Wednesday, June 15, 2005

The Catholic Church Loses Its Balance

The Pope has long been a foe of marriage for gay men and lesbians, and his recent comments on the subject ("pseudo-matrimony between persons of the same sex" are "expressions of anarchic liberty") certainly provoked much irate response in the gay community. In a thoughtful piece in the National Catholic Reporter, John L. Allen Jr. puts this comment into perspective (hat tip: Andrew Sullivan). First, Allen correctly notes that this comment (along with much of his similar commentary) was not just about gay marriage. For this Pope, cohabitation and contraception are as evil as gay marriage. It's all part of a larger view about the peril of modern relativism. Allen sums it up here:
What the June 6 address reveals about this pontificate, however, cuts deeper
than a position on this or that issue; the pope clearly sees the struggles over
the family as ground zero of the broader fight to recover the concept of
objective truth in a highly subjective, relativized Western culture.
Philosophically, the Pope's thinking is not only fallible but fallacious. He implicitly posits a dilemma between complete moral relativism ("anarchic liberty") and total dogmatism (the latter being "objective truth" in his view, though more like moral totalitarianism from an outsider's view). The dilemma is a false one. A number of serious thinkers have tackled the problem of moral relativism and come up with other answers. One of my favorite Princeton professors, Jeffrey Stout, set up this issue in his first book, The Flight From Authority, dealing with the philosophical repercussions of the Reformation when the western world ceased to have a well-agreed central moral authority, and then tackled it directly in his later book, Ethics After Babel. Alasdair MacIntyre grapples with this in After Virtue. There are not easy answers to relativism, but without doubt there are other answers than the Pope's moral totalitarianism.

One dire fallout of the Pope's global war on relativism is that the Catholic tradition of reason, especially in the service of moral judgment, has become a casualty of the war. In traditional Catholic moral philosophy, you couldn't get far in any discussion without encountering the term "proportionality". In considering whether a war is just, one would weigh the unintended evils to be committed against the good to be achieved (and the evils to be averted). In considering whether to accept end-of-life medical treatment, one would weigh the likelihood and magnitude of benefits against the burdens and costs of treatment. There were no easy black-and-white rules, but only principles requiring reason to guide their application to each situation, scales to be balanced. Pope John Paul II maintained the formalism of proportionality in his moral pronouncements, but he always put his thumb on the scales. Death penalty: always wrong. Medical treatment: cannot be refused. With Pope Benedict XVI, his absolutism is unabashed, and he doesn't even bother with lip service to proportionality. He does give some lip service to reason, but in his view "reason" is not what anyone thinks, but is only whatever the Pope says it is. Worse, the Pope's asserted monopoly on "objective truth" philosophically entails that he be absolutist in his pronouncements in all areas of inquiry. On questions peripheral to doctrine, once thought to be fair for reasonable Catholics to disagree, there is no longer any room for disagreements. (Witness the respected Catholic writers and teachers that have been dismissed from their posts.) This is why I level the charge of moral totalitarianism: the Pope's philosophical position entails being total as well as absolute. It would seem that the Catholic church has completely lost its balance.

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