Wednesday, August 15, 2007

A little while ago I was reading an article Mark Shea had written for a local newspaper. The article was mainly a clarification of the CDF's clarification of the pope's recent document about the Catholic understanding of what a church is. As is often the case, the readers' comments were as interesting as the article itself, if not in a terribly worthy sense.

My personal favorite was where one person said 'Yes, you politely point out that the pope is just clarifying how Catholicism understands Christianity differently from Protestants, but I have to disagree that there's nothing to be upset about; really it was just just a diplomatic covering for the pope's actual words, that other churches are defective.'

If I'd read the article and comments early enough that I thought the person who left that comment might still be around to read the followup, I would have pointed out that his so-called disagreement was still agreeing with the principle. Mark spelled out the differences between groups as "adding to or subtracting from" the deposit of faith. If subtracting truth or adding something artificial doesn't constitute a defect, I don't know what does, and if he's going to come out in public and criticize someone for making a public and concrete criticism of groups that criticize Rome for being defective, as well, then I'm not sure what his understanding of debate or dialog really is.

A few others took some cheap shots at priestly celibacy, not cheap in the sense of underhanded or unfair so much as cheap in the sense of "religion is almost beneath my contempt but I'll attack it anyway as long as I can use pithy sound bites from other contratheists as a crutch." To wit: "the Marian doctrines of the immaculate conception and the virgin birth are based on a mistranslation of the Hebrew word almah, which means "young girl," for the Greek work parthenos, which means "virgin" as we currently understand that term. From this comes two millennia of sermons about sexual continence, which has caused unbelievable amounts of human suffering."

Parthenos fits under the umbrella of almah, may have even been its defining criterion, so the orthodox interpretation would hardly be implausible, even if the Apostles who knew Jesus and Mary--who would have spoken Greek and Aramaic and at least been literate in Hebrew--hadn't been around to clarify this point for the communities that had only the words spoken by the Apostles and disciples and the earliest written sources to rely on. Still, "unbelievable amounts of human suffering" stemming from advocacy for not having libertine sex? Really? As a microcosm, are we really suffering less in these past 30 years than we did before the sexual revolution? Sure doesn't look like it to me; I'd probably take "sadder but wiser" over "ignorance is bliss," too, but then you can't say "well, they just covered it up and oppressed people more before the sixties," and I wouldn't really say we're wiser for our sadness, just less hopeful. Trading naivete for despair isn't exactly a sage's choice.

I'll wrap up with just a few unrelated points that arose from discussion of Mark's article, since writing overly long and broad posts rather than pithy and self-contained ones seems to be more my thing.

  • Adulthood nowadays seems to be defined as the point where a person becomes capable of making informed decisions. Maybe not with fully developed faculties, but I suppose that since adults make mistakes we shouldn't prevent children from making mistakes, and only enable them to make informed mistakes. Once upon a time, adulthood was defined by the ability to restrain one's impulses. Did anyone ever try to justify "Never mind the disciplines you were taught; if it feels good, just go for it," or did we just slide into it because it was easier?

  • It does seem a little sad that theists argue that without a Lawgiver they would be violent heathens, to which most atheists object; yet it is usually these same atheists who argue for an arbitrary or natural law that pretty closely coincides with the mores of western civilization. The Catholic will recognize this as the Natural Law that it is; no atheist I've met so far has bothered to explain how the values he holds that coincide with Christendom's but do not seem to have been well-recognized in other societies are merely coincidental.

  • "The god of the OT is a genocidal, misogynistic monster."

    I'll grant you that YHWH was stern, even harsh with the Israelites. To write Him off as a monster, though, requires that you skip over all the passages where people try to dialog with Him; not simply the places where He says "leave none of them alive, lest one of your men comes to worship their idols," which perhaps only makes sense to a theist in the first place, but the places where he relents from the strictest punishment they knowingly incurred, as soon as they asked for mercy. Doesn't exactly sound like something you'd expect from Baal or Pazuzu, is it? Wiping out pagan peoples wasn't common in the Old Testament, even between Egypt and the Promised Land, and it was always prophylactic; when punishments did come, they were always slow in being delivered and were never without warning. If the best criticism you can levy is "genocidal, misogynistic monster," then you really lack the perspective necessary to judge how a god-figure, Abrahamic or pagan, figures into human society.

Eh, I won't go over any of the rest. They're lame comments dripping with ignorance of history like "Rome would tortue you for being a heliocentrist if it could" and American provincialism like "Never mind Pol Pot and Stalin, it's Torquemada and Law who really brought war and suffering to the world whilst trying to hide behind the First Amendment." Yes, I know I'm splicing some thoughts together; they're not really any smarter in their original and less compact forms.


bill bannon said...

What would help would be if Catholicism could produce documents on its mistakes also and it does not. So people are not inclined to listen to an organ that can criticize others and yet shows petulance once it is criticized.
John Paul apologized for past mistakes without detailing them but ...the devil is in the details... and we always leave out details on our faults within Catholicism....but John Paul would not write a document describing in detail how for example just titled slavery obtained in Catholicism despite papal bulls which seemed to attack slavery. Several of those bulls were written prior to the Catechism of Trent 1566 which forbade coveting the neighbor's slave which it states is his property (which see on line). That's because while bulls attacked new native slavery and the trade per se, they did not rescind the decretals...canons... that supported just titled slavery (capture in war or born to a slave mother). That is why despite the papal bulls that Dulles pointed to as do other apologetics people, Bishop England defended slavery in the US in the 19th century in Catholic Misselany newspaper and he had canons and moral theology with imprimaturs to support him...despite the bulls.
Ergo Rome has to produce documents on the details of its follies which people see on the History Station but which Rome thinks will vanish with inattention like they apparently thought the sex abuse period would vanish with inattention. We cover up our it the sex abuse problem...just titled slavery...usury which we change into an understandable non mistake when it was in fact an error in the OM. While we believe that Catholicism is infallible at times when it defines something....we all act as though Catholicism is infallible always and we do so by not reading about our real detail. History in detail of our Catholicism is as important as theology but only the latter gets play in our press organs because the history is not always nice at all and we have defined ourselves as the locus of nice. Until we can detail our faults, Protestants will know we are leaving something out in every pronouncement.

Ed Pie said...

Good points. I don't think JP2 should have given a confession so specific as to be prurient, but even though the things he did regarding the sex scandal, in particular, weren't really bad, they seemed in some ways so indirect that I actually wondered if the pope himself was being shielded from a lot of said details; I can see the wisdom in moving with deliberate patience, but when a problem is both urgent and imminently stoppable (if not quite so easily repairable), speaking and acting with the usual diplomatically oblique Vaticanese just seemed out of place.

I'd really like to see some apologetics addressing some of the topics you mentioned. They'd be fertile soil for fresh--and refreshed--teaching on things like what development of doctrine and infallibility really mean. If we can do it for the Crusades and Pope Alexander, we should be able to do it for anything.

On the other hand, the Holy Spirit isn't going to let some bishop or theologian get ahead of himself and write Him into a corner, so we should expect exhaustive declarations to be rather rare. Not that there isn't any room to work in between nailing down every last detail, and being vague enough that anti-Catholics who can see past their petty conspiracy theories begin suspecting a deliberate, overarching, and malicious cover-up.