The Essentials

April 22, 2006 § 21 Comments

Someone has been taking a lot of heat lately for some comments he made about the Da Vinci Code, gnosticism, and what he judges to be the non-connection between them. I haven’t read enough of the stuff he is criticizing to have a dog in the particular fight. But in the fight between essentialism and nominalism I have a very big, slobbery pit bull on the side of essentialism.

Many Catholics fall into a form of anti-essentialism when it comes to the Church. Islam, for example, these Catholics will say, is whatever Moslems happen to say it is. What makes the Church fundamentally different from Islam, Gnosticism, liberalism, conservatism, etc. is that the Church has a magisterium. The magisterium has the authority to say what is and is not Catholic, so Catholicism, unlike these other isms, has a true essence. These other isms are treated as though they lack an essence because they do not have a magisterium. They are whatever their adherents happen to believe that they are.

This anti-essentialism is not without consequence. It leads people to believe that, for example, Islam can be made peaceful simply by convincing enough Moslems that Islam should be peaceful. It leads people to believe that open borders will not harm the common good if enough people believe that open borders should not harm the common good. It leads people to believe that women can be made priests if enough Catholics believe that women should be made priests. It leads people to believe that reality is constructed by what we happen to believe, rather than what we believe being (ideally) a reflection of reality. It leads people to believe that reality should conform to our beliefs, rather than that our beliefs should conform to reality.

In other words, anti-essentialism leads people to believe that we are God. And I think that may explain its widespread appeal.

Liberalism (for example, as this analysis applies to other isms as well) has an essence that is independent of what any particular liberal thinks. To be a liberal is not to own the essence of liberalism, to define it for onesself: it is to have an alliegance to liberalism, a loyalty to liberalism, a faith in liberalism, a liberalism which has an essence that is independent of the self, a self which may well be deceived about the essence of that liberalism. There are “good” (which is to say highly loyal) liberals and “bad” (which is to say apostate or dissenting) liberals, just as there are good and bad Catholics. And what anyone in particular thinks or asserts about the matter has no necessary connection to what is objectively true.

As I said, I haven’t done the diligence required to take a side in The Fifth Column’s particular fight over the essence of gnosticism and the DVC. But very few things indeed are what they are just because we say so. Anti-essentialism is a lie, with all that that implies.

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§ 21 Responses to The Essentials

  • William Luse says:

    So is anti-essentialism a form of pure democracy, in which not truth but only the number of votes count?

  • zippy says:

    Sort of. That would be nominalism, at any rate: meaning is just a matter of democratic agreement about labels for the sake of convenient communication. But “the Church is what the magisterium says it is <>because<> the magisterium says so” Catholics are taking a functionally anti-essentialist position even though it isn’t a particularly democratic one.

  • Islam certainly has an essence which is a belief in the one God and that Muhammed is his prophet and the Qu’ran is the word of God. Exactly how this translates into moral actions remains a matter of opinion among Muslims because they lack any authoritative body to decide the finer details.<>It leads people to believe that women can be made priests if enough Catholics believe that women should be made priests.<>Well, if “enough” happens to be big enough to include the Pope then Zippy’s objection vanishes.It’s not excluded that one day a Pope might unlock the power for the Church to ordain women priests.God Bless

  • zippy says:

    <>Well, if “enough” happens to be big enough to include the Pope then Zippy’s objection vanishes.<>Professor Luse: this assertion by Chris is exactly the kind of Catholic non-democratic ultramontane antiessentialism to which I refer in the post.Chris: no, it doesn’t. It is precisely the point of the post that the Magisterium is a sure guide to the truth about faith and morals rather than that the Magisterium has the power to construct the reality of faith and morals in an authoritative assertion. The magisterium can no more create a power to ordain women priests by edict than it can suspend the law of gravity by edict.

  • Step2 says:

    If the essence of something cannot be changed, why the need for a magesterium to define what it is and is not? Is it not because nominalism would in fact change the essence, that is the definition, over time?Of course, I think definitions should be particular to a time and place rather than eternally abstract, so meaning only illuminates an event within a shared context.

  • zippy says:

    <>If the essence of something cannot be changed, why the need for a magesterium to define what it is and is not?<>It is a great question, really: if “the truth is out there” then what is the <>purpose<> of the magisterium? I think the fact that error is common, for a great many different reasons, answers the question. But I do think the right question is “why do I need a teacher?” not “why do I need a King?”<>I think definitions should be particular to a time and place rather than eternally abstract…<>There is a difference though between a definition and the referent of a definition.

  • <>The magisterium can no more create a power to ordain women priests by edict than it can suspend the law of gravity by edict.<>Granted that the Magisterium cannot create a power. It can however, recognise a power given to it by God.The Magisterium doesn’t teach that it will never have this power, only that it doesn’t currently have this power.If the Pope raised a teaching which the Church has always held to a dogmatic certainty, and if this fact showed how all graces (including the sacramental graces) flow through a woman, then the way might be clear to recognise a power for women to act “in persona Mariae”.Reality is sometimes deeper and more complicated than we’re prepared to admit.God Bless

  • Rob says:

    Zippy–I honestly don’t see how you can state that the Magisterium didn’t “construct the reality” by which women cannot be ordained priests. If the Magisterium did not, then what did? If not the Magisterium, then it would need to be scriptural, would it not? Where do we find this in scripture? Mind you, I have no dog in this hunt, I’m just curious.

  • zippy says:

    <>The Magisterium doesn’t teach that it will never have this power, only that it doesn’t currently have this power.<>Wrong. And silly. Rather like attempting to proof text a claim that the Magisterium doesn’t teach that adultery will always be evil, just that it is currently evil.

  • zippy says:

    <>I honestly don’t see how you can state that the Magisterium didn’t “construct the reality” by which women cannot be ordained priests.<>Rob: it isn’t that the Magisterium has decreed that there shall be no women priests. It is that the term “woman priest” does not refer to anything objectively possible. It is of the same species as the term “round square.”The Magisterium simply acknowledges this fact about reality.

  • Rob says:

    Zippy–“Woman priest” doesn’t work linguistically, but I don’t find the basis for saying that “Catholic priestess” is a logical impossibility, or violates the essential nature of God’s creation.

  • zippy says:

    <>…or violates the essential nature of God’s creation.<>As a matter of Catholic doctrine it is exactly this, and not merely a linguistic impossibility or the outcome of juridical stubbornness. Christ was a man, true man, and it is impossible (literally, not just linguistically) for a woman to stand in for Him in the sacraments.

  • Rob says:

    I was under the impression that when we say that Christ was “true man”, we meant it in the sense of “true human”, not as a gender identifier.Can a woman not, then, pick up her cross and follow Him, because He was male?Or is it the case that because a thing has no precedent, it has no essence? So much, then, for the Immaculate Conception, for the Virgin Birth, and for the Incarnation.

  • Rob says:

    Then a woman is not a fit sacrifice and cannot pick up her cross and follow Him.

  • zippy says:

    The former is absolutely true, because only Christ is a fit sacrifice, and Christ is a man. The latter is obviously false.

  • Rob says:

    If only Christ is a fit sacrifice, then we are not justified by imitating His sacrifice, or by any intellectually chosen act of which we are capable. So much for works. We must just have faith that the unacceptable will be, nonetheless, accepted, regardless of gender.

  • zippy says:

    <>So much for works.<>Well, yes, so much for them unless we actually love Christ, in which case we will do good works despite their insufficiency in themselves.

  • Rob says:

    I have no argument with that. To love Christ, we must have faith. Faith has priority over works. Works without faith is ineffectual; faith without works is impossible, since faith entails love of Christ. Christ taught that if you don’t love your brother, you don’t love me.

  • Rob says:

    Don’t love *Him*, I should have said.

  • zippy says:

    <>Faith has priority over works<>In my view it doesn’t really make sense to say that one indispensable thing has priority over another.

  • Rob says:

    I don’t mean priority in the sense of power over, but rather, chronologically. Sinful man cannot perform effectual good works, without *first* having received faith through grace, in order that he might act in love. We must have our ducks in a row, which ordering we cannot achieve on our own: grace > faith > brother love > good works.

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