December 23, 2008

Some thoughts on Benedict’s Natural Lawsuit

The Pope is closing out Advent and bringing us into Christmastide with yet one more rendition of his favorite theme: natural law and its place in scholastic theology, in particular as it speaks to the divinely ordered status of men and women qua men and women. (I like to use qua in contexts such as this, as it gives the appearance of seriousness to an otherwise trivial concept: that men and women are men and women.) It's what the Scholastic Theologians got from this that is the problem; and the pope is hammering away on his one-note marimba once again. As the officers will say at a roadside accident, "Nothing to see here; move along."

I can't help but take note, however, about the insistent persistence of this outmoded metaphysic, and the natural law to which it gives rise. Of course, as reported in the Australian, the pope told his audience, "It is not 'outmoded metaphysics'" to urge respect for the "nature of the human being as man and woman."

Oh, but it is, when you get beyond the respect due to individual men and women, and try to draw conclusions for the whole, in an essentialist mode. "Scholastic theology" is at the root of the problem. For all of his Scriptural references, when it comes to anthropology Aquinas relies as much on "the Philosopher" (i.e, Aristotle) as on Scripture. This is precisely where the outmoded metaphysics comes in. Not only outmoded (lots of old fashioned things are just fine!) but wrong. Just factually wrong, erroneous, mistaken. I mean, read Aquinas on where babies come from and how sperm is made, and what the fundamental difference between man and woman is. Any theology based on falsehoods cannot claim to be in keeping with the one who is the Perfect Truth.

Of course, back in the days when he went by Ratzinger, the present pontiff had defended the church's actions in re Galileo; continuing to affirm the authority of the magisterium over against the insufficiencies of mere secular science.

Infallible? Sed contra.

And while I'm at it, let me make an observation about the pope's "ecological" concern about human nature and the damage any legitimizing of same-sex relationships or other gender-bending might cause to society as we know it, perhaps leading, as he suggests, to its "destruction." As quoted by John Allen in NCR:

[The Church] must also defend the human person against its own destruction. What's needed is something like a 'human ecology,' understood in the right sense. It's not simply an outdated metaphysics if the church speaks of the nature of the human person as man and woman, and asks that this order of creation be respected... Here it's a question of faith in creation, in listening to the language of creation, disregard of which would mean self-destruction of the human person and hence destruction of the very work of God...

Yes, let's listen to creation, and take heed that if celibacy were given approval, then too many people might become celibate, and the human race would die out.

Oh, wait.

Blessed Feast of the Incarnation -- when perfect Truth dared enter this world in a completely unnatural way, and without making use of what Benedict sees as the God-ordained pairing of male and female. Odd that God chose not to use what Benedict thinks all folk should choose.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
with a tip of the hat to Episcopal Café


Daniel Weir said...

Thank you for the post. I am reminded of Christoper Duraisingh's frequet assertion that we get into trouble when we think Catholic means universal and not of the whole. The Pope's error, IMHO, is to hold to the notion that there is some universal nature of men and women, rather than to see the diversity of men and women as a gift.

rick allen said...

So far as I can tell there is no English translation of Benedict's remarks. Here they are in German (which I also pasted at TA), which I can make out to some extent:

Weil der Glaube an den Schöpfer ein wesentlicher Teil des christlichen Credo ist, kann und darf sich die Kirche nicht damit begnügen, ihren Gläubigen die Botschaft des Heils auszurichten. Sie trägt Verantwortung für die Schöpfung und muß diese Verantwortung auch öffentlich zur Geltung bringen. Und sie muß dabei nicht nur die Erde, das Wasser und die Luft als Schöpfungsgaben verteidigen, die allen gehören. Sie muß auch den Menschen gegen die Zerstörung seiner selbst schützen. Es muß so etwas wie eine Ökologie des Menschen im recht verstandenen Sinn geben. Es ist nicht überholte Metaphysik, wenn die Kirche von der Natur des Menschen als Mann und Frau redet und das Achten dieser Schöpfungsordnung einfordert. Da geht es in der Tat um den Glauben an den Schöpfer und das Hören auf die Sprache der Schöpfung, die zu mißachten Selbstzerstörung des Menschen und so Zerstörung von Gottes eigenem Werk sein würde. Was in dem Begriff „Gender“ vielfach gesagt und gemeint wird, läuft letztlich auf die Selbstemanzipation des Menschen von der Schöpfung und vom Schöpfer hinaus. Der Mensch will sich nur selber machen und sein Eigenes immer nur selbst bestimmen. Aber so lebt er gegen die Wahrheit, lebt gegen den Schöpfergeist. Die Regenwälder verdienen unseren Schutz, ja, aber nicht weniger der Mensch als Geschöpf, dem eine Botschaft eingeschrieben ist, die nicht Gegensatz zu unserer Freiheit, sondern ihre Bedingung bedeutet. Große Theologen der Scholastik haben die Ehe, die lebenslange Verbindung von Mann und Frau als Schöpfungssakrament bezeichnet, das der Schöpfer selbst eingesetzt und das Christus dann – ohne die Schöpfungsbotschaft zu verändern – in die Heilsgeschichte als Sakrament des Neuen Bundes aufgenommen hat. Zur Verkündigungsaufgabe der Kirche gehört das Zeugnis für den Schöpfergeist in der Natur als Ganzer und gerade auch in der Natur des gottebenbildlichen Menschen. Von da aus sollte man die Enzyklika „Humanae vitae“ neu lesen: Papst Paul VI. ging es darin darum, die Liebe gegen Sexualität als Konsum, die Zukunft gegen den Alleinanspruch der Gegenwart und die Natur des Menschen gegen ihre Manipulation zu verteidigen.

This is one paragraph from a longer address on a number of topics, and I agree with you it's basicly a routine restatement of the Church's position on marriage and family life, set out in more detail in Part II, Chapter 1 of Vatican II's Gaudium et Spes.

Not much point arguing about it. It sets out pretty concisely a vision of human sexual nature which I would judge in harmony with the revelation of scripture, its elaboration by the Fathers and Doctors, and its systemization by the great scholastics.

But I understand that there are some fairly vigorous contemporary cross-currents.

If the snow keeps me too much occupied to speak again, have a wonderful Christmas.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Thanks Rick for some of the Ur-text. My German is limited mostly to Lieder, but I can make out enough to concur with your conjecture on the basic outline. As I said, nothing new here.

I would certainly argue with you, as I have in the past, as to the extent to which the Scholastic teaching on sexuality enshrined in present day natural law thinking in Roman Catholic circles is "scriptural." Scripture, as you know, tells us next to nothing about human anthropology, and what little the Scholastics lit upon was seen through an Aristotelian lens.

I have yet to hear an explanation in response to my final point above: that is, if "natural" relations between men and women were to be the eternal norm, why did God chose to subvert them in his Incarnation?

We will be getting some of the snow later in the week, I fear. Have a blessed Christmas.

rick allen said...

"...if "natural" relations between men and women were to be the eternal norm, why did God chose to subvert them in his Incarnation?"

Here we encounter the subtle difference between the "natural," the "unnatural," and the "supernatural." Grace is not "natural," but completes rather than opposes nature. Hence the lovely motet:

Praeter rerum serium
parit Deum hominum virgo mater.
nec vir tangit virginem,
nec prolis originem novit pater.

Virtus sancti Spiritus
opus illud coelitus operatur
Initus et exitus partus
tui penitus quis scrutatur?

Dei providentia,
quae disponit omnia tam suave.
Tua puerperia,
transfer in mysteria,
mater ave.

May all your snow be full enough to be beautiful, but scarce enough to be safe.

Christopher said...

"Oh, bother." To quote Pooh. One wonders if Scholastic thinking takes the contemplative time to rightly and better read the Book of Creation and the Book of Experience rather than simply offer the same old erroneous metaphysics as a priori.

R said...

A fine post indeed, pointing to the heart of the matter. The Roman Catholic position is arguably more intellectually robust than mere biblical proof-texts, but only if we assume the scholastc premises!

I like your argument using the incarnation. As a teacher of mine once pointed out, the fundamental question for the Church vis-a-vis the present controversy over sexuality boils down to: "Can God do something new?"

MarkBrunson said...

Being in harmony with Scripture and long-dead human beings is hardly evidence that something is correct on a subject, now is it?

Thomas Williams said...

Yes, qua is indispensable in these contexts. I find that it's even better if you can make it rhyme with "day," as the English do, rather than with "fa-la-la," as we Americans do. That level of pretentiousness is beyond even me, though I have had colleagues who can manage it. If you can also manage to pronounce "Kantian" as "canchun," with the "a" as in "can't," even better.

I'm hoping I'll find time for a non-frivolous reply later.

Sebastian said...

There is a certain logic in Benedict's position. He is simply, and simplistically, trying to draw a parallel between natural realities of the physical world. Assuming a view rooted in Catholic metaphysical thought, he assumes that what the Creator has created is good, and must and should be preserved. So far, so good. But his argument has a fatal flaw. In preserving the rain forests, we do so to preserve what exists. And we know what exists in the rain forests because we have done careful taxonomies to identify species of flora and fauna, and we have studied to see how the parts relate to the whole, and how they function, and to see the true interconnectedness of creation. We have not assumed what should consitute a rain forest. We have studied what is a rain forest, the better to understand God's manifold creation. Unfortunately, Benedict is less careful about people than he is about rain forests. Instead of encouraging open and honest inquiry and conversation into the nature of the human person, and the manifold ways that we exist in nature and true to our nature, Benedict assumes a priori that his rather quaint view of the sexes and the genders is what should exist. If anything else exists, it must be a perversity, a sort of cancerous mutation. Only that which conforms to the a priori is full, true, and authentic. All else is lacking some feature that the Creator intended.

This also implies, dangerously, that the Church should work to eliminate the mutations. That is chilling. Someday, some member of the Catholic hierarchy is going to do something truly radical. Someday, some member of the Catholic hierarchy is going to actually listen, actually enter the conversation instead of pontificating, actually investigate the facts, actually think inductively, not deductively. And won't that be a grand thing when it happens. Unfortunately, we may have to wait a long time before such a thing happens.

The Church has had to withstand four centuries of mostly just criticism of its condemnation of Galileo. In the Galileo affair, it was doing precisely what it is doing now on the subject of sexualities. In the Galileo debacle, the Church argued deductively. Based on what it believed to be true, Galileo was wrong. Now, four centuries later, the Church is stifling inquiry and quashing discussion. Now, the Church is again concluding deductively that what it believes to be true is the rule by which to judge the issues. And the Church is again wrong. The Church is again, not simply misinterpreting the evidence of the lived realities of gay men and women. The Church is openly contemptuous of those realities. The Church does not care for the data.

Sebastian said...

There is an unofficial translation by a fan of the pope here:

You have to scroll down to the 3rd or 4th article to get to it.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Thanks for the comments, all.

Rick, three things:
1) the "unnatural" does not exist. That which is, is. Human artifice is part of nature, not contrary to it.
2) all love is supernatural, that is, "love is of God." This is the true significance of the Incarnation, as John 1 points out. Now, apply this principle, rather than the one from "natural law" to same-sex relationships.
3) saying things in Latin or German may make them seem more profound than they are; as we learned with qua. That doesn't mean they aren't correct, or that they are; speaking in tongues is impressive even when it is babble. When it is poetry -- well, that's much better, as in the present instance. But the passage from Benedict (which includes, unless my German is much worse than I thought, the paragraph I quoted in purple in my comment. Zerstörung = destruction, demolition. Yes, it's the same passage) is no more or less a reassertion of a timeworn falsehood for being cited in the original. What is gained from putting it into German? It's still the same old can of worms.

Christopher, amen. If one wants to read from Nature's book, one had best understand the language in which it is written.

R, thanks too. Yes, the "newness" of the New is so important. People often miss, even within Scripture, at the extent to which the New undoes or transforms or elevates the Old.

Thanks, Mark. I would suggest, on the massive evidence from history, that the combination is not only incorrect but lethal. WHen I think of the harm done to human beings by the misbegotten child begotten upon Scripture by Aristotle, I shudder: the torture of dissenters, the blood of the prophets of a better way, the murdered and exiled. By their fruits will you know them.

Dear [Former] Postulant, thanks, too. I love the way the English are fearless in pronouncing all foreign tongues as if they were simply strangely spelled English. Even better when they pronounce "classical" Latin with an English accent: as in Vivat rhyming with High Hat, but with "W" instead of "H" -- priceless. And please don't stifle the frivolity. It is the only refuge in such times as these...

A blessed feast of supernatural love to all...

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Sebastian, bless you too. Your very sage comments arrived while I was writing my response to the others.

The great failing of the papal view, it seems to me, is, as you note, the inability to see development and mutation as part of the natural process as it really is; this effort to set a metaphysic in stone, to say, "We shall have nothing new" is at the root of the problem. It is a philosophy rooted in death. Believing oneself to be infallible is one of the worst errors of all, for it stifles the ability to learn, to grow, and ultimately, to know and to love.

IT said...

The Catholic view is a very binary one. Male-female, black-white. It does not allow for variation or shades of gray. To be non-binary is to be wrong, by definition.

Remember how to be left handed was to be abnormal, unnatural, something to be ashamed of, something that needed to be fixed.

Think of how medicine has dealt with intersexed people, or how it has forced a new binary definition on medical accidents (Think David Reimer)--still learning how NOT to be binary.

The analogy to Galileo is a good one. It has taken centuries for the church to admit its error. It will take centuries more, at great cost to individuals, to admit that the spectrum of creation is not simply binary.

Indeed, as I posted elsewhere, it is of some amusement that the Pope considers himself a shepherd. Something link 8% of domestic rams are either homosexual or asexual, which is a problem for sheep-farmers--but perfectly "natural" for the sheep.

June Butler said...

I come back, again and again, to the "unnaturalness" of celibacy. Why haven't the pope and cardinals done their parts in following the command to increase and multiply?

Would it be very much not in the spirit of the Advent season to say that I'm rather pleased that they are not reproducing?

Oh dear! Did I really say that?

Anonymous said...

Classical moral theology uses the term "natural" in a very different way than it seems to be used in these responses. Of course, homosexual rams are "natural" in the sense that they occur in nature. That point is - - morally - - not important. After all, guppies eat their offspring. It occurs in nature; is it therefore natural?
"Natural", in classical Christian thinking, points us to the inner rational structure of creatures and their activities. There is a rational physical structure of male and female, readily observable. There is a "natural" attraction of male and female, which is easy to explain. Physical attraction between two males is not so easy to explain; it is "unnatural" in that sense. It is unnatural in rams, and unnatural in humans.
Moral theology draws a connection between the rationality and the morality of an activity. This is the sense in which unnatural acts are immoral. Of course, the Pope's use of these terms creates heated moral outrage, but heat is not an argument.
If you want to provide a contradiction to Pope Benedict, you need to work harder. Describing his philosophy as "outdated" or "quaint" only tells us you don't like it. Labelling an argument "Aristotelian" only gives a name to your prejudice (anti-aristotelian). Such labels do not provide your open-minded readers with any useful information.

Daniel Lee said...

Thanks to all those who posted specific intellectual criticisms of Benedict's flat earth claims.

I would extend the criticism of his essentialist, deductive modes for his idealizing fantastical yet traditional gestures towards male/female distinctions more consistent with a USA third grader than with an elaborately educated adult in a western democracy.

The problem I read in this outing by Benny is that Benny is fearful about throwing the baby out with the bathwater - a typical Roman Catholic if not Vatican preoccupation, always braking empirical inquiries and change? This sad virus has replicated again in Anglicanisms, too, though one may assert that the Anglican genius is that believers learned to live with the virus a bit instead of killing people off to manage its signs and symptoms?

Instead of dealing with his own fearfulness, which might have made for a partial yet illuminating mediation on his believerhood and fears of inquiry and change - Benny solves his fear problem by taking refuge in some idealized male/female constructions which probably have never quite existed as purely or categorically or simply as he greatly desires to pledge and presume as a gold standard for humanity.

Maybe only a celibate older male long soddenly insulated from daily married life in 2008, could so mistake all women for nothing but earth mothers doubtless entirely consumed by bearing young and by being husbanded by their flawlessly male husbands banging a fist on the table for dinner now?

Maybe Benny is waxing nostalgic, then, for a males first or males superior past that never really existed apart from our cultural idols as ideologies? Certainly no longer can exist as globalization proceeds? (Now modern earth mothers in democracies go to work, two incomes needed to pay for family life? Can Benny speak to that burden without becoming a backward looking genderist?) Or, can we save the rainforests by pledging ourselves to nothing but fourteenth century notions and methods in agriculture?

One garners a simple, subtle sense of Benny being fearful, then sidestepping his fears of change and modernity by engaging in card tricks with both scripture and the magisterium. A dazzling sleight of hand up to a point, but not quite sufficient to actually cover up let alone work through Benny's sensational fears.

A better approach might have been to investigate all those modernities in great detail so as to reach a profoundly informed knowledge of their particular strengths and limiations? Maybe a better approach to Benny's fears might have involved spending some quality time with, say, a transgender or transssexual citizen as he/she goes through their changes, in order to reality test and debunk at least some of his fears that gender complexities (including all the truths we do not yet empirically know) automatically equal falling off the flat gender earth or being eaten alive by all those fantastical-chimeric homosexuals as sea monsters?

Benny thus does a terrible disservice to what being a believer is all about in modern/post-modern contexts.

As if being a believer were mainly some sort of stereotyped-rote best safety betting ploy in a card game that stands in for a completely dangerous and dirty if not also evil cosmos.

Hmmm, maybe Benny really does collapse his believerhood into such singular and cheap tricked intellectual business, faced with his fears about modernity and change?

If I thought - really thought - for a split second that the essential charms of following Jesus of Nazareth had to do with intellectual card tricks like this aimed mainly at feeling safe by shutting down inquiry and change, I guess I would have to stop following Jesus of Nazareth. Why? Because Jesus would then be demonstrated to be just another ancient near eastern deity, up to the same old same old as all the other deities. What a let down.

Oh, also BTW, by treating the really great treasures of tradition, scripture, and magisterium, mainly as nothing but freedom from risk/error safety systems, I think Benny also does a high and wide and deep intellectual disservice to those very real treasures. Benny might as well be spitting on Aquinas, to treat him with such cavalier bad faith in order to preserve Aquinas unaffected by any research data or modern change after his day. Surely a real, live Aquinas if he were still sticking to his guns would probably be busy facing and working through the intellectual challenges, and these days that would mean, appreciating the intellectual limits of relying too heavily on Aristotle to make your best way.

Of course I could be wrong, but would need hypothesis tested data to help me see the errors of my ways, probably combined with methodological scrutiny of my theory building frames. For the time being, I can hardly think of a worse or more mistaken set of ancient authorities to tell us what being male or being female comprises, especially in a western democractic context newly pledged to fairness and honesty and open inquiry in all topics.

One more time, Benny tells us that being a believer means deliberately embracing cheap sidestep tricks and errors pledged (unwittingly?) by great thinkers of our history, then being proud to be able to dwell falsely and falsely feeling safe and sound, in those very cheap tricks and errors. At least Aquinas would have been honest - enough to scrutinize various aspects of his starting presuppositions and methods, enough to seek out the hypothesis tested data?

Alas, Lord have mercy.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

GM, you can say whatever you like.

Thomistic, you are engaging in some of the same card tricks as Benedict, and they still don't impress. Your attempt at dressing up "nature" with "rational structure" is just a game of substitution. Who says that there is a "rational structure of male and female" any more than there is a "rational structure" to guppies, to use your example, that quite naturally as a physical process leads them to consume many but not all of their young. This may be the "order of creation" for guppies, however irrational we may find it.

Ultimately these so called "natural" ideas are based not upon actual nature, actual physical reality and emotional and psychological realities, but upon unfounded prejudices masked as "rational." You are aware, I hope, that the Greeks (among others) regarded males who spent too much time in the company of women as "unnatural" -- and idealized a male culture over against a female culture. It is this to which Barth was responding (and I think Benedict is tipping a hat in his direction in this speech, especially echoing Barth's nonsensical notion that "Man is only truly Man in relation to Woman.") That is not a rational statement, but a mere assertion. When proof is demanded, all collapses to irrationality. (Obviously, a man is a man whatever his relationship to anyone else, man or woman, although his relationships may well shape his character. But "a man's a man for a' that.")

Anyway, the Greeks (some of them, as well as some in other cultures) found physical attraction between males to be perfectly "rational" and not at all difficult to explain. I don't find it difficult to explain in the least; nor is it "unnatural" in any meaningful sense of the word, except by assertion to the contrary, and an argument via petitio principii.

So your comments here do not represent argument, but a mere restatement of the premise: that there is something "unnatural" about homosexuality because it isn't heterosexuality. When, on the contrary, observation of the real world tells us that it is perfectly "natural" because there is are (rational) physical structure involved. (I hesitate to apply the word "rational" to a physical structure for reasons I will lay out in a moment.) You may not think it as rational as the attraction between a man and a woman, but that is merely your prejudice. If you could prove it, that would be another thing altogether; but simply stating these shopworn fallacies doesn't make them true.

One might just as well, after all, observe that the "rational physical structure" of bipeds should forbid them undertaking locomotion in any way other than walking. One could give "moral weight" to walking -- why not? Only because no culture has (as far as I know) made a fetish of bipedalism the way many cultures make a fetish of sexuality. The explanation is not "rational" but rather has to do with the psychology of sex, which is, in most cultures, much more central than the more pedestrian matter I suggest as an alternative test case. Sex is, for human beings, a more powerful drive than the urge to stroll or cycle.

At the end, I remain astounded at the poverty of imagination displayed by Benedict in defense of a decrepit and objectively disordered moral theology. (That is, a moral theology that does not actually achieve its object.) I think my open-minded readers actually find a great deal to observe here in relation to this topic.

Daniel, bless you for a pointed and clear responsa.

And to all, a blessed Christmas, celebrating the birth of the one who did a complete end run around all the rational structures of heterosexuality.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

A postscript. I hope, Daniel, I don't come off as anti-Aquinas. I think his failing did not lie in his adaptation of Aristotle's mode of thought, even Aristotle's metaphysics, as it is his use of Aristotle's physics. In other words, the logical structures of thought can be quite helpful -- but the data were atrocious! And that is what so many fail to recognize as they continue to harp on conclusions based on false information. Even the best logical system cannot turn such straw into gold.

And the faulty data being used by Benedict, Barth, and others, is the supposed binary understanding of human sexuality, fixated on the act of reproduction to the exclusion of all of the other functions for which sexuality (of all sorts) provides a real rational structure. As even Aristotle realized, IIRC, the danger of putting too much emphasis on the merely animal, might miss the truly rational and spiritual meanings inherent in human love.

MarkBrunson said...

Thomistic, that's a lot of words to simply say "A word means what I say it means."

We've consistently presented a rational purpose for homosexuality, and if you haven't run into that, you're commenting without having done research.

The very argument you've presented as to what makes something "moral" is spurious. It's the so-called "common sense" argument, which is neither particularly common nor makes much sense.

That's all I can say, or want to. I don't think you'll be able to convince yourself you've won this argument: Tobias has a first-class mind and a first-class grasp of theology and all you've got is Catholicism.

Go easy on him, Tobias.

Bruno said...

Problems with Bene 16's argument. for me

I am attracted to my partner, I love my partner.
I care for my partner. I want nothing more.

I was born, made this way.

I felt the fear and self loathing that so many do when confronted with being who they are.

I denied it, accepted it, and chose to live according to the rules of the Roman Church, and Christian teaching, meaning, living alone and celibate, as to marry a woman for "release" would be using an EQUAL human being for my salvation (many problems with that idea, for a later argument I am sure)

I lived comfortably within these structures for many years.

through years of prayer and study, it came to me.

the voice said

"Why can't you be, Why won't you be who I made you?"

Christianity has taken the notion of being an obedient servant of God and replaced it with being an uppity servant of God.
We like to tell God "WE KNOW BEST"
And Bene is telling me, he has a better conduit to God than I.
I chose to listen to the voice, not the "church" in Rome.
Jesus Requires it

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Thanks Mark and Bruno.

The sad thing is that the Emperor's New Clothes aren't even all that new anymore.

Shreds and patches, and misperceptions ranked as dogma.

Trust in an infallible magisterium impoverishes the capacity for self-critical rationality.

And tragic, given, as noted above, the true treasures and gifts of the patristic and medieval church. I am reminded once again of the tragic ending of Wyspianski's The Wedding (1901). A character is given a miraculous golden horn, a cornucopia, tied on a cord, which he puts over his shoulder. On his way to the wedding, the cord breaks and the horn is lost. At the end he is confronted by the mystical gift-giver, who scolds him, "You boor; you one had a golden horn, but all you have now is a cord."

Anglocat said...

Tobias, thank you so much for the post and this thread; it's a lovely Christmas treat for me to think about the nature of the Incarnation on Christmas morning.

Many thanks to the commenters as well, and best wishes to all for a merry and holy Christmas.

Anonymous said...

sorry to be sensitive, but is Benny any less rude that if I referred to the PB as Katie?


Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Thanks, Anglocat.

Joel, I don't find "Benny" to be rude, though a bit familiar. I think you will find the PB called by epithets and nicknames rather more rude than Katie if you seek about. Just as I've seen ruder names for Pope Benedict. So this seems a rather mild form of diminution. Not the most mature form of argument, but hardly something at which to take umbrage, I think. In the meantime, there is some substance under discussion, regardless of the style, and your comment seems to be addressing the latter.

Speaking personally, I find the language Benedict uses to describe me an mine to be not merely rude, but dehumanizing and vile. But I prefer to address the substance of his critique, rather than the mere language in which he frames it.

Brother David said...

I am kind of fond of Ben•E•16! The form of the name, not the mere mortal.

Robert Christian said...


"Only that which conforms to the a priori is full, true, and authentic. All else is lacking some feature that the Creator intended." This would explain why an earlier statement (a while back) when the Pope declared other churches as flawed with the exception of Rome. Anything that doesn't conform to Benedict's world view is lacking/flawed.

I teach in a special ed setting. What you all would call natural I'd call un-natural. For me the abnormal is the normal. Maybe Benedict would like to trade places with me and experience the shades of gray that make up life.

I hope this isn't mean spirited and it certainly isn't meant to be but some people need to get out a little and experience the variety that makes up life on this planet.

The Anglican Scotist said...

I'm a bit confused about this post's angst.

Is it that you believe there is no such thing as human nature at all, and that there is no such thing as an order in nature? That would be a very strong--indeed very strong metaphysical--position to take.

Or is it rather that you believe that there is, or might be, an order in nature, and there is, or might be, such a thing as human nature--but the Scholastics and the Pope get them wrong, if indeed there are such?

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Dear Anglican Scotist,

I have no particular angst over this matter. I merely note the problems that arise in the prosecution of so-called natural law arguments. Better philosophers than I have offered more developed critiques; it usually comes down to several points of difficulty:

1) the assumption that there is a "nature" at all beyond "what is" -- as you note, this is a metaphysical issue; nominalists might well tend to say that talk of human nature may be useful as a tool for communication, but that to build a moral theology upon it can raise difficulties

2) the ability to which the human mind can have an accurate understanding either of "nature" in the philosophical sense (an abstracted categorical essence of some sort or other) and "nature" as the sum total of all that is. Our knowledge of the latter is far from perfect -- and if we do not have full knowledge of the concrete, how dare we assume better knowledge of the abstract; that is, if we have less than perfect knowledge of nature in itself, how can we presume to have perfect knowledge of its "order" -- I'm not saying there may not be an order to nature, but that it is above our pay grade to presume to know it with the security and confidence with which the Pope seems to think he does -- and to make demands on that basis. (Cue Galileo. -- I think the Scholastics were as wrong about anthropology as they were about cosmology -- they do not properly understand human nature)

3) the whole fixation on ends and purposes gets us into a teleological or consequentialist mode; surely not the only form for an ethical system, and one that is vexed because of point (2) -- the present mess about sex comes largely from the opinion that sex has a "purpose" -- a single or primary purpose -- and that we know what it is, and that other uses are impermissible.

Finally, my major beef with the RC position is that I find it not to be logically consistent even within its own universe of concerns. The provision for the "natural" method of childbirth control, and marriage for those incapable of procreation seem to be against the foundational premises of the system.

So my position is rather closer to your second option. I am not a died in the wool nominalist, but I think that the use of concepts (such as "nature" and "order") in moral argument is undertaken with care and humility, and a willingness to stand corrected by the attestations of reality, and the lives of real people.

Anonymous said...

If there is no "nature at all behind what is," then there is no basis for ethical thinking whatever.
Ethical thinking presupposes an order that is different from "what is" or "what appears" or (more to the point) "what I'm already doing."
Of course, the scholastics could be very wrong about human nature, but they can't be wrong in asserting that there is such a thing as human nature. If there is no human nature, then immoral acts are inconceivable; all ethical discussion is aborted.
On a similar note, if sex has no discernable purpose, then there is rational basis for a sexual ethic.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

No, Thomistic. It is quite possible to have an ethical system that does not depend upon a belief in "natures" or "natural law" in the strict sense in which natural law philosophers use that term. It is quite possible, of course, to frame an ethic based on "what is" once one understands that what "should be" has to relate to what "is." In fact, one of the main problems with so-called natural law is that it often leaps to the "should be" in contradiction to "what is" or it makes unwarranted assumptions about the limitations that what "is" places upon what "should be" -- as in the particular case of sexual ethics.

As (I assume) a Thomist, you may be unaware of the critiques of Natural Law from the Jewish perspective; and the general distrust of the concept of Natural Law, and the rabbinic emphasis on Positive Law. Maimonides wrote a good bit in reaction to the Scholastic notions, esp. when Christian thinkers tried to apply their philosophical observations to the Hebrew Scriptures. Often unexamined are the many disjunctions between, for example, late Roman Catholic Scholastic ethics and Rabbinic ethics (in areas of sexuality.) Part of the major difference is that the Jewish ethics are more practical, the Roman more idealistic; thus the Jewish ethics allow for birth control and abortion in certain situations, even mandating both; while the Roman Catholic forbids both without compromise or regard to particulars. This is a crucial distinction between these sorts of ethics -- and Jesus offers yet a third "way" about which I've written before. Suffice it to say here that Natural Law thinking is an effort to get away from Revelation concerning what is good, as Natural Religion is an effort to get away from Revelation concerning who is God.

I will be writing a longer separate post on this whole question of the metaphysics that inform (or delude) ethical thinking. But suffice it to say here that there are other ways to skin the ethical cat than a Scholastic or "classical" Natural Law approach -- as indeed there must be unless one is to take the hubristic approach that only some Greeks and Medieval Christians (and their heirs) had ethical systems worthy of the name.

Anonymous said...

If I might boil your argument down (just a bit! *g*), Tobias:

Ethics are based upon (if not entirely consisting of) "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you": the actual desires (of both parties). Note that there's NO Idealized "should" in there, of (so-called) Natural Law.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

JCF, that is indeed the "nub" of it, as I laid out last year in the "Good as Gold" series.