Friday, January 29, 2010

Dear Gregory

I'm writing this letter to you to let you know that we can have free discourse here at St. Cynic.

To start, there's no reason why my limited understandings on certain subjects are equivalent to "vitriol" or a misapprehension of certain claims. Similarly, there's no reason why a capacious understanding of certain subjects should render my position tiresome, or a 'waste' of your time, even if you disagree.

Next, I invite you to this site for debate because I get a thrill from butting heads with you. Sounds superficial, I know. However, "iron sharpens iron, just as one man sharpens another" seems especially apt to me when it comes to debating you: I learn from you, and I enjoy that. If you conclude that coming to my site is wasteful, frustrating, depressing, kicks in your cynicism reflex, or exasperates you at all, you are free to refuse my invitations. However, I would like to make it expressly clear that I am inviting you for a dual purpose:
  1. As stated above, to lock horns with you for the purpose of learning with you, and from you;
  2. To keep in contact with you.

Concerning number 2, it is not only geography that divides us. 6000 kms is quite a long way to go to shake hands and have a drink together -- and it would be well worth it! Nevertheless, my refusal of the Roman communion explicitly divides us, our respective philosophical moorings divide us, and our personalities stand in splendid difference to each other. While you have become more and more entrenched in Catholicism, I have become less and less enthusiastic about organised religion as a whole, and generally cannot abide the superficialities that come from all corners of the Christian marketplace. That last point in mind, however, there are a few people I really enjoy engaging, even to their frustration; you are first amongst them.

Your militant Catholicism is not offensive to me. I would ask that you extend the same levity toward my place in our conversations. What is offensive to me is some of the doctrines that go before you, and will probably continue on after you're a desaturated memory. A few of those doctrines are The Immaculate Conception, Mary's Assumption, Transubstantiation, Papal Infallibility, and a few others. Since these are doctrines you hold dear, any disagreement I extend toward them will necessarily spur you to defend them. Be that as it may, it would be a fair start to conversation if your first line of defense was not you just don't understand. While that may be true at times, it is not the case every time. I am not committed to Catholicism, so I am free to explore implications as they arise in my mind, even if they're heretical, off-beat, or seemingly disconnected in your mind. That does not render my efforts impotent.

So, in the spirit of Socratic dialogue (open, explorative converstion), let's chase our respective understandings with a respect that chases understanding of each other.


Tuesday, January 26, 2010

The Never Erring Story P. 2

I didn't think I'd be writing a part 2 to this subject but, like the movies that inspired my title, I'm fated to weigh-in once more. This time, however, my good friend, Gregory (a first-rank Catholic apologist) has opened the opportunity for some hearty debate. His response to my first article carried with it the flavour of tart sauciness, and seemed steeped in more than a little spicy polemic.

What follows is my response to his comments. His remarks will be in red and mine will remain black.

"I suppose if we want to ignore the nuances of definitions, we can say all sorts of silly things, and point out ample non sequiturs to bolster our defense."

More than likely true. And most certainly true for the usual operations of Catholic rhetoric. More about that later, however.

"The statement, 'The Catholic Church has/can/will never err(ed)' is at best shorthand for 'When officially defining and promulgating doctrine pertaining to Faith and Morals, the Magisterium of the Church is preserved by the Holy Spirit free from formal error.'"

Thank you for that information, Gregory. This raises a particular concern for me. Namely, that I included this very definition in my original article, albeit with a slightly different arrangement of words. Here, again, is what I wrote:

"...the Catholic Church believes she has never erred in matters pertaining to
faith and morals; it has nothing to do with historical opinions. To quote the
Wikipedia entry, "in Catholic thought, the exemption of the Roman Church from error extends only to its definitive teachings on faith and morals: not its historical judgments." In other words, those teachings that are not held to be divine revelations but are free from error and essential to proper belief."
As I failed to mention in my original article, this idea of the Catholic Church's impeccability is an extention (without warrant) from the doctrinal claim that Jesus was without sin. If Jesus was without sin, and the Church (i.e., those who gather in Christ's name and share in his sacramental life through the emblems of the church) is Christ's body, then it seems to follow that the Catholic Church would not be subject to error/peccability.

Reality bears out otherwise, I'm afraid. You see, unless a person is willing to divest themselves of any interest in rationality, there's simply no possible way to make such a sweeping claim demonstrable. Unless... Unless we make metaphysical disections between the spiritual and the physical. That provides the opportunity to make rhetorical manipulations (I mentioned I would get back to this) that completely obfuscate communication, and render free inquiry meaningless.

Theo: "The Catholic Church has never, cannot, and will never sin or make erros in matters of faith and morals."

Kim: "But what about the systematic pograms during the Crusades? The popes that raped and impregnanted women with bastard sons? What about buying offices? What about the witch-hunts? What about Pius XII ambivalence to the Jews? What about the Vatican openning the geneological records of Jews living in Germany to the Third Reich? Don't those kinds of things imply culpability on the part of the Catholic Church?"

Theo: "Yes, but those examples are simply mistakes of people. Clearly you don't see that sort of stuff being given the a-okay in our Catechism, do you?"

Kim: "Well, no. But..."

Theo: "And that's because the Holy Spirit preserves the Church from error in matters of faith and morals."

Kim: "But those horrible things were done by the Church. They certainly weren't actions that were borne of true faith. And they certainly weren't moral actions!"

Theo: "That's true: they weren't moral actions. They were the actions of sinful people."

Kim: "But it's people who are the Church. You can't just divorce the people from the Church. That doesn't make any sense. You're just playing with words now."

Theo: "The Church is comprised of people, yes. And sometimes people do bad things. But the Church is the Body of Christ, and Christ cannot sin. The Holy Spirit preserves the Church from error. Sometimes people make bad decisions. Even the pope makes bad decisions sometimes; like, the witch-hunts, say. But that doesn't mean that the Church sins because individual people sin."

Kim: "So, are you saying that the Church is both the people and Christ's body? Are you saying that if the Church does something horrible then the blame gets dumped on to the people, while the entity called the 'Catholic Church' remains unstained by what the people within it do? Why is it that our sins hurt Christ so much before that he decided to die an agnonising death for us, yet now that he's gone and ascended suddenly his body, his Church, isn't implicated by what it's members do? Why don't Catholic errors make a difference to what our faith means, and what our moral standards are? How can you divide Christ from the people that make up his body like that?"

I sympathize with Kim: at what point does any institution get the jurisdiction to divide reality for it's own purposes? Theo clearly believes that if bad things were done, it was because that was a result of human taint/sin/depravity, call it what you will. At the same time, Theo dumps all his confidence in the doctrinal claim that the Catholic Church is impeccable in matters of faith and morals. Theo has no way to measure the truth of this kind of claim, so he has to resort to meaningless rhetoric, hair-splitting, and performative logic (what is said constitutes the thing referred to; or, what is said becomes its own proof, or point of reference).

This is quite obviously ridiculous. No-one can live out this kind of mentality in real-life without being thought insane. If I were to shoot a classroom full of kindergaarten kids, I wouldn't have any kind of defense for my actions. I wouldn't be able to say, "well, that was just my body, my fleshliness. My mind was pure apart from the actions of my body. I've told myself over and over again that I shouldn't shoot children, but my body didn't listen." That kind of talk would have me implicated on not only charges of mass murder, but also have me committed for irremediable insanity.

No logically capable, or emotionally stable individual would be free to use claims such as the Catholic Church's impeccability clause on an individual level. It simply cannot be applied or accepted in reality without a person being understood as clinically insane. So, since it cannot be in any way a practical, or livable reality, it is in all ways irrelevant. It is a fantasy that provides a convenient loop-hole when stuff goes wrong in the Catholic tradition. It is a way of dodging responsibility and accountablity. It is a highly sophisticated use of a childhood method for avoiding homework: an excuse.

"This does not mean that the Catholic Church's members are free of sin (impeccability). It only means what it meant for the writers of Sacred Scripture--that, when they wrote Sacred Scripture, they didn't make formal mistakes pertaining to faith and morals. In fact, the writers of Sacred Scripture got a second gift that the Catholic Church does not claim for itself today--that of infallibly declaring new revelation."

Let's stick with one topic, shall we? It's one thing to bellow-out that I've got my definitions mixed-up, muddled-up, and back-asswards. It's another thing to counter that alleged confusion with a new topic: the infallibility of scripture. We can go that direction if you'd like, but let's examine the course I set out already: the supposed impeccability of the Catholic Church. One thing at a time, as is so often quoted.

"In other words, all Christians can (or should be able to) agree that the Bible, being the Inspired Word of God, is inerrant. Catholics state that in a similar manner to God's transmitting the inerrant Scriptures to us, He preserves the Church He founded free from similar error, as it continues to ponder and grow in its understanding of those once-for-all revealed truths."

First, the scriptures are not inerrant. They're full of discrepancies, forgeries, and overt contradictions. But we can move that to another debate, if you'd like.

Second, Catholics often cite Matthew 16:18 for a dual purpose: to establish the Petrine supremacy, and to allege the impeccability of the Church. Peter is taken to be the 'rock' that Jesus is referring to, and the extention from there is simply that the Church Peter presided over -- the Catholic Church (!) -- would be free of error because Jesus established the Church through Peter. Therefore, since Jesus cannot sin, the Church that he founded, the one that is his body, cannot sin. Just the people within it.

Let's look at this in another way. If the people comprise the Church, which is the body of Christ, and because the Church is the body of Christ it cannot sin in matters of faith and morals, then every time an individual sins, that individual has somehow gone rogue. In an actual body, some cells do go rogue, and they are attacked by the white blood cells and destroyed. If they're not destroyed, if they're left unchecked by the immune system, they sometimes become cancerous and kill the body. So, perhaps the Inquisition was an immune response to the rogue members within the body of Christ, right? Perhaps the Reformation was/is a cancer due to the failure of the Catholic immune response?

If you answer 'yes', then you admit the imperfection within the body of Christ, and thus the notion of impeccability becomes flacid.

"Now, not every idea, theory, or pious devotion throughout history has been officially promulgated by the Magisterium as doctrine."

Yes, that's true. That's not my issue, and that's why I covered that nugget when I included Dr. Ott's definition of tertiary doctrines.

"As for the sex abuse scandal, and how the Church handles it, the Church has never dogmatically declared that it would always handle sinfulness in its members with the utmost in grace or wisdom. But since their actions in "covering up" the abuse scandal or in representing themselves to the Press do not constitute anything approximating its beliefs in matters of Faith or Morals, it falls well outside the pale of the Infallibility question."

It absolutely does not! The Catholic Church is beholden to a watching world. She must not close herself off in some hermetic seal officially pronouncing what is to be believed by humanity, and then claim immunity when challenged on her integrity. If the practice of Catholicism is not weighed against the reasonable dictates of a functioning conscience, then it is a force for evil in the world.

More, because Catholicism has "covered up" the sex abuse scandals, I'd say that it has handled the sinfulness in its members with the maximum grace. That's the problem, however! If we define 'grace' as giving what is undeserved, then "covering up" for licentious virgins in collarinos is giving to them what is not deserved: nothing. As far as I'm concerned, they should be strung up by their eyelids and kicked in the balls 'till they blink. In all seriousness, however, these abusers have stepped outside the pale of human decency, period. They should therefore be handed over to the civil authorities for court action and dealt with accordingly.

"The same response is easily given in the case of the Church's alleged inaction in Rwanda (though your link leaves much to be desired in the case of proof, though accusations abound. Either way, the lack of fortitude or ability to do anything on the part of African bishops does nothing to the notion of Catholic Infallibility."

It amazes me that you would attempt any defense of these assholes at all! It also amazes me that you may not see the reality that the actions taken by these cowardly leaders may have been, in part, as a result of what was inculcated in them by the Catholic community. Children are not free of the influence of their parents. By way of a parallel, criminal priests are not free of the Catholic schools, churches, and seminaries that taught them. To suggest there is no connection at all, would render anything else you have to say completely irrelevant.

"And so, I find I must level an old refrain of criticism toward you yet again, Chris."

You mean 'Kane'.

"Get your definitions right if you're going to criticise something--anything--Catholic Church or not! The only thing you've demonstrated in your article is that you, in fact, do err."

My definitions come from Catholic sources, so I won't apologise for the errors they contain.

Friday, January 22, 2010

The Never Erring Story

"The Catholic Church has never erred." At least, that's what I've had thrown at me a number of times in informal debates with Catholic friends. Who am I to argue? I've erred quite a lot, so I'm really not qualified to say otherwise. And arguing as a peccable entity against an impeccable agent of God would bring about the irony that I might just be erring to be contrarian in the face of such a grand claim.

So what am I dealing with when I have a zinger like "the Catholic Church has never erred" tossed out at me? Apparently, I'm dealing with the doctrine of impeccability. Not to be confused with the doctrine of infallibility. You see, impeccability is understood quite easily as the 'absence of sin' -- something only God, Jesus and Mary could appreciate. The rest of us are out of the runnings: we don't qualify for the sinless status. Not unless we become Pelagians, of course, at which point we become heretics because we believe that while we are yet alive we can be rarified in the grace of God to the point of sinlessness. That is, we can become impeccable by sheer force of performative logic and a willingness to carouse with Pelagian beliefs.

But, since the self-defining, and self-declaring Catholic Church has monopolized the market on truth and declared herself the "one true church" that "never errs", and further, has declared Pelagianism a heresy, I would be in error to take on such a view.

But I am left with a question: if Mary was given special status to be sinless while she was alive, why can't any God-fearing Pelagian work that angle? It would seem like a worthwhile occupation to make yourself sinless, wouldn't it? And if so, that would mean that there's something a little dodgy going on with the Catholic doctrine of Mary's sinlessness. I'm just saying.

Nevertheless, it would be insincere of me to leave out the Catholic Church's self-understanding on the notion of impeccability. That is, the Catholic Church believes she has never erred in matters pertaining to faith and morals; it has nothing to do with historical opinions. To quote the Wikipedia entry, "in Catholic thought, the exemption of the Roman Church from error extends only to its definitive teachings on faith and morals: not its historical judgments." In other words, those teachings that are not held to be divine revelations but are free from error and essential to proper belief.

A moment's reflection, however, piques my curiosity: if there are 'essential' teachings that are free from error, might there also be non-essential teachings that could have errors? In fact, yes, there are. Dr. Ludwig Ott puts it thusly:

"A Teaching proximate to Faith (sententia fidei proxima) is a doctrine, which is regarded by theologians generally as a truth of Revelation, but which has not yet been finally promulgated as such by the Church."

Ott's list of Catholic Certainties places teachings proximate to faith (i.e., teachings that are closest to true faith, but not causes of faith) at the bronze-medal level. These kinds of non-essential teachings are kind of like teachings-in-waiting, or tertiary certainties. In other words, the Catholic Church may or may not have some reservations about them, but do what you want with them until you're told otherwise (e.g., natural selection/evolution).

On this point then, we can be part of a church that never errs, but that leaves enough wiggle-room to let individuals err, as long as the Magisterium hasn't made any official statements of a higher degree of certainty; e.g., a de fide proclamation. Given this hierarchy of truths in an impeccable church, a necessary question arises: why the degrees of certainty? Doesn't that tacitly admit to possible errors in an error-free church? Even given the scalpel-line between 'faith and morals' and 'historical judgments', if the official teaching of the church is that it is officially free of error in faith and morals, wasn't that an historical judgment at some point in time? So how can we be certain of the official certainty of Catholic dogma?

The answer is that we can't. Which is why we can happily discard the nonsense that the Catholic Church has never erred. We can also jettison the corollary that the Catholic Church will never err. The Catholic Church is diseased with errors. For example, the Catholic Church recently rejected the long-held traditional teaching of limbo. Mind you, they don't see that as a mistake; they see it as an evolution, or progress in understanding. Logic dictates, however, that if the Catholic Church once believed the doctrine of limbo as true, and then turns around and says it's not, that there has been an error somewhere along the line. An error that, much like turning water into wine, turns truth into falsity. Whoops!

Here's another one. I'll let you be the judge of how insidiously stupid the Catholic Church has been on this issue. You tell me if you think the Catholic Church cannot err in matters of, oh, say, morals. One more, just for emphasis.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

The Onion Strikes Again!

Warning: The following material may offend most, and should not be viewed by anybody looking to avoid a laugh. Oh! And it's about sex.

Shout-out to The Onion for this bit of hilarity!

Friday, January 8, 2010

Jesus The Bruiser

At some point there has to be an end to this kind of absurdity. I'm talking about the absurdity of seeing Jesus in things like irons, mirrors, or MRIs. Yeah, sure, maybe you saw a face and it had a similar look to the typical pale-skinned messiah so often depicted just inside the narthex of local churches, or hanging on the sanctuary doors, maybe even adorning a spot above the sink in the vestry.

In any case, have God and his heavenly attendees become so bored that they've reduced their theophanies to mundane objects like toast and irons and mirrors? Have miracles (e.g., water into wine, resurrection, curing leprosy, et al.) become somewhat passé such that God and the saints are aiming on level with supra-blah?

It's one thing to be devoted. It's another thing to be kinda weird. I see patterns, faces, animals, common objects, and symbols almost every time I look at a stippled ceiling, or a ceiling with those awful dropped-tiles so popular in offices. I don't chalk those coincidental visual cognates up to a miracle, or preserve them somehow so I can sell them on eBay for $28,000. 'Cause that's just crazy!

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Believing and Knowing P. II

In the first part of Believing and Knowing, I stated the following:

"For how can conversation happen when belief is taken to be knowledge? In other words, how can anything intelligible be conveyed about any one of the tenets of Christianity if a Christian is convinced that what s/he believes is what s/he knows? The dissonance this creates in the mind of the observant listener shuts down any chances of mutually beneficial dialogue since this blurring of distinctions results in wrong-headed dogmatism, fanatacism, and extremism."

Wrong-headed dogmatism. First, what is 'dogmatism'? The common understanding is that it is "unfounded positive assertion in matters of opinion; arrogant assertions of opinions as truth." However, in the history of the Christian religion, 'dogmatism' has been defined quite differently. Christian dogmatism is understood, basically, as "core principles that must be upheld by all followers" of Christ. For example, one cannot be a Christian unless one believes in the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ; one cannot be a Christian if one does not believe in the Holy Trinity; one cannot be a Christian if one believes that all religions are basically the same, and lead to the same place. And just to advance this a little further, the Catholic church denotes 'dogma' as the following:

"But according to a long-standing usage a dogma is now understood to be a truth appertaining to faith or morals, revealed by God, transmitted from the Apostles in the Scriptures or by tradition, and proposed by the Church for the acceptance of the faithful. It might be described briefly as a revealed truth defined by the Church — but private revelations do not constitute dogmas, and some theologians confine the word defined to doctrines solemnly defined by the pope or by a general council, while a revealed truth becomes a dogma even when proposed by the Church through her ordinary magisterium or teaching office. A dogma therefore implies a twofold relation: to Divine revelation and to the authoritative teaching of the Church."

Even in the Catholic definition of 'dogma', the emphasis is placed on the disposition to believe as if what is believed is what is known.
This is a dangerous mistake to make, in my estimation, since the disposition to believe a certain set of propositions does not entail knowing those propositions to be true. It may very well be the case that my baptist friend believes dancing is evil because it inevitably leads to sex. But he may just be relieved to know that most of the dancing population of the world finds itself coitally-challenged at the end of the tango just as much as at the end of a harlequin. There is simply no correspondence between what my baptist friend believes and what is known. To therefore make a dogmatic assertion that 'dancing is evil because it inevitably leads to sex' is an empty, and useless proposition unless it can be backed with actual knowledge. And what is more, the assertion above begs the question of whether 'sex' itself is considered evil because of its association with dancing (which is believed but not known to be 'evil'). Nothing is actually known in this case except that a certain young man believes a useless and empty-headed proposition that masquerades as a known truth, but has no knowledge to substantiate its claim.

That being said, believing such a proposition is a dangerously wrong-headed thing to do. It is a wrong-headed dogma unfit for the thinking Christian. But how many other dogmatic assertions can come under the same scrutiny? For example, what is actually known about Mary's purported assumption? Quite literally, nothing. It is simply an assertion from tradition that is believed en masse because it has always been believed. But the glaringly obvious fact of the matter is that nothing is known about Mary's assumption, not even whether it happened or not. It is a dogmatic expression ardently believed by billions of Catholics that has no factual basis in reality. It is a wrong-headed dogma disguising itself as a known truth.

A little more, and we'll move on. If it is the case that Christian dogma is essentially propositional assertions that Christians believe but do not necessarily know, how much of what we take to be 'truth' is actually true? I don't mean to continuously pit belief and knowledge against each other; they are certainly not opposed in all ways. However, to figure out where belief and knowledge coalesce we must be willing to visit the possibility that they don't simply agree with each other because it would make things less difficult otherwise. There is no reason to dogmatically hold to mere propositions as if those same propositions were not only their own context but their own content, too. What is believed has a direct impact on what, and how you come to know things. And conversely, what you know will impact what you believe.

So which, if any, of the Christian dogmas are knowably true? And which, if any, of the Christian dogmas are simply believed to be true? It's a frightening question to ask, really, for it opens up the possibility that what you may believe may, in fact, be wrong. And, in fact, those beliefs may be wrong because there's no way to know if they're true. And to suggest that that's why we have to take the Christian testimony on 'faith' is to suggest the same thing as simply believing without knowing.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Camping at the End of the World

Remember Hal Lindsey? He was wrong!

What about Grant R. Jeffrey? He was wrong, too!

Then there's the Left Behind nutbags, LaHaye and Jenkins. Wrong. In general.

Well, another prophet has arisen from amongst the rank-and-file of the Van Impe wannabes: Harold Camping. He predicted the world would end in 1994. But he was wrong. Now he's throwing in against the Mayans for the preview spot; he wants to open up for the 2012 crowd a year early. Yep. The world is going to end on May 21, 2011.

This is fair warning.
I guess 2010 should be a year of Corinthian proportions, hey? Awesome.

Wait! Maybe Mayan means 'may'. Crap! We're doomed. Hey, that was some apocalyptic alliteration, if ever I've heard any.