Thursday, November 5, 2009

Makes You Say "Hmmm..." - Part II

The Pope has been speaking a lot lately about historical instances of theological discussion within the Church and their consequences. He seems to be emphasizing that, historically, such discussions arise when things are unclear, or when there is no definitive teaching from the Magisterium on the issues being discussed. In such cases the point of theological debate is always to strike a balance between Revelation and reason (Tradition handed down and interpretation). Most interesting in the following example is Benedicts assertion that when such a balance fails or falls into error “ it is then up to the Magisterium to exercise that necessary service to truth which is its task".

Now what exactly might he be talking about?

My emphasis and comments

VATICAN CITY, 4 NOV 2009 (VIS) - Benedict XVI dedicated his catechesis during this morning's general audience to the twelfth-century debate between St. Bernard of Clairvaux and Abelard, proponents, respectively, of the monastic and scholastic approaches to theology. [faith vs. reason]

The Pope began by recalling that theology "is the search for a rational understanding (in as much as that is possible) of the mysteries of Christian revelation, which are believed by faith, the faith that seeks intelligibility". Yet, "while St. Bernard places the emphasis on faith Abelard insists on understanding by reason. [notice that Benedict is building an example that becomes relevant to reflection on the issue of continuity (faith/tradition) vs. rupture (reason/modernism) but resists making the analogy….yet)

"For Bernard", the Holy Father added, "faith itself is endowed with an intimate certainty, founded on the testimony of Scripture and on the teaching of the Fathers of the Church [the definition of Tradition as the foundation of Faith]. In cases of doubt or ambiguity [here comes the setup] faith is protected and illuminated by the exercise of ecclesial Magisterium". [So…Benedict is saying that in instances of doubt or ambiguity, it is the role of the Magisterium to step in and clarify Church teaching so as to protect the Faith from error] Thus, for the abbot of Clairvaux, "theology has a single goal, that of promoting the living and intimate experience of God".

"Abelard, who among other things introduced the term 'theology' as we understand it today, originally studied philosophy then applied the results achieved in this discipline to theology"[so Abelard applied philosophic principles…reason…to theology and this led to problems] He had a "religious spirit but a restless personality, and his life was rich in dramatic events: he challenged his teachers (dissent) and had a child by a cultured and intelligent woman, Eloise. ... He also suffered ecclesiastical condemnations, although he died in full communion with the Church to whose authority he submitted with a spirit of faith". [Abelard submitted…to the authority of the Church…and so achieved full communion, unity, with her]

"An excessive use of philosophy rendered Abelard's Trinitarian doctrine dangerously fragile", said the Pope. "Likewise, in the field of morals his teaching was not without ambiguity as he insisted on considering the intention of the subject as the only source for describing the goodness or malice of moral acts, ignoring the objective moral significance and value of actions.

[Benedict now makes the analogy that he resisted making at the beginning]

"This aspect", Benedict XVI went on, "is highly relevant for our own age, in which culture often seems marked by a growing tendency to ethical relativism. Nonetheless, we must not forget the great merits of Abelard, who made a decisive contribution to the development of scholastic theology. Nor must we undervalue some of his insights such as, for example, his affirmation that non-Christian religious traditions already contain some form of preparation to welcome Christ, the Divine Word. [Abelard sounds quite a bit like Vatican II….while Bernard seems to represent Tradition…Hmmm?]

"What can we learn from the confrontation between Bernard[Tradition?] and Abelard [Vatican II?] and, more generally, between the monastic and scholastic approaches to theology?" the Holy Father asked. "Firstly", he went on, "I believe it shows the usefulness and need for healthy theological discussion within the Church [like some discussions that began in October?], especially when the questions being debated have not been defined by the Magisterium [like many of the issues arising from interpretations of Vatican II], which, nonetheless, remains an ineluctable point of reference". [IOW, the Magisterium will be the final word if and when it is exercised]

"In the theological field there must be a balance between what we may call architectonic principles,[Tradition] which are given to us by the Revelation and which, hence, always maintain their priority and importance, and interpretative principles suggested by philosophy [can you say “Spirit of Vatican II?] (that is, by reason), which have an important function, but only an instrumental one. When this balance fails, theological reflection risks becoming marred by error and it is then up to the Magisterium to exercise that necessary service to truth which is its task". [Ba Da Bing…there it is!]

"The theological dispute between Bernard and Abelard concluded with a full reconciliation. ... What prevailed in both men was that which we must have to heart whenever a theological controversy arises: that is, defending the faith of the Church and ensuring the triumph of truth in charity".


WOW! I have frequently commented on Pope Benedicts narratives, and it is often his method to use historical events to teach about the issues of today. I usually add a caveat though, and note that he seems to be talking about this or that, and that a particular story seems to be related to an issue being discussed today.

I am making no such caveat today. This narrative is about the discussions between the Church and the SSPX which began in October. It is a clarification of what these talks are about, and it very clearly defines how these talks will conclude. But everything is not as it seems. The analogy is a perfect one, but not necessarily an obvious one, and it reveals something very striking about these discussions and how Pope Benedict sees them.

Firstly, we have to ask who is Bernard, and who is Abelard in this analogy? We might first want to make the obvious and simple distinction…Bernard is “The Church” and Abelard is the “Dissenter” who reconciles and comes into full communion through submission. If we accept that, then Bernard is the Holy See, and Abelard is the SSPX in the recently begun discussions, the goal being to have the SSPX eventually submit to the Church teachings and return to full communion. It would be a neat analogy, but one which I believe to be wrong. I say that because I’m not entirely sure that the Holy See and the SSPX are really on opposite sides of the issues being discussed. There may be some nuanced distinctions in their positions, but it seems to me that both are in opposition to what Benedict refers to as the “Hermeneutic of Rupture”. I think the analogy is this:

Bernard is the SSPX (the reference to Bp. Bernard Fellay is a bit eerie), the defender of Faith and Tradition. Abelard is not Vatican II, as we might want to immediately assume, but rather he is the so called Spirit of Vatican II… the result of philosophy and modernity being used as lenses of interpretation. Like the Spirit of Vatican II, his work has led to some good…. the development of scholastic theology and the affirmation that non-Christian religious traditions already contain some form of preparation to welcome Christ, the Divine Word, in other words ecumenism. But, the over application of reason left Abelard’s concept of the Trinity “dangerously fragile”, much like the “Spirit of Vatican II” has left core doctrines of the Church dangerously fragile.

So, Bernard (The SSPX) and Abelard (The Spirit of Vatican II) engage in discussions, the point of which is to defend the faith of the Church and ensure the triumph of truth. And where is the Holy See in this analogy? It is (both figuratively and literally) the Magisterium…ready to exercise that necessary service to truth which is its task. And that is what the outcome of these talks will be. The truth will be discerned through the lens of Tradition, the Magisterium will clarify this truth, and Abelard (The Spirit of Vatican II) will give up his errors and wayward behavior and come into full communion with the Church through submission to the Magisterium.

I know that this leaves up in the air the obvious loose end… namely that the SSPX is NOT in full communion with the Holy See, while the “Spirit of Vatican II” is. That is true, for now at least. But what happens once the Magisterium has clarified the issues of contention? Who will be in dissent then? Who will represent the actual faith of the Church, and who will be in opposition?

1 comment:

Steve Cavanaugh said...

Excellent examination of Pope Benedict's talk on Bernard and Abelard. The analogy does work. There is much to hope for from Pope Benedict's efforts...many years to him to accomplish the work of reconciliation and preparation for the work ahead.