Tuesday, March 29, 2005

Others, and the Question of Dissent and Ahistoricism

First, there are a couple more Catholic blogs I neglected yesterday: Amy Welborn and HMS Blog.

Also, there are a number of blogs (including mine) that straddle the fence between theology and politics. One that leans towards politics (and related issues) but from a distinctly Catholic perspective is that of Professor Stephen Bainbridge, a law professor at UCLA. I read his blog regularly, and recommend it as well.

Prof. Bainbridge reminded me of another blog that I don't frequent, but should: Mirror of Justice. This blog "is dedicated to the develoment of Catholic legal theory," and as you might guess, is populated by lawyers. Bainbridge yesterday pointed to this post by Prof. Rob Vischer, who teaches at St. John's law school. The title of the post is "Skeletons in the Closet," and Vischer wonders about previous church teachings that have been superceded later, and how that impacts on the approach a Catholic scholar takes to issues in our time. By way of examples, he points to 19th century church teachings on freedom of conscience, teaches which seem to have been reversed by Vatican II, as a result of the work of American Jesuit John Courtney Murray. Vischer wonders if the the same thing might be the case with same-sex marriages (sic); he doesn't argue for them, but seems to wonder if there might be a future development a la feedom of conscience. He closes his post with these questions:
    My concern here is not so much with the merits of the sexuality arguments [regarding marriage], but with our disposition toward them. As Catholic legal theorists, do we approach them strictly on their substance, or is there a presumption that we accept and defend the Church's position? Is the presumption rebuttable? In other words, are we to function strictly as Apostles, spreading the Church's Good News to the world? Or are we to act as the Old Testament prophets, speaking hard truths to authority, including the Church itself? Or are we to do both, and if so, how?
I'd like to offer a theologian's perspective on these excellent questions.

It seems to me that there is an understandable-yet-problematic presumption in Vischer's argument, that being that there is an opposition between what 19th century popes taught and what Vatican II taught. On the face of it, there certainly does seem to be opposition: Vischer quotes Gregory XVI, who referred to the "absurd and erroneous proposition which claims that liberty of conscience must be maintained for everyone," and to Pius IX's 1864 Syllabus of Errors, which condemned the beliefs that "every man is free to embrace and profess that religion which, guided by the light of reason, he shall consider true," and that "it is no longer expedient that the Catholic religion should be held as the only religion of the State, to the exclusion of all other forms of worship."

Again, these teachings certainly seem to have been rejected by Vatican II. However, I don't think that this is actually the case. Essentially, I'd argue that what seems to be the meaning of the 19th century teachings is not actually as plain and obvious as one might think, and that the historical context in which those teachings were made are extremely significant in determining the substance of the teaching being given. Without getting into the details here, I think that once one takes the historical context into account, these teachings are not as difficult to reconcile with Vatican II as they initially seem. I wouldn't deny that there has been a development in teaching, but I also think that it is extremely easy to extract Church teaching from its historical circumstances, which results in decided effects on a proper understanding of that teaching. Let me give another example:

Many Catholics (and Christians in general) will read the New Testament and understand the title "Son of God" to be a pretty clearcut reference to Jesus' divinity. But that's not actually the case, because in the Old Testament, there are instances in which the king of Israel and/or Judah, and even the entire nation of Israel, are referrred to as "Son of God," and no one understood that to mean that the king (let alone all the Israelites) were divine. Now, it's true that over time this title as it was applied to Jesus came to be seen in its literal meaning, but Jesus' contemporaries certain would not have understood it that way. But because we too often read Scripture ahistorically and thereby impose our understanding on the sacred texts, we misunderstand (to varying degrees) what is being communicated.

The same applies to Magisterial texts. If we fail to take the historical context into account, we can unknowingly skew the meaning of the text. (Extreme traditionalists fall into this trap on numerous occasions, e.g. with regard to the alleged perpetuity of the Tridentine rite.) And I think that this is often the case when one reads passages like those Vischer cites... just to give a brief example, it seems to me that what Gregory & Pius were condemning was a notion of freedom of conscience, etc. which had at its heart a fundamental indifferentism with regard to religious questions, and this was (and still is) unacceptable to a Catholic worldview. Vatican II, for instance, affirmed that we have a duty to properly form our conscience in accordance with truth, not an ultimate agnosticism.

So when these things are taken into account, one finds that in fact there was no contradiction between Catholic teaching in the 19th and 20th centuries; again, development is apparent, but not opposition.

Finally, to answer Prof. Vischer's final questions, we as Catholic scholars are obliged to recognize that the Magisterium speaks the truth; the principles we are given (apart from how they are historically situated and couched) are in fact timeless. Our call is (in part) to faithfully yet rigorously apply the principles we are given to our own historical circumstances. With regard to the question of same sex marriage, we are faced with a principle, not a historically-contingent (and hence changeable) application thereof.

No comments: