December 22, 2012

Papal Fallibility

Pope Benedict XVI has chosen to make use of his Christmas message to do a bit of theology concerning human nature. In doing so he reveals a fundamental failure to grasp the meaning of the Incarnation.

...People dispute the idea that they have a nature, given to them by their bodily identity, that serves as a defining element of the human being.... They deny their nature and decide that it is not something previously given to them, but that they make it for themselves.... The manipulation of nature, which we deplore today where our environment is concerned, now becomes man's fundamental choice where he himself is concerned...
This rather misses the mark, as the whole point of the Incarnation taking place in the manner it did — via the work of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary, without any participation of a human male — was to reveal the secondary quality of maleness and femaleness: Jesus derived his entire human nature from the Virgin Mary (or so says the Definition of Chalcedon). Although Jesus is male, his humanity derives entirely from a female. So the "human nature" is in itself genderless, although each particular human being has, by virtue of genetics and epigenetic factors, a sexual or gender reality expressed anatomically, psychologically,  emotionally, and socially. But as with all qualities of a person, sex is not essential to the nature: it is a characteristic particular to the individual, like height, or eye or hair color, or any of the other variable factors that individual human beings have. We even have a very clear sense of the genetic factors that produce this particular characteristic quality of the person. The quality does not make them human; their humanity gives expression to the quality.

The Pope takes what can only be described as a hard-line determinist position, pure sexism in its most precise form: anatomy fixes identity. In addition to the discontinuity of this position with the doctrine of the Incarnation, this also tends, like its cousin racism (also based on "given" characteristics), to dehumanize the human person, and reduce the concept of the person to the level of the animal nature; it puts all the weight of identity on the very aspect which the doctrine of the Incarnation shows us should not be given any weight at all, for as St. Paul so famously observed, "in Christ there is no more male and female."

Categorical difficulties
Which brings me to Genesis. One of the ongoing problems with the traditional Christian view of sex and sexuality lies in the reading of Genesis 1:27 ("male and female he created them") as referring to categories of people; that is, reading the words male and female as adjectives. However, in Hebrew, they are nouns — and would likely be better translated as "a male and a female, he created them." Although the Greek translation (LXX) elides them into adjective form, the Aramaic retains the noun form, and in one of the Aramaic versions adds specific details about the couple.

It appears from the contemporary evidence that Jesus and other Jews of the Second Temple era read and understood the text in this way, as referring to a couple. The Damascus Document of the Dead Sea Scrolls (Geniza A Col. 4:19-21), for example, uses the verse from Genesis in support of its argument in favor of monogamy. The same is true of a section of a Zadokite Document (7:1-7) that is usually classed with the Old Testament pseudepigrapha or apocrypha. (It seems to me to be from the same source as the Qumran text.)

And Jesus himself, when he cites this text in his critique of divorce and remarriage (Matt 19:4-6) is also clearly referencing not some alleged complementarity that makes male and female fit together, but rather the simpler and more obvious notion that a couple join together to form a unity: he even quotes (paraphrasing the Hebrew, as do the LXX and Targumim, by adding "two") another portion of Genesis (2:24). He then nails the matter home by his own gloss, "So they are no longer two, but one flesh."

So this isn't about categories, but about the mystery of how two become one — which is, of course exactly how St. Paul deals with it in Ephesians, which is also about how two become one — the two of Jew and Gentile (2:15) in one body as well as the two of husband and wife in one flesh.

So could we please have no more of this nonsense about categorical qualities being determinative about who and what people are, at their most basic level as human beings? People are fully dimensioned with many qualities and characteristics, and indeed free — with the freedom given by their Creator — to become all that God intends for them. The Scripture may begin with Genesis, but it ends with the Revelation of the new humanity, which transcends the merely earthly categories and qualities that each of us possess. It is not our substance or our genes that matter: but our actions of love and service to one another.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG

ps: Let's try a mental exercise. Surely a part of the imperative of bodily identity as male and female should be "ordered" towards what male and female exist for: sexual reproduction. So any person who fails to live out this aspect of his or her natural identity is in some way "constructing" an identity at odds with their biological destiny. So the "celibate lifestyle" is contrary to human nature.

UPDATE: You can read the full text of the address courtesy of Whispers in the Loggia. As I suspected, Benedict reads Gen 1:27 as referring to categories, not people. He's done it before, and will do it again...


June Butler said...

Why does it never occur to the "straight-thinking" minds in the Vatican that the "celibate lifestyle", which is a choice, is the Achilles heel in their reasoning on biological destiny? Why aren't RC clergy fulfilling their biological destinies and populating the earth? Has anyone in the RCC ventured an answer to the question? If so, I've never seen it.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

I think it is empowerment, self-satisfaction, and a feeling of being beyond critique, that explains a lot of what goes on in the church. How else to miss the obvious, when one has a "rules don't apply to me because I'm special" attitude. As I've quoted before (and thank Erika Baker for the correction in translation), "It is a terrible thing to come to power; power makes you stupid."

Deacon Charlie Perrin said...

From the near "earliest times" (maybe about the 3rd or 4th century) the Church (ar at least many in it) has had a problem with sexuality. I guess many thought that sex felt so good, there must be something wrong with it.

My maternal ancesters were Covenanters (the inheritors of John Knox) and their attitude towrds many human activities (dancing, drinking, gambling, etc.) appeared to be: "If it's fun it's a sin.

As much as they complained about the Roman Catholics (and the Anglicans for that matter) they really had much in common with the Pope and the Vatican.

June Butler said...

Tobias, you may be right. I Googled a bit, and all I could find were justifications for celibacy for RC clergy. One reason given was ludicrous: The church can't have married priests with families because one night the clergyman may have his own sick child to attend to, so he would not be available to be at the side of a dying child in the parish. One hardly knows where to begin to refute this sort of argument.

Following the silly reasoning, doctors, nurses, and, indeed, all medical staff should be celibate. I could go on, but I won't.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Thanks Charlie. People have been torturing themselves with their own fears for centuries. Sad but true.

Mimi, that's the "marriage of inconvenience" theory...

Leonard said...

People have been torturing themselves with their own fears for centuries¨ Tobias+

There you have it, Padre! (exact description of Pope Benedict for me)

Anonymous said...

So, I had some thoughts on this, but I figured I'd try to read the pope's full speech before making any kind of response. I've been searching for half an hour and can't find anything but secondary news sources talking about it. Is there a link somewhere to the English text of the actual speech?

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Thanks, Leonard.

Jonathan, I picked up the quotes from Episcopal Cafe. I don't know where they picked them up. I wouldn't mind reading the whole address, though in the past I've found the tortured logic and question-begging pile=up of assertion in lieu of argument to be tiring and unproductive. The real problem is that the Vatican has had a faulty understanding of human nature since Aquinas, if not before. The pope is simply building on a hill of sand, instead of on the sound doctrine of the Incarnation. People --- all people --- are fully human, and the "human nature" must therefore be undetermined as to gender. Treating men and women as almost different species is at the root of the problem.

I of course have no difficulty with a strong nominalism that simply says each person is who he or she is, including each and every aspect of their personhood. A man is a man and not a woman. One's individual "nature" is indeed particular in all of those peculiarities --- but then, that's not really a "nature" in the way in which Benedict is speaking --- since it is precisely not shared with anyone else.

But Benedict is also not a strong nominalist, and really wants to have it both ways, each individual giving in to the surmised universal that he posits completely dominating each individual --- all males must act as only males can and should act. This is of course, not self evident, and amounts to the same dreary circular reasoning that this topic seems to lead to!

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Jonathan, I found the full text and have added a link at the end of the article. I don't have time to read it all just now, though I did scan the 'graphs that included the pull quotes, and it is much as I suspected: biological determinism and confusion of categories. Very sloppy thinking, and, as I say, inconsistent with Christian doctrine of the Incarnation!

June Butler said...

When such commitment is repudiated, the key figures of human existence likewise vanish: father, mother, child – essential elements of the experience of being human are lost.

Your Holiness, where is your wife? Where are your children and grandchildren?

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Mimi, that quote reveals another pair of sad aspects of papal thinking: absolutism and dehumanization. If some people do what the pope disapproves of, it is as if all must do so -- so fatherhood disappears. No one can be a father if anyone refuses to be a father (except the celibate clergy, of course.

On the dehumanizing side: it is the pope who dehumanizes those with gender issues, the gay, and so on. He says they are no longer human because they've changed the "God-given nature." It just doesn't occur to him that there is more variety to humanity than his binary imagination will allow.

Daniel Weir said...

This is a very good discussion, which is not always the case on blogs.

I recalled a somewhat inaccurate definition of a Puritan: someone who is afraid that somewhere someone is having fun.

A colleague used to ask parishioners, "Are we having fun yet?" I repeated that question in a sermon once. Years later one parishioner told me that it has taken a long time for her to understand the question and realize that life in Christ can be fun.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Thanks Daniel. "Fun" is a much neglected category of human activity, and yours is a good reminder.

Erika Baker said...

Humour too.
If we allowed a little more genuine humour into our Christian discourse we would find it less easy to dehumanize each other.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Amen, Erika. So I attempt, not always with success.

Mr. Mcgranor said...

Natural Law and the unsettling Pelagius; are in the back-round.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Indeed so, Mr. McG. I hadn't thought of the papal position in Pelagian terms, but there is a degree of "salvation by conformity" implicit in his approach. The "Deuteronomic" idea that by "getting it right" we earn God's favor is so much at odds with any vibrant doctrine of grace, other than the rather toxic Calvinist notion that God only gives grace to some, contrary to the testimony that the cross is "once for all."

Erika Baker said...

It's the root of my complete incomprehension of so many of our current debates where we are not allowed to change anything in case we're wrong. We are told that we cannot know whether women can be priests and only the mythical Universal Church can make that discernment.
We are told that we cannot be sure that God accepts gay people or that we are allowed to "redefine" marriage.

And I wonder what all these people are so terribly afraid of.
What happened to living fully, to stepping out in faith? Even if we did get it wrong - so what? What image of God do we have here? Is he really like a little gnome sitting on his cloud just waiting for someone to step out of line? Does he say "ha! Just you wait until they've consecrated a woman, I will make sure that all their Sacraments are invalid, a sin so serious that they will all end up in hell"?

It’s a strange faith that keeps us in bondage to fear.

rick allen said...

"It's the root of my complete incomprehension of so many of our current debates where we are not allowed to change anything in case we're wrong."

Erica, I would imagine it has something to do with the proposed basis for the suggested change. If the teaching of the Church is nothing more than the current consensus, then it's plainly superfluous. If, on the other hand, it somehow constitutes a revelation from God, then surely that is some basis for questioning our proposed changes.

"And I wonder what all these people are so terribly afraid of.
What happened to living fully, to stepping out in faith?"

It depends, I suppose, on what our faith is in. God? The democratic process? The consensus of the enlightened? The Church? The scriptures? Ourselves?

What is at issue here is not some whim of Benedict XVI. The Church has, from the beginning, had certain distinctive teachings about chastity, and the meaning and place of marriage in Christian life. These have undoubtedly developed (in Newman's sense) over the centuries, but have no more been negated than the developed dogma of the Trinity negated the belief of the first centuries.

For those of us who see Tradition as an authority alongside scripture (and that obviously doesn't include Protestants), adherence to what we have received is a part of faithfulness, not its piecemeal abandonment. It is an approach to holiness which you and undoubtedly many good and sincere people find questionable. But it shouldn't be incomprehensible.

"Does he say "ha! Just you wait until they've consecrated a woman, I will make sure that all their Sacraments are invalid, a sin so serious that they will all end up in hell"?"

No. But surely there are reasons for wanting to know the will and follow the teaching of God beyond wanting to stay out of hell?

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Rick, the problem here is that Benedict is not building on a long tradition. We are not talking about marriage or chastity here, but gender identity. There is no long history of awareness of gender identity, or solemn teaching on the subject, in part because the concept itself is of fairly recent vintage. My main problem with Benedict on this, as I thought I made clear, is that rather than applying the church's actual tradition (including the Chalcedonian definition) to the issue, he invokes the relatively recent notion of "complementarity" and even a strained reference to environmentalism.

In short, he is not propounding the church's constant teaching -- as there has been little -- and what teaching there has been on the subject of gender is contrary to his conclusion. Sexism is not in keeping with the church's theology. It's as simple as that.

June Butler said...

For those of us who see Tradition as an authority alongside scripture (and that obviously doesn't include Protestants), adherence to what we have received is a part of faithfulness, not its piecemeal abandonment.

Rick, who are the "Protestants" you reference? Anyone outside the Roman Catholic Church? Or do you have another definition?

Plus, I'd like to know how you arrived at your "obvious" conclusion that no Protestants honor tradition.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Mimi, the notion that Rome "honors" tradition is one of the many myths purveyed in that denomination. Almost all of the current "moral teaching" in the RCC dates from notions formulated in the 20th century, and many of them involved changes from earlier tradition. (One important one to note: the development of a doctrine on life beginning at conception, rather than at quickening. Then there's the "natural childbirth" development, which is to any fair mind a distortion of the earlier doctrines on the purpose of marriage, and only short of "birth control" by a feat of mental gymnastics.)

Now, you could observe, for instance in both these examples, that the church is being progressive in taking account of modern scientific findings. That's true -- but that's also why they are not in fact relying on tradition -- except when they do! It is an essentially wax nose of an authority -- as Anglicans recognize.

rick allen said...

"Rick, who are the "Protestants" you reference?"

Mimi, by "Protestants" I mean those who follow Luther and Calvin in locating religious authority sola scriptura.

"Plus, I'd like to know how you arrived at your "obvious" conclusion that no Protestants honor tradition."

I didn't say that no Protestants honor tradition, but that Protestants do not see tradition as an authority alongside scripture. That, again, is simply a restatement of my understanding that Protestantism, among other things, gives scripture a unique authority always above that of tradition. One can honor tradition without giving it the authority accorded it in Vatican II's dogmatic constitution on divine revelation, Dei Verbum.

There are of course Anglicans who give tradition that same authority--but I always understood those who felt that way to be the very persons who deny that Anglicanism is Protestant, or affirm that it is neither, but rather a via media between Protestant and Catholic.

June Butler said...

Tobias, I started to list examples of when the RCC strayed away from traditions, and the quickening stage of pregnancy measure for when life begins was one of the examples, along with the infallibility of the pope which was late in coming and about which there was controversy throughout many centuries of church history. John Henry Newman was most certainly not pleased when the doctrine was declared at Vatican I.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Thanks, Mimi. You can add the Marian Dogmas to the list as significant tremors in the tradition. Filioque is another. Clerical celibacy... the list goes on!

Newman was wise enough to realize that tradition itself is not a source of authority but a record of authority being exercised. He felt that authority was best exercised by the Roman Pontiff. O.K., you pays your money and you makes your choice... and then lives with the promulgation of doctrines you hold in contempt!

C. Wingate said...

It's ironic as all get-out that Roman fossilization of all these points came along while we were working through the actual substance of what lies beneath maleness and femaleness, which is to say, the genetics. It's an enormous, unsupportable jump to say that there's something about a Y chromosome that somehow makes a person suitable to be a priest.

I can understand some of his sentiment about modern attitudes about families. But Thomism is surely not the way to go on that. "Family" as a notion is hugely beyond "marriage" in its flexibility. There is something to be said for working from the notion that sexuality doesn't trump familial relationships or responsibilities, but that immediately drops one into the midst of a raging storm of casuistry, and last I checked I don't see the latter as being an area where infallible pronouncements actually can be issued.