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.