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Understanding and Debating the Theocratic Views of the U.S. Catholic Bishops

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So the tricky part for us as we live with the cultural conditioning of communication media that accentuate sound is to avoid both cyclic thinking associated with primary orality, on the one hand, and, on the other, a static sense of life associated with the interiorization of literacy and literate modes of thought as exemplified in the philosophic thought of Plato and Aristotle and Western philosophy generally, and, mutatis mutandi, in the Catholic tradition of theological thought, including the Catholic tradition of moral theory. In short, the Catholic tradition of theology, including moral theology, gravitates toward a static sense of life, which Lonergan refers to as a classicist world-view, which he differentiates from historical-mindedness.

The Catholic Bishops

As is well known, the Roman Catholic Church has a hierarchy. In general, not only military organizations have a hierarchy, but so do many other organizations for the purposes of decision making. In the Roman Catholic Church, the bishops hold key positions in the hierarchy. The pope is of course also a bishop, the bishop of Rome. The Vatican bureaucrats are also bishops. However, as the example of the pope shows, some bishops rank higher in the hierarchy than other bishops do. But when a given bishop is elevated to the rank of cardinal, for example, he does not cease being a bishop. Now, when he was in office, President George W. Bush famously said that he is the decider. In the Roman Catholic Church, the bishops are in effect the deciders.

Because Rob Kall likes to talk about bottom-up political action, we should note her that the Catholic bishops usually do not 100% squelch ideas that might come up from people other than the bishops themselves (e.g., theologians), but even in those cases when input from non-bishops is tolerated and considered by the bishops, the bishops are the deciders deciding what may and may not come up for them to decide about. Thus we should allow that the bishops do not represent 100% closed-systems thinking.

To be sure, the bishops usually do not advance cyclic thought as detailed by Eliade and others. But they definitely have a static view of church teaching (the word "doctrine" means teaching). In the nineteenth century the Catholic convert who became a cardinal, John Henry Newman, famously wrote about the development of doctrine. To be sure, there has at times been development of doctrine in the Roman Catholic Church, most recently at the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965).

But the Catholic bishops today have distinguished themselves by advancing ridiculous doctrines regarding sexual morality, including their debatable opposition to legalized abortion in the first trimester. With respect to those traditional doctrines, the bishops are conservative in the sense that they want to preserve the old doctrines.

Because the United States allows freedom of religion, the U.S. Catholic bishops are free to espouse their conservative theocratic views. Make no mistake about it, the Catholic bishops think that they have a monopoly on understanding the so-called "natural law." As a result, the bishops are going to sound theocratic. As I've indicated, I do not agree with their ridiculous views regarding sexual morality. But I have no problem with their being allowed to express their views of sexual morality in connection with electoral politics. As everybody in the United States knows, electoral politics involves debate. But the U.S. Catholic bishops are not accustomed to debate in public. For example, oftentimes, they claim that they are discussing "intrinsic evil" acts. This obviously loaded terminology seems to suggest that they think that their debatable claims are really not debatable. But of course their claims about supposedly "intrinsically evil" acts are debatable.

So here's what I would say to Rob Kall and others who may be understandably concerned about the seemingly theocratic bent of the U.S. Catholic bishops: Let them speak, but debate their ideas. For example:

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"You Catholic bishops say that artificial contraception is "intrinsically evil.' But I say that it is not "intrinsically evil.' You Catholic bishops are mistaken about this, as you are mistaken about certain other matters regarding sexual morality."

"You Catholic bishops say that you have figured out the so-called "natural law.' But I say that you have not figured out the "natural law' -- you are just inflating the importance of your claims by referring to the supposed "natural law.' You Catholic bishops do not have a monopoly on figuring out what is good and what is not."

"You Catholic bishops say that life begins at the moment of conception, the moment when sperm fertilizes an egg. But I say that only an infrahuman form of life begins at the moment of conception, whereas distinctively human life begins at the moment of ensoulment, which the U.S. Supreme Court has operationally defined as the moment when the fetus in the mother's womb become viable and is capable of living outside the mother's womb."

And so on.

Now, if the Catholic bishops were to turn to Ong's most thorough discussion of close-systems thinking versus open-systems thinking (see Ong's book INTERFACES OF THE WORD, mentioned above, pages 305-341), they might claim that Ong endorses standing firm about one's principles and that they are simply standing firm about their religious principles. I have no problem with allowing the Catholic bishops to claim that they are standing firm about their theocratic principles. However, their theocratic principles are themselves historically conditioned thought. For this reason, their principles are debatable, especially when the bishops use their principles to discuss political issues.

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Now, the Catholic bishops themselves may be too stubborn to change their historically conditioned moral principles. Nevertheless, other people should debate the bishops' claims when the bishops themselves use their moral principles to discuss civic issues publicly.

In summary, the Catholic bishops can be understood as having a bad case of the static sense of life that Ong has perceptively written about, but without ever explicitly referring to the Catholic bishops. Yes, to be sure, the Catholic bishops tend to be authoritarian because they are overly impressed with the authority structure in the Roman Catholic Church and with their place in that authority structure. As a result, they tend to sound theocratic when they enter into public debates about civic issues. But people who are concerned about their theocratic views such as Rob Kall should undertake to debate their theocratic views in the public arena.

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Thomas James Farrell is professor emeritus of writing studies at the University of Minnesota Duluth (UMD). He started teaching at UMD in Fall 1987, and he retired from UMD at the end of May 2009. He was born in 1944. He holds three degrees from Saint Louis University (SLU): B.A. in English, 1966; M.A.(T) in English 1968; higher education, 1974. On May 16, 1969, the editors of the SLU student newspaper named him Man of the Year, an honor customarily conferred on an administrator or a faculty member, not on a graduate student -- nor on a woman up to that time. He is the proud author of the book (more...)

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Why aren't more non-Catholic commentators debating... by Thomas Farrell on Sunday, Nov 18, 2012 at 10:23:09 AM
Because those on the Left are incapable of debatin... by Matthew Jacobs on Sunday, Nov 18, 2012 at 10:15:55 PM
If debate about positions of Catholic bishops is i... by Clifford Cobb on Sunday, Nov 18, 2012 at 10:24:39 PM
As a Kemetian I can not even begin to understand t... by Sekhmetnakt Frost on Sunday, Nov 18, 2012 at 2:34:38 PM
I might venture a educated guess as to why you can... by Matthew Jacobs on Sunday, Nov 18, 2012 at 10:00:34 PM
And that guess is what? I can see at least some lo... by Sekhmetnakt Frost on Sunday, Nov 18, 2012 at 10:21:11 PM
What you post is black or white, no grey, but life... by Matthew Jacobs on Monday, Nov 19, 2012 at 10:27:21 AM
Obviously you didn't read what I posted or you wou... by Sekhmetnakt Frost on Monday, Nov 19, 2012 at 1:35:24 PM
Trust me you have no Idea of what an attack from m... by Matthew Jacobs on Monday, Nov 19, 2012 at 2:19:59 PM
Nuff said. I will not be replying to a total fool ... by Sekhmetnakt Frost on Tuesday, Nov 20, 2012 at 12:16:00 AM
... by Matthew Jacobs on Tuesday, Nov 20, 2012 at 2:49:11 AM
the oc ra cy  |θ-"ˈäkrəs-"| nou... by Matthew Jacobs on Sunday, Nov 18, 2012 at 9:53:41 PM
Debating theocratic views with theocrats is a non ... by R. A. Landbeck on Monday, Nov 19, 2012 at 6:11:30 AM
"Dustbin or Oblivion"you say ? Only to be replaced... by Matthew Jacobs on Monday, Nov 19, 2012 at 10:13:25 AM
Even though I mentioned Rob Kall by name more than... by Thomas Farrell on Monday, Nov 19, 2012 at 7:28:19 AM
Thank You... by Matthew Jacobs on Monday, Nov 19, 2012 at 10:16:54 AM
In my article I stated that the Catholic bishops m... by Thomas Farrell on Monday, Nov 19, 2012 at 7:50:17 AM
...the Catholic Church has been in retrograde moti... by Richard Girard on Monday, Nov 19, 2012 at 5:05:44 PM
How can US Bishops change Church position on any g... by Matthew Jacobs on Monday, Nov 19, 2012 at 6:47:07 PM
An already demonstrably none too bright person com... by Sekhmetnakt Frost on Monday, Nov 19, 2012 at 1:44:57 PM
Oh my I think you're talking about me. I never cla... by Matthew Jacobs on Monday, Nov 19, 2012 at 7:03:39 PM
But that's about all. As I stated there is no "vac... by Sekhmetnakt Frost on Monday, Nov 19, 2012 at 11:59:18 PM