Freedom and Obedience

Brian McDaniel, the blogger at Ora et Labora, has been spearheading an effort to put together an electronic petition of 4000 “signatures” in support of the decision by the Board of Trustees of the University of San Diego (a Catholic university) to rescind its offer of a senior, chaired position to radical heterodox theologian Rosemary Radford Reuther. I have signed the petition and I hope that others will as well, but the issue raises the question of what the relationship is supposed to be at a Catholic University between academic freedom and obedience to Church teaching.

I hope I can be forgiven if I begin with an anecdote. When I was still a relatively fresh convert to the Roman Catholic Church, I attended meetings of the local Legion of Mary. At the time I was only 27, which made me roughly 30 years younger than the next youngest person in attendance. One member was a very kindly woman who had lived in France most of her life and spoke with a soft voice and a beautiful French accent. The group had a discussion one evening of the banality of the hedonistic popular culture that surrounded us (hey, it was the 80s, man, not like now when everyone is so deep) and she clicked her tongue and said that the people who scoff at Christianity and the calling to holiness that it entails have no idea of the freedom that comes with abandoning oneself to God’s law. That idea–that abandonment to a certain mode of life in which one’s choices are constrained by certain principles constitutes a kind of freedom–has stuck with me ever since.

To remain faithful to the truth would appear to be the duty of every Christian at the very least, and I imagine that professors who teach the truth are doing their jobs a little better than professors who teach what is not true. Famously there are professors who think that the notion of “truth” is relative at best and outmoded at worst, but ironically it is precisely those professors who think that truth is relative who ought to be committed to the idea that the nature of truth is determined by the context within which the concept is invoked, and within the context of a Catholic university the concept of truth is decidedly realist in nature, and not the least bit relativistic or outmoded. So it seems to me that, especially if you’re a relativist about truth, you have to admit that, well, when in Rome….

It is here that the comment of my erstwhile Legionary companion seems apropos to me. Academic freedom, like any sort of freedom, is very important, but its importance lies in how it is defined. We do not value any and every freedom simply by virtue of its being an instance of freedom. We do not value, for example, the freedom to shoot at random passersby from our bedroom window, or the freedom to molest little children while they are sleeping. Some freedoms can be valued in one framework though not in another. Within the framework of Islam, for example, the freedom of men to take up to four wives is valued; within the framework of American culture, however, this is not viewed as a freedom to be valued. Similarly, to teach literally any and every theologoumenon as though deserving of equal intellectual respect may be a freedom that can be tolerated within certain institutions, but it simply cannot be tolerated within the framework of Catholicism, since the Church claims for herself the right to stand as final arbiter of which theologoumena are demanding of our assent. Colleges and universities that self-identify as Catholic in this country have long enjoyed the benefits of academic freedom that have not always been available in other countries, but Americans in particular ought to be sensitive to the need for accuracy in advertising. If you want to pass yourself off as a Catholic institution, you’d better offer something Catholic, or the marketplace is going to make mincemeat out of you, and that appears to be the message that the board of trustees is trying to send to the University of San Diego, where the faculty were, predictably, irate that a board of non-academic poltroons would have the temerity to intervene in an apparently academic decision.

It’s rather curious that Reuther was offered the chair in the first place. She is one of a shrinking number of “celebrity scholars” whose fame hangs principally on their willingness to say idiotic things. Peter Singer of Princeton, for example, has made a name for himself by advocating a version of utilitarianism that is so radical that he can’t think of any reasons to prefer the life of a severely disabled human being to that of a fully abled dog. Reuther’s views, a rather boring laundry-list of activist positions from the late 60s and early 70s, can hardly hope to compete in a marketplace of ideas that has, by now, seen just about everything, and indeed her views now seem downright old-fashioned compared to others that are on offer. It is perhaps a sign of her waning influence that semester-long offers at USD are the best that she can hope for.

14 Responses

  1. Well Scott, RRR gives me hope. If she can get a job at her age, and with all the nonsense she has spouted, then I can certainly get one. I’m younger and spout less nonsense. The only problem is that I don’t publish a lot of nonsense that was once fashionable. I guess I don’t know how to achieve fame and fortune that way.

    Of course I will sign the petition. In the meantime, there’s a growing number of newer Catholic institutions out there which are truthful in advertising. And I know there’s a market for them: they seem to have no trouble getting students or, I’m afraid to say, filling faculty positions in philosophy and theology.😉

    Best,
    Mike

  2. Coming to the Catholic Church from Episcopalianism, I was struck by the extent to which Catholicism is in a state I will call “normal Christianity,” by analogy with Thomas Kuhn’s “normal science,” while in the Episcopal Church the paradigm was contested at every turn by positions that were often not even recognizably Christian. Catholics, by virtue of submission to the Magisterium, enjoy a common language of faith to an extent that Episcopalians simply don’t; and that common language carries with it a vast freedom to be a Christian community encompassing people who really have very little in common aside from Christ and his Church.

    This is, of course, a subjective rather than a definitive account. I realize that the causalities run a good deal deeper than I’ve said.

    Nor am I unaware that the Catholic Church, like every other Christian body, has its full share of people who teach things every bit as rebellious as the wackos among the Episcopalians. The difference is that, in the Catholic Church, you can pretty much tell who’s inside the boundaries of the conversation and who’s going off to be a theological crank. In Kuhnian terms, the paradigm is working. In the Episcopal Church, by contrast, you can’t figure out what the common ground of conversation is; the paradigm is in crisis, and seems highly unlikely to emerge except by institutional fission.

    I think that that gift of common language (and its consequent freedom to form real communion) is a distinctly underappreciated gift that God gives us through the Pope and the Magisterium.

    Peace,
    –Peter

  3. Similarly, to teach literally any and every theologoumenon as though deserving of equal intellectual respect may be a freedom that can be tolerated within certain institutions, but it simply cannot be tolerated within the framework of Catholicism, since the Church claims for herself the right to stand as final arbiter of which theologoumena are demanding of our assent.

    I’m hoping to set aside questions of the scholar’s credentials, the University’s general effort at identifying itself as Catholic, the relativity of truth (whatever that means) and the expression of freedoms irrelevant to academic freedom. I’ll focus on the value of freedom of expression academically. Catholicism is not finished, it is not dead doctrine. I think it is fair to say that we don’t know everything there is to know about God. Ever so slowly, (geological time, some might urge) the doctrinal views become clearer in their implication and meaning. It is extremely good to have challenges to these views around, even if the challenging positions are false. These challenges make us think more clearly about our commitments, they keep us intellectually honest. It’s a mistake to be dismissive here. It is just the rigorous response to interesting and deep objections that license Catholics in claiming that their views are relevant and intellectually vibrant. Catholics are consistently having to fight off the perception that it’s sine qua non is to stop thinking. Catholics should be inviting challenges, not discouraging them. Of course, all of this goes for any set of commitments people might have–Calvinists should be inviting doubters, too. It is a legitimate fear that we’ll start putting our heads together and listening only to each other.

  4. Mike,

    In one sense you are right, but in another sense you are not right. It is true that the Catholic understanding of the Deposit of Faith is constantly undergoing review, and there is, indeed, such a thing as development of doctrine. But it is a mistake to think that this feature of Catholic theology applies to the settled dogmata of the faith that are challenged by theologians like Reuther in a way that will result in reformulations anything like what she wants to put in their place. That God is Three Persons in one substance, for example, is a teaching that we can seek to clarify, but it is not something that we can say the Tradition has been mistaken about. Reuther challenges such fundamental teachings of the Church as the nature of Matrimony, Holy Order, and the Eucharist. She is so heretically in the wrong about them that it simply is not contrary to any principle of academic freedom to say that the Catholic Church, as such, can refuse to provide her with a forum in which to air her views. There are plenty of other, non-Catholic venues in which she can do her work.

    So, while you are right to say that “Catholicism isn’t finished”, it is important to remember that this is only true within the context of a completed revelation–the Church is not at liberty to teaching anything new or contradictory, even though she is, obviously, free to reformulate and re-assess older ways of expressing her faith. Reuther wants to contradict the Magisterium, not help it to develop, and this is why she cannot be given a position within the Magisterium to do her work. Since plenty of other venues exist for her to do her work, it isn’t really even a matter of denying her a “freedom”, it is simply a matter of being honest about what Catholicism actually is.

  5. Hi Scott,

    I guess I’m less convinced than you are about what the holy spirit might do. I’m not so sure that we might not be chided for having gotten something fundamentally wrong. Are you? This is so because, despite well-intentioned, well-meaning, inteliigent efforts, the truth is very hard to come by. I’m open to the possibility that the holy spirit knows in ways that are no so dark what we, at best, darkly know. For instance, what we describe as three persons in one might be, once properly instructed, better captured by a slightly different concept. After all, we truly have just the vaguest idea what is meant by a trinitarian God. In any case, as I said, I did not want to dispute the credentials of the scholar in question: maybe she is truly not worth listening to. But that’s beside the interestnig point. What I want is to remain open to what the holy spirit might teach and not to leave anything beyond what he might revise. Can anyone deny that the holy spirit might revise what we happen to think is fundamentally right? In any event, I won’t deny it. . Catholic, Protestant, or whatnot, it’s agreed that our knowledge (all of us) is influenced and limited in all sorts of bad ways. I think that we would do well to listen to those we deeply disagree with, even on fundamental matters, and consider what the holy spirit might be trying to get all of us to see. On the other hand, maybe we got a little lucky and have the truth precisely right (can you imagine?). In that case we again have nothing to lose by listening to those we disagree with.

  6. Mike,

    Point taken, but what I think Scott and Mike L. are trying to say – if I may be so bold – is that a Catholic university should be expected to teach Catholic doctrine. If a particular doctrine develops over time then that development of doctrine will be taught in time. You are right in saying we should listen to those with whom we disagree, but a Catholic institution where young minds are being formed – presumably in the Catholic faith – is not the place to do so.

    As Cardinal Dulles, S.J. has pointed out on many occasions, there is certainly room for vigorous debate among Catholic theologians regarding this or that teaching, provided it is done in a spirit of service to the Church and in all humility. However, and by all accounts, this is something that Rosemary Radford Reuther lacks. She advocates for positions that are completely at odds with consistent Church teaching. This isn’t a deepening of understanding with respect to particular doctrines; it’s more of a complete break. This being the case, Reuther brings nothing of value to the ongoing theological discussions within the Catholic Church.

  7. Mike (Almeida):

    I guess I’m less convinced than you are about what the holy spirit might do. I’m not so sure that we might not be chided for having gotten something fundamentally wrong. Are you? This is so because, despite well-intentioned, well-meaning, inteliigent efforts, the truth is very hard to come by.

    That is good sense when talking about matters of human opinion and inquiry, even and especially natural science. But when talking theology, a distinction must be made between what is human opinion and inquiry and what is divine revelation. The nature and importance of that distinction explains why it’s a bad idea for a Catholic university to hire somebody like RRR to do theology.

    The Church’s dogmas might always be improved upon, in the sense that the mysteries they express might be expressed a bit less inadequately by different words. But if the Church has the kind of teaching authority she claims, then no dogma may ever be logically negated. If and when we’re fortunate enough to achieve them, better formulations must at least be logically compatible with, if not necessarily logically equivalent to, those of the past. That’s what it means to call a given teaching “irreformable.” And that’s how things must be if the Church teaches by the authority of Christ himself, so that his Holy Spirit protects her from teaching what is false when she teaches with her full authority. It would make no sense to claim that what’s taught with the Church’s full authority is thus taught infallibly, and then turn around and say that reformulations of what is thus taught may eventually come to contradict it. So, to be in full communion with the Church entails affirming that whatever the Church defines as de fide is a truth of divine revelation, not human opinion. Such expressions might be open to improvement, but may never be negated.

    But that’s exactly the distinction, and the norm, that people like RRR reject. They reject the teaching authority of the Church. They reject the very idea that it is possible to distinguish reliably between divine revelation and human opinion, between theological progress and the negation of dogma. She does, to be sure, believe that something called “the Holy Spirit” can lead us to greater truth. But in RRR’s universe, there is no body of men with the authority or right to tell us, irreformably, what that truth is. That is why RRR cannot be considered Catholic in any but a purely formal sense, if that. And that is why it would be falsity in advertising to have her teaching theology at a Catholic university.

    Best,
    Mike

  8. Hi Mike,

    You say,

    “It would make no sense to claim that what’s taught with the Church’s full authority is thus taught infalllibly and turn around an say that reformulations of what is thus taught may eventually come to contradict it.”

    I see why you say that, but there is no difficulty in making sense of such changes. Here are two ways: (1) We might learn that nothing was ever taught with the Church’s full authority. We might learn that there were always procedural errors, despite our best efforts. (2) It might be true that the Church is infallible but not infallibly infallible. That is, the Church might be contingently infallible. Everything it in fact proclaims is true, given its contingent infallibility. But some of what it teaches is possibly false, since, though actually infallible, it is possibly fallible. And there are lots of other ways to make sense of how an infallible entity is possibly mistaken.

  9. Mike:

    As to (1), if such a scenario as you hypothesize ever held, then we would be obliged to conclude that the Church has never hitherto taught infallibly. In that case, nothing in the Church’s tradition, including but not limited to dogmas, could be reliably received as expressions of divine revelation rather than mere human opinions. And in that case, any criteria we invoked for distinguishing between the two would themselves be revisable human constructs. Therefore, even if the Church could in principle teach infallibly, we would have no reliable criteria for identifying instances of such teaching. That result would be flat-out incompatible with Catholicism.

    As to (2), to the extent I understand it, I don’t believe it’s much to the point. The Church does not claim that everything she teaches authoritatively is taught infallibly. Thus she admits that some of what she teaches is possibly false. The Church does claim, however, that what she teaches infallibly is preserved from error by the power of the Holy Spirit. Given that power’s exercise in such instances, such teachings cannot turn out to false.

    Best,
    Mike

  10. As to (1), we would not be obliged to draw your conclusion. It might well be that the procedural errors were few and never widespread.

    As to (2), you raised the point about infallible teaching. My observation in (2) was directed to that point. What you say now changes the subject. In any case, nothing I say entails anything about “human constructs”. What I say in (2) is that the church is infallible. So no worries. I add that it might nonetheless be contingently infallible. This entails only that it might be fallible, though it never will be fallible.

  11. Mike:

    As to (1), we would not be obliged to draw your conclusion. It might well be that the procedural errors were few and never widespread.

    You’ve entirely missed my point. On your hypothesized scenario, the question what counts as correct or incorrect procedure could not itself be answered infallibly. Hence, the question which doctrinal definitions, if any, followed the relevant procedures could not be answered in such a way that any dogma D could be reliably identified as having been infallibly taught—even if, as a matter of objective fact, D had been so taught. And that, as I said, would be incompatible with Catholicism.

    I add that it might nonetheless be contingently infallible. This entails only that it might be fallible, though it never will be fallible.

    The reason that isn’t to the point is that it’s ambiguous about the underlying notion of possibility expressed by ‘might be fallible’. Of course the proposition that the Church is fallible is logically possible; but nobody denies that. My point was that, if the Church’s claim to teach infallibly under such-and-such conditions is true, then given what makes it true, it is not really possible for her to teach fallibly when those conditions are satisfied. That’s why I said your (2) was not much to the point. I stand by that.

    Best,
    Mike

  12. As to (1), So what if you cannot identify with infallibility which are the correct dogma? What does that have to do with the dispute? The dispure is whether it is possible that the dogma is mistaken. I’ve given you a way in which this is possible. Now you say “but this would have troubling epsitemological conseuqnces”. So what? How on earth is that relevant to the possibility claim. That it might have such consequences does not show that (1) is not possible.

    As to (2), I haven’t the slightest idea what modality is involved in something’s being “really possible”. Is it different from “really really possible” or “really and truly possible”? I say that (2) makes infallibility a contingent feature of the teaching. So take your conditions C under which, as a matter of fact, anything taught under C is true. My claim is that it is at best a contingent fact that anything taught under C is true. There are worlds in which what is taught under C is not true. The good news is that none of those worlds is actual. I hope the point is now clear.

  13. Mike:

    The problem here is, precisely, how you frame the problem.

    My argument is this: If Catholicism is true, then even granted it is logically possible that some dogma is false, the fact remains that God, who can no more deceive than be deceived, ensures that no dogma is false. Given as much, God also ensures that the tradition of the Church reliably identifies what is dogma and what is not. That is the sense in which it “really” impossible that any dogma is mistaken, and “really” impossible that the Church be mistaken about what, in fact, counts as dogma.

    I don’t see what’s so hard about accepting that, even if one is not convinced that Catholicism is true.

    Best,
    Mike

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