Wednesday, December 19, 2007

A Reluctant Bishop

Bishop Patricia Fresen was consecrated a bishop by three Roman Catholic bishops in 2005.

The Vatican does not accept the validity of the consecration.

The article highlights Bishop Fresen's initial reluctance to accept the responsibility of being a bishop.


Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Is Pope Benedict XVI a Heretic?

I haven't had much time for blogging in recent months, since the premature birth of our second child.

Nevertheless, I did find some time to read the Holy Father's latest encyclical, Spe Salvi, which was issued on November 30, 2007.

Overall, I really liked the encyclical. My title may not imply this.

Like the 2005 Christmas encyclical, Deus Caritas Est, the man once known as "God's Rottweiler" (before he was pope), surprised many of us with a beautiful, positive, well reasoned and yet uplifting exposition on the very basics of Catholic Christian faith.

Unlike his predecessor, Benedict doesn't seem to use encyclicals as a vehicle to drop the hammer on theologians and squash internal dialogue.

I read Spes Salvi several days ago, and had no critique and nothing to really blog - other than to say, "Read it....It's worth the time."

In some ways, for the non-believer, such as an atheist, agnostic, or someone who is "spiritual, but not religious", I think this encyclical does a great job of "explaining the hope that lies within us with gentleness and respect." (cf. 1 Pet 3:15-16)

As the days have passed, however, it occurred to me that a point the Holy Father made in the encyclical seemed to contradict something I was taught as Catholic dogma.

Maybe I'm nit-picking too much. Maybe I'm too schooled in "critical reading". Maybe my mind simply can't take things at face value without finding something to contradict. Maybe I have a fixed habit of playing "gotcha" with papal writing.

This said, there seems to be a contradiction with what may be solemnly defined dogma in this letter.

It seems that the encyclical speaks of Christian hope as an "absolute certainty" of salvation, where I was taught somewhere along the line that Catholics do not accept the absolute certainty of salvation in this life.

I finally looked it up. Sure enough, the Ecumenical Council of Trent is quite explicit that anyone claiming that absolute certainty of salvation in this life is necessary for salvation is to be held in anathema.

Here are some key passages from Chapter XIII of the Sixth Session of the Ecumenical Council of Trent:

So also as regards the gift of perseverance, of which it is written, He that shall persevere to the end, he shall be saved:-which gift cannot be derived from any other but Him, who is able to establish him who standeth that he stand perseveringly, and to restore him who falleth: - let no one herein promise himself any thing as certain with an absolute certainty; though all ought to place and repose a most firm hope in God's help. For God, unless men be themselves wanting to His grace, as he has begun the good work, so will he perfect it, working (in them) to will and to accomplish. Nevertheless, let those who think themselves to stand, take heed lest they fall, and, with fear and trembling work out their salvation, in labours, in watchings, in almsdeeds, in prayers and oblations, in fastings and chastity: for, knowing that they are born again unto a hope of glory, but not as yet unto glory, they ought to fear for the combat which yet remains with the flesh, with the world, with the devil, wherein they cannot be victorious, unless they be with God's grace, obedient to the Apostle, who says; We are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh; for if you live according to the flesh, you shall die; but if by the spirit you mortify the deeds of the flesh, you shall live.

CANON XIII. - If any one saith, that it is necessary for every one, for the obtaining the remission of sins, that he believe for certain, and without any wavering arising from his own infirmity and disposition, that his sins are forgiven him; let him be anathema.
Compare what is said above to the recent words of our Holy Father:
The human being needs unconditional love. He needs the certainty which makes him say: "neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord" (Rom 8:38- 39 ). If this absolute love exists, with its absolute certainty, then — only then — is man "redeemed", whatever should happen to him in his particular circumstances. This is what it means to say: Jesus Christ has "redeemed" us. Through him we have become certain of God, a God who is not a remote "first cause" of the world, because his only-begotten Son has become man and of him everyone can say: "I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me" (Gal 2:20). (Spe Salvi (no. 26) Pope Benedict XVI)
Please don't misunderstand my intentions in writing this.

I am not sure I "disagree" with the Holy Father on this point.

God's love is unconditional, and this is sort of a bedrock claim of Christian faith that we need to hold with a high degree of certitude as a given revealed truth.

Yet, if God loves me just as I am today, She also loves me too much to leave me as I am.

In the Pope's favor, there does seem to me that there was a language of "blessed assurance" used in Catholic piety and theology prior to Trent by doctors of the Church that is worthy of retrieval, even if Protestants use the term more frequently today.

Trent, itself, speaks of a "reasonable confidence" in our salvation that is born of faith and gives rise to hope.

We can trust the One who died for us to bring the work he has started in our baptism to its completion. Trent is explicit on this point.

There is a sense in which we can say that if salvation can be "lost", it actually requires a sort of effort to lose it.

Despite the ongoing effects of concupiscience that linger from original sin post-baptism, it is not "natural" for a soul liberated from the guilt of original sin to be other than a child of God.

Grace builds on and enables and enobles nature - where our nature (even for the unbaptized) is fundamentally that of the image of God.

Original sin may mar the image, but the mirror is not shattered. Catholics reject the notion of "total depravity", and this is a hopeful message.

Moreover, God no more abandons his children than most earthly parents would abandon a child.

While Vatican I asserts that Catholic faith never outright contradicts reason, and many Christians believe that our faith is supported by evidence, even if meager evidence, faith and hope go beyond reason and evidence.

The Holy Father is right to describe faith as more than "informative".

If the police accused my wife of murder, I would not believe them, no matter what the evidence or what information they claim to have.

In a similar manner, our hope is beyond what can be "known" in the intellect.

As the encyclical highlights, we can speak of Christian hope as a sort of tangible substance - and faith is more than "informative". It is "performative", changing our lives.

While there is a "personal" dimension of faith and hope, in the sense of individually appropriating and receiving this "substance", I like the way the Holy Father directs our attention to the fact that our hope is communal in its very nature.

Nobody can be saved alone. Such a thing is impossible, and not even desirable if it were possible.

We cannot say, "I have a personal relationship with Jesus, and to hell with the rest of the world."

We must say, "I care about the world because I am in relationship with the One who died for the sake of the world."

Our hope is not in contingent or passing worldly circumstances and affairs. We do seek the good of other people in this life of passing contingencies for the sake of others in their own right.

We acknowledge that passing goods are still good. We seek good for others because it is the right thing to do in the present - a good for its own sake.

Yet, our hope goes being the passing contingencies. The good we seek for others in passing contingencies is also an expression of our ultimate hope - a foreshadowing of our ultimate hope, and fuel for our higher hopes of salvation.

Our hope is to join the "Church triumphant" - the communion of saints in heaven, who are connected with us already through their intercession.

And we are connected to the dead in a state of purification as well.

I'm paraphrasing the gist of the Holy Fathers letter here, and simply trying to emphasize that I agree with that gist.

That gist does not make sense if we speak of hope as something less than a sort of unshakable confidence - a sort of deep personal trust that seems a tangible gift from outside of ourselves.

But the question is whether the Holy Father's articulation of this might actually cross the line technically into the heretical?

I am referring to his use of the words "absolute certainty" and speaking of this certainty as an "only then" condition of redemption.

Is this really the proper "Catholic way" to speak of the Spirit infused virtue of hope?

In contrast to evangelical Protestantism, with its emphasis on "knowing that you know you are saved", my understanding is that Roman Catholicism teaches that we must leave judgment entirely in the hands of God - even our own salvation cannot be known with "absolute certainty" in this life.

The Catholic teaching, in my humble opinion as I understand it, better captures the common Christian experience of feeling that we have fallen out of God's favor at times - or have back-slidden, and so forth.

Where some denominations can make it sound like doubting your salvation or failing to feel saved is a sin in itself, Roman Catholicism says that not feeling saved on any given day or having doubts is part of the process of being saved!

In my opinion, the Catholic articulation better captures the common experience of doubts, fears, dryness, guilt and anxiety - reminding us that this is normal, and that the beginning of wisdom is the fear of the Lord, even if perfect love will cast out all fear.

While there is a very real and very grave danger in Catholic soteriology (theology of salvation) of falling into a sort of crass works righteousness or legalistic self righteousness, the Catholic articulation of soteriology captures the very common human experience that when we work out our salvation with fear and trembling, as Paul admonishes in Phil 2:12, it often feels like we are doing all the work ourselves, though faith informs us that God is doing all of the work all of the time.

Both the Council of Trent and Luther could agree that salvation is by grace alone.

Where they diverge is whether grace is expressed in "faith alone apart from works", with faith defined as some sort of absolute certainty of salvation (Luther's position), or whether grace inspires both faith and meritorious works (Trent's position).

The Catholic reticence to speak of "absolute certainty" of personal salvation helps to foster a spirit of humility before God and others - avoiding the "holier than thou" attitude of a pharisee because one is constantly examining one's conscience and finding fault.

And even for the vast number of Catholics who do not examine their consciences daily, there is this nagging sense that we should examine our consciences daily.

Protestants certainly foster humility in other ways, but the Catholic teaching on this subject clearly demands humility. You cannot "presume" your salvation.

I honestly believe that one of the reasons that the front pews of a Catholic church are so empty while the rear pews tend to be full is that Catholics are trained to think of themselves from birth like the tax collector in Luke 18, who sits in the back of the temple crying for mercy while the Pharisee goes to the front praying with contemptuous pride.

I believe that this refusal to speak of hope as "absolute certainty" has also guided the Church eventually towards a greater "epistemological humility" in the twentieth century.

Catholics are more open than our conservative evangelical Protestant counterparts to ideas like evolution, or using higher criticism in exploring the depths of scripture. We're typically more culturally and politically diverse. Our practice has more in-house variation.

Be patient with me. God isn't finished with me.

We all know the saying. Catholics emphasize salvation and redemption as a process where certainty is lacking much of the time - whether intellectual certainty or emotional certainty.

We can reach higher degrees of certainty on some issues than others. We can grow in certainty as we spiritually mature.

But "absolute certainty"...?

True, there are dangers of scrupulosity and even psychological disorders such as neurosis that can arise from a warped sense of Catholic guilt.

I do not want to downplay that the lack of "absolute certainty" of salvation can have negative results when we forget that this incertitude is to be held in dialectic tension with a deep trust and reasonable confidence giving rise to real hope in the resurrection.

The Pope clearly sees these dangers, or he would not speak so strongly of hope and what it is.

Yet, did his word choice cross a line?