Wednesday, November 9, 2011

History Sometimes Flunks Theology Exams

The Theodora Episcopa Mosaic in the Basilica
of Santa Prassede in Rome
Sometimes I get correspondence about this blog asking why I bring up contemporary issues such as the new translation of the Mass which goes into effect at the end of this month or suggesting that I keep opinions to myself and “stick to the past.”   I think this is because most people who have not studied history in depth don’t understand what history is all about.  History is not about the past.  History uses the past as metaphor to speak about the present and the future.  In that way history is really a tool that helps us better understand not only our world and how it has evolved to be the way it is, but to help us understand human nature and how and why people act the way they do.  If one gets the doctorate in Church History one gets a degree such as D.Hist. or H.E.D. (Historia Ecclesiae Doctor) depending on the institution at which one studies but in the “real world” of academia, if academia can be called a real world—and I admit that is very debatable—the doctorate is Ph.D.  Philosophiae Doctor—Doctor of Philosophy.  We study history as philosophy, that is as a branch of the “love of wisdom” (which is what the word “philosophy” means.  It is not enough to know the facts, one has to be able to interpret the facts into a coherent narrative that gives us not only information but insight. 
     And a historian who studies the history of the Church is looking for insights, often insights that Theology—a discipline that is restricted by the authority of the Church—is prohibited from giving.  The historical facts often contradict the Theological doctrines, leaving theologians, at least Catholic Theologians,  powerless to set the record straight about things.  There are, for example, teachings once declared infallible that are no longer held by the Church.  At one point in the history of the Church, for example, the Church taught that only those “subject to the authority of the Roman Pontiff” could be saved.  The Church no longer holds that—and has not held it for a long time.   What are the implications of that for the notion of papal infallibility?    There are theological presuppositions unsupported by history—what does that do to magisterial authority?  For example: current Church teaching declares definitively that there never were women ordained to the ministries of bishop or priest.  Frankly, that question is—from a historical perspective—not closed.  (It is from a doctrinal one.)  Historians are still weighing and debating evidence to that question.  There are some archeological monuments that can be interpreted as referring to female bishops or priests.  The question is complex from historical and archeological perspectives.  Are we sure that they mean that the referred to females were bishops or priests?  No.  They could be the wife of the bishop (not uncommon before the fourth century) or the priest (not uncommon before the 12th century).  There is a famous mosaic in the basilica of Santa Prassede in Rome that displays the image of “Theodora episcopa”—Theodora, the Lady Bishop.  This mosaic—from the early ninth century, is far too late for there to have been a lady bishop; moreover we know that Theodora was the mother of the Bishop, Pope Paschal I.  So you have to be careful how you interpret these things, but just because this particular artifact does not mean that the woman was a bishop one cannot say that several dozen other inscriptions from earlier centuries cannot refer to a woman bishop or priest.  And if they do so refer—was the bishop or priest in question a bishop or priest in the “Great Church” (i.e. the orthodox and apostolic Christian Church which antecedes both the Catholic and Orthodox Church) or from one of the many sects now seen to be schismatic or heretical such as the Collyridians or the Montanists who did ordain women.  Frankly the jury is out on the question of women’s ordination and the difficulty is that to prove that the Church never ordained women is an all but impossible task whereas a single example suffices to prove that they did.  Historans can look at these questions; Catholic theologians can’t—at least publically.  Moreover, the ministries of bishop and priest have evolved through the centuries.  Indeed, were there “bishops” and “priests” –in our theological understanding of a tripartite Sacrament of Orders—Bishops, Priests, Deacons—before the time of Ignatius of Antioch at the end of the first century?  It is a complex question.   There were episodes in the history of the Church—perhaps as late as the thirteenth century—when priests could confer the sacrament of Holy Orders.  On the other hand, there were times when it seems that priests were not seen as having the “power” to say mass or forgive sins.    The “powers” ascribed to the various orders (as in Holy Orders) have changed over the course of time.  Historians uncover the fact that things we think can never change have in fact been the product of historical evolution. The History of the Church unlocks possibilities for the future by showing us the variables of the past. 
     My closest friend of many years and his wife are Lutherans.  We often travel together and in the years I have lived in Rome they have been frequent guests.  They have never been able to get enough of Saint Peter’s—always wanting to return there. (I can think of a dozen churches I think are more beautiful and more interesting—including Santa Prassede that I mentioned above.)  And I always remind them that it was the building of this Church—Saint Peter’s—that triggered Luther and his protest against selling indulgences.  I love irony and history is full of irony.   History shows us that only God was in the beginning, is now, and shall be evermore.  We humans and our frail institutions—including the Church—come and go, changing to the needs of the times and like Ozymandias passing from the scene altogether when no longer needed. 

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