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The death penalty and doctrine, Part 1

Part 1: A clash of mentalities

For Catholic traditionalists and the conservatives who tend to lock arms with them, Chapter 8 of Amoris Laetitia was all the proof they needed that Pope Francis is a heretic. If they refrain – and they don’t always – from calling him a formal heretic, they at least count him guilty of propagating material heresy. And if they had residual doubt after Amoris Laetitia it was dispelled by the Pope’s remarks about capital punishment last month. He said it was “per se contrary to the Gospel”, and he remarked that the Catechism ought to be amended to reflect a “change in the awareness of the Christian people” on this issue.

In a sense, these cases – the Pope on communion for remarried divorcees and on the death penalty – are two sides of the same matter. In the first case, the Pope seems to be saying that prudential considerations might make it acceptable for someone to commit an intrinsically evil act; and in the second he is making capital punishment out to be an intrinsically evil act whereas tradition sees its moral status to come down to prudential considerations.

Such doctrinal crises are grist to the traditionalist mill. They feed a narrative which was marginal during the last couple of pontificates but which has now been updated and made to appeal to many mainstream conservatives. The updated version goes like this. Pope Francis’s pontificate is merely a late-stage symptom of the cancer which invaded the Church in the Second Vatican Council. In his stress on the pastoral, his cavalier attitude to doctrine, and his disregard for tradition we are seeing the disease finally reaching right into the heart of the Church. Hence we are in one of the greatest crises which the Church has ever faced – the greatest perhaps since the Arian controversy in the fourth century, when most of the hierarchy found itself on the wrong side of orthodoxy. And as with the Arian controversy, the Church can only be saved now by the heroic action of the few, the remnant, those Catholics who have remained faithful to the way things were in the past and have refused to sell out to the spirit of the age.

The classicist mindset

What is at play here is a clash not just of narratives but of mentalities. Bernard Lonergan’s distinction between two different types of consciousness – classicism and historical consciousness – may be useful in this regard. The first of these, classicism, stresses the fixed identity of human nature rather than its contingent particularities. Its method is to move from the eternal, the universal, the abstract, to the temporal, the specific and the concrete. History, in so far as it constitutes a value, is mostly cast in terms of deviation or decline. It was instigated by the fall, you could say, and temporality has borne the mark of Adam ever since. The temporal order – literally, the secular – is of its nature pitched against the divine order, so it is up to us to resist this habit of rebellion by holding fast to tradition.

What classicism does indeed find attractive in history is the way in which it may transcend itself and align itself with the eternal. The saints’ lives have the same emblematic value at every moment of the Church’s history. St Athanasius’s brave stance against the Arian heresy is an example for all seasons, as is the Christian victory over Islam at Lepanto. And when it comes to the prayer life of the Church, certain forms of music, liturgy, art, and architecture, are seen to have a transcendental value, not tainted by fashion or the spirit of the age. Their historic specificity, then, is down-played or denied.

If there is a governing trope in all this, it is the trope of the Church in crisis. Crisis is not merely something the Church endures at one historical juncture or another; rather it is written into the very make-up of the Church. Of its nature the Church is beleaguered. When the threat comes from heresy within, we are living under the sign of Athanasius. When large numbers of migrants come to Europe we remember the example of Lepanto. Once again, history is acknowledged, but its historicity is not.

It is, therefore, always under the aspect of permanence that tradition is understood. Tradition is not the actus tradendi, the active process of handing down, but merely the traditum, the fixed body of doctrines, immutable and normative now and always. The only historical change which this sense of tradition can accommodate is that brought about by allowing the light of understanding to fall gradually on what was obscurely believed in the past. Any other form of change is a corruption. What was true in the past is true now, as truth does not change.

The historicist mindset

Historically-differentiated consciousness brings one to see things through a very different prism. It tends to begin with concrete reality, with the intentional life of people and the web of common meanings born out of historical experience and social forms. It is attentive to the difference which historical circumstances makes to the sense of received truths. Translation, in the form of interpretive strategies, is always needed. According to this understanding, historicity is not an incidental aspect of human nature – or indeed of the life of the Church. It is constitutive. And historical situatedness sets the limits of the human capacity to apprehend eternal truths.

According to a favourite formulation of Aquinas, that which is known (cognitum) is known according to the mode of the knower (secundum modum cognoscentis), not of the thing known. We might do our best, but we work within the strictures of what the economist Herbert Simon called ‘bounded rationality’, the drastic limitations set by the lack of knowledge, by the lack of cognitive ability, and by time-boundedness. And we can add to this the inevitable constraints set by language and by the subjective structure of human existence.

This may seem open to the charge of relativism, and of course there are relativist versions of historicism. Not all forms, however, are relativist. Nor do they all disregard tradition. In the work of Alasdair MacIntyre and of Hans-Georg Gadamer, for example, we have instances of historicist projects which turn precisely to tradition for an objective foundation.

Yet historicism tends to distinguish itself from classicism in this: it sees tradition as always culturally and linguistically mediated, as always in need of interrogation in the light of new realities. We never get to the point of seeing God’s revelation with absolute, unmediated clarity. We are not Cartesian subjects. There is no “standpoint beyond all standpoints” that we can occupy. This is, as Gadamer says, “a pure fiction” – a judgement which holds good with respect to tradition as much as to any other object of knowledge. Instead, tradition is only ever seen through a glass darkly, and we are always left with the task of interpreting it. We bring into play our own “mental existence”, to use Michael Polanyi’s term, an existence forged by “works of art, morality, religious worship, scientific theory, and other articulate systems which we accept as our dwelling place and the soil of our mental development”. Truth, of course, is not relative. Our apprehension of it, however, most certainly is.

Charity above all

There are other ways of framing this polarisation – transcendence up against immanence, for example, conveys some of the sense of it. Or metaphysics versus hermeneutics, perhaps. But whatever tags one uses, the question of attitude to history provides a good heuristic to account for the failure of minds to meet. And really, the bitter slanging that passes for Catholic discourse these days is little more than that – minds failing to meet, mostly because they have made no serious effort to do so.

One of the tell-tale symptoms of this dysfunction is that both camps (or ‘tendencies’, so as not to be too reductionist) have a marked propensity to pathologise or demonise the other. Historically-minded progressive Catholics jump to the assumption that traditionalists are talking and acting out of fear, narrow-mindedness and hate. And traditionalists, for their part, are quick to suppose that progressive Catholics are both deceiving and deceived, and that they have, like St Paul’s deserting disciple Demas, fallen “in love with this present world”. Neither of these suppositions is fruitful. And, more importantly, neither of them is charitable either.

If the Christian injunction to be charitable is not enough, there are good epistemological reasons for it too. In fact, a ‘principle of charity’ has frequently been invoked in discourse theory, either as an explanation or as a norm, with respect to the healthy critical engagement of parties that are out of agreement. It has currency in the analytic philosophy of Quine and Davidson, in the continental tradition of Gadamer and Ricoeur, and in the critical theory of Habermas, and in none of these instances is it proffered as a theological principle. What it means in essence is that when we enter into discussion with another person we are implicitly committing ourselves to understanding them. We don’t put words into their mouths, we don’t presume their bad faith, and we don’t suspect ulterior motives. We suspend our impulse to disagree with them and we construe their arguments in as cogent and persuasive a way as we can.

This, as I say, is purely for methodological purposes. It makes discourse fruitful. When we arrive at the point of making critical judgements we have a more textured sense of the issue, and we have stress-tested and refined our own arguments. In the end, of course, we may not reach agreement, but we will have come, as best we can, to understand our opponents as they understand themselves. If it does nothing else, this disposition enables us to be persuaded by the inner cogency, as opposed to the rhetorical vigour, of the strongest argument.

The stronger argument

So what makes one theological argument stronger than another? In a word, it comes down to explanatory force. We are looking for an account of things which explains more and explains it better, and unless otherwise is proven we have to presume that those we disagree with are looking for the same.  And we need to remember in this regard – a point Lonergan is quick to make – that the fundamental mindsets which we bring to bear on the available explanations, even though they shape our fore-understanding of theological issues, are not themselves primarily theological.

Which is to say that there is no divine warrant for holding a classicist view of tradition, no more than there is for holding a historicist view. That a person would incline in one direction or the other may come down simply to their habits of mind, their intellectual culture, and their experience and intuitions. We shouldn’t presume it is ignorance or malice.

Shift in the Church’s thinking

But there is one further consideration here, one which has great bearing on the current temper of intra-Catholic debate. It is this. Without any doubt the Church itself has shifted from a predominantly classicist view of the world and of revelation to a markedly historically-conscious view. The Second Vatican Council demonstrates this shift, but it had been two centuries in the making. Developments in historical scholarship, advances in the natural sciences, and the emergence of new political and cultural configurations all contributed. So too did particular achievements, such as Newman’s radically historicist theorization of the development of doctrine and the 20th century reimagining of the lived experience of the Church in the work of the ressourcement scholars. And one could add too, of course, the drive for liturgical reform and the development of a body of social doctrine.

Altogether, these illustrate the slow dawning of what MacIntyre might call an ‘epistemological crisis’, one that could not be resolved by clinging to a classicist mentality. Classicism lacked the explanatory power to bring all to mind and to balance it, to pull together all the aspects of the Church’s theological reflection, its institutional life, the historical experience of Christians, and the cultural life of the human community, and to make sense of them all in the light of God’s revelation and God’s will.

Early on, of course, magisterial statements clung to the older understanding. For example, Mirari Vos, Pope Gregory XVI’s 1832 tirade against liberalism, is replete with descriptions of a beleaguered Church. “The powers of darkness winnow the elect like wheat,” he announced; “Depravity exults; science is impudent; liberty dissolute. The holiness of the sacred is despised… The laws of the sacred, the rights, institutions, and discipline – none are safe from the audacity of those speaking evil”. And it is “these times”, and “novelty”, which have brought this slew of evils. Here we have a perennial trope of classicism.

And the solution? Pope Gregory repeats the words of his predecessor Agatho: “Nothing of the things appointed ought to be diminished; nothing changed; nothing added; but they must be preserved both as regards expression and meaning.”

A council for the times

Echoes of this attitude resound in the writings of Pope Pius IX and later popes – especially perhaps in Pope St Pius X’s profound distrust of history and the very notion of modernity in Pascendi Dominici Gregis. But a shift in attitude did come. If there was an exact moment when it broke upon the shores of the Church it was 11 October 1962. On that day Pope John XXIII delivered Gaudet Mater Ecclesia, the speech which inaugurated the Second Vatican Council. In it he dismissed the doomsayers in the Church, those who “see only ruin and calamity in the present conditions of human society”.

“They keep repeating,” he continued, “that our times, if compared to past centuries, have been getting worse. And they act as if they have nothing to learn from history, which is the teacher of life…”

More remarkably he spoke then of “the present course of human events, by which human society seems to be entering a new order of things”. And his take on this new order is positive: “We should see instead the mysterious plans of divine Providence which through the passage of time and the efforts of men, and often beyond their expectation, are achieving their purpose and wisely disposing of all things, even contrary human events, for the good of the Church.”

With this speech the Pope set the tone and the attitude not only for the Council but for the full sweep of Church life from then on. And his call met with an astonishingly enthusiastic reception among the Council Fathers. They rejected the juridico-canonical schemata that were designed to guide the Council as it set about its business of condemning error and affirming the constant teaching of the Church. As Pope John noted, however, you wouldn’t need to convoke a council to do that. Instead the Fathers inclined towards a sense of tradition as process. They opted to bring together both a close reading of the Church’s foundation and life and a heightened attention to the character and experience of the age, and to express them in a set of thickly descriptive formal conciliar documents. It was, then, a council which saw the Church as semper reformanda, always in need of reform, and it acted on the understanding that such reform necessarily entails both “continuity and discontinuity at different levels”, as Pope Benedict XVI remarked in his celebrated Christmas message to the Curia in 2005. This is the governing trope of historically-conscious theology.

What makes all this important is that it shows that a more historicist view of Catholic theology is (to use a phrase dear to Newman) “in possession”. In other words, adapting Newman again, the onus probandi of establishing a case against this perspective lies on the classicist. Either that or they must dispute the magisterial authority of the most ecumenical of all ecumenical councils in the history of the Church.

Pope Francis and the Council

It needs to be noted that, in his attitude to the development of Church teaching, Pope Francis is faithful to the mind of the Council. He is right, in his explanation of his judgement on capital punishment, to insist that “tradition is a living reality” and that the deposit of faith is not static. He is right to say that “doctrine cannot be preserved without allowing it to develop, nor can it be tied to an interpretation that is rigid and immutable without demeaning the working of the Holy Spirit”. It looks to his Catholic critics as if he is going beyond this, as if he is contradicting doctrine, not developing it, as if he is defying logic and flouting the perennial teaching of the Church. But in the light of a more textured and complex understanding of both the history and the historicity of the Church’s teachings, this ain’t necessarily so.

In a follow-up post I want to draw out fully what I mean by this. I want to deal directly with some of the criticisms advanced against Pope Francis and to show that their persuasiveness is reliant on an understanding of tradition which no longer holds sway in the Church. The notion of the development of doctrine, after all, is itself subject to development.

About Dermot Roantree

Dermot Roantree is content editor with Irish Jesuit Communications. He has a doctorate in Modern History and many years of teaching and of e-learning projects behind him. He is married with two children.

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