Wednesday, January 17, 2024

How Fiducia Supplicans Proves the Eastern Orthodox Were Right, CC BY 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

"We must obey God and not man!"
-- St. Peter, the first pope according to Catholic tradition, Acts 5:29

As a cradle Catholic, I can't help noticing the pickle that faithful Catholics find themselves in now. With Fiducia Supplicans, the Vatican has once again made a proclamation that sows confusion, typical for this papacy that doesn't seem to know how to let its yes be its yes and its no be its no. Somehow we're supposed to believe that this document doesn't change church teaching on human sexuality while simultaneously authorizing the blessing of couples in so-called "irregular" situations, including same-sex couples. The Vatican's justification is predicated on the idea that a couple is in some way different and distinct from the union they make up, with the result that a priest can bless the couple without blessing the union. As any thinking person can see, that's a distinction without a difference.

As I've mentioned, my interest this discussion is primarily in observing how the church is undermining the logical consistency present in its own body of teachings. I'm fascinated by how rules, laws, and regulations make the systems that they serve function smoothly. And that's mainly where I'm coming from. There's much that I admire about the church, but it doesn't run my life. To be clear, I don't have a problem with same sex-attracted people. For me, that's not what this is about.

What I'd like to do is comment on the predictable fallout over this document. Among the Catholic faithful, you basically have three camps. The first is the typical Catholic pew-sitter who either won't give Fiducia more than a passing thought or will argue that the church has always blessed sinners, and that it would therefore be "homophobic" not to extend a blessing to same-sex couples. I'd argue that these folks make up the vast majority of Catholics. They're the "Oh, but Pope Francis is so nice!" crowd. Poorly catechized and incurious, they'll hear disingenuous church leadership say that the document changes nothing about church teaching -- which is basically the stock company line that most bishops, including ours in Idaho, are going with -- and move on with their lives. Or, conversely, they'll persist in their failure to understand the difference between blessing sinners and blessing what the church considers unrepentant sin. In any event, these people are irrelevant to this discussion, much as their own faith life is largely irrelevant, given their complete lack of understanding of what their own church teaches. (I'm not being facetious here: Almost half of U.S. Catholics don't even know what the church's teaching on Eucharistic transubstantiation is, and fully two-thirds believe that the bread and wine used at communion are just symbols of the Body and Blood of Christ.) 

So let's look at the other two factions. First you have the so-called popesplainers, who insist that the pope is always right and must never be questioned, as if he were some kind of deity. This attitude, of course, simply leads to blind obedience and cultish behavior that will excuse any manner of abuse because the leader can never be wrong. And if you object, out comes the No True Scotsman fallacy: You were never a real Catholic. That's an interesting stance to take, considering that even Peter -- the first pope, according to Catholic tradition -- was rebuked by both Paul and Jesus himself. And even Peter said in The Acts of the Apostles that "we must obey God and not man." I've heard a lot of evangelicals over the years argue that Catholics worship the pope. And while that's not true, I'm beginning to understand why they have that impression.

On the other hand, you have the trads, the well-catechized Catholics who argue -- not without reason, I might add -- that the Catholic church has been in gradual moral decline ever since the modernization of the Mass following the Second Vatican Council. The driving force behind Vatican II was ecumenism -- making Catholicism more welcoming of other faiths while being more responsive to the needs and challenges of contemporary culture. The church no longer wanted to be perceived as some kind of imperial institution stuck in the Middle Ages, declaring edicts from on high. Pope Francis is in a lot of ways the culmination of that desire to break from the old ways, which is why he’s so critical of traditionalists, which he delights in calling "rigid," and is also why he would love nothing more than to end the old Latin Mass forever and break the Catholic church once and for all from its past.
The problem is that in doing so -- in catering to contemporary cultural trends and norms -- the church is sacrificing its moral authority and becoming just another voice in the crowd. Rather than acting as a bulwark against moral and ethical decay, it bends the knee more and more to the culture. When it does that, it's no longer able to speak against the culture.

But the dilemma for trads is that they know there's nothing they can do about what's happening in the Vatican. A lot of them take a "recognize and resist" approach to the current papacy, essentially proclaiming to the world, "I don't like what Rome is doing, but I'll never leave." Well, guess what part the Vatican hears? "I'll never leave." With no consequences for its actions, the Vatican has no incentive to ever change.

So putting aside the incurious and largely oblivious pew-sitters, the two Catholic camps with regard to the papacy boil down to "we must always obey" and "I'll never leave." In the end, they amount to the same thing.

We hear a lot about talk of papal infallibility. That's a dogmatic belief that came out of the First Vatican Council in the 19th century. It also caused a schism, and the Old Catholic Church that emerged from that schism still exists. It's a misunderstood dogma and applies only to very specific situations; it was never intended to mean that the pope can never be wrong in his personal opinions. Yet it only served to underscore the existing belief that that was indeed the case, that the pope could in fact never be in error. The problem for Catholics is that they're inclined to believe this about the pope because they're also duty-bound to believe the gates of hell will never prevail against their church. Catholics are taught that Jesus himself founded their church when he renamed Simon to Peter -- "on this rock (Greek, petros) I will build my church" -- and handed his disciple the keys to the kingdom. (See Matthew 16:13-19.) So they're essentially painted into a corner when it comes to criticizing the pope over anything. And the dogma of papal infallibility only muddied the waters, inasmuch as it proclaimed that the pope enjoyed divine protection from error when speaking officially (from the chair of Peter, or ex cathedra) on matters of faith and morals. Thus, your average Catholic is inclined to believe that if the pope can't be wrong on Subject X, then he also can't be wrong on Subjects Y or Z. And your average Catholic is left with a dilemma: "I know this thing from the Vatican seems terrible, and my conscience tells me it is, but I can't question it because the church says I can't. It must be right and I must be wrong. To question it would be to question, and to disobey, God himself."

In short: Unaware that the church respects primacy of conscience and that it asks us to embrace our God-given faculty of reason, these people think they're never permitted to question their church's leadership, under any circumstances, because of their firm belief in their church's divine origin. Thus, the word of the pope is essentially the word of God.

Of course, the Eastern Orthodox also believe their church is the church of the Apostles, and they don't have this hangup over whether to obey God or man. That's in large part because the Orthodox don't constantly tinker with doctrine or add new dogmas. They believe that if the church had the fullness of faith 2,000 years ago, then there's no reason to alter it. It's hard to argue with that. People who have studied church history might find it ridiculous that a major contributor to the Catholic-Orthodox split in 1054 was the Catholic church's addition of three little words -- "and the son," or the filioque, in reference to the procession of the Holy Spirit -- to the Nicene Creed. But the issue wasn't so much the filioque in and of itself as the fact that Rome kept unilaterally changing things and expecting everyone else to follow along. The East eventually said no and went its own way, and Rome has continued on with its "development of doctrine" for the past millennium, incrementally moving it ever further from what the early fathers taught when they were establishing the church. If you ask me, that's a problem. Either eternal truth is eternal truth or it isn't. You would never get the equivalent of a Fiducia Supplicans from the Orthodox church -- and that in itself speaks volumes.

In many ways, the papacy is an anachronistic relic of the days of kings and emperors who ruled with absolute power. Although I admittedly lack the dedication necessary to go through a yearlong catechumenate process to become one of them, I have a great deal of sympathy for the Orthodox these days. Leading up to the Great Schism, Christians in the East, living far from Rome, must have been hearing the same demands people are today that everyone must proclaim their fealty to the papacy, that the pope can never be in error, and that the pope must always be obeyed. The Eastern churches' answer to Rome's de facto demands for dictatorial power was to promote a collegiality among their own bishops, and to remember that those bishops existed to serve and defend the faith and the church's teachings, not the other way around. 

The Orthodox have been warning for a thousand years now against placing submission to a man, any man, above submission to the word of God. If only Rome had ever possessed the humility to understand that, perhaps the ancient church would never have fractured in the first place.

In short: The Orthodox were right.

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