Offertory for the Eighteenth Sunday after Trinity

Moses consecrated an altar unto the Lord, offering burnt offerings upon it, and sacrificing peace offerings; and he made an evening sacrifice for a sweet smelling savor unto the Lord God, in the sight of the children of Israel.

Thursday, August 31, 2017

An Analysis of the Nashville Statement

A Truth thats told with bad intent
Beats all the Lies you can invent
It is right it should be so
Man was made for Joy & Woe
And when this we rightly know
Thro the world we safely go
Joy & Woe are woven fine
A Clothing for the soul divine
Under every grief & pine
Runs a joy with silken twine

—William Blake, Auguries of Innocence

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The Nashville Statement on a Christian view of sexuality has provoked a lot of reaction, not only from those who think we should revise that view, but among traditionalists themselves. I don’t consider myself beholden to it—the assertions of a group of men who don’t even claim the authority that I believe the Catholic Church really possesses will, inevitably, be of only so much value to me. But it’s caused enough of a ruckus among my friends and allies that I want to go through it.

I agree with a good deal of it, and for this reason I won’t spend much time on my agreements, since it’d unreasonably inflate this post. My difficulties with it, while fewer, are serious, and they begin in the preamble, with this passage:

Many deny that God created human beings for his glory, and that his good purposes for us include our personal and physical design as male and female. It is common to think that human identity as male and female is not part of God’s beautiful plan, but is, rather, an expression of an individual’s autonomous preferences.

No Christian, I think, need cavil at the assertion that mankind generally and man and woman in particular are icons of God’s glory. However—this is where the connotations get ticklish—it doesn’t follow from this either that there are no grey areas between male and female, or that any felt uncertainty or ambiguity in one’s own gender identity is an attempt to substitute our preferences for God’s plan. A vocation to celibacy is not an assertion of personal autonomy against God’s design for sex; being nearsighted is not an assertion of personal autonomy against God’s design for eyes. The Nashville Statement appears to be saying that any experience of gender dysphoria is either willful rebellion, or a disposition to it—and I don’t believe that that’s borne out by Scripture or the tradition of Christendom.

The vexed term identity comes up here too, which is no surprise. Generally, when I hear LGBT people use it, it’s a shorthand for something like ‘part of my story as a person’; whereas when I hear Christians use it, it’s a shorthand for ‘intrinsic, ontological attribute.’ Either usage could be defended, but it’s worth noting that, to the extent that either group insists on reading its own habitual meaning into the texts of the other group, there’s going to be a lot of misunderstanding, hurt, and anger. (For what it’s worth, I prefer using identity in the ‘story’ sense, partly because it seems to be more common.)

Some of the same implicit problems emerge a little further on in the preamble:

Our true identity, as male and female persons, is given by God. It is not only foolish, but hopeless, to try to make ourselves what God did not create us to be.

I don’t know about hopeless; God didn’t create us to be sinners, but we’ve managed that with remarkable efficiency. And speaking of which—on what grounds do we know that sin, which (as I’m certain the framers of the Nashville Statement would agree) affects us so deeply, can’t introduce a real discord into the relations between body, brain, and soul? There’s some evidence that trans experience is correlated to differences in the brain structure of the trans person, which may suggest that assertions that their body doesn’t match their identity reflect the reality of gender vis-à-vis the brain. And whether it’s a result of the Fall or not, we do know that there are various degrees and kinds of what are called intersex conditions: there are people who exhibit secondary and even primary characteristics of both sexes, or who have the phenotype1 of one sex with the DNA and sex organs of the other.2 We need not pretend that hard cases do away with the existence of the basic pattern; but we cannot and must not pretend either that the hard cases do not matter or do not exist. It goes far beyond Scripture to do so, and it’s a gross disservice to those who do find themselves, through no choice of their own, in between the normal categories.

Moving on to the content, I more or less agree with Article I, though its omission of divorce from the denial is a little sketchy. Of course, the evangelical world is very much divided about what constitutes proper grounds for divorce—though, if as the Statement says, the marriage covenant represents Christ and the Church, then Charles Williams’ dictum springs to mind: Adultery is bad morals, but divorce is bad metaphysics. I would also point out the incredible deadness of conscience about divorce in Protestant circles (I’d say evangelical, but that would seem to unfairly exculpate mainline Protestants, who are if anything still more cavalier about the austere view of divorce presented in the Gospels); in the context of a prophetic rebuke to the surrounding culture, forwardness about one’s own sins—especially when they are so topical—is badly needed, both for the world and for the church.

With Article II, I have one important difference. The affirmation states that God requires ‘chastity outside of marriage and fidelity within marriage.’ This, while true, is again misleading: God requires chastity of spouses toward one another as well, because chastity isn’t synonymous with abstinence from sex. It’s perfectly possible to be unchaste with one’s spouse, by engaging in sex that’s abusive, or objectifying, or closed to life, or merely excessive.3

Articles III and IV seem basically fine, but Article V gets difficult again. The text:

We affirm that the differences between male and female reproductive structures are integral to God’s design for self-conception as male or female.
We deny that physical anomalies or psychological conditions nullify the God-appointed link between biological sex and self-conception as male or female.

The problem being, Why?

I don’t think it’s reading things into the document to say that this affirmation and denial are ‘aimed at’ transgender folks. And I dare say most transgender Christians would agree—if they wouldn’t, I’m sure I’ll be corrected—that our bodies, in both genes and phenotype, are integral to God’s design, and that male and female sex are holy and precious images of the Lord. But if, as mentioned above in discussing the preamble, we know that genetics and phenotype can be out of alignment or ambiguous, then what can the denial here mean? and what place can intersex people occupy in churches that, apparently, deny their existence?4 Scripture says that God made man male and female, and (though Scripture does not say this in so many words) it’s reasonable to read it as seeing the two sexes as peculiar images of God’s character, which is why their differences are metaphysically real and spiritually valuable, rather than only socially constructed or irrelevant to an advanced age. But as St Paul says that neither is the man without the woman, neither the woman without the man, for as the woman is of the man, even so is the man also by the woman, but all things of God—is it really so inconceivable that certain people, not merely in their tastes but in the very structure of their bodies, are icons of the unity and interdependence of the sexes, rather than of their distinction and simplicity?

Article VI, which states that those born with a physical disorder of sex development are created in the image of God and have dignity and worth equal to all other image-bearers, is very right and proper in this context. I’m not sure that it’s adequately supported by or consistent with the other contents of the Nashville Statement; but, credit where credit is due. I certainly had an unusual upbringing, in (I’ve since come to suspect) an enclave of good sense and compassion within the evangelical world; but at any rate in my own experience, I’ve found the actual behavior of evangelicals to be worthy of better beliefs than they often hold.5

With Article VII I start having more explicit problems. The text:

We affirm that self-conception as male or female should be defined by God’s holy purposes in creation and redemption as revealed in Scripture.
We deny that adopting a homosexual or transgender self-conception is consistent with God’s holy purposes in creation and redemption.

(Just like it says in the Bible: And Moses said unto the people, Also, ye shall not identify as homosexual or transgender, certes: Deuteronomy 22.31.) Now, I’m not certain what the framers of the Nashville Statement mean by self-conception. Like identity, it’s a word that could mean a bunch of different things. If all the framers meant is that sexuality and gender identity aren’t the sole or central aspects of who an LGBT person ontologically is, I could agree; but if, as I suspect, they’re saying that LGBT people shouldn’t consider their sexuality or their perceived6 gender a part of who they are in any sense, then I reject this entirely. I see no reason, Biblical or otherwise, to exclude our sexuality from our sense of who we are: it’s part of our story, and while we aren’t controlled by our stories, they are, well, the story of us. Insisting that being LGBT must be relegated to a footnote is (to me) neither intuitively obvious, nor justified by the pages of Scripture or the tradition of the Church. But even if we took an exclusively negative view of everything other than cisgender heterosexuality: Most gladly therefore will I glory in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me. Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities for Christ’s sake: for when I am weak, then I am strong.

Articles VIII and IX seem again to be fine to me. Article X comes across as dangerously ambiguous, however.

We affirm that it is sinful to approve of homosexual immorality or transgenderism and that such approval constitutes an essential departure from Christian faithfulness and witness.
We deny that the approval of homosexual immorality or transgenderism is a matter of moral indifference about which otherwise faithful Christians should agree to disagree.

There are several ways this could be read, but I’m not much satisfied by any of the ones I’ve come up with. Does the phrase essential departure from Christian faithfulness and witness mean those who disagree with the Nashville Statement aren’t even Christians? If so, I again totally reject this assertion. I am a Catholic, and my body of doctrine is considerably more demanding than the framers of this document would assent to; not only about sex, but about the Church, sacraments, and authority. Nevertheless I insist that they are Christians, my brethren through baptism. This isn’t because I consider the Real Presence in the Eucharist or the infallibility of the Holy See matters of indifference, but because I don’t consider Christian and wrong incompatible categories.7 But the beliefs about church authority held by the framers and signatories of the Statement, I gather, are mostly of a sola Scriptura nature—to use the convenient summary from the Thirty-Nine Articles of the Church of England: Holy Scripture containenth all things necessary to salvation: so that whatsoever is not read therein, nor may be proved thereby, is not to be required of any man, or be thought requisite to salvation.8 The point here being, the Bible has very little to say about homosexuality (five verses)9 or transgenderism (zero verses), so where do you get off making this an indispensable condition of Christianity?

Articles XI, XII, and XIV, again, look fine on the surface of them. Article XIII gives me pause:

We affirm that the grace of God in Christ enables sinners to forsake transgender self-conceptions and by divine forbearance to accept the God-ordained link between one’s biological sex and one’s self-conception as male or female.
We deny that the grace of God in Christ sanctions self-conceptions that are at odds with God’s revealed will.

In itself, the denial is not so much a specific doctrinal stance, as a description of what the words God’s revealed will mean. But the affirmation is more problematic. Though I’ve left Calvinism far behind, one of Calvin’s sayings springs to my mind: Where God hath shut his holy mouth, we would be wise to close ours. And—I’m sorry—where has God said that gay or trans identities aren’t a thing? III Corinthians 8.5? IV Concordance 1.16?

I’m concerned about this partly for doctrinal reasons (it may be silly, but even as an ex-Protestant I want and expect more vigorously Scriptural confession from my former compatriots), and partly for personal ones. I’m not trans myself, though I experienced some gender dysphoria as a child; it went away, as dysphoria sometimes does; but for some people, it doesn’t go away, and Article XIII here is dangerously ambiguous about this. It could easily be read in the cruellest sense, that those who continue experiencing gender dysphoria are secretly resisting God’s grace—something I believe we have no right to say. Nor, given the total absence of trans issues from Scripture, is this directly justified by the Bible, and someone who seriously believes that only the Bible is infallible should limit and qualify their beliefs accordingly.

So all in all, I don’t find the Nashville Statement satisfying. And I find it especially lacking in its dealing with trans issues: I feel that it jumps to conclusions that aren’t justified by Scripture, and are inconsistent with what we know of trans identities through biology. One or two of my trans friends have pointed out that, coming so soon after Trump’s order banning trans individuals from the military, it’s also pretty tactlessly timed; and while that doesn’t affect its truth or falsity, it does matter, courtesy being the social form taken by charity. The fact that certain figures like Matt Walsh appear poised to encourage all the same mistakes about trans people that we are barely getting past with gay people is also discouraging.

To any LGBT people, especially trans or genderqueer people, who are reading this: I love you; more importantly, God loves you; and if shit goes pear-shaped for you in this country, I will do what I can to defend and help you. My house is a safe place for you.

To any signatories or sympathizers who are reading this, I hope you’ll reconsider, on Biblical grounds. I don’t think that the word of God really supports the cultural lines that are drawn in this statement, and I think it rushes to judgment on matters that the conscience of Christendom has not yet pronounced on—which, to me as a Catholic, is an important omission. And regardless, I hope and pray that you will take great care to live up to Article VI. I don’t know how much you know about trans people and their lives, but it’s Article VI, rather than any other point, that most people (Christian or not) like to ignore in the way they treat trans people.

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1Phenotype means the visible characteristics of something: e.g., identical twins have identical phenotypes, while fraternal twins will have some differences. Male and female phenotypes would include the literal shape of the genitals as well as of the breasts, the amount and location of body hair, tendencies toward musculature, and so forth.
2One of the better known examples of this is Complete Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome or CAIS. Some people experience some degree of insensitivity to androgens, i.e. hormones like testosterone, which (among other things) prompt the development of male characteristics, like phenotype and brain structure, in fetuses with XY chromosomes. An XY fetus with CAIS will be genetically male and develop testes, but the male phenotype won’t develop, leading to an entirely female appearance; for many people with CAIS, the only symptom of abnormality is the absence of menstruation during or after puberty.
3Not that I think there’s some absolute amount of sex that is too much. But it would be perfectly possible for a married couple to have sex that in itself is mutually honoring and self-giving, but to be so preoccupied with it that it distracts them from other legitimate needs and duties.
4I give full weight to apparently here. Both from reading others’ work and from having my own read, I know that it’s very easy for a reader unfamiliar with the author’s mind to take something totally different and entirely unexpected from their words. But until and unless clarification is forthcoming, I take the Nashville Statement to mean what I’m addressing here.
5We were the sort of evangelicals who distinguishes ourselves with vigor, not to say contempt, from fundamentalists, if that gives you the idea.
6Provisionally ignoring whether this perception is ontologically right or not.
7Of course, I have a kind of advantage over the Nashville Statement authors, in that I have no problem believing that those who are objectively outside the pale of orthodoxy will go to heaven; Christ is the only Savior, but not everybody knows what’s happening when he saves them, as I would put it, and the advantage the Church visible has is one of knowing what’s going on. Hence I can comfortably place the pale of orthodoxy wherever Rome sees fit to put it, without needing to believe that the opponents I thus gain are necessarily hell-bound.
8I don’t believe this. But anybody who does had better make damn sure they don’t start requiring things that aren’t in Scripture from the faithful.
9The five verses in question (Leviticus 18.22 and 20.13, Romans 1.26-27, I Corinthians 6.9, I Timothy 1.10) address homosexual immorality—but of course it must be pointed out that Side A believers would argue that homosexual immorality is as wrong as heterosexual morality, but that marital relations between gay men or lesbian women aren’t immoral, and that these verses are accordingly irrelevant.

Monday, August 21, 2017

A Belated Response to Cardinal Burke

The blind rulers of Logres
nourished the land on a fallacy of rational virtue;
the seals of the saints were broken; the chairs of the Table reeled.

Galahad quickened in the Mercy;
but history began; the Moslem stormed Byzantium;
lost was the glory, lost the power and the kingdom.

Call on the hills to hide us
lest, men said in the City, the lord of charity
ride in the starlight, sole flash of the Emperor’s glory.

—Charles Williams, Taliessin Through Logres, ‘Prelude’

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A friend of mine e-mailed me a piece that made my blood boil, but I think I've calmed down enough to write about it. The piece in question quoted something said by Cardinal Burke in an interview late last year with Catholic World Report:

Cd B: There is a very serious division in the Church which has to be mended because it has to do with, as I said before, fundamental dogmatic and moral teaching. And if it’s not clarified soon, it could develop into a formal schism.

CWR: Some people are saying that the Pope could separate himself from communion with the Church. Can the Pope legitimately be declared in schism or heresy?

Cd B: If a Pope would formally profess heresy he would cease, by that act, to be the Pope. And so, that could happen.

CWR: That’s a scary thought.

Cd B: It is a scary thought, and I hope we won’t be witnessing it any time soon.

Now, at first, being ignorant of canon law, I thought these remarks were implicitly heretical. No, the Pope is not always right in his opinions, even his theological opinions; the charism of infallibility takes effect only when the Pope invokes his full authority as the universal pastor of the Church, and, while he may be expected to be right at other times (given the ordinary graces of the teaching office and the theological training he’ll have received as a priest and a bishop), it isn’t inevitable. But to say that a Pope who, fulfilling the conditions for infallibility,1 taught a heretical doctrine, would thereby cease to be Pope, seemed like a hopelessly circular train of thought, and a direct justification for sedevacantism.2 After all, the ‘point’ of the Vicar of Christ is that he provides an objective locus of unity, which is itself useless unless that unity is anchored in completely trustworthy truth; so if the very locus of unity can’t be trusted to be right, then who judges, and why? And how?

Now, full disclosure, I rather dislike Cardinal Burke, but I’ve no wish to be unfair to him. So I did a little research, and got a better understanding of what it is he was talking about in the first place. The 1917 Code of Canon Law states the following, if I’ve translated it rightly:

Ob tacitam renutiationem ab ipso jure admissam quælibet officia vacant ipso facto et sine ulla declaratione, si clericus:
… A fide catholica defecerit.
By committing a tacit renunciation of the right itself, he vacates any and all offices, by the act itself and without further declaration, if a cleric:
… Publicly abandons the Catholic faith.

The more recent Code of 1983 says substantially the same:

The following are removed from ecclesiastical office by the law itself:
… A person who has publicly defected from the Catholic faith or the communion of the Church.3

Now, it must be pointed out that both of those canons are so worded as to give some latitude in what constitutes public defection from the Church; but if I’ve learnt anything about canon law in my time as a Catholic, which I haven’t, it’s that it is hopelessly confusing and literally everyone has a totally different and fanatically held view of each individual canon. Point is, I’m not going there.

But if I’ve understood the Church’s doctrine of infallibility correctly, and also understood the niceties of canon law correctly,4 then the situation is like this. Once a thesis is declared heretical, then any cleric, including the Pope, who publicly espouses that thesis is ipso facto deprived of his office. Before a thesis has been declared heretical, this does not take effect (as is shown in the cases of Nestorius, who was deposed by the Council of Ephesus, and St Cyprian, whose flawed theology of the sacraments was never afterwards held to invalidate his ordaining clergy); for heresy is primarily a refusal of intellectual obedience to the Church, and if the Church has not yet set something forth for the assent of the faithful, they can hardly be blamed for not assenting to it.5

So, for a Pope to teach a doctrine that has already been condemned would be possible—a horrible scandal, but possible—yet it would not conflict with the dogma of infallibility, unless he invoked his full authority to do it and that invocation of full authority was the occasion of his first publicly espousing the heresy. If that were to happen, then the Catholic doctrine of the papacy (if nothing else) would be conclusively shown to be false. Cardinal Burke isn’t talking about that, I don’t think, but about a Pope teaching heresy without invoking his full authority (which Popes don’t often invoke); this would result in his instantaneously forfeiting his office.

So no, no heresy on Cardinal Burke’s part. However, I do think his assertions about Amoris Lætitia, and the dubia which he and three other Cardinals issued in response to it, are totally meshugah. Quoting from the same interview with His Eminence:

CWR: Why do you think Amoris Lætitia Chapter 8 is so ambiguous?

Cd B: The reason for its ambiguity, it seems to me, is to give latitude to a practice which has never been admitted in the Church, namely the practice of permitting people who are living publicly in grave sin to receive the Sacraments. …

CWR: Some critics say you are implicitly accusing the Pope of heresy.

Cd B: No, that’s not what we have implied at all. We have simply asked him, as the Supreme Pastor of the Church, to clarify these five points that are confused … We are not asking the questions as a merely formal exercise, we’re not asking questions about positive ecclesiastical law, that is, laws that are made by the Church herself. These are questions that have to do with the natural moral law and the fundamental teaching of the Gospel. To be attentive to that teaching is hardly legalism. In fact, it is, as Our Lord Himself taught us, the way of perfection to which we’re called.

I’ve written about this before, when the dubia were first issued, and I stand by the opinion I had at the time: Amoris Lætitia is dealing exactly with the positive law of the Church, and applying the same discipline to the altar rail as it does to the confessional; namely, it’s stating explicitly that objective grave sin, even when it’s public, is not the only thing that determines the state of a person’s soul, and pastoral discernment might determine that the best thing for a given person in that state would be confessing and communing, rather than abstaining from those things. To me, that isn’t all that shocking—not a pastoral concession to be lightly indulged, certainly, but Pope Francis has gone out of his way to say as much, notably in Chapter 8 of Amoris Lætitia.

I earnestly ask that we always recall a teaching of Saint Thomas Aquinas: ‘Although there is necessity in the general principles, the more we descend to matters of detail, the more frequently we encounter defects … The principle will be found to fail, according as we descend further into detail.’ It is true that general rules set forth a good which can never be disregarded or neglected, but in their formulation they cannot provide absolutely for all particular situations. At the same time, precisely for that reason, what is part of a practical discernment in particular circumstances cannot be elevated to the level of a rule. That would not only lead to an intolerable casuistry, but would endanger the very values which must be preserved with special care.

… In no way must the Church desist from proposing the full ideal of marriage, God’s plan in all its grandeur … A lukewarm attitude, any kind of relativism, or an undue reticence in proposing that ideal, would be a lack of fidelity to the Gospel and also of love on the part of the Church for young people themselves. … I understand those who prefer a more rigorous pastoral care which leaves no room for confusion. But I sincerely believe that Jesus wants a Church attentive to the good which the Holy Spirit sows in the midst of human weakness, a Mother who, while clearly expressing her objective teaching, ‘always does what good she can, even if in the process, her shoes get soiled by the mud of the street’. … We put so many conditions on mercy that we empty it of its concrete meaning and real significance. That is the worst way of watering down the Gospel.

I think the Holy Father is perfectly right. Not that he needs my support. But, forgive me, the feel of Cardinal Burke’s remarks—and if he is not shy of saying why he thinks His Holiness was ‘vague,’ I shall not be shy of saying why I feel His Eminence is too particular—is precisely the feel of Pharisaism at its best: intelligent, dutiful, exact, clean … just a little too clean for reality, and just a little too moral for God.

For while we are called to a terrible climax of perfection, that perfection is something more and other than moral virtue, which (I feel) is the only thing that Cardinal Burke’s words suggest he has in mind. Because remember, the Pharisees were not primarily wrong about doctrine or wicked in their conduct; indeed, some, like Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea, became Christians. Their error lay precisely in the fact that they attended to the Torah at the expense of men. But the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. Moral virtue itself is important as a means, to be whole as human beings, which is itself a lesser good than the uniting of that human wholeness to the Deity. The perfection to which we are called is the perfection of supernatural Love: the darting, fiery, trans-rational, magnificent thing that we occasionally glimpse in the saints, never in the merely virtuous.

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1The conditions of infallibility are that the Pope (so not somebody else), either by making a formal pronouncement of his own or by convalidating the pronouncement of a council (so not speaking off the cuff or giving a mere opinion), must proclaim a dogma pertaining to faith or morals (so not about astronomy, for example), intending that it should be affirmed by all faithful Catholics (so not only giving judgment on a specific situation). A handy mnemonic is POUT: pontifical, official, universal, theological.
2Sedevacantism, from the Latin sede vacante ‘empty chair,’ is the belief that the current line of Popes are impostors and that the Throne of Peter is in fact unoccupied; most sedevacantists consider Bl Pius XII the last genuine pontiff.
3These are §188.4 in the 1917 Code and §194.1.2 in the 1983. It’s much easier to find the 1917 online in Latin than in English, which is why I was obliged to translate; an English version of the 1983 is on the Vatican’s website. The expression by the law itself means that the effect is immediate, rather than one that has to be enacted by a competent authority as a penalty.
4Of course, canon law, which is not dogma and not the same thing as morals (being, rather, the settled application of morals to Church policy), isn’t infallible. So if canon law were flawed, that wouldn’t be a logical crisis for the Catholic faith, though it would certainly be a practical catastrophe for the Church. A more thorough and expert treatment of the subject can be found here.
5This doesn’t mean that truth doesn’t exist until the Church decrees it, which no sane and self-respecting person could believe. Rather, it means that a person can’t be held responsible to profess a truth of faith until it’s been made clear that it is a truth of faith; it’s substantially the same as what St Paul says in Romans 5-8, that sin is not imputed where there is no law; nevertheless death reigned from Adam to Moses, i.e. the consequences of the realities of sin and error were still there, but before the revealing of the Torah, the responsibility of those who suffered under those realities was a different thing.