"You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you odd." ~Flannery O'Connor

Saturday, June 24, 2006

The biggest stumbling blocks

St. Paul called Christ crucified "a stumbling block to Jews, foolishness to Gentiles" (1 Corinthians 1:23). And so he remains—even to baptized Gentiles, who in many cases live no more sacrificial lives than unbelievers, and in some cases less so. But the Cross as stumbling block manifests itself in particular blocks, personal and collective. In my experience, the biggest personal one is the dominical demand to forgive the repentant. Fearful and defensive as we are, being wronged makes us self-protectively mistrustful: "once burned, twice shy." That makes it almost irrelevant to us whether the wrongdoer repents or not. We often take for granted that the wrongdoer is a hopeless case who sooner or later will "do it again," an attitude precluding that forgiveness from the heart which is necessary for true reconciliation. But there are also collective stumbling blocks. In our society, the two biggest are intellectual pride and old-fashioned lust.

Those vices are now highly esteemed and fiercely defended aspects of our culture. To a greater or lesser extent, almost all of us share them. Now intellectual pride does not vary directly with intelligence, any more than lust varies directly with sex drive. A co-worker of mine, a man of modest education and even less native intelligence, is completely convinced that he needs no coaching or study guides to help him understand the Bible. He just "knows" when the Holy Spirit is guiding him to the correct interpretation, just as people at the other Protestant church down the block from his are convinced that they "know" the Holy Spirit is leading them to a different and incompatible interpretation. When I was in academia, I encountered young women who dressed like whores and slept around not because they had sex on their minds all the time (OK, a few did, but they were exceptional), but simply because they were convinced that they would never land a guy if they didn't. And so they actively encouraged their sexual appetites, seeking out the "hunks," in order to keep themselves in the game of what once, long ago, was called courtship and has now degenerated into the alienating culture of "hooking up." I have found such oddities to be common in today's America, so that they are no longer widely perceived as oddities. The underlying attitudes about religious authority and sexuality are now the norms.

I have also found the effects of such norms even among spiritually-minded people who sympathize with traditional Christianity and, in many cases, even believe themselves to subscribe to it. That is only natural: intellectual pride and sexual lust are alluringly self-serving. Thus in my many theological debates over the decades, I have found the two most commonly contested features of Catholicism to be (a) her claim to teach the deposit of faith infallibly, and (b) her teaching about sexual morality. The two are obviously related, inasmuch as the content of the latter is backed by the former. Both are so widely misunderstood, in a negative way of course, that I have gradually become convinced that many people don't want to understand them. If they did, then the full plausibility of those features would be manifest and thus constitute a divine call to give up the two most self-serving of our cultural norms. But that fact, when it is a fact, is easily understood. The truly puzzling thing is how the features in question constitute stumbling blocks even to the plainly well-motivated.

I have only recently discovered as much, thanks to the blogosphere. An elaborate example is a discussion touched off by my recent post at Pontifications about sexual orientation and personhood. The occasion for that piece was a philosophical attempt by The Anglican Scotist to justify the homosexualist claim that a person's homosexuality is essential to their personhood. I sought to rebut that claim. My piece drew the attention of one of the conservative blogosphere's most charming and interesting practitioners, Baroness Alexandra von Maltzan, who cited it approvingly in a provocative post of her own. That post generated a very long thread of comments, the most striking of which came from Kenny Pierce of Redneck Peril. Now Kenny's actual views about sexual morality are strikingly close to Catholic sexual teaching, especially Pope John Paul II's "theology of the body." But he is not convinced that the teaching of the Catholic Church about such matters as the evil of contraception are all true. That, it seems to me, is because he is convinced that the history of Catholic theology shows so much evolution away from earlier attitudes that the Church cannot credibly claim the authority to teach on the subject without error. Now, Kenny is quite a well-motivated man. He belongs to a conservative Anglican church, an offshoot from ECUSA that rightly rejects the direction that denomination has been taking. He very much wants to know and embrace "the faith once delivered to the saints." He just isn't convinced that any visible authority, such as the Catholic Church, can credibly claim for itself the kind of authority that can be counted on to preserve and transmit said faith reliably enough for the assent of faith. Accordingly, in Protestant fashion that he would doubtless dislike being called Protestant, he rejects the authority of the "Roman Church" both on sexual matters and in general. As I have argued in another Pontifications post, anybody who does so thus turns the truth God wants us to know into a mere matter of opinion. And, naturally enough, matters of opinion admit many opinions, not all of which are compatible with each other or even self-consistent. This is why we end up with the doctrinal chaos of Anglicanism, whether one wishes to call Anglicanism Protestant or Catholic.

Kenny's argument can be summed up fairly simply; the details are secondary. The premises are: (a) the Church's teaching about the relative value of celibacy and marriage, and about the indissolubility of marriage, cannot be incontestably derived from Scripture alone and (b) the former teaching has evidently undergone an evolution since the patristic era, when rather extreme ascetical views were common, so that the Church now views marriage and conjugal intercourse more favorably than at most times in the past. The conclusion is that the Church cannot be relied on to teach authoritatively about human sexuality. Now I have no quarrel with the premises, at least in the general form in which I have restated them. Kenny indeed devotes a good deal of scholarly effort to establishing them. I just deny that his conclusion follows.

It would only follow if he could show that the relevant teaching of the Church changed in such a way as to violate her own criteria for infallible teaching. Broadly speaking, those criteria are that a given doctrine D has been infallibly taught if D has either been solemnly defined by the "extraordinary magisterium," such as an ecumenical council or a pope unilaterally, or has been constantly taught from the beginning by the "ordinary and universal magisterium." Kenny does not even attempt to show that Catholic teaching about sex and marriage has so changed that an earlier doctrine meeting either criterion has been negated. That is unsurprising, since there is no reason to believe that he knows that such is the real issue. He thinks it's enough just to establish the premises he's established. But it is not. The mere fact that the consciousness of the Church has, to some extent, evolved for the better on such questions does not show that the authority of the Catholic Church magisterium is untrustworthy. Indeed, I should say that such doctrinal development, on this and other questions, is evidence that said authority can be trusted, so long as such development does not entail negation of any teaching meeting the criteria specified. A body of people who can actually learn something is more credible than one that can't, such as the Bourbons, who neither learned anything nor forgot anything.

But Kenny has an advantage over many people: he actually values truth over personal convenience. He has eight children and is still married to their mother, so it's not as though he's the sort of person who won't be burdened with Church teaching on marriage and contraception. Like many conservative Anglicans, he just has this thing about the Catholic Church. I invite him and like-minded people not only to read this but also to participate actively at Pontifications, whose most important reason for being is to help bring along people like him. A place like that is where the stumbling blocks can be removed for those not invested in keeping them in place.
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