Friday, September 13, 2013

What is the Catholic Church For?

I mainly use Facebook as a source for referrals to interesting web content, as I have many friends who post links to articles or videos they found worth sharing, and quite often I follow these links.  This is far more fruitful than random web surfing, if I'm looking for stimulating or inspiring content.

Today one of my friends posted a link to a 30-second excerpt of Stephen Fry complaining about the Catholic Church.  The source was Upworthy, which has lately become a source for quite a bit of content my friends share on Facebook; Upworthy has a pretty good record of hosting/aggregating interesting or inspiring content, so I'm more likely to follow links to stuff at Upworthy.

Anyway, this is a response to what Stephen Fry said during those 30 seconds, and my interpretation of what he intended by it.

"...the Church is very loose on moral evils..."
[this means: I claim that the Catholic Church has a poor record as a source for authoritative positions on morality or ethics, and we should therefore look elsewhere for standards of morality and evil.]

"...they try to accuse people like me who believe in empiricism and The Enlightenment of what they call, "moral relativism" as if it is some appalling sin, when what it actually means is thought."
[this means: I claim that the Catholic Church has a record of opposing the values of The Enlightenment, and one of those opposed values is the value of using open-minded inquiry based in objectivity, scientific methods, human reason, peer review, and open discussion. The Catholic Church has shunned the value of empiricism and the consequential practice of examining morality and ethics using principles from The Enlightenment. The Catholic Church claims that such approaches to morality lead to a form of moral relativism that will allow sinful behaviors, because people will find a way to justify wicked acts using reason and empiricism. And thus, the Catholic Church has accused persons like me, who support the values of empiricism and The Enlightenment of being dangerous or morally suspect.]

"...they thought that slavery was fine...and then they didn't. And what is the point of the Catholic Church if they say, 'well, we couldn't know better because nobody else did'?"
[this means: The church did not condemn historical evils, and in some cases it perpetrated those moral evils or condoned them.
The church excuses its error of supporting or tolerating evil based on an argument that it was influenced by historical and cultural conventions of the social environment in which it existed.
A good source of ethical and moral principle should be able to determine what is good and advocate for the good with something like immunity to the historical and cultural context in which it exists.
Since the Catholic Church has succumbed to conventional thinking about good and evil shaped by historical and cultural contexts, and has therefore failed to establish a good record of opposing wickedness, it is doubtful that it is a useful source of good ethical or moral guidance.]

I think it's useful to consider what Fry really intended as an argument beneath his words, rather than looking superficially at the content of his words literally.  For example, "the Church is really loose on moral evils" is, if we just look at the literal meaning of those words, a difficult argument to make. Also, the literal case that the Catholic Church condemns people who believe in The Enlightenment and empiricism for their moral relativism is also difficult to justify (many of those whose thought is the foundation of the Enlightenment—including many of the Renaissance humanists—were believing Catholics).

I think there are several propositions we could make if we follow his argument. Although these are not necessarily positions Fry would make, they are propositions I guess he would expect even an religious audience sympathetic to the Catholic Church to understand when hearing his argument.  I'll try to articulate a few of them here:


  1. The church should have used ethics based on revelation to determine that moral evils (such as slavery) were in fact evil, and then condemned and opposed them.
  2. The church should also have used empiricism and enlightenment to deduce that those moral evils were evil, and then condemned them and opposed them.  (Just because we use revelation as a guide to right and wrong doesn't mean we need to put aside our reasoning ability.)
  3. The church was influenced by the conventional thinking of its historical and cultural contexts.  This influence seems to have overwhelmed the tendencies for the Catholic Church to follow accurate Revelation or empiricism and enlightenment. 
  4. Accurate Revelation is a better source of ethics than historical and cultural contexts, because accurate Revelation comes from the Source of Reality, the Creator of good and evil. Social conventions, cultures, and historical contexts are far more distant from that source of correct understanding, because social conventions, cultures, and historical contexts are shaped mostly by human striving to meet various wants and needs, and such human striving is often in opposition to what Revelation seems to suggest would be good.
  5. We have a problem with the question of whether religious people get Accurate Revelation right, or whether instead they are more likely to get false revelation by adopting ideas or values that are not from God and inflicting them into their religious belief system. 
  6. Empiricism and enlightenment (the application of human reason and objectivity, sometimes through the scientific method) is a better source of ethics than historical and cultural contexts, because empiricism and enlightenment are manifestations of our higher nature (e.g., detachment from the world, seeking for truth with pure motives, use of the intellect— God’s supreme gift to humanity, etc.)
  7.  Empiricism and enlightenment are also a good approach in finding moral direction because they have a good record as a reasonably useful source of finding "ideas that work" (allegories for reality that work pretty well), and if we apply reason and enlightenment toward the objective of creating a society that is ethical and achieves happiness and high moral standards, we can expect from experience that reason and empirical thought probably has a better chance of success than most other methods, especially since we seem to have trouble distinguishing between false revelation and accurate revelation.

Steven Fry is upset with the Catholic Church as a human institution because it has inadequately applied accurate Revelation (using false revelation instead). He is also upset because the Catholic Church inadequately applied empiricism and enlightenment to finding and advocating ethical and moral positions (in fact, he claims it rejects these methods).  It has instead conformed to conventional thinking set in human cultural and historical contexts.  In that respect, it is difficult for Fry to distinguish between the Catholic church as a source for ethical positions and any other person, government, group, or whatever.  Since the Catholic Church has not distinguished itself from other groups as being particularly successful in finding and advocating or abiding by strong ethical principles, he questions the value of the Catholic Church.

Let me offer a few observations of my own:
  1. It is difficult to discuss anything so large and complex as "The Catholic Church" as having done particular things or advocated particular things, since the Catholic Church contains (and has contained) millions of persons with billions of opinions and activities.  The same is true of the American government.  Even my own tiny Baha'i Faith has millions of believers and multitudes involved in creating its culture and guiding its direction as an institution and a human organization.  For the Catholic Church, for every Miguel de Morillo, Octavius John XII, or Pierre Cauchon, there is a Bartolom√© de las Casas, a Desiderius Erasmus, a Dorothy Day, and so forth.  There are many Catholic scientists, including several who have been recognized by the Nobel Prize Committee for their scientific contributions. In criticizing such entities as the Catholic Church, the American Government, or whatever, I am never certain whether we mean to criticize a small cadre of leaders at the top who try to set the agenda, or whether we mean to criticize the whole complex organization and those who participate in it. If we are aiming our critique at those near the top who try to lead and control the organization, then we are not addressing the real substance of what the organization is.  If we are criticizing the whole organization, we are complaining about an institution that has many parts or elements that share in our complaint or are entirely undeserving of our complaint.  
  2. Don't we run up against a problem of human nature when we complain about moral positions taken by organizations such as specific Christian denominations or churches?  I mean that our complaint seems to be about human nature, which tends to flavor all the human institutions, and the imperfections in any church could be attributable to the human weakness and failing inherent in those who participate the institution.  When an organization or institution or society like the Catholic Church (or the Communist Party, or the American Government) gets large enough, it is going to become an institution that attracts some power-mad psychopaths, some liars and deceivers, some ignorant obsessive people with power trips and ego trips.  That's the nature of the human experience. Why would the Catholic Church be exempt from this tendency? Science as an institution certainly isn't.
  3. For every fault in the Catholic Church, haven't there been voices from within the Catholic Church condemning those faults?  The Inquisition was an appalling evil, but didn't the Catholic Church put a stop to it?  Don't the Catholics admit that many of their popes were horrible murderers who poisoned their church? Weren't Catholics involved in correcting the lies and cruelty of  Pierre Cauchon?
  4. Is the reliance on rational thought, empiricism, and The Enlightenment really more inspiring in terms of finding good moral direction than the Catholic Church? Rousseau's ideas about the Will of the People contributed to the excesses of the French Revolution, didn't it? Empiricism tends toward quantification and measurement, and if we start to quantify and measure people, don't we start to get generalizations like racism or sexism, and don't we start to de-value those who are elderly, or sick, or afflicted with intellectual disabilities or mental illness? I'd rather take a Revelation-based ethic that tells me all humans are equally valuable than rely on empirically-based ethics, which I fear will lead us away from egalitarianism and toward the sort of ethics that made scientists and doctors in Nazi Germany "serve humanity" by trying to exterminate "defective" people. 
  5. It seems to me our best hope for a satisfying sort of ethics is to embrace some sort of revelation-based ethics (Religions) and incorporate a rational and reason-based approach to ethics as well (using our intellects without being mentally enslaved to our understandings of our religions). When our reason dictates that something is good but a revelation we accept as accurate says it isn't good, we will have to struggle or live with ambiguity and uncertainty. Are there really so many fundamental questions where a revelation claims something is evil or good and rational intellect and empirical study contradicts our understanding of the revelation?  I hold that our understanding of revelation is imperfect, and our rational and intellectual abilities are flawed and imperfect as well.  In fact, this seems obvious to me, and I'm aware people have been making this sort of point about finding moral truths for many years (for example, Michael Servetus and Sebastian Castellio in the early-to-mid 16th century, for example).
  6. Human institutions of organized religion such as the Catholic Church do not exist only to help people find the best moral positions and distinguish between good and evil.  They perform many, many other functions as human institutions. One could easily answer his literal question of "what is it for?" by suggesting the Catholic Church has performed pretty well in providing social stability, experiences of human value, community cohesion, a context for self-understanding, models of admirable human behavior, social welfare services, educational services, and so forth.