Friday, January 31, 2014

Against an Arrogant Church

If there's one thing that the Traditional Church gets accused of, it's arrogance. Time and again, I hear complaints of the RCC hierarchy being deemed "out of touch" and "dismissive" of modern values. I hear of my brother priests (in various jurisdictions) being described as "arrogant" or "hypocritical" or "having their heads too heavenly bound so that they are no earthly good." Priests do get a lot of stick, and sometimes rightly so. We have to remember that the sacramental grace of being alter Christus does not extend to the weakness of our fallen humanity.

But is the Church really arrogant? How do people say that it is? Well, much of this comes down to morality. The Traditional Church is necessarily morally absolutist and absolutism is something that is socially frowned upon. It is almost taboo to be certain of something these days. The main evidence of this seems to be the claims that "atheists cannot be good people" and "only Christians can be good people". Indeed, the objection is raised that the Church has no business pronouncing judgment upon an individual since it has no claim to be the sole arbiter of morality.

This is where the claim of arrogance comes in, for what is arrogance defined if not the inflation of one's own importance? The Church in regarding herself as the sole arbiter of morality would certainly be a pretty hefty claim, but is it indeed an exaggeration?

First, let us be clear that moral absolutism is the claim that objective moral values exist independently of time and culture. The Church must believe that absolute values exist because it believes in an absolute God. Notice please that the monotheistic version of the Euthyphro argument fails to hold when it comes to the existence of God.

Plato's Socrates states "Is the pious loved by the gods because it is pious, or is it pious because it is loved by the gods?" This supposedly makes Piety either arbitrary or renders the gods impotent against Piety. These days one might substitute the word "good" for "pious". This is pretty effective against the capricious Greek gods, but what about the True God Himself? As Boethius and Aquinas effectively point out, God is His own goodness. Goodness comes from Him by His very nature of being God. Hence Goodness is neither arbitrary nor above God.

If what is good comes from God, then that good must be absolute because it is of God who is absolute, and the existence of moral absolutes is proven.

So the Church is clearly bound by the morality she receives from God and if so,then she cannot promote any morality other than that which is necessarily imposed upon her. This is not arrogance. One cannot define arrogance as being absolute - this is a very modern phenomena. Arrogance is about assuming that which is above one's capabilities. The Church is not doing that at all. It is abiding by the morality that comes from the Absolute. Arrogance in this situation would be trying to change that morality for something else.

The problem here is when the Church tries to do just that, or when priests acts as one for whom morality is flexible. that's the real arrogance. As I said above, we are all fallen. I cannot really speak for other priests but I am acutely aware that I am fallible and that I have sinned. That doesn't mean that I am aware of all my sins.

However, I can still say "Murder is wrong" without being branded arrogant, because that is the moral fact. What I cannot do is pronounce the sentence of murder on any specific killing unless I am in possession of all the facts. Not all killing is murder, but all murder is killing. I can still say "Murder is wrong" even if I have just stabbed someone to death in front of my Diocesan Synod. To say that my claim doesn't hold because of what I have done is an ad hominem response and doesn't affect the argument.

Yet, the fact remains, I cannot possibly make the blanket generalisation that all killings are murder and I invite my readers to think of as many circumstances as they can. A sweeping generalisation is as much an invalid argument as an ad hominem attack if it cannot be shown to be generally true. Sweeping generalisations are likely to be the product of arrogance since they demonstrate an inflated grasp of the situation.

The Church is not arrogant if it holds to moral absolutism, nor is it arrogant because it intends to proclaim the goodness of God. It is if it tries to apply that morality without careful thought or in situations where she cannot know. We have to remember that there is none good save God Himself. Let us therefore just commit ourselves to bringing the goodness of God into the life of the world rather than trying to point out where it is not. If there is good already there, then more will change nothing. If there is no good there, then the good we bring will improve the situation.

1 comment:

ed pacht said...

How about the incredible arrogance of claiming to be so wise that one can make up ones own morality, declare something to be moral because one wants it to be so, or to be immoral because one does not like it?

There is something off-putting and arrogant about the smug certainty of moral relativists that they are able to deny the old standards.