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Friday, January 9, 2009

Theology in the NY Times!

It has been quite a while since I posted anything here on my blog, but I trust that you'll forgive me. After all, you've all been enjoying your various and sundry holiday celebrations. Perhaps, you've even taken some time off to go cross-country skiing in the Berkshires like my family did last week. At any rate, I'm certain that you haven't been slowing down to read blogs. You haven't, right?

Well, now that you're back, taking the time to read my blog, allow me to offer you a tasty tidbit that I came across this morning on the New York Times' website : an editorial by Prof. Stanley Fish of Florida International University, entitled Roland Burris and St. Augustine. Fish writes, concerning the issue of the Burris nomination being "tainted" by Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich's attempted sale of Barack Obama's former Senate seat,

This last question is not new. It was debated in the 4th and 5th centuries in the context of what is known as the Donatist controversy. This debate was about the status of churchmen who had cooperated with the emperor Diocletian during the period when he was actively persecuting Christians. The Donatists argued that those who had betrayed their faith under pressure and then returned to the fold when the persecutions were over had lost the authority to perform their priestly offices, including the offices of administering the sacraments and making ecclesiastical appointments. In their view, priestly authority was a function of personal virtue, and when a new bishop was consecrated by someone they considered tainted, they rejected him and consecrated another.

In opposition, St. Augustine (rejecting the position that the church should be made up only of saints) contended that priestly authority derived from the institution of the Church and ultimately from its head, Jesus Christ. Whatever infirmities a man may have (and as fallen creatures, Augustine observes, we all have them) are submerged in the office he holds. It is the office that speaks, appoints and consecrates. Its legitimacy does not vary with personal qualities of the imperfect human being who is the temporary custodian of a power that at once exceeds and transforms him. (Read the entire editorial here.)

I have to admit that I don't have the answer to Mr. Burris' problem. On the one hand, he WAS appointed by the Governor of the State of Illinois, who, despite obvious malfeasance and the likelihood of impeachment, is still serving as the governor and has not, at least not yet, been convicted of anything. In the United States, where people are innocent until proven guilty, it seems that Gov. Blagojevich would have the power to appoint a replacement Senator, at least until that power has been taken from him by due process of law.

On the other hand, it seems to me that anyone accepting a nomination from Gov. Blagojevich would be, shall we say, "shortsighted." By accepting the governor's nomination, Burris is tying himself to Blagojevich's scandal and, quite probably, damaging his chances for being elected by the people of Illinois in two years' time. Of course, there's the further question of whether Burris would have a chance of being appointed by the Illinois legislature, should he withdraw from his status as Senator Designate. I certainly don't envy Mr. Burris as he stands between the proverbial rock and a hard place.

At any rate, it isn't every day that one reads about the Donatists or St. Augustine in the New York Times. I was delighted to see Prof. Fish examine the question of the Burris nomination through a theological lens, particularly since political decisions are discussed in terms of patriotism or partisanship. Fish's discussion of the larger issue of authority and office is just one more example of ways that having a solid foundation in theology can help us to frame other issues.

Note: Between writing this post and actually getting it posted, the Illinois Supreme Court has ruled that Burris' Senate appointment is valid and the Illinois House of Representatives has voted to impeach Gov. Blagojevich by a 114 to 1 vote.

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