Sunday, October 24, 2010

Sacral Kingship:The German Influence (part 6)

The sixth installment of my series on the development of Christian Kingship, this time focusing on the early medieval period and the transition in the west from a Roman dominated Europe to a Germanic one and how German ideals of royal authority mingled with older regal traditions to produce a new concept of royal authority.

The German Influence

 By the advent of the Carolingian era, a decisive shift had taken place in the power structure of the European continent: the supremacy of the Germans. German influence in European affairs was nothing new. Tribes such as the Vandals and Goths had wreaked havoc on the late Roman Empire; other Germanic tribes such as the Alemanni, Suebi and Cherusci had been known of since before the time of Julius Caesar. But by the time of the ascent of the Carolingian kingdom under Charlemagne, the Germans had gone from barbarian tribesmen on the outskirts of civilization to being the dominant force in the west. With the proclamation of a Frankish emperor in the year 800, Western Europe became decisively and irrevocably a German entity and fell out of Mediterranean/Byzantine sphere of influence permanently. This had been the trend for sometime; the advent of Charlemagne did not so much create this new political situation as much as it made manifest and permanent what was already becoming true.

With their advent, the Germans brought into Christian Europe new ideas about kingship and authority. These were to have a decisive impact on western Christianity and on the development of the Middle Ages in general. Earlier in this series, two prevailing ancient ideologies about power were elucidated: the eastern model, which viewed authority as arbitrary and coming immediately from the gods to the king, who sat at the top of a social pyramid; and the western model, which viewed authority as being a collective manifestation of the power of the people vested into one magistrate, who was accountable to the gods and to society for the way he used this power. How did the German concept of kingship fit into this design?

Though the Germans certainly represent a third element to this equation, as they were neither Mediterranean nor Middle Eastern, they tend to fall more in line with the western, Greco-Roman idea of power than with the eastern concepts. At first, this may seem a bit of a stretch; what does the Visigothic king of Asturias in the 6th century have in common with the Roman republican idealism of the pre-imperial period? On the surface there is not much in common, but the differences are only accidental. Though the culture of the Romans and Greeks varied greatly from the culture of the Germans, their conceptions of political authority do resemble one another. A brief look at the similarities of the Germanic and classical political ideologies will clarify this.


First and foremost, the Germans did not believe in any conception of a ruler wielding absolute power. Though they had a distaste for Roman law (Trial by Ordeal being their preferred method of jurisprudence), they had an equal distaste for the arbitrariness of eastern autocracy. The figure of the early German king is one shrouded in mystery. It is unknown how the Germans viewed their own rulers, but it was the Romans who first applied the word rex to the Germanic chieftains, finding no better terminology with which to classify them; lesser chieftains were called dux. The rex and dux seemed to have little coercive power originally.2

The authority of these chieftains came not by divine right, or even necessarily by birth right, but by merit on the battle field. Tacitus says in his Germania: “The authority of their kings [reges] is not unlimited or arbitrary; their generals [duces] control the people by example rather than command…”3 This is quite similar to early Greek and Roman notions of arĂȘte and virtus. A German tribal lord, a rex or dux, gained authority and notoriety by winning victories in battle. Based on his reputation, other warriors would either flock to his retinue or else desert him if they heard of some other lord more powerful. Their authority was by no means fixed, and could be supplanted by other lords. “A leader’s authority lasted only so long as his success in war.”4 In Roman times, whole tribes are known to have split and merged with other tribes in order to follow more promising leaders. This can be viewed as a kind of “election by migration.” Instead of an unhappy electorate voting out an unwanted magistrate (as in Rome and Greece), the disgruntled German electorate was content to leave the chief in place and simply remove themselves to another tribe!

When Germanic kingship is viewed as a kind of martial oligarchy, it is not difficult to find similarities between it and the ancient Greco-Roman systems. It is very likely that the German warlords of the late Roman period were driven by the same ideas of warrior-glory that motivated the early Greek warriors who were in turn inspired by the stories of their own legendary warrior lords, men such as Achilles and Diomedes. And were not the original ancestors of the Roman Senate said to be those patrician families who had won glory in war, such as the Brutii, Fabii and the Scipios?

The most important element in Germanic government was the king’s comitatus, the band of other war leaders that surrounded a chief. These war leaders were generally referred to as dux by the Roman authors. It was with the band of war leaders that the king made his deliberations and proposed courses of action. The king among the duces was a kind of first among equals. Though loyalty was given him by the comitatus only so long as his victory in war continued, once in battle this body proved fanatically faithful to their king. If a king or prominent war-chief were killed in battle, most of his comitatus would go down fighting with him. This was a matter of honor among the Germans.5 It is difficult to distinguish how the authority of the king and the other chieftains differed. Tacitus himself seems uncertain of the matter and sometimes uses the words rex and dux ambiguously. It seems certain, however, that the governance of the German tribe was carried out by a warrior aristocracy under the titular head of a king. This bears much semblance to the earliest accounts of the Greek and Roman civilization, such as the stories of a series of Roman warrior families gathered together under Romulus or the retinue of Greek kings mentioned by the Iliad under the leadership of Agamemnon.

Under this warrior aristocracy, as in the Greek and Roman states, there existed several tribal assemblies of lesser importance. Unlike what we know of the Greeks and Romans, what exactly constituted a Germanic assembly was uncertain and the body itself seems to have been rather fluid. Sometimes a tribal assembly was the gathering of the entire tribe at an appointed time and place under the leadership of the war council, where justice was then administered and important matters discussed. This assembly of the people is referred to as the "Thing" in ancient chronicles of Germanic law.6 A massive gathering of a Saxon Thing at the River Weser is recorded in the eighth century.7 These meetings were done at an annual cycle determined by the phases of the moon. Tacitus describes such a gathering:

On small matters the chiefs consult; on larger questions the community; but with this limitation, that even the subjects, the decision of which rests with the people, are first handled by the chiefs. They meet, unless there be some unforeseen and sudden emergency, on days set apart-when the moon, that is, new or at the full….then a king or chief is listened to, in order of age, birth, glory in war or eloquence, with the prestige which belongs to their counsel rather than with any prescriptive right to command. If the advice tendered be displeasing, they reject it with groans; if it please them, they clash their spears: the most complimentary expression of assent is this martial approbation.8

These gatherings were the basis on Germanic common law and continued until the tribes began to settle down into cities following the eighth century and their conversion to Christianity. Though it cannot be said that the Germans had a democratic society, at least in the way it was understood in classical times, it seems evident that there was a considerable degree of popular activity in tribal governance and that the early Germans had no tolerance for authoritarian despotism. This they shared in common with the Greco-Roman tradition.

There are instances, however, of experiments with autocracy in the ancient German tribes. The Germans who lived along the Rhine and Danube, and thus came into frequent contact with the Romans, picked up Roman ideas of authoritarian rule from such autocratic Romans as Julius Caesar. There are records of a few Germanic leaders attempting to solidify their power and rule autocratically, but they all came to nothing. Maroboduus and Ariovistus attempted it, and Arminius, in the time of Augustus, attempted to secure his power tyrannically. However, all were betrayed or killed by other German chieftains who had no tolerance for such heavy-handed rulership.9 Why did these experiments in autocracy ultimately fail among the Germans? Their independent minded, warrior mentality was too great to permit any such change. “The style of autocratic leadership…could not be maintained for long in a society of warrior-nobles who pursued their own paths to glory.”10 This German aversion to centralized control would emerge again and again throughout history and was a large factor in the failure of even the most powerful of the Holy Roman emperors to adequately unite the empire in the Middle Ages. It took the force of nationalism to finally unite the Germans, but that did not come until the days of Bismarck and Hitler.

It is evident from these considerations that the Germans, though different in culture and much later in developing their civilization, fall securely into the realm of Greco-Roman political tradition. They viewed authority as coming from merit and martial prowess and held the leader accountable for his actions. A good leader would be followed fanatically while a bad leader would be deserted by his people. Legal decisions were made a matter of popular concern and justice was meted out at tribal assemblies where all the free men had a say in judgments. Common law, not arbitrary whims of autocrats, decided matters. When autocrats did attempt to seize power, like Maroboduus, they were only put up with for so long before being betrayed or murdered. In this they almost resemble the independent and civic-minded Greeks of the classical age or the most virtuous of the Roman republicans.

Divergence with Classical Tradition

Though there were many similarities between the German and classical ideologies of power there were certainly crucial differences as well. Since the time Christianity had been established in the late Roman world, Christians had always been used to living under a centralized government ruled by a civil bureaucracy, as in the late Western Empire until 476 and in the Byzantine Empire until much later. When the Germans began taking control in the west in the 5th century, the manner in which political authority was implemented shifted, despite underlying similarities in conceptions of power. Two are of significant importance: the return of the martial spirit to political life, and the massive decentralization of power. Though these factors do not concern themselves directly with the image of royal power in the Middle Ages, which is the focus of these essays, they do form a political backdrop against which the people of the Middle Ages developed their theories of royal power.

Whatever else can be said about the Middle Ages, it cannot be denied that it was a very violent time. The ancient world had been very violent as well, but the advent of the Germans represents the return of something to European life that had been gone for some time: civil rule in the hands of military war-lords. By the time of the conversion of Clovis in 496, the Eastern Roman Empire had been ruled for almost two centuries by a civil bureaucracy whose sphere of influence was distinct from that of the military. In the west, however, authority had been concentrated in the hands of a series of powerful barbarian chieftains in the pay of the empire, men like Stilicho and Aetius. However, these de facto military rulers seldom concerned themselves with civic or administrative duties, which largely fell to the crusty remnants of the old Roman civil service, later to the jurisdiction of the local bishop. In the Germanic kingdoms, for the first time in several centuries, the military lord was also the law giver. Germanic rulers were quite conscious of their duties as law givers and several important law codes were promulgated throughout the early Middle Ages, such as the Salic Law of the Franks, the Lex Gundobaba of the Burgundians and the Laws of Ethelbert among the Saxons.

This military-civil rule caused all elements of life in the Middle Ages to be charged with a kind of martial spirit that had long been extinguished in the late Roman world of the west. Germanic peoples were always very prone to war; Tactitus reminds us that glory in war was the highest honor a chieftain could obtain.11 Though the Germans settled down in cities and converted to Christianity in the early centuries of the medieval period, this transformation did not rob them of their martial spirit in the least. In fact, the Christian impulse probably strengthened it, giving military exploits new impetus. Violence was an acceptable answer to every problem. Civil cases were often decided by “Trial by Combat”, personal disputes settled by feuds and vendettas, political disputes by war, arguments of succession by civil conflict and pagan peoples beat back by the sword. In all aspects of life, heavy handed military force replaced the rule of Roman law, which lay dormant in Europe until the 12th century.

It is well known that Christians during the patristic period generally held to a position of non-involvement when it came to the military; some even advocated strict pacifism across the board (e.g., Tertullian). By the time of the establishment of the Germanic kingdoms, warfare was not only permissible to Christians but was seen as a noble and glorious endeavor. This is emphasized by the liturgical texts examined in the last chapter invoking the blessing of the king as he rode off to do battle with the pagans or Saracens. The existence of hostile peoples, be they Arabs on the frontier of Visigothic Spain, Vikings in the north or Avars and Magyars in the east, provided a plethora of belligerent foes to be battled. This martial spirit, especially against pagans, is prevalent in medieval literature, the Song of Roland being a prime example.

Another novel tendency of the Germanic kingdoms was the decentralization of authority. Both in the classical world (pagan and Christian) and in the Middle East, authority was almost always centralized. The only difference was that in the east, the power was centralized in the hands of a single man, while in the west it was centralized in “the State.” The Germans abhorred the autocracy of the east, while the Greco-Roman idea of “the State” was utterly foreign to them. Instead, they generally preferred a decentralized form of government wherein a tribal “king” ruled the realm, whose power was then mediated through several layers of social strata which consisted of other chieftains, warriors, family and even clergy; in medieval terms, through the king’s vassals. Over time, the people’s direct accountability to the king decreased as their local reliance on the dux or petty lord increased. A man was bound to his immediate lord by the oath of fealty, which was similar to the bonds that bound an ancient Germanic warrior to his war-lord or a Roman client to his patron. The kingdoms that emerged are best viewed, not as nations in the modern sense, but as mass conglomerations of lords and vassals united by oaths of fealty. Therefore, while it is proper to speak of French or English “kingdoms”, it is improper to refer to French or English “states” during this period. During the early Middle Ages, “France”, “England” and “Germany” are more geographical expressions than political entities.

By the time of Charlemagne, what had been a centralized, albeit weak, Romanized government had been replaced by an amalgamation of dukedoms, counties and manors farmed by peasants under fealty to local lords, who in turn were under fealty to higher lords, and they in turn to the king. Though the Germanic kingdoms lacked national unity, they made up for it by an ardent militant spirit, motivated in part by their zealous adoption of Christianity. This militant spirit ensured that there was always much turmoil in Western Europe during the Middle Ages. Sometimes there was so much upheaval that the popes had to step in and attempt to mitigate the wars being waged, as in the “Truce of God” and “Peace of God” movements, which attempted to limit fighting to certain days of the week.

The Germanic character of the western European kingdoms comes into play greatly when examining three of the greatest dynasties of the early Middle Ages: the Carolingians, the Anglo-Saxon house of Wessex, and the Ottonians. Each had a profound impact upon the way royal authority was viewed in medieval Europe.


1 The phrase “Germans” in this section refers to all the tribes of northern Europe that are commonly referred to as Germans in ancient accounts. This includes tribes like the Goths, Vandals, Suebi, Lombards, and Burgundians, but also the Franks and Anglo-Saxons as well.
2Malcolm Todd, The Early Germans, (Blackwell Publishing: Malden, MA., 1992), 34

3 Tacitus, Germania, 7

4 Todd, 33

5 Tacitus, Germania, 14

6 Todd, 104-105

7 Ibid., 31

8 Tacitus, Germania, 11

9 Todd, 34-35

10 Ibid.

11 Tacitus, Germania, 11


Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Bishop Vasa: defanging the USCCB

Many of you may have already heard about Bishop Robert Vasa's recent statements on the relationship between the USCCB and individual bishops, in which the bishop reminds us that the directives of the USCCB have no binding authority on bishops. Too often the USCCB is viewed as a kind of authoritative regulatory agency for the episcopacy. Vasa has given us a timely reminder that the USCCB exists to serve bishops, not vice versa.

His comments have already been widely disseminated via Lifesite News and the Wanderer. I couldn't find an actual transcript of the talk, so what I have done here is pulled his comments out of the Lifesite article and strung them together to get a basic paraphrase of his comments, which I think are tremendously important. No true reform can hold in the United States until the USCCB is defanged. Bishop Vasa said:

[S]tatements from bishops’ conferences necessarily tend to be "flattened" and "vague," allowing certain teachings to "fall by the wayside through what could be called, charitably, a kind of benign pastoral neglect." While some call this compassion, “in truth, it often entails a complicity or a compromise with evil.  The harder and less popular teachings are left largely unspoken, thereby implicitly giving tacit approval to erroneous or misleading theological opinions... I fear that there has been such a steady diet of such flattened documents that anything issued by individual bishops that contains some element of strength is readily and roundly condemned or simply dismissed as being out of touch with the conference or in conflict with what other bishops might do. USCCB pastoral documents are “are open to a broad range of interpretation and misinterpretation. ... A charge could be brought that such documents are intentionally vague and misleading. While I have had an occasional suspicion of this myself, it would be a serious defect of charity on my part to speculate about whether this is actually the case, I would say that the vagueness, whether intentional or not, has occasionally been a cause of concern and even consternation. 

While [the USCCB] is both practical and desirable” for communication and joint efforts such as liturgical translations and disaster relief, there is “room for concern about the tendency of the conference to take on a life of its own and to begin to replace or displace the proper role of individual bishops, even in their own dioceses. It is easy to forget that the conference is the vehicle to assist bishops in cooperating with each other and not a separate regulatory commission. There may also be an unfortunate tendency on the part of bishops to abdicate to the conference a portion of their episcopal role and duty. Statements from individual bishops "are often stronger, bolder, more decisive, and thus more likely to be criticized as harsh and insensitive. Gentle appeals have their place but when constant appeal produces absolutely no movement toward self-correction, reform or conversion, then reproving and correcting, become necessary. At some point, there needs to be a bold resistance to the powers of the world in defense of the flock the fear of offending one contemptuously dissident member of the flock often redounds to a failure to defend the flock. It can redound to a failure to teach the truth.” (source)

 By the way, what Bishop Vasa is speaking of when he refers to certain "difficult" teachings being allowed to simply fall by the wayside by "benign pastoral neglect", he is affirming what I was getting at in my previous post on the modern Church's "ex voce" teachings: official teachings aren't contradicted, but rather ignored, giving way to erroneous or ambiguous teachings that are promulgated through lower, unofficial organs such as bishop's conferences. Kudos to Bishop Vasa for saying what needed to be said and for doing so in a manner more eloquent and forceful than what I could have done.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Dogma "ex voce"

It seems to me that there are certain dogmas or declarations of the Catholic Church that some in the Magisterium wish they could forget about. I'm thinking of declarations like those found in Unam Sanctam (1302),  the Syllabus of Errors, the Council of Florence, etc. These declarations on issues such as the reality and eternality of hell, the necessity of membership in the Church for salvation, the permanent invalidity of Jewish ceremonial law, the condemnation of secular political concepts and many other such un-ecumenical positions stand out to them as embarrassing monuments of a bygone era. I think many in the Church would like to get rid of these declarations, if they could - and I am speaking not only of liberals, but of mainstream, even certain "conservative" members of the hierarchy. These teachings are like antiquated family heirlooms that one can't get rid of but effectively hides by stuffing them in the attic.

Obviously and thankfully, these declarations cannot be gotten rid of. They can be ignored and wished away, but they will not go away. Definitive, infallible ex cathedra statements remain for all time and are irreformable of their very nature. No matter how much any bishop or cardinal would like to contradict or get rid of these dogmatic heirlooms, they cannot.

Yet, though these declarations will not go away, there is a way that the hierarchy has found to get around this problem. I have noticed that, in areas where the modern hierarchy takes vastly different positions than the traditional Church, novel positions are not given to the faithful by means of encyclicals or dogmatic statements, but are found throughout lower-level pronouncements, such as speeches, letters, addresses, bishops' statements etc. By repeating these novel positions again and again in very low-level pronouncements, the faithful get accustomed to hearing certain novelties "from the Church" and over time come to accept them as "Church teaching."

A classic example is the death penalty. Granted, JPII called for a lesser application of the death penalty in Evangelium Vitae; but besides this, most of the very strong words offered against the death penalty have come from bishop's committees, papal speeches, statements and letters and articles in publications like L'Osservatore Romano and on Zenit. Many of these statements condemn capital punishment absolutely, in contradiction to Church teaching and tradition. The Catechism, the official teaching of the Church, of course says that capital punishment is licit and that the state cannot be denied the right to wield it. That is the official teaching and it cannot be altered. But, at every level lower than official teaching, capital punishment is condemned absolutely, and with such frequency that many orthodox Catholics no longer know that capital punishment is allowable. They have heard the voices of the popes and the bishops (in low-level pronouncements) condemn it so much that this erroneous position has effectively become "the Church's teaching," leading to a situation where something other than Church teaching takes the practical place of Church teaching while allowing the contrary and official position to remain in place.

Thus the strategy for "changing" Church teaching seems to be this: If you want to teach something contrary to what the Church has always taught, just do it at low enough levels of authority and eventually people will start to accept your low-level declarations as "Church teaching" if they are trumpeted about long enough.

Let me offer another example: Balthasar's concept of an "empty hell." This idea can in no way be said to be orthodox and (in my opinion) is a very nefarious doctrine. It is condemned by the constant opinion of theologians throughout the ages, who argued not only that hell is real but that people do actually go there - of many private revelations of the saints, especially those of St. John Bosco, Sister Lucia and St. Teresa of Avila, who said that she saw souls falling into hell "like snowflakes." Yet, despite this, we find persons within the heirarchy teaching the Balthasarian empty hell theory, not on the level of official teaching, but in personal letters, books, speeches, etc.

For example, the late Cardinal Avery Dulles wrote in his book New World of Faith, which is meant to be an exposition of Catholic teaching in a way understandable to the modern world, Cardinal Dulles, in his section on hell, mentions Balthasar's theory and gives it credence by citing several arguments in its favor while not providing any arguments against it, thus leading the uninformed reader to suppose that Balthasar's theory is a credible one and on par with the traditional teaching. Only one sentence is given mentioning the teaching of the "Latin theologians from Augustine until recently" while a whole page is given to expound and defend Balthasar's theory. Is this not a veiled way of "teaching" Balthasarian heresy, at least as a hypothesis, without actually teaching it officially?

Cardinal Ratzinger gave Balthasar's theory similar credibility at Balthasar's funeral when, despite Balthasar's novel teaching on hell and his bizarre notion of Christ's atonement, Ratzinger said:

"What the pope intended to express by this mark of distinction [elevation to the Cardinalate], and of honor, remains valid, no longer only private individuals but the Church itself, in its official responsibility, tells us that he is right in what he teaches of the faith" (see here).

This isn't officially teaching the empty hell theory, but it is endorsing it in an unofficial way. The Church's endorsement of Balthasar continues in the elevation of Balthasarians to the cardinalate (Scola, for example).

But this is just one example. My point is that theologians, bishops, cardinals and even popes regularly teach novelties in unofficial organs with such frequency that the faithful mistake these pronouncements for the teaching of the Church. The main reason for this is a confusion between a Church official and official teaching. When an official of the Church speaks, it is taken for granted that what he is speaking is official Church teaching. For example, it usually doesn't occur to people who would read Cardinal Dulles' book that what he is presenting in his section on hell is not the official teaching of the Church but his own opinion; why should they? Dulles is a Cardinal and his book is on Catholic teaching. It is natural that they should make this assumption, just like it is natural that they should assume that what the bishops' say on the absolute prohibition of the death penalty is the Church's official teaching. The conflict between what officials say and what the real teaching of the Church is can lead to much confusion.

Thus, I fear, we have come to a place where instead of taking our bearings by teachings given ex cathedra we are now accustomed to assimilating teaching "ex voce," from statements repeated over and over again in low-level pronouncements. Novelties are put forward as teaching, absurd hypotheses are given credence and things abhorrent to the Christian faith are stated as matter of fact (a great example is Kasper's sloppy Reflections on Covenant and Mission regarding Judaism). Basically, I see a working out of the old dictum that anything repeated long enough is believed. It is really quite disingenuous, because everybody knows that lay people expect to hear official Church teaching from members of the hierarchy - the hierarchy also knows that, if they are using means of communication that are considered "low-level" in their authority, they have much more leeway to introduce their own opinions.

This is what I refer to as the Church's underground or "unofficial" teaching, its ex voce teaching, which is a means of subtly introducing modernist interpretations into the deposit of faith. I'm sorry this post is so sloppy; this concept needs to be thought out more. Maybe some of you can give some insight.

"I wait for thy salvation Lord" (Gen. 49:18).

Sunday, October 10, 2010

A model bishop

I have been critical of bishops on here before when they either fail to stand up for the faith or else (in some lamentable cases) actively work to undermine it. I think it is right to call bishops on these problems, if it is done in a spirit of charity. Too often bishops get a pass on the stupidest things and are let off with lame excuses ("Well, the episcopacy is a complex matter; we can't possibly understand the strain they must be under" - see here).

But because pointing out the obvious shortcomings of the episcopal college can lead to depression if unchecked, it is important to balance critiques with praises when we come across bishops who are truly excellent. We are blessed to have such a bishop in our diocese, and I want to use this forum to honor and praise him for his wonderful management of the Diocese of Lansing and his fidelity to tradition.

I am speaking, of course, of the Most Reverend Earl Boyea. Bishop Boyea has only been pastor of our Diocese for two years, but he has done some wonderful things in that time. Among his accomplishments:

  • Dismissed certain problematic members of the diocesan staff who had been there for years and were responsible for a lot of the nonsense that came out of Lansing.

  • Publicly celebrated the Extraordinary Form of the Mass both before and after his elevation to the episcopate.

  • Asked that the EF of the Mass be made available in every major city in the diocese. It was this request that has led to the monthly celebration of the EF in my own parish, with more frequent celebrations planned in the near future.

  • At the recent convocation, Bishop Boyea, ordered his priests to stop changing the words of the Mass prayers and instructed them to make wider use of chant.

  • Provided education and instruction to his priests on the upcoming Missal translation, thus making the transition to the new Missal smoother and showing himself a supporter of the superior language of the upcoming translation. A diocesan wide plan for January is also in the works to prepare people for the change.

  • Promoted a return to a truly sacred music within the diocese.

  • Personally visited every parish and scrutinized their financial records, commending those parishes who are living within their means and chastising those whose reckless spending has thrown them into a spiral of debt.

  • Promoted a faithful priest who is supportive of homeschooling to be Superintendent of Catholic Schools.

I'm sure there is more than just this - this is the things I can come up with off the top of my head. It is very important to commend these excellent bishops as model pastors, just as St. Charles Borromeo was commended in his day as a model bishop and was subsequently imitated by bishops the world over, to the glory of God and the reformation of the Church.

Here is your chance to share something positive about your bishops - what exemplars of episcopal fidelity do you know of out there who deserve praise? Leave their names in the combox and the reason why they deserve commendation. They do not need to be your own bishop.

Sunday, October 03, 2010

Orthodoxy and Orthopraxy in Protestantism & Catholicism

Catholic Tradition has always stressed a fundamental connection between holiness of life (or at least a sincere striving after holiness) and theological insight. The greatest theologians of the Church were also the greatest saints. This personal holiness is, I think, responsible for the amazing clarity and relevance of much of the writings of the saints. The writings of Augustine, Aquinas, Bernard, Gregory the Great, Ignatius Loyola and Newman, besides being treasuries of wisdom, also possess a certain style and clarity that recommends them to the reader. I have noticed that many theologians of greater learning but less sanctity cannot write so well as the saints; the writings of the saints never have that drab, academic feel that sometimes comes when reading the writings of those who were advanced in learning but nowhere near as eminently holy.

In my opinion, this clarity of expression comes not from any stylistic considerations but from the degree of insight with which the saints peer into the mysteries of the faith. In other words, the intelligence and clarity of the saints in speaking and writing about the content of Revelation is directly related to their fidelity to the life of grace. Holiness of life envelops the saint, knowingly or unknowingly, in the sensus fidelium, which enables them to intuitely understand the Faith unerringly and see the truth simply and clearly; recall the marvelously simple but profound answers given by St. Joan of Arc at her trial. In Catholicism, there is a very vital link between personal holiness and theological insight.

However, it is the former which gives rise to the latter, not vice-versa. As we know from many examples, not least of which those spoken by our Lord with reference to the Pharisees, one can know Scripture and understand theology and still be a jerk. Yet we might also reply that those who learn Scripture and theology in a Pharisaical manner have not really learned it. They have perhaps wrapped their mind around a shell of it, but somehow managed to miss the essence of the Gospel entirely. He who truly knows theology knows that theological truths are transformative, as Pope Benedict pointed out in Spes Salvi. He who learns theology but fails to let the Holy Spirit transform him has not really understood what it is he is studying - he who knows theology but hardens his heart against the truths of theology does not really know theology. Thus, in Catholicism at least, there is no real tension between the theologian and the saint. The saint is the most insightful theologian and the theologian who takes his theology seriously will become saintly.

Those who have been around Protestants for any amount of time, especially evangelicals, know that this tension between theological learning and personal piety does in fact exist in Protestantism. Traditional Protestantism has always harbored a suspicious of too much theological learning, viewing an erudite and systematic theology as somehow detrimental to the life of faith. Anyone who has spoken at length with evangelical Protestants, or those of the Pentecostal persuasion, have no doubt heard of the dichotomy between real, saving faith and mere "religion", which is associated with institutional churches and theological study. It is somewhat axiomatic in many forms of Protestantism that too much theological study leads to the believer getting lost amidst a web of  "cold Christs and tangled Trinities", all the while missing the simple, saving faith that is alone capable of imparting salvation. Many times, when speaking with Protestants, if the discussion gets to theological, they will back away and say something like, "Yeah, but what is really important is that I have Jesus in my heart. It doesn't matter how sophisticated your theology is if you don't have Jesus in your heart."

Why does Protestantism seem to harbor an inherent distrust towards too much theological learning? I think it has to do with the origin of Protestantism itself, in a twofold sense: first, because of Protestantism's birth in the context of a revolt against Catholic theology in general and Scholastic theology in particular - recall Luther's bombastic assaults against Scholastic theology and patristics at the Diet of Worms when debating Johann Eck and later St. Cajetan - and secondly, the adoption by most Protestants of a soteriology based on the dogma of sola fide.

The first point is well established: Protestant theology was fueled by a rejection of Thomist theology and, in a broader sense, a reaction against the application of reason to theology.  The second point, regarding sola fide, needs a bit more fleshing out. For Luther and the early Protestants, salvation is procured according to the doctrine of sola fide, by which a person is justified by nothing other than faith alone in the saving work of Jesus Christ. This act of faith is exemplified by a very radical and individual commitment to Jesus Christ, which is very often a matter more emotional than intellectual. Later evangelical Protestantism stressed the fundamental emotional nature of the Christian's act of faith, which necessarily put it at odds with any perceived intellectualism. Reason, theology, intellectualism - these are things that stand in the way of faith rather than aid it. True conversion will always be discernible by the believer's emotional dedication to God, sometimes in spite of any theological knowledge. In this sort of Protestantism, it is theology that is a handmaid to the emotions. This, I think, is a result of Protestantism placing the crux of its soteriology on the believer's sola fide act of faith in Christ without any reference to anything else (sacraments, Church, doctrine, discipline, etc).

The interesting question is if such a schism between piety and theology is developing in Catholicism as well. It has happened before, in the form of 17th century Pietism. Yet I think it might be returning now in a different, less elitist form. Beginning in the aftermath of Vatican II, many Catholic leaders advocated a "Protestantizing" of the Catholic Mass, in the hopes that fostering a little more emotionalism would make the Mass more "relevant" to the faithful. This, I believe, is a subtle form of Modernism, due to its emphasis on the subjective experience of the believer as paramount in their spiritual life. It is undeniable that there exists today a very large subgroup within the Church that values the believer's emotional state much more than doctrinal or disciplinary considerations, essentially severing the relationship between orthodoxy and orthopraxy. I'm not going to engage in the fruitless task of trying to point out who is doing this, exactly, but I'm thinking, for example, of those who encourage anybody and everybody to go up to Communion all the time, even if in a state of unconfessed mortal sin. One time, as I was refraining from going up to Communion, a certain woman came up to me and encouraged me to go forward anyway. I said I had not been to Confession and had committed a serious sin; she said, "Oh, that doesn't matter. Jesus would want you to come to Him." This is exactly the sort of thing I am talking about - doctrine and theology is thrown out as obstacles to loving God.

Of course, one who takes such an approach of discarding theology for the sake of loving God will neither love God nor understand any theology. I do fear, however, that many lay Catholics, and even many bishops, have begun to take this approach to the Faith. When we often say that our faith is being "Protestantized", too often we are making references to only the extrinsic elements of our faith - music, decorum, etc. The true Protestantization of Catholicism is something happening in our hearts, in what we consider important and how we approach the deposit of faith. Is it a regula fidei that keeps our feet firmly on the narrow path leading to salvation, the faith which, as it says in the Athanasiuan Creed, "except every one do keep whole and undefiled; without doubt he shall perish everlastingly"? Or, do we find in the Church's doctrines something that we feel restrains us and interferes with our worship of God? This is where we need to look when examining the question of the Protestantization of our Faith. Like everything else, it starts with our fundamental philosophy about the nature of revealed Truth.