When In Rome

On the elevation of the new Pope, we’ve seen a lot of sulking about the Catholic Church’s inexplicable reluctance to get itself properly aligned with the Left’s social-issues agenda.

It is, as Dennis Mangan points out here, perfectly understandable for socially ‘progressive’ sorts to consider the Church a political opponent, and to seek to reduce its influence in the nation’s affairs. But it’s a bit much to expect a 2000-year-old institution, whose mission has been for those two millennia to assist the salvation of souls by interpreting the moral will of God, suddenly to rewrite its core doctrines in order to bring itself into doxological alignment with the editorial staff of the New Yorker. (You might say it’s downright Ptolemaic; after all, we already know that the New Yorker considers itself to exist at the center of the Universe. At the very least, it’s certainly not very catholic.)

All this hoydenish self-centeredness prompted tart responses from James Taranto and Pat Buchanan (who are, respectively, lapsed and practicing Catholics). Here are some key excerpts.

Taranto:

Catholicism has evolved over 2,000 years and, whatever its adversities and shortcomings, has proved sustainable over that period. If you judge it by the standard of contemporary feminism and sexual liberationism, of course it will seem lacking. But these fashionable dogmas have yet to prove their worth, either for understanding human nature or sustaining a society over the long term. Their adherents fancy themselves sophisticated, but in fact they frequently are too simple-minded–or perhaps fearful–even to consider a different way of looking at the world.

Buchanan:

To be Catholic is to be orthodox.

Indeed, let us presume the impossible — that the Church should suddenly allow the ordination of woman, and decree that abortions in the first month of pregnancy are now licit, and that homosexual unions, if for life, will henceforth be recognized and blessed.

This would require the Church to admit that for 2,000 years it had been in error on matters of faith and morals, and hence is not infallible. But if the Church could have been so wrong for so long, while the world was right, and many had suffered for centuries because the Church erred, what argument would be left for remaining Catholic?

If the Church were to admit it had been wrong since the time of Christ about how men must live their lives to attain eternal life, why should Catholics obey the commandments of such a fallible and erring Church? Why not follow our separated brethren of the Protestant faiths, and choose what doctrines we wish to believe and what commandments we wish to obey?

It’s disappointing that anyone has to explain all this. We’re all free, if we disagree with Catholic doctrine, not to be Catholics. But lambasting the Catholic Church for sticking to traditional principles is like criticizing the American Philatelic Society for being so preoccupied with stamps.

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10 Comments

  1. JK says

    Diplomad posted a pretty good sentence earlier:

    “The task of the Pope, any Pope, in the modern world is an unenviable one. Does he stand like a rock against the tides of changing fashion and flexible moral standards, or does he “modernize?” Some see the first stance as leading to irrelevancy; some see the “modernization” tack leading to a “me-too” approach that also results in irrelevancy–this is not unlike the debate over the future of the Republican Party.

    http://thediplomad.blogspot.com/2013/03/the-new-pope.html

    Posted March 15, 2013 at 5:30 pm | Permalink
  2. Peter Lupu says

    Malcolm,

    It would undoubtedly seem somewhat arrogant for an outsider such as myself to comment on matters internal to the Catholic Church. Nonetheless, I will dare it. I wish to comment on two arguments you seem to endorse.

    First. that one cannot expect the Catholic Church to admit that they were wrong for 2000 years about core doctrine. And, second, that the ultimate mission of the Church is salvation of souls and not “to bring itself into doxological alignment with” changing times.

    I wish to make two fairly obvious points regarding the first argument. First, the Church already admitted in the past that they were wrong to reject the new cosmology and I assume the Church also admitted (at least tacitly) that they were wrong not to oppose slavery.

    Second, it seems to me wrongheaded to stick to a false doctrine merely because it was held for 2000 years. If the doctrine is false, then it should be rejected regardless of how long one held to it.

    As for the second argument, I think there is a confusion here between means and ends. If I understand you correctly, the ultimate end of the Church is salvation by means of “interpreting the moral will of God.” Hence, salvation is the primary end and doctrinal interpretation is one of the means.

    What if they conflict? What if unwaveringly sticking to a traditional interpretation of the will of God diminishes the influence of the Church and, thereby, turns out to reduce the number of souls the Church can influence and thereby save?

    It does not follow from the above that the Church should alter doctrine in light of any change whatsoever. The point is simply that a conflict between means and ends is certainly a concrete reality and, therefore, it is doctrine that must yield. There is much more here, but I will cease.

    Posted March 16, 2013 at 11:53 am | Permalink
  3. Malcolm says

    Hi Peter, and welcome back! It’s been quite a while.

    You raise good questions, and I look forward to discussing them with you. I’ll reply shortly.

    Posted March 16, 2013 at 2:10 pm | Permalink
  4. Malcolm says

    Hi Peter,

    I should begin by making very clear indeed that I’m no authority on Catholic doctrine.

    Here, though, is what I think a Catholic apologist might say in response to your objections:

    First, the Church already admitted in the past that they were wrong to reject the new cosmology…

    You raised this, and the next point about slavery, in the context of infallibility. The concept of infallibility is rather a tightly circumscribed one, though, and emanates from Jesus’s guarantee to Peter that he will be preserved from error when defining, in his capacity of supreme Earthly authority, the Church’s official doctrine. So only a limited subset of papal utterances, and actions of the Church, can be considered to be guaranteed by, or to be possible violations of, infallibility. If, for example, during dinner the Nuncio happened to ask the Pope “Who directed Swamp Thing?, and the Pope had answered “George Romero,” it wouldn’t be a violation of papal infallibility.

    Specifically, three conditions apply: the Pope must be speaking in his official capacity as heir to Peter’s divine authority; he must be speaking on matters of faith and morality; and he must be defining beliefs that are to be held by all members of the Church.

    None of these criteria applied to Galileo’s trial, the tribunal that adjudicated it, or to his pardon in 1992.

    …and I assume the Church also admitted (at least tacitly) that they were wrong not to oppose slavery.

    The Church’s position on slavery has certainly evolved, but my understanding has been that since there was never any Scriptural basis for considering it contrary to God’s will, it was regarded by the Church as an unfortunate aspect of the human condition, and that the increasing condemnation of slavery by the Church in modern times reflected the moral evolution of society as a whole.

    This is a pretty rickety objection, though, and the question of whether the Church’s evolving position on slavery actually reflects a reversal in core doctrine is a controversial one.

    That said, though, look at the time-spans involved! The Church has been considering the problem of slavery since its inception, and as for Galileo, it took four centuries just to get around to a pardon. Even if the slavery issue does reveal a hairline crack in the notion of doctrinal infallibility, it is quite another thing for any reasonable person to expect the Church to explicitly reverse itself on, say, homosexuality and same-sex marriage, which are clearly articulated features of core moral doctrine, rooted firmly in the New Testament.

    Second, it seems to me wrongheaded to stick to a false doctrine merely because it was held for 2000 years. If the doctrine is false, then it should be rejected regardless of how long one held to it.

    I completely agree. But what proves a moral teaching “false”? If you had to explain to the Pope exactly what objective moral “facts” we have acquired knowledge of in the past 50 years that falsify the Church’s teachings on homosexuality and the sanctity of marriage, what would you say? Certainly public tolerance of homosexuality would fail to persuade; the Sodomites were tolerant in the same way.

    As for the second argument, I think there is a confusion here between means and ends. If I understand you correctly, the ultimate end of the Church is salvation by means of “interpreting the moral will of God.” Hence, salvation is the primary end and doctrinal interpretation is one of the means.

    What if they conflict? What if unwaveringly sticking to a traditional interpretation of the will of God diminishes the influence of the Church and, thereby, turns out to reduce the number of souls the Church can influence and thereby save?

    First, let me say that my summing-up of the ‘ultimate end’ of the Church is just my own understanding, though of course I think it’s fairly close to the mark.

    You raise a very practical point. Why stick to your principles if nobody wants to hear about them?

    I’m not sure what to say about this, other than that my feeling is that if the infallible moral doctrine of the Church says X, then saying ~X is simply not an option, regardless of the shifting winds of public opinion. To abet the commission of grave moral sin in order to get sinners in the door would be explicitly and obviously to shatter the foundation of divinely guaranteed moral Truth that has been the bones and sinews of the Church for two thousand years. A Church that defined its doctrine according to the latest public-opinion polls would lose all claim to spiritual authority; it would follow, rather than lead.

    Moreover, as Pat Buchanan pointed out: even in practical terms the Church’s fidelity to its doctrine has actually gained it adherents in the form of defectors from the Anglican and other communities, which many see as descending into faddish, anything-goes moral vagueness.

    Have you presented these objections to Bill? I’d be curious to know what he has to say about them.

    Posted March 16, 2013 at 10:42 pm | Permalink
  5. Malcolm says

    Kevin?

    Posted March 16, 2013 at 10:43 pm | Permalink
  6. JK says

    Thanks. You’ve cleared something up (me neither Catholic) about something I read somewheres else – can’t recall where tho, so no link.

    Specifically, three conditions apply: the Pope must be speaking in his official capacity as heir to Peter’s divine authority; he must be speaking on matters of faith and morality; and he must be defining beliefs that are to be held by all members of the Church.

    I’d read the new Pope okayed condoms – to prevent the transmission of HIV specifically – that condoms also happen to be contraceptive it thus appears; doesn’t change a thing.

    Posted March 17, 2013 at 2:47 pm | Permalink
  7. Does the Pope use condoms when he is not acting in his capacity of supreme Earthly authority on matters of faith and morality?

    Posted March 17, 2013 at 5:02 pm | Permalink
  8. JK says

    Don’t recall the article’s mentioning anything on the subject Henry.

    I did though, hear this morning on The Today Show, some bunch of folks are gonna be doing some sort of thing which was referred to as, The Installation of the new Pope guy.

    That sort of procedurural listing doesn’t sound to me like any condoms will be helium filled then set to flying over Vatican City.

    But then as I mentioned, I’m not Catholic so I’m figuring you’d be as likely to be in the know as I am. So, what do you think?

    Posted March 18, 2013 at 12:36 pm | Permalink
  9. “I’m not Catholic so I’m figuring you’d be as likely to be in the know as I am. So, what do you think?”

    I’m not Catholic either, but my wife is. I am not inclined to ask her such a question, however.

    But my purely speculative opinion is that the Pope’s doctors would advise their use to protect against HIV.

    Posted March 18, 2013 at 1:06 pm | Permalink
  10. Kevin Kim says

    Sorry. I totally missed this thread.

    Posted March 19, 2013 at 2:08 am | Permalink