Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Thoughts on the Ideology of "Progress"

Some people have a bad habit of praising things they like as “progress” and treating things in opposition to their likes as opposition to progress. Using such labels, it becomes easy to praise or vilify things via the poisoning the well fallacy. Define an idea as “progress,” and label opposition as opposition to “progress.” Portray that opposition to “progress” as “intolerance” and you can portray your opponents as bigots. Regardless of how well they refute the claims of “progress,” society paints them as “bigoted” before they open their mouths. Hence the religious freedom bills which are called “homophobic” on the grounds that they insist on the right to refuse participating in something they call morally wrong. Since “bigotry” is the only moral wrong in today’s society, labeling a person as a “bigot,” the person who opposes what is approved of by society can be ostracized, fired, sued, fined or jailed for daring to disagree.

The problem is, the term “progress” confuses technical progress with the improvement of society in general. We assume that things are better now than in the past, both because technology improves the quality of life, but because we see that a previous moral flaw in society has been eliminated and assume that the present is always better than the past. So people point to medieval concepts of punishment and the American legacy of slavery and segregation and argue that because we don’t do those things now, we have made progress in all areas and the past has nothing to teach us—except perhaps to serve as a bad example.

I believe this is a false view on how to look on things. Technical progress doesn’t mean moral progress. Hitler’s Germany and Stalinist Russia are proof of that. It is a mistake to think of “Past behavior = BAD and Current behavior = GOOD.” What is really the case is that every era (including ours) embraces vicious customs which promote immoral and unjust behavior. In one era, it was burning at the stake; in another era, it was slavery; currently it is abortion, euthanasia, same sex “marriage,” and children born out of wedlock (among others). In the era which is caught up in it, people see nothing wrong with the vice and tend to be hostile to those who oppose it.

Benedict XVI, before he was Pope, wrote about the problem with this assumption, showing that we now have problems that result from problems we did not even have in past centuries:

I recall a debate I had with some friends in Ernst Bloch’s house. Our conversation chanced to hit on the problem of drugs, which at that time—in the late 1960s—was just beginning to arise. We wondered how this temptation could spread so suddenly now, and why, for example, it had apparently not existed at all in the Middle Ages. All were agreed in rejecting as insufficient the answer that at that period the areas where drugs were cultivated were too far away. Phenomena like the appearance of drugs are not to be explained by means of such external conditions; they come from deeper needs or lacks, while dealing with the concrete problems of procurement follows later. I ventured the hypothesis that obviously in the Middle Ages the emptiness of the soul, which drugs are an attempt to fill, did not exist: the thirst of the soul, of the inner man, found an answer that made drugs unnecessary. I can still recall the speechless indignation with which Mrs. Bloch reacted to this proposed solution. On the basis of dialectical materialism’s image of history, she found the idea almost criminal that past ages could have been superior to our own in not wholly inessential matters; it was impossible that the masses could have lived with greater happiness and inner harmony in the Middle Ages—a period of oppression and religious prejudices—than in our age, which has already made some degree of progress along the path of liberation: this would entail the collapse of the entire logic of “liberation”. But how, then, is one to explain what has happened? The question remained unanswered that evening.

 

 Joseph Ratzinger, A Turning Point for Europe?: The Church in the Modern World: Assessment and Forecast, trans. Brian McNeil, Second Edition (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1994), 24–25.

He raises a good point. The person who believes in the ideology of “progress,” cannot accept that the past could have done anything better than the present and cannot admit that the present has flaws because it abandoned values from the past. Drug addiction is a modern problem with causes rooted in modern times because these times cannot provide for something it has lost.

The fact of the matter is the 20th century, which was touted as the century of progress, was the bloodiest and cruelest in history. Germany murdered six million Jews specifically because of what they were and victimized other groups as well. The Russian purges killed millions (something people denied until the collapse of the Soviet Union), the Chinese Cultural Revolution killed millions, Pol Pot killed over a million. In contrast, the Spanish Inquisition killed maybe a thousand people—over a period of 400 years. If mistreatment and suffering is the opposite of progress, then the “century of progress” was very regressive indeed.

I’m not saying that the era ought to be judged by the number of people killed of course. The point is we need to avoid the post hoc fallacy equating time with improved moral knowledge and assuming we have less evil in our time than in past centuries, and we need to stop thinking that opposition to the vicious customs of our era is opposition to progress. In this context, “Progress” is nothing more than an ideological label used to portray opponents of that ideology as being against progress and being worthy of our ire.

If we want to truly become enlightened as a society, we need to stop evaluating ideas with a calendar and start evaluating them on the basis of whether the assumptions are true, and if the assumptions are false, to reject those ideas.

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

The Church on the Authority of Civil Rulers

In 1881, in the midst of attacks of the nation-states on the Catholic Church, Pope Leo XIII (reigned 1878-1903) issued the encyclical Diuturnum on the authority of civil governments. In it, he lays down the source and the scope of that authority. Far from being an anarchistic document or demanding the establishment of a theocracy, Pope Leo XIII indicated that a legitimate government with legitimate laws has the right to be obeyed. However, that government does not have absolute authority over every aspect of life. There are paths which a government might be tempted to take but, if they make that decision, their authority vanishes. His encyclical, Diuturnum, says:

15. The one only reason which men have for not obeying is when anything is demanded of them which is openly repugnant to the natural or the divine law, for it is equally unlawful to command to do anything in which the law of nature or the will of God is violated. If, therefore, it should happen to any one to be compelled to prefer one or the other, viz., to disregard either the commands of God or those of rulers, he must obey Jesus Christ, who commands us to “give to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s,” and must reply courageously after the example of the Apostles: “We ought to obey God rather than men.” And yet there is no reason why those who so behave themselves should be accused of refusing obedience; for, if the will of rulers is oppsed to the will and the laws of God, they themselves exceed the bounds of their own power and pervert justice; nor can their authority then be valid, which, when there is no justice, is null.

 

 Claudia Carlen, ed., The Papal Encyclicals: 1878–1903 (Ypsilanti, MI: Pierian Press, 1990), 54.

The point is, governments are ruled by persons, and people are sinners by their nature. So those who legislate or rule can make bad decisions which go against what God commands and how He designed the universe to function. When they cross that line, the faithful Catholic has the obligation to say “No” to the state, even if there are consequences. The obedience to God comes first. This is ultimately why the Church has been forced to speak against our government—against the contraception mandate, against the redefinition of marriage, against abortion and many other unjust actions.

Governments, being ruled by  and ruling over sinners, have a strong resistance to being corrected when they do go against Divine or natural law. The most common solution is to try to make the Church appear to be an enemy of good because she refuses to go along with the government’s attempt to redefine good and evil. She is accused of “imposing her views” on others. She is charged with being intolerant to some group of the population, and of course the legal practices of previous centuries are cited as if the Church invented and forced them on an unwilling world.

Take the case of the Little Sisters of the Poor, which is being sued on account of their refusal to comply with the contraception mandate and refusal to use a proxy to comply with this mandate. Many people attack them for refusing to just go along and fill out the paperwork authorizing an insurance company to issue contraception coverage separately. But Catholics simply cannot choose to do evil and they cannot authorize someone to act on their behalf to do evil. So, in this case, a person or group which believes that this government mandate goes against the laws of God cannot take part in this without putting themselves in opposition to God.

The non-Catholic or the lax Catholic might not care, might not think God cares. But even if one rejects the Catholic moral teaching, the Constitution does not give the state the right to determine which religious beliefs are important and which religious beliefs can be ignored. The only limitations the state can pose on the practice of religion is the limitation based on protecting the public good (this is why the arguments citing hypothetical religions practicing human sacrifice or white supremacy are red herrings).

Given that the Little Sisters of the Poor have been in existence since 1839 and serve in 31 countries caring for the poor and dying elderly and this only became a problem for the government during the last seven years, one can argue that the religious practices of this religious order has not violated any public good. The only thing it violates is the ideological preferences of the government—and the Catholic teaching on these issues existed long before Europeans ever encountered the lands that now bear the name of America.

To try to compare the religious practice of Catholics in rejecting contraception as evil to the acceptance of slavery by some Christians in the United States is also a red herring. The Catholic moral teaching condemns the notion that one may treat another human being as less than human. Those Catholics who were guilty of racism were not following Church teaching. They were following the vicious custom of 16th to 20th century America (it’s similar to how Catholics today can practice the vicious customs supporting abortion as a “right” even though the Church condemns it as intrinsically evil).

So what we have is a standoff. On one side, we have a philosophy of government that believes it can dictate to practitioners of a religion which one of their beliefs they can follow and what constitutes a violation of that religion. On the other side, we have a Church that professes to be the Church established by Christ and given the authority to bind and to loose in His name. From the perspective of the informed Catholic, this is no contest. The Church has the authority and the responsibility to make known what behaviors are in keeping with or in opposition to God’s law—even if those who are in opposition are the rulers of the earth.

But the Church does not intervene in such cases because she wishes to veto anything that is new. She instead seeks to carry out her mission to evangelize the whole world and encourage them to turn back to Christ. As Leo XIII also said in Diuturnum:

26. The Church of Christ, indeed, cannot be an object of suspicion to rulers, nor of hatred to the people; for it urges rulers to follow justice, and in nothing to decline from their duty; while at the same time it strengthens and in many ways supports their authority. All things that are of a civil nature the Church acknowledges and declares to be under the power and authority of the ruler; and in things whereof for different reasons the decision belongs both to the sacred and to the civil power, the Church wishes that there should be harmony between the two so that injurious contests may be avoided. As to what regards the people, the Church has been established for the salvation of all men and has ever loved them as a mother. For it is the Church which by the exercise of her charity has given gentleness to the minds of men, kindness to their manners, and justice to their laws. Never opposed to honest liberty, the Church has always detested a tyrant’s rule. This custom which the Church has ever had of deserving well of mankind is notably expressed by St. Augustine when he says that “the Church teaches kings to study the welfare of their people, and people to submit to their kings, showing what is due to all: and that to all is due charity and to no one injustice.”

 

 Claudia Carlen, ed., The Papal Encyclicals: 1878–1903 (Ypsilanti, MI: Pierian Press, 1990), 56–57.

That means Barack Obama, Nancy Pelosi, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump are among those to whom the Church is reaching out to to encourage them to turn to God and accept Him. They are not exempt from hearing the teaching of the Church and they are not beyond the pale of being reached out to. They may refuse to listen, and they may hate us for refusing to compromise. But that neither changes the teaching nor the mission of the Church.

Saturday, March 19, 2016

Quick Quips: On Speaking and Acting Rightly

I think it is time for another edition of Quick Quips because there are a number of problematic behaviors appearing that are incompatible with our Catholic faith that Catholics seem to be in danger of adopting.

Justice Requires Us To Act Justly Even if Others Act Unjustly

In Plato’s Republic, there is a discussion about justice. One of the guests (Simonides) discusses the nature of justice when it comes to giving a person his due and describes it as "it is that which renders benefits and harms to friends and enemies.” (Republic, 332D). During the course of the discussion, Socrates demolishes this assumption, pointing out that justice is about doing right to a person, regardless of whether the person is a friend or an enemy. That shouldn’t be a surprise to the Christian. We believe our Lord told us:

31 Do to others as you would have them do to you. 32 For if you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners love those who love them. 33 And if you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners do the same. 34 If you lend money to those from whom you expect repayment, what credit [is] that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, and get back the same amount. 35 But rather, love your enemies and do good to them, and lend expecting nothing back; then your reward will be great and you will be children of the Most High, for he himself is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. 36 Be merciful, just as [also] your Father is merciful. (Luke 6:31–36.)

The point is, even if someone we oppose is evil, that person’s wrongdoing does not justify their foes in doing evil in return. Many Christians, especially in election years, may shrug off that retaliation as “Karma’s a b*tch” or even cheer on wrongdoing when it happens to a foe. In the most extreme, we see this mindset when a deranged person kills an abortionist and the response is, “He deserved it.” In lesser extremes, we see politicians condemned for using a tactic when it inconveniences us but cheer it when it benefits us.

But that’s exactly what we must not do. If we believe something is wrong, and condemn it when a foe does it, we must not support it or laugh when an ally does it. If something is wrong, we must not do it. Finding excuses on why the situation is not exactly the same and therefore justifies the slightly different situation is just splitting hairs. Of course we need to make certain that the substantial differences do not outweigh the similarities (the fallacy of the irrelevant analogy), but compiling differences that are merely appearance is not substance. Nor can we object on the grounds that we just don’t want to face the same inconveniences our opponents suffered (that’s the fallacy of special pleading).

When it comes to politics, people may think that benefitting friends and harming enemies is the way of the world, but as Christians, we’re called to a higher standard of behavior, and we’re not to sink to the level of the world.

For Better or Worse (They’re not About the Same Thing)

In discussions, we tend to talk in terms of comparisons. We say that A is better than B or that X is worse than Y. As long as we are using the same scale of comparison, there is no problem with making factual comparisons or even offering opinions on the subject. But what we must not do is confuse them. If we are saying A is better than B, it does not mean B is worse than A. Likewise, if we say that X is worse than Y, this does not mean that Y is better than X. In other words, if a person makes a statement of comparison, it is unjust to change his words. So the person who says A is better than B cannot be accused of saying B is worse than A.

That’s because the two words are two different comparisons. Better means “a more favorable degree." Worse means “a more unfavorable degree.” Therefore, when a person chooses the term “better,” he is speaking about the nature of which is more positive. To accuse him of saying the less favorable one is worse is to put words in the mouth of the speaker that were not intended.

For example, The Church teaches that rape is worse than consensual fornication, but that both are mortally sinful and condemned. The person who would try to argue that "the Church says consensual fornication is better than rape” would be speaking nonsense. The Church says both are evil and neither can ever be done. The fact that one does greater evil does not justify calling the one that is not as extreme “better.” The point is that the Church cannot be accused of saying “fornication is better than rape.” She didn’t say that!  She didn’t offer approval of fornication in making that comparison.

I bring this up to make a comparison. I think people are forgetting this however in day to day life. When it comes to the political debates, I have seen people offering the view that Candidate A is worse than Candidate B. Then someone comes along and says “So you think Candidate B is better? What about this, that and the other? How can you be OK with that?” Again, the person making the comparison between politicians isn’t saying that one candidate’s evil positions are worthy of support. He’s saying that he views one candidate’s views as being more serious in terms of doing harm to others and does not downplay the other candidate’s evil.

Tying these Together 

I mention these issues to make a point about how we behave towards others. In times of controversies (and the elections certainly are that) it is easy to justify wrongdoing and to speak falsely about a foe. It’s also easy to misinterpret and draw conclusions about a politician or a fellow voter that they never intended to say. The political system has low expectations and promotes savaging weakness—at least when it happens to the foes—and grossly distorting an opponent’s position. But we who profess to be Christian cannot do this. We must treat those who hate us with the same love and justice that we treat those who love us. We must do to others the way we would be treated—even if they do not return the favor.

Friday, March 18, 2016

Faithful Catholics Divided on the Election. Reflections on a Passage by Archbishop Charles Chaput

There is no doubt that this election is going to be a difficult one for people who are appalled by the statements made by our major candidates. They are asking questions along the lines of “who can I vote for in a good conscience?” Unfortunately, these people are often being accused of bad faith to the point of not caring about the issues the accuser finds important. Confusing the issue is the fact that some people are supporting candidates for reasons contrary to Catholic teaching or are supporting a candidate for reasons which seem superficial and flippant. It is easy to confuse people in the first category with people in the second. Another problem is that some confuse questioning one candidate with supporting another. This results in many people feeling on the defensive over having their orthodoxy challenged while also believing that people with different views are not orthodox Catholics. It’s a vicious circle.

I think that a passage from a book written by Archbishop Charles J. Chaput in 2008 is especially relevant here. 

One of the pillars of Catholic thought is this: Don’t deliberately kill the innocent, and don’t collude in allowing it. We sin if we support candidates because they support a false “right” to abortion. We sin if we support “pro-choice” candidates without a truly proportionate reason for doing so— that is, a reason grave enough to outweigh our obligation to end the killing of the unborn. And what would such a “proportionate” reason look like? It would be a reason we could, with an honest heart, expect the unborn victims of abortion to accept when we meet them and need to explain our actions— as we someday will.

Finally, here’s the third question. What if Catholics face an election where both major candidates are “pro-choice”? What should they do then? Here’s the answer: They should remember that the “perfect” can easily become the enemy of the “good.”

The fact that no ideal or even normally acceptable candidate exists in an election does not absolve us from taking part in it. As Catholic citizens, we need to work for the greatest good. The purpose of cultivating a life of prayer, a relationship with Jesus Christ, and a love for the church is to grow as a Christian disciple— to become the kind of Catholic adult who can properly exercise conscience and good sense in exactly such circumstances. There isn’t one “right” answer here. Committed Catholics can make very different but equally valid choices: to vote for the major candidate who most closely fits the moral ideal, to vote for an acceptable third-party candidate who is unlikely to win, or to not vote at all. All of these choices can be legitimate. This is a matter for personal decision, not church policy.

Chaput, Charles J. (2008-08-12). Render Unto Caesar: Serving the Nation by Living our Catholic Beliefs in Political Life (pp. 229-231). The Crown Publishing Group. Kindle Edition. 

I think his insight here is wise and worth heeding even though he makes clear he is not exercising his episcopal authority in this book. He makes clear that to support, without a reason that outweighs the evil, a candidate who supports an intrinsic evil is to sin. But, if the Catholic finds both candidates support the intrinsic evil, he must still make a choice. That decision might be different for each person, but if it is reached by being faithful to the Church teaching, another Catholic cannot condemn him just because they reached a different conclusion than the first.

What has to be avoided is legalism, paying lip service to Church teaching as an excuse to justify a vote one was going to make regardless of what the Church said. One has to seriously consider the evils of both sides and what consequences follow from one’s vote. Are we sure that the reason we vote for one candidate over the other really outweigh the evil that candidate will do?

It’s understandable to be skeptical. In previous elections, we have had people argue that voting for a pro-abortion candidate was actually the more “pro-life” activity because of their stands on other social justice issues. But, in refutation, St. John Paul II made clear that support for those “other issues” was meaningless if the candidate was pro-abortion:

The inviolability of the person which is a reflection of the absolute inviolability of God, fĂ­nds its primary and fundamental expression in the inviolability of human life. Above all, the common outcry, which is justly made on behalf of human rights—for example, the right to health, to home, to work, to family, to culture—is false and illusory if the right to life, the most basic and fundamental right and the condition for all other personal rights, is not defended with maximum determination.

 

 John Paul II, Christifideles Laici #38 (Vatican City: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 1988).

So, we see that a Catholic can’t say “well, he’s sorta pro-life even though he supports the right to kill unborn children."

The problem we have in 2016 is that on one side we have candidates who actively call good what the Church calls intrinsically evil while, on the other side; we have candidates who support other issues the Church calls evil due to the motives and circumstances. There are also reasons to question the sincerity of some candidates. If a candidate has a reputation of oscillating back and forth on the issues, how do we know that the commitment will remain? It’s like the play A Man For All Seasons where Sir Thomas More says:

Listen, Roper. Two years ago you were a passionate Churchman; now you’re a passionate— Lutheran. We must just pray, that when your head’s finished turning your face is to the front again.

Bolt, Robert. A Man For All Seasons (Modern Classics) (Kindle Locations 580-582). Bloomsbury Publishing. Kindle Edition.

It’s not wrong to ask which way a candidate is going to wind up if they should get elected. But we do need to remember that there are faithful Catholics who have different views on which way things will wind up and, provided they follow the Church teaching sincerely in doing so, they are not choosing to endorse evil if their discernment turns out to be wrong.

But that is the key people are forgetting. Yes, there are Catholics who support a candidate for unworthy reasons. Yes, there are times when we do have a clear choice as to who is better. But if it turns out that neither situation applies, then we have to recognize that one faithful Catholic may feel that only choice A is acceptable while another may feel that only choice B is acceptable. In this case, I believe our task as Catholics is to reach out to those voting because they support an evil position or have a insufficient reason for voting for the one who supports evil. We do have the Church teaching to point to.

But, when the decision is not clear, Catholics can try to explain why they think their own position is better, but they cannot elevate that opinion to Church position to give that opinion authority it does not have (the reason why I do not offer my political opinions on my blog is to make sure nobody thinks I am usurping the authority of the Church to justify my own position).

So there’s our task. We seek to correct people (charitably) who hold views contrary to the Catholic teaching. We can seek to persuade people to do what we think is a better position when there is room for different opinions and we must pray that we are open to the truth and do not deceive ourselves or misjudge others.