Notes on Maritain on Luther

30 12 2010

As insinuated previously, I have been re-reading Jacques Maritain’s Three Reformers. I first read this work over ten years ago now as an impressionable college student, and now one can only blush at the easy polemical points that Maritain tries to score against his long-dead adversaries. The three reformers are, of course, Luther, Descartes, and Rousseau, who Maritain thinks are the three founding figures of decadent modernity.

So I read through the part again on Luther, and I need to point out the obvious arguments against Luther: that he was the founder of individualism, a destroyer of natural law, free will, etc. While I won’t speak to the immediate arguments regarding Maritain’s caricature, I think it necessary to point out the evolution on the Catholic side regarding the issues involved.

Firstly, I think it needs pointing out how much the idea of works has evolved since Luther’s time. I will not say that the Catholic Church is simply more lax in its ascetical and canonical disciplines. Even the changes to religious life in the last fifty years would be quite noticeable even compared to Luther’s time. Fasting in the Western Church has practically been abolished. Holy Communion is received by everyone who happens to attend Mass. Anyone who goes to Confession is automatically absolved. Some of the more popular “spiritualties” are variations of St. Therese’s “little way”, where “love” is all that matters. Our hierarchy never speaks about divine judgment even when they’re trying to be mean. And so on. One has to remember that these questions were only resolved in the last couple of centuries. One only need look to the Jansenist crisis in France to see how things could have gone the other way.

I point this out because when reading Maritain’s description of Luther’s “a dunghill covered in snow” to describe man’s righteousness before God under the regime of grace, it seems that one could contend that the Roman Church won the argument by moving the goal posts. Virtue and grace used to be difficult to obtain, now they are relatively easy. In terms of things like Holy Communion, it can seem that the Church made people holy by fiat.

The way the Church gets around the total depravity arguments seems to be in a legalistic sleight of hand. Usury? Not really a sin anymore, or at least one we don’t punish. Did your marriage break down? Here’s an annulment. Don’t have a vocation to the religious life? Don’t worry, the married life is just as holy. And so on. I am not saying that Luther is right, but maybe he was looking at righteousness differently. Maybe he simply didn’t “trust the Church” on these issues.

But there is the rub, isn’t it? As I have mentioned in previous arguments with some Catholic commenters on this blog, once the objectivity of things can only be measured by institutional directives, you have wandered into the realm of positivism. Things are true only because the institution says they are. That is no better than nominalism really.

To be clear, I have little sympathy to Luther. And in general, I am a slob and at most an inverted Jansenist. I don’t think that the Roman Church should return to strict fasting and canonical disciplines (except maybe for Communion), but I do think that using Maritain’s arguments against Luther is inappropriate especially in our context.


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30 12 2010
sortacatholic

Arturo: The way the Church gets around the total depravity arguments seems to be in a legalistic sleight of hand. […] Don’t worry, the married life is just as holy. And so on. I am not saying that Luther is right, but maybe he was looking at righteousness differently. Maybe he simply didn’t “trust the Church” on these issues.

The Roman “Work” has changed in startling measures quite foreign to the Thuriginian friar that (supposedly) atomized the feudal cocoon of Renaissance “Christendom”. The Church still preaches cooperation in grace, but has redefined the modes of cooperation. We are not “covered over” as in Maritain’s characterization, but rather offered many avenues of grace-generation at the expense of the overwhemingly clerical avenues prevalent in Luther’s time.

The post-HV Catholic language of marriage has plagiarized aspects of Luther’s vocatio. The creation and distribution of grace is no longer the fruit of a clerical caste: rather now it is enshrined in a sacrament that engenders grace through spousal union and procreation. The Vatican insistence on a celibate, ontologically distinct clerical caste is no longer tenable when Rome herself uses Luther’s vocatio to prop up marriage in the post-Pill age. Luther replaced priesthood with the ministry: why then should sacerdos remain when marriage is reframed? It appears that Rome has given little thought to the clergy in this sacramental shift. I am flabbergasted that “liberal” Catholic theologians haven’t taken this angle when firing the cannon at the celibate clerical caste.

It’s deliciously ironic that Luther’s disjunct of ontology and ministerial duty purposefully benefited the family ties of the German nobility with the evangelical church as proto-nation-state department! Now, Rome wants both clerical dominance and lay vocation at once. Is this impossible? Or is the social makeup of “modern Western society” conducive to other forms of ontological and “work” discourse that encompasses marital grace and clerical dominance?

[…] once the objectivity of things can only be measured by institutional directives, you have wandered into the realm of positivism. Things are true only because the institution says they are. That is no better than nominalism really.

If anything, continental Roman Catholicism of the 17th and 18th centuries were more nominal/less positivist than the state churches of Prussia and Scandinavia! Whereas the rollicking Jansenist “heresy”/social movement forged not only French institutional identity but also pan-Catholic post-Tridentine doctrine, the state Lutheran/Reformed Churches were quite rigid in matters of liturgy and polity.

However, perhaps Catholicism’s ability to deal with new liturgical trends without acts of royal houses or parliaments underscores its ability to absorb once rejected doctrines. The nominal, the threatening, becomes salutary and positive when used to buttress sacraments in times of social change. The retrofitting of once forbidden doctrines carries the burden of inconsistency. Inconsistency breeds positivism as a control valve — and increased doctrinal positivism heightens the gnawing nominal urge to shatter and reform.

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