Pseudo-Dionysius: Church Authority

We’re making our way to the end of Pseudo-Dionysius now – just the last few letters left. There’s ten letters extant, and they’re interesting, because we’re not sure if they’re actual letters or if they’re ‘letters’ in a C.S. Lewis ‘Letters to Malcolm’ sort of way. Basically Lewis wrote a book on prayer in the form of a series of, uh, letters to his mate Malcolm. There was no actual Malcolm, to the best of my knowledge, but it was a way to get the point across, so that’s what he did. It’s sort of the same with Pseudo-Dionysius – so we don’t know whether these are authentic letters or not. Chances are they’re not, because when you’re writing under the pseudonym of a guy from 500 years ago, you’re presumably not sending them out to your mates. 

So in the eighth letter, Pseudy is scolding his (probably fictional) friend Demophilus, who did something naughty. Apparently some reprobate came to the church asking for forgiveness and salvation etc, and a priest decided that that was an entirely reasonable thing to ask for, and set about helping the guy. Demophilus throws a tantrum at this (fuck knows why), and decides that he needs to tell the priest off, break into the inner sanctum, and spirit away the Holy of Holies – in order to keep them from being profaned or something. Never mind the fact that he wasn’t supposed to be in there, and that (according to this tradition) his very presence in the inner sanctum is sacrilegious – let alone the part where he actually touches the Holy of Holies. Biblically, people got struck down by God for that shit.

Anyway: so Pseudo-Dionysius scolds the fictional Demophilus for being a dickhead – it’s not really very interesting. What’s more interesting is the rationale given for the scolding. Basically, Pseudy reasons, even if the priest was actually doing something wrong, breaking religious rules is unjustifiable. “Even if disorder and confusion should undermine the most divine ordinances and regulations, that still gives no right, even on God’s behalf, to overturn the order which God Himself has established. God is not divided against Himself.”

Now, I can guarantee you that this line was quoted by somebody when they were trying to shut down the whole Protestant thing. I absolutely guarantee it. It’s essentially arguing that even if the priesthood is doing shitty things, they’re still divinely ordained as priests, and you can’t really argue with that. If there’s a problem, the logic goes, and the priests are actually dishonouring the sacraments, God will smite them or something, but aside from that it’s not your problem. Now, I would be more okay with this if it meant you could beat up the priest if they’re eating babies or whatever. If it was just in terms of the sacraments that the priesthood had absolute authority, that would be more reasonable. I still wouldn’t necessarily agree with it, because I’m not that invested in a strict clergy/laity divide, but I think it’s more reasonable than the idea that you just straight out can’t criticise the clergy at all.

However, I think Pseudo-Dionysius is leaning more towards the ‘you can’t criticise the clergy’ end of the spectrum. He’s quite blunt about the fact that if a priest is being un-priestly, they exclude themselves from the priesthood, meaning that the prayers of a naughty priest are more like “unholy blasphemies”. Hoo boy. However (and this is the worst part), “no law grants Demophilus the right to correct such things”. If anybody is going to correct the priest, it can only be the person above the priest – the hierarch. What if hierarchs are out of line? Well, they can correct each other, I guess, but that’s the top of the food chain right there. There’s no earthly power above the hierarch, so nobody down here can tell them what to do.

So I’m not super fond of the idea that you can’t correct or judge or resist the clergy when they’re doing bad things. If pressed on the matter, I might go as far as to say ‘Fuck That Shit’. There’s no question in my mind that Demophilus was generally being a dumb-ass, in the sense that he was bashing a dude who was trying to be less shitty, but the justification Pseudy uses against Demophilus’s actions is genuinely concerning. The clergy should be entirely accountable for their actions, and if they’re molesting children they should be hauled over the fucking coals. I do believe that we have a responsibility to dispense justice in that situation.

What’s particularly interesting here is the role of groups outside the church. I’m thinking of those Globe reporters who busted the Catholic sex abuse story. I think it’s entirely fair to say that that’s an instance of God delivering justice to members of the clergy who’ve committed unholy blasphemies. What’s interesting is that if you see the Globe reporters as instruments of God’s justice (which they fucking were), then God has clearly dispensed justice from outside of the church. This is actually super important in terms of what Pseudo-Dionysius is saying – he’s arguing that the laity can’t criticise or act against the clergy, but here’s non-Christians (who’re lower than the laity, in Pseudy’s hierarchy) justly bashing the shit out of scummy clergymen.

At that stage, you have to go with one of two options. Either the reporters were dispensing justice unjustly, compromising the divine authority of the clergy in order to do something ‘good’ on their own terms instead of God’s, or the reporters are fucking avenging angels, blessed by God and doing the Lord’s work. If it’s the second one (and it is the second one), we have to discard Pseudy’s idea. It’s entirely unsustainable, given the way in which the clergy has been rightfully reprimanded by people who aren’t even Christian. Shame on us that we didn’t bust them first.

As a closing aside, even though the idea in general is trash, it does have one of the best lines in its explanation. Pseudy’s basically saying ‘Get back in line, it’s not your business, justice is only justice when it’s dispensed on God’s terms and not on your own.’ Then we’re told that if you do set out to dispense justice on your own terms,

“…you will become a wild beast, the harsh minister of an inhumanity agreeable to yourself.” 

Damn that’s a cool phrase. It’s the sort of thing you want to integrate into an article on The Punisher or something. ‘Agreeable Inhumanity: Vigilante Justice in Comic Books.’ Yeah, I’d write that shit.

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