Over the Precipice

Two years ago, Ross Douthat wrote this:

TO grasp why events this month in Rome — publicly feuding cardinals, documents floated and then disavowed — were so remarkable in the context of modern Catholic history, it helps to understand certain practical aspects of the doctrine of papal infallibility.

On paper, that doctrine seems to grant extraordinary power to the pope — since he cannot err, the First Vatican Council declared in 1870, when he “defines a doctrine concerning faith or morals to be held by the whole Church.”

In practice, though, it places profound effective limits on his power.

Those limits are set, in part, by normal human modesty: “I am only infallible if I speak infallibly, but I shall never do that,” John XXIII is reported to have said. But they’re also set by the binding power of existing teaching, which a pope cannot reverse or contradict without proving his own office, well, fallible — effectively dynamiting the very claim to authority on which his decisions rest.

Not surprisingly, then, popes are usually quite careful. On the two modern occasions when a pontiff defined a doctrine of the faith, it was on a subject — the holiness of the Virgin Mary — that few devout Catholics consider controversial. In the last era of major church reform, the Second Vatican Council, the popes were not the intellectual protagonists, and the council’s debates — while vigorous — were steered toward a (pope-approved) consensus: The documents that seemed most like developments in doctrine, on religious liberty and Judaism, passed with less than a hundred dissenting votes out of more than 2,300 cast.

But something very different is happening under Pope Francis. In his public words and gestures, through the men he’s elevated and the debates he’s encouraged, this pope has repeatedly signaled a desire to rethink issues where Catholic teaching is in clear tension with Western social life — sex and marriage, divorce and homosexuality.

As I will show later in this post, there is a closer relationship than Douthat seems to realize between what “is happening under Pope Francis” and the mentioned documents on religious liberty and Judaism, but he is also right, in another way, that it remains “something very different.”

Later in the article, Douthat continues:

And on communion for the remarried, the stakes are not debatable at all. The Catholic Church was willing to lose the kingdom of England, and by extension the entire English-speaking world, over the principle that when a first marriage is valid a second is adulterous, a position rooted in the specific words of Jesus of Nazareth. To change on that issue, no matter how it was couched, would not be development; it would be contradiction and reversal.

SUCH a reversal would put the church on the brink of a precipice. Of course it would be welcomed by some progressive Catholics and hailed by the secular press. But it would leave many of the church’s bishops and theologians in an untenable position, and it would sow confusion among the church’s orthodox adherents — encouraging doubt and defections, apocalypticism and paranoia (remember there is another pope still living!) and eventually even a real schism.

Much of Douthat’s prediction has already been fulfilled. It is easy enough to find example of the “doubt and defections, apocalypticism and paranoia.” A little over a week ago, Louie Verrecchio wrote,

The time is now at hand for “cardinals and bishops to make clear that the Pope is teaching error.” Francis has been given the opportunity, by way of a public challenge issued by senior cardinals, to confirm the true Faith in the face of the heresies that he himself disseminated throughout the Universal Church in Amoris Laetitia, and he has refused.

His unwillingness to formally address the dubia directly and plainly changes nothing of the objective reality that is staring us squarely in the face.

Even if others in Catholic media are afraid to say it aloud, at least thus far, I am not:

Francis has judged himself a formal heretic. He is, therefore, an antipope.

Verrechio was not, up to this time, a sedevacantist. The sedevacantist blog Novus Ordo Watch therefore responds,

Deo gratias! Another Semi-Traditionalist has finally had enough and publicly confessed the truth that is plain for all to see who are courageous enough to look: Francis is not the Pope of the Catholic Church. Mr. Louie Verrecchio, formerly a star pundit of the conservative wing of the Novus Ordo Sect who came to embrace a recognize-but-resist type of traditionalism, has just made the following declaration on his blog, AKA Catholic: “Francis has judged himself a formal heretic. He is, therefore, an antipope.”

Douthat noted that the fact that Pope Benedict XVI is still alive would contribute to “apocalypticism and paranoia.” This is evident in the claim made by a number of people that Pope Benedict’s resignation was invalid, and thus Pope Benedict remains Pope, and Pope Francis is therefore illegitimate. Ann Barnhardt, for example, adopted this position last June.

We have not seen any “real schism” yet, but there are people waiting and hoping for it, as for example Hilary White, who says in a post on The Remnant’s site:

If all factors remain steady – that is, if Francis Bergoglio does not repent and the cardinals do not get cold feet – what will happen, what has to happen, is this:

– Bergoglio will continue not to respond, allowing his proxies to speak for him as always. He will continue to attack as “enemies” and “detractors” anyone who tries to recall him to his duty.

– The cardinals, after an interval in which they may issue another warning, must do their duty and denounce his heresies for the good of the Church and the salvation of souls. This must happen if for no other reason than that the faithful are being led by this pope over the cliff of mortal sin.

– After the formal denunciation, therefore, the episcopate, clergy and laity will divide into two groups. The Catholic side will be very small, and will seem weak and powerless and foolish in the eyes of the world. They will have only the truth of the Faith as their weapon and shield.

– The second will have all the material institution of the Church, all its monetary resources, the psychological asset of its material patrimony of churches, schools, universities, hospitals etc. and the political power of recognition and support by the secular world, as well as the adherence of nearly all those who continue to call themselves Catholics.

– Bergoglio will demand the acquiescence of the Catholics with his usual threats and insults. He will empower his followers at the national level to punish priests, seminarians, teachers, university professors, et al, if they do not embrace the New Paradigm.

– The standoff can only possibly be broken by what canonists call a “declaratory sentence” that Bergoglio is a formal and obdurate or pertinacious heretic and has by his own actions lost the office of the papacy.

– Their duty then will be plain. The Catholic Church cannot function without a pope, and they will be obliged to call a conclave.

What will things look like after the schism is complete? We can easily extrapolate that from what things look like now. The vast majority of the Catholic world, lay and clerical, have no problem at all with Francis or with the entire New Paradigm of Vaticantwoism. The Church will consist, as it always has, of believers, but there will be no buildings. The reality, visible to the eyes of God, will be that the larger body will be what we might call the Bergoglian sect. They will have all the appearances of legitimacy and will be respected and at last embraced by the world, who will think that the tiny group of objectors are fools and “dissenters.”

What is all the fuss about? The theological issues at play are not ultimately all that complicated, and do not signify any substantial change in the Church’s teaching. Ross Douthat, however, suggested in the article discussed above that more was at stake. And now, writing just yesterday, he says,

“This is not normal” — so say Donald Trump’s critics as he prepares to assume the presidency. But the American republic is only the second-oldest institution facing a distinctively unusual situation at the moment. Pride of place goes to the Roman Catholic Church, which with less fanfare (perhaps because the papacy lacks a nuclear arsenal) has also entered terra incognita.

Two weeks ago, four cardinals published a so-called dubia — a set of questions, posed to Pope Francis, requesting that he clarify his apostolic exhortation on the family, “Amoris Laetitia.” In particular they asked him to clarify whether the church’s ban on communion for divorced Catholics in new (and, in the church’s eyes, adulterous) marriages remained in place, and whether the church’s traditional opposition to situation ethics had been “developed” into obsolescence.

The dubia began as a private letter, as is usual with such requests for doctrinal clarity. Francis offered no reply. It became public just before last week’s consistory in Rome, when the pope meets with the College of Cardinals and presents the newly-elevated members with red hats. The pope continued to ignore it, but took the unusual step of canceling a general meeting with the cardinals (not a few of whose members are quiet supporters of the questioners).

Francis canceled because the dubia had him “boiling with rage,” it was alleged. This was not true, tweeted his close collaborator, the Jesuit father Antonio Spadaro, though he had previously tweeted and then deleted a shot of the wizard Gandalf, from “Lord of the Rings,” growling his refusal to “bandy crooked words with a witless worm.”

Meanwhile one those four alleged “worms,” the combative traditionalist, Cardinal Raymond Burke, gave an interview suggesting that papal silence might require a “formal act of correction” from the cardinals — something without obvious precedent in Catholic history. (Popes have been condemned for flirting with heresy, but only after their deaths.) That was strong language; even stronger was the response from the head of Greece’s Catholic bishops, who accused the dubia authors of “heresy” and possibly “apostasy” for questioning the pope.

I would suggest that people are seeing something true, namely that the current situation is very unusual and has unusual implications, but they are mistaken in supposing that Pope Francis is calling into question the indissolubility of marriage or the existence of intrinsically evil actions, at least as particular claims. We can see this by considering the matter of Chapter 8 of Amoris Laetitia from a different point of view. Our responses to the dubia were framed as though it were a question of complex moral situations. And of course human life is complicated and there are in fact complex situations. But what is the real concern here? The four Cardinals explain:

It would seem that admitting to Communion those of the faithful who are separated or divorced from their rightful spouse and who have entered a new union in which they live with someone else as if they were husband and wife would mean for the Church to teach by her practice one of the following affirmations about marriage, human sexuality and the nature of the sacraments:

  • A divorce does not dissolve the marriage bond, and the partners to the new union are not married. However, people who are not married can under certain circumstances legitimately engage in acts of sexual intimacy.
  • A divorce dissolves the marriage bond. People who are not married cannot legitimately engage in sexual acts. The divorced and remarried are legitimate spouses and their sexual acts are lawful marital acts.
  • A divorce does not dissolve the marriage bond, and the partners to the new union are not married. People who are not married cannot legitimately engage in sexual acts, so that the divorced and civilly remarried live in a situation of habitual, public, objective and grave sin. However, admitting persons to the Eucharist does not mean for the Church to approve their public state of life; the faithful can approach the Eucharistic table even with consciousness of grave sin, and receiving absolution in the sacrament of penance does not always require the purpose of amending one’s life. The sacraments, therefore, are detached from life: Christian rites and worship are on a completely different sphere than the Christian moral life.  

But this does not exhaust the available options. We can see this by comparing another matter where the Church, not so long ago, began to admit to the Eucharist people who were formerly prohibited from receiving. Fr. Joseph Bolin compares the admission of Orthodox Christians to the Eucharist in the Catholic Church with the admission of divorced and remarried people:

Canon 844 § 3 requires that:

  • The non-Catholic members of the oriental Churches ask on their own for the sacraments
  • The non-Catholic members of the oriental Churches are properly disposed.

Since these Christians are in a public state of material schism or material heresy, why doesn’t canon 915 exclude them from Eucharistic Communion?

I’m not aware of any even semi-authoritative account, but suggest that the presumption is made that they are not culpable for their schism or heresy, and that this is a common and public presumption. Consequently:

  • they are not able at the time to cease from the public schism, as that would be contrary to their convictions in conscience
  • They are well-disposed, having confessed any grave sins they are aware of and intending to avoid them in the future, etc.
  • It is common knowledge that Orthodox are sincerely convinced of their position rather than moved by bad-will, so their receiving communion on their own request causes no great scandal with respect to the obligation to seek and adhere to the true Church.
  • There is no general invitation made to non-Catholics to receive, so it remains clear that it is not a normal, but an exception for them to receive

Would canon 915 require excluding from Eucharistic Communion a divorced and remarried Orthodox Christian who is permitted Communion in his own Church? Or would not the common and public presumption of good-will apply to them in this matter just as much as it does in regard to their schism, so that the objective disorder, the objective sin of adultery would not be an instance of “manifest grave sin” in the sense intended by canon 915?

Are there also particular circumstances in which there can be and is a de facto, common, and reasonable presumption of good-will on the part of divorced and remarried Catholics? If so, the objective disorder and sin as such would be per se no greater grounds for exclusion from Eucharistic Communion than the objective disorder and sin of the separated Orthodox Christians is.

Then, in a follow-up post, he says,

In the case of the Orthodox, it is clear enough to most people that there are reasons why an Orthodox Christian is not in a position to accept, e.g., the Church’s teaching on the authority of the pope — because he grew up learning to see the Church’s teaching as wrong, a human deviation, etc. — and that the Church’s acceptance that these persons can in good faith reject the pope’s authority does not imply any lessening of the doctrine itself. It does imply, however, this doctrine is not manifestly true to each and every person of good will.

If there are similar externally perceptible reasons why individual persons are not in a position to accept the Church’s teaching on the indissolubility and unity of marriage and/or the restriction of genital intercourse to marriage, and the Church accepts these, this similarly does not imply a lessening of the doctrine of indissolubility and unity of marriage itself. It does, however, imply, just as in the case of the Orthodox and the authority of the pope, that the Church’s doctrine on marriage is not manifestly true to all of good will, not even to all Catholics of good will.

There is, of course, a difference between the Orthodox who does not accept the Church’s teaching, and a Catholic who does not accept it, namely that the Catholic claims to be Catholic. This could be a reason to maintain a different practice in the two cases, not because of there being a difference in regard to whether one or the other is manifesting persevering in sin or not, but because one claims to be a Catholic, to be with and live with the Catholic Church, and the other does not.

Fr. Joseph has reached the heart of the matter here, both in explaining why such an admission to the Eucharist is consistent with Catholic doctrine, and in suggesting why it nonetheless involves a significant “precipice”, as Douthat put it.

In Amoris Laetitia itself, Pope Francis spoke of people who “may know full well the rule, yet have great difficulty in understanding its inherent values.” This is just a way of speaking of people who know that the Church forbids divorce and remarriage, but who disagree with the prohibition. This roundabout reference to doctrinal disagreement is perhaps a way of shying away from the precipice, as is also the Pope’s statement,

Naturally, if someone flaunts an objective sin as if it were part of the Christian ideal, or wants to impose something other than what the Church teaches, he or she can in no way presume to teach or preach to others; this is a case of something which separates from the community (cf. Mt 18:17). Such a person needs to listen once more to the Gospel message and its call to conversion.

This could be taken to imply that at least people who disagree with the Church about remarriage should not be admitted to the Eucharist, but this interpretation is unlikely. It is unlikely because of the above statement about people who do not understand the “inherent values” of the law, and it is also unlikely because there is no doubt about what the vast majority of divorced and remarried people believe. Questions about moral objects and about adultery and moral complexity and so on are merely academic here, because the persons involved do not believe they are having intercourse with a person with whom they are not married. They believe that they are having marital intercourse with their spouse. They believe they are married. This may be because they believe the Church is wrong about the facts, and that their first marriage was invalid. (Note that in fact according to canon law this would not be enough to make the second marriage valid, as long as invalidity of the first marriage was not a matter of public record, so they would have to believe that the Church is wrong about this as well.) Or they may believe that the Church is wrong about the possibility of divorce and a second union. Either way, they believe they are married.

What then is the Pope saying about people who flaunt an objective sin as if it were part of the Christian ideal? It seems to be something like this: if someone publicly proclaims that the Church is wrong about divorce and remarriage, and says that its teaching needs to be corrected, and so on, then this is something that “separates from the community.” But if he merely believes this personally, without demanding that the Church change its teaching, this is a different situation. And in this situation the Pope is willing for the person to be treated like the Orthodox Christians, and to be admitted to the Eucharist.

Fr. Joseph points out the essential difference from the case of the Orthodox: “one claims to be a Catholic, to be with and live with the Catholic Church, and the other does not.” What difference does this make? This is related to what Fr. Joseph calls “the presumption of good will.” Good will implies at least that a person is following his conscience and trying to do what is right. The presumption of good will in the case of the Orthodox means that we would accept that they are probably trying to do what is right to the best of their ability. Now there are people who would not accept this presumption, even in the case of the Orthodox. Pope Leo XIII, for example, as we noted elsewhere, said that Catholicism is easily seen to be true, with the consequent suggestion that those who do not recognize that it is true are guilty.

A presumption of good will in the case of a dissenting Catholic is a different matter. On the one hand, it is an objectively reasonable presumption, just as in the case of the Orthodox. The majority of those who call themselves Catholics disagree with various teachings of the Church, and the reason they call themselves Catholics is not in order to adopt a set of intellectual positions, but in order to be members of a certain community. Thus “nearly everyone calling themselves Catholic is wicked for disagreeing with the Church” is nearly as outrageous as “the Orthodox are wicked for being outside the Church.”

On the other hand, the “precipice” results from the public acknowledgement of this situation, even though the situation is real whether it is acknowledged or not. If the Church openly says, “you can disagree with the Church even about important doctrines like the indissolubility of marriage without being in sin,” then many people, perhaps most people, will take this as permission to disagree with the Church about its definitive teachings. It would not be in fact such a permission, since the Church would still be maintaining that there is an objective obligation to accept its claims, but people would take it as such a permission in practice.

Pope Francis may also have chosen a singularly bad case in which to make this point. Human beings are not very reasonable in relation to sexuality, and it likely would not be rare to find someone who at first fully accepted the teaching of the Church on all matters, but later divorces and remarries, and from that point disagrees with the Church. Douthat himself raised the example of Henry VIII. Such a case looks suspiciously like a case of bad will.

Nonetheless, as a whole this situation is not simply a chance result of Pope Francis’s personal behavior, but a logical working out of the truth about the Church’s place in the world. I commented at the beginning of this post on the Second Vatican Council on “religious liberty and Judaism.” Douthat says that these are areas “seemed most like developments of doctrine.” But these developments too are harshly criticized by some. Thus for example the Society of St. Pius X, on a page devoted to rejecting religious liberty, says:

The saints have never hesitated to break idols, destroy their temples, or legislate against pagan or heretical practices. The Church—without ever forcing anyone to believe or be baptized—has always recognized its right and duty to protect the faith of her children and to impede, whenever possible, the public exercise and propagation of false cults. To accept the teaching of Vatican II is to grant that, for two millennia, the popes, saints, Fathers and Doctors of the Church, bishops, and Catholic kings have constantly violated the natural rights of men without anyone in the Church noticing. Such a thesis is as absurd as it is impious.

Regardless of what someone says on a theologically technical level in terms of the development of doctrine, there is surely some truth in their account of people’s past behavior, and of its contrast with more recent opinions. I noted the same thing in my own post on religious liberty.

The problem with the behavior described, of course, is that it presumes bad will on the part of the people who disagree with your religion, and this presumption is unreasonable. This is necessarily so, given the thesis of the “hidden God,” a thesis which is maintained by all religions, and which is necessary in order to suppose them to be true.

A tension however arises because the thesis of hiddenness is in obvious conflict with the thesis that a religion is easily seen to be true, openly stated by Leo XIII. The latter thesis is at least implicit in the whole former history of religious liberty. And it is most definitely implicit in modern traditionalism on the matter, as for example P. Edmund Waldstein’s explanation of integralism:

Catholic Integralism is a tradition of thought that rejects the liberal separation of politics from concern with the end of human life, holding that political rule must order man to his final goal. Since, however, man has both a temporal and an eternal end, integralism holds that there are two powers that rule him: a temporal power and a spiritual power. And since man’s temporal end is subordinated to his eternal end the temporal power must be subordinated to the spiritual power.

The problem here is that in order for the temporal power to accept this subordination, they must know about the higher end. If the truth is hidden, they will not know, and they will not accept the subordination, nor should they. And this is why integralism is false in practice, whatever one says about it in theory. (Brief summaries allow for brief refutations!)

It is not by chance that P. Edmund basically holds that the truth of Catholicism is supremely obvious. His integralism cannot be true, unless his “Catholicism is obvious” thesis is also true. Both are false.

One way or another, the thesis of hiddenness and the thesis of obviousness are in direct conflict and cannot both be accepted. P. Edmund rejects the hiddenness. Pope Francis, and most of the Catholic Church, rejects the obviousness. And ultimately Amoris Laetitia is simply drawing out consequences of this. If the truth of Catholicism is not obvious, it is not obvious even to Catholics, nor are particular doctrines, like the Church’s doctrine on marriage, obviously true.

One interesting result of all this is the situation of the Society of St. Pius X. There was speculation that Pope Francis would regularize the Society at the end of the Year of Mercy. This did not happen, although the Pope indefinitely extended the permission of the Society to hear confessions:

For the Jubilee Year I had also granted that those faithful who, for various reasons, attend churches officiated by the priests of the Priestly Fraternity of Saint Pius X, can validly and licitly receive the sacramental absolution of their sins.[15] For the pastoral benefit of these faithful, and trusting in the good will of their priests to strive with God’s help for the recovery of full communion in the Catholic Church, I have personally decided to extend this faculty beyond the Jubilee Year, until further provisions are made, lest anyone ever be deprived of the sacramental sign of reconciliation through the Church’s pardon.

What is currently lacking for “full communion”? I do not believe that the answer lies in the acceptance of any doctrine or opinion. The problem (possibly more an impediment on the part of the CDF than on the part of Pope Francis) is that the Society maintains that the Church is wrong about religious liberty and other matters, and that the Church’s teaching should be corrected, and they maintain this publicly, as a community, as in the page linked on religious liberty. As Pope Francis said, such a position “separates from the community.” The irony is that apart from “flaunting” their views, the position they reject is the very reason Pope Francis would accept them, without having to change their view of religious liberty or anything else.

One might ask whether or not the Church can survive a fall from Douthat’s precipice. I think that it can, but we will all learn the truth of the matter from experience, because the top of the precipice is behind, not ahead.

Beyond Redemption

While discussing the nature of moral obligation, I raised this objection to an Aristotelian account of ethics: if the “obliging” or “ought” part of moral claims simply means that it is necessary to do something for the sake of an end, then someone who does not desire the end does not need the means, or in other words, such people will be exempt from moral obligations.

I would not argue that this argument is completely false. In the last three posts,  I responded to the argument that Aristotelian ethics is too flexible, not by saying that it is not flexible, but by saying that it is right in being flexible. In a similar way, I do not deny that the above argument about means and end follows in some way. But the way in which it follows is not so unfitting as is supposed.

In Plato’s Meno, Socrates argues that all men desire the good, and that no one desires evil:

Soc. Well then, for my own sake as well as for yours, I will do my very best; but I am afraid that I shall not be able to give you very many as good: and now, in your turn, you are to fulfil your promise, and tell me what virtue is in the universal; and do not make a singular into a plural, as the facetious say of those who break a thing, but deliver virtue to me whole and sound, and not broken into a number of pieces: I have given you the pattern.

Men. Well then, Socrates, virtue, as I take it, is when he, who desires the honourable, is able to provide it for himself; so the poet says, and I say too-

Virtue is the desire of things honourable and the power of attaining them.

Soc. And does he who desires the honourable also desire the good?

Men. Certainly.

Soc. Then are there some who desire the evil and others who desire the good? Do not all men, my dear sir, desire good?

Men. I think not.

Soc. There are some who desire evil?

Men. Yes.

Soc. Do you mean that they think the evils which they desire, to be good; or do they know that they are evil and yet desire them?

Men. Both, I think.

Soc. And do you really imagine, Meno, that a man knows evils to be evils and desires them notwithstanding?

Men. Certainly I do.

Soc. And desire is of possession?

Men. Yes, of possession.

Soc. And does he think that the evils will do good to him who possesses them, or does he know that they will do him harm?

Men. There are some who think that the evils will do them good, and others who know that they will do them harm.

Soc. And, in your opinion, do those who think that they will do them good know that they are evils?

Men. Certainly not.

Soc. Is it not obvious that those who are ignorant of their nature do not desire them; but they desire what they suppose to be goods although they are really evils; and if they are mistaken and suppose the evils to be good they really desire goods?

Men. Yes, in that case.

Soc. Well, and do those who, as you say, desire evils, and think that evils are hurtful to the possessor of them, know that they will be hurt by them?

Men. They must know it.

Soc. And must they not suppose that those who are hurt are miserable in proportion to the hurt which is inflicted upon them?

Men. How can it be otherwise?

Soc. But are not the miserable ill-fated?

Men. Yes, indeed.

Soc. And does any one desire to be miserable and ill-fated?

Men. I should say not, Socrates.

Soc. But if there is no one who desires to be miserable, there is no one, Meno, who desires evil; for what is misery but the desire and possession of evil?

Men. That appears to be the truth, Socrates, and I admit that nobody desires evil.

In a similar way, St. Thomas says that all desire happiness in general, even if not according to its specific account:

I answer that, Happiness can be considered in two ways. First according to the general notion of happiness: and thus, of necessity, every man desires happiness. For the general notion of happiness consists in the perfect good, as stated above (3,4). But since good is the object of the will, the perfect good of a man is that which entirely satisfies his will. Consequently to desire happiness is nothing else than to desire that one’s will be satisfied. And this everyone desires. Secondly we may speak of Happiness according to its specific notion, as to that in which it consists. And thus all do not know Happiness; because they know not in what thing the general notion of happiness is found. And consequently, in this respect, not all desire it.

Of course there is something circular about desiring “that one’s will be satisfied,” because this means that there is something that one already wills. And according to what St. Thomas says here, that thing would be “the good” as the object of the will, and in particular “the perfect good.” So just as Socrates affirms that all desire the good and no one desires evil, so St. Thomas affirms that all desire the perfect good.

In this sense, we could argue that the original argument is moot, because all desire the end. Consequently all must choose the means which are necessary for the sake of the end, and thus no one is exempt from moral obligations.

This response is correct as far as it goes, but it is perhaps not a sufficiently complete account. While discussing expected utility theory, I pointed out that the theory assigns value only to events or situations, and not to actions or choices as such. We looked at this same distinction more directly in the post on doing and making. The fact of this distinction implies that occasionally it can happen that “doing good” and “causing good” can appear to come apart. Thus it might seem to me in a particular case that the world will be better off as a whole if I do something evil.

St. Paul discusses this idea:

But if our injustice serves to confirm the justice of God, what should we say? That God is unjust to inflict wrath on us? (I speak in a human way.) By no means! For then how could God judge the world? But if through my falsehood God’s truthfulness abounds to his glory, why am I still being condemned as a sinner? And why not say (as some people slander us by saying that we say), “Let us do evil so that good may come”? Their condemnation is deserved!

The idea is that God brings good out of the evil that we do, as for example in this case by manifesting the justice of God. But this suggests that the world is better off on account of the evil that we do. And someone might argue that it follows that we are not doing evil at all. St. Paul’s response is that “their condemnation is deserved.” It is not entirely evident whether he refers to people who do evil so that good may come, or to the people who assert that this is St. Paul’s position.

But either way, one thing is clear. “Doing evil so that good may come” is doing evil, not doing good; that is simply a tautology. And this is true even if good actually comes from it, and even if the world is better off as a whole when someone does evil.

This implies a difficulty for Socrates’s argument that everyone must desire good. For sometimes one good thing comes into conflict with another, so that both good and evil are present. And in that situation, a person may desire something which is evil, knowing it to be evil, but not because it is evil, but on account of the conjoined good. In the case we are considering, that would mean that someone might desire to do evil, not because it is doing evil, but still knowing that it is doing evil, on account of the good that comes from it. And it seems clear that this sometimes happens.

To the extent that someone does this, they will begin to become evil, in the sense and manner that this is possible, because they will begin to have an evil will. Of course, their will never becomes perfectly evil, because they only wish to do evil for the sake of good, not for the sake of evil, and presumably without that motivation they would still prefer to do good. Nonetheless, just as in other matters, a person can become accustomed to seeking one kind of good and neglecting another, and in this matter, the person becomes accustomed to seeking some good in the world, while neglecting his own good as a person.

Pope Benedict XVI, quoted in the linked post of the goodness of the will, speaks of the limit of such a process:

There can be people who have totally destroyed their desire for truth and readiness to love, people for whom everything has become a lie, people who have lived for hatred and have suppressed all love within themselves. This is a terrifying thought, but alarming profiles of this type can be seen in certain figures of our own history. In such people all would be beyond remedy and the destruction of good would be irrevocable: this is what we mean by the word Hell.

It is likely an exaggeration to suggest that a person can become so evil, in this sense, that it is literally impossible for them to return to goodness, so that “the destruction of good would be irrevocable.” Bad habits are acquired by individual actions, and it is presumably possible in principle for a person to acquire the opposite habits by an opposite series of actions. But it might be the case that for a few people, such a return is only a theoretical possibility, and not a reasonable possibility in practice.

But let us assume a case where it is entirely impossible. Pope Benedict points to the Catholic doctrine of hell as illustrating this case. Satan and the damned, in this sense, would be understood to be irrevocably evil. There is no way for them to return to the good.

And this is the case that we need to consider in order to consider the force of the original objection. Are Satan and the damned thought to be exempt from moral obligation? In a significant sense, they are. No one would bother himself about the fact that Satan is not repenting and doing good; the horror is precisely that this is impossible. Satan does not choose the means, a life of virtue, precisely because he is no longer interested in the end, at least not in any relevant sense.

The very extremity of this example shows that the objection is not so problematic after all. It would not apply to a real person unless they had already descended to a condition far below the human one. Real people continue to maintain some interest in good, and in doing good, no matter how much evil they do, and thus morality is relevant to them. Thus for example even serial killers sometimes express a certain amount of remorse, and show that they wish they could have had other desires and lived better lives.

Finally, even for someone unchangeably evil, doing evil remains doing evil, since the notion of the good comes before the notion of moral obligation.  But it is true that obligations as such would become irrelevant to them.

Good Will

St. Thomas explains what it means to call someone a good person:

He who has a will is said to be good, so far as he has a good will; because it is by our will that we employ whatever powers we may have. Hence a man is said to be good, not by his good understanding; but by his good will.

This is primarily a recognition that this is how people actually speak. When we talk about a good person, we do not mean someone who understands things well, or someone who plays the piano well, or someone who is good at driving a car, but someone who has a good will: someone who loves, wishes for, and chooses good things. But in addition to recognizing how we normally speak, St. Thomas is trying to explain why we speak this way. A good piano is a piano that functions well as a piano, and in a similar way, a good person would be someone who functions well as a person. And since the will guides all human activities, a person functions well who has a good will, and a person functions badly who has a bad will.

Pope Benedict XVI, in his encylical Spe Salvi, speaks of such conditions of the human will:

Our choice, which in the course of an entire life takes on a certain shape, can have a variety of forms. There can be people who have totally destroyed their desire for truth and readiness to love, people for whom everything has become a lie, people who have lived for hatred and have suppressed all love within themselves. This is a terrifying thought, but alarming profiles of this type can be seen in certain figures of our own history. In such people all would be beyond remedy and the destruction of good would be irrevocable: this is what we mean by the word Hell. On the other hand there can be people who are utterly pure, completely permeated by God, and thus fully open to their neighbours—people for whom communion with God even now gives direction to their entire being and whose journey towards God only brings to fulfilment what they already are.

Yet we know from experience that neither case is normal in human life. For the great majority of people—we may suppose—there remains in the depths of their being an ultimate interior openness to truth, to love, to God. In the concrete choices of life, however, it is covered over by ever new compromises with evil—much filth covers purity, but the thirst for purity remains and it still constantly re-emerges from all that is base and remains present in the soul.

The implication here is that most people are basically good at a fundamental level. They have a good will simply speaking, even if not in every respect. Some Catholics might object to Pope Benedict’s position, saying that it is not easily reconciled with previous Catholic teaching, much in the way that James Larson condemns Amoris Laetitia. If people remain fundamentally good as long as they have not “lived for hatred and have suppressed all love within themselves,” it is not easy to see how this can be reconciled with Pope John Paul II’s teaching in Veritatis Splendor when he condemns theories that separate a fundamental option from particular acts:

67. These tendencies are therefore contrary to the teaching of Scripture itself, which sees the fundamental option as a genuine choice of freedom and links that choice profoundly to particular acts. By his fundamental choice, man is capable of giving his life direction and of progressing, with the help of grace, towards his end, following God’s call. But this capacity is actually exercised in the particular choices of specific actions, through which man deliberately conforms himself to God’s will, wisdom and law. It thus needs to be stated that the so-called fundamental option, to the extent that it is distinct from a generic intention and hence one not yet determined in such a way that freedom is obligated, is always brought into play through conscious and free decisions. Precisely for this reason, it is revoked when man engages his freedom in conscious decisions to the contrary, with regard to morally grave matter.

The idea here is that if someone does something seriously wrong, even in an individual case, the person becomes a bad person simply speaking. This does not seem to fit very well with Pope Benedict’s suggestion, which seems to imply that someone can become truly evil only through a long process which eliminates love and goodness from their life.

The tension here is real. I have touched on this issue elsewhere, as for example while discussing the human tendency to divide people into “good people” and “bad people.” Nonetheless, it is presumably possible to reconcile these statements at least in a technical sense, much as I showed that Pope Francis does not contradict Catholic doctrine in Amoris Laetitia

In any case, common sense is enough to tell us that being a “good person” is to some extent a matter of degree. Most people care about doing good to some extent, even if some care more than others, and most people wish to avoid evil, even if they do not avoid every evil, and even if they have no wish to avoid certain particular evils.

 

Contradicting You and Contradicting Myself

Perhaps the most blatant form of confusing the mode of knowing and the mode of being  is to argue, “I think that X is true. Therefore X is actually true.” It would be rare, of course, that anyone would argue this way so explicitly. However, it is not unheard of for someone to argue more or less in this way:

  1. I believe that X is true. You believe that it is not.
  2. If you were right, X would be false.
  3. But X is true.
  4. Therefore X would be both true and false, which is impossible.
  5. Therefore you are not right, and X is true.

This comes to the same thing as the original argument, since “but X is true” is simply being taken from “I believe that X is true.” Evidently, if X were false, X would not be true, despite the fact that the arguer believes that it is true.

On his website, The War Against Being, James Larson frequently makes arguments which amount to such attempted arguments by reductio. In a sense he puts this argument into the very title of his website: who is fighting a war against being and what does this mean? The beginning of his first article gives some indications:

It is conventional, contemporary wisdom that there is probably nothing more detached from reality, and nothing more inconsequential to the real events of this world, than is the study or promotion of the discipline of philosophy – and especially that highest branch of philosophy which is called ontology, the science of being. All that follows is meant to be a refutation of this “wisdom.” The road which I shall take will not, for the most part, be the technical world of the professional philosopher – this of necessity, simply because I am not one. There is an even greater necessity which hopefully will justify my presumption as a layman in treating of the metaphysical reality of being, and the war which has been and is being waged against it, and which now seems virtually universally victorious.

It might seem that there is a reasonable explanation for his title here. His opponents (“conventional, contemporary wisdom”) are against philosophy. But philosophy is about being. Therefore his opponents are against being.

This argument is not technically valid even given the premises, because even if philosophy is about being, someone who is against the use of philosophy is not necessarily opposed to being. And in any case, one of his premises is that “philosophy is about being,” and the position of his opponents, as he describes it himself, is that philosophy is “detached from reality,” and consequently, according to them, it is not about being. So “war against being” is a polemical description of his opponent’s position, and involves the assumption that his own position is actually true. In the end it comes to little more than this: “Some people disagree with me. But I am right, and my position truly describes being as it is. So those people are opposed to being as it is.”

At various points, Larson accuses his opponents of contradicting themselves. For example, in article 12 he says:

Our analysis of the writings of Joseph Ratzinger, up to this point, has revealed that he has subjected his theological and philosophical thinking to the influence of reductive analytical physics, and that this surrender has necessitated the denial of traditional Catholic teaching in three main areas: the denial of substance; the denial of the law of self-contradiction; and the denial of the nature of dogma as objective, unchanging truth.

The last-mentioned denial – the denial that truth is immutable and non-evolving – is a direct consequence of the belief enshrined in the quote from Father Ratzinger which I offered earlier: “Revelation now appeared no longer simply as a communication of truths to the intellect but as a historical action of God in which truth becomes gradually unveiled.” This is in direct contradiction to the teaching of Vatican Council I:

“For the doctrine of faith which God has revealed has not been proposed, like a philosophical invention, to be perfected by human ingenuity; but has been delivered as a divine deposit to the Spouse of Christ, to be faithfully kept and infallibly declared. Hence also, that meaning of the sacred dogmas is perpetually to be retained which our holy Mother the Church has once declared; nor is that meaning ever to be departed from, under the pretext of a deeper comprehension of them.

The Oath Against Modernism contained the following affirmation:

“Fourthly, I sincerely hold that the doctrine of faith was handed down to us from the apostles through the orthodox Fathers in exactly the same meaning and always in the same purport. Therefore, I entirely reject the heretical misrepresentation that dogmas evolve and change from one meaning to another different from the one which the Church held previously. I also condemn every error according to which, in place of the divine deposit which has been given to the spouse of Christ to be carefully guarded by her, there is put a philosophical figment or product of a human conscience that has gradually been developed by human effort and will continue to develop indefinitely.

We can know with certainty that Joseph Ratzinger took this oath. We can know with equal certainty that he has violated it in its deepest meaning.

While one of his three denials is “the denial of the law of self-contradiction” (meaning non-contradiction), the third is “the denial of the nature of dogma as objective, unchanging truth.” In the following sentence, he equates this with “the denial that truth is immutable and non-evolving.” Notice that these are not the same: one can deny that dogma is objective, unchanging truth, without saying that truth is mutable or evolving. Larson’s equating the two does not seem to be accidental. Rather, the argument is that dogma is actually objective and unchanging truth: therefore saying that dogma can change, means that truth itself can change. This argument has almost the precise form of the original reductio we considered.

Later in the same article, Larson comments on Ratzinger’s position on science and faith, and on original sin:

Science, according to Joseph Ratzinger and the historical-critical method of exegesis, has shown us clearly the degree to which scripture is largely composed of human fabrications expressive of the theological-fictive or magical mindset of those persons who composed the scriptures. Because of the primitive intellectual state of these peoples, we are therefore required – in order to distinguish between what is truly from God and what is of human invention – to distinguish between form and content in any particular passage of scripture. Content can simply be defined to be the “spiritual” message which God wishes to pass on to us, while form is constituted by all the rest which is conditioned by particular historical circumstances, literary genres, etc.

Thus, in Faith and the Future, Cardinal Ratzinger applies this historical-critical method to the first 3 chapters of the Book of Genesis:

“The difficulty begins with the very first page of the Bible. The concept presented there of how the world came to be, is in direct contradiction of all that we know today about the origins of the universe….And the problem continues, almost page by page….in the very next chapter new problems emerge with the story of the Fall. How can one bring this into harmony with the knowledge that – on the evidence of natural science – man starts not from above, but from below, does not fall, but slowly rises, even now having only just accomplished the metamorphosis from animal to human being? And what of paradise? Long before man existed, pain and death were in the world. Thistles and thorns grew long before any man had set eyes on them. And another thing: the first man was scarcely self-conscious, knew only privation and the wearisome struggle to survive. He was far from possessing the full endowment of reason, which the old doctrine of paradise attributes to him. But once the picture of paradise and the Fall has been broken in pieces, the notion of original sin goes with it, to be followed logically, it would seem, by the notion of redemption as well.”(page 5-7)

It is certainly no wonder, therefore, that Cardinal Ratzinger, in his book In the Beginning…A Catholic Understanding of the Story of Creation and the Fall, labeled the term original sin as a “certainly imprecise and misleading term”, and then proceeded to describe it as something which is contracted after birth through our relationships with others, and therefore through imitation, rather than it being something inherited at the moment of conception through generation (see my article Point of Departure in Christian Order, March 2004).

While Larson should not be trusted in anything he says about Ratzinger, or about anything really, his description of Ratzinger’s position on original sin is especially inaccurate. Ratzinger actually says this:

Finding an answer to this requires nothing less than trying to understand the human person better. It must once again be stressed that no human being is closed in upon himself or herself and that no one can live of or for himself or herself alone. We receive our life not only at the moment of birth but every day from without —from others who are not ourselves but who nonetheless somehow pertain to us. Human beings have their selves not only in themselves but also outside of themselves: they live in those whom they love and in those who love them and to whom they are “present.” Human beings are relational, and they possess their lives—themselves—only by way of relationship. I alone am not myself, but only in and with you am I myself. To be truly a human being means to be related in love, to be of and for. But sin means the damaging or the destruction of relationality. Sin is a rejection of relationality because it wants to make the human being a god. Sin is loss of relationship, disturbance of relationship, and therefore it is not restricted to the individual. When I destroy a relationship, then this event—sin —touches the other person involved in the relationship. Consequently sin is always an offense that touches others, that alters the world and damages it. To the extent that this is true, when the network of human relationships is damaged from the very beginning, then every human being enters into a world that is marked by relational damage. At the very moment that a person begins human existence, which is a good, he or she is confronted by a sin-damaged world. Each of us enters into a situation in which relationality has been hurt. Consequently each person is, from the very start, damaged in relationships and does not engage in them as he or she ought. Sin pursues the human being, and he or she capitulates to it.

“Every human being enters into a world that is marked by relational damage,” does not speak about something that happens after birth, but something that happens at the beginning of one’s existence. Larson seems to seem speak of the end of the passage, but it is easy to see that Ratzinger is speaking there of personal sin, not original sin. It is simply wrong to say that he describes original sin as something acquired after birth.

It is not unreasonable to ask whether this understanding of original sin is consistent with the traditional doctrine. Larson, however, rather than questioning, simply believes that it is manifestly inconsistent with that doctrine. He goes on to say:

The third stage in the evolution of human thought, the one which we are in right now, and which has made necessary the “essentialization” of the other two historical periods of human spirituality and thought, is the “positivistic,” or scientific, stage. This is the stage which, according to Fr. Ratzinger, is the defining mentality of our age:

“It seems incontrovertible that today the mentality described by Comte is that of a very large section of human society. The question about God no longer finds any place in human thought. To take up a well-known saying of Laplace, the context of the world is self-contained and the hypothesis of God is no longer necessary for its comprehension. Even the faithful, like travelers on a sinking ship, are becoming widely affected by an uneasy feeling: they are asking if the Christian faith has any future, or if it is not, in fact, more and more obviously being made obsolete by intellectual evolution. Behind such notions is the sense that a great gulf is developing between the world of faith and the world of science – a gulf that cannot be bridged, so that faith is made very largely impracticable.” (Ibid, p. 4-5)

Because of this “gulf” which exists between the traditional faith and the world of science, Father Ratzinger informs us that the “plethora of definitions” which the Church has “accumulated in the course of history” has become a “burden.” The irreconcilable nature of such dogmas with the modern positivistic and scientific intellectual consciousness makes the traditional content of the faith “oppressive” to the modern believer. Thus we are faced with the supposed necessity of either setting aside these doctrines as historically provisional, or of engaging in a task of “essentialization” which seeks to determine what constitutes the “content” behind the “form” of such definitions, and therefore altering the traditional understanding of the terms used in these definitions. This, of course, is precisely what Cardinal Ratzinger did in regard to the terms “original sin” and “transubstantiation.”

I think we must pause at this moment to understand the broader implications of these teachings. Any truly “sensitive” Catholic, if he accepts the truth of Joseph Ratzinger’s analysis and conclusions, should feel betrayed not only by the Church but also by God. This betrayal is multi-leveled. The Bible, which for two thousand years was considered to be inspired and a totally reliable source of truths on all levels of man’s existence is now shredded of virtually all meaning except the symbolical and the allegorical. Catholic dogma which was the absolute sure foundation of faith, and especially catechetical instruction of the young, is now to be essentialized, even to the point of self-contradiction. But even more importantly, the entire traditional understanding of the epistemological structure of the human intellect has now been negated.

Larson believes that Ratzinger has “altered the traditional understanding” of transubstantiation and original sin. And he describes this as “Catholic dogma which was the absolute sure foundation of faith, and especially catechetical instruction of the young, is now to be essentialized, even to the point of self-contradiction.” Note the point about self-contradiction. In reality, there is nothing contradictory in Ratzinger’s account of original sin, whether or not it is consistent with the traditional doctrine. If the traditional account contains mistaken elements, and Ratzinger’s account corrects those elements, this is not a contradiction unless you assume that those elements are also true. And this is the attempted reductio, “If you were right, X would be false. But X is true, so X would be both true and false. Therefore you are not right.”

Larson is arguing in a similar style when he says that the “structure of the human intellect has now been negated.” He continues:

At the core of all traditional Catholic understanding of both Who God is and also the nature of man, lies the fundamental Biblical idea that man is created in the image of God with an intellect and will that truly reflect, through the analogy of being, God’s intellect and will.

St. Thomas is very specific in this regard. He writes:

“We must needs say that the human soul knows all things in the eternal types, since by participation of these types we know all things. For the intellectual light itself which is in us, is nothing else than a participated likeness of the uncreated light, in which are created the eternal types,”(Pt. I, Q. 84, A.5).

The world of St. Thomas (and therefore the world of traditional Catholicism) is a trustworthy world, because it is a world in which man – his senses, mind and heart – are intimately connected to and reflective of Who God is, and also basically reliable in their knowledge of His creation. It is under such conditions of reliability and correspondence to an objective order of Truth, that trust truly takes root, and hope flourishes.

The world of Joseph Ratzinger, on the other hand, is one in which the disconnect between the human intellect and objective reality and truth is a fundamentally proven fact of historical evolution. It is one in which there is little harmony between human perception and objective reality. The obvious logical conclusion of postulating such a world is that God created man with an intellect oriented towards delusion – towards the perception of shadows that mask reality.

We were led by God and His Church for 2,000 years to believe in creation ex nihilo, in the unique creation of man with a spiritual soul, in an original Paradise free from death and sin, in original sin, in Noah and his ark, in the divine inspiration present in every word of scripture, in sanctifying grace, and in transubstantiation. We are now told these are the “forms” of particular stages in the evolution of human consciousness which must be abandoned or essentialized because they were only provisional expressions of truths which always go beyond the ability of the human intellect to grasp. And it is in the midst of this world of delusions that Fr. Ratzinger asks us now to forget about God and reality as being knowable, and informs us that our new form of faith is not to be founded in knowledge, but rather in trust (we shall examine this point in a moment). One is left with the inevitable question: Why should a man or woman trust such a God?

It is hard to see what Ratzinger has said, even according to Larson’s polemical understanding, which can be taken to imply that “God created man with an intellect oriented towards delusion.” And here we perhaps implicitly have what I characterized as the most blatant form of confusing thought and reality, “I think that X is true. Therefore X is actually true.” Larson’s true argument, it seems, is something like this: “If Ratzinger is right, then I am mistaken about many things. And that means that God must have created me with an intellect oriented to delusion.” When he says, “The world of St. Thomas (and therefore the world of traditional Catholicism) is a trustworthy world, because it is a world in which man – his senses, mind and heart – are intimately connected to and reflective of Who God is, and also basically reliable in their knowledge of His creation,” Larson really means to say that he himself is basically reliable in his knowledge of God and the world. Since God created him with an intellect oriented to truth, it follows that “I believe X. Therefore X is true,” is a good and reasonable argument. And if it turns out that he was wrong about X, it follows that God did not create him with an intellect oriented to truth.

Let us be clear, then. Saying that you are mistaken does not mean that I am contradicting myself, if I do not accept your position in the first place. I contradict you, not myself. Likewise, opposing your positions and policies does not mean that I am waging a “war against being,” if I do not think that your positions correspond to being or reality in the first place.

 

Easter for Unbelievers

In the atheist blogosphere today, one finds a somewhat embarrassed acknowledgement of the feast of Easter. Thus for example Brian Leiter says, “Happy Easter… from the Antichrist,” namely himself, and John Loftus says, “Since I don’t think anything significant happened on Easter I’m not treating it as a special day.”

There are a number of problems with this attitude.

First, it is self-refuting. If Loftus thinks that Easter shouldn’t be treated as a special day, then he should not treat it as a special day, which means that he should not go out of his way to mention it.

Second, as I pointed out in an earlier post, whether you should treat the traditions of your ancestors with respect is a different question from the question of whether the beliefs of your ancestors were true. Loftus assumes that if you think the response to the latter question is negative, you should also think that response to the former question is negative. But this is an unjustified assumption, and is unlikely to be true. It is however typical of Loftus, who frequently attempts to justify his practice of ridiculing believers.

Third, there is a more basic point concerning the celebration of feasts and holidays in general. The meaning of the feast is never wholly exhausted by the historical particulars on which it is based. Francis Hunt says about the case of Easter,

In my own personal journey – for I was born and raised a Catholic – it was the realization that I did not, in fact, believe in the resurrection of Jesus from the dead which led me to stop referring to myself as a Christian, even before I was willing to admit to myself that I did not believe in God either. I still have great admiration for the figure of Jesus, for much of the message he preached, for his integrity, his courage, his gentleness, his insights into life and human nature, his radical message of how we could find a way to live as individuals and communally by following better, more noble ideals than those of competition with and dominance over each other. But none of this makes me a Christian, for I do not believe (have faith) that he was the son of God who died, was buried and on the third day rose from the dead.

All of this said, I do not believe that Easter is irrelevant, or that we should not celebrate it. One of the strengths of Christianity (as of all great religions) is its ability to take the most central human experiences and weave them into a narrative which gives us eternally sense-seeking humans some kinds of answers to the questions and mysteries which we constantly experience in living our lives. From our first emergence into (self-)consciousness hundreds of thousands of years ago up to the last handful or two of decades, our human experience has been existentially and immanently connected with the basic course of nature, the year, the seasons. Winter is that season where our survival, our very existence is acutely threatened – it is that time where it is often extremely difficult to find enough nourishment and shelter from the elements to just continue living. If spring does not come soon we will die. And when the days finally become longer and warmer, when nature finally produces enough new life to ensure that we will not starve, that is surely a reason for celebrating. Moreover, having survived a time where much of the world seemed cold and bare and lifeless, it is natural that our thoughts should turn to the cycle of dying and the birth of new life out of that death.

Although Christians like to think that their story is original, nearly all the memes which are gathered together in the Easter narrative are general human ones which can be found in many religions and philosophies; death and the triumph of life over death, the strength of weakness, the suffering of the righteous and their vindication, the belief that justice is ultimately stronger than human power constellations, the sacrifice of the gentle king for the good of the land and the people, even the incarnate god. What makes Christianity unique is its insistence on the essential historicity of its teaching and its consequent claim to universal validity and truth.

As a non-believer I can still be touched and moved by the powerful drama and deep insights into life and the human condition contained in the Easter story. I can find inspiration in a message which proclaims hope beyond hopelessness, vindication beyond failure, new joy beyond despair. Where I cannot journey with the Christians is their assertion that their narrative is a basically factual statement of a particular, explicit, essential intervention of an all-powerful, all-loving God into history with reality-transforming ontological consequences on a cosmic – and even para-cosmic eternal (beyond all space and time) – level. And, of course, it is precisely this assertion which is the heart of the message for Christians.

I am aware that many believers may see my position as impoverished. If their belief should be true, then they are right. I can remember my own years as a believer (or, more accurately, as one who wanted to believe), I can remember the impression of desolation and emptiness I had when the sacrament was moved to a side-altar, the empty tabernacle door left heart-achingly open, the cross on the altar draped in a purple shroud. I remember the feeling of joy and lightness spreading through a darkened church during the Easter Vigil on Holy Saturday night as the Easter fire is kindled, the Easter candle lit from it and then the light springing from candle to candle in the church, accompanied by the thrice-repeated responsory, Lumen Christi – Deo Gratias. Much of this is, of course, wonderfully staged theatre, (holy) smoke and mirrors, but the feelings induced are none the less real for all that. There is a deep part of us which has a need for, and responds to ritual and solemnity and the only demand I would place on such ritual is that it should be honestly and well done.

Hunt is not using very precise language here, but his basic point is that Easter is not exhausted by the particular claim that Jesus rose from the dead, but the feast is also meant to express certain universal truths. And this would be a sufficient reason for a person to celebrate the feast of Easter, even if they do not believe the particular historical claim about Jesus.

The basic issue is that if a feast had no meaning apart from historical particulars, then there would no reason for us to celebrate it, just as I do not institute a feast to celebrate the fact that I ate breakfast on January 1st, 1990. In a similar way, in the second volume of his work Jesus of Nazareth, Joseph Ratzinger says about the resurrection of Jesus,

Now it must be acknowledged that if in Jesus’ Resurrection we were dealing simply with the miracle of a resuscitated corpse, it would ultimately be of no concern to us. For it would be no more important than the resuscitation of a clinically dead person through the art of doctors. For the world as such and for our human existence, nothing would have changed.

Ratzinger goes on to assert that the resurrection of Jesus changes the world in ways that are likely to be denied by unbelievers. And here there may be a real issue. Every feast and holiday is intended to celebrate universal truths, not merely historical particulars. But that does not necessarily imply that the purported universal truths are actually universal truths: they may be partial truths, or even complete falsehoods. And in that case, one might indeed question whether the feast should be celebrated at all.

One response is that the feast almost certainly has more than one meaning, and consequently one can concentrate on the true meanings. Thus Francis Hunt, in the quoted passage, gives his attention to things which will be likely to be accepted by unbelievers.

But I would argue instead that the principal meaning of Easter is actually true, even in a way which is accessible to unbelievers. Fr. Thomas Bolin, in a homily for one of the Sundays of Lent, explains the joy of Easter:

Today, the fourth Sunday of Lent, is traditionally called “Laetare Sunday”, for the introit of today’s Mass, which begins with the words “Laetare, Jerusalem.” This day is similar to “Gaudete Sunday”, the third Sunday of Advent. For these two Sundays, we wear rose vestments instead of violet, and each Sunday is around the middle of the season. Therefore, today, in the heart of Lent, we begin to anticipate the joy of Easter.

The texts of today’s liturgy express this joy in particular with the image of the joy of the Jerusalem freed from her oppressors. Not only the introit, but also the gradual, “Laetatus sum”, the tract, “Qui confidunt”, which the schola sang before the Gospel, and also the chant for communion, “Jerusalem quae aedificatur ut civitas” (meaning, “Jerusalem, which is built as a city”); all these make reference to Jerusalem and the joy of living there in peace and freedom.

St. Paul, in the first reading, explains that Jerusalem, the physical city, is not such a perfect and happy place. Instead, he says that the physical Jerusalem is a slave, while only “that Jerusalem which is above, is free” (Gal 4:26). Therefore, the true joy of Jerusalem is the happiness of the heavenly city. This joy is the same as that of Easter, which we eagerly anticipate, because with His death and resurrection, Jesus opened the gates of Paradise.

I have been in Jerusalem and can testify that St. Paul’s claims remain true to this day. Even if it is not “a slave” to the Romans, it remains a rather unhappy city. However, an objection might arise at his point. I claimed above that the meaning of Easter is accessible to unbelievers. But if the joy of Easter is the joy of the heavenly city, then it seems to be inaccessible to unbelievers, or at least to those who do not believe in the existence of heaven.

But even this depends on how you understand the heavenly Jerusalem itself. It is possible to look at this in the sense of ideal form which we strive to imitate as perfectly as possible. In this way, in chapter 6 of his work On the Perfection of the Spiritual Life, St. Thomas says that one should strive for heavenly virtue even in this life:

When St. Paul had said, “Not as though I had already attained, or were already perfect,” and, “but I follow after, if I may by any means lay hold,” he added shortly afterwards, “Let us therefore, as many as are perfect, be thus minded.” From these words we can see that although the perfection of the blessed is not possible to us in this life, we ought, to strive to imitate it as far as we can. And it is in this that the perfection of this life consists to which we are invited by the counsels.

For it is manifest that the human heart is more intensely drawn to one thing, to the degree that it is drawn back from many things. Thus the more a man is freed from the affection for temporal things, the more perfectly his mind will be borne to loving God. Hence St. Augustine says that “the desire of temporal things is the poison of charity; the growth of charity is the diminishment of cupidity, and the perfection of charity is no cupidity.” (Eighty-Three Questions, Book 83, Quest. 1). Therefore all the counsels, which invite us to perfection, aim at this, that man’s mind be turned away from affection to temporal objects, so that his mind may tend more freely to God, by contemplating him, loving him, and fulfilling his will.

It is possible to strive for perfection in this way whether or not “the perfection of the blessed” is something that exists in the real world. And it is possible for someone to view the perfection of the heavenly Jerusalem in a similar way, namely as an ideal form that the world strives for, but that it actually achieves only to a limited degree.

There are of course unbelievers who would deny even this sort of perfection, except as something that human beings invent for themselves. Richard Dawkins is a good example, since he asserts that reality is intrinsically “indifferent,” rather than ordered towards good. Someone who consistently holds such a position would indeed have no reason to celebrate Easter. But such a person equally would have no reason to do anything at all, since as I said in the linked post, if there is no purpose to life “at bottom,” there would likely be no purpose worth pursuing, even on the surface.

But in fact the world is ordered towards good, and tends to achieve it, although not perfectly, and it also tends to get better, as I have argued elsewhere. This implies that the joy of Easter has a meaning which is accessible to unbelievers, and can be a reason for them to celebrate the feast, much as Francis Hunt argues, although his argument is a bit vaguer. Of course, a believer is likely to respond that this would be a vastly diminished understanding of Easter. And this is true: as Hunt says, “I am aware that many believers may see my position as impoverished. If their belief should be true, then they are right.” But this is hardly a reason for the believer to say, “You aren’t allowed to celebrate Easter unless you believe all of it,” nor for the unbeliever to say, “Since I don’t think anything significant happened on Easter I’m not treating it as a special day.”

This is why, despite my personal opinions, I attended an Easter Vigil liturgy last night; why I just finished listening to a rendering of the Exultet; and why in general I am not embarrassed at all by the celebration of Easter.

In that spirit, happy Easter to all!

 

Hidden God

Porphyry, arguing against the resurrection of Christ, comments on the appearance to Mary Magdalene:

There is also another argument whereby this corrupt opinion can be refuted. I mean the argument about that Resurrection of His which is such common talk everywhere, as to why Jesus, after His suffering and rising again (according to your story), did not appear to Pilate who punished Him and said He had done nothing worthy of death, or to Herod King of the Jews, or to the High-priest of the Jewish race, or to many men at the same time and to such as were worthy of credit, and more particularly among Romans both in the Senate and among the people. The purpose would be that, by their wonder at “the things concerning Him, they might not pass a vote of death against Him by common consent, which implied the impiety of those who were obedient to Him. But He appeared to Mary Magdalene, a coarse woman who came from some wretched little village, and had once been possessed by seven demons, and with her another utterly obscure Mary, who was herself a peasant woman, and a few other people who were not at all well known. And that, although He said: “Henceforth shall ye see the Son of man sitting on the right hand of power, and coming with the clouds.” For if He had shown Himself to men of note, all would believe through them, and no judge would punish them as fabricating monstrous stories. For surely it is neither pleasing to God nor to any sensible man that many should be subjected on His account to punishments of the gravest kind.

If the argument is that Christ should have appeared to rich people rather than to poor people, or to the government rather than to common people, and it seems that this may be Porphyry’s actual intention, his argument is rather weak, especially given things that Christ says in the Gospels about the rich and the poor.

But on the other hand, if one understands his argument to be concerned with the fact that Jesus appeared to his friends and disciples rather than to others, the argument is significantly better, because this is what we would expect in the case of a fraud on the part of the disciples. In fact, there are many situations where most people would assume the existence of fraud with this kind of testimony. For example, Joseph Smith managed to get eleven people to swear that they saw the golden plates on which he supposedly received his revelation,  but most people remain unconvinced by this, since there is little reason to think that his witnesses are unbiased.

Of course, things are more complicated in the case of Christ, since for example we have the testimony of St. Paul, who was originally not a disciple. Nonetheless, the argument is meaningful and should not simply be dismissed.

In fact, a reasonable Christian response to this argument requires a particular idea of Christ’s intentions. Porphyry speaks under the assumption that Christ wanted to convince everyone: “For if He had shown Himself to men of note, all would believe through them.” Whether or not this method is sufficient, it is certainly the case that appearing to enough people and in enough ways would have convinced everyone. For that matter, Christ could have stayed on the earth for two hundred years instead of ascending to heaven, in order to ensure that everyone would believe in him, including Porphyry, if that had been his goal. In other words, the implication is that Porphyry was wrong about Christ’s intentions: Christ did not intend to convince everyone.

Given various things Christ says in the Gospels, this is not an unreasonable interpretation of his intentions. For example, he says,

Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.

For I have come to set a man against his father,
and a daughter against her mother,
and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law;
and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household.

Likewise, he suggests that not all are intended to understand:

The reason I speak to them in parables is that ‘seeing they do not perceive, and hearing they do not listen, nor do they understand.’ With them indeed is fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah that says:

‘You will indeed listen, but never understand,
    and you will indeed look, but never perceive.
For this people’s heart has grown dull,
    and their ears are hard of hearing,
        and they have shut their eyes;
        so that they might not look with their eyes,
    and listen with their ears,
and understand with their heart and turn—
    and I would heal them.’

But blessed are your eyes, for they see, and your ears, for they hear.

Isaiah says, “Truly, you are a God who hides himself, O God of Israel, the Savior.” In a similar way, the Christian understanding of the cross and resurrection implies the existence of a hidden truth that is, by design, only made known to some.

People arguing against Christianity might suggest that “ultimately perhaps this way of viewing things is only a trick of the church and of theologians who have run out of solutions but do not want to admit it, and now they are looking for something to hide behind,” as Cardinal Ratzinger puts it.

And on the other hand, the Christian might suggest that given this position, things that seemed unfavorable to his position, such as the three issues mentioned in the linked post, are now favorable to it. Since the truth of Christianity is something intentionally hidden, such things are just what we would expect.

But both of these arguments, the Christian and the non-Christian, are wrong.

Ratzinger’s Response

Ratzinger  begins to respond to the difficulties he has raised:

So now we still have to ask: Is the distinction between the image and what is intended to be expressed only an evasion, because we can no longer rely on the text even though we still want to make something of it, or are there criteria from the Bible itself that attest to this distinction? Does it give us access to indications of this sort, and did the faith of the church know of these indications in the past and acknowledge them?

Let us look at Holy Scripture anew with these questions in mind. There we can determine first of all that the creation account in Genesis 1, which we have just heard, is not, from its very beginning, something that is closed in on itself. Indeed, Holy Scripture in its entirety was not written from beginning to end like a novel or a textbook. It is, rather, the echo of God’s history with his people. It arose out of the struggles and the vagaries of this history, and all through it we can catch a glimpse of the rises and falls, the sufferings and hopes, and the greatness and failures of this history. The Bible is thus the story of God’s struggle with human beings to make himself understandable to them over the course of time; but it is also the story of their struggle to seize hold of God over the course of time. Hence the theme of creation is not set down once for all in one place; rather, it accompanies Israel throughout its history, and, indeed, the whole Old Testament is a journeying with the Word of God. Only in the process of this journeying was the Bible’s real way of declaring itself formed, step by step. Consequently we ourselves can only discover where this way is leading if we follow it to the end. In this respect—as a way—the Old and New Testaments belong together. For the Christian the Old Testament represents, in its totality, an advance toward Christ; only when it attains to him does its real meaning, which was gradually hinted at, become clear. Thus every individual part derives its meaning from the whole, and the whole derives its meaning from its end—from Christ. Hence we only interpret an individual text theologically correctly (as the fathers of the church recognized and as the faith of the church in every age has recognized) when we see it as a way that is leading us ever forward, when we see in the text where this way is tending and what its inner direction is.

After a discussion of the history of Israel and its understanding of creation in relation to that of Babylon, he says:

I just said how, gradually, in confronting its pagan environment and its own heart, the people of Israel experienced what “creation” was. Implicit here is the fact that the classic creation account is not the only creation text of sacred Scripture. Immediately after it there follows another one, composed earlier and containing other imagery.

Here he is referring to Genesis 1 and Genesis 2 as distinct creation accounts.

In the Psalms there are still others, and there the movement to clarify the faith concerning creation is carried further: In its confrontation with Hellenistic civilization, Wisdom literature reworks the theme without sticking to the old images such as the seven days.  Thus we can see how the Bible itself constantly re-adapts its images to a continually developing way of thinking, how it changes time and again in order to bear witness, time and again, to the one thing that has come to it, in truth, from God’s Word, which is the message of his creating act. In the Bible itself the images are free and they correct themselves ongoingly. In this way they show, by means of a gradual and interactive process, that they are only images, which reveal something deeper and greater.

One decisive fact must still be mentioned at this point: The Old Testament is not the end of the road. What is worked out in the so-called Wisdom literature is the final bridge on a long road that leads to the message of Jesus Christ and to the New Testament. Only there do we find the conclusive and normative scriptural creation account, which reads: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…. All things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made” (John 1:1, 3). John quite consciously took up here once again the first words of the Bible and read the creation account anew, with Christ, in order to tell us definitively what the Word is which appears throughout the Bible and with which God desires to shake our hearts. Thus it becomes clear to us that we Christians do not read the Old Testament for its own sake but always with Christ and through Christ. Consequently the law of Moses, the rituals of purification, the regulations concerning food, and all other such things are not to be carried out by us; otherwise the biblical Word would be senseless and meaningless. We read all of this not as if it were something complete in itself. We read it with him in whom all things have been fulfilled and in whom all of its validity and truth are revealed. Therefore we read the law, like the creation account, with him; and from him (and not from some subsequently discovered trick) we know what God wished over the course of centuries to have gradually penetrate the human heart and soul. Christ frees us from the slavery of the letter, and precisely thus does he give back to us, renewed, the truth of the images.

The ancient church and the church of the Middle Ages also knew this. They knew that the Bible is a whole and that we only understand its truth when we understand it with Christ in mind—with the freedom that he bestowed on us and with the profundity whereby he reveals what is enduring through images. Only at the beginning of the modern era was this dynamic forgotten—this dynamic that is the living unity of Scripture, which we can only understand with Christ in the in the freedom that he gives us and in the certitude that comes from that freedom. The new historical thinking wanted to read every text in itself, in its bare literalness. Its interest lay only in the exact explanation of particulars, but meanwhile it forgot the Bible as a whole. In a word, it no longer read the texts forward but backward—that is, with a view not to Christ but to the probable origins of those texts. People were no longer concerned with understanding what a text said or what a thing was from the aspect of its fulfillment, but from that of its beginning, its source. As a result of this isolation from the whole and of this literal-mindedness with respect to particulars, which contradicts the entire inner nature of the Bible but which was now considered to be the truly scientific approach, there arose that conflict between the natural sciences and theology which has been, up to our own day, a burden for the faith. This did not have to be the case, because the faith was, from its very beginnings, greater, broader, and deeper. Even today faith in creation is not unreal; even today it is reasonable; even from the perspective of the data of the natural sciences it is the “better hypothesis,” offering a fuller and better explanation than any of the other theories. Faith is reasonable. The reasonableness of creation derives from God’s Reason, and there is no other really convincing explanation.

There were two difficulties that Ratzinger originally raised. The first was, “Why wasn’t that said earlier? Evidently it must have been taught differently at one time or else Galileo would never have been put on trial.” The second was. “If theologians or even the church can shift the boundaries here between image and intention, between what lies buried in the past and what is of enduring value, why can they not do so elsewhere – as, for instance, with respect to Jesus’ miracles? And if there, why not also with respect to what is absolutely central – the cross and the resurrection of the Lord?”

His response to the first is that it was in fact said earlier, in a way. It is implied in the Old Testament itself insofar as it describes creation in various ways, such as in the seven days of Genesis 1, but also as a single day, as in Genesis 2:4 and elsewhere. And it was implied by Christians insofar as they read Scripture in reference to Christ rather than simply as it is in itself.

This is a good response insofar as it goes, but something more is needed, because this does not explain why Galileo was put on trial, as he puts it. His explanation for this seems to be that people forgot the correct way to read Scripture: “Only at the beginning of the modern era was this dynamic forgotten… As a result… there arose that conflict between the natural sciences and theology…”

There seems to be something true about this, but also something missing. St. Augustine would almost certainly have disagreed with those who condemned Galileo. On the other hand, it was not people of the sixteenth or seventeenth century who came up with the idea that the texts of Scripture should be mostly read in a literal historical fashion, and assumed to be true in that way. For example, I quoted in a previous post a passage where Lactantius says that we know pretty much exactly how old the earth is, because Scripture tells us. And his was not an unusual opinion. So while it may be true that the condemnation of Galileo happened in part because of a lack of theological awareness, it is also true that to some extent “it must have been taught differently at one time.” Even Ratzinger’s reponse, then, can only be understood in the framework of the development of doctrine. Yes, Scripture itself has implications for how Scripture should be read; but it took time for people to develop a fuller understanding of these implications, and this development took place not only during the time of the Old Testament, but also during the time of the New.

This leads right to Ratzinger’s second difficulty, because it is precisely the fact that we modify our way of interpreting Scripture that gives rise to the “disquieting consideration” that theologians might end up modifying our understanding “also with respect to what is absolutely central – the cross and the resurrection of the Lord.”

Ratzinger does not seem to have returned explicitly to this particular difficulty, but he has given a response in an implicit way. In essence, this seems to be that “we Christians do not read the Old Testament for its own sake but always with Christ and through Christ.” Everything is to be interpreted in light of Christ. Consequently we cannot reinterpret what happened to Christ himself, because there is no light in virtue of which we would be able to do that, but we can reinterpret other things. This gives us a way to say that the cross and resurrection are “absolutely central” and cannot be reinterpreted, but to allow such reinterpretation in other matters.

The problem with this response is that in the end it seems to say little more than, “If we ended up doing such a reinterpretation, we would no longer be Christians.” This may be the case, but it does not necessarily imply that it will not happen. In fact, this is precisely the reason that the consideration is disquieting in the first place.

There is a second part of Ratzinger’s response that implicitly bears on this difficulty, and this is his suggestion that if we read Scripture properly, and in the light of Christ, then there will not be any tension between science and theology:

As a result of this isolation from the whole and of this literal-mindedness with respect to particulars, which contradicts the entire inner nature of the Bible but which was now considered to be the truly scientific approach, there arose that conflict between the natural sciences and theology which has been, up to our own day, a burden for the faith. This did not have to be the case, because the faith was, from its very beginnings, greater, broader, and deeper. Even today faith in creation is not unreal; even today it is reasonable; even from the perspective of the data of the natural sciences it is the “better hypothesis,” offering a fuller and better explanation than any of the other theories. Faith is reasonable. The reasonableness of creation derives from God’s Reason, and there is no other really convincing explanation.

Ratzinger has said that the basic point of Genesis 1 is that God created the world. Here he is saying that if you read the Bible in this way, and without making all sorts of other concrete claims that turn out not to be true, this is a reasonable understanding of reality and does not conflict with science.

The statement here is simply about creation, but if we take this with reference to the second difficulty, the implication is that once we read the whole of Scripture in the light of Christ, all the tension between science and theology will be resolved fairly easily. But something is missing here. “God created the world,” is in fact a metaphysical statement and surely does not conflict with science, as he says, and it is quite reasonable. But reading the whole of Scripture in light of Christ requires, as he also says, maintaining more or less the Christian understanding of the cross and resurrection. And saying that Christ rose from the dead is not merely a metaphysical statement. It is also a historical claim, and there is no reason in principle why such a claim could not conflict with scientific knowledge applied to history.

Of course none of these considerations could possibly show that the difficulty is right, and that one necessarily has to end up reinterpreting the idea of the resurrection. But on the other hand, there seems something lacking in Ratzinger’s response. Something more needs to be said.