An Old Argument That Sounds Good at First Blush….

Yesterday, the reading from Acts was the Council of Jerusalem (Acts 15), and the priest gave the usual – for a Jesuit – homily relating the current controversies related to divorce & remarriage, women’s ordination, homosexuality, and birth control to the way the Council overrode the Jews who wanted to make gentiles Christians conform to Jewish law.

The argument is that, just as the Apostles listened to the arguments of Paul and Barnabas, looked at the obviously Spirit-filled Gentile converts and prayed for guidance from the Holy Spirit, and decided to overturn centuries of Jewish custom (and mortally offend the observant Jews!) in favor of removing as many  roadblocks from the path of Gentile Christians as possible, so, too, we today should look at the suffering, Spirit-filled members of the Body of Christ and choose to break with centuries of tradition in order to remove roadblocks to their full membership in the Church.

In other words, times change, and the consciousness of the Church has demonstrably – in Scripture – changed with it. So, to argue from Tradition is not valid in the face of changing conditions. Instead, we must look to the needs of the flock and the guidance of the Holy Spirit and make changes. Otherwise, we risk damaging or destroying the faith of certain members of the Church by laying unnecessary burdens on them, as well as dimming the Light of Christ to the rest of the world by both depriving the Church of the service of many of its members and distorting the truth through overly-restrictive moral teachings.

Fair recap of the argument?

And I agree, as far as it goes,  which isn’t nearly as far as its proponents imagine it goes. The devil is in the details.  The argument can’t be that  mere change in general should cause the Church to change traditional beliefs. No one argues that things are not different now – that 21st century America is the same in every respect as the 1st century Roman Empire.  The argument must be that there are specific differences today that affect the way we should view specific moral issues. Further, it seems to be assumed that tradition and only tradition underlies the Church’s teachings on moral issues. As a whole, the Church’s teachings rely on logic, Scripture and wisdom gained through experience as well tradition, all subject to the guidance of the Holy Spirit, in different mixes and to different degrees. There can be no one-size-fits-all argument, individual arguments must be made on a case by case basis.

And that’s where this general argument from change fails – you have to address the specifics of both the Church’s teaching and the change in the world that calls teaching into question. What has changed, for example, in sacramental marriage that now renders the Church’s teachings obsolete? Or, do we really claim to understand homosexuality better than Paul or Dante (or Plato or Moses) understood it? I mean, really? How?

I recognize that a bookcase could be filled on any of these issues. The point is, the call to reconsider is not the same as deciding in favor of those making the call – that decision has to be based on the specifics.

To get a little more speculative, that this argument from change has only gained popularity in the last couple hundred years makes one wonder what caused it to arise now. It seems clearly Hegelian to me – Hegel proposes (he doesn’t argue)  that History and Spirit unfold over time, and that previous ages were simply incapable of understanding our current enlightened state. From our lofty and superior perch, we can just simply see that the old ways are no longer valid. Hegel very specifically uses this approach to claim the clear superiority of 19th century Protestantism over benighted Catholicism. No argument is necessary or even possible – you get it or you don’t.  (By the way, Hegel refers to this process as ‘doing the hard thinking’.)

And there you go.

The parenthetical above is the real problem – Hegel excuses himself and any following his method, as it were, from the straightjacket of making any logical sense. Logic, to Hegel, is ontology – you either just ‘get’ it, or you are mired in outdated thinking. Logic, and therefore argument in any constructive sense, is for the little people, like mathematicians and natural scientists. True philosophers are beyond logic, beyond having to defend their positions, beyond having to make any sense at all.

And, thus, we reach the state we’re in morally. The mere fact that I would presume to  argue in favor of traditional morality is conclusive in itself – I Don’t Get It.

In this manner, very well educated and well-intentions men like our Jesuit priest can join the tide of Modern destruction. He has been handed a tool by Hegel which, as  Gandalf says of the  Ring of Power, he would intend to use only for good. But the tool itself – Hegel’s demotion and ultimate destruction of reason – has been built for nothing but the destruction of the world, and will end up using him for its architect’s purposes.

I’ve never heard specific arguments for specific changes to the moral teachings of the Church that stood up to a minute’s examination. They all assume that people today are just more enlightened than people in the past, so that the fact that people today want the moral teachings to be different is sufficient reason to insist that they ought to be different. Really, how is marriage today different from marriage in 1512, 512 or 12? What modern knowledge overthrows  the Church’s understanding of homosexuality?  That we don’t feel it is bad like they used to? Then either we moderns, the ancients or both are wrong – how about explaining why rather than just assuming it’s self-evident modern thinking is better?

To be fair, once or twice I’ve run across arguments that boil down to the assertion that Freud, Margaret Mead and Kinsey were right – that we’re sex-obsessed neurotics that need to lighten up and look at the real world without our moral-tinted glasses on. However, that is a difficult position to defend on any other grounds than the above-mentioned claim that we moderns are simply better. More to the point, its proponents aren’t interested in defending it – you either get it, or you don’t. Same old.

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Author: Joseph Moore

Enough with the smarty-pants Dante quote. Just some opinionated blogger dude.

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