The Watcher Cat

The Watcher Cat

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Bibliolatry: Escape From Freedom

In a recent visit to the comments at Preludium, I saw that much controversy was engendered by "reasserters" who, visiting the site, demanded a "positive case" from the Bible for blessing loving, committed relationships between same-sex couples. Unsurprisingly, they were not content with what was offered. Frankly, I think the inquiry was flawed, based on the assumption that the Bible provides univocal answers for all our moral dilmmas.

I don't think that clear, simple lines of authority are laid out by God for us--the Bible is filled with tensions, contradictions, and exhortations from Jesus and Paul to what can only be called an antinominalism that flies in the face of those who seek a codex handed down by a lawgiver Messiah. But don't take it from me; here's my old friend the Gloomy Dean again:
The silence of God has at all times been a trial to mankind. Men have sought in all sorts of way for an infallible, unmistakable, authoritative answer to all their questions, which shall save them from the responsibility of judging, and once for all lift the "burden and weight of this unintelligible world" from their shoulders. They would gladly consent to being led blindfold if only they could be quite sure of being led right. They shrink from the right and duty of private judgment; they will even put on manacles to keep their hands from trembling, and take refuge in a shelter to which no winds of doubt are allowed to penetrate.

This sense of weakness and insecurity is the source of the demand for an infallible authority in religion. . . . [Authority in religion] is an assistance which we crave for because we are not at home in the world in which we live.
W.R. Inge, Mysticism in Religion (1948) at 14.

But this sense of not being privileged in Creation, of not being an "heir" to our world, is based on a shrinking from what I've previously described as the "sense of sonship" that Henry Scott Holland has described so vividly:
All our knowledge, for instance, relies upon our sonship; it starts with an act of faith. We throw ourselves, with the confidence of children, upon an external world, which offers itself to our vision, to our touch, to our review, to our calculation, to our handling, to our use. Who can assure us of its reality, of its truth? We must measure it by those faculties under the manipulation of which it falls: but how can the faculties guarantee to us their own accuracy? How can we justify an extension of our own inner necessities to the world of outward things? How can we attribute to nature that rational and causative existence which we find ourselves forced to assume in it? Our justification, our confidence, all issue, in the last resort, from our sonship. . . . In unhesitating reliance upon our true sonship, we sally out and deal, with the world ; we act upon the sure
conviction that we are not altogether outside the secret of objective existence. We refuse absolutely to doubt, or go behind the reports made to us by feeling, by memory, by thought.
H.S. Holland, "Faith," in Lux Mundi at 22-23.

Inge points out that those who do not act as sons choose to be slaves--to be blinded as Samson was, or manacled in servitude. To truncate the faculties that God gave us, in the name of safety. But we are called to be more than that--to use our gifts, not bury them in fear of loss.

Friday, April 25, 2008

Enjoyment and Contemplation

C.S. Lewis is often underrated as a thinker. That's partially because of his earliest Christian apologetics, which are marred in places by a certain complaceny and superficial quality (in part engendered by their origin as radio talks during the darkest days of World War II), were and remain so wildly popular. But, with peace and with life experience, his writings deepened steadily in both complexity and compassion.

If you compare
The Problem of Pain (1940) with A Grief Observed (1961), the difference is dramatic. The earlier work is modeled on J.R. Illingworth's contribution to Lux Mundi (1889), also entitled "The Problem of Pain." (Both are also rather progressive in that they address the theological questions posed by the pain of animals). Interestingly, Lewis' book suffers from the same defects as Illingworth's chapter--a certain detachment from the emotionally fraught nature of the subject, a complacency in the face of others' pain, and a rather blase advocacy of stoicism that seems detached from experience.

A Grief Observed, by contrast, presents Lewis' own suffering as it unfolds; its immediacy makes Lewis' gradual drawing of consolation from his faith far more credible, more human, than his earlier, antiseptic treatment of the same topic.

One of Lewis's later works, Surprised by Joy (1955), is deceptively simple. In the course of a readable memoir, taking the young Lewis from childhood through his acceptance of Christianity, Lewis raises, without jargon, critical issues on the spiritual path. Two kernels from the book struck me in rereading it this week.

First, Lewis depicts his own growing anxiety as his prayers became less about praying, and more about watching himself pray, to double check that he was sincere enough, and felt appropriately elevated. Later, the same phenomenon spoiled his reading of Norse and germanic mythology--as he sought the sensation he lost what he calls "Joy"--the aching desire for the transcendent that he experienced through "Northerness" until he fell into the trap of watching himself. In seeking to recreate the thrill, Lewis writes, he forgot that the thrill was not the wave, but teh traces left behind by the wave, and of no value in itself.

Second, Lewis distingishes between enjoyment and contemplation--with enjoyment denoting the exercise of a faculty, such as thought, or love, and contemplation denoting the analysis of the faculty. Again, his point here is that the focusing on oneself, and not the beloved, divides one from the experience of the beloved.

Simple, no? But how many of us in a dry period in our prayer life fall into the trap, and can benefit from Dr. Lewis's prescription--enage the beloved, and let the sensation take care of itself?

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Papal Words

In my introductory post I described my Roman Catholic upbringing, and pointed out that it was during the tenure of John Paul II, as "catholicism" began to mean only the conservative tradition, and an outsize veneration for the magisterium, that I drifted away from organized religion for a time. So I'm not neutral as to Pope Benedict, whose tenure as Prefect of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith (that's the successor to the Inquisition, to you and me), was a stumbling block on my own faith journey, sugesting that Christianity required either low church evangelical thinking, which did not resonate with me, or what Robertson Davies once memorably termed "spiritual peonage", until I discovered the Episcopal Church.

Nonetheless, I think certain tropes in the media coverage of the Pope's current visit are highly misleading, and are letting Pope Benedict minimize the betrayal of trust presided over by himself and his late predecessor, Pope John Paul II.

First, let's acknowledge that the Pope has repeatedly and publicly addressed the sex abuse scandal, and has stated that it is "a deep shame" that he personally feels. And, at long last, he has met with some victims (albeit carefully selected, "respectful" and "socially adept" victims who remain loyal to the hierarchy, thus shielding the Pope from any untoward displays of anger).

That said, the media has repeatedly stated that this crisis "erupted in 2002." (See, for example, the previous link). That is not really so. In point of fact, media coverage of the scandal began in the mid 1980s, as evidenced by this 1986 news report, and by the fledgling efforts to address the topic that soon gave way to a 1993 papal letter that deplored the moral wrong but emphasized equally the harm done by disseminating "scandal".

The Church's defenders, such as Philip Jenkins in the conservative magazine First Things, were writing as early as 1996 that the "crisis" (which Jenkins placed in scare quotes) began in 1985 and "reached its height in 1992-93", was being used by liberals within the Church to undermine its traditionalist structure and lead to marriage for priests, women priests and heaven knows what other enormities. (In fact, as this timeline shows, the crisis can be traced to the late 1940s, and accelerated with each decade of Church cover-up).

The second media trope that is misleading is to allow Benedict to speak of being "deeply ashamed" of the crisis and yet not to note his own personal role in it. In January 2001, then-Cardinal Ratzinger issued a letter affirming that the 1962 papal edict Crimine solicitationis still pertained, and that, as Ratzinger's letter states, "Cases of this kind are subject to the pontifical secret," mandating silence for investigators, witnesses, and, it seems, victims, on pain of excommunication. (Another link may be found here; according to the Guardian, a "spokeswoman in the Vatican press office declined to comment when told about the contents of the letter," on the ground that it was "not a public document").

Benedict's generalized expressions of sympathy for the victims, and shame on behalf of the Church do not address the personal role that he, John Paul II, and, to my horror, John XXIII (who issued Crimine solicitationis) played in allowing this monstrous, 60 year long breach of trust in the name of protecting the institution unspool. That's why, as an apology, it is absolutely unavailing.

Moreover, the auguries for the future are unpromising. While Cardinal William Levada has indicated that the Church may reform some of the canon laws obstructing victims charging clergy with sexual misconduct, the only specific reform mentioned is a relaxing of the statute of limitations. Moreover, in the same article, Cardinal Levada is quoted as displaying a blithe unconcern for the behavior of the bishops over the past decades in reshuffling clergy from post to post:
[Cardinal Levada] said he did not foresee punishing bishops who failed to remove priests suspected of molesting young people.

“I personally do not accept that there is a broad base of bishops who are guilty of aiding and abetting pedophiles, and if I thought there were, or knew of them, I would certainly talk to the pope about what could be done about it,” the cardinal said.

“I am aware of bishops who have admitted to making mistakes, but those seem to be mistakes grounded in taking counsel that didn’t turn out to be good advice,” he said, explaining that he was referring to reports from psychologists and therapists.
Cardinal Levada, who in 2006 was appointed to replace Benedict as Prefect of the Congregation, was criticized by SNAP as "slow to act, harsh to victims and committed to secrecy" in molestation cases.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Mysticism and the Way

I have written often of W.R. Inge, the author of Christian Mysticism (1899) (linked on the sidebar), and of many other works, including Outspoken Essays (1920). Inge's great works on mysticism sets out certain stages that characterize the mystic path. A capsule version of this, from Outspoken Essays, sets the stage:
Mysticism means an immediate communion, real or supposed, between the human soul and the Soul of the World or the Divine Spirit. The hypothesis on which it rests is that there is a real affinity between the individual soul and the great immanent Spirit, who in Christian theology is identified with the Logos-Christ. He was the instrument in creation, and through the Incarnation and the gift of the Holy Spirit, in which the Incarnation is continued, has entered into the most intimate relation with the inner life of the believer. This revived belief in the inspiration of the individual has immensely strengthened the position of Christian apologists, who find their old fortifications no longer tenable against the assaults of natural science and historical criticism. It has given to faith a new independence, and has vindicated for the spiritual life the right to stand on its own feet and rest on its own evidence. Spiritual things, we now realise, are spiritually discerned. The enlightened soul can see the invisible, and live its true life in the suprasensible sphere. The primary evidence for the truth of religion is religious experience, which in persons of religious genius—those whom the Church calls saints and prophets—includes a clear perception of an eternal world of truth, beauty, and goodness, surrounding us and penetrating us at every point. It is the unanimous testimony of these favoured spirits that the obstacles in the way of realising this transcendental world are purely subjective and to a large extent removable by the appropriate training and discipline. Nor is there any serious discrepancy among them either as to the nature of the vision which is the highest reward of human effort, or as to the course of preparation which makes us able to receive it. The Christian mystic must begin with the punctual and conscientious discharge of his duties to society; he must next purify his desires from all worldly and carnal lusts, for only the pure in heart can see God; and he may thus fit himself for 'illumination'—the stage in which the glory and beauty of the spiritual life, now clearly discerned, are themselves the motive of action and the incentive to contemplation; while the possibility of a yet more immediate and ineffable vision of the Godhead is not denied, even in this life.
(From "Institutionalism and Mysticism," in Outspoken Essays).

These stages are called the Purgative Way, the Unitive Way, and the Illuminative Way, in Inge's more nuanced articulation in Christian Mysticism. The same three-fold path persists today; Christopher Bryant's superb 1980 work, The Heart in Pilgrimage uses the same tripartite division of the mystic path, as does Evelyn Underhill's exhaustive Mysticism (1910) (which graciously salutes Inge, who returns the compliment in later editions of Christian Mysticism). While Underhill examines the psychological dimension of the mystic quest, and Bryant deploys Jungian thinking (as well as sound spiritual guidance), Inge views it in terms of philosophy, finding, in later works, his "spriritual master" in the pagan philosopher Plotinus.

From Inge, as from Bryant and Underhill, can be found the source of the experience described as the sense of "sonship" by Henry Scott Holland: We know we are loved, because we experience love. The mystic path is not perforce one of self-denial for the sake of suffering, but rather the journey to the center to meet that love. That direct experience, as Inge postulates above, transcends the often sterile debate between doctrine and science, or between, I would add, sects. It is the experience that theologians strive to interpret, that creeds provide a structure for. It is the experience of being loved, and loving, of which St. Paul writes when he speaks of in Corinthians as the sine qua non of life in Christ.

For more Inge, see also his Light, Life and Love (1904).

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

The Weight of Scholarship

I'm reading, with great interest, the late Fr. Raymond Brown's two volume translation and commentary on the Gospel According to John, part of the Anchor Bible.

I'm up to page 146.

OK, I'm not. I just finished the Introduction, which means I'm up to page cxlvi.

Note to future editors: when your introduction is closing in on 150 pages, Roman numerals lose their antiquarian charm. Not to mention finding a page reference to an idea you suddenly want to revisit--"oh, that was an interesting point questioning Bultmann's theory about the Ecclesiastical Redactor; was it on page lviii or was that cxxiii?"

At least (unlike the original readers) I didn't have to wait four years for the index to be published, along with volume two.

Sunday, April 6, 2008

A Question of Interpretation: The Virginia Decision

On Friday, April 4, as most are already aware, Judge Randy Bellows issued an 88 page ruling in which the judge found that Section 57-9 of the Virginia Code, entitled "How Property Rights Determined on Division of Church or Society applied to the dispute between the Episcopal parishes that have purportedly seceded to the Church of Nigeria by joining CANA. Judge Bellows did not determine whether the statute, on its face or as applied to this dispute, is consistent with the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution; nor did he determine who properly has title to the various church buildings and associated property.

The Anglican blogosphere is of course rife with comment on this decision; I'll try to confine my review of it to legal analysis, as my personal views on the CANA secession have already been set out in prior posts.

1. Read the Statute

Felix Frankfurter, prior to his appointment to the Supreme Court, used to tell his students at Harvard that there were three steps in statutory interpretation: read the statute. Read the Statute. READ THE STATUTE. This is an oversimplification, of course. When a statute is not clear, resort may be had to legislative history--documents or transcripts of debates on the part of the body enacting the statute that can clear up what the legislators believed they were passing, or prior judicial interpretations. (At the risk of shamelessly promoting my own work, I provide a fuller analysis of these principles in the introduction to my 2004 book on the First Amendment).

So let's begin with the statutory text, with thanks to KLady for the link:
A. If a division has heretofore occurred or shall hereafter occur in a church or religious society, to which any such congregation whose property is held by trustees is attached, the members of such congregation over 18 years of age may, by a vote of a majority of the whole number, determine to which branch of the church or society such congregation shall thereafter belong. Such determination shall be reported to the circuit court of the county or city, wherein the property held in trust for such congregation or the greater part thereof is; and if the determination be approved by the court, it shall be so entered in the court's civil order book, and shall be conclusive as to the title to and control of any property held in trust for such congregation, and be respected and enforced accordingly in all of the courts of the Commonwealth.

B. If a division has heretofore occurred or shall hereafter occur in a congregation whose property is held by trustees which, in its organization and government, is a church or society entirely independent of any other church or general society, a majority of the members of such congregation, entitled to vote by its constitution as existing at the time of the division, or where it has no written constitution, entitled to vote by its ordinary practice or custom, may decide the right, title, and control of all property held in trust for such congregation. Their decision shall be reported to such court, and if approved by it, shall be so entered as aforesaid, and shall be final as to such right of property so held.
As Judge Bellows explained, however, Virginia follows what is known as the "plain meaning rule," which employs the ordinary use of terms employed in a statute as of the date of enactment, and does not presume technical usage particular to any one context. (Opinion 47-49).

2. Battle of the Experts

The statute was enacted, according to the court, in substantially its present form in 1867. (Opinion at 49, n. 37). According to the court's summary of CANA's expert witness testimony, the occasion for its enactment was a series of schisms within the Presbyterian and Methodist Churches,which led to claims and counterclaims over property possession. (Opinion at 49-53 (Valeri); 54-57 (Irons)). The Methodist Church's struggles, in particular, led to the passage of the statute. Id. Although Judge Bellows noted the existence of "much testimony" concerning the separation between the TEC parishes in the Confederacy and those in the Union during the Civil War, he found no particular guidance from such testimony, as the existence of any division other than a geographical decision was unclear. (Opinion at 53, n. 44). From Judge Bellow's summary, TEC's expert witnesses did not address the circumstances of the enactment of the statute, but testified that, in Episcopal Church governance, a "division" is only one that is recognized as legitimate by the church authorities, and that they provided testimony as to the nature of relations between TEC and the remainder of the Anglican Communion. (Opinion at 63, 57-63).

Judge Bellows was clearly more impressed with the specificity with which CANA's experts addressed their testimony to the Virginia statute's passage and early application; TEC's more holistic approach from the perspective of Episcopal polity did not seem to him persuasive. Regrettably, I see his point. The problem here is not whether the division is one "recognized" by TEC, or acquiesced in by it--we'd hardly have a litigation if that was the case. Rather, the question is what the Virginia General Assembly meant by the terms at issue, and, under those terms whether the events at hand constitute a "division" within a "church" or "religious society" constituting "branches," one of which the dissentient parishes have moved to join. By finding the Anglican Communion constitutes a "religious society" (at least; it might also equate with a church), and that TEC's affiliation with it means that it is not "entirely independent", the court concluded that deference to TEC's "constitution, ordinary practice, or custom", which is only provided to such "entirely independent churches, was not warranted here. (Opinion at 48; 76). Put differently, because the court found that the Anglican Communion was a "religious society" of which TEC, the ADV and the Church of Nigeria were branches, the court dispensed with any deference to TEC's canons and polity, and found that the statute as interpreted mandatorily awards the property to the local congregation.

TEC appears to have focused most of its firepower on the question of "division," which, speaking as a Monday morning quarterback, seems profoundly in error. Simply put, that term, in its "plain meaning" seems to be clearly applicable, and the effort to limit the statute to amicable partings appears foredoomed.

The court is on shakier ground when it treats the AC as a "religious society" in the statutory terms; Judge Bellows undestandably relied on TEC's expert's concession that a "religious society" can denote a "much looser federation" and on the description of the Archbishop of Canterbury as "President" and "chief pastor." Despite this, I think his analysis is dangerously close to a judicial ruling structuring ecclesiastical polity. (see pt. 3, below). In view of TEC's expert's concession--a point I had not focused on in my first blush reading, after which I commented here and here, I see why Judge Bellows was led to the conclusion he reached. Still, by this broad definition, a good case could be made that the World Council of Churches would fit it--which would, I suspect, make for some interesting litigation possibilities.

More to the point, the reading of the statute to include the Anglican Communion as a religious society, and TEC and the CoN as branches thereof works a forfeiture of a church's ability to order property relations when there is any tie to other churches, a significant statutory disincentive to ecumenicism, or even ecumenical collaboration. The statute as read would polarize churches, either requiring total segregation from each other, or eliminating ecclesiastical polity in favor of legislatively mandated congregationalism. My first reading, linked above, was that the General Assembly could not have meant this result; upon a second reading of the Opinion, I'm not so sure.

3. The Statute and the First Amendment

The First Amendment's guarantees, explicitly imposed only upon Congress, have been deemed to have been incorporated (made enforceable) against the states by the Fourteenth Amendment, first noted in Gitlow v. New York, 268 U.S. 652 (1925). The incorporation doctrine was first applied to the Establishment Clause and Free Exercise Clause in Everson v. Bd. of Educ., 330 U.S. 1 (1947). For over 60 years, though questioned by some such as Justice Thomas, the Supreme Court has held in an unbroken chain of precedent that the states cannot make laws respecting an establishment or religion any more than can Congress--nor can they inhibit its free exercise.

In Jones v. Wolf, 443 U.S. 595, 602-603(1979), the Supreme Court held that:
the First Amendment severely circumscribes the role that civil courts may play in resolving church property disputes." [Presbyt. Church v. Hull Church, 393 U.S. 440,449 1969]. Most importantly, the First Amendment prohibits civil courts from resolving church property disputes on the basis of religious doctrine and practice. Serbian Orthodox Diocese v. Milivojevich, 426 U. S. 696, 710 (1976); Maryland & Va. Churches v. Sharpsburg Church, 396 U. S. 367, 368 (1970); Presbyterian Church I, 393 U.S. at 449. As a corollary to this commandment, the Amendment requires that civil courts defer to the resolution of issues of religious doctrine or polity by the highest court of a hierarchical church organization. Serbian Orthodox Diocese, 426 U.S. at 724-725; cf. [Watson v. Jones], 80 U. S. [679],733-734 (1872).


The primary advantages of the neutral principles approach are that it is completely secular in operation, and yet flexible enough to accommodate all forms of religious organization and polity. The method relies exclusively on objective, well established concepts of trust and property law familiar to lawyers and judges. It thereby promises to free civil courts completely from entanglement in questions of religious doctrine, polity, and practice. Furthermore, the neutral principles analysis shares the peculiar genius of private law systems in general -- flexibility in ordering private rights and obligations to reflect the intentions of the parties. Through appropriate reversionary clauses and trust provisions, religious societies can specify what is to happen to church property in the event of a particular contingency, or what religious body will determine the ownership in the event of a schism or doctrinal controversy.
Simply put, the Viginia statute, as applied here, eliminates the flexibility relied upon by the Supreme Court in validating neutral principles, and, what is worse, requires the trial court to parse polity carefully (and, I think in a manner that is heavily slanted in favor of legally mandated congregationalism, as described above). Another saving quality alluded to by the Supreme Court is extinguished by the court's reading of the statute--that is, the ability of a church to plan for any divisions or schisms, and in advance determine these questions. The Virginia statute takes that ability away as well, and, as construed by Judge Bellows, I believe 57-9 contravenes the scope of permissible adjudication of property disputes as set forth in Jones v. Wolf.

As of 2007, Jones v. Wolf remains good law. See, e.g., Matter of Congregation Yetev Lev D'Satmar, Inc. v Jacob (Ny Ct. App. 2007). Therefore, while I think that the interpretation of section 57-9 may stand up on appeal, I believe that its constitutionality is very open to question, and could only be upheld by subjecting religious bodies to significant state and federal interference in their internal polity and doctrine.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Defamation, Dissonance and Defense

I had been getting set to praise deposed former Bishop William Cox for his candor, based on this statement:
"I feel sorry that they felt they needed to do this," he said. "A more charitable thing to do would be to say, 'We recognize that you are now a member of the church in Argentina and ask God's blessing on your ministry.'" . . . A trial was never held, but the House of Bishops voted him out Wednesday for abandoning the communion of the church.

"Which I did," Cox said.
What a change from the obfuscation of the deposed bishop John-David Schofield, or for that matter, Rev. Robert Eaton who is, we think, within TEC, while linking to the website of the Southern Cone.

But, alas, the good bishop (well, in Argentina, at any rate), appears to have lawyered up, and is now claiming that the Presiding Bishop's announcement of the House of Bishops' deposition of him, based on a charge the truth of which truth he freely admitted to the press, has somehow defamed him--because of the alleged procedural defects in the deposition process.

OK, I've litigated defamation cases and, I have to say, I'm not getting it. A statement cannot be deemed defamatory unless it is a false statement that purports to be factual, and is discreditable to the subject. See Philadelphia Newsp., Inc. v. Hepp, 475 U.S. 767, 776 (1986). But where's the falsity, or the defamatory content?

The lack of a defamatory statement--an untrue statement reflecting discredit on Bishop Cox--seems clear to me; the only conduct imputed to the bishop is that he has abandoned the communion of the Episcopal Church, and he has explicity admitted that such is the case. As to the alleged falsity stemming from the alleged flaws in the deposition process, the fact remains that the House of Bishops passed a resolution deposing him, by a formal vote on March 12. The claim, even if true, that the deposition was not in accordance with canon law, does not, of its own weight, render the statement factually untrue. The deposition would first need to be declared void--not merely reversed--by a body of competent jurisdiction. I am unaware of any body that could render such a declaration, and would be inclined to do so. The HOB could, I suppose, reverse itself, but that would not render the PB's statements false as of the date she made them. I'm not aware of any other body that could properly assert jurisdiction to declare the deposition void ab initio. I find it hard to believe that the civil courts would rule on such a question. This is particularly the case because, as I pointed out in my last post, the First Amendment prohibits courts from ruling on "purely religious concerns such as church governance or polity." See also Wolf v. Jones, 443 U.S. 595 (1979).

I will await with interest developments; either the pleadings in the threatened defamation suit, which will be instructive, at a minimum, or the good bishop's climbing down from the threat.