Collect for the Ascension

Grant, we beseech thee, Almight God: that like as we do believe thy Only Begotten Son our Lord Jesus Christ to have ascended into the heavens; so we may also in heart and mind thither ascend, and with him continually dwell; who liveth and reigneth with thee, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, ever one God, world without end. Amen.

Monday, September 25, 2017

Thoughts on the Correctio Filialis

But I saw not synne, for I beleve it hath no manner of substance ne no party of being, ne it myght not be knowin, but by the peyne that it is cause of; and thus peyne—it is somethyng, as to my syte, for a tyme, for it purgith and makyth us to knowen our selfe and askyn mercy. For the passion of our Lord is comforte to us agens al this, and so is His blissid will. And for the tender love that our good Lord hath to all that shal be save, He comfortith redyly and swetely, menyng thus: It is sothe that synne is cause of all this peyne, but al shal be wele, and al shall be wele, and all manner of thing shal be wele. These words were seyd full tenderly, shewying no manner of blame to me ne to non that shall be safe. Than it were a gret unkindness to blame or wonder on God for my synne, sythen He blamyth not me for synne. And in these same words I saw a mervelous, hey privitye hid in God, which privity He shall openly make knowen to us in Hevyn, in which knowyng we shal verily see the cause why He suffrid synne to come, in which syte we shall endlesly joyen in our Lord God.1

—Lady Julian of Norwich, Revelation of Love, Thirteenth Shewing

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As of this past Saturday, sixty-two Catholics have signed the Correctio Filialis de Hæresibus Propagatis address to His Holiness Francis, the Bishop of Rome. In English, the document’s title is A Filial Correction Concerning Propagated Heresies. Among others, the signatories include Bishop Fellay, head of the Society of St Pius X or SSPX—a traditionalist group whose founder, Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, incurred excommunication upon himself in 1988 for consecrating four bishops without the lawfully required permission, and in fact against the express wish and personal appeal, of the then Pope, St John Paul II. (It’s no secret that I take an extremely dim view of any and all persons who consider themselves to be literally more Catholic than the Pope.)

Nevertheless there can be valid grounds on which to rebuke even a Pope, especially since the conditions of his infallibility are actually fairly restricted. And such rebuke has precedent. Indeed, we have precedent in the first century, when St Paul took St Peter publicly to task for waffling on the discipline of the Judaizers. So it is worthwhile going through the Filialis and judging it on its merits.2

It’s a respectable enough document. It refrains from personal attacks against any person; it distinguishes with appropriate care between consequence and cause; it explicitly states that it makes no judgment about motives and degrees of culpability; and it does, as the title implies, remain filial, stating and restating the Catholic doctrine of the Holy See and asking for the Pope’s blessing at the conclusion. One of my perennial complaints about traditionalists is their readiness to condemn and to place their understanding of dogma ahead of the professed definer of that dogma, i.e. the Church defined by her communion with the Roman Pontiff, and the Filialis (as far as I can tell) avoids these flaws well, which is refreshing and laudable.

The authors assert that Pope Francis, by a combination of acts, words, and omissions, has in effect though not explicitly promoted seven heretical ideas (the text in the Filialis is in Latin, but the authors have also translated them into English):

1. A justified person has not the strength with God’s grace to carry out the objective demands of the divine law; or, God’s grace does not invariably and of its nature produce conversion from all serious sin.
2. Christians who have obtained a civil divorce and have contract a civil marriage with some other person, who live more uxorio3 with their civil partner, and who remain in this state with full knowledge of the nature of their act and full consent of the will, are not necessarily in a state of mortal sin.
3. A Christian can have full knowledge of a divine law and voluntarily choose to break it in a serious matter, but not be in a state of mortal sin as a result.
4. A person is able, while he obeys a divine prohibition, to sin against God by that very act of obedience.
5. Conscience can rightly judge that sexual acts between persons who have contracted a civil marriage, although one or both of them is sacramentally married to another, can sometimes be morally right or even commanded by God.
6. Moral principles contained in divine revelation and natural law do not include negative prohibitions that absolutely forbid particular kinds of action.
7. Our Lord wills that the Church abandon her perennial discipline of refusing the Eucharist and absolution to the divorced and remarried who do not express contrition for their state of life and a firm purpose of amendment.4

Now, as far as 2, 3, 4, and 5 are concerned, I’m bold to say that His Holiness would indeed deny those propositions. Amoris Lætitia emphasizes, repeatedly, that a revision of disciplinary practice is not a question of altering or concealing the Church’s perennial teaching, but of adapting it to particular circumstances, and of realizing that the best a person can manage may not rise to Christian perfection. The phrasing of 2 and 3 illustrates the distinction nicely: if I’m reading Amoris correctly, it’s precisely the ‘full consent of the will’ question that’s at stake, because human frailty interferes with our freedom even after baptism. That’s part of what venial sin means.

Proposition 4 is slightly ticklish, in that, while obeying a divine prohibition is of course not wrong, a person could be so entrenched in sin in some other way that this obedience could be vitiated. I've met people whose commitment to chastity I didn't doubt, but whose bitter, mean-spirited self-righteousness was so unpleasant that I think they'd have sinned less by taking a lover than by being so continually nasty. Given that the great focus of the encyclical was precisely on adapting doctrine to individuals, I think that matters. And that's the whole point of the 'law of gradualness': people can't do everything at once, and Christ does not send people away because of that.

Turning to the rest, I am not altogether sure what denying proposition 1 is supposed to mean, in the light of saints like Augustine and Paul. I don't mean this as a sarcastic remark; I mean I am genuinely unsure.

For that which I do I allow not: for what I would, that I do not; but what I hate, that do I. If then I do that which I would not, I consent unto the law that it is good. Now then it is no more I that do it, but sin that dwelleth in me. For I know that in me (that is, in my flesh) dwelleth no good thing: for to will is present with me; but how to perform that which is good I find not. I find then a law, that, when I would do good, evil is present with me. For I delight in the law of God after the inward man: but I see another law in my members, warring against the law of my mind, and bringing me into captivity to the law of sin which is in my members.5

That is, of course, not the whole story. But it is part of the story, and whenever we speak of grace making us strong to obey, we have to mean it in a way that’s compatible with, well, Scripture. We don’t believe in Calvinist impotence,6 but we don’t believe in Pelagian or Semi-Pelagian mastery, either.7

Similarly, denying propositions 3 and 6 has to be done in a way consistent with Scripture. It’s interesting to me that, when the Pharisees took Jesus to task for not preventing his disciples from picking grain on the Sabbath, rather than pointing out that their rule was kind of made up (a way-past-the-goal-post extension of not working on the Sabbath, since picking grain was like doing the work of a reaper), Our Lord instead appealed to another, more direct transgression of the law:

And he said unto them, Have ye never read what David did, when he had need, and was an hungred, he, and they that were with him? How he went into the house of God in the days of Abiathar the high priest, and did eat the shewbread, which is not lawful to eat but for the priests, and gave also to them which were with him? And he said unto them, The sabbath was made for man, and not man for the sabbath: therefore the Son of man is Lord also of the sabbath.8

An even more shocking example, which I’ve often cited here as one of the hard texts of the Bible, is Elisha’s pardoning Naaman for not only past but future idolatry in II Kings 5. These are not general pretexts to violate the laws regulating sacred things (for which, in differing ways, Uzzah and the eight martyrs of II Maccabees 7 died), nor to worship other gods even in pretense. Still less does this amount to the power to change divine law. The point is that the application of divine law to concrete situations is in the hands of Christ—and, accordingly, of his Vicar.

Which casts its own light on proposition 7. I don’t think that Amoris Lætitia says or implies that absolution and consequent communion should or can be granted to those who aren’t repentant; that would make a nonsense of the former, and a sacrilege of the latter, and would have to operate on the assumption that Amoris be read without the whole prior context of Catholic theology and canon law. But as I pointed out above, full consent can be a subtle question, and it’s no insult to divine grace to say so. Yes, God could dispense maximal grace to everybody; but we know, since only one person was immaculately conceived, that he doesn’t. Presumably he has a reason. Certainly we don’t know what it is. And also certainly we must deal with the flaws and weaknesses of mankind as they—and we—are, not only as we logically could be.

All this being said, I do hope that His Holiness replies to the Filialis. The way the criticisms of Amoris Lætitia, loyal and otherwise, are piling up strains the unity of the Church, and the fundamental task of the Holy See is to guard that unity. Pope Francis may be right, but the authors of the Filialis are correct enough to point out that it doesn’t follow that he is wise, and I admit to some worry: not about his teaching but about how he teaches it, and not because of its effect on those outside the Church (who will take anything and run with it) but about the possible mutiny of those within her (who will also take anything and run with it, even though they have a special reason not to, and far more damage comes of such behavior).

Still, eleven out of twelve apostles fell down on the job when their Master was arrested. And that turned out okay.

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1‘But I did not see sin, for I believe it has no kind of reality nor any part in existence; nor could it be known except by the pain it causes. And this pain—it is something, as I see, for a while, for it purifies and makes us know ourselves and ask for mercy. For the suffering of our Lord is strength for us against all this, which is His blessed will. And, for the tender love that our good Lord has to all that will be saved, He strengthens us readily and sweetly, saying: It is true that sin causes all this pain; but all will be well, and all will be well, and every kind of thing will be well. These words were said very tenderly, showing no kind of blame to me, nor to anyone that will be saved. So it would be a great ingratitude to blame or be shocked at God for my sin, seeing that He does not blame me for sin. And in these same words, ah, I saw an astonishing secret hid in God, a secret that He will openly make known to us in Heaven; by knowing it, we will truly see the cause for which He allowed sin to come, and by seeing that we will rejoice endlessly in our Lord God.’ Personally I prefer the passage in Middle English, and it is of course mostly comprehensible, but there’s just enough semantic drift to deceive the unwary reader, which makes the modern revision worthwhile.
2For those interested, the full text can be found here.
3A technical phrase in Catholic moral theology, meaning ‘in the manner of husband and wife,’ i.e. engaging in sexual relations. This is contrasted with couples who live ‘as brother and sister.’
4I have edited these propositions slightly for length, though I believe I have preserved their meaning intact.
5Romans 7.15-19, 21-23.
6I.e., Catholics don’t believe that even after being baptized, we can do nothing good: we believe that Christ’s life is infused into us, not merely drawn across us. Whether and to what extent Calvinists really believe in such spiritual impotence is a difficult question to answer, even as a former Calvinist; I never felt I got a very consistent account of it.
7Pelagianism was a fifth-century heresy which asserted that divine grace, while helpful to final salvation, was merely helpful, not absolutely necessary, and that original sin was nothing more than a bad example set by our predecessors (as distinct from a flawed moral outfit we’re born with). After some controversy, it was condemned at the Synod of Carthage in 418, and this condemnation was ratified at the ecumenical Council of Ephesus in 431. Semi-Pelagianism, while agreeing that divine grace was necessary for Christian growth, asserted that men could prepare themselves for and make the initial act of faith on their own resources. This too was condemned at the Synod of Carthage, and again at the Second Council of Orange in 529.
8Mark 2.25-28.

1 comment:

  1. For what it's worth, I think you've nailed it, Gabriel.