Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Markers of Identity: Community and Boundaries, Law and Morality

Christianity is ultimately an entry into a historically contingent community and the traditions of that community. This is intrinsic not just in our ecclesiology, but in our theology and Christology. The Incarnation took place in history, in time and space, and Christ, the Word, is the Father's eternal "tradition" (handing-on) to us. Therefore, in a certain sense, a practice needs no more justification other than that it has always been a marker of belonging to Christ.
This can be said about many things including our morality, our teachings regarding the objective necessity of water baptism, or the all male priesthood. While arguments can be put forward as for why the all male priesthood is eminently fitting and makes symbolic sense within a beautiful symbolic system...ultimately the only “argument” that is definitive is, as Pope John Paul II said, because Jesus only appointed male apostles, and a female priesthood was never part of the orthodox Catholic Church.

This explanation used to strike me as unsatisfying. "The Church has no authority to ordain female priests, because Christ only chose male apostles, and they only ordained male priests." I used to feel like this was describing the effect and not the ultimate cause. I thought it must be impossible for some abstract theoretical reason, and that underlying principle was both why Christ and the Apostles didn't do it and why we couldn't do it today. And, though no doubt God has His reasons (and we can speculate), I now understand why the practice of Christ and the Apostles is in itself an argument (in fact, the argument) for why the Church cannot suddenly do so today.

The same thing, really, applies to our sexual morality and notion of chastity. Now, I have no doubt there is an inner logic to it, and so in that sense it is not arbitrary but relates to a certain conception of what constitutes a proper moral construction of the Good. But in itself this logic is not the ultimate foundation or justification for this morality.

Ultimately, I've realized, these things perhaps basically boil down to, “This is good because this sort of behavior is a defining marker of a person as a member of that community started by Christ and going back to the Apostles,” and in some ways is thus little different than the Jewish Law’s purpose. It doesn’t matter why they didn’t eat pork; what mattered was that not eating pork marked them as a member of Israel and not of the surrounding pagan nations. It made them “sacred” by setting them apart through boundaries.

Christian practice can be argued to work the same way, except there was a subtle but profound switch whereby the law now exists to define the community rather than the community existing to uphold the law. The boundaries of the Sacred now exist to delineate the community (which, in its love and experience of Christ, is now an end in itself) rather than the community existing to uphold an abstract and invisible Sacred (which, it was revealed in Christ, ultimately was only a space being prepared to receive Him and to then "turn around" and embrace the community which used to be subordinated to it).

This is why it is perhaps artificial to draw a boundary between something like attending Mass on Sunday vs. not fornicating, or receiving baptism vs. not murdering. Really, all these things are ultimately obligatory as markers of identification with the Christian community.

Now we do have our “natural law” concept which we expect as a sort of minimum for non-Christians (just like the Jews have their Noahide Laws). But ultimately, even this is ultimately seen as necessary only inasmuch as it identifies these people in a basic way (specifically, a way not requiring acceptance of supernatural revealed premises) with the Christian God/conception of the Good which, unlike the Jewish one, now makes universalizing claims as the only valid one for all humanity; the Church and humanity are supposed to be co-extensive, even if they aren’t in practice; the natural law as a sort of working minimum is only a concession to the practical reality. (As recent theology has shown, the "grace/nature" distinction is ultimately only a sort of abstraction...but the state of "pure nature" was never really part of God's plan or viable on its own.

In some ways, then, the “discipline/doctrine” distinction is artificial. Or, rather, is a difference in degree rather than nature. The only difference between the Catholic “marker” of not eating meat on Friday and the Catholic “marker” of, say, not contracepting…is that the former is one that applies to a specific time and place in the Church (but has not always and everywhere marked Christians) whereas the latter is the expression of a certain stance (and I mean a practical more than theoretical stance here) towards sexuality that has been a marker “since day one” and therefore can’t be changed without, in the process, redefining the parameters of what it means to be a Christian (and thus breaking a continuity of identity with the original community and Christ event, which is what mortal sin really is).

The Sunday Obligation is a good example of this. The Third Commandment regarding the Sabbath is often seen as, essentially, a “ceremonial” precept mixed in with the “moral” precepts of the rest of the Ten Commandments…but in reality there is little difference. Both, for the Jews, were markers of distinction, were part of the “boundaries” defining the Jewish community. For Christians, similarly, the Sunday Obligation might ultimately seem like a “discipline,” like an “ecclesiastical precept” rather than a “moral” precept…and yet it’s generally admitted that, while the Church has always had a little leeway when it comes to the specifics (whether Saturday evening counts, what sort of worship services fulfills the obligation, granting dispensations, adding additional Holy Days of Obligation, etc)…even the Pope could never change the Sunday Obligation to, say, Wednesday. Because Sunday goes back to the Apostles as one of the basic “markers” of the Christian Church (whereas other things, like clerical celibacy, can’t be called essential because they have not been something that has applied at all times to all Christians going back to the start).

Now, there are admittedly a few questions raised for this interpretation by things like the Apostolic prohibition on eating blood (generally recognized as an early example of “just a discipline”) and on the question of women veiling or not taking a public role in church. Generally, I’d say, we just have to accept that, while very early and instituted even under the Apostles, they were understood as being adaptations imposed on the Church due to a specific situation in a specific subset of Christian communities (in other words, they may go back to “day 2,” but they don’t go back to to “day 1”; this distinction, I think, is really the only difference between Tradition with a capital T, and tradition with a lower case t) and as such do not constitute part of the essential “boundary lines.” 

However, the fact that they are so early (and in the case of women’s liturgical behavior, remained for so long, albeit modified for nuns, etc)…should give one extreme pause before suggesting tampering with it, and should explain (for those who are all in favor of innovation) why these questions are so emotionally charged for traditionalists (even if we will recognize they are not “day-one essential”).

In the case of the male priesthood, then, no “theoretical” justification is ultimately needed other than that this practice is traceable back to “day one” of Christ establishing His community and establishing its boundaries and “markers.” The same ultimately has to go for our morality in general, and for our beliefs regarding the necessity of the sacraments.

We would fully admit that day one is still, itself, historically contingent. The Incarnation took place in history! Saying that the all male priesthood just represents the social milieu of first century Palestine, or that our sexual morality just represent the taboos required by a certain economic or patriarchal order…is thus not an argument against them. From day one, the Christian community organized around perpetuating the Christ event…made some innovations, yes, but also accepted some of the restrictions of its time and saw them as essential markers of being a Christian or of being Christ’s Church. They may have just been internalizing the ideas of their own time and place, sure, but the first Christians were the ones who set the parameters for all the rest of us, and being Christian means entering, ultimately, into those parameters, tethering ourselves to that moment in history. 

There is indeed a degree of necessary adaptation in this paradigm to new circumstances, but never in the sense of changing the parameters so much as in deciding what does and doesn't fit them, just like Jewish rabbis apply the Old Law to new situations today. Sometimes (like with the Jews) some of these interpretations may strike some as almost loopholes (Jewish rabbis deciding that wearing keys as jewelry on the Sabbath is okay, but carrying them is not, etc). I think specifically of Catholics having annulments rather than divorce, or using NFP for birth control, or arguing about Double Effect related to abortion, etc etc. The logic behind these ideas is, I have no doubt, correct and internally consistent, but seems to strike some as a sort of legalism. However, my answer would almost be something like, "Rightly so!" Just as the rabbis found ways to "work within the law" (even on a "technicality") out of respect for the Law and what it represented, so too we can trust that the Magisterium, guided by the Holy Spirit, is (even in seeming "legalism") actually preforming an act of preserving rather than discarding Tradition. 

There are liturgical analogues too, here. Some may find it legalistic or rubricistic (and therefore, apparently, bad or unnecessary) for clerics to be "tonsured" by taking five tiny locks of hair once. "If you're going to conform to more modern fashions," they'd say, "just throw out the mere technical adherence to the notion of a tonsure, period." (And, indeed, Paul VI did, sadly.) But a true traditionalist understands the value of preserving the principle even in vestigiality, even in the manner of a legalistic technicality. Such fastidious (and, yes, sometimes very "technical") preservationism, even when adaptation has become necessary, is an act of great respect for a tradition, not a destruction of it. If you didn't respect it, you'd just discard or ignore it completely rather than trying to find a way (even if a very narrow way) to work within it.

To those who claim that making women wear keys as jewelry instead of letting people carry them is just a loophole, and that the former is "equivalent" to the latter, the rabbis might ask: if it's equivalent, why make a fuss about the former? Why insist on doing the latter, then, if they're equivalent? Why not just go along with the former? "Oh, because the former is a hassle, it requires being mindful of the rule and takes extra effort and jumping through hoops for the sake of these mental gymnastics." Ah, though, the Jews might say, that's the very point! The very fact that someone is being mindful and "jumping through the hoops" in order to not break the Law is itself not an undermining of the Law (as if it's being "reduced" to "mere technicalities") but the effort itself represents a great dedication to the Law, and turns one's thoughts to the Law in the very act of needing to do these gymnastics. (After all, the point of the rule was never directed at preventing Jews from locking their doors on the Sabbath, but rather at not carrying things). 

I'd have to think something similar about NFP or annulments or other alleged "Catholic loopholes."  If NFP is "the same as" contraception...then why make a fuss over using it? Then why not just use NFP? "Oh, well, it's a hassle, and it doesn't let you fulfill all desires; you have to limit the frequency or spontaneity of sex, and can't do all the non-vaginal types you might want, etc." Ah, so then they're not "the same" or "equivalent." Really, the "hassle" is half the point, I have to think. It may be jumping through hoops to "accomplish the same thing in the end," but the very jumping through those hoops represents a great dedication to the rules and principles preserved in the process, the very exertion itself of acting according to rules (even if they were arbitrary) rather than personal whims represents a posture of submission and obedience to the community and its Tradition and its authorities who are in charge of preserving and interpreting that Tradition.

You may say its (whether that's NFP or Orthodox Jewish key-jewelry) is "convoluted," but the very fact that people are willing to go through the "hassle" of a convoluted process in order to "technically" uphold the Law in a manner approved as within-the-limits by the community authorities...itself has a huge moral value inasmuch as it turns ones mind to the law and, indeed, makes one put deliberate effort into preserving it! The very fact that the loophole "exacts a price" for "accomplishing the same effect" proves that it isn't mere laxism, because it requires an active effort at least as rigorous as simply (passively) avoiding keys entirely and so not locking your door; now Jews can lock their door, but they have to "give" a related obedience "in exchange," as it were, it's not like they're just "off the hook." The very fact that it requires one to go through the effort of the "convoluted" process makes it worlds apart from simply discarding the rules or loosening them in a laxist way and doing what you want. Because the former draws attention to the rules and the values involved, emphasizes the importance of community tradition and authority in regulating certain types of behavior through the very limits required by it and effort of obedience imposed, whereas the latter is merely disregarding them flippantly and therefore denigrating their importance in favor of self-determination.

Tradition with a capital T is its own justification given that the Christian community (and thus its delineated boundaries) is, ultimately, an end in itself. Belonging to it, being in communion with it (by living up to its standards/markers) defines (for Christians) the good life. So, while I think some very good philosophical appeals can be made in their favor...this community's practices and rules really need no “absolute” justification, even. Their final justification is ultimately relative to community membership and tradition, the defined boundaries and markers of that community going back to day one of the Christian community.

No comments: