Book review: “Catholic Does Not Equal the Vatican”

Book review: “Catholic Does Not Equal the Vatican” May 28, 2009

Catholic Does Not Equal the Vatican:
A Vision for Progressive Catholicism

by Rosemary Radford Ruether
The New Press / $23.95 US (list)
[Amazon] [New Press]

As one of the pioneers of feminist theology, Rosemary Radford Ruether has had impressive, if controversial, career and if her new book is any indication, she is showing no sign of slowing or toning it down.

Her new book, part of the “Does Not Equal” series from The New Press, reads as a manifesto for “progressive Catholicism” against what Ruether, as others do, perceives as a wave of traditionalist back-pedaling. The series clearly intends to challenge and complexify religious traditions that appear from the outside to be monolithically “right-wing.” Such a series is indeed welcome and necessary at this historical moment when “religion is back” so to speak (although in most parts of the world, religion never went anywhere). Two other titles in the series are Evangelical Does Not Equal Republican… or Democrat and Judaism Does Not Equal Israel (I’m particularly interested to read the latter, written by Marc Ellis, a well-known Jewish liberation theologian).

There is much to like about this book. At a time when “traditionalist Catholicism” is supposedly “returning with full force” — from Latin Masses and cassocks to plenary indulgences and scapulars — or so the story runs in the media, it is clearly the case that the waves of renewal are nowhere near dying out despite the hopes and dreams of the Catholic blogosphere. The New Press knows it has an audience. Ruether’s books — as well as books by other giants of  “progressive” Catholicism — remain solidly in print. She continues to have an audience among readers of popular Catholic texts, and this is something to celebrate.

Specifically, about half of the chapters are quite strong. The book begins with a moving, personal account of Ruether’s career in a chapter called “On Being a Progressive Catholic.” In it, she narrates her experiences in the Church and in the academy and beyond, giving particular attention to the ways in which her views have been challenged and widened such that her scholarship has moved into new areas, as can be seen in her books The Wrath of Jonah: The Crisis of Religious Nationalism in the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict and the boldly-titled America, Amerikkka: Elect Nation And Imperial Violence.

Chapter five provides a good summary of her ecclesiological vision of “a discipleship of equals” which has implications for Church life as well as theological study. And it’s a vision that is not merely a lingering fantasy of the Catholic “left,” but continues to be embodied in the Church today in various ways. Chapter six is a very fine account of the irruption of liberation theologies, their development over time (symbolized in the two figures of Ignacio Ellacuria and Ivone Gebara), and their continuing importance for the Church. I recommend the chapter as a short but accurate introduction to Latin American theology. Finally, the book contains Ruether’s now classic “Can Men Be Ordained?” as an epilogue.

The problems arise, of course, in her treatment of reproductive issues. Ruether, following Catholic ethicist Christine Gudorf, rightly points out the contradictions involved in the Church’s “pro-life” positions on various issues in that it takes an absolutist natural law ethical approach on abortion while taking what Ruether and Gudorf consider a consequentialist approach on issues such as war. These are indeed real contradictions felt by anyone who surveys the various ecclesial statements on “life issues” with any sort of seriousness. The problem with Ruether’s critique is that she situates it within the unexamined assumption that because this contradiction is real, the Church is therefore wrong on abortion and needs to get its act together so to speak. It does not seem to occur to her that 1) this is indeed an assumption that at least needs to be argued lest she settle for preaching to the choir, or 2) that perhaps a Catholic that is deeply passionate about the full range of life issues could come to the opposite conclusion: the Church needs to straighten up its position on war. The chapters on sexual politics and the Church indeed end up being a case of preaching to the choir and do not provide a serious look at these issues in any way.

Ruether also has a very binary view of the Church in this book, pitting Benedict and John Paul II against Paul VI and John XXIII and not giving a very nuanced understanding of these figures. Benedict’s thinking, while obviously problematic from a feminist liberationist perspective, simply deserves better treatment than Ruether extends to it, even in a short “manifesto”-type book such as this. For such an analysis — though admittedly from a more sympathetic perspective, yet very thorough in its detailed engagement — I recommend Tracey Rowland’s Ratzinger’s Faith.

Finally, I must remark about the title of the book. The problem with Ruether’s contribution to the “Does Not Equal” series — and I can’t say how it compares to the other two titles on this score — is that she never really adequately talks about the relationship between “Catholicism” and “the Vatican” other than to insist that they are “not the same thing” and to call repeatedly for “alternative church communities.” As a Catholic who is all for “alternative” expressions of church “from below” as this has been the source of renewal and passionate discipleship in the Church since its beginnings,  I indeed agree with Ruether that “Catholic Does Not Equal the Vatican.” But Ruether does a disservice to the Church, to her own vision of a “progressive Catholicism,” and finally to her readers by not taking the relationship between the two seriously in this book.

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  • Giovanni

    [constructive comments only – m.]

  • [constructive comments only – m.]

  • ron chandonia

    It’s tempting to say that people like Ruether have a problem with authority, but in fact, their only real problem with it seems to be that they themselves are not the ones in authority. Given the chance, they would gladly play Grand Inquisitor themselves. I think that is why they continue to snipe at the Church which nurtured them instead of following the lead of Father Cutie into an “alternative truth community” which better reflects their views.

  • My comment was intended to be constructive. I think we have an interest in any discussion in calling a spade a spade; apparently you prefer the absence of candor?

    I also think my remarks about the supposed tension in the Church’s teaching were relevant. But, you’re the moderator!

  • jh

    “The series clearly intends to challenge and complexify religious traditions that appear from the outside to be monolithically “right-wing.”

    Right Wing? What is she talkng about?

    “At a time when “traditionalist Catholicism” is supposedly “returning with full force” — from Latin Masses and cassocks to plenary indulgences and scapulars — or so the story runs in the media, it is clearly the case that the waves of renewal are nowhere near dying out despite the hopes and dreams of the Catholic blogosphere.”

    What? What “renewal” are the blogs against

  • Zach – Make your point again but do it in a constructive way. Thanks.

    Right Wing? What is she talkng about?

    Do you mean what am I talking about? I wrote that line and I was talking about the Does Not Equal series of books.

    What? What “renewal” are the blogs against

    Generally speaking, anything that does not come out of a Ratzinger book.

  • Michael Enright

    “Generally speaking, anything that does not come out of a Ratzinger book.”


    This is not constructive or descriptive. Are you going to actually describe what you mean or would you prefer to snipe at the Pope? I could also guess what a “discipleship of equals” would mean, but prefer not to make wild assumptions, unless it actually does mean overthrowing the current ecclesial structure and opting for something more “democratic”.

  • Are you going to actually describe what you mean or would you prefer to snipe at the Pope?

    The comment was in no way directed at the Pope.

  • wj

    I have not read this book, but it seems from Iafrate’s review that Ruether consistently conflates political and theological progressivism. So, for example, a renewed interest in the richness of Tridentine (and other “Traditional”) liturgical forms, and in other older Catholic devotions that, for centuries, formed an essential part of the everyday Catholic’s spiritual self-understanding, is equated with a specifically *political* form of reactionism. By the same token, a Catholic’s commitment to rejecting nation-state ideology, and the intrinsic excesses of global capitalism, is somehow supposed to entail her rejection of ecclesial hierarchy in all its forms and, what is much, much worse, the Church’s positions on abortion, same-sex marriage (as a sacramental as opposed to political reality), etc.

    It does happen to be the case that, in contemporary American Catholicism, theological traditionalists happen to overlap, to an alarming degree, with political reactionaries of all sorts. But this is less a function of any *essential* tie between theological orthodoxy and repressive social and national defense policies–both Dorothy Day and Elizabeth Anscombe were staunchly orthodox and staunch political progressives, for example–than it is a reflection of the American Catholic Church’s wholesale co-option by American nation-state liberalism. It is this co-option that produces Neo-con “orthodox” Catholics who equate orthodoxy with “conservatism” and hence with the Republican Party, and self-styled Progressive Catholics who equate their rejection of the unjust economic status quo with a commitment to recognizably liberal “rights” issues such as abortion, etc.

    I wonder what Iafrate makes of this analysis, and whether he himself sees a necessary connection between, say, support for the wearing of the roman collar, the Pope, the Tridentine indult, with defending the (unjust) Iraq War, supporting regressive economic policies, etc.

  • jh


    I think most blogs are against the so called renewal movements that seek to tear down some of the core elements of the Church

    But for the most part the blogs are not against the Charismatics Renewal, there is no wide opposition to the Neocatechical Movement (except mostly as to Rubics and the ususal tensions), or things such as Communion and Liberation.

  • I think the supposed tension in the Church’s teaching is more likely a tension in the person trying to accept the teaching. All truth is one and this includes the Church’s infallibly defined teachings on the immorality of abortion and the not just the possibility but the morality, and indeed, moral necessity of just war. These two teachings do not contradict but flow out of the same commitment to the dignity of all human life. They are only irreconcilable if one is unable to make clear distinctions between the nature of abortion and the nature of war.

  • digbydolben

    WJ is absolutely right, and I think the conflation of Catholic traditionalism with American exceptionalism and nationalism represents a secret desire never to have to reckon with a past consisting of persecution, contemptuous disdain for what was called “superstition”, and social isolation–as well as with the fact that Catholicism is a deeply alien religion in a heretical Protestant culture which does not accept and never has accepted Catholicism’s principled rejection of the radically individualist ideologies of, first, “salvation-by-faith-alone” Protestantism, and, then, the “natural rights” vs. “natural law” philosophies of the so-called Englightenment. Right-wing, pro-capitalist American Catholicism–the historic product of positivist “liberalism_–is just another episode in the immigrants’ desire to assimilate.

  • wj – Yes, generally I agree with what you have said. I do think Ruether tends to conflate political and theological “progressivism.” Although it’s far from clear what “progressivism” even means. There are multiple “progressivisms” and Ruether stands in one particular place within them. Someone like Dorothy Day confounds our assumptions about what “progressive” means. Traditionalist types would say this is because she wasn’t at all “progressive,” when in fact she was. She was at once progressive and orthodox. In short, she was Catholic.

    Second, while I do agree with you that there is not a necessary connection between “traditionalist” theological/liturgical preferences and right-wing/fascist/death-dealing politics, I would not say that these two phenomenon merely “happen to overlap.” “Traditionalism” includes many characteristics. I think it’s more helpful to look at what particular characteristics of traditionalist Catholicism — such as its tendency toward authoritarianism and unreflective obedience — appeal to those with right-wing politics and to explore those connections.

  • Hierothee

    This post and Michael Iafrate’s comments are quite perplexing. The great and lasting renewal movements in the Church, rather than nominalistic sectarian movements that have invariably worked to split apart the Church, have always recognized that the Church is “vertically” constituted. The Church is constituted by the transcendent God’s divine intervention in history. His divine work “makes” the ecclesial community, not the other way around. God’s work requires our cooperation, of course, but even that is a gift of divine grace. The Office of Peter is essential to this divinely-willed constitution of the Church. All authentic renewal in the Church comes in unity with and obedience to Peter. There can be no unity in the Church otherwise.

    Moreover, traditionalism in liturgy is not a distortion of fevered bloggers, as Iafrate contemptuously implies in his last comment. It is Christ who establishes the Sacred Liturgy, not the “free assembly” of believers. The Church is founded on Christ’s Eucharistic revelation in the Spirit, which took a basic, irreplacable, ancient form (common to all of the ancient liturgies)and has to stand as the locus for authentic Christian discipleship. Indeed, Christianity is fundamentally cultic, fundamentally the establishment of true, divine sacrifice in Christ. Scripture is not understood if it is not seen in its cultic basis. Ruether, in fact, has either never understood this divine orientation of Christianity, and the basis of true Christian praxis, or has rejected it outright.

    Ratzinger brilliantly reminds us that the Church is first and foremost a liturgical or Eucharistic encounter founded on the divine action of Christ in the Spirit. And “Ratzingerian” bloggers are correct to see the importance of his work in this regard — which is very much the antithesis of Ruether’s “progressivist” and horizontal version of the nominalistic distortion.

    The Church is not a free association of individuals or communities who have the task to remake it in their own image and likeness, altering its forms to suit their fleeting whims, and Ruether’s cries against Rome betray the fact that she does not understand this or obstinately rejects it.

    Moreover, what is this strange comment about “death-dealing” “right-wing” and “fascist” policies? Fascism is a phenomenon mostly of the left. Whether socialism was nationalist or internationalist, the bodies piled up into the tens of millions in the twentieth century under the aegis of socialist regimes.

    Even Karl Barth (perhaps the greatest, most persistent and influential Christian opponent of the Nazis in WWII)came to realize, as National Socialism proceeded in its destructive path, that National Socialism and Communism were bedfellows rather than inherent enemies. Some eminent Catholic theologians (such as Karl Adam) were fooled at first by the Nazi pogroms against Communism, by its cries to restore moral order to Germany after the collapse of Weimar, and by its anti-liberal political organicism. But even these theologians eventually came to see that the Nazis were about nothing more than the exercise of statist power whose ultimate outcome was not only the destruction of individuals but of pre-political communities: very much like Stalin’s Communism.

  • digbydolben

    Whether socialism was nationalist or internationalist, the bodies piled up into the tens of millions in the twentieth century under the aegis of socialist regimes.

    Tell THAT to Franco, in Spain, who piled up plenty of bodies, and had no intention of being “socialist.”

    You are obviously someone whose faith is as much a matter of political ideology as of any theology per se–as is revealed by your apparent rejection of Vatican II’s definition of the Church as the “pilgrim people of God.”

    It is obvious, too, that you’d resist much of John Henry Newman’s qualification of “papal infallibility,” as spelled out in his Letter to the Duke of Norfolk.

  • Michael Enright


    The point is that you failed to explain what you mean by “reform”, only what reform is against.

    The way I read your statement was that reform is anything that doesn’t come from Pope Benedict (or Ratzinger), as if he is this lone reactionary keeping down the reform. That is directed at him.

  • Michael Enright – The way you read my statement is wrong. I can’t help that. But I’m not going to comment on your misreading of my statement. I did not direct any such comments at the Pope.

  • Gabriel Austin

    digbydolben Says May 29, 2009:
    “It is obvious, too, that you’d resist much of John Henry Newman’s qualification of “papal infallibility,” as spelled out in his Letter to the Duke of Norfolk”.

    Err, would you explain the qualifications which Newman spelled out in the letter?
    Newman’s chief hesitation was not about the dogma, but rather the wisdom of proclaiming it at that time.

    Not as if it makes much difference, but has anybody counted the number of bodies piled up by the Spanish Republicans as against those piled up by Franco?

    Or those piled up in Russia? China? Vietnam?…

  • WJ

    Without pressing the point too much, I think that when Iafrate writes the following:

    I think it’s more helpful to look at what particular characteristics of traditionalist Catholicism — such as its tendency toward authoritarianism and unreflective obedience — appeal to those with right-wing politics and to explore those connections.

    He is just assuming that “traditionalist Catholicism” in fact carries with it a “tendency toward authoritarianism and unreflective obedience.” But, again, I think this mischaracterizes the properly orthodox understanding of the laity’s relationship to the ecclesial hierarchy, and in any case is a rather uncharitable characterization of traditionalists. Remember, by traditionalists here we are not talking only or primarily about schismatic groups such as SSPX, but rather any Catholic who has never stopped believing in plenary indulgences or scapulars and who prefers liturgical solemnity and awe over liturgical familiarity and ease. And it seems rather disingenuous of Iafrate to describe these sorts of people as being especially (by which I mean, more than any other sort of person) prone to “unreflective obedience.”

    In fact, as others on this blog have extensively documented, there is a large group of what Iafrate would no doubt term “traditionalists” who were quite vocally disobedient to the view of both the papacy and the bishops in the run-up to the Iraq war. Now it is true that these “traditionalists” had at their ready disposal a set of distinctions and justifications for making their disobedience appear as something other than it was–one is reminded of Weigel’s preposterous account of the proper “charism” afforded a political leader, “prudential judgment,” “respectful disagreement,” and all the rest of his self-serving sophistries–but any mature analysis of these and other arguments shows that they were in fact not arguments at all, but conclusions in search of justifications.

    So it seems to me that these people constituted a large set of “traditionalist” Catholics who, on the issue of Iraq, chose national self-interest over the respect and obedience they properly owed the papacy; and thus they provide a counterexample to Iafrate’s claim about so-called “traditionalists.”


  • So it seems to me that these people constituted a large set of “traditionalist” Catholics who, on the issue of Iraq, chose national self-interest over the respect and obedience they properly owed the papacy; and thus they provide a counterexample to Iafrate’s claim about so-called “traditionalists.”

    I disagree. They don’t provide a counterexample at all. The Catholics you are referring to have simply mixed up the source of authority and to whom they owe unquestioning obedience. Another tendency of traditionalist Catholicism is to separate reality into two spheres — the sacred and secular. In this conception, there are two sources of absolute authority, one for each sphere. The dynamics of authoritarianism and unquestioning obedience in one sphere are easily transferred to the other.

  • What? What “renewal” are the blogs against?

    Generally speaking, anything that does not come out of a Ratzinger book.

    An unfortunate phrasing imo. Is the problem really with people who fall asleep with ‘Introduction to Christianity’ or ‘Truth and Tolerance’ on their night stand, or with what you perceive to be an uncritical acceptance of authority more generally? And is it possible that you are misreading acceptance as uncritical acceptance?

  • Is the problem really with people who fall asleep with ‘Introduction to Christianity’ or ‘Truth and Tolerance’ on their night stand, or with what you perceive to be an uncritical acceptance of authority more generally?

    Obviously the latter — since I currently have Ratzinger on my nightstand and a sizable (and growing) Ratzinger shelf in my library — combined with a shallow understanding of Ratzinger/Benedict’s actual theological positions.

  • alex martin

    [Insult #1 deleted. – m.] I sat in on a lecture of [Ruether’s] once, as she visited my university. She not only denied the truth of Christ’s Resurrection but also claimed that His death was a tragedy b/c He could have accomplished so much more had He not been murdered so early during His “mission”. [Insult #2 deleted. m]

  • jessie

    “from Latin Masses and cassocks to plenary indulgences and scapulars ”

    You say that like its a bad thing…we have the right to our devotions and traditions and no ‘progressive’ movement should have the right to deprive us of our scapulars, novenas, meatless fridays, feast days, statues (even when covered by purple at the end of lent) and other facets of our rich Catholic cultural heritage.

  • digbydolben

    Gabriel Austin, Newman, in the Letter to the Duke of Norfolk wished to prove that an English Catholic could be an independent thinker and would never take “marching orders” from the Pope about anything but dogma and the most basic moral issues. Therefore, he PROVED that the duty of English Catholics was ONLY to listen to the Magisterium and to use its proclamations to “form conscience.”

    He also says, bluntly, in that text, that to go against conscience, if and when (he, admittedly, can’t imagine “if and when”)conscience contradicts the Magisterium, is to commit a grievous sin, because conscience, not Revelation or tradition, is the “aboriginal voice of God in man.”

    Regarding “papal infallability,” you are right that, in the Letter he faults the timeliness of its proclamation, but if you put that Letter in the context of some of his correspondence, which records what was in his mind at the time, you can tell that he believes that the doctrine is an innovation upon tradition. He wrote, for example, that the “spectacle” of an octoganerian pope, reigning in senile obliviousness to what was going on in the world, was absurd. I will go and try to find the quote, from his Correspondence.

  • You say that like its a bad thing…we have the right to our devotions and traditions and no ‘progressive’ movement should have the right to deprive us of our scapulars, novenas, meatless fridays, feast days, statues (even when covered by purple at the end of lent) and other facets of our rich Catholic cultural heritage.

    Actually, no, if you read my post once again, I give no indication that I think traditional Catholic devotions are a “bad thing.” I think just the opposite, in fact. Some of them are part of my own spiritual practices.

    What I have a problem with is when traditional Catholic devotions are used as symbols of politicized, polarized Catholicism. The latter is the problem, not the former. News reports of the “return of traditionalist Catholicism” over and against “progressive” Catholicism is one example. Ruether’s binary view of the Church (Ratzinger’s ecclesiology bad / egalitarian ecclesiology good) is another. And your fear that “progressive” movements might even be interested in “depriving” you of “your” devotions is a third example.

  • digbydolben

    Here is John Henry Newman, on the primacy of conscience over Church teachings:

    …On the duty of obeying our conscience at all hazards.

    I have already quoted the words which Cardinal Gousset has adduced from the Fourth Lateran; that “He who acts against his conscience loses his soul.” This dictum is brought out with singular fulness and force in the moral treatises of theologians. The celebrated school, known as the Salmanticenses, or Carmelites of Salamanca, lays down the broad proposition, that conscience is ever to be obeyed whether it tells truly or erroneously, and that, whether the error is the fault of the person thus erring or not.… They say that this opinion is certain, and refer, as agreeing with them, to St. Thomas, St. Bonaventura, Caietan, Vasquez, Durandus, Navarrus, Corduba, Layman, Escobar, and fourteen others. Two of them even say this opinion is de fide. Of course, if a man is culpable in being in error, which he might have escaped, had he been more in earnest, for that error he is answerable to God, but still HE MUST ACT ACCORDING TO THAT ERROR WHILE HE IS IN IT, because he in full sincerity thinks the error to be truth.

    Thus, if the Pope told the English Bishops to order their priests to stir themselves energetically in favour of teetotalism, and a particular priest was fully persuaded that abstinence from wine, &c., was practically a Gnostic error, and therefore felt he could not so exert himself without sin; or suppose there was a Papal order to hold lotteries in each mission for some religious object, and a priest could say in God’s sight that he believed lotteries to be morally wrong, that priest in either of these cases would commit a sin hic et nunc if he obeyed the Pope, whether he was right or wrong in his opinion, and, if wrong, although he had not taken proper pains to get at the truth of the matter.

    Busenbaum, of the Society of Jesus, whose work I have already had occasion to notice, writes thus:—“A heretic, as long as he judges his sect to be more or equally deserving of belief, has no obligation to believe [in the Church].” And he continues, “When men who have been brought up in heresy, are persuaded from boyhood that we impugn and attack the word of God, that we are idolators, pestilent deceivers, and therefore are to be shunned as pests, they cannot, while this persuasion lasts, with a safe conscience, hear us.”—t. l, p. 54.

    Antonio Corduba, a Spanish Franciscan, states the doctrine with still more point, because he makes mention of Superiors. “In no manner is it lawful to act against conscience, even though a Law, or a Superior commands it.”—De Conscient., p. 138.

    And the French Dominican, Natalis Alexander:—“If, in the judgment of conscience, through a mistaken conscience, a man is persuaded that what his Superior commands is displeasing to God, he is bound not to obey.”—Theol. t. 2, p. 32.

    The word “Superior” certainly includes the Pope; Cardinal Jacobatius brings out this point clearly in his authoritative work on Councils, which is contained in Labbe’s Collection, introducing the Pope by name:—“If it were doubtful,” he says, “whether a precept [of the Pope] be a sin or not, we must determine thus:—that, if he to whom the precept is addressed has a conscientious sense that it is a sin and injustice, first it is duty to put off that sense; but, if he cannot, nor conform himself to the judgment of the Pope, in that case it is his duty to follow his own private conscience, and patiently to bear it, if the Pope punishes him.”—lib. iv. p. 241.

    Would it not be well for Mr. Gladstone to bring passages from our recognized authors as confirmatory of his view of our teaching, as those which I have quoted are destructive of it? and they must be passages declaring, not only that the Pope is ever to be obeyed, but that there are no exceptions to the rule, for exceptions there must be in all concrete matters.

    I add one remark. Certainly, if I am obliged to bring religion into after-dinner toasts, (which indeed does not seem quite the thing)I shall drink—to the Pope, if you please,—still, to Conscience first, and to the Pope afterwards.

    And, as for your allegation that Newman only objected to the timing of the proclamation of the dogma of “papal infallibility” (a rather unlikely prospect, considering the moral probity of someone such as Newman), please consider what Friedrich Von Hugel thought of this matter:

    It is, perhaps, true, as the lay Catholic theologian Friedrich Von Hugel states below, that Newman may occasionally have been too reticent to speak against certain of the abuses of ecclesiastical authority of his own time, thereby encouraging their proliferation:

    Baron Friedrich von Hugel in a letter to Newman’s biographer Wilfrid Ward: “I cannot but feel, more strongly than formerly and doubtless quite finally, one, to my mind quite grave, peculiarity and defect of the cardinal’s temper of mind and position. His, apparently absolute, determination never to allow–at least to allow others–any public protestation, any act or declaration contrary to current central Roman policy, cannot, simply, be pressed, or imposed as normative upon us all. For, taken thus, it would stamp Our Lord himself, as a deplorable rebel; it would condemn Saint Paul at Antioch as intolerable; and censure many a great saint of God since then. And certainly this way of taking things can hardly be said to have done much good or to have averted much harm.”

    What Von Hugel is referring to, clearly, are Newman’s reservations regarding the formula used by the First Vatican Council to define papal infallibility. Those reservations are clear in statements like this:

    “We have a right to judge of what is likely or not by our political experience, and to say that such a union of legislative and executive powers in one person is not [fitting], as being, as human politics teach us, too great for one man to sustain, and a temptation to abuse.”

    —John Page, ed. What Will Doctor Newman Do? (Liturgical Press, 1995, being John Henry Newman’s complete correspondence on papal infallibility), p. 30.

    And, for private consumption, Newman could be even blunter:

    “We have come to a climax of tyranny. It is not good for a Pope to live twenty years. It is an anomaly and bears no good fruit; he becomes a god, has no one to contradict him, does not know facts and does cruel things without knowing it.”
    –Page, op.cit., p. 163.

    This in me, not Wilfred Ward or John Page:

    What is clear is that Newman accepts the declaration by the First Vatican Council of the dogma of papal infallability on matters of faith and morals, as being what he calls an “economy of truth,” whose major usefulness is to lead on to fuller truths and not serve as an obstacle to others, whether they be scientific, political or historical. The greatest—and most distinctive—thing about the Roman Catholic Church has ever been her confidence that she IS BEING LED by the Holy Spirit through a temporal dialectic that will ever be in quest of the Truth—not that she “possesses” the whole truth (which would be like the blasphemous claim to “possess God”)—some misinformed students of theology to the contrary notwithstanding.

  • TeutonicTim

    Honestly, what is the fascination with “liberation” theology, and why does it add a value to the Catholic tradition? Jesus seemed to accept people’s roles and didn’t actively incite riots and political “liberation”.

    Also, why do so-called oppressed cultures that need to be liberated deserve to be celebrated when you seem to take pride in tearing down other cultures?

    Honest questions…

  • Sir Geoff

    If, as a commenter said, this woman publicly denied the Resurrection of Christ, I don’t see any good that could possibly come from reading this book.

    It would be like an architect writing a book about design, while publicly denying the axioms of geometry.

    Deny the principle and the whole edifice falls apart.

  • Um, how did Jesus accept people’s roles ? It would have been his role to get married, he would have been expected to shun Samaritans, women, Romans…expected to keep the Sabbath, respect the authority of the Pharisees, accept the way the temple was run and so forth. He didn’t seem to accept authority for authority’s sake but rather ask for the telos, the purpose of particular rules, i.e. he wouldn’t hire a gentile to turn on the light for him.

    Jesus doesn’t strike me as a Christian, but let’s say he was a Catholic, he’d be in permanent trouble, heck, he’d have been burned many times over throughout the centuries. The last thing an ideological movement has use for is its founder. It is ironic that the organization claiming to derive from him rather resembles the Pharisees he so unabashedly chided. He’d probably take a look at the pope, his palace and ask, “Seriously ?”

    The organization doesn’t take away from angelic people in its ranks helping people, but I’d say their good deeds do not depend on a particular set of dogmas. I don’t imagine him falling for Marxism, but real-life concerns would seem more important to him than scholastic matters, imo. Say, go to a poor country building wells rather than contemplate rubrics in confinement. But, my view of the man is just as subjective as anyone’s. It’s like a book club discussing the protagonist of a novel.

    As far as Radford R. is concerned, this perennial “church critic who won’t leave the church” status seems like an exercise in futility to me, much like stalking, not getting over an ex-girlfriend. I think this not-letting-go despite disagreeing fundamentally is confined to an older segment though, younger liberals don’t even bother to begin with. Some of the classic dissenters did leave, like the highly entertaining Uta Ranke-Heinemann and Eugen Drewermann.

    I guess leaving is much easier though when one didn’t grow up in something. I watched the movie “Doubt” last night, growing up in that all-encompassing Catholic environment must be hard to get over, rendering leaving altogether difficult. In addition, the dashed hopes after Vatican II must be hard to come to terms with. The forces of reaction (or orthodoxy, if you will) are firmly in power again, a progressive’s life devoted to institutional change must seem pointless in retrospect. Seeing women play ordination is simply sad, by defying church authority in this manner they validate it. If they were free from it, they’d go elsewhere. It’s not like there isn’t nice Catholicism, i.e. the Episcopal Church. Of course, “nice” doesn’t sell in the long run, fear is the strongest human motivator. If you’re freethinking and independent, soon you won’t show up at church anymore. As such, the Catholic model is the better business model. Sure, you’ll use a lot of clients, but the ones you have feature brand loyalty.

    After skipping a generation or two, the awkward are back in the driver’s seat. Instead of Carlo Maria Martini, Joseph Ratzinger. Of course, the latter is much better for brand control, he dances with the ones who brung him, so to speak.

  • A main reason for the decline of each ideology is that the spirit is far more difficult to grasp than rules. Fear demands certainty, certainty results in rules. Over time, the rules become l’art pour l’art, Selbstzweck (hi digby – I’m coming to Germany in July, starting in Frankfurt). The ones touting the spirit rather than the rules get into trouble. The way Jesus ‘showed up’ Judaism would likely be mirrored if he’d come back as a Christian.

    Reminds me of this famous Buddhist story

    When the spiritual teacher and his disciples began their evening meditation, a cat who lived in the monastery made such noise that it distracted them. One day the teacher ordered that the cat be tied up during the evening practice. Years later, when the teacher died, the cat continued to be tied up during the meditation session. And when the cat eventually died, another cat was brought to the monastery and tied up. Centuries later, learned descendants of the spiritual teacher wrote scholarly treatises about the religious significance of tying up a cat for meditation practice.

  • digbydolben

    Gerald, July 10th-12th I’ll be in Berlin, doing an IB training.

    I live right next to Dusseldorf and I can easily get to Cologne or Aachen, using my rail pass.

    On the 20th July, however, I’m in the UK, until the 10th August.

  • Tim – I don’t have time for an adequate reply to your question about liberation theology, but it’s clear that I am long overdue on writing a post about it.

    I’ll give you a quote from Balthasar, though, in the meantime:

    “There is [in Latin America] something absolutely central for Christianity making its appearance: the option for the poor. Henceforth this may never be renounced.”

  • JC

    Latin Masses never “went away.” Indeed, just about every liturgical instruction from Rome calls for at least some Latin at every Mass. Cardinal Arinze frequently called for every parish to have a Latin Mass in the Ordinary Form, and even the synod of bishops a few years ago voted by a large majority that, in multinational congregations, rather than having an “English/Spanish” hybrid Mass, for example, Latin should be used.
    Cassocks never “went away.”
    Scapulars never “went away.” Scapulars and other devotions have absolutely nothing to do with Vatican II, one way or the other. But disprespecting devotions and sacramentals is a sure sign that someone’s working for the Devil. After all, the only possible reaspon for opposing popular devotions and sacraments is to want to oppose the working of grace in people’s lives.
    Plenary indulgences never “went away.” To even speak of indulgences disparagingly is to basically say, “I don’t want to go to Heaven.” Like rejection of devotions, it is a protest against the quest for spiritual perfection.

    As for the past five Popes, I am never quite sure who progressives think was the “Real” Progressive Pope, since each of the last several popes has been framed as a “reactionary” trying to set back the “advances” made by his predecessor.

    I’ve grown up hearing homilies and dinner table comments by priests saying, “I can’t wait for this old Pope to die,” and it hasn’t changed any.

  • digbydolben

    Alright, folks, this time I have a question that I’d like to pose to as many readers and commentators of this blog site as I can, without being tendentious—or, at least, without being so until I get some answers from people who know more about what Newman called the “development of dogma” than I do. It DOES seem to me, however, that this matter MAY have some relevance to the discussion of the abortion issue, particularly as it has become plain, in the last year or so, that there is no clearly definable “moment of conception”—at least not one in scientifically verifiable terms.

    I know that several folks have opined here and elsewhere that the so-called “moment of ensoulment is not germane to the question of the morality of abortion, but it DOES seem that, once upon a time, the issue of “ensoulment” WAS relevant to the definition of a very particular dogma of the Church—one that roiled the whole Hispanic world, and the only one that has been proclaimed by the modern papacy AFTER the First Vatican Council’s proclamation of “papal infallibility,” leading some (not ME!) to claim that this definition was an encroachment, by the newly empowered papacy, upon the traditional hierarchical structure of the Church. I’m referring, of course, to the proclamation of the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin Mary.

    I am a compulsive collector of art books—monographs about artists, as well as so-called “cultural studies” of art movements. In a chapter of El Greco to Velazquez: Art During the Reign of Philip III, edited by Sarah Schroth and Ronni Baer (London: Thames and Hudson, Ltd., 2008), entitled “The Immaculate Conception,” I came across these two paragraphs on page 259:

    Although supported by Philip III and fiercely believed in by the Spanish people, the Immaculate Conception of Mary (not to be confused with that of the Christ, whose conception was unquestionably considered to be immaculate) was a theologically complex and controversial doctrine open to debate. Indeed, it was not until 1854 that the Roman Catholic Church proclaimed the doctrine as dogma, an article of faith.

    There was never any doubt that Mary, chosen as the Mother of God, was born without sin. The issue lay in her conception, since, as Saint Augustine argued, original sin is passed on by the concupiscence of the parents. The Maculists, who relied on the teachings of Saint Thomas Aquinas (d. 1274) and were led by the Dominican Order, believed that Mary, like all of us, was conceived with sin but that God sanctified her in the womb of her mother. The Immaculists, on the other hand, argued that the Supreme Being could make the soul of Mary spotless at the time of conception. The Franciscan Duns Scotus (d. 1308) refined the Immaculists’ argument: Mary did not have a soul at the time of conception. When God bestowed a soul upon her eighty days after she was conceived (the end of her nonvegetative state in the womb), it was one free from original sin.

    I’m pretty sure that the author meant to write “vegetative state in the womb” above. I don’t think these art historians are so well versed in medieval theology as they are in iconography and artists’ styles and techniques.

    Questions: What is this “vegetative” state that Duns Scotus wrote about? Is this some off-the-wall theological supposition by the Franciscan whose theology was never canonized, unlike Thomas Aquinas’s, which was? Are these “eighty days” of “vegetative state” a traditional notion of certain Catholic cultures? Why did the Dominican order (Aquinas’ order) so energetically and determinedly oppose the definition of this dogma for centuries? Is it merely because they did not want to see this and other ideas of their opponents in theological controversy, the Franciscans, gain prominence, or were they actually concerned—as it would, to a modern—that the definition of SOMEBODY’S “immaculate conception” might lead to a re-visitation of the whole Augustinian idea of conception through inevitable “concupiscence”? (In other words, if Mary were “conceived without sin,” how did her parents manage to be “conceived in sin”?)

    I’m going to post these questions in as many recent blog articles here that reference “abortion” as I can, because I’m interested in getting some answers before I determine if this matter is relevant to my own beliefs about abortion and “moments of conception.”

  • digbydolben

    I meant to write, above: “…as it would seem, to a modern…”

    [please choose one post to keep the discussion going, not open it up to many posts, there is no need to make it into a spam comment — ed]

  • digbydolben

    Dear “Editor”:

    I have the impression that not everybody reads EVERY post about “abortion”–that, in fact, except for die-hard fanatics on this issue (of both the right and the left) that “moderate” people are beginning to AVOID these posts. That’s why I wanted to put these questions in as many places here relating to “abortion” as I could.

    I really DO need some answers to the above questions, and I had no intention of “spamming.”

  • digbydolben

    Here’s some information, but it says nothing about “80 days” of “vegetative state”:

  • JC

    I’m not sure how this is relevant to this thread. However, the answer is quite simple:
    All those philosophical speculations were based upon the concept of “quickening,” that it was believed a baby did not have a soul until the mother could feel the baby’s movement. We know now that the baby moves from the moment of conception, it’s just that the movement isn’t felt.

    In fact, more knowledgeable moms today *can* feel their babies even before traditional quickening, since a) they know they’re pregnant sooner, and b) they’re more intellectually aware of things.

    The formulation of Immaculate Conception had more to do with scientific/philosophical issues than moral ones. Similar to how certain beliefs, as expounded in the early church, derived from Aristotle’s teaching that semen was identical to what we now consider an “embryo”.

  • digbydolben

    Thank you, JC, and I’m certain that you’re right, that there was a “scientific” aspect of the debate in the medieval period.

    However, the Dominicans were primarily theologians, and, for them to have resisted the definition of the “Immaculate Conception” as adamantly as they did, for so many centuries, there MUST have been, for them, a theological explanation for their resistance, i.e. they must have thought that the doctrine conflicted with SOME OTHER important theological matter. The pseudo-scientific medieval belief in “quickening” just isn’t enough of an explanation for their opposition: do you know that they had to be forbidden, both by monarchs (of Spain and France) and popes, from preaching AGAINST the “Immaculate Conception” as late as the 18th century? They were very disturbed by this teaching.

    Additionally, the matters of “quickening” and “vegetative states” are beginning to have new resonances, as medical science is telling us, increasingly, that there is no clearly definable “moment of conception,” and that “conception” is a rather prolonged process (over the course of a day, in some cases). In other words, spermicide use or an “abortion pill” may not be an abortion at all.

  • digbydolben

    And, also, JC, I don’t mean to be disingenuous, so let me put all of my cards on the table regarding this “Immaculate Conception”-related abortion question:

    What I’m beginning to wonder is this: why can’t the Church USE Duns Scotus’s qualification of the dogma of the Immaculate Conception, regarding “ensoulment” after the 80 days of a “vegetative state” to declare that, because of the religious knowledge of the Immaculate Conception, we KNOW that “ensoulment” takes place in the same manner as the Virgin’s “ensoulment,” and that, therefore, a so-called “abortion” that takes place after that period is the murder of a SOUL, and is, therefore, from a theological standpoint, a more serious offense than, say, a capital punishment, or a killing in battle, etc.? This might enable the Church to stop talking about “abortion” completely, and just concentrate on a Christian definition of “baby-murder.”

    Also, the governments of those countries which are still largely Catholic,(and much more than “nominally Catholic,”–despite what right-wing American Catholics believe about them–e.g. Spain, Italy, France, Argentina, Chile, etc.), could be enjoined to “criminalize” any abortion taking place AFTER 80 DAYS, as a matter of veneration of the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin.

  • digbydolben

    One other thing: one of the corollaries, in thought, regarding the “development of doctrine,” is that religious truth is only gradually revealed through a time-space continuum that, philosophically-speaking, is somewhat akin to the Hegelian dialectic. This is a concept that religious fundamentalists are scarcely able to grasp at, because they really, at heart–whether they are Catholic or not–cannot comprehend the nature of a corporate Church whose members include the dead (they think that divine Revelation is static, and that the Church, to be the Church, must always be in temporal possession of “Truth”).

    What I’m suggesting, then, is that the dogma of the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin Mary, which was, in the 19th century, largely cavilled at by theological “liberals,” like Newman (he really WAS a “liberal,” if only in a Catholic context), but which reflected the “common sense” and religious sensibilities of the ENTIRE Southern European Catholic culture, may be found, now–especially by “liberals”–to be the truest revelation of the evil nature of abortion, because it destroys a “human creature” AFTER it has been given a soul.

  • ChooChoo


    I’m doing a thesis on abortion in the early medieval period. I’m certainly no authority on high medieval theology (I go up to the ninth century), but do have a possibly weird interest in the history of abortion (or, in the jargon of several failed applications for funding, abortion discourse).

    I think it’s helpful to separate out notions of quickening, ensoulment, formation and so on. I’m increasingly convinced that they have not always been unified into a coherent scheme. Quickening was a term, I understand, from late medieval/early modern English common law: abortion after quickening was legally adjudged homicide. It’s telling – and hopefully not just of my lack of knowledge – that I don’t know any Latin terms for ‘quickening’.

    The roots of the precise numbering scheme lie in ancient embryologies. These were not precisely uniform, and they revolved around formation and development of the embryo/fetus. (There was no precision in terminology, by the way).

    In some Hippocratic works, the embryo is formed from the mingling of male and female seed. Limbs and organs develop under the dynamic of “pneuma” (literally, breath). The form of the embryo was said to be completed at 40 days, and the first movement was said to occur at around 3-4 months.

    Aristotle yielded a more famous example. In the History of Animals, he posited 40 days (males) and 90 days (females) for the completion of form and first detectable movement. (I am not sure whether he meant movement in the sense of movement which the mother can sense as opposed to a principle of motion in the fledgling organism itself: if the former, it’s empirically rather dodgy for humans). These numbers, if not the exact biological and metaphysical background, were influential. It should be noted that across his works Aristotle actually gives different pictures of embryogenesis, perhaps he was a little agnostic. In other places, he identifies formation with the appearance of the heart (as the seat of the senses): this was important since it denoted the inception of an individual animal. So we’re actually a little less sure of Aristotle’s precise take on this than sometimes made out. But, for him, formation seems to be a very important ontological idea: it’s the moment from which an individual organism exists. It’s conception, Jim, but not as we know it.

    Fast forwarding, ridiculously I guess, there was a range of implicit embryologies and ontologies among the especially influential christian thinkers in the fourth and fifth centuries. Very roughly, in the west, a sense of distinguishing phases of embryonic development in terms of unformed/formed increased. It posed problems for thinkers, though not in the way we’d immediately think.

    Augustine’s a good example. He discussed the moral problem of abortion at several contexts. The most important are in outlining his theology of marriage (in two texts, one anti-Pelagian, the other anti-Manichaean). In neither text does he go into the ontology of abortion or the question of formation.

    He does broach these questions elsewhere, in discussing an altogether different question: the fate of (in Latin) “abortivi” infants at the resurrection. In Latin, “abortus” and cognates could denote (deliberate) abortion, miscarriage and even premature birth. He is not discussing the morality of abortion. And he is cautious but, ultimately, thinks that ‘unformed miscarriages’ will not be resurrected. Note that the distinctions between unformed/formed are not entirely clear (and he doesn’t use Aristotelian/Hippocratic numbers). Incidentally, in modern discussion of Augustine, his passages on the eschatological fate of miscarried infants has been drawn upon to discuss the problem of modern abortion, a little tendentiously I think.

    Sorry, this is getting a little long…

    Anyway, in the early medieval west, there was more of an injection of fetal distinctions into legal, penitential and canonical canons dealing with abortion. But, crucially, these were variable. Some post-Roman legal codes are quite graphic. The Burgundian (or Bavarian? aah, I should know) code talks of different penalties for abortion depending on whether what is produced can be identified as male or female or not. (The point was not the sex, but that the aborted fetus was sufficiently developed to tell the sex). In some penitentials, there are lighter penalties for abortion before forty days: but both before and after are described as species of killing. And so on.

    There was, in short, no unified formation, quickening, ensoulment nexus. What I have outlined, very superficially, only pertains to formation. There are some fleeting mentions of ensoulment in relation to abortion, but very inconsistent (and unclear). And no graduating of abortion according to quickening.

    Three important points:

    1. The moral problem of abortion the likes of Augustine – and later medieval theologians – were thinking about was, for want of a better word, phenomenologically very different from today. Ecclesiastical approaches had to negotiate the ambiguity of fetal development, an ambiguity rather different from today’s arguments over fetal status. (I’d argue that today it’s not ambiguity, but competing claims). A lot of the history writing has missed the very important social dimensions (which is what I concentrate on): for instance, no one seems to note how, roughly, christian discourse found ways of implicating men with the practice of abortion in ways that pre-christian moralists – no libertines incidentally – simply wouldn’t have. And, confusingly, for my period at least (but not for later), all the development stages were still understood as kinds of killing. Fetal distinctions did not enter canonical documents on abortion until the 10th century, though they were circulating in law codes and penitentials.

    2. The Greek East tradition on fetal development was very different. Important figures include Gregory of Nyssa and Maximus the Confessor. Very roughly, there is more of a single continuum unbroken by graduations from something like an initial ‘conception’ in our sense. And, curiously, it wasn’t developed to counter abortion, but on theological (specifically Christological) grounds. Aquinas, incidentally, who did stick to a three stage fetal development process (vegetative –> animal –> human), feels the tug of this kind of thought insofar as he says that Christ had to be conceived fully formed.

    3. It was after the reintroduction of Aristotle, above all, that the kind of embryology implicit in the Duns Scotus quotation could solidify. Crucially, it became integrated with discourse on the morality of abortion, in ways which contemporary catholic debates (on ‘both’ or all sides) sometimes skew. Some supported legal distinctions between formed and unformed – with killing the latter as legal homicide – but still viewed all abortion as a form of killing. The intricacy of high medieval views is constricted by modern polemics. For instance, the idea that high medieval thought on formation can be seamlessly merged with certain notions of personhood absurdly opportunistic: it’s like taking the one bit of Aquinas on abortion which everyone disagrees is wrong (namely his biology) and drawing on it simply because it is Aquinas. Likewise, there was a prudent pastoral latitude which contrasts with the ‘purifying’ nature of some contemporary pro-life discourse.

    Sorry to go on. It’s actually a v interesting topic. In terms of your question: I’m not sure how easily the kind of assumptions underpinning Duns Scotus et al can be transplanted to our day. On the other hand, I think some of the moral psychological insights (often implicit and not fully developed), juridical distinctions etc might be more fruitful to consider.

  • ChooChoo

    BTW – I realise that doesn’t touch on Immaculate Conception. But, what is striking about Duns Scotus’ formulation to us was not striking to this contemporaries (Aristotelian-derived notions of vegetative/animal soul etc); and these notions were not always integrated into moral discourse on abortion; and where they were, I’m not sure they slide altogether easily into the modern political spectrum of thought.

  • digbydolben

    Thank you so much for your more expert information than mine; this really helps.

    Now, tell me, just for the sake of my own curiosity regarding the opinions of somebody who is so clearly aware of the historical changes regarding the estimations of the gravity of this kind of “killing” (different from legitimate self-defense in warfare, but also different from pre-meditated murder of someone possessed of legal “subject-hood”), do you or do you not believe that it would be useful and consistent with Catholic cultural and theological tradition, for the Church to declare that it “knows,” based on its “religious knowledge” pertaining to such doctrines as that of the Immaculate Conception, that a person is “ensouled” after 80 days and has, therefore, a different and more sacred kind of personhood after 80 days than she had before 80 days? I know it sounds more than a little arbitrary, but governments–even Church governments–are all about making decisions, and sometimes they’re decisions that protect their subjects from barbarism.

    In any case, whether you disagree or agree with me, I thank you profusely for your explanations above.

  • ChooChoo


    Ta ever so kindly. Sorry, didn’t read your original post properly. Maybe I can be a bit clearer about my thoughts. Above you quote Duns Scotus on the immaculate conception: he argues against a ‘maculist’ position, with Mary’s soul bestowed 80 days after conception (following her vegetative state). What did the maculists say? (I imagine they still followed the same embryology: Aquinas certainly did).

    For me your question risks mixing two separate things: the view of embryogenesis implied in Duns Scotus; and the question of Mary’s status (conceived immaculate or sanctified in time). A key point is that the implied embryology is compatible with both positions on Mary. To put it another way: what is being argued about in the dogma is nothing to do with how the development of an embryo is to be understood. What Duns Scotus assumes was very common by his day because of the resurgence of Aristotelian thought in the high medieval west. His opponents in argument would have thought the same. The implicit knowledge about embryos was not an assertion of dogmatic theology. It would be like someone writing theology today and making reference to sperm and egg cells, or something.

    Very roughly – and not doing justice to different presentations and subtleties in different thinkers – ‘a succession of souls’ view of embryonic development was quite common. The vegetative state reference is an allusion to this. The soul is the form of the body. For Aristotle (and medieval theologians), plants and animals have souls (though mortal). The kinds of souls differed, as shown in their operations (their powers: their motility, higher up, their rational capacity etc). In utero, there was seen to be (not unreasonably) a development of capacities which correlated to a succession of souls, as it were: from vegetative through to human.

    This doesn’t quite do justice to the underlying ideas. (Where I’m not so clear is how they handled the question of what kind of change – substantial? – the development entailed). But, anyhow. In answer to your question…a question! I’m still not clear exactly what you’re getting at. Putting aside questions of history, philosophy etc – do you mean that the kind of ideas you find in Duns Scotus might sharpen the church’s critique of abortion (i.e. stressing the killing of an ENSOULED being)?

    For me, I’m not sure about this. Historically, no. (Though I have early medieval biases, remember). Biologically, no for sure. Altogether, well, no! Most people find soul-talk spooky. If you’re talking ethics in a secular context, soul-talk is like saying, “I’m a weirdo, I’ve got comprehensive doctrines, do a Rawls job on me”. And, perhaps, with some reason, since people often do soul-talk badly.

    One of the oddest things here is that the ancient principles might work quite well (to my non-philosopher, non-scientist eyes) with modern biology. If you have a very loosely cartesian notion of soul, as something inhabiting a body and which makes us definitively human, then the idea that conception marks the beginning of an individual life might be a bit odd. But, if you think that it is the union of two principles, ‘body’ and ‘soul’, form and matter, which is what makes us us (or, for that matter, animals what they are), then conception looks like pretty much the only possibility (with some metaphysical headaches over twinning).

    In sum, I really don’t think medieval takes on ancient embryology are going to be fruitful today!

  • digbydolben

    OK–thanks–very much.

    And one last question: do you, perchance, know why the Dominicans so adamantly opposed–for several centuries–the doctrine of the “Immaculate Conception of the Virgin Mary”? Did it have anything to do with this archaic science you’re talking about, or was it a matter of protecting the other doctrine–that of “original sin” arising from the “concupiscence” of the married couple?

  • ChooChoo


    Not sure, to be honest. I very much doubt it was to do with the “archaic science”! As for original sin, again not so sure. (Is original sin so tied to sexually originating concupiscence, as you imply? From my period, I always remember that Augustine, who effectively theorised original sin in a way familiar to us but new at the time, was also adamant in not connecting it to sexuality specifically).

  • digbydolben

    I agree with you that it probably had nothing to do with whatever science theories regarding embryology they’d inherited from Aristotle.

    I think it was because they were afraid that, if Mary were “conceived without sin,” there’d have to be too much discussion of how this could possibly have happened, and whether it meant that there was some kind of blood lineage of people, like St. Anne, who’d been “conceived without sin.”

    Apparently to meet their objections, Duns Scotus cobbled together a theory–one, I think, never canonized by the Church–that Mary was “ensouled” after 80 days.

    For the life of me, though, I have never been able to understand why this issue of “ensoulment” isn’t part of the great “abortion debate.” If all life is similarly “sacred,” then it seems to me that much that goes on in industrialized meat-packing plants is almost as abhorrent as abortion.

  • Digby,

    According to Aristotelian metaphysics, there were three types or aspects of souls: 1) the vegetative, which is common to all living things and accounts being alive, 2) the sensitive soul, which is common to the higher animals and consists in being able to have sensations, and 3) the rational soul, which is common to man and consists in being able to engage in abstract thought. In terms of an unborn child, there is a period of time when only the vegetative aspects are present and that is what Schroth and Baer appear to be referring to.

    However, I must add that I own Duns Scotus’ Four Questions on Mary, which includes the discourse in question on the Immaculate Conception, and the Schroth and Baer summation of Scotus’ position is completely inaccurate. Scotus’ argument has nothing to do with whether Mary (or anyone else) is ensouled at some point after conception. In fact, he explicitly states that his position would hold “dato quod in conceptione senimum fuisset creatio animae,” that is, granting that the soul is created during conception (incidentally, the view at the time was that animation occurred between 35 and 42 days after conception, not after 80 days).

    Finally, you seem to suggest in one of your comments that Newman had some problem with the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception. Nothing could be further from the truth. As he said in a memorandum he wrote on the subject: “It is so difficult for me to enter into the feelings of a person who understands the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception, and yet objects to it, that I am diffident about attempting to speak on the subject.”

  • digbydolben

    Blackadder, then do YOU know why the Dominicans opposed this dogma for four or five centuries?

  • digbydolben

    Oh, and I’m happy to learn that Newman was in favour of the dogma; it demonstrates his (to me) Burkean “conservatism”–that is, his willingness to defer to the “good sense” of the masses of the faithful in the non-Anglo-Saxon world, since the Anglican communion had a great deal of suspicion of the teaching, and thought it was simply an opportunistic “power-grab” by a newly enabled papacy (or, at least, that’s what I’ve heard some prissy Anglicans allege, myself).

  • blackadderiv

    Blackadder, then do YOU know why the Dominicans opposed this dogma for four or five centuries?

    Well, St. Thomas was on record as opposing the Immaculate Conception, and Dominicans have always been zealous in defending the doctrines of the Angelic Doctor. I’m not familiar with the Dominicans in question, so whether there was anything to it beyond this sort of “team spirit” I can’t say.

  • lewiscrusade

    Another reason that St. Thomas used in rejecting the Immaculate Conception was that it requires application of the grace of the Paschal Mystery before it happened.
    In other words, the OT saints were in the Limbo of the Just. That would include Elijah, Enoch and the OT Martyrs like the Maccabees, as well as the Holy Innocents and St. John the Baptist.
    It was absolutely impossible, in Aquinas’s view, for those souls to be in Heaven before Christ rose from the dead.
    Therefore, it was also impossible for anyone to receive salvific grace before then, *in Aquinas’s view*.
    Of course, the Church has rejected this position of Aquinas. In fact, the Bible itself rejects it: otherwise, the Last Supper was not the Eucharist.

    Aquinas was, basically, a Feeneyite, rejecting the idea that God engages in extra-ordinary distributions of grace.

    As for the rest, the problem of your argument is that the Church specifically does not want to address abortion as a theological issue. That has been one of the main tactics of the pro-abortion movement.

    One of the main arguments in _Roe v. Wade_ is the same given by Bill Clinton: “We dont’ know when the soul comes in. That’s a religious question. Therefore, it’s a first amendment issue.” If you start talking about immortal souls, the Left has won.

    We have to speak in terms of Natural Law and in terms of what we can define, naturally speaking, as human life.