Quodlibets: Intelligible, All Too Intelligible

In the early 500s, Boethius wrote a theological tractate against two heresies, the Monophysite and the Nestorian. Monophysites held that Christ had only a divine nature and that his humanity had been swallowed up in it; Nestorians, in reaction, held that not only did Christ have both a divine and human nature, he was two persons as well! It was Boethius’s purpose to explain the Catholic truth that Christ is one person with two natures.

All that took place a long time ago but for believers the topic is, well, as topical as ever. It is important that we be clear about the truths God has revealed. This means that we must be very clear about the language in which these truths are expressed. Boethius stands early in the theological tradition that saw the necessity for clarity, precision, and logic. A recent exported discussion reminds us that this is a profound need in the Church today.

Those with a memory for the outrageous will recall the essay entitled “The Liberal Consensus” that the redoubtable Thomas Sheehan wrote for The New York Review of Books back in 1984. This was a review of sorts of Hans Kueng’s Eternal Life? and Sheehan took the occasion to declare triumphantly that the Modernists had won the fight in the Church in this country. He and his cohorts were, he modestly proclaimed, the ones who write the books, get the grants, control the seminaries and theology faculties, the chanceries, and so on. I think the ushers had not yet fallen but total victory was in sight. Said Sheehan.

Well, there was a discussion of what Sheehan had said. For many it was a sad Q.E.D. to arguments they had been making about the parlous state of the entities Sheehan ticked off as occupied. Occupants demurred, in a way, finding fault with “simplification” and “naiveté” and wishing for more “nuanced” discussions.

In short, Sheehan had said what he meant and his meaning was clear and that threatened the revolution because a good part of the Modernist revolution consists in obfuscation. In an age of sanitary engineers it is embarrassing when someone brings out the garbage.

I dredge up this sorry business because it has occasioned a significant exchange in Great Britain.

Michael Dummett, a distinguished Oxford philosopher and Catholic, writing in New Blackfriars, referred to Sheehan’s claim that Catholic theologians now teach that Christ had no notion he was a divine person, that he had a natural father like anyone else and his mother was no virgin. The Holy Family would have been amazed if anyone had told them the nativity story that would become part of the tradition. Christ did not found a church, institute a priesthood and, finally, Christ did not rise from the dead. All these symbolic additions to the grubby facts were meant to express the subjective feelings and thoughts of early Christians, not to be taken literally as, alas, over the centuries they have been. Now, thanks to scholarly methods, we are recovering the facts and separating out the symbolism and arriving at a liberal consensus.

Dummett was understandably outraged, not least by the nonsense parading as scholarship. “It is of course preposterous to suggest that there was some well-known literary convention by which a story such as that of the discovery of the empty tomb could be recognized as purely symbolic, but that, in a few decades, this convention had been forgotten and the Gospels accordingly misunderstood throughout the centuries until now.” Dummett concludes that what Sheehan is describing is not a version of Christianity, but its denial.

Nicholas Lash responded to what he called Dummett’s divisiveness, urged him to be more docile to expert opinion and chided him for taking Sheehan at his word rather than initiating a vast sociological survey of the Church in the United States. And he was unwise enough to accuse Dummett of fallacy. Dummett properly replied that he can read, that he would be delighted to learn that Sheehan was wrong, and noticed that Lash holds a conception of revelation according to which doctrine develops by replacing earlier teaching with its opposite. But his severest criticism is of the view that the Creed consists of words without meanings, words that can over time mean one thing and its opposite.

Lash tried to dismiss a distinguished scholar as some kind of redneck too unsophisticated to follow scriptural experts. I suspect he came to regret the tack he had taken. The problem is not that Modernists are unintelligible. Their meaning is all too clear. And the judgment on their views made by a saintly Pope still stands: It is not a heresy, but the summation of all heresies.

It is because words have meanings that the views of a Sheehan or a Lash deserve criticism. Of course the meaning of the Creed is not just a matter of agreement between Dummett and Lash. Dummett says he is not looking for a new Torquemada. “I do not want to revive the Inquisition, or even the anti-Modernist oath: I only want an authoritative pronouncement on the limits of admissible reinterpretation of the articles of the Creed.”



Ralph McInerny was a popular writer, philosopher, and teacher, as well as the co-founder of Crisis Magazine. He passed away on January 29, 2010.

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