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Fortinbras Armstrong

Profile Information

Gender: Male
Hometown: Suburban Chicago
Home country: UK
Current location: Suburban Chicago
Member since: Thu Apr 12, 2012, 09:54 AM
Number of posts: 2,766

About Me

Retired computer security expert/programmer. Married for 40 years, three sons, two dogs. Interested in history, music, religion -- mostly Catholic -- and cooking. MA in History of Religion (Harvard) and MS in Computer Science (U of Wisconsin).

Journal Archives

I'm frustrated as well

Many people say that Catholicism is absurd. Well, it is absurd. Any religion is absurd, but only because our existence is absurd. Why are we here, anyway? Why is there anything at all? Religion is a cautious attempt to respond to mystery with something better than Macbeth's suspicion that it is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing, if only with Teilhard de Chardin's modest, "there is something afoot in the universe, something that looks like gestation and birth".

Religion is the affirmation in the face of substantial contrary evidence that God is not mad. It is an attempt to face the odd fact that the evolutionary process has produced minds that are capable of comprehending, if just barely, both General Relativity and Quantum Theory, when there was no advantage in our evolutionary past of having such an intellect.

Catholicism at its best is a celebration of that God. At its worst, it is a deadening, soul destroying institution, with too much emphasis on following the rules and not enough joy.

I have been asked what I would change in the Church. What I would like most to change would be to get the hierarchy, especially the Vatican, to accept the inevitability of the freedom of its laity. The hierarchy does not like the laity's assumption of the right to make its own decisions, and its demand that it be persuaded instead of ordered. Indeed, the institutional Church usually works on the implicit assumption that it is still dealing with peasants of centuries ago who did what they were told (usually) without question, without argument, without the demand that it be heard, consulted, persuaded. Many pastors still seem to assume that they have the same influence and power that their role models from a generation or two ago had. Catholics, they believe, should simply do what they are told. (The phrase "pray, pay and obey" is used to describe this attitude.)

It ought to be obvious by now that this is not so. When Church leaders pretend to deny that the souls of the laity are now shaped by a constant exercise of freedom or lament the passing of the good old days when there was a lot less freedom, they have turned their faces against history. Moreover, they miss the point of their own tradition which has believed that virtue is formed by the frequent repetition of free human acts. In any event the days of the supposedly docile peasant are gone and they will never return. The church must adjust to the fact that in the Americas and Europe at any rate, the day of the free laity who make their own decisions after reflecting on the issues, who want to be heard, consulted, persuaded, is the world in which we live and work. In the present milieu, we laity reserve to ourselves the right to say on what terms we will be Catholic. Nothing will change that fact, neither orders from Rome nor hysterical ranting from the tiny fundamentalist Catholic minority.

There are other things I don't like in my Church:

The oligarchic system of government and the love of pomp and splendor among the hierarchy. Jesus's complaints about the Pharisees in Matthew 23:2-7 are appropriate:

The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses' seat; so practice and observe whatever they tell you, but not what they do; for they preach, but do not practice. They bind heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on men's shoulders; but they themselves will not move them with their finger. They do all their deeds to be seen by men; for they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long, and they love the place of honor at feasts and the best seats in the synagogues, and salutations in the market places, and being called rabbi by men.


Seeing, say, a Cardinal in full regalia reminds me of this.

The overemphasis on legalism. The Pharisees did not die out, they became Canon Lawyers. Remind me to give you the official answer to the question "If one has a nosebleed and swallows some of the blood, does that break the Communion Fast?" It is pettifogging at its finest and shows how casuistry got a bad name.

The refusal to even consider the ordination of women. The arguments against this do not hold up to real scutiny, but the previous Pope -- supported by the current Pope -- has attempted to shut off this debate by fiat. As I said, we aren't docile peasants to be ordered.

The overly restrictive rules on divorce and remarriage. I'm sure that it is entirely cynical of me to see any connection between the rigidity of these rules and the fact that they are formulated by a group of unmarried men.

The whole thing about sex -- rules and policies formulated by celibates.

Most of all, their failure to live up to what I see as the call of Christ. What I see all too often is a Church that colludes with the dispossession of the poor or the enslavement of others in the name of patriotism becomes just one more instrument of the state. A Church that blesses oppressive governments in the name of obedience to an authority that denies the authority of conscience makes itself an oppressor as well. A Church that goes mute in the face of massive militarisation practiced in the name of national defense abandons the God of love for the preservation of the civil religion. A Church that preaches the equality of women but does nothing to demonstrate it within its own structures, that proclaims an ontology of equality but insists on an ecclesiology of superiority is out of sync with its best self and dangerously close to repeating the theological errors that underlay centuries of church sanctioned slavery. A Church which sees covering up pedophilia in the clergy is acceptable behavior.

Don't get me wrong, I love the Church. I love the Church for what it is and what it could be. I love the Church as a family of faith. I do not say with John Stuart Mill, "My love for an institution is in proportion to my desire to reform it".

I am, of course, disappointed when I do not find perfect faith, hope, and love in the Church. But that is asking too much. It is, after all, made up entirely of sinners. I do have a right to expect enough faith, hope, and love to sustain me as I stumble on my pilgrim way. Perfect faith, hope, and love will come only at the end, in the great eschatological blow-up. "We are named, and are truly, God's children, but what we shall be has not yet been revealed" (I John 3:2). In the tension between what has been achieved in us and what remains to be accomplished lies the possibility of growth.

So why do I stay? After all, I have had any number of people are saying to me, "You claim to be Catholic, but you really should admit the truth and join the Anglicans". Believe me, there are times I seriously consider it. Incidentally, I want to make clear that my objections are to the Catholic Church. The Catholic Faith is a wholly different matter.

I am a Catholic because that is my Church. It is just as much my Church as it is the Pope's Church. I am not going to change the institution by leaving it. But I do seriously consider leaving.
Posted by Fortinbras Armstrong | Sat Jun 9, 2012, 10:53 AM (0 replies)

Non-thought in the Vatican

One of the Vatican's main concerns is control of what the clergy and religious (ie, nuns and lay brothers) say and do. Every priest has to take an oath to give both "external assent" and "internal assent" to Vatican teachings. "External assent" means that the priest will teach what he is told to teach; "internal assent" means that he will believe it. Thinking for oneself is distinctly not encouraged.

There is more than just being control freaks here -- although that is a very large part of it. The official line in Catholic thought is that truth is objective and "error has no rights". There is a corollary which presupposes that what the Vatican teaches is by definition "true" (for the Vatican cannot teach falsely), and those who teach that which is not approved by the Vatican are teaching falsely and should be corrected.

Sustaining that attitude requires both ignorance of history and outright deception. After all, if the Church teaches absolute truth, how can the teachings change? Even a cursory examination of the history of doctrine shows that the teachings do change. For example, as late as Pope Benedict XIV's encyclical of 1745, Vix Pervenit, taught that the taking of interest on loans was usury and therefore sinful. The teaching has never been rescinded, but has been quietly dropped.

When I was in graduate school, I wrote a paper on how the Church went from the Council of Trent's "Biblical translations must be based on the Latin Vulgate" to Vatican II's "Biblical teachings must be based on the original languages" without ever contradicting (indeed, quoting from) the previous position papers.

Unfortunately, the quoting from previous position papers is obviously highly selective. Cherry picking quotes is really dishonest. I'm sure that when Pope Benedict was a theology professor, he would have slapped down any student who ignored evidence which did not support his thesis. (If you read Thomas Aquinas' Summa Theologia, he starts each article by citing evidence against his thesis; he then answers each one.) However, ignoring contrary evidence is expected in Vatican position papers. The most egregious recent case I can think of was Pope Paul VI's encyclical defending priestly celibacy, Sacerdotalis Caelibatus, which wholly ignores 1 Corinthians 9:5, in which Paul is saying that he has a right to be married. That he chose not to exercise that right is immaterial.

Unfortunately, this sort of thing is, as I said, expected in Vatican position papers. The paper on why women cannot be ordained, Inter Insigniores, is a piece of crap which:

Admits that one of the main reasons for denying ordination to women has been the attitude that women were inferior to men (see, for example, Aquinas' Summa Theologia, Supplement, question 39 article 1) and says that this argument should be abandoned but then resurrects it without saying it is doing so.

Relies on the extremely dubious argument that Christ ordained only men to the priesthood. First, even if you grant this argument, one can just as reasonably say that since Christ ordained only Jews to the priesthood, gentiles should not be priests. But the fact is that Christ did not "ordain" anyone. And since the Last Supper was a Passover Seder, and the Seder is a celebration for the family ("You shall tell your children on that day..." -- Exodus 13:8), there were undoubtedly women present.

Makes the really silly argument that since the priest is supposed to "mirror Christ", the laity would not be able to see Christ in a woman. I daresay that the laity would be far less likely to see Christ in a pedophile. This argument also shows the Vatican's basic contempt for the laity.

Finally, Pope John Paul II attempted to quell discussion in his Ordinatio Sacerdotalis -- "On Priestly Ordination", which can be summed up as "Women cannot be ordained because I say so. Now sit down and shut up!" This argument may work with very small children (but don't count on it), but it only convinces those who believe that every burp which issues from a papal throat is the word of God. They shouldn't expect any adults to buy it.

And that is the problem with much of Vatican teachings: Cherry-picked evidence, contrary evidence ignored, sloppy reasoning, dubious (at best) history, and shutting down discussion by fiat. Now the Vatican is attempting to shut up nuns because their priorities are not the ones the Vatican wants them to promote.
Posted by Fortinbras Armstrong | Sat Jun 9, 2012, 10:20 AM (1 replies)

What's more, Humanae Vitae is bad moral theology

First, HV does not actually define "contraception". I suspect that this is because any actual definition would shoot holes in Pope Paul's argument. Here's a definition: Contraception is a means of having intercourse without procreation.

The second objection I have is that HV concentrates on the method, and completely ignores intent. I suspect this is because the so-called "NFP" ("Natural Family Planning") that the Vatican touts is merely another way of having sexual intercourse and avoiding pregnancy. In other words, the end is exactly the same, the only difference is the method employed.

What is wrong with the Church teaching is that it starts with the view of the Roman stoics and pagan Gnostics that the body is evil, and pleasure is to be mistrusted.

Paul VI implies, although he nowhere says explicitly, that among the "lower animals", sex is only used for procreation. The closest he comes in HV 10: "In relation to the biological processes, responsible parenthood means the knowledge and respect of their functions; human intellect discovers in the power of giving life biological laws which are part of the human person". (The Roman stoic Ulpian said that if you wanted to know what natural behaviour was, look in the barnyard.) I suspect that this is what Paul VI was thinking of. However, this is not necessarily the best place to look. Primates, our closest relatives in nature, use sexual activity in pair bonding, not just procreation. See Alison Jolly's The Evolution of Primate Behavior, Chapter 13. If Pope Paul is going to use a biological argument, he should use good biology.

The view that sexual intercourse is only morally licit if it is being used for procreation was promulgated by people such as Augustine of Hippo, whose own experience of sex was through having illicit love affairs. Augustine thought that he knew what sex was about, but his views were undoubtedly colored by his own experience -- and he actually had not a clue as to the proper function of sex in a marriage. This view led him to say in his De Bono Conjugali that sexual relations, except for the express purpose of procreation, were at least venially sinful.

Pope Gregory I supported this stand, saying in a letter to Augustine of Canterbury that "even lawful intercourse cannot take place without desire of the flesh ... which can by no means be without sin."

My next objection to HV is that Pope Paul does not have any scriptural basis to his argument, but uses something called "natural law". As Ireneaus of Lyon wrote, "From the beginning, God had implanted in the heart of man the precepts of the natural law", Against Heresies 4, 15. Thomas Aquinas has a long discussion in his Summa Theologicae I-II questions 90-106. Now, there are some things which can be said to be "implanted in the heart of man" -- aversion to rape, murder, incest, child molestation and so on. But birth control pills and condoms are certainly not among those things.

Pope Paul also says some remarkably silly things in HV. For example, he says

Upright men can even better convince themselves of the solid grounds on which the teaching of the Church in this field is based, if they care to reflect upon the consequences of methods of artificial birth control. Let them consider, first of all, how wide and easy a road would thus be opened up towards conjugal infidelity and the general lowering of morality. Not much experience is needed in order to know human weakness, and to understand that men -- especially the young, who are so vulnerable on this point -- have need of encouragement to be faithful to the moral law, so that they must not be offered some easy means of eluding its observance. It is also to be feared that the man, growing used to the employment of anti-conceptive practices, may finally lose respect for the woman and, no longer caring for her physical and psychological equilibrium, may come to the point of considering her as a mere instrument of selfish enjoyment, and no longer his respected and beloved companion.


In case the Pope had not noticed, there was a great deal of adultery and fornication going on before HV came out. His second point in this paragraph is that men may lose respect for their wives, seeing them as mere sexual objects. I do not believe that this has happened. For example, it is generally accepted that the great increase in reported incidences of domestic violence is due first, to better reporting techniques, and second, to a social awareness that this is not acceptable behavior.
Posted by Fortinbras Armstrong | Sat Jun 9, 2012, 10:10 AM (0 replies)
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