Friday, November 08, 2019

No hard feelings, right?

One of my objections to the doctrine of development is that it's so flippant. To take a few examples:

1. The medieval papacy authorized the use of torture on "heretics":

That's admitted in a roundabout way in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, but Rome now repudiates the traditional policy:

2298 In times past, cruel practices were commonly used by legitimate governments to maintain law and order, often without protest from the Pastors of the Church, who themselves adopted in their own tribunals the prescriptions of Roman law concerning torture. Regrettable as these facts are, the Church always taught the duty of clemency and mercy. She forbade clerics to shed blood. In recent times it has become evident that these cruel practices were neither necessary for public order, nor in conformity with the legitimate rights of the human person. On the contrary, these practices led to ones even more degrading. It is necessary to work for their abolition. We must pray for the victims and their tormentors.

But what good does that do for all the victims of papal-sanctioned torture? How does that restore all the victims who died under papal-sanctioned torture–or survived, but where maimed, mutilated, and/or disabled, living in chronic pain or psychologically broken from the effects of torture? 

We changed our mind. Sorry about that. No hard feelings, right?

2. For centuries, grieving parents were told that unbaptized babies went to Limbo rather than heaven. While that's better than hell, it also means the parents will be permanently separated from their deceased children. Even if the parents are ultimately saved, they occupy a different place than their children. 

When you consider the number of miscarriages alone, that's a huge number of unbaptized babies who died in the womb. Not to mention unbaptized dying newborns and toddlers. 

That centuries-old pastoral counseling has now been mothballed:

But what good does that do for all the bereaved who were indoctrinated in the traditional teaching? It's too late for them. 

We changed our mind. Sorry about that. No hard feelings, right?

3. In traditional Catholic teaching, suicides were presumptively damned, denied a Catholic funeral service and consecrated burial in a Catholic churchyard. For instance:

Q. 1274. What sin is it to destroy one's own life, or commit suicide, as this act is called?

A. It is a mortal sin to destroy one's own life or commit suicide, as this act is called, and persons who willfully and knowingly commit such an act die in a state of mortal sin and are deprived of Christian burial.

Until just a generation ago and for many centuries before, controversy over homilies delivered at the Catholic funerals of suicides was unheard of for the simple reason that Church law forbade all funerals for suicides, so, no funeral homilies on suicide could have been preached. See 1917 CIC 1240 § 1, n. 3.

So grieving survivors had a doublewhammy: the suicide of their loved one and Mother Church shunning their loved one. 

Yet the centuries-old policy has now been softened:

2282 Grave psychological disturbances, anguish, or grave fear of hardship, suffering, or torture can diminish the responsibility of the one committing suicide.

2283 We should not despair of the eternal salvation of persons who have taken their own lives. By ways known to him alone, God can provide the opportunity for salutary repentance. The Church prays for persons who have taken their own lives.

But once again, what good does that do for all the grieving survivors who lived under the traditional policy? It's too late for them. 

We changed our mind. Sorry about that. No hard feelings, right?

My immediate point is not to evaluate the positions in question. I'm not commenting on whether I think the new positions mark an improvement over the traditional positions, or vice versa. The point, rather, is that here's a denomination which lays claim to unique divine guidance and protection from error. 

Catholic apologists will counter that these changes go to show that the traditional teaching and practice never were infallible or irreformable. Yet these concern fundamental moral and pastoral issues. Not torturing religious opponents is hardly a marginal issue in social ethics. 

Likewise, what's more important than not telling grief-stricken family and friends the wrong thing about the fate of suicides and dead babies? Religion is centrally concerned with what happens after we die.

If the Catholic church wasn't protected from error on such crucial issues, why believe it enjoys any special protection from error? Why trust it with your immortal soul?

I'm not suggesting that Christians are obligated to give confident answers if we don't know the answer. But that's not what Rome did. Rather, Rome came down firmly on both sides of the issue at different times. It changes its mind: "We were mistaken, but that's water under the bridge." That's so flippant and callous.   


  1. So it's like this: torturing criminals is like an acorn, but not torturing criminals is like the tree.

    Why aren't you getting this?

  2. Catholics' stock reply concerning any change that completely contradicts an earlier stance is the one you quoted from the CCC:

    "Regrettable as these facts are, the Church always taught...."

    They have this idealistic, pure, fantasy of a church which they hold dear in their hearts and pledge their undying fealty to.

    But what it leaves them with is a church no one knows anything definitive about...until after the fact.

    Still, it allows them to totally disavow any ugliness and error. The clean, fresh rose of a church is never to blame...even if, on the surface, it conspires with slave traders and torturers and misogynists and "witch" burners for generations (or even centuries) on end.

  3. Steve, could you write a blogpost critiquing Luis Dizon's article:

    Looking Back at the Reformed Tradition: One Year Later

    Maybe Jason can also respond with a post regarding the church fathers.

    1. I have some thoughts on how to respond, but I suspect you'd make similar responses and say it better.

    2. Not that my opinion is worth much, and certainly not much in comparison to Steve or Jason, but for what it's worth, if anything:

      "Even though I was in the Evangelical world, the question of “which Christian denomination is the true one?” never left me."

      That's a fairly big assumption. Why should there be only "one" "true" "Christian denomination"?

      "I have always had Catholic friends in my life who have endeavoured to bring me back to the Church. I distinctly recall one of my friends (a Catholic convert from Evangelicalism) predicting way back in early 2012 that I would eventually come full circle and become Catholic again...At this same time, several of my friends in Evangelical and Reformed circles were crossing the Tiber. I would always have a friend crossing the Tiber here and there, but during the years 2016-2018, there was a sustained wave of conversions happening among my friend circles (there was also a smaller number of them opting for Eastern Orthodoxy, Lutheranism, and High-Church Anglicanism). This was happening as I was re-opening many of the issues I previously thought that I had resolved in my mind, as a direct result of my studies at Wycliffe."

      This explains a lot. Many people are readily affected by their friends. What their friends do. Where their friends go.

      "The Reformed phase of my life lasted for approximately nine and a half years. I continued to identify as Reformed even as I did my Master of Theological Studies at Wycliffe College (a seminary run by the Anglican Church). My sense for the need for a high sacramentology and a historically-grounded liturgy became more acute during my stay there."

      Of course, there's "historically-gorunded liturgy" in Reformed churches too.

      Why "sense...the need for a high sacramentology" rather than sense the need for what the Bible teaches about sacramentology? It's possible both coincide, but shouldn't that be decided after the fact (e.g. examing biblical theology) rather than the lead?

      "I have read and listened to way more James R. White and R. C. Sproul than almost any other Reformed preacher, and I went deep into their brand of populist, reactionary Calvinism...I also distinctly remember watching Trent Horn vs. James White debate the question of whether Christians can lose their salvation in early 2017 (see here), and finding Horn’s arguments to be significantly better than White’s. I had watched some of White’s debates with Catholic apologists before, but I resolved at that point to watch every single one of them (you can find a list of them here). It’s easy to think that White did well in these debates when one’s impression of them comes from 15-minute excerpts and post-debate commentary on the Dividing Line. It’s quite another picture when one actually watches all of the debates from beginning to end (although to be fair, most of those debates weren’t available online until recently). Not all of the Catholic apologists he debated were equally proficient. I noted that when he faced off against, for example, Jimmy Akin, Mitch Pacwa, or Robert Sungenis, the latter would often offer very well-reasoned and compelling arguments for the Catholic position, which I was forced to reckon with."

      I've read and listened to a lot of White and Sproul. I've likewised listened to most of White's debates too. However I'd say White won against these Catholics. I don't agree with him, but I always enjoyed Mitch Pacwa. He's a pleasant person to dialoge with.

      In any case, Luis describes White and Sproul as "populist", but based on what he says in this post he got the mainstay of his Reformed theology from "populists" rather than (say) Reformed scholars with more intellectual heft.

    3. All great points that, if Steve should post a blog, ought to be repeated (by you, me, or someone else) in the combox if Steve doesn't include it in the main post.

    4. I love that at the end of the article, Mr. Dizon has to get in the obligatory "Protestantism is so divided" bit. To which I might respond, "is the current Pope even an orthodox Catholic"?

    5. Any pope from the 15th or 16th century would have excommunicated Francis. Not that popes excommunicating other popes would be a new thing for Catholicism.