Friday, January 9, 2009

Oh, Yeah

Stanley Fish argues that Roland Burris should be seated in the Senate, by referring to the stand St. Augustine took in the Donatist controversy of the 5th century. Now THAT"S serious historical nerd power. Hats off to you, Stanley.
If an act can be declared null and void by a demonstration that those who signed off on it are unworthy, do all official acts rest on a foundation of sand? Can apparently settled decisions be undone in a second when evidence of venality is uncovered? Does your daughter lose her place in a college because the admissions officer who let her in turns out to be an embezzler? Do DWI convictions get reversed when the judge is revealed to be a drunkard? Is your marriage invalidated because the clerk or cleric who performed it cheated on his wife or stole from the poor box?

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. . . .
Incidentally, I think Fish is right. Burris was legally appointed. If you don't like the system, change it. But meanwhile the governor of Illinois has the right to make this appointment, Blagojevich is the governor, and he appointed Burris. Nobody thinks the appointment of Burris was done in a criminal way, so the fact that Blagojevich is a crook is irrelevant.

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