Sunday, August 11, 2013

Tablet Thoughts: Ugly Past History

What are we to make of ugly history? When we see the claimed barbarism of medieval Europe or the like, there are events in religious history which seems appalling by the standard of the 21st century.

It's mainly a problem because certain people try to attack the belief in God or the Catholic Church on the grounds that in the past, they didn't act like civilized 21st century human beings.

Such attackers assume that if God truly had revelations for His people or if He had established the Catholic Church,  then they should act like civilized 21st century human beings.

The problem with that argument is to make it is to answer it. They weren't civilized 21st century cultures. However, they were the cultures from which we gained our moral knowledge.

What is forgotten is that God doesn't just infuse knowledge into people which they instinctively follow. Instead, He gives His revelations to people who exist in time and in a certain culture. This time and culture has its own vicious customs that are contrary to God's will.

Now we believe that revelation ended with the death of the last apostle, but that does not mean that how Christ's teaching was to be applied was fully recognized in AD 100. Understandings of how to be Christian in a time of persecution would have different emphasis than in a time when it was legalized for example.

God, in His love and patience, works with each generation. What is true remains true, and where vicious customs run in conflict with God's will, He makes use of His prophets (before Christ) or His Church (after His ascension) to direct that generation back to Him.

Of course in each generation, the men and women sin. Sometimes it is in disobedience. Sometimes it is mistaking customs for God's teaching (see Matthew 12 for example). Humanity remains sinful. Popes were not protected from error when it comes to the civil administration of the Papal States.

This distinction is not special pleading. There are actions committed by members of the Church in past ages that strike us as troubling when we look at them from hundreds of years later.

But what we forget is that the development of our understanding of morality comes from the teaching which Christ gave His Church applied to new discoveries.

For example, the teaching of treatment of  peoples developed from the encounters with people in the New World and how colonizers treated them.

Unfortunately,  many assume that the mistreatment comes from the direct command of the Church in a fallacy of the undistributed middle: assuming that because some colonizers mistreated nations mistreated natives and because those colonizers were Catholic it means Catholicism caused the mistreatment. (The fact that colonizers mistreated and colonizers were Catholic does not show Catholicism was the cause -- A is part of B and A is part of C does not mean C must be part of B).

This is why we can say that even though there are sinful Catholics (even among those in authority), that does not justify claiming the Church does evil in her binding teaching. When they do evil, they act against what the Church teaches in regards to faith and morals.

The point of this reflection is to remind both Catholics and non-Catholics that the behavior of sinners in the Church and the old customs  or law enforcement of a more violent time do not mean the doctrine and moral teaching was a part of that behavior.

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