Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Judgment and wrongdoing

In response to my suggestion that the Reformation was ultimately the product of evil acts, Tim Enloe replies:

Now I understand that it's much worse: in your view the Reformers were actually EVIL men inventing things from scratch to justify an EVIL program of OBVIOUS rebellion from God.

Because I think this stems from a serious error that has created conflict even among Catholic apologetics, this point bears some clarification. I don't think it is obvious, and I think you have taken me amiss because of a mistake that has caused similar conflict among Catholic apologists. One must distinguish objective wrong from subjective culpability. I don't think that what they did wrong was obviously wrong in the sense of some rationally self-evident mistake. They might well have thought that they had good reasons for what they did. Certainly, many people do things that appear to be right given the situation as it appeared to be that turned out not to be.

Take the Hiroshima situation that Dave Armstrong has discussed with other Catholics. I think Shawn McElhinney has articulated some good reasons why someone might have reasonably believed that it was absolutely necessary for the defense of innocent lives, so that it wasn't obviously contrary to reason to drop the atomic bombs in those particular circumstances. I also think that with the perspective of hindsight, one can recognize that there were other ways, better ways, to accomplish the end, so that while it was a legitimate matter of prudential judgment (since having nuclear weapons is not per se immoral, meaning that there are conceivable cases when they might be used), it was nonetheless unwise. One could speak of bombing Hiroshima and Nagasaki as objectively evil acts of imprudence, not wrong in principle but in application to that set of concrete circumstances. They are mixed with particular goods, not in absolute opposition to moral principle. In another example, the papal curia also considered the invasion of Iraq imprudent, but given that it has been done, they do not recommend pulling out of the country either. In each case, the decision reveals the limitations of the ability of human beings to perceive the underlying order and reason, the good to which all things are ordered.

We can grasp truth in a truly meaningful way with respect to the universal principles of natures themselves, although we don't even grasp those comprehensively. Thus, for example, there are universal moral principles derived immediately from human nature that should be clear from human reason, like the prohibitions on the deliberate murder of innocents or same-sex "marriage." Absent some sort of cognitive defect, these require at least some culpable, directed effort to deny what people know immediately from their experience of humanity and natural reason, so the act of will behind them is more purely directed against good per se. But there are other cases where the matter may be self-evident only to the wise (requiring good habits of rational judgment) or not self-evident at all (requiring prudential judgment in the application). Even matters of intrinsic evil are not always "easy cases," since intrinsic evils as theft, deportation, and torture may require case-specific judgments in their very nature. In mixing with the particulars, our knowledge becomes less and less certain, our judgments more and more dependent on habit and practice, since we cannot entirely grasp all of the relevant circumstances according to universal moral principles. In such cases, there are natural human limits to what we can know of particular events and our capacity to act in those situations, so we are acting not directly against a principle but against the order of the goods in their particular circumstances. And only God fully knows the ways in which all things are ultimately ordered to the good. That is why free will and evil, and to some extent even the acting person himself, inevitably remain mysterious to us; they are matters that only God can comprehend.

So if you're the leader of Israel hearing the jeremiad, and you don't have Jeremeiah's experience of God, it likely requires far more virtue for you to heed God's Word even than Jeremiah. To let your nation be destroyed on the word of a prophet would require a level of trust that would be well beyond the grasp of most people, and it is entirely understandable why a ruler could erroneously rationalize rejecting the Word of God that came upon Jeremiah. And even Jeremiah himself would rather have been dead than to have to do what the Lord commanded him (Jer. 20), so his own perception of the good was limited in its own way. Those limited ways of thinking produce wrong answers in the objective sense, because our capacity to perceive the order of the universe is limited. If it's your son on the altar, do you bring the knife down on him?

In some ways, one feels compelled not to blame people for these sorts of errors. What can you expect, after all? They did what seemed good, and it probably was good in some limited sense. But it is evil nonetheless, contrary to the order of the universe though accidentally mixed with some good. We should surely have mercy on those who "do not know their right hand from their left" (Jonah 4:11), not in such a way that we deny the error, but that we acknowledge the error as the basis for their need of mercy. And these acts are evil because the entire state of ignorance and confusion is the result of the original sin, because our relationship with God is broken, and because we have often rejected even what opportunities we have. That's why sin is inevitable absent grace; we can't perceive goods in their particular integrity within the cosmic order. Only divine grace can place us in perfect conformity with the divine will that produces such cosmic order.

As Scott Carson points out, the real purpose of prayer is that we might have the perspective to will the good that God wills for in everything. Jesus's prayer at Gethsemane thus becomes more poignant, acknowledging His own weakness and His own inability to perceive the good in His own destruction. It is entirely natural for Him not to will His own death, and He truly does not will that destruction for its own sake. But He is willing to lay His life down of His own accord (John 10:18) for the good that His Father wills in everything, calling this the reason that the Father loves Him (John 10:17). It is that ability to will something for its own sake but to abandon it for the sake of the greater good that distinguishes heroic virtue from ordinary virtue. It is one thing entirely to will the good that you know, but it is another thing to will a good that one cannot possibly comprehend except on the strength of one's relationship with God, who transcends limitations. That's why self-defense is a good thing, but martyrdom for the faith is cause for sainthood.

Suffice it to say that I view the Reformation the same way. They acted out of mundane virtue, when supernatural virtue is what is required to do God's will voluntarily, so what they did was disordered and evil. There is cause for greater sympathy in that the Reformers believed they were being led by the Holy Spirit on account of some dubious prophecies that they shouldn't have followed. It was understandable given the apocalyptic mysticism that influenced them, but given the survey of Christian history, it seems to be inconsistent with the judgment of Tradition and the model of the Saints. I do not judge them harshly, because they were limited men and they acted in limited ways, as well all do without grace. But they did not display heroic virtue, and even their martyrdom was not sacrifice to a Christian calling, but only a mundane one. They were, in the end, probably the best sort of men that humanism can aspire to produce, but grace aspires even beyond that. Either their calling was not Christian or, if it was, they failed to heed it. It was in the end a humanist movement, and its fruit has been humanist fruit, for good or ill.


At 7:52 PM, Blogger Tim Enloe said...

As much sense as your argument no doubt makes within a Catholic framework, I think we're approaching the issue from utterly incompatible first principles of government and what the duties of subordinates are when the government consistently, persistently, and culpably subverts the purpose for which it was established by God.

I understand why Catholics believe that monarchy is the divinely-instituted order of the universe. But Catholics (note this clarification) who imagine that monarchy is utterly unaccountable on this earth before the eschaton have only part of the ancient tradition about monarchy: they exalt the part about the intrinsic goodness of rule by one, but conveniently forget the part about the intrinsic evil of the nearly inevitable declension of monarchy into gross tyranny.

Now I'd love to wax as vigorous and eloquent as you often have in your polemics against the Reformed (in fact, I did so wax in a couple of paragraphs that I am deliberately leaving out of this post), but I'm just so sick of gnostic internet controversies that I'm going to muzzle it and go on about my business.

At 8:59 PM, Blogger Tim Enloe said...

I suppose I can say without too much rhetorical waxing that for me the paramount issue in evaluating the Reformation is the utter and despicable pastoral failure of the Church for the better part of a century and a half prior to the Reformation. Paul warned that savage wolves would invade the very episcopate, and much of the Reformation debate turns precisely on what is or is not supposed to be done when the wolves get in under cover of shepherds and start preying on the sheep.

The best of Catholic scholarship and ecumenal theological endeavor understands these realities and exhibits a sense of responsibility for it and willingness to repent. It's only the besieged Internet lay "apologists," constantly breathing fire and brimstone about the latest calumnies of out to lunch "anti-Catholics," who are themselves out to lunch on the basic issues while yet paradoxically thinking they are wise and occupying the moral highground.

I love the recent Luther movie's portrayal of the young monk's first visit to Rome. The scene of the pathetic wretches dragging themselves up the stairs after paying the exorbitant fees for forgiveness to heartless bureaucrats in habits impatiently tapping on the money boxes ought to burn itself into the minds of every Catholic before they swagger out onto the Internet pontificating with cold intellectualism about "rebels" and "disordered" actions. In that context, Luther's sola fide was the only proper response, and damn that bloodthirsty Italian warlord masquerading as Peter's successor.

I do apologize to those "conservative" Catholics insufficiently-tutored in the long, painful history of Western ecclesiastical reform, but the Council of Trent came about s century and a half too late for most of the victims of the disgusting predators who had been running the Church into the ground for many, many decades while hiding behind their succession lists and outward religious trappings.

At 10:15 PM, Blogger Dave Armstrong said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

At 10:58 PM, Blogger Richard Froggatt said...

I've heard it said many times that the bible is God's gift to us.
And on the flip side of that I've heard the argument that the bible can't be trusted because it was written by sinful men.

The argument against the Church (which Catholics believe is more than God's gift, it is Christ's body)on the basis of the sins of men seems to me to be the same kind of argument.

I wish I could applaud the Reformation (I used to) as being something good; but how can I? I'm not convinced of the doctrines and it seems to have only brought disunity. And I'm not speaking of unity of doctrine (which would be nice) but the unity that is the Mass; communion with the body and blood of Jesus.


At 11:00 PM, Blogger Richard Froggatt said...

The link was a Google search for "the bible is God's gift" with the quotation marks.

At 12:44 AM, Blogger Dave Armstrong said...

Recently a certain someone argued that James Swan's Luther research was way better than my own. Here is a pathetic example of the former, from a Swan radio appearance in August:


Host Chris Arnzen: "Did he [Luther] actually, though, have a hand in the execution of Anabaptists?"

James Swan: "No. No, absolutely not. No."

Chris Arnzen: "Really? See, that's another one [Luther myth] I keep spreading. I will stop doing that."


This is pure myth; fiction; fantasy. For the documentation from Bainton and Luther's Works and a 1536 memorandum cited by Catholic historian Johannes Janssen, see my latest paper:

At 11:01 AM, Blogger CrimsonCatholic said...

I suppose I can say without too much rhetorical waxing that for me the paramount issue in evaluating the Reformation is the utter and despicable pastoral failure of the Church for the better part of a century and a half prior to the Reformation.
I do apologize to those "conservative" Catholics insufficiently-tutored in the long, painful history of Western ecclesiastical reform, but the Council of Trent came about s century and a half too late for most of the victims of the disgusting predators who had been running the Church into the ground for many, many decades while hiding behind their succession lists and outward religious trappings.

I suppose this is a different view of the matter, because for a Catholic, this is the equivalent of saying that God showed up a century and a half too late. The basic understanding is that God's providential control in these matters is such that whatever misery the Church suffers is God's punishment for failure to conform to His will. It's just a different way of looking at the suffering of the Church as intended by God. In that perspective, BOTH the bad rulers AND the Reformers themselves were punishment from God intended to purify the Church from sin and worldliness, and so they did. One can say "what about those poor people who suffered so much?" But one can say the same thing about every mean wretch who has suffered in the millennia of human history.

We don't criticize God for failing to save people from this circumstance; rather, we thank Him that He eventually did. That's why salvation is grace and not debt. God has no obligation to save the Church from wallowing in sin, from people suffering misery for centuries under the oppression of evil men. The assumption is that there ought to be some way of "checking" monarchs and "correcting" this misery, but the fact that there isn't is precisely what makes the salvation of the Church (and of us all) entirely dependent on grace.

Until we realize that all is hopeless, that literally nothing can be done to alleviate the misery of the Church unless God sees fit to bless the Church with a good Father, then we don't realize the depth of our circumstance. In Catholicism, ecclesiology and soteriology are one and the same, and just as the Christian is saved only insofar as He is given grace, so is the Church entirely dependent on grace for its operation. You pray for God to raise up a good leader by grace; you don't take it upon yourself to rebel against the leader that He actually sent you. In the mundane political realm, it might not work that way, but in the Church insofar as it is Church (viz., in the real of religion), that's how it works. An abusive father can be resisted for his own sake, but God's judgment on you through evil men must be suffered. And as I said, it takes supernatural virtue to recognize that one ought to sacrifice the temporal good for the sake of God's unknowable, eternal purpose. The instinctive reaction is to resist evil, but sometimes, God's priority for the good is different than your own.

Look at the sexual abuse scandal. Suffering under the leadership of the same men who allowed this abomination, who are now paying ridiculous amounts of money to protect their own hides, is hardly sensible or wise from the temporal perspective. My archbishop is Roger Cardinal Mahony, described in the media as the "Teflon Cardinal" for his ability to slide out from under any reponsibility for the scandal. My bishop faced contempt charges for sending a priest under investigation for sexual abuse charges to Canada for "treatment." But unfortunately, they are the people that God saw fit to ordain to their respective positions, and I have to accept that. I don't get to pick my bishop, my metropolitan, or my Pope. I can only pray for God to send good men and live with it when He doesn't. From the perspective of worldly wisdom, that is "complacency" or even "negligence." I can't disagree or even expect you to understand; it is thoroughly alien to anything in this world. But if you want to understand the Catholic way of thinking, it is that the Church comes from God's will and grace alone.

At 12:47 PM, Blogger Dave Armstrong said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

At 2:12 PM, Blogger Tim Enloe said...

Well, Jonathan, you're certainly advocating a view of the relationship of government and governed that has a long, distinguished line of Catholics defending it. I can't fault you on that point. But that doesn't change the simple fact that the broader Western tradition can't be reduced to the one-sided reading that Catholicism (if I may generalize from said long, distinguished line) has chosen to adopt. Even the pagan Romans, whose ethos has in so many ways transferred forward into Catholicism and been to varying degrees Christianized, recognized that the authority of government was not absolute. You may have a point about not becoming excessively sentimental about human suffering, but at the same time I remain entirely unpersuaded that the best response in the face of immense and enormously protracted suffering is to be like some Christian Marcus Aurelius and act like Stoic pietas in the face of crushing, grinding, maiming potestas overcomes all need to fight for equitas. Even Aquinas says that authority under God isn't absolute, and that resistance to it is permissible under certain conditions.

What "conservative" Catholics need to do to show some of that intellectual responsibility you frequently chide Protestants for not having is to have a better theory than Cajetan's about how to deal with unjust government. It's easy for a fat and sassy Cardinal who only has to deal with verbal insults to his honor to sit and write that when a despicable tyrant runs the world you just have to piously pray to God to take him away before he wrecks the ship. It's quite another thing to be a pastor on the frontlines watching your people living in abject spiritual poverty and dying without a hope in the world, watching the ship foundering because the godless wretch at the helm has already run it into the iceberg, to sit and be Stoics. In the latter case, it can't be done, and shouldn't be done. That, I would argue, would be truly evil.

At any rate, as I am exceedingly weary of the Internet (a feeling that has been growing for a long time), I am in the process of withdrawing nearly all of my active presence online. As much as I'd like to keep reading and interacting with Catholics such as yourself and Dr. Liccione, at this time I just can't. After this post, I'm done with pretty much all Internet discussion fora for a long, long time. Thanks for your patience with me over the last few years.

At 2:15 PM, Blogger Tim Enloe said...

Dave, as I'm getting off the Internet in terms of active operations, you don't have to worry about me adding more sins to the immense list you have on me already.

Tell you what: send me an e-mail telling me what you want me to do so that the hatchet can be buried between us once and for all, and if it's not utterly unreasonable or outside of my power to do it, I'll do it.

At 2:19 PM, Blogger Tim Enloe said...

Oops, Dave, I forgot to give my address. tgenloe at "gee mail" dot com. I trust you can decode that.

At 6:09 PM, Blogger Dave Armstrong said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

At 12:17 AM, Blogger Dave Armstrong said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

At 12:19 AM, Blogger Dave Armstrong said...

This comment has been removed by the author.


Post a Comment

<< Home