Sunday, November 04, 2007

On suffering under bad rulers

In a comment to a previous post, Tim Enloe said:
I suppose I can say without too much rhetorical waxing that for me the paramount issue in evaluating the Reformation is the utter and despicable pastoral failure of the Church for the better part of a century and a half prior to the Reformation.
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I do apologize to those "conservative" Catholics insufficiently-tutored in the long, painful history of Western ecclesiastical reform, but the Council of Trent came about s century and a half too late for most of the victims of the disgusting predators who had been running the Church into the ground for many, many decades while hiding behind their succession lists and outward religious trappings.

I replied:
I suppose this is a different view of the matter, because for a Catholic, this is the equivalent of saying that God showed up a century and a half too late. The basic understanding is that God's providential control in these matters is such that whatever misery the Church suffers is God's punishment for failure to conform to His will. It's just a different way of looking at the suffering of the Church as intended by God. In that perspective, BOTH the bad rulers AND the Reformers themselves were punishment from God intended to purify the Church from sin and worldliness, and so they did. One can say "what about those poor people who suffered so much?" But one can say the same thing about every mean wretch who has suffered in the millennia of human history.

We don't criticize God for failing to save people from this circumstance; rather, we thank Him that He eventually did. That's why salvation is grace and not debt. God has no obligation to save the Church from wallowing in sin, from people suffering misery for centuries under the oppression of evil men. The assumption is that there ought to be some way of "checking" monarchs and "correcting" this misery, but the fact that there isn't is precisely what makes the salvation of the Church (and of us all) entirely dependent on grace.

Until we realize that all is hopeless, that literally nothing can be done to alleviate the misery of the Church unless God sees fit to bless the Church with a good Father, then we don't realize the depth of our circumstance. In Catholicism, ecclesiology and soteriology are one and the same, and just as the Christian is saved only insofar as He is given grace, so is the Church entirely dependent on grace for its operation. You pray for God to raise up a good leader by grace; you don't take it upon yourself to rebel against the leader that He actually sent you. In the mundane political realm, it might not work that way, but in the Church insofar as it is Church (viz., in the real of religion), that's how it works. An abusive father can be resisted for his own sake, but God's judgment on you through evil men must be suffered. And as I said, it takes supernatural virtue to recognize that one ought to sacrifice the temporal good for the sake of God's unknowable, eternal purpose. The instinctive reaction is to resist evil, but sometimes, God's priority for the good is different than your own.

Look at the sexual abuse scandal. Suffering under the leadership of the same men who allowed this abomination, who are now paying ridiculous amounts of money to protect their own hides, is hardly sensible or wise from the temporal perspective. My archbishop is Roger Cardinal Mahony, described in the media as the "Teflon Cardinal" for his ability to slide out from under any reponsibility for the scandal. My bishop faced contempt charges for sending a priest under investigation for sexual abuse charges to Canada for "treatment." But unfortunately, they are the people that God saw fit to ordain to their respective positions, and I have to accept that. I don't get to pick my bishop, my metropolitan, or my Pope. I can only pray for God to send good men and live with it when He doesn't. From the perspective of worldly wisdom, that is "complacency" or even "negligence." I can't disagree or even expect you to understand; it is thoroughly alien to anything in this world. But if you want to understand the Catholic way of thinking, it is that the Church comes from God's will and grace alone.

Tim then said, inter alia:

You may have a point about not becoming excessively sentimental about human suffering, but at the same time I remain entirely unpersuaded that the best response in the face of immense and enormously protracted suffering is to be like some Christian Marcus Aurelius and act like Stoic pietas in the face of crushing, grinding, maiming potestas overcomes all need to fight for equitas.
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It's easy for a fat and sassy Cardinal who only has to deal with verbal insults to his honor to sit and write that when a despicable tyrant runs the world you just have to piously pray to God to take him away before he wrecks the ship. It's quite another thing to be a pastor on the frontlines watching your people living in abject spiritual poverty and dying without a hope in the world, watching the ship foundering because the godless wretch at the helm has already run it into the iceberg, to sit and be Stoics. In the latter case, it can't be done, and shouldn't be done. That, I would argue, would be truly evil.

I think it would be helpful at this point to note that it's actually the antithesis of the Stoic ethos. Stoicism says that there is no hope in fate, so you just bear up under it. My point is exactly the opposite: it is a message of faith and hope that the Stoic wisdom considers foolishness. That is precisely what Tertullian, himself steeped in Stoic knowledge, meant by "I believe because it is absurd" and "What has Athens to do wth Jerusalem?" The lesson is that the "crushing, grinding, maiming potestas" is nothing but the power of the world, a power of God has already defeated, which defeat will be completely realized in the world to come.

That is the hope that Christian pastors can always give, that no matter how bad it appears, nothing in this world has a power to surpass God. No power on earth can wreck the ship, and if we can affirm that mystery, then we have peace, a kind of equality of the heart. That is nothing like Stoic ataraxia, which certainly would be evil in these circumstances. It is the perspective of faith and hope, a genuine belief in God's grace to rectify the evils of the world that we ourselves are powerless to correct. The Psalms were not written by Stoics; they were written by men who recognized both that we were utterly dependent on God and that He really did have power greater than all the wickedness in the world. I think that they would have said in response to the suggestion that they were "just" going to piously pray to God that there was nothing else TO do.

This is not to say that Israel did not have the same inclination to acquire the power to fix things. They looked around and saw other "successful" situations and wanted what they had. They wanted kings and the like as well. But when God gave this to them, it didn't help. They had to realize that it wasn't the priests or kings, but God Himself who was the only hope of Israel. Our only hope against the powers of the world, even priests and kings, is God's grace. The extent to which we even believe that we can "fix" the fallen world ourselves is the Pelagian impulse writ large, the belief that we can save ourselves through our own efforts. In the grand scheme of things, all temporary (or temporal) fixes eventually comes back to bite us. Our only hope is in the mystery of faith: "For he has made known to us in all wisdom and insight the mystery of his will, according to his purpose which he set forth in Christ as a plan for the fulness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth" (Eph. 1:9-10). That's where our hope lies, never here.

Anyway, I just wanted to make clear that my message is as far from Stoicism or faith in some system or process as it could be. Contra Stoicism, I believe that we have a genuine hope in God. Contra faith in any system or process, I believe that only God has the power to be victorious over the powers of the world through His grace. And I have faith and hope that He will.

7 Comments:

At 12:05 PM, Blogger Tim Enloe said...

Well...I'm still here, but only because Dave and I are in the process of working things out and I wanted to see if any further comments had been made on the other threads.

Thanks for this post. The only things I'd want to say in response are these.

First, I didn't intend to indicate that I think we can fix the evil world in our own power. I'm not a Pelagian. I'm only talking about a view of relations between authorities and their subjects that tries to approximate reality instead of seeking refuge in fantasies: "God put us in charge to uphold justice and put down evil, but if mostly all we do is uphold evil and put down justice, well, you're still obligated to obey us." That's basically what the Church hierarchy was saying at the time of the Reformation. I'm not sure what definition of "reasonable" would allow for that.

Second, your clarifications make sense IF there are actually good pastors operating in the Church. This by and large (exceptions here and there) was not the case for a century and a half prior to the Reformation. Now if one was a pastor at this time who was actually doing his job by loving and tending the sheep, what could one do? No shepherd in his right mind is going to go, "Gee, there's a wolf. But since God put the wolf there I guess I'll just let him eat my sheep while I piously pray for Him to do it. I wouldn't want to be a Pelagian, after all.

Third, God works through means. Prayer is great, but God doesn't always answer prayer directly. After 150 years of wolves, some people, steeped in the wisdom of the Fathers, the complex and multiform Catholic tradition, and finally, the Holy Scriptures, came to the realization that God had given THEM the means to take care of the wolves. And not just the means, but the responsibility. If you want to call that "evil," (if indeed that is what you're doing) it only continues to highlight what many thinking people today consider to be one of the biggest problems of Catholicism: it's absolute refusal to be accountable to anyone on earth.

 
At 3:52 PM, Blogger Martin Tohill said...

Forgive my rushed comments but, Tim, I am puzzled by your remarks. You know far more about the history of the Reformation than I but I have the idea that ML did not set out to "chase out the wolves" but, rather, to "tear down the fences". In short, he wanted the office of bishop and pope eliminated. Whereas you seem to argue that if the "wolves" had been chased out 100 years before ML then there would have been no need for the Reformation.

How does this relate to the idea that the Church was wrong in principle, not just in action?

In reply I would argue with Mark Shea that wolves are running the USA today and we see no improvementin sight. Do I have a moral obligation to pick up arms and dissolve the American constitution? (Bear in mind the USA is a secular society. I have no time to follow that the Church was founded by Christ himself. The Church IS Christ Himself thus I have no authority to tell Christ to take a hike because his sub-shepards are lousy at their jobs).

 
At 8:51 PM, Blogger Tim Enloe said...

Martin, please understand that I really am in the process of withdrawing from online discussions, so I cannot stick one out here. I'm only here at the moment because Dave Armstrong and I are working some things out and I need to keep tabs on fora where we've recently engaged to make sure I'm taking care of things properly. That said, I'll quickly answer your remarks.

No, Luther did not set out to tear down the fences. From the beginning of his reform work he indicated a desire to see the papacy do what it was supposed to be doing, namely, chasing out the wolves. It was only when the papacy, in the personage of Leo X, made it clear to him that it had no intention of chasing out the wolves, but only of increasing their predations on the flocks, and only when fanatical polemicists attached to the papacy lit into Luther and made far more out of what he was trying to do than he himself had made of it, that Luther started upping the ante. You might want to consult David Bagchi's excellent work Luther's Earliest Opponents on this.

Actually, yes, insofar as we can reasonably imagine historical counterfactuals based on the evidence that we have, had the wolves been dealt with 100 years earlier, it is quite likely the Reformation would not have happened.

Lastly, of course you are not to take up arms against the government. You're a private citizen, with no authority to do so. Luther was a trained and ordained pastor of the Church, and that makes all the difference. And no, the Church is NOT Christ himself. There's a difference between the husband and the bride.

 
At 8:14 AM, Blogger TheGodFearinFiddler said...

When all is said and done, The Catholic Church by any reasonable estimation was doctrinally a better Church at the time of the reformation than the huge majority of Protestant denominations.

One could make some weak arguments about a few fringe denominations here and there but no one in their right mind could deny the above statement.

For the Church to have survived the enormous scandals that she has - Gnosticism, Arianism, the Great Schism, Reformation - the sixties - the sex scandals and not have one line of indefensible doctrine is nothing short of divine.

 
At 1:13 PM, Blogger CrimsonCatholic said...

First, I didn't intend to indicate that I think we can fix the evil world in our own power. I'm not a Pelagian. I'm only talking about a view of relations between authorities and their subjects that tries to approximate reality instead of seeking refuge in fantasies: "God put us in charge to uphold justice and put down evil, but if mostly all we do is uphold evil and put down justice, well, you're still obligated to obey us." That's basically what the Church hierarchy was saying at the time of the Reformation. I'm not sure what definition of "reasonable" would allow for that.

I suppose in some ways it isn't. But there isn't anything reasonable in anything humans are made to suffer. Evil isn't reasonable, but God has some purpose for it. That in itself seems unreasonable to many people, and indeed, that is the atheistic argument that appears to have the most traction subjectively. From my view, bad shepherds and bad rulers are the norm, and the miracle is that they are ever good. I suppose it's just a different expectation. If you make someone a pastor or a king, he's probably going to exploit that power to harm people, and that's why Jesus places no stock in any of them apart from the extent to which He Himself is in them and they in Him. But I can see where people would want to be more optimistic about our ability to improve the situation than that; I just happen to think they have no cause to be.

 
At 2:42 PM, Blogger Tim Enloe said...

Jonathan, perhaps we're talking past each other. I am actually still addressing the historical-theological claim that the Reformers were "evil" for going against the Church hierarchy of their day. From my POV, the true evil was in the hierarchy, and, as is His prerogative, God decided to work outside of His own ordained normal means to achieve a larger purpose. As with Israel, He judged His wicked, erring people by confounding all the expectations of the "wise" and using the "foolish" to carry out His plans.

I just don't see you engaging the actual historical-theological issues here, but instead seeking refuge in rational-legal axioms and pious declarations of having a faith that transcends the mere temporal vagaries of the world. As if the Reformers didn't have such a thing! Once again I point out the salient point: PASTORS actually in the field see their sheep being preyed upon by wolves that are wearing shepherd's garb, and what are they supposed to do? Fall to their knees and piously pray for God to intervene to deliver the sheep by the very same ordinary means that have totally broken down and allowed the wolves in, or take up their slings and stones and kill the wolves themselves? To me, no offense intended to you, it's just a no-brainer.

You're the one who's always talking about matching your beliefs up to external reality: well, how about a little matching up of talk about "evil" to the real external realities that the Church faces? I still remember your rather contorted attempt to defend the notion that the Church is sinless. Even the mild-mannered, Catholicism-friendly Edwin Tait couldn't stomach that one. I just don't know what to make of the type of Catholicism you represent sometimes. It's a mystery to me how you can be so unswervingly and confidently polemical against others, and yet so seemingly unable to contemplate the various follies of Catholicism in history and stop making sophisticated intellectual excuses for them and just admit the deep failure of Catholic responsibility for Catholic problems. The bottom line is that, given the supremely high rhetoric of Catholicism about authority and leadership, the Reformation was Catholicism's fault and all the junk that has followed after it is Catholicism's responsibility.

At any rate, now that Dave has posted his notification that we've worked out our troubles, I am going ahead with my plan to withdraw from having an active Internet presence. I won't see anything else you write on this, unless you perhaps want to continue the discussion by e-mail. Thanks for your time and patience with me over the last few years. I've learned much from you, and perhaps at some future date I'll return and be able to learn more. God bless.

 
At 7:58 PM, Blogger CrimsonCatholic said...

I think that's a fine note for ending the discussion myself, so I'll close this one up.

 

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