Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Reason Has a Wax Nose

That is a saying of some medieval theologians concerning rational argumentation. It means that if one is clever (or perhaps devious) enough, one can come up with a kind of logic or reasoning that can turn an argument in any direction one pleases. We can be left with a series of endless inconclusive disputes on various issues, as debaters on both side turn reason’s wax nose this way and that. This can be somewhat exasperating, and may result in the kind of relativism that the Pope has decried, for people end up refusing even to hear solid arguments but merely say: “That may be true for you, but not for me. I have my own truth.” End of rational discourse. This, of course, implies a brand new definition for “truth.”

An important answer that God has given to reason’s wax nose is this: Revelation. When God speaks, He is not merely taking one side of a debate. He doesn’t have to argue his way to a satisfactory conclusion. He speaks, and his word is truth. Jesus came to reveal definitively the mystery of God, not to engage in endless debates, which is why the Pharisees were indignant (and the common people delighted) that He spoke with authority, “and not like the scribes.”

But in the hands of heretics even divine revelation (the Scriptures, at least) can be made to seem to have a wax nose. This is not because the word of God is itself susceptible to manipulation, but because different interpreters assign different meanings to it, and not always with the most honest or noble intentions. Most of the heresies in the history of the Church were based on some sort of misreading of the Scriptures (or at times a failure to acknowledge the divine revelation contained in Holy Tradition).

God has also given us a remedy for that: the Magisterium, or teaching authority of his Church. The Magisterium firms up the “nose” of Revelation that some would like to turn to wax, and leaves no room for contradictions of essential dogmas (but theological reflection to deepen our understanding of Revelation and application of it to daily life is still fostered). So there needn’t be any doubt or confusion (or self-interested, deceptive trickery) concerning what God has revealed for our salvation.

But you know what? There are still many in the Church today that think even the Magisterium has a wax nose! Here is where their bad will and rebellion are manifest. God reveals his truth and his will in Scripture and Tradition, and the Church authoritatively interprets and promulgates it, but some go to great lengths to deny or distort it. For example, take the recently-released Vatican instruction on the admission of homosexual men to seminaries (I will say more on this tomorrow). In many places, where the response was not outright rejection or mean-spirited protest, we find a number of bishops, priests, canon lawyers, and seminary officials scrambling to find loopholes or ambiguities in the document so that they don’t have to obey it. The highest authority in the Church has spoken, so their first approach is to try to justify disobedience to it! Something is rotten at the core of this approach. If they don’t understand it (as some of them say) it is because they do not want to understand it. The Vatican is (finally) making a serious attempt to break up the gay network in the clergy and hierarchy, so those with vested interests or agendas are enraged and indignant that someone has finally pulled back the curtain and turned on the light.

There are other churches and communities where doctrine and morality do have wax noses. The Catholic Church isn’t one of them (manifest infidelities to her faith and morals notwithstanding). Those whose standard response to the Magisterium is rejection or devious re-interpretation of her teachings (they’re already saying that they’ll “read” the document in their own way at the local level) ought to find a church with a more malleable nose, and then go there. The Church is not meant to be a hideout for morally-challenged rebels, but a sanctuary for those who seek salvation from the living and true God—who speaks the words of truth and life, and isn’t interested in clever stunts and mushy reasoning. We see it often in the Scriptures: “I, the Lord, have spoken.” To Peter He has given the keys of the Kingdom. And what Peter binds or looses on earth is bound or loosed in Heaven.