Tuesday, June 11, 2019

What Will You Become?

In the classic version of the online game called World of Warcraft, there was a group called “The Scarlet Crusade.” If you followed the quests in order, it started out looking like they were devoted to protecting the world from the hordes of undead. But you quickly learned that they were extremists who operated under the principle that the ends justified the means, turning on anyone who disagreed with that approach. 

In the reboot, taking place about five years later, you encounter the Scarlet Crusade, where they have become undead themselves. The implication is that their “ends justify the means” approach led them to becoming what they hated while remaining in denial about the fact that they caused their own downfall. As one NPC shouts in game as you fight, “The Scarlet Crusade is not over! Undeath is merely a setback!” Later, when you return from your quest, an NPC of another group (who sent you to fight the Scarlet Crusade) says that they fight evil without being bound by morality… implying that the cycle will continue.

I find this bit of game lore makes a good illustration of the principle of someone gradually becoming what they hate through justification of their own wrongdoing.

This came to mind when studying the attacks made by Martin Luther against the Church [§]. In his early days, Luther claimed that he was not against the Church, but trying to reform abuses within her. But shortly before he was excommunicated in 1520, he was openly attacking the authority of the Church, and treating the defense of the magisterium as defending the sins committed by the men holding the office:

They allege that the words of Christ were spoken to them: “Whoever hears you hears me; whoever rejects you rejects me.” They rely strictly on these words and have no compunction about saying, doing, or not doing whatever they want. They ban, curse, rob, kill, and perpetrate all the evildoings as they please without any restraint. In no way did Christ mean that we should obey them in everything they say and do but only when they speak his word, the gospel, and not their own words and do his work and not their own.

—Martin Luther, Treatise On Good Works (1520)

Yes, abuses did exist, but reforms had begun before he was born, slow and resisted as they were. Luther appears to have committed the logical fallacies of composition and hasty generalization in assuming that the real regional abuses were universal and caused by false teachings, while committing the begging the question fallacy in claiming that adopting his theology was the only true reform (Luther believed he was trying to “restore” what the Church had “lost” [#]). Because the Church could not accept his personal interpretation of Scripture and the Patristics that he used to justify his claims, Luther believed that the magisterium had to be opposed.

What struck me while reading this was how similar Luther was in reasoning to the anti-Francis Catholics in the Church today. Yes, their theology is vastly different, but their reasoning is almost identical: that because the Church today rejects their personal interpretation of past Church documents, the magisterium is accused of teaching error. Like Luther, these critics argue that until the Church accepts their interpretation (“returns to the true teaching”), they will be in error.

Those defending the authority of the Church magisterium today point out that the mistaken judgments and sins of the person holding the office (for all people sin) are not the same thing as the teachings of the Pope and bishops in communion with him and that the teachings are binding despite the sinfulness of the individual Pope [&]. But, like Luther, the anti-Francis Catholics equate this defense with defending the “errors” of the Pope and saying that anything the Pope says or does.

This brings us to the issue of concern. The modern anti-Francis Catholics are sounding increasingly like Luther, Zwingli, Calvin, and others who made false statements about the beliefs of the Catholic Church. Like the 16th century founders of Protestantism, they set their interpretations as doctrine and accused the Church today of doing wrong. Luther, et al, when faced with the choice of rejecting their personal interpretation and rejecting the Catholic Church, chose the latter. 

The modern critics should be very cautious that they don’t make the same choice. Otherwise, similar to the fictional Scarlet Crusade mentioned above, they might find themselves outside of the Church proclaiming: “Schism is only a setback!”


[§] In case you’re worried, I read the writings of the16th century founders of Protestantism to make sure I am accurately reporting their positions instead of getting information second hand.

[#] At the risk of oversimplifying: with the reemergence of interest in the classic (pagan) Greco-Roman philosophers, there was a movement to go back to the original sources (ad fontes) of Greek documents to get the proper meaning, since some texts did have copyist errors. Renaissance thinkers applied this to Scripture, assuming that the translation of Scripture was equally compromised.

[&] See canons 751-754.

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