"Let unity, the greatest good of all goods, be your preoccupation." - St. Ignatius of Antioch (Letter to St. Polycarp)
Wednesday, September 10, 2008
The Church: Catholic or Invisible? Part II
This is a follow-up to "The Church: Catholic or Invisible?".
Consider the following dialogue. One of the participants is a Protestant who claims that there is such a thing as the visible Church. Call him VC-guy. The other is a Protestant who denies that there is such a thing as the visible Church. Call him VC-denier.
VC-denier: "There are Christians who get together and proclaim the Word and celebrate the Sacraments. And there are various denominations to which most Christians belong."
VC-guy: "Wait, you left out something else that is also there, i.e. the visible Church."
VC-denier: "I don't see any visible Church. I see only the things I listed."
VC-guy: "All the things you listed constitute the visible Church"
VC-denier: "What if it didn't exist?"
VC-guy: "What do you mean?"
VC-denier: "I mean, what would be different if there were no visible Church?"
VC-guy: "There wouldn't be people congregating together to proclaim the Word and celebrate the Sacraments."
VC-denier: "No, you're not following me. I mean, what if there were only people congregating together to proclaim the Word and celebrate the Sacraments, and not some additional entity called the visible Church? What would be different?"
VC-guy: "Well, nothing, but that's impossible, because wherever there are people congregating to proclaim the Word and celebrate the Sacraments, there is the visible Church."
VC-denier: "Yes, in your view, wherever people are doing those things, by definition that is the visible Church".
VC-denier: "But what if there weren't actually another entity, i.e. a visible Church, but only a term [i.e. 'visible Church'] that was being used to refer to the plurality of persons doing these activities? What would be different?"
VC-guy: "I don't know. Nothing I guess."
VC-denier: "What about the principle of parsimony? You know, the principle that the simpler explanation is to be preferred, all things being equal?"
VC-guy: "Right, but how does that apply here?"
VC-denier: "Well, we can explain the same data equally well in two ways, one by positing another entity "the visible Church", and one without positing that entity."
VC-guy: "Ok, so what?"
VC-denier: "Therefore, by the principle of parsimony, the explanation that does not posit an additional entity is preferred, because positing the additional entity is entirely unnecessary."
VC-guy: "So according to your argument, there isn't actually a visible Church. Rather, what exists are visible persons who are proclaiming the Word and celebrating the Sacraments. We can give those persons a collective label (of any sort), but we shouldn't make the mistake of treating the label as referring to a single unified entity constituted by those persons."
VC-guy: "So really, there is no visible Church; there are visible people engaged in meeting to proclaim the Word and celebrate the Sacraments, but not another entity 'the visible Church'."
VC-denier: "Well, ... yes."
The point of the dialogue is to show how VC-guy's position is subject to the principle of parsimony. The application of the principle of parsimony shows how he has committed the "fallacy of misplaced concreteness", treating a plural-referring term as if it referred to an additional singular entity that in some sense includes all the other singular entities within itself.
The Catholic position is not subject to this critique because the Catholic Church is a hierarchically organized institution. Reductionism (as applied to living organisms) is the opposite error of the fallacy of misplaced concreteness, because while misplaced concreteness treats mere pluralities as if they are actual wholes and thus unnecessarily inflates the account of ontology, reductionism treats actual composite wholes as mere pluralities of smaller simples, and in this way fails to account fully for the being and activity of actual composite wholes. (See Leon Kass's "The Permanent Limitations of Biology".) Because the hierarchical structure of the Catholic Church is analogous to that of an organism, it is not subject to eliminative reductionism by way of the principle of parsimony. To try to explain the activities of Catholics without referring to the institution to which they belong would necessarily leave out a significant part of the full explanation. It would be like trying to explain the daily life of a human being solely in terms of the movements of the particles of which he is composed. But a complete explanation of the activities of Protestants as such need not refer to some world-encompassing entity, "the visible Church", over and above the influence of other believers, their local congregation and/or denomination.