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The Supposed "Timeless Truths" Advanced by the Catholic Bishops

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Duluth, Minnesota (OpEdNews) December 1, 2012: In one of his interviews published at OpEdNews, Rob Kall expressed his concern about views advanced by the U.S. Catholic bishops in public debate regarding civic and legal issues in the United States. He characterized their views as "theocratic" (his term).

But the term "theocratic" can also be used to characterize views advanced by certain non-Catholics on the Christian right. However, non-Catholics on the Christian right usually base their theocratic claims on their understanding and interpretation of the Christian Bible.

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By contrast, the views advanced by the U.S. Catholic bishops regarding sexual morality are usually not based exclusively on the Christian Bible. Instead, their views are usually based on the Catholic tradition of thought known as "natural law" moral theory, in which straightforward philosophic reasoning may be supplemented at times with theological understanding.

One of the favorite mantras of the Catholic bishops and their Catholic apologists involves the claim about supposedly "timeless truths." But are there timeless truths? Roman Catholic bishops, including the bishop of Rome, and many of their Catholic apologists claim that there are timeless truths and that the bishops somehow have a special monopoly of figuring out what the timeless truths are. This special monopoly supposedly comes with the territory of Catholic bishops, who imagine that they are successors of the apostles of Jesus. The Catholic bishops often claim that they have figured out certain supposed timeless truths by using reason alone, not by using supposed divine revelation based on interpreting the Christian Bible. When they make the claim to be using reason alone to figure out certain supposed timeless truths, they are using the Catholic understanding of so-called "natural law" moral theory.

Now, the claim made by the bishops to have figured out certain supposed timeless truths contrasts sharply with the so-called marketplace of ideas. The bishops do not see themselves and their supposed timeless truths as competing in the so-called marketplace of ideas. On the contrary, they see their supposed timeless truths as existing in a realm that is independent of the so-called marketplace of ideas. Granted, Catholic apologists might undertake to refute ideas from the marketplace of ideas. But this exercise in Catholic apologetics is designed to reinforce the idea that certain truths that the bishops claim are timeless truths are indeed truly superior to any ideas advanced in the marketplace of ideas. End of story.

Now, we might wonder what could be the opposite of timeless truths. For example, we might wonder if there may be non-timeless truths (i.e., truths that we do not claim to be timeless truths), which presumably would be time-bound truths, as distinct from timeless truths.

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Let us consider the expression that Thomas Jefferson used in the Declartion of Independence: "We hold these truths to be self-evident."

As a thought experiment, let us imagine that he had written instead, "We hold these timeless truths to be self-evident." However, because he did not actually write this, we could argue that the truths he went on to articulate are time-bound truths, not timeless truths. Indeed, I, for one, would argue that he did articulate time-bound truths based on Western cultural conditioning up to his time, which still continues to be our Western cultural conditioning up to the present time. But Western cultural conditioning is not the same as the cultural conditioning in non-Western parts of the world, so it is not exactly surprising that the import of the self-evident truths that he articulated has not always and everywhere made inroads in non-Western parts of the world down to the present time.

First of all, let us note that the wording "We hold" seems to allow that the truths referred to are contingent, even though we are claiming that they are indeed truths and that they are indeed self-evident truths. But the wording "We hold" seems to acknowledge that not everybody holds these truths to be self-evident. Thus the word "We hold" seems to invite a parting of the ways between those people who voluntarily join in holding these truths and thereby voluntarily make themselves part of the "We" in the subject slot of the sentence, and those people who do not hold these truths to be self-evident. In effect, the wording "We hold" advertises the contingency of the truths that are proclaimed.

By contrast, when the Catholic bishops and Catholic apologists claim that the Catholic bishops have used reason alone to figure out timeless truth of the so-called "natural law," they usually mean that the supposed timeless truths are not contingent. This is why the supposed timeless truths advanced by the Catholic bishops are supposed not to be part of the marketplace of ideas. In the view of the Catholic bishops, the marketplace of ideas is for contingent and time-bound truths, as distinct from their supposedly timeless truths as well as the personalist and subjectivist dimension of holding these supposedly self-evident truths. After all, if these truths are supposedly self-evident, then why should we have to hold them? Are there people who deny that these are self-evident truths? If there are, then it would appear at the very least that these truth are not self-evident to the people who do not hold them.

Now, in the Catholic thought-world of the Catholic bishops, everything in the secular marketplace of ideas that is not in compliance with their supposed timeless truths represents contingency and relativism. Thus the Catholic bishops and their Catholic apologists imagine that their supposed timeless truths are somehow above and beyond and free of contingency and relativism. From their standpoint, they imagine contingency and relativism not to be good. By contrast, they imagine their supposed timeless truths to be good.

We might note that many of their supposed timeless truths do not seem to be winning over the hearts and minds of many non-Catholics. We might also note that some of the supposed timeless truths advanced by the Catholic bishops do not seem to be winning over the hearts and minds of certain American Catholics. For example, many American Catholics are evidently not persuaded by the supposed timeless truths that the bishops have deployed to ban artificial contraception on the grounds that it is supposedly intrinsically evil.

Once the Catholic bishops have claimed that their supposed timeless truths lead them to conclude that something is intrinsically evil, they are not likely to change their position. In this regard, the bishops are going to join the spirit of Thomas Jefferson's statement suitably paraphrased to fit the bishops' claim: "We Catholic bishops hold certain truths to be timeless truths."

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Next, I want to discuss the imagery involved in the expression "timeless truths." As I mentioned in passing above, the imagery involved in this expression seems to suggest that certain statements of propositions (i.e., predications of a supposed truth) are somehow above time and free of time and thereby of all contingency associated with time.

But why would the claim that certain supposed truths (i.e., predications of specific truths) sound more appealing to certain people by also claiming the truth in question is supposedly timeless? Put differently, why would the supposed quality of timelessness make the supposed truth in question sound more appealing? When Catholics live in a Catholic thought-world, do they like to imagine that they are somehow living in a timeless thought-world, even as they walk and talk in the non-timeless everyday world?

But isn't the supposed timeless Catholic thought-world of the Catholic bishops and their Catholic apologists an alternative reality?

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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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