Pope Francis released his papal exhortation Amoris laetitia earlier this month. As expected, he upset many traditional Latins and confused many more. I am not going to comment on the document, which I have not read—the commentaries of others suffice for my purposes. Rather, I would like to share a link to Rorate Caeli’s reaction: “More Catholic than the pope.” I highly recommend that you read the entire post, but here is a lengthy selection:
. . . As explained in the First Vatican Council’s dogmatic constitution Pastor Aeternus, the Church firmly holds that “the Holy Spirit was promised to the successors of Peter not so that they might, by his revelation, make known some new doctrine, but that, by his assistance, they might religiously guard and faithfully expound the revelation or deposit of faith transmitted by the apostles.”
The Catholic Faith is not something invented anew by each pope according to his own opinions, predilections, understanding, or whims. The pope is only good as a “yardstick” when he formally teaches in accordance to “the Faith once delivered unto the saints,” as St. Jude the Apostle wrote.
When Pope Liberius assented to the unjust excommunication of St. Athanasius the Great, and signed off on an ambiguous creedal formula that could be accommodated to the Arian or semi-Arian heresies, every faithful Catholic was then “more Catholic than the pope.”
When Pope Honorius I uttered false theological opinions and failed to correct and condemn the Monothelite heretics, every faithful Catholic was then “more Catholic than the pope.” Indeed, they were so much more Catholic than Honorius that the Church posthumously condemned him as a heretic, a decision that Honorius’ successor St. Leo II approved. “We anathematize the inventors of the new error, that is, Theodore, Sergius, ... and also Honorius, who did not attempt to sanctify this Apostolic Church with the teaching of Apostolic tradition, but by profane treachery permitted its purity to be polluted.” For most of the Church’s history, priests praying their Office repeated the anathema pronounced against Pope Honorius.
When Pope Stephen VII desecrated the remains of Pope Formosus during the hideously shameful Synodus Horrenda (the “Cadaver Synod”), every Catholic who strove to practice justice and who respected the sanctity of the human body was then “more Catholic than the pope.”
When Pope John XII effectively “turned the Lateran palace into a brothel,” as contemporary historians so colorfully put it, and when Pope Benedict IX gave himself over to unchastity and bloodshed, every faithful Catholic who strove to cultivate the virtues of chastity, purity, mercy, and peace in their personal conduct was then “more Catholic than the pope.”
When Pope John XXII preached in his sermons the error that the faithful departed do not enjoy the Beatific Vision until after Judgment Day at the end of the world, every faithful Catholic was then “more Catholic than the pope”—and the loud and outraged cry of the faithful against him led him to retract his error, and his successor then infallibly defined John XXII’s opinion as heresy.
Papal infallibility doesn’t mean papal impeccability or papal omniscience. The obligations of docility and obedience do not extend so far that one must stand on one’s head and cross one’s eyes in order to see how a scandalous, erroneous papal utterance is in fact true after all. Most of what a pope says is not infallible, and papal authority has never extended to having the right to introduce teachings and laws that contradict or go counter to the Faith. It’s no dishonor or disrespect or disobedience to the Holy Father to point out and to believe those truths of the Catholic Faith.
Words fail me. Ever since my Jesuit undergrad. days, people have called me a liar and a fool for mentioning Honorius and for making the points laid out so well by Confitebor on Rorate Caeli. These accusers have tended to be the most enthusiastic Latin traditionalists, and their extreme ultramontanism horrified me and confirmed decision to stay away from the Roman Church. In truth, I sympathized with my estranged Christian brethren and excused their commitment to papism since, during the pontificates of John Paul II and Benedict XVI, one could understandably believe that the Bishop of Rome alone kept the Latins from going over their cliff in a crowded clown-mass car. Yet, I knew that it was the previous popes who had veered off course to begin with, and I have always found the Latin insistence on papal infallibility either unintelligible or objectionable (or both). Why would any group of people trust their treasure to such fragile hands? Put not your trust in princes, nor in the son of man—successor to Peter or not! The apostolic patrimony is too precious to hand over to any man—or generation.
The Latin contention is, most fundamentally, that the buck (of resolving disputes) must stop somewhere. Hence, the pope must exercise a superepiscopal role with some sort of infallibility (to settle those disputes). For the Lord would not leave his ignorant, straying. foolish sheep without a shepherd, or so they believe. For the same reason, the Latins have centuries’ worth of experience in categorizing every conceivable sin and proper penance—the Good Shepherd would want every aspect of ovine husbandry listed and specified! The Romans have a massive global bureaucracy to manage their Christian flock, and they had specialized “think tanks” for ages before any modern secularist considered them. For the Church must have an answer for every thing—a detailed formula for salvation, a comprehensive jurisprudence that deals with every matter of life, positions on this or that issue in the domains of morality, science, politics, anthropology—you name it. The resulting edifice is impressive, and I certainly do not object to progress in knowledge or to Christians’ attempting to redeem the time here on earth to make the world better. I’m a tikkun olam kind of Christian, after all. What I find objectionable, however, is the blurring of apostolic authority on the fundamental doctrines of the faith with the theologoumena and philosophical theorizing of Christians, hierarchs or otherwise. Mission creep has affected the Roman episcopate in such a monumental way! It is no wonder the Protestants rebelled against this ridiculous shackling of the human mind—and their heirs continue to do so in ever more bizarre and demonic ways. The West’s obsessive compulsive need for the resolution of all questions—indeed, even of life in its totality!—has fouled the reputation of authority and tradition and led to (or at least helped to ignite) the Satanic reaction of the modern world.
We live in a fallen world: life is hard, truth is difficult to grasp, and ignorance is the default position for the human mind most of the time. We must work with what we have—and the Lord has amply provided us gifts—but the proper path for man is not obvious. There is no desk (or cathedra) where the buck of human questioning must stop. We are social animals, and it is folly to disregard the wisdom of previous ages and of one’s betters. Nonetheless, each human soul must struggle to conform to truth, goodness, and beauty to the extent possible. The result is messy, but that is how it must be until the eschaton. No counterfeit Gospel can resolve the contradictions of the human heart. The Almighty has left us no demigod to guide our every step; the Golden Age is long past. So, the basic papist argument fails the reality test. Our fallen world is one where we cannot resolve all our questions and disputes with surety. Rather, it is one where the seeking man finds much providential assistance along his way, though he never is absolutely certain of where he is at any given moment while his travels persist. His only consolation, besides the splendor and beauty of the landscape along the path, is that he has enough tools to know that he is generally headed in the right direction.
With that said, I think that Pope Francis might indeed provide the latest occasion for one of those undeserved divine gifts. Perhaps, someone like him is necessary to correct Rome’s ultramontanism—a prerequisite step for a possible future reconciliation between the East and the West. An odd gift, one might think, but providence often appears inscrutable until we examine it in hindsight. Similarly, the turmoil following the Second Vatican Council has been very instructive to the Orthodox. The Latins have been the blue whale in the coal mine of modernity, so to speak. In both cases, the Christian West’s contemporary hemorrhaging might be the painful though necessary trauma that will eventually lead to the restoration of Christian unity. Even the best Physician must sometimes amputate a mutilated or diseased limb to save the body.
Lydia McGrew has written some cogent thoughts about “gospel fictionalization” on What’s Wrong with the World: “A Gospel Fictionalization Theory Is No Help to the Gospel.” You may read McGrew’s follow-ups on her Extra Thoughts blog, too: “Discussion Continues Concerning Gospel Harmonization and Fictionalization” and “Seeing the Forest.” I was previously unaware that this new hermeneutic was a thing in evangelical Protestant circles. People scoff at slippery slopes, but how many bible jackets sponged with Schleiermacher Jelly does it take for Protestants to recognize Harnack Herps when it flares up? Run away! Flee the oncoming ruin!
More generously, I suspect that this interpretive approach by Michael Licona and friends results from a unmoored (i.e. Protestant) glimpse of what Origen termed the scriptures’ spiritual meaning (see Russell Ronald Reno’s “Origen and Spiritual Interpretation” for details). Yet, just as meat is unsuitable for infants, so higher biblical exegesis for orphans in the faith. Despite their intelligence and good intentions, these Protestant scholars have no wise guardian to monitor their diet. They fend for themselves on the mean streets of Carthage, where extra Ecclesiam nulla salus.
Speaking of R.R. Reno, this theology professor at Creighton University and editor of First Things did a delightful interview for America (a Jesuit magazine for the great unwashed out there), “‘He’s a Disruptor’: Interview with ‘First Things’ Editor R.R. Reno on Pope Francis’ U.S. Visit.” Nice title there, boys! Reno makes many interesting points, including this insightful closing:
I think it’s fitting that, in an interview with America magazine, I emphasize how important it is that this pope is a Jesuit. That, to me, is the hermeneutical key to this papacy and a testimony to the wisdom of the church for not electing a Jesuit in the past—perhaps also to God’s sense of humor for giving us a Jesuit in the present! But it’s also a testimony to the power of the charism of St. Ignatius that it so distinctively marks the men who are formed in the Society.
One can see in this pope clearly the distinctive character of a Jesuit charism. He is a Jesuit: It’s just unbelievable, for good and for ill. The Jesuit charism is a profound internalization. It’s not a rejection or distrust of the church’s outward forms, ritual life, or intellectual life. People often mistakenly see Jesuits as radical revisionists, and there are some Jesuits like that, but the charism is really an interiorized trust that enables one to let go of the outward forms to pursue the essential mission of the church.
To me, that’s why there’s never been a Jesuit pope, because the papacy is primarily an institution of preservation and transmission of the tradition. So this kind of purification and internalization, I think, is at odds with the papal office. You know, a typical Jesuit would ignore renovations of St. Peter’s because it’s not important to preserve a building, but instead to discern what God is doing with that building. But the purpose of the papacy is to preserve the outward forms so the whole world can enter into the church as a living body and institution with a set of laws and form of life, so that they can then embark on that journey of interiorization.
So Francis is exemplifying the end goal of the Christian life and the danger is that Jesuits often neglect the ordinary means by which people often enter into the Christian life. Jesuits are virtuosos who can neglect the need for basic instruction. You know, Francis is the 265th successor of St. Peter and he’ll do with this job what needs to be done, but I guarantee you there’s not going to be a Jesuit pope for a long time after this one.
Reading about Reno’s background, I see that this orthodox, patristically informed convert from Anglicanism taught theology at Jesuit Creighton—mirabile dictu—for twenty years. Incredible! From ample personal experience, I assure you that Jesuit theology departments are the last place that you would expect to find Catholic theology. Indeed, I have a humorous anecdote to share. During undergrad., my school’s philosophy department held a Fides et Ratio conference to discuss the relationship of faith and reason in academic life. During the planning phase, I asked our chairman whether the philosophy department had invited the theology faculty to the conference. The fellow, a brilliant man and a devout rabbinical Jew, shook his head, gave a sardonic smile, and said, “Those people have no fides and even less ratio.” The professor spoke truthfully.
On the Orthosphere, Alan Roebuck responded to my comment in his “Predestination Again” thread (see “Calvinism Again” for the comment that Roebuck addressed as well as a cornucopia of Calvin castigation). I finally wrote an obviously inadequate but hopefully insight-seeding response:
I do not know what to make of the instances of προορίζω in the New Testament. I am not a biblical scholar or a theologian, but I am confident that it cannot mean what Calvinists take it to mean. As others have noted, scripture has much to say about the nature of God, directly and through examples and images—especially that God is love and that he is good—that he “is long-suffering to us-ward, not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance.” Now, you will say, undoubtedly, that your understanding of predestination coexists with such a nature of God, but I think that is forcing a square peg through a round hole—it does violence to our understanding of love and goodness. You may speak about human blindness, but I cannot accept any system that undermines the very foundations of human judgment. God is not a deceiver. You may point to the fall and human depravity, but such a path makes the ministry of the law, the prophets, and the apostles a big charade. God only delivers a message to beings that can understand it—and God is not a deceiver.
The word προορίζω only occurs a few times in the Bible—six according to a search that I just did (if the instrument worked correctly). It is a mistake to overturn the general and consistent message of the Gospel to make it fit into a theology defined by a few passages that became central to theological thinking only with Augustine in his anti-Pelagian activity. The doctrine was a fringe concern in the Christian world until the Reformation, and I think that is evidence that there is something suspicious about the controversy—and about Augustine’s resolution of it. Myself, I think that anyone acquainted with realist metaphysics (the understanding of the vast majority of [educated] Christians before the modern period) would not take Pelagianism seriously. For it is clear that human beings do not have being of their own power. They cannot do anything of their own power. Everything about us is derivative from the father of lights, the treasury of good things, him by whom the world was made. I attribute the Greeks’ lack of interest in the Pelagian dispute to this very fact—that the controversy seemed stupid to them. Augustine was philosophically trained enough to know better, and his line of attack sowed a poisonous seed that germinated a millennium later. [I should have noted that the Latin Christians in Augustine’s Africa were keen on rhetoric but not well formed in philosophy; only later did educated Western Christians acquire familiarity with ontology.]
You ask, “How can you say, on the one hand, that God causes all things (which would presumably include that some remain hard-hearted and are lost), but on the other hand, that a God who would refuse to turn sinful men toward him is ‘abominable and a demon and worthy of contempt?’ This seems inconsistent.” It is not inconsistent because causation of things does not include the inexplicable corruption of things—this state (or un-state) of evil that we casually affirm to be a thing by our manner of speech in order to convey what we mean really is nothing (of the sort or anything else). God doesn’t cause evil because evil is nothing. I suspect that a Platonist approach to metaphysics is required to make traditional Christian doctrine intelligible, and that is why the confusion of the Reformation did not occur until the spread of an alien understanding of the world (nominalism) had replaced the patristic one. [See “The Necessity of Knowledge,” “Square Circle,” “Nominalism, Nihilism, and the Will,” and “Whence the Will?” for more on this.]
You mention the first chapter of Ephesians. Like I said, I don’t know what προορίζω really means. It doesn’t appear to be a common word (according to Perseus, at least), and even in the New Testament, it appears only a handful of times in Paul’s letters and in Luke’s Acts. It literally means to pre-establish or mark beforehand limits or boundaries (horizons is a related term). There are many ways that one could interpret the passages with it—the standard Calvinist way, or the Arminians’ Calvinist rejoinder method, wherein God foresees men’s action and then sets up the world accordingly. I found it interesting to see that Augustine argued against that very interpretation in his On the Predestination of the Saints. His point is that God’s grace would not be grace if it were doled out on account of human worth. For him, it seems, any question of justice or merit confuses the fundamental truth that God’s grace is totally a gift. That is a good argument, but I don’t think that we have to resort to the Calvinist or this anti-Calvinist interpretation. Perhaps, God’s predestination—God’s setting of markers done outside of time from all eternity—is simply God’s assignment of roles and natures. This might be general—our general human purpose—as well as individual—in how we fit into the providential unrolling of history. I am very uncomfortable in dealing with the later; I have no idea how providence works, and yet it seems that God does work intimately through the messiness of history. God certainly knows all possible worlds—all the roads not taken and the trillions upon trillions of contingent possibilities for our cosmos. Maybe, he threads the loom to maximize goodness based on what free creatures do (per Leibniz). Maybe, he assigns definite roles regardless of our actions, and it is up to us to play (with grace given to all) the part assigned to us, but we, for no reason (that disgusting quality of evil), fall short of the ideal performance. A simple reading of several biblical narratives makes it seem that God has assigned some pretty dreadful parts to certain individuals (pharaoh, Judas), which lends credibility to Calvin’s evil puppet-master interpretation of scripture. On the other hand, maybe God’s providence is simply the skill of the master lemonade-maker, who creates sweetness from that which is bitter—men’s folly isn’t God’s will, but it is co-opted by God for the greater good. Maybe, some men get bad parts (there has to be an Iago in Othello), and God’s ultimate judgment will take that into consideration, just as the critic grades a performance with an eye to the material and what is possible given the constraints of the role. Maybe predestination is simply a way of speaking of God’s grand salvific formula—the elect are the chosen people . . . chosen as instruments to enact the Gospel Plan—that wonderful military operation wherein the Lord stages a counter-offensive to regain lost territory. Abraham, the Hebrews, the apostles, the preachers and converted of the Great Commission, the Christians of our day who strive to live in hope and in the light of the Resurrection . . . maybe this is the meaning of predestination—that the pilgrimage routes to the New Jerusalem, the path of the righteous, or the ingenious recipe of the master lemonade-maker is what is marked out from the foundation of the world. There is much ambiguity in the scriptures. Many are called but few are chosen—perhaps the chosen are simply the ones who answer the call. I don’t know. I only know that God is good, and that we must reject Calvin’s laying evil at God’s feet.
As a related topic, Kristor and I had a lengthy discussion on the “origin” of evil some years ago. You may be interested in reading the discussion, along with the comments:
“Orthodoxy and Evolution”
“Kristor on the Fall”
“Kristor Promotes Ignorance”
“Kristor Elucidates the Darkness”
“Kristor Poses Evil Problems”
One of Laura Wood’s readers shares his experience of growing up in low church Protestantism: “In the Soft Belly of Protestantism.” The web is full of such stories, but I found the man’s description vividly emblematic of a particular religious culture.
On the Orthosphere, Alan Roebuck has posted another piece explaining the Calvinist understanding of predestination: “Predestination Again.” Perhaps against my better judgment, I commented:
Mr. Roebuck, I find this doctrine and the Calvinist tradition in which it plays such a significant part so repellent, blasphemous, and objectionable that I have doubts whether I should even engage this post (could there be any profit to the endeavour?). Nonetheless, I have a question about a step in your argumentation. You state that a man (a Christ-hater) could never begin to notice the good points about the gospel without God’s causing him to notice it so. I agree, but then I would say (without committing to the mechanical specifics, as I do not know them) that God causes all things (qua things . . . that is, all being and true actions of beings). Whenever we do anything good, or turn toward the good, that is because of God, just as our existence is. So, we’re in complete agreement that God is the source of all reality. My objection to Calvinism is that, as I understand it, it holds that God is the one who refuses to turn men toward him, having eternally chosen that they should rather reject him and perish. That is abominable and makes God into a demon and worthy of contempt, as Mr. Bertonneau rightly notes above. Of course, it is absurd that we creatures would be better than our perfect creator, and so we cannot lay the cause of evil at God’s feet (to use a questionable image). So, we’re left with a mystery of why we human beings err — the inexplicable, unintelligible “reason” behind our lack of truth and good will. That is the fundamental story, but the phenomenal level is what I would like to address.
On the everyday level, why couldn’t our previous Christ-hater begin to see the good points of the gospel? As Christians, we come to a fuller understanding of the faith all the time. There are many aspects of Christian doctrine that used to appear objectionable to me until I considered them in a new way, sometimes by reading or hearing a different perspective that I never considered and sometimes from having one of those eureka moments that revealed something novel to me. [Either way, as above, I attribute all journeys toward truth as divinely inspired — revelation from above and below, so to speak. I differ from Calvinism with this in that God is constantly sending such revelations to all men (it’s casually called “life”), often through willing servants — i.e. Christians.] And, as you note, we gain additional information all the time — and we alter our judgments accordingly. Why couldn’t the Christ-hater experience a mind-shifting piece of information — such as a Christian who manifests Christ in his life? That seems to be the most useful evidence in the history of the faith for moving hearts and minds.
You contrast love and desire with knowledge, but I am not convinced of your argument. Take, for example, the common occurrence of someone hostile to Christianity who was raised in a perverse “Christian” home. Our “apostate” never actually knew the gospel; he simply experienced a mind-spinning set of contradictions tainted with hatred and vice. He may mock Jesus the Christ, and I do not disagree that such amounts to blasphemy of a sort, but he really isn’t mocking the Second Person of the Trinity but rather a grotesque caricature of him that exists in his mind. [Let’s bracket the tricky tangential questions about intensionality, and I’ll just say that, in some way, the objects of our consciousness are our mental constructions of them and, in some other way, they are the objects themselves, and one goal of knowledge is to shrink the distance between the two.] For he has never seen Christ, and, having never seen or heard about him, he has never truly rejected him. Then, this fellow encounters Christians (through providence, to be sure, in addition to Christians’ readily accepting to be wielded by their cosmic Field Marshal) who jar his expectations, differing as they do from the repulsive dysfunctional hypocrisy of his past experience. When things do not appear as we expect them, we tend to investigate more — and to modify our opinions as more information becomes available. And so, our lost sheep becomes found. This is not an exceptional story — it happens everyday, thank God.
It also seems that we do change what we love or desire, and this often (maybe always) happens with a change in our knowledge. I do not know whether Calvinism holds that men desire the Good by nature (I doubt it), but I subscribe to that doctrine. Men desire the Good (God) by nature, but they also desire all sorts of lower goods and rank them in importance differently. When men discover that something is truly more valuable than another, they alter their estimations. In such a way, they never change what they desire ultimately, but they frequently modify the ranking of goods, and this happens due to knowledge (or conversely to ignorance — and/or possibly unintelligible sin). We desire what we know and find good — whether people or art or animals or matters of sustenance. Life is a constant barrage of experiences wherein we discover new things — and taste and see whether they are good.
When a man finally witnesses the ultimate Good, he knows that his heart must rest in it (Him). As Christians, we have seen the light; we have found the true faith. The great commission is for us to share that amazing bit of good news to everyone. And in this, we have a purpose in God’s great strategic design — not that of puppets but that of soldiers.
Good-natured Professor Bertonneau responded to my comment by noting how good of a chap Alan Roebuck is. I responded:
I admit that there are many good folks who, sadly, are Calvinists (which makes me hate the error ever the more), but I find certain doctrines of their sect wicked. Blaming God for evil, which is what their doctrine ultimately does, is blasphemy — the worst kind of blasphemy — for it makes God into not-God. Of course, such is impossible, but it is also blasphemy — it “speaks evil.” And I do not expect a reconciliation of that difference. The move is so fundamental — it’s really a radical re-understanding of what (not to mention who) God is. It strikes me as Koranic, as you noted — God the Sovereign Will, divorced from Goodness. As for Augustine, I have a love-hate relationship with him. I love him for who he is (who cannot but love him as one gets to know him through his writings?), but I hate a good deal of his legacy. Yet, we cannot blame the bishop for the history of the West following his death.
Another good-natured Orthosphere writer, Kristor Lawson, once tried to defend my good nature to another Calvinist on the site. Unusual for him, he was wrong. I am not good-natured, at least not in that way. I hate Calvinism with red hot passion, as I have occasionally noted in posts. See, for example, “Ely Cathedral”:
The vistors’ center page mentions that Cromwell (hot coals be upon him) had the cathedral closed during his tyrannical reign, during which he used the cathedral as horse stables. Calvin and his minions were perhaps the most disgusting and worthless creatures to carry the name Christian before the French revolution.
In religion, I take cold, bloodless, intellectualized Calvinism as the most notable disembodiment of harmony between the Apollonian and the Dionysian. It is purely Apollonian, where the emotive, the bodily, and the thirst for transcending the self have been expelled as pagan accretions to popery. This most distilled form of Protestantism rids Christianity of all “religion of immanence”—and religion itself. It turns faith into propositional assent and the Christian life into social morality. In other words, it is a unique form of godless Stoicism interpreted through the languages and imagery of the scriptures.
From “Square Circle”:
Anyway, you can see how Mohammedanism and Calvinism are similar departures from the Christian tradition and from reason. For they hold that God creates arbitrary things arbitrarily. They separate the divine will from the divine reason and the divine essence, and by doing so, they rob God and the world that he makes of reason—their deity and their cosmos are mindless, just like that mechanistic pagan philosophers of old that Socrates attacks (and the mechanistic scientists today who reduce the world to atoms swirling in the void). It requires such a theological position to hold that God could will good to be bad and bad to be good . . . for it makes God’s will arbitrary and incomprehensible—even to God himself. It makes God a being . . . a limited, imperfect being in time, subject to change—divided and irrational. In short, it makes God worse than a good man. Therein, you can see how unenlightened piety can result in terrible blasphemy. For the Mohammedans, like the nominalists and the Calvinists who came later, posited what they did from a sense of piety . . . how can God be constrained? Yet, they understood not what they did, and the consequences have been disastrous.
From “C.S. Lewis: Hellbound?”:
The religion that Robbins holds is a perverse form of Christianity. Indeed, it is a disease of religion, whereby the natural perception and appreciation of the sacred that even the pagans enjoy has been stifled and suppressed. It is no wonder that such a malady of the soul has borne the secular atheism of modernity into our world . . . Ye shall know them by their fruits.
From “Calvinism Redux”:
I single out Calvinism from among the Protestant traditions for two reasons. First, as I just described, I think that Calvinism has been far more influential in shaping American society and religiosity. Lutherans, Anglicans, and even Christians from the ancient faiths in the United States often become Calvinists—mostly unawares—by imbibing their new national culture.
Second, as I have written before, I consider Calvinism to be the purest, most distilled form of Protestantism. This idea is controversial, and perhaps I am wrong, but it seems to me that Lutheranism and Anglicanism have strong traditional currents. They are breaks from Rome, but they, to varying extents, manage to hold onto the Catholic tradition in many matters. Calvinism, by contrast, is a rejection of the Catholic tradition. When I read Calvin, I was surprised to see how often he mentions the Fathers and their works. He often refers to councils, creeds, and ecclesial precedents. However, he employs such reference not as an authority for himself but as a foil to Roman doctrines and authority. In this, he does not transgress argumentative rules. It is permissible and useful to wield someone else’s authorities against him to show his inconsistency. Such does not imply that one holds them as an authority for himself. For Calvin and his followers claim for themselves an unadulterated understanding of Christian doctrine through their interpretation of the scriptures. The apostolic patristic ecclesial experience holds no authority for them when it conflicts with their peculiar interpretation of the Bible; in other worlds, it holds no authority.
I understand Protestantism as the spiritual form of modernity (I write a bit more about this here). Its specific difference, more than anything else, is a rejection of the past and of the past’s authority. It is inherently anti-traditional, which is why it continues to fragment doctrinally. Any new religion has doctrines that distinguish it from other religions, and it maintains such doctrines over time through its own tradition. Yet, if it is an inherent characteristic of the religion to throw off tradition, it will continually generate new religions. Indeed, Protestantism excels in the proliferation of new religions. When you witness inter-Protestant ecumenical rapprochement, it almost always occurs among groups that have lost interest in doctrine . . . Why worry about such differences? Just give us that mere Christianity . . .
The Reformation created various religious traditions that make up the essence of Protestantism, but in every way, Calvinism shows itself the more radical and, therefore, in my opinion, the more fitting representative of Protestantism. If you think that Protestantism is simply a movement to regain the religious teaching and practice of the early Christian community—without papist distortions—then you could argue that Anglicanism or Lutheranism or whatever else you hold to be true is the best exemplar of Protestantism. I, obviously, reject that definition of Protestantism; it is utterly ridiculous, given the distortions and innovations to which Protestantism has subjected the legacy of the Christian faith. The Reformation has more to do with post-scholastic philosophy and nominalism than with the world—and world view—of the New Testament. Calvin is but a pious Hobbes who works on different problems. . . .
Calvinism renounces the “religion of immanence,” which is, ultimately, all religion. The particular Christian and, in my opinion, archetypal version of the religion of immanence—the sacramental understanding of the world—is cast into the outer darkness by Calvin and his followers. In doing so, Calvinism has rendered the modern understanding of the world void of the divine. In place of seeing God in all things, we have a world thoroughly secularized. It is but a short distance from the profane to the dead, and our modern lifeless world of mechanism and chance owes its pedigree to Calvinism’s rejection of religion.
With Calvin himself, Calvinism ceases to be a religion. However, the Calvinist tradition has functioned as a deficient religion for its adherents over the last five centuries. As I suggested in the previous entry secundum Max Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, the inherent secularism of Calvinism may have channeled its people’s energies into extraordinary secular pursuits that brought about the Anglo-American modern world. Nonetheless, Calvinism’s Sunday services, reminders of divine sovereignty, and culture of biblical literacy kept most Calvinists Christian. However, century by century, the interior rot of spiritually starved Calvinists led many sects into consciously and openly post-religious existence. Consider how the Congregationalists became Unitarians and theosophists. Their most faithful descendents today pass their Sunday morns in the United Church of Christ, in light of which, decadent Calvinism is not even irreligious social morality but rather social immorality. Lest I scandalize those few pious Presbyterians left, I acknowledge that Calvin did not have Jeremiah Wright in mind when he exhorted the men of Geneva to preach Jesus Christ. Nonetheless, as the United Church of Christ, various Presbyterian assemblies, and other Reformed bodies show, Christian praxis, divorced from the sacramental life and the traditions of the Church, becomes mere social morality. In place of theosis, the secular Calvinists trumpet faddish interpretations of social justice.
One may argue that we cannot blame the sorry state of contemporary Western Christians on poor John Calvin. One could argue that the spirit of secularism has invaded all religious bodies, rendering cultural Catholics just as secularly minded toward their religion as people from the Calvinist tradition. However, I would respond that the spirit of secularism largely originates in Calvinism. We can thank John’s cursed gift for ruin on a ecumenical scale.
Of course, there have been many good and pious Christians who come from the Calvinist tradition. They suckle poison in their milk from birth and still manage to grow into men. Unlike Calvin’s view of man after the fall, I do not think that the Reformation reduced Protestant Man to a state of total depravity. Like the Mormons, Calvinists still read the holy scriptures, though with a sickly hermeneutic tradition. In the spirit of Augustine, I suspect that even the most egregious heretics benefit from proclaiming and hearing the name of Jesus Christ. Moreover, the Reformers managed to keep, piecemeal, elements of the Catholic tradition. I do not deny that, despite itself, Calvinism has nourished many souls. Nonetheless, it has served them poorly.
Jack the Ripper [the commentator whom I was addressing] finds my tangential attack on Calvinism to be a cheap shot. I think that it fits, and I have more than a general disdain for Calvinism. My hatred for it runs deep and wide; I see its deleterious effects everywhere. It has marred the civilization that I love and spiritually stunted, if not damned, millions of Christians who were trained to fear God but not to love him—or anything else. Clerical rhetoric aside, how does one love something that is ugly? Calvin’s depiction of God is ugly. Honestly consider the doctrine of God’s eternal plan to create men in order to damn them to everlasting hell and tell me that you do not find it revolting. Contrast the message of Calvin with that of Saint Paul in his second epistle to the Church at Corinth (5:14-21):
For the love of Christ constraineth us; because we thus judge, that if one died for all, then were all dead: And that he died for all, that they which live should not henceforth live unto themselves, but unto him which died for them, and rose again. Wherefore henceforth know we no man after the flesh: yea, though we have known Christ after the flesh, yet now henceforth know we him no more. Therefore if any man be in Christ, he is a new creature: old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new. And all things are of God, who hath reconciled us to himself by Jesus Christ, and hath given to us the ministry of reconciliation; To wit, that God was in Christ, reconciling the world unto himself, not imputing their trespasses unto them; and hath committed unto us the word of reconciliation. Now then we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God did beseech you by us: we pray you in Christ’s stead, be ye reconciled to God. For he hath made him to be sin for us, who knew no sin; that we might be made the righteousness of God in him.
I do not wish to engage in scriptural warfare, with contrasting passages, because it solves nothing. The tradition of the Church is not the tradition of John Calvin. The seed of Calvinism can be found in Augustine’s errors, novel in his own time and sensibly rejected for a millennium before the Reformation. If you wish to see thorough traditional biblical commentary with regard to Calvinist doctrine, the web provides an endless resource.
In short, Calvinism is a shameless abomination in Christian history. For centuries, it has given scandal to the name of Christ. Countless Christians have gone into apostasy not from sin but from a sense of decency and justice because all that they knew of God was through Calvin’s hideous blasphemy. Well-intentioned heathen have sunk further into hopelessness and despair or have chased idols through empty appetitive pursuits, art, scholarship, and political utopianism to quench their thirst for God, having found no living water in the dry well of Geneva’s lord.
Weber was likely right. Calvinism played the midwife for so many accomplishments—and for how many lost souls?
With the former, worship devolves into an intellectual act. Calvinists historically have attempted to remove all non-cognitive aspects of worship from their services and from their architecture. The sermon became the central act of a Christian service; instead of the holy mysteries, Calvinists receive unending catechesis. High walls were built around family enclosures so that the congregants could only hear the preacher’s words. Visual representations of Christ, the saints, and the holy stories were banned and destroyed in iconoclastic fits. The body no longer was useful for such cerebral work. Only the voice—and mostly the voice of the preacher—was allowed to excel in its natural talents to glorify God. I suspect that many crusty preachers in their secular academic robes—note well the relevant fact that Calvin did not wear vestments to his services but rather his university robe—considered hymns a condescension to human weakness. What perversity—but how fitting a perversion for the new Cartesian modern man of only mind and will. Whereas the Christian temples of East and West testify of God the creator, maker of heaven and earth and of all that is therein, whereas they celebrate in color, in glass, and in stone the providence of God throughout history, from Adam unto our very days, whereas the worship performed in them addresses men as bodies, souls, and spirits, Calvinism reduces the Word to words and worship to harsh Sunday school lessons.
From “Forgiveness Sunday”:
As a modern, it is difficult to approach the statements of Christ without hearing them through the medium of the contemporary world view, just as it is difficult for someone who has been tainted with Calvinism to read Saint Paul without seeing in his works Calvin’s ugly theology.
Clearly, New England was always a seedbed for political and religious lunacy. Mary Baker Eddy had a lot of company back then. We should not expect the progeny of utopian Calvinists to have turned out well balanced. Look at the history of the nineteenth century, and you will see that New England’s “progressivist” social engineers have been misunderstanding man and the human community for many generations. Perhaps, New England’s transformation was simply the maturation of its cultural life cycle. Maybe, secular Leftist Massachusetts is the existentially logical consequent of Congregationalism. Having no love for either, I still find it sad to know that the latter became the former.
I love how various feasts involve the blessing of something basic and earthy . . . water on Theophany, palms on Palm Sunday, eggs at Pascha, fruit on the Transfiguration. Irreligious and deracinated Protestants sometimes find such practices to be pagan, but they make manifest the Christian doctrine of Christ’s recapitulation and perfection of all creation. Even the pagans recognize the sacred. Calvinists do not excel in spirituality by dismissing the sacred. They rather lose all sense of transcendence. The logical conquence of Calvinism is indeed the United Church of Christ—faddish politics occasionally wrapped in scriptural swaddling clothes.
From “Mercer on South Africa”:
I do not find Mercer’s argument convincing. How is it that the Protestant Anglophone (or the Protestant Dutch) world did rather fine for itself for four centuries before it began to self destruct? I never have a good word to say about Calvinism, but I do not see how we can blame the English speaking peoples’ slow ethnic suigenocide on Calvinism, aside from its general deleterious effects on the souls of its confessors.
From “Mormons and the Church”:
As far as the lamentable history of the Puritans’ children, well, I think that their original Calvinist and egalitarian errors have evolved into the chief perversions of American society. Look at the intellectual history of New England since the eighteenth century, and you will find one malady of the spirit after another. Those WASPs have done much to destroy the world. Had they been mediocre or weak folks, they would not have done as much damage. So, I suppose that Mormons were part of this story, yet their own mutations were far more beneficial. I would rather live in a country populated by Mormons than one populated by Unitarians or the average congregants in the United Church of Christ—those religious cultures most directly descended from the Mayflower.
Like Charlton, I am impressed by how Mormons have semi-corrected many of the problems inherent in the Protestantism of their ancestors. Mormons respect and acknowledge hierarchy, reject iconoclasm, and have some sense of sacramentality, though without decent metaphysical support. Mormons do a fine job in seeing one’s life as the setting of both spiritual warfare and the preliminary taste of paradise rather than a mere test that determines one’s everlasting fate in “real life.” Mormons abandoned the bibliolatry of their forebears, though they kept the mistrust and outright ignorance of the continual apostolic tradition of the Church. In other words, Mormons are extremely fascinating.
From “Ancient Jewish Icons”:
The exhibit as well as my amateur archaeological adventures in the Holy Land contradict the iconoclastic notions of biblical Israel held by certain Protestant groups—as if the detailed descriptions of the two Temples and of the Temple rituals in holy writ were not enough to dispel the folly of white walled Calvinists. The Lord, the Lord our God, is a Lord of color and form. Let the iconoclasts seek after their nihilism; we worship the Lord in spirit and in truth.
It seems rather funny now that I seriously considered attending Calvin College in Grand Rapids. Incidentally, my first formal Trinitarian instruction occurred while I shadowed a theology course there. Moreover, I must admit, heresy or not, Calvin College had the most attractive student population that I have ever seen—that lovely Dutch-American blood . . . which reminds me of perhaps the greatest indictment against Calvinism, yet—to have marred such a gorgeous and genial people as the Dutch. One might as well have rendered an elf into an orc!
Kristor offers insight as usual on the Orthosphere: “Sex in Church.” I highly recommend it. From the brief essay:
The West went off the rails when we began to think that the symbols of our liturgies supervened upon physics, as merely conventional epiphenomena thereof, and as therefore deficiently real, or material, or important, so that we could with impunity make of them whatever we wished. In truth, of course, the supervention runs the other way: physics supervenes upon, and is itself a symbolon of, that Truth to whom liturgical symbols all refer, and intend, and from whom they are derived; so that all importance, all material, all phenomena are enactions of those symbols, or of their functions, implicates, and corollaries. And you can’t control the Truth, for he controls you, absolutely. No matter what you think or do, he is in fact your Lord. If you try to mess with him, you only mess up yourself.
Recently, I was arguing with a friend over “homosexual marriage,” and my friend asked whether the Church should allow marriage for sterile men and women who are incapable of procreation. I replied that it should (as it does), even though one of the chief roles of marriage is for the creation and raising of children. For marriage is more than a social institution, albeit the foundation of society, and more than a biological necessity for the continuation of the race, though it fosters human survival and allows for human flourishing. For marriage is primarily a reflection of truth—that is, a reflection of God and of God’s providence. The masculine and the feminine are not social constructs or grammatical conventions but distinctions at the heart of being. As Saint Maximus (along with the wise from many religions) reminds us, man is the microcosmos. Human beings are God’s keystone on the edifice of the universe that crowns and recapitulates all the motifs of the overall structure—and it is no architectural flaw that we are male and female. Likewise, marriage is central to God’s impressive design—a masterful synthesis of those complementary patterns. “Same sex marriage” is not only sterile, but its sterility is a consequence of its absurdity. For it fails to instantiate marriage at all—it misses the mark completely. It can only grossly parody the unification of the masculine and the feminine in a manner similar to the way the stage can only imaginarily represent love or virtue. Yet, drama recognizes this shortcoming, as do its participants and audience. The abomination of our age has no such sobriety—or modesty.
Bruce Charlton has recently written a lovely piece that I recommend: “Peak experiences - the Christian difference.” Read it, and enter into the joy of the Lord.
I wish you a blessed feast of the Dormition today!
On the occasion of the feast, I offer Kristor’s heavenly musings on the Orthosphere yesterday: “Creatura : Creator :: Map : Territory.” It is worth your time.
Last week, I read an interesting review of David Holmes’ The Faiths of the Founding Fathers in the National Catholic Reporter (yes, the Fishwrap for you fellow readers of Fr. Z.): “Religion & the Founding: Holmes’ ‘The Faiths of the Founding Fathers.’” Holmes appears to avoid the Scylla and Charybdis simplifications in interpreting America’s founding elite’s notions about religion.
As I read the news last night, I discovered that the Protestant Church of England had voted earlier in the week to ordain women as bishops. It does not surprise me. Indeed, one wonders why they waited so long; American Anglicans installed their first gynobishop in A.D. 1989 in Massachusetts. The Anglicans have been ordaining priestesses for generations (and since A.D. 1994 for the Church of England), and I never understood why episcopettes would cause controversy for a sect that ordained priestesses. When you disregard reason and revelation the way that modernist Protestants have, everything is permitted. Why not?
I offer two timely passages on placing women in the Church’s holy orders—one by Anglican C.S. Lewis and the other by Orthodox priest Alexander Schmemann. Here is Lewis’ “Priestesses in the Church?”:
“I should like Balls infinitely better,” said Caroline Bingley, “if they were carried on in a different manner ... It would surely be much more rational if conversation instead of dancing made the order of the day.”
“Much more rational, I dare say,” replied her brother, “but it would not be near so much like a Ball.” We are told that the lady was silenced: yet it could be maintained that Jane Austen has not allowed Bingley to put forward the full strength of his position. He ought to have replied with a distinguo. In one sense, conversation is more rational for conversation may exercise the reason alone, dancing does not. But there is nothing irrational in exercising other powers than our reason. On certain occasions and for certain purposes, the real irrationality is with those who will not do so. The man who would try to break a horse or write a poem or beget a child by pure syllogizing would be an irrational man; though at the same time syllogizing is in itself a more rational activity than the activities demanded by these achievements. It is rational not to reason, or not to limit oneself to reason, in the wrong place; and the more rational a man is, the better he knows this.
These remarks are not intended as a contribution to the criticism of Pride and Prejudice. They came into my head when I heard that the Church of England was being advised to declare women capable of Priests’ Orders. I am, indeed, informed that such a proposal is very unlikely to be seriously considered by the authorities. To take such a revolutionary step at the present moment, to cut ourselves off from the Christian past and to widen the divisions between ourselves and other Churches by establishing an order of priestesses in our midst, would be an almost wanton degree of imprudence. And the Church of England herself would be torn in shreds by the operation. My concern with the proposal is of a more theoretical kind. The question involves something even deeper than a revolution in order.
I have every respect for those who wish women to be priestesses. I think they are sincere and pious and sensible people. Indeed, in a way they are too sensible. That is where my dissent from them resembles Bingley’s dissent from his sister. I am tempted to say that the proposed arrangement would make us much more rational “but not near so much like a Church”.
For at first sight all the rationality (in Caroline Bingley’s sense) is on the side of the innovators. We are short of priests. We have discovered in one profession after another that women can do very well all sorts of things which were once supposed to be in the power of men alone. No one among those who dislike the proposal is maintaining that women are less capable than men of piety, zeal, learning and whatever else seems necessary for the pastoral office. What, then, except prejudice begotten by tradition, forbids us to draw on the huge reserves which could pour into the priesthood if women were here, as in so many other professions, put on the same footing as men? And against this flood of common sense, the opposers (many of them women) can produce at first nothing but an inarticulate distaste, a sense of discomfort which they themselves find it hard to analyse.
That this reaction does not spring from any contempt for women is, I think, plain from history. The Middle Ages carried their reverence for one Woman to a point at which the charge could be plausibly made that the Blessed Virgin became in their eyes almost “a fourth Person of the Trinity”. But never, so far as I know, in all those ages was anything remotely resembling a sacerdotal office attributed to her. All salvation depends on the decision which she made in the words Ecce ancilla; she is united in nine months’ inconceivable intimacy with the eternal Word; she stands at the foot of the cross. But she is absent both from the Last Supper and from the descent of the Spirit at Pentecost. Such is the record of Scripture. Nor can you daff it aside by saying that local and temporary conditions condemned women to silence and private life. There were female preachers. One man had four daughters who all “prophesied”, i.e. preached. There were prophetesses even in Old Testament times. Prophetesses, not priestesses.
At this point the common sensible reformer is apt to ask why, if women can preach, they cannot do all the rest of a priest’s work. This question deepens the discomfort of my side. We begin to feel that what really divides us from our opponents is a difference between the meaning which they and we give to the word “priest”. The more they speak (and speak truly) about the competence of women in administration, their tact and sympathy as advisers, their national talent for “visiting”, the more we feel that the central thing is being forgotten. To us a priest is primarily a representative, a double representative, who represents us to God and God to us. Our very eyes teach us this in church. Sometimes the priest turns his back on us and faces the East - he speaks to God for us: sometimes he faces us and speaks to us for God. We have no objection to a woman doing the first: the whole difficulty is about the second. But why? Why should a woman not in this sense represent God? Certainly not because she is necessarily, or even probably, less holy or less charitable or stupider than a man. In that sense she may be as “God-like” as a man; and a given women much more so than a given man. The sense in which she cannot represent God will perhaps be plainer if we look at the thing the other way round.
Suppose the reformer stops saying that a good woman may be like God and begins saying that God is like a good woman. Suppose he says that we might just as well pray to “Our Mother which art in heaven” as to “Our Father”. Suppose he suggests that the Incarnation might just as well have taken a female as a male form, and the Second Person of the Trinity be as well called the Daughter as the Son. Suppose, finally, that the mystical marriage were reversed, that the Church were the Bridegroom and Christ the Bride. All this, as it seems to me, is involved in the claim that a woman can represent God as a priest does.
Now it is surely the case that if all these supposals were ever carried into effect we should be embarked on a different religion. Goddesses have, of course, been worshipped: many religions have had priestesses. But they are religions quite different in character from Christianity. Common sense, disregarding the discomfort, or even the horror, which the idea of turning all our theological language into the feminine gender arouses in most Christians, will ask “Why not? Since God is in fact not a biological being and has no sex, what can it matter whether we say He or She, Father or Mother, Son or Daughter?”
But Christians think that God Himself has taught us how to speak of Him. To say that it does not matter is to say either that all the masculine imagery is not inspired, is merely human in origin, or else that, though inspired, it is quite arbitrary and unessential. And this is surely intolerable: or, if tolerable, it is an argument not in favour of Christian priestesses but against Christianity. It is also surely based on a shallow view of imagery. Without drawing upon religion, we know from our poetical experience that image and apprehension cleave closer together than common sense is here prepared to admit; that a child who has been taught to pray to a Mother in Heaven would have a religious life radically different from that of a Christian child. And as image and apprehension are in an organic unity, so, for a Christian, are human body and human soul.
The innovators are really implying that sex is something superficial, irrelevant to the spiritual life. To say that men and women are equally eligible for a certain profession is to say that for the purposes of that profession their sex is irrelevant. We are, within that context, treating both as neuters.
As the State grows more like a hive or an ant-hill it needs an increasing number of workers who can be treated as neuters. This may be inevitable for our secular life. But in our Christian life we must return to reality. There we are not homogeneous units, but different and complementary organs of a mystical body. Lady Nunburnholme has claimed that the equality of men and women is a Christian principle. I do not remember the text in scripture nor the Fathers, nor Hooker, nor the Prayer Book which asserts it; but that is not here my point. The point is that unless “equal” means “interchangeable”, equality makes nothing for the priesthood of women. And the kind of equality which implies that the equals are interchangeable (like counters or identical machines) is, among humans, a legal fiction. It may be a useful legal fiction. But in church we turn our back on fictions. One of the ends for which sex was created was to symbolize to us the hidden things of God. One of the functions of human marriage is to express the nature of the union between Christ and the Church. We have no authority to take the living and semitive figures which God has painted on the canvas of our nature and shift them about as if they were mere geometrical figures.
This is what common sense will call “mystical”. Exactly. The Church claims to be the bearer of a revelation. If that claim is false then we want not to make priestesses but to abolish priests. If it is true, then we should expect to find in the Church an element which unbelievers will call irrational and which believers will call supra-rational. There ought to be something in it opaque to our reason though not contrary to it - as the facts of sex and sense on the natural level are opaque. And that is the real issue. The Church of England can remain a church only if she retains this opaque element. If we abandon that, if we retain only what can be justified by standards of prudence and convenience at the bar of enlightened common sense, then we exchange revelation for that old wraith Natural Religion.
It is painful, being a man, to have to assert the privilege, or the burden, which Christianity lays upon my own sex. I am crushingly aware how inadequate most of us are, in our actual and historical individualities, to fill the place prepared for us. But it is an old saying in the army that you salute the uniform not the wearer. Only one wearing the masculine uniform can (provisionally, and till the Parousia) represent the Lord to the Church: for we are all, corporately and individually, feminine to Him. We men may often make very bad priests. That is because we are insufficiently masculine. It is no cure to call in those who are not masculine at all. A given man may make a very bad husband; you cannot mend matters by trying to reverse the roles. He may make a bad male partner in a dance. The cure for that is that men should more diligently attend dancing classes; not that the ballroom should henceforward ignore distinctions of sex and treat all dancers as neuter. That would, of course, be eminently sensible, civilized, and enlightened, but, once more, “not near so much like a Ball”.
And this parallel between the Church and the Ball is not so fanciful as some would think. The Church ought to be more like a Ball than it is like a factory or a political party. Or, to speak more strictly, they are at the circumference and the Church at the Centre and the Ball comes in between. The factory and the political party are artificial creations - “a breath can make them as a breath has made”. In them we are not dealing with human beings in their concrete entirety only with “hands” or voters. I am not of course using “artificial” in any derogatory sense. Such artifices are necessary: but because they are our artifices we are free to shuffle, scrap, and experiment as we please. But the Ball exists to stylize something which is natural and which concerns human beings in their entirety-namely, courtship. We cannot shuffle or tamper so much. With the Church, we are farther in: for there we are dealing with male and female not merely as facts of nature but as the live and awful shadows of realities utterly beyond our control and largely beyond our direct knowledge. Or rather, we are not dealing with them but (as we shall soon learn if we meddle) they are dealing with us.
And Fr. Alexander Schmemann’s letter “On Women’s Ordination”:
When you asked me to outline the Orthodox reaction to the idea of women’s ordination to the priesthood, I thought at first that to do so would not be too difficult. It is not difficult, indeed, simply to state that the Orthodox Church is against women’s priesthood and to enumerate as fully as possible the dogmatical, canonical, and spiritual reasons for that opposition.
On second thought, however, I became convinced that such an answer would be not only useless, but even harmful. Useless, because all such “formal reasons” - scriptural, traditional, canonical - are well known to the advocates of women’s ordination, as is also well known our general ecclesiological stand which, depending on their mood and current priorities, our Western Brothers either hail as Orthodoxy’s “main” ecumenical contribution or dismiss as archaic, narrow-minded, and irrelevant. Harmful, because true formally, this answer would still vitiate the real Orthodox position by reducing it to a theological context and perspective, alien to the Orthodox mind. For the Orthodox Church has never faced this question, it is for us totally extrinsic, a casus irrealis for which we find no basis, no terms of reference in our Tradition, in the very experience of the Church, and for the discussion of which we are therefore simply not prepared.
Such is then my difficulty. I cannot discuss the problem itself because to do so would necessitate the elucidation of our approach - not to women and to priesthood only - but, above all to God in his Triune Life, to Creation, Fall and Redemption, to the Church and the mystery of her life, to the deification of man and the consummation of all things in Christ. Short of all this it would remain incomprehensible, I am sure, why the ordination of women to priesthood is tantamount for us to a radical and irreparable mutilation of the entire faith, the rejection of the whole Scripture, and, needless to say, the end of all “dialogues.” Short of all this my answer will sound like another “conservative” and “traditional” defense of the status quo, of precisely that which many Christians today, having heard it too many times, reject as hypocrisy, lack of openness to God’s will, blindness to the world, etc. Obviously enough those who reject Tradition would not listen once more to an argument ex traditione….
But to what will they listen? Our amazement - and the Orthodox reaction is above all that of amazement - is precisely about the change and, to us, incomprehensible hastiness with which the question of women’s ordination was, first, accepted as an issue, then quickly reduced to the level of a disciplinary “matter” and finally identified as an issue of policy to be dealt with by a vote! In this strange situation all I can do is to try to convey to you this amazement by briefly enumerating its main “components” as I see and understand them.
The first dimension of our amazement can be termed “ecumenical.” The debate on women’s ordination reveals something which we have suspected for a long time but which now is confirmed beyond any doubt: the total truly built-in indifference of the Christian West to anything beyond the sphere of its own problematics, of its own experience. I can only repeat here what I have said before: even the so-called “ecumenical movement,” notwithstanding its claims to the contrary, has always been, and still is, a purely Western phenomenon, based on Western presuppositions and determined by a specifically Western agenda. This is not “pride” or “arrogance.” On the contrary, the Christian West is almost obsessed with a guilt complex and enjoys nothing better than self-criticism and self condemnation. It is rather a total inability to transcend itself, to accept the simple idea that its own experience, problems, thought forms and priorities may not be universal, that they themselves may need to be evaluated and judged in the light of a truly universal, truly “Catholic” experience. Western Christians would almost enthusiastically judge and condemn themselves, but on their own terms, within their own hopelessly “Western” perspective. Thus when they decide—on the basis of their own possibly limited and fragmented, specifically Western, “cultural situation”—that they must “repair” injustices made to women, they plan to do it immediately without even asking what the “others” may think about it, and are sincerely amazed and even saddened by lack, on the part of these “others” of ecumenical spirit, sympathy and comprehension.
Personally, I have often enough criticized the historical limitations of the Orthodox mentality not to have the right to say in all sincerity that to me the debate on women’s ordination seems to be provincial, deeply marked, and even determined by Western self-centeredness and self-sufficiency, by a naive, almost childish, conviction that every “trend” in the Western culture justifies a radical rethinking of the entire Christian tradition. How many such “trends” we have witnessed during the last decades of our troubled century! How many corresponding “theologies”! The difference this time, however, is that one deals in this particular debate not with a passing intellectual and academic “fad” like “death of God,” “secular city,” “celebration of life,” etc.—which, after it has produced a couple of ephemeral best-sellers, simply disappears, but with the threat of an irreversible and irreparable act which, if it becomes reality, will produce a new, and this time, I am convinced, final division among Christians, and will signify, at least for the Orthodox, the end of all dialogues.
It is well known that the advocates of women’s ordination explain the Scriptural and the traditional exclusion of women from ministry by “cultural conditioning.” If Christ did not include women into the Twelve, if the Church for centuries did not include them into priesthood, it is because of “culture” which would have made it impossible and unthinkable then. It is not my purpose to discuss here the theological and exegetical implications of this view as well as its purely historical basis, which incidentally seems to me extremely weak and shaky; what is truly amazing is that while absolutely convinced that they understand past “cultures,” the advocates of women’s ordination seem to be totally unaware of their own cultural “conditioning” of their own surrender to culture.
How else can one explain their readiness to accept what may prove to be a passing phenomenon and what, at any rate, is a phenomenon barely at its beginning (not to speak of the women’s liberation movement, which at present is nothing but search and experimentation) as a sufficient justification for a radical change in the very structure of the Church?
How else, furthermore, are we to explain that this movement is accepted on its own terms, within the perspective of “rights”, “justice,” “equality,” Etc.—all categories whose ability adequately to express the Christian faith and to be applied as such within the Church is, to say the least, questionable?
The sad truth is that the very idea of women’s ordination, as it is presented and discussed today, is the result of too many confusions and reductions. If its root is surrender to “culture”, its pattern of development is shaped by a surrender to “clericalism.” It is indeed almost entirely dominated by the old “clerical” view of the Church and the double “reduction” interest in it. The reduction on the one hand, of the Church to a “power structure,” the reduction on the other hand, of that power structure to clergy. To the alleged “inferiority” of women within the secular power structure, corresponds their “inferiority,” i.e., their exclusion from clergy, within the ecclesiastical power structure. To their “liberation” in the secular society must therefore correspond their “liberation,” i.e., ordination, in the Church.
But the Church simply cannot be reduced to these categories. As long as we try to measure the ineffable mystery of her life by concepts and ideas a priori alien to her very essence, we entirely mutilate her, and her real power, her glory and beauty, and her transcendent truth simply escape us.
That is why in conclusion of this letter I can only confess, without explaining and justifying this confession by my “proofs.” I can confess that the non-ordination of women to priesthood has nothing, absolutely nothing, to do with whatever “inferiority” we can invent or imagine. In the essential reality which alone constitutes the content of our faith and shapes the entire life of the Church, in the reality of the Kingdom of God which is perfect communion, perfect knowledge, perfect love, and ultimately the “deification” of man, there is truly “neither male nor female.” More than that, in this reality, of which we are made partakers here and now, we all, men and women, without any distinction, are “Kings and priests,” for it is the essential priesthood of the human nature and vocation that Christ has restored to us.
It is of this priestly life, it is of this ultimate reality, that the Church is both gift and acceptance. And that she may be this, that she may always and everywhere be the gift of the Spirit without any measure or limitations, the Son of God offered himself in a unique sacrifice, and made this unique sacrifice and this unique priesthood the very foundation, indeed the very “form” of the Church.
This priesthood is Christ’s, not ours. None of us, man or woman, has any “right” to it; it is emphatically not one of human vocations, analogous, even if superior, to all others. The priest in the Church is not “another” priest, and the sacrifice he offers is not “another” sacrifice. It is forever and only Christ’s priesthood and Christ’s sacrifice—for, in the words of our Prayers of Offertory, it is “Thou who offerest and Thou who art offered, it is Thou who receivest and Thou who distributest….” And thus the “institutional” priest in the Church has no “ontology” of his own. It exists only to make Christ himself present, to make this unique Priesthood and this unique Sacrifice the source of the Church’s life and the “acquisition” by men of the Holy Spirit. And if the bearer, the icon and the fulfiller of that unique priesthood, is man and not woman, it is because Christ is man and not woman…
Why? This of course is the only important, the only relevant question. The one precisely that no “culture,” no “sociology,” no “history,” and even no “exegesis” can answer. For it can be answered only by theology in the primordial and essential meaning of that word in the Church; as the contemplation and vision of the Truth itself, as communion with the uncreated Divine Light. It is only here, in this purified and restored vision that we might begin to understand why the ineffable mystery of the relationship between God and His Creation, between God and His chosen people, between God and His Church, are “essentially” revealed to us as a nuptial mystery, as fulfillment of a mystical marriage. Why in other terms, Creation itself, the Church herself, man and the world themselves, when contemplated in their ultimate truth and destiny, are revealed to us as Bride, as Woman clothed in sun; why in the very depth of her love and knowledge, of her joy and communion, the Church identifies herself with one Woman, whom she exalts as “more honorable than the Cherubim, and beyond compare more glorious than the Seraphim.”
Is it this mystery that has to be “understood” by means of our broken and fallen world, which knows and experiences itself only in its brokenness and fragmentation, its tensions and dichotomies and which, as such, is incapable of the ultimate vision? Or is it this vision and this unique experience that must again become to us the “means” of our understanding of the world, the starting point and the very possibility of a truly Divine victory over all that in this world is but human, historical and cultural?
Contemporary man appears to hate the particularity of life. He cannot abide the limitations of nature and circumstance that render individuals male, female, old, young, Chinese, Icelandic, Christian, Hindu, industrious, lazy, smart, dull, neighbor, foreigner, husband, wife, neighbor’s wife, and so on. He refuses to discriminate—that is, to notice reality—and he wants to flatten everything to bare abstract units, whether atoms in physics or autonomous individual wills or selves in politics. How suitable is contemporary man a child of his nominalist forebears! Nominalism began as form of religious piety that wished to respect the omnipotence of God, but it was inherited and celebrated by men who sought to master nature without any inconvenient moral restrictions by natural law. To them, categories of beings are simply conventions upon which men agree. Yet, epistemology quickly becomes unworkable if everything is radically distinct and unique with no pattern or ordering among beings. How much cleaner (and more convenient) it is to affirm only atoms and their interaction. When one reduces everything to matter, then manipulation comes without guilt—technology is simply an advanced level of building blocks. If one can do it, then one may do it. Why not? Why is one arrangement preferable or “better” than another?
Likewise, if we try to salvage humanity from this nihilistic mess—if we attempt Kant’s heraclean effort to found and to safeguard human dignity in a disenchanted levelled world—then we may approach human affairs by positing individual rational agents instead of the messy and murky world of blood, sweat, and tears (of sexes, families, clans, tribes, nations, and civilizations). Like nominalism, this effort seems well intentioned in the beginning, but the reduction of human beings in their diversity to units of will and calculation has served the manipulators well. Why bother with the parochial concerns of these residents or that tribe? Why indulge regressive superstitious attitudes about modesty, sanctity, or taboo? Efficiency, utility, and “rationality” demand otherwise! Why not require travelers to submit to virtual strip searches? Why not demolish a quarter to build an interstate highway? Why not inject women with abortifacients? Why not modify language according to political fads? Why not treat the entire human race as your very own ant colony? And thus you give the masters of Lewis’ Abolition of Man a carte blanche to do what they choose. It is for the good of the abstract calculating self interested will, after all . . . by which a master of nature means “my will.”
What does this have to do with English episcopettes? I think that leftist movements toward “equality” presuppose the reductionist mentality just mentioned, wherein nature is discounted as unimportant and human beings are treated as depersonalized fungible units. The movement to ordain women neuters the human race as it disregards sex as irrelevant—“gender is a social construct.” Indeed, the same spirit disregards everything as irrelevant when it is convenient to do so. To make people into units of will or appetite or calculation is to render them LEGOS for someone else. How ironic it is that Kant’s intellectual progeny would ultimately fail his fundamental moral law—and to such a Mephistophelean degree!