Merit, Aquinas, and Calvin: Letting the Differences Abide

by Aaron Anderson

Concluding his essay “Calvin’s Critique of Merit, and Why Aquinas (Mostly) Agrees,” Charles Raith writes:

The vision of rapprochement between Catholic and Reformed theology presented here does not argue that the differences between Calvin and his opponents were in actuality minor issues of little consequence to the Christian faith and therefore should be dismissed as unimportant for ecumenical dialogue; nor does it argue that Calvin and his opponents were actually thinking similar thoughts but simply using different language, resulting in Calvin simply misunderstanding his opponents’ teaching. Rather, Calvin’s issues with his opponents’ teaching on merit were real, substantial, and deserving of Calvin’s critique.

The argument here is simply that they largely miss Aquinas as a target, and if this is so, the title “Common Doctor” may extend to constituting a point of rapprochement between Catholics and Reformed on the topic of merit. This is not to deny that points of difference exist between Aquinas’s and Calvin’s conceptions of merit, particularly as related to the worth of the act and one’s ability to fulfill the law. If genuine rapprochement is to take place, acknowledging these differences will be vital to ecumenical dialogue. And it may be the case, as noted by Otto Herman Pesch, that the concept of “merit,” however one may wish to describe the reality behind it, carries more problems than it solves.

Nevertheless, this essay attempted to contribute to the growing consensus that Calvin’s polemics do not have the teaching of Aquinas in their sights, sometimes even when Calvin thinks they do. One may wonder if Aquinas’s thought had been more fully understood and embraced leading up to the sixteenth century, would the sixteenth century have produced different results. This of course is impossible to answer, but it is possible to say that Aquinas may still have a word for us toward healing our divisions today.

Raith’s two essays on merit (as well as his recent book with OUP) not only contribute to a movement of creative scholarship that aims to demonstrate the common vocabulary and theological concerns of Aquinas and Calvin, but also model argumentatively the kinds of conversations that this forum aspires to.

First, dialogue between Reformed and Catholics should involve shared scholarship without falling in to an “apologetic” key. Note that, after having argued that Calvin’s criticism of merit is largely congruent with Aquinas’ affirmation of merit, Raith does not rush to say that Roman Catholic soteriology trumps Reformed soteriology. Raith can subject Calvin to significant criticism and suggest deficiencies by way of historical and textual analysis without in any way ceding that Catholic theology is therefore superior to Reformed theology, because Aquinas is not the possession of Roman Catholics. Any honest investigation of historical Reformed theology will reveal a surprisingly similar point of departure between many of the Reformers and their Catholic interlocutors: a commitment to engaging sacra doctrina by way of the works of Thomas Aquinas.  As many recent studies have shown, the Reformers learned from and critically appropriated much of Aquinas’ thought, as well as the method of the medieval scholastics. Invoking Aquinas as a way to “close down” the arguments of the Reformers is simply a move barred by the weight of history.

Apologetic scholarship tends to situate historical and textual study in terms of polemics, assuming that history can easily confirm what is already assumed. But, history and theology are coordinated in such a way that history can both condition theological thinking, and be directed by that thinking (if this is doubted, reader make haste to the works of the Jesuit historian John W. O’Malley). Apologetic historiography tends to construe the landscape of doctrinal and ecclesial development in shades of sharp discontinuity or epic continuity, to the point that prior theological concerns come to blur the autonomy of historical investigation. Indeed, it is very often the case that Catholic and Protestant apologetics are involved in sweeping historical affirmations precisely when history is not invoked or deemed unimportant to accounts of Reformation-Catholic divides.

For Raith, we can and must let the differences and tensions abide. We cannot dissolve the substance of Reformation protests to simple or naive misunderstandings bound to historical circumstance, and likewise, we cannot refuse the task of evaluating the historical dimensions of Catholic identity to see where our divides are the result of misunderstanding and forgetfulness. And, in the process of investigating our differences, it is imperative that we attend to the shared vocabulary, terminology, and modes of reasoning that make theologians like Aquinas “Common” to Reformed and Catholic traditions, without moving to ideologize personalities and theological determinations.

Second, Raith shows how historical and textual scholarship, with its requisite dispossession and diffusion of ideology, can contribute to ecumenism; indeed, how scholarship can be itself a form of ecumenism. To borrow from the conceptual world of the Catholic and Reformed scholastics on nature and grace, scholarship has, both in its methodology and ends, a proper autonomy and difference from ecumenism’s spiritual impulse to increase Christian unity. However, just as grace does not relate to nature as a “mechanical juxtaposition” (Bavinck, GD I), so ecumenism, the prayerful movement of Christians in to deeper understanding of the life of grace within different churches’ institutional and spiritual dimensions, can be practiced in the form of scholarship, without destroying the integrity of scholarship. Of course, this requires a careful delineation of how the two might relate, which our work strives to unfold. Exemplifying this kind of scholarly ecumenism is certainly no easy task, but Raith’s work shows great advancement in this area, and we hope to continue to model this careful balance.

28 thoughts on “Merit, Aquinas, and Calvin: Letting the Differences Abide

  1. Aaron, you say, “dialogue between Reformed and Catholics should involve shared scholarship without falling in to an “apologetic” key.”

    But if I am having a conversation with you in my function as elder in the OPC (and have been commissioned by our committee on ecumenism), of course, I am going to adopt an “apologetic key.” I’m there to represent my peeps.

    If I’m there as a participant in an academic seminar, then apologetics aren’t appropriate. But I do wonder if Roman Catholic scholars cannot help but be apologetic since as believers they are supposed to be in submission to the magisterium and its teachings. Unless a Roman Catholic can distinguish his academic from his ecclesial obligations in some kind of two-kingdom way, he or she is going to have an obligation to defend the church. I often wonder whether Roman Catholic academics can seriously analyze and critique the writings of popes and if folks like Benedict XVI didn’t get a lot of slack as a scholar because RC scholars couldn’t dissent.

    This is why I’m not sure how scholarship can contribute to ecumenism. They are different tasks, executed in different settings, and have different ends.

  2. Wait, are you suggesting that Presbyterians are better able to distinguish scholarship and apologetics than Roman Catholics?

    I don’t think that you entirely believe your last sentence, though I agree with you that there are important distinctions that need to be drawn. There are obvious ways in which scholarship could contribute to inter-confessional understanding (I’m aware that I shifted the terms of the discussion there). And inter-confessional understanding could conceivably motivate good scholarly work. Of course, these are merely assertions at this stage. But I have trouble imagining how these claims could be denied.

    1. Matt, what I mean is this:

      Protestants have a longer history of using lay scholars in the church than Roman Catholics. Heck, John Courtney Murray was a priest and it still took him a while to get a hearing.

      Protestants do more navel gazing about faith and scholarship than Roman Catholics do (in my experience). The Conference on Faith and History is one such place where Protestants reinvent the wheel trying to figure out how faith informs scholarship. I haven’t seen this among Roman Catholic historians. In fact, RC historians seem to be oblivious to faith-informed scholarship (think Brad Gregory).

      Protestants have a lot more experience with seminary education than lay Roman Catholics do. Formal theological training is much more prevalent among Protestant historians than RC’s.

      On the other side, the stakes are higher for Roman Catholics than Protestants. We don’t have a history of bishops talking and explaining everything from climate change to hermeneutics. And as good RC’s, you’re supposed to be in submission to the magisterium. Protestants have the Bible and beyond the creeds (if you’re in a communion that takes creeds seriously), you have a lot of room to rove. Plus, I can be critical of the Westminster Divines (as a Protestant) than you can of Trent as a Roman Catholic. If you do take ecclessiology seriously, which is what ecumenism is doing by introducing CHURCH unity into scholarly discussions, then you are limited in what you can say about the past in ways I am not. I can’t criticize the Bible. Can you really criticize a pope or council?

  3. Dr. Hart,

    At the risk of simply repeating what Matt has said, it is true that C&C is still at the point where we are laboring to outline how we think ecumenism and scholarship might interrelate, and are in the process of writing a few more pieces that begin to put some skin on our claims. So, we are still largely making assertions which we think are well-grounded, but that will require explication and the assistance of Reformed scholars like yourself.

    But, to your last point, you’ve said: “They are different tasks, executed in different settings, and have different ends.”

    I would grant that ecumenism and scholarship are “different tasks,” if by different we mean distinct (which I did already grant in my post); however, to my mind, a distinction does not necessitate a strict separation, it is not logically required. I would also grant that the work of ecumenism and scholarship can, and in many cases, should be executed in different settings; however, it would be begging the question to say that, again, a strict separation must exist, because the existence of C&C as an online presence devoted to the scholarly aspects of ecumenism is a counterfactual! And yes, ecumenism and scholarship have different ends according to their methodology and responsibilities; but again, this does not mean that, when both are carried out with integrity, the two ends cannot co-relate. What I see here are some excellent cautions on your part, a prudential judgement, but one that comes to prematurely bar the possibility that these two things, when done well, could complement.

    I think what lies at the heart of this debate is a conviction that C&C holds that you probably do not. Not only has C&C explicitly repudiated the apologetic and polemical modes of inter-confessional exchange, we have and will continue to affirm that Catholics and Reformed Christians are brothers and sisters in Christ, that the Holy Spirit sparks growth in unity in many ways *because of* our institutional, theological and liturgical expressions (and not despite them), and that, as fellow Christians, we do not, perforce, inhabit an entirely neutral space for these discussionn. Admittedly, these are probably claims you’d contest, and that we may have disagreement on for some time to come. But, we are very grateful for your ability to put your finger on the nub of some of these issues, and press questions that are generative of substantive debate and further scholarship.

  4. Aaron, if we are brothers and sisters in Christ, why convert to Roman Catholicism? Is Rome simply another denomination? For a long part of its history (this is scholarship), it claimed to be the only true church. And its teachings still put me as a Protestant in danger of mortal sin and therefore eternal punishment. I think the question of ecumenism actually raises the stakes of what you are doing. And the thought of better understanding on both sides seems to be a one-way street from Protestantism to Roman Catholicism (at least at CaC and CtC).

    Sorry if that sounds negative or harsh. But these are not frivolous matters. The documents of the sixteenth century don’t make it easier for confessional Protestants to regard RC’s and Protestants as brothers in Christ. It makes it harder. And when someone from another communion starts talking like we are all one, a confessional Protestant hears liberal Christianity, the kind that is indifferent to church and biblical teaching.

  5. Your way of using “no salvation outside the Church” and the Catholic notion of itself as “the only true church” has, in my view, been problematic here and in our conversation at Old Life. I can find you evidence from Patristic, medieval, and early-modern theologians, but, as I indicated before, there are a number of respects in which the period from Pius IX’s pontificate to Vatican II might be the most challenging for Thomists who also appreciate Lumen Gentium and Von Balthasar (or however you want to characterize us).

    So, perhaps a quotation from Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, O.P. (d. 1964), a “notorious” anti-Modernist and a critic of the nouvelle theologie, would be especially effective for making the point. While discussing the number of the elect (he was rather fiercely Augustinian on predestination, etc.) in his work, Life Everlasting (chap. 32), first published around 1950, Garrigou-Lagrange wrote that the question of whether the elect outnumber the reprobate (or vice versa) is “a truth that is not certain.” He then treated the various opinions about the number of Roman Catholics who may be numbered among the elect. The old Dominican then writes:

    “But we if we are treating of all Christians, of all who have been baptized, Catholic, schismatic, Protestant, it is more probable, theologians generally say, that the greater number is saved. First, the number of infants who die in the state of grace before reaching the age of reason is very great. Secondly, many Protestants, being today in good faith, can be reconciled to God by an act of contrition, particularly in danger of death. Thirdly, schismatics can receive a valid absolution.”

    Notice that he holds such a view as “general” in his day. And he is not the type to count the liberals and Modernists. So, does that help in any way to show that Vatican II’s views about separate brethren are not quite as novel as you have suggested?

    1. Matt, if Protestants are Christians, why should they become Roman Catholic?

      Aren’t I in mortal sin — not in submission to the magisterium, I trust only the alien righteousness of Christ, and have not gone to confession.

      I’m not trying to be obnoxious about this. But Trent is not congenial to Protestants. It’s in the sixteenth century. That’s a major part of what CaC is trying to do.

      Are we supposed to ignore a major church council that responded specifically to Protestantism? If we are now to reassess Trent, do we follow scholars or church authorities in that reassessment (meaning, is this scholarship or church office)?

      Sorry again if this is problematic. But we are having a conversation that CaC has called. If that discussion doesn’t go the way we thought it might, isn’t that the nature of conversations?

      1. First of all, I think that this is, to some extent at least, the sort of conversation that CaC wants to have. I’m not sure why it would be problematic.

        You are changing the subject somewhat. You suggested before that openness to the salvation of Protestants is Modernist or semi-Modernist. I think that I’ve provided some evidence that it is not.

        No one here is ignoring Trent. The question is whether you or Garrigou-Lagrange better understand its implications. And you must know that theologians have a role in the Catholic Church, especially those like G-L who are Dominicans teaching at Pontifical universities. And we have quoted Popes and councils on this point several times.

        So can we at least agree that the looming issue is Trent’s anathemas?

  6. I missed Darryl’s previous post (1:51 p.m.).

    I spent a good deal of time talking about the complexities of what you have called “faith-informed scholarship” with the Institute of Advanced Catholic Studies. So perhaps there are more parallels to the Conference on Faith and History than you have suggested.

    As far as lay scholars, let’s not forget people like Etienne Gilson, Jacques Maritain, Christopher Dawson, and others.

    I see your point that, as far as infallible sources, Roman Catholics have more to deal with than confessional Protestants (though I still think that “bracketing” is certainly possible when acting as a historian). But popes are criticized by the liberal-types and by the traditionalist-types. And, in your previous posts and comments, you have revealed your perspective that such “types” dominate American Catholicism. (And this makes your point about BXVI getting a free pass because of fear of being a “dissenter” a rather surprising one.) But I really don’t want to get into church sociology right now.

    For our purposes, I think that it is sufficient to say that Roman Catholics can certainly criticize the theologians at the Council of Trent. It *can* be said that they (I gave an example from Domingo de Soto at Old Life) at times had a limited grasp of the deepest concerns of the Reformers. While faithful Catholics would obviously have a different attitude towards the actual decrees of Trent, they can still say that all of the anathemas did not “hit the target” (indeed, that was not really the intent, as O’Malley has shown). Faithful Catholics can also say that Trent is not the last word on justification, just as Vatican I was not the last word on the papacy. Of course, that doesn’t mean that Trent or Vatican I can be dispensed with or ignored (as perhaps some liberal or Modernist Catholics would argue).

    To be clear, this is not argument that these are correct judgments about Trent and its relationship to later pronouncements of the Church. My only claim is that such judgments do not contradict traditional views of Trent’s authority.

    1. Matt, I haven’t dropped this.

      When you write this, I think we hit the basic difficulty for confessional Protestants:

      “Faithful Catholics can also say that Trent is not the last word on justification, just as Vatican I was not the last word on the papacy. Of course, that doesn’t mean that Trent or Vatican I can be dispensed with or ignored (as perhaps some liberal or Modernist Catholics would argue).”

      Not the last word but also not to be ignored. I’m not going to find it now, but the current catechism does say that you as a RC are to submit to the teachings of the magisterium. How does submission fit with “not the last word” but not to be “ignored.”

      I understand that the days of pay pray and obey are behind. But wouldn’t it still be fair to expect, given the church’s longtime hierarchical understanding of the hierarchy, that a magisterial interpretation of Trent would be the one to inform discussions aimed at understanding (if not ecumenism). I am not sure what Rome really teaches on justification by your view of not the last word but certainly to be considered.

      And I do think I understand (maybe presumptuous) why Rome is in this odd ambiguity (though I’m still not sure why ambiguity is attractive to converts). For most of its modern history Rome claimed that it had the truth and truth is objective and doesn’t change (Francis Schaeffer’s true truth). Then the hierarchy at VII wanted to soften that impression but knew it couldn’t “revise” dogma. So it opened up discussions for the laity, avoided taking a definitive judgment on Trent, and has allowed great breadth of discussions so that Commonweal and Remnant can interpret in vastly different ways.

      This state of affairs is objectionable for confessional Protestants since we affirm that the Bible is the last word on justification (yes, it has to be interpreted), and that our confessions and catechisms are binding on church officers — sometimes members. If we change doctrine — it’s okay since we affirm that churches err — we revise our creedal statements.

      In other words, the confessional Protestant understanding of its own teaching and authority seems to be much less up for grabs than with contemporary Roman Catholicism. I don’t say that to take a shot. I do say it in search of a firm reference point for dialogue — whether academic or ecumenical. If so many Roman Catholics can say such different things about what the church teaches and believes, who am I supposed to believe?

      Again, I don’t say this to be triumphalistic. It’s to explain why some might think a proposal for dialogue somewhat difficult.

    1. Matt, thanks for the link to BXVI. It may be above my paygrade, but I would never talk about the Confession of Faith the way that Pope Benedict talks about Trent. He has his rights to do so. But I have a hard time imagining that previous popes (especially Pius X) would talk that way.

  7. Your discomfort with the Pope (the Magisterium, right?) on this point is noteworthy. Perhaps there are different accounts of truth and history at work here that will be worth spelling out in the future.

    But, instead of talking about this in the abstract, let’s see how it all works in practice as we engage in conversation and dialogue. If you think, at any point, that I’m contradicting Trent or Vatican II, then tell me. Unlike the Traditionalists (who reject Vatican II) or the Modernists (who don’t care much about dogma at all and certainly not about the sixteenth century), I (we) will be very attentive to your concerns. Has anyone here shown a lack of a submissive spirit to the Magisterium (as perhaps you see, in different ways, at the Remnant or Commonweal)?

    I think that you are still not giving the whole picture of pre-Vatican II Catholicism. You seem to take the Oath against Modernism as the norm for everything before Lumen Gentium. Consider the Old (1911) Catholic Encyclopedia on truth and history in its article on “Modernism” (all that is below is a quotation until the last “paragraph”):

    Comparing these notions, the Catholic and the modernist, we shall see that modernism alters the source, the manner of promulgation, the object, the stability, and the truth of dogma. For the modernist, the only and the necessary source is the private consciousness. And logically so, since he rejects miracles and prophecy as signs of God’s word (Il programma, p. 96). For the Catholic, dogma is a free communication of God to the believer made through the preaching of the Word. Of course the truth from without, which is above and beyond any natural want, is preceded by a certain interior finality or perfectibility which enables the believer to assimilate and live the truth revealed. It enters a soul well-disposed to receive it, as a principle of happiness which, though an unmerited gift to which we have no right, is still such as the soul can enjoy with unmeasured gratitude. In the modernist conception, the Church can no longer define dogma in God’s name and with His infallible help; the ecclesiastical authority is now but a secondary interpreter, subject to the collective consciousness which she has to express. To this collective consciousness the individual need conform only externally; as for the rest he may embark on any private religious adventures he cares for. The modernist proportions dogma to his intellect or rather to his heart. Mysteries like the Trinity or the Incarnation are either unthinkable (a modernist Kantian tendency), or are within the reach of the unaided reason (a modernist Hegelian tendency). “The truth of religion is in him (man) implicitly, as surely as the truth of the whole physical universe, is involved in every part of it. Could he read the needs of his own spirit and conscience, he would need no teacher” (Tyrrell, “Scylla and Charybdis”, p. 277).

    Assuredly Catholic truth is not a lifeless thing. Rather is it a living tree that breaks forth into green leaves, flowers, and fruits. There is a development, or gradual unfolding, and a clearer statement of its dogmas. Besides the primary truths, such as the Divinity of Christ and His mission as Messiah, there are others which, one by one, become better understood and defined, e.g. the dogma of the Immaculate Conception and that of the Infallibility of the Pope. Such unfolding takes place not only in the study of the tradition of the dogma but also in showing its origin in Jesus Christ and the Apostles, in the understanding of the terms expressing it and in the historical or rational proofs adduced in support of it. Thus the historical proof of the dogma of the Immaculate Conception has certainly been strengthened since the definition in 1854. The rational conception of the dogma of Divine Providence is a continual object of study; the dogma of the Sacrifice of the Mass allows the reason to inquire into the idea of sacrifice. It has always been believed that there is no salvation outside the Church, but as this belief has gradually come to be better understood, many are now considered within the soul of the Church who would have been placed without, in a day when the distinction between the soul and the body of the Church had not generally obtained. In another sense, too dogma is instinct with life. For its truth is not sterile, but always serves to nourish devotion. But while holding with life, progress and development, the Church rejects transitory dogmas that in the modernist theory would be forgotten unless replaced by contrary formulae. She cannot admit that “thought, hierarchy, cult, in a word, everything has changed in the history of Christianity”, nor can she be content with “the identity of religious spirit” which is the only permanency that modernism admits (Il programma dei Modernisti).

    Truth consists in the conformity of the idea with its object. Now, in the Catholic concept, a dogmatic formula supplies us with at least an analogical knowledge of a given object. For the modernist, the essential nature of dogma consists in its correspondence with and its capacity to satisfy a certain momentary need of the religious feeling. It is an arbitrary symbol that tells nothing of the object it represents. At most, as M. Leroy, one of the least radical of modernists, suggests, it is a positive prescription of a practical order (Leroy, “Dogme et critique”, p. 25). Thus the dogma of the Real Presence in the Holy Eucharist means: “Act as if Christ had the local presence, the idea of which is so familiar to you”. But, to avoid exaggeration, we add this other statement of the same writer (loc. cit.), “This however does not mean that dogma bears no relation to thought; for (1) there are duties concerning the action of thinking; (2) dogma itself implicitly affirms that reality contains in one form or another the justification of such prescriptions as are either reasonable or salutary”.

    GAETANO: Again, I’m not endorsing every word here. My goal is merely to suggest that the notion of non-finality (dare I say, “development”) is *not* merely a result of Vatican II but, indeed, has a much, much older pedigree.

    1. Matt, I understand somewhat the notion of development, though I think you need to concede that it developed later than the sixteenth century. The notion of non-finality hardly explains why a council would anathematize certain views or persons. I hardly think the Council of Constance was thinking of development of doctrine when it condemned Wycliffe and Hus. Again, the point is not to throw up troubling parts of history. Calvin and Servetus was not good. It is to raise questions about the CaC project (sorry for the old name). Can you guys admit that you yourselves are uncomfortable with RC past? I think that is fairly clear. That’s why you are willing to talk of misunderstandings on your side. But again the kicker for you is that your magisterium was implicated in those misunderstandings. How can the magisterium protect the church from error if they are prone to misunderstanding?

      Or maybe, you really do have two different understandings of truth and its finality even within Roman Catholicism. That is certainly the point of O’Malley and Massa on the 1960s and Vat II. Historicism became an explanation for doctrine at Vat II (some prefer to call it development). And so, it became possible to say that something may have been true in its time, but it was the product of a particular historical context.

      Sorry, Matt, but that is classic modernism.

      So again, I wonder if the real conversation for which you call needs to go on among Roman Catholics. I hear lots of different voices. Are Massa and O’Malley wrong? Do they not “get it”? Does CaC get it ways that Remnant and Commonweal don’t?

      Obviously, I’m willing to talk. But I remained unconvinced that this cite gives me Roman Catholicism straight. In fact, as my comment suggests, CaC seems to waffle a bit on historicism because I suppose the history of doctrine shows that polemics rather than mutual understanding or thinking well of each other was far more common from 1550 to 1930.

  8. And the Catechism (which you cited) says the following two things in the same section (http://www.vatican.va/archive/ENG0015/__PM.HTM):

    85 “The task of giving an authentic interpretation of the Word of God, whether in its written form or in the form of Tradition, has been entrusted to the living teaching office of the Church alone. Its authority in this matter is exercised in the name of Jesus Christ.” This means that the task of interpretation has been entrusted to the bishops in communion with the successor of Peter, the Bishop of Rome. 86 “Yet this Magisterium is not superior to the Word of God, but is its servant. It teaches only what has been handed on to it. At the divine command and with the help of the Holy Spirit, it listens to this devotedly, guards it with dedication and expounds it faithfully. All that it proposes for belief as being divinely revealed is drawn from this single deposit of faith.” 87 Mindful of Christ’s words to his apostles: “He who hears you, hears me”,49 The faithful receive with docility the teachings and directives that their pastors give them in different forms.

    AND

    Growth in understanding the faith
    94 Thanks to the assistance of the Holy Spirit, the understanding of both the realities and the words of the heritage of faith is able to grow in the life of the Church:
    – “through the contemplation and study of believers who ponder these things in their hearts”; it is in particular “theological research [which] deepens knowledge of revealed truth”.
    – “from the intimate sense of spiritual realities which [believers] experience”. The sacred Scriptures “grow with the one who reads them.”
    – “from the preaching of those who have received, along with their right of succession in the episcopate, the sure charism of truth”.

    Have I said anything that contradicts any of this here or back at Old Life?

    And I really don’t think that it is quite as difficult as you say to know what the Roman Catholic Church has taught, what it now teaches, and the connection between the two. Just because some at the Remnant or Commonweal (occasionally, often?) have trouble with this doesn’t mean that it is really so difficult of a task. (I would never hold it against you that people are perplexed about the relationship between Scripture, WCF, and contemporary views in the OPC.)

    Of course, this may be self-indulgent, but I would say that this view of mine is why it’s worth talking to the Anderson brothers and me. We are, from your point of view, wrong in a number of ways, but we avoid these two extremes of radical Traditionalism and Modernism in a way that resonates in a rather substantial way (we think and can also substantiate) with the historical teachings of the Church, with Vatican II, and with the post-conciliar papacy. At the very least, it makes for a much more interesting conversation.

    But, as I suggested in my last post, let’s not dwell *too* much on the rules of the road and the foundations for dialogue and let’s see if we can model a sensible, respectful, serious, and faithful way of talking about relevant issues.

  9. Matt, “let’s see if we can model a sensible, respectful, serious, and faithful way of talking about relevant issues.”

    To be clear, what is the end game? Is it so that I will lose my inhibitions about Roman Catholicism? That I will understand better why Roman Catholicism is wrong? That I will understand the church’s errors but know its adherents to be “good guys”? Again, I’m not hostile to talking (I’m here). But some to whom I talk wonder if such conversations are a way of stealing sheep. I don’t think that is the explicit aim. But isn’t it an implicit aim? If I lose my inhibitions, see greater commonality between Rome and Protestants, isn’t it easier for me to convert to Rome? Frog in the kettle?

    I’m not raising this to accuse but to prompt greater clarity on your part and how the aim here looks (and what it may do) to others.

    1. I’ll try to combine my responses to both of your posts here. I think that we’ve covered some of this territory, which is fine, but it would be helpful if, every once in a while, you indicated where some point has been clarified or where mutual understanding has been increased, so that I know where to focus my reply:

      1) Catholics don’t all have to agree about everything. The history of the Church–long before Vatican II–was characterized by fierce theological debate. And there is now a debate, as is to be expected, about the implications of a major council in the 1960s. That’s fine. Perhaps your worries here and the shape of your arguments are informed by Catholics who talk about their Church as never changing in any way (in contrast with Protestant diversity) or with people who become Catholic because of the unity–if not uniformity–in the Church’s views of most everything. TRF has never talked about the Church in that way. And we think that we can show–but it will take time–that the Church has not claimed that kind of uniformity for itself in quite the way that you seem to think.

      2) But, in this debate about twentieth-century Catholicism, the hardcore traditionalists and the extreme liberals are pretty explicit about being dissatisfied with the Second Vatican Council and/or the post-conciliar papacy. I’m not saying that they don’t get it. In fact, I think that they *do* get it (and don’t like it). This shows that things are not quite so complicated as you suggest. And this is why we are a different sort of conversation-partner than you are perhaps used to. I’m certainly not saying that we have some sort of authoritative take on the Church’s view of itself today. If you want that, read the Catechism or the encyclicals or the Vatican II documents or whatever it might be. But those documents are not actually talking to you, and they are rarely interested in thinking about the relationship of their ideas to Protestant theology (or to medieval and especially Baroque scholasticism, but that is a separate issue). To be clear, TRF is not a source for everything Catholic; that is not TRF’s purpose. But, in our conversation about relevant sources, Roman Catholic contributors on this site will always take it very seriously (in a way that the Traditionalists and the Modernists wouldn’t) if you quote Trent *or* John Paul II to us. This is why we think that we will be very interesting interlocutors. At the same time, to repeat a point that I’ve made in the past, we are not claiming that our view is sociologically significant. If that is what you are looking for, then this unfortunately isn’t for you.

      3) Trent never claimed to be a comprehensive statement on justification. It stated things that were believed to be true and condemned things that were believed to be false. Certain forms of radical historicism or modernism would say that those statements were (perhaps) “true” at their time and could not be (or at least *are* not) true in some other time. We are not saying that. So, please don’t over-read what I mean by non-finality. All I mean is that interpreting Trent is (obviously) possible (and, incidentally, took place in the decades just after its concluding phase). To continue, by non-finality, I mean that, through engagement with Scripture, the Church Fathers, etc., we might come to a deeper understanding of the doctrine of justification, though a faithful Roman Catholic would certainly not want their deeper view to contradict the Tridentine decrees.

      To pick up the point about radical historicism, it would be great to talk about what Catholics and Protestants in the early twentieth century meant by Modernism. Perhaps we are using the term univocally–perhaps not. When I read Machen (whom you obviously know much, much, much better than I do), I generally find myself in rather profound agreement with him about Modernism. So, I think that you have less to worry about, at least here at TRF. Also, I’d love to see a post from you (perhaps on this site!) about how to square your worries about Modernism with your frequent defense of the messiness of history at Old Life. I have ways of doing that, but I’m curious how you might handle those issues differently.

      4) The Tridentine Fathers made it explicit that they were not giving an authoritative interpretation of Lutheran soteriology (as I cited somewhere over the past week or so). So, if there are any mischaracterizations or misunderstandings, that would open up an interesting line of discussion and that would be upsetting in certain ways, but it would not fundamentally challenge the authority of the Council, even on its own terms.

      5) As far as our purposes, I think that we’ve been pretty explicit. If having a scholarly (though somewhat informal or “bloggish”) conversation between people who know where each other are coming from theologically is sheep stealing, then we all have bigger problems. How can it be sheep stealing when TRF has hosted Castaldo saying, “With this conviction, then, I am forced to recognize the Catholic doctrine of justification as fundamentally inconsistent with the evangelical understanding of the gospel according to Scripture,” etc.? If this is a clever way of “sheep stealing,” because Protestants will somehow see how generous TRF is to those who reject the Roman Catholic view of salvation as unbiblical, then you are giving the site’s editors way too much credit.

      But to be even more explicit, the goal of this website is not for you or for anyone to receive the sacrament of Confirmation in the Roman Catholic Church. That fact will become even clearer once TRF has regular Protestant contributors; this will make it quite obvious that the site’s goal as a whole is *certainly* not anything even approaching proselytism. We have quoted magisterial documents to support the view that, at least from the Roman Catholic side of things, we believe that there are gifts of the Holy Spirit that have been cultivated by the Protestant traditions in the past 450 years that should be preserved. But even this line of discussion is still “high ecumenism,” which is also not the central purpose of this site either. We are involved in a different sort of ecumenical effort, which (from your point of view) should probably not even be called ecumenism (as Trevor discussed in his last post).

      So, what are TRF’s goals then? Well, there are long posts on the subject already. But, to answer some of your specific questions, we think that there are ways of thinking about Nicene Christianity and the Augustinian legacy that have been cultivated within the Reformed and Lutheran traditions that are not well-known to most Roman Catholics (including us!). (We are also interested in various ressourcement currents *within* each of these traditions (and the connections between such efforts like TCI, Communio etc.), attempts to understand elements of both traditions–e.g., Baroque scholasticism in the Roman Catholic, Reformed, and Lutheran contexts–that have been forgotten over the past several decades, if not since the French Revolution). Indeed, there are many things that we’d like to learn not only from those sources but also from partners in conversation about how we might think about the divergences and convergences between the Roman Catholic and especially the Reformed traditions. So, our goal is to escape our own ignorance (Aristotle’s Metaphysics, Book 1) and perhaps help others who will become TRF’s readers to do so as well (on a wide variety of topics).

      Perhaps I’m mistaken, but you have indicated that you have been perplexed and surprised at a number of points in our conversation over the past week or so. That is pretty exciting, I think. We’ve been talking for a few years–and you know a lot about this stuff from many other sources–but, for some reason, this format has allowed us to make some headway, even if it only clarifies your disagreements (or perhaps just exposes disagreements of which we were unaware). I’ve certainly come to better understand your perspective, and I think that, in a number of ways, we are just getting started. If, over the course of long conversations in the future, nothing happens except that you understand my position better as your friend and fellow Christian (even if you remain uncomfortable with the terminology of “separated brethren” and even worry about the state of my soul because of my erroneous soteriology), then TRF will be content, I think. If you state my position in a way that I can accept (which has not always been the case, as you know) and I can state your position in a way that you can accept, even though we continue to disagree, then we have performed a useful service to each other and perhaps for others. But the main purpose, I think, is for us both to learn about certain theologians or ideas or debates of which one or both of us–along with many others–are currently unaware.

      Those may seem like modest goals and perhaps some ecumenists would think that we should be more ambitious, but TRF believes–and has learned from our Reformed friends (and, we hope, our future Reformed contributors)–that this is what we should be doing with this forum.

      1. Matt, thanks for your charitable response.

        This is the blogosphere, though. I need snark if I’m going to keep this going.

        I’ll try to respond:

        1) Catholics don’t agree. But why not? If the church is infallible in its teaching and morals, why isn’t it the case that disagreement by an RC is a mortal sin. I’m not trying to paint you in a trad box, but I don’t see how you can assert the authority and infallibility of the church and then say it’s okay for church members to disagree. This is exactly what Machen opposed — ministers who accepted diversity in the church on the confession and catechisms.

        This is why your endeavor here may be more modern than you think.

        2) Trads and liberals (why need they be “extreme”?) get Vat 2. But maybe outsiders do as well and we have trouble squaring infallibility with Vat 2’s ressourcement. It sure seems to weaken the magisterium that the magisterium had invested so much in over 500 years.

        3) Trent and Justification: not to bang the infallibility drum, but why wouldn’t you look at an assembly of cardinals as comprehensive given Rome’s claims about infallibility. I quote from the Catholic Encyclopedia http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/07790a.htm :

        “It is only in connection with doctrinal authority as such that, practically speaking, this question of infallibility arises; that is to say, when we speak of the Church’s infallibility we mean, at least primarily and principally, what is sometimes called active as distinguished from passive infallibility. We mean in other words that the Church is infallible in her objective definitive teaching regarding faith and morals, not that believers are infallible in their subjective interpretation of her teaching. This is obvious in the case of individuals, any one of whom may err in his understanding of the Church’s teaching; nor is the general or even unanimous consent of the faithful in believing a distinct and independent organ of infallibility. Such consent indeed, when it can be verified as apart, is of the highest value as a proof of what has been, or may be, defined by the teaching authority, but, except in so far as it is thus the subjective counterpart and complement of objective authoritative teaching, it cannot be said to possess an absolutely decisive dogmatic value. It will be best therefore to confine our attention to active infallibility as such, as by so doing we shall avoid the confusion which is the sole basis of many of the objections that are most persistently and most plausibly urged against the doctrine of ecclesiastical infallibility.

        “Infallibility must be carefully distinguished both from Inspiration and from Revelation.

        Inspiration signifies a special positive Divine influence and assistance by reason of which the human agent is not merely preserved from liability to error but is so guided and controlled that what he says or writes is truly the word of God, that God Himself is the principal author of the inspired utterance; but infallibility merely implies exemption from liability to error. God is not the author of a merely infallible, as He is of an inspired, utterance; the former remains a merely human document.

        “Revelation, on the other hand, means the making known by God, supernaturally of some truth hitherto unknown, or at least not vouched for by Divine authority; whereas infallibility is concerned with the interpretation and effective safeguarding of truths already revealed. Hence when we say, for example, that some doctrine defined by the pope or by an ecumenical council is infallible, we mean merely that its inerrancy is Divinely guaranteed according to the terms of Christ’s promise to His Church, not that either the pope or the Fathers of the Council are inspired as were the writers of the Bible or that any new revelation is embodied in their teaching.

        “It is well further to explain:

        “that infallibility means more than exemption from actual error; it means exemption from the possibility of error;

        “that it does not require holiness of life, much less imply impeccability in its organs; sinful and wicked men may be God’s agents in defining infallibly;

        “and finally that the validity of the Divine guarantee is independent of the fallible arguments upon which a definitive decision may be based, and of the possibly unworthy human motives that in cases of strife may appear to have influenced the result. It is the definitive result itself, and it alone, that is guaranteed to be infallible, not the preliminary stages by which it is reached.”

        That elevates statements like Trent pretty high. And it is that notion of ecclesiastical infallibility that informed the anti-modern church. It’s not just certain blogs that assert this. If the church’s infallibility is true, if the church is exempt from the possibility of error, then why not look at Trent as final? I understand why I as a Protestant don’t. Churches err and we admit that. But Trent condemned the idea that churches may err.

        The question for you guys at RF is aren’t you at least suggesting it’s possible for the church to err by saying that Trent on justification is not the last word?

        And again, raising that question sounds a lot like liberal Presbyterians who did the same thing with the Westminster Confession.

        4) If Trent didn’t understand itself as authoritative, they why the anathemas? What I have trouble understanding is how you explain the divisions of the 16th century on the basis of what RF is trying to do. If Trent was up to RF, I understand that it makes sense to talk about how to engage in conversation that leads to more fruitful understandings. But as a historian, I don’t understand how a partial, non authoritative council generates the divisions, politics, and even hostilities that came out of the Reformation and Counter-Reformation. It feels like trying to explain the U.S. War for Independence as merely a debate over Locke and Burke. All sorts of political and ecclesiastical figures acted on the basis of the 16th c. split between Rome and Protestants. Your understanding of church teaching and what was at stake doesn’t seem to me to make sense of historical actors and what they did.

        It does make sense of RF. But the question I have is whether RF accurately represents the teaching authority of the Tridentine Church. BTW, I also think RF squares with Vat 2. But that’s all the more reason for wondering about the value of exploring the 16th c. Don’t you also need to explore the nature of authority and epistemology that led bishops (and Protestant pastors) to condemn views, books, and persons?

        5) Sheep stealing: you quote the interview with Castaldo: “With this conviction, then, I am forced to recognize the Catholic doctrine of justification as fundamentally inconsistent with the evangelical understanding of the gospel according to Scripture,”

        For some Protestants who think evangelicalism is yucky and who think the Great Books are as wise as the prophets and apostles, I don’t see how that quote is much of a warning about Rome. And if you think that all of our claims about truth are partial, in development, then why isn’t it the case that promoting such a view of church teaching will lead people to think that there’s not much difference between being Roman Catholic and Protestant. That is also in keeping with Vat 2 (as I read it and the Council’s legacy). But that understanding of truth and doctrine — again, sorry to be repetitive — doesn’t explain what happened in the 16th century just as reducing the War for Independence to a political theory debate doesn’t explain U.S. independence.

        But the big difference between the Reformation and the U.S. is that Roman Catholicism has claimed for itself infallibility. I don’t recognize a place for infallibility at RF.

  10. 1) Are we (Remnant, John O’Malley, and RF?) disagreeing about defined dogmas? Perhaps we are, though I’ve talked at great length with O’Malley and it never went in that direction. I’ve been referring more to the way of thinking about the style of Vatican II in relation to the turn-of-the-century papacy. Does that fall under infallibility? Of course, there are theologians at the Catholic Theological Society who certainly do disagree with us about dogma. And that (quite sensibly) raises questions for you about Church discipline, which is a very interesting point of discussion. But are those liberal theologians really *confused* about what the official positions really are? I don’t think so. (I’ll put the point about mortal sin aside for now; we’ll talk about that later.)

    2) Perhaps “non-final” isn’t working as a way of framing this discussion. (I was trying to avoid the language of development). Look, we think that the Bible is infallible. In a different way, Catholics think of Nicaea as infallible. But Chalcedon did–what word would you be comfortable using if not develop or unfold, etc.?–do something *more* than Nicaea did. That’s mainly what I’m trying to say here about Trent. Please don’t over-read this language; as I’ve suggested, I’d be happy to use something else more adequate to our purposes.

    3) I have not stated that Trent was in error in what it actually taught. Modernists would either say that it was, or that truth itself evolves or is entirely historically bounded or whatever. I’m not saying any of those things. While I think that we can have some interesting conversations about changing views of history and language over the past few centuries, etc., that isn’t my main concern here. Even from a pretty old-school view of the Magisterium and infallibility, nothing that I’ve said is really problematic. (You know that, while bold in all sorts of ways, the Church does not claim to be infallible in all of its statements about anything and everything.) A Council is a different matter (as you have rightly suggested), but Trent never *claimed* to be a historically rich and sensitive interpretation of Lutheran soteriology–in fact, the Council Fathers *explicitly* said that they not aiming at an interpretation of Luther–so why would incomplete statements about Luther’s views undermine Trent’s infallibility? Tell me specifically where the problem is here. Indeed, some of the sentences that you quoted from the Old Catholic Encyclopedia support my point here when OCE contrasts the infallible decree with the “preliminary stages” and the “fallible arguments” on which the decree is based. For instance, this statement fits very well with the modest point I’ve made about Domingo de Soto’s limited grasp of the heart of Luther’s view of salvation (i.e., associating it with libertinism).

    To be clear, I *never* said that Trent did not see itself as authoritative (as you suggested in point #4) in what it was actually seeking to do. And you know that I wouldn’t have said such a thing. I was referring (quite clearly, in my opinion) to its interpretation of what Luther was actually up to. Do we understand one another on this point?

    One last point here: I can show you *some* anathematized statements in Trent that are obviously not hitting Luther directly. In certain cases, this is obviously intentional (e.g., the first three or so anathemas of the decree on justification that condemn Pelagianism). Some seem to be unintentional (e.g., the condemnation of making the calling of Paul and the abandonment of Judas equivalent acts of the divine will). This statement was probably drawn from Melanchthon, and he had rather publicly set that view aside before 1545. Anyway, if the authority of the Church depends on Trent’s anathemas being right on target (in *every* case) with the real heart of Lutheran soteriology, then I would deny the authority of the Church. Of course, I think that this is quite obviously not the case. But I’m open to contrary evidence.

    4) I hope to post something in the next few weeks about what anathemas mean and don’t mean. We aren’t avoiding the topic; we just can’t do everything at once.

    And I don’t think that I’m quite as naive about why Trent condemned certain views as you are implying. We can distinguish the intentions of historical actors from the theological significance (legacy?) of their actions. (In fact, our recognition of the complicated historical motivations of the sixteenth century and of the fact that some of those historical circumstances have changed (we aren’t at war, we don’t think that the apocalypse is underway, etc.) makes this conversation a potentially interesting one.) I need to think more about this analogy to the War of Independence, but I hope you know that I don’t use intellectual history or history of theology to explain everything that happens. I believe that it is a rather limited (though very interesting) sub-discipline.

    5) You keep on trying to put us in one box or another. Respond to what we are actually saying, not what you’ve seen Traditionalists or Modernists saying on the internet or elsewhere. Once we’ve made ourselves clear on a particular point, we’d be happy to talk about how our views resonate or not with the Remnant, National Catholic Reporter, or the Vatican website. In light of your last comment here, though, it bears repeating that we are not denying the authority of the Council of Trent. We are not saying that Roman Catholics and Protestants deep down agree about everything. We are not reducing everything to semantics or misunderstandings. We are not trying to soften people up for Confirmation. But we think that we can understand each other better and disagree more intelligently than we do right now. That is at least one of our aims. Get on board–it’s going to be interesting!

  11. Matt, sorry if you feel put in a box. You do need to recognize, though, that with so many varieties of Roman Catholicism and its interpreters (some infallible, others not), it’s a little hard trying to figure out who is asking what. That’s why one of my first comments here was to suggest that you guys have a conversation with other Roman Catholics to the left and the right (or whatever direction applies). Since many of the contributors at TRF are converts to Rome, I assume that part of Rome’s appeal was the one I hear from a lot of converts — the coherency and unity of Rome compared to the many many Protestantisms. But it turns out the diversity is on both sides. That might be a useful point for conversation though it doesn’t really address the seeming coherence of Prot and RC positions in the sixteenth century.

    The arresting part of your response is that Trent’s interpretation of Lutheranism is not infallible. You also propose that we may be able to “disagree more intelligently than we do right now.” What’s arresting is that that assertion implies that we can disagree more intelligently than Trent and Luther did. Do you mean that?

    I am puzzled to understand how you think Trent is infallible (and without error) if its determinations stemmed from a misunderstanding of Lutheranism. I can understand the possibility of such a circumstance. We make mistakes in judgment all the time. But that is a dicey assertion when it comes to a church without error. The Protestant equivalent is to say that Paul didn’t really understand the Judaizers. Do you want to go there?

    So isn’t legitimate to raise questions about infallibility? At some level, does it matter if Trent didn’t get Lutheranism right? It’s assessment of Lutheranism and its assertions of doctrine are of a piece (just as Dort’s teachings are of a piece with its assessment of Arminianism).

    In case you haven’t noticed, Rome’s claims for itself are really a problem for Protestants and ecumenical conversations. What the church teaches and what popes say is not something that invites analysis (for Roman Catholics — of course, today it does). It is supposed to involve assent. (Plus, some popes keep talking and talking about all sorts of matters that may not be all that settled.) Sure, this is a question that plays to a Protestant’s advantage since we rejected those high claims for church authority. But it also bears on the aims of TRF since one of the recent posts makes clear that the participants at Regensburg had to keep looking over their shoulders at what the bishops and cardinals were saying or allowing. Isn’t that same dynamic still in place?

    But if it’s simply an academic conversation, the dynamics are different.

    1. I don’t think that my words implied that we can disagree more intelligently (in all respects) than early-modern Protestants and early-modern Roman Catholics did. It depends on the particular case, but Catholic theologians in the seventeenth century did not say some of the irresponsible things about Protestants that one hears today (about reason, natural law, etc., and even about the true presence, predestination, and the authority of the individual believer). And seventeenth-century Reformed theologians were often more learned in the best of Roman Catholic theology of their day (Cajetan, Banez, Alvarez, and even Suarez) than one (sometimes) sees today. So, though I would never say what Domingo de Soto said at Trent about Lutheranism (i.e., associating it with libertinism), I am not saying, as you suggested, that we are generally in a much better position than our early-modern ancestors. What I am saying (and have been suggesting here and at Old Life) is that the Enlightenment, the French Revolution, and the nineteenth century (for all their benefits) led to a rupture with the complex sort of agreement and especially disagreement that one at times finds in the seventeenth century. So, we have advantages today (no interconfessional violence, good RC scholars writing on Luther like Jared Wicks, some distance from the events (for good and for ill), etc.), but we also have disadvantages. And when I said “we” in the comment that you quoted, I was referring in part to you and me. I think that *our* disagreements could improve from what they are right now; I’m not saying that they would entirely outshine the disagreement between Trent and Calvin.

      Now, you are correct when you ascribe to me the position that Trent’s *interpretation* of Luther is not infallible. The Tridentine Fathers did not ever claim anything different. They didn’t name him in the decree on justification (in contrast with what one finds with Arius and Hus), and they talked explicitly about how the main purpose was not to interpret the Lutheran positions (in part because no Lutherans were present, etc.) This is boilerplate stuff, I think; indeed, I’d be surprise if you get the SSPX to disagree with what I’ve said here.

      So, why are you hesitant with this mainstream position? Though of course you reject Rome’s account of Church authority, it seems that your *view* of the Church’s infallibility is far to the right (if that is the correct direction?) of any serous theologians writing today. And I’d argue that it is to the “right” of most theologians in the Roman Catholic tradition (medieval, early modern, and pre-Vatican II). I’m not in a position to prove that right now. Perhaps I can do so in future posts. While of course it is legitimate to raise questions about infallibility here (in response to your direct question), please also be open to the possibility that, on this particular issue, you are, in my view, caricaturing Roman conceptions of the Church’s teaching authority. (Here is one point where dialogue would be useful: why shouldn’t it be possible for you to describe the Church’s view of its authority to me in a way that I accept as accurate, just as I hope that it might be possible for me to describe Calvin’s view of sola scriptura to you in a way that you would accept.)

      But you have a point that the interpretation of Lutheranism and the formal anathemas are related to one another (though obviously not in every case – see Canons 1 and 2). And this is so whether the Tridentine Fathers like it or not. And that does create complexities for judging the relationship of the “infallible” elements to the “fallible” interpretations of historical events, the historical (and, at times, shifting) views of Luther, Melanchthon, and others, etc., that might shape the decrees in some ways. And that complex interpretation is one of the many things that we’d like to do here. By the way, the Dominican theologian and historian, Otto Pesch, did this sort of thing in a number of works. So, this is not in any way an innovative perspective on my part.

      As far as your last point: first of all, TRF will not always be exclusively RC. But will the Roman Catholic interlocutors here be looking over their shoulders towards the Magisterium or having a scholarly conversation? Well, I think a more scholarly, academic conversation will always be at the forefront. But, despite our contrasting accounts of Church authority, I think that it would be appropriate (in this context–in contrast, say, with a seminar at Penn) for me to mention it if something you are saying seems to contradict WCF just as I’d be fine with your pointing out that something I’ve said contradicts Trent or Gaudium et Spes or whatever. But it would be helpful if you were just a bit more specific (i.e., gestures towards the spirit of the Counter-Reformation or Pius X’s papacy or Vatican II will not get us very far).

      1. Matt, I understand that my understanding (which is the one you find at many apologetical blogs and websites like CTC — look at papal audacity) of infallibility is to the right of most RC theologians. But again, that’s not a recommendation of Rome. The OPC’s view of biblical infallibility is to the right of most seminary professors. Does that make the OPC wrong or the professors liberal?

        But I do find puzzling your own understanding of the magisterium. It seems — well — plastic and malleable. The current catechism seems to raise the stakes considerably:

        2032 The Church, the “pillar and bulwark of the truth,” “has received this solemn command of Christ from the apostles to announce the saving truth.”74 “To the Church belongs the right always and everywhere to announce moral principles, including those pertaining to the social order, and to make judgments on any human affairs to the extent that they are required by the fundamental rights of the human person or the salvation of souls.”75

        2033 The Magisterium of the Pastors of the Church in moral matters is ordinarily exercised in catechesis and preaching, with the help of the works of theologians and spiritual authors. Thus from generation to generation, under the aegis and vigilance of the pastors, the “deposit” of Christian moral teaching has been handed on, a deposit composed of a characteristic body of rules, commandments, and virtues proceeding from faith in Christ and animated by charity. Alongside the Creed and the Our Father, the basis for this catechesis has traditionally been the Decalogue which sets out the principles of moral life valid for all men.

        2034 The Roman Pontiff and the bishops are “authentic teachers, that is, teachers endowed with the authority of Christ, who preach the faith to the people entrusted to them, the faith to be believed and put into practice.”76 The ordinary and universal Magisterium of the Pope and the bishops in communion with him teach the faithful the truth to believe, the charity to practice, the beatitude to hope for.

        2035 The supreme degree of participation in the authority of Christ is ensured by the charism of infallibility. This infallibility extends as far as does the deposit of divine Revelation; it also extends to all those elements of doctrine, including morals, without which the saving truths of the faith cannot be preserved, explained, or observed.77

        2036 The authority of the Magisterium extends also to the specific precepts of the natural law, because their observance, demanded by the Creator, is necessary for salvation. In recalling the prescriptions of the natural law, the Magisterium of the Church exercises an essential part of its prophetic office of proclaiming to men what they truly are and reminding them of what they should be before God.78 END OF QUOTE

        That means (as I read it) that the magisterium is the one to protect the church from error and has a special charism to insure that work.

        So how is it possible to question Trent’s “understanding” of sixteenth century developments (or any other matter upon which the pope and councils have decided to speak)?

  12. I really don’t think that anything I’ve said suggests a plastic or malleable understanding of the Magisterium relative to what the Magisterium has actually said about itself. (Note that the Pope himself, as I demonstrated in a link earlier in this thread, is more willing to show the limits of Trent than I have in this discussion.) Perhaps you’d enjoy, say, Avery Dulles’ or Ratzinger’s books on the subject (by theologians who are obviously not as liberal as the seminary professors that you mention). But I respect your perception of my words and will attempt to clarify as best as I can.

    You quoted the following:

    “The supreme degree of participation in the authority of Christ is ensured by the charism of infallibility. This infallibility extends as far as does the deposit of divine Revelation; it also extends to all those elements of doctrine, including morals, without which the saving truths of the faith cannot be preserved, explained, or observed.”

    Notice, first of all, that this charism of infallijlbity is the “supreme degree.” So, there are other exercises of the Magisterium that do not participate in this charism (#892 of the Catechism makes this quite clear).

    More important for our discussion is the description of the object or content of this infallible teaching. The Catechism is quite clear that it pertains to what is found in the “deposit of divine Revelation,” those things necessary for the preservation of saving truths to be *believed* by the faithful. Please show me where Trent said that all the faithful must believe certain things about Luther’s teaching with the certitude of faith. It seems quite obvious to me that what Luther may or may not have said or meant in 1535 is not part of the “deposit of divine Revelation.” #891 of the Catechism makes this rather clear when it says: “When the Church through its supreme Magisterium proposes a doctrine ‘for belief as being divinely revealed,’ and as the teaching of Christ, the definitions ‘must be adhered to with the obedience of faith.'” Is it even conceivable that an interpretation of Luther would be seen as part of divine revelation and as the teaching of Christ?

    To be clear, I think that, if the Magisterium were to condemn a theologian today, that is a decision that should be respected by the faithful. The bar for criticizing such a decision would be rather high. Likewise, it seems, based on this account of the Magisterium, that the faithful in the sixteenth century should have had a submissive spirit towards the bull Exsurge, Domine, which did name Luther. But I don’t know anyone who thinks that Exsurge, Domine, was a manifestation of the charism of infallibility. If you have evidence to the contrary, I’d love to see it.

    1. Matt, I thought you were a fan of the Dominicans. You’re sounding Jesuitical.

      I kid (but with a point).

      Yes, Trent does not teach infallibly how you are supposed to teach Luther. But that seems to set the bar awfully low. I’ll repeat the point I made earlier. When a church condemns certain views, it is part of an understanding of those views. It sure looks like the infallibility involved in the condemnations has some bearings on the bishops understanding of the thing anathematized.

      It seems comparable to saying that Pope Francis doesn’t understand Climate Change but we’ll stand by Laudato Si.

      Look, this doesn’t invalidate the TRF enterprise. Trying to understand Luther and Trent seem like reasonable endeavors. But it is to say that Vat 2 is always in the background of these conversations and for this Calvinist that Council is partly the explanation for the wide differences among Roman Catholics and the legitimacy of their various understandings of the sixteenth century (and why I think some effort by RC on RC understanding may be as important as RC on Prot understanding).

      1. The Synod of Dordt could be affirming biblical truths and condemning errors even if Arminius happened not to have held every error rejected by Dordt. Right?

        Dominicans and Jesuits made distinctions. I’m far, far from any sort of egregious logic-chopping or casuistry here. This is pretty basic RC ecclesiology, in my opinion. Again, I’d be happy to see evidence of any serious theologian or church document that says something different. (I’ve addressed your quotations from the Catechism, I think.)

        I take your point about the variety of post-Vatican II perspectives. We’ll see which ones hold up best in the light of evidence, etc.

  13. Matt, a common occurrence in ecclesiastical debates is questioning (sometimes accusing) someone of a view they don’t actually hold. The accusation arises from the implications of the view actually held.

    So why couldn’t it be that Trent didn’t understand Luther but recognized the dangerous implications of Luther’s views (which were not always clear or stable)? What if Luther didn’t even understand himself (do any of us)?

    If the answer is somewhat yes to any of those, then is TRF prepared to assert an authority (in understanding Trent and Luther) that you appear to think that Trent did not have? I;m not trying to play gotcha. I think this is actually an important question for historians (and other scholars). How much authority do we have by virtue of our expertise? But in Christian ecclesiology the authority of Scripture, councils, popes, pastors is fundamentally different and (for believers) higher than the authority that comes through scholarship (I think).

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