instruere...inlustrare...delectare Disputations

Sunday, April 17, 2011

A perspective to be set aside

Several years ago, I came across an article by Michael Sherwin, OP, that included this simile:
Just as a compress stops the bleeding, but does not heal the wound, so too the theology of the Baroque period kept the faithful from spilling into the errors of the day, but it did not heal the wounds caused by nominalism, voluntarism, and the rationalism of the early Enlightenment. For this reason, just as a bandage must be removed before the wound can fully heal, so too the perspective of the manuals had to be set aside before the wounds in moral theology could be healed.
A wounded man may need a bandage, but we should never mistake the bandage for something essential to the man.

We don't worry much these days about the theology of the Baroque period, or how manualism opposes nominalism and voluntarism without itself being a full expression of moral theology. But maybe we should worry a little bit more.

I say that because I think some Catholics are opposing the errors of the day by asserting the manualism of the day as the One True Faith. The manualism of the day, which for the most part rests on little or no ecclesial authority, is a rule-based morality of a notably rigorist bent, with a whole set of ad hoc rules of orthodoxy and orthopraxis tacked on.

You might guess that I don't think much of the manualism of the day. I'd think a little more of it if its proponents made the proper distinction between it and the Catholic Faith, but I'm not sure they realize they aren't the same thing.

And that's where the theology of the Baroque period comes in. The manualism that arose in response to the needs of the Counter-Reformation lingered on in various ways until the Second Vatican Council, to an extent (I would suggest) that a lot of people today think that manualism constitutes Catholicism.

If you understand Catholicism in terms of adherence to rules, though, you need a rule for everything you understand. And it's hard to tell when you don't understand something, because the rules will always tell you whether something is part of Catholicism. And if the rules give you an answer you think is wrong, you can add a rule to correct it (the correct answer being the evidence of authority for the rule).

But Baroque manualism was never intended to be the whole of moral theology, any more than question-and-answer catechisms were intended to be the whole of Church teaching on divine revelation.

To the extent today's manualists fail to understand the function and limits of a manual, they misrepresent the very Faith they are trying to preserve and restore. They wind up denouncing positions that are perfectly legitimate within the Catholic tradition because they are personally unfamiliar with the whole of that tradition.

Moreover, manualism is inherently non-evangelical. It is inward-looking, with nothing to say to those who are not already in the Church. To the extent non-Catholics are told that the Faith is a set of rules, it will be an ugly and unappealing proposition for human happiness. And, frankly, non-Catholics would be right to judge it a false proposition as well, since (as we can know both by faith and reason) following rules does not constitute human happiness.