Saturday, July 14, 2012

Moral Idiocy

Discussions about [the content of theology] remain isolated and losing skirmishes if no consideration is given to the question: Is there, in the course of historical time, a recognizable identity of man with himself? Is there a human ‘nature’? Is there a truth which remains true in every historical time because it is true? The question of hermeneutics is, in the last analysis, the ontological one, the question of the oneness of truth is the multiplicity of its historical manifestations.

Principles of Catholic Theology, 17

Reflection – OK, so we have headed into dry-technical-land here, after yesterday’s sensationalism of drugs and terrorism. It’s worth noting, mind you, that these dry technical questions, remote as they seem to be from our daily experience and thought, can be in fact the key underlying drivers of much contemporary mores and manners.

Here we have the whole question of truth and human nature. Is there such a thing? Do we have any access to it? Is it all just shifting sands and endless plasticity, ‘evolution’, not in the scientific sense but in the broad cultural usage of the term?

As I have said many times on this blog and will continue to say, this strict evolutionary relativistic plastic approach to reality has inherent incoherencies. There is no human nature… and you are wrong, aka ‘inhuman,’ if you say there is. Which is it? Either nothing is particularly human or inhuman or it is.

All standards are mutable and right and wrong are continually evolving… yet (for example) acceptance of same-sex marriage is heralded as ‘progress’ in human morality. Again, which is it? If there are no set standards, there can be no progress. What are we progressing towards? Progress by definition requires a fixed notion of the good. A football team can progress down the field towards the end zone only if that end zone stays put. If some mischievous genie kept moving the end zone after every play, now to the sidelines, then to the concession stands, then to the parking lot, then to the high bleachers, no touchdown will occur. Moving the goalposts—favorite sport of the blogosphere! But it makes any real discussion, and any real understanding of issues, impossible.

So it is in morality. We cannot get ‘better’, morally, unless there is a stable and true good to move towards. And if this stable and true good does not reside in a fixed human nature, some kind of abiding human reality that informs us of what we are to be and how we are to live, then where exactly does it reside? Social consensus? The state? Talk about building your house on shifting sands! Inexorable edicts of an absolute deity? Well, I have no real problem with that, but somehow I doubt that’s what advocates of same sex marriage and abortion rights envisage as the basis for their moral claims.

And so Ratzinger is arguing here that we need to talk on this basic level, lest our debates about this or that issue remain ‘isolated and losing skirmishes’. The question of hermeneutics—that is, the interpretation and understanding of things—resolves to questions of ontology—that is, whether or not there are any ‘things’, really to understand.

If there is no human nature, no abiding truth to man and his life in the world, then in reality we may as well kill and rape and rob and savage one another. We may not want to, because we’re socially conditioned to be nice people, but there’s no serious moral reason not to. We may not want to, because the state will arrest and imprison us, but there’s no serious moral reason not to.

As soon as we say that those actions are wrong, not just socially unacceptable or evolutionally unwise, we are committed to a fixed human nature or to a divine law imposed on us from outside, or both (which is the classical Christian understanding). One either becomes a moral idiot (in the precise etymological sense of that word) or must commit to some form of natural law theory.

I think what I have written here is strictly logical and based on no theological presuppositions or data. I think the conclusions I have come to are fairly unassailable. I would love for some atheist or relativist to come along here and (try to) explain to me why I’m wrong.


  1. One might argue that true human nature seeks 'happiness' or "one's own good" and if the re-definers take that concept to the ultimate absurdity they would say that is 'true morality'-"to thine own self be true".If this, individual happiness, becomes the "goal-post" of our little football game while some might seem to be moving sideways they can keep their eyes fixed on the goal and no matter how the sands shift on human action keep progressingtowards it.Seems to be somewhat the state of things happening here and now.

    1. Yes, I see what you're saying, but I think that doesn't so much shift the goal post as move it down the field indefinitely. Like... 'what makes us happy, then? What is happiness? Emotional contentedness? Freedom from suffering? Unbounded self-will? If it's freedom from suffering, should people walk away from marriage and children as soon as it's hard? If it's emotional contentedness, should people move from thing to thing like bees pollinating flowers, quitting as soon as they are bored? If it's will to power, then... well, does that really make anyone happy?
      In other words, it sounds like an answer, but it's an answer that merely raises a host of prickly new questions...

  2. ...a truth in every human soul that is true always simpley becaus eit is true..—I would agree IS a significant

    It certainly does harken back to an earlier time in the Church—when the totality of
    the human person, its development as soul, mind, body, personality, etc. did
    not matter. Only the spiritual entity—the soul, mattered.

    In traditional, institutional churchese lingo—the soul is a spiritual being
    is made in the image of God. But what that is exactly—is hard to pinpoint.

    That humans are body/soul entities—and are intended by God to be that. We are not
    angels—but embodied spirits.

    Unfortunately, in the past (pre-Vatican days), the soul seemed to be much more important
    than the body. So, the official church often used the term, “the salvation of souls”
    as though—the body was just a paper shopping bag that contained the real
    entity, the soul—which is the only entity that really mattered. Indeed, nothing
    physical really matters—in this mind set.

    That is why some people had/have a hard time with Teilhard de Chardin—-he’s much too positive,
    optimistic, concerned with the development of embodied soul/matter to suit them
    And incarnational theology—and its messiness? This does not fit well into
    “let’s put everything into its place, by category, by degreee, by status, by level of
    spirituality—everything neat and orderly”.

    I absolutely believe that when individuals come from nations that experienced oppression, they themselves become oppressors when they achieve any authority. We have seen it in JP II, living under facism as a teen/young man and then under many decades of communism.
    Joseph Ratzinger under facism and then, living with half of Germany under communism. And Cardinal Rode—living in Slovinia under communism—oppressed and oppresive. Dark theology and a darker opinion of humanity and the world in which the human race lives.

    It would cause one to question—do they really believe that Christ’s death and resurrection has only an effect on human souls—and absolutely nothing at all to do with the whole person, with the created world and with the direction of human history.

    1. I disagree firmly with what you understand to be pre-Vatican theology. I'm sorry, but I suspect you really haven't studied this subject at any depth, as what you say just does not reflect 2000 years of Catholic theology in any real way.
      Your assertions about JPII and Benedict are just that, assertions without evidence, and your question as to whether or not these men are aware of history, creation, the whole person--well, I don't know whether to laugh or cry. Have you read anything these men have written?

  3. We move goal posts all the time, sometimes substitute a net, sometimes a basket, or a grid, we define fields of play, we are game makers by nature. Games are consistent but bounded - the properties of the world, the limits of human response and shared player consensus define a game.

    The high clerical church sees itself as the Universal referee of the only legitimate game in town: it argues either play by these rules, or the world will collapse into anarchy . Perhaps the world, and human nature are large enough to accommodate more than a single game? Such seems to be the growing consensus, such is the rational for gay marriage, multiculturalism, and the freedom of religion that the Catholic Church has suddenly grown so vocal about (after centuries of forceful opposition.) Such perhaps is what many consider progress: the growing awareness that we can be players of more than a single game.

    1. You are taking my game metaphor and confusing it with my argument. My post has no reference to Church teaching or authority or anything theological at all. You are not responding to my argument by bringing the church into it.
      You seem to be arguing that progress means realizing that there is no goal to life? It's a bit unclear, but if the essence of humanity is to realize it is equally good to held in multiple contradictory directions at once, then you seem to be saying the good of life is that there is no good of life - no actual purpose to our being here.
      Please clarify, as this doesn't make sense to me.

    2. Fair enough, I looked back on this post - and realized it wasn't my finest hour. The tone's awful; obscure and contentious, and not well argued. Sorry for that, I hope it didn't get us off on the wrong foot.

      Still, in less polemical vein, perhaps what I'm driving at is this: are we ever really faced with the choice between total coherency and total incoherency - is it really a question of either having an absolute immutable goal (a pure code of conduct?) or having none at all? Is life rendered utterly worthless by uncertainty and obscurity? What of mystery? What of paradox? We all of us lean pretty hard on those obscure intimations of depth / transcendent value suddenly disclosed in mundane moments. The most restorative events can be stumbled into, on our hands and knees, whilst weeding the carrots - as that sudden warm flood of certitude that world is good and life has dignity and worth beyond one's capacity to explain or logically explicate, overtakes us while at work amid the root crops.

      The presuppositions on which our games of logic are predicated, are they anything other than intuitions that rise up out of the earth of experience, arrive at the beginning rather than the end of a heady chain of relentlessly explicated argument? Having intimated the world good, the person beautiful, the words of scripture true, or that Christ is God incarnate, or the Koran the words of Allah, our logical minds probe the whys and wherefores of assertions they were (perhaps?) powerless to create, assertions born out of the obscure richness of experience. Argument can enrich and ramify experience, yet the worth of the world is known to us before the power of speech or argumentation is ours.

      The recognition of the face, known by the infant long before speech or abstraction are possible, is arguably the deepest ground of ethics, and ontology also for that matter. If there were no "purpose" beyond this, this primal recognition, this primal coming to be in the cherishing gaze of another, this being with and from and for and against another, and others, would we be without a grounding point for our discussions of what is owed to whom, and how, and why? I suspect not.

      Would we come to differing conclusions? I suspect so. Would there be places of broad over-lapping consensus, and hotly contested difference? Manifestly there are. Does this render our experience utterly incoherent? It seems to be only partially so.

    3. This comment has been removed by the author.

    4. and finally...

      Consequently I think it is perhaps now fair to raise the issue of to what extent the Magisterial Church still understands itself as the referee of the "only legitimate game in town". To what extent do the Vatican's present positions simply represent an astute concession to the spirit of the age?

      The relationship between political policy and ontology is an interesting one. What is oneness / coherence after all, and at what cost, and by what means should it be brought?

      There is a coherent logical relationship between the Albigensian crusade, and the Inquisition, and the assertion of doctrinal Infallibility. Augustine certainly argued something like this re the Donatists. These institutions and actions had, I contend, an ontological foundation, a grounding in a coherent theological theory.

      In contrast the Church's present advocacy of freedom of religion and it's own self understanding as infallible bearer of the Absolute Truth for all of humanity seems a little less coherent. Less coherent but immeasurably more moral, in my estimation. A paradox that perhaps you could speak to?

    5. Continued:

      As for progress and the game metaphor, and "bringing the church into it". Taking the last first, you will concede that post in question was tagged: humanity, modernity, moral law, Principles of Catholic Theology, relativism, truth; and that as a Catholic priest when you argue natural law you argue it as an adjunct to Church teaching, and that those teachings of the Church that are presently most contentious are those that from the presuppositions of natural law theory. Theoretically then a valid distinction can be made, practically, I'm not so sure. Still, once again apologies for the somewhat catty tone of the last post.

      I'm not sure the game metaphor is as irrelevant to the substance of your argument as you contend. What I tried (in an overly lyrical fashion, I concede) to sketch in the present post was the matrix of relations within which play (the game) becomes possible. Are play and morality unrelated? Play seems to me to be the experimental field within which we try out and test new codes and old, new and old ways of codifying and ordering our responses to the world and each other. Clearly over the millennia we come up with a plethora of different ways, different codes, different games, some have failed some have thrived: thus something like a natural law could thus be argued to be at play. The world / circumstances permit certain codes, certain games, a longer life, and human culture endeavour thrives or withers, under some more than others.

      Yet I think my conception differs from yours in that I think moral play is always a little experimental, it must be tried in act, and it seems that history reveals that we have yet to hit upon a single "winning formula" thus our codes remain adaptable.

      For instance consider the RC Church's changed position on Freedom of Religion - at one time it was abhorred and defined by Pope Leo as the Americanism Heresy, a terrible danger to the soul and to society. (

      Now, since Vatican II's Dignitatis Humanae it has become a codified part of official doctrine, and American bishops argue forcefully for it in the public sphere. This change of position can be viewed as a commendable adjustment to the outcomes of the moral experiments - the radical failures and success - of recent history.

      Experiment, which entailed deviation from prior practice, revealed a better more moral way of proceeding, in the process it was discovered that earlier positions had been wrong, so they were changed. I can't see any other way to proceed morally than this willingness to be wrong should events indicated that this is so. Humility, etc.

      Such seems to be progress in my view - the notion that we learn from experience, from our experiments with Truth, to borrow Ghandi's phrase. The conclusion of my last post was ill-framed and hastily done. I think I've put it better, and clarified my thoughts, a little better here.

    6. and finally, ...

      Consequently I think it is perhaps now fair to raise the issue of to what extent the Magisterial Church still understands itself as the referee of the "only legitimate game in town". To what extent do the Vatican's present positions simply represent an astute concession to the spirit of the age?

      The relationship between political policy and ontology is an interesting one. What is oneness / coherence after all, and at what cost, and by what means should it be brought?

      There is a coherent logical relationship between the Albigensian crusade, and the Inquisition, and the assertion of doctrinal Infallibility. Augustine certainly argued something like this re the Donatists. These institutions and actions had, I contend, an ontological foundation, a grounding in a coherent theological theory.

      In contrast the Church's present advocacy of freedom of religion and it's own self understanding as infallible bearer of the Absolute Truth for all of humanity seems a little less coherent. Less coherent but immeasurably more moral, in my estimation. A paradox that perhaps you could speak to?

    7. Hmm. It appears my mask slipped... this is how I spend my holidays... as an 'anonymous' devil's advocate. pray for me. :)

    8. Aha - gotcha! OK - I'll get back to you (promise!) but am on my way to poustinia now. Pax...

  4. "anguish is not healed by crushing its victim under the weight of every truth you know. It is healed, or at least assuaged, by listening, by time and acceptance, and often by giving to the other the sense that you have lived a long time without answers" Sister Miriam Pollard

    ONly recently have I discovered that someone can actually be present to you- and you to them in an email or online. The quality of making yourself available- an approaching without approaching quality- which online writing tends to do- lends itself to trust. This is something that takes great skill and time and yet it is easy to recognize when you see it...

    It is that pervasive quality of Christ's prescence in another that keeps drawing me to read what is written here. Something that is radiated- not always understood in concepts and words.Maybe, it is just the simple truth of one person trying to share with another and showing compassion. So, thank you for that.

    Maybe that MH littleness thing helps make your words credible to me as well. I guess I believe in Catherine's notion of littleness- that somehow it is possible to help others across time and distance by being a part of the silent, hidden moral heart within the Body of Christ. I read words here because they are credible to me- bcause you are speaking from a moral reality that you are already living- at least essentially. I am grateful for that too.

    I respond viscerally to almost everything- but it felt like cold water splashing in my face with I read the comments here today. So much polarization...and perhaps I am just projecting my own experience these past months...that polarization is like a demon that torments me...or perhaps scratches n my own woundedness...Today, almost immediately I thought of the scripture for tomorrow- where Jesus disciplines are perplexed because they are unable to cast out a demon. When they ask Jesus about it he says- "this kind is only cast out by prayer and fasting".....I guess I need to pray more

    I am rambling again. Really, I just to thank you for writing again here today...Please keep praying for me and for all of us.

    1. God bless you - I'm sorry if I can get into polarized ways of talking/writing. I don't really want to, you know - sometimes it is truly hard to talk about these contentious and difficult errors (as I see them) of our time without it going down that path. yet I feel strongly that I can't, as a priest and a teacher, just ignore these tough questions.
      I am so grateful you keep coming here, and hope you will continue. Know that all my blog readers are in my prayers, and you in particular.

    2. OK… I’ll try to respond to you without this turning into the first chapter of my next book or something…
      To be honest, I don’t think your so much commenting on what I actually wrote, which seems to me to be a fairly modest argument about the need for a fixed human nature for any kind of moral code to make sense at all. As I say, how can our ‘morals’ be getting better or worse unless we have some fixed notion of the good? I don’t think that’s an unreasonable question.
      I think when it’s put that way, the choice in fact is between coherency (not without mystery, not without uncertainty and questioning) and total incoherency. My problem with moral relativism is that it just don’t make sense, really. The opposite of incoherency is not ‘the elimination of mystery and the hammering down of every human act and person into a rigid totalitarian framework.’ The opposite of incoherency is a moral framework in which we can have reasonable conversations and engage in a common search for the truth. But without a real framework (and framework does imply some rigidity, of course), that is impossible.
      As you know (now that I know who you are, you tricksy man!) I have learned much on my hands and knees weeding carrots, not to mention peeling said carrots, cooking and eating them! So of course I agree with you here.
      The question I have is that does this immediate and athematic apprehension of transcendence and the good-true-beautiful nature of reality not have a corresponding thematic expression that is equally true? In other words, are we not meant to hold in our discursive conceptual minds something which genuinely corresponds to the truth of reality? And what are the limits of this knowledge? I am a student of Aquinas, and I do agree with him that our minds are made to know truth to the extent that our minds can, a position that flows from our divine creation in God’s image… and so all the athematic and pre-conceptual experiences are meant to bear fruit in sound doctrine and good theology. to be continued...

    3. Honestly, though, I don’t think I agree with you when you suggest (in the form of rhetorical questions) that such athematic and pre-conceptual experiences provide sufficient ground for discussion and sustain this discussion to a satisfactory conclusion. What of death and dissolution? What of the problem of evil? What of the equally athematic and pre-conceptual experience of darkness and alienation. I think unless our primitive human experience is met by God in a concrete way, our human experience is doomed to futility.
      And so we can turn from philosophy to theology… has God met us? Has God given us a definitive revelation of Himself and in that, of our own selves? Clearly the Christian answer is ‘yes’. Has this revelation been entrusted to a visible concrete reality in this world until he comes again. Clearly the Catholic answer is ‘yes’.
      It does not seem to me that the Church’s current understanding of religious freedom contradicts its own claims to infallible authority. I have to admit that I haven’t thought as much about these matters as I should, given my blogging. Nor have I studied the history of the question and the Americanist heresy, which seems to me from the Wikipedia entry to be rather tempest-in-a-teacup as heresies go. But first thoughts, and I may expand on this in a later blog post: if the absolute truth infallibly taught by the Church pertains to the necessary freedom of the individual to choose or reject God, it does not seem incoherent to me for the Church to advocate political and religious freedom. I can’t go further than that right now, for reasons of length.
      I think Joseph Ratzinger’s entire career could be read as an effort to answer precisely your question: what is oneness / coherence after all, and at what cost, and by what means should it be brought? Can we assert our classical Catholic understanding in a democratic and pluralist society and how is this to be done. His book Values in a Time of Upheaval is the best summary of what he has to say. Incoherence also has a cost, and renders us very vulnerable to totalitarianism…
      to be continued...

    4. Now… are you arguing that Catholic priests can’t do philosophy? If so, I cry foul! (To continue using the game metaphor!). Because there is a vast non-theological literature on natural law moral theory, and my post certainly did not bring any claims that derive from revelation—surely my collar does not disqualify me from this particular game, does it? ‘Cause I’ll just take my ball and go home then!
      Okay, that’s off my chest… so, if I allow the play/morality relationship, which I will do for the sake of argument, doesn’t this in fact support my argument? A playing field must have boundaries. There must be some point to the game. There must be fixed rules. ‘Calvinball’ from the Calvin and Hobbes cartoon (where the only rule was that anyone could make up a rule at any time) made for a funny four panel-strip, but it would be an infuriating game to play. I would maintain that there has been not nearly as many changes in moral codes as you suggest in your ‘plethora of different ways, different codes, different games.’ It has been more stable than we usually think. Meanwhile the fact that ‘some [codes] have failed some have thrived’ does indeed rather prove that a natural law exists. But even the idea of success/failure, thriving/withering – does this not concede my whole argument, that we have a fixed and stable notion of the good. How else can we say anything has failed or not?
      I think the example of religious freedom is a poor one, in terms of church teaching changing, and not just because it seems to support your contention of ‘moral knowledge through experimentation’. I think the whole experience of man in society is inherently in flux in a way that makes any permanent arrangement of church and state provisional and fluctuating. Other areas of human life—sexuality, personal honesty, respect for life—are grounded in unchanging physical-psychological structures and relationships, and so the teachings are not liable to change, unless (indeed!) there is no human nature and all is evolutionary platsticity. And so we are back to the top of the post…
      Yes, we do learn from experience… but surely there are limits to this? Hopefully we will not learn from experience that sometimes we have to slaughter populations for some political good, or that women should be raped sometimes, or… well, you get my drift. There must be some core certainties that are not subject to the experimental mode. And these are the boundaries of the playing field… and I will maintain (on strict theological ground!) that the Magisterium is indeed the referee determining where those boundaries are.
      Peace to you!

  5. Father Denis,

    Oh dear, perhaps I just roped you in on my own struggle?

    From my place in the pew...everything is increasingly polarized... It is not like I am wanting everyone to wear a uniform...but it seems to be painful for everyone...there is so much emotion in the chasms between us.

    Isn't the church big enough and wide enough and deep enough and old enough to hold all our differences? I know you believe that it is.

    I liked what you wrote about Mary P...and Jim and Father Gene...a few of those radishes Fr David wrote about...a new sanctity. The answer for all us...just like you said...has to be about more than just correcting the theological errors.. It has to be a more inclusive embrace and a wider compassion- so that all of us regardless of temperment and ideology will find themselves better understood- embraced- and loved by what we hold most dear.

    Thank you for your prayers and your words here...

  6. I fear we seem to spend a lot of time talking past each other. I wonder if the ambiguity of the phrase “fixed good” might not have something to do with it. Would you care to offer a definition? I’m willing to concede that in considering the advocacy of freedom of conscience to be a more moral option than inquisitorial coercion I am proposing it to be more in accord with our better nature, with human flourishing. The logical necessity of something like an optimal human state, a nature, is thus intimated. Intimated, but not, I would contend thereby totally defined, or as yet exhaustively known. Perhaps our progress toward the good is a rather more apophatic process then you have thus far conceded.

    As to the ‘athematic’ passage what I was driving at there is that our moral reasoning follows on from and finds its course shaped by, prior experience, curiosity, empathy and intuition. It is not really my intent to drive some kind of wedge between logic and the world, just to indicate that reasoning is more often than not a case of following hunches, scents, and trails without exactly knowing where the reasoned hunch will take us: Socratic method, the "folly of faith" etc.

    We begin to learn morality long before we learn to question it, indeed every social animal is by definition a moral one, the majority of us navigate our social worlds without need of recourse to laborious metaphysics or theories of the absolute, but empathy we simply cannot dispense with – witness the plight of autistics or the danger of sociopaths. In contrast professors of metaphysics are not necessarily famous for their social graces or altruistic largess. When the first Christians proclaimed Christ God had they followed through the logical or social ramifications? Theory followed late on the heels of action, intuition, empathy and conviction.

  7. While most of us manifestly manage to navigate the world without a tremendous amount of metaphysical theorizing, legal interactions, on the other hand, we simply cannot hope to avoid. It is the case that the pragmatic solution to the Reformation’s interminable religious wars was a civil legal one, rather than a theoretical theological one, the Edict of Nantes was the first step in that long walk, that arrived centuries later at International Human Rights and Dignitatis Humanae.

    I’ve little doubt that with some reflection you will formulate a tenable rapprochement between the epistemological claims of the Church and the pragmatic political concerns of our day – one of the chief among them, getting along with people who believe differently – the interesting thing to me is that the pragmatic solution (the action) so often precedes the theory (the reasoning). We very frequently find a thing ‘works” long before we have a firm handle on why it does. It’s not that we don’t strive for coherent explanation, it’s just that so many of our successes are scored before we have it: in a haze of conviction and incomprehension. Consider the founding of Christianity, for instance, the Resurrection narratives: we continually reattempt a coherent explanation, but what comes through most strongly is a dizzying sense of rupture, the goal posts do appear to have been moved (“But I say to you…), the Beatitudes simply ARE an invitation to an untried (a New) game. A game it has proved rather hard to play, and whose rules appear to have been compromised – often with the best and noblest intentions – from the outset. So much for fixed goals? Or a question of who fixes them and how? and by what reason? and why? “By the power invested in me” – seems to be the answer, and hence the request for a definition ‘of a fixed goal’.

    The question of religious freedom actually seems to me a crucial one to pursue further, at some other time. Perhaps though just a final remark regarding this statement of yours:

    “Hopefully we will not learn from experience that sometimes we have to slaughter populations for some political good”

    I would argue, rather, that hopefully we have learned from experience not to slaughter populations for some political (or religious) good. The statements of Dignitatis Humanae, and those of recent Popes and Bishops Councils, render it unlikely that a Pope will ever again order the massacre of heretics as with the Albigensians. A case, I contend, of the Church learning something of the moral law, from the prior actions and Edicts of secular powers, and the experimental flux of history.


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