Home/Rod Dreher/The Mathematics Of Mottramism

The Mathematics Of Mottramism

Over a decade ago, IMark Cameron wrote:

I would like to propose a name for this phenomenon of inveterate support for any and all Papal actions, imputing to him wisdom and spiritual insight beyond all the Saints and Popes of past ages: Mottramism.

This takes its name, of course, from Rex Mottram, Julia Flyte’s husband in Brideshead Revisited. At one point, Rex decides to convert to Catholicism in order to have a proper Church wedding with Julia. But the sincerity of his conversion becomes suspect when he is willing to agree with any absurdity proposed in the name of Catholic authority, and shows no intellectual curiosity into its truth or falsehood. As his Jesuit instructor, Father Mowbray describes his catechetical progress:

“Yesterday I asked him whether Our Lord had more than one nature. He said: ‘Just as many as you say, Father.’ Then again I asked him: ‘Supposing the Pope looked up and saw a cloud and said ‘It’s going to rain’, would that be bound to happen?’ ‘Oh, yes, Father.’ ‘But supposing it didn’t?’ He thought a moment and said, “I suppose it would be sort of raining spiritually, only we were too sinful to see it.’”

He doesn’t use the word, but our friend Carlo Lancellotti, a mathematics professor who comments on this blog, and who has translated the work of Italian philosopher Augusto Del Noce, writes today about Mottramism in the current papal court — specifically, in the public statements of Father Antonio Spadaro, a Jesuit priest who is in Pope Francis’s inner circle. Earlier this month, Fr. Spadaro tweeted:

Which is true in a certain sense. God is not a divine watchmaker, after all, nor is God the sum total of a vast number of syllogisms. God is a Person (three Persons, actually). There is always a temptation among Christian intellectuals to confine God to a rationalist box. When Father Spadaro, in a previous tweet, quoted Benedict XVI saying, “God is not just mathematical reason,” this is what he’s talking about. There’s nothing objectionable about that.

But that’s not what Father Spadaro is getting at. Here’s Carlo:

Fr. Spadaro’s constant concern seems to be to fend off “rigid thought,” of which mathematics is apparently the paradigm. We must deal instead with “the real concrete historical man, each man, not the abstract one,” because the work of pastors “is not just to apply norms as something like mathematics.” We could venture that for Fr. Spadaro, mathematics symbolizes what Hegel called “Verstand”: “reason that stands,” static reason, reason that does not move with history and experience. Famously, Hegel opposed Verstand to “Vernunft”: reason that flows, reason that moves, “reasonable reason.” Indeed, Fr. Spadaro repeatedly tweets about “processes,” about “subverting conventional perceptions to bring new ones to birth,” and “delight in creative disruptions that open new possibilities.”

The Italian Catholic philosopher Augusto Del Noce described modernity as the victory of the “metaphysics of the primacy of becoming” over the “metaphysics of the primacy of being,” which had been first developed by the Greeks and remained prevalent during the Middle Ages. “Primacy of being” implies that human reason can perceive an uncreated, eternal order of being (just like it can contemplate mathematical truths!). Humans find their freedom by participating in this order, which delivers them from the influence of worldly powers. Conversely, under a “primacy of becoming,” truth is always historical, and human beings reach for the divine by swimming with the flow of history, which is literally the self-revelation of the spirit. In this view, the transcendent reveals itself as historical transcendence.

Carlo says that Father Spadaro (and Pope Francis, it would seem) are saying, to put it crudely, that the Church needs to change with the times for pastoral reasons. If what the Church proposes today contradicts what the Church said yesterday, then we don’t really have to worry, because God doesn’t expect mathematical precision. Thus does an unproblematic theological statement — that God is not mathematical reason — become an excuse for doing whatever we want today. The Holy Spirit is the same thing as the Zeitgeist.

Here is a powerful interview with Cardinal Caffara, one of the four signatories of the dubia, asking Pope Francis for clarification on the interpretation of his encyclical Amoris laetitia — the part concerning communion for divorced Catholics who have not received an annulment. The cardinal says “there is great confusion in the Church” over Amoris. More:

The foreword to the letter [from the four cardinals to the Pope] notes, “a grave disorientation and great confusion of many faithful regarding extremely important matters for the life of the Church.” In what do the disorientation and confusion consist, specifically? Caffarra answers:

“I received a letter from a parish priest which is a perfect snapshot of what is happening. He wrote me, ‘In spiritual direction and in confession I do not know what to say anymore. To the penitent who says to me, ‘I live in every respect as a husband with a woman who is divorced, and now I approach the Eucharist,’ I propose a path, in order to correct this situation.

But the penitent stops me and responds immediately, ‘Listen, Father, the Pope said that I can receive the Eucharist, without the resolution to live in continence.’ I cannot bear this kind of situation any longer.  The Church can ask me anything, but not to betray my conscience. And my conscience objects to a supposed papal teaching to admit to the Eucharist, under certain circumstances, those who live more uxorio [as husband and wife] without being married.’

“Thus wrote a parish priest. The situation of many pastors of souls, and I mean above all parish priests ” — observes the cardinal — “is this: they find themselves carrying a load on their shoulders that they cannot bear. This is what I am thinking of when I talk about a great disorientation.

“And I am speaking of parish priests, but many [lay] faithful are even more confused. We are talking about questions that are not secondary. It is not being discussed whether [eating] fish violates or does not violate [the law of] abstinence. These are most serious questions for the life of the Church and for the eternal salvation of the faithful. Never forget, this is the supreme law of the Church: the eternal salvation of the faithful, not other concerns. Jesus founded His Church so that the faithful would have eternal life and have it in abundance.”

The division to which Cardinal Carlo Caffarra refers originated primarily from the interpretation of the paragraphs of Amoris laetitia ranging from numbers 300 to 305. For many, including several bishops, here is found the confirmation of a change that is not only pastoral but also doctrinal. Others, however, [claim] that everything is perfectly integrated and in continuity with the previous magisterium. How does one escape from such disorientation?

[Said Caffara:] “I would specify two very important postulates. To think up a pastoral practice that is not founded and rooted in doctrine means to establish and to root pastoral practice in arbitrariness. A Church with little attention to the doctrine is not a more pastoral Church, but a more ignorant Church. The Truth of which we speak is not a formal truth, but a Truth that gives eternal salvation: Veritas salutaris [the Truth of salvation], in theological terms.

“Let me explain. There exists formal truth. For example, I want to know whether the longest river in the world is the Amazon or the Nile. It turns out that it is the Amazon River. This is a formal truth. Formal means that this knowledge does not have any relationship with the way that I can be free. Also, if the answer was the contrary, it would not change anything about the way that I can be free.

“But there are truths which I call ‘existential.’ If it is true — as Socrates had already taught — that it is better to suffer injustice than to do it, I state a truth that brings about my freedom to act in very different way than if the contrary were true.

“When the Church speaks of truth” – adds Caffara –” she speaks of truth of the second type, that which, if obeyed in freedom, produces true life. When I hear it said that it is only a pastoral change, and not doctrinal, or it is thought that that the commandment which forbids adultery is a purely positive law which can be changed (and I think that no righteous person can believe this), instead, it means to admit that yes, generally a triangle has three sides, but there is the possibility of constructing one of them with four sides. This is, I say, an absurdity. After all, as the medievals once used to say, theoria sine praxi, currus sine axi; praxis sine theoria, caecus in via [theory without practice is a chariot with no axle; practice without theory is a blind man on the road].”

A triangle with four sides. 2+2 = 5. What is at stake here? Cardinal Caffara again:

We ask Cardinal Caffarra if a certain confusion does not also arise from the conviction, deeply-rooted even among so many pastors, that conscience is a faculty to decide autonomously regarding what is good and what is evil, and that in the end, the final word belongs to the conscience of the individual.

“I retain that this is the most important point of all,” he responds. “It is where we meet and clash with the central pillar of modernity.”

That is the core of the matter here. As the cardinal says,

“These are matters of a disturbing gravity. It would elevate private judgment to the ultimate criterion of moral truth. Never say to a person: ‘Always follow your conscience’, without adding immediately and always: ‘Love and seek the truth about the good.’ You would be putting into his hands the weapon most destructive of his own humanity.”

UPDATE: Now you’ll be able to buy Vatican-issued Martin Luther stamps for mailing postcards back home from St. Peter’s Square. Wow. Just, wow.

UPDATE.1: Former blogger Mark Cameron alerts me that I was not quoting myself from all those years ago, but him. I’ve corrected the mistake above, and want to apologize unreservedly to him. It was an honest mistake.

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. A veteran of three decades of magazine and newspaper journalism, he has also written three New York Times bestsellers—Live Not By Lies, The Benedict Option, and The Little Way of Ruthie Lemingas well as Crunchy Cons and How Dante Can Save Your Life. Dreher lives in Baton Rouge, La.

leave a comment

Latest Articles