Friday, February 22, 2008

Extra Ecclesiam Nulla Salus

Is it wrongheaded to hold that those who assert ideas contrary to your own are mistaken and that, ideally, they should see the error of their ways? Much as I bitterly disagree with the pope I call "Nazinger," overlooked in the brouhaha over the Good Friday prayer for the conversion of Jews, to my mind, is a philosophical debate about conviction and tolerance.

In speaking of conviction, let's agree that we're talking about tested ideas about which you have a certainty that is, perhaps, not absolute, but sufficient to convince you of their validity or truth. Similarly, by tolerance I mean the amicable and peaceful acceptance of those who hold differing convictions.

Take the proposition that the Earth orbits the Sun. When Galileo affirmed it, there was no empirical way to verify whether this was true; we now have been able to "see" the orbit in motion from satellites and spaceships to the point that this is a fact. It wasn't in Galileo's time.

Was Galileo wrong to insist that his heliocentric scientific theory was right and that the views of his church inquisitors were mistaken? Assuming Galileo prayed on this matter, would it have been wrong for Galileo to ask God to help convince Cardinal Bellarmine?

Is it wrong for Democrats to seek to convince Republicans? For Obamans to woo Clinonites? For Keynesians to wish to persuade Adamsmithians that they're off the mark by a few points?

After all, not absolutely everything a Republican president does is without some redeeming value, and there isn't a huge policy difference between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, and Keynesian economics can be just as fallible as orthodox free market capitalism.

Yet wouldn't Democrats have a point or three in noting that Republicans presidents brought us the Great Depression, the stagnation of wages beginning in 1973, the de-industrialization of the United States in the 1980s and I'd run out of space cataloging the current prez's disasters?

Wouldn't Obamaniacs have some bragging rights when it comes to their candidate's ability to sway and mobilize?

And didn't those who deficit-spent us out of World War II (and the Depression) and eliminated hunger for two decades through food subsidies show that pure-accounting balanced budgets and minimalist governance, such as propounded by McCain when he isn't squiring a blonde lobbyist, are not particularly useful policy recipes?

That's what conviction is all about: being sufficiently convinced of something to assert that it is the truth, even without total and absolute proof. Most of what we "know" is really a matter of reasonable conviction and/or trust in a given source, rather than actual, factually verified knowledge of our own.

A confusion arises in our day that mixes up syncretism, the attempted reconciliation of different or opposing principles, and relativism, the deeming of all ideas to be validity or truthful relative to a variety of factors, with tolerance.

In Western culture this is a debate that has as its center the classic ecclesiastical Latin phrase in my heading, which literally means "outside the Church there is no health." This was the conviction of Cyprian of Carthage, a third-century bishop who made the idea famous. (Personal note: Cyprian was converted from paganism by St. Caecilius, a North African presbyter who may be the source of my name.)

Cyprian faced two crucial issues for the Church of his time: whether the baptisms performed by heretics were valid and whether the Christians who defected to paganism and renounced their faith during the Decian persecution, a majority, should be welcomed back.

The Carthaginian prelate argued that the baptisms were invalid and refused absolution to the apostates without long and public penitence unless they were facing death. In the first he went against the consensus of his time and all the way up to the present. In the latter, a council supported his view.

One need not be a believer to see logic in Cyprian's arguments.

If you do not believe or do not believe "rightly," no matter what words you use and what actions you take, the meaning of what you do cannot possibly go beyond your own convictions. If you betray your beliefs publicly to save your skin, while others are dying for the same beliefs, returning to fellowship with other believers might reasonably entail some action showing remorse before being accepted in fellowship.

Do note that in both controversies Cyprian, while intolerant of dissension and defection within his group, had nothing to say about the world outside, other than that it lacked "health," later translated as "salvation." Why would Cyprian have gone peacefully to his beheading, rather than publicly state he believed otherwise, if he didn't think that his way was the healthful one?

My point is that, even as I look in from the outside and disagree with the substance of Cyprian's conviction, I still admire and agree with the notion that one should stand for one's convictions.

People of conviction A are entitled to believe that A would be better for people of conviction B. Catholics are entitled to pray for the conversion of Jews, Muslims, Protestants, and even me, since they believe that believing in Catholicism is the best thing since sliced bread. Democrats are entitled to hope for a change of heart in Republicans.
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