Saturday, August 26, 2023

The Church's Historical Blindspot

[Aug. 26, 2023] If you have never read it, I highly recommend my readers pick up a copy of the British historian R.I. Moore's 1977 book The Origins of European Dissent. Moore's book focuses on the emergence of heresy in Western Europe between 1000 and 1200 and chronicles the Church's attemps to respond to the rising tide of heterodoxy, with emphasis on how the increasing challenge posed by heterodox sects went beyond the ability of local bishops to manage, leading to the eventual interventions of the papacy and civil authorities. It is a very scholarly work that I think is integral to anyone interested in the origin of medieval heresy.

Though its focus is on events nigh on a thousand years ago, The Origins of European Dissent contains a an insight that I think is key to understanding our current situation. Moore argues that, at critical moments, the institutional Church has often failed to grasp the true nature of a crisis because of the deep-seated Catholic tendency to interpret contemporary events through the lens of the past. This means the Church sometimes has a "blindspot" when it comes to identifying new threats. In Moore's book, he amply demonstrates that the ecclesiastical authorities of the 11th and 12th centuries fundamentally failed to understand the nature and allure of the Cathar movement because of their tendency to characterize it as "Manichaeism." While it is true that the Cathars and Manichees were both dualists, their commonality ended there. In fact, their differences were actually much greater than their similarities: they possessed distinct spiritualites, manners of organization, made different sorts of appeals to the masses, and professed different soteriological and cosmological systems. Despite these differences, bishops and theologians latched on to the superficial similarity of dualism and treated the Cathars as Manichees. They even referred to them as "Manichees" in contemporary literature and took up the texts of Augustine to find arguments to refute them. This failure to comprehend the nature of the Cathar movement hindered ecclesiastical efforts to stall the heresy in its infancy. (Incidentally, if you like reading about Cathar weirdness, I humbly refer you to my article on Cathar Apocalypticism, which you may enjoy). 

Moore's book focuses on Catharism, but the tendency he mentions is exhibited elsewhere in Church history. John Cavidini's book The Last Christology of the West on the Spanish Adoptionist controversy of the 8th-9th centuries argues persuasively that the Adoptionist controversy in Spain was based on a fundamental inability of Carolingian theologians to understand Spanish Adoptionism on its own terms, prefering instead to conceive of it as revived Nestorianism. Spanish Adoptionists such as Elipandus of Toledo and Felix of Urgel argued for something entirely different than the Adoptionists of the early Church, predicating the term adoptivus only of Christ's human nature, whereas ancient Adoptionism argued that Christ's divine nature was adopted (that Jesus was a mere man who who underwent an apotheosis to become the Word of God). The Spaniards' Carolingian opponents—men like Alcuin of York and Agobard—fundamentally misunderstood what the Spanish were arguing for. They made little effort to understand, either, choosing rather to interpret the Spanish position as revived Nestorianism and arguing against it accordingly. Cavidini argues that even Pope Hadrian I's official condemnation of Adoptionsim demonstrates this misunderstanding. Again, the preoccupation with interpreting the present in light of the past stifled any attempt at a fruitful exchange between the two parties, leading to generations of misunderstanding that would ultimately result in the (unjust) attempts of Pope St. Gregory VII to suppress the Mozarabic Rite.

We could also cite the Protestant Reformation. While the Church was not slow in condemning the errors of Luther et. al., it seems to have not considered how the printing press and the rise of ethno-nationalism changed the dynamics that charactized the events of the early 1500s. Writings from the early years of the Reformation seem to suggest the Church viewed the Protestant movement as a kind of neo-Hussite/Wycliffian sect and followed the strategies it had pursued a century earlier. Obviously Hus and Wycliffe both shared certain tenets in common with the Reformers, such that they are often called precursors of the Reformation or "proto-Protestants." Even so, the world of 1517 was not the world of 1414 nor of 1380, and the approaches of those former centuries were insufficient to meet the changed conditions of the 16th century. It was only with the Council of Trent and the Counter Reformation that the Church developed a methodology tailored specifically to the Protestant crisis. Of course, by then half of Christendom had been sundered from the Church. 

To be clear, I am not suggesting that the Church was "slow" to respond to the Reformation; this is, I think, a myth, one that I address in my book Heroes and Heretics of the Reformation (if anyone cares to support a starving author : ) The Church reacted to Protestantism immediately, but the nature of the initial institutional reaction reflected the condition of the 14th or 15th century, not the 16th.

In some sense, it is natural that Catholics would do this in troubled times. Our religion is a historical religion, where the deeds of God unfold upon the stage of human history. That is why we speak of salvation history; God works out the salvation of mankind through the providential unfolding of human history. Christ became incarnate at a certain, specific point—"in the fullness of time"—"in the one hundred and ninety-fourth Olympiad; in the year seven hundred and fifty-two since the foundation of the City of Rome; in the forty-second year of the reign of Caesar Octavian Augustus," as the Christmas Proclamation says. Christ died "once and for all" (cf. Heb. 7:27), and the Church hands on the deposit of faith entrusted to it by Our Lord. In certain respects, it is a sign of a healthy sensus catholicus that we should look to the past for light.

The utility of this has its limits, however. It is one thing to want to learn from the past or stay faithful to the tradition. It is another thing to ignore changed circumstances or new dangers because we are too quick to say, "Oh yeah, this is just like that. The Church has been here, done that." Such an approach may give us the illusion of security by providing a historical framework within which to contextualize a crisis, but that doesn't necessarily help us understand what's really going on, especially if certain aspects of the crisis are unprecedented.

This brings us to our current state. If Moore's thesis is correct (and I think it is), it follows that it is profoundly dangerous to interpret the modern crisis in light of prior crises. Our situation today often invites comparisons to two prior periods, that of the Arian ascendancy of the mid-4th century, and the Modernist crisis of the early 20th. To be sure, there are similarities—the widespread doctrinal corruption of the episcopacy on one hand and the refashioning eternal truths into subjective concepts on the other—but neither experience provides a suitable context for understanding what is happening today. It is shortsighted and reckless to look at our current crisis and say, "Yeah, we've been here." We have emphatically not been here. We can certainly look to earlier ages for inspiration, guidance, and insight, but we cannot reduce the post-Conciliar debacle to a rehash of some earlier episode (e.g., "There's always a period of confusion after an Ecumenical Council!").

What does this mean practically?

I am not competent to advise anyone on what they should do, save to say that, while not denying certain similarities between today and previous ages, we must not blind ourselves to the way that today's crisis is qualitatively different. We should not shirk from a clear assessment of what's going on because we prefer the illusory security of contextualizing our current troubles in light of some prior era—this applies not only to our assessment of what is wrong, but also our prescriptions for how to respond. We should, at least as a first step, be aware that this blindspot exists. 


Anonymous said...

I have read HilaireBelloc’s book about England and he writes that although the Pope was eschewed, the mass was exactly as before.

And I had a thought, what would have been if the first wife simply stepped aside. Consider St. Helena and C. Chlorus.

Also, Because being a Stickler to detail, didn’t ultimately win the day at that time; I figure, although I am attached to the prayers and hours and devotions of trAdition, I feel I can’t keep up anymore with the Latin mass websites and news- it’s just not going to help me in the long run, if I can’t maintain the lower bar So to speak of the current C. faith requirements, etc.

Murray said...

This is a useful cautionary tale, but as I'm sure you're aware, it leaves open the question of justhow the current crisis is distinct from previous ones.

The standard traditionalist explanation is that we are just undergoing the culmination of the modernist heresy that began some 150 or so years ago. It seems to me that this has considerable explanatory power. How exactly is whatever-this-is distinct from modernism?

Charlie Estridsen said...

Mr. Murray asked, "How exactly is whatever-this-is distinct from modernism?"

Quite different. Modernism at the time of its condemnation was more of an intellectual coterie, rather than a movement. It was an esoteric teaching under which the world is viewed as a shifting, intricate, surreal process that is transfused by Something Else; a Something Else that is not shifting but is wholly real and which governs and moves everything towards Itself. The ultimate end, for a modernist, is to obtain communion with this Something Else. Furthermore, the modernist considers the traditional rituals and popular preaching of Tridentine Catholicism to be well suited to arouse religious feelings within the masses and allow ordinary people to approach this Something Else and experience the sense of liberation and union which It provides, such feelings being supremely valuable in themselves.

The actual condemned modernists - Loisy and Tyrrell and Von Hugel - would have been horrified at the liturgical reforms that followed the Second Vatican Council. None of these men had any desire to challenge the institutional Church, alter the traditional liturgy or oppose the traditional formulations of doctrine. Why would they? The modernists thought these rituals and formulations helped to draw people into union with that unknowable, indescribable, transcendent Else better than anything, even if they did not consider the Church's liturgy and doctrine True in an absolute sense. In other words, who cares if it isn't absolutely True? If it ain't broke, don't fix it!

Todays heretics are not like the modernists at all. Consider how liberals are almost entirely taken up with externals. They are social rather than solitary. Active rather than contemplative. To them, a big part of serving God involves convincing their fellow Catholics that the traditional beliefs and practices that nourished their fathers for centuries are bad and Catholics should feel bad for liking them. They are polar opposites of the interiority and Quietism of the modernists.

The historical connection between the campaign against modernism and the crisis of today isn't a straight line. The anti-modernist campaign united the ├ęsprit de corps of actual modernists with others, far more numerous, who were fearful of being suspected of modernism. Thus what was originally an intellectual clique with negligible influence grew into an irritated, organized and subversive body of intellectuals - most of whom were not actually modernists - but who stood ready to defend themselves and their friends against charges of modernism from Rome. The resulting undermining of ecclesiastical authority, and the Roman Curia especially, opened the door for mid-century Rhineland progressives to attempt to remake the Church to their liking. But to Mr. Campbell's point, you would have to engage the original modernists on their own terms to understand all this.

The final irony is that while Trads long for the return of the anti-modernist campaign, they would probably be happier living in a world in which modernism was never suppressed and continued as an elite movement with little influence. In such a counter-factual world, it is perhaps likely that the Second Vatican Council and its liturgical reforms would have never happened.

Sue Sims said...

I thought it was the 11th-century Pope St Gregory VII who suppressed the Mozarabic Rite, not the 6th/7th century Pope St Gregory I. Or have I misunderstood you?

Boniface said...

@Sue Sims,

Typo/error thank you I fixed it!