Do Mormons know the real Christ?

For a long while I have deliberately refrained from anything which might be construed as “attacking” the Mormon religion. When I was younger I thought Mormons needed to be “enlightened” by being told the “truth” about Mormonism, and the more directly the better. But after many bitter, fruitless battles, I came to realize that that tactic was a waste of time and energy. I had been baffled as to how Mormons could remain Mormon after hearing what I had to say. But with the passing of years I have realized that there is a lot more to people than meets the eye.

In any event, I gave up the “attacking” tactic and started trying to be patient and respectful, and seeing if I could learn what makes Mormons tick. I had obviously been missing something. What was it?

A lot, as it turns out. When you approach Mormons as a friend instead of an adversary, you see a whole different side to things. For one, you see that the similarity between Mormonism and other Christian faiths is apparently more than skin deep. What you thought was simply a fake Christ, is not so easy to dismiss.

I have been listening to a series of lectures on how the early Christian Church came to adopt some of the methods and forms of classical culture, philosophical and rhetorical methods, literary forms, etc. Some of the early proponents of doing so argued that even when people didn’t know Christ, nevertheless whatever they said and thought which was good belonged to Christ since he was the Logos, the source of truth and reason. Therefore Christians should not throw out the baby with the bathwater. Rather they should sift through the fruits of classical culture and keep what was good, discarding only what lacked merit, and putting what was worthy to the service of Christ.

If the good produced by the ancient Greek and Roman pagans belonged to Christ, why not the good produced by Mormons? How can we say that people who actively profess the name of Christ, have nothing good which is attributable to Christ, while attributing the good in those who never even claimed to know Christ, to Christ?

Lest anyone worry (or for that matter be unduly hopeful), I’m not a Mormon and have no plans of becoming one. I have posted previously on whether Mormons are Christians (see also this), so I think my position on that is clear. After all, even if the good in the Greek and Roman pagan systems of thought was attributed by some to Christ, they still were not called Christians. But it becomes clearer to me how a non-Christian (according to my definition) religion can have some of the outward marks of a Christian religion. And it’s not unreasonable to suppose that Christ himself guides and inspires devout Mormons insofar as they are striving to live in accord with his authentic teachings. If this were not the case — if it were true that Christ withdraws all grace and assistance to the members of non-Catholic Christian religions — then one would expect every one of them to be an absolute cesspool of falsehood and immorality. Instead it appears that when anyone strives to follow Christian moral teachings, those efforts bear good fruit. And if you think about it, why should they not?

If moral teachings are like treating your body and soul the way God intends them to operate, as suggested by C.S. Lewis, then it would seem that anyone who tried to obey them would reap the benefits of operating themselves in the proper manner. Just as performing the proper maintenance procedures on your car will result in a well-running car, even if you learn the procedures from a counterfeit copy of the maintenance manual.

By the same token, while some may argue that the Mormon Christ is not the genuine Christ, nevertheless Mormon teachings about Christ are not completely false. To the extent that they are true, why shouldn’t they enable people acting in good faith to know the genuine Christ? Someone who got basic facts wrong about me, might be hindered in knowing what makes me tick, and therefore misinterpret things that I say and do. But that doesn’t mean they couldn’t know me at all.

Speaking frankly, none of this should be taken to mean that I find no harm in the Mormon religion. Like most other non-Catholic Christian religions (now I’m including the Mormons under the heading “Christian” in the broad sense explained in my other post), the more of them exist, and the more they contradict the authentic teachings of the Catholic faith, the more confusion and division they sow among Christians. Obviously it would be better if there were but one Christian faith. And the Mormon faith in particular, by its mere existence as well as its explicit teachings, takes direct aim at the Catholic Church and tries to undermine its claim to be the Church founded by Christ and existing continuously ever since its founding, with apostolic succession and a valid priesthood and sacraments. These are certainly grave evils from the Catholic perspective.

But the Catholic Church has taught that we cannot hold present-day members of Protestant sects to be as culpable as the original Reformers themselves: Having been Catholics they should have known better, whereas people born Protestant centuries later cannot be held to the same standard as an educated Catholic apostate of the 16th Century. I don’t know Joseph Smith’s motives in founding the Mormon religion. I can’t say for sure whether he was a conscious fraud or sincerely deluded (sorry, but to a believing Catholic those are the only options). But even assuming the worst motives on his part, one can’t hold present-day Mormons — not even their leaders — accountable for them. Charity requires us to put the best possible construction on the actions of others. Therefore it seems we’re bound to assume the sincerity and good faith of every Mormon from the Prophet on down, even while considering the Church’s inherently anti-Catholic claims to be objectively evil.

If, then, we assume the sincerity of Mormons, it is not beyond probability that many of them know the real Christ and are sincerely trying to live in accord with his teachings as they understand them. Therefore it should not surprise us to find the present-day Church and its members bearing various kinds of good fruit, and we should not be precluded from attributing those good fruits to their attempts to know and obey Christ — even if we are not obliged to conclude from their existence that the Church is what it claims to be. Both statements can be true: The good fruits can be attributed to Christ, notwithstanding that the Church’s claims about itself must, for a Catholic, be judged false.

Advertisements

30 thoughts on “Do Mormons know the real Christ?

  1. I don’t know Joseph Smith’s motives in founding the Mormon religion. I can’t say for sure whether he was a conscious fraud or sincerely deluded

    If he was not legit, he must necessarily have been a conscious fraud. He claimed to have actual, physical golden plates, and he showed them to eleven witnesses who swore that they had seen them, too. If he were a conscious fraud, the witnesses might have been his co-conspirators, or he might have created some fake plates to fool them — but if he were sincerely deluded, I don’t see how he could possibly have pulled it off.

    Like

  2. Fair enough, Agellius.

    In a way, your position here is consistent with your position on whether God can reveal something completely true to limited and imperfect people. You seem to be saying that it is not necessary to know Christ truly in every respect to know him truly in some respects.

    Christ is primarily a Person. Propositions about him are secondary.

    Like

  3. “Christ is primarily a Person. Propositions about him are secondary.”

    I would agree that knowing propositions about a person is secondary to knowing the person himself. But we’re talking about how we know that someone else knows the same person we know. And we have to determine that primarily based on propositions about the person which are either affirmed or denied (assuming it’s not feasible to have the person stand in the presence of both of us for purposes of identification).

    Thus if two people know someone named Steve Smith, you would confirm whether it’s the same person by asking about eye color, height, weight, etc. A major discrepancy in any of those could lead to the conclusion that we’re talking about two different Steve Smiths.

    I conclude that Mormons know the same Christ, or at least that it’s reasonable to assume that they do, despite major differences in some of the propositions we affirm and deny about him, because there are enough corroborating likenesses to justify it. Mormonism arose in a primarily Christian country, and most of its original adherents were already Christians, and thus many if not most of them likely already had knowledge and personal experience of Christ in their lives. Take Bruce Charlton by way of illustration: Anyone who reads his blog can see that he is liable to “swim the Jordan [River in Salt Lake County, UT]” any time now. But he is already a Christian convert. No Protestant or Catholic would likely have questioned whether he knew the real Christ once he had become a Christian. If he becomes a Mormon, is it likely that the Christ he will then be worshipping will have become a different Christ from the one he worships now? Will that Christ be instantly transformed from the Son of God to a demon once he receives Mormon baptism?

    It’s admittedly a mysterious phenomenon, that people in Christian bodies the beliefs of which contradict each other, nevertheless have experiences that, for them, confirm the truth of their respective faiths. How can Christ give someone an experience confirming the truth of Mormonism, while giving someone else an experience confirming the truth of Catholicism? It seems there are two possibilities: Either Christ doesn’t care which Christian group you join so long as you know him personally; or else people are misinterpreting their experiences. I think Catholics and Mormons would have to agree that it does matter which group you join, therefore it must be the latter.

    But that makes it all the more difficult to say for sure whether people claiming to know Christ really do know him: How do we know the extent to which they may be misinterpreting what they believe are experiences of his presence or his action in their lives? The existence of multiple, mutually contradictory churches is truly a scandal!

    For this reason I think the best I can do is give the benefit of the doubt, but I also think it’s reasonable to do so.

    Like

  4. If you have seen the other person interact with the third person, you wouldn’t need agreement on propositions to know that they know them. Even if they’re wrong about the person’s eye color. Although if they got enough stuff wrong, you might question their sanity. 😉

    Similarly, if you see the evidence of a person’s interaction with a third person you might assume they know them even without comparing propositions. For instance, if they have picked up a certain phrase that the other person always uses, or know something that only he could have told them. For Christians, you might see that they have a godly walk and a certain light in their countenance. My reasons for recognizing that Christ does not act only through the Mormon church are empirical.

    When it comes to propositions, I would distinguish between naturalpropositions and metaphysical ones. If you say our friend Bob is a meat puppet and I say he is an embodied soul, we are arguably farther apart in our descriptions of him than if you thought he was short and fat and I didn’t–but clearly we’re talking about the same person even given the depth of our disagreement, whereas if we disagreed about the physical description, it wouldn’t be so clear. Christ, having become a Man, can be described and known via natural propositions. He was born in Bethlehem, of Mary, without a mortal father, etc. I will make a concession, though: given His very unique nature, it is harder to make a clear cut distinction between natural and metaphysical propositions about Christ than it is about most people.

    Like

  5. “My reasons for recognizing that Christ does not act only through the Mormon church are empirical.”

    Empirical evidence enters into my conclusion too.

    “If you say our friend Bob is a meat puppet and I say he is an embodied soul, we are arguably farther apart in our descriptions of him than if you thought he was short and fat and I didn’t …”

    That’s a very good point.

    I concur with your statement that “it is harder to make a clear cut distinction between natural and metaphysical propositions about Christ than it is about most people.” I might be able to say that your Christ and mine were both born of a Virgin in Bethlehem, etc., and on the natural level — say, historically — be reasonably sure we are talking about the same man. The problem is that neither of us believes he is *just* a man. And the part that makes him more than human is also what makes him so important to both of us. Therefore whether we believe similar things about that aspect of him, is more relevant to the question of identity than it would be in the case of someone who is merely human.

    Nevertheless, even on the natural level it’s possible to conclude identity even if one of us gets things majorly wrong. I might say Steve Smith is 6’2″ and 190 and you might say he’s 5’6″, 250, which might seem to disprove identity conclusively. But we could still believe we are talking about the same guy if we agreed that his parents were named Bob and Sue and that his favorite food was salami sandwiches with sardines. I might say well, I don’t know how we’re disagreeing so wildly about his size, but he just has to be the same guy. Maybe one of us is just a really bad judge of height and weight. : )

    Like

  6. “Being a Mormon is *hard.* It requires not just interest, nor liking, but commitment.”

    I would think if you were convinced it’s true you would have no choice, no matter the difficulty. And he does seem convinced. But I guess we’ll see.

    Like

    • Having been a Mormon missionary, I can tell you plainly that ‘being convinced its true’ is nowhere near enough. I’m not sure he is convinced, any how. But I know from sad experience that someone can have a pentecostal experience and still slouch away, either because they’re afraid or even just from apathy. Not all of that experience, it pains me greatly to say, has been with people other than myself.

      Read this short story excerpt, it makes the point for me:
      http://www.scifiwright.com/2013/05/lunar-sacrement-of-conciliation/

      Like

  7. Maybe we’re seeing the problem differently.

    The Catholic Church teaches that if you know the faith is true yet refuse to become Catholic, you can’t be saved, since you knowingly reject the faith that saves you. (This is in the current Catechism, quoting Vatican II: http://www.scborromeo.org/ccc/para/846.htm)

    It might be hard to obey the Church’s moral strictures — attend Mass every Sunday without fail under pain of mortal sin, refrain from using artificial birth control, forego the possibility of ever getting divorced and remarried. But since you *believe* the faith is true, you know these are binding whether you join the Church or not. You don’t avoid them by staying away. So there is no possible benefit in not joining.

    Whereas for someone who is already a Christian and considering becoming a Mormon, the case might be different. He (not speaking specifically of Charlton) might believe the fruits of Christ’s sacrifice have already been applied to him, and maybe the LDS Church doesn’t teach that you risk damnation by refusing to embrace the LDS faith once you know it to be true. In which case, staying away could be a more comfortable position than joining.

    I realize neither of us knows whether Bruce is convinced at this point. It does seem so to me, since he does much praising of the Church and its doctrines and no criticizing. If I’m interested in the LDS faith, and I am, then he’s a lot more than interested.

    Like

    • “The Catholic Church teaches that if you know the faith is true yet refuse to become Catholic, you can’t be saved, since you knowingly reject the faith that saves you.”

      It may be interesting to consider a different situation. Suppose a person had some basic sympathy towards the Catholic Church and its teachings on a broad level. However, suppose they also had what they felt to be convincing evidence or reasoning (possibly false, but convincing to them) that the specific teaching of the Catholic Church was in error on some point, or points. Therefore, they could not say any vows or assent to the Church’s teaching authority honestly, and therefore becoming Catholic would, for them, amount to an act of blasphemy, even if the Catholic Church is actually the true Church.

      On that balance, the immediate ‘right thing’ to do would appear to be to remain outside the Church and make every effort to obey those teachings of the Church which did not conflict with their conscience.

      Like

  8. “It might be hard to obey the Church’s moral strictures — attend Mass every Sunday without fail under pain of mortal sin, refrain from using artificial birth control, forego the possibility of ever getting divorced and remarried. But since you *believe* the faith is true, you know these are binding whether you join the Church or not. You don’t avoid them by staying away. So there is no possible benefit in not joining”

    Well, now, there I disagree. Seems to me that if you don’t join, you are avoiding the sin of disloyalty or oathbreaking. Put another way–joining a religion where conversion is a sacramental process, as in yours and mine, but without the intent to actually live the religion, strikes me as a form of blasphemy.

    I mean no personal application to Charlton, by the way, I’m just riffing on your comment.

    Speaking now of Charlton, while I am, of course, gratified by his interest in the faith, his view of Mormonism is somewhat rosy. He also has a tendency to intellectual enthusiasms that fade away with time while he moves on to the next thing. So while I hope he signs up with the Saints, if he does for the sake of his soul I hope he realizes that the kingdom is a real-world entity, not a paragon of ideals, and that he sticks it out.

    Like

  9. “Seems to me that if you don’t join, you are avoiding the sin of disloyalty or oathbreaking.”

    That’s an interesting point. I believe oaths play a larger part in Mormonism than Catholicism. A Catholic makes baptismal vows, marriage vows and ordination vows. The baptismal vows are things like, “Do you believe in God the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth?” and “Do you reject Satan and all his works and empty promises?”, to which you respond “I do”.

    But I’m not aware of any oath that a Catholic takes which makes him more obligated to hear and obey the Church than he was before.

    In fact, the Catholic Church teaches that all men are obliged to believe the faith and obey the Church. Everyone, whether they are already formally Catholic or not. This is simply because the Church speaks for God in the world, and no one is not obligated to obey God.

    A baptized and instructed Catholic is held to a higher standard of judgment than a non-Catholic. But not because he is more obliged to obey than a non-Catholic, but only on the principle that he who knows better has less excuse.

    It might make sense in the Mormon framework to decide not to join the Church to avoid responsibility. But in the Catholic scheme that just doesn’t get you anywhere. Your obligation to obey is just in the nature of things, and not the result of any oath on your part.

    (Of course religious, priestly and marriage vows are a special circumstance.)

    Like

  10. Agellius,
    I offered three rationales: oathbreaking, disloyalty, and blasphemy. It seems to me you’ve only responded to one of those. And I didn’t find your response persuasive. For example, answering “I do” to “do you reject Satan and all his works” if you aren’t intending to be committed to walking the walk is a lie, and given the gravity of the circumstances, a pretty big one.
    I’m not saying it matters a ton in the last analysis whether someone partially rejects God by refusing to join or by joining and then not following through. Questions about how best to go about sinning to avoid sinning worse are always kinda silly (case in point–arguments about whether if you’re gonna fornicate, you should use a condom. Well, maybe, but who cares, that misses the point). I’m just pointing out that there is a potentially rational reason to avoid joining a church you know to be true provided you don’t intend to embrace the life of the church.
    Also, to be clear, your response seems to indicate that I don’t think there’s any obligation to follow the truth/join the church unless you’ve taken an oath to do so. Actually I agree with you on that. What I”m arguing is that oaths and promises can impose extra or independent obligations.

    Like

  11. “I’m just pointing out that there is a potentially rational reason to avoid joining a church you know to be true provided you don’t intend to embrace the life of the church.”

    Maybe. But my question is whether knowing a religion is true and yet not wanting to join *and* obey its precepts, no matter how difficult, is rational.

    I agree that to join without intending to obey would be blasphemy. My point was that in the case of the Catholic Church that’s no worse than not joining in the first place, at least in terms of its consequences, i.e. loss of salvation. If you thought it preferable to stay out rather than commit blasphemy, you would be saying in effect, “I’m going to reject the thing that offers eternal life, in order not to blaspheme the thing that offers eternal life.” I can’t see why one is preferable to the other.

    Maybe in the case of the LDS faith it’s different.

    “Also, to be clear, your response seems to indicate that I don’t think there’s any obligation to follow the truth/join the church unless you’ve taken an oath to do so.”

    I didn’t mean to imply that.

    “What I”m arguing is that oaths and promises can impose extra or independent obligations.”

    I agree.

    Like

  12. *But my question is whether knowing a religion is true and yet not wanting to join *and* obey its precepts, no matter how difficult, is rational. *

    Sin is irrational, news at 11.

    Like

  13. Of course, sin is irrational. But we were discussing whether there is any rational reason someone would not want to join a religion that he knows is true.
    Does this mean you’re agreeing with me?

    Or maybe I’m missing your point.

    Like

  14. Agellius,
    I think we’re disagreeing about whether there’s an additional irrationality in not joining a religion you know to be true beyond the baseline irrationality of the sins you already have.

    Like

  15. Thanks for this. This is very astute and loving and generous. I have spent much more time talking to Protestants since my conversion — who, in most cases, are indisputably Christian — but I think the principle here is the same. It does no good to go around attacking people as “wrong” or to make oneself an enemy; and there is indeed a lot of good in the hearts and in the fruits of Mormon people. I have a very hard time believing that God has granted no graces at all to Mormons; and I even wonder — and of course I am no one to judge — whether He might even grant to some of them salvation. All I can do is love and share the truth in love as best as I am able, and pray for those around me. It really bothers me when anyone goes about calling the LDS a “cult,” because it’s often the same people who call the Catholic Church a “cult.” Such labeling is prejudicial and dismissive of whole flocks of people, when we are called, above all, to love.

    Like

  16. Pingback: Why do non-LDS churches consider the LDS Church non-Christian? | Agellius's Blog

  17. Arakawa:

    I see your point, as far as it goes. But as St. Thomas writes,

    “Now it is manifest that he who adheres to the teaching of the Church, as to an infallible rule, assents to whatever the Church teaches; otherwise, if, of the things taught by the Church, he holds what he chooses to hold, and rejects what he chooses to reject, he no longer adheres to the teaching of the Church as to an infallible rule, but to his own will. Hence it is evident that a heretic who obstinately disbelieves one article of faith … has no faith in the other articles, but only a kind of opinion in accordance with his own will.”

    S.T., II-II, Q. 5, A. 3.

    In other words, whatever such a person as you describe feels towards the Catholic faith, it’s evidently not faith. For this reason you’re right, he should not be baptized or make a profession of faith. But in that case, I’m not sure why he would feel the need or obligation to “make every effort” to obey the teachings of the Church which don’t conflict with his conscience. If he doesn’t believe that it has authority to command him, then why obey it? But if he feels the need to obey it, why obey only those parts that he happens to agree with?

    Like

    • Agellius:

      First of all, thank you for taking the time to respond to what was a fairly impulsive comment. To put the question of partial obedience most crudely, I’ll point out that there are two kinds of obedience. Mercifully, the explanation below will likely seem obviously wrong to you on some point which you may be able to point out.

      The first kind of obedience is obedience to authority in the form of a particular person. Whether that’s the local priest, or the current Pope of Rome, the point is that a living person can respond to, and try to clarify any questions; but they have the final say. This means that there is no question of the person — the source of authority — being at the mercy of my interpretation; they can always clarify what they mean. Obedience to a local priest is most convenient in this regard, but there is nothing in the Catholic tradition guaranteeing that one’s local priest is going to be an infallible teaching authority on every question that could come up about the faith. This is probably not the kind of obedience you are talking about.

      The second kind of obedience is obedience to tradition. (In the form of a textual body, or the body of teachings and traditions that make up the Magisterium, or — on the Orthodox side — the Patristic Consensus and Holy Tradition, which can be regarded as a sort of rough counterpart to the Magisterium, I guess.)

      These two kinds of obedience can clearly conflict. Bonald, for instance, is a serious traditionalist Catholic blogger with a clear commitment to the second kind of obedience, and therefore he criticizes not only the teachings of local priests, but even the doings of the Popes, where he understands them to contradict or subvert the Catholic faith — so there is clearly no one who he obeys in the first sense of obedience. His obedience to any given *person’s* teachings is conditional on his own judgment as to whether that person adequately adheres to the Magisterium, or not.

      That is all well and good. However, things start looking tragicomic when two groups clash, and both claim they are being faithful to the tradition of the Church and introducing nothing of their own opinion. Someone is clearly fooling themselves here. Consider, say, the Feeneyites (who teach, citing fairly plain-looking quotes from the saints, that physical administration of the sacraments is absolutely necessary for salvation, and that particularly virtuous Native Americans, say, would have to have been baptized by long-distance bilocating priests) and the mainstream Catholic Church, which teaches baptism of desire and other contrivances to make it conceivable (for a start) that God, in fact, has not damned countless people who had no access to the Catholic faith.

      So, clearly, it is possible to delude oneself into thinking that one is “merely” following authority, whereas one is in fact introducing a certain degree of interpretation. In the case of the Feeneyites, they use the fact that the teachings of the Church include not only irenic but also strict sayings about salvation, and they make a deliberate choice to favour the strict sayings and consider them to straightforwardly override any irenic ones. In the other direction, someone like Hans Urs von Balthasar uses the more irenic sayings to wedge open Catholic doctrine and make room for near-Universalism. Then everyone pretends that they are clarifying the tradition of the Church, rather than engaging in theological speculation inspired by a mixture of different sayings of earlier Church figures.

      So far, I cannot see how I would successfully discern and obey the true tradition among these conflicting interpretations (not to mention the scandal of Church divisions into Orthodox, Copts, Catholics, and various splinter groups therefrom; so that the sole acceptance of one of these churches as an authority is at once the denigration of all others); but I can see myself assembling my own interpretation of one of these traditions (resolving the contradictions according to the taste of my own mind), and then successfully deluding myself that I am merely perceiving the true and undiluted voice of authority. Then I proceed to divide everyone in the Church into heretical, tolerable, and non-heretical according to the interpretation that I have in my head. I do not see how this is better than distinguishing in my mind where I am taking things on the word of some other person or source, and where I am introducing my own interpretation.

      Like

  18. Arakawa:

    It may have been an off-the-cuff comment, but clearly you’ve given this a lot of thought! I may not agree with you (I’m not certain), but I feel sure that I will learn something by working through this.

    As I see it, my obedience ultimately is due to God, and I obey the Church because it commands with God’s (Christ’s) authority. My obedience is not due to any person within the Church, but to the Church as a body. I would owe obedience to my pastor, as the one imparting the Church’s teaching to me, if I were not already instructed in the faith. As it is, 99% of the time he only tells me things that I already know. If he tells me something I don’t know, and if I can verify it independently as being the formal teaching of the Church, then I will submit to it, not because it comes from him but because it comes from the Church. (Or, if he happens to be someone whom I trust to impart the Church’s teaching accurately, I would submit to it on his say-so, as being the Church’s teaching.)

    If we lived in an illiterate age, then it’s likely that I would only learn the faith from my pastor. In which case I would owe him obedience in a sense; but obviously, it would not be personal obedience to him that I owed, but obedience to that which the Church teaches and commands, which (I trust) is imparted to me by him.

    Your issue seems to be with the question, how do we determine “what the Church teaches”? Some may determine it by reference to the teachings of a person, whether priest or pope; some determine it by reference to “tradition”, which you define as the written record of what the Church has taught. And you wonder what happens when two groups of people claiming to be within the Church, and obedient to the Church, clash over “what the Church teaches”.

    This is where the living Magisterium comes in. I would say that you owe a default position of obedience to your local bishop, when, for example, he passes judgment on a group within his diocese as to whether or not that group adheres to and propagates true Catholic teaching. The bishop is not infallible, however, so it’s possible that you could have a corrupt local bishop, or one who makes a mistake in judgment in particular circumstances. As far as what he commands to be done in his diocese, you would be obliged to obey — e.g. if he orders that this group may not meet on diocesan property, then it would be wrong to do so, since right or wrong, he has the authority to make such decisions in his diocese. But as to whether or not I may continue to agree with the group’s opinions, I am allowed to disagree with the bishop. I may not be allowed to publicly propagate the group’s teachings on parish or diocesan property against the bishop’s orders, but I am free to hold my own opinions contrary to the bishop’s, if it’s clear to me that the bishop is wrong.

    My justification for this is that, again, the bishop doesn’t *make* Church teaching, he only teaches it, and has no authority to change it. My obedience is due to the Church as a body in preference to my local bishop, when the two conflict. Again this assumes that I am a literate person in an age wherein the information is available for me to determine what the Church as a body teaches. If I were ignorant and illiterate, then I would owe obedience to my bishop in all things, if I had no ground upon which to believe that I knew better than he what the Church teaches on a particular issue.

    The same principle I’ve been describing with regard to my local bishop, also applies to the Pope: As an obedient Catholic, my default position should be (and is) submission to what the Pope teaches and commands, unless I can see clearly that it conflicts with the teaching of the Church as a body.

    The “Church as a body” has developed standards over time, by which to determine what the Church’s “official” teaching is, and the level of submission required to teachings of various “grades”. Again I’m literate and smart enough to read the Church’s documents through the centuries and understand (for the most part) what teachings are beyond question (the Resurrection, the Trinity), which are more along the lines of pious opinion (Limbo), which are matters of discipline but not doctrine (priestly celibacy), etc.

    Now I understand that it takes a certain amount of chutzpah to place my judgment over the Pope’s or my local bishop’s, so I do it rarely and very cautiously. Further, I do it almost always in regard to matters of discipline and practice. In other words, I may judge that the Pope or bishop has misunderstood the ramifications of a concrete situation — say, political or economic — and therefore his recommendation that immigration laws should be changed, or not enforced, is mistaken. But I can’t imagine taking it upon myself to judge that a formal papal teaching on a matter of faith or morals, purporting to re-state and reinforce longstanding doctrine (e.g. Humanae Vitae), is something that I need not submit to. I know by reference to other documents from the Church’s tradition, that the teaching on the immorality of artificial birth control is well established and of long standing, and therefore a teaching of “the Church as a body”.

    You mention Bonald’s being a traditionalist and criticizing “the doings” of local priests and the Pope. Catholics have never been forbidden to criticize anyone’s actions, whether priest or pope. We have always fully acknowledged that anyone in the Church can act foolishly or wickedly, and should be called on it when he does.

    You also mention the Feeneyites, who hold a teaching different from the “mainstream Catholic Church”. Ah, but see there? Even you can distinguish the teaching of the Church as a body from that of a small subgroup within the Church of a particular time and place.

    I concede that determining when submission is required and when it’s not, is not always cut-and-dried. It may sometimes be a matter of opinion which position is more in accord with the teaching of “the Church as a body”. My point is that a faithful Catholic will be ready and willing to submit when a teaching clearly is that of “the Church as a body”, as opposed to a deviation therefrom.

    I consider myself a traditionalist too, and I think the Church made a huge mistake in holding the Second Vatican Council when it did, and especially in implementing radical changes to the Mass after the Council, in the way it did, that is, so suddenly and radically all at once. I think it has done untold harm, and that the Church would be in a much stronger position today had none of these things happened. But I am not disobeying the Church in holding these opinions. I don’t deny the validity of the new Mass, nor do I deny that popes who endorsed the Council and the new Mass were good and holy men, i.e. saints. I only question their prudential judgment.

    Others may disagree with me. I know that some think the post-conciliar Church disobeyed dogmatic teachings laid down by previous popes and councils. How do you argue against this? When a formal papal teaching and the definitions of a Council are the highest and most authoritative forms of teaching, who is there that can weigh one against another and decide which is right, where they appear (according to their personal judgment) to conflict? In my opinion, this is where you need to have some trust in the living Magisterium, and in the fact that Christ promised that the Holy Spirit would guide the Church into all truth. For these reasons, I trust that God will bring good out of the present situation, or else inspire the Church to change direction. Either way, I think that being a Catholic has to mean trusting the living Magisterium, if it means anything at all.

    In any event, in my personal opinion, Vatican II did not directly contradict prior councils. And if the new Mass is in violation of the dictates of prior councils or popes, that only means that the powers that be are making mistakes in *practice*, and I’m confident that a Catholic who follows the living Magisterium may do so without fear of violating his conscience. He is under no obligation to stand in judgment of one council on the basis of another.

    Anyway, I’m sure this is not nearly as interesting to read as it was for me to write, so I’ll stop here and hope that I have not completely missed your point. I would enjoy hearing more of your thoughts if you’re inclined, but if not that’s fine as well.

    Like

    • I’ll send an even more detailed reply on the issue of obedience once I’ve had a chance to think about this a bit more. With the discussion up to now, I think my primary fear is that I’m going to be projecting the Eastern Orthodox understandings of tradition and authority (which are what I’ve primarily been looking into) onto Catholicism, which is tempting to do when there are many apparent parallels — but the same thing in Catholicism may mean something completely different due to a different context.

      Another point where I was definitely inaccurate — to say that tradition is constituted of the body of texts the Church has produced is obviously oversimplifying. I suppose the real question is whether this is a useful simplification — is it possible to determine what the tradition of the Church is by studying the texts it has produced, or will that endeavour have misleading results?

      Another way to try and think about tradition might be as a way of looking at the world, rather than just a body of thought. This is what Seraphim Rose called “acquiring the mind of the fathers”, trying to understand the saints of the Church well enough to figure out — not what they’ve literally said concerning our questions (when frequently they did not have the same concerns, assumptions, or information) — but how they would have approached them if they were in our shoes. This is a bit too hypothetical of an exercise, though, to be even near certain that one is doing it correctly.

      You mention that Feeneyite doctrines are clearly outside the pale of the Catholic Church — which is indeed easy to tell, because they were belligerent enough to pit themselves against the Pope, turning a doctrinal conflict into an administrative one. However, in reality it seems to me like there is a slippery slope of doctrine, and it depends only on the direction one wants to be sliding in. For instance, I had to deal with the suicide of a friend recently, which I am partly responsible for. A straightforward reading of the situation is that suicide is a mortal sin, it precludes the possibility of proper repentance, so my friend is irrevocably damned. This is problematic to the extent that it is likely to discourage me from seeking my own salvation. (It would feel wrong to obtain remission for my part in the matter, without my friend being able to obtain the same.) The catechism softens this somewhat by raising the possibility that somehow, in between pulling the trigger and having the brain disintegrate, my friend could have modified his thorough agnosticism into a belief in the true God, I suppose, and formed a coherent intention of repentance; which is beyond silly as a consolation. I can follow CS Lewis and say that it is impossible to know what the disposition of a person’s soul is, versus what is merely a weakness of character; so, let alone a suicide, even the most incorrigible and irreligious scoundrel could be saved in spite of having no outward indication of such because, against overwhelming inclination towards evil, they expended immense internal spiritual effort in a struggle for Truth, thereby becoming a little less of a scoundrel than they would have been. Or I can go full George Macdonald in my belief, and postulate the possibility of repentance after death. At what point did this slope exit the realm of proper Catholic doctrine? (More properly, where in this picture does prayer for my friend actually help anything? Or is that only for people who are plausibly in Purgatory, according to a strict interpretation?)

      That seems to me the primary difficulty of determining what is the actual tradition, and why. I can determine a range of positions held by people in Catholicism on these kinds of issues, but have no way of knowing which are valid, and what criteria a Catholic would even use — beyond the very crude and rare case where someone is actually denounced for holding a given position.

      Like

  19. Arakawa:

    I’m very sorry about your friend’s suicide. My dad committed suicide, so I have given this some thought as well. I suggest bearing in mind that a mortal sin requires three components: Grave matter, full knowledge of its sinfulness, and deliberate consent of the will. People who kill themselves often are under great distress or in a state of depression, which may go far towards mitigating the requirement of full awareness of the sinfulness of the act and full, deliberate consent of the will. My dad had a very abusive childhood and was an alcoholic for most of his life. It’s possible that he’s in hell, but for all I know it’s equally possible that he’s not. Ultimately I just don’t know, but I tend to consider the latter more likely.

    The Church must pronounce the act of self-murder to be objectively a mortally sinful act, lest people think of it as an “easy way out”: You can’t be sure that you’re not fully culpable, and you can’t commit any mortal sin with the presumption that you’ll repent before it’s too late, let alone one which eliminates any possibility of repentance after the fact. So it’s good for people that they should have a healthy fear of committing suicide. Nevertheless, as with any mortal sin, the bare commission of the act does not automatically convict one of full culpability therefor.

    For these reasons, my suspicion is that the majority of suicides are not mortal sins.

    You write, “is it possible to determine what the tradition of the Church is by studying the texts it has produced, or will that endeavour have misleading results?”

    I would say it’s reasonable (for a literate person with access to the texts) to interpret the Church’s tradition by the texts it has produced, since all authoritative teachings, even the most recent, are reduced to writing. At the same time, Pope Benedict did teach that the writings of the Church, including the scriptures, have to be read with the mind of the Church and in the heart of the Church, to be understood correctly. I realize this may seem “too hypothetical of an exercise” to be sure that “one is doing it correctly”. But all it really means is that, as St. Augustine says, you believe in order to understand (as opposed to understanding in order to believe). Without faith, the doctrines of the faith will seem like foolishness.

    Like

    • Ah; it is very easy to forget there is effectively an epidemic of suicide going on, by historical standards. This is actually the second time I raised the issue of suicide in an online discussion, only to discover the other person in the conversation had a close family member who committed suicide.

      “The Church must pronounce the act of self-murder to be objectively a mortally sinful act, lest people think of it as an “easy way out”: You can’t be sure that you’re not fully culpable, and you can’t commit any mortal sin with the presumption that you’ll repent before it’s too late, let alone one which eliminates any possibility of repentance after the fact. So it’s good for people that they should have a healthy fear of committing suicide. Nevertheless, as with any mortal sin, the bare commission of the act does not automatically convict one of full culpability therefor.”

      I’m fairly sure I agree with all (or almost all) of this. (My one point of disagreement on this would be on the question of what the ultimate significance of a mortal sin is, but there I can’t disagree without bringing in questionable assumptions of my own.) Still, you say that you (effectively speaking) prefer to believe that a person close to you who has committed suicide is not in Hell, and in general that the majority of suicides are not mortal sins. This appears to be the charitable option, and a comforting one — but it also strikes me as an act of faith against that which the tradition of the Church would appear to suggest.

      The problem is a discrepancy between the mass analysis and the individual analysis of the consequences of sin. In the individual, we are told never to condemn definitively, but the Church does not fear to definitively condemn vast quantities of people on the large scale. The analysis of the current epidemic of suicide seems to suggest: the modern world is in apostasy; the rash of suicides is one symptom of this; therefore it seems reasonable that the average person who commits suicide as part of this overall pattern, will perish. (Otherwise, there would be no reason to treat the suicide epidemic, and in general the modern apostasy, as a _problem_, would it, if it’s not actually dangerous to that many souls?) This is at odds with the belief that a particular person we know, who committed suicide in a way that fits the overall pattern to a tee (which seems to be true in both our cases), yet somehow we reason them to be innocent or irreplaceable in a way that would also hold any water with God (everyone seems innocent or irreplaceable to some other person). Especially in light of the common saying that God loves all people, far more than we are capable of doing; which I juxtapose with the observation that, per tradition, He still puts many of them in Hell, as the proper option.

      Re-reading some CS Lewis inspired the thought that this kind of conundrum always occurs when we identify ourselves with another person closely enough to be concerned with their salvation, but not closely enough to regard their sins as our own. That, at least, describes the problem in my case. However, I have not found anything in the tradition which tells me how I would obtain forgiveness for sins committed by another person, which I have now become guilty of. The tradition appears to tell me that identifying myself with anyone to that extent is misguided; I can only repent for my own sins; in which case (the immediate conclusion that I would add, though the tradition does not) I should not be concerned with anyone’s salvation but my own, and the fact that people around me are destined to Hell in drones should be a matter of indifference. Only very few people have stated this so baldly; one place I’ve encountered this (implicitly) was this sermon by St. Leonard of Port Maurice — cited at the Orthosphere: http://orthosphere.org/2012/02/28/how-many-saved-how-many-damned/ — and also explicitly in the reasoning of notable Orthodox writer and publicist (and later on, monk) Konstantin Leontiev, who coined the term “transcendent egotism” to describe (approvingly) this kind of concern for one’s own salvation and indifference to the salvation of others. The latter, I would not consider to stand within Orthodox tradition; indeed, his legacy is the subject of heavy disputes, some thinking of him as a clear-headed explicator of the Christian viewpoint against liberalizing tendencies, while others consider him almost a Satanist — so he must have crossed a line somewhere, to have raised such controversy, but where? Though whenever I contemplate that this kind of viewpoint might reflect the teaching of the Church (daring to say clearly what others leave unspoken), and the rest amounts to wishful thinking, I immediately say to myself “no, that can’t be right.”

      I’ve been grappling with these varieties of reasoning for several months: http://nonapologia.tumblr.com/post/73706078057/prayer-for-a-friend

      Obviously the monk in that link is a cardboard phantom of my own fears; especially since “to vex the living and forgive the dead” does appear to be the sensible attitude to take in such matters. That is basically what you have expressed with respect to suicide; it cannot be held as anything other than the gravest sin, but to say that any particular man who has committed suicide is thereby damned feels somehow particularly scoundrelish. The difficulty in suicide is that the perpetrator of the sin is at once the victim; when we think of the suicide as the perpetrator, we picture one man; when we think of him as the victim, we picture another man — but they are the same man — and who but God can judge fairly between a man and himself?

      It seems like what’s missing is an assessment of what there is precisely to be lost in a sin, besides “the hope of salvation”. If anyone could be, and is, saved by God on what, from a ‘strict salvationist’ point of view, would be the flimsiest technicality; it is still clear that it is preferable to live out the religious life along the narrow path, even if all our accomplishments on that path actually acquire zero merit to our salvation. The reasoning for how this could the case eludes me.

      So, I think by this point it should be clear what my difficulties are — the question is how to apply the wisdom of the Church to resolving them, rather than merely treating the Church as one of the stumbling blocks in the equation. My thoughts on the matter tend to go in bewildering circles without coming to any definite conclusion; again, you may be seeing something clearly that I’m not.

      Like

  20. “The problem is a discrepancy between the mass analysis and the individual analysis of the consequences of sin. In the individual, we are told never to condemn definitively, but the Church does not fear to definitively condemn vast quantities of people on the large scale.”

    I don’t see the conflict. The Church doesn’t definitively condemn anyone in particular, whether individually or in mass numbers. The modern mass apostasy is to be lamented because it means mass numbers of people are abandoning the Gospel, which is the best hope of salvation — but then again, how many of them devoutly embraced it in the first place? Even when all Europe was nominally Christian, do we suppose that the vast majority were particularly devout Christians (meaning they repented of their sins and remained free of mortal sin), or were most of them culturally Christian at best?

    Whether my dad was an apostate and whether he committed a mortal sin in committing suicide, are two different questions. As to the latter I tend to think not; whereas he was definitely an apostate, or rather, never really a Christian in the first place. I choose to hope he’s not in Hell because I think he obeyed his conscience to the extent he was able. (Rom. 2:14-16.) He was not raised in the faith, his dad died in his infancy, he suffered an abusive childhood at the hands of his stepfather and was an alcoholic for most of his life. In my opinion he had severe emotional and psychological problems. Nevertheless he was basically honest, trustworthy and generous to strangers.

    Now it’s possible that despite all this, he was nonetheless guilty of knowingly rejecting God and his saving Gospel, and is burning in hell to this day. I simply don’t know. He could be one of the mass numbers who take the wide and easy, downhill road to hell. He certainly fits the “overall pattern”, but on the other hand, if there are extenuating and mitigating circumstances that excuse sin and the rejection of the Gospel, then I think they could very well apply to him.

    I’m not free to claim that I know he’s in hell. I’m also not free to claim that I know he was saved. No one is, and no one in the Church ever has been free to make these claims (except that the Pope can declare that someone is known to be in Heaven, i.e. a canonized saint). We can’t even claim to know them of ourselves, let alone other people.

    “… it is still clear that it is preferable to live out the religious life along the narrow path, even if all our accomplishments on that path actually acquire zero merit to our salvation. The reasoning for how this could the case eludes me.”

    What I was taught while being instructed in the faith as an adult, is “Salvation is free, damnation is earned.” Once salvation is given to you through faith, repentance and baptism, you can only lose it through deliberate sin. You live a holy life not to earn salvation, but for basically two reasons: (1) because you love God and want to do his will in all things, and (2) to train yourself to resist sin through self-denial.

    Like

  21. By the way, St. Leonard also wrote (quoted in a comment to the post you cite), “Why torment yourself so? For it is certain that you have to commit mortal sin to go to hell, and that to commit mortal sin you must want to, and that consequently no one goes to hell unless he wants to. That is not just an opinion, it is an undeniable and very comforting truth.”

    Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s