to the experience of "the vast majority" of Catholics, I am doubtful that the faith and practice of the majority of Catholics (at least in this country) are a reliable guide to orthodox, traditional Catholicism or orthodox Christianity of any sort.

    1. Thanks, Mark. Chris, the more irenical I get, the angrier you get, claiming I'm misrepresenting the papacy and thus am dishonest about being Catholic. As a good Lutheran of course you're trying to disprove the papacy. The point is Orthodox and conservative high-church Protestants can accept most of the papacy, maybe even all of it, if they really understood it. So I'm trying to explain it. When speaking ex cathedra, the Pope works as a function of church infallibility. And again, in the life of the church, this is rare, and done very cautiously and conservatively. Defining doctrine. Not inventing doctrine, which is impossible. Mark can correct me but as far as I know, all that's the teaching of the church, not just my opinion (my opinion: the traditional Mass is better than the new one).

      All this reminds me: the Tractarians, well-meaning conservatives, only wrong in accepting the premise of the English 'Reformation' as their starting point (it's not Catholic; the Articles' meaning is obvious), seemed to fear that, because of Catholic teaching on the papacy, the Catholic Church would end up in 150 years what, by vote, the Anglicans became. Orthodox apologists have a similar fear. Paul VI held the line on contraception. Despite all the credit they deserve for not modernizing their services, they didn't. They've changed their tune, like the evangelicals, to what the mainliners were saying in the ’50s, plausibly cautious and conservative.

    2. the more irenical I get, the angrier you get

      I'm not angry. I like, and share, your irenic attitude.

      As a good Lutheran of course you're trying to disprove the papacy.

      First of all, I am not a good Lutheran. There is entirely too much Orthodox left in me for that. And while I make no secret of my disagreement with the doctrines of Papal supremacy, I am not in this present discussion trying to "disprove the Papacy." Nothing I have written on this thread is an argument against Papal infallibility or any other aspect of Papal supremacy. I can, and sometimes have, made such arguments but I do not make them here. That would be a discussion for another day.

      Orthodox and conservative high-church Protestants can accept most of the papacy, maybe even all of it, if they really understood it

      I disagree with the idea that we don't really understand the Roman Catholic teaching on the Papacy. I believe that I do understand it, but nevertheless do not accept it. The issue is not whether one understands it, nor certainly the rarity or the conservative manner in which Papal authority is exercised. The issue is whether Papal supremacy was taught and handed down by the Apostles, or was instead a development of doctrine based on inference and conditioned by historical circumstances.

      But again, it is not my intention (on this thread) to argue Papal supremacy. The issue I am trying to talk about is whether your notion of a scope-limited and tradition-bound Papacy has any basis in Roman Catholic magisterial teaching or in the history of Roman Catholic doctrine. I'm open to persuasion, but so far I don't see the evidence for it. Pius IX's "La tradizione sono io" (though not itself a magisterial teaching, of course) is in my view a better expression of the authentic Roman Catholic teaching than yours.

    3. Pius IX's "La tradizione sono io" (though not itself a magisterial teaching, of course) is in my view a better expression of the authentic Roman Catholic teaching than yours.

      'Not magisterial = authentic because it makes the papacy look bad.' Not buying.

      So far you haven't proved to me I don't understand the real teaching of the church.

  3. One need only go to the Popes to see what they thought of the Papacy. Take for example, this from Paul VI.
    Clearly, Paul VI sees the Pope as THE final arbiter on all things liturgical, for example; and he stands in a pretty long consistent stream of Popes.

    So the Traddie RC is faced with a profound dilemma, as was Arch.Lefebrve and the SSPX to this day - who do we reconcile obedience to this notion of the Papacy as The final arbiter, and any results of his decisions which seem horrible, without becoming Protestant, ie replacing the Pope with one's own opinions?

    The Orthodox would say, this dilemma is caused because the second millenium Papacy stripped away in the West any subsidiary levels that in the first millenium served as a check and balance to the Pope and any hierarch for that matter. Like Gregory the Great, the Orthodox say that the Pope does have many powers and glory, SO LONG AS he maintains that which was passed on to him. Starting with the filioque, he has not, and so it is a direct line from the Papacy of the Franks, Hildebrand through Pio Nono, Pius X, and Paul VI, from the filioque to the clown mass.

    1. An appealing argument, but there's no problem since the new Mass in itself isn't heretical. As for opinion, especially as a layman, life in the church is not lockstep; we're not the cult of the reigning Pope's opinion. I can't accept the Orthodox view that Catholicism for a millennium has been a fraud, plus there's Catholicism's consistent teaching on contraception, which until mid-last century all Christians agreed with. 'Clown Mass' is a dated and overused metaphor for liberal liturgical abuse, something tried and largely abandoned about 40 years ago.

  4. Not sure what you mean by fraud. Doubtless you have access to the communication between RC and O Hierarchs over the centuries, which speak for themselves.

    If you see no problem with liturgical practice in the West, then I can see where you'd see little to no gap between RCs and Os. One would also have to discount significantly the importance of global fasting expectations in developing both the individual and communal interior life.

    For those who do see deep, profound and serious differences in belief and praxis, understanding how the gaps came to be is critical to understanding how to bridge or close them.

    1. Of course I'm referring to the sides' different nuances on the same true-church claim. As part of defined doctrine, Catholicism recognizes the Orthodox, saying sacramentally we're the same and that all defined Orthodox doctrine is true; not a different faith but Catholicism on paper in 8th-century form. The Orthodox have no defined doctrine about churches and sacraments outside it, only that it is the true church and has sacraments per se. So there's a range of valid Orthodox opinion, from mirroring our recognition to saying we've been graceless for 1,000 years. In other words an educated Catholic can't call the Orthodox frauds; the reverse is allowable in Orthodoxy. Knowing Catholicism, that leaves me cold.

      I don't like the new Mass. But again it's not at face value heretical. So no conscience problem. If by 'liturgical practice in the West' you mean how liberals have done the new Mass around the world for decades, I'm against that. Best to compare the Orthodox rite to the Tridentine Mass, obviously.

      Fasting expectations are discipline, not doctrine, and in practice aren't that different, at least traditionally/historically. Catholicism's famous for meatless Fridays. In practice the Orthodox loosely enforce their extreme fasting rules; lots of economy.

      So I maintain the only 'deep, profound and serious difference' is the scope of the Pope, but it's a doozy, an inch wide but irreconcilable. For union, one side would have to give in.

    2. ^Orthodoxy has no defined doctrine about churches and sacraments outside it, only that it is the true church and has sacraments per se.

  5. If the faith is unchanging, namely is only what the Lord revealed, the Apostles proclaimed, and the Fathers guarded, what can be different between the 8th century and today? Would not "nothing" be the answer? So what do you mean when you say that Orthodoxy is "not a different faith by Catholicism on paper in 8th century form"?

    And really, why the namby-pamby worry about being left cold? Key differences existed between Orthodox and Nestorians; do you think the Fathers of the Church were worried about whether Nestorians felt "cold"? No. Their mandate was to pass on the faith once delivered, undiluted, to protect the faithful.

    Also, the absolute paucity of Catholics celebrating the Extraordinary Rite, aka the Tridentine Mass, makes it meaningless. You might as well mention the Sarum rite.

    Further, that which is in use by 99.99% of Catholics worldwide is wide, divergent, sometimes scandalous, but in every instance allowed by local ordinaries and Rome. And that begins and end with the Pope not only allowing it, but having promulgated it.

    Now that's a use of economy on a scale you'd never see among Orthodox, but with a important differentiator. The fasting discipline among Orthodox is never diluted; the bar is not lowered, just because it's too high for the average Joe.

    1. Development of doctrine of course. The differences between the 8th century and today are only in form, not substance: scholastic method (Aristotle by way of Aquinas et al., like how the Fathers used Plato) and later definitions of doctrine (medieval councils on transubstantiation if I recall rightly, Trent vs. the Protestants, Pius IX on the Immaculate Conception, Vatican I on papal infallibility, and Pius XII on the Assumption, a story from the East).

      We didn't change on contraception.

      Cute but the parallel to the Nestorians doesn't work. Sorry but Nestorians are a backwater of apostolic Christianity. Not so Catholicism. To dismiss 1,000 years of it, to call it a fraud, is to deny reality. Byzantium and Russia are great but the true church wasn't limited to them like the Orthodox claim.

      To give the Vatican II strict-constructionist conservatives credit, Rome doesn't approve the heretical abuses. I don't like the new Mass but that's the fact. No conscience problem.

      Fasting again is discipline, not doctrine. Both sides can and do lower the bar but in ways unique to their respective church cultures.

  6. “Cute but the parallel to the Nestorians doesn't work. Sorry but Nestorians are a backwater of apostolic Christianity. Not so Catholicism. To dismiss 1,000 years of it, to call it a fraud, is to deny reality. Byzantium and Russia are great but the true church wasn't limited to them like the Orthodox claim.”

    To paraphrase, you said that apparent Orthodox ambivalence about the ecclesial status of the Catholic Church leaves you cold. Stephen wondered why you were so concerned about feeling cold; the Fathers would not have given any thought to such sentiments, e.g. when combatting heresies like Nestorianism (but his point could have equally well been made by mentioning Arianism, Apollinarianism, Eutychianism, or if you prefer to consider the question from a more recent Roman Catholic perspective, Jansenism or Gallicanism). Instead of addressing his point you reply dismissively (“cute”), then shift to a discussion about the relative cultural or historical significance of Roman Catholicism and the East Assyrians, talking about “a backwater,” and finish by begging the question (in the proper sense of the phrase): rejecting the claims of Catholicism is, you say, simply “to deny reality.”

    If you want to keep this discussion focused on the “strict constructionist” interpretations of officially defined doctrines and moral teachings, would it be incorrect to say that the Roman Catholic Church does not base its claims to be the true church on questions of emotion (“feeling cold”) or assertions about cultural development and influence (cultural centers vs. backwaters)? If the Catholic Church does not stake its claims on such passing phenomena as emotion and worldly significance, shouldn’t a faithful Catholic abandon this line of argument?

  7. The question seems to boil down to whether one believes the official teaching on papacy or the average faithful's experience of the papacy.

    Perhaps better, should the official teaching be interpreted through the lens of parish/diocesan experience or vice versa?

    The primary example for non-Catholics against the view that papal infallibility isn't about the right to innovate (and is something more like rubber stamping what the Church and faithful already and always has believed) is the infallible doctrine of papal infallibility itself.

    Of course, if the papacy is really no big deal (as the lay apologist often has it), it wouldn't be a big deal to Rome. But it is.

  8. get busy defending the sort of Pope that the rest of us seem to think exists.

    But this is a myth and a straw-man. Why should anyone bother defending a straw-man? Why should Catholics be held accountable for y'all's misperceptions?

    I sometimes hang out at a site called (I live in the Bible Belt, and I know a lot of fundies. They intrigue me.)

    The impression I get from the folks who post there is that your average fundy pastor is about 1,000 times to the nth power more tyrannical, dictatorial, controlling, micro-managing, and "super-papal" than any pope would ever claim, hope, or wish to be. And that includes Gregory VII. LOL.

    One of our local fundy pastors tells his subjects, er, I mean his congregants, that if they have any question about Scripture interpretation, they should bring it to him. Apparently this guy is infallible 24/7. Who knew?

    The papal claims are surprisingly modest. And yes, that is dogma, not just "lived experience on the ground."

    BTW, as I often point out, there are 1.3 billion Catholics worldwide. The pope couldn't micro-manage them even if he wanted to, which he doesn't. I think it's called "herding cats."


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