Does A Good God Guide The Catholic Church? A Debate

Below is part 5 of a series of posts presenting excerpted videos and transcripts of an interview I conducted October 14, 2012 with my college best friend John Hazlet, whose struggles with doubt and depression were instrumental in my personal deconversion. (The full two part interview is here and here.) At the time of our interview John was a Benedictine monk, publicly discussing his homosexuality and struggles with mental illness. In June of 2013, John left the monastery. He is in a relationship with a man. He remains a Catholic. In the segment of our interview excerpted and transcribed below, John responds to me pressing very hard to get him to explain why one should believe a perfect God guides the world when the Christian church seems, to my judgment, no more remarkably nor supernaturally a force for good than any other human institution.

Dan Fincke: So, let me… there are a number of issues and, since I prefer you to give these longer disquisitions, because I think they help you to articulate yourself… no, seriously, I think they help you to articulate in a full context what you’re thinking. So let me kind of give you another round of concerns for you to integrate in whatever way you do.

Well, one thing is… one thing is, you see where you really never address the key question of how it is reconcilable that such a God could create this situation, this tension, how that’s at all a plausible consideration of the nature that would be created by an omnipotent and omnibenevolent God. And not only that, but to… you know, when you describe the Church as evolving, what you’re saying is, is that it’s learning and it’s going through a dialectical process through history, like a Hegelian process by which, you know, they try one thing, we learn another thing, we try and accumulate knowledge, we constantly grow and become better and better, but that process looks like a process of natural selection, within society, a moral natural selection process, by which we don’t have guidance by a divine hand. In fact, it looks like humans bootstrapping through our own experiments, very painstakingly with a lot of casualties along the way towards greater and greater accomplishments of moral and social achievement. And so that process looks distinctly unguided.

And the Church has several problems here because it can’t say, Look, since we have the benevolent, omnipotent deity on our side, look how we jumped centuries ahead on slavery, because they didn’t. You know, they supported slavery as much as anyone else in the world. And when abolitionists fought against slavery, yes, some were Christian, but some of the strongest arguments for maintaining slavery came from the Bible, too. And what you look at throughout history is that the Church did not create especially anti-misogynistic pro-women views. It’s not at the vanguard of moral development with gays, it’s trailing behind, right in front of us; it’s behind the culture at every stage of moral and social development. It is within a culture not the sign of the divine and omnipotent and omnibenevolent and morally perfect being… being behind the Church. What we see constantly is, the Church represents conservativism, it represents consolidation of the past, and an attempt to assert the past authoritarianly into the future. It is only against the dialectical pushback of society and modernity in this case, and now post-modernity even, that the Church is forced to change, to follow social and moral changes that are initiated outside of it.

And it’s a morally cowardly when it comes along and synthesizes the very rest [best?] of what other people took bold and experimental chances on, the experiments that the church was standing athwart saying, “Stop,” the whole time. When the Church then comes along and says, “Oh, no no. Now we’re gonna sanction this and bless this, and we’re the ones divinely guided,” when they’ve been dragged into the twenty-first century kicking and screaming. And not only that, they have made modernism a heresy, they have… you right now have a Church which is actively defining itself by its opposition to full gay rights, by its opposition to full women’s rights. You have attempts to say, by Anglican leaders, by Catholic leaders, that disagreeing on homosexuality becomes… is becoming the cardinal test of being a Christian in many quarters, including among Catholic bishops, including among Anglican leaders, where it’s becoming the litmus test of whether or not you’re willing to put the Church ahead of your own self. It’s becoming whether or not you’re willing to say, No to homosexuality, no to homosexual love.

And in that context, like we’ve mentioned here, you’ve got them… you have the Church going to such extents as trying to scapegoat this horrible child abuse and cover-up, this complete corruption of authority, this complete corruption of the air of sacredness and special authority, that was used… that a fear of God … that promulgation of themselves as the gatekeepers to God, was used to exploit children. Then to cover it up, then to silence enemies. And now, when this is coming out, they’re making excuses, that “Well, why are you holding us to a higher standard than anyone else? We’re just a corrupt institution like everyone else. But of course, we’re not just… we’re sacred, we’re the holy ones.”

And they’re going to the great lengths, then, to then in some of their writings, demonize the gays, blame gay people, blame gay priests for this. They conflate homosexuality with pedophilia, and they conflate both of them with child raping. All of this, and then on the level of the individual church, you’ve got constantly kids who are, like what we’ve talking, suicidal over being gay. I do not have this nuanced theology being the primary focus; the primary focus is, don’t be gay at all costs. And in that context, I can’t see anything but a wicked and corrupt, regressive, behind-the-times institution, that shows no signs of being guided by a morally perfect, and benevolent, and omniscient guide, who’s showing any sign of being the moral leaders.

I see tremendous authoritarianism and an ethos that’s being created in which the authority of the past must be preserved. Because even as the Church changes, the Church can never admit a mistake; the Church has to be able to reconcile what it said in the past with what it says now. Because it was always being guided by God, so it couldn’t have made an error. That’s antithetical to the spirit of learning, and that’s why they’re so conservative, I think. Because they can’t say, “Oh, let’s try this for now because maybe we’ve been wrong all along, and if it blows up, we can back… we can change it.” Because at every stage, they need to pretend, “Ah, yes, we’re just seeing what we’ve always thought a little more clearly.” And that, I think, is the fundamental moral argument against the Catholic Church and specifically related to what’s going on with gays. And I think it is responsible for a tremendous amount of abuse and scapegoating, and it has a lot of these suicides on its conscience. And so, how do you reconcile this?

Bede (John) Hazlet: Um. Gosh, I have such a sense that you’re holding back, Dan, that you’re [both laugh]. No, um, those are good questions. And once again, I feel like I’m going to want to say things on various levels. First, I’m not sure it’s true that the Church is always ethically behind the times. I think, and I’m struggling to come up with specific instances, so this isn’t going to sound very convincing, but I there are… there are periods, there are situations in which the Church is kind of ahead of the times. Not as an institution, often, but as a series of voices within the institution. So, for example, where slavery is concerned, it’s quite true that for centuries… maybe not for centuries, for some time, the Church approved of the enslavement of subject peoples who rebelled against their colonial overlords. But it’s also true that there were people like St Peter Claver, in the midst of that reality, bearing witness to something else. And it was the witness of those kinds of people who eventually gained sort of a critical mass, and a shift took place.

So within the life of the Church, there’s always this tension between the institution, as not evil, but on some level corrupt… troubled, and the saints within it urging it in a different direction, a richer, more loving direction. I also think it’s true that there is a tendency for the Church not to like to admit its mistakes. I think that, to some extent, that has faded. But it certain… it remains a part of the life of the Church. That’s true.

Dan Fincke: But is it a part of the theological interpretation of how change is legitimate? That it not have made a mistake.

Bede (John) Hazlet: It depends on the level of the kind of thing that you’re talking about. Theologically, there’s no problem in saying that the Church makes mistakes in all kinds of areas. There would be a problem in saying in core areas of the truth of its tradition there are errors. But it’s important to remember what those core areas are. They’re things like Christology, Trinitarian theology, and so forth. I don’t want to say Moral areas are peripheral, but they do represent the areas in which there tends to be most development over time. And I think you can see that development in terms of the deeper exploration of the implications of the real core of the tradition, Trinitarianly and Christologicaly.

But all that’s fairly superficial and I think, on a deeper level, the Church understands itself, and I think in this regard is in contrast with, say, some forms of Evangelicalism, not as standing in radical discontinuity with the rest of the human world or the rest of the created world. There isn’t this sense of, We have the divinely revealed truth and you’re all out there perishing. There’s this insistence that, to put it theologically, grace builds on nature. Or more widely, the insistence that the reality of the Church is in continuity with the reality of the human story as a whole. So, for example, in the Catholic theology of the Holy Spirit, the work of the Spirit is not confined to the Church. The Spirit is subtly at work everywhere in the world, so that in a very real sense you can say that the very awkward trial by error, human development that you referred to, is the work of the Spirit, as is the development of the Church. And I think this reflects a theology of Creation that may be distinctively Catholic, I’m not sure, but that sees Creation nowadays in evolutionary terms. It makes me think of the work of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, for example.

But as something that is, for one thing, ongoing, and for another thing, not, um, magical… it’s not a matter of God sort of speaking the world into being its instantly being what he desires to create. There’s a developing understanding of the freedom that God gives the world to develop, not apart from God or independent of God, but to develop in God with a certain freedom of, um, evolutionary possibility, you could say. This has always been important in theological anthropology for Catholics, recognizing the freedom of the human will. And I think it’s emerging in theology today as understanding freedom in a wider sense, that the cosmos itself has a certain freedom to develop that is somehow being drawn together by God toward convergence at an ultimate eschatological goal, but that is not minutely superattended by God at every stage. It’s saturated by God’s presence everywhere and at all times. But this kind of view of theolo… of creation and providence in which God is explicitly commanding every event that transpires in the world, every development, I’m not sure is something Catholic theology today would be prepared to go along with. So, I think you can see this sense of the development of the Church as something that’s in continuity with the development of the rest of the human race. And see it as the work of the Spirit in a way that’s in continuity with the Spirit’s work in the rest of the cosmos.

Dan Fincke: But then that gives the Church …

Bede (John) Hazlet: That requires…

Dan Fincke: [garbled]

Bede (John) Hazlet: … sort of a humbled.

Dan Fincke: Yeah.

Bede (John) Hazlet: What?

Dan Fincke: But that implies the Church doesn’t have such special authority. Then it’s indistinguishable from every other institution in its ability to develop and learn, and its indistinguishable from every other institution in its ability to be corrupt. Why think it’s especially guided?

The rest of the excerpted videos and transcripts from the interview:

How My Best Friend Helped End My Faith and then Became an Openly Gay Monk
Out of the Closet for the 1st Time, at Oxford
On Anglicanism and On Celibate Love
How Catholic Moral Teaching On Sexuality Is Evolving
Does A Good God Guide The Catholic Church? A Debate
Is The Catholic Church’s Treatment of Gays Morally Defensible? A Debate
Does Celibacy Infantilize and Create Child Molesting Priests?
A Gay Monk Argues Against Reparative Therapy
On Treating Mental Illness, Rather Than Romantically Theologizing It
How the Catholic Church’s Views on Gays Might Evolve

The transcripts in this series were created this summer by Josiah “BibleName” Mannion. He donated his time to produce the more than 22,000 word transcript of the entire interview. Josiah makes his living as a photographer and currently needs camera repairs done that he cannot afford. If you would like to chip in to this generous man, donate to moreheadclan@cox.net and my friend Sarah Morehead will get the money to him. (UPDATE: The atheist community came through big and Josiah was able to get a new camera!)

About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.

  • Fallulah

    Sure God can dictate such “human wills” as homosexuality and contraception…but when it comes to “slavery” and “corruption”…he let’s humans figure those things out for themselves with complete freedom. Uh huh.

  • Fallulah

    Why did you delete my comment :( boooo

  • Pofarmer

    “It depends on the level of the kind of thing that you’re talking about. Theologically, there’s no problem in saying that the Church makes mistakes in all kinds of areas. There would be a problem in saying in core areas of the truth of its tradition there are errors. But it’s important to remember what those core areas are. They’re things like Christology, Trinitarian theology, and so forth. I don’t want to say Moral areas are peripheral, but they do represent the areas in which there tends to be most development over time. And I think you can see that development in terms of the deeper exploration of the implications of the real core of the tradition, Trinitarianly and Christologicaly.”

    Here’s the problem with that, though. Historically, the Church has been wrong about a great many things, and held onto those things very stubbornly. Given that they have been wrong so often on the physical, why assume that they are correct on the theological or metaphysical. It would seem that history would indicate the opposit would be more likely.


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