31 May 2014

COUNCILS: Why I sympathise with Taft

Taft's big mistake, I suspect, is to fetichise Councils and, by expecting too much of them, to have problems when they fail to live up to the standards he has set them. This is not surprising; given a lifetime of scholarly work on Byzantine Christianity, it is natural that he should have some of its unspoken assumptions rubbed off, as it were, upon him. And an extremely high regard, even an adulation, of councils, seems, to the poor and ignorant Westerner who is writing this, to be a marked feature of Orthodoxy (I am humbly open to correction from Orthodox readers). I have two reasons for wishing to enter qualifications.

(1) I believe such an attitude gives all councils a status which is exaggerated.
(2)* I believe it leaves insufficiently regarded some councils which were not formally 'ecumenical'; and undervalues the profound significance of the Magisterium of the Roman Church.

(1) I believe that it is not only 'post-schism' councils which Joseph Ratzinger had in mind when he wrote Not every valid council in the history of the Church has been a fruitful one; in the last analysis many of them have been just a waste of time. And I would add that sometimes they have been corrupt, venal, and violent; sometimes they have been open to excessive influence by secular influences, whether of Roman or Byzantine Emperors, or of French kings. Sometimes, in the words Newman angrily used of Vatican I, they have been dominated by an aggressive insolent faction. And some even of the Great First Seven Councils were sparsely attended and unrepresentative of the Oikoumene. Just as we are not required to like the Sovereign Pontiff or to approve of his obiter dicta et obiter acta, though we are required to be humbly and completely subject to his authentic Magisterium, so we are not required to admire the proceedings and the participants of Ecumenical Councils but simply to accept their dogmatic Magisterium. I have said before that I dislike the absurd personality cult which surrounds a modern pope. I dislike equally an uncritical and historically uninformed enthusiasm for councils.

Furthermore, as I have argued previously, those conciliar enactments which are not definitions of dogma definitive tenendum are marked with an implicit sell-by date. Addressed to the circumstances of a particular era, they are less relevant when that era has disappeared ... they pass, as I believe I once wrote, into the general background noise of the Church. Our decade is so profoundly different to the 1310s and the 1960s that I believe we have reached this stage with regard to the Councils of Vienne and of Vatican II (but not, in as far as they defined, with attached anathemas, authentic Catholic dogma, with regard to Chalcedon, Trent, or Vatican I).

But I would regard as just and appropriate the censuring of a writer who called into question whether either Vienne or Vatican II was a fully authentic (in Ratzinger's word, 'valid') Ecumenical Council of the Catholic Church.

That is why I would like to see Robert Taft censured, while being quite sure that there is no need to censure Joseph Ratzinger.

*(2) will, DV, follow later.


RichardT said...

The Council of Vienne also decreed the establishment of a Chair of Arabic at Oxford (and a few other places).

It took an Anglican to obey this decree; Archbishop Laud in 1636.

Chris Jones said...

As readers of this blog who know me can attest, I am not a big fan of Archimandrite Taft. But you are not being at all fair to him in this post.

Though he may have (and in my view clearly has) made some theological errors, Fr Taft is a distinguished scholar who has honestly studied these matters for many decades. To suggest that he has an "uncritical and historically uninformed enthusiasm for councils" is absurd. Fr Taft is certainly more "historically informed" than I will ever be.

On another point: it is not accurate to speak of the "unspoken assumptions" of Orthodox Christianity with respect to the theology of councils. There is nothing "unspoken" about the teachings of the Orthodox Church about councils and conciliarity. On the contrary, the Orthodox theology of councils is explicit, well-developed, and fully articulated. To speak of it as "unspoken assumptions," suggesting that it is unthinking and unreflective, is not right.

rick allen said...

I often wish you would be a little more explicit in what you find wanting in Vatican II.

Much of Vatican II will doubtlessly fall by the wayside. But it does contain pronouncements identified as "Dogmatic Constitutions," and, if you think those dated and provisional, I think you have some responsibility to tell us what, why and how.

Additionally, the very issues that are roiling the Protestant Churches today are directly addressed in a Vatican II document called a "Pastoral Constitution." There the criminality of abortion, divine origin of marriage, and centrality of procreation by opposite sexes, is expressly proclaimed. Are those eternal truths of the faith, or the stale cultural legacy of the 1950's? I fear that your approach gives considerable ammunition to those whom are most anxious to deny that the Church has any real doctrine on these issues, only changable "pastoral" practice.

Jacobi said...

centuThe Councils were all valid although some of them, including Vat II, were a complete and utter waste of time. The latter “defined no dogma at all, and deliberately chose to remain on a modest level, as a merely pastoral council”. It did however provide the ideal opportunity for the resurgence of the Modernist Heresy which had been suppressed by St Pius X.

As for our Councils, of course they were Ecumenical. It’s just that the Orthodox took the huff and stayed away. Well that’s their problem.

Having said that, Reunion with the Orthodox is the prime, the absolute Ecumenical priority, of the Church today, and that includes the Russian Orthodox.

We should not be wasting time on the now 36,000, I believe, protesting, post Protestant Reformation, ecclesial bodies.

Matthew Roth said...

His view on the usus antiquior is odd, for someone who works so strongly in affairs with Orthodox and Oriental Orthodox Christianity...

I would agree that the position he seems to hold is problematic, and also that Vatican II (well, Sacrosanctum Concilium at any rate) has a sell-by date...

Geraldine Lamont said...

'Taft's big mistake, I suspect, is to fetichise Councils and, by expecting too much of them, to have problems when they fail to live up to the standards he has set them.'

I suspect not. I suspect his mistake is not believing that the Roman Catholic Church is the Church of Christ. That is what you have to believe in order to question whether or not the later councils of the Roman Catholic church were ecumenical councils.