Learning to Think a Little More Like St. Thomas

So my friend Karl Keating writes a rather light-hearted take on his Facebook page, noting that N.T. Wright (an Anglican New Testament scholar) can be rather problematic when he starts banging on about women’s ordination.  Sez Karl:

Some folks I know–Mark Shea, for instance–say lots of good things about N. T. Wright, the retired Anglican bishop and New Testament scholar. Sometimes I’m not sure why. Here’s an example: Wright argues that the NT supports the ordination of women as bishops (http://www.fulcrum-anglican.org.uk/page.cfm?ID=759). Some of the comments to his column tear him apart–and justifiably. He says, for example, that I Tim. 2, used to support his position, has Greek words that appear nowhere else in the NT, but one of the people commenting on this lists the words in question and says that all of them appear multiple times in the NT. Wright also says that Junia, who took his letter to the Romans, must have been ordained: “The first expositor of Paul’s greatest letter was an ordained travelling businesswoman.” Wright is answered by Douglas Wilson, a fairly well known Reformed minister and writer located in Moscow, Idaho. Like the commenters at Wright’s own blog, Wilson takes him apart: http://www.dougwils.com/N.T.-Wrights-and-Wrongs/squeezing-harder-than-that.html I find columns such as Wright’s rather discouraging, because I expect sharper thinking from sharp people. But my discouragement is largely balanced off by being forced to track down Wilson’s Facebook page, where I discover (see his photo) that he plays the mandolin. This covers a multitude of sins.

FWIW,  Wright wrote a fine defense of the Resurrection (The Resurrection of the Son of God).  Scott Hahn has recommended it too and has a warm regard for him as a scholar. Doesn’t mean I (or Scott) buy his arguments about women’s ordination.  Like many Anglicans, he’s a mixed bag on such matters.  Karl, I am morally certain, gets that as well and had no intention of suggesting anybody is heterodox if they say something nice about Wright.  After all, my views on women’s ordination are not a secret. He’s just making a passing, “I wonder what people see in the guy sometimes.”  I wonder the same about what my wife sees in me sometimes.  It doesn’t mean I think she should file for divorce.

But not everybody gets this.  And so somebody immediately asked darkly on Facebook, “What’s Going On With Mark Shea? Weirdness again in the Catholic Community” Clearly, the reader misread Karl as trying to warn an unsuspecting humanity of my departure from orthodoxy and the mortal danger I pose to souls when it is quite obvious to me he meant no such thing.

What interests me about this is that this is not the first, or even the umpteenth, time I have run into Christians who essentially make the mistake of assuming that one is ritually contaminated by contact with somebody they fear is impure.  A trusted voice (in this case, Karl) says something along the lines of “What does X see in Y?  Y’s views on some things seem kinda hinky to me” and with some readers this is not taken as a question to be considered rationally, distinguishing what is sound from what is unsound in Y’s work,  (which is certainly what Karl meant).  Rather it is read as a warning that X has been contaminated by contact with Y and a clarion call to quarantine the unclean and deadly thing that X has become by virtue of his contact with Y.  It’s theology as zombie movie or leprosy diagnosis.  It’s a curiously pre-rational approach to revelation and suggests a deep fear that the person reading this way has no confidence at all that they can understand the Tradition.  They feel they must rely entirely on signals about who’s in and who’s out.  As is often said, “If X is wrong about this (meaning if X has been contaminated by agreeing in any way with Y about anything) then who can trust him about *anything*?”

The problem is, of course, that if you give this mode of navigating it head, absolutely nobody can be trusted at all, since everybody is wrong about *something*.

And of course, when we are dealing with subjects we are confident about, nobody does navigate this way.  You don’t say, “If my brother-in-law the plumber doesn’t believe in transubstantiation, how can I have any confidence he can fix my sink?”  We know that people can be knowledgeable and right about some things and wrong about others.  Learning to distinguish these things is part of learning how to think.  St. Thomas knew this, as does the Church, which is why the Church does not darkly fear that St. Thomas is secretly a pagan or a Muslim merely because St. Thomas makes extensive use of the thought of the pagan Aristotle and the Muslim Averroes.  In the same way, a Catholic can make use of Wright’s good work without subscribing to his defective views on ordination.  Read Wright for a terrific defense of the Resurrection.  When he gets into his theories about women’s ordination, stick with Holy Church.

The Catholic faith has a huge amount of confidence that it is hell, not heaven, that is on the run.  The gates of hell are, recall, *defensive* structures and the imagery is from siege warfare.  Hell is the besieged fortress, not the Faith.  And so Augustine says that Christians can take from the best of human wisdom and learning just as the Israelites looted the Egyptians as they left the Promised Land.  The Faith has nothing to fear from good human scholarship and can parse what is in accord with the Tradition from what is not.  It can also teach us how to do that.

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  • I think it was Garrison Keillor who wrote (perhaps more satirically than literally) about a theological topic that was hotly debated in house churches of the American Midwest: Should Person A break fellowship with Person B because B won’t break fellowship with C, who maintains fellowship with D despite all of D’s degradations? (The correct answer, we are told, is, “Yes.”)

    The Orthodox, meanwhile, know enough to say that 100% of the Church Fathers are 85% orthodox.

  • William

    If any church doesn’t have valid priestly orders I don’t see what difference it makes whether they ordain women or not.

  • Christopher Sarsfield

    This is how it always will be with heretics. Dr. Wright gets the most important point of the New Testament wrong ie how to save your soul. So why should it surprise anyone that he gets much less important (at least to his eternal well being) things wrong.

    • Mark Shea

      I should think he gets the most important part right: believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and you shall be saved.

      • Christopher Sarsfield

        Unfortunately Mark, you in I know that while what you said is a good start it is not sufficient for salvation. You must accept His means of Salvation which are the Sacraments, which come from His Church outside of which there is no salvation. As Pius XI said of such people:

        “You, Venerable Brethren, understand how much this question is in Our mind, and We desire that Our children should also know, not only those who belong to the Catholic community, but also those who are separated from Us: if these latter humbly beg light from heaven, there is no doubt but that they will recognize the one true Church of Jesus Christ and will, at last, enter it, being united with us in perfect charity.” Mortalium animos 1928

        Let us keep praying that Dr. Wright will “beg light from heaven” for if he will “there is no doubt but that [he] will recognize the one true Church of Jesus Christ.” May our Lady keep you forever in the blue shadow of her mantle.

  • JDH

    I think we can all agree on one thing: N.T. Wright has the perfect first and middle initials for a New Testament scholar.

  • Dante Aligheri

    In defense of N.T. Wright, I must say that his so-called “New Perspective” on St. Paul really is quite supportive of the Catholic/Orthodox/Apostolic Tradition in addition – I’m thinking of Dr. Brant Pitre’s Catholic look at the New Perspective – to being invaluable in providing an authentic historical interpretation of him in the first century context. He and Richard Bauckham in particular are invaluable scholars who have done great services to Christianity.

    They can’t really be classified heretics as they were never Catholic to begin with.

    • Christopher Sarsfield

      A heretic is a baptized person that denies one or more dogmas of the Catholic Faith. I did not use it as an insult. I used it to identify a non-Catholic Christian who rejects the claims of the Catholic Church. Thinking it over I probably should have spent the time to type out the above, since heretic does have the negative association.

  • tz

    As long as the Bishop is married to a woman it is OK. Hence the ordination of lesbians.