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Monday, November 5, 2012


[I wrote the following essay in November 2006 as a companion to the work of John Joe Lakers, O.F.M., who uses his background in linguistic philosophy to argue for a moral discourse different from the one commonly assumed by Catholic authors.]

            In his now well-known lecture in September 2006 to an assembly of German academics at the University of Regensburg, Pope Benedict XV repeated a hope often voiced by his predecessor, John Paul II. The hope is that the Church be able to speak to present-day secular culture in new ways. In Benedict’s words, “. . .if reason and faith come together in a new way, . . . only thus do we become capable of that genuine dialogue of cultures and religions so urgently needed today.”

            Public reaction to the lecture centered on Benedict’s use of a quotation from a fourteenth century Byzantine emperor. The quotation accused Islam of being a religion of violence. The public reaction to the Pope’s quotation drowned out any discussion of the claims he made about reason and faith. However, Benedict chose to speak in an academic environment, and as an academic accustomed to discourse in such environments, I want to offer a critical reaction.

            Philosophical thinking since the time of Thomas Aquinas has moved in directions that call Aquinas’s synthesis into question. As Benedict himself noted in his lecture, the Franciscan John Duns Scotus already in the 14th century disagreed with Aquinas. Subsequent centuries saw Catholic philosophy develop in many directions away from Aquinas. It was only in the late 19th century that Pope Leo XIII raised Aquinas up as a model for Catholic philosophy, and baptized Aquinas’s thought as THE way Catholics ought to approach philosophy. Such a baptism hardly fits comfortably with the claim that philosophy should proceed totally without the light of revelation, in order that revelation might better be understood. The claim also sat uncomfortably with my own Franciscan seminary educators, who based their teaching on Scotus and his 14th century pupil, William of Ockham.       

            Leo’s baptism of Aquinas gave rise to the movement called “neo-scholasticism,” a movement that virtually disappeared after 1960. Secular philosophy, beginning already in the 17th century with RenĂ© Descartes and Thomas Hobbes, also moved away from medieval scholasticism. Modern thought has been shaped not only by those two figures, but also by writers such as Jean Jacques Rousseau, John Locke, Emmanuel Kant, Georg Hegel, Edmund Husserl, and Martin Heidegger. In social science, Karl Marx, Max Weber, Emile Durkheim, George Herbert Mead, Sigmund Freud, Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann, and the rest of the immense literature in sociology and psychology have implications for our thinking about the human person. Analytic philosophy, focusing on analysis of language, and the still more recent movement called postmodernism require response from thinking Catholics, and a response based on more than the thinking of one medieval philosopher-theologian who was known in his day for the courage to enter dialogue with the “pagan” philosophers, Plato and Aristotle.

            Any true dialogue with modern culture must be willing to include any and all secular authors in the conversation. The fact that Benedict ended his consideration of post-Aquinas authors with Duns Scotus suggests an ignorance of the culture that Benedict wants to engage. According to Lakers, Scotus was struggling to deal with problems not adequately dealt with by his predecessors. He was not able to reach a solution to those problems, but his struggle led to later developments that were not, as Benedict claims, sad deviations from a search for a truth already stated by Aquinas. The crux of the matter lies in the meanings of the concept of “reason.” Benedict wants to claim that “reason” must co-exist with faith (a point important to make in cultures where religious fundamentalism is increasing), and that reason is incompatible with violence. However, he goes on to say that “reason” means “Greek reason,” reason as enunciated by, Plato, Aristotle, and Aquinas. That reason must co-exist with faith has been a traditional Catholic position. That reason means Greek reason is, in today's world, inexcusably ethnocentric. That Greek reason means reason as enunciated by Plato, Aristotle, and Aquinas is not only ethnocentric but disregards over seven subsequent centuries of philosophical tradition.

            However, Lakers makes a deeper critique of Benedict's claim. According to him, postmodernist authors claim that “reason” is a fictitious term. That is, to use the concept of reason is to create a fictitious narrative, whose effect is to shut down further conversation.

            “Shutting down conversation” may seem to be an overstatement. No one today wants to be accused of doing that. But when authors claim that a statement is based on reason, the reader has only two choices: reject the claim, or accept the claim and fall silent.

            An example from present-day politics illustrates the point. Catholic pro-life theologians claim that their position on abortion law is based not on religious or denominational belief but on “natural law.” The term “natural law,” which is regarded by almost all social scientists as incompatible with a scientific outlook, creates a claim that an argument is based on reason. Having made that claim, pro-life politicians can only move to raw political power, claiming that, as citizens of a democracy, they have the right to try to influence public policy. I do not dispute the right of anyone to try to influence public policy. What I do dispute is the claim that the grounds for the pro-life position are self-evident, based on reason, and can only be rejected by people who are in bad faith.

            One could make a convincing argument against the pro-life political stance on the basis of the traditional neo-scholastic distinction between what can be known by reason without the aid of revelation, and what can be known only through revelation. For example, I may accept on faith the Church teaching that the human person is present from the first moment of conception. But I reject the claim that such a teaching can be known from reason without the aid of revelation. If the Church in this country were to acknowledge that its claim about personhood is not known by reason alone, it would be forced to quit accusing its opponents of bad faith, and would have to enter into discussion with them on the basis of reasoned discourse, all the while recommending that Catholics be guided by the official teaching.

            The claim that “reason” is a fiction implies a much deeper problem. At first glance it would seem to open moral discourse up to total relativism. Lakers argues that it does not. His argument requires an analysis of the nature of moral discourse, of the way that human beings use language to make moral claims on one another. Any moral claim, he says, is ultimately grounded in one of two metaphors: the metaphor of power and judgment, or the metaphor of intimacy.

            The metaphor of power and judgment assumes that a competent judge can declare a particular behavior to be wrong, and the individual who practices it must be punished. The alternate way is to assume that human beings relate to one another in the hope of realizing a life lived more fully. Lakers argues that such a full life can come only from intimacy, which he defines as involvement characterized by passion, respect, vulnerability, and faithfulness. The use of a metaphor of intimacy does not result in purely random outcomes. Those four criteria are demanding. But they do not settle for all times and places the course of action that the individual should pursue.

            The first reaction of Church teachers will certainly be that Lakers’s position is “situational”  ethics, condemned by the magisterium decades ago. Lakers too rejects situational ethics, arguing that it is just another appeal to “reason,” but an appeal that washes out most of the humanly significant aspects of interpersonal behavior. Since we are dealing with philosophy here, not theology, I cannot reject Lakers's ethics simply on the grounds that the magisterium has condemned it. I will need to know why it is to be condemned, and whether the magisterium has listened to my position. I will relate to the magisterium from a metaphor of intimacy, and I will expect it to relate the same way to me.

            It is true that we have not been doing things this way in the Catholic Church. But we have changed a lot of things that were once thought to be self-evident. Both Protestant and Roman Catholic theologians for centuries rejected as immoral the practice of charging interest on loans. By the 18th century both Protestant and Roman Catholic theologians, along with the magisterium, had found ways to legitimize the practice. The legitimation occurred because generations of the faithful acted on the basis of the intimate relationships that grow up between living human beings and gradually shape a new moral consensus.

            Today the behavior of Catholics in “western” societies has moved vast distances from the positions claimed by the magisterium. Poll data claim that over ninety percent of lay Catholics in the United States reject papal teaching on contraception, and there is survey evidence that nearly the same percentage of priests agree with the rejection. Simply re-affirming the teaching will not be any more successful than John XXIII’s decree (in the 1962 encyclical Veterum Sapientiae) that Latin should henceforth be the language of all philosophical and theological teaching in all Catholic seminaries throughout the world. Such behavior of the faithful is not always, as some Churchmen would claim, a symptom of a widespread loss of faith. Traditional theology referred to it as the sensus fidelium, the “sentiment of the faithful.”

           The claim that western societies are hopelessly corrupted by secularism, and that the future of the Church lies in Africa, Asia, and Latin America, is hardly a courageous confronting of the challenges posed by “modernity.” What will happen if and when the faithful in those regions acquire the affluence that characterizes western societies? The lion must be bearded in its den. If the Church cannot construct an argument for its moral positions that can at least dialogue with western secular cultures, it will have abandoned its claim that truth is one--that faith must co-exist with “reason.”

            In short, Lakers argues, the postmodernist critique of “reason” requires that morality be grounded in something other than the traditional moral claim that certain practices are intrinsically immoral and that their immorality can be known by reason alone. Using his background in linguistic philosophy, he builds an argument based on the metaphor of intimacy. Those behaviors which grow out of the metaphor of intimacy are moral; those which do not are immoral. This sounds very much like Paul's argument that the Law cannot save, or the gospels' statements that Jesus' central commandment is a commandment of love.

            In short, Catholic moral theology can no longer ground itself in the concept of “reason.” It must embrace the much messier, but also the much more demanding, use of the metaphor of intimacy in its moral discourse. Only through intimacy can human persons achieve the “fullness of life” that Christians see as the promise made to us by Jesus.