Kevin O’Brien on the Fetish of Certainty

Kevin O’Brien, wrestling with the false sense of certitude that the Greatest Catholics of All Time[TM] have often manifested, struggles understandably with distinguishing what is permanent and what is prudential in the Church’s deposit of faith.

So here’s what’s been interesting me lately, and it ties into Enthusiasm and my other musings.

I engaged in a discussion this week with someone on Twitter who argued the EWTN / Catholic Answers line: Church teaching on matters of Faith and Morals has not changed over the millennia, only developed.  Something that is considered intrinsically evil in one era is considered intrinsically evil in all eras.  If the Church appears to change its teaching, it’s really only changing its discipline.  Thus, when cremation was forbidden prior to 1963, this was a mere discipline, such as meatless Fridays, which can be changed: if a Catholic sins in refusing to follow a discipline, it’s a sin against the authority of the Church, which has the right to set discipline, not a sin because of the intrinsic wrongness of the act in question (in this case, cremation).

Knox makes a similar distinction regarding asceticism vs. Puritanism.  Asceticism, he says, is renouncing things that are otherwise good, for reasons of penance or mortification, such as abstaining from eating meat on Fridays (eating meat is good, but to renounce it is also good if one is offering such deprivation as a penance or a mortification or an act of unity with the sufferings of Christ).  Puritanism, by contrast, is calling things evil that are not evil, but that are instead intrinsically good.  Thus, one may give up dancing or drinking during Lent as an ascetic practice; but to renounce dancing or drinking as innately sinful is Puritanical.

But the problem becomes how do you distinguish discipline and doctrine in any given era?  Cremation was prohibited as a disciplinary measure because the act of cremation was considered innately sinful.  Discipline and doctrine went together; the discipline flowed from the doctrine.  When the Church changed the discipline and allowed cremation, it seems to have argued that the sin involved in cremation would be the denial of bodily resurrection; if one does not deny bodily resurrection when opting for cremation, one is not sinning; thus the change in discipline does not reflect a change in the underlying moral doctrine; if anything, it reflects a development and fuller understanding of the underlying doctrine (i.e., clarifying that it is the intention of the act in which sin might reside, not in the act itself).

But, as I pointed out to my interlocutor on Twitter, this argument supports the liberals who are claiming that Church teaching on sexual morality is subject to change (or, we might say, “to development”).  The liberals claim, I wrote, “that if the Church were to ponder human sexuality more deeply it would unpack elements in it that would lead the Church to change its teaching on the subject.  Even the teaching of the ‘unitive’ element of the marital act is an example of that, as I understand it: a development that was the result of recognizing the fuller implications of what was already there.”  For instance, the element of playfulness in sexuality – or in anything, as far as I know – has never been pondered by the Church or included in its official teaching. And so if, for almost 2000 years, the Church ignored the “unitive” aspect of sex, or failed to distinguish intention from action regarding cremation, and arrived as a late-comer to such recognitions, then how can you argue that the liberals who hope for change in moral doctrine are necessarily fatuous?

More here.

This is a healthy line of enquiry to pursue and shows a Catholic mind engaged in trying to think with the Tradition instead of just parrot reactionary talking points from a subculture that has consistently been so wrong about so much so many times for so long that only an absolute fool would trust their judgment. I point to it, not because I have any final conclusions or answers, but to say that it is good to see people actually trying to think such matters through. As Proverbs 25:2 says, “It is the glory of God to conceal things,/but the glory of kings is to search things out.”

My own take on this (with respect to cremation) is that there is a distinction between the Church’s understanding that a) the body is both sacred as the creation of God and as the seed of the resurrection hallowed by Christ (a core principle) and b) the prudential means we observe in honoring that principle. I am skeptical that the Church ever taught that cremation is “innately” or intrinsically wrong. I think that the Church was concerned by what cremation was intended to mean in previous ages: namely that the body was disposable garbage and the Resurrection is not our hope. If undertaken for that reason, cremation remains a gesture of sacrilege and even blasphemy. But if undertaken simply because it is the least economically burdensome way for a family to bury their dead, then it can be an act of virtue, prudence, and love done in the Spirit. I myself, fully believing in the resurrection of the body on the Last Day, hope my family will cremate me and not blow money they will badly need on the carnivorous funeral industry.

This struggle to parse what is Permanent and what is prudent brings us back to points I addressed in July in this essay and, to a lesser extent, this one.

I would note, in addition, a couple of other things.

First and foremost, it is that Catholic faith is comfortable with mystery, far more comfortable, in my experience, than it is with certitude. Indeed, it tends to radiate varying levels of skepticism about certitude as a general rule and sometimes that skepticism flares to a denunciation of a heresy or ideology which is so damn certain of some idée fixe or other that it has lost all sanity and constitutes a menace.

Here, for instance, is a sample of certitude that no Catholic worth his salt should ever fall for, answered by the redoubtable Stephen King):

The trouble is that many Reactionary Catholics, including many converts from Evangelicalism, have the same attitude to their fictitious notion of Catholic faith that Fundamentalists have about the Bible, and they are wrong for the same reason:

The Church’s teaching does not provide certitude about everything any more than the Bible is the Big Book of Everything. Ideology claims certitude about everything. So does heresy (which is typically just another word for ideology). Everything is class war. Everything is capitalism. Everything is electricity. Everything is evolution. That is how ideology and heresy (but I repeat myself) always function, by reducing the Mystery to some simple one size fits all explanation.

For the Church, all attempts to whittle down the mystery to My Personal All-Explaining, All-Encompassing Obsession are, in the end, foreign to the Tradition. Instead, the Tradition speaks with finality about a tiny number of things in its dogma and then leaves us free to probe the Mystery described by that dogma and apply our wits to understanding Him and His relationship to the big mysterious world he has created. The Church has been tasked, not with Knowing and Understanding Everything, but with handing down Jesus Christ and his gospel and with spending the rest of history, not claiming “We’ve totally got this” but with trying to obey him under his deeply mysterious guidance.

One peculiar consequence of this is that bishops often don’t know what they are talking about.

Permit me to explain.

When the Church hands down and develops the Tradition under the guidance of the Spirit, she is speaking, not from mere human wisdom but from the Holy Spirit whose thoughts are not our thoughts and whose ways are not our ways. As Isaiah, himself speaking under divine inspiration puts it:

For my thoughts are not your thoughts, 
neither are your ways my ways, says the LORD. 
For as the heavens are higher than the earth, 
so are my ways higher than your ways 
and my thoughts than your thoughts. 

“For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven, 
and do not return there but water the earth, 
making it bring forth and sprout, 
giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, 
so shall my word be that goes forth from my mouth; 
it shall not return to me empty, 
but it shall accomplish that which I intend, 
and prosper in the thing for which I sent it. (Isaiah 55:8-11)

The consequence of this is that prophets themselves do not understand clearly what it is they are talking about. That is why Jesus could say, “Truly, I say to you, many prophets and righteous men longed to see what you see, and did not see it, and to hear what you hear, and did not hear it.” (Mt 13:17). And it is why Peter says, “The prophets who prophesied of the grace that was to be yours searched and inquired about this salvation; they inquired what person or time was indicated by the Spirit of Christ† within them when predicting the sufferings of Christ and the subsequent glory. It was revealed to them that they were serving not themselves but you, in the things which have now been announced to you by those who preached the good news to you through the Holy Spirit sent from heaven, things into which angels long to look.” (1 Pe 1:10–12).

The same applies to the movement of the Holy Spirit in the Church throughout history. When the Church meets in council under the guidance of the Spirit (or the Pope undertakes, on rare occasions, to teach infallibly), what is really occuring is an action of the Holy Spirit, not a merely human act. And precisely because the Spirit is guiding the Church in this moment, the human participants do not fully plumb the depths of what the Spirit is up to.

It’s the same thing you see at work when (by the Spirit) Peter declares the Jesus is “the Christ, the Son of the living God”. As Jesus himself says, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jona! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven” (Mt 16:17) Precisely because Peter has been graced by the Spirit to speak beyond himself, he does not fully grasp the meaning of his own words. That is why, moments later, he makes a fool of himself, rebuking Jesus for talking about his imminent passion and earns the severest rebuke from Jesus of any apostle in the gospels: “Get behind me, Satan! You are a hindrance to me; for you are not on the side of God, but of men” (Mt 16:23).

This is why the Church takes a long time to grasp the meaning of its own revelation. Peter not only fails here, but on the night of the Passion and, yet again, after he himself declares that Gentiles do not need to observe the Mosaic ceremonial laws (Acts 15) but then folds like a cheap suit under peer pressure (Galatians 2).

And it has ever been the case thereafter. The Church arrives at the doctrine of Trinity at Nicaea in 325 and then spends 40 years waffling about Arianism. It takes a century to implement Trent. It still can’t make up its mind about Vatican II.

And in the present hour, no small part of her confusion is because many Catholics want certitude about human theological diagrams rather than trust in the Spirit.

The hunger for false certitude is a form of idolatry. It does not trust God but insists rather on Me and My Understanding replacing God to give me a sense of security. And like all idolatry, it both insults God thereby and (just as important) places a crushing and destructive burden on the idol that the idol can never bear.


One Response

  1. So good, Mark! Beautifully articulated what I’ve always known deep down, but then was influenced by Evangelical and Catholic fundamentalism. I echo the deconstructing woman in the TikTok in the linked piece. I don’t care. Meaning I don’t need to know all the details but I trust the Lord who is good and loves me to guide me to Truth and take care of me here and hereafter.

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