The Ur-sin of Pride and Church Teaching

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A while back, in another place, I made one of those occasional forays into the wilds of passionate ignorance that mark my journey around God. (I say around because it sometimes seems like a spiral with a very small fractional decrease toward the center.) This particular episode characterized itself by seeming to demean the small-t sense of Catholic tradition.

There were two reasons for this--both of them good; however, what I ended up saying was not really what I intended to say. First, the reasons: we are cautioned against the traditions of men that get in the way of the gospel. And whether or not we like that, it is possible that some of these traditions, which do not fall under the category of sacred tradition can be just such things as throw up a roadblock. In the particular instance I was arguing--the content of the tradition of Church teaching--this was certainly not the case, and thus the point is not germane.

The second and much stronger argument came only after much reflection and refinement of what I was originally trying to say. My argument came down to the fact that the particulars of a church instruction when it was not definitive, dogmatic, or otherwise universal for all times and places, were particulars that related to the time and culture of the place and thus were apt to change as understandings surrounding the circumstances changed. Just as St. Thomas Aquinas is not to be blamed for his opinion about "the quickening" which engendered life--so the Church is blameless in its time and place about a variety of teachings that indeed do constitute tradition. One example of this is the view of the universe that made possible the equitable and just treatment of the incomprehensibly arrogant Galileo. Church tradition in this matter was simply wrong--it was not culpably wrong, but it was required to change as new data entered our understanding--and it did, with time change, because the Church saw that what they taught regarding the structure of the solar system was not, after all, a matter of faith and morals.

So Church teaching and tradition can change--things can fall out of it as the Church's understanding of itself and of the world at large grows and matures through time. But even this point is utterly irrelevant to the argument.

The final place I came to with regard to Church tradition and how it is often invoked to refute, challenge, or subtly alter a definitive teaching was that tradition was not a matter with which I really needed to be engaged at first. Indeed, my initial assumption upon receiving ANY church teaching is that the tradition of the Church's teaching on the matter had already been considered and incorporated into the document at hand. That said, I would give greater weight to "more definitive" documents. That is, I would consider that this tradition had been given a far weightier consideration in the course of the drafting and redrafting of an encyclical than in say a common local pastoral instruction. Which is not to say that the local pastoral instruction is to be immediately scrutinized for errors of tradition.

For myself, the recourse to traditional teaching would mean only one thing--the intrusion of pride, the father and progenitor of all sin. If I find myself questioning a teaching based either upon worldly understanding or my own profound and expansive (not) understanding of tradition, I must see in that merely my own rebellious fleeing from proper instruction. I have related in the past and refer often to my experience with the Encyclical Veratatis Splendor, which I came to question through my understanding of how the world works. I was wrong then, and I have been shown to be wrong in nearly every instance in which I have questioned Church teaching. Most often I am not wrong about what I am saying is true, but rather I am wrong in attributing the "faulty logic" to the Church. Too often I read something and interpret it not in the light of the thought of those who drafted it, but in the light of my own reasoning and interpretation of phrase.

Part of critiquing anything is understanding the statement that is being made in the way it is intended by the person making the statement. For those who venture over to Disputations often, you'll note that when I get engaged in some discussions, I am sometimes simply off-track. I don't fully understand what the person writing is trying to say and so my arguments are not so much counter-arguments to the points being made, but counter-arguments to the ghosts and shadows I have thrown up around the arguments through my own ignorance. I don't necessarily disagree with the real point--I disagree with what I think is the real point.

Which leads back to Church teaching. I have said elsewhere that often upon receiving Church teaching I rant and rave and thunder and moan and lament the vast idiocy of the world that would result in so profoundly ignorant a teaching. I throw myself against the wall of it again and again, seeking to find entrance, battering myself endlessly against the stones of the fortification.

And then, a little later, with some help from some friends and some time for reflection and serious prayer about the matter, I walk around to the other side and go in through the door. It often seems that there are very few people who really disagree with what the Church teaches, but a vast multitude who disagree with what they think it teaches. And very often their recourse is, "Tradition has not taught this." In making such a statement they presume to know tradition and its details better than those who formulate the teaching. Now, this may be the case, I cannot say. But it does seem to me that Jesus promised the protection of the Holy Spirit for the Church and its magisterium, not for every person who thinks they are a theologian.

This is not to say that there can be no disagreement. However, I do believe that the immediate, knee-jerk and continuing disagreement of the rank and file is indicative more or the Ur-sin than it is of the validity of the teaching they are considering. Now that is, I suppose, a form of judgment, which if applied to others certainly applies to me. I rarely question church teaching on the basis of Her tradition, but rather on the basis of the tradition of the reformation and of secular thinkers. When I finally realize which reformation creed or realist philosopher has crept in and guided my thoughts, I can put a filter to screen out that reasoning and suddenly begin seeing the splendor of the truth.

I am so profoundly grateful for the teaching magisterium of our Church. Because of it, it is more difficult for the entire church to go the way of our Episcopalian brothers and sisters. Because of it, I am not left on my own to try to deal with very difficult matters--embryonic stem cell research (although there are perfectly good, reasonable, and scientific reasons to oppose this as well as moral reasons), the problem of the poor, war, the death penalty, and other things on which the Church both advises in the individual instances and gives a profound teaching principle by which to make our own judgments.

Otherwise we are "like sheep without a shepherd." However, for every teaching that I can embrace, there are three I must struggle with to first understand and then, sometimes to force myself into line with. These latter more often fly in the face of personal experience and personal feelings and it takes time to reconcile the teaching with continuing to function as a compassionate and caring person to those whose habits or behavior may come under the scrutiny of the Church in the given teaching.

All that said, the point is simple. When the Church delivers a teaching, it seems both respectful and logical to start with the assumption that the tradition of the Church's teaching on the matter has already been considered and incorporated. If we do not see it, it may be because we are not as profoundly steeped in that tradition and the understanding of it as those who draft the documents.

Questioning is always a good thing--it is a necessary thing to bring about understanding. But a thousand questions are not even a problem, and a thousand problems don't even approach a doubt. And questioning takes two forms--one life-giving, one destructive. "How do I understand this and weave it into my life," is the questioning of obedience that can still sound off-key. "How do I do away with this which does not agree with my mind which is already made up?" is too often the questioning that I see any Church teaching get--this is the questioning of Satan who decided that he knew better how to run things.

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Yep. Just right. Thanks.



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This page contains a single entry by Steven Riddle published on January 25, 2007 8:23 AM.

Reprint from The Journey Website was the previous entry in this blog.

Who Is the Crimson King?--A Catholic Reading is the next entry in this blog.

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