On mining for support for doctrines “after the fact”, and finding “100% certainty” “under certain conditions”. Or: “Dogma-appreciation 101”.

This is something that Nathan Rinne picked up on a couple of weeks ago:

Earlier in the thread [the “Visible Church” thread], in post # 221, John Thayer Jensen wrote: “… people often seem to me to make the mistake of deciding, first, what things are true – which implies some external canon – and then looking around for the body that teaches that.”

Michael Liccione, responded to that in post # 222 saying, “And that is the very essence of Protestantism. One assumes that the deposit of faith is knowable independently of ecclesial authority, and that one knows its content. Then one chooses a church whose teaching conforms with that.”

That comment by Mike prompted me to write my comment citing Beale on Adam, Eve, and Sola Scriptura, but there is another way to approach this.

In his comment “people often seem to me to make the mistake of deciding, first, what things are true … and then looking around for the body that teaches that”, John Thayer Jensen has described perfectly well what I’ve called the “Roman Catholic Hermeneutic”.

This is an almost perfect description of “how the Magisterium operates”. It, of course, has the body of doctrine for which it is responsible, “the formal proximate object of faith”, which it “infallibly” hands on, and thus you all have 100% epistemological certainty as to what is “divine revelation” contrasted with “mere human opinion”.

However, the question that JTJ asked, while he is correct in principle, takes a somewhat different form with respect to the Magisterium, though with the same kind of “after-the-fact” search for an explanation, which he says is a “mistake”.

With regard to the Roman Catholic Church, maintaining this “formal proximate object of faith” as is being discussed here, really entails a blatant form of revisionism. It entails mining the past for supporting evidence. It entails “deciding what first is true” and then “searching around for something which supports it”.

This is evidenced by Pius IX’s method articulated in his Letter, “Gravissimas inter,” to the Archbishop of Munich-Freising, Dec. 11, 1862, reiterated in Pius XII’s statement in Humani Generis, “theologians must always return to the sources of divine revelation: for it belongs to them to point out how the doctrine of the living Teaching Authority is to be found either explicitly or implicitly in the Scriptures and in Tradition.”

This is further explained in a variety of sources. One Roman Catholic theologian wrote, “We think first of developed forms for which we need to find historical justification. The developed forms come first and the historical justification comes second.” (“Ways of Validating Ministry,” Killian McDonnell, Journal of Ecumenical Studies (7), pg. 213, cited in Carlos Alfredo Steger, “Apostolic Succession in the Writings of Yves Congar and Oscar Cullmann, pg. 322.) Steger calls this type of historical revisionism “highly questionable if not inadmissible.”

Aiden Nichols, “The Shape of Catholic Theology” (253) writes about the phenomenon described by these popes, that “the theologian’s highest task lies in proving the present teachings of the magisterium from the evidence of the ancient sources.” One Internet writer, who actually studied in a Roman Catholic seminary (and later left), called this method “Dogma Appreciation 101” Nichols calls this, “the so-called regressive method,” and notes that Walter Kasper (now a Cardinal) has traced the origins of this method to the 18th century.

Prior to Newman’s “theory of development,” it was the practice of Catholic apologists (see Bossuet) to argue that the church had never changed: “semper eadem.” But in the light of further historical research, it became necessary for someone like Newman to explain the huge scope and number of the changes that Rome had effected on the church over the centuries.

Here is why I distrust the Roman Catholic solution with all my heart: In the Orwell novel, 1984, it was the job of the main character, Winston Smith, “to rewrite historical documents so they match the constantly changing current party line. This involves revising newspaper articles and doctoring photographs — mostly to remove ‘unpersons,’ people who have fallen foul of the party.”

To find precedence for this practice, Orwell had to travel no further than the Roman Catholic Church, which had made this its practice for centuries. In describing how we have come to know about the genuine teachings of Nestorius, Friedrich Loofs wrote, “The church of the ancient Roman Empire did not punish its heretics merely by deposition, condemnation, banishment and various deprivation of rights, but, with the purpose of shielding its believers against poisonous influence, it destroyed all heretical writings … a similar fortune was prepared for Nestorius.” (Loofs, “Nestorius,” 2-11).

It is easy to produce “a principled distinction” after-the-fact, after you’ve put all the cards on the table and you see what can and cannot be said about it.

But with respect to Roman Catholic Dogma, which provides the epistemologically 100% certainty (within certain undefined situations and under certain undefined conditions), such “after-the-fact” justifications may be clearly seen within the recent (last 150 years), with respect to the jostling of the very office of the successor of Peter, that sure, epistemologically certain foundation of “infallibility” which, “under certain conditions” (undefined as these are), give you the 100% certainty with which you beat Protestants over the head.

In our day, the “after-the-fact” “method” is failing, because more and more historical research into the earliest church period is forcing even the mighty Roman Magisterium to backtrack on its “formulation” of the papacy, and “papal power”.

I’ll describe it briefly: when I was a “cradle Catholic”, I learned that Peter was the first pope, and that there was an unbroken lineage of popes from Pope Peter down to Pope Paul VI in our day. There was virtually no fluctuation in the “understanding” or “formulation” of this lineage. No, Peter didn’t wear the hat, but virtually everything else about the papacy was unchanged from that time till this.

Check out the documents of Vatican I and note what lip service is paid to the bishops:

So then, just as he sent apostles, whom he chose out of the world, even as he had been sent by the Father, in like manner it was his will that in his church there should be shepherds and teachers until the end of time.

In order, then, that the episcopal office should be one and undivided and that, by the union of the clergy, the whole multitude of believers should be held together in the unity of faith and communion, he set blessed Peter over the rest of the apostles and instituted in him the permanent principle of both unities and their visible foundation.

And see how the relationship of Peter is very well-defined at Vatican I, which says repeatedly, “it was to Peter alone …” and “It was to Peter alone …” that many things were granted, including “the keys”:

It was to Simon alone, to whom he had already said You shall be called Cephas, that the Lord, after his confession, You are the Christ, the son of the living God, spoke these words: Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jona. For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of the underworld shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven .

He has not “only the principal part” but “the absolute fullness, of this supreme power”. This is what I learned, and this is how it was “taught” down through 1950 and beyond.

Now, at Vatican II, that story – that doctrine of the papacy – is modified, and it is modified because we are learning more about history. The new story is found in CCC #880:

When Christ instituted the Twelve, “he constituted [them] in the form of a college or permanent assembly, at the head of which he placed Peter, chosen from among them.” Just as “by the Lord’s institution, St. Peter and the rest of the apostles constitute a single apostolic college, so in like fashion the Roman Pontiff, Peter’s successor, and the bishops, the successors of the apostles, are related with and united to one another.”

If you note, all the footnotes supporting this view come from Lumen Gentium. Just as the Dei Verbum #10 selection that Mike cited above (and did not contest that it was a mere assertion, with no historical justification), this bit about the “college” is brand new, with Vatican II.

So then, the differences in Peter’s “location” vis-à-vis “the episcopal office” or “the college of bishops” in Vatican I and Vatican II may be described this way:

Vatican I: Peter is “set over the rest of the apostles” “in the absolute fullness of the supreme power”.

Vatican II: Peter is one among “a college or permanent assembly” and Peter is “at the head”, to be sure, but all that talk of “supreme power” is missing. Instead, it is “the college” which has “supreme and full authority over the universal Church; but this power cannot be exercised without the agreement of the Roman Pontiff.”

I trust you will all see the backtracking that has taken place here. Roman Catholic theologians have certainly written about this. Michael Buckley, S.J., has written about this at the highest levels.

You may scoff, but this is the foundational heart and soul of the “epistemological certainty”, the “principled distinction” between “divine revelation and mere human opinion” rests upon this other “distinction” between Vatican I and Vatican II.

If there is any air at all between these two positions, what does that do for your “certainty”.

And yet, follow it through history:

Vatican I: The “successor of Peter” alone holds his succession/position in isolation:

Therefore whoever succeeds to the chair of Peter obtains by the institution of Christ himself, the primacy of Peter over the whole church. So what the truth has ordained stands firm, and blessed Peter perseveres in the rock-like strength he was granted, and does not abandon that guidance of the church which he once received.

Vatican II: Peter’s “successor” still can “by reason of his office as Vicar of Christ, and as pastor of the entire Church has full, supreme, and universal power over the whole Church, a power which he can always exercise unhindered”. But on the other hand, “the college” of the “successors of the apostles” also “has “supreme and full authority over the universal Church” albeit “this power cannot be exercised without the agreement of the Roman Pontiff”.

We are back to the confusion illustrated in #5 below.

This bone that’s being thrown to the “college” of bishops, and there conditional “supreme and full authority”, represents a backtracking on the “official” Roman Catholic story, is, I am sure the result of both works like those produced by Loomis and Shotwell, and Oscar Cullmann, and Peter Lampe, as some of the readers here have seen me write about, well as the Vatican’s own historical study.

In fact, in 1999, Klaus Schatz identified as many as seven different “forms of the exercise of the primacy”:

1. The first 400 years (which I’ve called “the nonexistent early papacy”).

2. The period beginning with Damasus (366–384) through Leo 1 (440–461), which he characterized as “the translation in juridical terms of the apostolic paradosis as the ultimate reference for the communion of the church”.

3. The conversion of the Germanic peoples in the seventh and eight centuries, at which time we find “Rome as norm and guarantee of “correct” religious practice, not only in matters of faith, but also in liturgy and law. He calls this an “archaic” form of religiosity: “to make contact with the divinity and take possession of the divine force, you have to practice ‘correct’ rites, pronounce ‘correct’ words; a wrong word, a rite in the wrong place or time, can ruin everything. Rome, personified in St. Peter, the powerful holder of the keys of heaven, offers this guarantee more than anyone else”.

4. The eleventh through the 13th centuries: “Definitive separation from the oriental church” – no check upon papal power. The “vicar of Peter” becomes the “vicar of Christ”.

5. The papal schism (1378–1417) ; schism between papacy and council (1439–1449), and the Reformation period. “The pope is now the point of confessional identity or the criterion of the true church”.

6. That period of the historical background of “the French revolution, Western liberalism, the separation of State and Church and the dissolution of the societas christiana culminating in the definitions of Vatican 1.

7. This new period, following Vatican II, in which I’m describing presently.

One should notice that this variation between Vatican I and Vatican II (and also among five earlier periods that have been noticed) “the Magisterium” has not yet come to a conclusion as to what “the actual role of the primacy” actually is:

In his Message to those attending the symposium, the Holy Father wrote: “The Catholic Church is conscious of having preserved, in fidelity to the Apostolic Tradition and the faith of the Fathers, the ministry of the Successor of Peter”. In the history of the Church, there is a continuity of doctrinal development on the primacy. In preparing the present text, which appears in the Appendix of the above-mentioned Proceedings, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith has used the contributions of the scholars who took part in the symposium, but without intending to offer a synthesis of them or to go into questions requiring further study. These “Reflections” – appended to the symposium – are meant only to recall the essential points of Catholic doctrine on the primacy …

On the basis of the New Testament witness, the Catholic Church teaches, as a doctrine of faith, that the Bishop of Rome is the Successor of Peter in his primatial service in the universal Church; this succession explains the preeminence of the Church of Rome, enriched also by the preaching and martyrdom of St Paul.

In the divine plan for the primacy as “the office that was given individually by the Lord to Peter, the first of the Apostles, and to be handed on to his successors”, we already see the purpose of the Petrine charism, i.e., “the unity of faith and communion” of all believers. The Roman Pontiff, as the Successor of Peter, is “the perpetual and visible principle and foundation of unity both of the Bishops and of the multitude of the faithful” and therefore he has a specific ministerial grace for serving that unity of faith and communion which is necessary for the Church to fulfil her saving mission.

There is a “specific ministerial grace”, but we are not precisely certain what that ever has been, or is now:

The concrete contents of its exercise distinguish the Petrine ministry insofar as they faithfully express the application of its ultimate purpose (the unity of the Church) to the circumstances of time and place. The greater or lesser extent of these concrete contents will depend in every age on the necessitas Ecclesiae. The Holy Spirit helps the Church to recognize this necessity, and the Roman Pontiff, by listening to the Spirit’s voice in the Churches, looks for the answer and offers it when and how he considers it appropriate.

The pope has “the absolute fullness, of this supreme power”, and yet, “the greater or lesser extent” of how the pope should act, or should be viewed, “will depend in every age on the necessitas Ecclesiae.

Consequently, the nucleus of the doctrine of faith concerning the competencies of the primacy cannot be determined by looking for the least number of functions exercised historically. Therefore, the fact that a particular task has been carried out by the primacy in a certain era does not mean by itself that this task should necessarily be reserved always to the Roman Pontiff, and, vice versa, the mere fact that a particular role was not previously exercised by the Pope does not warrant the conclusion that this role could not in some way be exercised in the future as a competence of the primacy.

13. In any case, it is essential to state that discerning whether the possible ways of exercising the Petrine ministry correspond to its nature is a discernment to be made in Ecclesia, i.e., with the assistance of the Holy Spirit and in fraternal dialogue between the Roman Pontiff and the other Bishops, according to the Church’s concrete needs. But, at the same time, it is clear that only the Pope (or the Pope with an Ecumenical Council) has, as the Successor of Peter, the authority and the competence to say the last word on the ways to exercise his pastoral ministry in the universal Church.

My translation: “after 2000 years, we still don’t know what we’re doing”.

You may see it differently, but at any point, you may find yourselves infallibly faced with a “supreme pontiff” who declares something like Mary to be the 4th member of the Trinity, or that homosexuality is really a good and wholesome part of God’s design, and you will get to “receive with docility” these things, and assent to them with “the assent of faith”.

My own thought is, and I’ve written extensively about it, is that this current “period of retreat” that we see with respect to “the exercise of the primacy” is a direct result of several things:

The more we know about the early papacy, the more we know it didn’t exist, except in some vague “seed” form, the “development” of which may be attributed as much to the kinds of fictions and forgeries that Bart Ehrman is writing about (especially regarding the person of Peter), and also because we are learning (through the grammatical-historical study of the early Roman period) the actual situation of the earliest church within that city, during that period.

More and more of that kind of winnowing is going on. You all here, on your philosophical island of “principled distinction between divine revelation and human opinion” are putting yourselves in a position where you are (a) disregarding how the forgeries affected papal “development”, and (b) disregarding actual knowledge that actual historical research is producing.

In other words, “there’s an actual doctrine in there; we just haven’t found it yet”.

Bryan has commented on this phenomenon.

But you would think, after some 2000 years of “papal primacy”, they really would know with more certainty than they seem to know. Again, this document “recalls the essential points of Catholic doctrine on the primacy”, and much else that you’ve learned with “100% certainty” is left to question.