Renewing Catholic Respect for Reason

Renewing Catholic Respect for Reason

I recently noted that though the Catholic Church was once Reason’s greatest champion, in recent centuries the hierarchy have grown wary of it, and this has affected Catholic teaching. I documented this with reference to the present Catechism and twenty-one papal encyclicals from Pope Leo XIII to Pope Francis.Though the Catechism is consistent in praising reason, many of the encyclicals give it no attention at all, and others are either inconsistent or reserved in discussing it. (See the full essay here.)

A partial explanation for the Church’s wariness toward reason, I suggested, was the enervating effect of combating earlier schisms and heresies, as well as modern challenges ranging from Positivism and Romanticism to Secular Humanism. But that did not explain why relatively few of the authors of the encyclicals seemed conversant with the principles and processes of reason, or why many seemed to regard God’s gift of reason as a fully formed mental faculty rather than a capacitythat requires mastery of principles and procedures and the formation and maintenance of productive habits of mind.

The first step toward overcoming these hierarchical deficiencies and renewing the perspective that centuries ago made the Catholic Church reason’s greatest champion will be to determine what has caused them. The following information should help in that regard.

Seminary Education. In her meticulously documented Catholics and Contraception: An American History, Catholic University Professor Leslie Woodcock Tentler states that “men ordained in the 1940s and 50s were trained in most respects like those in previous generations. They were not to have radios, newspapers or magazines,” and “almost never allowed to enter one another’s rooms,” a rule that effectively deprived them of opportunities for intellectual discussion and debate.

As if that were not obstacle enough to intellectual development, the seminarians’ main moral theology texts had been written over forty years earlier, and in Latin rather than in English. And their responsibility was not necessarily to understand in any meaningful way what they read, but simply to memorize it. Classroom lectures were also largely in Latin, even though most students were at best barely literate in the subject. Let me give that absurd fact the emphasis it deserves—seminarians were taught moral theology in a language they barely understood. Moreover, there were no class discussions, and students were not allowed to ask questions. As one priest recalled, “What [the professor] demanded of you was to repeat back what he had taught you.” Attention to thorny issues such as contraception consisted of statements of the Church’s teaching without any historical context, analysis, or evaluation. Simply said, training or practice in reasoning about moral issues was woefully lacking.

Selection of Bishops and Cardinals.  At time of Vatican 2 (1962-1965), Tentler notes, almost all American bishops “work[ed] primarily as administrators and in carefully orchestrated ceremonial roles [and] had little contact with the sufferings of the married laity and little sense of their growing restiveness. All had been trained to regard the teaching [on contraception] as infallible,” she notes, adding that, unlike their European counterparts, they were generally unfamiliar with the arguments of respected theologians who disagreed with the Church’s continuing condemnation of contraception.

I would add that even if the seminarians had been familiar with those arguments, given their lack of seminary training in reasoned judgment, many of them surely lacked the intellectual skills to probe the issue of contraception—or, indeed, any other significant issue in moral theology—in a meaningful way. Yet those same seminarians became parish priests and some of them were no doubt elevated to positions in the hierarchy from which their pronouncements were to be regarded as deserving of special respect and even (in certain circumstances) as infallible!

Relatively few of the seminarians Tentler described are still active as priests or members of the hierarchy. So it might be presumed that those who followed them were better trained in careful, if not balanced, reasoning about social and moral issues. But this presumption is, in many cases, wishful thinking. I offer three examples out of many possible ones during the last decade:

1) In 2012, Cardinal Timothy Dolan published True Freedom, a combination of pastoral letter and scholarly analysis, in which he committed the logical fallacy of ignoring legal and moral distinctions among a) unborn children, b) illegal aliens, and c) death row inmates. In addition, he used inflammatory language—notably, “a roar of hate,” “clenched fists,” “gritted teeth,” and “appealing to the nativistic side of our nature”—to characterize, by clear implication and zero fairness, Republicans Mitt Romney and Jan Brewer. And In January 2017, the Cardinal wrote an essay comparing Governor Andrew Cuomo’s approval of late term abortion and President Trump’s temporary halting of immigrants, absurdly suggesting moral equivalence where there was none. (For more detailed information, see here.)

2) In 2013 and 2014, as Ann Corcoran detailed, U.S. Bishops acted against the spiritual, physical, and material interests of their congregations  by “resettl[ing] the largest number of refugees in the US with the help of Catholic Charities. . ., [yet made] no effort to single out Christians for resettlement and in fact, in 2013 . . .[requested] that the U.S. State Department bring more Rohingya Muslims from Burma (Myanmar) to America. [In 2014}  19,769 Iraqi refugees [were admitted] into the U.S., an estimated 70% of them Muslim.” The reasoning of the bishops could only have been, ridiculously, that Muslims are more worthy of saving than Christians. (For more detailed information, see here.)

3) In August, 2019 two shootings took place in the U.S., one in El Paso TX and the other in Dayton OH. The El Paso shooter was motivated by Right-wing ideology; the Dayton shooter, by Left wing. Although both shootings occurred on the same day, mere hours apart, the U.S. Council of Catholic Bishops responded immediately to El Paso but waited five days to speak about Dayton. More importantly, they described they called the Right-wing violence “horrific and hate-filled,” expressed “deep concern about racism and xenophobia that apparently motivated this weekend’s massacre in El Paso,” and asked elected officials to “deal with the scourges of racism, xenophobia, and religious bigotry, including refraining from expressing hurtful, painful, and divisive rhetoric that dehumanizes and polarizes people on the basis of their race, religion, ethnicity, or national origin.”

Clearly, the bishops had somehow reasoned—absurdly—that Right-wing violence is damnable whereas Left-wing violence is simply “tragic.” (For more detailed information, see here.)

Today’s challenges to the Church are daunting. They include combating false ideas about human nature, the moral law, the meaning and purpose of life, as well as persuading those who have left the Church to return. Moreover, the Church is competing with sophisticated modern communication that is capable of dazzling and distracting, making emptiness seem full and fullness empty, foolishness wise and wisdom foolish, sin glamorous and virtue outmoded, shallowness profound and profundity shallow.

For the hierarchy to meet such challenges successfully will be especially difficult given the elevation of their office. The knowledge that they have been anointed as successors of Christ’s own Apostles and are capable (under certain circumstances) of speaking infallibly can easily tempt them to believe that whatever comes to their minds was sent by the Holy Spirit. Yielding to that temptation is likely to make them feel that they are neither bound by the imperfections of human nature nor obligated by the principles of logic and sound reasoning. In turn, those feelings are almost certain to foster condescension toward “mere” clerics and lay people, which will make it difficult for them to recognize the insights and wisdom the Holy Spirit chooses to give to the unanointed.

Members of the hierarchy may find the last paragraph unnecessarily harsh. “We bishops and cardinals surely don’t behave that way,” they’ll say. “Surely the priests whose ministries we oversee would confirm this.” But consider the moving statement a Milwaukee priest made to Leslie Woodcock Tentler about his feelings of alienation from the hierarchy: “One of the things I’ve worried about [be]cause I saw it in my own life, and I see it realized in the lives of lots of other priests [is] that somewhere you reach a point of disillusionment with the church, and you try to carry on your ministry and then you begin to just cut yourself off from all the authoritative statements and pronouncements and personnel because you just find it so opprobrious—it’s just—it’s unbearable, it’s paralyzing.”

To succeed in meeting the challenges facing the Church today, the hierarchy will need to become more humble and more open to ideas that differ from their own, even those that challenge Catholic tradition, and strive to think objectively about them. Equally important, to ensure that their newfound respect for reason will expand to others, they need to reform seminary education to put greater emphasis on developing seminarians’ intellectual skills by providing frequent and uncensored opportunities to examine all sides of controversial issues and engage in spirited debate.

Finally, the criteria for elevation to the hierarchy should be revised. No longer should organizational skill and proficiency in managing people and budgets be the only criteria for elevation. Intellectual skills and scholarly accomplishments should be considered even more important. In addition, willingness to express a dissenting view, even one that displeases one’s superiors, should be considered evidence of valuing truth more than personal advancement, rather than of bearing animus toward authority.

These changes will ensure that in future years the Church will be both a more effective champion of reason and a better representative of the Faith by applying the insight Pope Benedict offered the Church inDeus Caritas Est:

Reason always stands in need of being purified by faith: this also holds true for political reason, which must not consider itself omnipotent. For its part, religion always needs to be purified by reason in order to show its authentically human face. Any breach in this dialogue comes only at an enormous price to human development. . . Faced with these dramatic questions, reason and faith can come to each other’s assistance. Only together will they save man . . . Reason without faith is doomed to flounder in an illusion of its own omnipotence. Faith without reason risks being cut off from everyday life.” [All Italics are Benedict’s.]

Copyright © 2020 by Vincent Ryan Ruggiero. All rights reserved

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  • Prof. Ruggiero questions the authenticity of at least some Catholic moral teaching as being tainted, so to speak, by an inadequate application of reason. He appeals to the teaching on contraception as evidence, referencing a book by Leslie Tentler on the subject. The implication is that Pope Paul VI in Humanae Vitae, Pope Pius XI in Casti Connubi, and Pope John Paul II in Theology of the Body diminished reason in favor of Faith; that therefore a further application of reason will expose the errors that presumably an excessive appeal to Faith engendered.

    Without question, the past and current practices in seminaries and on pulpits have grossly neglected to provide the reasoning behind the Truths that they teach, but that does not mean that reason is lacking in arriving at those truths; or that an appeal to the laity to accept those truths on faith (in the magisterium) is flawed. The problem in the case of contraception is that those Truths have not been taught at all.

    In a critique (2 stars) of Tentler’s book Prof. Jos. Tevington says: “… starting in the late 1950s. Instead of embracing their “sacred trust,” more and more priests and bishops seemed to be signaling – often through thundering silence – that a change in teaching was on the horizon. For a number of years, CUA even kept Father Charles Curran – who openly advocated such change – aboard its faculty. It was into a festering chasm of chaos and confusion that Pope Paul VI presented “Humane Vitae.” Rather than a Holy Spirit inspired and prophetic document, Tentler intimates this encyclical to be the product of minority voices who successfully coerced Paul VI. Yet, she provides an insightful quote about its reception: “‘A peculiar, implicit gentleman’s agreement has developed between clergy and hierarchy in which the hierarchy commits itself not to try to seriously enforce compliance with Humanae Vitae so long as the clergy is not too open and public in its opposition to the encyclical,’ Andrew Greeley asserted in 1972” (p. 263). While no promoter of Humanae Vitae, Tentler acknowledges that this silent treatment has had a devastating impact: “The result was a church where sexual ethics were seldom discussed, despite rapid change in the cultural values…. Divorce rates rose, even among regular churchgoers, as did the practice of premarital cohabitation. Birth and marriage rates declined …Many Catholics…were newly tolerant of abortion” (pp. 276, 277).”

    Just so. In the case of contraception, Reason has run amuck. Based on his prior writings, Prof. Ruggiero has signed onto that adventure. He should pay heed to the quote he provided at the end of his essay of Pope Benedict’s insight in Deus Caritas Est that concludes: “…Reason without faith is doomed to flounder in an illusion of its own omnipotence. Faith without reason risks being cut off from everyday life.”

    If it comes down to a choice, (it shouldn’t, but if it does) better to take the risk than be doomed.