David Cloutier is associate professor of theology at Mount St. Mary’s University and editor of catholicmoraltheology.com. He is the author of Love, Reason, and God's Story: An Introduction to Catholic Sexual Ethics (2008) and is working on a book on the moral problem of luxury in contemporary economic ethics.
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As a moral theologian, I often think that claims about “relativism” infecting our society are overblown. Most people, most of the time, do not act as consistent relativists—at most, they view particular issues as relative, and even in these cases, their actual practice suggests implicit moral convictions. However, a recent New York Times piece about teaching a supposed “fact/opinion” distinction to second graders worried me. Domimic Preziosi also noted this piece, connecting it to the problems of artificial intelligence. But my worries are a bit more immediate and political.
The article makes some disputable particular points, but overall, the author rightly shows that a strong distinction between fact and opinion is not coherent. A supposed “fact/value” distinction was in ascendancy in some philosophical circles a century ago, but has been cogently criticized for at least fifty years. Innumerable examples can be adduced to suggest fluidity in both directions: one can have a difference of opinion about who is the best baseball player, but such opinion is itself constrained by facts—there may not be one right answer, but there are very many clearly mistaken answers. From the other direction, how one construes what “the facts” are (or at least what their significance is) is affected by what we value, the moral commitments we have. Again, from this side, we can’t completely “make up” facts, but even contemporary neuroscience affirms that what we actually “see” is affected by our commitments.
Oftentimes, it is good practice to ignore comment boxes (except at dotCommonweal, of course), but my concern was amplified by the comments that followed. The Times curates the comments, and so its “picks” rise to the top—and, astonishingly, most of the picks represent quite sane and rational responders who strongly reject the author’s claim, and who want very strongly to adhere to this distinction. As one commenter put it:
After reading many of the comments, it seems as though the great majority of the adults reading this blog don't believe in moral facts. And yet, many of them express this by vehemently claiming that McBrayer is WRONG to impose his view on others (implying that it is a moral fact that one shouldn't do this). Believing in moral facts allow us to call certain practices wrong. I believe slavery was and is wrong and that those who ever thought it was permissible had false beliefs—not just that we happened to change our feelings about it. One can believe in moral facts without being the moralistic monster many are claiming Professor McBrayer is (a judgment that seems to be based on the fact that someone apparently noticed he teaches philosophy of religion—an ad hominem if I've ever seen one). The extreme reactions here astound me.
Count me astonished, too. It is well-known that, with a depressing frequency, those on the far Right abandon reasoned discourse about what we should do; it is a supposed virtue that the political Left is more careful about these matters—say, on the economy or the environment. Yet here we have apparently well-educated Times readers displaying very fundamental irrationality. The great achievements of the Progressive Left in the last century—the New Deal, unionism, and civil rights—all sprang from quite firm moral convictions. And indeed, I still think many of these commentators in practice retain these convictions. What is alarming is that they reject a public discourse that could appeal to these moral commitments…at least as anything other than majoritarian preference.
What is going on? Another comment on the McBrayer piece might illustrate the problem:
Francis’ impending environment encyclical will be the Church event of the summer, but as we arrive at the Lenten season, taking stock of our own lives and choices seems timely. Our culture’s imbalances must be addressed at a systemic level… but that systemic change can’t happen without what Benedict called “a serious review of its lifestyle” that “is prone to hedonism and consumerism…. Every violation of solidarity and civic friendship harms the environment, just as environmental deterioration in turn upsets relations in society” (Caritas in Veritate, no. 51).
Finally free of the imperative of manuscript editing, I actually am reading. Nicholas Carr’s new book, The Glass Cage, is a worthy sequel to The Shallows. The earlier book was a brilliant telling of the neuroscience of our brains in using the internet…. As opposed to, say, reading. (yes, this is a blog post, blah blah…) The current book is an exploration of the automation of processes of all sorts, from factory processes to self-driving cars to decision-support software employed by doctors and lawyers.
Carr’s books are attractive because he avoids turning them into a polemic on one side or the other of these questions. He doesn’t think automation is inherently bad (Frankenstein) or inherently good (the techno-futurists); indeed, he gives a nice history which shows that excitement about machines and anxiety about them have gone hand in hand from their inception. His books are really more about understanding something thoroughly.
But with two lessons. One, Carr is adept at noting how “this time it’s different.” In The Shallows, he persuasively makes the case that the internet is not just another in a string of “media” advances, from writing to the printing press to the telegraph to the radio. The combination of the actual processes (and limits) involved in use and the physical capacities (and limits) of the human person shape what a given media technology can mean and be for us. The internet combines a pace of extraordinarily rapid inflow and a virtually-unlimited storage capacity. This differs from reading. In The Glass Cage, he is out to show that the current wave of automation is different because of its capacity to mimic not just human physical processes, but human thought processes. One of the key claims of the book is that the ability to mimic processes is not the same as replicating the processes themselves – Watson doesn’t answer a Jeopardy question the same way a human does, nor does “Doctor Algorithm” go about diagnoses in the same way a doctor does. In some ways, the ability to process massive amounts of data via algorithms and probabilities is great; in other ways, it is very different from human thought and action, and introduces a different set of “errors.”
Coming back to Chicago for Christmas means gatherings where I catch up with a lot of people. As someone who is a low-level Facebook user, I find it refreshing to hear “how things are going” in summary form.
Keeping up with all the news coming out of the Synod is a challenging task for those of us in the midst of a full load of fall classes. I’ll leave it to full-timers like Grant and Josh and others to provide the updates. But as a moral theologian with a great interest in sexual ethics, I can’t help but try to reflect on the significance of what is going on at the Synod, especially because of how refreshing it is to see the Church at work in serious, civil dialogue about very important issues, with leaders placing their cards on the table. Our American civic culture is painfully broken in terms of achieving such frank and serious dialogue; it is a great sign of life that the Church is achieving it (and a sign, I might add, that the episcopal appointments of John Paul II and Benedict XVI were not as uniform as is sometimes said!). (I’ll follow up with a couple more posts later this week that expand on the problem in a broader context, over at Catholicmoraltheology.com.)
Two key conceptualizations seem to be rising out of the discussion. On the one hand, some bishops have wanted to treat the problem in terms of a distinction between doctrine and pastoral practice. For example, Cardinal Dionigi Tettamanzi has suggested that one can imagine reception of the sacraments for those divorcved and remarried so long as “confusion is avoided about the indissolubility of marriage,” and Cardinal Wuerl has noted that “the reception of Communion is not a doctrinal position. It's a pastoral application of the doctrine.... Just to repeat the practice of the past without any effort to see whether there is some awareness, openness, influence of the Spirit that might be helping us in total continuity with our past practice to find a new direction today.”
On the other hand, Cardinals Schönborn and Marx have focused on a different concept, that of “gradualism.”
In a recent general audience, Pope Francis urged people to memorize the Beatitudes, a message he took so seriously that he read each one and ask the gathered crowd to repeat them back. But, as CNS reports:
One repetition of the text of the beatitudes is not enough to "remember them and impress them on our hearts," the pope said, so he gave the crowd "homework," asking them to spend time in the coming days reading the text again, from the Bible "you always should have with you."
Paul Griffiths’ plenary address at the CTSA (the full text is now available here) has raised many productive questions. Meghan Clark has responded that theology is messier than Griffiths suggests. Cathy Kaveny just posted a thoughtful comment indicating that the main issue is the CTSA as more “open” and “free-wheeling” than the ACT.
These analyses are on to something, and I would love to engage them in more detail, but I fear that it becomes easy to fall into a dualism—the inclusive liberals over here, the exclusive conservatives over there—that misses the central points of Griffiths’ talk. It is not primarily about tidiness versus messiness, nor about open discussion versus more narrow inquiry. It is an attempt to define more carefully what the enterprise of theology actually is, and thus delineate in more detail why there is contention over it.
Griffiths’ primary contention in the address is that many members of the CTSA do not have an adequate understanding of what Catholic theology is. He is not saying that their work is not intellectually able, and even “beautiful” (a word he uses)…the question he poses is whether it is Catholic theology. Hence, his primary metaphor of arguments between proponents of cricket and proponents of baseball—or the problems with inviting cricket teams to take part in the World Series. It’s not meant to be a point about cricket being worse than baseball…or better. The point is: cricket is one game, baseball is another. The implication: CTSA has people playing cricket and calling it baseball. Doing one thing (which is not theology), but calling it theology.
Karl Marx, in recounting the many horrors of the wretched conditions of 19th century British industrialism, sarcastically remarked, “Das ist der doux commerce!” Marx was critiquing the well-known idea that the rise of market economies had redirected human energies previously devoted to warfare into the more “gentle” (=doux) sphere of economic competition and acquisitiveness. The idea of le doux commerce was an idealized cover story. No one can doubt that rich barons trying to outdo one another in home furnishings is better than the battlefield. But the idea of economic competition as a systematic basis for a more peaceable society is far less compelling, once the whole picture of such a society is taken into account. The illusion of the cover story only survives if one ignores much of the picture.
Christianity is in many ways a faith that mercilessly exposes all of our cover stories. These cover stories are meant to comfort us, usually by telling us that our typical habits are commendable, or at least “not all that bad.” Sin is displaced onto a scapegoat, rather than being discovered and exposed in our own lives. Of course, Christianity can do this only insofar as it also preaches the always-greater power of God’s rich mercy. Christ crucified is the culmination of Jesus’ relentless truth-telling, while at the same time, is the promise of the greater power of perfect love. The prophetic Jesus and the forgiving Jesus are not Jekyll and Hyde, but instead are necessary complements for actual conversion and reconciliation. Without truth-telling, forgiveness is cheap or even unnecessary. Without forgiveness, truth-telling leads to despair or cynicism.
So it is disappointing that another idealized cover story for economic competition was recently forwarded, in the pages of the Wall Street Journal, by Cardinal Timothy Dolan: the idea of “virtuous capitalism.”
When I am discussing baseball players or musicians, I find it very appropriate and enjoyable to get into sparring matches about “who’s better?” Not so much with popes. And so personally, I find this dual canonization very gratifying. It gives us as a church an opportunity for gratitude, to say what it meant for these men to lead us.
I was minus-9 years old when Angelo Roncalli died. (So “I was not,” I supposed you could say.) But St. John XXIII fathered the Catholic world in which I grew up. Had there been no John XXIII, I suppose my Mass might still have been in Latin, my grade-school sisters in habits, and my lessons filled with the terrors of mortal sins and the dangers posed by associating with Protestants. It’s a counterfactual, so who really knows? It’s easy to stereotype (nostalgically or critically) “the pre-Vatican-II” church. All I know from my own experience is that John XXIII meant that I can never remember a time when somehow faith seemed like a museum piece, separate from life. Faith and life flowed together, in ways sometimes messy, sometimes deeply fruitful. I am grateful for that. I came to know John XXIII himself only in college, through stumbling across Peter Hebblethwaite’s biography. It was absorbing reading, the picture of the unlikely, kindly pope who surprised everyone and changed Catholicism. I later read the collection of “Xavier Rynne’s” columns from the Council itself, relishing how energetically and ingeniously the Church had made this huge step forward. And I read Pacem in Terris, a powerful, sweeping document that urged peace as a central mark of my college Catholic practice. Together with discovering Thomas Merton and Dorothy Day, I saw my Catholicism as this boundless, hopeful, challenging vision for the world.
My subsequent education happily demonstrated that Vatican II was not (and could not have been) a one-man show, as if it was the pope against everyone else. A couple generations of quiet innovation and careful (often ecclesially dangerous) work had gone on that made the Council’s achievements possible. But without John, there would have been no opportunity. John XXIII understood what many, then and now, do not quite get: the Church does not need to be paralyzed with fear, anxiety, and defensiveness. The Gospel is one of joy. As is fitting in this season of resurrection, we can embrace as John did the greeting of the Risen Christ: “Do not be afraid.”
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