Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Clarity vs Simplicity

Following the pre-synodal meeting of young people in March 2018, there has been an outcry from certain younger Catholics on social media that their desires were not properly represented at the meeting. The demands of these Catholics seems to be captured in one word: clarity.

Young people want clarity. They want the Church to clearly state its teaching. In a world of moral relativism and subjectivism, clear doctrine is a sign of contradiction.

The pre-synodal document itself refers multiple times to a desire for a "simple and clear" understanding of Church teaching. But the document also recognizes that simplicity and clarity are not always harmonious:
"We need rational and critical explanations to complex issues – simplistic answers do not suffice."
The difference between clarity and simplicity

There is a danger, especially in the social media world of soundbites and quick retorts, of conflating clarity with simplicity. It will be helpful then to consider the etymology of each.

Clarity has its etymology in the Latin claritas: "brightness, splendor."

Clear has historically meant: "transparent, allowing light to pass through; free from impurities."

Simple, on the other hand, has its etymology in the Latin simplex, which means: "characterized by a single part; single, simple, plain, unmixed, uncompounded," literally "onefold."

Clarity and simplicity are two radically different concepts. When doctrine is clear, its light is allowed to pass through in all its brightness and splendor. When doctrine is simple, it is reduced to a single part.  

Orthodoxy embraces clarity; heresy embraces simplicity

The Catholic Church has always embraced clarity and rejected overly simplistic explanations of doctrine. This can best be seen in the evolution of the Church's understanding of Jesus Christ in the first millennium ecumenical councils. Prior to the Council of Nicea in AD 325, the Church struggled against heretics who sought to oversimplify the relationship between the Father and Jesus Christ. In the 2nd century, adoptionists proposed a very simple explanation for who Jesus is: He is simply a man who was adopted by God as His son. Adoptionism is perhaps the simplest attempt at theology and Christology: The Father is God, and Jesus Christ is a man.  End of story.

When Pope Victor I rejected adoptionism, heresy manifested itself in another oversimplification of the Godhead, taught by Sabellius: Jesus is God the Father. The Father suffered on the Cross.  Sabellianism, while it acknowledged some complexity in the person of Jesus Christ, nevertheless maintained a rigorous simplicity in its theology: The Father is God, and the Logos is the Father. There is no distinction.  God is absolutely simple in every respect.

Pope Callistus I rejected Sabellianism, but heretics again sought a simple explanation in Arianism, which concluded that if the Logos is not God the Father, then the Logos must not be God. This again maintains a radically simple view of God:  God is simply the Father. The Council of Nicea rejected this approach, declaring that Jesus Christ is "very God of very God."

The 5th century Christological disputes again showed the tendency of heresy to embrace simplicity.  Nestorians concluded that if Jesus Christ fully man and fully God, then He must be two separate persons: a divine person and a human person. Monophysites responded that if Jesus Christ is one person, then he must have one nature. Orthodoxy rejected both oversimplifications and instead allowed the fullness of truth to pass through in all its splender: Jesus Christ is one person with two natures, perfect God and perfect man, two natures united in one person without confusion, separation or mixture.

The heretical mindset

To the Sabellian, orthodoxy sounds like polytheism. To the Arian, orthodoxy sounds like Sabellianism. To the Nestorian, orthodoxy sounds like monophysitism.  And to the monophysite, orthodoxy sounds like Nestorianism. This is how heretics have characterized orthodox doctrine throughout history: oversimplifying it into a clearly erroneous proposition.

This mindset permeates enemies of Pope Francis today. When Pope Francis instructs priests not to demand of penitents a purpose of amendment lacking in nuance in Footnote 364 of Amoris Laetitia, his critics accuse him of permitting absolution when a penitent intends to continue in sin. While Pope Francis asks the Church to take into account the complexity of various situations in paragraph 296 of Amoris Laetitia, his critics lump all divorced and remarried persons into one of two categories: more uxorio or not more uxorio.

Truth is like a stained glass window

Catholic teaching can be likened to the stained glass windows that adorn our churches. It is a luminous array of many colors that come together to give us a clear image of the glory of God in Jesus Christ.  In Familiaris Consortio 10, Pope Saint John Paul II said that the Church progresses "towards a daily more complete and profound awareness of the truth, which has already been given to her in its entirety by the Lord." This means that the stained glass windows on our churches become more complex, with more colors, presenting a clearer image of Jesus Christ.

Let us not be misled into confusing clarity with simplicity, and in doing so obscure the many colors of Church teaching, blotting out all but our favorite color, rendering an image not of Jesus Christ, but of ourselves.

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