Sunday, February 16, 2020

Truth and Charity: Brief Reflections on Calvin’s “Institutes of the Christian Religion”

People who follow my blog’s Facebook page may have seen my occasional sharing of quotes from Calvin’s Institutes of the Catholic Religion# along with my commentary. Having finally finished the thing yesterday, I have been asked to offer my thoughts on it. This will not be an in depth analysis. Rather I intend to comment on something lacking within it that Christians need to have when interacting with each other: Truth and Charity. 

In that respect, I would have to say that I found this work informative—though not in the way that the author might wish—because whatever Calvin’s sincerity might have been, the book lacked both truth and charity.

The book lacks truth to the extent that I would have to use the word calumny to describe it. That is John Calvin constantly presents a caricature of what the Catholic Church actually believes, treating individual corruption as official policy, claiming that we believe things that we explicitly reject, creating straw man arguments, taking Scripture, Patristics, and Church documents out of context*. He contrasts this mess with his own interpretation of Scripture which he declares to be the original intent of the Early Church. Anybody can make their own claims seem true if they do this. But if the accusations are false and the evidence is misrepresented, any guilty verdict that comes from it is an injustice.

I would have to say it lacks charity because Calvin assumes any personal sin on the part of Pope, Cardinal, bishop, or priest must be done maliciously and approved by the Church, while any difference between him and Catholic teaching is a willful perversion of what the Bible teaches.

Obviously, when it comes to truth, if two views are in contradiction, they can’t both be true, and we have to discern which is the truth. Part of that search for truth is removing false understanding of the other side and discovering what they really believe. Without that first step, any attempts at “dialogue” on our part will fail. That is where charity comes in. We don’t assume bad will without evidence. We don’t assume heresy without a thorough investigation.

With this in mind, I think the Catholic reader and the non-Catholic reader should consider some things: 

I should remind the Catholic reader that the Church does not declare any person to be in hell. We simply do not know the levels of culpability in a person’s knowledge, intent or will to say something like “Calvin knowingly and maliciously lied.” After all, he could have been grossly misinformed about what we believe and sincerely thought we held what he accused us of. It’s still false witness of course, but if we assume the worst, we’re doing the same wrong he did.

I should also remind the Catholic reader that, regardless of the culpability Calvin might have, we are not to assume the same guilt exists in the person who was taught Calvin’s claims from youth and assumes that they have to be true. It is truth taught in Lumen Gentium #14 that “Whosoever, therefore, knowing that the Catholic Church was made necessary by Christ, would refuse to enter or to remain in it, could not be saved.” So, of course we must defend what is true. But Unitatis redintegratio #3 tells us that “The children who are born into these Communities and who grow up believing in Christ cannot be accused of the sin involved in the separation, and the Catholic Church embraces upon them as brothers, with respect and affection.” So, when sharing what we profess, we must not take a “@#$& you, heretic!” approach in doing so. We must interact with love, even when we disagree with others. Hurling polemics will not convince anybody to listen.

As for the non-Catholic Christian reader—especially from Protestant denominations—I would ask you to remember that we do naturally resent falsehoods being spoken against us. Setting aside the issue of who teaches correctly for the moment§, you need to realize that what men like Luther and Calvin accused us of are misrepresentations, no matter how sincere they were when they wrote against us. Since we are all forbidden to bear false witness, you have an obligation to make certain what you say against us is true before repeating it to others.

 Both Catholics and non-Catholics need to remember that—regardless of what polemics were hurled in the past—we need to remember those obligations of truth and charity today.


(#) Catholics should remember the Church warnings about reading material hostile to the Catholic faith without good reason and without proper care to avoid damaging their faith. I have taken those precautions. But, since there is a lot of false witness in this book, I strongly urge the Catholic who thinks that all denominations have a mix of truth and error, do not have a solid grasp of the truth, or might be inclined to take accusations at face value to avoid it. It is not for casual reading.

(†) 1960 Translation, Westminster Press, unabridged, if you’re curious.

(*) The nice thing about Verbum software is that one can easily read the passage cited in context—if you have the linked books. Unfortunately, that can get expensive. If you want to try it, I’d recommend starting with Verbum Basic (which is free) and only getting what you need when you need it. 

(€) When two positions are contradictory, they can’t both be true. One must be true and the other must be false. For example, Either Jesus is God or He is not. When two positions are contrary, they can’t both be true but both might be false. For example, saying the sun is either water or sand.

(§) Of course, I do hold the Catholic position to be true.

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