The Pickle of Private Judgment

My pal (we'll call him "Hal") is nothing if not a Christian of deep convictions. Hal believes the Bible is the sole source of revelation. He thinks the Spirit guides each believer to individually discover truth for himself (so who needs the Church to tell us what to believe?) He believes that Jesus is his savior because "though he is God, he had a sinful human nature like mine and so was able to be truly human, only he never obeyed that nature." He believes Mormons are heretics for adding to scripture and are therefore "accursed" according to Galatians 1:8 ("But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let him eternally condemned!"). And he has two very strong and very contradictory opinions of my Catholic faith.

His first strong opinion is that the Church is weak and syncretistic. Why? Because lay Catholics like me don't join him in declaring Mormons accursed. After all, Hal observed, Mormonism differs significantly from orthodox Christianity in two crucial areas: its understanding of 1) the person of Christ and 2) his saving. And (being a good Christian of deep convictions), he strenuously reminded me that these cannot be compromised! So he reasoned that my failure to "take a stand for the gospel" must be due to spineless Catholic wishy-washiness.

Now, as a matter of fact I agree with Hal that the person and work of Christ cannot be compromised. But here is the irony. As a Catholic, I would say that there are other things which cannot be compromised either. Thus I am quite willing to acknowledge that Mormons are not preaching the gospel as it is handed down from the Apostles. I am quite willing to say that insofar as Mormon teaching diverges from the Catholic depositum fidei it is false. But I am also just as ready and willing to say the same of "ordinary" Protestant doctrines like re-baptism or the notion that the Eucharist is a mere symbol.

But I am not willing, because scripture and tradition forbid it, to seize apostolic power and start declaring Hal or Donny Osmond accursed for holding these false ideas. The apostles appointed bishops, not me, for that purpose. And the bishops, in the Second Vatican Council, stress not that the glass of the separated brother is half empty, but that it is half full. Indeed, they even take the same approach to non-Christians whether Mormon, Jew or Muslim and emphasize, where possible, commonality instead laying about them with a cudgel of curses. Therefore I do likewise. It would be ironic if I refused to obey my shepherds and set out to declare curses. For in so doing, I would be acting exactly like the Mormons (who falsely claim apostolic authority). So in the end, whether or not it seemed weak or syncretistic, I held to the Church's sense of balance.

But, asked Hal, don't I believe in the curse Paul spoke with apostolic authority against the false gospel pushers? I replied that I certainly did. I simply didn't feel competent to know who to apply those curses to. And I hesitated for Hal's sake. Here's why.

In the history of Christendom there have been lots of curses uttered. Some of them, like Paul's curse on the Judaizers, have been uttered by people with the authority to do so. People like John the Apostle for instance. He declared that anyone who denied Jesus has come in the flesh is antichrist (1 John 4:2-3). In short, he uttered a curse. Now, as it happens, phrases like "in the flesh" are exactly those sorts of troublesome verbiage that themselves must be defined and clarified. So, for instance, when it occurred to people later on to speculate wildly on what Jesus coming "in the flesh" meant, it was necessary for the bishops in union with Peter to go through a loooooooong and torturous process of hammering out what is and is not the "traditional gospel."

Among the things hammered out (in the councils of the first five centuries) were items like the doctrine of the Trinity (which concerns the Mormons since they are polytheists) and the hypostatic union (which concerned Hal). The reason this concerned Hal is that the dogma of the hypostatic union teaches that Jesus, by virtue of the union of his divine and human natures in one Person, is absolutely without sin (including a sinful nature).

Worse still, via an irritatingly well-reasoned trail of logic, the Church, in a dogma recognized as valid in both east and west, holds that to deny the hypostatic union (by, say, teaching that Jesus has a sinful nature) is ultimately to deny the very Incarnation itself and therefore to fall under the curse John utters against those who deny that Jesus has come in the flesh.

Now Hal knew as well as I that he was not "accursed" for holding his theory about Jesus having a sinful nature. He was simply a non-denom kinda guy doing the best he could to understand the gospel in his ignorance of historic orthodoxy. To earn an apostolic curse requires full knowledge and willed consent to defy truth. Thus, John's curse (like Paul's) is directed to those who knowingly pervert the truth. He curses those who are in active rebellion, not the well-meaning people in Asia Minor (or in Utah) who ignorantly believed them. With these latter folks, both saints labor in love.

So, I argued, I think we laypeople should do the same. Otherwise, while Hal was busy casting stones at Mormons for messing with the Trinity, I would be obliged to cast stones at him for messing with the Incarnation. For there is a certain inconsistency in destroying the Catholic altar, ignoring the Catholic priesthood, abandoning the Catholic sacraments, repudiating the Catholic Tradition (as Hal's branch of Protestantism has done) and then seizing on the Catholic Bible as the source of all truth. The only thing stranger (after making all these radical alterations and edits to the ancient Faith) is to declare Mormons accursed simply because it occurred to them to make a few more alterations and edits like writing more scripture, changing the creedal formulas to suit them a bit more and so forth. So I asked Hal why, given that he accepted the central Protestant principle of Private Judgment of Revelation, he believed the Mormons were so peculiarly wicked.

This attempt at ocular log removal was not well received. Hal now voiced his other, flatly contradictory, complaint against the Church. Namely that it is, not weak and syncretistic, but triumphalist and judgmental. He retorted, "It must be nice to be a member of the only church that is right about every doctrine in the history of the world!"

I answered that this was precisely what I used to say when I was a non-Christian arguing with the truth claims of Christianity. "The way, the truth and the life indeed. What hubris!" I once muttered. Yet if Christianity really is revealed, really is God's word to us and not our words about God, then it really is true and has a claim to complete (and where necessary, authoritatively contradict) human religion. Similarly, the Church teaches that, alone among the various Christianities that have broken from communion with it, it preserves the fullness of the Faith, not by its own goodness but by the sovereign preserving work of the Spirit sent to guide the Church into all truth. That's only hubris if it's false. If it's true it's a demonstration of humility and a confession of dependence on grace since it makes the whole Church one vast charity case. Thus, what Hal would say to an atheist or a Mormon is what I say to him. Namely, that the Incarnation (and its corollary, the gift of revealed truth) is just that: a gift, not something the Catholic communion has because it is the Master Race. Jesus promised he would lead the Church (often by the nose) into all truth, not that the Church by its smarts would figure it all out because Catholics are intrinsically superior. Indeed, the very reason the Church needs the gift of infallibility is because we're such a fat lot of dunderheads we couldn't find our way out of paper bag without God's help. It is always and only God who is right. As Pope John Paul II says, truth (who is Jesus) possesses the Church; the Church does not possess truth.

What then? Am I saying that because the Church has been granted the fullness of the Faith that orthodox Protestants are no different than Mormons? No. Mormons differ from classic Protestantism by trying to be fundamentally innovative. For the Reformers and the various sects and subsects since then have largely had one basic Christian assumption at work which Mormonism conspicuously lacks: they (however mistakenly) were trying to conserve (or return to) the Faith once given. Mormonism, in stark contrast, proudly asserts that it is adding something brand new which no one had ever heard of before. In so doing, it puts itself at odds with the orthodox vision of a Church which is merely holding fast to a closed deposit of faith (2 John 9, Jude 3). In a nutshell, the orthodox vision of the Church is that it is a thing like a child. All that was necessary and inherent in it was given by Jesus through the apostles and has, like the mustard seed, grown and developed since, but it has not radically changed species. For Catholicism the belief is that the Faith, like a baby becoming a man, has gotten taller and stouter, but has retained the same number of arms, legs and noses. Similarly, it was the wish of classical Protestantism, however badly it failed and injured the baby by its radical surgery, to restore the pristine purity of the baby, not to transmogrify it into a brand new organism no one had ever heard of before. In contrast, the Mormon account of things is that God is still supplying really new revelations like multiplying the number of noses on baby's face.

But though there is a real difference between Mormons and orthodox Protestants, that difference is, I fear, largely a matter of luck and custom, not of Protestant principle. For in making private judgment the final arbiter of what constitutes the "essentials" in the very heart of what is an essentially conservative, apostolic and (gasp!) hierarchical tradition, Protestantism has founded itself on a contradiction. Up till fairly recently this contradiction could be overlooked in everyday life since, happily, mainstream Protestants retained big chunks of what the Church calls "essentials" in their belief and practice by a sort of cultural consensus. Now, however, that consensus is rapidly disintegrating and the genie the Reformers let out of the bottle cannot be put back in.

What I mean is this. Yesterday, it was a cultural given to both Luther and Calvin that scripture would be pre-eminent, the creeds and councils would be rock bottom touchstones, the sacraments would continue to exist of their own accord, God the Father would rule in Heaven and all would be right with the world. Yet none of that is a given to a post-Protestant culture increasingly dominated by private judgment (and by nothing else). Sooner or later it can and does occur to people that if you can dispense with the authority of the Church to interpret scripture, you can (like Joseph Smith) dispense with authority of the Church to write it. If the inner witness of the Spirit is sufficient to know the mind of God apart from the witness of the Church, it is sufficient to know it apart from scripture. If the sacraments are mere symbols like the bishop's miter, they are as disposable as the bishop's miter. If they are "only symbols" and therefore "don't matter" because "only the spiritual matters" then the same can be (and is) said of the whole physical creation by both "spiritual" New Age mystics who would have us escape this "prison of the body" and by technological exploiters whose attitude to nature (including human nature) is "There it is boys. Take as much as you like! Only ignorant medieval types attach some superstitious 'sacredness' to matter. It's ours to consume as we like!" (The latter rhetoric is alive and well among pro-abortion and fetal harvesting propagandists.) And if matter "doesn't matter" then the Incarnation of the Word made matter "doesn't matter." If the ancient Catholic tradition of Mother Mary is a mere cultural construct which free men have now outgrown, then the ancient tradition of Father God can be a mere cultural construct which free women can outgrow.

In which case, I fear, the Mormons may be the first, not the last to begin making real and radical additions and new "revelations." Consider the recent blasphemies of the recent Re-Imaging Conference. This folderol was perpetrated by folks from the "dissenting Catholic" and mainstream Protestant fold. It's content? God as Earth Mother, no need for the "weirdness" of the Cross (as one of the conference participants referred to the Passion of our Lord), free alteration of the gospel in order to recast Christianity in the image and likeness of the latest neo-pagan trends. Is all this a classical Protestant attempt to return to purity of the primitive gospel? No, like Mormonism, it constitutes a repudiation and radical reworking of the historic essentials of the Faith and claims, in fact, to be a sort of new revelation. And not surprisingly, such theology justifies itself as a triumph of private judgment by "throwing off the shackles of evil patriarchy, sin, guilt, white male hegemony" etc. ad nauseam

Consider also the incredible novelty of the pro-abortion movement within Christian circles. Such a departure simply cannot be squared with the unbroken testimony of the Church for two millennia. Rather, such a movement essentially claims (again as a triumph of private judgment) to be privy to new revelation ("That was then. This is now"). Indeed it is an almost archetypal picture of what happens when the Great God Private Judgment (known in secular culture today by the political misnomer "Freedom of Choice") is cut entirely loose from the moorings of apostolic teaching and made the be all and end all in determining the voice of the Almighty (or the Light of the Christic Within if one prefers warm and fuzzy pseudo-Christian-speak).

Of course, at this point the modern mind cries out "Intellectual slavery! Thought control!" (a charge which is rather amusing to a tradition which has often had to strenuously reassert the reality and dignity of human free will against those [both Protestant and secular] who flatly deny it.) Such a charge rests upon the false assumption that the Church tyrannically opposes any and all acts of private judgment, which is nonsense. In reality, of course, the Church has abundant room for creative thinkers (as intellectual dwarfs like Thomas Aquinas and Edith Stein can attest). What the Church opposes is the notion that individuals have the right to define and declare the nature and content of a revelation which was vouchsafed, not to them alone, but to the Church as a corporate whole under the guidance of the apostles and those whom the apostles appointed as successors. Many Protestants (when they are arguing against the Church) regard this notion of submission to an interpretive authority as alien to freedom, yet (curiously) they understand such submission perfectly well when a secularist makes the same complaint against submission to the Judeo-Christian scriptures.

"Doesn't it limit me to confine myself to the teachings of one book?" says the secularist. "On the contrary," says the Protestant apologist, "scripture speaks truth with authority (not authoritarianism) and therefore is freeing, not constraining. True freedom is found, not in thinking and doing whatever you like, but in submitting yourself to the truth." Catholics agree with this wholeheartedly. We hold, like our Protestant brothers and sisters, that the act of submission to truth (like the act of submission to our Mommies and Daddies) will not constrict and crush, but will free us and train us to walk in the glorious liberty of the children of God. The only difference is that the authoritative bearer of truth, say Catholics, is first and foremost the Church and (dependent on that Church) the Bible which the Church produced. That is because (as scripture itself says) the Church is "the pillar and foundation of the truth" (1 Timothy 3:15).

To deny this need for submission to the Church is then, not to achieve freedom but to destroy for ourselves the only pillar and foundation of the truth Christ has given us (and thus lay ourselves open to chaos, division, conquest and enslavement by the world, the flesh and the devil.) Thus, I am persuaded that Mormonism (and Swedenborgism and Shirley MacLaineism and Freedom of Choice and all the other fragmented isms and rhetoric of the Imperial Autonomous Self whether religious or secular) are nothing other than what happens when private judgment is not subject to the apostolic authority of the Church to bind and loose and declare what is and is not the content of the Faith. Only by submission to the pillar and foundation God has ordained can we know the truth--and the truth shall make us free.

Which brings us back to the pickle my pal Hal faced. For his Protestantism must, like all Protestantism, deny precisely that pillar and foundation in order to exist. Yet it is impossible to see how he can simultaneously do this and kvetch at Mormonism for exercising exactly the same Protestant tenet of private judgment with more vigor than he himself does. Indeed, the crowning irony is that the doctrine which teaches that public revelation closed with the Apostles is found nowhere in scripture and is therefore itself a mere Catholic Tradition which ought not to be binding on the faithful by Protestant lights. It is, by Protestant standards, a topic open to speculation (like pacifism vs. just war theory) but one which no Christian has the right to use as grounds for a heresy charge since scripture (that "sole rule of Faith") is silent on the matter.

And that's not all folks. Consider polygamy. The Mormon case for it is rather strong (as the great Puritan John Milton would have agreed) while the Protestant case against it (apart from acknowledging Catholic Tradition as revelatory) is virtually invisible. Or consider the exact canon of scripture. It too is utterly unsupported by appeal to scripture alone (a fact not lost on scholars like the Jesus Seminar, who have lately been asserting the need to delete and add various books in scripture in order to please their Mighty Universal and All-Knowing Brains). Once assert the right of private judgment of revelation over the apostolic power of the Church to define Christian belief and you are, in the long run, giving carte blanche to Joseph Smith, the Jesus Seminar and Joe Blow to call whatever suits them "revelation." In the absence of a clear scriptural witness, what right have sola scriptura Protestants to say to the self-appointed apostle anything besides "Who are we to say that public revelation is over? That is a mere doctrine of men unsubstantiated by scripture. Perhaps your revelation is something new from the Lord."

What Hal will ultimately do about this contradiction and kaffuffle is more than I can say. What I did (after considerable thought and prayer) was reunite with and submit myself to the ancient apostolic Church in conscious union with Peter. For the Catholic reply to all this tumult in Protestant and secular culture is neither iron-fisted authoritarianism nor the chaos of private judgment. Rather (following Paul) the Church holds that, by the grace of Christ, it is "through the Church the manifold wisdom of God should be made known" (Ephesians 3:10) since God the Incarnate Son handed revelation on, not by writing a book (as he could have if he had wanted), but by choosing human beings called apostles to preserve his gospel. To these apostles he granted nothing less than the power to teach authoritatively in his name and assured them "He who listens to you listens to me" (Luke 10:16) Part of this authoritative teaching is preserved in scripture, part of it is preserved by "word of mouth" or "tradition" (2 Thessalonians 2:15) And all this is carefully conserved by the interpretive authority of the bishops who were apostolically empowered to rebuke false teaching (1 Timothy 1:3), to "guard the good deposit" that was entrusted to them (2 Timothy 1:14) and to appoint others to do the same (Titus 1:5) in an unbroken succession down to the present time. Thus it is that God then has not left us orphans. He has given us himself as our Father and the Church as our Mother. He has given us, not arbitrary dictators, but truth. He has made us free to know and do, not whatever we happen to like, but what is true and right. He has called us to be, not autonomous gods, but children obedient to the teaching of our Father and Mother.

Trusting then in our Lord and in the pillar and foundation which he established, I have found at last, not the scattered stones of a building begun yet never finished, but the house of the Lord, built upon the rock who is Peter and made of living stones. It has endured these 2,000 years, the home of both freedom and sanity, wise judgment and deep mercy, help of sinners and foe of sin. May Hal and all those who love truth see how God has marvelously built a temple of truth and love in our man-made wilderness of confusion. For though the storm rages and every wind of doctrine blow against it, still that house will not fall.

Copyright 2001 - Mark P. Shea