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Faith, Reason, and the Christian University: What John Paul II Can Teach Christian Academics

That's the title of an article I just published in Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture 12.3 (Summer 2009): 53-67. You can find it online on my website here. Here are some excerpts (endnotes omitted):

John Paul is suggesting that a university as a whole cannot claim to offer a distinctive theological alternative to its peer institutions while at the same time claiming that it is illegitimate for the university to require that its individual members be committed to the particular beliefs and general worldview on which the university’s unique character depends. Moreover, anti-creedalism, a belief in the wrongness of normative theological judgments, cannot by its nature function as a normative theological judgment even though it must do so in order to make any sense. Anti-creedalism, in a word, is incoherent....

The reason for this philosophical confusion is that anti-creedalists do not think of their theology as a knowledge tradition, as they do their law, medicine, political theory, or monetary policy. Faith, according to this view, may be true, but it cannot be known to be true. Faith and reason are different ways of acquiring beliefs, with the former being the weaker epistemic stepbrother who always must answer to the latter, with the latter being equivalent to the empirical deliverances of the hard and social sciences. This is why anti-creedalists seem to consider matters of religious belief as less epistemically important than other matters. Such a posture is what happens when a religious community uncritically assimilates a “positivistic mentality,” which, according to John Paul, “not only abandon[s] the Christian vision of the world, but more especially reject[s] every appeal to a metaphysical or moral vision.” It is, in the words of the late pontiff, one of the many fruits of scientism, “the philosophical notion which refuses to admit the validity of forms of knowledge other than those of the positive sciences; and it relegates religious, theological, ethical and aesthetic knowledge to the realm of mere fantasy.”

In a Christian academic community in which this positivist mentality is dominant, a chemistry professor, for example, can be dismissed for denying the veracity of the periodical table, but a theology professor may treat the Apostles’ Creed as no more normative, or less so, than the editorial page of the New York Times or the latest issue of Dissent. Under this paradigm, bioethical issues are assessed in a similar fashion. To employ but one example, the resolution of the morality of abortion, according to this understanding, is a matter of faith, and thus the procedure ought to be permitted under our laws. for to forbid abortion, because we Christians happen to believe that the unborn is a person, would be to violate the religious liberty of fellow citizens who want to procure abortions because they believe that the unborn is not a person. But as John Paul has noted in Evangelium vitae, to treat as an open question, or as unknowable, the nature of human beings is in fact to call into question the very liberty affirmed by secular liberals and religious anti-creedalists, since that liberty is entailed by unassailable first principles of human conduct that the secular liberal and the anti-creedalist implicitly claim to know. Thus, the secular and anti-creedalist resolution of the abortion debate is achieved by sequestering a priori any philosophical anthropology that depends on knowledge claims that are not reducible to the hard or social sciences, even though the right to abortion does not itself seem amenable to that reduction either. That is, if one thinks of the “right to abortion” as a universal right of human beings by nature, it seems that that right has all the earmarks of an irreducible immaterial property, and thus cannot be accounted for as knowable under the secularist and anti-creedalist epistemological framework.


You can read the whole thing here.
(Originally posted on First Thoughts)

Comments (48)

Colleges and universities are free to make themselves in whatever fashion they wish. But they are not free to make themselves in whatever fashion they wish and still to use the name Catholic (or Baptist, or Presbyterian). That would be dishonest and false. Those labels already have a meaning, or range of meanings, outside of which it is possible to fall. That is, not all meanings are possible for all labels. Neither Moody Bible Institute nor Yale University, good as they are, is a Catholic institution and ought not to parade around as if they were. Neither one, to their credit, does so. The same cannot be said of Notre Dame.

But my concern is not so much with labels and identifications as it is with education inside those institutions that trumpet them: We recall how, in his Closing of the American Mind, Allan Bloom talked of the ways western historians would chide Soviet historians because every time a new regime came to power the history books had to be re-written to include a new set of good guys and bad guys. "When things outside the academy control the academy," we told the Soviet historians, "that's the death of learning." I take that to be true even when that which is controlling the academy is not a politburo (or a pizza magnate) but a televanglist or a church -- or a leftist political agenda (as is the case on so many college and university campuses.) When powers and movements outside the academy control the academy, the result is not education but indoctrination. We see the results of it everywhere and in many forms. If education is knowing how to think, indoctrination is being told what to think; and indoctrination is omnipresent, from Harvard to Steubenville.

Colleges and universities can do a good job of teaching without imposing departmental orthodoxies. That is, you don't have to believe a position in order to teach it well. In fact, sometimes holding to a view can inhibit you teaching it well, and inhibit you seeing its weaknesses and flaws -- sometimes. The best instructor regarding Marxism that I have ever seen was Richard Ebeling, himself the furthest thing from Marxism. Likewise, I am no Catholic, but I know for certain that I can teach Catholic theology better than many, many Catholic theologians -- and have done so already in a Catholic university context. It's not about personal advocacy or personal belief. In other words, advocacy isn't competence, and one can advocate views the opposite of those one teaches and still teach wonderfully well. Why, then, do we think a Catholic (or Baptist or Presbyterian) college ought to be staffed by those who advocate certain things in a certain way? That's not how one makes room for good teaching, for good education.

All that is the long way round to say this: Humans can be Catholic, or Baptist, but can a college? And if it were, would it be to the support or detriment of truth and education? Ostensibly Catholic colleges teach things at odds with one another - and certainly at odds with Baptist colleges. Luckily, it's always the other guy who's wrong, the other guy who's not truly Catholic or Baptist (or Christian).

Mr Bauman:

Humans can be Catholic, or Baptist, but can a college? And if it were, would it be to the support or detriment of truth and education? Ostensibly Catholic colleges teach things at odds with one another...

I can't speak for Baptists. But for Catholics, there is a self-consistent answer to the first question. That's the answer which Prof. Beckwith, following JP2, gives. Of course not all "ostensibly" Catholic colleges adhere to such a vision. But that only goes to show that some formally Catholic colleges are not materially so. Hardly anybody denies that, however; and it poses no conceptual problem for Beckwith or the Church. It poses only the practical problem of combating the consequent falsity in advertising.

Your second question is more important. I would answer that it depends on the discipline. A college that is materially as well as formally Catholic can include many faculty members outside philosophy and theology who aren't Catholic and don't pretend to be. I once taught in such an institution. As long as they pursue their respective secular disciplines in an academically responsible way, they contribute to rather than detract from the Catholic identity of the college. E.g., there is no such thing as "Catholic" mathematics, biology, or sociology; but truths discovered by mathematics, biology, and sociology can and do contribute to a Catholic understanding of truth.

Philosophy and theology are different because they impinge directly on the claims of the Church. A Catholic college as such cannot tolerate the advocacy of philosophical or theological theses which contradict the teaching of the Church. But that in no way precludes the study of such ideas; in fact, Catholic philosophers and theologians should, and do, actively study and discuss them. And that's good so long as they do not advocate them as the truth. You might want to reply that, in that case, a Catholic college precludes genuinely critical thought about matters of universal human concern. That has not been my experience; but that of course is only one case. The real issue is whether the aims of higher education as such are compatible with confessional commitment on the part of the educators.

That depends on what the aims of higher education should be thought to be. On that question, I suggest you first read Fides et Ratio and Newman's The Idea of a University. Then we can talk.

I've read Newman more than once, and it's the very thing I oppose, as my comment above makes clear.

As for what Catholic (or Baptist or Presbyterian) colleges can "tolerate" (your word), you make my point. Commitment to a position that cannot tolerate other positions might also preclude truth. I suspect it sometimes does. When it does, it works against higher education, not for it. That is something colleges must not do, regardless of their affiliation.

For example, a Baptist college intent upon making Baptists, rather than upon making highly educated persons well trained in discerning truth (even truth contrary to Baptist commitments) is working contrary to what colleges are for. No Baptist college -- indeed no college whatever -- has cornered the market on truth. That particular college's pet ideas might need to be challenged. If one is a Catholic, one might well think precisely that about Baptist colleges, about what those Baptist colleges do or don't tolerate, and about what those Baptist colleges call education. Baptists, of course, return the favor regarding Catholic colleges.

As someone who used to identify himself as a Catholic, I think that is the case with so many of the things Catholic colleges cannot tolerate. If you are intent upon imposing an institutionally favored orthodoxy upon students (and faculty) rather than on helping them identify, understand, and transcend your own or others' possible errors, you are engaged in higher indoctrination, not higher education.

This failing is, of course, not limited to religiously based colleges. It occurs everywhere, and nowhere more than in secular universities, which cannot tolerate ideas either. They simply have a different set of intolerable ideas than the set favored by a religious college. As Christians ourselves, you and I might say our list is better than theirs, and we might be right. But if we do, we ought to be open to the fact that we could be wrong, as our fellow Christians say we are, and then act accordingly. Trying to understand a fallen world with our own fallen minds, it's easy to be wrong. But to do as the secularist schools do, and to do it simply in the name of a church and its claims, is not a good way to pursue higher education, no matter what the church, no matter what the academic department.

Mike:

Your comments assume a particular philosophical anthropology. Should a college tolerate faculty that deny that point of view? If so, then, in principle it could be gotten rid of by a majority of faculty without violating a principle of justice. On the other hand, if it could not be gotten rid of by a majority of the faculty without violating a principle of justice, then it is an unassailable belief, and thus amounts to an orthodoxy.

Without first philosophy you can't have second thoughts.

Frank
My comments presume a particular theological (not philosophical) anthropology, and the attendant noetic effects of sin. On that theological basis I am saying "yes," the college ought to tolerate opposing points of view simply because we are all subject to delusions -- Catholics as well as Protestants. All of which is a matter of effective truth seeking in an academic context, which is fundamental to the proper function of an institution of higher education.

Frank:

Any answer to the question what higher education should strive to do relies at least implicitly on a "particular" philosophical and/or theological anthropology. Accordingly, the mission and self-understanding of any particular institution of higher education relies on some such anthropology. Given my own anthropology, I'd say it could be just to dismiss a faculty member for rejecting his institution's regnant anthropology only if subscribing to it had been made clear to him in advance as a condition of employment, and he accepted it as such. I say 'could' because of course I've only described a necessary not a sufficient condition for justice in such a case.

Best,
Mike

Mr Bauman:

Your position puzzles me. You claim that your own theological anthropology requires a view of the noetic effects of sin which entails that any of us could be wrong about anything relevant to the aims of higher education. But if so, then you're bound to concede that your own theological anthropology could be wrong. If even you think it could be wrong, why should I accept it as a basis for your objection to my position?

As I see it, the real difficulty here is that you regard theology as a matter of opinion, and only a matter of opinion. That is not how the Catholic Church sees the matter—which, for all I know, is precisely why you left the Catholic Church. Of course there is a legitimately wide range of opinion in theology, including Catholic theology. That range can and ought to be tolerated even in an "orthodox" Catholic university. But if one believes there is such a thing as divine revelation, calling for the assent of faith as distinct from opinion, then there must be an authoritative way to distinguish between what is divinely revealed and what is theological opinion. If one accepts some such authoritative way, then one is committed to an orthodoxy one cannot, self-consistently, regard as a matter of opinion. One must regard it not only as divine truth, but as truth important for the salvation of the whole human being. Hence, one has no reason to tolerate the presence, as an educator, of somebody who teaches heterodoxy. One can tolerate their being heterodox so long as they aren't teaching it; that's why most authentically Catholic schools include non-Catholics on their faculties. But the notion that maintaining any sort of religious orthodoxy is incompatible with training people to think critically is manifestly untrue. Universities were first founded by the Church; and until the end of the 19th century, most universities saw religious training and education as part of their mission--including those founded by Protestants.

I'm perfectly aware that you do not share my orthodoxy. But at least I can give a non-paradoxical account of how it functions as a premise for my philosophy of education. I don't see how yours can do the same for you.

Best,
Mike

Mr. Liccione,
Of course I could be wrong. I don't deny it. I never did. You can be wrong too. Indeed, given that you are a human being, we know that you often are. But there's nothing paradoxical about me saying (1) that any of us could be wrong and (2) therefore that we ought to be reluctant to rule ideas contrary to our own out of court in the pursuit of higher education. If you look carefully enough, you might find the paradox lurking in your own backyard.

Since the fall of Adam, we human beings have been fools, or worse. When fools or worse seek for higher education, they do well to approach the task humbly and teachably -- because, as I said earlier, when trying to understand a fallen world by means of fallen minds, it's easy to be wrong. To insist on one's own set of pet ideas is to put those ideas beyond the pale of serious discussion and to preclude dissent, which is not conducive to higher eduction for those who are fools or worse, be they Catholic, Baptist or secularist.

I never said theology "was a matter of opinion and only a matter of opinion". I strongly oppose the idea. Some things are true and others false. It is often difficult to know which is which, in theology as in other disciplines. That does not mean theology is a mere matter of opinion. It means you should hold what you hold with conviction, but hold it teachably so that, if you are wrong, you can still be persuaded with counter arguments. But, if you exclude the counter arguments and those who hold them, you cannot be reached. You, your students, and your institution will more likely remain locked in error.

Yes, I do believe there is such a thing as divine revelation. I also believe that we humans are quite adept at twisting it (which is why I am not a Catholic. I think the RCC has twisted it.) But I would NOT exclude a Roman Catholic from teaching in any department of a college where I did the hiring. Why? Because it's easy to be wrong, and (despite my dissent from Rome) a Catholic scholar can be a beacon of truth and good sense. Or not. We'll have to talk carefully and extensively with him or her to find out before we offer a teaching contract. We'll also have to read what they've written and see how they teach. But just because they are Catholic (or not) will not determine the outcome. I could endorse hiring Charles Williams, not a Catholic, GK Chesterton, a Catholic, CS Lewis, not a Catholic, JRR Tolkein, a Catholic, and John Kekes, whatever he might be religiously. We're looking for excellent scholars and teachers, not "my" scholars and teachers. Competence reaches beyond my circle. Incompetence reaches within it. It's the same with your circle. Given human nature, those circles all require light from outside the perimeter.

I do not need to be told about the history of Catholic higher education or about how those Catholic institutions do their work. I have a PhD in Historical Theology and English literature from a Catholic university.

Mr Bauman:

If you believe there is such a thing as divine revelation, then you have a choice: either you affirm or you deny that there is a reliable way to distinguish it from mere theological opinion. If you affirm that there is such a way, then you're committed to affirming that what's distinguishable as divine revelation is not open to question, as theological opinions are. Hence, it does nobody an injustice for an institution premised on what's unquestionable to preclude people from teaching philosophy or theology if they reject it. If, however, you deny there is such a way, then you preclude your being able to reliably identify its content as an object of divine faith distinct from human opinion. And if you do that, then you cannot self-consistently invoke a premise drawn from divine revelation (such as the Fall) for the purpose of treating divine revelation, in the context of higher education, as a matter of opinion.

Given your assumption that we can know what the content of divine revelation is, your appeal to human fallibility is fallacious. It should go without saying that people as individuals are fallible by nature, so that their private opinions could be wrong; but it does not thereby follow that everything they believe is mere opinion which could be wrong. If, as you seem to insist, some of us are in receipt of divine revelation and know its content, then in just that respect they could not be wrong.

Of course, and as I thought I'd conceded in my previous comment, there is a wide range of theological opinion consistent with whatever orthodoxy is taken to be. Hence I have no objection to permitting such a range in the context of higher education. I'd love to have a Charles Williams or a C.S. Lewis teaching in a literature department of a Catholic school--so long as they do not teach that Catholicism is false. And of course I'd insist on professional competence even from orthodox Catholics. None of that is, or ought to be, at issue here. The sole issue is whether it is possible, and therefore desirable, to transmit the content of divine revelation as something distinguishable and secure from the vagaries of human opinion. If it is, then my position (and the Catholic Church's) about higher education makes sense. If it is not, then your appeal to divine revelation in support of your own position is incoherent.

BTW, it seems that each Mike thought I was talking about him. I was actually talking to Bauman. My bad, as the kids say.

Divine revelation might be perfectly true and reliable, even perspicuous, but that is a different issue from whether or not we understand it reliably and well. I'm not saying knowledge is impossible. I'm saying that we are easily mistaken, in theology as in other things. I hold Rome as evidence of my point. You do not.

You misread me terribly, especially regarding opinions, and you try to impose your highly tendentious, misguided, and objectionable "opinions" rubric on me -- all of which I reject. I am not operating on the basis of your view of opinions. While all opinions are opinions, not all opinions are true. Truth, after all, is the quest, whether or not you happen to call our attempts at truth opinions or something else, and then critique them on the basis of the "opinion" rubric you have imposed on someone else's words.

Which attempts at discerning theological truth are successful and which are not can often be determined with some precision and some confidence, but usually with greater difficulty than appealing to the Roman magisterium, itself sometimes quite mistaken. Your "opinion" that it is reliable is one of the false "opinions." Nevertheless, I am quite willing to listen to you make the case, even to change my mind on the point, and would never prohibit you from teaching your belief, even in a theology department over which I was head. You, I suspect, would not return the favor because you, it seems, do not take seriously enough your own fallibility and that of your tradition. As a result, you and your students will suffer. Your twisting of divine revelation and your (and your institution's) unteachableness on the point make it so.

The difference, in the end, is between education and indoctrination. Education is your way out of group think, not into it, even if the group think is Roman.

"Education is your way out of group think, not into it, even if the group think is Roman."

Sadly, then, the Trinity is not educated. :-)

More seriously, though, isn't the Bible, on your grounds, evidence of "group think" in two ways: (1) the books that made it in the Bible are those that the Church agreed on, and (2) the apparent agreement between the diverse authors that is necessary in order to get an infallible rule of faith and practice? So, "group think" in principle is not inconsistent with theological knowledge.

Which attempts at discerning theological truth are successful and which are not can often be determined with some precision and some confidence, but usually with greater difficulty than appealing to the Roman magisterium, itself sometimes quite mistaken. Your "opinion" that it is reliable is one of the false "opinions."

The method you present, ever so obliquely, for discerning "theological truth" is inherently unsuited to distinguish reliably between plausible human ideas on the one hand and divine revelation on the other. Given its resources, it is not even designed to do so; rather, it relies on scholarship that can only present itself as tentative and revisable. That is precisely why I reject your theological epistemology: given certain of its premises, your confidence that you "know" the content of divine revelation cannot be justified even in principle. Even an allegedly "perspicuous" divine revelation thus functions as a ding-in-sich we can apprehend only as an object for theorizing at a distance. I do not reject such scholarship as an aid; in fact it's quite important for discovering facts that must be considered in the development of doctrine. I reject it only insofar as its theological interpretations of the facts are offered as a magisterium obviating the Magisterium.

Of course you claim that the "Roman magisterium" has "sometimes been quite mistaken." I agree. But one reason I'm Catholic is that I believe the Magisterium's claim to enjoy infallibility under certain conditions has never been faced with a counterexample. Since the Magisterium has never claimed to be infallible under all conditions, the fact that it has sometimes been mistaken is not a counterexample to what it does claim. To generate a counterexample, one would have to show that a teaching which satisfies the formal criteria for infallibility has been rejected by the Magisterium itself. Good luck with that. Since I don't know what your truly pertinent argument against the Magisterium's claims is, we can probably go no further with that debate, which in any case would only distract further from Prof. Beckwith's post.

The point worth stressing is that higher education in a confessional context need not be "indoctrination." The doctrinal orthodoxy to which some institutions are committed need not, and in Catholic settings does not, exclude questioning, and thus critical thought, on the part of faculty or students. It does not even exclude private rejection of the orthodoxy. It only excludes the open assertion of what is heterodox. If one finds that to be incompatible with the purpose of higher education, that is because one believes that such a purpose can be attained only if every controvertible belief is treated as tentative and revisable. If we can know the content of divine revelation, then that neither can nor ought to be so treated. Given your personal theological epistemology, however, I well understand why you think otherwise.

Frank,
I'm not complaining about group think as agreement. Of course we expect properly thinking folks to agree when they think properly. Against that who can have any sound objection? I'm complaining about group think as something that means "not-think," against which we all ought to object. Schools that demand conformity are in grave danger of requiring "not-think" from both their faculty and their students. That is inimical to higher education. When the demand characteristics of the classroom and the faculty lounge are such that dissent is squashed, that conformity is imposed, then "not-think" tends to thrive, and everyone appears to agree. But that's not higher education.

Michael,
We simply disagree. I DO insist that education in a confessional context is normally not education -- even if the confession proffered is true -- and whether or not the confession is offered by Catholics, Baptists, feminists or Marxists. (To be indoctrinated in the truth is not the same as being educated. It is the same as being very, very lucky.)

If you exclude dissenting from the confession, you exclude most of the opportunity for finding out if the confession is false -- and the difference between true and false is the bottom line. To eliminate most of the really powerful opportunities for finding out if an institutionally favored view is false is inimical to higher education.

In other words, I want from Catholics and Baptists exactly the same freedom to dissent (and still to be hired and still to be graduated) that I'd want from feminists or Marxists. I think we are highly unlikely to get it from any of those groups, and the more convinced they are of their own infallibility the less likely we are to get it. It's a human failing; not a feminist, Baptist or Roman failing.


Or, perhaps it's better to debate this issue on a different plane:

I assume that, if Catholicism were false, you'd want to know it, and you'd want your students to know it. I'm curious about how they'd likely come to know it if you banish dissent from your midst by excluding from the faculty those who dissent as well as the teaching and life by which those dissents are reached, sustained, and embodied.

Frankly, I don't trust most Baptists to give students a really good case against Baptist beliefs and practice -- although I presume that some few actually can. (I don't suppose you trust Baptists on this point either, but that is for you to say.) I don't trust most feminists and Marxists to give their students a compelling case against feminism or Marxism, although I presume some can. (Perhaps you agree with me about the feminists and Marxists.) And I don't expect most Catholic theologians to give students a truly compelling case against Catholicism, though I presume some can. Schools that systematically exclude those who believe such dissenting arguments and can give such arguments in a compelling and real-life way seem to me to cheat their students. They give their students the false impression that truly sensible people don't dissent from departmental orthodoxy, and that there really is no powerful or compelling "outside" to the institution's favored views. When you ban the open assertion and advocacy of heterodoxy, you ban much of the opportunity one has to discover where orthodoxy has gone wrong, if anywhere. Honestly, it sounds like a failure of nerve and a lack of confidence in the truth, a failure and a lack that pose as defending the deposit of divine revelation but really is not.

So, with all good will, I ask: How would you yourself know that Catholicism is wrong, if it is, and how would you teach your students to know it if you exclude those who truly dissent, and with them exclude the power that their life, character and teaching bring to their dissent?

How would you yourself know that Catholicism is wrong, if it is, and how would you teach your students to know it if you exclude those who truly dissent, and with them exclude the power that their life, character and teaching bring to their dissent?

I should have thought my answer to that would be clear already: it is incompatible with my Catholic faith-commitment to entertain, as a genuine possibility, the hypothesis that it could be wrong. For as a Catholic, I am logically committed to believing that whatever the Church teaches with her full authority is a true expression of divine revelation, and thus calls for the unqualified assent of faith as distinct from the qualified assent of personal opinion. Hence, an institution of higher education whose mission is founded on such a commitment cannot, self-consistently, permit the open advocacy and teaching of what you call "dissent."

That said, I can state as a bare logical possibility what it would take to prove Catholicism wrong: a counterexample of the sort I described in my previous comment. And I think it would be worthwhile to point that out to anybody in a Catholic institution of higher education—as I have in fact done myself. The main purpose of doing so is to understand how Catholic doctrine has developed, which in turn requires distinguishing the various levels of authority among magisterial teachings—a distinction which many Catholics, as well as many non-Catholics, seem not to have made clearly and accurately. In fact, making such distinctions across the board and applying them reliably takes a lot of what you call "education." I've met countless people who have enough higher "education" to raise questions about the teaching of the Church, and proffer "dissent" for this or that half-baked reason, but not enough education to know and understand how she does, or would, resolve the difficulties. Much of my online work consists in showing how that's done.

The reason we disagree about what constitutes good higher education is that we disagree about the nature of religious truth. If my religion is true, then the definitive teachings of the Church express indisputable facts that are important to teach as such, and damaging to deny; a Catholic as such cannot, self-consistently, see them in any other way; therefore, on consistently Catholic premises it would be an injustice to students and colleagues to advocate ideas incompatible with them. Your position, on the other hand, makes sense only on the assumption that we cannot have certainty about religious truth. Since this is and ought to a free country, you have every right to that opinion, and to work within an institution where it's the prevailing opinion. But it is sheer question-begging to suggest that either my own faith or the minds of students would be best served in higher education by entertaining, as a genuine possibility, the hypothesis that Catholicism is false. What you're arguing, in effect, is that I have to give up my faith in order to be an effective educator. That's no better than the old, and prejudicial, canard that Catholics have to check their brains at the church door. And it's especially rich coming from a man who rests his case on an opinion about the noetic effects of sin that he himself admits could be wrong.

Dr. Liccione,

If I understand you, the Church is only infallible in teachings made with her full authority, that making distinctions between the various levels of authority in Magisterium pronouncements is difficult to resolve without a superior base of knowledge, and that it is incompatible with your faith to entertain the possibility that Catholicism is mistaken about its own claims of authority and religious truth. The problem with the last part is that it appears to take a very narrow view of infallibility and extend it generally to other aspects of the faith. What I would want to know, based on the criteria you set out, which Magisterium teachings do you think have been revised, since it is presumably a matter of emphasis and not substance that allowed for the revision?

Step:

The list you're asking me for is extensive. So as to narrow it down to something manageable in a combox, could you suggest an specific example or two you'd like me to address?

In the meantime, I must confess that the meaning of the following sentence of yours is unclear to me: "The problem with the last part is that it appears to take a very narrow view of infallibility and extend it generally to other aspects of the faith." Could you rephrase your thought? As it stands, I don't know why you think that what you call a problem is a problem.

Best,
Mike

Mr. Liccione,
If, in your words, "it is incompatible with my Catholic faith-commitment to entertain, as a genuine possibility, the hypothesis that it could be wrong," then my case that confessional education, as you understand it, is not really education, is made. A Catholic college or Baptist college that does not seriously entertain the possibility of fundamental error is not worthy of the name "college."

When, in your words, you say "if my religion is true. . . ," you rightly imply that certain ideas logically follow upon its truthfulness. But the conditional at the beginning of your words also implies the possibility that your religion might not be true, in which case other things logically (and pedagogically) follow -- but from which you'd purposely sequester your students -- as a matter of principle! -- rather than teach them how to follow out that possibility with care, courage, and precision. Teaching students to question their faith is not the same as teaching them to give up their faith, not at all. Rigorous or aggressive scrutiny is not tantamount to faithlessness. That rigorous scrutiny is required precisely because we can be, and often are, flatly wrong. It's a failing to which we all are subject, your tradition not excepted.

"E.g., there is no such thing as "Catholic" mathematics, biology, or sociology; but truths discovered by mathematics, biology, and sociology can and do contribute to a Catholic understanding of truth."

and
"without first philosophy you can't have second thoughts"

are IMHO two extremes of a non-universalist "thinking-factory" mentality of our ivory towers: the materialist, vo-tech arm that sees a college as a credentialing institute for modern professionals (state schools), and the selective aristocratic arm that sees the academy as a pedigree peerage for modern legislators (Ivy League).

Is either a catholic comprehension of learning as key to meaning, distinct from apprehension as key to knowing? To grasp the concept of a university as Universal, would require a particular theology, as MacIntyre posits in his address on the occaision of the 2009 Annual Newman Lecture (sponsored by The Catholic Herald (UK) newspaper):

http://www.youtube.com/watch?
v=CfPkHcqiguc part 1 of 5
v=XlQAqfZ46eE part 2 of 5
v=n2d2jEG26u8 part 3 of 5
v=tbNiZccSpMA part 4 of 5
v=iOf2VXpILUk part 5 of 5

not as an "elective" but as an absolute precondition, ie the real epistemology of Truth. The only way "justice" can be attained in scholastic retention practices would be if learning were to undergo a renaissance and end the hypertrophic etiolation of the intellectual glasshouses (nontumorous enlargement of an organ or a tissue as a result of an increase in the size rather than the number of constituent cells, and causing (a plant) to develop without chlorophyll by preventing exposure to sunlight).

Perhaps subsidiarity among Catholic schools where the Bishop knew and fostered the scholars in his diocese by funding(*) those areas most in need of exploration and development pertinent to the local circumstances of commerce and culture might engender some much needed pruning in the inflationary bubble we call higher ed in the US, a form of moral hazard, where corporations -- for- or not-for-profit -- get all the benefits of cherry picking from a national pool, while the students carry all the financial and existential burdens (I'm thinking of a nurse or pharmacist with outstanding loans who cannot practice their acquired skills remuneratively after "conscience clauses" are repealed (the healthcare corporation continues to function, while their staff may not).
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* Here the CiV encyclical could offer stimulating food for thought, with the "relational" aspect of a tax-payers duties, ie the State would levy for essentials (solidarity requires a human duty for each) while non-essentials such as subsidized learning via student loans could be financed by an elective tax, paid as subscription vouchers to the institute offering that which subscribers subjectively support being developed (then see how rapidly "wymyns studies" atrophies, and creativity for the common good germinates, in "lead-poisoning reparations studies" for example, when citizens who really do care for the wellbeing of their compatriots become social entrepreneurs in mutual reciprocation rather than being raised as corporate cannon fodder for the State's interest in "Exceptionalism").

Mr Bauman:

I begin by quoting you:

If, in your words, "it is incompatible with my Catholic faith-commitment to entertain, as a genuine possibility, the hypothesis that it could be wrong," then my case that confessional education, as you understand it, is not really education, is made. A Catholic college or Baptist college that does not seriously entertain the possibility of fundamental error is not worthy of the name "college."

You're gliding over the fact that, from the standpoint of deductive logic, your "case" requires at least two additional, substantive premises before your conclusion can be made to follow. But what is the first of those to be? That higher education requires willingness to "seriously entertain the possibility of fundamental error" about anything whatsoever? I have never granted that premise, and I rather doubt you hold it yourself. Or do you? Should a math professor, on pain of failing to educate, "seriously entertain" the possibility that two plus two does not equal four? Should a college tolerate a math professor who actually teaches that two plus two does not equal four? You see the problem. If everything ought to be open to "serious" question, then it is not at all clear how to define standards of professional competence without just appealing to the (ex hypothesi) questionable consensus of the definers--which is exactly the sort of appeal you insist on excluding in the case of genuinely "Catholic" or "Baptist" colleges. If only for self-consistency, what you need to say is that education requires allowing only inherently questionable ideas to be "seriously" questioned. If we then include the additional premise that religious ideas as such are inherently questionable, your case would be made—but only in the sense that your conclusion would follow from your premises. We would still have not determined whether all the premises are true.

I'll grant you the premise that good higher education requires letting inherently questionable ideas be seriously questioned. But that doesn't get you where you want to go, since we are by no means in complete agreement about what 'inherently questionable' means or which ideas are inherently questionable. The premise you need and that's really at issue is, of course, that religious ideas as such are inherently questionable.

I'm rather surprised to find that you actually try to hang that premise on me. If you could succeed in hanging it on me, then your case would indeed be made. How does the hanging go? Well, since I'm Catholic, I believe that all religions other than the Catholic are inherently questionable. But then you try to argue that I find Catholicism itself inherently questionable too:

When, in your words, you say "if my religion is true. . . ," you rightly imply that certain ideas logically follow upon its truthfulness. But the conditional at the beginning of your words also implies the possibility that your religion might not be true, in which case other things logically (and pedagogically) follow...

Quite frankly, that second sentence is ludicrous. Leaving aside "counterfactual" conditionals (of which the conditional of mine you cite is not an instance), to make a conditional statement is not to imply anything whatsoever about the truth or falsity of the antecedent by itself. E.g., to assert a material conditional is to assert that it is not the case both that the antecedent is true and the consequent false. Thus, to assert a material conditional is neither to question nor to assert the antecedent. More pertinently, to assert an entailment conditional is to assert that the consequent deductively follows from the antecedent, so that whatever the truth-value of the antecedent may be, the consequent has exactly that truth-value. The conditional statement of mine you cite is an enthymeme for an entailment conditional. That is to say, if the entire antecedent were explicitly stated, the consequent could be seen to follow deductively from it. Given as much, the mere appearance of the sentence-fragment 'my religion is true' after the word 'if' implies neither that 'my religion is true' is inherently questionable nor that 'my religion is true' is not inherently questionable. Any logician could tell you that to believe otherwise is simply to misunderstand the concept of an entailment conditional. So, rather than pretend to be doing logic when you're really just doing rhetoric, you would do better to focus on the substantive philosophical issue between us.

I say 'philosophical' because your theology doesn't advance your case. You believe that the effects of original and actual sin render us so liable to noetic error that, for the sake of staying on the narrow path toward objective truth, any religious idea ought to be regarded as inherently questionable. But you also admit that you might be wrong about the noetic effects of sin, inasmuch as you admit that your account of divine revelation in general might be wrong. Given as much, your theology fails to provide anybody who does not already share it with a reason to believe that all religious ideas are inherently questionable. And so the most you can do, on the basis of your theology, is beg the question. The way for you to get off that dime is to argue on purely philosophical grounds that all religious ideas are inherently questionable. I'm not sure how you would want to do that, and I don't want to put words in your mouth. So I'll just conclude by showing what, in principle, can and cannot be established for your purposes.

It would be unhelpful to your pedagogical case to argue, on philosophical grounds alone, that there can be no such thing as justified certainty in religious matters. That would requiring arguing that Catholicism—or indeed any religion which claims that faith is justifiably certain without having been established by a rationally compelling argument from non-revealed premises—can be shown to be false on purely philosophical grounds. That's because Catholicism's and others' account of the very nature of faith requires positing the sort of justified certainty that the argument in question would rule out. But that kind of argument is very difficult to make—largely because you won't get general agreement on the epistemological premises you would need. Hence it would not serve your purpose, which is to show that all religious ideas are inherently questionable. The way to serve your purpose is to make a moral argument. Thus, one would argue that, in an educational setting, forbidding people to openly oppose unquestioning adherence to beliefs which cannot, themselves, be established by methods generally accepted as reliable, is incompatible with truly educating people inasmuch it does not respect the telos of human reason. I think that's the argument you need to make. But to bolster it, you need to confront and rebut the applicable moral anthropology presented by John Paul II and Prof. Beckwith in the latter's article.

I have yet to see you do that. Maybe that's because you believe, for a priori reasons, that JP2's and Beckwith's arguments are not worth bothering with. We shall see.

Dr. Liccione,

I now see why Zippy Catholic himself had once considered you formidable in the area of debate, if not, amongst those intelligent interlocutors whom he has but the highest respects.

I look forward to even more insightful, incisive analysis from you concerning these and other issues.

So as to narrow it down to something manageable in a combox, could you suggest an specific example or two you'd like me to address?

Recent discussions have brought up the dogma of the Immaculate Conception, although I don't know if that was "officially" a revision or not. You could try a more current topic like the torture debate.

Could you rephrase your thought? As it stands, I don't know why you think that what you call a problem is a problem.

It's only a problem if you contradict yourself by saying that the infallible teachings provide cover for the fallible teachings.

Hence it would not serve your purpose, which is to show that all religious ideas are inherently questionable.

A few religious ideas are fine, especially variations of the Golden Rule, most of them are questionable. They appeal to a deeply human need for existential consolation that causes a desire for wonder and magic. In combination with that effect, they also establish a moral code and typically transmit accumulated social wisdom, which is often beneficial depending on the similarity of context.

“What else does this craving, and this helplessness, proclaim but that there was once in man a true happiness, of which all that now remains is the empty print and trace? This he tries in vain to fill with everything around him, seeking in things that are not there the help he cannot find in those that are, though none can help, since this infinite abyss can be filled only with an infinite and immutable object; in other words by God himself" – Pascal

Interesting that a quote from Pascal was used, who not only himself was Catholic but also author of a particularly insightful work called Pensées, which unfortunately not many in this materialist world (including fellow Christians) are not acquainted with.

“We know then the existence and nature of the finite, because we also are finite and have extension. We know the existence of the infinite and are ignorant of its nature, because it has extension like us, but not limits like us. But we know neither the existence nor the nature of God, because He has neither extension nor limits.”

Mr. Bauman,

Perhaps you will entertain a different sort of approach with me.

I was taught in (a unique Catholic) college to consider the difficult questions from as many angles as we could imagine, including both the "orthodox" angles that are compatible with Catholic standards, and the heterodox ones that are incompatible. Feeling free to propose entirely novel and (often) outrageous thoughts, allowing us to see where they would run - or crash, if logic sends them there. All with the goal of knowing - insofar as we could know - both the truth, and the weaknesses in our understanding of that truth. Knowing in some cases that A, B, and C, answers don't work, Z answer works but is not directly provable, and so on. This Catholic college allows students to question, and raise doubts, and debate against, Catholic principles, in the (theological) hope and belief that truth sought carefully and honestly and with scrupulous principles of seeking are the way to truly own the resulting understanding, rather than borrowing it in reliance on others' testimony.

Nevertheless, this Catholic college requires that virtually all of its teachers be sound Catholics. Not because it intends to indoctrinate (since the above methods are clearly not those of indoctrination), but for other reasons. Integral Catholicism is committed to the view that truth found outside the religion department can never contradict truth found inside the religion department: therefore, those who have care of the teachings of the faith have nothing to fear from any sound and responsible study of other truths.

However, Catholics are also committed to the understanding that with Revelation, we have some truths that provide a springboard toward understanding that may help, at times, from making foolish or unnecessary errors in the search for truth. If there are literally a thousand ways to misunderstand a reality and one way to understand it perfectly, one could theoretically spend a millennium weeding out the false trials before one found the true one. Faith can act in service of the principled search for truth.

In addition, any responsible search for truth requires a sort of humility of mind to be led by what is outside you - both the data, and by other men. A faith that teaches humility can lend to man the proper attitude to being open to the truth wherever it lies.

Please read this

http://www.thomasaquinas.edu/about/bluebook/index.htm

Michael L.,

Though we disagree, I appreciate your careful responses and your good will. Well done!

Provided that you have all the relevant facts regarding the Catholic church and it's claims at your disposal, and provided that you have synthesized them correctly and understood them properly, then you are right. But those "provided thats" mean that your view is provisional and subject to error, that it is not beyond question - indeed ought to be questioned. To question it is neither bad Catholicism nor bad pedagogy.

I am quite happy with Tony's explanation and would earnestly support Catholic education in that vein, primarily because it IS education, and it's Catholicism informs it well without vitiating it. It takes both revelation and history seriously, but does so humbly, and with an eye toward human fallibility.

Tony,
Yes, that will do nicely. Professors are right to profess, just let them do so in a way that admits the possibility of their error. We should believe what we believe with conviction, but believe it teachably. I think you've got it quite right.

Cheers,
MB

Aristocles, Tony, and Mr. Bauman:

Thank you! I too like Tony's account of his education. The approach he describes is pretty much the one I've observed in the theology departments of Catholic institutions where I've taught.

Mr Bauman, I now think that our disagreement arises from our having been talking about somewhat different things. Thus you write:

Provided that you have all the relevant facts regarding the Catholic church and it's claims at your disposal, and provided that you have synthesized them correctly and understood them properly, then you are right. But those "provided thats" mean that your view is provisional and subject to error, that it is not beyond question - indeed ought to be questioned. To question it is neither bad Catholicism nor bad pedagogy.

What you're describing there as "provisional and subject to error" is not the content of the Catholic Faith itself, but rather an educator's way of understanding, expounding, and defending it academically. Once that distinction is made, I have no problem with granting that the latter is fallible and should be seen as such. It would be sheer hubris to imagine otherwise.

Best to all,
Mike


Step:

Sorry for the delay. I overlooked your response.

Recent discussions have brought up the dogma of the Immaculate Conception, although I don't know if that was "officially" a revision or not. You could try a more current topic like the torture debate.

Although some theologians opposed the doctrine during the Middle Ages, the Church never officially taught that there was no Immaculate Conception. Therefore, defining it as a dogma was not a reversal of Church teaching. The "revision" consisted in the Church's coming to see the Immaculate Conception as belonging to the deposit of faith rather than just as a pious opinion.

As to torture, I'm not sure what problem of "revision" you think the development of doctrine on that question poses for the Church. The Church condemns "torture" as intrinsically evil, but there's some disagreement among moral theologians about where to draw the line between legitimate and illegitimate coercion of prisoners. "Torture" would be the illegitimate kind.

A few religious ideas are fine, especially variations of the Golden Rule, most of them are questionable. They appeal to a deeply human need for existential consolation that causes a desire for wonder and magic. In combination with that effect, they also establish a moral code and typically transmit accumulated social wisdom, which is often beneficial depending on the similarity of context.

I don't see how the initial statement in that paragraph is supported by the rest.

Best,
Mike


There is another distinction made in the torture debate:
http://www.whatswrongwiththeworld.net/2009/05/its_just_so_obvious_the_case_o.html

I don't see how the initial statement in that paragraph is supported by the rest.

Do you believe the Golden Rule is only valid through faith or can it be inferred from reason? The other parts unrelated to existential consolation may often be beneficial, but they are also inherently questionable as a matter of comparative knowledge and context. For a quick example, the swine flu epidemic could provide a strong reason for dietary prohibitions on pork.

Step2:

1. I followed the debate between Zippy Catholic and Ed Feser about waterboarding. I was and remain inclined to agree with Ed. For purposes of the present discussion, however, it is not important why. What's important is that the issue between Zippy and Ed is a matter of opinion for Catholics: the question whether a specific form of bodily coercion, for the sake of extracting life-saving information, did in fact count as immoral under the authoritative criteria set out in the teaching of the Church. I do not doubt the Catholic doctrinal orthodoxy of either man; neither questioned the other's; and I don't believe either questions mine. But the actual moral precepts authoritatively set forth in Catholic doctrine do not logically suffice, just in themselves, to settle the question whether waterboarding counts as an instance of an intrinsically evil sort of action. There are degrees of coercion; given Church teaching, some of them can be justified as punishment even when they cannot be justified simply as an attempt to extract information. If there were no distinctions like that to make and apply, there could be no debates in moral theology. But the contours of the debate between Zippy and Ed indicate that the Church has not "changed" her teaching on the matter at hand to a degree sufficient to call the doctrinal continuity of her teaching into question. Thus, I don't think your citing their debate raises the sort of difficulty you seem to have in mind.

2. As to the "inherent questionability" of religious ideas, I think you've been missing my point. I do not claim that all religious ideas are inherently unquestionable; I claim only that some are. As I understood him during our debate, however, Mr Bauman needed to make a stronger claim than that for the sake of building his case, i.e. that all religious ideas are inherently questionable. After I pointed that out to him, he made no attempt to argue for said claim. And at this stage, I'm still wondering whether you would do so yourself. Obviously we agree that some religious ideas are inherently questionable; but if you'd claim that all are, I'd like to hear your argument. I haven't seen one yet.

Best,
Mike

Michael L,
I stopped debating because on most levels it seemed largely pointless, and therefore a poor stewardship of time. The distance between us was so great as to be unbridgeable in a combox. But good will and authentic Christian brotherhood meant that I exit in a kindly fashion, which I think I did. But you ought not to draw the conclusions you do about it, or about the nature of your arguments. It's just more evidence that we are liable to persistent error. After all, you think that I needed to make a stronger case; I think you had to -- starting with the difference between "if," "because," and "since," and with the difference between certainty and certitude.

Mr Bauman:

As I said in my previous response to you, I believe we've been talking about different things. We agree that any particular individual's way of interpreting and presenting the truths of divine revelation can be mistaken, so that any particular educator's way of doing so is inherently questionable. That is why the sort of educational process Tony described as occurring at Thomas Aquinas College, which you said you had no problem with, is perfectly compatible with an ironclad institutional commitment to the truth of Catholicism. By the same token, however, it simply does not follow that all religious ideas are "inherently" questionable. I submit that, if you believe it does follow, you are mistaken about the logical import of conditional terms.

On the shared supposition that there is such a thing as divine revelation to humans, and that God can no more deceive than be deceived, it follows that, to the extent the content of divine revelation is identified by means of propositions, we know what God has revealed to us. For those propositions are not only true but irreformable. That does not mean that they could not be formulated better in themselves or understood better by this-or-that individual; it means that what they actually say is unalterably true and that certitude about their truth can be justified. As such, they enjoy inherent certainty—which is another way of saying that they are inherently unquestionable. Given the subject-matter, that is as it should be. For the assent of faith, as distinct from that of opinion, is assent with certitude to such propositions, whose truth enjoys inherent certainty whether or not any particular individual possesses certitude about them. If you disagree, that is because you disagree with me about what is logically entailed by the assent of faith as distinct from opinion. But I grant that we cannot make progress discussing that issue if we cannot even agree on the logical import of conditional terms, and therefore on what follows from what.

That is a philosophical disagreement which leads to a theological disagreement. But the mere existence of such a disagreement is not evidence that your epistemology is true. To claim otherwise would patently beg the question.

Best,
Mike

But the actual moral precepts authoritatively set forth in Catholic doctrine do not logically suffice, just in themselves, to settle the question whether waterboarding counts as an instance of an intrinsically evil sort of action.

Those moral precepts do suffice if they are accurately applied to the question. A practice we still call torture when used by other countries, prosecute as torture if used against domestic prisoners today, and fitting all but the most Orwellian description of cruel and inhuman treatment even if considered as punishment, does not cease to be torture because someone changes its name to enhanced interrogation technique. It also does not cease to be interrogation because someone thinks it might barely be justifiable as punishment, a punishment that coincidentally ceases once a confession is extracted.

I do not claim that all religious ideas are inherently unquestionable; I claim only that some are.

My claim is that most religious ideas are questionable. Divine command theory (which acts as the basis for Church infallibility) doesn’t do the work theists think it does in explaining why certain actions or principles should be practiced or prohibited. This doesn’t imply they are wrong, it only means that divine commands assert universal truths that still need to proven as accurate.

Step2:

Your moral assessment of waterboarding agrees with Zippy's. That's fine; for all I know, you could be right. But you keep missing the point of my discussion. It is a matter of opinion, not of doctrine, whether waterboarding is intrinsically immoral according to Catholic doctrine. One can be orthodox on moral doctrine and still be wrong in the way one applies such doctrine to assess a particular practice. Accordingly, whether Ed's or Zippy's opinion is correct is beside the point. The point is that the Church has not changed her doctrine in such a way as to call its logical continuity over time into question. And that, I take it, was the issue you raised in bringing up the question of torture.

You claim that "most" religious ideas are inherently questionable. That's fine too; so do I. So I don't quite get your point here either. We both hold that not all religious ideas are inherently questionable.

In closing, just a conceptual correction. "Divine-command theory" is a particular theory in moral theology that is not logically necessary to ground the Church's claim to teach infallibly under certain conditions. Historically, most Catholic moral theologians have been natural-law theorists as opposed to divine-command theorists. Nobody, to my knowledge, has ever argued that they therefore have no grounds for believing the Magisterium's claims for itself. So I suspect you are misunderstanding either what the phrase 'divine-command theory' refers to, or the actual basis for the Magisterium's claims for itself. Or perhaps both.

The point is that the Church has not changed her doctrine in such a way as to call its logical continuity over time into question. And that, I take it, was the issue you raised in bringing up the question of torture.

If that were the case, the Church wouldn't have apologized for its past behavior during the Inquisition.

2298 In times past, cruel practices were commonly used by legitimate governments to maintain law and order, often without protest from the Pastors of the Church, who themselves adopted in their own tribunals the prescriptions of Roman law concerning torture. Regrettable as these facts are, the Church always taught the duty of clemency and mercy. She forbade clerics to shed blood. In recent times it has become evident that these cruel practices were neither necessary for public order, nor in conformity with the legitimate rights of the human person. On the contrary, these practices led to ones even more degrading. It is necessary to work for their abolition. We must pray for the victims and their tormentors.

As a hypothetical, let's propose that I were to state my firm belief that abortion is intrinsically evil. Then I provide a threshold definition of it such that miscarriage via Plan B would not count as abortion, in my opinion. Maybe a pro-lifer would shrug their shoulders and tell me it is a legitimate matter of private opinion. Maybe not.

So I suspect you are misunderstanding either what the phrase 'divine-command theory' refers to, or the actual basis for the Magisterium's claims for itself. Or perhaps both.

As I understand it, the basis for the Magisterium's claims comes directly from the statements Jesus explicitly and implicitly made to Peter. Perhaps divinely sanctioned is a better term to describe the infallibility doctrine. From that flows the Magisterium's claim to exclusive authority to interpret God's revelation on faith and morals, which in practice ends up being the same as divine command theory under certain conditions. From a legalistic standpoint, I can see how you could describe the Magisterium as the final arbiter of disputes within the faith community; similar to how the Supreme Court is the normal final arbiter of Constitutional disputes. Although viewing it that way doesn't imply infallibility.

Your quotation from the CCC only shows that the Church herself acknowledges the obvious: that some ecclesiastics in the past behaved in a manner contrary to what they ought to have known. But that does not show that the Church has ever held, as irreformable doctrine, the opposite of what she now teaches. To show that, you would have to show that the moral necessity of torturing heretics or other prisoners was a teaching that had once met the Church's formal criteria for irreformability. Good luck with that.

As a hypothetical, let's propose that I were to state my firm belief that abortion is intrinsically evil. Then I provide a threshold definition of it such that miscarriage via Plan B would not count as abortion, in my opinion. Maybe a pro-lifer would shrug their shoulders and tell me it is a legitimate matter of private opinion. Maybe not.

That "hypothetical" has already been widely discussed among Catholic moral theologians. The Magisterial answer is unequivocal: taking a drug to prevent implantation is gravely immoral. Paying no heed to whether a conceptus is there or not, taking Plan-B is at least contraceptive and sometimes homicidal. In most cases we don't know which, but in either case it is gravely immoral.

From that flows the Magisterium's claim to exclusive authority to interpret God's revelation on faith and morals, which in practice ends up being the same as divine command theory under certain conditions.

I still don't know what you mean by 'divine command theory' (DCT). According to the teaching of the Church, we ought always to do what God commands. But that is not, by itself, DCT as moral philosophers use the term. As they use the term, DCT is the theory that we ought always to do what God commands regardless of whether God has any reason, never mind a good reason, for commanding it. Although some theologians have held that view, most have not, and it certainly is not the teaching of the Church. In fact, I would argue that it is logically incompatible with the teaching of the Church. But that's an altogether different discussion.

From a legalistic standpoint, I can see how you could describe the Magisterium as the final arbiter of disputes within the faith community; similar to how the Supreme Court is the normal final arbiter of Constitutional disputes. Although viewing it that way doesn't imply infallibility.

True, but hardly germane. I have not produced a single argument in this thread for the Magisterium's claim to infallibility. I have only sought to rebut, indirectly, one sort of argument against that claim: namely, that the Magisterium once taught, under conditions satisfying its own criteria of infallibility, a doctrine it now repudiates. You have not shown that it has.

To show that, you would have to show that the moral necessity of torturing heretics or other prisoners was a teaching that had once met the Church's formal criteria for irreformability.

I would say the Inquisitors had the moral necessity of finding and prosecuting heretics, with the only significant restriction being against the spilling of blood. In other words, the thing they “ought to have known” wasn’t even a slight consideration, and it was furthermore a Vatican endorsed practice for over a century.

I am very heartened to see that for one type of intrinsic evil private opinion is an insufficient way to approach the doctrine. I hope you will grant torture the same level of specific determination.

As they use the term, DCT is the theory that we ought always to do what God commands regardless of whether God has any reason, never mind a good reason, for commanding it.

Let me frame it in this stark and simple way; is the Vicar of Christ, when he speaks ex cathedra, speaking with divinely transmitted authority to bind the faithful or not? Reason for doubt and requiring supportive explanation only enters the picture if you have incomplete faith in the authority. In that instance, it is incoherent to say the authority is infallible as an article of faith.

Given what you say about torture, I'm not sure whether you still see a logical difficulty for the Church. So I shall await clarification.

As to infallibility, I now see why you believe that DCT is relevant, even though it isn't actually relevant. So I'll first answer the question as you pose it, and then explain why DCT isn't relevant.

The short answer to your question is yes: when a pope speaks ex cathedra, he speaks "with divinely transmitted authority to bind the faithful." But you're posing the question way too narrowly.

Vatican I taught that, when the pope speaks ex cathedra, "he enjoys that infallibility with which Christ willed His Church to be endowed in defining matters of faith and morals." The primary subject of infallibility is of course God, and the secondary subject of infallibility is the Church that the God-Man established with that gift, which no man has by nature. Therefore, those within the Church who speak for the Church, and thus with the divinely granted authority of the Church, speak infallibly when they intend to bind the faithful on a matter of faith or morals. Those people bear what is called the "Magisterium" or "teaching authority". But most occasions when the Magisterium teaches infallibly are not unilateral acts of the pope. Conciliar definitions of prior doctrines are far more common, and at least the free consent of the pope is indispensable for the purpose of certifying conciliar definitions of dogma as binding on the whole Church; and if he sees fit, the pope can issue a dogmatic definition of a prior doctrine, and make it binding on the whole Church, unilaterally. But the latter is rare, and rightly so. The more common case is that of "general" councils defining prior doctrines as dogmas; and more common still is the case of the episcopal college as a whole, in communion with the papacy, teaching a given doctrine with diachronic consensus from the beginning. According to Lumen Gentium §25, those too are instances of binding and irreformable teaching inasmuch as, when a given teaching is a case of either sort, it is infallibly set forth. So infallibility is enjoyed, under certain conditions, by the "ordinary and universal" magisterium as well as the "extraordinary" magisterium of councils and popes.

Given the above, when a Catholic submits to teachings that are set forth "infallibly" by any such criteria, she is not doing so just because the pope says so. She is doing so because she believes the Church has spoken and that the Church, as the Mystical Body of Christ, teaches with his authority as the Head. This means that doctrines taught by the bishops and the pope as ones to be definitively held are never seen by the faithful as arbitrary or capricious. They are seen as clarifications of the deposit of faith handed down by the Church from the Apostles.

Hence, although authority suffices for the assent of faith to irreformable doctrine, that authority is itself limited in scope to what's been handed on and does not introduce anything unprecedented. And that means that the question whether the doctrines definitively taught by such authority have any "reason" for being so taught does not even arise. Of course they do.

...when a Catholic submits to teachings that are set forth "infallibly" by any such criteria, she is not doing so just because the pope says so. She is doing so because she...

Oh no. In contravention of a long-standing tradition, you're pulling a Beckwith and employing that hair-raising, fingernails-on-the-blackboard use of the feminine pronoun. W4 is supposed to be a place to escape the ravages of PC, not to bow down to it.

William:

My general preference for using the feminine pronoun for 'the believer' has to do with my decidedly un-PC ecclesiology. The Church is the Bride of Christ—which is why I also refer to the Church as 'she'—and Mary as "Mother of the Church" is the paradigmatic disciple of her Son. So, just as humanity in general is best understood as female in relation to God's male, so the believer as such is best referred to generically as female, unless one is speaking of a specific male believer.

Of course, I don't insist that anybody else make ecclesiology influence grammar. ;)

Best,
Mike


Given what you say about torture, I'm not sure whether you still see a logical difficulty for the Church. So I shall await clarification.

I view it as an escape by technicality, certainly not by the merits.

Hence, although authority suffices for the assent of faith to irreformable doctrine, that authority is itself limited in scope to what's been handed on and does not introduce anything unprecedented. And that means that the question whether the doctrines definitively taught by such authority have any "reason" for being so taught does not even arise.

Okay, that clears things up. So it isn’t simply a matter of faith to begin with, some reasons must have already been considered through various methods. That takes us away from the realm of DCT and moves into the territory of supplying good reasons. It also takes me back to my objection that the claim of infallibility doesn't do any work, since the reasons have to stand or fall on their own.

So in the Creed where it says "Who for us men and for our salvation came down from heaven...", you would substitute what for 'men'?

I guess this means if it's an unbeliever or a person whose connection to Christianity is not the focus of the discussion, Michael is cool with normal English--aka the generic "he."

William:

The relevant Greek in the Creed is ανθρώπους, which refers generically to both genders as distinct from men alone. I have no principled objection to translating that as "us men," for that is traditional English. I would object to translating it as "us women," which would be ridiculous for English speakers. I also object to the ad hoc translation used by progressive Catholics, i.e. "for us..." while omitting 'men'. I object to that translation not because it is gender-neutral, but because it can be taken to refer simply to the congregation or to the living, and not to all people throughout time and space.

Personally, I'd prefer translating ανθρώπους as "humans"; but I would not presume to campaign for such a change in the liturgical texts. There's been altogether too much change already—much of it bad.

Best,
Mike

It's worth remembering that both anthropos and homo are grammatically masculine in gender--that is to say, they automatically take masculine adjectives. Some more recent Latin textbookss have attempted to say that homo is "common" in gender, meaning that its gender is determined by context, but I defy anyone to find a classical Latin passage where homo takes a feminine adjective, thus making its gender feminine in context! The only relatively recent claim that it is "common" is clearly a PC attempt to make use of the _meaning_, which includes both the masculine and the feminine, to obscure the _grammatical_ fact that the word is a masculine noun. As far as I know, the same is true of anthropos, though I don't know enough about Greek texts to know if there is a similar attempt to cause confusion there. The masculine gender of the noun in the Creed means that the English generic "us men" is actually, _because_ of the use of "men" in traditional English, the correct translation--i.e., we want a word that is grammatically masculine in gender while encompassing all members of the race in its meaning. Also, "who for us humans and for our salvation came down from heaven" is hideously ugly.

Step2:

At this point, your conclusions are equally unjustified on both issues.

About the logic of the Church's teaching on torture you write: "I view it as an escape by technicality, certainly not by the merits." Well, in secular disciplines such as jurisprudence, nobody objects to the distinction between settled principles, which are ex hypothesi not in dispute, and debatable applications thereof. If the former precluded the latter, then jurisprudence could be done by computer software; there would be no need for human interpretations. In moral theology, the distinction in question would only be meretricious, as opposed to meritorious, if there were no cases in which the proper application of the principles is clear. But there are plenty of such cases. Of course there are "hard cases" too. The purpose of casuistry is to try to resolve them. But their mere existence does not call the applicable moral precepts, or their irreformable character, into question. It only points to the need for the virtue of prudence in applying them. If that were not so, then casuistry too could be done by computer software, so that there would be no need for the prudential exercise of conscience.

I see a similar failure to appreciate the force of distinctions in your treatment of the Magisterium's claims for itself. You write:

So it isn’t simply a matter of faith to begin with, some reasons must have already been considered through various methods. That takes us away from the realm of DCT and moves into the territory of supplying good reasons. It also takes me back to my objection that the claim of infallibility doesn't do any work, since the reasons have to stand or fall on their own.

Nonsense. From the fact, when it is a fact, that a doctrine D's being proposed by a given authority is sufficient to require assent to D, it does not follow that there cannot be other good reasons to believe D. All that follows is that, if there are such reasons, then seeing them for what they are is not necessary for being justified in believing D. Conversely, if there are good reasons other than authority for believing D, and one sees them as such, it does not follow that D's being proposed by authority is insufficient for being justified in believing D, or that the authority in question is required to supply them. Thus, when the Magisterium infallibly teaches that D, there can be and are good reasons for D that are at least implicit in what's been "handed on" before; but it is not necessary for any particular Catholic to see such reasons in order to be justified in rendering assent to D.

Perhaps I can make this clearer to you by explaining briefly why I'm Catholic as distinct from some other sort of Christian. If the propositionally expressible content of divine revelation is to be reliably distinguished from theological opinions (whether true or false opinions), there has to be an authoritative way to do so, and thus to present said content as the proximate object of the assent of faith as distinct from opinion. More specifically, there has to be an authoritative way to distinguish between interpretations of Scripture and Tradition which bind the faithful as articles of faith from interpretations that are theological opinions only. But an authority—be it that of a holy person, of scholars, or even of the collective church leadership—which does not claim infallibility in such matters as a divine gift has no business making such a distinction. It must always allow that it could be wrong in the way it makes such a distinction, so that its doctrinal deliverances must remain a matter of opinion. That is why I agree with Cardinal Newman's dictum: "No revelation is given, unless there be some authority to decide what is given." The Magisterium does not of course decide what the content of divine revelation is to be;; that has been given by God "once for all to the holy ones" (Jude 3). Rather, the Magisterium sometimes decides what interpretations of the "sources" actually belong to the revealed deposit of faith as distinct from the realm of opinion. If such an authority could be wrong when it does so in a manner meant to bind the faithful, then there is no clear way to distinguish the propositionally expressible content of divine revelation from human opinions about the raw data transmitted to us by Scripture and Tradition. That result would be incompatible with the very idea of divine revelation; for it would be incompatible with knowing the content thereof as a proximate object of faith as distinct from opinion. Accordingly, if there is such a thing as divine revelation at all, then the distinction between doctrine that is "irreformable," in virtue of having been infallibly taught, and fallible theological opinion must and can be reliably drawn by a divinely instituted authority. And the Catholic Church has always applied that distinction in a self-consistent manner.

When people start throwing Latin and Greek at me, I get on the next bus out of town. I'll take Michael's word for it that his "she" is no tip of the hat to prevailing winds. I hope Step 2 didn't mind my threadjack.

Just to get into the swing of things: "I view it as an escape by technicality, certainly not by the merits." This can be true without falsifying Michael's case, because the technicality happens to be very profound. But it won't heal all wounds or forgive any sins, as Lydia makes clear in the comments to this post. Those churchmen who "merit" the wages of their sins won't come out till they've paid to the last farthing. (Don't read all the comments to the linked post or you'll go crazy.)

William gets it exactly right. Amen to that.

Back to the question of authority, since the Magesterium is prohibited from introducing anything unprecedented, arbitrary, or capricious, it seems like the believer would be required to make that minimal degree of determination. However, they could provisionally assent without making that determination. Would you agree with that description?

William's point is very important indeed. It implies that, in some cases, people can be culpable for failing to recognize the truth, so that they cannot exonerate themselves by a sincere appeal to their own "conscience." That's actually what the Church teaches. Sure you want to go there? If you do, I have some interesting propositions for you to consider.

That question is relevant to the authority question, on which you're not accurately depicting the epistemic position of the believing Catholic. When the Magisterium propounds some doctrine D with its full authority—which it by no means always does—the believer is not "required" to determine for herself whether D is rationally justified in terms other than authority. The believer is required to give unconditional assent to D. To suppose that it's OK to render merely "provisional" assent, until one makes such a determination for oneself, is to treat the matter as one of opinion, which is incompatible with being Catholic. This is why Catholics who oppose John Paul II's ruling on women's ordination twist themselves into exegetical pretzels arguing that such a ruling was not an exercise of the Magisterium's full authority, which it was, instead of arguing that it is "unprecedented, arbitrary, or capricious," which it isn't. Part of being Catholic is acknowledging that the Magisterium's binding rulings have reasons behind them. The fact that, in some cases, many fail to find the reasons sufficient to justify the ruling is, however, irrelevant. It only means that, if they withhold unconditional assent, they are bad Catholics, and if they deny D, they are heterodox.

There are cases, however, when it's not clear whether D has been infallibly taught by "the ordinary and universal magisterium" (OUM) or is merely a long-standing theological opinion. It can take time for the Magisterium to make such determination, and it's sometimes done by consulting the "sense of the faithful." A good example of that is the question whether formal membership in the Church is a necessary condition for salvation in every case. It took the Church over a millennium to decide whether that proposition belongs to the deposit of faith or is merely an orthodox theological opinion. By the time of Vatican II, the question was decided in favor of the latter answer. In such cases, "provisional" assent to the proposition is acceptable, just as "provisional" assent to the opposite opinion is acceptable. What is not acceptable is rejecting the Magisterium's resolution of the question.


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