Thursday, June 10, 2010

The Real Men Who Eat Quiche


I have no desire to have the pope rise (or is it fall?) to the status of personal pet peeve. I am not his constituency, and he is not my leader. I could agree to live and let live. To the extent that he chooses to make the cultural forces of "the secular West" his enemy, and by decree, the enemy of his church, he is free to do so, and I will be one who agrees to wear the label of "secular Westerner."

My attention, however, is drawn to him and his pronouncements at those moments when he is making of secular Westerners a straw man, which it turns out he does quite inveterately.

In just his latest international outing, in Portugal, he said that "politicians, intellectuals, and communications professionals" profess and promote "a monocultural ideal, with disdain for the religious and contemplative dimension of life." So one has to be an atheist and unreflective to value the separation of church and state, or religious tolerance in the public sphere? while interreligious violence continues frequently to be the story they are reporting?

After writing recently about the Catholic Church and its ongoing sexual abuse scandal, I found myself fortunate to have a larger readership and to elicit more comment than my writing has ever previously enjoyed. To my surprise, my post was liberally copied and posted to other blogs, regional newspapers, and special interest websites. Among the comments were any number based in assertions that the Catholic Church continually puts out to the world--Rome's talking points, you might say--which unfortunately convey the distortions about secular people and those outside the Catholic Church that this pope has enunciated for the past several decades.

It seems important for a number of reasons to push back against what is not in fact a matter of divergent belief or values but rather simply untrue in these assertions. Untruth repeated over many years and never challenged becomes accepted as common knowledge or as consensus, when other points of view have the virtue of greater basis in the facts.

One of the pervasive refrains coming out of this pope and his apologists is that those who deviate from the church's "truth" are advocates or representatives of relativism, when this is not the case. There are among us the most serious of ethical thinkers. We are in fact mostly more Aristotelian ethicists while the pope is a more Platonic ethicist. We think that virtue lies in avoiding two dangers, relativism at one end and absolutism on the other. In Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics, virtue lies in the Golden Mean, between two less desirable extremes, deficiency and excess. For Plato, virtue lies in the pursuit of ideal form, which lies in another world, and which the world we know can only approximate in a very imprecise way (Plato's exact simile was that this world only roughly approximates ideal forms in the way shadows cast on the wall of a cave by figures in front of a fire only roughly resemble the figures that cast them.) The pope is more of an ethical Platonist in that he thinks what God demands morally, instead of any pragmatic balancing, is adherence to what might be envisioned as the ideal.

To an absolutist, anyone who doesn't agree with him is a dangerous relativist, and the hierarchy indulges frequently in drawing a caricature of those who don't share their view as proponents of "anything goes." The accusation that those who disagree with the pope think that morally "anything goes" is not at all intellectually honest; we are mostly not libertines or anarchists, we are just some variety of ethical Aristotelian where he is an ethical Platonist. We think there are dangers in the elevation of the absolute to a sacred position and the disregard, or at least the de-emphasis, of the pragmatic good. We think condoms used in the service of saving life in the midst of an AIDS epidemic easily trump an ideal of all sexual acts being open to procreation, and we think the elevation of that ideal over the actual sum of its effects in the world here and now is an example of cruelty born of absolutism.

Natural law theory of the Scholastic period claimed to carry the mantle of Aristotle while in fact building mostly on Platonism, with the assertion that God's intended purpose for man--the other-worldly ideal that Plato said was projected dimly onto our current worldly existence--could be ascertained rationally from the evidence available to us--a sort of approachable limit, to use an analogy from calculus that helps unify Plato's conception of the world as dimly lit with a religious quest for moral certainty. Plato exerts a great deal of pull on Christians, who are attuned to the scriptural words of Jesus about his Father's otherworldly house where he was going to prepare a room for them. Yet even ethicists more sympathetic to Plato than to Aristotle would question whether new evidence is allowed to change, over time, our conclusions about the laws nature reveals. Is modern psychology allowed to have a say about man's transit on this Earth, or are we locked into what Thomas Aquinas knew in 1274? The Catholic Church, unlike fundamentalist Protestantism, at least allows that God's revelation to man is ongoing, rather than privileged to the words of holy scripture. But the two are similar in raising a cry of heresy or relativism when anyone attempts to stretch the outlines of tradition to accommodate new conclusions about the rightful purpose of man. The differences between an Aristotelian approach to ethics and a Platonic or Scholastically-adapted Platonic one should not be minimized. The conception of the good lying in the middle between extremes is in fact opposite to a concept of the good lying in an ideal that exists at a far limit. What it is not is an assertion that "anything goes."

It is ironic that the charge of relativism should come up in the midst of a discussion about the church and the scandal of sexual abuse. It takes a fairly tin ear not to hear that the more absolute moral censure of pedophile priests is coming from the church's critics, who are less willing than the hierarchy or the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith to balance an old priest's desire to "die with the dignity of his priesthood" against the cry of his victims for justice or even for significant consequences. Perhaps the hierarchy is truly surprised to find itself in a struggle for the upper hand against critics who take it to task for it's moral failures while maintaining a tolerant attitude themselves toward some things Rome ever since Aquinas has seen as outside of natural law. But the argument put forth that the critics of the church's response to the sexual abuse crisis are ultimately looking to score points for their permissive and indulgent world view because this pope has castigated them for the last three decades is an astonishing bit of sophistry that is fairly insulting to the victims of clerical abuse. Just maybe, they're actually ticked off about the way the effects of the abuse have been persistently and pervasively minimized. Blaming their critics for being relativists is so habitual for this church leadership, it doesn't matter how poorly their canard fits the situation at hand.

While the pope makes of secular Westerners a straw man, he mostly makes of homosexuals a bogey man. His assertion that children raised by a gay couple would be subject to a "great violence" because "their condition of dependency would be used to place them in an environment that is not conducive to their full human development" is supported only by tautological arguments (gay parents cannot promote full development because only heterosexual couples can promote full development). After meeting privately with newly elected Pope Benedict XVI in 2005, Cardinal Alfonso López Trujillo, at that time President of the Pontifical Council for the Family, said of gay couples, "In these unions there are no promises for the partners or for the children, no stability, nothing before society or God, but they demand all the benefits of authentic marriage." This fervent derision is unfortunately impervious to actual evidence. Turn on the light, open the closet doors, look under the bed--homosexuals are still the bogey man because Benedict and his friends say we are.

Meanwhile, the general public for the most part decides, once they actually know gay people, that gay people are frighteningly...well, a lot like them. Justice Lewis Powell joined the majority of the United States Supreme Court and provided the swing vote in the 1986 Bowers vs. Hardwick decision, in which Justice Byron White, writing for the majority, stated that any claim that a right for homosexuals to engage in consensual adult sex in the privacy of their own homes is implicit in the concept of ordered liberty is, "at best, facetious." Four years later, retired from the court, Powell described his vote in that case as "probably a mistake." What religion did he get in the short intervening span? It may or may not have been the experience that converts so many to the view that homosexuals are deserving of equality, which is first-hand experience with particular individuals who are gay.

I harbor some degree of utopian fantasy (I am not deluded into thinking it's anything else) that the pope could not maintain his perspective and say the things he does if he actually came to know me, the life I live, and the work that I do. At a formative age, I really took to heart Thomas Merton's writings about contemplation as the way to give action depth, and action as a means of giving expression to contemplation. My ideas about God and church changed, but I hardly became materialistic or pursued a life lacking in meaning or in hope, as the pope would have us believe about secular people. And in my chosen line of work I have learned, sadly, a great deal about environments not conducive to children's full development--they exist in such abundance that one does not need to go looking for them where they don't exist. There is enough true evil and horror in the world, one does not need to populate it with fictional bogey men. But alas, to Benedict, a straw man and a bogey man are what I remain.