Sunday, January 03, 2010

Putting the doctrinal cart before the developmental horse

On some much more read blog than mine, whose identity I would remember better if I hadn't procrastinated so long before sitting down to write about it, an apparently new visitor to the blog got into the combox and inadvertently drove the discussion off the rails for a bit trying to explain how it was morally necessary to believe in geocentrism.

Most of his argument consisted of citing old Church documents declaring that geocentrism was an obliged belief to hold, like the Trinity or the bodily resurrection, and citing the historical consensus of popes and theologians until the modern era.

I felt some frustration when he continued to assert that geocentrism was held and taught "always and everywhere" despite Catholics with matching credentials, from medieval theologians to the latest popes, being more open to a Copernican conception of the universe. He was quick to point out that the dissenters from geocentrism were only expressing personal opinions, and ones that happened to be erroneous, while everyone else was making official proclamations with whatever weight of authority they could avail themselves of. This dismissal seemed a bit pat in context even before he continued as if to say "Always and everywhere--except for a few occasions of dissent, but I'm not really using hyperbole, so Always and Everywhere." I was almost more alarmed to see him studiously refusing to give more than a hand-waving refutation to these Copernican supposed material heretics, as if spending too much time trying to understand why they would be wrong would make it too hard to believe Always and Everywhere, than to see him stridently warn the blog's readers not to put too much stock in the consensus of their senses and reason.

The geocentrist did, in fact, quote documents where talk of heliocentrism was condemned as absurd or otherwise posed a moral or intellectual danger to the Christian. I will even agree that for pastoral reasons, at certain points in history it may have been prudent to discourage people from fixating on thoughts like "If we've been relegated to the uncharted backwaters of the unfashionable end of some part of the universe, are we still the apple of God's eye?" It seems preposterous today, but before natural philosophy was divorced into physical science and theology, for the layman, maybe such a proposal would have sounded a lot more ominous.

I don't know. I'm only saying I can imagine something of the sort. One wouldn't even have to fall back on "they were a thousand years dumber than we are" to see that the best pastoral action is sometimes to prohibit something that is not inherently evil (such as making same-sex attraction an impediment to the priesthood) or mandate something that is not inherently morally obligatory (such as celibacy for the priesthood).

An idea was raised that I thought may have set the geocentric argument at nines, but it wasn't pursued and then the blogger got things back on topic and that was the end of it.

Someone pointed out that there was such a thing as development of doctrine, that our understanding of old teachings of the Ordinary or Extraordinary Magisterium can expand without contradicting the essence of original understanding. The geocentrist responded that no such thing had really happened, that the authorities who had spoken on the matter had spoken definitively and had left no room for dissent, question, or nuance; case closed--and further, new doctrines are to be judged against old ones, and not the other way around.

I think this is a wounding to doctrinal development. Let me cite the Latin for an example: Extra ecclesiam nulla salus, At the time this declaration--already a familiar concept, written about by St. Cyprian and lamented for not appearing true by St. Augustine--was made, there was only one Church, so "Salvation is the Church" was not going to make anybody wonder about possible schismatic saints. Fortunately, although we don't always know what's going on when the Spirit moves the Church to do one thing and not another, the Spirit does, and He does not err. The declaration that salvation only came from and through the Church did not have to be fully understood by the bishops who declared it.

"Ah," said the geocentrist in paraphrase, "but we must interpret new doctrines in light of old, rather than redefine old ones under the light of novel and potentially heretical ones!"

Okay, so we have to be sure that a new dogmatic definition is consonant with old ones before it is accepted as anything more than a hypothesis. Fine, but it is not the same thing as allowing for understanding of an old doctrine to grow.

Development of "extra ecclesiam" would be like "Outside the Church there is no salvation. We used to think that meant only Catholics in good standing went to heaven. In further consideration of the Church's role as the sacrament of grace to the world, and of people who strive for virtue as they can and are not culpable for being outside our official ranks, we believe now that people who are not formal Catholics may be saved, but it is through the instrumentality of the Church that saving grace is somehow afforded to them."

Insisting that doctrines can develop only within the confines of undeveloped understanding, which is the essence of the geocentrist's objection to modern bishops and astronomer-friars taking no umbrage at a relativistic physical universe, is a confounding of development in the first place. It is like saying "We used to teach that only people in good standing with the Church can go to heaven; today we understand that God provides some graces to sincere unbelievers through the instrumentality of the Church, but they have to be Catholic to get to heaven." It's like proving the square root of two is irrational by assuming it is rational and then deducing a contradiction, and then claiming development of doctrine on the grounds that you've found a new way to state the same thing. There's no increase in understanding there, just an increase in confusion about how or why God would dole out some graces and not others.

Consider further that the Church has drawn its own borders of competence around faith and morals. The Church may contain members who are experts in science or politics, but it learned the hard way that acting as a secular power is not the best way to go; by and large, it never had as great a problem with science (if you say "Galileo!" then try to think of someone else who got the same treatment and get back to me--I won't take the time here). If the geocentrist wishes to convince me that I must accept that the Earth is the center of the universe, he's got to offer some proofs of the following:

  1. The universe has a center in some meaningful and detectable way at all

  2. Why the universe's construction leaves only the subtlest clues that our current cosmology still has a few unasked questions; clues so ambiguous that a particular, grossly different geometry never even makes the list of possible explanations for remaining discrepancies between data and theory; clues whose own subtlety suggest that the way we think the universe hangs together at large and small scales is, to the best of our ability to observe it, pretty close to how it actually does. If quadropole and octopole asymmetries in the Cosmic Microwave Background are real, and are physically meaningful anisotropies, why should I have to discard the Big Bang completely for one explanation that doesn't actually explain the observations, instead of another acentric that does?

  3. Presuming the universe does have a center and we're at it, what moral meaning it would have and why I should be obliged to hold it (I'd accept excerpts from or commentaries on the documents he already cited for the former, but for the latter, I'd also like to know what the danger of heliocentrism was besides what usually comes with hypothetical disobedience to moral authorities.)

  4. Failing anything better than "Rome has spoken! Don't trust your senses," at least explain how the Church could declare a physical arrangement of the universe to be a necessary belief and then say it's not competent as a body to judge empirical data. Either the Church lost some capability in recent centuries, old papal bulls trump formal pedagogical documents as cited in the Catechism (the agreement of other councillar or encyclical documents on this matter being the umbrella over this tension), or development of doctrine is bogus.

Something else occurred to me. If all the geocentric-favoring statements made in Church history were dogmatic and binding, and all the Copernican statements made later on as science improved were merely opinions, what does the geocentrist make of this pandemic of heretical cosmology? Sure, no pope has taught ex cathedra against heliocentrism, but why is the support for geocentrism so...obscure? Where are all the other uncomfortable doctrines that are clearly resolved but disapproved (only personally, not formally!) by popes and theologians?


Sleeping Beastly said...

This "geocentrist" sounds a lot like the disingenuous troll CT (among other names) I first met on Jimmy Akin's blog...

Ed Pie said...

Wow, I really need to check my comboxes more often.

It may have been at Jimmy Akin's blog that I first heard from this geocentrist. I think he was shilling a book by Robert Sungenis that was really trying to make hay of the scientific and canonical margins that geocentrism has been hiding in.

Been long enough now that I don't remember. I wasn't eager to dignify any of the offending parties in my seat of the pants counterarguments by putting their names front on center on my blog, anyway. Whether or not it was the work of trolls or of somebody with too much time on his hands and not enough of a sense of diplomacy.