Saturday, November 04, 2006

The Hermeneutic of Dissonance

AS GK CHESTERTON observes, there are any number of angles at which one falls, only one at which one remains upright. That’s the context of the little diagram below. I’m aware of its deficiencies, and that it won’t pass for real theology. I’m aware too that it’s likely to make any kind of sense only to conflicted Roman Catholics of a certain persuasion (such as this blogger). Nevertheless I’ve found it helpful in sharpening my approach to certain questions and developments, so bear with me a little while; all will become obscure.

Think of the spot in the centre as a bird's-eye view of the end of a broomstick standing absolutely upright. It represents normative, traditional Catholicism. The ring around it represents the perimeter of the Church's faith, as defined by Scripture, Sacred Tradition (the content of Tradition) and the Magisterium (the organ of Tradition). The arrows represent three exaggerations, as directions in which the broomstick might be prevailed upon to fall. Now consider the following:
To suggest that doctrine can change at the behest of the reigning pope is to reduce the status of the ordinary universal teaching of the Church to a nullity, and to subvert its infallible certainty by a kind of dogmatic positivism. Papal remarks about universal justification, evolution, capital punishment and non-Christian ecumenism in subsequent years, have displayed this same tendency. The Fascists used the slogan Il Duce ha sempre ragione (The Duce is always right). The Ultramontane is a Catholic who asserts the same about the current policy (whatever it may be) of the current pope (whoever he may be).

If Eastern Orthodoxy can be charged with taking tradition as its operative norm, even to the obscuring of the present authority of the successor of Peter and to the loss of a centre of unity, Catholicism since the mid 19th century and especially since the 1960s, can be charged with taking the policies of the current occupant of the Holy See and a bureaucratic centralism as its operative norm, even to the obscuring of traditional formulations of belief and worship. In both cases there is an imbalance that needs to be righted.
Fr John Parsons

Briefly, the spot at the centre ought to be occupied by the official organs and institutions of the Church, together with the Catholic faithful. But it isn’t. They and their Ultramontane and neo-conservative apologists have, since the 19th century at least, been moving ever further “south”. This movement advanced without significant rumblings for as long as the Magisterium continued to uphold the normative, traditional praxis of the Church. Eventually, however we reached a point at which it was accepted, more or less without question or opposition, that “even … the traditional formulations of belief and worship” as incarnated above all in the Sacred Liturgy, could be suppressed legitimately by legal proscription – and that provided a theoretical orthodoxy was maintained, no harm could come of it, since the action was underwritten by Peter. In other words, a solemn anathema of the Second Ecumenical Council of Nicea was overturned without anyone much turning a hair.

Thence, Catholicism is more or less exclusively a question of “following Peter”, everything else being merely secondary and contingent. A loyal Catholic will therefore “accept” whatever an inimical bishop throws at him, because that’s the only viable definition of what a loyal Catholic is – anything else is “Protestantism” or “schism”. Thus, the Roman instinct for order and discipline is reduced to legalistic parody: Bishop X is “in communion” and in good standing despite the fact that he disbelieves openly in defined dogmas of the Church and promotes liturgical anarchy. Group Y, however, are “schismatic” because they wish to pray, worship and be catechised according to the immemorial traditions of the Church. From the perspective of those acclimatised to this view of things (looking at the diagram again) any attempts to restore the balance and persuade Catholics to re-occupy the centre, are seen solely in terms of movement “north”, and therefore in the direction of Protestantism or Orthodoxy.

The prototype of the Papacy is of course the Fisherman, who was famously inconstant, reckless, impetuous, and sometimes just plain wrong - but whose faith ultimately "would not fail" because the Lord, who called him 'Rock' and granted him the keys in spite of his human frailty, had prayed that it wouldn't. Modern Catholics, right across the spectrum, have forgotten Peter; “conservative” or “liberal” their idea of the Pope is a cross between Moses and Superman - the universal athlete, genius, poet, prophet, philosopher, saint. It is a conception essentially mobilist and positivist. "Follow Peter!" they cry, "that's what Catholicism is - anything else is Protestant!". But in what sense does one follow a Rock? Self-evidently this is not Catholic.

"Centrists" then, cast out of the bosom of the Church, persecuted and derided by their shepherds or marginally tolerated in precarious ghettoes, holding their breaths with every conclave to discover whether their religious existence will be protected or proscribed according to Papal whim or curial machination, are driven inevitably to ask hard, searching questions about the relationship of the Church to her past. In this, I always believed, they had a powerful champion:
For fostering a true consciousness in liturgical matters, it is also important that the proscription against the form of the liturgy in valid use up to 1970 should be lifted. Anyone who nowadays advocates the continuing existence of this liturgy or takes part in it is treated like a leper; all tolerance ends here. There has never been anything like this in history; in doing this we are despising and proscribing the Church's whole past. How can one trust her present if things are that way?
Ratzinger - God and the World p416.
It seemed to me that Pope Benedict XVI really did intend to inhabit the “centre”, notwithstanding the reservations of many "Traditionalist" brethren who (unlike me) repine for the Tiara and the sede gestatoria. Self evidently, only the Pope is capable of reconnecting an ultramontanist to Tradition, and thus curing him permanently of his instability. So far, however, vaguely encouraging discourses and numerous rumours notwithstanding - nothing. And now, we hear, a coterie of French senior clergy, whose every published word confirms their terminal addiction to the “hermeneutic of rupture” and irremediable mental incarceration on the PlanetSoixante-huite, are making determined attempts to re-man the barricades. Will they succeed? If they do, is there any longer a point to the Papacy? If Benedict cannot make a home in the Church for normative Catholicism – who can?

What has brought this terrible crisis upon us, brewed apparently in the confrontation with modernity? I'm certain Fr Parsons' historical account is correct as far as it goes; but I'm increasingly convinced that a more radical aetiology is to be sought in the parting of the ways with the East. Afterwards, the lack of a "conservative" counterweight to the Roman adventure allowed a mobilist mentality to develop among westerners, already heady with renewed cultural and political confidence. The collapse of the East – marooned, supine and overrun by Islam seemed almost a historical vindication; in reality the Western crash has been on its way from the day we first monkeyed with the Creed.

I believe that one of the currents converging on the Second Vatican Council was an uneasy sense that something in the Church had gone too far, was becoming unsustainable and unbalanced. It's possible to see behind the Council's principle of Collegiality, for example, some sort of attempt at rebalancing, subverted at one level by that leitmotif spirit of bogus "democratisation" and at another, by its very prosecution as a project of the “new” Magisterium, to be pursued and imposed in an ultramontane manner, by agencies incapable of extricating themselves from an ultramontane bureaucratic mindset. The "party line" changed - the mentality and reflexive attitudes remained exactly the same. Revolution? We can "make" our own Revolution. God is with us! It can't fail!

Throughout it all one continues to believe that the Holy Spirit has been, and is, quietly at work - perhaps never more so than in the working-out of that explosive and toxic conjunction of ultramontanism and liberalism in the fall-out of which we grope our way today. To the ultramontane, legalist mind you need only the components – Pope, Bishops, Council - connect up the plumbing in the requisite order, turn on the tap and out comes Pentecost; but God, famously, “writes straight with crooked lines”. The Council was not "Pentecost". In consideration of its fruits and the darkness and confusion following in its wake, the suggestion is proximately blasphemous. Nevertheless, is it not possible that the aggiornamentist project, in its pride and folly, unintentionally set the match to an all-consuming fire – not of Pentecost but of Purgatory - from which a chastened, humbled and truly restored Roman Church can at last emerge?


Death Bredon said...

I agree with your diagram generally, but I would mark the center with Tradition/Christian Revelation and swap the edge "Tradition" for "eccliastical/monastic traditions."

Indeed, the problem facing Orthodoxy today is not its dogmatic appeal to Tradition, but rather the strong influence of an unheathly monastic ascendency, which confuses ascetical traditions of, by, and, for the religious with Holy Tradition and Christian Revelation. The Monstic Typicon and the Rudder are not Divine Revelation.

Also, I agree that when Karl the Barbarian put his seal on the "monkeyed Creed," he purposely did so to drive a theological/political wedge with the East (which refused to recognize his actual political power). Thus, Karl put political power behind an emergent, discrete Latin-only theology, which completed its conquest of the West on the coat tails of the Cluniac, Reformed Papacy, and has reigned ever since.

Simply put, if the Reformed Clunic Church (a/k/a Roman Catholic Church) is ever to get back to the center of Catholic Tradtion, its got to (1) dump the innovative papal claims of Hildebrand along with (2) the whole disasterous, puritanical, Gregorian Reformprogam) and (3) all sectarian Latin theology--that is most of Augustine, Anselm and Auquinas to the extent they differ with, say, John Damascene, as a normative, Catholic primer. Then, and only then, will the Roman Catholic Church be worthy of its moniker.


Anonymous said...

"If Benedict can't find a home fo normative Catholicism who can?"


Although the pope has commendable aesthetic instincts his ethos is far from normative.

It is no use having a go at traditiuonalists for triumphalism; the question is whether an aesthetic modernist is more insidious than a brutal one. Is it reasonable to hope that the Pope will help the barque of St Peter regain its keel, simply by his instinct for good taste. Or will he prolong the agony with patches?

Pseudo-Iamblichus said...

"Is it reasonable to hope that the Pope will help the barque of St Peter regain its keel, simply by his instinct for good taste. Or will he prolong the agony with patches?"

One of the most poignant analyses I have read on the crisis in the Church. If you only fix part of the problem, are you only prologing the death agony?

Moretben said...

I think perhaps I haven't made myself clear. There are maybe only three reasonable responses to the crisis:

1) It's all over. Roman Catholicism has fatally deconstructed itself (the Magisterium having definitively sawn off the branch it sits on).
2) When the powerful, orthodox Pope arrives in God's good time, he'll set everything to rights, and we can go on again as before (actually, I don't this IS reasonable.)
3) We really need to wean ourselves permanently off ultramontanism, whether Providence sends us a strong orthodox Pope or not. If we really believe in rebalancing the Church we have start with ourselves, and that means relinquishing the idea that everything depends on what the Pope might or might not do, what the Pope might or might not believe, even. It doesn't much matter therefore, if Benedict is every bit as bad as Anonymous and Bishop Tissier de Mallerais suspect. All he has to do is "make normal Catholic life once again possible". That's all; even if he doesn't re-inhabit the centre himself; even if he doesn't act to detatch the ultramontanes from their illusions - provided he does the minimum necessary to clear the ground, as it were for the seed to germinate, (and I can't see anyone else on the horizon who looks capable even of that) - then we have a chance.

Normative Catholicism means not needing to hear from the Pope every five minutes, because it's not the Pope's business to supply the immediate "operative norm" of the faith, twenty four hours a day, to every Catholic on the planet. I wonder how much the average person in the age of Dante, for example, knew, or imagined he needed to know, about the Pope and the Roman Curia? Not very much, I'd guess. That's what we need to get back to.

Moretben said...

Go to practically any forum or blog in TraddieWorld and adjacent territories and what do you see?

When will he liberate the Mass?
Will he annul the "excommunications"?
Will he go to Assisi?
Will he celebrate ad orientem?
Will he sack Mgr X, Cardinal Y?

etc, etc, etc.

This tells us everything about the mess we're in. It tells us how difficult it's going to be to climb out of it. We're like alcoholics,. attempting to cure ourselves with a hair of the dog.

JGurrea said...

"We really need to wean ourselves permanently off ultramontanism, whether Providence sends us a strong orthodox Pope or not."

Doesn't Vatican I make this a bit more difficult than it could have been without that troublesome council?


Moretben said...

I don't think so, Julio; not Vatican I but the false "spirit of Vatican I"

Marc said...

"Normative Catholicism means not needing to hear from the Pope every five minutes, because it's not the Pope's business to supply the immediate "operative norm" of the faith, twenty four hours a day, to every Catholic on the planet".

Who actually thinks of 'normative Catholicism' in this way? Perhaps a certain group of people who have, for whatever reasons, locked themselves into a 'traditionalist ghetto'. Honestly, I don't know: but it seems to me a caricature.

I look forward to discovering what meaning you attribute to "ultramontanism".

Moretben said...

Hello marc

I look forward to discovering what meaning you attribute to "ultramontanism".

Short of reposting the entire piece into the combox? ;-)
- an exaggerated, unbalanced and ahistoric understanding of Papal authority which emphasises the organ of Tradition (the living occupants of Magisterial office) to the exclusion of the objective content of Tradition.

See Hilary’s Maronite example of something Mgr Lefebvre was told by a Roman theologian during the course of negotiations: “I would rather be wrong with the Pope”.

Who actually thinks of 'normative Catholicism' in this way?

Those whose experience of dissonance in the daily practice of their faith leads them to examine the relationship of the Church to her past.

Perhaps a certain group of people who have, for whatever reasons, locked themselves into a 'traditionalist ghetto'.

I’m reminded for some reason of a famous headline in an English newspaper from early in the last century: FOG ON CHANNEL – CONTINENT CUT OFF.


Anonymous said...
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Adam DeVille said...

Thank you for this, easily one of the most balanced and lucidly intelligent analyses of the "postconciliar" situation. You are especially correct in noting the long roots of the crisis and the deleterious consequences of the division between East and West.

marc said...

Oh, in a provisional sort of way I'm prepared to agree entirely with your paraphrase ('an exaggerated, unbalanced and ahistoric understanding of Papal authority' etc): without, at this stage, however, knowing quite what meaning you will attribute to 'exaggerated', 'unbalanced' and 'ahistoric': nor do I know what 'dissonance' means, yet. But I'll read happily and quietly and find out.

Aunty Belle said...

.........Mercy. Looky, I'se simpleminded but earnest. Hep me to see what ya' mean. Some questions nibble on the back o' mah brain:

Does ya' mean that Augustine, Ambrose and T.Aq was *not* making The Truth known in the context of and applied to questions of their eras?
(side historical question: was the decline of the original ancient sees
a means [of the Spirit?]to force the faith into "all the world"? If not, how ought us'uns to understand the events of early Church history?)

Is all the Roman yakkin' about working to restore "both lungs" of the Church little more'n window-dressin'? Ain't it at the invitation of Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I that Benedict XVI is headed ter Turkey in a week or so?

Ain't tryin' ter be contrary, truly not, but even though I does like yer point about folks in Dante's time not needin' ter hear from the Pope, them tuscans weren't havin' ter vote or even think on such weighty mattters as stem cell research, adult cells vs. embryonic.

I'd love ter jes' plow mah fields, say the angelus and git ter mass, an' bless mah soup and the babies goodnight...but I gotta battle fer living faithfully in times of democratic tyrany (schools, workplace, media)I gotta figger out what is moral on scientific matters cause I have moral "duty" ter vote, etc.

So, hep me think harder--doan our times and the speed of communication and dizzy pace of new obligations for moral engagement sorta force us ter see what Rome says on more thangs than Dante ever dreamed?

Lastly, I appreciates yore sketch. Very fine. Can ya' do one that is a picture of where the Holy Spirit has been since 451? 1054? 1965? Is the Spirit in us as "The Church" or is He with "The Church" as a visible reference for the authority of Christ on earth?

romanreb said...

"Who actually thinks of 'normative Catholicism' in this way?"

Well...I do...and my children do...that's six...

And we DON'T have to vote, any more than those Tuscans, because voting is only giving our ascent to a corrupt system...

and we don't have to think about stem cell research because the decision is already made...

and we really don't have to do more than plough our fields, bless our soup and kiss our babies, because, really, we are incapable of having an effect any other way---it's just an illusion to think otherwise...

So, I do think of normative Catholicism that way...

Maybe some of you were speaking sarcastically, and I'm too dumb to pick up on it. :)