Wednesday, August 18, 2004

On divine right of kings & questioning authority

Foster: I've already tracked down some sources in my personal library and they back what you say. Here again, you must keep in mind that I was posing a question and doing so because of what I read in Hilary Putnam's book. Referring to his earlier study, Reason, Truth, and History, Putnam states:
"I also pointed out that even believing Catholics now concede that the Church's support for monarchy [in connection with the Divine Right of Kings] was based as much on political considerations as on revelation or sound theology. In short, the belief in the Divine Right of Kings lacks, and, I claim, always lacked, a rational justification" (Ethics without Ontology, p. 114-115).
Blosser: The "Divine right of Kings," as I've said, is not and never has been a Catholic doctrine, despite the fact that one may find individual Catholic writers who have, reasoning from St. Paul's injunction to submit to all governing authority as from God in Rom. 13, defended it. Not only that, but it may well be argued that the notion of the Divine Right of Kings is a Protestant invention, as does Hilaire Belloc in Characters of the Reformation, where he argues that James I of England was the first to inaugurate its full and undisputed practice. Belloc writes:
"Here it may be objected that the launching of this new doctrine (the first name of which was 'The Divine Right of Kings') and the attempt to practice it was much older. For we must always remember that whether it is called 'The Divine Right of Kings' or 'The Full Independence of the Nation' it comes, as we shall see in a moment, to exactly the same thing, expressing the same idea and having the same consequences.

"The first official and public statement of this sort was made by [Thomas] Cranmer, the first Protestant Archbishop of Canterbury, at the coronation of little Edward VI, as early as 1547, fifty-six years before James I came to the English throne. The doctrine had been formally enunciated in a loud voice from the altar steps of Westminster Abbey, in the sermon which Cranmer addressed to the little boy-King on his enthronement. Cranmer reminded him that no power on earth could claim any rights over the King of England, and he said this, of course, as a direct challenge
to the Papacy.

"Hitherto, it had been admitted throughout Christendom that quarrels between Christian nations were subject to the general moral authority of the Church, and to ultimate appeal to the Papacy in cases of specific dispute. In other words, Christendom had been regarded as one realm, of which the particular nations were only provinces; and a certain moral law and a certain visible organization were accepted as having common authority throughout....

"At this point it is important to understand how this phrase, which souns to us so quaint, 'The Divine Right of Kings,' is really identical with our most modern nationalist doctrine.... The operative word in the sentence is not 'King' but 'Divine' -- and when people talked of 'Divine Right' they meant the
right to govern with private responsibility to God alone, and not to any general organizatin of Christendom here on earth." (Hilaire Belloc, Characters of the Reformation, ch. 15: "James I of England," pp. 135-137, emphasis added)
Foster: So if it is "defined dogma," then its veracity cannot be questioned. Defined dogmas cannot be "tested" or "examined" in order to make sure they really orobjectively *are* revealed truths or ecclesiastically binding for the faithful. We've talked about this point before, but I still think that Catholics have not provided a satisfactory answer to the question, "How do you [i.e. Catholics] know that the dogmas defined by the Church are objectively true and beyond being questioned or contested?" Maybe what you write below addresses this issue.

Blosser: Well, of course there is nothing wrong in, say, my puzzling over what the Church's dogma of the Holy Trinity means, or examining the historical sources to see whether the Church Fathers accepted the doctrine, etc. One can certainly do this. I suppose one is encouraged to do this, since it can only strengthen his faith.

But questioning the Church and her teachings from the standpoint of unfaith or bad faith is another mater. Perhaps an analogy may help. Once a Catholic trusts the Church as Mater et Magister, to question or test her teaching would be a little like growing up in a home where at dinner time every day you scrupulously interrogate your mother to make sure that what she's served up for the family meal isn't contaminated or tainted with poison.

You raise the question how Catholics can know that what their Church teaches is objectively true and beyond being questioned or contested. That's a fair question. But the thing to see is that there's nothing particularly unique about the position of the Church here, for one could ask the same question of a good JW's faith in God's existence and unicity. I would certainly imagine that you would say that you are free to "examine" or "test" these doctrines (which Catholics share with JWs), as we have done in some of our classes while reading the likes of St. Anselm, St. Thomas Aquinas and the counter-arguments of Hume and Kant. But to seriously doubt these truths, or to cast them into the category of claims that are continually debatable, would make one a poor JW or Catholic, would they not? So how do we know that God exists and that He is one? Well, I suppose we'd say because we've come to trust the teaching of our religious instructors, or the veracity of the Bible, etc. Is our conviction that God exists and is one "beyond being questioned"? Well, it depends what that means. In one sense, we'd likely respond: yes, it's something we consider established, which we don't bother to seriously question. It's a conviction so basic it occupies the level of a properly basic assumption. But in another sense, we'd probably both admit that these convictions are not beyond question -- particularly in the sense that there are other people who seriously question them, and we recognize the existence of various arguments that might be mounted in support of their truth, etc. Catholic dogma, while not always derived directly from Scripture, are all of a similar order, I would argue.

Foster: No matter how much I trust another human being, I always reserve the right to question or contest propositions that are uttered or written by him/her. I believe that the same principle applies to those taking the lead in the Christian congregation. Seeing that all teachers in Christ's EKKLHSIA are fallible with respect to action and speech, I must always "make sure of all things" and test the "spirits" to determine whether they are from God (James 3:1-2; 1 Thess 5:21; 1 Jn 4:1).

Blosser: Starting with the latter assertions first, I would agree with most of what you say here. All things must be tested. Particularly the opinions of fallible human beings. However the case is complicated when we come to the opinions of those fallible human beings who, as Apostles, wrote the Gospels and Epistles that comprise the New Testament. For though they, as human beings, are properly described as fallible, we generally acknowledge that God somehow in His own miraculous way supernaturally guided them in their teaching and writing to express infallibly those truths that He wished us to know for our salvation. So should we question the opinions of the biblical writers? Well, in one sense, I think we'd agree that we ought to. We ought to examine, test, and scrutinize them so that we can know their veracity and be able to demonstrate this veracity as best we can. But in another sense, I think we would both agree that there would be something a trifle perverse about a religious believer who indefinitely continued to seriously question whether this verse or that chapter or this epistle is truly part of God's revelation to us. And, as you know, those of us who are Catholic would regard in the same light the declarations of our college of bishops in union with the Holy Father when these are directed to the universal Church, address a serious matter of faith and morals, and are expressly intended as an exercise of the Church's magisterial((or prophetic) office.

The matter can be further complicated by the fact that a defined dogma may itself come under disputation as to its proper interpretation over time. When this happens, it may require the Church once more to step in and offer a further clarification or refinement in her definition of the issue. This has happened on such issues as the reservation of priestly ordination to men alone, or the sinfulness of contraception, etc. So one could say there is an ongoing dialectical relationship between the Church's (1) dogmatic office of defining doctrine and (2) her members' questioning, puzzling over, and examining of those dogmas.