Back to Theological Thoughts


Dogma and Dogmatism

Contents

This dialogue is based on an email authored by a correspondent, Alicia. Her words are given in green, my responses are indented. It concludes with a beautiful response from another correspondent, Susan.

The role of doctrine in the Church's Life

So often when someone is hurting because of Church doctrine we respond by writing something like: "Well, not all Catholics believe that'. Yep, that is true, but it does not negate that the doctrine is still doctrine and governs how the Church operates. And it does not negate the hurt and damage to the person who does not conform to doctrine.

Not all doctrine in bad, of course, and doctrine is necessary for defining who we are as the Church, the Body of Christ. I have no problem with doctrine that conforms to the larger realities of life. Nor do I have problems with doctrines that are constructed through reason alone due to the absence of objective data (well, for the most part).

The default association of "doctrine" with the judgement "bad" is unfortunate. I understand why you do so, but you should be beware of the underlying attitude that it represents. It will tend to prejudice your judgements.

It would be quite wrong to "construct doctrine through reason alone"! Doctrine should flow from the Apostolic Tradition, which may or not be "objective data", in your terms, depending on what you meant.

But my anger stems from doctrines that are written or maintained in contradiction to facts, data and objective observations. For such doctrines do not reflect a search for truth, and hence God, but rather enforce positions of power and control - and that is not the will of God. Indeed, it is precisely such positions that Jesus condemns in the Pharisees and scribes of His day.
I agree. Such sentiments are felt by many other people of good will, for example, my friend Dr Paul Miller.

The Four Methods of Knowing.

The are four ways through which we know what we know:
  1. Method of intuition
  2. Method of authority
  3. A-priori Method:
    1. deductive reasoning and
    2. inductive reasoning
  4. Scientific Method

  5.  

     

    You should make more explicit what you mean by "know". It seems to me that you here mean "gain an opinion - which may or may not be true - about something": Doxa, rather than "understanding something as it is and for what it is": Episteme.

Each of us relies on all four of these methods, this is necessary and perfectly ok, as no one method is perfect.
I think that this comment unwise, as I shall proceed to argue.
Method of Intuition. This is what we believe at the gut level. Like the sun rises in the morning and sets at night. It is what we believe because we have always believed it and therefore it must be true.
Note that you have here, astutely, substituted believe for know: i.e. Doxa for Episteme.
Also, it seems to me that what you have here called intuition (which is more closely related to Episteme) is in fact common sense, that is: prejudice and unexamined assumption.
Method of Authority. This is simply that we believe what authority figures tell us. My mother says ... The Bible says ... Professor X told us ...
This is not a kind of knowledge: but only of information. Of course, it may be true that "Professor X told us", but that doesn't make what he told us true. "The things that you happen to read in the Bible, they ain't necessarily so!"
The A-priori Method. This relies on logical arguments: reasoning. There are two basic forms of reason: Deductive and Inductive with a syllogism as a result. A syllogism is a logical conclusion resulting from two or more logical arguments. A + B = C. This is the prime method used by the Church as many points can not be argued any other way.
This is a mis-nomer. A priori knowledge is supposedly knowledge that is immediately available as intuitively or obviously or necessarily true premises prior to any process of reasoning or experimentation whatsoever.
I personally deny that any such knowledge exists, except in the form of genetically programmed instincts: which are more properly thought of as physical beliefs.

I think that you really mean the Philosophical or Logical or Rational Method, in which case we are just arguing over words!

Deductive reasoning (Plato) takes a model and applies it to a specific situation. Example: suppose you found something the field that is hard, you can deduce what it is as follows: All rocks are hard, this object is hard; therefore it must be a rock.
Indeed, although your specific example is false, because not all hard objects are rocks! For example a lump of steel is not a rock. Deduction move from Universals (or the Forms) to the particular; or from one set of particulars to another. In each case, a connection is made between the truth of one proposition and the truth of another by means of rules of logical inference which are themselves either intuitive (Classical logic) or arbitrary (various modern systems of synthetic symbolic logic). In all this the question: "what does it mean to say that something is true" is never examined.

Note that I would say that while I accept and always attempt to employ Classical Logic because I believe that it is valid and applicable to the real world. I would not say that it was "true", because for me - following Pythagarus, Plato, Tarski and Popper - "truth" is the (degree of) correspondence between an idea in someone's mind and some aspect of objective reality. Now, the laws of Classical Logic are not "things" that exist "out there". There is no Form of "The Law of the Excluded Middle", for example! Hence although my conviction that Classical Logic is trustworthy and applicable is intuitive, I would not describe it as "A priori knowledge" as I do not think that it is any kind of knowledge.

Inductive reasoning (Aristotle) is the reverse: it from the specific to the general. Example: This object is a rock, this rock is hard; therefore, all rocks are hard. This is a far riskier approach, but is also more fruitful in developing models and theories.
Popper has shown that this "form of reasoning" is fallacious, on a number of grounds, see his famous book "The Logic of Scientific Discovery". In practice, it is never used in developing models. It is often thought to be used in this way, because it is easy to confuse it with the method that is actually used, namely that of "Conjectures and Refutations" (another book title). In this, one makes guesses about what is objectively real: based on intuition, hope and prejudice (as it may be - it really doesn't matter at all!) and then tests these guesses using deductive reasoning and experimental observation, as appropriate. Those guesses (hypotheses) that stand up to a lot of testing, we accept as "good enough to be going on with" and we call them Theories.
Paradoxically, much of Church cosmology was taken from Aristotle, but it is Plato's deductive reasoning that is used by the Church.
While Socrates and Plato developed the technique of deductive reasoning, Aristotle codified it.
The Scientific Method. Basically: this is data driven. You or I can say whatever we want to say, and we can come up with all kinds of rational arguments to support our positions; but if we are going to make the claim that it is science, we best have the data and the analysis to back our mouths up. Of the four, this is the most costly in terms of time and resources - but it tends to give the best results when it can be appropriately employed.
It is wrong to say that this is data driven. Later on you give a much better account, yourself.

As I have already explained, the Scientific Method is Imagination driven but Data constrained. Moreover, your words suggest the common misconception that data is used by scientists to prove that their theories are true. This is precisely wrong. No matter how much confirmatory data one accumulates, this never suffices to prove that a theory is true. On the other hand a single definite contradiction immediately proves that a theory is false. All that one can do with data is to use it to subject a theory to rigorous testing. When a theory has stood up to a lot of criticism and testing one develops a good feeling about it and becomes comfortable and confident about using it in practice - until it eventually goes wrong in some unexpected circumstance!

It is through the use of these four methods that we know what we know and build the models that we need to make sense out of life.
This is mistaken. The only coherent method is the Scientific Method.
Deductive reasoning and
experimental (controlled) or
experiential (ad hoc)
observation are invaluable elements of this.
Intuition and Authoritarianism are only admissible as techniques of hypothesis formulation.
Induction is simply wrong!
[Funny, now that I think of it, the more closely the results of one of the later methods conforms to what we intuitively believe, the more rapidly the results are accepted.]
Indeed. This doesn't make such results correct, though: Quantum Mechanics and Relativity stand out as obvious counter examples!

Models

Life is big. It is really big! It is so big and complex that we can not hope to comprehend it all in our lifetimes, or even in the lifetime of the entire human race. We are lucky if we can comprehend even a small amount of it, enough to survive and even thrive. Because life is so big the first thing that we do as individuals, societies and a species is hack out a working model that will allow us to function on a day-to-day basis. As our needs become more complex so do the models we make to meet our needs.
I largely agree, but caution that you seem rather negative about "making models". You describe this as "hacking out", attach the epithet "working" and say that their purpose is "to allow us to function". As a Physicist, I want to be more positive. Also, I would distinguish between theories on the one hand - which are attempts at an authentic  description of objective reality - and models on the other - which are either pragmatic rule-sets or conscious simplifications of a theory that is too complex to apply or solve in some practical situation.  The development of theories should certainly be seen as an activity that is aspirational after truth (Episteme) rather than just expedient and "make do". There is no need to be negative regarding this, even if it should prove to be a Never Ending Quest!
Models are abstractions of the human mind. They exist as a tool used by humans beings to impose order on our environment so that we can function on a daily basis as individuals, and as cultures and societies. Our models reflect how we understand ourselves and our world.
A "subjectivist-relativist" spin has been injected here. Models - still less theories - do not "impose order on our environment". Rather they enable us to make predictions about it. Our environment doesn't change or cease to be disordered just because we invent some model or other! Also, I would say that our models and theories do not reflect but rather are precisely our understanding of ourselves and our world. Our models and theories reflect (imperfectly) what is objectively the case about ourselves and our world.
So far, so good. The next question, or rather set of questions is how are our models developed, how closely do they reflect reality and how often are they updated? Models, and by extension, traditions are not bad per se if they are developed and maintained in a responsible manor.
Now you put the word models and traditions alongside. All models and (human traditions) are provisional, by the very nature of what they are. The Apostolic Ecclesial Tradition (The Gospel) is not: no more than is Physical Reality. Of course, our understanding of Apostolic Tradition develops in a similar manner to our understanding of Physical Reality: but The Gospel Tradition and Physical Reality are both Objective, not culturally based subjective constructs.
They are necessary if we are to be a cohesive body and not fall into anarchy and, ultimately, become extinct. However, they are bad and they do damage when they are maintained in spite of contradictory evidence. And that seems to be the case with certain Church doctrines.
Indeed. Some "traditional" Official Teaching is not in accordance with Apostolic Tradition.

Galileo's challenge of Authority

Perhaps the most (in)famous is the case of Galileo. He was an Italian mathematician who took the calculations of Copernicus and the telescope and collected data that suggested the Earth did orbited the Sun. This flew in the face of what Holy Mother Church was preaching, which was Aristotle's cosmology. The Church just could not handle being challenged and went about systematically suppressing the new ideas. It was only in 1992 that Pope John Paul publicly admitted that Galileo was right!

So why was this such a problem for the Church? Why could She not say 'Ok, new data has come in and it is time to adjust our model and move on.'? This would have been the prudent approach. But Holy Mother Church didn't take the prudent approach. She dug her heels in and fought tooth and nail those who would dare challenge Her, and Her take on God and Creation. No one ever wants to be proved wrong, ever. So much of it is an ego thing. If you attack my argument, you attack me and my authority. And that is always a bad thing to do to someone: beanie boy, CEO, football coach or mother. Bad.

Agreed. The reason that the Church hierarchy thinks this way is that it generally doesn't live in Hope: accepting the idea that Holy Spirit is in charge, they are so afraid of the Faith being lost that they forget to Love. It is so sad.
At the time the church was fighting a number of different battles, and had been for almost all of its existence. There were battles for temporal power, territory and control (Holy Roman Empire). Battles against Muslims for the Holy City (Crusades). And there were lots of battles for doctrinal definitions and control (Various councils and the Holy Inquisition). And, of course, battles against other groups that led to the Reformation.
Indeed. The Church is always engaged in conflict: sometimes properly and sometimes improperly.
So the hierarchy sees itself as inspired and empowered by God - they are the ones with the inside track, the ones to whom God speaks directly, the ones entrusted by God to build His kingdom on Earth. They were the ones who gathered the scattered groups of early Christians, cowering in fear of persecution, and built the organization that we have today and they have the answers and they have the control: and by God they are not going to give it up - they've earned it!
Your words suggest that you think the Magisterium is only a human construct and a force for evil.

While the hierarchy is not inspired, it has been charged by God to proclaim, defend and define the faith and to govern the Church Community. Sometimes Bishops exercise this ministry well, sometimes very poorly. God has promised that as a whole they will never blunder terminally. That is all. They should take more pride in the role that they have and have a more humble assessment of their capabilities to fulfil it.

And then the cracks appear: secularism and the age of enlightenment - science...  And the Church starts to lose control over its empire... And that can't happen! So Galileo takes the fall.

Science and Religion: Two attitudes to Truth

Science is by no means perfect. Indeed, to be very brief, the history of science is the history of forming hypotheses, testing them - building theories, testing more hypotheses, chucking out theories for newer and better ones, and then chucking out those for even newer ones, and on and on and on.
This is a good miniature description. However, it is misleading to make the throw-away comment "Science is by no means perfect". What do you mean by this? What would perfection be if it was attainable by Science? To be perfect is to have changed often. Science is perfectly what Science is. Science is not Magic, however: it does not have all the right answers to every possible question on tap.
Example: Newtonian physics -> relativity -> quantum mechanics -> Chaos.
Your progression line here is misinformed, but this doesn't affect your argument. The three issues of relativity, Quantum Mechanics and Chaos are all independent deviations from or - better - improvements upon Newtonian Mechanics.
Some argue that science can't be used as a moral compass because (a) that is not its purpose and (b) issues are always in a state of flux in terms of what we know.
Not so much not Science's purpose, as rather not its present framework or level of sophistication. In accordance with elementary principles of Catholic Ethics, in the end what is good for an agent is that which is in accordance with the well-being of that agent. These matters may eventually become the subject of analytical science, but as yet we do not have the conceptual framework or insight or experimental evidence. Also, many of the experiments that would theoretically recommend themselves as helping to test ethical hypotheses, scientifically would themselves be grossly unethical!
I will agree with the first argument, but the second is not a liability - it is an asset.  It is an asset because it keeps us delving deeper into reality, into Creation. Not to supplant God, but to understand God.
Agreed. This is part of the point of my last paragraph: except that we can never hope to understand God HimSelves, only what God has made and done.
If science worked the way the Church works we would still be stuck with only the Four Elements and we would not have medicine, modern food preparations, computers, etc. Our life expectancies would still be 26 years...
You mean rather, I think, "how the Church hierarchy typically works".  Many heroic Catholic individuals have worked in quite different ways: Origen; Anselm; Chrysostom; Augustine; Basil; Athanasius; Francis of Assisi; Bonaventure; Thomas Aquinas; Teresa of Avila; Cardinal Newman etc. etc.....
It seems then that the core point of dissension is the difference in approach to truth. Holy Mother Church, and religion in general, looks to the past and the tried and true. Science looks to the future and the further unravelling of nature. And there is animosity on both sides: each trying to thwart the other.
This can be the case, but the Scientific Establishment often behaves just like the Catholic hierarchy and many Catholic individuals behave like lowly research scientists.
Still - what is to be done? What is the correct way? The point made above holds true: models are a necessity of life.  But the question also holds true: how are they maintained?

The Church is wrong to live in the past - much of what worked in the days Anselm and other was appropriate for the times; but, like it or not, times and life, change. And the Church  has to change, lest it become irrelevant and extinct.

The fact that society changes does not mean that the Church should follow such changes. For example, Prof. Boswell argues that a change in secular society towards bigotry in the C12/13th infected the Church of those days. It is the role of the Church to defend timeless truth against ephemeral error. Error is never appropriate for any time: a partial understanding is all that can be hoped for at any time.

As time passes, one would hope that the Church's understanding of her Gospel Message would become more sophisticated: partly as She learns from the huge reservoir of knowledge, wisdom and insight that exists without her formal boundaries.

But change for the Church, as with a human individual, is hard. It is hard to admit that it may not have all the answers after all.  And if it admits that it was wrong on one point, how many other points that she has defended for so long will she also have to admit that she was wrong on?
This is the big problem. As long as people continue to analyse the situation in terms of the human credibility of the Magisterium, the Magisterium will continue to defend every last indefensible bastion!
And so the question remains: which is more important - ego or truth?
"For this Ego came into the world: to bare witness to Episteme."


Another correspondent, Susan, subsequently wrote:

Truth does not change

I know and understand the hurt that official Church doctrine can cause. There isn't a day that goes by when it doesn't affect me on some level, and I know God can't mean for all this pain to come to so many of His children simply  because of the way He made us.

I think, however, that we move into dangerous territory when we insist that the Church change with the times so that it does not become irrelevant. Truth does not change, no matter how the times might. And while the Church must honestly assess and deal with the realities of each era in which She exists, while She must be open to meaningful dialogue and take into account the
sensus fidelium, She must still stand for the Truth. Even - or especially - when the Truth is not popular.

What is true about sexuality?

The debate, of course, comes when we must discern what the Truth is, and whether or not certain truths have been revealed by the Holy Spirit to the Church. It would seem that sexuality is an issue that has confounded the Church for nearly Her entire existence, and often at the expense of other more urgent Gospel mandates.

On the other hand, why has it been such a troubling topic? Probably because She knows on some level that it does bear eternal importance, that there is some profound spiritual significance for us, and that most of its significance still remains hidden, perhaps well beyond the bounds of scientific pursuit. It is something not to be taken lightly, not to be swayed by the moral or immoral climate in which the Church might find Herself at any given time in history.

It cannot be denied that Church has certainly developed. In St. Augustine's time, even marital sex was considered sinful, a necessary evil. How contradictory, a necessary evil! In God, there is no such thing! If God said be fruitful and multiply, how could He then also make the means by which we do this also sinful?

So today, we now have lyrical, beautiful writings from our current Pope as to the profound meaning behind marital conjugal love. Can this even be viewed as development of Church teaching? Is it not rather a complete volte face? I think the latter, and if Truth is timeless, it also leaves us all wondering exactly where the fullness of Truth on the issue can actually be found.

What disturbs me the most about the Church's handling of sexuality that falls outside the marital, procreative "norm" is Her unwillingness to honestly and openly grapple with it. She is embarrassed, dismissive, and offers no kind of authentic spirituality for people who are gay. If there is some kind of theologically profound reason why God made us this way, then it is the
Church's obligation to discover that reason, and then present for us an authentic way of offering our unique gifts and ourselves to God. I don't know whether Holy Spirit has yet to move the Church in that direction, or if the Church isn't really listening to the promptings of the Spirit. Either way, in the absence of any kind of positive directives on how to live our lives (other than
avoiding  intimacy and physical affection and all the other negatives they present us with), we have no choice but to obey God's still voice in each of our hearts.

I would also think that Pope John Paul II doesn't have the final word on sexuality any more than Pope Gregory I (Augustine's Pontiff) did. Holy Spirit will guide the Church, in His time, toward His will. I do have to admire the fact that the Church isn't so quick to "change with the times" simply for the sake of being "relevant," because it is far more important to be obedient to God than it is to be relevant to the times.  I might not agree with the reasoning or care for the outcome on any particular issue, but I must trust that Holy Spirit will eventually lead the Church to the Truth.  In the meantime, I am comforted by the fact that my conscience will not condemn me.

The downside of Science

Another point you bring up is how science, in moving more quickly than the Church, has contributed to things like medicine, computers, longer life expectancy, etc.  As wonderful as all these things can be, there is a downside to all these things, too.

Computers can be used judiciously to make our lives easier, or they can replace our real lives with solitary, artificial existences.  We can use computers to enhance our good works and creative endeavours, or to plumb the depths of human depravity and evil. Medicine can save lives, or make them healthier... or needlessly prolong them, or even take them before they are born.  Even longer life expectancies are a mixed blessing. We often feel entitled to long lives here, with our creature comforts, less willing to live lives of sacrifice, more aggrieved when loved ones pass on, less aware that the next world is the one for which we were truly created.

Science has moved quickly to bring us all these marvellous modern innovations, but who is to say how many more lives they've temporally helped than spiritually hurt? Perhaps we don't even know the full extent of the evils science has wrought, because it is so easy to be blinded by the comforts we know it has provided.

The task of the Church

I guess what I am saying is that we cannot judge the Church by worldly standards, by the times in which we live, or by the scientific method. The Church is deliberately slow, subject as She is to the Creator of all that science does and does not reveal to us. It is an awesome task She has, with responsibility for the souls of billions, and while I don't always agree with Her, I don't envy Her position. To be human and entrusted with all that... no thank you!

Of course, there is a reason that Christ left the Church in the hands of hapless Simon Peter. It was to remind us that He is in charge, not us, and whatever the Church does or doesn't do in this world, God loves us beyond measure. We still and always live for Christ, the Risen Christ, and for His unending Kingdom beyond!



Back to top