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Peter Steinfels responds to George McKenna

Over at Human Life Review, Peter Steinfels has a response to George McKenna's critique of Peter's June 2013 Commonweal article "Beyond the Stalemate." (You'll remember that in October, Commonweal editor Paul Baumann weighed in on McKenna's piece on our blog.) Here is an excerpt from Peter's response: 

It does not matter that McKenna’s critique contains a number of nasty barbs aimed at me and my religious views. What matters is that, while I strongly doubt that Human Life Review readers (or for that matter Commonweal readers) would completely agree with “Beyond the Stalemate” in undistorted form, an open-minded and accurate reading might at least provoke constructive thought. But that would require a return to the central concerns and argument of my article rather than what “successive readings” convinced McKenna I was really up to.

And what was that? My “underlying point,” he claimed, is to propose a “grand bargain” between the species of liberal Catholics he labels Commonweal Catholics and their “pro-choice brethren on the left.” And what were the terms of this “grand bargain,” in McKenna’s view? “We will eschew any more public rhetoric about a ‘moment of conception’—if you will just agree with us that at some point in the pregnancy the occupant of the womb can be called human and thus entitled to the same legal protections we give to the already-born.”

All very interesting. And completely false.

You can read Peter's response in its entirety here.



Commenting Guidelines

Claire --

Yes, I don't doubt what you say, but I think that the official Church has done a dreadful job with sexual ethics, so the laity often doesn't get the help it needs in making decisions.    So I have a lot of sympathy for them.  Notice -- I'm an old single woman, so I really don't have a personal ax to grind in the matter of abortion.  

My big problem is with the professional ethicists who have a responsiblility to be as objective as possible about these issues, and that includes the moral theologians, especially the ones in the Vatican's CDF.  Their influence is so tremendous because so many people all over the world accept what the CDF says uncritically.

What scandalizes me is that the Vatican is not sufficiently critical of its own thinking, and sometimes it blatantly rejects the rational by saying things like "The magisterium does not change" when the facts *show* so patently that the magisterium *does* changes at times.  This is a GROSS contradiction that scandalizes us, especially the young who have half a brain.  I'm sure I irritate some here by harping on the virtues of the medievals, but by damn, the medievals were rational if nothing else.  They were self-critical.  As a matter of principle they systematically considered all sides osf important questions explicitly.  Not so in the Vatican today.  (Rant for the day.)

Ann -- You say that the medievals were better thinkers. Why do you think that would be? Isn't it just that the ones whose thinking has survived the centuries are the great ones, and the others have long been forgotten? Won't the same happen to our contemporary thinkers?

Claire --

I'm afraid I didnt' make myself clear.  When I referred to "the professional ethicists" whom I criticize I was thinking only of those in the Vatican.  I didn't mean to criticize all modern and contemporary ethicists.  

But I do think that while there were some great medieval ethicists, the current official ethicists of the Church (the ones who put out all those papers from the Vatican on morality and the ones who teach in and influence the seminaries) just aren't a match for the medievals.  

I especially have in mind JP II and Ratzinger.  JP II was a philosophy teacher by trade, but his ethics of the body just isn't much.  Even within the Church it isn't having much influence, and outside the Church no professional philosophers seem to pay it any mind at all.  Ratziner, for all his ability, has positivly turned his back on the medievals but hasn't supplied anything better.  John Finnis and Germain Grisez are well-respected natural law ethicists, even by people outside the Catholic tradition.  But I don't see them as any great shakes, though in philosophy of law (which I see as a sub-part of ethics) Finnis does seem to be highly respected.  Maybe he is great in that area.  I'm no judge.  Alasdair MacIntyre removed a great deal of the prejudice against natural law ethics, but I see him more as an extraordinary teacher, not as a great innovator.  He seems to have pretty much ignored the great issue of the day, abortion, though I don't know what he's written lately.  

All in all, the Church hasn't done too well in ethics in the last several hundred years.  It certainly isn't meeting the needs of its newly educated laity which requires persuasion, not high school lectures.  

Ann, were the "great medieval ethicists" you are thinking about working in the Vatican? Were they popes?

Maybe, then as now, it could not be that  free thinkers arrive in a position of temporal power, because, to be chosen as temporal leader, one needs to partly conform to the times and submit to current errors. They cannot stray far from the ideas that currently prevail, or else people will not listen to them. Theologians' priority is to look for the truth, but bishops and popes' priority is to say things that people are open to hearing, so they are conformists.


Claire --

Theologians in the Middle Ages had to be licensed to teach by the Church.  That meant getting a license from a university.  Theologians, as now, were used as periti at councils.  In fact, Aquinas died on his way to the Council of Lyon.  He had been asked to participate.  I can't think of a medieval pope who was a great theologian. 

YOu seem to be concerned about theologians being both free--thinking and holding temporal power.  But in the middle ages the greatest theologians, at any rate, didn't seem to be interested in temporal power.  For instance, Aquinas' family expected him to become a Benedictine and ultimately the prior of the great and very rich abbey of Monte Cassino.  He decided otherwise -- he joined the sort of hippie, itinerant Order of Preachers who were truly poor.  William of Ockham, ofm, was so attached to the stringent poverty of St. Francis that he criticized the pope for his luxury and for weakening St. Francis' teaching about povery.  The pope excommunicated William on a charge of holding heretical views about poverty! (The excommunication was rescinded after Ockham's death.)

True, in the Middle Ages you couldn't hold just anything and retain a license to preach, e.g., you couldn't out and out contracdict one of the Creeds, but you could challenge interpretations of Scripture and Creeds, and all theologians were expected to consider all sides of a controversy and answer opposing positions in detail and in public.  Also, when accused of heresy a theologian had the right to appeal directly to the pope himself.  Not today.

Aquinas was also accused of heresy, but after speaking with the Bishop of Paris, convinced the bishop that his position was orthodox.  However, after Aquinas died a number of his positions were officially condemned as heretical, but soon that pronouncement was lifted.  In other words, controversy was generally allowed, even encouraged at least until a matter was considered settled by a pope or council.  You didn't find condemnations by a CDF that sometims didn't even tell a theologian why he was being condemned.

Also, it seems to me that people, i.e., the laity, are quite willing to agree with dissenting theologians when the theologians (unlike theiri bishops) have listened to the laity about the laity's experience. 

As I see it the Church is much worse off today because of the current system of squelching dissent.  I pray that Pope Francis will be different, but the history of the Church in the last 500 years (except for VII) doesn't make me optimistic.  Francis, quite prudently, I think, is going slowly with his reforms, but he might not live long enough to change the culture of the official Church to allow for controversy and dissent.