Thursday, December 16, 2010

On Smarter Catholics

Side by side we have the well known adage of St. Theresa that one should before a well-educated to holy director and Thomas a Kempis’ I would rather feel contrition than know how to define it. Wisdom and simplicity do not hang together very well in the popular imagination, and yet both are virtues, and as such are in Christ, and are essential for man’s perfection. Consequently, it is a vice when either one of these is “too much” or “too little.” I put those in scare quotes because a Christian cannot understand virtue in the abstract as ever too great, but as they are measured relative to other things in us (i.e., what they modulate in the body and the soul, what kinds of acts they urge) they may be said to be too much or too little. In other words, when simplicity interferes with wisdom it is too much (and wisdom too little). How someone like St. Francis might have exemplified simplicity and wisdom lies in a subtler appreciation of these two virtues.

According to our tradition, simplicity would be one of those self-abnegatory aspects of the virtuous life that fall under humility in general. It seems to be self-abnegatory in terms of the mental life, in some way related to science. Now, since science is not per se essential to the virtuous life, a choice to remain ignorant with respect to certain elements of knowledge for sake of single-minded devotion to one’s vocation is simplicity. It would be opposed to curiosity, not ignorance, not science per se (since not to possess the knowledge of what pertains to one’s vocation might be sinful), and not wisdom, which is knowledge of God and the ‘why’ of life, and which is, therefore, incumbent upon all people to have. Understood as such, simplicity is likewise incumbent upon all, but it is distinct materially in all people. Of some things we should be universally ignorant: gossip. It is the virtue of simplicity which has no desire to know and never seeks to know gossip.

Let us consider all of the above perambulatory to a discussion of what we should actually know, and not presume that we do not when we do not. It is the second part that I consider more vexing. Good Catholics want to know their Faith and they want to know the world in light of God. That is all good. What is bad is being presumptive as to the object itself. Presumption is a sin against wisdom, since it leads not to the One, but from the self.

The first decision of the knower lies in determining what one ought to know. This can only be correctly answered by correct assessment of who the ‘one’ is. Thomas tells us that there are certain things all people are obliged to know because of our human nature – the Articles of the Faith, for instance. Much else of what we are to know is a result of who were are in particular: a man, a Canadian, a father, etc.

I’d like to take a closer look at what Catholics should know, and, more importantly, how they should come to know it.

The democratisation of the Church continues on unabated, especially by means of those most opposed to it. The way to which I am referring lies in the most democratizing of all things: knowledge. Whereas there was a sense during most of the history of the Church that there were those who know and those who do not, today the lines are much more fluid if not totally absent. The worst offenders against this good (if it is a good, and it is in a certain sense) are those who most cherish it, seemingly. ‘Conservatives,’ those most insistent upon the rules and hierarchical structure of the Church violate it in their attempt to preserve it. Telling bishops what to do, in a nutshell. But they are only secondarily the ones I have in mind to address in this post.

What I have in mind concerns the definition of what it is to know the Faith, that is, where is it best defined. Unfortunately, so many people – the people I have in mind – go to TAN Books. I too have read my fair share of TAN Books, but while knowing enough to know that just because a God-fearing man wrote it does not mean that it best encapsulates the Faith. There is such a thing as the development of doctrine, and there is such a thing as human error. We can’t get too caught up in a particular moment, which is what TAN does. Caution is a part of prudence, but not the only part. Just because it’s old doesn’t make it good and useful. Just because it is new doesn’t make it bad. In fact, the best articulations of the Faith are the most recent papal dicta. They confirm, modify, enhance, and specify all that was good before them. A later papal statement is to an earlier as the specific is to the generic. Once you have decided that man is a rational animal, it is less than useful to say that he is an animal.

Some things get into the TAN Books club and other things do not – and there seems little rhyme or reason to it. There is a decided preference for private revelation, for certain types of history, certain spiritual classics, etc., and not others. It is very interesting to note that the Fathers feature very insignificantly, and perhaps none of the spiritual masterpieces from Antiquity, like the works of Basil and Evagrius, etc. – as if the only founder of Christian monasticism was Benedict... All of this is especially problematic when it seems universally the case that of theology (as of politics), everyone feels himself entitled to the designation, expert. Where is the respect for authority? This is a very individualistic approach to knowledge of the Faith, unprecedented in the history of the Church – but not in certain heresies!

I see the effects of this kind of self-tutelage everywhere. It was born of the catechetical failure of the Post-Concilliar Era. The people who cared realized that they had to educate themselves in the Faith, many realizing their pastors would be of very limited help in this. This set up an antagonism between the self-educated and their pastors, sometimes for good reason, but as a constant disposition, always for ill. It is to the Living Magisterium – and it is not made up of one person alone – that one must look for guidance in matters of faith and morals. The stress is on ‘living’ here.

But additionally, what of the magisterium of theologians? Nearly wholly discredited because of the excesses of the last forty years, the term, nevertheless, deserves some acknowledgement. Perhaps it will one day return to its former lustre and function, but that day is a long way off. And, although this may seem really self-serving (sometimes the truth is gratifying!), it is nevertheless true to say that theologians can serve an important function in the Church. That function is oftentimes made redundant by the Magisterium, especially seeing how widespread is heresy amongst the educated, and, frankly, how intellectually and theologically proficient is the current Pontiff. As I suggested above, theologians can be integrated into the spiritual apparati of the Church. Really they ought to be. They would have a particularly important role to play in guiding intellects in this very complicated and pseudo-educated day. I never cease to marvel at the array of books stocked by, for instance, here in Canada, Chapters/Indigo. As when I surf the stacks in the history section, it is clear that a non-expert requires some assistance to make the choice about what to read. Booksellers have put in place no intellectual standards in regard to what they stock, so how are you suppose to know what book is better history or theology? Standards seem to be the bête noire of democracy, because standards connote authority, a voice outside of the vox populi, something that cannot be tinkered with in times of desperation for sake of expediency. Even the device imprimatur has fallen by the wayside. Perhaps it was never very good anyway, even as it was exercised in its heyday. The problem with standards is that they require interpretation. But I think we can avert some malfunction if we conceive of standards as expert advice, in the case of books anyway. It is too easy to attach any old expert to some defective product, so there must be some way of assuring better recommendations. That was, after all, the original intent of the university, in a way, a place to find and assure truth. But universities have become the mere plaything of politics, and have sacrificed their integrity for profit. Every individual is a tyrant lest he be tempered by virtue. There is no other way around it. But how can we assure intellectual integrity within the Church?

The original mechanisms are broken beyond repair. There are several of them, overlapping, and each one as defective as the last. Ex corde ecclesiae encourages another try at this, but we have to recognize the problem for what it is before we can really get anywhere. I make the following suggestions:

1) The role of the ordinary be solidified, and where it cannot be implemented fully that Church cut all ties with the institution.

2) A litmus test for orthodoxy and scholarly competence be established. The effectiveness of the mandatum seems to depend on item (1).

3) Bishops be assigned to dioceses with Catholic universities who have a firm grasp on theology and Catholic pedagogy, and treat the university as a proper appendage of his pastoral work.

4) No government money be accepted in states where curriculum adjustments must be made.

5) An international Catholic agency be set up (or an older one revamped) to address violations of academic integrity, both from states interfering in this autonomous institution, and from faculty and administrators.

6) Ecclesial organizations break ties with all organizations that undermine its goals.

7) The Church only recognize and support ‘pontifical’ institutions: thus, bishops shall only support and relate with such organizations, and turn their schools into schools of pontifical right.

Of course, the above list implies a perhaps temporary loss of secular accreditation, but it must be recognized that such accreditation is a modern thing, only possible to an all-powerful state. Even within the previous century no such accreditation process existed. The sheer mass of the Catholic presence within North America, for instance, would make virtue of necessity. Business, etc., would recognize the value of these ‘pontifical’ schools, just as they recognize the value of homeschooling, etc. It is the duty of Catholics to resist the totalitarian presumption of the state. Nothing would more effectively facilitate the spreading of the Gospel. Just because this list has far-reaching implications doesn’t mean it’s flawed: the Church has had to react sometimes quite radically against failing mechanisms to which it has gotten very used. We cannot make the fatal mistake of identifying the work of the Church with upholding structures of church and structures of state.

Well, that is a regression on the matter of university education, a regression from the actual focus of this post, which is to reinvigorate the intellectual life of Catholics with processes and structures that actually work. Things like the mandatum and imprimaturs are a step in the right direction, but they are so unevenly applied to be almost meaningless designations. But none of this is meant as a way to stifle intellectual life, but to invigorate it. Of course, often precisely the opposite results. It is worth a try, though. The Church could be much better organized than it is at present.


  1. I do find your thoughts interesting, But I do have a question.

    What has prompted your last few post to be so long, I have other Readings to do ... Grin, Smile.

  2. I guess I was on a roll... You should only be doing recreational reading over Christmas break... rest is good for the soul, and mind.