On Friday, we looked at the extremely weird phenomenon of the Reactionary who tries to deflect from Catholic Social Teaching concerning the relationship of rich and poor by arguing that Real Catholics[TM] should be antisemites and therefore any Catholic who is not an antisemite can be ignored as a contemptible “Vatican II liberal” (since Vatican II rejects all this stuff in Nostra Aetate). The particular bizarro argument I ran across appealed to the Fourth Lateran Council’s canons which prescribed the following in Canons 67-70:
Jews should be compelled to make satisfaction for the tithes and offerings to churches, which the Christians supplied before their properties fell into of the Jews.
Jews and Saracens of both sexes in every Christian province must be distinguished from the Christian by a difference of dress. On Passion Sunday and the last three days of Holy Week they may not appear in public.
Jews are not to be given public offices. Anyone instrumental in doing this is to be punished. A Jewish official is to be denied all intercourse with Christians.
Jews who have received baptism are to be restrained by the prelates from returning to their former rite.
A Normal Catholic, appalled by these canons, wrote me to say:
Wow there’s some disturbing stuff in there….
How do we reconcile that with any kind of requirement to follow any other Canon of any other Council?
By recognizing that our ancestors were, just like us, mortals constrained by sin and cultural blindnesses, but also, just like us, not wholly so. Lateran 4 took place at a time when everybody believed that “Error has no rights” and nobody had yet worked out that persons in error do have rights. We are not smarter or better then them. We merely stand on the shoulders of the giants who worked such issues out. And we still have a helluva long way to go.
And, by the way, before we go on, it is important to recognize that nobody today really believes error has rights either. That is why nobody in their five wits thinks that if somebody from the Flat Earth Society declares he should be put in charge of NASA, his opinions are just as valid as a round earther’s and he is a victim of injustice if he is denied the job. The only thing we differ from medievals about is not the question of whether error has rights, but the question of which errors we regard as important. We no longer tend to see theological differences as matters of life or death and so imagine we are tolerant when really we are often merely indifferent. But with issues that matter to us, not a few post-moderns can be just as willing to use short cuts in persecuting those we believe to be in error as any medieval mob.
Indeed, the very concept of “human rights” was only beginning to be worked out as a principle in law by Catholic theologians and canonists at about the time of Lateran 4 and the process still had centuries to go to reach the point where perceived outsiders to the dominant community could hope for equal treatment under the law. And given that America is now the biggest gulag on Planet Earth and that gulag jails the brown and poor at percentages vastly disproportionate to the mainstream population, we are in a poor position to brag of our superiority.
Relatedly, it is only in my lifetime that Vatican II could articulate that “Man is the only creature on earth whom God has willed for his own sake.” And we have only barely begun to scratch the surface of the implications of that epoch-making formulation in Catholic anthropology.
In short, that doctrine develops and that prudential applications of doctrine are sometimes bad is no argument at all that the Church not be heeded. The overwhelming bulk of the Church’s conciliar canons and papal decrees about this and that are not permanently binding dogmatic definitions of the Faith, but are simple prudential human decisions and choices about how to apply the principles of the Faith to particular cultural situations. And none of these are protected by infallibility or immune to human sin, blindness, or ignorance in the least.
To give an example of the distinction between unbreakable dogmatic development and merely prudential applications of such developments, consider the Council of Jerusalem in Acts 15.
The purpose of the Council was to work out the question of whether Gentile converts to the Faith must first become Jews in order to become Christians. In a monumental decision inspired by the Holy Spirit, the Council realized that God was calling Gentiles into the Church without the need for circumcision or keep kosher and the other ceremonial laws of Moses. As God had told Peter, “What God has cleansed, you must not call common” (Ac 10:15). So Peter declares (and the Council concurs):
“Brethren, you know that in the early days God made choice among you, that by my mouth the Gentiles should hear the word of the gospel and believe. And God who knows the heart bore witness to them, giving them the Holy Spirit just as he did to us; and he made no distinction between us and them, but cleansed their hearts by faith. Now therefore why do you make trial of God by putting a yoke upon the neck of the disciples which neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear? But we believe that we shall be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will.” (Ac 15:7–11)
Doctrinally and dogmatically speaking, this (and particularly the bolded text) is the heart, soul, and guts of the Church’s doctrinal development in this council: Gentile Christians, just like Jewish ones, were saved by faith in the grace of Christ and not by ceremonial works like circumcision. This opened the way for the Church’s mission to the entire Gentile world.
Only here’s the thing: that decision aroused big suspicions in Jewish culture. So the Church (populated by almost nobody but Jews at that point) needed to find a way to thread the needle of welcoming Gentiles without imposing Jewish cultural distinctives on them, while at the same time not alienating their own people. So they sent out this letter to Gentile converts:
“The brethren, both the apostles and the elders, to the brethren who are of the Gentiles in Antioch and Syria and Cilicia, greeting. Since we have heard that some persons from us have troubled you with words, unsettling your minds, although we gave them no instructions, it has seemed good to us in assembly to choose men and send them to you with our beloved Barnabas and Paul, men who have risked their lives for the sake of our Lord Jesus Christ. We have therefore sent Judas and Silas, who themselves will tell you the same things by word of mouth. For it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to lay upon you no greater burden than these necessary things: that you abstain from what has been sacrificed to idols and from blood and from what is strangled and from unchastity. If you keep yourselves from these, you will do well. Farewell.” (Ac 15:23–29)
Note what is happening here. The letter only alludes by implication to the dogmatic teaching of the Council (that we are saved by the grace of Christ through faith and not by “works of the law” [ie. Mosaic ceremonial observances]). The real focus of the letter is on a series of prudential judgments, some of which are permanently applicable (avoid sexual immorality) and some of which are highly culturally conditioned (ie. that bloody meat sacrificed to idols should not be eaten). Why the latter command? Because such dietary habits were scandalous to Jews and the Church was trying to avoid unnecessary scandal.
Eventually the Church dropped this discipline concerning meat. It did not drop either the dogmatic development about salvation by grace through faith nor about the demand to avoid sexual immorality.
There will never be a time when the Church will command us to indulge in sexual immorality. But the prohibitions about food were tactical attempts to not give unnecessary scandal to Jews suspicious of Christians welcoming Gentiles. There’s nothing inherently wrong about eating blood or strangled animals. All foods are clean. But for that time and place, Jews regarded Gentiles as bound by Noachide laws and so the Church told Gentiles not to give unnecessary scandal to Jews. Eventually, that tactical choice would be eased once the split between church and synagogue became irrevocable and European Christians would go on to enjoy their blood sausages and blood pudding and the Church would not say boo about. Even the issue of food sacrificed to idols would quickly receive a much more nuanced approach from Paul at Corinth just a decade or so later, precisely because prudential judgment requires not flat-footed fundamentalism but prudence (see 1 Cor 8).
Paul knows perfectly well that nearly all the meat bought at market in Corinth comes from pagan sacrifices. His attitude is that food cannot give you pagan cooties, so thank God for it and enjoy. But if it causes your neighbor with a scandalized conscience to think they are somehow participating in the sacrifice, then don’t eat it–for the sake of their tender conscience, not because you are in danger of pagan cooties. It’s the same attitude that lies behind the blood prohibition, don’t selfishly indulge yourself without regard for the scandalized conscience of people who do not yet grasp that Jesus made all foods clean. So there is a distinction between certain unchanging principles of doctrine (for instance, salvation by grace through faith in Christ, love your neighbor, etc.) and prudential applications of that in specific (and ever-changing) social situations. The former are protected by infallibility. The latter are not. The Church can make good and bad judgment calls in the arena of prudential judgments.
The highly culturally conditioned (and unjust) mistreatment of Jews by Lateran 4 is an example of a bad judgment call. It was the fruit of the common belief that because error has no rights, neither do persons in error have rights. Precisely what the Holy Spirit moved the Church to see after centuries of painful struggle is that persons in error do have rights and that more than this, persons (every person, Christian or not) has a dignity that derives from being in the image and likeness of God and that this dignity supercedes the demand of every human system whether political, economic, scientific, philosophical, ideological, religious–or ecclesial.
Accordingly–and precisely for dogmatic theological reasons–the sin of antisemitism was abandoned and the Church rejected its long legacy of antisemitism with Nostra Aetate.
Why did it take so long? What can I say? Human beings (all of us, not just the Catholic ones) take freaking forever to figure things out. And even when we do, such steps forward are often extremely fragile and subject to being forgotten if we are placed under much stress. So, for instance, (as the spectacle E. Michael Jones’ Holocaust Denial–and my interlocutor’s antisemitism–shows) antisemitism is by no means dead. Similarly, stuff like slavery still remains like a dormant virus in human society and will return as soon as we drop our vigilance. But the Church, having now definitively ratcheted forward her doctrine on these points will never go back. That’s one of the nice things about dogma. What can shift many times as a cultural mood sticks around in the mind of the Church once she makes up her mind and formulates it as doctrine. Slavery, tolerated for so long as (like war) simply the Way of the World has been definitively rejected as gravely and intrinsically immoral. There is no going back on that now.
That said, I can think of no merely prudential application of the Church’s teaching that is or need be eternal. Many of the Church’s prudential judgments may be pretty sound and applicable for a long time. Some may be dumb or even wicked from the outset. All of them are culturally conditioned and when those conditions change may well become useless or even harmful. I, for one, appreciate the common sense of no longer bothering about blood sausages or rare steak. This is but one example of the highly culturally conditioned way in which prudential applications of the Church’s teaching have worked their way through history. Other prudential judgments have not, alas, been as informed by charity or good sense. Among them the attempts by the Church as 800 pound gorilla at Lateran 4 to force non-Christians to conform to the cultural norms of Gentile Christians rather than to tell those Christians to respect their Jewish neighbors.
As ever, the best way to evaluate such very human attempts to order our common life is in light of the law of love, which governs all. And, of course, to bear in mind that we can be wrong too. This is, in no small part, what we are witnessing as Catholics today grapple with the tension between the Church’s teaching on a) sexual morality and b) the sin of scapegoating people. Both are undeniable parts of the Church’s Tradition. And yet again, only with agonizing slowness are many Catholics figuring out that scapegoating LGBTQ persons is no more acceptable in the sight of God than scapegoating Jews was a thousand years ago.
Meanwhile, a good rule of thumb is to remember that the Church is protected by infallibility only on a very limited basis and not at all when churchmen are deciding prudential applications of how to implement their teachings practically. That is not, by the way, a license for presuming that whatever a churchman says is manifest stupidity just because we don’t like it. Your doctor, plumber, and garage mechanic are not protected by infallibility ever. But you would be a fool to ignore them for that reason when they warn you about the tumor, the gushing pipe, or the ominous knock under the hood.
In the same way, the Greatest Catholics of All Time have been at war with Pope Francis on practically every issue for ten years and they have, very consistently, been so wrong about so much so many times for so long that only a fool would trust their judgment about anything in the whole wide world. Twenty years ago, many of those same fools said it would be just peachy to ignore the prudential judgment of two popes and all the bishops of the world and launch a catastrophic war with Iraq. That’s because an awful lot of conservative Catholics foolishly redefined “prudential judgment” to mean “discerning whether to obey the Tradition” rather than “discerning how best to obey the Tradition.” Turned out the dumb out-of-touch liberal panty-waist peacenik bishops were right: the Iraq War did not meet a single criterion for a Just War and we accordingly were horrifically wrong to launch that war.
Moral: As a general rule, hundreds of heads are better than one, particularly when talking about their area of expertise, even when they are not protected by infallibility.
Then again, as the sexual abuse scandal (and Canons 67-70 of Lateran 4 show), prudential judgment is not protected from blindness or sin. At the end of the day a prudential judgment is a human good faith (usually) effort to enact the Tradition. Sometimes bad calls are made. Sometimes wicked ones are made. But as a general rule, good ones are made too. They reflect the fact that the gospel is a treasure kept in jars of clay.