Sunday, June 10, 2007

St. Cyprian and Protestant Ecclesiology

This has been a week for St. Cyprian what with Pope Benedict using him as the basis of his catechetical reflection on last Wednesday. That has led to a small flurry of posts on Cyprian which I've watched smugly, realizing that I've already posted on Cyprian in previous post . Well, okay, I'm not really claiming Pope Benedict hopped on my bandwagon, but, I wonder....

Okay, in all seriousness, I was pleased to see the interest in St. Cyprian for pretty much the reason that I set out back in my earlier post. I really do think that St. Cyprian has an insight into ecclesiology and unity which we would do well to heed today. That Catholics appreciate this message, I think, goes without saying, even if I think that the quick identification of orthodoxy only with Rome is perhaps overstated. I don't want to open that particular can of worms today. Or, at least, I don't want to open it in quite the same way.

What I do want to talk about is how similar Cyprian's dilemma with Novatian is with the current multi-denominational universe. The dilemma for Cyprian in dealing with Novatian and his own confessors was that they were usually doctrinally orthodox, if, perhaps, a little too rigourous. The result was that it was not easy to accuse them of heresy on most of the normal grounds (gnosticism, docetism, trinitarian confusions etc). Rather they were schismatics which would seem to suggest a different order of problem.

We, moderns, want to separate schism and heresy, of course. We focus primarily on what constitutes orthodoxy, but what the term orthodox means today remains inherently slippery because the marks of orthodoxy shift and change according to the tradition, denomination and, yes, even the person involved. Given the fact that there is no one authoritative voice in Christianity (at least, undisputed; there are several claimants), it is difficult to know how one could find more precision in the term or in just what consitutes heresy or schism. All three of these terms are so fuzzy, I almost wonder that they continue to be used with any inherent meanings intact.

The reason for this fuzziness around thes terms may be that there remains no universally accepted Church, especially in the aftermath of the Reformation which fractured Western Christianity into a thousand pieces; many of which are busily splintering themselves into another thousand pieces. The result is a radical crisis of authority which afflicts all Christians even today. We all, Catholic, Orthodox and the whole variety of Protestants deal with the aftermath of this fragmentation every day and, contrary to the opinion of many, we are all responsible, not only for the initial divisions, but for their continuation. Not that there is any easy or neat solution.

For Cyprian, however, the problem of schismatics and heretics was much easier to deal with for the very good reason that there was one central authority recognized within most of the Christian world: the undivided Church. That is, anyone outside the Church was, by definition, a heretic. Thus, it didn't matter that Novatian agreed with Cyprian on almost all doctrinal issues. His separation from the legitimately ordained Bishop of Rome made him a heretic; possibly because his ecclesiology which permitted him to break into schism was faulty or possibly because Novatian's unbending attitude to the lapsed suggests a disregard for the operation of God's forgiveness and grace.

Yet, today, I don't think we have the luxury of presuming an undivided Church. For that, we can blame the Reformation and its aftermath. But we can't shift the all blame for this solely on either the Protestants or the Catholics. By rights, the Catholic Church would have found within itself the ability to deal with the legitimate concerns of the early Reformers and conduct an internal reform along the lines the Cluniac reforms in the 11th century (yes, I know these were monastic reforms, but their impact was considerable on the mediaeval church). Of course, the Reformers were hardly patient enough to wait for the Church to hear their calls for reform nor were they wise in their choice of allies (German territorial princes, who were notorious for wanting to extending their own power at the expense of the Holy Roman Emperor).

This is, I think the reason why most mainline denominations including Roman Catholicism recognize that Christians of other denominations are recognizably Christian, even if our differences preclude full communion with them. After several hundreds years of sharp denomination differences, I think we are starting to recognize some of our common bonds again. The process is slow and painful, but, from time to time, we can see progress towards getting along with each other, even in our differences.

Where does that leave us? In pretty much the same place as we were when we started. The disunity of contemporary Christianity is an important reason why we are unable to convince people that the message we bear to the world is from God. In the past, Romans would look at Christians and say 'See how they love each other'. While we are getting better, I'm not sure we're causing people to think that, except in isolated pockets. I don't have a good solution, but the problem remains urgent if we take seriously our mission as Christ's people in this world.



Weekend Fisher said...

And consider what a large percentage of Protestants' objections had been previously raised by the Orthodox. I have to wonder, if Rome and Constantinople had reconciled in the 1300's or 1400's, whether Wittenberg would have ever needed to happen.

Take care & God bless

Death Bredon said...

Cyprian said he did not care whether a man's faith was perfect if that man was not in communion with the true Bishop of Rome (even at a time when the identity of that person was unclear to reasonable men of good faith, as the papacy was contested.)

Cyprian's "institutional ecclessiology," apart from having the practical difficulty that identifying the true bishop of Rome has not always been easy, and for the sedevacantists or those of similar ilk, it is still not easy, is also problematic because it was innovative and unknown to the ancient Church BY CYPRIAN'S OWN ADMISSION.

Indeed, the ecclesiology newly minted by Cyprian was a rationalistic, legalistic, institutionalist (and therefore anti-charasmatic and anti-pnuemanological ecclesiology) approach that he cut from whole clothe, NOT any prior Tradition, to support for one of the contestants in the pope/antipope dispute of his time. Hence, Cyprian's ecclesiology is NOT part of the consensus patri.

Not surprisingly, the perennial practice of the Church, both Oriental, Greco-Roman (Orthodox) and Germanic (Catholic) has been to consider non-institutional factors, such as sound doctrine and morals (imagine that!) in considering the status of those not visibly within the Church. Thus, today, in its most recent ecclesiological pronouncements, Rome does not automatically consider all separted Christians to be "outside the Church" and beyond hope as Cyprian plainly did. Likewise, for all but the most narrow minded Orthodox and psuedo-traditionalist.

To the contrary, the true ecclesiology of ancient Church, as confirmed both the vast majority of practice both East and West (despite occasional lapses and much ink spilled expressing contrary OPINION) is found in the Basilian Canons, which reject a Cyprianic in-or-out approach.

In sum, IMHO, B16 has missed the boat here by publically trumpeting portions of Cyprian's thought that are outside the consensus patri, even according to the teaching of his own church! Thus, B16 has probably got some significant damage control to do, especially with Eastern Christians.

Phil S. said...

weekend fisher;

Perhaps, but, really, after the sack of Constantinople, the settlement with Rome was simply not a political possibility. You can see this in the two attempted re-unifications which were scuttled largely because of anti-Western feeling in the post-1204 world. What chance of reunification was left in 1204 died when the Crusaders climbed over the sea walls of Constantinople.

death bredon;
I take your point. I was playing around with Cyprian with a certain degree of scepticism about his ecclesiology, especially in this post.


Weekend Fisher said...

The Council of Florence didn't go too well, either ...

Death Bredon said...

Forgive me Phil, sometimes I'm a bit slow and miss what should be ironic, rhetorical, skeptical, or sarcastic nuances, especially on the web.

BTW, Love your blog. What a labor of love and Christian service.


Phil S. said...

Thanks fisher and bredon! I appreciate the comments.