A Clear and Present Danger

May 7, 2009 § 12 Comments

There is I think very legitimate concern on the part of some traditional orthodox Catholics about a kind of presentism which treats what the Magisterium says right now as a discontinuous trump card, severing Catholicism from its roots and remaking it as some progressive fantasy. On the other hand, we do know that doctrine develops. The myth of Progress may be bunk, but the Deposit of the Faith does in fact work itself out through salvation history over time. The fact that the Church may have non-infallibly approved of certain wicked practices in the past doesn’t amount to an infallible proclamation that those practices cannot be intrinsically immoral, for example. The doctrine of infallibility itself implies that some things – the non-infallible ones – are reformable, through new clarifying articulation which narrows the lens through which the past can be interpreted or even through explicit repudiation.

So I’m as cautious as the next guy about adopting a hermeneutic of discontinuity. But there are certain cases where the Church herself explicitly asserts a kind of presentism: where She repudiates past practices quite explicitly, or asserts Herself that a particular Magisterial articulation of doctrine is the first of its kind on a particular subject.

Opposing that explicit presentism on particular specific questions, on the basis of resistance to a false Progressive presentism which hopes for doctrinal developments which will not happen, seems to me to be problemmatic.

I know offhand of two instances that seem to me to meet the criteria for an “explicit presentism” coming directly from the Magisterium.

This one:

2298 In times past, cruel practices were commonly used by legitimate governments to maintain law and order, often without protest from the Pastors of the Church, who themselves adopted in their own tribunals the prescriptions of Roman law concerning torture. Regrettable as these facts are, the Church always taught the duty of clemency and mercy. She forbade clerics to shed blood. In recent times it has become evident that these cruel practices were neither necessary for public order, nor in conformity with the legitimate rights of the human person. On the contrary, these practices led to ones even more degrading. It is necessary to work for their abolition. We must pray for the victims and their tormentors. – The Catechism of the Catholic Church

And this one:

115. This is the first time, in fact, that the Magisterium of the Church has set forth in detail the fundamental elements of this teaching, and presented the principles for the pastoral discernment necessary in practical and cultural situations which are complex and even crucial. – Veritatis Splendour

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§ 12 Responses to A Clear and Present Danger

  • e. says:

    “The fact that the Church may have non-infallibly approved of certain wicked practices in the past doesn’t amount to an infallible proclamation…”

    I suppose that in some parallel universe, to argue against seemingly non-infallibly approved practices by relying on equally non-infallible resources like the Catechism is an ultimately deciding move; however, not in our universe.

  • Bob says:

    The response to any magisterial source, whether infallible or not, is humility.

    Instead of brushing off a particular teaching as non-infallible, engage it. Try to understand why and what the Church is teaching. Perhaps you have misunderstood something.

  • William Luse says:

    <>to argue against seemingly non-infallibly approved practices by relying on equally non-infallible resources like the Catechism<>Someone who equates practice with the Church’s teaching authority is certainly living in a different universe, and talking about a different church.

  • Anonymous says:

    Bill Luse:

    “Someone who equates practice with the Church’s teaching authority is certainly living in a different universe, and talking about a different church.”

    Well, it wasn’t exactly just mere practice; for heaven’s sake, Bill, there were an entire range of popes who essentially provided teaching on it.

    Why don’t you do as Bob suggested, “instead of brushing off a particular teaching as non-infallible, engage it.”

    Here, let me start you off on your journey.

    The following is a link to the Catholic Encyclopedia that features a very brief sketch on the topic.

    http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/08026a.htm

    Contrary to popular belief, the Catholic Church didn’t just pop into existence after Vatican II.

    In fact, there were other popes prior to Pope John Paul II that go all the way back to Peter himself.

  • zippy says:

    <>Contrary to popular belief, the Catholic Church didn’t just pop into existence after Vatican II.<><><>No doubt. But the point that the post raises is that there are particular subjects over which the Church Herself explicitly, in authoritative Magisterial documents, asserts a subject-specific presentism. To ignore <>that explicit subject-specific assertion of presentism<> is to ignore the Magisterium on a particular point.

  • Anonymous says:

    Zippy,

    The question is how do you reconcile present teaching with those of the past wherein popes provided different thoughts on the matter?

    I don’t think it little significance that both our sources happen to be non-infallible; yet, to simply dismiss the past in favor of the present one (particularly concerning non-infallible material) poses a difficulty that cannot be disregarded or even wholly dismissed.

  • zippy says:

    <>The question is how do you reconcile present teaching with those of the past wherein popes provided different thoughts on the matter?<><><>That is a good question generally, but the specific case of explicit presentism raises a different one: do you accept the Pope’s explicit repudiation of past practices, or do you reject it outright? In a case of explicit presentism we don’t have to figure out how previous teachings and practices cohere with the present one, because the Pope is telling us explicitly what to do, hermeneutically, on that question.

  • Anonymous says:

    RE: Sometimes It Is Miscommunication

    In September 2005 Father Harrison published “TORTURE AND CORPORAL PUNISHMENT AS A PROBLEM IN CATHOLIC THEOLOGY”

    In it Father Harrison claims:

    “B4. Pope Innocent IV, Bull Ad Exstirpanda (May 15, 1252). This fateful document introduced confession-extorting torture into tribunals of the Inquisition. It had already been reinstated in secular processes over the previous hundred years, during which Roman Law was being vigorously revived. Innocent’s Bull prescribes that captured heretics, being “murderers of souls as well as robbers of God’s sacraments and of the Christian faith, . . . are to be coerced – as are thieves and bandits – into confessing their errors and accusing others, although one must stop short of danger to life or limb’.”
    See http://www.rtforum.org/lt/lt119.htm

    However the Actual Bull:

    1243-1254 – SS Innocentius IV – Bulla ‘Ad_Extirpanda’ [AD 1252-05-15]

    (See http://userwww.sfsu.edu/~draker/history/Ad_Extirpanda.html}

    does not even mention words or phrases like torture, confession-extorting torture, coerced”. It does not authorize torture or burning at the stake or the execution of heretics.

    God bless

    Richard W Comerford

  • zippy says:

    Interesting, Richard. I guess Fr. Harrison is probably referring to this:<><><>The head of state or ruler must force all the heretics whom he has in custody, provided he does so without killing them or breaking their arms or legs, as actual robbers and murderers of souls and thieves of the sacraments of God and Christian faith, to confess their errors and accuse other heretics whom they know, and specify their motives, and those whom they have seduced, and those who have lodged them and defended them,as thieves and robbers of material goods are made to accuse their accomplices and confess the crimes they have committed.<><><>He seems to be saying that the same procedures the State already uses against thieves of material goods etc. must also be used against heretics.

    Pretty thin gruel. And pretty much just exactly what the Catechism explicitly repudiates.

  • Anonymous says:

    Zippy:

    That is my guess. However it is also significant what Father H. left out of his survey of Church history relative to torture prior to and after Innocent’s 1252 Bull.

    Prior to the Bull there was near universal condemnation in both the Eastern and Western Churches of either torturing or executing heretics.

    The year before Father Harrison published his work in question the Vatican published this:

    “In carrying out investigations, the regulation against the use of torture, even in the case of serious crimes, must be strictly observed: “Christ’s disciple refuses every recourse to such methods, which nothing could justify and in which the dignity of man is as much debased in his torturer as in the torturer’s victim”.[830] International juridical instruments concerning human rights correctly indicate a prohibition against torture as a principle which cannot be contravened under any circumstances”

    Every time during the last 2,000 years whenever a Pope or Council has taught the faithful on the morality of torture it has been to teach that torture is immoral. (St. Bernard: “By persuasion, not by violence, are men to be won to the Faith”).

    I am really mystified by the Father’s stand (which is now cited all over the internet) on this issue.

    God bless

    Richard W Comerford

  • […] many modern day traditionalists I am not troubled by development of doctrine, generally speaking. (The reason is because I am not a positivist; but that potentially leads to a […]

  • […] we are told that we should be Catholics because the propositions produced by the Church proposition-factory, a.k.a. the Magisterium, are true — with caveats.  Protestants take a similar view, but […]

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