Wednesday, September 01, 2010

There's Objective, and then there's Catholic

It has been a long time since I put up a new post here, partly because I have found it more, um, worthwhile (if not profitable) to talk primarily about theology and the Anglican Continuing Crisis, and partly because I hadn't really found much novel to comment on concerning general religious discussion on line. However here we have an amazing tendentious assertion from Hilary White:
But what is much more infrequently (ie. never) mentioned is the reason the Church teaches the things she does. And the reason she remains "intransigent" on things like women's ordination and same-sex marriage. Here's a little secret that we would like journalists to understand better: When a Catholic, from the pope on down to the parish tea-lady, says "the Church teaches..." they mean "it is objectively true that..." In other words, neither the Pope, nor the parish tea lady has any more power to change it than they have the power to change the rate at which gravity makes things fall down.

What is rarely understood is that the Church approaches these things like a scientist approaches an observable phenomenon. The scientist, when looking at something through a telescope or microscope, asks himself "What is this? What does it do? What is it made of?" He wants to know what is the actual, objective truth is about the phenomenon. He observes its characteristics and writes them down. He tests his observations by setting up experiments and repeating the experiments to see if the observations are always the same. He asks a set of questions about it based on axioms, things that are self-evidently true and are impossible to doubt. In the Laws of Rational Thought, an axiom is what you have to start with, to base your investigations on, if you want to understand anything.


The Church, similarly, when presented with a new thing, cloning and embryonic stem cell research for example, starts by examining it and asking a set of questions based on what we already know. Both the Natural Law and Revelation give us a set of moral axioms to build with.
Well, except not. First of all, most big scientific advances happen when some set of "axioms", which is to say, self-evident and undoubted principles, fail to account for observed phenomena. Looking for truly axiomatic principles in moral teaching is essentially hopeless; we have Nietzsche to thank for that revelation. What we have in Christianity are a basic set of principles which are in arguable, and in that sense are like unto axioms. But the set of the truly inarguable propositions is exceedingly small, perhaps consisting of a single sentence.

And beyond that, there are the metaprinciples upon which official Catholicism relies quite heavily. The chief of these is the assertion that it is possible to work out a systematic morality which gives definite answers. That is not necessarily a proposition that could be defended from scripture. But there are others that quite definitely cannot be derived from scripture, nor from any axiomatic basis which enjoys acceptance as such. Chief among these is the Thomistic reliance on Aristotle, whose approach to natural science has, to be blunt, failed miserably in the face of the Baconian methods we now use.

Catholic moral theology claims to be universal, and one can, I think, argue that scripture does not provide authority for more than a really limited relativism. But White's claims towards objectivity are belied by the reliance upon infallibility. Objective reasoning works when anyone does it, and the one thing that is abundantly clear is that Catholic moral reasoning only works in a Catholic framework, a philosophical structure which is widely criticized even within Christianity. Worse, the infallibility claims imply that it only works when the Roman magisterium uses it. That is the very antithesis of objectivity.

Also, it's manifestly obvious that they do have the "power" to change their teachings, inasmuch as one understands "power" to mean the raw capability to do so. We are given free will after all. And the analogy with science, otherwise flawed, shows in this light exactly where the fault lies. If one is to hold moral principles to have an objective existence in the same manner that scientific laws do, then the process of moral theology would appear to consist of the discovery of these principles in the same manner that we work out the laws of physics or whatever. But the history of science is, after all, the history of older, imperfect formulations being replaced by new and in some sense more accurate formulations. The reality is that we do change the laws of physics, when we find that the ones we have aren't good enough; thus Newtonian mechanics have been modified with the addition of relativistic effects, and on top of that we now have to deal with quantum mechanical rules of behavior. That picture is utterly unlike the Catholic picture of moral reasoning, and indeed the mainstream of Protestant moral theology would say that we do find errors in Catholic formulations that have to be corrected, or that new technologies present us with novel moral situations which may require modification of old rules. The point is that the analogy doesn't bring us to infallibility either; indeed, it leads in the opposite direction.

These issues are why the media pay no attention to these claims and continue to qualify their reports by saying that "the Catholic Church teaches". In the scope in which objectivity has to be established, Catholic moral reasoning is just one of a set of competing explanations, and as their reasoning enjoys no wide consensus, and indeed relies upon loyalty to the organization for its ultimate authority, no objective report would ever identify it as anything but Church teaching.

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