Thursday, September 20, 2007

Ecclesial Morphogenesis

The last post discussed the theme of natural development with the emphasis on "evolution not revolution": that discontunity is unnatural and severs identity. Now we examine the same principle from the opposite perspective: continuity through change.

Vladimir Soloviov, a Russian Orthodox Christian who came into communion with Rome, wrote vigorously in defense of the Papacy. Here's a beautiful excerpt that compares the historical growth of the Church to the dvelopment of a tree.

Though the transformation of a stone into a mountain is only a symbol, the transformation of a simple, almost impreceptible seed into an infinitely larger and more complicated organism is an actual fact. And it is by just this fact that the New Testament foretells and illustrates the development of the Church, as of a great tree which began in an impreceptible grain of seed and today gives ample shelter to the beasts of the field and the fowls of the air.

Now, even among Catholics we meet with ultradogmatic spirits who, while justly admiring the vast oak which covers them with its shade, absolutely refuse to admit that all this abundance of organic forms has grown from a structure as simple and rudimentary as that of an ordinary acorn. According to them, though the oak tree arose out of the acorn, the acorn must have contained in a distinct and discernible form, if not every leaf, at least every branch of the great tree, and must have been not only idenitical in substance with the latter but similar to it in every detail [like the old homonculus theory].

Whereupon ultracritical spirits of the opposite school set to work to examine the wretched acorn minutely from every angle. Naturally, they discover in it no resemblance whatever to the entwining roots, the stout trunk, the leafy branches, or the tough, corrugated foliage of the great tree. "What humbug," they exclaim. "The acorn is simply an acorn and can never be anything else; it is only too obvious where the great oak and all its characteristics came from. The Jesuits invented it at the [First] Vatican Council; we saw it with our own eyes—in the book of Janus [a dissenting account of the Council]."

At the risk of appearing a freethinker to the extreme dogmatists and of being at the same time labeled a Jesuit in disguise by the critics, I must affirm the unquestionable truth that the acorn actually has quite a simple and rudimentary structure, and that though not all the component parts of a great oak can be discovered in it, the oak has actually grown out of the acorn without any artificial stimulus or infringement of the laws of nature, but by its own right, nay, even by divine right. Since God, who is not bound by the limitations of space and time and of the mechanism of the material world, sees concealed in the actual seeds of things all their future potentialities, so in the little acorn he must not only have seen but ordained and blssed the mighty oak which was to grow from it. In the grain of mustard seed of Peter's faith he discerned and foretold the vast tree of the Catholic Church which was to cover the earth with its brances.

Though Jesus Christ entrusted Peter with that universal sovereign authority which was to endure and develop within the Church throughout its existence upon earth, he did not personally exercise this authority except in a measure and in a form suited to the primitive condition of the apostolic Church. The action of the prince of the apostles had as little resemblance to modern papal administration as the acorn has to the oak; but this does not prevent the papacy from being the natural, logical, and legitimate development of the primacy of Peter.

The growth of an organism ties back to Aristotle's discussion of the meaning of natural:

The form indeed is 'nature' rather than the matter; for a thing is more properly said to be what it is when it has attained to fulfillment than when it exists potentially. (Physics II.1.193b7-8)

Thus an oak tree is more natural than the acorn from which it grew, since it more fully expresses its nature. So human societies, like the family or a larger community, are more natural than the individuals from which they grow and who bind together to form them. Humanity fully expresses its nature in community (contrary to the Enlightenment philosophers' postulation that the State of Nature is solitary).

Similarly, the Catholic Christian Church is a more perfect expression of the Body of Christ than individual, particular Churches, but it also more fully expresses the nature of that universal Communion in its mature state than in it did at birth.

Vladmiri Soloviev (Solovyov), The Russian Church and the Papacy, trans. Herbert Rees, ed. Ray Ryland (San Diego, California: Catholic Answers, 2001), 149-150.

Personal note: I will be travelling for the next couple weeks, so posts if any will be intermittent.


Petrus said...

Your sentiments regarding Peter and the modern Papacy are well-said, however, I want to challenge you a bit on this statement;

"So human societies, like the family or a larger community, are more natural than the individuals from which they grow and who bind together to form them."

"society" itself is a strange word because we talk about it as if it were an entity, but it is made up of individuals who have their own growth and maturation process. To begin talking about 'society' as an organism that is more perfect or complete than the individual is dangerous if not entirely wrong.

I think that you mean to indicate that the Church is more perfect than its members... but the Church is the mystical body of Christ and so has an inherent unity that is very difficult to express. This unity is unique to the mystical body, and does not necessarily apply to any human "society".

Peter said...


I don't know exactly what Lawrence had in mind, and I think that you are right in objecting to the idea that society is more *natural* than the individuals who constitute it, but there is justification for talking about society as an "organism."

In his good little book, The Elements of Philosophy, William Wallace O.P. writes in section 76 (on Society):

1. A society is a permanent union of human beings who are united by modes of behavior that are demanded by some common end, value, or interest. . . .
2. Guided by experience, and thus by the findings of the social sciences, the social philosopher regards it as empirically established that man can attain the full development of his nature only in association with others. Human nature therefore constitutes the *ontological basis* for sociey; . . . .
3. Because man is a composite of body and soul, and hence a person who is responsible for his own conduct, the society he forms is, unlike other unities, unified by an intrinsic principle, the self-binding will of its members. In this specific sense society is a *unity* resulting from an actualized moral order, a *unitas ordinis*. Nevertheless society rests also on an extrinsic formative principle that adds to the note of order one of organization. . . .
4. The function of society is to actualize its inherent end, the *common good*, viz, the conditions that make a fully human existence possible for all its members. Because the individual depends on others to bring about the end of society--the principle of solidarity--the individual good is part of the common good. Again, the individual as a member of the community has to achieve ends and realize values on his own responsibility--the principle of subsidiarity--to the extent that this is possible. . . . But the common good is a reality over and above the good that individuals can achieve separately; consequently, in realizing the common good, society emerges as a *reality* of a special kind. It cannot be defined simply in terms of the disjunction between substance and accident; society is not a substance, but neither is it a mere ontological accident. Both nature and nurture are important for forming the fully human existence of the individual as a person, and to this extent the category of relation is not alone sufficient to describe the being of society. For it would suggest that society is a structure consisting in relations between fully developed persons, whereas man reaches the fullness of his human existence only through social interaction. It is, of course, true that the existence of society depends upon the existence of man who ontologically is a substance; but society also forms the person and brings him to the state of maturity, without which he would not be fit to leave his fellow men and live in solitude. . . .
6. Only a person is capable of having responsibility and of acting accordingly. Yet society as a whole is responsible for actualizing its own ends, and it carries ou this responsibility through its various organs. Therefore society is a person; but because its bond of unity consists in a common responsibility it is called a *moral person*, to distinguish it from the physical person of the individual man. It is also called a *juridical person* because it possesses natural rights by reason of its responsibilities and is capable of legally relevant action. Thus person itself is an analogous term. Society may also be called an organism, in the sense that organisms have intrinsic ends; . . . .


I hope that helped!