Sunday, January 15, 2006

The Many True and Holy Catholic Churches

(Reminder: see the post below for a chance to win a free subscription to Touchstone.)

    Admiring Paul Cella as I do, I find this writing difficult. In fact, I hate doing it at all. Not having read the book, I run the risk of being unfair. I'm sure he will be happy to set me straight. But in that same issue of Touchstone we find his review of Thomas Woods' How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization, to some part of which TSO takes reasonable, and typically Catholic, exception. After illuminating the book’s strengths – as, for example, in its attempt to overturn the common wisdom that the foundation of modern science found its footing only after its pioneers began throwing off the medieval shackles of Roman theological myth, when in fact the exact opposite is true – Paul spends the second half dealing with what he calls the book’s “assumption”, and its main "difficulty…for a non-Catholic reader…the belief that the Church of Christian antiquity, of the Dark Ages, of the Medieval Age, and of the Modern Age are all the same institution." (Interesting verb choice there [are] when the subject [Church] is actually singular, followed by the prejudicial “all”, which presumes of the one a multitude.) "In terms of theology," he continues,

there is firm ground for this belief, and Protestants like myself should not begrudge our Catholic brothers their belief in the continuity of the Church, but as a matter of history it is problematic…The distance between the Christianity of antiquity and medieval Christianity, much less modern and postmodern Christianity, is substantial, and even those of us whose hearts ache for Christian unity (how long, O Lord?) cannot deny it and remain true to history.

    I can't help but wonder if the pain of the ache really pierces to the bone in one who draws such a distinction between a thing's history and its theology, between its appearance and its substance, between its body and soul. To ‘the Catholic reader’, this seems to be an "assumption" brought by the reviewer to the subject, not one that only dawned on him in the reading of Woods’ book. It is an objection of longstanding, one that allows Protestants to exist, for if Luther (for example) had not believed that the "institutional manifestation of Christianity" represented by the Roman Church of his time was not a brightly different entity than that of antiquity, he was too sincere to also believe that his soul would not be in peril for founding one of his own.
    Now it may be that in ancient times a priest wore a simple white robe and sandals as he said the Mass, and that today his counterpart might be found in the bohemian inner city wearing jeans and running shoes with a chasuble thrown over his T-shirt. But I’d still like to know if the same Mass is being said, and what it means to be a Catholic priest rather than a Calvinist pastor. It may be that the medieval Mass was recited in Latin, while today it is heard in any variety of dumbed-down vernaculars; but I’d still like to know if it is the same Mass. And it may be that some early Pope lived in a catacomb while today’s successor occupies a palace. But I’d still like to know what it means to be a Pope as opposed to a Patriarch, or a president or an emperor, and, should he be held captive in Avignon, what it means to still call him the Bishop of Rome. If "classical civilization retreated to the east" in the face of the barbarian onslaught, are we to understand that the Church retreated with it, as if a civilization could be a Church? It's almost as though, in giving guidance to a man in search of Christianity, I should point to a building instead of a Person. And why for so long did the faithful gaze of Byzantium, the city of man, still turn to the west for an assurance to be found only in the City of God? And when the Schism finally came, how would one know to walk in one direction rather than another? If "a new thing emerged" from the "darkness [that] did fall on Western Europe," was this new thing newborn, in place of the old thing which had died, or was the new thing simply the old thing transformed, in which case they are the same thing? History might suffice for the former answer, but not for the latter.
    I suppose it is possible that when Woods refers to the Catholic Church, he does so glibly, making no attempt at a definition; or it is possible that he means that body of believers who, through the ages, have cleaved to the Pope as their assurance against error, their guardian against the gates of hell, their sign of imperishable unity against a Babel of new prophets, and "assumes" that reasonable readers will accept this. If he does not make even this minimal attempt, then I am largely wasting my breath. But if he does, Paul can’t accept it; he wants it established by some means not clear to me, his complaint being that the historian was insufficiently attentive to history, while asking that history to lead him to a theological certainty, to give him an answer not within its realm of competence. Perhaps what was needed was a history of theology. But wouldn’t that make Woods’ book a different kind of book? In his refusal to "begrudge our Catholic brothers their belief", Paul seems already familiar with the theology, and I rather imagine he knows the history as well. So what is to be gained from more of it? A history of the history?
    Because its Divine Founder took on human flesh and entered history in His very person, the Church as His body must surely have, somewhere, some visible form on earth, though at times it may have seemed invisible. Appearances being what they are – and depending on when you’re looking, and at what – the Church’s visible manifestation at any point in time may be no certain place to hang your hat in the search for continuity. Its behavior, whether exemplified in either Pontiff or peasant, might be virtuous in one age and venal in the next. Its circumstances might be grand and palatial in one century, poverty-stricken in another. It might rule all of Europe in its chivalrous middle age, yet be commandeered by barbarian heretics in its dark one. But what I’d like to know is: what in the essence of its nature, what mark of wholeness, makes it anything at all in any age?
    The answer to this question is one that I think Protestants are reluctant to proffer, for that mark’s absence makes straight the way for their own multifarious exemplars, each justified thereby in making of the one, many. But – the need for the guarantor of truth being a pressing one – they do make an answer, which is that the font of Revelation is the Bible, which in turn ends in the solipsistic comfort of sola scriptura, a logical fallacy I don’t think Paul’s approach to Protestantism in general, nor his rigorous cast of mind in particular, could long tolerate. I don’t think it unreasonable, therefore, to ask of such a Protestant the following question: If I cannot be certain – as up to now I have been – that the "Church of Christian antiquity, of the Dark Ages, of the Medieval Age, and of the Modern Age" is one and the same institution, could you please point me in the right direction?
    And point he must, unless he is content with the notion that Christ left us no such direction, no such Church, but rather to the chaotic and cruel mercy of our own devices, in which case that unity so many Christians claim to long for will remain forever at a distance, and one that cannot be closed.
    I still love you, Paul, as much as ever. It’s just that – since I long as you do for Christian unity – I’d rather have you with both feet in the family rather than one foot out of it. You’re either divorced or married. It’s possible in a state of separation to remain married while both parties think things over, but the ending is not often a happy one. And it might not apply to most Protestants today, since the original vow of fidelity was never tendered.


Paul Cella said...

I wonder if I made too much of my objection. But the fact is that Woods himself makes no attempt to establish the continuity of the Church. Had he made such an attempt, even if it did not persuade me, I would not have included this objection.

But Woods is not writing exclusively for Catholics. His audience is general; and therefore his neglect of an argument for continuity is a real weakness.

I'll add that such as argument would not be so hard to carry off, at least to my satisfaction. A few pointed mentions of modern Catholics harkening back to the mediaevals and ancients. A couple encyclicals demonstrating the historical depth of the Church's thinking. A mention of the mass. Etc. etc.

Let us try if we can to set aside the polemics deriving from that awful wound of division, the Reformation, and just consider for a moment:

If a man undertakes to argue for the importance of the Church in all manner of achievements that our society has seen fit to bestow (in most cases, erroneously, in some, maliciously) elsewhere, should the argument for the historical continuity of the Church be entirely absent?

I would not demand that Woods convert me with his book. But for Pete's sake, give me something to think about at least. Show me some of your cards, man. Make it a game.

William Luse said...

Woods himself makes no attempt to establish the continuity of the Church. Either theologically or historically, I take it. If this is true (I'll take your word for it), then perhaps I was wasting my breath. Well, not entirely. You are, after all, a Protestant. I'd rather have you over here than over there. So a personal interest impinges on professional detachment.
I had thought of reading the book, but you've got me fairly well convinced that it wouldn't be worth my while. He may not have addressed the crucial question, but it's still one I'd like to see you find the answer for. One of these days, at any rate.

Jeff Culbreath said...

You're right, Bill. I think the historical continuity of the Catholic Church is rather obvious, and on that count I suspect Paul Cella would agree. However, the spiritual and intellectual continuity of the Church, given the sad events of the last 40 years, is perhaps less obvious, and outsiders ought to be cut a little slack under the circumstances.

In all the time I've "known" Paul Cella (at least 2 years, maybe 3, but I lose track of time ...), I've never known him to say anything against the Catholic Church. In fact this article is the first instance in which I've seen him express anything other than admiration for the Church - and I find that amazing. It is amazing because Mr. Cella is a Reformed Protestant, a member of an ecclesial tradition that has A LOT to say about Catholicism, and none of it is complimentary. And yet when touching on topics pertaining to the Catholic Church, he has always been careful never to fault the Church as an institution or to blame her theology.

Perhaps in his review Mr. Cella was looking for something that the book could not have realistically provided, but I consider his review to be an invitation for Dr. Woods - or anyone else - to make the case he is looking for. And that really isn't too much to ask.

William Luse said...

Perhaps in his review Mr. Cella was looking for something that the book could not have realistically provided... If he was looking for it purely in terms of history, yes; but what I'm getting is that the book makes no measurable attempt even on that score, let alone the theological one.

I consider his review to be an invitation for Dr. Woods - or anyone else - to make the case he is looking for. The case has already been made, by better men than Woods.

I am well aware that he has never said anything against the Church, and he doesn't say it in this review, either; and he knows I value him for that. Readers should know as well that he has sent me a courteous and heartfelt email, which he wishes to remain confidential, and as a consequence of which I now know that that "ache for unity" upon which I cast doubt, really does pierce to the bone. I just can't say why. And I am somewhat sorry for casting that doubt; you never know what's going on in another's heart and mind.