Friday, August 28, 2009
Tuesday, August 25, 2009
Monday, August 24, 2009
According to Fr. Tom Finigan, formerly Fr. Jeffrey Steel of the CofE is returning to blogging, but now "as a Catholic layman." Last June I took theological note of Steel's decision to become a Roman Catholic; he and his family were duly received into the Church on July 18. It will be a pleasure to have him back in the blogosphere.
Sunday, August 23, 2009
There are actually four main versions of that argument. The first runs roughly as follows:
Scripture and/or Tradition are fully public and materially contain the full content of the deposit of faith. The Magisterium claims to "infallibly" hand on and clarify the doctrinal content of those two "sources" of transmission of divine revelation. But whether infallible or not, the Magisterium only does the sort of thing that any Spirit-guided Christian could in principle do, given the publicity and material sufficiency of the sources. Therefore, such a magisterium is in principle dispensable.The problem with that argument is that the conclusion does not follow from the premises. To get it to follow, one needs at least the following, additional premise:
(i) Some methodology other than binding and (allegedly) infallible interpretation by ecclesiastical authority enables the Spirit-guided Christian, at least in principle, to attain sufficient knowledge of the deposit of faith from Scripture and/or Tradition.
Many people, mostly Protestants, believe (i) either because their personal religious experience leads them to believe they've attained such knowledge without the Church, or because they believe that otherwise there would be no way to assess the orthodoxy of any self-proclaimed magisterium, Catholic or otherwise. But the problem with (i) is that there is no good reason to believe it.
The only good reason to believe (i) would be to hit upon a methodology, ecclesiologically neutral in itself, which objectively suffices to render a particular hermeneutic of Scripture and/or Tradition doctrinally comprehensive and rationally compelling. But if nearly two millennia of exegesis and theology show anything at all, they show that there is no such methodology. Eastern Orthodoxy, for example, has never claimed there is such a methodology; it has always insisted, like Catholicism, that authentic interpretation of the sources can only be conducted in conformity with the mind of "the Church." And Protestants who claim there is such a methodology often disagree about which doctrinal results are thereby secured. That's why there are Protestant "denominations." Rather few of the Protestant participants in that debate can be charged with outright irrationality; with more or less plausibility, they just disagree among themselves as well as with Catholicism and Orthodoxy. Absent appeal to an infallible interpreter, that leaves the question who is right as a matter of opinion rather than of binding doctrine. But that does not suffice for identifying the entire content of the deposit of faith as an object of the assent, precisely, of faith in God the infallible Revealer. All it does is present Scripture (and a fortiori Tradition, of which Scripture is the uniquely normative written record) as raw material for the forming of more or less plausible opinions. Many such opinions are doubtless logically equivalent to doctrines that are of faith; but as opinions, they neither constitute nor express assent by faith.
That points up the fundamental difficulty with the argument in question: there is no ecclesiologically neutral methodology for determining who interprets Scripture correctly, and who thus knows their interpretations to be binding and irreformable for the whole Church's assent of faith as distinct from tentative opinions. Some Christians appeal to a "burning in the bosom" or to their holy people of choice to confirm their interpretations; but such inherently subjective arguments can yield nothing that is rationally compelling and authoritative for the Church as a whole, without an ad hoc and doctrinally front-loaded limitation on who counts as "the Church."
In view of such difficulties, some people argue against the Magisterium's claims in a narrower way. Thus:
The Magisterium enables Christians to know the full content of the deposit of faith as an object for the assent of faith only if the doctrines it presents as binding and irreformable can be demonstrated to belong to the apostolic faith. But the most distinctively Catholic doctrines, including the Magisterium's claims for itself, are precisely those which cannot be thus demonstrated. Therefore, the Magisterium does not help Christians know the full content of the deposit of faith as an object for the assent of faith.The difficulty with that argument is that it begs the question at the outset. How? If the first sentence is true, then we can assess the Magisterium's claims for itself only if we can reliably know the content of the deposit of faith "given once for all to the holy ones" without recourse to the Magisterium's claims for itself. Hence, the Magisterium as it understands itself is justifiable only if superfluous for knowing the rest of the deposit of faith. But if the Magisterium is superfluous in that way, then its claim to be the sole "authentic" interpreter of the sources is false. An argument that begs the question at the outset need not be taken seriously as an argument.
That's probably why many non-Catholic Christians prefer a more philosophical approach. For purposes of a blog post, a good example is the argument made by a commentator over at Called to Communion:
What good Protestant theologians actually believe is that a sincere believer, aided by the Holy Spirit, who approaches the Scripture with humility in the context of a living community of faith and the Christian Tradition will be able to find great confidence about those truths necessary to salvation and to grow, however slowly and fallibly, closer to the truth on more doubtful matters. This fallibility is inherent to our situation as human beings and is in no way mitigated by your Catholic position since you have fallibly determined that organizational and doctrinal continuity with the Apostles is a guide to doctrinal reliability, and you have fallibly determined that the Church of Rome exhibits such continuity. Finally, you fallibly interpret the Roman Church’s doctrinal proclamations. Adding the infallibility of the Church generally or the Pope specifically will not get you into a significantly better epistemic state than the agreed upon doctrine of the infallibility of Scripture.In other words: since the assent of faith is up to each individual, and each individual is fallible, then the assent of faith is itself fallible; and if so, then proposing some set of doctrines S with alleged infallibility gives people no more certainty of the truth of S than would holding S as a set of human opinions only.
John Henry Newman's well-known rejection of "private judgement" in religion is often criticized in such a manner. Thus if the assent of faith as an epistemic stance is fallible, given the fallibility of each of the assenters, then ultimately there is no reliable way to distinguish the objective content of the irreformable deposit of faith, as revealed by God, from fallible opinions, held collectively by members of "the Church," about the data handed down to us. If the purpose of the self-styled Magisterium is to afford us a reliable way to make that distinction, then the Magisterium is wasting its own and everybody else's time. For what it's after is something that cannot be had and therefore should not be sought.
Now if the Magisterium were offering its definitive judgments merely as products of academic research, or even of special religious experiences, that criticism would be perfectly justified. And such factors often play a important role in forming magisterial judgments, as well as an even more important role in defending them. Yet no matter how well they serve, they could not themselves be decisive without the Magisterium's claims for itself succumbing to the objection at hand. What's decisive among and for the Magisterium's claims is its claim that it is divinely authorized, to the same degree as the Apostles themselves, to teach doctrine which irreformably binds the whole Church and is, by that same divine authority, protected from teaching what is false when it does so. If that is true, then the inherent fallibility of believers who take the Magisterium at its word does not infect the truth of what they assent to when they make the assent of faith; it infects only their degree of understanding that truth. Assuming Christianity is true, the fact remains that no particular believer, not even the pope, can ever be absolutely certain that their own understanding of a particular doctrine is as free from error as the doctrine itself. Rather, and as a matter of fact, they trust implicitly that the doctrine is true and seek to conform their mind ever more closely with that of the Church, for which the Magisterium speaks, on the doctrine's subject matter. Of course, if the Magisterium's particular claims for itself are true, then "the Church" as a whole will enjoy, or in due course attain, as sound an understanding of the doctrine as the subject matter permits. But that doesn't guarantee that any believer in particular will do so. That is one reason why the Catholic Church tolerates a great deal of what is, objectively speaking, material heresy in her ranks. It is often humanly impossible to tell which errors are being made in good faith, by people who (mistakenly) believe they are conforming their minds to that of the Church, from those which arise from culpable refusal to so conform oneself. Although the content of the deposit of faith is not a journey, most of us know that the life of faith is very much a journey. Accordingly, the position of the believing, intelligent Catholic is rather similar to that which our CtoC commenter attributed to "good Protestant theologians." The only difference is that the Catholic acknowledges a living authority not merely for identifying the deposit of faith—for which inspired Scripture indubitably serves—but for definitively resolving, as they arise, certain questions that the sources either occasion or fail to address explicitly.
Nevertheless, the journey would be not just unavoidable, but irremediably deficient, if the fourth and final common argument against the Magisterium were sound. Thus:
The Magisterium claims to be the sole "authentic" interpreter of Scripture and Tradition, meaning that only its interpretations are divinely authorized for the assent and profession of the whole Church. But all language requires interpretation, especially when it's about such lofty subject matter; so, the Magisterium's interpretations, in the form of dogmas or other definitive teachings, themselves require interpretation by both individual believers equipped to conduct it and the Magisterium itself. But if that is the case, then given the subject matter, there's no reason to believe that magisterial judgments, offered as interpretations of the "sources," are any more perspicuous than what they interpret. That is why heresies are so frequent, even recurring in new forms, despite conciliar and papal definitions; and that's how the interpretation of certain doctrines, such as extra ecclesiam nulla salus, can changes over time. But if magisterial judgments set forth with alleged infallibility leave so much unclarity, then the Magisterium's claims for itself are idle.Fortunately, that is the easiest argument to rebut. Magisterial judgments rarely answer all important questions about their subject matter, any more than Scripture does; they answer only the questions that are, or were, pressing in their historical context. Hence, such judgments are ordinarily not the last word for understanding what they're about; they are merely interpretive steps deemed necessary for dispelling particular misunderstandings. Ordinarily they do that job well, even though sometimes they do not, and can even raise serious questions of their own—as, I believe, was the case with the filioque, whose que admits of heterodox interpretations as well as an orthodox one. The point is this: even though the Church's collective meditation on the deposit of faith does not exhaust the cognitive content of the subject, and could never come close to doing so, the words in which magisterial judgments are framed are typically clear enough, in the broader context of Tradition and history, to exclude problematic interpretations as they arise. The Magisterium itself is on a faith journey of sorts, and the history of doctrine may be seen as that of an ongoing conversation about which direction the journey should take. But once a certain direction is taken definitively, interpretive clarity is thus gained to some degree.
Sunday, August 16, 2009
I've been following Arturo Vasquez's four-part series "The Hollow Victory over Jansenism" (here's the link to Part IV, the most interesting) with considerable interest that is reflected in my combox contributions. I call my readers' attention to the issues involved because they go a long way toward explaining the sad division between Catholic "traditionalists" on the one hand and Catholic "neo-conservatives," among whom I am often numbered, on the other. Thanks largely to the Vatican's ongoing efforts to reconcile the Lefebvrite "Society of St. Pius X" with the Church at large, it has become well-known that trads and neo-cons differ with each other on a range of issues as much as (or, at least, as bitterly as) they both differ with progressives. The most contentious have to do with ecclesiology: ecumenism, religious liberty, limbo, the meaning of the dogma extra ecclesiam nulla salus (EENS), and the relative authority of various magisterial but non-dogmatic doctrines. In the combox to the above-linked post, Arturo refers to me to several recent posts of his on the topics in question. But as he implicitly recognized in one of the posts in question, a given Catholic's stance on the pertinent issues depends on where he stands on a more fundamental theological question: that of how nature and grace relate to each other.
That foundational issue had become a huge bone of contention among Catholic theologians between the two Vatican councils. Though I don't agree by any means with everything in the 20th-century nouvelle theologie that so influenced Vatican II, I do agree with such representative figures as Maurice Blondel and Henri de Lubac on at least one point: there has never been a state of "pure nature." All human reality, from our first parents onward, has been penetrated by and oriented to grace. A state of pure nature is of course hypothetically possible, given divine power and goodness; but that is not in fact the case; and given the actual oikonomia, it never has been or will be the case. That means, among other things, that how humans choose to use their "natural" powers and order "natural" realities always has supernatural implications, either for better or for worse. Accordingly, and for reasons given by Ratzinger and others, every human being will end up, forever, either fully united with or fully alienated from God. If that is so, then (as Fr. Al Kimel and I argued in a series of articles a few years ago), no limbus infantium could be permanent; and the non-existence of pure nature has larger ecclesiological and political implications too.
The essence of the matter is that, on a non-extrinsicist picture of the nature/grace relation, the visible Church herself, not merely the "seven" sacraments, must be seen as "sacramental" in the sense intended by Vatican II in Lumen Gentium. Thus, although the Church is the visible, ordinary means of transmitting to humanity that "grace and truth" of which the crucified-and-risen Christ is the source, the reality of such grace and truth in the world is far wider than its explicit manifestation in the Church. It suffuses all humanity to a degree sufficient for the salvation of each and every human being, and indeed suffuses the cosmos itself. Within the context of such a sacramental vision of reality, the Church's visible reality and witness is necessary for each and for all; for in the divine economy, she is indispensable for bringing about what she signifies. But people of good will who are inculpably ignorant of that very fact can still belong to the Church implicitly. Of course, and for obvious reasons, many trads are at best uncomfortable with such an affirmation. But they can't reject the idea of "imperfect communion" with the Church without rejecting the magisterial interpretation of EENS that has been steadily developing since Pius IX's Singulari Quidem and that became clear with Pius XII's 1949 condemnation of Feeneyism. Only the Feeneyites, and a smattering of other rad-trads, seem willing to go that far.
Accordingly, I believe the general trad dislike of modern ecclesiology to be radically misplaced. Trads understandably lament the "disenchantment of the world" that has accelerated since the 16th century, and which they blame the modern Catholic Church for worsening by a descent into a kind of ultramontanist rationalism; but they disagree with me and the "nuptial-mystery" theologians about how theology can contribute to the world's re-enchantment. And we're not going to resolve the disagreement here or anytime soon. But our disagreement on this score tends to mask a yet more fundamental disagreement about how such disagreements are to be resolved. That is what brings in the "good personal."
I have noticed that, in the combox to Arturo's above-linked post, none of the criticisms directed (explicitly or implicitly) toward me engage any of my actual arguments on the specific points at issue, despite my having developed and publicized such arguments for several years. As I've often seen before, my critics simply disparage my general "development-and-negation" approach by suggesting that I proceed like a "lawyer" who, though he might or might not be using philosophy, is certainly not doing theology. One commenter doesn't even bother with that much professional respect, suggesting instead that I suffer from a hitherto-unheard-of mental handicap: "I think some of these highly apologetics-focused professorial Catholics deserve some sort of neoscholastic asperger diagnosis." I would find all this rather baffling if I had not already come to recognize that the underlying theological difference here is of such a kind that it simply cannot be addressed in terms held in common by all sides. The only terms left are essentially aesthetic and personal.
That's what I mean the "good personal." The good personal is good inasmuch as it signifies that the intellectual gulf is not perceived for what it really is, so that one side can only explain it in essentially personal terms. I shall explain the gulf here by starting with a bit of intellectual autobiography.
Ultimately, I reject Protestantism in all its forms because I don't think any form of Protestantism can supply a consistent and non-arbitrary way to distinguish the content of the deposit of faith itself from theological opinions about the data of divine revelation. Of course there's always Orthodoxy; but after a lengthy flirtation with Orthodoxy in college, motivated by hard personal experience with several aspects of post-Vatican-II American Catholicism, I ultimately stuck with the Catholic Church because her way of applying the needed distinction struck me as clearer and more consistent than Orthodoxy's. But having educated myself about Catholicism's way of applying that distinction, I found by the mid-1980s that I could align myself neither with the progressives nor with the traditionalists.
I could not align myself with the progs because they wanted to jettison a number of important doctrines which, unlike limbo or the desirability of a confessional state, the Church had taught consistently for as far back as we have records. That attitude struck me then, as now, as incompatible with being self-consistently Catholic; and the way progressive Catholicism has developed since Vatican II confirms for me that it is fundamentally incompatible with "the Catholic thing" itself. But I could not align myself with the trads either. I could see neither how certain past teachings they preferred are more inherently plausible than, nor how such teachings were supposedly more authoritative than, those which Vatican II, an ecumenical council, had embraced in the course of reversing or sharply modifying past teachings. The options for trads, it seemed to me, were either (a) to reject the Council's distinctive doctrinal developments as heretical, which is what Archbishop Lefebvre did; or, less radically, (b) to treat those developments are mere opinions of lesser weight than those which they had supplanted. Option (a) seemed plainly schismatic—an impression confirmed by my personal experience with rad-trads. And that alone made it unacceptable to me. But option (b) raised another question: Were the issues in contention really just matters of opinion about which Catholics were free to differ, or did the distinctive teachings of the Council call for at least the "religious assent" of Catholics—to use the Council's own phrase?
Unless and until that question is clearly answered, one cannot know whether option (b) is ultimately acceptable for loyal, self-consistent Catholics or not. And if one cannot know that, then one cannot know whether (b), the less-radical trad option, is theologically tenable or not. That's one of the two major theological reasons why, despite my disgust with the prog "culture of dissent" and the widespread debasing of the liturgy, I was leery of post-Vatican-II Catholic traditionalism. My other reason was this: unless and until the question in question is given a clear answer by the Church, one cannot even explain clearly why the progs are wrong to believe that the Church could radically change her teaching on their pet issues (which mostly come down to sex and power). In the final analysis, it was my consideration of that hard fact which led me to reject post-Vatican-II Catholic traditionalism as well as progressivism. To borrow a phrase from the present pope, which the late Richard John Neuhaus was among the first to take up, I came to see both progressivism and traditionalism as hermeneutics of discontinuity, when what is so desperately needed is a "hermeneutic of continuity."
If a clear answer to the above-posed question is to be had, it must be given by "the Church." But who speaks definitively for the Church on doctrines not formally defined? There is not, because there could not be, a clear consensus fidelium on that issue; for this is simply not the sort of issue on which such a consensus could even be formulated without the intervention of the Magisterium. That's why I came to see the meta-magisterial moves made by Wojtyla and Ratzinger during the 1990s as so important: Ordinatio Sacerdotalis and the CDF responsum thereon; the formal confirmations, in Evangelium Vitae, of certain teachings of the "ordinary and universal magisterium" (OUM); and the further specifications in Ad Tuendam Fidem and Ratzinger’s “Doctrinal Commentary” thereon. By making more explicit the general criteria by which to distinguish definitive from non-definitive teachings of the OUM, they made clearer why the progs are wrong. But by the same token, they also caused me to believe that the distinctive doctrinal developments of Vatican II are weightier than trads typically believe. That the Council defined no dogmas—as a "pastoral" council, it pronounced no anathemas on those who dissented from its distinctive doctrinal developments—did not and could not mean that said developments were mere theological opinions that Catholics could safely reject or ignore. The Council taught that the teaching of the OUM commanded "religious assent" from Catholics even when not presented as definitive tendendam; and that tenet applied both to itself and to the other distinctive teachings of the Council, precisely because the dogmatic constitutions of the Council were clear instances of the teaching of the OUM by any criterion. To deny that the Council's distinctive doctrinal developments command religious assent, as the trads seemed to me committed to doing, placed them in the same position as the progs: holding that only dogmas defined by the extraordinary magisterium require assent from Catholics as a moral obligation. That position is untenable for several reasons, all of which I have expounded at length on this blog.
Most trads would not go so far as to claim that my position, which they often call the "neo-con" position, is actually heterodox. As I said in the combox to Arturo's post, the dispute is really about whose approach, i.e. that of the trads or that of the neo-cons, plays into the hands of the progs. I hold that, if one rejects the above-described meta-magisterial developments, or at least brushes them aside as irrelevant, then the progs win willy-nilly. For that's just what the progs themselves do to create space for their dissent. Trads, in my experience, counter that argument of mine not by addressing the specific ways I apply those developments, but by insisting that the very appeal to such developments is mere legalism, or ultramontanism, or otherwise misplaced rationalism. Or something like that. The irony, of course, is that that is just what many progs accuse trads of.
What's really needed is a way for trads and neo-cons to converge on a hermeneutic of continuity. Given the current gulf, I suspect that will only happen organically, by a slow return to the permanently valid riches of Catholic tradition, rather than by disputation. But that process has begun to accelerate under this pontificate. As it gathers momentum, the gulf signified by the "good personal" will gradually close toward unity.
Thursday, August 06, 2009
As a point of departure for framing the moral issue, an article in today's Wall Street Journal does rather nicely. The author, military historian Walter Kozak, notes that most Americans toward the end of World War II favored dropping The Bomb as a means of saving (mostly American) lives; whereas, as time goes by, fewer and fewer Americans find the act justifiable. So as to forestall much pointless wrangling, I shall concede that, in the circumstances, dropping The Bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki saved many more lives than the several hundred thousand civilian casualties in the vicinity of the explosions. Given our war aim of "unconditional surrender," the practical necessity of invading the Japanese home islands as a means of achieving that aim, and the fanatical dedication of the Japanese people to their Emperor, no other calculation was or is credible. But the question remains: was the act morally permissible all the same? The affirmative answer may have been obvious to most Americans, especially combat-weary veterans, at the time. But that doesn't make it so; nor do many thoughtful Americans think it does.
Consequentialists, of course, for whom utilitarian-style calculation just is the model for any and all moral judgment, almost invariably believe Hiroshima was justifiable. For as I've implied, the relevant utility calculation could hardly be more obvious. But the Catholic Church, along with most other major Christian churches, answers in the negative. Thus Vatican II:
Any act of war aimed indiscriminately at the destruction of entire cities or extensive areas along with their population is a crime against God and man himself. It merits unequivocal and unhesitating condemnation.Such an apodictic statement was made in the context of a moral tradition that is the very antithesis of consequentialism. And it is by no means idiosyncratic. But who is right?
The very term 'consequentialist', now a well-known term of art in moral philosophy, was coined decades ago by the Catholic philosopher Elizabeth Anscombe for the purpose of dispelling the misimpression that utilitarianism is limited to moral philosophers called utilitarians. In modern times, it has in fact become the default moral philosophy of the common man in the West. That's worth noting in this context because, in a well-known post-war pamphlet entitled "Mr. Truman's Degree" (republished online by a libertarian consequentialist criticizing it) Anscombe argued that dropping The Bomb on Hiroshima (as well as the earlier firebombings of Tokyo and Dresden) was immoral. Admitting that the utility calculation in the Japanese case was obvious, she concluded, in effect, "so much the worse for unconditional surrender as a war aim." I believe she was right. If unconditional surrender had not been our aim, and if we had instead made certain assurances to the Japanese people about the Emperor and other matters, then many innocent lives could have been spared by demonstrating The Bomb in open country, establishing a naval blockade, grabbing bits of mainland territory by piecemeal invasion, and negotiating a surrender. The way the Pacific war was actually ended only served to demonstrate a tragic fact in many lives since time immemorial: once people adopt a broadly wrongful course of action, they often maneuver themselves into a position that can only be escaped by committing a still-greater wrong.
That consequentialism has become the default moral philosophy in the West, and in other places too, only entrenches that tragic fact on a large scale. The impending demographic suicide of the West is the result of calculating, absurdly, that maintaining our preferred lifestyles is more valuable than replacing ourselves. That is why the holocaust of abortion doesn't strike most people as the mass human sacrifice it truly is. Severing the link between sex and procreation, in the forms of contraception and artificial reproduction, is taken for granted as a needed condition for "freedom" even as it continues to undermine the family and thus eat away at the basis of civil society. Ironically, if we wish to survive and promote the sort of human flourishing that Western science and political institutions have made possible, we must cease to be consequentialists. If we remain consequentialists, we may go out with a demographic whimper, too few and spiritually exhausted to resist conquest by a religiously backward civilization. Or, even before that happens, we could end civilized life itself by accident with a bang of the sort that ended the greatest war in human history. Either way, we will go out—unless we recover a sense of "the laws of nature and of nature's God" that is increasingly forbidden open expression in our public life. What we need is a new Transfiguration.
Saturday, July 25, 2009
To that end, the point of departure is the question is how we would reach agreement about formulating the goal of a national health-care policy. Personally, I see the goal as ensuring quality health-care for everyone at a cost the nation can both afford and accept. But making that our goal makes sense only if some level of health care must be treated as a politically enforceable right, not just as a market-priced commodity. Libertarians would not agree that health care should be treated as such a right at all, and non-libertarians do not agree on the extent to which health care should be treated as such a right. So the next question to be addressed is how resolve such disagreements.
I believe that question can and ought to be resolved in contemporary America. To that end, there are two points to consider: what citizens in general actually believe, and how their beliefs need to be modified in order to make possible a political resolution.
Americans in general believe that nobody should be forced, just by their inability to pay, to go without the health care they need for living life with a modicum of human dignity. Both our political policies and our private practices reflect that belief. It follows that Americans in general agree that health care should be treated as a right to some extent. So the libertarians have already lost the debate. The main point of contention is just how that extent can be defined and respected in a manner consistent with what I claimed is the goal: "quality health-care for everyone at a cost the nation can both afford and accept." That is largely a question of politics and economics: specifically, what politically feasible means of delivery would best attain the stated goal. Like most conservatives, I believe that Obamacare would fail miserably on that score, even aside from such intractable moral issues as abortion and euthanasia. But more importantly, not even conservatives can answer the main question without first gaining more clarity about our moral premises.
To that end, the chief moral question is what it means to "live life with a modicum of human dignity." That in turn requires that we get clear about our philosophical anthropology; for we cannot resolve major disagreements about what "a modicum of human dignity" entails without a clear, self-consistent answer to two other questions: what is the human person, and what is the human person for? In a blog post, of course, nobody can answer such questions to the satisfaction of all. What I suggest for general consideration, however, is the proposition that the principles of solidarity and subsidiarity, as expounded in Catholic social teaching, are those best suited to addressing the health-care debate in contemporary America as well as many other domestic-policy debates.
I say so because most Americans would agree that both principles are valid and mutually compatible. I say "would" agree because most Americans are unfamiliar with the terms, and still fewer know the philosophical and theological background for the corresponding concepts, but nonetheless hold beliefs that are fairly close to each. Accordingly, I suggest that the empirical debate about the economics of health care be conducted as a debate about how to balance solidarity and subsidiarity in heath-care provision. What I propose thus far is of course a framework for the debate, not a particular resolution of the debate.
I also propose clarifying that framework in one crucial respect: the morality of rationing. In a world of finite resources, any system of health-care delivery—be it purely market-oriented, socialized, or some hybrid of the two—is going to allocate health-care resources in such a way that some people get less care than they believe they need for living life with a modicum of human dignity. So the rationing question boils down to the question on what basis some people will have to get what they believe to be "the shaft." This seems to be the most morally and politically contentious question in the health-care debate.
Consider the fact that, under the current system, Medicare is variously estimated to spend 40-60%—i.e., roughly half—of its budget on care for people in their last three months of life. No doubt some of that expense is justified; but there should also be no doubt that some of it is not. Much of it is driven by the unwillingness of elderly patients and/or their families to accept the impending fact of death. Unless and until that attitude changes, no large-scale reform of our national health-care system will be both attainable and affordable. People who can afford to buy a bit of time for themselves or their loved ones, however wretched that time may be, should of course have every right to do so. But should their fellow citizens be forced to subsidize such choices? If we're going to achieve national health-care reform at all, the answer has to be no. That is not only a self-consistent but an inevitable way of balancing solidarity and subsidiarity.
This suggests that our national health-care policy should be a hybrid: socialized care for those who cannot pay for what they truly need "for living life with a modicum of human dignity," and free-market solutions for those who can. It is at that point, and only at that point, that debating economics becomes central. But we will not be able to reach that point unless the reality and necessity of rationing is generally accepted. And no such acceptance will become general unless we get our philosophical anthropology—i.e., the basis for solidarity and subsidiarity—straighter than we've got it.
Cross-posted at What's Wrong with the World.
Saturday, July 11, 2009
First, two caveats. I shall not attempt here to produce a good argument for the aforesaid claims. One can only do so much at once; and in any case I do not believe that any article of faith, precisely as such, can be established by an intellectually compelling argument—by which I mean an argument that, in addition to being (deductively or inductively) valid, contains only premises it would be irrational to reject. The best one can do is construct a cumulative-case argument showing that a given article of faith, including and especially one concerning the Magisterium, is logically consistent with the rest, coheres with the larger, pertinent body of received data, and illuminates both. Some have undertaken that project, but it is way beyond the scope of a blog—and given my need to earn a living, way beyond my book-writing capacity at the moment. More within my scope are the bad arguments against the claims the Magisterium makes for itself. There are plenty of those; but in my experience, the most challenging ones boil down to three types. In this post, I shall state and rebut the first type, as I understand it.
The other caveat is that, when I speak of 'the Magisterium', I do not mean only or even primarily the papal magisterium. In Catholic doctrine, certainly, 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, 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 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 my account is meant to cover the "ordinary and universal" magisterium as well as the "extraordinary" magisterium of councils and popes.
With that caveat understood, I move on to the first of the standard argument-types.
"Those who exercise the Magisterium are men. As such and thus to a man, they are fallible. Many have held and taught propositions which the Magisterium itself has later given up. And some have behaved abominably. Therefore, it is just common sense to insist they be held accountable in making their doctrinal judgments. But if the claims the Magisterium makes for itself are true, no such accountability is needed or called for. Therefore, said claims are incompatible with common sense."Let's dispose of the easy points first. Since infallibility has never been said to entail impeccability, the fact that some bishops and popes have been quite peccable indeed is irrelevant as an objection to the doctrine that they are infallible under certain conditions. By the same token, infallibility is not a prerogative that men enjoy as men. Since only God is infallible by nature, infallibility is a divine gift to the Church that nobody deserves or can attain by their own efforts. Such a gift is also negative rather than positive: it does not entail that the irreformable pronouncements of the Magisterium are divinely inspired, or opportune, or even particularly well-formulated; it entails only that the Magisterium will never bind the Church definitively to a statement that is false.
With that out of the way, consider the objector's premise that "many have held and taught propositions which the Magisterium itself has later given up." That is true. But its relevance is too limited to serve the objectors' purpose. For the Magisterium has never claimed to be protected from error in everything it teaches; it claims infallibility only under certain conditions. The question the critics need to consider is whether the Magisterium has ever revoked or contradicted any doctrine which it understood to be irreformable because it met the conditions for having been infallibly taught; if there is even one such a case, that would be a decisive counterexample to the claims the Magisterium makes for itself.
Now by tradition, irreformability is said to apply only to what certain doctrines actually say, to what logically follows therefrom, and to the received understanding coextensive with those. As a Catholic, I am committed to holding that there is no case in which the Magisterium has repudiated such a doctrine. So I do—and I usually find that people concede that point. One can only generate a counter-example if one supposes that all doctrines must be interpreted to mean not merely what they say, and what logically follows therefrom, and how they are received as such, but also what some who exercise the Magisterium have meant beyond all that. For some such "interpretations" have indeed been revoked or contradicted; a good example is the historical development of the dogma extra ecclesiam nulla salus. But interpretations of doctrines which are not logically equivalent to what the doctrines actually say have never been said to be irreformable. Hence the cases in which such interpretations have been revoked or contradicted are not counterexamples to what the Magisterium claims.
But that's hardly the end of the objection. The most common reply to the defense just offered is to say that it renders the Catholic system plausible only as a self-enclosed "hermeneutical circle" without giving one a cogent reason to enter into the circle. That statement is true. But it has force as an objection only if the defense in question be offered as sufficient reason to accept the claims the Magisterium makes for itself: so offered, the "defense" would patently beg the question. But the aim of such a defense is more modest. It indicates that the Magisterium meets one condition it must meet if it is to be credible: that of self-consistency. It is surely necessary and worthwhile to show, for the sake of defending a given body of propositions, that it is internally consistent.
A bigger problem with the objection is how its advocates are supposed to answer two questions which, taken together, are by no means easy to answer: how is such "accountability" to be satisfactorily manifested, and in whose estimation?
Take the latter question first. If it be claimed that the Magisterium must be accountable to "the whole Church's" estimation of its claims, who relevantly counts as members of such a collectivity? All the baptized? Notoriously, that large group agrees on very little theologically, never mind the Magisterium; hardly anybody suggests that the sure reception of the deposit of faith rest on such a thin reed. The pastors of the faithful? Very well: the pastors of which church(es) other than the Catholic—and how can one answer that without begging the question? The consensus of scholars? Such a thing exists only concerning the question what, in many cases, the data are; but there is no consensus about the theological significance of such data, or at least none secure and perduring enough to make such a consensus a criterion of scholarly orthodoxy to which the Magisterium can, let alone should, be held "accountable." Nor, given the nature of scholars, is such a consensus likely to develop.
Which brings me to the first question. The most common and rhetorically convenient way of insisting that the Magisterium be accountable is to cite Scripture and Tradition as "sources" of divine revelation to which the Magisterium must be subordinate. Of course the Magisterium insists that it is subordinate to Scripture and Tradition (cf. Dei Verbum §8-§10); but it also claims that it is the sole "authentic" interpreter thereof. This does not mean that others cannot correctly interpret Scripture and/or Tradition; others often do, and the Magisterium often considers that. It means that only the Magisterium is divinely authorized to make any particular interpretation binding on all the faithful, and thus an article of faith as distinct from a sound opinion. To this, the objectors typically reply that Catholicism's rule of faith is, in effect, solum Magisterium rather than Scripture alone or in combination with Tradition: for the orthodox Catholic, Scripture and/or Tradition mean only what the Magisterium says they mean. And that in turn is supposed to mean that the Magisterium is unaccountable. But that objection is rather easily answered.
The Magisterium is limited by, and thus "accountable to," Scripture and Tradition in several ways. First, the latter circumscribe the subject-matter of the Magisterium's competence. The Magisterium does not claim competence to pronounce on matters other than the deposit of faith and morals, and which thus are not already addressed by either Scripture or Tradition. The latter are understood to contain the entire deposit of faith given "once for all to the holy ones." Second, and accordingly, the Magisterium does not see its "authentic" interpretations of Scripture and Tradition as supplying any information that Scripture and Tradition do not somehow and already contain. What the Magisterium does claim is that it is the normative heir to Christ's promise to send the Holy Spirit to "lead you into all truth" (John 16:13). That indeed is why we have Scripture, understood as the Old and New Testament together. The writings comprising the New Testament are products of the Church: they rely on Tradition for their very composition and content, and it is by Tradition at later stages that the authorities of the Church determined that only such-and-such writings, not others, are to be regarded as divinely inspired and inerrant. Only the ignorant dispute that. Accordingly, and third, on the Catholic understanding there can be no separating Scripture, Tradition, and the definitive judgments of the Magisterium. Both historically and in principle, the three stand or fall together as means of transmitting divine revelation; for according to the Magisterium, Scripture and Tradition together present "the Church"—i.e., the authorities of the Church—as the authentic interpreter of the truth handed on from the Apostles. Finally, and in the way indicated above, the Magisterium is bound to what it has definitively taught in the past as binding interpretations of Scripture and/or Tradition. Taken together, the four considerations above leave us with much more than solum Magisterium. Even by its own criteria, the Magisterium is far from free to say whatever it likes; and much of what it does say, by way of adjudicating disputes about interpreting Scripture and Tradition, depends on discernment of the sensus fidelium manifest through a variety of means.
That ought to be the end of the objection, but alas it is not. In my long experience debating this matter with educated folk of all three major Christian traditions, as well as of none at all, I have generally found that they want the impossible. Thus they argue that the Catholic doctrine of the Magisterium is credible only if it can be established on the basis of a rationally compelling argument from authorities independent of itself. But of course, if there were such independent authorities, then the Magisterium's understanding of its own relation to Scripture and Tradition would be unjustifiable. So if the present form of the objection were sound, the Magisterium would be justifiable only if unnecessary—and if it's unnecessary, then its claims for itself are false. Nifty. To be sure, calling out such a "heads-I-win-tails-you-lose" argument for what it is does not establish the Magisterium's credibility; but it does show that what the objectors require in this case would logically entail its suicide. The polite way of characterizing that would be to say that it begs the question.
That said, I am far from done with bad types of argument against the Magisterium. Another common one is that the Catholic, as an adherent of the Magisterium, is in no better an epistemic position than even the Protestant adherent of sola scriptura. Rebutting that argument will be the topic of my next post.
Saturday, July 04, 2009
As Lydia implied, the United States remains the West's last best hope for preserving what makes Western civilization worth preserving. That would be recognizing, in Jefferson's phrase, "the laws of nature and of nature's God." What Peter Berger termed "ethical monotheism" is the basis for recognizing certain human rights as inherent and inalienable rather than bestowed by cultural evolution or political fiat. That recognition is essential for the preservation of liberty without sectarianism. We have struck a fine balance between ethical monotheism and sectarianism. As we confront the twin challenges of secular liberalism and jihad, let us not imperil our liberty by losing that balance.
Friday, July 03, 2009
My first major post at W4 went up this evening and is entitled "ID, the God of the gaps, and Metaphysics." I will cross-post it at PP tomorrow.
Sunday, June 28, 2009
I take it that believers do not ascribe such inconsistent results to capriciousness on God’s part, but rather to their own limited capacities to understand God’s ways: “Thy Will be done.” But why continue directing any psychic energy to a being so lacking in sympathetic correspondence to human needs and values. It will not do to say: “God does respond to our prayers, but in ways that we cannot fathom.” Saving a child from cancer and letting a child die from cancer cannot both be a sympathetic response to prayer; if we had wanted a stricken child to die in order to secure an earlier entry to heaven, we would have said so. And if premature death from cancer is such a boon, why doesn’t a loving God provide it to one and all?
Now believers can answer those questions in a self-consistent way. Before they can address McDonald's first and quite common question, they should begin with acknowledging the obvious.
Almost by definition, miracles involving tangible exceptions to the natural order must be rare. The very term 'miracle' comes from the Latin miraculum, meaning 'a marvel', and we don't marvel when things happen as the natural order would lead us to expect. We marvel only at the favorable exceptions. Second and more substantively, we cannot expect regular exceptions to the natural order, whether favorable or unfavorable. If we could, the natural order would cease to be the natural order; and not even the most fervent religious believers claim that God will destroy the natural order before Kingdom Come. Hence, not even believers really expect God to answer most prayers for miracles in the way the petitioners explicitly ask. Of course, many unbelievers object: "So much the worse for the natural order." That's really a way of posing the so-called "problem of evil" as an objection to classical theism. But such an objection has force only if it be assumed that our utility calculations are better than God's. Believers need not take that assumption seriously.
Nevertheless, defenders of the faith are not done demonstrating their self-consistency. For the most common rebuttal to the argument I've offered so far is to cite biblical passages such as today's Gospel. Jesus not only did healing miracles in response to faith-filled requests; he is generally taken to have assured believers that if our own requests are faith-filled, we can expect marvels from God in response. But not even the most devout petitioners are usually answered with the marvels they're actually seeking. So, if we take Jesus at his word, then the fact that the vast majority of such requests go unfulfilled should be taken as evidence that they weren't filled enough with faith. Or so the argument goes—and it isn't an argument offered only by skeptics. In some Christian quarters, mostly evangelical and pentecostal, people really believe that if they just believed hard enough, they'd get what they're asking for. So if they don't get it, they conclude that they didn't believe hard enough. That may well be true in this or that case; but if my argument in the previous paragraph is correct, it could not be true in the generality of cases. To believe it's true in the generality of cases is, I think, silly and destructive. For the most part, we cannot "believe" God into doing such things for us. That would be magic, and Christians are not supposed to be magicians. It could hardly be otherwise. How, then, is a believer to show that her faith is at least consistent with what Jesus is recorded as having said and done?
Not a few Christians, mostly mainline or conservative Protestants, believe that "the age of miracles" pretty much ended with the death of the last of the Apostles. For the purpose of such miracles was to signify the occurrence and meaning of the central event of divine self-disclosure: what theologians often call "the Christ-event." Now that divine revelation is definitive and complete, there is no need for a proliferation of healing miracles. The "ordinary means" of faith and personal conversion are enough for appreciating what Jesus' miracles signified: the tangible presence of the God-Man and the meaning of his main message, which is God's merciful and healing love for us. Once that message was got across by the Christ-event as recorded in the New Testament, the natural order could and should be left undisturbed.
There is some element of truth in that view—which I shall call the "cessationist" view (CV)—but I don't think it will ultimately do. For one thing, it is not the traditional Christian answer. For 1,500 years before the Protestant Reformation, Christians took for granted that healing and other miracles occurred surprisingly often in response to prayer—usually, petitions for the intercession of the saints with God. Devout Catholics and Orthodox still take that for granted. Indeed, by no means all Protestants today accept CV: the fastest-growing segments of Protestantism are just those whose adherents seek and expect miracles. It's easy to chalk that up to wishful thinking; but the fact is that CV has never been the prevailing view among Christians. The relative dearth of miracles today can be explained by the same reasons which explain the relative dearth of miracles generally. Of course CV is not entirely without merit. If Christianity is true, then we would expect more miracles from Jesus and the Apostles then in latter times. But it doesn't follow that we can expect none; nor do Christians in general believe there are none.
The only way, I believe, to preserve the traditional view's self-consistency is to show why the relative and necessary rarity of healing miracles since the time of Christ should not be taken as evidence against what Jesus promised to those with "faith." And one can do that only by pointing out that, assuming that Jesus' promise applies to his latter-day followers, he cannot usually answer prayers made today, in the spirit of the centurion or the woman with the hemorrhage, in the way that the petitioners want—at least not with anything like the frequency with which he found it expedient to do them with while still on earth. To do so would be to destroy the natural order that he himself wills to continue, and thus to "immanentize the Eschaton" before he's ready. So, if he does answer them favorably, that must be in some way other than what the petitioners are explicitly seeking.
This is where McDonald's first question becomes not just directly pertinent, but also applicable to petitionary prayer generally. She asks: "[W]hy continue directing any psychic energy to a being so lacking in sympathetic correspondence to human needs and values[?]" The answer is that God is not lacking in "sympathetic correspondence" to our needs, but wills to re-orient our values to align more closely with our needs—the chief of which is redemption, which requires faith. After the Christ-event and before the Eschaton, redemption does not usually consist in miraculous physical healing and, for reasons I've already given, could not. But that doesn't mean it doesn't happen on occasion. It happens just often enough to constitute a ratio credendi for those already moved by grace to grasp the main point of such miracles. That point is, as Jesus said in response to a question raised about his restoring sight to the man blind from birth (John 9: 1-41): "to show forth God's mercy." But that is shown forth in other ways too: chiefly by the lives of those who have truly accepted divine mercy by means of repentance and faith.
Needless to say, that invites another objection implicit in McDonald's last question: if what God does, or fails to do, for one person is what's good for that person, why not for that other person too, who might well "need" it as much if not more? I shall call that the "arbitrariness" objection, or 'AO' for short.
The Christian answer to AO can only be that God's perspective is more unlike than like the one we naturally adopt. We cannot always or even often know how each of us as individuals will serve best as signs and instruments of God's redemption of the world. If we did, we would enjoy a perspective that we could not fully share even in heaven—even though the blessed in heaven presumably share more of it than anybody still in via. Accordingly, AO is a sign of lack of faith. But notice that miracles were never promised to those who lack faith. So, AO is not only misguided but self-defeating. By implicitly tasking God or believers with explaining God's methods, it precludes the very state of mind necessary for getting an answer that might otherwise be satisfactory. That is the lesson of Job.
Of course that leaves open a final, perennially vexing question: how do petitionary prayers influence God? According to classical theism, God's actions are eternal and unalterable, so that we cannot literally "change his mind." To that question, the only reasonable answer is this: God eternally and unalterably chooses, by lights infinitely greater than ours, how he will favorably answer prayer that he eternally and unalterably knows is offered in genuine faith. And in most cases since his appearance on earth, that will mean that people are "healed" in ways knowable only to the eyes of faith.
Saturday, June 27, 2009
Thanks to people like Carol McKinley and Julie Brown for holding his feet to the fire. McKinley complains that O'Malley was "outsourcing his conscience" by referring the matter to the National Catholic Bioethics Center. But I think it more likely that he knew the correct decision already, and was simply using the NCBC as political cover for what will surely be a firestorm from the Left within his ranks.
Saturday, June 20, 2009
My claim that people pose the problem of evil as a basically moral objection to classical theism ought to be uncontroversial. The most common way of pressing the objection is to argue that God's permitting some people to suffer horribly beyond their deserts, when he could prevent it, is immoral. That is taken to be incompatible with God's being perfectly good, a quality classical theists ascribe to God. Of course, another way to pose the problem of evil as an objection is to argue that, although a perfectly good God might well want to prevent such suffering, he is powerless to do so. That is taken to be incompatible with omnipotence, another attribute classical theists ascribe to God. But that way of pressing the objection is fairly easy to answer. Although an omnipotent God could well have created a world in which suffering does not far outstrip deserts, God has not done so; given the natural order God has willed, it is logically impossible to prevent such presumptively disproportionate suffering without divine intervention so regular as to destroy the natural order of things. And omnipotence neither need nor should be thought to include the ability to do the logically impossible. So much is, or ought to be, obvious. Of course, the standard reply to that defense is to argue that God is immoral for creating and sustaining such a natural order of things in the first place when, as granted, God could have done otherwise. But that's essentially the same as the first way of pressing the problem of evil as an objection to classical theism.
My claim that the superfluity objection is also, at bottom, a moral one is much more controversial. Most of what follows provides my argument for it.
Metaphysical (as distinct from methodological) naturalists typically hold that the sorts of explanation of the world's existence proffered by classical theists—chiefly, by means of a posteriori cosmological and teleological reasoning—cannot do the sort of work that explanations in general are supposed to do. If so, then citing God as creator and/or designer of the world fails to explain anything; therefore, there is no reason to hold that God as explicans exists. But what does it mean to say that theistic explanation of the world's existence doesn't do the sort of work that explanations are supposed to do?
Classical theists should not, and the most intelligent among them do not, argue that presenting God as creator and/or designer does better explanatory work than the natural sciences. Those sciences have their own explanatory aims and canons which, though not immune to revision, remain exactly as they are whether or not classical theism is true. The theistic argument is, rather, that citing God as explicans does a different sort of explanatory work than natural science. The naturalist reply is that no such alleged "explanation" should be counted as explanation. What is the argument for that reply?
To explain something is to account for why it thus and not otherwise. In order do that, one must show that the explicandum would have been different if the explicans had been different. But classical theism does not claim that the world would have been different if God did not exist; the claim is that the world would not exist at all if God did not exist. That requires holding, among other things, that the world can and should be conceived as a certain totality which counts as an explicandum, such that only the action of something not comprised by that totality could account, in some non-trivial way, for why just that totality exists. But it will not do to characterize said totality simply as the physical universe studied by natural science, even at some hypothetical state before the Big Bang. For all we know, the primordial universe might have been the product of something else which could not qualify as the God of classical theism, but which might turn out to be identifiable by means of natural science—if not our science, then somebody else's. No, the totality that divine activity supposedly explains must be the totality-of-things-that-happen. Call that 'T'. Granted we do not know its full extent, T certainly exists. But such a totality, the naturalist would say, cannot admit of non-trivial explanation. We can explain its existence simply by noting that each of its constituents exist; but that would be trivial, and certainly not what the classical theist is after. And the reason we cannot have what the theist is after is that the theist cannot say what would have been different about T if God did not exist. T remains just as it is, whatever it is, whether or not God exists. Hence, goes the argument, citing divine activity to explain T's existence does not and could not really explain anything. There is no non-trivial explanation of T's existence. As Laplace said, there is no need of the God-hypothesis. It is superfluous.
From this point of view, it will not do to cite some version of "the principle of sufficent reason" as a premise in an argument for the claim that something not comprised by T accounts for T's existence as a totality. There's already "reason enough" for T's existence as a totality: that of each of its constitutents. But that is hardly germane. What the theist must do instead is show that T is the sort of entity whose existence calls for another sort of explanation altogether. Yet how is the theist to do that? The only way he can do it is to show that, whatever the extent of T as a totality, its constituents cannot, either individually or collectively, account for the general causal regularities that must be cited in some explanation of how things happen as they do—i.e., the constituents of T cannot account for the "laws of nature." But that sort of explanation would have to show that such laws would have been different if God as creator and/or designer did not exist. And that in turn would have to cite some sort of causal regularity. But given that such regularities are supposed to be part of what's being explained, such an explanation cannot qualify as an explanation at all.
It might seem that the way for the theist to begin countering that line is to point out that it premises scientism: the thesis that only what can be known scientifically can be known at all. He can then go on to argue that there is no good reason to believe scientism. And he would be quite right. Humans have always known various things non-scientifically, and no scientific argument for scientism can be given. But that will not suffice by itself. For the naturalist can always argue that, even if scientism is false, his point about explanation remains untouched. Even if there are things natural science cannot explain, and thus cannot know, that's no reason to believe that T's existence can be explained in some other way. Unless and until the theist can show that his "explanation" of T's existence does what explanations do, he hasn't explained anything.
As I've suggested, the debate is really about the nature of explanation. It is evident that there are successful explanations in the contexts of ordinary life and natural science, but it is by no means evident that there can be a kind of explanation which doesn't tell us how things would have gone differently if the explicans did not exist. To be sure, the theist must say that, if God did not exist, then T would not either—a conditional statement which, if true, would be a non-trivial truth. But that doesn't tell us that things would have been different if God did not exist; it only tells us that there would have been no "things" to be either the same or different if God did not exist. Absent some account of explanation which shows that such a peculiar result can function as explanations do, the theist has not established that he's explained anything. Nor will it do for the theist to insist that T is the sort of thing whose existence is explicable; for the only "sorts" of things we are familiar with are the sorts of things already comprised by T.
The only honest way for the theist to proceed is to argue that the question "Why does T exist?" is meaningful in such a way that one could reasonably entertain a non-trivial answer to it. That would show that we cannot rule out T's existence being explicable in terms of something which T does not comprise. And the only way to develop such an argument is to show that (a) one cannot rule out that T's existence embodies an intention, because (b) intentional explanations need not be thought reducible to causal explanations, which perforce cite natural regularities. That kind of argument has been given from time to time. In my hoary PhD thesis, I developed along such lines a book-length argument that it's more reasonable to allow for a unitary explicans of T's existence than to rule out the possibility of such an explicans on epistemological grounds. I still would argue to that effect.
As I've discovered over the years, however, the naturalist objection to that move is an essentially moral one. In ordinary life, natural science, and especially in formal disciplines such as logic and mathematics, there are reliable, agreed-upon methods for evaluating explanations as successful or unsuccessful. Prima facie at least, there are no such methods in natural theology—a discipline that not even the majority of religious believers find helpful. Given as much, naturalists typically argue that one ought not to expect people to find any of the putative explanations of natural theology cogent as explanations. Expecting people to do so is, in fact, morally defective. For such "explanations" necessarily transcend the sorts of considerations that it's reasonable to count as evidence; expecting people to go beyond the evidence in forming their beliefs is expecting what's unreasonable; and expecting from people what's unreasonable is a sign of disreputable motives that are themselves all too evident in the history of religion.
To judge from the recent literature of the "new atheism," which is really the old atheism with shoddier arguments, that's the kind of objection, other than that from the problem of evil, which motivates people to be atheists. I have no doubt, of course, that some atheists are such because they very much don't want to consider the implications for their lives if Christianity or some other form of classical theism is true. But that only serves to supply theists with a moral argument against atheism that is too ad hominem to be worth pressing. The real interest of the moral arguments against theism is that they steer the debate into a channel where the theist is on firmer ground. What is that ground?
Regarding the problem of evil, the theist can and ought to argue that the atheist has no moral legs to stand on. If a given atheist is an emotivist or some other sort of non-cognitivist in moral philosophy, he has no reason to believe that there are objectively binding moral norms which God fails to satisfy. If a given atheist is a utilitarian or some other sort of consequentialist in moral philosophy, he has no reason to believe that God's utility calculations, if there is a God, are inferior to his own. If a given atheist is some sort of deontologist in moral philosophy, he must show several things: that the moral norms he believes bind humans absolutely do so even though there is no God; that even if there were a God, those norms would bind God in pretty much the same fashion as us; and that God, if there were a God, cannot be said to observe them. All that is, at the very least, a tall order.
Regarding explanation and evidence, the atheist needs to show more than merely that it's unreasonable to expect people in general to find classical-theist natural theology persuasive. That people in general do not find such theology persuasive is easily accounted for by factors other than the objective quality of its arguments. Most people lack the happy combination of time, talent, and education to study and evaluate such arguments, so that whatever the reasons this-or-that person might have for believing in God, they cannot be faulted for leaving natural theology alone. For that reason, classical-theist philosophers don't expect most people to follow and evaluate their arguments. So the debate is really among philosophers, and the question whether one ought to go beyond what's generally recognized as evidence is a debate in moral philosophy and psychology.
About that debate, I shall conclude by noting that the atheist has a lot more work to do than simply pointing out that something called "religion" violates his moral norms. There are many different forms of religion, and some are more capable of moral self-reformation than others. But what is such "moral self-reformation" supposed to amount to? Before a charge of immorality can be made to stick, there has to be antecedent and common agreement about what morality requires. A person who wants to press a moral argument against theism, but who believes that the universe is morally indifferent and that no transcendent lawgiver underwrites morality, is burdened with showing that the moral norms he upholds are objectively binding as such. For unless and until he can do that, his moral arguments against theism can do no more than beg the question.
Friday, June 12, 2009
Since the late 1990s, the US bishops have on the whole been abandoning the seamless-garment approach. With increasing clarity, they have insisted on assigning greater weight to combating certain practices called "intrinsic evils" by the Magisterium, such as abortion, euthanasia, embryonic stem-cell research, and same-sex marriage, than on promoting certain social goods, such as universal health care and humane immigration policy, which reasonable Catholics can differ about how and how much to promote. That shift of emphasis is only logical given the clear content of Church teaching. But President Obama's having won the election with almost 54% of the Catholic vote has re-energized Catholic progressives to patch up a seamless garment that's become rather tattered. If only to vary my intellectual exercise routine, I had been hoping to hear fresh arguments from them. But the patching process exhibits precisely the same shoddy reasoning so long characteristic of the Catholic left. Herein I shall discuss two examples.
The first is the performance of Pepperdine University law professor Douglas Kmiec, a prominent Obama supporter, at a recent debate with Robert P. George, McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence at Princeton and founder of the American Principles Project. (You can watch the Windows Media video here; at about an hour and twenty minutes, it's long for those who don't enjoy this sort of thing, and too short for those who do.) For a Catholic intellectual who once sported conservative credentials, Kmiec's arguments are remarkably weak. The following account by attendee Michael J. New, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Alabama and a visiting fellow at the Witherspoon Institute in Princeton, sums up the debate accurately:
...the best word to describe Doug Kmiec would be evasive. He tried to argue that other issues trumped sanctity of life issues when voting. He tried to make the case that the new stem cell regulations were part of a reasonable compromise. He said that denying holy communion to Catholic politicians who support legal abortion was counterproductive. Finally, he argued that science has not come to a consensus about the sanctity of human life. He was all over the place and on no issue was he particularly persuasive.
Interestingly, Kmiec did not spend much time talking about abortion trends. He briefly claimed (wrongly) that abortions increased during the presidency of the first President Bush. He briefly cited the decline in the abortion rate that occurred during the Clinton administration. But he gave credit to the strong economy. While this is partly true, he did not mention state level pro-life laws. At least he did not claim welfare spending caused the 1990s abortion decline.
Professor George, on the other hand succeeded in describing vivid contrasts between President Obama and the pro-life movement. Professor George described in great detail Obama's refusal to support incremental pro-life laws and his administration's efforts to fund abortion both in DC and in other countries. He also found it telling that while the Obama administration wants to reduce the number of unwanted pregnancies, they never express an interest in lowering the number of abortions. Overall the Obama administration does not think that fetal life is worthy of legal protection which makes finding common ground very difficult, if not impossible.
Overall, Professor George was concise, hard hiting and made his points well throughout the course of the debate.
Kmiec's position is the same I have heard from many Catholic progressives over the years: given political and scientific reality, the best Catholics can do in the public square by way of promoting the sanctity of life is to cease trying to prohibit the killing of embryos and fetuses, and instead back public policies which will presumably reduce people's motivation for violating the sanctity of life. Those policies turn out, of course, to be remarkably similar to those of the Democratic Party on the full range of relevant issues. But political opportunism is natural. What's unnatural is how many people are taken in by the rationalizations for it.
Much of the progressives' case consists in arguments from alleged empirical fact. It is constantly asserted, for example, that reducing poverty by means of social programs will reduce abortion, so that, given how entrenched the Roe regime is likely to remain, the most effective means of reducing abortion is to reduce poverty. Now it stands to reason that reducing poverty would reduce some women's motivation for having abortions; the abortion rate did go down during the Clinton years, when the economy was strong. But so did teenage pregnancy; and it might be that whatever explained that development also explained the abortion reduction. Moreover, there is no evidence that laws restricting or discouraging abortion, which many states have, would not reduce abortion at least as much if not more than poverty reduction. Kmiec failed to address such considerations. Moreover, he offered no defense of the Administration's desire to repeal the long-standing Hyde Amendment forbidding the use of federal funds for abortion. It stands to reason that subsidizing abortion only encourages abortion; so, even if reducing poverty reduces abortion, making abortion a standard feature of subsidized health care is all too liable to cancel out the reduction as well as violate the consciences of many health-care workers. Kmiec did not address that issue either. Indeed, he had no answer to George's amply documented charge that Obama, who has alluded on occasion to the worthiness of reducing the "need" (!) for abortion, lacks genuine interest in actually reducing abortions.
What Kmiec said about the lack of scientific consensus is trivially true and substantively false. Of course there is no scientific consensus about the sanctity of life; for science never has and never will have anything to say about such matters. But that doesn't affect what science can and does tell us: that human embryos are individuals genetically distinct from their parents. In conjunction with Prof. Patrick Lee, Prof. George has made abundantly clear how that fact is relevant to both the abortion and the embryonic-stem-cell debate; see here and here. The question is not whether the embryo is a human being; science establishes that it is. The question is whether human beings who have not yet developed a certain kind and degree of consciousness are persons, and thus subjects of rights, beginning with the right not to be killed for the convenience of others. That is an essentially philosophical question, which one needn't profess any particular religion in order to advocate answering in the affirmative. So, while the pro-life position cannot be deduced from scientific knowledge, such knowledge can and should be used as evidence to support it.
From a strictly Catholic standpoint, Kmiec's argument for allowing pro-Roe Catholic politicians to receive the Eucharist did not engage the actual canon-law argument for denying them the Eucharist. Given his profession, that is unconscionable. Before he became Prefect of the Apostolic Signatura, the Catholic Church's supreme court, Archbishop Raymond Burke made an airtight case that Canon 915 calls for bishops to do just what Kmiec says they should not do about this matter. That's probably a major reason why the Pope made him prefect. Unfortunately, only a minority of American bishops agree; but even the most influential representative of the majority, Cardinal Donald Weurl of Washington, doesn't really address Burke's argument. The position Wuerl defends is simply this: "the canonical approach" doesn't "change hearts," so canon law be damned. Now for one thing, that would serve just as well as an argument against excommunication for any offense whatsoever, thus undermining the very concept of worthiness to receive the Eucharist. And aside from the impropriety of such a position for an archbishop, Wuerl's is an empirically-based argument unsupported by evidence—for the perfectly obvious reason that the approach it rejects hasn't been widely adopted. Even if being denied communion didn't turn out to change many politicians' hearts, it could be a powerful witness to many others at a time when the bishops' moral credibility has not recovered from the sex-abuse scandal. Perhaps that's partly why support for the hard-line position has been slowly increasing; the latest to back Burke's stance is his newly-installed successor in the See of St. Louis.
The second example of seamless-garment patching I want to discuss is this post by Stephen Schneck on the CACG website, which criticizes more general arguments from Prof. George and Justice Antonin Scalia. It is a classic instance of political obfuscation.
During a speech at Villanova in the fall of 2007, Scalia remarked: “Just as there is no ‘Catholic’ way to cook a hamburger, I am hard pressed to tell you of a single opinion of mine that would come out differently if I were not Catholic.” In a speech given at CUA a few weeks ago, George "proposed that [the] institutional Church should refrain from promoting public policies except when the issue at hand is a matter of intrinsic evil." Schneck criticizes such remarks as instances of an attitude he sees in Catholic philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre, who concluded his widely-read 1984 book After Virtue with the following, even more widely quoted passage:
And if the tradition of the virtues was able to survive the horrors of the last dark ages, we are not entirely without grounds for hope. This time however the barbarians are not waiting beyond the frontiers; they have already been governing us for quite some time. And it is our lack of consciousness of this that constitutes part of the predicament. We are waiting not for a Godot, but for another—doubtless very different—St. Benedict.
Schneck calls that conclusion "silly," an instance of arguing for a "retreat into sects of so-called pure Christianity." To hear him tell it, conservative Catholic intellectuals are now thinking in the same vein:
If progressives are in charge in America, the thinking goes, then the truly faithful should withdraw from everyday political life, so as to deny any legitimacy to “immoral” opponents. Instead of cooperating where there is common ground, we should rather hunker in faithful Catholic bastions, catapulting morality at barbarians beyond the gate and firing up the inquisition for apostates found within the walls. Let’s name this mood “After Virtue Retreatism..."
Such thinking, says Schneck, is opposed to the constant teaching of the Church about the need for political engagement, especially as developed in Gaudium et spes.
Now I can't speak with confidence about MacIntyre's interest, or lack thereof, in political engagement. Given his age and temperament, I doubt he's all that interested. But Schneck's criticism of Scalia and George is as silly as he believes MacIntyre's thoughtful conclusion to be.
Scalia's remark was never intended to suggest that the Catholic faith should not affect the values and priorities of Catholic politicians. If only as an ardent pro-lifer, Scalia does let his personal beliefs affect what he believes ought to be the law. We all let our personal moral beliefs do that. Rather, his remark was intended to suggest that the Catholic faith should not affect his understanding, as a SCOTUS justice, of what the Constitution actually says and means. Insofar as it presents universal values and norms which can be seen as such by human reason, the Catholic faith cannot but influence a thinking Catholic's view of what legislation and policy ought to be. But that is perfectly compatible with Scalia's view that constitutional jurisprudence should not consist in determining what the Constitution, and a fortiori legislation or policy, ought to be, as distinct from what the Constitution actually says and means. In effect, Scalia has bent over backwards not to adopt sectarian assumptions in his approach to jurisprudence. That is quintessentially American, not slyly Benedictine.
On the other hand, Catholic progressives insist that some tenets of Catholic social teaching ought to influence the interpretations of Catholic jurists. Some, but not of course others—such as those on procreation and marriage. What Schneck is doing, in effect, is depicting Scalia as a sectarian and a bad Catholic for being a constitutional strict-constructionist, when in fact Schneck is more sectarian than Scalia and at least as selective in the political weight he assigns to various tenets of Catholic social teaching. Such performative self-contradiction sells well in today's Washington, precisely because it is a classic case of political ideology displacing theology. But that is Schneck's problem, not Scalia's.
Schneck's treatment of Prof. George misconstrues the latter's point so thoroughly that one suspects disingenuousness. George holds that the political role of the Catholic hierarchy should be restricted to efforts to restrain what all Catholics are bound to believe are not only heinous but intrinsic social evils—for example, abortion, euthanasia, same-sex marriage, and embryonic stem-cell research. That's because, according to Catholic teaching, there is no room for reasonable disagreement among Catholics that such practices are grave social evils in themselves, and should never be cooperated with regardless of any good consequences that might be thought to come from doing so. On the other hand, progressives want "the institutional Church" (i.e., the hierarchy) to push for laws and public policies that, while quite possibly promoting certain broad goods emphasized in Catholic social teaching, are really particular means of promoting those goods. And they want the hierarchy to do that while forgoing direct efforts to limit the grave social evils mentioned above. But Catholics can reasonably disagree about the wisdom of adopting this or that means of attaining what they should agree are social goods; as John Paul II made clear in Evangelium Vitae and Veritatis Splendor, there is no similar room for disagreement about the need to use all available political means to prevent what is intrinsically and heinously evil.
Schenk argues that George, in adopting such a position, is calling for a retreat into world-escaping sectarianism. But George's point is not that Catholics should refrain from political and personal action to help the poor, the sick, and the outcast, or to limit war and capital punishment (even though those latter two are not intrinsic evils). Many Catholics do engage in such action; many should; and George never suggested that they should not. His point is that the Catholic hierarchy should avoid pronouncing on policy questions on which it lacks special competence, and focus instead on doing what they can to limit practices whose intrinsic moral evil they are competent as clerics to know and proclaim. That leaves debatable questions of policy to competent laity while upholding moral norms which, from the standpoint of Catholic doctrine, are non-negotiable.
One argument for that position is strictly "in-house" and pastoral. If the bishops' political statements stayed within their true competence, political polarization among Catholics would not be as great as it is after several generations of the bishops' addressing what's truly debatable with as much emphasis as what isn't. But the other argument arises from understanding the objective importance of the non-negotiables for society at large.
Catholics can endlessly debate, for example, how reconcile the need to treat immigrants humanely with the need to control our borders and do justice to taxpayers. We can endlessly debate how much military expenditure is necessary for our security, whether this-or-that intervention meets just-war criteria, or whether there can be conditions under which the death penalty is justified. We can endlessly debate what are the most efficient and just means of ensuring access to adequate health-care for all citizens. But it's usually unclear how much our society's future hinges on the precise way in which such questions are resolved politically. By contrast, there can be no debate among Catholics about whether abortion, euthanasia, embryonic stem-cell research, or same-sex "marriage" form striking features of the "culture of death." They do and we know it. As the impending demographic winter of the West indicates, it is the culture of death as a whole which poses the gravest threat to our civilization's future. Hence, George is right to stress their overriding political importance from the Church's viewpoint. Without prejudice to the need of bishops in some other countries to address different conditions, the American hierarchy best serves our polity, as well as the Church, by generally limiting its public-policy statements to combating the culture of death. That position is not a "retreat" into an enclave of purity. It casts no doubt on the need for Catholics to act as morally responsible citizens across the full range of issues. It simply recognizes the ecclesial and social desirability of the hierarchy's stressing only what it's best suited to stress.
There are only two possible explanations why a Catholic would call that stance "After-Virtue Retreatism." One would be that he simply disagrees with the Magisterium about the relative weight to assign various tenets of her social teaching. From that point of view, the problem with conservative Catholics is simply that they agree with the pope and the bishops about the social importance of the points in contention. But thinking with the pope and the bishops on such points is only sectarian if the doctrines themselves are sustainable only in light of divine revelation rather than of human reason. That's not a consistent position for a Catholic to take; for the pro-life and pro-marriage points in contention are presented as items of the natural law. Thus, unlike laws meant to apply to Catholics as such, they apply universally if at all and can be supported in non-Catholic terms. Moreover, if progressive Catholics insist they are free qua Catholics to dissent from the teaching of the Church on such matters, then they have deprived themselves of any logical basis for criticizing conservatives as bad Catholics for dissenting on other matters.
The other explanation would be that progressives, while agreeing with the Magisterium about the intrinsic evil of abortion, euthanasia, embryonic stem-cell research, and same-sex "marriage," see such issues as lost causes in contemporary society and hence not worth the energy needed for the political opposition that the hierarchy and conservative Catholics present. That view is fairly common, and not just among progressives. If it's correct, then people like Prof. George are just tilting at windmills, which is more about self-satisfaction and group solidarity than genuine political engagement. But such a criticism calls, in effect, for retreating into a sectarian enclave about culture-of-death issues, and only engaging politically on other social issues about which the Church has no distinctive contribution to make anyhow. That would call for a bifurcation between faith and social action—which is precisely what is supposed to be wrong with "retreatism," and which is precisely what progressives see themselves as avoiding. So, such an explanation would be at best paradoxical.
Regardless of which explanation holds in Schenck's case, therefore, he has no effective argument that conservative Catholics such as Scalia and George are sectarian "retreatists." But I suspect that the first explanation is the operative one. Progressives such as Schenck just don't think they need to heed the hierarchy about the nature and importance of the culture-of-death issues. They see concern with such issues as sectarian because they regard the Church's position on them, unlike her position on their issues of choice, as justifiable only in theological terms they would reject. So the debate is not really about the desirability of Catholic political engagement in general; it's about which issues are worthy of political engagement. And that debate reflects a more fundamental one in moral theology about the truth of the Church's teaching on the culture-of-death issues. If progressive Catholics would simply admit that and proceed accordingly, we could avoid the sort of political posturing Schenck permits himself and address the real issue.
Without presuming to assess the late Cardinal Bernardin's original motives for the seamless-garment approach, which are no longer relevant anyhow, I have long suspected that said approach, as adopted by most progressive Catholics, is simply a cover for theological dissent and political ideology. When it comes to moral questions of political significance, most progressive Catholics are leftists first and Catholics second. The teaching of the Church is thus assessed in terms of a prior ideological agenda: when that teaching supports the agenda, it is believed; when it doesn't, it isn't. The Catholic right is sometimes guilty of that too, but not to quite the same extent. That's the reality American Catholics need to confront and purge; for that, we need fasting and prayer, which would foster the humility needed to put the Faith before ideology. Unfortunately, the ascent of Catholic progressives under the Obama Administration is already causing them to present a tattered, poorly patched garment as seamless. And so instead of a common pursuit of the truth, we will have more polarization and posturing.