Monday, July 23, 2012

Those Who Stay, Cross Over the Line

Once upon a time yours truly was a heretic. If that word conjures up images of stakes and spiked iron chairs and empire-chinned prelates of dubious heart and Pricean voice, you can stop reading now. I am not the reincarnation of a Spanish dissenter. Nor am I that only slightly less interesting thing, a convert from Protestantism. No, I came by my heresy honestly, being baptized a Catholic and having every intention of dying one.

It was my theology class that caused the trouble. Theology classes, unlike the rote memorization of the Baltimore catechism, inevitably encourage speculation even when they are not explicitly designed (as this particular theology class was) to encourage it. I will not say that our teachers intended for we students to be heretics, but they certainly intended for us to know how likely we were to go off-key without twenty centuries of Authority for a backup chorus.

In that class we read the Bible which, as every disciple of Richard Dawkins knows, is chock-full of perplexities and outright contradictions, and regulated by an ethos of such overwhelming cruelty, lewdness, and grotesquerie that Mark Twain, the noble soul, suggested it be banned from the public schools. We read the Bible, and—not our hearts; we were too far gone for that—but our minds were troubled. Did God really mean Jeptha to sacrifice his daughter? Why did Miriam become a leper, precisely? What was so awful abut Esau? Did Judith lie to Holofernes? —and so on.

We're pretty sure this part of Judith's behavior was justified.  
The lying?  Not so much.

Things got a little better in the New Testament, but only a little. One of my classmates and I fell into an intense debate over Our Lord’s prayer in the garden of Olives. Father, if it is possible, let this chalice pass from me; but not my will, but Thine be done. Of course, Jesus is God; of course, he is God and man; at the same time, he is only one person, not two, but two natures, not one. So far so good. The problem arises when one squints a little too hard at the words “not my will, but Thine be done.” On the surface, it appears that there are two wills there—God’s and Jesus’; and if Jesus also is God, then that seem to imply that he was two wills. But this to me smacked of heresy. Two wills means two persons, no?

My classmate violently disagreed. Two wills meant two natures, not two persons (he said); and the text clearly stated that Christ had two wills; and I was a heretic (he said) for suggesting anything so wishy-washy as “figurativeness”.

The class was inconclusive. (Our professor, chuckling a silent, wicked chuckle behind his glittering spectacles, refused to adjudicate the dispute.) But after class my opponent, who was perhaps a wee bit chagrined at not having persuaded me in class, dragged me to the library and insisted on reading to me from the Summa Theologiae, wherein St. Thomas clearly states (evidencing the very biblical text under dispute) that Christ has two wills, and lists all sort of disreputable people who didn't, including certain monophysite heretics. (Ouch. I think my fondness for referencing the Summa dates from that event.)

Of course, you will all be happy to know that I did not remain in error long. No sooner was my heresy persuasively and authoritatively explicated to me (I’m sorry, mon frere, but with all due respect, you were neither so persuasive nor so authoritative as St. Thomas!), then I recanted, and thus escaped what would no doubt have been a brilliant career in higher academia, where my own unique idea of the nature of the Man Known As Jesus would have probably earned me tidy little royalties, if I’d had the sense to write about it.

So it was that, having been a heretic myself once—albeit only a modest and material one—I read with some sympathy of Sister MargaretFarley’s woes.

 I couldn't find a sufficiently complimentary picture of Sr. Margaret, 
and I didn't want you all to think I was gratuitously making fun of her, 
so here's Karen Carpenter instead.

I too know what it is to be convinced of my position, and to be argued against by hordes of self-satisfied males. (Well, alright, there was only one self-satisfied male in the aforementioned case, and he had reason to be self-satisfied! I mean, it wasn’t often that they caught me in the wrong …) But unlike Sr. Margaret, I am not quite so convinced of my own brilliance that I am willing to go up against the Saints and Doctors and indeed the Church itself. And therein lies the key difference between her and me.

Sr. Margaret and I are both heretics. I say that still with confidence, because by the end of my four years of theology I had become pretty thoroughly convinced that most Catholics are heretics one way or another, frequently without realizing it. The truth is a complex thing (well, perfectly Simple, if you like, but complex for our minds to grasp); and it is very hard for even the most brilliant and learned and holy of people to get things right all the time. That is why any good Catholic who’s done a bit of writing generally leaves something at the end of his tomes saying, “BTW, Pope So-and-So, feel free to junk this if it turns out that I’m wrong.” That way, while the good Catholic may be wrong on the matter—i.e., he may be a material heretic—his heresy does not take on the rebellious nature of formal heresy. Formal heresy (think “formal” as in “official, recognized, explicit, stated”) is when the person holding the heretical views is aware that his opinions run contrary to Church teaching, and continues to hold them regardless.

That would be Sr. Margaret’s problem. Sr. Margaret is a formal heretic. It puzzles me a little that some people seemto be unwilling to say this. I understand that she is a very kind person; I understand that she is a very fine scholar and very intelligent; I understand that she hasn’t been as aggressively anti-authority as, say Hans Kung. But the lady is wrong. She’s not simply making prudential judgments, applying Church teaching to the 21st century world. She’s not simply holding positions that are eccentric. She’s not simply taking what looks to be the losing side of a question where the Church has yet to define its doctrine. The lady is a heretic: she disagrees with the Church. The lady is a formal heretic: she knows that she disagrees.

“Loyal dissent” is a lovely-sounding phrase. It conjures up images of nobility and independence that are dear to the sentimental American heart. The loyal dissenter exists for the purpose of purifying the greater body, and saving his cause from itself; and in a fallible, human institution, such pure-minded people are invaluable. But one cannot loyally dissent from an institution that considers itself to be divine and infallible. Either one laughs the claims of infallibility to scorn (disloyalty!) or one submits oneself to the infallible judgment. There is no middle way.

A doctrine is not like a strategy debated in the Alamo. A doctrine is like the line in the sand drawn after the strategic decision has been made. If we want to fight with the Church, we’re going to have to step over the line. We’re going to have to step out of our little circle we’ve drawn, the circle that defines what “seems right” to us, and into the Truth outside.

Or, of course, we can stay in our comfortable, self-constructed circle, confident in the fact that our conscience tells us to. We can dissent. But I’m blamed if I can see anything in the least bit loyal in that.


  1. Ours is not the only religion with its heretics. I think a lot of them hang on just because they want a forum and the accompanying audience and aura of respectability.

    1. And enjoy shocking people?

    2. I think a fair number of formal heretics of the Catholic faith try to hang-on because, somehow (and this is a good thing!) they've got the impression that the Church is indeed the One and the Holy we declare it to be every Sunday. The trouble then arises in working out one's duty of obedience to Her teaching authority, and the scope of Her authoritative teaching. (OK, there may be other difficulties around "One" and "Holy", but never mind that for now). So, if some objectively unorthodox proposition strikes one as perfectly perspicuous and patently common-sense, being told "The Church has always firmly held on the contrary," doesn't register as "A sure teaching, worthy of all acceptation," but as "We always thought it was the other way," and the heretical hearer lets himself go on thinking "well, clearly, you've had that wrong from the get-go."

    3. You are thinking about this far for charitably than I was! But you're right; and I've certainly found myself going down that rabbit hole on some subjects (e.g. money-lending, just war) and had to back up and ask where and how exactly the lines for authoritative teaching are drawn.

      It does seem though that, as smart and studied and well-read as Sr. Margaret is supposed to be, she should ... get it right? But then again, depending on what you study and whom you read ...

    4. [I'm now "stopping for lunch," shall we say?]

      I quite agree that Sr. Margaret ought to know (and understand, and heed) better; I certainly don't meant to make excuses for professed religious, or their novice masters/mistresses, or clerics when it comes to them. I mostly mean those souls who have enough to do maintaining roof and heating and food for themselves and family; and in contrast with the fun of "shocking people". And of course, wishing to remain in the Church so as to reshape it in one's own image rather than be shaped by it into God's image does still fit neatly in the category of good desires with evil motives, about which I recall reading something recently...

    5. Do tell? I wonder where that might have been ...

      Alright then. Hadn't realized you were excusing the men on the street, as it were. (Those who don't have the time to drop by for lunch and ponder theology.) We mutually agree to leave Sr. Margaret's virtual effigy up.

      (Virtue~virtual? I wonder how on earth that linguistic shift occurred.)

    6. An interesting puzzle! Hmmm... There is an old idiom, saying "X is Y by virtue of Φ" --- for instance, "men are made sons of God by virtue of Baptism into Christ's sacrifice". Here, "by virtue of" can also be read "by strength of", but either that broadens the sense of "strength" in odd ways, or limits the sense of "virtue". While we ought never to say the Church consists of virtual children of God, the current use of "virtual" fits a similar pattern, though eliding the undergirding strength or virtue at work. (We might say Sr. Margaret is represented in effigy here by virtue of the expressivity of an RGB colour perception model, or the faithfulness of modern programable computer displays.)

      It would seem to be a curious decline, (or blurring) from expressing what is true-but-extraordinary, to what is false-but-convenient-to-suppose.