Showing posts with label Thomas Aquinas. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Thomas Aquinas. Show all posts

Sunday, April 10, 2016

Misreading Amoris Lætitia: When Catholics Don't Know that they Don't Know

Imagine this scenario. A doctor heading a prestigious medical association produces an official document involving health and dealing with helping people afflicted by difficult situations. In response, a group of people show up on the internet, denouncing this document, accusing him of incompetence, and claiming his article goes against all medical knowledge that preceded it. Would you accept the opinions of these people on their say so? Or would you look into their qualifications to comment on the matter before accepting their views over the head of the medical association?

What if you found out that these critics have been hostile to this doctor from the start, had no medical background, and constantly took his words out of context? What if you discovered these critics based their criticisms on the belief that they knew more about medicine than the head of this medical association? Could any sane person accept the words of these critics over the words of this doctor?

I believe we are witnessing this scenario in the Catholic Church today. A certain faction of Catholics are attacking the Holy Father (who has much more authority than the head of a medical association) on account of his efforts to explore the meaning of Christian marriage and his seeking solutions aimed at helping people who are in irregular marriages find reconciliation or, at the least, encourage them to take part in the life of the Church in ways they licitly can. This faction loves to pull out certain mined quotes from older Church documents, contrast them with Pope Francis, and argue the Pope is a heretic.

The problem with their tactic is, it displays lack of knowledge about the Church applying norms of moral theology to specific cases. The Pope is not introducing something new here. He is not calling for the change of moral norms. He is reminding pastors of the need to investigate each person or couple to see how their situations line up with the moral norms.

Catholic moral theology tells us that for a sin to be mortal, we need three things: Grave matter, full knowledge that it is sinful, and freely choosing to do it anyway. If one of those things is missing, then the sin is not mortal. That doesn’t mean there is no sin or there is no reason to change, and the Pope never claims there is no sin and does call on people to change! I think we have forgotten what a mortal sin is. If we remembered, his words would not shock us.

The Church does teach that sexual sins involve grave matter, and the Pope recognizes this. What he calls pastors to do is discover if the knowledge and will is present. If a couple in an irregular marriage was ignorant of Church teaching or their obligations, then they are not willfully choosing to do what is wrong. Yes, the wrong exists. But the Church is not a proctor only tasked with giving a pass/fail grade to couples’ marriage situations. The Church is obeying a call to go out, find the lost sheep, and bring them back to the fold. That’s not always easy [*]. But Pope Francis hasn’t just made something up. In fact, he brings up the Summa Theologica where St. Thomas Aquinas looks at the lack of knowledge in some people or cultures. I’ll quote a larger section of the article [†] he cites because I think it helps make the Holy Father’s point

The speculative reason, however, is differently situated in this matter, from the practical reason. For, since the speculative reason is busied chiefly with necessary things, which cannot be otherwise than they are, its proper conclusions, like the universal principles, contain the truth without fail. The practical reason, on the other hand, is busied with contingent matters, about which human actions are concerned: and consequently, although there is necessity in the general principles, the more we descend to matters of detail, the more frequently we encounter defects. Accordingly then in speculative matters truth is the same in all men, both as to principles and as to conclusions: although the truth is not known to all as regards the conclusions, but only as regards the principles which are called common notions. But in matters of action, truth or practical rectitude is not the same for all, as to matters of detail, but only as to the general principles: and where there is the same rectitude in matters of detail, it is not equally known to all.


 Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, trans. Fathers of the English Dominican Province (London: Burns Oates & Washbourne, n.d.).  I-II q.94 a.4 resp.

Applied to the Apostolic Exhortation, the fact that a marriage is irregular is not disputed. But defects in the knowledge of the people or culture involved may change the level of culpability, and the means of helping them may be different from other cases. Not because the Church is changing her rules, but because society has grown so ignorant of right and wrong that people enter morally wrong situations without knowing they are wrong. The result is, people who do not know this are accusing the Pope of inventing something which was, in fact, long known in the 13th century.

The whole thing is a case of Catholics not only not knowing the answer, but not knowing that they don’t know the answer. The problem is, people who do not know an answer but think they do are less wise than those who do not know and know that they do not know. Socrates put it this way:

“I am wiser than this man; for neither of us really knows anything fine and good, but this man thinks he knows something when he does not, whereas I, as I do not know anything, do not think I do either. I seem, then, in just this little thing to be wiser than this man at any rate, that what I do not know I do not think I know either.” (Apologia 21d)


 Plato, Plato in Twelve Volumes Translated by Harold North Fowler; Introduction by W.R.M. Lamb., vol. 1 (Medford, MA: Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann Ltd., 1966).

The person seeking the truth can find it, but only if they search for it. In this case, when we find something unfamiliar in the Pope’s words, we should strive to understand how the Pope means his words. We should not just assume that our preconceived notions as Americans match how the rest of the world thinks. We should not assume our degrees earned as laity qualifies us to match wits with the confessor trained to assess individual cases. I have personally watched pastors give insights into moral theology which went beyond what I learned to earn a Masters in the subject.

We cannot assume that our education or personal reading is adequate in any subject lets us interpret the new information we discover without study. When there are experts in a field, we should learn from them. In the case of the Catholic Church, these experts are the magisterium who decide how to best apply the timeless truths to today’s problems. Magisterium is a key word here. Yes, there are theologians, bloggers, and secular news agencies who distort Church teaching. Their false interpretations do not make the actual teachings of the Pope or bishops false. Our personal reading of Church documents from before Vatican II does not trump the magisterial authority to interpret these documents. In fact, when there is a conflict with official Church documents, we ought to assume our interpretation is wrong. Even in unofficial things like interviews and press conferences where our assent is not required, we ought to recognize the difference of language and culture can be a stumbling block.

I would sum up by saying we must not be overconfident in our own knowledge and skill in interpreting. We should know our limitations and know when we do not know something. When we learn of our ignorance, we must strive to learn from reliable teachers, not those we happen to agree with. In the case of the Catholic Church, the ultimate judges of what is in keeping with our faith are our Pope and the bishops in communion with him. Those who reject the magisterium are not qualified judges and cannot pass judgment on the magisterium.

If we do not know that, we cannot consider ourselves wise as Catholics.


[*] For example, Priest-blogger Fr. Dwight Longenecker recently wrote an article (found HERE), giving us three pastoral cases of people in an irregular marriage. He tells us he knows the answers to these questions (I think they may be textbook cases) but does not tell us the answers. Why? Because he wants us to recognize how difficult cases can be, especially when we do not have the training to make these assessments.

[†] My translation is older and so slightly different than it appears in Amoris Lætitia ¶304, but the meaning is the same as what the Holy Father cites.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Cuomo Supports Bull Connor Over MLK? Thoughts on Law and God

But Peter and the apostles said in reply, "We must obey God rather than men."

—Acts 5:29

The Duke of Norfolk: Oh confound all this. I'm not a scholar, I don't know whether the marriage was lawful or not but dammit, Thomas, look at these names! Why can't you do as I did and come with us, for fellowship!

Sir Thomas More: And when we die, and you are sent to heaven for doing your conscience, and I am sent to hell for not doing mine, will you come with me, for fellowship?

A Man For All Seasons


There is some buzz in the media about Laura Fotusky, the woman who resigned rather than take part in issuing marriage licenses to homosexual couples in New York. Some support her. Others speak contemptuously about her.  Those who dismiss her generally take the point that the law is the law and people who will not follow said law have no business being in government.

The problem is, such a position seems to presuppose a view that whatever the government says, goes.  But is this really a valid position?

The Statement of Cuomo

"The law is the law. When you enforce the laws of the state, you don’t get pick and choose which laws. You don’t get to say, ‘I like this law, I’ll enforce this law. I don’t like this law, I won’t enforce this law.’ You can’t do that. So if you can’t enforce the law, then you shouldn’t be in that position."

—Governor Andrew Cuomo

Reductio ad Absurdum

reductio ad absurdum

n. Philosophy a method of proving the falsity of a premise by showing that its logical consequence is absurd or contradictory.

– origin Latin, lit. ‘reduction to the absurd’.

Soanes, C., & Stevenson, A. (2004). Concise Oxford English dictionary (11th ed.). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

The problem is, we can make a reductio ad absurdum to show the flaw in his position.  "Bull" Connor, Commissioner of Public Safety in Alabama was enforcing the law when he targeted blacks demonstrating for human rights and was infamous for the use of fire hoses and dogs against demonstrators.  If Cuomo is right, then Connor is unjustly condemned by history.  After all, Segregation was the law, and as Cuomo said, "So if you can’t enforce the law, then you shouldn’t be in that position."

We can put this into a Syllogism by taking the statement, "if you can’t [enforce the law], then you shouldn’t [be in that position]."  We can then restate this as a positive:

  1. If you do [Enforce the Law], you should [be in that position] (If [A] then [B])
  2. Bull Connor did [Enforce the Law] ([A])
  3. Therefore Bull Connor should [be in that position] (Therefore [B])




If you find that syllogism repellant (and you should), you can then see that Andrew Cuomo's statement must therefore also be repellant because it actually can be used to justify anything the state wants to do. 

That's how the reductio works.  If [A] then [B].  [B] is offensive or absurd.  Therefore we should reject [A].

The reason Cuomo's statement is dangerous and offensive is the authority of the state is not the judge of what is right and wrong.  Right and wrong is outside the ability of the state to decree.  History is full of regimes who have made it legal to do horrific things, and we do not consider those who carry out such laws to be justified. 

The Nuremberg Defense

Indeed, we know that the "Superior Orders" defense (also known as the Nuremberg Defense) of "I was just following orders," is rejected.  Indeed, Nuremberg Principle #4 states:

The fact that a person acted pursuant to order of his Government or of a superior does not relieve him from responsibility under international law, provided a moral choice was in fact possible to him.

So in this case just because a law is made, it does not excuse the person from making a moral choice in opposition to a law, if it is unjust.

Therefore, before we can accept Cuomo's argument, it requires the establishment of the fact that "Gay Marriage" is in fact a just law which should be obeyed.  Thus the supporters for "Gay Marriage" can't simply say they don't want to force religious views on others.  They are in fact forcing secular sectarian views on others by forcing them to accept "Gay Marriage."

Legal Positivism and Just Laws

An unjust law is no law at all.

—St. Augustine.  On Free Choice Of The Will, Book 1, § 5

The concept of what makes a law binding on us comes down to two possibilities:

  1. Whatever the State decrees is to be obeyed because the state decreed it.
  2. The obedience to a law supposes that the law is just and an unjust law lacks authority.

This is the difference between Legal Positivism and the Christian view of law.  Legal Positivism holds that "The existence of law is one thing; its merit and demerit another. Whether it be or be not is one enquiry; whether it be or be not conformable to an assumed standard, is a different enquiry." (John Austin).  In other words, whether or not the law be good or bad is irrelevant to the issue of whether it ought to be obeyed. 

One begins to see the dangerous view of Governor Andrew Cuomo.  Law is to be obeyed because government has authority to govern, regardless of whether a law is good or bad.  American History is full of examples of unjust laws which people of conscience felt they had to oppose: the Fugitive Slave Act, Jim Crow laws and the like were to be obeyed and the person who defied such laws on grounds of conscience was a plain and simple lawbreaker – his beliefs that the law was unjust is irrelevant.

Under Legal Positivism, Martin Luther King Jr. (hereafter identified as MLK) was a felon and his civil disobedience could not be justified.

On the other hand, the Christian view of law recognizes human authority as being rooted in the authority of God.  The state exists for the protection of the people, which presupposes justice.  Our rights come from outside the state.  If they come from within the state, then the state can take the rights away.

Under the Christian view of law, MLK was justified in opposing an unjust set of laws, when he pointed out:

Since we so diligently urge people to obey the Supreme Court's decision of 1954 outlawing segregation in the public schools, at first glance it may seem rather paradoxical for us consciously to break laws. One may well ask: "How can you advocate breaking some laws and obeying others?" The answer lies in the fact that there are two types of laws: just and unjust. I would be the first to advocate obeying just laws. One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws. I would agree with St. Augustine that "an unjust law is no law at all."

Now, what is the difference between the two? How does one determine whether a law is just or unjust? A just law is a man made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law. To put it in the terms of St. Thomas Aquinas: An unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal law and natural law. Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust.

Letter from a Birmingham Jail

This gives the lawmaker like Cuomo a dilemma.  If one must obey any law because it is a law, then MLK is in the wrong.  However, if MLK was right, then Cuomo is wrong.

Thomas Aquinas and Law

In the Summa Theologica (cited by MLK), St. Thomas Aquinas writes:

On the other hand laws may be unjust in two ways: first, by being contrary to human good, through being opposed to the things mentioned above - either in respect of the end, as when an authority imposes on his subjects burdensome laws, conducive, not to the common good, but rather to his own cupidity or vainglory - or in respect of the author, as when a man makes a law that goes beyond the power committed to him - or in respect of the form, as when burdens are imposed unequally on the community, although with a view to the common good. The like are acts of violence rather than laws; because, as Augustine says (De Libero Arbitrio i,5), "a law that is not just, seems to be no law at all." Wherefore such laws do not bind in conscience, except perhaps in order to avoid scandal or disturbance, for which cause a man should even yield his right, according to Matthew 5:40,41: "If a man. . . take away thy coat, let go thy cloak also unto him; and whosoever will force thee one mile, go with him other two."

Secondly, laws may be unjust through being opposed to the Divine good: such are the laws of tyrants inducing to idolatry, or to anything else contrary to the Divine law: and laws of this kind must nowise be observed, because, as stated in Acts 5:29, "we ought to obey God rather than man."

Summa Theologica I-IIa Q. 96 Article 4.

So Is the New York Law Just?

For the Christian, the "Gay Marriage" law is unjust on the following grounds:

  1. It goes beyond the authority of any government to declare that marriage can be between two persons of the same gender.
  2. This law is in opposition to the Divine good.

Because we ought to obey God rather than men, we must call this unjust and cannot support the government in this action.

This is not "Imposing Beliefs"

As citizens of this nation, Christians have the same rights as others to make our voices heard and shape the laws according to what is right (Hat tip to blogger Anthony Layne for making this point so well).  Because we do believe we must obey God rather then men, we cannot "go along" when the state mandates something which God condemns.  Because we believe there is real and knowable truth and good, we must call our nation to be aware of this.

Conclusion: God Gives Us Freedom.  Cuomo's View Makes the State All Powerful

We must oppose all politicians who seek to impose their will on the state, even if they wrongly think it just, if what they seek to impose goes against the natural and divine law.  We may suffer persecution for this.  However, let us be clear that the state does not have the authority to enact such a law and they are unjust if they do persecute us.

Yes, we must obey God rather then men.  However, the state does evil when they force us to make that choice to begin with.  This is why we must rise up and condemn Cuomo's statement as being a dangerous infringement on our right to do as we ought to do.