“Partial Communion”

2 02 2009


Some personal reflections of a post-traditionalist

Over at the traditionalist blog, Cornell Society for a Good Time, they have posted a brief essay about the ambiguity of the term “imperfect” or “partial” communion. Of course, this has become almost an official term in the Catholic Church to categorize our “separated brethren”, that is, those people who profess Christ but are not in communion with the See of St. Peter and the Holy Roman Church. The general tenor of the post is critical in that it calls out the vacillation involved in such terminology; as I summarized it, it seems that one cannot be partially in communion anymore than one can be partially dead or partially pregnant. If the axiom “salus animarum supremus lex” (the salvation of souls is the highest law) holds, why would we toy around with such concepts asserting that people have one foot in the Kingdom and might be saved? Is such phrasing a fundamental abandoning of the mission of the Church? What other factors are involved?

To start out, I have to point out that I am not the run of the mill catolique intégriste when it comes to these matters. Considering my personal background, I would consider myself a “post-traditionalist”: one who agrees with that critique, but in a much more nuanced way. In spite of my involvement with the Society of St. Pius X, since those years I have been involved also in Eastern Orthodoxy and Anglicanism in varying degrees of actual membership. Many readers of this blog will know me from those days, and will know that while others may talk a good ecumenical game, I will actually show up to the services, talk to the people, and attempt to learn all I can not just about the doctrine, but also the sights, smells, and rhythms of the places I visit. That is probably because as a Catholic, I am the closest thing to a perennialist as you can get without lapsing into heresy. I believe that there are sacred patterns at the heart of creation that are re-created over and over again in every circumstance that betray the winding path of man’s continuous search for the Divine. Call them Jungian archetypes, Platonic ideas, or whatever you want, but I have become very optimistic in terms of the relations between culture and the truth. Deep down, I believe we are all searching for the same thing. Whether or not we find it is another story entirely.

That being said, there were times in my life when my own language concerning the boundaries of the Church were very fast and loose. In the years I was involved in Eastern Catholicism, I was basically a subscriber to the “two lungs” theory: the idea that Orthodoxy and Catholicism represent vital parts of the Church that though separated, need each other for the well-being of the Gospel message. Not only that, but I regularly worshiped in Orthodox churches (without taking communion, of course), and venerated saints and kept feasts that were essentially anti-Catholic if taken at face value (St. Mark of Ephesus and St. Alexis Toth, for example). My own idea echoed that of an Orthodox Ukrainian bishop in the 19th century: the walls between individual churches do not reach up to Heaven. My year as a continuing Anglican was far worse in this regard in that I sucumbed a bit to ecclesial agnosticism: we really don’t know where the Church is, and there’s not use trying to define it.

A lot of this, as I said above, seems to be toying with God in some rather bizarre ways. According to the popular way of formulating the question, the closer you are to the truth, the more “in communion you are”. It’s almost like an imaginary scoreboard: being a monotheist gets you one point, believing in Jesus gets you two points, the Nicene Creed gets you three points, sacraments get you seven, and so on. The only problem is, there are no real rules outlined here. A lot of this scoring, this idea of partial communion, lapses into rhetoric. Let us take for example the case of my beloved SSPX. Up until the excommunications were lifted, the typical devout Catholic considered them “schismatic”, and would liberally throw that word around when referring to this wildcat religious order. They would be far more weary to employ that term against the Orthodox, using the term “partial communion” in that they were focusing more on what “unites us rather than what divides us”, to use the term of good Pope John XXIII. But how can you not use the term “schismatic” against those who deny the truth of the Roman Church for the last 1,000 years when you cast such an anathema on people who are rejecting the pastoral practices of the Church in the last forty years? Doesn’t reall make sense, does it?

The genius of the Roman Church, of Romanitas, has always been the law. That may not seem as glamorous of the mystical reputation of the Christian East or the stark simplicity of the Word of the Protestant north. But in a question of eternal salvation, it is not the role of the Magisterium to tell us what might happen in X circumstance, but to authoritatively tell us what will happen in a specific situation. In the old ecclesiology, those who died outside the Church ceteris paribus will not be save. It is not up to the Church to speculate and put into official documents that people may come close to being saved, or may be saved due to certain subjective conditions unknown to anyone but themselves, or any other speculation of that sort. People looked to the Roman Church and asked: “just tell us what we need to do to be saved”. That is authority. Whatever else a prelate might think of these things is something that he should keep to himself. I hate to be “plus papiste que le Pape” on this question, but an ambiguous idea in the end holds no water, and certainly it does not merit any sort of assent.

We have to then face the fact that we live in an unprecedented time in human history concerning these questions. Before, the rule “cuius regio eius religio” was the norm; the religion and worldview of society will be the same as those who hold the reins of power. In our case, power is indifferent to the truth, and we cannot squash those who disagree with us with the gendarme of the State. To get around this, I used to think that if it looks true, it is true. Truth is manifest, and not proven, as Pavel Florensky said. But by that token, a lot of things look true, a lot of things seem to be legitimate strivings toward union with the ineffable One. The worshipper in his ghetto mosque trying to point to Mecca through a dirty stucco wall, the Hare Krishna dancing his heart out while beating his drum up a dirty street, the evangelical Protestant belting out a hymn that his father, grandfather, and great-grandfather sang, all of these must mean something if we are not to lose our sanity.

As a Catholic who would fancy himself to hold the traditional teaching of the Church, I cannot say that these people will be saved, that they are better than me because of their fervor, or that God will look with mercy upon their sincerity. I am not God, nor can I speak for Him, nor can I usurp his role as Judge. I must do what I know to be right, and unlike many theologians, I will have to turn a blind eye to the “goodness” of these people when it comes to matters of religion, and merely walk in the uncertainty that we may very well live in a world where many are called but few indeed are chosen. And I may not be one of those few. What is at the heart of all of it is neither sentiment nor personal fancy, but work, hard work, and the painful labor of love that is at the heart of our duties of state. What I will not do is put gold stars on the foreheads of people I think are “sort of” right. That is patronizing considering what the stakes really are.

I will say that in the end I can only put the question in the context of the mercy of God, without theorizing as to how that mercy works. There is a story in the life of Pope St. Pius X (that big, bad Pope of the dark ages before Vatican II) of when he was still bishop of Mantua. A seminarian studying in his theology years was riding with him in his coach when they passed the Jewish cemetery. The seminarian then asked the bishop if there was any use in praying for those poor people in those graves who had died outside the embrace of Holy Mother Church. At this, the saint uncovered and uttered a De Profundis. His final answer to the seminarian was something to the affect that one needs to study theology and cling to it as the truth, but God’s mercy is greater than even these lofty things. And that is all we can say, really. It is the mercy of God that in the end makes us children trusting in our Father who will make all things right in ways we do not yet understand.



4 responses

9 02 2009

I’m confused. Didn’t the Church always allow for “invincible ignorance”? Didn’t Aquinas write about this?

Far from being a novel post-VC II concept, it originates with Christ: “He who is not against us is for us.” Yes, He also said that if you’re not with Him, you’re against Him. Put the two statements together, and you’ve got a paradox. It has always been thus.

4 02 2009
In praise of the seperated brethren « Triune Pieces

[…] This reminded me how tired I am of being separated. […]

2 02 2009

>”But how can you not use the term “schismatic” against those who deny the truth of the Roman Church for the last 1,000 years when you cast such an anathema on people who are rejecting the pastoral practices of the Church in the last forty years? Doesn’t reall make sense, does it?”

I guess some would answer that today’s Orthodox were born into those churches while the SSPX is made up of people who left the Church. Since the former are not responsible for the Great Schism, they can be called “separated brethren” rather than schismatics, while the latter are schismatics, plain and simple.

Of course, the reality is actually a bit more complex than that (isn’t it always?) Some in the Orthodox churches are in fact ex-Catholics and some children have been born into the SSPX since 1988. So yeah, it doesn’t make perfect sense. But anyway I’m glad the SSPX seems to be moving toward reconciliation.

2 02 2009
Christopher Orr

Many people often structure their question about God and salvation in terms of how I know I will be saved. This is often unconsciously equated with how I can know God is loving, which means that whether God is loving is somehow dependent on whether I will be saved. This seems to have been Luther’s personal dilemma, and perhaps a common one in northern Europe given the rapidity with which Reformation ideas spread in that region.

Trusting in the mercy of God was always an odd cop out to me until I realized that what is being said is that God is loving, we known he is loving because of what we know of him in Jesus and how he treated people, what he was willing to sacrifice (‘divinity’, life itself, honor). We also know that God forgives, which is a different thing than that God pays our tab for us. Forgiving is something that can be done by fiat: ‘Let there be light’, and there was; ‘Your sins are forgiven you’, and they are.

This is a different question than whether I will be saved, and less selfish or self-absorbed. It allows for one to defer to the revelation that God is our Father in Jesus Christ. He is the Father of all humanity because it was all of humanity that was taken up into the Person of Jesus as he lived and died sinlessly and was resurrected and ascended and will come again. Fathers love even their ‘bad’ children who bring them little joy; fathers love even the the stumblings after adulthood and maturity in children and young adults. I fawn over my 5 month old’s simply holding weight on his legs while I hold him. Much of my own spiritual life is simply being held up and doing almost nothing, but being loved for it and loved without it.

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