The Catholic Church Is Not a Democracy

Pope Benedict’s surprise resignation has set off a frenzy of speculation as to who the next pope will be and what changes he might bring to Catholicism. Benedict was well-known as an enforcer of orthodoxy, cracking down harshly on nuns, supporters of same-sex marriage and other progressive factions within the church, and the beleaguered liberals in Catholicism are hoping that the next pope will bring a change of direction.

However, the odds of this are slim. All of the cardinals who’ll elect the next pope were chosen by either Ratzinger or John Paul II, making it almost certain that they’ll choose someone with virtually identical views. One of the current front-runners (according to the bookies, because apparently people place bets on this) is Ghanaian Cardinal Peter Turkson, who’s expressed his support for African laws that make homosexuality illegal, and who’s said that wearing a rainbow sash should be grounds for denial of Communion. For the record, I think it’s extremely unlikely that they’re going to pick someone who isn’t a white European male, but we’ll see soon enough how I do with that prediction.

But all the debates and speculation have brought to light a surprisingly common delusion: the belief among many Catholic liberals that they can influence this process, that they have some kind of say in the governance of the church.

Even before the pope’s resignation, there was evidence of this belief. Take Tony Flannery, a liberal Irish priest who’s been ordered by the Vatican to stay silent for the rest of his life unless he would sign a sworn a statement promising never again to challenge church teachings about contraception, homosexuality or the all-male priesthood. Flannery has refused to agree to this (meaning his excommunication is probable), and in his public statements, appears to believe that this violates some rule of due process, that the church owes him a trial or a chance to defend himself:

He believes the church’s treatment of him, which he described as a “Spanish Inquisition-style campaign,” is symptomatic of a definite conservative shift under Pope Benedict XVI.

“I have been writing thought-provoking articles and books for decades without hindrance,” he said. “This campaign is being orchestrated by a secretive body that refuses to meet me. Surely I should at least be allowed to explain my views to my accusers.”

About the statement he’s been asked to swear to, he says:

“How can I put my name to such a document when it goes against everything I believe in,” he said… “If I signed this, it would be a betrayal not only of myself but of my fellow priests and lay Catholics who want change.”

Except that it doesn’t go against everything he believes in – because he’s a Catholic priest. That’s supposed to mean he believes in the authority of the Pope as God’s representative on Earth who can issue infallible proclamations about doctrine and morals. That’s part of the definition of a priest. If he doesn’t believe that, then he must have gone through the rite of ordination under false pretenses.

On the same note, the author Anne Rice posted on Twitter the other day encouraging ordinary Catholics to contact the Vatican and to voice their opinions about who the next pope should be, in the apparent belief that the church welcomes or would listen to or heed such feedback:

I hope Catholics everywhere speak up and out as the church ponders a new pope. Talk to Rome! Offer your wisdom…

Like Flannery, Anne Rice seems to think that lay Catholics have a voice in the church’s governance, or that, if they don’t have one, they’re owed one. But common sense ought to tell against this: the hierarchy has never given the slightest regard to what ordinary people think.

The church’s absolute prohibition on birth control is almost unanimously ignored by lay Catholics. The prohibition of divorce is also widely disregarded. Marriage equality for same-sex couples now enjoys majority support in the U.S. and elsewhere, and is becoming the norm even in historical strongholds of Catholicism like Spain and Portugal, in defiance of the Vatican’s wishes.

If the church cared what its members thought, it would long since have abolished the teachings that a vast majority of them refuse to accept. Instead, if anything, the Vatican has redoubled its insistence that agreeing with everything it teaches is essential to Catholic faith.

Along the same lines, Salon asked its Catholic and ex-Catholic readers to provide their “wish list” for the new pope, eliciting suggestions about lifting the ban on contraception, allowing women and married men to be priests, and other sensible, rational measures that will never happen. Catholic gay-rights advocates also hope for positive change, although in most cases their optimism is tempered by realism. E.J. Dionne even ludicrously imagined the possibility of choosing a female pope.

In one sense, this misguided hope is a sign of humanity’s moral progress. Ideas about democracy, about human rights, about accountability, and about equality have become so widely accepted, most people now expect that every institution they participate in will respect them. This is normally a good thing, but there are times when that democratic optimism runs smack into a brick wall of reality, and this is one of them.

Although liberal and progressive Catholics may be well-intentioned, they’re acting as if they don’t understand what it is they’ve signed up for. The Roman Catholic church is not a democracy. The church hierarchy isn’t elected, doesn’t have any checks or balances, and it doesn’t solicit or care about the opinions of ordinary churchgoers as to how things should be run. On the contrary, the Catholic church is an absolute monarchy! It’s run by a dictator-for-life who’s not accountable to anyone, who can’t be overruled, and who effectively chooses his own successor.

In the U.S., the president is formally chosen not by popular vote, but by a majority of the Electoral College, although the electors are supposed to vote in accordance with the popular vote in their state. But now imagine if the electors didn’t have to pay any attention to the popular vote, and imagine if the president, during his term in office, could handpick the electors who’d choose the next president after him. Now you get some idea of how governance works in the Catholic church.

Because the hierarchy is self-perpetuating, it has no accountability and no need to pay attention to outside criticism. The only influence that ordinary Catholics can exert, the only way they can signal their disapproval, is through the indirect route of no longer attending services or giving money. Anything else, the church can and will take as support for their current political program.

The church was born in an era of empires and monarchies, and it modeled its leadership on the societies of the time. But while all those empires have fallen and those monarchies have become democracies, the church has stayed mired in the past, clinging to the medieval model of one absolute ruler who makes the decisions for everyone. If ordinary Catholics are surprised or dismayed to realize this, it’s only because they made the mistaken assumption that moral progress within the church has kept pace with moral progress in the wider world.

About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Broken Ring, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • Darren

    The amazing thing, really to me, is that this would seem to be rather obvious; after all, God is not a democracy.

    Most (all) theists see nothing wrong with this, but they are not being honest with themselves (or us). If there really is a God, and he has really set moral laws for us to abide (or not), with rewards or punishments attendant, we get absolutely no say in the matter (other than his graciously allowing us to refuse the rewards, if we want, and opt into the punishments).

    Now, the Theist will again say, “No problem. God is perfectly Good, so we should be happy to live according to his will. It is only the fallible human institutions such as the Church with are in need of revision.”

    This is pure historical myopia, and wishful thinking, that our current ‘enlightened’ state is closer to God’s wishes than our past states. When the holy books speak approvingly of rape, slavery, genocide, torture, etc., we now cluck and say it is only “metaphor”, but in a cosmos with a God, there is nothing to say that we were not closer to God’s plan then than now (and in fact, many Theists do make just such claims).

    Sorry, preaching to the choir here.

  • Bdole

    A female pope? We’ll see a female line-backer in the NFL first.

  • Bob Carlson

    The church was born in an era of empires and monarchies, and it modeled its leadership on the societies of the time.

    If I am understanding Francis Fukuyama correctly, it was the other way around; societies modeled their leadership after that of the Catholic church. The critical step in the growth and stability of the church bureaucracy was the celibacy requirement, which resulted in the church aquiring more and more property while also not losing any through inheritance by offspring of priests. Fukuyama credits the church for reducing the impact of tribalism in eastern European societies and establishing the rule of law, both of which made it possible for democratic governments to eventually evolve. This all was just an unintended outcome of the impact of the Catholic church on society. Given that the church has long outlived its usefulness, it can be hoped that those things like celibacy and intrasigence that increased the power of the Catholic church will insure its demise and increase the swiftness thereof.

  • Leum

    Papal infallibility is one of those things that sounds worse than it is. The Pope’s only infallible when speaking on matters of faith and morality after consultation with the Church provided he words it in a very precise manner. It’s been done twice, both times on matters of obscure Marian doctrine.

  • Azkyroth

    Papal infallibility is one of those things that sounds worse than it is. The Pope’s only infallible when speaking on matters of faith and morality after consultation with the Church provided he words it in a very precise manner. It’s been done twice, both times on matters of obscure Marian doctrine.

    So of course the church has regularly and promptly admitted the huge mistakes it made with everything else…

  • MNb

    Leum is absolutely right and Azkyroth’s remark is irrelevant. Flannery’s refusal to sign that document in no way affects papal infallibility. Adam Lee is simply wrong here. It doesn’t follow that the RCC is a democratic institute though. But I don’t think any catholic ever made that claim.
    Btw the pope only became an important factor after 1) the Arab conquests of the 7th century made the bishops of Alexandria, Jeruzalem and Antiochia irrelevant; 2) the Roman emperors of Constantinople subjected the local patriarch and 3) Charlemagne eliminated the Lombard threat. Since then the world is saddled with dual rule, a fiction the RCC holds up until today.

    Off topic: nice to have found you back, AL. It took me some effort. I am the Dutchman who send you an email a couple of months ago about how I used your two questions for creacrappers on a Dutch site. Until today the only relevant answer I got is “maybe they are the wrong questions.” Another Dutch creacrapper for a while has been very busy moving the goalposts.

  • Adam Lee

    @Leum:

    It’s been done twice, both times on matters of obscure Marian doctrine.

    But as I’ve mentioned in the past, the church also teaches that anything agreed upon by all the bishops becomes infallibly true. Pope John Paul II stated that the ban on women priests was irrevocable because of this doctrine. This reasoning also seems to be why Pope Paul VI overruled his own hand-picked pontifical commission when they advised relaxing the church’s ban on contraception.

  • Azkyroth

    Leum is absolutely right and Azkyroth’s remark is irrelevant.

    No it fucking isn’t. You know perfectly well that the church does not pretend to only be infallible, in practice, when “infallibility” is explicitly invoked by Accumulating A Critical Mass of Simon Says. This is a deeply, deeply dishonest argument that relies on equivocating between the official label of Infallible Doctrine and the actual dictionary definition of the word “infallible” and claims that invoke it, even if not by name.

  • Ted Seeber

    I am an honest theist. I do not see Ideas about democracy, about human rights, about accountability, and about equality as signs of moral progress. I see all of those as signs of a philosophy that cannot be supported objectively- moral relativism.

    Thus, since moral relativism cannot be supported by observation (200 years is far too short! Not enough data to come to a conclusion! In addition, the subjectivity inherent in the philosophy makes it a scientific and logical non-starter) I cannot be honest and support it in an objective universe. If God does exist, then his very existence indicates a moral objectivity that we can discover. If God does not exist, then free will itself is an illusion and morality is once again objective.

  • Agon McDouche

    Good article. Though for the record, it was Arinze, not Turkson, who spoke about the rainbow sashes. Just to be clear.

    Ted, how does free will being an illusion follow from there not being a God? Please clarify.

  • Cathy

    Lol, funny that an atheist understands what many Catholics don’t: The Catholic church is not a Democracy! I am an R.C. and have known that for years and after much consideration, I have concluded that I am okay with that. I find that the prospect of electing a Pope by popular vote would absulutely not work in the R.C. church (I can’t even imagine what a Papal campagne would even look like, Papal buttons, Papal posters, bumper stickers…oh no!). As we all already know, most Americans are not informed on the issues when we vote for President (evidenced by some of the ones who have won). The Catholic electorate (sadly) is even less informed. I am quite happy to leave this choice up to the Cardinals who, though humanly are imperfect, will make a more informed choice (it’s not just about gay marriage and birth control or women priests). So this Catholic is very okay with the old fashioned set up in the RC church. By the way, the R.C. church is not quite a traditional monarchy, because succession does not pass by blood (the Pope is actually elected by the College of Cardinals as you pointed out).

  • http://eternalbookshelf.wordpress.com Ani J. Sharmin

    Although liberal and progressive Catholics may be well-intentioned, they’re acting as if they don’t understand what it is they’ve signed up for. The Roman Catholic church is not a democracy. The church hierarchy isn’t elected, doesn’t have any checks or balances, and it doesn’t solicit or care about the opinions of ordinary churchgoers as to how things should be run. On the contrary, the Catholic church is an absolute monarchy! It’s run by a dictator-for-life who’s not accountable to anyone, who can’t be overruled, and who effectively chooses his own successor.

    That the Catholic Church is not a democracy is obvious, and I wonder why people continue to stay part of the Church if they disagree with it. I know some people have family members who pressure them, but for those whose family members also disagree with the Church and don’t do what it says … why stay? The Church takes forever to change it’s doctrines, long after so many other people have already realized they were wrong; I don’t think anything other than losing membership is going to convince them to change anything.

    Re: Infallibilty (@Leum, @MNb, @Azkyroth, etc.),
    The Church might only use official Infallibility on rare occasions, but many in its hierarchy do act like the Church can do no wrong and try to manipulate and harass people into following its doctrine, whether it was created under official Infallibility or not. So, yeah, Azkyroth has a valid point; they act like they’re always right about everything, whether it was officially Infallible or not. And this attitude isn’t irrelevant if your life is affected by it.

  • GCT

    @Ted Seeber

    I am an honest theist. I do not see Ideas about democracy, about human rights, about accountability, and about equality as signs of moral progress.

    I’m having trouble thinking that you are an honest theist and not a Poe. I mean, seriously? You think democracy, human rights, equality, and accountability are immoral? If you would prefer a theocracy, move to Iran. I highly doubt that’s the case though. I can maybe see what appeal it might have for someone who is probably a white, hetero male to live under a system that tends to cater to white, hetero males, but even you should be able to see that if dear leader covets your wife and decides to kill you to have her, that that’s probably not a good thing.

    I see all of those as signs of a philosophy that cannot be supported objectively- moral relativism.

    Well, it’s clear that you have no concept of what you’re speaking about. How does god deciding what is moral or not equal absolute morality? Or, is it the case that absolute morals exist and god just tells us what they are? And, if that is the case, then how do you explain the shifting morality of religion over the years, or do you still think that most religions endorse slavery today? Do you endorse slavery? Lastly, absolute morality and objective morality are not the same thing, and you do a disservice to both when you confuse the two.

    If God does exist, then his very existence indicates a moral objectivity that we can discover.

    Wrong. The existence of god does not necessarily entail that morality would be objective, nor that we would necessarily be able to discover it.

    If God does not exist, then free will itself is an illusion and morality is once again objective.

    Wrong again. If god does exist, then free will is an illusion, unless you are willing to jettison the idea that god is omni-max.

  • Brian Westley

    @GCT, I have been in Patheos comment threads with Seeber and I have no trouble believing what he wrote. It would explain a lot, actually.

  • GCT

    That’s pretty scary.

  • Adam Lee

    Yep, Ted Seeber is real, as far as I know. He’s a long-time commenter on Leah Libresco’s blog; I wrote a post about his enthusiasm for the Inquisition last year.

  • cowalker

    Ani J. Sharmin says:
    “That the Catholic Church is not a democracy is obvious, and I wonder why people continue to stay part of the Church if they disagree with it. I know some people have family members who pressure them, but for those whose family members also disagree with the Church and don’t do what it says … why stay? The Church takes forever to change it’s doctrines, long after so many other people have already realized they were wrong; I don’t think anything other than losing membership is going to convince them to change anything.”

    Ex-Catholic here who wonders the same thing. I know there is a contingent within the Church who believe God inspires the laity with insights that they expect to gradually permeate the hierarchy. They say “Why should we go away. It’s our church too. We’ll change it from within.”

    There is some evidence that perhaps ideas trickled upward at one time, back when few people were literate and communication happened so slowly that church doctrine appeared to stay static while it actually changed very, very slowly. After all, who now worries about lending or borrowing money for interest? Where did that very serious sin disappear to? Hard to pin that down, isn’t it? When did it become our obligation to participate in prayer breakfasts with heretics rather than trying to get the secular authorities to imprison or execute them? Where does blue become blue-green become green-blue become green? I think it’s strategy that keeps the church so coy about making officially infallible substantive pronouncements about morals and sins. The church changes but obfuscates the process and the official line is that “official” teachings never changed.

    But modern communication and speedy social change have exposed the church in such a way that the old illusion of permanance in doctrine can’t be maintained along with gradual adaptation. The church ALMOST came to grips with it in the sixties when it ALMOST changed its teachings on contraception. The pope lost his nerve, correctly sensing that there would have been no turning back from continually re-evaluating every doctrine and moral law forever. But now the church is trapped, doomed to increasing irrelevance, with no means of adjusting to a changing society and newly acquired knowledge of human psychology and physiology.

    It is interesting to observe how the church coped with the crisis caused by the “almost contraception” cliff-hanger. American priests and bishops pretty much went silent on the subject. Their parishioners were in full revolt, flouting the law against using birth control. Priests and bishops didn’t speak out, which would have driven away most who were contributing money to the church. There was a long period of “Don’t ask, don’t tell.” Now that the numbers of priests and nuns appear to have bottomed out and the old Vatican II “liberals” have died off, there appears to be some interest in trying to get Catholics back on the straight and narrow path. This movement expressess itself in the whining about the HHS mandate. This bunch craves a smaller, purer church. If they get serious about forcing confrontations over contraception, I think they will get the “smaller” element of that desire.

  • sg

    Well, the Roman Catholic Church bishops may not even be remotely interested in hearing what people have to say, yet it is important to say something anyway to make the point that people do care who the next pope is. Of course that assumes they do care, and I don’t know that they do. It is like applying to Harvard or Stanford, etc. Think of all the possibly qualified people who never apply because they assume they will not be accepted. They should still apply and force the schools to reject them. That way when they do something interesting or noteworthy they can remind the schools that they were rejected by them. So, people should say something about who the next pope should be to leave in the public record that their pleas were ignored.

  • Christian

    As a former-Episcopalian-becoming-Catholic, I can’t help but find “liberal Catholicism” funny. If a person professes to be Catholic but can’t bring himself or herself into line with Church teaching, why don’t they just become Episcopalian? They can keep the cool vestments and incense and stuff and not have to worry about the factor of teaching that doesn’t, y’know, change at their every whim.

    From my own perspective, the constancy (and internal consistency) of Church teaching is an enormously reassuring thing. How am I supposed to trust a religious tradition which claims to teach about right and wrong but is willing to change its teachings with the winds of popular opinion?

    All this is to say that Adam is very right: the Catholic Church is not a democracy. We (by which I mean 21st century Westerners) are used to living in democratic environments wherein we, at least if we’re in the majority or have enough power/influence, get to have things the way we want. However, to say that the Church ought to function like a democracy is false. Where religion answers the question “what is permissible?”, democracy answers the question “what is (legally) permitted?”. Religion is about truths; democracy is about practices. For religions and the religious, the answer to “what is permissible” will deeply affect what is, in the religious sphere of influence, permitted. To say that a religious tradition ought to change what is permitted is to say that it ought to change what is permissible, at which point it can no longer be trusted as a truth-telling thing.

    Either the Catholic Church is the Church which God (incarnate as Christ) established and is guided by His spirit or it is a fraud for claiming to do so. However, its constancy in regard to official teachings is at least a mark of its fundamental capacity to be exactly what it claims to be, a truth-telling thing. The decision to accept or reject that claim is in the hand of the individual.

  • GCT

    Where religion answers the question “what is permissible?”…
    Religion is about truths…

    Wrong on both counts.

    To say that a religious tradition ought to change what is permitted is to say that it ought to change what is permissible, at which point it can no longer be trusted as a truth-telling thing.

    Bring back slavery!

    However, its constancy in regard to official teachings is at least a mark of its fundamental capacity to be exactly what it claims to be, a truth-telling thing.

    Obstinancy != truth.

  • Christian

    In response to GCT at 12:59 on March 6, 2013:

    I’ll put it this way: religion is in the business of trying to address questions of “what is permissible?” and “what is true?” and to provide answers to these questions. Whether these answers are in any way grounded in some kind of objective reality is another discussion altogether, and it’s honestly not germane to the matter at hand.

    If you want to say that there’s no objective truth or a similar sort of relativistic sentiment, that’s (again) another conversation, and I may have to refer you to my man Chesterton in the meantime. I don’t know what you personally believe on matters of truth/morality/etcetera. What I mean to convey is that religion does answer the questions of “what is true?” and “what is morally right?”, whether truthfully or not. Even if you hold that it’s in principle impossible to answer these questions, you must at least realize that religion does try to answer them.

    You should also be able to recognize that a religious tradition which is inconstant in its answers to these questions (see “liberal Christianity”) simply can’t be trusted at all. If there are such things as objectively true answers to these questions, a tradition which changes its teachings as to those answers can’t be regarded as having even the capacity to be a truth-telling thing. If a tradition is willing to change its answers to these questions, how is one to know when it’s telling truths and when it’s telling falsehoods? My argument is that only a tradition which declares its dogmas and refuses to fudge on them can be trusted as a truth-telling thing. I’m not saying that “Obstinacy != truth”; rather, I’m saying that obstinacy (at least in regard to dogmas) grants a tradition a fundamental capacity to be true.

    If my neighbor obstinately maintains that he’s married, it’s at least possible that he’s right in saying this. Even if I came to know for a fact that he’s not married and that he’s simply been lying about the matter, his constancy at the very least made it possible that his statements were true. On the other hand, if he changed his statement every other day on whether or not he was married, I honestly couldn’t believe what he said either way.

    So no, I don’t believe that obstinacy means that something is telling the truth, it means that it could be telling the truth. As to why I believe that the Catholic Church is telling the truth, that’s another conversation entirely.

    Back to my point from the first comment: democracy can change because it speaks to the way things are, not the way that they ought to be. However, religion speaks to the way things ought to be, and if it changes its mind on the matter it simply can’t be trusted. So, again, thank goodness (or perhaps even God!) that the Catholic Church is not a democracy.

    As to slavery: I don’t believe that the Catholic Church has ever officially endorsed slavery in any teaching, and I think the burden is on you to cite any specific examples of it doing so. Yes, I know “but the Bible says it’s okay!” Maybe so, maybe no, but the Bible also contains Paul’s letter to Philemon, wherein he basically advocates for the freedom (or at least equal treatment) of a slave. So the Biblical record isn’t nearly so simple to parse on the matter of institutional slavery. Thankfully, Catholics (unlike Protestants) don’t have to deal with the highly insensible doctrine of Sola Scriptura, wherein only the Bible can be used to figure things out. Rather, the Catholic Church runs with principles like “the fundamental dignity and honor of every person” which are, incidentally, confirmed by Scripture.

  • Figs

    So let’s continue your analogy of the guy who steadfastly claims to be married. After a while, you start to notice he doesn’t wear a wedding ring. You notice that he always has convenient excuses for why his wife isn’t around. You go over to his house and see no signs that anyone else lives there. It becomes abundantly clear that he is simply lying about this.

    So what then? You’re saying it is somehow better for him to bind himself to a code that forces him to continue lying about this? To what end? I get the idea that changing what you had once proclaimed as universal moral truths puts the lie to your ability to declare something a universal moral truth, but doesn’t your refusal to adapt when it becomes ever more clear that you’re wrong do exactly the same thing?

    Moreover, having the entire 2,000 year history of the Catholic church bind the hands of the current church makes it less and less apparent what the leadership of the church is really supposed to do (aside from offering protection to pedophiles).

  • Adam Lee

    Christian,

    If there are such things as objectively true answers to these questions, a tradition which changes its teachings as to those answers can’t be regarded as having even the capacity to be a truth-telling thing. If a tradition is willing to change its answers to these questions, how is one to know when it’s telling truths and when it’s telling falsehoods? My argument is that only a tradition which declares its dogmas and refuses to fudge on them can be trusted as a truth-telling thing.

    I find this a bizarre idea, but I’ll accept it for the sake of argument and let’s see where it leads. I can think of three relevant facts right away:

    * The Catholic church once taught that it was morally acceptable to torture heretics (Ad extirpanda). It no longer teaches this.

    * The Catholic church once taught that it was morally acceptable to take and own slaves (Dum diversas). It no longer teaches this.

    * The Catholic church once taught that Catholicism ought to be the only permitted religion and that all other faiths ought to be suppressed by law (Syllabus of Errors). It no longer teaches this.

    On these and other subjects, the Catholic church has changed its mind. It once taught one thing, and now teaches another. Therefore, by your criteria, the Catholic church is not and cannot be a truth-telling thing. Do you agree?

  • http://counterapologist.blogspot.com/ Counter Apologist

    Adam, forget the Catholics! Look at Jesus himself in Matthew 19! He points out that while divorce was always “bad” in the eyes of god, god told Moses that the (supposedly perfect) Law could be written allowing divorce because the people’s hearts were hard.

    So we have a case of god himself changing his mind, or at least us having the problem where we can’t ever really trust gods commands to truly reveal what is and is not good.

  • GCT

    Others have capably handled replies to Christian, but I do want to add a few things:

    I’ll put it this way: religion is in the business of trying to address questions of “what is permissible?” and “what is true?” and to provide answers to these questions.

    I disagree. Religion may be in the business of trying to dictate what is true and/or permissible, but it does not actually provide any answers that we can rely upon. And, it is completely unwilling to actually investigate what is true and/or permissible to check its dictates. If religion were really trying to address these questions, that’s what would be happening. Instead, we get a bunch of faith dressed up as absolute truth.

    Whether these answers are in any way grounded in some kind of objective reality is another discussion altogether, and it’s honestly not germane to the matter at hand.

    Again, I disagree – it’s very much germane. I can’t very well claim that the moon is made of cheese, ignore all evidence to the contrary, and claim that I’m speaking some truth because I refuse to look at the evidence.

    If you want to say that there’s no objective truth or a similar sort of relativistic sentiment, that’s (again) another conversation, and I may have to refer you to my man Chesterton in the meantime.

    This is a false dichotomy you’ve set up where it’s either god + objective truth or neither.

    What I mean to convey is that religion does answer the questions of “what is true?” and “what is morally right?”, whether truthfully or not.

    Again, I disagree. “Goddidit” is not an answer in any meaningful sense to any question.

    You should also be able to recognize that a religious tradition which is inconstant in its answers to these questions (see “liberal Christianity”) simply can’t be trusted at all.

    Well, no religion can be trusted, because they are based on faith which is an inherently untrustworthy and faulty method of figuring out what is true. I do understand what you’re saying here though, and I actually share your sentiment to some degree. One can’t very well claim that god gives us universal and absolute morality that changes. But, no religion is unchanged.

    My argument is that only a tradition which declares its dogmas and refuses to fudge on them can be trusted as a truth-telling thing.

    Unless that tradition is wrong from the start and allows for incomplete knowledge to be supplemented by outside evidence and adopts itself to the new evidence to become correct in the future. This is, of course, impossible for religions that claim to have absolute and universal morals from god (which is why I somewhat sympathize with you) but it is also why religion fails. If we look at science, it actually helps us figure out what is true about the world because it doesn’t rigidly adhere to dogma, but is instead always reviewing the current state of the evidence to make better and better conclusions about what is true. That’s why science has a much better track record of telling us what is true than religion (it’s a shutout really).

    Yes, I know “but the Bible says it’s okay!” Maybe so, maybe no, but the Bible also contains Paul’s letter to Philemon, wherein he basically advocates for the freedom (or at least equal treatment) of a slave. So the Biblical record isn’t nearly so simple to parse on the matter of institutional slavery.

    Although I dispute your characterization of Paul’s letter and how it handles slavery, you’ve just stepped into a hole of your own making. You’re describing a holy book that supposedly informs your obstinate religious views and supposedly came from your own god, describing his absolute morality, that reverses course. IOW, the Bible (if your depiction is correct) changes its mind, so to speak. That means, by your own rules, we can’t trust the Bible. And, without the Bible, there is no starting point for your religion to get going in the first place.

  • Christian

    Apologies to all for the delayed response- we’re in finals season at university, and I’ve been pretty tied down (or perhaps tied up?) with all sorts of coursework.

    Counter Apologist: Jesus is saying that Moses allowed divorce contrary to the right order revealed by God. The assertion that “[G]od told Moses that the (supposedly perfect) Law could be written allowing divorce” isn’t at all supported by the text. God revealed the right order of things, Moses changed the practice away from that order, and Jesus is calling attention to the fact that Moses shouldn’t have done so and that things ought to be practiced according to the initially-instated order.

    Back to matters of truth-telling things! In order not to just write one super-long post; I’ll address Figs and GCT in this post and Adam in another, since Adam’s examples will require some lengthy apologetic work.

    Figs: if there’s evidence which clearly damns a claim, so be it. Whether or not such damning evidence exists in regard to the teachings of the Church is certainly one of the questions on the table. Regardless of actual truth or falsehood, the constancy of a constant claim makes it at least possible that the claim is true in the first place. Also, I don’t think it’s a good idea for someone to bind himself or herself to a code which requires them to continue lying, and I don’t think I’ve advocated that in any way. In the case of the bachelor-who-claims-to-be-married, I don’t think it’s good that he continues to lie. However, we’re fundamentally unable to assign a value of goodness or badness to the constancy of the claim until we’ve made some headway in sorting through whether it’s true or false (assuming, of course, that it’s in some way good to believe true things, which I happen to believe).

    …doesn’t your refusal to adapt when it becomes ever more clear that you’re wrong do exactly the same thing?

    The refusal to adapt in the face of falsification would indeed be problematic. However, until such falsification is demonstrated, your question isn’t really on the table.

    Moreover, having the entire 2,000 year history of the Catholic church bind the hands of the current church makes it less and less apparent what the leadership of the church is really supposed to do (aside from offering protection to pedophiles).

    Nonsense, my good sir! Having directions and guidelines is by no means an impediment to action. The directionless modern relativist has a harder time knowing what he should do than the devout churchman who has a great body of instruction. Perhaps what you mean to say is that confusing and/or seemingly contradictory directions make it difficult to discern what course of action ought to be taken. I agree, and that’s why churchfolk get down on the weekends by parsing through canon law and sorting out the right ways to go about things. One germane question, of course, is whether or not different accepted directives actually contradict one another and therefore make it impossible to select any one course of action in a certain situation. I’ll be addressing Adam’s points regarding whether or not such contradictions exist in historical Church teaching in the next comment.

    Also, I’m not sure where the Church has taught that pedophiles ought to be protected, but I’d be quite open to enlightenment via citation.

    GCT: I think most of your problems spring from excessive dogmatism. Let’s take a look!

    I disagree. Religion may be in the business of trying to dictate what is true and/or permissible, but it does not actually provide any answers that we can rely upon.

    You seem pretty confident in saying that religion doesn’t provide any answers which can be relied upon. How do you know this? Is it not entirely possible that religion does, in fact, provide such answers? A more accurate statement might be “I don’t believe happen to believe that religion provides such answers.” I think you’ll agree that religion could provide such answers, though if you disagree I’d be interested to hear why. We obviously disagree on whether or not it actually does. However, I think it’s more a disagreement about the efficacy of religion providing such answers, rather than the capacity of religion to do so. The next question to address might be something along the lines of “how ought one to test said hypothetical efficacy?”

    …it is completely unwilling to actually investigate what is true and/or permissible to check its dictates. If religion were really trying to address these questions, that’s what would be happening.

    How do you know “what is true and/or permissible” well enough to know that religion is “completely unwilling to actually investigate it?” It sounds vaguely like you’re saying “I don’t happen to think that religion actually investigates what is true and/or permissible, therefore I say that it’s unwilling to do so.” What would it look like for it to “actually investigate what is true and/or permissible?” Unless you’d like to propose some methodology for such an investigation, I’m not sure how you mean to make this assertion. I’d assert that the natural law theology tradition in Catholicism makes as good an attempt as any religious tradition at investigating moral propositions based on largely accessible criteria. (Assuming, of course, that these criteria have any bearing on such a thing as a real morality, which is another matter altogether.)

    Instead, we get a bunch of faith dressed up as absolute truth.

    Again, how do you know this? How do you know that the propositions of religion are, in fact, not valid in their relation to an absolute truth? It’s one thing to say “I don’t happen to believe that the propositions of religion are valid in their relation to an absolute truth” and another to say that “these propositions are clearly just *dressed up* as absolute truth and are in fact not related in any real way.”

    Again, I disagree – it’s very much germane. I can’t very well claim that the moon is made of cheese, ignore all evidence to the contrary, and claim that I’m speaking some truth because I refuse to look at the evidence.

    I agree that the question of whether or not these answers are actually grounded in an objective reality is very much germane in the greater scope of things. However, I was responding to your specific charge that religion didn’t answer the aforementioned questions at all. I don’t think it’s disputable that religion does answer the aforementioned questions, which is what you were denying. Whether or not there’s any real relationship with an objective reality is not germane to the specific question of whether or not religion answers the questions at all. Someone might ask me “is a horn a necessary component of a unicorn?”, to which I would respond “etymologically, yes, it is.” The fact that there may be no such things as unicorns doesn’t mean that I didn’t answer the question.

    This is a false dichotomy you’ve set up where it’s either god + objective truth or neither.

    I should clarify: by “objective truth”, I meant “objective *moral* truth”. I was saying that, even if there was no such thing as objective moral truth, it would be false to say (as you were) that religion fundamentally doesn’t answer questions in regard to morality. If a cardinal was asked “is abortion inherently immoral?” and responded “yes, it is”, he would’ve answered the question, even in the absence of such a thing as objective morality.

    Again, I disagree. “Goddidit” is not an answer in any meaningful sense to any question.

    Not to repeat myself, but how do you know this? How do you know that there are no questions to which God’s action is the correct answer? It’s one thing to say “I don’t happen to believe that the correct answer to any question rests in any kind of divine reality” and another entirely to say “there is no question whose correct answer rests in a divine reality.” For example: why did the Big Bang happen? It’s entirely possible that there was no divine action behind the Big Bang; however, this doesn’t mean that there was no divine action behind the Big Bang. “God did it” is perfectly valid answer to that question, whether or not it’s correct.

    Also, what does it mean for an answer to be “an answer in a meaningful sense?” I’d argue that a “meaningful” answer is an answer whose content is pertinent to the question asked and which does, in fact, answer the question. To mash up some bits from earlier in this post: if the question was asked “why did the Big Bang happen?” and I responded “etymologically, yes it is”, we’d agree that my answer was insensible. However, the answer “God did it” at least meets the criteria for a “meaningful” answer, even if it should happen to be false.

    Well, no religion can be trusted, because they are based on faith which is an inherently untrustworthy and faulty method of figuring out what is true.

    A good epistemologist will tell you that, technically speaking, you’re not going to be able to make virtually any statements about a reality without exercising some degree of faith. Chesterton put it in layman’s terms nicely: “it is an act of faith to assert that one’s thoughts have any relation to reality at all!”

    Do you believe that science reveals truths which can be believed without *any* degree of faith? If so, you’re wrong, as David Hume pointed out in his Problem of Induction: just because the apple has fallen the last 99 times doesn’t mean it will necessarily fall again when you release it in midair this time. Is it probably safe to assume that the same thing will happen which has happened consistently before? Sure. but the act of assuming requires a measure of faith. If “faith [is] an inherently untrustworthy and faulty method of figuring out what is true”, you’re entirely unable to make any real claims about anything, let alone that science enables one to predict anything about the future.

    If we look at science, it actually helps us figure out what is true about the world because it doesn’t rigidly adhere to dogma, but is instead always reviewing the current state of the evidence to make better and better conclusions about what is true. That’s why science has a much better track record of telling us what is true than religion (it’s a shutout really).

    I’ll tackle the dogmatism first: “…science has a much better track record of telling us what is true than religion (it’s a shutout really).” Again, how do you know that the track record is better? I agree that religious traditions which make falsifiable claims about matters of science can be pretty well discarded, but don’t religious traditions which don’t present this issue at least have the capacity to tell the truth perfectly well? You might say “I happen to believe that science has a good track record for telling the truth and that religion doesn’t” while I’d say “I happen to believe that science has a good track record for telling the truth and that religion (specifically Catholicism) does as well.” However, I don’t think you can in any way prove that religion isn’t telling the truth.

    I believe that science regards a real physical reality, and I think you’d agree. As our science gets better, our understanding of this physical reality improves. I agree that science shouldn’t be dogmatic, as scientific dogmatism would keep us from discarding old theories for newer, better ones. However, I think it’s false to say that, because science tells truth and says different things at different times, religion ought to act in the same way in regard to its theological dogmas.

    Lastly, on slavery and the Bible: when we think of slavery, we think of chattel slavery, which is what was practiced in the Americas for much of the last five centuries or so. When we think of this kind of slavery, we usually think not only of it as an economic arrangement (wherein one person is responsible for certain services) but also as involving specific practices which we regard as having negative moral implications. The Bible doesn’t say that slavery as an economic institution must be abolished, but it does speak to the ways in which masters and slaves are to relate to one another. Paul basically says that slaves are still held to their economic responsibilities of service and that masters are held to the right and good treatment of their slaves. In slavery as a purely economic arrangement, a slave could be treated horribly as a piece of property OR with honor and respect (think sort of like a butler). The responsibility inherent to the economic reality is upheld, but the overriding principles of love and respect for one another must be upheld. If in light of this perspective you still think the Bible “changes its mind, so to speak” about slavery, let me know your specific thoughts and we can continue the conversation (it’s really late and I don’t want to spend any more time on this comment, haha).

    Also, I technically disagree that the Bible is necessary for Catholicism to have started at all- Christ founded a Church which existed before the texts of the New Testament were ever written. Heck, the Church was the organ which defined the canon of Scripture in the first place, only to have the Protestants throw out several books over a millenium later. Your point would be valid in regard to Sola Scriptura Protestantism, but it doesn’t quite hold water with Catholicism.

    Adam: I may not respond to your points immediately, but I promise that I intend to address them within the next couple days.

    Thanks for the responses, y’all, and I look forward to (hopefully) continuing the conversation!

    Christian

  • Christian

    P.S. Editor, if you could try to fix my blockquoting issues from my last comment, I’d appreciate it muchly. You should be basically able to figure out what’s supposed to be quoted by referring back to GCT’s most recent comment. Grazie!

  • GCT

    @Christian,

    I think most of your problems spring from excessive dogmatism.

    What a load of religiously privileged crap. What dogmatism comes with atheism? Please cite it.

    You seem pretty confident in saying that religion doesn’t provide any answers which can be relied upon. How do you know this?

    Religion relies upon faith. Faith is an inherently faulty method of arriving at true conclusions. In the history of humanity, we have not ever learned a single thing via religion. If you disagree, feel free to point out what we’ve learned, but anything involving “god(s)” will be summarily disregarded, since no one can actually claim knowledge of god(s).

    I think you’ll agree that religion could provide such answers, though if you disagree I’d be interested to hear why.

    Religion cannot provide answers because it has no mechanism for doing so and god doesn’t seem to be in the habit of providing answers.

    How do you know “what is true and/or permissible” well enough to know that religion is “completely unwilling to actually investigate it?” It sounds vaguely like you’re saying “I don’t happen to think that religion actually investigates what is true and/or permissible, therefore I say that it’s unwilling to do so.”

    Religion gives dictates. It does not have a method of determining what is right/wrong. One person says they have a direct line to god and that X is wrong, and that either becomes the religious law or there’s a schism. The truth is that we don’t get our morals from religion or the Bible (or any other so-called holy text). That’s why people have to interpret the Bible. That’s why there’s all kinds of apologetics trying to defend an anti-slavery stance by Xians, when the Bible simply doesn’t condemn slavery. It doesn’t. Once society turned squarely against it, Xians scrambled to try and figure out a way to convince others that the Bible was against it too.

    But, if you can point to a way that religion actually increases our knowledge and has some method of determining right and wrong, I’m all ears. Problem is that you’ve painted yourself into a corner. You can’t maintain that changing one’s mind about what is right/wrong is somehow bad (your original argument) and also try to argue that it’s good that religions are studying what is right/wrong and coming up with answers when those answers contradict previous positions.

    What would it look like for it to “actually investigate what is true and/or permissible?”

    You tell me!

    I’d assert that the natural law theology tradition in Catholicism makes as good an attempt as any religious tradition at investigating moral propositions based on largely accessible criteria.

    Not even close. The “natural law theology tradition” is nothing more than an exercise in repeatedly begging the question. It’s fallacious from the get-go.

    Again, how do you know this? How do you know that the propositions of religion are, in fact, not valid in their relation to an absolute truth?

    Because religions have no actual method for discerning truth.

    However, I was responding to your specific charge that religion didn’t answer the aforementioned questions at all.

    “Goddidit” is not an answer for anything.

    I don’t think it’s disputable that religion does answer the aforementioned questions, which is what you were denying.

    It shouldn’t be, but apparently it is since you and many others claim that religion provides answers. Give me one answer that religion has ever provided for anything.

    Whether or not there’s any real relationship with an objective reality is not germane to the specific question of whether or not religion answers the questions at all.

    You can’t simply make up anything you want and claim that it’s an answer, and that’s the problem with religion. It’s all made up “answers” that are “true” because some priest said so; not because it aligns with reality or because there is any objective reason to believe the “answer” has any evidential backing. This, however, means that it’s not actually an “answer”.

    I should clarify: by “objective truth”, I meant “objective *moral* truth”. I was saying that, even if there was no such thing as objective moral truth, it would be false to say (as you were) that religion fundamentally doesn’t answer questions in regard to morality. If a cardinal was asked “is abortion inherently immoral?” and responded “yes, it is”, he would’ve answered the question, even in the absence of such a thing as objective morality.

    It’s still a false dichotomy that hinges on equivocating the idea of god + objective or no objective anything can exist. This is incorrect. You’re also equivocating objective with universal and/or absolute. There are numerous problems with your position, not the least of which is Euthyphro’s Dilemma (if you don’t know it, look it up). Having a god does not automatically provide universal/absolute morals.

    Additionally, how did “religion” provide an answer as to why abortion is wrong? You’ll have to explain it to me, because “religion” did no such thing.

    Not to repeat myself, but how do you know this? How do you know that there are no questions to which God’s action is the correct answer?

    Whether god actually did do it or not, it’s not an answer unless we can actually start to study this god and quantify/qualify its qualities. That’s a huge stumbling block, however, because no one can actually provide a scrap of evidence that any god exists. “Goddidit” could be replaced with “Leprechaunsdidit” and have just as much (or little) explanatory power – which is none.

    For example: why did the Big Bang happen? It’s entirely possible that there was no divine action behind the Big Bang; however, this doesn’t mean that there was no divine action behind the Big Bang. “God did it” is perfectly valid answer to that question, whether or not it’s correct.

    I’m not talking about correctness, I’m talking about explanatory power. Maybe there is a god that caused the big bang (if causality even makes sense in a timeless void…it doesn’t). Unless you can actually provide some reason to believe that “goddidit” however, it remains a meaningless assertion, not an answer.

    However, the answer “God did it” at least meets the criteria for a “meaningful” answer, even if it should happen to be false.

    Not at all. What does it mean to claim that “goddidit”? No one can actually give a coherent and consistent explanation of what that means that can be objectively agreed upon.

    A good epistemologist will tell you that, technically speaking, you’re not going to be able to make virtually any statements about a reality without exercising some degree of faith. Chesterton put it in layman’s terms nicely: “it is an act of faith to assert that one’s thoughts have any relation to reality at all!”

    Only if you define faith in such a way as to make the word meaningless. This is a typical apologetic tactic to equivocate between faith and belief while pulling a bait and switch. First the apologist equates any belief to being the same as faith (the bait) and the switches to faith using the actual definition of the word (beliefs that are not backed by evidence or contrary to the evidence) and claims that it’s the same thing. It’s not. It’s logically fallacious.

    Do you believe that science reveals truths which can be believed without *any* degree of faith? If so, you’re wrong, as David Hume pointed out in his Problem of Induction: just because the apple has fallen the last 99 times doesn’t mean it will necessarily fall again when you release it in midair this time.

    Science provides provisional conclusions based on evidence and reason. This is quite different from faith and this is the bait/switch I was talking about.

    If “faith [is] an inherently untrustworthy and faulty method of figuring out what is true”, you’re entirely unable to make any real claims about anything, let alone that science enables one to predict anything about the future.

    Only if we accept your logically fallacious argument.

    I’ll tackle the dogmatism first: “…science has a much better track record of telling us what is true than religion (it’s a shutout really).” Again, how do you know that the track record is better?

    How is that dogmatic? It’s a factual statement. The historical record speaks quite clearly to this. We have not one scrap of knowledge that we can claim we learned from religion, yet we know quite a bit from science. Every time the two are in conflict, science wins. Every time.

    However, I don’t think you can in any way prove that religion isn’t telling the truth.

    We have no reason to ever believe a religious claim is true, because it’s not based on evidence. If it is true, it’s purely by luck.

    However, I think it’s false to say that, because science tells truth and says different things at different times, religion ought to act in the same way in regard to its theological dogmas.

    Science is the process of investigating truth. Religion does not do that. Religion has no process to investigate what is true. That’s the issue.

    Lastly, on slavery and the Bible: when we think of slavery, we think of chattel slavery, which is what was practiced in the Americas for much of the last five centuries or so.

    Really? You’re going to make the argument that the slavery from a couple hundred years ago (sanctioned by Xians) was bad but the slavery of the Bible wasn’t? That owning another human being isn’t bad? That a system where a slave owner could beat a slave to death so long as the slave didn’t immediately die of the wounds wasn’t bad? That a system where people are forced into unpaid labor and are owned by another is somehow not bad? How many Xians do you know that would claim that we should return to slavery as long as it’s Biblically based? How many of them wish to be owned by another person? How many catholic churches are advocating we return to slavery? First rule of holes applies to your position I think.

    Also, I technically disagree that the Bible is necessary for Catholicism to have started at all- Christ founded a Church which existed before the texts of the New Testament were ever written.

    True, there’s a bit of a chicken/egg situation here. The Bible, however, is the foundational document. Without it, how is one supposed to know anything about the Xian god? (Also, as an aside, how do you know that “Christ founded a Church”?

  • Figs

    I don’t have the time or energy for a full-on post like the couple above. I simply had a point or two I wanted to make:

    1) If by “religion seeks to find truth” you mean that it purports to, from within its own precepts, offer “answers” to questions about the universe, then sure. But if you’re claiming that it does that in a rigorous and repeatable way, then no, absolutely not. Philosophy has a place in the world, but theology is like philosophy with a bunch of nonsense assumptions and constraints larded onto it. Which brings me to…

    2) The relationship between science and philosophy is reasonably clear. Philosophy takes place in the mind while science takes place in the world, but both seek to deduce truths about the world from observations/axioms. Bringing religion into the mix, a HUGE kludgy axiom is added on: dogma. If you have to axiomatically assume that the Bible is true, that some unverifiable things must be taken on faith, that proclamations of Popes past and present must be taken as authoritative, then you’ve very much limited the space in which you’re able to explore. Which brings me to…

    3) The point I made earlier, about 2,000 years of tradition binding the modern church, is particularly germane here. What are the leaders of the church supposed to DO at this point, other than administrate? After 2,000 years, most questions ought to be answerable with “What he said,” right?

  • Christian

    On second thought, Adam, I’ll be responding to your objections after I re-address figs and GCT. I really will try to get back to you soon, though!

    I’ll respond to Figs first, as to follow my own precedent. I am a churchman, after all. :-P Depending on how long this comment ends up being, I may respond to GCT’s most recent comment in a separate comment, as I predict that my response will get pretty lengthy.

    But if you’re claiming that it does that in a rigorous and repeatable way, then no, absolutely not. Philosophy has a place in the world, but theology is like philosophy with a bunch of nonsense assumptions and constraints larded onto it.

    To briefly address your dogmatic skepticism: you can’t simply assume that all “assumptions and constraints” of theology are necessarily “nonsense.” You may happen not to believe them, and you may happen to be better justified in that than I am in believing them. However, I don’t think you’re able to know for sure that they are, in fact, nonsense. I don’t think you have any way of demonstrating that they could not be true.

    I’m not sure what you mean by “a rigorous and repeatable way”. No, we can’t address revealed theology in the same way that we address science. We’re not going to develop a scanner that we can run over different religious texts and which will beep when it’s held over a book that contains divine truth. To expect to test revealed theology in the same way that one tests things in science is simply insensible. That doesn’t mean that it can’t be true (a running theme in my conversation with GCT), but rather that we ought test it on different grounds than those by which we come to believe scientific theories. The mindset that “only things which can be tested in the same way as science can be believed” is easy to adopt and is extremely prevalent in New Atheist-type circles, but it’s also foolish.

    I think we need to differentiate between types of theology. There’s revealed theology, which would be most of the belief content of most religions. Some revealed theology in my own belief tradition: the Church is authorized and guided by God to speak truth in matters of authoritative teaching, the Bible reveals divine truth to us, and Jesus of Nazareth was God (“consubstantial to the Father”, as the terminology would have it). If you want to know why I believe any of this, I’d be happy to chat, though that conversation might be better conducted via email than in this combox.

    The other type of theology is called natural theology. Most philosophy of religion deals with this, and perhaps the most prominent example would be Aquinas’ Five Ways. (Not to pull a “Courtier’s Reply” or whatever it’s called, but the Summa Theologia is really worth a read.) Basically, natural theology asks “what, if anything, can we know about God through the observation of nature alone?” St. Thomas basically said “these are the axioms I posit about the function of nature, and from these I derive x conclusions about God using y reasoning.” To say that this sort of theology can’t be rigorously examined is simply false- it’s a field of philosophy and is treated as rigorously as any other such field (and probably more rigorously than some). I grant that revealed theology isn’t testable in the same way as philosophy like natural theology is, but that doesn’t inherently or necessarily means that it’s bunk.

    I think this all actually mostly responds to your second paragraph. Your “HUGE kludgy axiom” is, if I’m correct, what I was just describing as revealed theology, which is often laid out in the forms of doctrine and dogma. For the record, I don’t just assume that the Bible is a truth-telling thing- I believe that because I believe the Church is a truth-telling thing, which is what kicked off this particular conversation in the first place.

    …then you’ve very much limited the space in which you’re able to explore.

    Another Chesterton quotation seems to fit here, and I intend to show why: “Merely having an open mind is nothing. The object of opening the mind, as of opening the mouth, is to shut it again on something solid.” Yes, it’s entirely true that believing the teachings of the Church to be true “[limits] the space in which [I'm] able to explore”, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. To settle on any proposition as true necessarily causes one’s explore-able space to diminish. However, in searching for truth, one must either settle on some propositions as true (and thus diminish their space) or believe nothing at all. If you personally believe some things to be true, you’re in the practice of diminishing your own explore-able space. Leah Libresco over at Unequally Yoked had a great post about all this called “Too Simple Skepticism”, and her point was basically this: the rightly ordered purpose of skepticism is not to not believe things; rather, it’s to eliminate unjustifiable beliefs and reduce one’s believed truth propositions to those which can be justified. (Also, bonus points if you caught the teleological terminology in that last bit, haha.)

    The question, I think you’ll agree, is not “should we accept any propositions as true?” but rather “what propositions should we accept as true?”. If such things as Church teachings can be demonstrated to be justifiable beliefs (which I’m happy to argue for), then it would be insensible not to believe them. I don’t think you really believe that accepting some propositions as true and thus limiting one’s space to explore is an inherently bad thing; rather, I think you believe that accepting propositions of revealed theology as true propositions limits one’s space in an unjustifiable way. So that’s really where the conversation ought to proceed from.

    The point I made earlier, about 2,000 years of tradition binding the modern church, is particularly germane here. What are the leaders of the church supposed to DO at this point, other than administrate? After 2,000 years, most questions ought to be answerable with “What he said,” right?

    I think I see your point more clearly here, and if I’m correct, it’s not so much “what are Catholics supposed to do generally?” (which I sort of thought it was before) as “what is the specific function of the Church hierarchy in the modern world, given all the stuff that’s already been laid down?”. I’d say, generally speaking, that the purpose of the Pope and the other leaders of the Church is to “shepherd the flock” (to use Jesus’ terms). What does that look like? As St. James puts it, the right practice of the Christian religion includes “[caring] for orphans and widows in their affliction and to keep oneself unstained by the world.” (James 1:27). Both charitable work and preservation of orthodoxy are facilitated by the current presence of a hierarchy.

    I’ll use a pretty contemporary example of the necessity of the hierarchy: in the 1960s, hormonal birth control in the form of “The Pill” was developed and distributed on a wide scale. Though all Christian traditions had been united in their opposition to artificial birth control for the first 1900 years of Christianity, in the twentieth century various Protestant traditions started to compromise on the matter, and many Catholics wanted to know if the Church would as well. In his encyclical Humanae Vitae (1968), Pope Paul VI wrote affirmed the constant teaching that all artificial contraception, The Pill included, distorted the right nature of the sexual relationship between husband and wife and was thus morally unacceptable. The matter was thus clarified, even if plenty of folks identifying as Catholic have elected not to listen and/or follow.

    However, without a Pope, the only thing that can happen in regard to contentious issues is that different people will adopt different perspectives and divide accordingly (see: Protestantism). As Fr. Robert Barron puts it, we all really love the umpire deep down, because his presence and his authority to make calls are what keep a game of baseball from devolving into bickering. So yes, the leaders of the Church are here in large part in order to administrate (as has always been the function of the hierarchy), but the presence of such administrators is, in fact, really important, as it has always been.

    GCT: I have some other things to set about presently, but I may be able to respond to you later today. If not, I intend to get to it soon!

  • Figs

    I’ll respond in greater detail later, but first a tip: the “genial, reasonable guy” shtick comes off a whole lot better if you don’t open up with the swipe of calling my skepticism “dogmatic.”

  • Adam Lee

    I’ll be patiently awaiting Christian’s reply to me (especially the “lengthy apologetic work” he says it will require, which I just can’t wait to see), but I’ll drop in one more point in the meantime, since it’s relevant to the topic of discussion:

    In his encyclical Humanae Vitae (1968), Pope Paul VI wrote affirmed the constant teaching that all artificial contraception, The Pill included, distorted the right nature of the sexual relationship between husband and wife and was thus morally unacceptable. The matter was thus clarified, even if plenty of folks identifying as Catholic have elected not to listen and/or follow.

    I love that bit about church teaching being “clarified”, as though it was obvious all along what the church was going to say and this encyclical just codified it. For anyone who’s not aware of the background to Humanae Vitae, what actually happened is that Paul VI established a pontifical commission on birth control to study the topic (technically his predecessor created it, but he expanded it from just 6 members to 72). That commission came back to him with a recommendation, supported by an overwhelming majority of its members, that the church should change its teachings and permit birth control to be used. The pope then proceeded to overrule his own handpicked commission and reiterate Catholicism’s absolute ban on contraception.

    I hope you’ll see what I mean, Christian, when I say that this doesn’t make much sense according to the viewpoint you’ve laid out. If the church can never change its institutional mind about anything, then what was the original purpose of the commission? Why did the pope ask them to study the question at all? He clearly wasn’t just asking them to come up with arguments to defend the position that the church already held. I think it’s more plausible that everyone, including the pope, started out under the presumption that a change in doctrine was a genuine possibility – but at the last minute, the pope got cold feet and decided not to change anything after all. This would imply that a lot of highly placed members of the Vatican hierarchy don’t share your view of the church’s doctrine as immutable.

  • GCT

    I’m also going to await the reply to me and be patient, although I will address one thing.

    I’m fine with splitting theology into the two categories: revealed and natural. Revealed can then be tossed out as unreasonable from the start, since it relies upon unreasonable methods. Natural could be considered a way of using logical proofs to get to god, which is fine, but no natural theology has ever accomplished that task. They’ve all failed and committed logical fallacy on the way. Given that, we can toss out all attempts at natural philosophy (so far) as well. That leaves religion with a goose egg on the scoreboard, and leaves us with no justified reason to believe any of it is true. Atheism is the only rational and justified position.

  • Figs

    As Christian described it, doesn’t natural theology presuppose the existence of God? I mean, if you start with the natural world, at some point, it requires an unfounded logical leap to suppose that it’s because of a supernatural God.

  • GCT

    @Figs,
    Yes.

  • Christian

    Hey all, I just want to say that I really appreciate your collective patience. Spring Break starts tomorrow and I’ll have plenty of time on my hands to address the points y’all have raised.

    Adam: I’ve had the chance to do some more research and my “lengthy apologetic work” may not be nearly so lengthy as I’d originally estimated, especially the bit on Ad Extirpas. However, knowing me, it’s quite probably that it’ll turn out to be pretty lengthy anyways, haha.


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