Moral Relativism in the Catholic Church

Back in March, I wrote a post about how the Catholic church isn’t a democracy and therefore has no obligation to change its teachings in line with popular opinion. One theist commenter enthusiastically chimed in to agree and to insist that this was exactly the point:

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?

…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.

…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?

For the sake of argument, I’m willing to agree with this. If a religious tradition was founded and directed by an omniscient and infallible god who desired to communicate with human beings, then we could expect that that religion would never change its doctrines, nor have any need to, since such a being would never be wrong and would never encounter any obstacle that prevented him communicating with perfect clarity and effectiveness.

Except that that’s not what we find in the real world. The Catholic church, for example, has changed its moral teachings – its ideas about what is right and wrong, what is permissible and impermissible – many times in major, significant ways. Here are a few of the most important:

• In 1252, Pope Innocent IV issued the bull Ad extirpanda, which authorized the torture of heretics and the forfeiture of their property. As the infamous Law 25 of this bull said:

The head of state or ruler must force all the heretics whom he has in custody, provided he does so without killing them or breaking their arms or legs, as actual robbers and murderers of souls and thieves of the sacraments of God and Christian faith, to confess their errors and accuse other heretics whom they know, and specify their motives, and those whom they have seduced, and those who have lodged them and defended them…

So, the Catholic church once taught that it was morally acceptable to arrest people believed to be heretics, to torture them until they confessed and accused others of the same crime, and then to seize their property. Does it still teach this?

• In 1452, Pope Nicholas V issued the bull Dum diversas, followed by Romanus Pontifex in 1455. Both these documents authorized King Afonso V of Portugal to conquer Saracens (i.e., Muslims) and pagans, as well as all other “enemies of Christ” wherever they could be found, and to “reduce their persons into perpetual slavery”. As one writer put it, these documents “usher[ed] in the West African slave trade“. (See also these Catholic commenters incredulously debating whether this was for real.)

So, the Catholic church once taught that it was morally acceptable to enslave people for being non-Christians, take their land, and consign them to lifelong servitude. Does it still teach this?

• In 1864, Pope Pius IX issued the Syllabus of Errors, a list of propositions condemned as falsehoods by the church. Among the statements which were listed as errors include the following:

Every man is free to embrace and profess that religion which, guided by the light of reason, he shall consider true.

The Church has not the power of using force, nor has she any temporal power, direct or indirect.

In the case of conflicting laws enacted by the two powers [i.e., civil and religious], the civil law prevails.

The Church ought to be separated from the State, and the State from the Church.

In the present day it is no longer expedient that the Catholic religion should be held as the only religion of the State, to the exclusion of all other forms of worship.

If all these statements are errors, this document must be urging the contrary conclusions: that the church should not be separated from the state, that it should have the right of using force, that Catholicism should be the only legally permitted religion and that all other beliefs should be forbidden and suppressed by law. Does the church still teach any of these things?

The commenter who started this discussion promised to reply to these points once he’d had the time to do some research. Nearly six months later, no reply has been forthcoming. Perhaps he found these arguments more difficult to answer than he’d originally thought.

A little more recently, there was another Catholic commenter making the same point:

Of course no teachings have been changed. I expect nothing less of the media to completely misunderstand everything, but the rest of us would have to be complete idiots to think the Church has changed its teachings. Catholicism is a religion of absolutes: it doesn’t change with the whims of the culture, or hide under the banner of “progressivism.” Think about it, Catholics believe the Church is the fullness of truth. 2000 years ago morality was the same as it is today, and the same as it will be 2000 years from now.

When I brought up these same three documents, it occasioned some entirely predictable backpedaling:

The Church delineates between moral issues of the day, which must be taken on a case by case basis and sweeping declarations that are intrinsic to our nature, such as two guys having sex. In your three examples above, none of them are ex cathedra statements about universal morality.

This answer is even more hilarious. What he’s arguing, basically, is that the church has changed its mind about minor things, like whether heretics should be tortured or burned at the stake, whether the church should censor the printing of books, whether people should be sold into perpetual slavery, whether societies should be ruled by kings and priests – but not about the important stuff, like whether a same-sex couple should be able to file federal taxes jointly.

Ironically, when they engage in philosophical gyrations like these, these Catholic apologists are implicitly defending moral relativism, the idea that the ethical standards of right and wrong change with time and place. They can’t bear to admit that these past popes were mistaken – that torture, slavery and theocracy are wrong, always have been wrong and always will be wrong – because that would ruin their assertion that the church is a timeless, changeless truth-telling thing. But at the same time, they can’t bear to defend these obviously immoral practices either. They’re stuck in a dilemma of their own making, like a person trying to keep one foot on each side of a widening chasm, unable to commit to either side but also unable to remain where they are.

It seems to me that what these apologists are really longing for is relief from the burden of independent thought and judgment. They don’t trust their own moral facility; they want an authority whom they can completely rely on to tell them what’s allowed and what’s forbidden. But clinging to dogma offers no certainty except the certainty of error, because there is no omniscient source of morality. There’s only us human beings, fallible but capable of self-correction, ignorant but getting better, figuring things out by trial and error because there is no alternative.

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.

  • L.Long

    Despite what some catlicks may say the RCC will change in small ways to ensure it continued save operation. Like it now does not actively or publicly support witch burnings in USA or Europe.
    But the RCC is not a democracy so when they pull BS like NO CONTRACEPTION it tell catlicks to stop being lying sinful hypocrites and quit the church, but for some reason they are too invested in the church to do so.

  • http://fractalheretic.blogspot.com/ Fractal Heretic

    The Bible is a source of absolute, unchanging, objective morality. And what about Old Testament slavery? Well, it was a different culture back then. Besides, Jesus abolished the Old Testament laws.

    Yea, if that’s not moral relativism, I don’t know what is.

  • koreypeters

    I recently had a long discussion on Facebook with a Christian regarding slavery. He swept this all under the rug by claiming it was simply indentured servitude and that they were instructed to treat their slaves humanely. I wanted to throw up.

  • GCT

    That’s the common apologetic now-a-days. It wasn’t anything like slavery in the south in the US – as if owning another human being was all hunky-dory and still is. They generally run when you point out the verses about beating slaves, the rules for how to keep them and their offspring forever, and how slaves were taken from the tribes around them (and the rules about being “humane” didn’t even apply to those slaves).

  • Azkyroth

    What he’s arguing, basically, is that the church has changed its mind about minor things, like whether heretics should be tortured or burned at the stake, whether the church should censor the printing of books, whether people should be sold into perpetual slavery, whether societies should be ruled by kings and priests – but not about the important stuff, like whether a same-sex couple should be able to file federal taxes jointly.

    If you consider buttseks a major issue and torture, murder, censorship, and slavery as “minor” ones, you fail morality forever.

  • OverlappingMagisteria

    I got a Christian to that point and he insisted that it was different, and somehow better, because Hebrew slaves were taken as prisoners of war while African slaves were kidnapped. Seems that he thought the only thing wrong with southern-US slavery was the method of procurement.

  • Verbose Stoic

    Well, let me take a crack at an argument here, which will hopefully clear away some of the issues and show that your counter isn’t that much of one.

    If you’re going to hold any sort of objective morality, you are, in fact, going to have to reject the idea that what is morally right can in any way be determined by popular vote or opinion, or by some sort of appeal to “progressive” values. What is or isn’t moral will also not be settled by an appeal to what is pragmatically good for you or for your organization. Thus, if someone believes that morality is objective then they obviously would hold that an organization or philosophy that holds on to its moral values and determinations despite popular opinion is far more morally trustworthy than an organization or philosophy that is willing to change them just because many people think them wrong. No person who thinks that morality is in any way objective will accept that what is right can be determined by a vote, and therefore will accept that any organization that is trying to provide an objective morality will not and cannot be a democracy; moral values determined by popular vote are always some sort of relativistic values. The same thing applies to appeals to “progressive” values; we want appeals to objective moral values, and so calling them progressive seems either to add on something unnecessary, or to appeal to some kind of modern ideal, which seems a lot like an appeal to a cultural relativism: we are a progressive culture, and so we should be guided morally by those values as opposed to those of other cultures.

    Thus, if the Catholic Church insists on maintaining their moral views despite them being unpopular, and despite them possibly strongly weakening their organization as a whole, is definitely reassuring, as it suggests that they a) actually do promote objective moral values and b) actually believe them. Which does not, of course, mean that they are right.

    How an objective morality works is to start with a set of basic principles, and then to work out from there what those principles mean in your everyday situations. There is no objective morality that I know of that purports to have a list of all the rules for every single situation you might possible be in so that you can just follow them, and that would be impossible anyway. Thus, that absolute/objective moralities cannot consider specific circumstances is simply false. Even Kant didn’t do that, as even his categorical imperative had to be interpreted as per the situation and as well allows for you to generalize exceptions to the rules if they won’t be self-defeating. Why he argues against lying to the murderer is because if you let it be a universal maxim, then it would still be self-defeating: you would want the murderer to believe you, but since the murderer would know that you are morally obligated to do so the murderer would not believe you, meaning that there is no point to you lying. And his maxim of treating people always as ends in themselves and never as merely means clearly requires interpretation.

    Thus, we can see that how you apply the basic premises to everyday situations is something that requires reasoning and thought, and so is something that can be in error. It is the basic principles that must be held sacrosanct, not the individual interpretations. So, then, your point about the Catholic Church changing some of its moral views isn’t particularly important, as long as the basic principles hold, and that the changes follow from their basic principles. This also means that any attempt to attack their morality on any basis other than their basic principles will not be particularly effective.

    Take the abortion cases that you like to discuss. One of the basic principles that the Catholic Church holds is that one must not take the life of an innocent — meaning not acting with immoral intent — in order to save the life of someone else. The abortion in the cases you talk about does that. Now, that’s not a principle that you hold, but as someone who is Stoic-leaning I find the principle much harder to reject. Taking any immoral action for a purported good end sounds a lot like letting the ends justify the means, and that path leads to very, very dark places. So, to argue against the Catholic Church on that point, you need to attack that principle, or show how it — or other principles the Catholic Church holds — should result in them suggesting another approach in those situations. Which is why my counter for those cases is that while their principle holds, in such a situation where both will die unless one is sacrificed it is the moral duty of the one whose death can prevent the other from dying to sacrifice their life for the other, and this is something that they cannot argue against without invalidating the Crucifixion, which they won’t do.

    This, I think, also makes more sense of the other commentor’s comment. The Catholic Church, following Aristotle I believe, has a basic principle about not violating the natural order. The issues of slavery, separation of Church and State, and various political issues do not follow from anything in the natural order, nor do they follow from other basic principles of the Church, and as such can be changed without impact on those basic principles. But if it is true that the sinfulness of homosexuality follows from that basic principle, then to change that opinion runs the risk of invalidating that basic principle. Note that the status of homosexuality CAN change, by either saying that it does not follow directly from that basic principle or that that basic principle is not valid (in this case, by appealing to what God might really want for us), but it is a lot more serious a change than the changes you mention, and is one that would concern its adherents more. That being said, if it is done with proper philosophical argumentation, changing it would not be an issue … but that work would need to be done.

    (BTW, if anyone wants to reply to my comment by asserting what my position on homosexuality is, you can read my actual position here: http://verbosestoic.wordpress.com/2012/07/06/on-homosexuality/)

  • J-D

    If I perform a complex mathematical calculation, then check my work and change my answer, it doesn’t mean that I’m rejecting the idea that there’s a unique correct answer, it only means that I’m acknowledging my own fallibility.

    Likewise, if the Roman Catholic Church changes its position on a moral question, it doesn’t have to mean that it is abandoning the idea that there’s a unique correct answer to any moral question, it only means that it is acknowledging its own fallibility.

    The First Vatican Council declared the infallibility of the Pope within strictly limited boundaries; that implicitly acknowledges the fallibility of the Church outside those boundaries.

    Has any Pope made a pronouncement on homosexuality that meets the conditions set by the First Vatican Council for infallibility? If not, how do any Catholics imagine themselves more infallible on the subject than the Pope?

  • Physeter

    Atheists can say that slavery is always morally wrong, based on the golden rule and logic and our evolved sense of ethics. Christians…what can they say? It is wrong now, but it wasn’t wrong then.

    Christians are moral relativists; atheists have a better claim to “absolute morality” than they do.

  • http://avoiceinthewilderness-mcc1789.blogspot.com/ Michael

    “It seems to me that what these apologists are really longing for is relief from the burden of independent thought and judgment.”

    I think you are absolutely right about this, not just in regards to Catholics, but the adherents of many ideologies, both religious and secular (while of course religions have a longer history). Eric Hoffer in his book The True Believer argued that abrogating freedom and personal responsibility is a major appeal of these ideologies. Most of them glorify obedience to higher authority, whether church, state, or in the case of religions, God, as you have pointed out is the case with not only Catholics but also Protestants like C. S. Lewis. It seems terrible, yet true, that giving up your will to others has great appeal for many, however blind or foolish.

  • http://lotharson.wordpress.com/ Lothars Sohn

    As a progressive Christian, I believe that the Church (Catholic or not) should strive for perfection, for increasingly imitating God’s boundless love.
    And this means letting go of harmful dogma like the sinfulness of homosexuality.

    Lovely greetings from Germany
    Liebe Grüße aus Deutschland

    Lothars Sohn – Lothar’s son
    http://lotharlorraine.wordpress.com

  • GCT

    Gish gallop from the catholic apologist that won’t come out and admit he’s a Catholic? Color me surprised.

    You fail from the start be equivocating “objective” with “absolute.” They are not the same thing. You also avoided the point in the OP. 2 millions words and you couldn’t address what was in the OP, just so you could obfuscate instead and hope that no one would notice. It’s rather pathetic.

    And, your link doesn’t work…just to add insult to injury.

  • GCT

    Except “god’s boundless love” (which somehow includes eternal hellfire) is written down in the Bible, and it’s not at all loving. If you’re going to throw out your foundational documents, then what method do you use to claim that the god of the Bible is your god?

  • David Simon

    So, then, your point about the Catholic Church changing some of its
    moral views isn’t particularly important, as long as the basic
    principles hold, and that the changes follow from their basic
    principles.

    As the OP pointed out: So those basic principles are flexible enough to move from conditional support to abhorrence of slavery and torture, yet just so happen to be certainly absolutely firm on the present-day political topic of gay marriage? Either you have an extremely odd set of “basic principles”, or you’re doing some special pleading.

    One of the basic principles that the Catholic Church holds is that one must not take the life of an innocent [...] [, but] that’s not a principle that you hold [...]

    You’re using an odd definition of the term “life” unless you feel that the Catholic church’s basic principles also forbid killing cows. If what you mean is “people” or “thinking beings” then I expect you’ll find the relevant principle to be a shared one, with the disagreement being about the personhood status of embryonic tissue.

    (NOTE: I’d like to retract the above two paragraphs, with apologies to Verbose Stoic for misunderstanding and subsequently misrepresenting their position.)

  • koreypeters

    I thought about bringing that up, but didn’t simply because my main point was “God is complicit in the crime of slavery committed by Bible-believing Christians in the American south. If God knew that spending chapter upon chapter explicitly endorsing slavery (which he did) and never once explicitly condemning it (which he didn’t) would cause incalculable suffering (which it did), he is evil.”

    I find I really must try to stay on target when discussing faith with Christians. In my experience, if you make a claim (“God endorses slavery”) you will get an indefensible response (“It’s free will that gives us slavery”), and if you go after the response (“but why must free will include the ability to harm others?”) you’ll get another indefensible response (“God is unknowable”).

    The Christian retreats from one indefensible position to another until you’ve come full circle. I got suckered by this a few times at the first, and now try really hard to stay on target. It doesn’t help the person I’m talking to, granted, but I’ve occasionally received private messages from other Christians who read the debates, and they are much more responsive. I do it for them.

  • Verbose Stoic

    As the OP pointed out: So those basic principles are flexible enough to move from conditional support to abhorrence of slavery and torture, yet just so happen to be certainly absolutely firm on the present-day political topic of gay marriage? Either you have an extremely odd set of “basic principles”, or you’re doing some special pleading.

    I answered this in the original comment:

    The Catholic Church, following Aristotle I believe, has a basic principle about not violating the natural order. The issues of slavery, separation of Church and State, and various political issues do not follow from anything in the natural order, nor do they follow from other basic principles of the Church, and as such can be changed without impact on those basic principles. But if it is true that the sinfulness of homosexuality follows from that basic principle, then to change that opinion runs the risk of invalidating that basic principle. Note that the status of homosexuality CAN change, by either saying that it does not follow directly from that basic principle or that that basic principle is not valid (in this case, by appealing to what God might really want for us), but it is a lot more serious a change than the changes you mention, and is one that would concern its adherents more. That being said, if it is done with proper philosophical argumentation, changing it would not be an issue … but that work would need to be done.

    Those moral stances that allowed slavery and torture in certain cases didn’t follow from that principle, or from any specific basic principle of the Catholic Church, and so are easier to change. While some may say that that correlates to the severity of the issue, that isn’t necessarily true. As for what basic principles would be appealed to, those would have to be — in this example — the Catholic Church’s, n’est pas? Appealing to hedonist basic principles or Stoic basic principles will obviously result in a different analysis. For example, on my own personal moral theory torture and slavery are clear wrongs — so much so that I ruminated for a long time over a problem where torture might be allowed but a painless truth drug would not be — while homosexuality isn’t worth worrying about.

    You’re using an odd definition of the term “life” unless you feel that the Catholic church’s basic principles also forbid killing cows. If what you mean is “people” or “thinking beings” then I expect you’ll find the relevant principle to be a shared one, with the disagreement being about the personhood status of embryonic tissue.

    Your quoting misrepresents my position here, but it is clear that you don’t get the cases that I’m referring to, which might explain why. For the record, I’m referring to cases like the Savita case, where we are trying to decide if we should allow an abortion to save the life of the mother when both will likely die if it isn’t performed. From that:

    1) Of COURSE I’m talking about persons.

    2) My restored quote:

    One of the basic principles that the Catholic Church holds is that one must not take the life of an innocent — meaning not acting with immoral intent — in order to save the life of someone else.

    Which clearly is about directly taking the life of a person to save the life of someone else, and is in fact a principle that was and is often appealed to in such cases.

    3) The above principle is clearly NOT one that Adam Lee or most who condemn the Catholic Church for its stance hold, since they argue against it and argue on the Utilitarian ideal that if the end result is the mother alive if you perform the abortion and both dead if you don’t, then you clearly should and that whether or not you are directly ending the life of a person to do it is irrelevant. Again, it applies only to those cases, not to abortion as a whole.

  • Verbose Stoic

    I’m not sure what part of my comment this is meant to address, or if it is meant to address anything at all, since I do agree that it can change its position on moral questions. What it won’t want to do is change its basic moral principles to do that unless it has really, really good and philosophically proven arguments. Homosexuality seems to violate the Catholic basic moral principle about the natural order, which is why most people do say that under that moral code it really is just plain wrong.

  • David Simon

    I answered [the issue about basic principles] in the original comment: The Catholic Church, following Aristotle I believe, has a basic principle about not violating the natural order.

    No, this is hardly a principle at all, but a blank check that allows one to justify any position through appeal to contemporary intuition. Here is a wonderful example of that in action:

    Theft is wrong, because it subverts the basis of social life; and man’s nature requires for its proper development that he live in a state of society.

    Theft is wrong because it goes against our natural need to form societies? Yeah, no. Historically, people tended to form into societies that were, at best, indifferent to each other. By the “natural law” principle it would only be wrong to steal from one’s own group; stealing from other groups to improve one’s own would, if anything, be encouraged!

    I’ll bet you a dollar that this very argument was used during times of war (e.g. the Crusades) to justify pillaging the property of enemy civilians: after all, we just naturally hate those guys, and we always have! Nowadays, however, we’re more used to the idea of globalization, and cultural strangers as fellow human beings; that argument would no longer fly. So now all of a sudden it’s “natural” for us to think of stealing in general as immoral.

    Regarding the “life of an innocent” quote: ah, yeah, you’re correct. I misunderstood which case you were talking about, and in doing so misrepresented your quote. I’d like to retract the second part of my comment above; I’ll mark it so. My apologies.

  • GCT

    So, apparently slavery doesn’t violate their basic moral principles. Also included on the list with slavery is genocide, rape, subjugation of minorities, torture, etc. You lose. Now go away.

  • Jason Koskey

    “The Catholic Church, following Aristotle I believe, has a basic principle about not violating the natural order.”

    This is empty rhetoric. When Africans were viewed as inferior or cursed by god, it was the “natural order” to enslave them. Heaven is hierarchical, so why wouldn’t the Earth he created be as well? Of course, now that racism is seen as false and slavery immoral, suddenly all the biblical justifications for them are jettisoned as stemming from “non-essential principles.”

    And treating illnesses and curing diseases certainly violates the “natural order,” but apparently that’s a phrase that’s only invoked when convenient to do so.

    I don’t think you can define the principle of “natural order” in any concrete way and also demonstrate the Catholic Church’s consistent adherence to it.

  • Plutosdad

    I think the majority of anthropologists might disagree with your points. Plenty of societies have theft as a basic principle, now maybe it is only ok to steal from OTHER tribes. This is completely “natural”, some primates have similar systems where stealing from and killing other tribes is the “natural order”, as well as human tribal societies.

    Rape is according to the natural order as well.

    In fact, just about any abhorrent thing you can think of is completely natural. We can’t say that ethics is about overcoming our base instincts, and then at the same time say ethics should not overturn the “natural order”

    For one, those are at complete odds. Secondly, this is claiming some sort of teleological reason for animals and some human societies to have behaved the way they did, instead of a “just because their society succeeded against others that way”

    As Colin Quinn joked, our ancestors were not the ones that said “after you”, they were the ones that pushed others out of their way. and that is the natural order.

  • Verbose Stoic

    The issue is that while that may fit some ideas of “natural order” or “natural law”, it doesn’t fit the Catholic one, which as I said if I recall correctly is derived in large part from Aristotle and so doesn’t claim that what is natural is what you can go out and find in nature. Rather, it is a deep philosophical notion of natural law based in large part around teleology, and that is what they use to justify many of their contentions. Now, you may not find this sort of argument particularly credible, nor is it one that I personally favour, but this simple reply doesn’t really address the Catholic view, because they rightly deny that they are basic their view of natural order on anything that anthropologists would study.

  • Verbose Stoic

    No, this is hardly a principle at all, but a blank check that allows one to justify any position through appeal to contemporary intuition. Here is a wonderful example of that in action:

    Theft is wrong, because it subverts the basis of
    social life; and man’s nature requires for its proper development that he live in a state of society.

    Well, again you need to quote or read more in context, because this is what that entire section is about:

    Actions are wrong if, though subserving the satisfaction of some
    particular need or tendency, they are at the same time incompatible with
    that rational harmonious subordination of the lower to the higher which reason should maintain among our conflicting tendencies and desires (see GOOD). For example, to nourish our bodies is right; but to indulge our appetite for food to the detriment of our corporal or spiritual life is wrong. Self-preservation is right, but to refuse to expose our life when the well-being of society requires it, is wrong. It is wrong to drink to intoxication, for, besides being injurious to health, such indulgence deprives one of the use of reason, which is intended by God to be the guide and dictator of conduct. Theft is wrong, because it subverts the basis of social life; and man’s nature requires for its proper development that he live in a state of society. There is, then, a double reason for calling this law of conduct natural: first, because it is set up concretely in our very nature itself, and second, because it is manifested to us by the purely natural medium of reason.

    So it isn’t a blank check at all, nor even in this case is it something that you can use to appeal to contemporary intuition … or even intuition at all. For theft, you have to subordinate lower pleasures to the higher ones, and so while theft would satisfy lower desires — property, wealth, etc — it doesn’t satisfy and in fact impedes the higher one of social interaction and fulfillment. Thus, it is against the natural order for us as rational human beings to choose the lower desires over the higher ones. All of which follows philosophically, I think, from Aristotle; he claimed that friendship, for example, was required for a good life, and stealing from others impedes that due to trust issues.

    And as I just said, they don’t use “naturally” the way you do. And to be honest, I believe that the justification was simply glorifying God, which is both part of and separate from natural law theory.

  • Christian Stillings

    Hey Adam, Catholic/theist-gent-from-March here. Thanks for dredging this back up! You’re correct about many things, including that I never finished writing my response and didn’t post it. It’s in an old gmail draft- I probably got most of the way through it before some family complications kicked in and I was obliged to temporarily leave aside my elective pursuits, including religion debates on the internet. By the time the complications resolved I’d forgotten our kerfuffle here and promptly picked up other “elective obligations,” haha. :-P I’m moving to college tomorrow and won’t be able to resume work on that draft for at least a few more days, but I appreciate this reminder showing up on the Patheos mainpage.

    Without treading the same ground as my responses, I briefly want to highlight a few weak points in your arguments as presented in this post.

    I’m deeply unimpressed with your argument from “as one writer put it…”. We’ll agree that (especially in the internet era) there are many poorly-unqualified “writers” and that many of these “writers” say stupid, uninformed things on a regular basis. You’d take offense if I said “as one writer put it, atheists are terrible people who don’t care about public welfare,” especially if my writer was a fool who didn’t even try demonstrate the truth of his assertion. There are writers who say these sorts of things, but I don’t suggest that I support their arguments by citing their writing. If you think that David Love’s argument is good and want to throw your support behind it, go ahead and say so, but “one writer says…” is just a bad argument.

    His seventh paragraph (starting with “these three edicts…”) is based on very little demonstration from historical evidence. There are so many interesting questions which should be asked: did chattel slavery particularly thrive under Catholic influence? Did explorers mis-treat the natives of the explored lands? Did Vatican leadership say (or fail to say) anything pertinent to these issues later? I won’t get into any of those questions now, but his treatment of the issue is insufficient in light of the assertion which he makes. If he’d said “it’s possible that these edicts may have influenced the future Western slavery,” I’d accept his thesis and say that further research was due. However, his assertion that “they opened the floodgates for everything that followed!” goes far beyond any demonstration in his article.

    I don’t think that “incredulously” is a very accurate adjective for the forum conversation to which you linked. The first poster basically said “I’ve heard this about a papal encyclical and its relationship to slavery. How do we approach this issue?”

    In any event, thanks again for bringing this back up, and I look forward to further conversation on it!

    Pax Christi,
    Christian

  • ElRay

    The HUGE Elephant in the room is that the bible now becomes worthless as a immutable document justifying whatever mythological actions christians want to deem necessary/verboten.

    You can’t have it both ways.

  • J-D

    My point was that it would be unjustifiable to say ‘it is impossible for the Catholic Church to change its position on basic moral issues including homosexuality’.

    However it’s now clearer that you’re not saying something like that, as your latest statement incorporates a crucial series of qualifications: ‘What it won’t _want_ to do … _unless_ … _seems_ to violate …’

    That leaves you saying the equivalent of ‘The probability of the Catholic Church changing its position on homosexuality in the foreseeable future is extremely low.’

    I would make the same estimate, but that’s what it is, an estimate of probabilities based on empirical observations of behaviour, not a purely analytical deduction from basic premises about the nature of morality.

  • Guest

    “…the church has changed its mind about minor things, like whether
    heretics should be tortured or burned at the stake, whether the church
    should censor the printing of books, whether people should be sold into
    perpetual slavery, whether societies should be ruled by kings and
    priests – but not about the important stuff, like whether a same-sex couple should be able to file federal taxes jointly.”

    Aaaand Adam hits it out of the park!

  • Slocum Moe

    If a bunch of Cardinals were in a plane crash and stranded for weeks, high in the Andes, cannibalism would soon become the law of the Catholic church. LOL.

  • JohnH2

    The change on how to deal with heretics should be the most troubling, because during the Lateran councils (ecumenical) the issue of Heresy was the point and purpose of the council: it and not the issues from those councils that are held as important today was what was considered by those holding the council as the most important and vital question of morality facing the church. A minor difference in beliefs that is well within the acceptable range of orthodoxy doesn’t really matter, but a heretic meant death to a persons soul which was considered to be infinitely more dangerous than any other question of doctrine.

    Meaning the idea that the question of heresy was a minor thing is not something that most Catholics for all of history would have agreed to. To them that was the major thing, and Catholics today have changed it and called it a minor thing.

    To me this appears to open up everything else to changes, because even if today something is considered vital and major that doesn’t mean that the prevalence of pre-martial sex or of homosexual priests won’t lead the Catholics to consider such things as minor.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/daylightatheism Adam Lee

    Hi Christian,

    It’s good to see you back, but it seems to me that this entire lengthy comment of yours is an exercise in dodging the point.

    You spend a lot of time and effort litigating whether the church’s approval of slavery was a sufficient precondition for the existence of the Atlantic slave trade, which is at best a side issue to the original topic under discussion. If I were to say that I think it’s morally acceptable to enslave black people or Native Americans, then I hope you’ll agree that your moral evaluation of my character shouldn’t be contingent on whether anyone is actually sold into slavery as a direct result of my words.

    So, again, I put it to you: Has the Catholic church changed its position about what is permissible, thereby disqualifying it in your eyes as a “truth-telling thing”? Or are you arguing that the Catholic church still approves of slavery and colonialism just as it did in 1452?

    I’ll be patiently awaiting your answer.

  • Azkyroth

    “Become?” Since when do they consider transubstantiation symbolic?

  • Azkyroth

    What makes you think he’s interested in consistency or concrete definitions? Is this your first time arguing with him?

  • Verbose Stoic

    This is empty rhetoric.

    It is just as much an empty rhetoric as the Kantian “Do not will anything that you could not make a universal maxim” or the Utilitarian “Maximize utility”; it’s a basic principle that has a very specific meaning in the system, and that meaning is what you need to understand to assess and criticize their moral system.

    When Africans were viewed as inferior or cursed by god, it was the “natural order” to enslave them. Heaven is hierarchical, so why wouldn’t the Earth he created be as well? Of course, now that racism is seen as false and slavery immoral, suddenly all the biblical justifications for them are jettisoned as stemming from “non-essential principles.”

    So, when Africans were viewed as inferior — either by not being human beings or at least not fully human beings — the hierarchy argument — subordinate the lesser to the greater — worked to justify slavery. And then when the fact was proven that they ARE full human beings and full moral agents, then it was clear that the principle didn’t apply anymore, and so slavery was not right, and likely from other principles had to be considered morally wrong. Now, was this some kind of repudiation of the natural law principle? So change in the basic moral principles? No. It was, in fact, a discussion over a matter of fact: are Africans lesser human beings that Europeans? And the answer ended up being “No”. There is no harm to ANY objective or absolute morality to adjusting what you consider moral in specific situations because you discovered that a fact of the matter is wrong, because that lets you preserve the principle while admitting that your interpretation — based on known facts about the world — was incorrect.

    And treating illnesses and curing diseases certainly violates the “natural order,” but apparently that’s a phrase that’s only invoked when convenient to do so.

    Not by their definition, it doesn’t. You have to go back to the massive amounts of philosophical and theological work to see precisely what they mean by that, but unless you do you cannot criticize it based on how other systems take the term.

    I don’t think you can define the principle of “natural order” in any concrete way and also demonstrate the Catholic Church’s consistent adherence to it.

    _I_ don’t have to do that: they do. And they have done a lot of work to do so, and the link that David Simon above provided is a place to start, although I warn you that it’s couched in a lot of philosophical language. As for their consistent adherence to it, you still have to distinguish between them making mistakes in their interpretation and actually and deliberately forgoing it without a reconciling explanation or without reconciling it to another basic principle … and even then we don’t expect adherents to a moral philosophy to be perfect either. Suffice it to say, they’ve said a lot more about the sorts of issues you raise than you seem to give them credit for.

  • Verbose Stoic

    So … have you replied to my explanation of Kant in our last discussion, or are you going to claim to have run away when objections are raised like you claimed I did in that thread?

  • Verbose Stoic

    For me, it isn’t empirical, but philosophical: the wrongness of homosexuality, for the Catholics, seems to follow far more directly from their basic principles than the acceptability of slavery did.

  • Verbose Stoic

    And Catholics, of course, DON’T think of it that way. They are what I’ll call a theological religion as opposed to a revealed one, meaning that they don’t expect that anyone will be able to simply pick up the Bible and understand completely how to live according to God’s commands, but that instead a lot of study and teaching is required to do so.

    The good part of this is that usually this means that a theological religion will address directly and with argument that is accessible to philosophical examination relevant issues. The bad part is that most of the adherents will be utterly unqualified to actually make those assessments on their own, meaning that it ends up being authoritarian and, because of that, difficult to police for errors and biases unless philosophy steps in to do it.

  • J-D

    ‘Seems to’?

    If you could defend your claim, you wouldn’t have to hedge it by saying ‘seems to’.

  • Verbose Stoic

    Wow, careful phrasing to avoid overstating is now counted AGAINST the argument? Who knew?

    I think it was Edward Feser who argued it fully, but the argument that I know about is essentially that the purpose of sex is reproduction, and since homosexual relations can’t produce children, they are disordered in that way and so sinful. I will put in the standard disclaimer that this isn’t my argument, as I am not an Aristolean and am in fact a Stoic, and the Stoics don’t make that sort of argument. At which point, though, it should be clear why that follows from their teleological — ie purpose-infused — definition of natural order.

  • GCT

    But…but…but…that’s *totally* different! They’re eating god and stuff.

  • Azkyroth

    I certainly didn’t run anywhere, but I stopped checking that thread for updates. Was there a reply left?

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/daylightatheism Adam Lee

    Good one! I thought of another application of that argument: According to natural law, your vision is used both to appreciate beauty and also to help you move around and orient yourself in the world. Therefore, it’s morally wrong to look at paintings, because you’re using your vision purely for pleasure and neglecting its navigational function. (It’s only OK to look at actual beautiful landscapes.)

  • J-D

    Careful phrasing is one thing. Weasel words are another.

    I imagine we can agree that there are many past statements, and actions, by many people, which would in practice seriously hinder the Catholic Church from changing its position on homosexuality.

    However, if you are not prepared to commit yourself to asserting on your own account that fundamental principles create insuperable obstacles to a future change, what do you suppose we are disagreeing about? If you report that _other_ people have said so, I say they’re wrong, and what do _you_ say about that?

  • Verbose Stoic

    Okay … what are you talking about? I’ve NEVER said that fundamental principles create insuperable obstacles to change, just that it is more difficult to change moral views directly derived from them. And I’ve always been talking about Catholic morality, and I don’t base my morality on that specific system (philosophical occupational hazard). So let me turn the question to you: what in the world do YOU think we’re disagreeing about? To be honest, from the first comment I had no idea what problem you had with my comment, and still don’t.

  • Verbose Stoic

    I can’t remember of Edward Feser actually said this, or if this is my interpretation, so take it with a grain of salt, but the counter to this is that you can use things for purposes that are not their natural purpose as long as it doesn’t impede using them for their natural purpose. So chewing gum does not impede using the teeth to eat, and so is not a problem. A better example might be junk food: the purpose of eating is to provide nourishment, and junk food doesn’t do that, but eating it is not natural but is not wrong, unless you eat only junk food and nothing else. Which would likely map to the sin of gluttony.

  • Verbose Stoic

    This runs afoul of the idea that things can indeed have more than one purpose. Your argument here explicitly gives two purposes to vision, but then tries to argue that at least in one case it is wrong to not always fulfill both. But that doesn’t work under any definition of natural law; any purpose is perfectly fine and natural, and you don’t need to satisfy all of them.

  • Verbose Stoic

    Yes, there was. Note that I tried to phrase that carefully so that I wasn’t claiming that you were running away, but that you have done that to others in the past simply for not having responded. I understand that threads will die off and don’t use that to judge the character of the respondent. You, on the other hand …

  • Verbose Stoic

    I’d need to see the argument. I suspect that it was a fact-based argument around hierarchy, and I’ve already answered that above.

  • Frank

    Wow this post shows an extreme ignorance. How embarrassing.

    The church has changed its views on things that were not supported through scripture. Homosexual behavior always was and will always be sinful and gain st Gods created order.

  • Sophia Sadek

    The doctrine of the Trinity was an innovation crafted in the fourth century to serve as a test of faith not in any deity, but in Church authority. You could say that it is an ancient example of a lie that one must affirm in order to avoid state sanction. To claim that the Church has anything to do with truth is rather absurd.

  • GCT

    Slavery is supported through scripture and the church has changed it’s views to go against slavery. How do you explain that? Ditto for genocide, rape, etc. How embarrassing to be trying to defend such things.

  • David Simon

    You have to go back to the massive amounts of philosophical and
    theological work to see precisely what they mean by [natural order], but unless you
    do you cannot criticize it based on how other systems take the term.

    No, I don’t think this is a justified request. If you’re going talk about something being a “basic principle”, it ought to be, well, basic!

    The other two examples you brought up, Kantian universal imperatives and utilitarianism, certainly have their share of complications in practice, but their basic definitions are straightforward enough to fit on a single page. Furthermore, the points at which they become more complex are well defined; one can use and evaluate the system without exploring those aspects completely, by leaving them abstract. These properties are expected of effective mathematical and logical systems; if they’re not present, the systems are pretty much useless for coming to objective conclusions.

    In contrast, if the Catholic basic principle of natural law cannot even be explained as a core premise without weeks of study or more, then I think it’s reasonable to be suspicious that the term is just a fancied up Courtier’s Reply.

  • J-D

    Maybe we’re not actually disagreeing and it’s just a misunderstanding. If so, I apologise.

    I got the impression that you were suggesting that the Catholic Church’s position on homosexuality is differently founded from its position on other issues and that as a result it would be logically impossible for it to change.

    But if you’re not saying that position is true, and only saying that some people in the Catholic Church think it’s true, which will be a practical factor making it harder for that position on homosexuality to be changed, then I agree.

  • Verbose Stoic

    I think I see where the issue is:

    But if you’re not saying that position is true, and only saying that some people in the Catholic Church think it’s true, which will be a practical factor making it harder for that position on homosexuality to be changed, then I agree.

    I find comments about it just being that some people think it’s true and that it’s just a practical factor making it harder to be dismissive. It’s not just that they think it’s the case, but that if you start from their basic principles and follow the arguments the arguments really do seem to entail that. Now, that doesn’t mean that the arguments aren’t wrong or that there aren’t ways around that, but that they aren’t simple thoughts or opinions, but structured arguments starting from their starting points. To say what you say here seems to dismiss those arguments and those starting points, which is what I find problematic.

  • Verbose Stoic

    In contrast, if the Catholic basic principle of natural law cannot even be explained as a core premise without weeks of study or more …

    Well, the “massive amounts” might be taken that way, but that’s not what I meant. I meant that the Catholic Church has done lots and lots of work on this, and so for almost any question you have they’ve tried to clarify it somewhere. That means that there’s really no excuse for you to use definitions of “natural order” that are not theirs to insist, as you did, that treating illnesses and curing diseases “certainly violates the natural order”. It doesn’t by their definition, and you cannot use a charge of “Courtier’s Reply” to claim that you can criticize them using definitions that they don’t actually accept and not have to bother figuring out what they actually mean by that.

  • TurelieTelcontar

    Actually, it does work: The church now recognizes that the unitive aspect of sex is an important purpose. Yet that alone does not allow for homosexual behaviour, in their world view. On the other hand, the purpose of having sex is having children, and yet it’s perfectly okay not to have sex, and consequently not to have children.

  • Verbose Stoic

    First, that doesn’t have anything to do with what I said didn’t work in Adam’s challenge, which was based on claiming that something could have more than one purpose but that if you don’t fulfill all of them then it had to be unnatural, which is false.

    Second, that unitive purpose, as far as I can recall, applies to relationships that can and/or have produced children, which homosexual relations don’t fit. Now, you can try to make the argument that doing that OUGHT to loosen their restrictions on homosexuality, but to do that you’d need to provide the full argument for that and really ought to also look for the arguments that almost certainly exist where they say that they don’t both apply.

  • TurelieTelcontar

    Since the beginning of the century, it also applies to relationships that can’t produce children because one of the partners s infertile. They are just getting around the fact that even with the woman having no uterus anymore – it is “symbolically” reproductive.

  • Verbose Stoic

    Which, as you would note, doesn’t apply at all to homosexual relationships. Essentially, at this point you need to source their original argument and, in fact, make an argument that it really should apply to those as well. Otherwise, all you’re doing is tossing out sound bytes with little to no substance behind them.

  • J-D

    There is a difference between stating that ‘the arguments really do seem to entail that’ and ‘the arguments really do entail that’, so I can’t help reading it as significant that you’re only prepared to commit yourself to the former and not to the latter. There is the same difference between ‘there is a fundamental issue of principle involved’ and ‘there seems to be a fundamental issue of principle involved’. On the other hand, when I say ‘that’s what they think’, I mean exactly the same thing as I would mean if I said ‘that’s the way it seems to them’. So I’m prepared to agree that a lot of Catholics _think_ that the Church’s position on homosexuality is a necessary consequence of fundamental principles, and if you’re prepared to agree that it _seems_ that the Church’s position on homosexuality is a necessary consequence of fundamental principles, where’s the difference? When you talk about how it _seems_, are you only referring to how it seems to people in the Church, or are you referring to how it seems to _you_?

  • TBP100

    But why in the world would the One True Church, created by the One True, Omniscient, Omnipotent God be fallible at all?

  • http://www.pearshapedcomedy.com Anthony Miller

    “2000 years ago morality was the same as it is today, and the same as it will be 2000 years from now” This is not, in terms of the Catholic Church, true. Otherwise Cardinal Newman would have not have had to invent the “Development of doctrine” to explain why the Church’s teachings “appear” to change. This argument is along the lines that the knowledge of the faith gets deeper as theologians ponder it more but never-the-less never contradicts its self. This is clearly nonsense. The church contradicts its self all the time. Neither is everything the church said supposed to be true. It is partly because the church had been so wrong in the past that papal infallibility was invented. Magisterial infallibility was not enough but had the advantage that if a doctrine or dogma was shown to be nonsense later it could be retroactively denied. If the Church has never changed its teaching why arent ALL the papal bulls (for example the one ordering us to overthrow Elizabeth I by violent means) online on the Vatican website for us all to enjoy today? It isn’t just because of the man hours involved in digitising them all – it is because they would all be contradictory and confusing. The get out clause to this is to say the Pope and the Church are only infallible in particular circumstances when he makes ex cathedra statements or the “Magisterium” completely agrees. Excecpt that’s an argument the Church only comes out with when its extreme dogmatism is criticised. The rest of the time it pretends to be generally right about everything. Other escape clauses include pretending that there is a difference between matters of practice and matters of dogma and doctrine. But doctrine’s are regularly dumped. Limbo anyone? Benedict XVI now says that Limbo was a theological postulation and never an official doctrine. But how loudly did you shout it at the time? And of course there are the bolt ons. Modern teaching on contraception only dates from 1968 (before that the Church said ALL contraception was universally wrong) in all cirumstances, the Vatican only banned non-actively gay people from the priesthood in 2005, the Church said married priests could never happen but when they want to nick staff off the CofE….and wasnt some doctrine about the jews jetisoned at Vatican II? … the RCC has had more ret-cons than Spiderman. How people cant see this in the 21st century when all their past is easily accessible on the internet and you dont need an encyclopedia any more beats me.

  • http://www.pearshapedcomedy.com Anthony Miller

    It’s a bit more complicated than that. The Jews had a monotheistic religion while the Romans had a polytheistic religion. People actually find it quite hard psycologically to relate to one unseen God. The concept of the Trinity is a fudge between the two … making Christianity a monotheistic religion with a polytheistic theme. There were a lot of arguments in the early church about the divinity of christ and the Virgin Mary actually has 4 dogmas that were added gradually with the last being in the 50s. The form of the church’s dogmas relates pretty much to whatever will get the maximum number of people to believe in it. The RCC does change (sorry develop) doctrine but only when and if it feels this will make a difference to the financial bottom line of bums on seats and coins in the collection plate.

  • Sophia Sadek

    I do not deny the complexity of the situation. The devil is in the details. Your observation on changes in doctrine hits the mark.

  • John2843

    The church hierarchy acknowledges that sexual preference is a congenital human attribute. Therefore, their hysterical, obdurate positions against civil marriage and attendant rights amount to insistence on mandatory lifetime celibacy for homosexual couples and, by extension, all LGBT persons. Since sexuality is a God-given biological gift, the challenge to hierarchy is to describe a universal teleology that admits to the humanity of all relationshiops.


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