The Stupidest Thing I Have Ever Read

The Stupidest Thing I Have Ever Read June 10, 2014

It’s from the year I was born, in something called the “Minority Report of the Papal Commission for the Study of Problems of the Family, Population, and Birth Rate.”

And this is so epically, superlatively stupid that it qualifies not just as the Stupidest Thing I Have Ever Read* but also as a graduate-level course in How to Be Stupid. This is advanced agnotology — the kind of stupidity that can only be embraced and chosen by men who are otherwise apparently not this mind-bogglingly mind-boggled.

First a bit of background to set the stage and to explain how it was that I came to read the Stupidest Thing I Have Ever Read. This is from Religion Dispatches, an article by Patricia Miller titled, “The Story Behind the Catholic Church’s Stunning Reversal on Contraception” wherein Miller quotes a small portion of the Stupidest Thing I Have Ever Read.

Miller’s subject here is the papal commission which was purportedly assigned to evaluate the reform of the Roman Catholic Church’s teaching on contraception. That commission’s report provided a resounding call for reform, and was thus overruled. Here’s Miller:

The commission voted overwhelmingly to recommend that the ban against artificial means of birth control be lifted. After all, the church had accepted the idea of birth control, so why not give couples a better way to practice it if it would strengthen marriages and families?

Unhappy with the direction of the commission, the Vatican packed the last commission meetings with fifteen bishops to formulate the final recommendation to the pope. But even the bishops voted nine to three (three abstained from voting) to change the teaching, concluding that the popes’ previous teaching on birth control were not infallible and that the traditional theological basis for the prohibition of contraception was invalid. They declared that responsible parenthood was an essential part of modern marriage and that the morality of sexual acts between married couples was not dependent “upon the direct fecundity of each and every particular act” but must be viewed within the totality of the marriage relationship.

Despite the commission’s years of work and theologically unassailable conclusion that the church’s teaching on birth control was neither infallible nor irreversible, Pope Paul VI stunned the world on July 29, 1968, when he reaffirmed the church’s ban on modern contraceptives in Humanae Vitae (Of Human Life). He declared that “each and every marital act must of necessity retain its intrinsic relationship to the procreation of human life.”

The pope had deferred to a dissenting minority report prepared by four conservative theologian priests on the commission that maintained contraception was a “sin against nature” and a “shameful and intrinsically vicious act.” These theologians said that church could not change its teaching on birth control because admitting the church had been wrong about the issue for centuries would raise questions about the moral authority of the pope, especially on matters of sexuality, and the belief that the Holy Spirit guided his pronouncements. “The Church cannot change her answer because this answer is true. … It is true because the Catholic Church, instituted by Christ … could not have so wrongly erred during all those centuries of its history,” they wrote.

As one of the conservative theologians famously asked one of the female members of the commission, what would happen to “the millions we have sent to hell” for using contraception if the teaching were suddenly changed?

[Sound of phonograph needle skriiitching across a vinyl record.]

Wait. No. Not possible. Surely the minority report didn’t really say something so utterly circular and foolish as that? We know we’re right because it’s impossible that we should have been wrong? That’s not an argument. It’s not even an assertion — just a self-negating bit of nonsense that swallows itself whole. It’s like something out of Lewis Carroll or Douglas Adams, not something any sapient being might ever have actually said in all sincerity.

So I looked it up. I had to see if Miller’s ellipses there were uncharitably hiding some larger context, something meaningful or logical that would render this senselessness sensible.

But no. The full context only makes this worse. Here, in full, is the Stupidest Thing I Have Ever Read:

The Church cannot change her answer because this answer is true. Whatever may pertain to a more perfect formulation of the teaching or its possible genuine development, the teaching itself cannot be substantially true. It is true because the Catholic Church, instituted by Christ to show men a secure way to eternal life, could not have so wrongly erred during all those centuries of its history. The Church cannot substantially err in teaching doctrine which is most serious in its import for faith and morals, throughout all centuries or even one century, if it has been constantly and forcefully proposed as necessarily to be followed in order to obtain eternal salvation. The Church could not have erred through so many centuries, even though one century, by imposing under serious obligation very grave burdens in the name of Jesus Christ, if Jesus Christ did not actually impose those burdens. The Catholic Church could not have furnished in the name of Jesus Christ to so many of the faithful everywhere in the world, throughout so many centuries, the occasion for formal sin and spiritual ruin, because of a false doctrine promulgated in the name of Jesus Christ.

If the Church could err in such a way, the authority of the ordinary magisterium in moral matters would be thrown into question. The faithful could not put their trust in the magisterium’s presentation of moral teaching, especially in sexual matters.

Some are born ignorant, some achieve ignorance, and some have ignorance thrust upon them. If achieving ignorance is your chief ambition, then study this hacktacular bit of unreason. Here is the key — the surest path to ensuring that nothing can ever be learned, that no mistake can ever be admitted and therefore no error can ever be corrected, no wrong ever righted, no harm ever ended, no injustice ever overturned.

Alas, the phrase “invincible ignorance” has already been claimed for another aspect of Catholic theology, because that perfectly describes the attitude and the “argument” being presented here. The minority report is a lesson in ensuring that one’s ignorance is invincible — invulnerable to learning, to inspiration, to doctrine, reproof, correction or instruction in righteousness.

But what are we to make of the STIHER if we have any ambition other than such eternal, invincible ignorance? Well, first and more generally, we can learn from the mistakes of those who refuse to learn because they can admit no mistakes. We can have the courage and the wisdom to admit that all of us — individually and corporately — have been, will be, and presently are, wrong about many things. (And we don’t know which things we are wrong about.) Acknowledging and admitting that will allow us to attempt to learn and to grow and to become wiser

Second, and more specifically, we should heed the “if … then” logic of the second paragraph above from the STIHER:

If the Church could err in such a way, the authority of the ordinary magisterium in moral matters would be thrown into question. The faithful could not put their trust in the magisterium’s presentation of moral teaching, especially in sexual matters.

Well, yeah. Verily, verily, amen and amen.

The Church did, in fact, err in such a way. The Church is, in fact, still erring in such a way. And that does, in fact, throw into question the authority of the ordinary magisterium in moral matters. It means — inescapably proves — that the faithful cannot blindly put their trust in the magisterium’s presentation of moral teaching, especially in sexual matters.

The Church already knows this. Go ask them. I don’t mean the be-robed “magisterium,” I mean the Church itself. They know that the magisterium’s presentation of moral teaching is untrustworthy. “Especially in sexual matters.” And doubly especially with regard to the specific sexual matter discussed in the Stupidest Thing I Have Ever Read.

They also already know everything Miller suggests here:

But another reason lurked behind the official explanation about why the teaching could not be changed: maintaining the link between sex and procreation was essential to the maintenance of the traditional, subordinate role of women. Maintaining the traditional family, in which men were leaders in the world outside the home and women were confined to the domestic realm by the demands of young children and repeated pregnancies, was a key concern of the Catholic Church. In the mid-1950s the Catholic bishops made headlines when they condemned married working mothers for deserting their children and helping to destroy the home. Allowing women to regulate their fertility was dangerous to what the church considered the natural order of things: women as receptors of God’s will as expressed through the acceptance of pregnancy.

Yep. Men who are terrified of losing their sexual control over women really can’t be trusted for the “presentation of moral teaching … in sexual matters.” Their teaching on such matters will inevitably be shaped by that fear and that thirst for power over women — which is to say that such “moral” teaching will be not just untrustworthy, but actively immoral.

That such immorality has endured through one century, even through so many centuries, does not justify such injustice. It only compounds the sin.

And, yes, that is the necessary theological term for the teaching defended by the STIHER and the entire minority report: sin.

– – – – – – – – – – – –

* And, yes, that’s including the World’s Worst Books.

 

 

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