Jansenists Look East to Combat Protestants

An obscure academic article (aren’t they all?), “From East To West: Jansenists, Orientalists, And The Eucharistic Controversy” by Alastair Hamilton, which appeared in the anthology How the West Was Won (Brill 2010), sheds light on an obscure, but interesting, piece of ecclesiastical history: the Jansenist use of Greek (and other Eastern) first-person sources to combat Protestant polemics against the doctrine of transubstantiation.

When they weren’t engaged in their favorite pastime, namely beating on the Jesuits, Jansenist luminaries Antoine Arnauld and Pierre Nicole enjoyed picking fights with Calvinists, specifically Jean Claude, a Hugenot minister. He maintained, rather unconvincingly, that the Catholic profession of transubstantiation was no older than the 10th or 11th centuries, “the darkest and most polluted centuries, the most lacking in men of piety and learning, which Christianity has ever known.” In response to the Jansenist suggestion that the separated communions of the East professed belief in the dogma, Jean Claude declared that “every Greek on the face of the earth” should be interrogated as to whether their church taught such a thing—and that’s just what the Jansenists did. Over the course of many years, allies of Arnauld and Nicole, along with other Jansenist sympathizers, collected attestations from Russian, Greek, and Oriental Orthodox clerics that their respective communions all upheld the dogma of transubstantiation. Some of the scholars recruited for the project helped lay the groundwork for Oriental studies in the West. These attestations, along with various Eastern professions of faith, were eventually translated into Latin and made their way into ever-expanding editions of Arnauld’s La perpetuité de la foy, which continued on even after the author’s death.

The response from Protestant Europe was mixed. Jean Claud had hung his belief in the Greek rejection of transubstantiation on the controversial catechism of Cyril Lucaris, multiple-time Patriarch of Constantinople whose notorious Western and Calvinist sympathies resulted in him being strangled to death by the Turks. Lucaris’s catechism was rejected by the Greeks and never accepted by the Russians, who instead looked to the 1640 catechism of Metropolitan Peter Mogila. That catechism, which was eventually adopted by other Orthodox patriarchates, defended transubstantiation. Although Mogila’s catechism has been derided by Protestant and even some Orthodox theologians as “Latinized,” the Orthodox never rebuffed it. Moreover, the Jansenists and other Catholics interested in defending transubstantiation, were also able to cite attestations and confessional documents from Eastern churches out-of-communion with the Orthodox to show that the Christian East as a whole, regardless of confessional commitment, held to transubstantiation.

Given that, Protestant polemicists turned to attacking the intellectual integrity of Eastern Christendom, noting examples of where Greek and Ethiopian clerics clearly did not understanding the minutiae and theological subtleties involved in the Western-rooted debates over the Eucharist. To a certain extent, they had a point. Eastern Christians laboring under Muslim rule were largely cutoff from their own centers of learning and their theological-polemical interests were focused on combating Muslim claims, not Protestant ones. Moreover, while Eastern Christians were not inclined to deny the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist, they spent little time “theorizing” how bread and wine become the Body and Blood of Jesus. That controversy was not on their radar. Still, many Protestant scholars eventually conceded that even without a specifically Latin theological context or vocabulary, it was a bridge too far to claim that the Christian East rejected transubstantiation outright. This “error” had deep roots in Christian history, East and West.

It is interesting to speculate why this chapter in Christian history is not mentioned more often. The fact that it was the Jansenists, rather than “orthodox” Catholics, who opted to repair directly to the East for theological ammunition may be one reason. Whatever contributions the Jansenists could make the Catholic Church’s wider battle with Protestantism were largely overlooked in favor of condemning them for their hyper-reading of St. Augustine’s theological corpus. In more recent times it has become fashionable for some Orthodox scholars (and too many Western Orthodox converts) to take an absolutist position against “the Latins,” arguing—often unconvincingly—that any dogma, doctrine, or theological concept framed in Latin theological language are unacceptable to Eastern Orthodoxy.

Whatever the reasons, it is clear that the Jansenists are owed a bit of a debt for helping to pave the way for deeper studies into the affinities between Catholics and Orthodox. In so doing, they also shed further light on the extent to which many Protestant sects, rather than returning to “ancient” or “primitive” Christianity, were instead churning out unchecked innovations.

Sorel

Movement shifting, the sort Georges Sorel engaged in during the sunset of his atypical and prolific writing career, is a luxury reserved to those who live long enough to see everything they believe in fall apart. Depending on who you ask, Sorel spent the end of his life shifting from his idiosyncratic brand of Marxism to syndicalism to integral nationalism and back to Marxism (albeit of a more conventional sort) one last time. Sorel has been so intellectually quirky by some that some now suppose “Sorelianism” to be a “thing” even if it’s unlike that Sorel, despite his eccentricities, was terribly interested in founding a school. Neither a friend of liberal democracy nor capitalism, Sorel looked to the day when the working class would be liberated, when it would achieve a particular renewal uniquely its own, untainted by bourgeois decadence. While critical minds such as Carl Schmitt saw in Marxism/socialism little more than the fulfillment of liberalism, Sorel’s willingness to harness myth, conflict, and ultimately violence in the service of class liberation set him and his ideas a few steps apart from the discussion-based, entertainment-infatuated liberalism that so horrified Schmitt.

Sorel, in the view of thinkers such as Leszek Kolakowski, retained the Jansenist mentality he inherited from his upbringing. However, given that Jansenism was well on the decline in 19th century France, it stands to reason that Sorel’s radical rejection of hedonism and materialism was more than a relic of his childhood. With little-to-no faith to speak of (not even faith in historical determinism and the final triumph of communism), it’s probably not worth speculating too much on the extent to which Jansenism qua Jansenism shaped Sorel’s soul. Asceticism does not demand a fleeting form of Catholic heterodoxy to give it vitality.

It is perhaps safe to say there are no men in Sorel’s mold living today, though certainly there are still some who retain Sorel’s single-minded dedication to a liberating cause. And yes, while both the far Right and far Left have men of violence within their ranks, how many of these things are men of principle? Sorel was not an intellectual. He was learned, even deeply so, but he did not make a living off trading ideas and certainly not off of academia. Even if he was unwilling during his lifetime to acknowledge the benefits of his top-tier secular French instruction, Sorel invested more than enough time in solitary study to credit him with being a self-educated man. The only element missing from Sorel’s biography are some choice tales of direct action, of moments where thoughts of violence gave way to acts of violence, and all in the service of his cause (whatever that happened to particularly be at one point or another). Had Sorel been a politically violent man, he would today be a romantic figure. Maybe he would have even come to be elevated to the status of a legend, like Che Guevara. Instead, Sorel remains something of a lonely figure in radical intellectual history, blamed for normalizing violence for the Left and anticipating fascism in the Right.

If there is anything to be learned from Sorel’s example, it seems to be this: to advocate and agitate for the success of a cause, particularly one dedicated to the liberation of men from something (poverty, racial oppression, sin, etc.), demands not simply personal certitude, but complete self-sacrifice. There can be, or at least ought not to be, any trace of self-interest or personal gain to be found. How difficult this would be to actualize in our social media-saturated age where even the most honest sentiments are hardly ever given without the hope of Likes, up-votes, and re-Tweets. The radical intellectual, certain he has the “answers”—the sort that can only be printed and bound by a university press—never has tenure or paid sabbatical far from his mind. We are not accustomed to calling the sorts “frauds,” though I imagine a good number of persons struggle to admire them. If anything, the Twitter-star Leftist or the posturing academic who landed an Ivy League post via a derivative work that happened to appear at the right time are objects of envy and scorn, not adulation. May they be taken down at the masses’ earliest possible convenience.

In a letter penned in 1907, Sorel, opining on the social power of myths, had this to say: “Catholics have never been discouraged even in the hardest trials, because they have always pictured the history of the Church as a series of battles between Satan and the hierarchy supported by Christ; every new difficulty which arises is only an episode in a war which must finally end in the victory of Catholicism.” Catholicism, as we all know, is not a myth. What is a myth, at least for the moment, is the idea that Catholics are never discouraged. Now history has become a tale of losing battles where the war is more likely to be lost than won. I dare say that when it comes to comparing the faith of the contemporary Catholic and Sorel, dear Georges possessed far more.

MacIntyre, Strauss, and Some Voegelin

The latest podcast episode from The Josias provides an overview and discussion of Alasdair MacIntyre’s most famous work, After Virtue. Joel the Host, with his guest Pater Edmund Waldstein, are generally sympathetic toward MacIntyre while also pointing out his knack for broad (though compelling) generalizations and intellectual zingers. Joel the Host, at points, indicates that he has some reservations about After Virtue, though time constraints prevent him from exploring those. What’s clear, however, is that MacIntyre’s thought is important, or at least important for a certain brand of conservative Catholic intellectual who is unwilling to double-down on Thomism and disregard MacIntyre as either unnecessary or uninteresting. Part of this may be due to the fact that MacIntyre is now himself a Catholic, which means he is “safe” compared to two other towering critics of modernity, Leo Strauss (atheistic (?) Jew) and Eric Voegelin (unorthodox (?) Protestant). Voegelin, certainly more than Strauss, had the pleasure of running in Catholic intellectual circles back in his day, though unlike Strauss, Voegelin never had the luxury of developing a school of ardent disciples to spread his good news to the four corners of Anglophone academia. Strauss, for his part, never interfaced directly with Catholics, though he acquired a number of influential Catholic students, including Frs. Ernest Fortin and James Schall. Moreover, a number of Strauss’s students went on to teach at Catholic colleges and universities, including the University of Notre Dame. Even if it requires some effort to tease out a Straussian influence on contemporary conservative Catholic thinking, it certain exists and, perhaps, warrants closer inspection.

Joel the Host and Pater Edmund make mention of Strauss in their discussion of MacIntyre, highlighting the fact that MacIntyre is ultimately a historicist while Strauss is not. (I will leave to the side any discussion of Strauss’s “true teaching”; his anti-historicism, even if a ruse, remains influential to this day.) By “historicism” I mean the idea that all modes of thought, including moral philosophy, are historically contingent, thus transitory. Even great thinkers can never escape their age and it is all but impossible to adjudicate between the ethical claims of the ancient Greeks as compared to the ethical claims of the modern Taliban. According to Pater Edmund’s reading of MacIntyre, however, it is still possible to adjudicate the claims of different historical periods and/or cultural contexts, though it remains important to recall historical context at all times. Strauss and his students would likely reject this compromise, noting that while it is clear norms and conventions shift throughout time and locale, there is always a true understanding, a true teaching, to be grasped that transcends history and culture. Besides, in Strauss’s mind, historicism per se is self-defeating insofar as it claims all modes of thought are contingent yet professes to furnish a teaching on the nature of thought that is true at all times and under all circumstances. This is why, according to Strauss, radical historicists such as Martin Heidegger are so much more difficult to wrestle with: instead of professing a universal teaching available to all men at all times and in all places, they profess a revelation available only at an absolute moment. Before Heidegger, all men were confined to a certain darkness.

I contend that Strauss’s anti-historicism, regardless of the man’s “true beliefs,” is much more congenial to the Latin Catholic intellectual tradition than MacIntyre’s soft (compromised?) historicism. That is to say, Thomists of the Strict Observance and their intellectual forebears (including St. Thomas Aquinas himself) would be far more inclined to take up with Strauss’s adherence to the possibility of pure, universal knowledge than any notion which confines thought as attaining, at best, to an expression of “truth” that is and will always be contingent on time and place. Sure, St. Thomas thought there were gaps and errors in the works of Aristotle, but he sought to correct them in the light of either later philosophical insights, or the inerrancy of revelation. Aquinas did not reduce Aristotle to a man who was doomed by the truth of history to achieve nothing more than packaging certain Athenian intellectual prejudices into his philosophy. Aristotle, right or wrong, had something to say to all men at all times and in all places, and only after a thoroughgoing understanding of his thought would it be possible to judge whether or not he delivered truths beyond doubt unto the ages of ages.

None of this is to say that Catholics should bolt to the works of Strauss and cast aside their lightly-read copies of After Virtue. There remains good reasons for not accepting Strauss at face value, particularly his attempt  to burn away all trace of metaphysics from great thinkers whom Strauss determined were trying to evade prosecution by popular prejudices. Voegelin may have more to say to Catholics today than he’s given credit for, though his body of work is exceedingly difficult to penetrate and there is very little resembling a “definitive statement” in Voegelin’s many writings. He was a man caught in a constant quest to discover the order of history, and he detested the idea that his work should be ever calcified into a “doctrine.” Rather, Voegelin hoped that his efforts would light the intellectual flames of others who would build upon, revise, and ultimately overcome his work by drawing closer to the truth as more and more materials and discoveries from around the world informed the science of politics. With rare exception, this never really happened and probably never will.

And so MacIntyre, as I said, remains a safe option for a certain style of Catholic, though not a particularly interesting one.

Toward Glorious Times

If Sam Kriss can return to web-logging by ironically referring to himself as an “idiot” after being #MeToo’d out of social media for being a sexual predator, I believe I am entitled to leap back in the ring after five of some of the most hectic months of my life.

For the past month or so, I have been quietly observing—and occasionally participating in—an online group dedicated to those who were once a part of, but have since left (or at least distanced themselves from), the Eastern Orthodox Church. As I am sworn to secrecy regarding the membership of the group and the information shared, I cannot get into specifics. What I will say (and this should come as little surprise to anyone who has followed “things Orthodox”), there is much that is rotten “out East.” No, Orthodoxy (at least in the West) does not have the same highly concentrated, visible scandals as those which currently afflict the Catholic Church, but it is not difficult to find credible tales of spiritual, psychological, and even physical/sexual abuse in the Orthodox Church. The problem of “guruism,” a problem recognized by the late Fr. Alexander Schmemann, runs rampant in Ameri-doxy and far too many priests, unequipped with any formal training, believe they have the authority and ability to direct their flocks like serf-holding nobility. This problem is distinct from the “cult of personality” phenomenon too often seen in Catholic circles, particularly around the figure of the pope. Sure, Orthodoxy has its own personality cults, but those tend to be far less insidious than the cleric-as-oracle or monk-as-prophet phenomena which so easily set the stage for abuse in the Orthodox Church. Due to Orthodoxy’s powerful “last outpost” narrative whereby all other Christianities are marginalized to the point of being characterized as demonic delusions, many souls burned by the false promises of the Eastern Church find themselves turning not to Catholicism or some form of Protestantism after Orthodoxy, but rather to agnosticism if not full-blown atheism. A soul that falls away from Orthodoxy is not picked back up by another confession, but rather resigns itself to a disquieting nothingness that must, at a certain level, feel comforting compared to the overbearing spiritual manipulation that proceeds largely unnoticed behind parish doors.

Not that Catholics don’t have plenty to lament over themselves. However, given the mountain of commentary on the ongoing abuse crisis (most of it trash) that is already floating around in cyberspace, I see no pressing need to contribute to it.

As some of you may know, in my “free time” I do a bit of consumer protection work, specifically debt defense for consumer, medical, and student loan debt. Though sometimes inadequate to the task, there exists a number of federal and state laws intended to protect consumers from abusive and deceptive debt-collection practices. While some attorneys go into this line of work in the hopes of scoring a “big one” against a larger debt collector, perhaps in a class-action context, I have found a great deal of professional comfort in taking on collectors and their attorneys one case at a time. The harsh reality is that 98% of consumers being sued on an alleged debt never have representation and nearly 80% default, that is, fail to respond to the legal complaint issued against them. This sad situation encourages debt-collection firms to file thousands upon thousands of auto-generated lawsuits, many of which fail to meet state and/or federal legal standards. Instead of fighting, however, consumers are apt to just throw the lawsuits in the trash, defaulting, and then eventually coming to learn that their wages and/or tax returns are being garnished. While it is never too late to fight back, it’s much easier to stop collectors on the front end than look for remedies on the back end. If you or someone you know is staring down the barrel of a collection action and/or garnishment, please know that help is available. While I operate out of Michigan, you can find debt-defense attorneys all over the country through the National Association of Consumer Advocates.

And speaking of consumer defense, in the past people have challenged my adherence to Catholic social principles by saying that they are unrealistic and are only workable in the context of a Catholic confessional state—the sort which is unlikely to reappear on the timeline at any point in the foreseeable future. Maybe. However, it is important to understand that even in a suboptimal socio-political context, it is still possible for all persons, regardless of class or station, to effectuate Catholic social principles in their daily lives. As an attorney, I can think of no better way to do this than to come to the assistance of those being exploited by an immoral, usury-based economic ordo that often runs roughshod over the most vulnerable populations in society. No, the laws of the United States are not properly configured to uphold the full panoply of Catholic social principles, but there are avenues available under statutory and common law to defend individuals from unlawful and immoral practices. Seeking economic justice is a good in and of itself, even if there are costs and setbacks. Even lawyers otherwise disinclined from pursuing this line of work full time can still get involved through legal aid organizations or just answering the call of a needy potential client, regardless of their primary practice area. It is one way to put principles into practice, and I would encourage all attorneys to put some time and effort into it.

With all that said, I have no plan for what the next iteration of this blogging endeavor will look like. Given my full plate, I doubt I will be able to post as often as I did several years ago. If you are new to this web-log, I encourage you to scan through the archives to get a sense of what my writing is all about. (I apologize in advance for all of the broken links; I assure you that the internal content which they connect to is still available.) If you are a longtime reader, then please let others know I am “back at it.” What that means in practice…we’ll see.