Merrie Melodies and Magisterial Authority

Published Date: January 9, 2015 | Topics: Philosophy, Politics and Current Affairs, Religion

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By Robert P. George

1 . 9 . 15

For reasons I cannot fathom, Michael Winters of the National Catholic Reporter seems determined to cast himself as the Wile E. Coyote of contemporary liberal Catholicism. His elaborate efforts to capture his prey—his roadrunners are those “culture warrior” bishops (such as Charles Chaput of Philadelphia) and Catholic intellectuals who are too zealous for his taste in defending the Church’s teachings on life, marriage, and sexual morality—inevitably backfire, usually comically and sometimes humiliatingly. But he intrepidly keeps at it, hoping against hope, I suppose, that his next effort will finally bring success.

Earlier this week, I was the roadrunner, as from time to time I am. I had offered four points to bear in mind about the teaching authority of the papal magisterium as we await the encyclical letter Pope Francis is preparing on our moral obligations concerning the natural environment. They were drawn from the teaching of the Church herself (in Lumen Gentium and the Catechism) about magisterial authority. But Wile E. Coyote perceived in my stating them a nefarious purpose:

Professor George . . . set[s] out a nearly pitch-perfect set of talking points for minimizing the impact of whatever it is the Holy Father will say, that is, advancing his own conservative political agenda.

And, he thinks, he can prove it!

He quotes this sentence from my post:

The pope has no special knowledge, insight, or teaching authority pertaining to matters of empirical fact of the sort investigated by, for example, physicists and biologists, nor do popes claim such knowledge, insight, or authority.

Now anyone who knows anything about Catholic teaching on papal authority knows that this proposition is, not to put too fine a point on it, undeniable. If the pope wants to know whether it is going to rain tomorrow, he has no hotline to the Holy Spirit on the subject. Weather patterns are (to hew closer to the Church’s understanding of its authority) no part of the deposit of faith, complete at the death of the last Apostle, which the Pope and the bishops with him are protected from error in formally defining and clarifying over time. When it comes to meteorology, the pope has to do what you and I and everyone else must do: Consult the meteorologists. 

But Wile E. Coyote nevertheless thinks he’s finally got the prey in his grip. So he goes for it.

The sentence, he labors to explain, “suffers from several difficulties. First, the pope does have knowledge that you and I do not have, and that I suspect Professor George does not have: He listens to the bishops throughout the world and knows what concerns they have regarding the environment and other matters of moral concern.”

Let’s hit the pause button for a chuckle. I had pointed out that popes have no special knowledge regarding matters of empirical fact of the sort investigated by natural scientists. Mr. Winters tries to contest the point by saying that popes “listen to the bishops throughout the world and know what concerns they have regarding the environment and other matters of moral concern.” Thus does Wile E. Coyote’s explosive go off in his hand.

Obviously the concerns about which popes may consult bishops are not “knowledge pertaining to matters of empirical fact of the sort investigated by, for example, physicists and biologists.” Look, I love Archbishop Chaput, for example—I admire him as much as Mr. Winters seems to despise him. I think he is a man of enormous wisdom and profound goodness. But if I want to know whether I ought to bring an umbrella to work, I don’t call him; I go to Popes do much the same thing (though I don’t know their preferred meteorological websites). They rely on scientists to do the science, not bishops. If there is a dispute among scientists as to whether the climate is changing in disastrous ways and whether human activity is partly to blame, popes cannot resolve it by consulting their brother bishops or reading the scriptures or reviewing the Church’s tradition.

At some level, it seems, Winters is aware of this. So the Coyote has a back-up plan. Actually, he insists, there is no meaningful dispute among scientists—at least among qualified ones. Back to the cartoon:

I am also surprised that someone of Professor George’s sophistication and learning is so quick to equate the arguments of believers and skeptics regarding climate change. To repeat, no Catholic should think that just because some conservative think tank can find a couple of off-the-radar professors who think climate change is just dandy, they can then claim that we can consequently ignore what the pope teaches.

Then, on cue, the Koch brothers are brought on to the stage (as they are these days in most liberal polemics) as a way of insinuating that the crank scientists who don’t go along with liberal orthodoxy on climate change are motivated by venality.

Shall we watch the explosive go off in the Coyote’s hand again?

Who are these “off-the-radar professors” whose palms the Koch brothers are greasing to put in appearances at the Heritage Foundation and Cato Institute to deny the undeniable? Rather inconveniently for the Coyote, they include some of the most famous and on the radar scientists in the world: for starters, there is physicist Freeman Dyson of the Institute for Advanced Study; eminent climate scientist Richard Lindzen of MIT; physicist and sodium laser guide star inventor William Happer of Princeton; Nobel Prize-winning physicist Ivar Giaever. 

Mr. Winters asks:

Would Professor George assert that if some scientists argue human life begins at birth, we can dismiss what the pope says insofar as it is based on a different scientific belief about when human life begins?

Let’s lay aside the absurd insinuation that I urged “dismissing” anything the pope says. That’s just more polemical foolishness. The first thing to note about his hypothetical example is that it gains its apparent force from a false analogy. There is no scientific debate about whether birth transforms an inanimate object into a living one, or a biologically non-human creature into a member of the species Homo sapiens. No one who knows the first thing about mammalian biology could entertain such loony notions.

And the question of when a new human being comes into existence is in the first instance a biological question, though it has moral, metaphysical, and religious implications. To resolve it, the proper methods of inquiry are scientific, not philosophical or theological.

The Church has not always assumed that the life of a human being begins at conception. She only began teaching that—or, more accurately, teaching moral norms specified in light of that—when modern embryology, which began with Karl Ernst von Baer’s discovery of the mammalian ovum in 1826, established it. Before then, neither bishops nor anyone else had any clear idea of what conception was. That information was certainly not to be found in scripture or tradition, the data of the faith that the Holy Spirit protects popes and bishops from distorting, in the exercise of their duty to hand it on intact.

Mr. Winters says:

Of course, we Catholics believe that from the moment of conception a human life is present that deserves protection and possesses dignity. Even if that life is not yet individuated, and cannot therefore possess rights the way an individual can possess rights, the potential of that life is precious and must be honored.

The reference to a “life that is not yet individuated” shows, I suspect, that Winters himself doesn’t understand the biology of embryogenesis and early intrauterine human development. Monozygotic twinning, which must be what he has in mind here, is not something that “individuates” a “non-individuated” embryo, nor is birth the event that individuates the child, who certainly pre-exists it.

He also doesn’t understand the Church’s moral teaching, which is not that a “non-individuated” life “cannot possess rights the way an individual can possess rights” or that mere “potential of that life” is to be honored. Indeed, this is a travesty of the Church’s teaching.

We honor, and are taught by the Church to honor, human lives, not their “potential.” We honor, and are taught by the Church to honor, the life of every human being at every stage of development, including the infant, fetal, and embryonic stages. That’s what it means to say that human beings possess inherent dignity and rights. Our status as persons is not accidental and acquired. We come into being as persons and do not cease being persons except by ceasing to be (i.e., dying).

But now let me reformulate Mr. Winters’s question to make it a more serious and interesting challenge: If the credible science told us that life began some time into pregnancy (but before birth), would I say that faithful Catholics could disagree on when ending a pregnancy meant killing a person?

Yes. Thomas Aquinas was no heretic for thinking, based on the best data available to him, that human beings came to be at some point after the start of pregnancy. To be sure, he followed the Church’s constant teaching in opposing all abortion, on the ground that non-lethal contraception is also gravely wrong. But it wasn’t until much later that it became clear that the Catholic teaching against intentional killing of innocent human beings was relevant throughout pregnancy.

So the difference here between abortion and climate change is not that the Church authoritatively teaches biology but not climatology. It’s that there really is no unsettled scientific question of whether life begins at birth (or even at “viability” or “quickening”). We know that from the earliest embryonic stage what exists is a living member of the species Homo sapiens—one that is numerically identical to the individual who will later be a nine-month old infant, a nine-year old child, and with luck a ninety-year-old woman or man.

Hence, the denial of the unborn child’s right to life does boil down to rejection of a specifically moral principle taught by the Church. No informed observer today—certainly no biologist counterpart of a Dyson or a Lindzen—could believe that birth marked an inanimate object’s transformation into an organism (human or otherwise). (Of course, a biologist might still be pro-choice, but only on moral grounds that the Church does authoritatively reject: i.e., the idea that not all human beings are persons with a right to life.)

I doubt that even the Koch brothers—who, perhaps I should point out to soften Mr. Winters’s attitude toward them, are pro-choice on abortion and pro-gay marriage, like so many of the political figures admired by Winters and his colleagues at National Catholic Reporter—could pay a biologist enough money to induce him to make the buffoonish claim that science tells us that human life begins at birth.

Indeed, even the most ardently pro-choice philosophers have pointed out to fellow abortion supporters that the debate is not about whether abortion takes the life of a human being. Clearly it does. Peter Singer, for example, pointed this out in a letter to the New York Times correcting those who have ignorantly depicted the debate as a question of “when life begins”; Ronald Dworkin, in a book devoted to defending abortion, characterized abortions as “choices for death.” The abortionist’s objective is not to deliver a live baby (which is one way of “terminating a pregnancy”) but rather to bring about, in the chillingly clinical language of the abortion manuals, “fetal demise.” The abortion debate is about something non-empirical, something moral: Do human beings in all stages and conditions have dignity and a right to life? It is on this non-empirical question that the Church claims authority (though even the basic moral insight is one that she believes is rationally accessible apart from revelation). And she has been able to specify her moral teaching in light of the biological facts only because scientists, employing the proper methods of scientific inquiry, have discovered them.

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