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

Tuesday, January 09, 2007


Christopher Blosser has informed me that I've "misread" him. Apparently, my previous post gave him the impression that I believe he approves the Catholic hierarchy's development of pacifism and abolitionism into what John Allen calls "practical absolutes." That shows I failed to make clear by my language what was clear to me: that he accepts only Allen's analysis of where things have been headed. He has revised the last part of is post accordingly:

Bracketing for a moment the specific case of the war in Iraq, I think Dr. Johnson has demonstrated that there has been intellectual transition in contemporary Church thought on the interpretation of just war teaching which stands in sharp contrast to 'classical' Catholic tradition. More often than not, the Vatican, while registering its practical judgement on empirical matters regarding the war and the death penalty, has not adequately clarified or conveyed its present position in a way that reconciles it to past teaching.

According to John Allen, Jr.:

Indications from the Vatican and from a wide swath of Catholic officialdom suggest that in practice, it's unlikely there will ever again be a war (defined as the initiation of hostilities without international warrant) or an execution the church does not officially oppose.

At the level of application, at least, it would seem the debate is almost over, and the abolitionists are winning.

A conclusion that I find personally troubling, in light of the widespread confusion it has wrought and its tenuous relationship with -- echoing Cardinal Dulles -- "two millenia of Catholic thought."

Oh dear. I feel like the perennial student complaining that he's been given yet another addition to the ever-lengthening reading list he'll never get caught up with. (I often feel that way anyway, but I do manage to forget sometimes.) Only now I confront not a reading but a writing list. Once again, it's about the development of doctrine.

As I keep finding occasion to point out, and as Christopher knows, I did a multi-part series on that topic last year at Pontifications that Fr. Kimel has condensed into a little treatise with the series' title: Development and Negation. Within the constraints of the format, my aim was to show that on a range of topics where it has been claimed that the Church has reversed or negated past doctrines taught definitively, the claim is false. (I do not call that claim a "charge" or a "criticism," because some who make the claim applaud the Church for doing what they claim.) Many besides Christopher among my vast readership are already familiar with that effort; I left out several topics that did not strike me as particularly difficult or controversial, such as slavery and original sin as personal guilt. Given Christopher's not-uncommon belief that present teaching on capital punishment and war stand in "sharp contrast" to that of the past, it looks like it's time to add those topics to the list. I'll ask Fr. Al if he's willing to let me augment the series over there.

It should go without saying that, on the present as on the earlier topics, I do not believe the Church has negated any previously taught doctrine that satisfies her criteria for having been infallibly taught by the ordinary magisterium. As I suggested in my previous post, I believe that what the magisterium has been doing of late is propounding a "consistent ethic of life" not as an allegedly "seamless garment," which it isn't, conceptually, but as an "evangelical program" to promote respect for the sanctity of life. Even so, what Allen terms the "practical absolutes" are not quite so absolute, at least in the case of war. As for capital punishment, even if the hierarchy's present stance does render a practical absolute, that is not inconsistent with past definitive teaching but only renders more stringent the definition of the sort of social harm that capital punishment, even on the older tradition, is supposedly necessary to prevent.

That move, it seems to me, does not so much elaborate a precept of the natural law as prescribe an attitude that Christians as such should strive to develop. It's an effort to focus our concern less on human justice, which is always imperfect, and more on being vehicles of divine love. In the world as it is, of course, there is a limit to how much the state can do that without abdicating its responsibilities. But that limit has not been reached in the United States or anywhere else.
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