The Fallacy and the Truth of Catholic Theology
I am present today in Oxford for the second biennial conference hosted by Pusey House, entitled ‘Totus Christus: Knowing and Loving the Son of Man’. I was present at the first of these conferences two years ago, and apart from my own doctoral viva, found it to to be the most invigorating theological conversation I have been a part of since I left the (Anglican) Diocese of Saskatchewan in 2003.
In that time, and even in the wake of the first Pusey House conference, I have been repeatedly disappointed by the denominational bigotry I have encountered among certain groups within the Roman Catholic Church especially, but also among the Orthodox. In Roman Catholic circles, I would argue that priests are the worst offenders, while among the Orthodox it seems to be predominantly converts and lay people, but in both cases their hostility takes the form of asserting some sort of primacy of their own Church’s theological approach over all others’. I cannot help but wonder, however, about the degree to which any Christian is deceiving himself, when in fact it is likely more accurate to say there is no such thing as ecclesiastically-partisan theology. Indeed, in a gathering of theologians representing many ecclesial traditions – including Anglican, Lutheran, Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and Oriental Orthodox - it is manifestly obvious that there is only Good Theology: that is, theology that pursues the True; the Good; the Loving.
I have personally been criticised by both Roman Catholics and Orthodox alike for subscribing to what they have described as ‘the modern and Protestant notion’ that there exists a ‘mystical Church’ that transcends the visible Church, manifest as it is either in the Church in communion with Rome, or in one of the ancient, apostolic Churches living outside of that communion. But of course, the idea of a mystical Church can not possibly be a mere ‘Protestant’ or ‘modern’ notion; it is a reality discernible from the cosmic Truth made manifest in the Incarnation itself.
The words of the anaphora in the Canadian Book of Common Prayer of 1962 describe Christ’s work on the Cross as ‘one, full, perfect, and sufficient sacrifice, oblation, and satisfaction for the sins of the whole world’. These words, part of one of the most exquisitely poetic Eucharistic prayers of any Liturgy, reflect a profound, Patristically-grounded, and inherently catholic idea of the universal implications of God the Father’s act in uttering the Logos. It is incumbent on any participant in the Liturgy, then – regardless of denominational confession – to give assent to the fact that Christ’s sacrifice is offered not for one small group of select individuals, not a specific body of human beings, but for the sins of whole world. And again, by speaking of the ‘whole world’, we can presume that the Church refers not to a mere continent on this planet, or to this one planet, or even just to a physical idea of astronomical bodies, but to the whole of that which exists – the whole of that which God the Creator has brought into being, and which became separated from Him as a result of sin: the entire created order.
That being the case, we might find the specific, visible Church as simply one of a series of concentric circles that become more and more expressive of a particular constituency. So, for example, we might think of the greatest expression of the mystical Church – that is, the largest of the concentric circles – as that which embraces the whole of the created order. In this respect, all that is created is somehow expressive of the Divine: Divine goodness; Divine creativity; Divine order. It undertakes the priestly work of representing or reflecting; it undertakes the labora ecclesiastica of carrying on the Incarnational reality of God: the fact that God can be somehow discerned in the wonder of God’s own creation.
The next circle of the Church might then be seen as embracing that which is animate: all those things that, by living, reveal something even more true about God. Next, from all that lives can be distinguished all that lives sentiently, after which all that lives sentiently gives over to the circle of humanity. For, as Genesis expresses in contradistinction to all the other animals, ‘God created man in His own image; male and female created He them.’ Then, among humanity, God appoints Israel as His first Church, which is subsequently converted into the Church of the apostles: the place wherein we might worship the Father ‘in spirit and in truth.’ This makes sense of Jesus’ own declaration to His disciples that, ‘…he who is not against us is for us.’
In light of this, it seems antithetical to declare that there is ‘one, true Church’ other than the Church of Christ, and that being the case, that there is any theology other than true, or good, theology.
A further example of the ludicrousness of denominational theology, and the superiority of one sort over another, is that represented by no less a figure than C.S. Lewis. He is, of course, only one man, and there may be theologians who wish to take issue with something like his hermeneutical lens in relation to Christ’s Passion, but he remains a most admirable example of someone whose theology convalesces naturally among that of the English-speaking world’s best theologians. Indeed, Lewis’ description of a ‘mere Christianity’ is something both worth attending, while likewise being acceptable to most adherents of mainstream Christian tradition. And there are more examples: Roman Catholic representatives of the Ressourcement and Orthodox theologians of the Neo-Patristic synthesis; Anglican theologians of the twentieth century from Temple to Mascall to Ramsey to Williams; the historical cross-fertilisation of French Catholic pietism, Lutheran pietism, and the thought of the Caroline Divines. All reflect the transcendent nature of good theology, of theology in pursuit of nothing but that which is holy, loving, and true.
By contrast, the tragic reality of current theological conversation, likely exacerbated by social media and the valiance of the keyboard warrior, too often asserts that there is often only one truth, one theological model; yet it is seldom contiguous with the universal Truth of the sort pursued by any of our above examples. It is, rather, more often based on denominationally-specific dogma, canon law, or third-rate polemic. After all, questions about what makes for valid holy orders, or what is required for the genuine confection of the Body and Blood of Christ in the Eucharist, or precisely how Christians must go about proclaiming the gospel of life, or what constitutes fidelity to a healthy sexual ethic, are hardly of the essence. To be clear, each of these questions may well be extremely important, but they are not of the essence. This is why the Christian summary of the Faith – the Nicene Creed – contains a statement on not a single one of such issues. Answering them as well as possible may be among the rights and responsibilities of individual Churches, but it would be equally true that the best possible answers are in the domain of one single Church. I believe that the Churches laying direct claim to the ancient, apostolic inheritance might have a particular confidence in this process, and those ancient, apostolic Churches in communion with Rome more particular confidence again. But when it comes to matters that arise directly in relation to the doctrines that unite all Churches, there is everything to gain from drawing on truths expressed by any and every theologian, indiscriminately, as long as what they declare constitutes good theology.
The singular absence of Roman Catholics from the Totus Christus conference is notable. I am currently surrounded by clerics and lay people from the Anglican, Lutheran, Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and Oriental Orthodox Churches, but of these, Roman Catholics represent a microscopic minority. I wish that this was due to poor communication on the part of the conference organisers among the Roman Catholic community, but alas it is not. I cannot help but suspect that the small number of Roman Catholic participants, in spite of the speakers including some of the world’s most prolific theologians today, is in part due to a sense of triumphalism and disinterest in whatever might be said by non-Roman Catholics. If so, this is nothing short of an utter shame. After all, in the face of a world that continues to throw up fundamental challenges to Christians, it can only be a good thing to engage in fundamental theology.
There can be no doubt that we stand at the threshold of a new world era. The antithesis seems to be settling into a new synthesis, and it is not one that promises an easy ride for the Church. Such being the case, it is incumbent on all Christians of good will to contribute what they can to the work that makes for peace and builds up the Body of Christ. At the same time, it is incumbent on those whose remit it is to think deeply about the Christian inheritance to take what they can from all the good things that are offered. It may be that with those good things we draw conclusions particular to our separate traditions, but what matters above all is that we avail ourselves of the things themselves. This demands humility on all our part – no matter what our background and presuppositions – and a spirit of discernment in order that we might recognise the difference between the good and bad. The most inappropriate response, however, is to shut the door, batten down the hatch, and take refuge in our customary and comfortable formularies. After all, what is true is what is true; what is good is what is good; what is loving is what is loving. It does not matter whence it comes. Consequently, let no one speak (as I have heard some do) insultingly of an ‘Archcaretaker of Canterbury’ or ‘invalid Orders’ or the ‘True Church’, as if true, good, and valid ministry is absolutely limited to a single Christian body. By all means, I suggest, let us give thanks for the certainties we hold, but let us also appeal to an idea I once learned from an Orthodox friend and mentor: ‘We can be sure where grace is; far be it from us to declare where grace is not,’ and then get on working shoulder to shoulder with brothers and sisters who’s interest it is to discern the cosmic truth of Christ and spread their finding near and far.