Thursday, October 31, 2013

Reformation's blunder: Proliferation of dissent and disunity?

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Update (11 February 2014): Includes the Univision survey that estimates how many Roman Catholics disagree with Vatican's teaching.

Today is Reformation Day. It's important to commemorate this remarkable movement. Reformation doesn't belong only to Protestant churches but to the universal church as much has been accomplished through the movement. For one, the retrieval of the pivotal epistemic and hermeneutical consistency that people can read and understand Scripture unmediated by a group of interpreters or line of post-apostles interpretation tradition. This epistemic consistency was lost or suppressed by the church authority until the Reformation. 

However, like all movements, the Reformation is not without its critics. One of the most popular comments is the charge of the proliferation of dissent and disunity among Christians: the Reformers, in defiant against the popes and cardinals of that time, have established their own churches and develop their own dogmatics, and so also have set an example for others to do likewise. As a result, there is a crisis in ecclesial and theological authority---there is a lost of reference to decide which church and theology are more faithful to the apostolic teaching. And so we have many denominations. 

In Singapore alone, we have Anglican, Methodist, Presbyterian, Bible-Presbyterian, Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland, Lutheran, Baptist, Reformed Baptist, independent Baptist, Reformed Evangelical, independent evangelical, Pentecostal, independent Pentecostal and Charismatic, Brethren, Evangelical Free Church, Church of Singapore and all other independent churches, and different congregations of Eastern Orthodoxy. Although there are individuals within these churches who are more ecumenical, yet each group claims (some implicitly, while others explicitly) its institution's official teaching as more faithful to the apostles than other churches. 

This alleged lost of an objective reference to adjudicate which theological claim is more valid than others is seen as a huge lack by the Vatican. This is also the reason for some Protestants to join the Roman Catholic Church. As the former theologian of Reformed Theological Seminary, Kenneth Howell, said of his own transition
I have always wanted to know the reasons why I must believe something. I had always thought that the Reformed faith represented the teaching of the Scriptures and the ancient Church. When I had to teach the process of biblical interpretation — as opposed to teaching what I thought the Bible taught — I realized that the only way to agree on a proper interpretation of a text is to have a living Magisterium in the Church.

The reason that there are so many Protestants who can’t agree on what the Bible teaches is that they have no authoritative interpretative body.
Or in the words of Francis Beckwith, who joined the Roman church when he was the President of the Evangelical Theological Society,
Luther himself, though excommunicated, never saw his movement as anything more than a renewal movement within the Church. We, of course, know now that the movement he started had a life of its own, resulting in scores of different and often conflicting understandings of Scripture, sacrament, and Church, and each finding something in Christianity’s traditions to challenge.

But in order to arrive at this present state of theological diversity and ecclesial fragmentation, you needed more Luthers, of which there has been an endless supply. His success made Luther a towering example to emulate.
I think whether is the proliferation of dissent and disunity brought about by the Reformation a problem or not depends on this question: Assuming the universal church is manifested fully through a concrete institution (as taught by Vatican), can a visible universal church be the effective objective reference that prevents dissent and disunity? 

This question is not asking if Vatican has official teaching or not; obviously they do, just like every other churches. This question is asking whether is there theological dissent and ecclesiastical disunity within the pre- and post-Reformation Roman Catholic Church?

The answer is 'Yes' for both pre- and post-Reformation Roman Catholic Church. We see this in Augustine of Hippo's disagreement with the Donatists, John of Damascus and the iconoclastic controversy, and the 'great schism' between the Latin west and the Greek east churches. In the case between Cyprian, the bishop of Carthage, and Stephen, the bishop of Rome, the former charged the latter as a person who "would rather maintain his own evil and false position, than agree in the right and true which belongs to another."

Another example is the condemnation of Thomas Aquinas by Stephen Tempier, bishop of Paris. The bishop's condemnation listed some articles that are taught by Aquinas. Drawing from his detailed study on this, John F. Wippel, a Professor at the Pontifical Academy of St Thomas Aquinas, commented,
...since a number of these articles were thought to be aimed at Thomas by informed contemporaries such as William and Godfrey and apparently in some cases, Henry of Ghent, I am inclined to take their testimony very seriously. In a number of these instances the propositions in question were known by Stephen and his Commission to have been taught by Thomas and in many cases also by one or other Master in Arts. Stephen and his Commission condemned them nonetheless. Hence it seems clear enough to me that in those cases they intended to condemn Aquinas's doctrine directly, not merely indirectly.
('Thomas Aquinas and the Condemnation of 1277,' in The Modern Schoolman LXXII, January/March [1995]:269-270.)
However, the following bishop of Paris, Stephen of Bourret, dissented from his predecessor,
...in 1325, some nineteen months after Thomas's canonization, the Bishop of Paris of that time revoked the condemnation of the Paris articles insofar as they "touched on or were asserted to touch on" Thomas's teachings. One could hardly continue to condemn at Paris the views of a recently canonized saint!
(Ibid, 239.)
In the present post-Reformation time, we are still witnessing much dissent and disunity within the Roman Catholic Church. Besides the big names such as Hans Kung, Charles Curran, and Edward Schillebeeckx, there are recent cases of Jacques Pohier, Jacques Dupuis, Leonardo Boff, Anthony de Mello, Roger Haight, Mary Agnes Mansour, Richard McBrien, Theresa Kane, John McNeill, Jon Sobrino, Anthony Kosnik, Aloysius Bermejo, and Elizabeth Johnson. The latter is the Distinguished Professor of Theology at Fordham University, a Jesuit institution, whose book Quest for the Living God: Mapping Frontiers in the Theology of God (USA: Continuum, 2007) is condemned by the Committee on Doctrine of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. In Johnson's defense are other Roman Catholic theologians such as Stephen J. Pope of Boston College and Mary Catherine Hilkert of Notre Dame University. 

Just last year the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith denounced the work of Margaret Farley, a Catholic nun who is also a Professor Emerita of Christian Ethics at Yale Divinity School. The Vatican stated that her book Just Love: a Framework for Christian Sexual Ethics (USA: Continuum, 2006) poses "grave harm to the faithful". In her response, Farley acknowledged her dissent, "I do not dispute the judgment that some of the positions contained within it are not in accord with current official Catholic teaching."

For an overview of recent cases on dissenting Roman Catholic theologians, see Braford E. Hinze's essay, 'A Decade of Disciplining Theologians,' in When the Magisterium Intervenes: The Magisterium and Theologians in Today's Church, ed. Richard R. Gaillardetz (USA: Liturgical Press, 2012). On top of those mentioned above, there are many dissenting groups and organizations identified as Roman Catholics. Here and here.

A recent survey conducted by Univision--across 12 countries with more than 12,000 Roman Catholics--have shown that the Vatican does not command theological unity among its own members. As reported in The Guardian:
78% of respondents worldwide supporting the use of artificial birth control.

More than half (58%) disagreed with the church's stance that divorcees who remarry are ineligible for Communion. And 65% of the respondents said abortion should be allowed – 8% in all cases and 57% in some.
If there is dissent and disunity within the pre- and post-Reformation Roman Catholic Church, then dissent and disunity happen regardless of the Reformation. Yes, Vatican can claim itself to be the objective reference. Yet, so are those Roman Catholics who dissent from Vatican and from each other.

To say that there is a proliferation assumes an ideal past when dissent and disunity were lesser. Yet such assertion need to be shown, and not simply asserted. One must be able to show that there was lesser disagreement in the past than in the present, assuming such study is possible in the first place.

Dissent and disunity will always be found within the Roman Catholic Church. This is because they are found in the one invisible universal church of which the Roman church, a visible institution, is part of. For this reason, it's a mistake to see the present dissent and disunity among churches as the blunder of the Reformation.

Of course, this betrays the difference between my understanding of the church and that of Vatican. And I hold on to my view not only because of Matthew 13:24-30, 33-43, but also for its testimony to the plural state of the church. This ecclesiology inspired by the Reformation is a window into the reality of the pluralistic condition of the universal church.

So, can the visible universal church (as how Roman Catholic Church believes it is) be the effective objective reference that prevents dissent and disunity?

Yes, of course it can. The fact that there are adherents (followers) who say 'Amen' to all its teaching says more than that; it says it is. Just that this is the same with every other churches and those who adhere to the dissenters within the Roman Catholic Church.They too have followers who say 'Amen' to all their respective teaching.

Does this mean that we should stop working for unity among churches and Christians? Definitely no. What shape should such unity have is another discussion altogether. Suffice to say that ecumenical work has to continue (John 17:20-23).

What about those Protestants who have transited to Roman church and those who are thinking of transiting because they feel that Protestant churches can't give them an objective reference?

I would encourage them to think about this: Desiring an objective authority and throwing oneself to an entity that claims to satisfy that desire says nothing about the truthfulness of the claim. The Magisterium can claim to have the objective reference to decide what is true. But the dissenting Roman Catholics as well as Protestants and Eastern Orthodox can claim likewise for themselves. Having one authority to rely on says nothing whether that authority is true or not.

The upside of the Reformation movement is the consistency they have in their epistemic and hermeneutical framework. It is this consistency that enables people ranging from a pew warmer to a Church Father to interpret the scripture in the first place. This is the hermeneutic of sola scriptura. A jewel recovered through the magisterial Reformers. Happy Reformation Day!

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