Saturday, November 26, 2016

Ambrose's Corollary to Godwin's Law (Arian Appeals)

First Council of Nicaea


Oh my, the persecution complex is in full swing. It couldn't possibly be that it is these few men who are acting improperly against the rest of the Magisterium. Nope. Clearly we are all Arians, and these few are the orthodox. And really?!? "Attacks" and "violence"? Until I see a modern day St. Nicholas slapping one of these guys, crying "violence" is a bit much, to say the least. 

This useful quote from Ralph Waldo Emerson couldn't apply more than in this case: "Let me never fall into the vulgar mistake of dreaming that I am persecuted whenever I am contradicted." Sorry, but having the majority of Christendom respond critically to a handful of cardinals who publicly threaten to "correct" the Pope is not persecution. 

I propose a corollary to Godwin's law, only for Catholics: As an online discussion between Catholics grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Arius approaches 1," ​​that is, if an Catholic debate (regardless of topic or scope) goes on long enough, sooner or later someone will claim that his interlocutor is the equivalent of an Arian and that all those who disagree with him are like the Arians in the Arian controversy--especially if the vast majority of the Church disagrees with him. It happens all the time (another immediately current example).

But let's take a closer look at the history around the Arian controversy (and here and here). At the ecumenical council of Nicaea, all but a tiny handful of voting participants ultimately decided in favor of what we now think of as orthodoxy. This means the overwhelming majority, a full 95% (301 of 318), were in favor of orthodoxy. Orthodoxy won, big time. It was not a small minority, some remnant fighting against the majority, but a majority soundly overcoming the minority.

So those who try to represent their minority views in parallel with the orthodox in the Arian controversy find little support in the history. Granted, for some decades following the Council of Nicaea, numerous flavors of Arian and semi-Arian views gained ascendancy in eastern parts of the Roman Empire, which did lead to a persecution of the orthodox in those areas, largely thanks to certain influential/powerful people in the eastern empire's political elite, but it still did not amount to anything like the Church as a whole--and the valid bishops of Rome at the time along with most of the western empire remained orthodox, often sheltering and defending the chief defender of orthodoxy in the East, St. Athanasius.

There was never an ecumenical council that overturned the orthodoxy established at Nicaea (and that would not be possible anyways, in Catholic ecclesiology). And frankly, it's a common pattern for the heterodox whose positions are excluded from orthodoxy as a result of an ecumenical council to not just go "oh well, I guess we were wrong." Such reactions are par for the course; it just so happens that the heretics in this case got the support of influential imperial officials and temporarily gained ascendancy. Thank God for Emperor Theodosius who eventually corrected this problem in the east and made orthodoxy the official imperial view for the whole Empire, after which Arianism largely died out except among some of the Germanic tribes outside the Empire.

Contrast this to the folks in our time who summon the specter of the Arian controversy when their views are challenged. Their positions are always a small minority in the Church. The say or imply that the vast majority of the Church has apostatized--including virtually all bishops and priests (and usually the pope). Thus they are usually opposed to the living Magisterium. There is now no major political power, like the late Roman Empire, that has immense influence over the Church hierarchy and property and uses that power to enforce the views of that political elite. In short, beyond the vague association with the persecuted minority in some regions of the Church 1600+ years ago, there is no real parallel. 

And beyond that, playing the Arian card is no real argument at all. It is completely fallacious, not just from an historical point of view, but also from a logical point of view. Even if you could establish a thorough parallel, the argument is nothing but an emotional salve for its proponents. It does nothing to address the issues at play. It simply appropriates a feigned mantle of orthodoxy and rightness. It is exactly like the "you're on the wrong side of history" arguments made by progressives in other areas of contemporary debate. 

So to all those who espouse this, as in the article linked at the top, please do us all a favor and stop crying foul and stick to pertinent arguments. If Cardinal Burke and those of similar minds truly believe that they are sticking up for orthodoxy in the face of heterodoxy, they need to be prepared for the ensuing conflict and opposition. They should not be shocked. This is not persecution. It is contradiction. (For the record, I have not seen the good Cardinal Burke appealing to this himself.)

The mere fact that some are being opposed by an overwhelming majority is no indicator that they are right, nor should anyone take comfort in that fact. It is far more likely that they are wrong for this reason. As in the case of all of the ecumenical councils--including Nicaea--it is the majority that decides, in union with the pope, what is orthodox, not the dissenting minority, especially not the minority against the pope. 

Amoris Laetitia is a post-synodal exhortation. It comes as the culmination of two universal synods involving not only bishops from all over the world, including those of different rites, but also many lay people. The bishops debated and discussed and made resolutions. The Pope issued his exhortation with all of that in mind. It is, as such, reflective of the universal Church in union with the pope. While the pope has the authority to issue a letter such as this on his own, that is not what happened here. He is not, as I've heard said, smacking down those who disagree with him and not allowing for open and honest debate--we had a multi-year synod on the subject for goodness' sake.

As I see it, the pope has wisely refused to issue simplistic, rigorist affirmations of current rules. He has affirmed the unchangeable doctrine and basic Catholic moral framework, so suggestions and accusations of heresy are just plain wrong. He has wisely chosen (so far) to not respond to the answers for "clarification," because doing so would work against what he has chosen to do, which is defer to his fellow bishops to issue guidelines and encourage priests to use their judgment and discern the appropriate course of action after considering individual circumstances in light of our doctrine and current laws. All of this was affirmed in his letter to the Argentine bishops, which some find unaccountably disturbing. 

As others have noted, clarifications abound already, and what the heck, I wrote one attempt myself. And Pope Francis has in fact already responded to the request for clarification on Amoris:
Frank Rocca (Wall Street Journal): ... For a Catholic who wants to know: are there new, concrete possibilities that didn’t exist before the publication of the exhortation or not? 
Pope Francis: I can say yes, period. But it would be an answer that is too small. I recommend that you read the presentation of Cardinal Schönborn, who is a great theologian. He was the secretary for the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, and he knows the doctrine of the faith well. In that presentation, your question will find an answer.

Those who don't like Francis, this is not an Arian moment. There is no Arian card to play here. 

Responses to Cardinal Burke et al's Dubia

I figured I'd take a whack at responding to doubts proposed by Cardinal Burke and his three cardinal colleagues. This is how I imagine Pope Francis might answer, though I would not presume to actually speak for him or anyone but myself. My intent is to balance objective moral truth against the messy reality that is life, and I think that's really what Pope Francis is urging that pastors do. I think he's said as much on numerous occasions.

I will grant that I am no theologian or canon lawyer, and that my understanding of Catholic moral tradition is less than others'. Despite that, I think my answers are orthodox, even if not a wholly traditional Catholic approach. It's good to keep in mind that the discipline and application of definitive truth can change without necessarily doing damage to the truth. It tends to be a matter of personal judgment on whether a specific change incurs actual damage to the truth. They are not independent of each other, but they are not so bound up that it is impossible to change practice/discipline/law (as is manifestly evident from Church history).

Traditionalists/conservatives tend to err on the avoid changing things to be safe side of things; progressives/liberals tend to err on the side of being more concerned with contemporary adaptation in the hope of addressing new challenges (perceived or real). Where one falls on this tends to be a spectrum and not a binary, and I am certainly somewhere in between.

The proposers of these doubts suggest that they can be answered in a simple yes or no; however, they take pains to preface and then elaborate on each of them. While theoretically such questions can be answered yes or no, I do not think it is reasonable to expect a simple yes or no, nor have I bound myself to that stricture. In fact, I would say that simply answering yes or no, especially given the way the questions are asked, can easily lead to faulty interpretations and actions, based on such a simple answer. I suggest that expecting a simple yes or no puts the power in the hands of the question framers, and so it would not really be appropriate for the CDF or Pope Francis to answer with a simple yes or no.

If I had to guess why no answer has been given so far, it is because the Holy Father well knows that no matter what answer he gives, even with clarifications, it will only engender more debate, debate which I'm sure he feels has been given due space in the synods leading up to Amoris Laetitia. The contemporary Church is not given to expressions of anathema sit, and even/until an actual ecumenical council were called (and warranted) to address these concerns, no matter what the Pope teaches, there will be dissenters and differing interpretations and applications of laws. When Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI were in office, we had plenty of "confusion" and dissent in the Church; those who pretend that Pope Francis is new in this way, only think so because it is now their positions which are challenged.  The Church always has had and will always have its share of dissenters and divergences of opinions and interpretations.

And as we have seen with even ecumenical councils, there remain dissenters even after those definitive gatherings. So the fantasy that a clarification by Pope Francis on these items would end differing opinions, create unified pastoral guidance, etc. is just that--a fantasy. Suggesting that his not doing so is somehow indicative of his intention to signal approval of heresy is simply outrageous and is bitterly ungenerous, presumptuous, and potentially sinful in itself.

I welcome thoughtful dialogue on the answers below. But if you start out by telling me I'm a heretic, or if you simply assert that my answers are heretical or unorthodox or not Catholic or anything along those lines, be prepared to be ignored. If, however, you want to argue for alternative positions or point me to some definitive teachings that seem to call my answers into question, I will gladly consider those. My desire is always to remain faithful to God and his Church.

Know that I do not consider canons or prior legislative texts or this or that Vatican congregation or this or that bishop, cardinal, or pope weighing in on something as de facto infallible or irreformable (again, in keeping with Catholic Tradition). Not even everything in our current Catechism is infallible or irreformable or not subject to further discussion and development. That is to say, if you use a text to support your position, be prepared to surround it with argumentation as to why you think it is authoritative in the context and how it supports your view. Proof texting, even from Scripture, is an impoverished practice in such dialogue.

Now onto the dubia...

DOUBT 1) It is asked whether, following the affirmations of Amoris Laetitia (300-305), it has now become possible to grant absolution in the sacrament of penance and thus to admit to holy Communion a person who, while bound by a valid marital bond, lives together with a different person more uxorio without fulfilling the conditions provided for by Familiaris Consortio, 84, and subsequently reaffirmed by Reconciliatio et Paenitentia, 34, and Sacramentum Caritatis, 29. Can the expression “in certain cases” found in Note 351 (305) of the exhortation Amoris Laetitia be applied to divorced persons who are in a new union and who continue to live more uxorio?

I ANSWER THAT given sure knowledge of the specific conditions enumerated here, particularly definite knowledge of the validity of a prior union and no intention of living in continence in the new union that is acknowledged to be adulterous, it would not be appropriate to absolve such a penitent. It is a given that Divine law requires a repentant heart for forgiveness.

It is possible to absolve, however, if the validity of prior unions is uncertain (or even doubtful). This is particularly true if the new union appears more likely to be valid than prior unions, even if if has yet to be adjudicated as such.

It may also be possible to absolve if the penitent clearly expresses a firm intention to amend his life, even if it seems unlikely he will be able to do so (and even if he has a history of not being able to do so), particularly in situations where, as Pope St. John Paul II wrote in Familiaris Consortio, 84, taking the objective actions necessary to prevent future sin would involve committing new injustices or would otherwise be impracticable. The pastor should be generous and supportive of the intention, whatever doubts he may have.

In certain cases, it may be that the penitent cannot honestly apprehend that his new situation is sinful, perhaps due to serious personal doubts of the validity of the prior union (even having tried to adjudicate nullity without success) or failure to apprehend the true nature of marriage even now (which should cast doubt on validity of either union). These could be a defect of knowledge and, consequently, of full consent. Pastors should endeavor to determine if such is willful ignorance or a defect in intellect or some other mitigating factor, always with a preference for generosity if the penitent displays honest intention to live a holy life and grow in sanctification, accompanying and guiding the penitent toward that life.

In all cases, the pastor should counsel according to the teaching of the Church to help the penitent correctly discern his situation, encourage and help the penitent to seek a decree of nullity if possible, and offer practical advice to help the penitent avoid sin.

DOUBT 2) After the publication of the post-synodal exhortation Amoris Laetitia (304), does one still need to regard as valid the teaching of St. John Paul II’s encyclical Veritatis Splendor, 79, based on sacred Scripture and on the Tradition of the Church, on the existence of absolute moral norms that prohibit intrinsically evil acts and that are binding without exceptions?

I ANSWER THAT, yes, there are indeed absolute moral norms that prohibit intrinsically evil acts (and as such objectively, intrinsically evil acts do definitely exist). Murder. Adultery. Blasphemy. Idolatry. And so on.

It is not, however, an objective fact that someone who has been married was definitely validly, sacramentally married. The fact of an ecclesiastical legal system and tribunals that adjudicate the validity (or nullity) of marriages is sufficient evidence of this, as is Church teaching on what is necessary for a valid marriage to occur in the first place.

Given this, it is possible for someone to objectively be in a second union without, by virtue of that objective fact, committing adultery. And given the known terrible state of catechesis today coupled with secular cultural norms that directly contradict a Catholic understanding of marriage and sexuality, not to mention a growing understanding of human physiology and psychology, it is reasonable to be more uncertain in contemporary times that all, or even most, marriages--even those celebrated in Catholic churches--are valid. In short, it is not a safe assumption that someone who is remarried is, by the simple fact of being remarried, committing adultery, and more than that, it is arguable that this is more doubtful today than at any point in Christian history.

On the other hand, there are still objective actions that can be assumed to be adultery, such as sleeping with someone who is married without being in any form of marriage with that person. The distinction here is between a married couple where one of the individuals is divorced and remarried, versus two people having sex outside of marriage, with one or both being in a marriage (confirmed to be valid or not). It is beyond a doubt in the latter case that such is extramarital sexual relations, without regard to determining the validity of the prior or current marriage. So cohabiting unmarried people who engage in sex, those having sexual affairs, keeping a mistress, etc. would fall under the objective adultery category.

DOUBT 3) After Amoris Laetitia (301) is it still possible to affirm that a person who habitually lives in contradiction to a commandment of God’s law, as for instance the one that prohibits adultery (Matthew 19:3-9), finds him or herself in an objective situation of grave habitual sin (Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts, “Declaration,” June 24, 2000)?

I ANSWER THAT it is still possible to affirm this when the sin in question is public and indisputable, for example, in the case of a politician repeatedly, obstinately pursuing governmental policies that promote an intrinsic evil. However, in the case of adultery (and sex in general), which is by nature private, we cannot assume, even by the nature of a public commitment such as marriage, that adultery is habitually occurring by the simple fact of persons living together (married or not). This is as true for a minister of Communion discerning the application of Canon 915 as it is for any lay person observing another.

However, if adultery is determined publicly and an individual publicly manifests an intent to continue in that sin, a minister of Communion could infer an objective situation of grave habitual sin and act accordingly by applying Canon 915. This seems like it would be rare. Most people do not affirm adultery publicly. It is arguable that if a person, say, prominently were to keep a mistress, then Canon 915 could apply, even if the person did not explicitly affirm that adultery because the nature of keeping a mistress is that it is an actively sexual relationship, as would typically be an affair. In such cases, there are no other reasons for two unmarried people to be together.

On the other hand, a remarried (or even cohabiting) couple may have other practical reasons to to remain together, and assuming the relationship is adulterous is less of a reliable assumption than in these others. This is not to say that it is not reasonable to think that such a relationship is sexual, only that it should not be assumed that it is with regards to the application of Canon 915 or a general perception of an objectively adulterous situation. In short, unless they express in private to a minister or in public that they are living as man and wife, one should be willing to extend the benefit of the doubt.

What should be obvious is that pastoral discernment is still required even when one may suspect grave sin and that in general both clergy and laity should not presume sexual sin simply based on external circumstances alone. And the public act of refusing Communion should be based in a commensurately public grave sin. It is better, in most cases, to counsel such persons privately to discern whether or not to approach the sacrament, as is the clear intent of St. Paul in 1 Cor 11.

DOUBT 4) After the affirmations of Amoris Laetitia (302) on “circumstances which mitigate moral responsibility,” does one still need to regard as valid the teaching of St. John Paul II’s encyclical Veritatis Splendor, 81, based on sacred Scripture and on the Tradition of the Church, according to which “circumstances or intentions can never transform an act intrinsically evil by virtue of its object into an act ‘subjectively’ good or defensible as a choice”?

I ANSWER THAT yes, one ought to regard that teaching as still valid. No matter the mitigations of personal circumstance that diminish culpability, an objectively evil act can never be transformed into a morally acceptable choice much less a good, considered in itself. It's worth noting that this does not mean that other goods cannot accidentally accompany or follow as a result of objectively immoral actions, but such goods do not change the nature of the evil act in itself.

Amoris Laetitia 302 does not seek to countermand this teaching. Rather, it calls to mind the well-established distinction in Church teaching between objective grave sin and subjective mortal sin.

DOUBT 5) After Amoris Laetitia (303) does one still need to regard as valid the teaching of St. John Paul II’s encyclical Veritatis Splendor, 56, based on sacred Scripture and on the Tradition of the Church, that excludes a creative interpretation of the role of conscience and that emphasizes that conscience can never be authorized to legitimate exceptions to absolute moral norms that prohibit intrinsically evil acts by virtue of their object?

I ANSWER THAT it is not the role of conscience to make an act moral or immoral. It is the role of the conscience to discern the path of good from the path of evil. Amoris Laetitia 303 suggests that it further can discern the best that a specific person can do in a specific situation. This is no commentary on the objective nature of the acts in question. It is, rather, a recognition of the limitations of the person in question to choose the good, i.e., to maximize the good and avoid the evil in as much as a person can. It, in itself, does not determine whether or not such an action is actually good or evil; it can only determine what is in its best judgment the best path.