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Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Questions of Authority

Back in November and early December of 2011, Crisis Magazine ran two articles that address the issue of change in Church teaching.  The first, Catholics and “Usury”: A Tragic History, by Jeffrey Tucker, addresses an issue that, at first glance, appears to be largely of historical interest--although the history of that problematic issue ran on for well over a millennium.  Usury, of course, is a case in which Church teaching appears rather incontrovertibly to have actually changed, and as such it is cited repeatedly by those who wish the Church to change other teachings, as well.  The second article, Can the Church Ban Capital Punishment? by Christopher A. Ferrara, on the other hand, takes up an issue that only arose quite recently.  Church teaching on Capital Punishment has not changed--despite some high profile efforts on the part of a recent pontiff--and for some this is a concern.  Taken together these articles are an excellent starting point for addressing issues regarding the Church's teaching authority.

Tucker's view on the Church's traditional condemnation of lending at interest (usury) is that it arose from a concern to crack down on "avaricious practices among the clergy."  Unfortunately, says Tucker, this sensible "disciplinary measure" that was originally intended for the clergy was mistaken for and then applied as a general moral principle, with some fairly minimal scriptural support tacked on.  Tucker cites, as an example, the use of Psalm 15:5,

He that putteth not out his money on interest, nor taketh a bribe against the innocent.
He that doeth these things shall never be moved.

For Tucker, the case of usury boils down to a regrettable example of theologians failing to recognize that “social teaching” is "different from the faith-and-morals magisterium of the Catholic Church."

Tucker's conclusion, based on this assumption, is relatively straight forward.  Essentially he says that, as a matter of history, by the mid 16th century it had largely become clear to Catholic theologians that lending at interest is not immoral in and of itself--that, indeed, it contributes to the common welfare.  While there continued to be some Church statements against usury as late as 1830, by then the old teaching was a dead letter.  For Tucker, this is a welcome development.  The change demonstrates:

a wonderful capacity of the Church to learn and grow with the times as regard its social teaching. ...
I don’t find this even slightly puzzling. Economics is a science, one very late to develop in the history of ideas. It is not doctrine and it is not morals, subjects on which the Church pronounces infallibly. Economics is not the primary domain of Church competence in any case, and sometimes the line [sic] that separate economic theory from faith and morals can become blurry indeed. If nothing else, this history should instill a bit of humility on the part of Church teachers, and a cautionary point as regards economics and other sciences.

We needn't examine Tucker's dubious assertion that economics is a "science" (but for the contrary view, cf. Steve Keen's Debunking Economics).  Obviously what's going on here is that Tucker, a Libertarian, believes that economic activity works best when it is self regulated, and that economic activity is the highest end of human life.  Thus, he's attempting to read the Church out of economics in order to discredit Church critiques of his libertarian views:  "Economics is a science ... not doctrine and ... not morals, subjects on which the Church pronounces infallibly."  This is Tucker simply asserting without supporting reasoning that nothing in the economic sphere of life has any moral significance; the Church should therefore leave economic activity to the economists--the supposed experts.  But this is an indefensible position.  Economists may study human economic activity, but the fact that such activity can be studied from a certain "scientific" viewpoint doesn't mean that such activity cannot also be studied in terms of its moral implications.  To maintain otherwise would be tantamount to claiming that, since Physics is a science, the Church should have nothing to say about the use to which the laws of physics are put in the use of firearms.  Human actions undertaken in any sphere of life are not exempt from the laws of morality.  The Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) 2426 is a convenient restatement of the applicability of the moral law to all human activity, including economic activity:

The development of economic activity and growth in production are meant to provide for the needs of human beings. Economic life is not meant solely to multiply goods produced and increase profit or power; it is ordered first of all to the service of persons, of the whole man, and of the entire human community. Economic activity, conducted according to its own proper methods, is to be exercised within the limits of the moral order, in keeping with social justice so as to correspond to God's plan for man.

It is, of course, possible to sympathize with Tucker's concern that the Church avoid speaking in seemingly definitive fashion when it lacks a full understanding of the issues under consideration.  This certainly appears to have been the case when lending for interest was condemned as intrinsically immoral.  But Tucker's solution--that the Church remain silent regarding the moral implications of some of the most fundamental of all human activities--throws the baby out with the bathwater.  Furthermore, while Tucker may be correct that the Church has, de facto, changed its teaching regarding usury (basically by redefining the word), his sweeping statement that the social teaching of the Church "has gone through many upheavals and changes throughout Church history, even complete reversals, many of which parallel historical developments," is unwarranted.  The principles of the Church's teaching have remained the same, while the application of those principles to specific cases has changed as understanding of specific cases has developed.  The case of usury is unusual in the field of morality in that it is an illustration of what can happen when theologians mistakenly believe that scripture speaks clearly regarding a specific case, when in fact it does not.  And so it may be worthwhile to reexamine some of Tucker's assertions and assumptions.

First of all, Tucker -- in maintaining that the ban on usury originally applied only to the clergy -- is underestimating the role of traditional teaching regarding lending at interest in its broader social context.  The general ban on lending at interest, therefore, was not simply a question of mistaking a disciplinary measure for a moral teaching.  Keen, for example, in discussing the notion of a jubilee year of debt forgiveness, points out that this idea was not an exclusively Israelite idea:

the ancient and biblical practice addressed a weakness in those societies -- the tendency for debtors to become hopelessly indebted given the enormous interest rates that were common then. (354)

and he quotes M. Hudson ('The mathematical economics of compound interest: a 4,000 year overview,' Journal of Economic Studies, 27(4/5):

Mesopotamian economic thought c. 2000 BC rested on a more realistic mathematical foundation than does today's orthodoxy [a reference to libertarian-like views].  At least the Babylonians appear to have recognized that over time the debt overhead came to exceed the ability to pay, culminating in a concentration of property ownership in the hands of creditors.  While debts grew exponentially, the economy grew less rapidly.  The earning capacity of Babylonian rural producers hardly could be reconciled with creditor claims mounting up at the typical 33.333 percent rate of interest for agricultural loans, or even at the commercial 20 percent rate.  Such charges were unsustainable for economies as a whole. (348)

So too, the CCC notes:

Beginning with the Old Testament, all kinds of juridical measures (the jubilee year of forgiveness of debts, prohibition of loans at interest and the keeping of collateral, the obligation to tithe, the daily payment of the day-laborer, the right to glean vines and fields) answer the exhortation of Deuteronomy: "For the poor will never cease out of the land; therefore I command you, 'You shall open wide your hand to your brother, to the needy and to the poor in the land.'"249 Jesus makes these words his own: "The poor you always have with you, but you do not always have me."250 In so doing he does not soften the vehemence of former oracles against "buying the poor for silver and the needy for a pair of sandals . . .," but invites us to recognize his own presence in the poor who are his brethren:251 (2449)

It is, of course, unfortunate, that the Catechism naively assumes that these "juridical measures" originated in the OT, when in fact they were already known in Mesopotamia at least a millennium before Deuteronomy was written.  More noteworthy, however, is the fact that the words that Jesus "makes ... his own" are not the prohibition of loans at interest per se (of which, more later) but simply the concern for the poor and the evil of exploitative practices.  As we have seen, for the ancient world -- as for us today -- credit and debt were those tricky sorts of things that you can't live without, but which are sadly very difficult to live with.  Then as now, abolishing loans at interest was no solution, but money lenders were a popular target for moralists.  The Church knows this only too well from its own long experience, and so in this passage -- one of only two in the CCC that is referenced in the index under the word "usury" -- we find no blanket condemnation of lending at interest.

To summarize, in economic conditions characterized by great uncertainty and, therefore, crushingly high rates of interest, the issues of credit and debt raised intractable problems for many societies.  Various remedies were attempted, with indifferent success, and it was a great temptation for moralists to blame symptoms (money lenders) instead of the human condition (the high degree of uncertainty at that time).  Later, when Western economies began to expand dynamically, it became evident that finance, including the practice of lending at interest, had become a powerful force for progress and for the general welfare.  There was no longer a motive for condemning lending at interest, and the Church refocused its traditional teaching, which had become an anachronism, to the questions of social justice which were the true basis of traditional teaching.  The means by which the Church freed itself from this albatross around its neck was to equate usury with excessive interest rates only, rather than condemning the charging of interest per se.  This change is fairly clear in all currently relevant Church documents:

Catechism of the Catholic Church
 The fifth commandment forbids doing anything with the intention of indirectly bringing about a person's death. The moral law prohibits exposing someone to mortal danger without grave reason, as well as refusing assistance to a person in danger.
The acceptance by human society of murderous famines, without efforts to remedy them, is a scandalous injustice and a grave offense. Those whose usurious and avaricious dealings lead to the hunger and death of their brethren in the human family indirectly commit homicide, which is imputable to them.71  [A reference to Amos 8:4-10]  (2269)
Compendium of the CCC
508. What is forbidden by the seventh commandment?
Above all, the seventh commandment forbids theft, which is the taking or using of another’s property against the reasonable will of the owner. This can be done also by paying unjust wages; by speculation on the value of goods in order to gain an advantage to the detriment of others; or by the forgery of checks or invoices. Also forbidden is tax evasion or business fraud; willfully damaging private or public property ; usury; corruption; the private abuse of common goods; work deliberately done poorly; and waste.
Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church
323  The prophetic tradition condemns fraud, usury, exploitation and gross injustice, especially when directed against the poor (cf. Is 58:3-11; Jer 7:4-7; Hos 4:1-2; Am 2:6-7; Mic 2:1-2).
341. Although the quest for equitable profit is acceptable in economic and financial activity, recourse to usury is to be morally condemned: “Those whose usurious and avaricious dealings lead to the hunger and death of their brethren in the human family indirectly commit homicide, which is imputable to them”.[714, Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2269] This condemnation extends also to international economic relations, especially with regard to the situation in less advanced countries, which must never be made to suffer “abusive if not usurious financial systems”.[715] More recently, the Magisterium used strong and clear words against this practice, which is still tragically widespread, describing usury as “a scourge that is also a reality in our time and that has a stranglehold on many peoples' lives”.[716]

However, the embarrassing difficulty remained that, for over a millennium, the Church had taught with all its authority that lending at interest was intrinsically evil, and had supported this teaching by systematically misusing scriptural passages which, in hindsight, could easily be seen to be inapplicable.  But had the Church, in fact, changed its moral teaching?  And, if so, in what sense?

In 1996 Patrick M. O'Neil wrote a stimulating article for Faith and Reason: A Response to John T. Noonan, Jr., Concerning the Development of Catholic Moral Doctrine.  Noonan, a federal judge and accomplished legal scholar, had in the 1960s sought to use the case of usury to argue that, since the Church had changed its moral teaching regarding usury there was no reason it couldn't change its teaching regarding artificial contraception -- and presumably many other things.  (It's worth noting that Noonan freely granted that the Church's teaching regarding artificial contraception (unlike usury) had a strong scriptural basis, since he admitted that the references in the New Testament to "sorcery" -- pharmakeia in Greek -- almost certainly referred to ancient abortifacients and artificial contraceptives.)  Noonan returned to this theme in a 1990 lecture/article, "Development in Moral Doctrine."

O'Neil begins his critique by acknowledging that Noonan had raised a legitimate issue -- "seeming inconsistencies in Catholic moral doctrine" -- and that this was an issue that many theologians were loathe to discuss, lest it "undermine confidence in the teaching authority of the Church."  Nevertheless, says O'Neil, "this topic cannot be avoided within the current intellectual climate."  How, then, to explain the "seeming inconsistencies?"

O'Neil first raises the theory of John H. Newman regarding the "development" of doctrine.  This amounts to a variation on the popular Victorian notion of constant progress in history.  By this theory, changes in doctrine are but the working out or elaboration of ideas that were implicit in earlier doctrines--doctrinal understanding gradually improves over time, becoming more clear and explicit.  Doctrinal development is unidirectional progress, fueled by controversies but never regressing.  O'Neil finds Newman's theory plausible in the fields of Trinitarian and Christological theology, but admits that it is of only "limited" use in the field of moral theology--or at least not in the case of usury/lending at interest.  After all, how could you argue that the liceity of lending at interest is somehow implicit in its intrinsic evil, that the liceity of lending at interest developed from the condemnation of its intrinsic evil?

To deal with the case of usury, in which the Church clearly erred, O'Neil argues instead that the Church's moral doctrine was sound in principle (opposition to economic exploitation violates justice) but that the Church erred due to an inadequate understandings of economics.  In other words, the Church failed to fully understand the facts of the particular issue (usury), failed to make necessary fact based distinctions, and as a result erroneously applied the general moral principle against economic exploitation to the particular case: lending at interest.

O'Neil then explains the principle behind his explanation:
The Church may err in falsos testes—because of inaccurate testimony (whether that inaccuracy be willful or inadvertent). This includes expert testimony in the literal sense of the sworn statements of laymen and scholars alike, as well as general scholarly opinion, or even the general popular opinion, in an area outside of faith and morals, but related to those judgments made regarding issues of faith and morals.
Now, this consideration explains exactly what the Vatican did prior to the encyclical Humane Vitae.  Paul VI -- perhaps with the case of usury in mind -- prudently assembled a commission to study the issue of artificial contraception.  Not, be it noted, to consider whether the principle behind the Church's traditional teaching was sound, but only to consider whether that principle did, in fact, apply to the current set of facts, which included supposedly new forms of contraception (The Pill).

Thus, following O'Neil, the argument would run that the Church, relying on the best scholarly opinions at the time -- which was sadly inadequate -- erred in maintaining that lending at interest was intrinsically evil.  But this was a concrete application of a general moral principle.  In this sense, Church teaching never changed.  Instead, the Church learned a cautionary lesson about hasty judgment.  The good news, if any is to be found, is that the teaching on lending at interest was already changing by the time the practice began to have a widespread influence on economic development.  It is unnecessary and undesirable to adopt Tucker's libertarian ideology.  However, we can certainly sympathize with his bottom line: "If nothing else, this history should instill a bit of humility on the part of Church teachers ..."

A Modest Proposal

But is there a broader lesson regarding the issue of the Church's teaching authority that we can draw?  I believe there is, if we extend the concept of error in falsos testes.

First of all, the proper approach is from the standpoint of final causality: what is the purpose of the Church's teaching authority?  Does the Church possess such authority purely for its own sake, for the sake of "developing" new doctrine, like a conjurer pulling rabbits out of a hat?  The answer is, of course, No, and Christopher Ferrara's article regarding Capital Punishment contains an excellent statement of the general purpose of the Church's teaching authority, embedded in his explanation of the aims of his article:

This piece ... is written from a “traditionalist” perspective, a traditionalist being simply a Catholic who affirms—as a Catholic must—that the Second Vatican Council changed nothing of what a Catholic must believe in order to be a member of the Church in good standing. As the First Vatican Council declared: “For the Holy Spirit was not promised to the Successors of Peter that by His revelation they might disclose new doctrine, but that by His help they might guard the revelation transmitted through the apostles and the deposit of faith, and might faithfully set it forth.” (Cf. Denzinger, §1836)

Ferrara then expands on this general statement of purpose:

Of course, an authentic development of doctrine is always possible in the sense of a fuller explication of what the Church has always taught.  But neither a Pope nor a Council has an oracular function of providing the latest and most reliable Catholic teaching. The Catholic faith, unlike the statute books on which lawyers rely, does not involve periodic “pocket parts” containing amendments or repeals to be inserted into the back of the book.  If the “hermeneutic of continuity” means anything, it means that Catholic teaching on faith and morals is not subject to reversal. A reversible Magisterium would be no Magisterium at all, but rather a human agency bereft of the promises of Christ—like the Protestant sects which have abandoned doctrine after doctrine over the centuries since Luther began the process of abandonment.

I take this to mean that when a question regarding the deposit of the faith arises, the Church has the authority to explain the faith.  But this is not a question of "developing" novel doctrines, as if two millennia after the fact the Church would revise "what a Catholic must believe in order to be a member of the Church in good standing."  Rather, this is a question of the Church authorizing particular theological attempts to explain the deposit of the faith, which is to say, data regarding the faith of the earliest Church which are typically drawn from the New Testament writings and the practice of the earliest Church (taken together as the Apostolic Tradition).

This leads us to the question: is it possible that the Church can mistakenly put forward as doctrine theologizing that is based on misunderstandings of Scripture?  An excellent example of this dilemma was pointed out by the eminent theologian and Cardinal, Avery Dulles, in The Challenge of the Catechism (January, 1995).  In recounting the challenges faced by the authors of the Catechism, Dulles points out one doctrinal matter in particular:

The doctrine of original sin caused particular difficulty, and was studied at length by a special commission. In the past fifty years numerous theologians have proposed ways of updating the traditional teaching, which relied heavily on contestable interpretations of the creation narratives in Genesis and of Paul's letter to the Romans. Like many modern theologians the Catechism interprets original sin in a Christological framework as the “reverse side” of redemption (389), but, unlike some, it adheres for the most part to the Augustinian positions that have long been dominant in the West and that were reaffirmed by Paul VI in a speech of 1966. ... A close reading of the Catechism shows that the authors were aware of the figurative language of the biblical accounts and do not impose a literalist understanding of the Genesis stories about Adam and Eve. It remains the task of religious educators and theologians to show how certain traditional formulations, repeated in the Catechism, may be subject to reinterpretation in the light of modern science and exegesis.
We must be clear that the "numerous theologians" who "have proposed ways of updating the traditional teaching" are not radicals seeking to throw the Catholic faith up for grabs, for their number includes such men as Joseph Ratzinger, now Benedict XVI.  For example, as recently as December of 2008 -- eleven years after the Latin second edition of the Catechism over whose promulgation he presided -- Benedict delivered a catechesis regarding St. Paul which dealt explicitly with The Apostle’s teaching on the relation between Adam and Christ.  In this catechesis Benedict clearly attempts what Dulles suggested was necessary: a reinterpretation of the traditional teaching on original sin, but in doing so Benedict just as clearly distances himself from "traditional formulations," even those of the Catechism.

We can identify three steps in Benedict's catechesis:

First, Benedict explicitly states that the advent of evil "remains obscure" and "is presented as such in great images;" this is a clear recognition that the Genesis narrative is to be taken as mythic, as embedding insights regarding the human condition in "great images" ("figurative language").

Second, he also urges that we think not so much about Adam and his sin as about the redemption that Christ offers us; in other words, he wishes to direct our attention away from fruitless and ideologized speculation regarding events in illo tempore, the mythical origin time of the human race, and focus instead on Christ's saving acts and our own need for divine help.  This approach is fully compatible with an understanding of "original sin" as a figurative way of expressing the human condition.

Finally, Benedict appears to adopt an anthropology that is strikingly similar to the Judaic theory of two urges -- our experience that we recognize the good that we should do but that we are also subject to impulses toward evil.  (Cf. our earlier discussion in Paul and the Yetzer Ha-Ra)  Avoiding the language of "original sin," Benedict instead refers to this as an experience of an "inner contradiction of our being," the origin of which is "obscure" but is to be found in human freedom.  Above all, however, Benedict is concerned to uphold the goodness of God and of His creation, and so he concludes:

This is the good news of the faith: only one good source exists, the Creator. Therefore living is a good, it is a good thing to be a man or a woman life is good. Then follows a mystery of darkness, or night. Evil does not come from the source of being itself, it is not equally primal. Evil comes from a freedom created, from a freedom abused.
Now, it is quite clear that Benedict is avoiding a straightforward exposition of the doctrine itself and is instead seeking to redirect our attention away from the many logical contradictions involved in the traditional doctrine of original sin.  Indeed, while he acknowledges that "as people of today we must ask ourselves: what is this original sin? What does St Paul teach, what does the Church teach? Is this doctrine still sustainable today?" he makes no attempt to answer these questions, but instead seeks to eliminate the possibility of gnostic or Manichean forms of dualism--the notion that there are two original principles (or gods), one good and the other evil.

All of this, of course, points to Benedict's own disquiet regarding the traditional understanding of original sin.  His intellectually inadequate presentation -- and I take it that Benedict is well aware of its inadequacies from a strictly intellectual standpoint -- is pretty clearly intended to speak to his readers' experience of the "human condition" in its imperfection, not to somehow reassert the Augustinian doctrine of original sin that held sway in the West for so many centuries.  But he is faced with what could be called an ecclesial problem, in that an ideologized interpretation of Genesis and Romans (which originally relied upon an outright mistranslation of Romans 5:12) has been presented for centuries as the basis for Jesus' redemptive acts (birth, life, death, resurrection), as the very heart of Christian faith--in the West.

My modest proposal is that erroneous use of scripture can be regarded as error in falsos testes.  That is, error based on inaccurate expert testimony -- the erroneous scholarly opinion that Genesis and Romans are to be taken as historical accounts of events in illo tempore, at the beginning of the cosmos.  The "traditional" ways of interpreting Scripture claimed that there were "two senses of Scripture: the literal and the spiritual, the latter being subdivided into the allegorical, moral and anagogical senses." (CCC 115)  Now, however, the Church recognizes that the "literal" sense embraces not just the words themselves, but all knowledge that sheds light on the meaning of those words in context: history, archeology, linguistics, anthropology, etc.  And this literal sense the Church has, following Aquinas, made the foundation of all exegesis:

16 The literal sense is the meaning conveyed by the words of Scripture and discovered by exegesis, following the rules of sound interpretation: "All other senses of Sacred Scripture are based on the literal."83 (St. Thomas Aquinas, STh I, 1, 10, ad I.)
If, then, the theoretical means are available to address these regrettable misunderstandings, why have the steps taken been so hesitant, at best?  O'Neil, of course, put his finger on the problem: the concern is to avoid doing or saying anything that would "undermine confidence in the teaching authority of the Church."  Nevertheless, as O'Neil added, "this topic cannot be avoided within the current intellectual climate" -- the climate of a highly educated laity that is prone to seek straightforward explanations.  The faithful deserve no less.

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