Monday, November 06, 2006

Choosing Apostolic Communions: My Reply

Over at Sacramentum Vitae Michael Liccione has posted an article on the subject of how we go about choosing which of the two apostolic communions to affiliate with. In that article he very gently takes me to task for my choice of analogies that I used in a recent post on another blog about why I chose to go Orthodox. My post was also criticized in subsequent comments by Dr. William Tighe and (soon to be Fr.) Al Kimel, two individuals whose opinions I hold in high regard. Below is my reply which was too long to post in a single comment over at Mikes blog. In order to facilitate a coherent discussion I will ask that all comments be posted over at Mike’ web site which can be found in the above link. A/O

Thank you for you very kind words. I also appreciate your thoughtful comments on my most recent post over at Ad Orientem. I hope to hear from some others. Now to the subject at hand…

As always you make a very powerful argument for doctrinal development. However as I noted in my comment to Dr. Tighe, my field is more history than theology. Thus I rarely approach doctrinal development as though it occurred in an historical vacuum. When examining the developments in the Latin understanding of the Petrine ministry I find that they often seem to be at least partially in response to socio-political conditions then in existence. Now this is not in and of itself a bad thing. It can be perfectly legitimate that a given situation might suddenly bring a certain truth into sharper focus. It is also completely legitimate for existing circumstances to influence church discipline.

Indeed I have occasionally irritated some of my co-religionists, by noting that some aspects of the growth of papal power were not only legitimate but almost impossible to conceive of not having occurred. The situation in the West following the disintegration of the Western Roman Empire was one of near complete chaos. The Church at the time represented almost the only remaining institution that had any sort of unifying effect in Western Europe. Thus it was natural and to a degree even necessary for the See of Rome to step into the void left by the fall of the Empire. This was especially so as the various barbarian tribes were converted. The West, lacking the stabilizing influence of the Imperial Government present in the East, had a totally different situation to deal with. In the East the emperor was often at least as powerful (and sometimes more so) than the Patriarchs and took a direct hand in the governance of The Church. There was an absolute union of church and state. But just as important, there was only one state to deal with. While a general union of church and state developed in the west over the centuries it was a fragmented one. The political balkanization of Western Europe had far reaching consequences for the church there.

Up to a point I think that a certain centralization of administrative power in the Roman See was needed, probably far more than most of my fellow Orthodox would be comfortable with admitting to. But I am referring to the disciplinary ecclesiology of the Latin Church as distinct from its doctrinal claims. At the risk of sounding Protestant (even a stopped clock is right twice a day) a strong argument could be made that the gradually increased involvement of the papacy in secular politics produced an increasing need to justify its position in the world. This lent itself to the medieval doctrinal development of the papal powers culminating in the High Middle Ages with Boniface VIII’s Unam Sanctum.

Now a converse argument could also be made to the effect that the socio political conditions in the East retarded legitimate doctrinal development in that half of The Church. The Eastern Churches by and large have existed within the framework of the Roman Empire (Eastern) or under the yoke of non-Christian rulers up until very nearly modern times (the Russian Church being the obvious exception). This would have negated the circumstances that provoked much of the doctrinal development witnessed in the Latin Church especially in the medieval period.

All of which brings us back to the central question of your erudite post. How does one discern legitimate doctrinal development from illegitimate development or as you politely framed it “addition to the deposit of the faith?”

Once again I turn to history. Here I look for signs which to me would render a given example of doctrinal development suspect. The big red flag for me is the following question. Has the modern church effectively abandoned its earlier position or reversed itself? In several areas I again would argue a strong case can be made that the Roman Church has indeed come very close to reversing previously held positions or simply abandoning them. Some examples would include usury, extra ecclesiam nulla salus, religious liberty (Vat II), limbo, capital punishment, and torture (the topic of several of your recent fascinating posts). I actually concur with the development of doctrine on the death penalty so that’s probably a poor example. But the others are all cases where a prima facie case can be made that there has been a substantive reversal or abandonment of previously held doctrine. All of these subjects are ones on which the Roman Catholic Church had very clear and to the minds of most people firmly set doctrinal statements of belief which have seen very dramatic changes.

In general I am not aware of any corresponding examples (at least none as glaring) that exist in Orthodoxy. And yes, all of the above examples can and have been explained by the advocates of doctrinal development. But I often find those explanations tortured and… I hate to use this term… legalistic. Some doctrinal development is probably unavoidable. But radical development which some might term revolutionary is suspect. This coupled with the frequency with which the Roman Catholic Church is “developing” its doctrine all combined to add to my already considerable discomfort with Catholic doctrinal development post first millennium.

Again defenders of DD might point out that it’s easy to criticize such when your faith remains frozen in the 9th century. But the reply could be made that doctrinal development might not be quite as common or necessary if there were not such an urgent need to have an explanation or doctrine about everything. Yes we Orthodox do suffer from the lack of a clearly defined final authority. Although I think you made a pretty good list of things we look for, the two big ones being an Ecumenical Council and acceptance by the church as a whole. Doctrinal development in the East is far slower as a result of our ecclesiology. It also tends to be less rigid in some respects. The very nature of The Church makes quick judgments on doctrinal matters difficult almost to the point of impossible. To be certain, that’s a double edged sword. But if it’s a really serious subject of contention then the issue will still be around in a hundred years and it might take that long to reach a consensus on it.

Further it is worth noting that really serious theological arguments, the kind that provoke schisms, have been almost completely absent from Orthodoxy since the split with Rome. Yes we have schisms. But they are mostly jurisdictional and juridical squabbles. For the most part the faith is settled. The one possible exception could arguably be the Old Believers of Russia. But even there I would argue that was much more about an abuse of power in imposing church disciplines which were alien to the local people.

I could go on, but I have covered what I really wanted to and this has already reached three pages on MS Word. That’s long enough for a comment I think. In closing I wish to say that I am in absolute agreement with the closing paragraph of your article. One can not prove or disprove either Orthodoxy or Roman Catholicism. And like you I never seriously considered Protestantism which I found historically bankrupt. The same “assiduous prayer and integrity” which lead me to Orthodoxy has kept you in Rome. In the end we must do what we believe to be right according to those lights that God gives us by which we discern right from wrong. More than that is not possible and all we can do is commend our miserable and unworthy souls to the mercy of God.

As always typos etc… mea culpa.



Seraph said...

It is rather a miracle that the widely far-flung and diverse churches of Orthodoxy continue to hold to the same teachings over centuries, isn't it?

Perhaps it is because it is so cemented in the lives of the believers by constant repetition in the liturgies.

But amazing that this happy convergence happens without a pope.

Anonymous said...

And, ironically, even with Rome's suppposedly infallible, jursidictionally-plenary Pope, the Germainic, Cluniac-Reformed Communion is all over the map, both dogmatically and liturgically.


Visibilium said...

The need to develop dogma indicates a discomfort with the past and therefore springs from anti-Tradition. Has Tradition journeyed down the wrong road?