Sunday, January 08, 2006

On John Burns' Piece Ridiculing the Church

I have decided to respond to the Times piece by John Burns "Irrational belief won't go out on a limbo"

The short response? Stupid.

The longer response will be after the break.

This is one of those pieces ...This is one of those pieces that causes me no end to exasperation, simply because very smart people can be so horribly ignorant.

If you've read the piece you know it is riddled with inaccuracies, ad hominem, and so forth. It represents a failure to apply critical thinking under precisely the opposite guise.

As I blogged earlier, Limbo has never been a tenet of the faith, but rather a construct to reconcile an apparent contradiction. John Burn seems unaware that the only other options available are a lot harsher than Limbo if we take seriously Christ's admonition that only by Baptism are we to enter into Heaven. Burns is aware of John Calvin's view of the matter? Here's a little hint, it involve a place with lots of fire, brimstone, adamantine chains etc. The Catholic Church's attempt to reconcile God's bountiful love with Christ's words is actually a pretty decent way of going about it, in my honest opinion.

In any case, let me take some of his points in detail.

For those who have forgotten their penny catechism, a quick recap. Your soul can go in five directions after death: heaven, hell, purgatory and limbo. That may sound like four, but limbo is actually a two-tier society. There's limbus patrum where holy men before the birth of Jesus are confined. Prominent residents would include Moses and Solomon. Then there's limbus infantium, where unbaptised children are sent because original sin excludes them from heaven.

This is wonderfully cartoonish view of Catholic belief. I must dispel Mr. Burns' views, but there are only two directions after death: up and down. Purgatory is a process or a place by which souls are purged, so that the admonition that "nothing impure may enter in" in the Apocalypse (Apoc 21:27) can be satisfied (or more technically, remitting the temporal punishment due to sin). But all those in or undergoing Purgation are going to Heaven, guaranteed.

All right, so limbus patrum is now closed the gates were shut around 33AD. But the other limbo won't be around for much longer either. An international commission of theologians will shortly recommend to Pope Benedict that it be abolished. The Pope is expected to agree.

Aside from the "won't be around for much longer" crack, so far so good.

It is instructive, both to Catholics and the rest of us, how easily the Vatican can discard tenets of the faith when it suits. In 1905 Pope Pius X, later canonised, said: "“Children who die without baptism go into limbo, where they do not enjoy God, but they do not suffer, either."” Now it seems this pope wasn't speaking infallibly; it may have been a case of papal bull. One of his successors, John Paul II, referring to the victims of abortion, said that the church actually "doesn't know the fate of unbaptised infants"”.

Emphasis mine.

Tsk tsk tsk. Now we have it. As I have said before, Limbo is not a tenant of the Faith. You won't find it in the creeds or any of the official pronouncements of the Church as dogmatically defined. You'll certainly find it in the Baltimore Catechism, but it's over a hundred years old, and has been replaced by the new Catechism. Therefore, if limbo is not a tenet, I don't see that Burns has a point here. He also confuses infallibility with the common misconception that anything the Pope says is treated as infallible.

Let's settle the matter, by showing what would constitute the conditions of the definition:

According to the teaching of the First Vatican Council and Catholic tradition, the conditions required for ex cathedra teaching are as follows:

  1. The pope must teach in his public and official capacity as spiritual head of the Church universal, not merely in his private capacity as a theologian.

  2. He must be teaching some doctrine of faith or morals in a manner that explicitly and solemnly defines an issue.

  3. His teaching cannot contradict anything the Church has taught officially and previously.

  4. It must be evident that he intends to teach with his supreme Apostolic authority. In other words, he must convey his wish to determine some point of doctrine in an absolutely final and irrevocable way. There are well-recognized formulas that are used to express this intention, such as "We declare, decree and define, . . .".

  5. It must be clear that the Pope intends to bind the whole Church. Unless the Pope formally addresses the whole Church in the recognized official way, he is assumed to not intend his teaching to be ex cathedra and infallible (unless he is reiterating what has always been taught).

We teach and define that it is a dogma Divinely revealed that the Roman pontiff when he speaks ex cathedra, that is when in discharge of the office of pastor and doctor of all Christians, by virtue of his supreme Apostolic authority, he defines a doctrine regarding faith or morals to be held by the universal Church, by the Divine assistance promised to him in Blessed Peter, is possessed of that infallibility with which the Divine Redeemer willed that his Church should be endowed in defining doctrine regarding faith or morals, and that therefore such definitions of the Roman pontiff are of themselves and not from the consent of the Church irreformable (see Denziger §1839).
-- Vatican Council, Sess. IV, Const. de Ecclesia¢ Christi, chapter iv

Now, onto the issue of "papal bull". That's a nice bit of ad hominem, but I think I've been able to sufficiently show it's not Papal bull we're dealing with.

I'll deal with the John Paul II bit later.

The teaching on limbo caused untold misery to millions of parents whose children died without being baptised. Sometimes they were even denied burial on "consecrated ground".

Sources? Citations? References? If one is able to quote Pio Nono, one is able to quote other things. And as I have written previously ... surely it is infinitely worse to say that "Sorry, Mary, your baby went to Hell" rather than "Your baby is in a realm of infinite joy." Incidentally, John Burns may be enlightened to know that the only thing Limbo doesn't contain that people in Heaven experience is the Beatific Vision of God. It's not a miserable, horrible place. (notwithstanding it's just a construct, for those who believed, this is what they believed.)

It wasn't just babies. As the Catholic church teaches that life begins at the moment of conception, all fertilised eggs and unborn foetuses have souls. And those that don't go full-term and get baptised also languish in limbo. Consider how crowded it must be. It will be fascinating to hear Pope Benedict explain what is to become of these denizens of limbo when the church closes it down.

This is just being silly. If we really had infallibly taught that Limbo existed, then it would -- I guess -- be a case of "closing something down." But let's stop with the hyperbole and silliness, shall we? It really doesn't serve an argument well to be so sophomoric.

Why go to all this theological trouble? Why not, as it has done before, allow an out-of-date teaching to slip out of the catechism without telling anyone?

One explanation is that the Catholic church is heavily recruiting in Third World countries where rates of infant mortality are high. You won't win many converts in Africa teaching that unbaptised babies who die of Aids, malnutrition and malaria never get to heaven.

Now I understand, since all our motives are evil, we have a cynical reason behind this! I'm so glad I had John Burns to tell me this. On the other hand, a more evenhanded approach might be to acknowledge that this is part of a conversation that has been ongoing for millennia? Aquinas put his head to it, others and such, up to the present day. Hmmm. The latter seems to be more intellectually satisfying.

There is little doubt but that the sheer unpopularity of limbo among the laity is prompting the Vatican's rethink. Imagine how uncomfortable an unmarried priest or bishop would be explaining to a mother, grief-stricken by the death of her infant, that, sorry, but the rules say you can't be reunited with your baby in the afterlife, and the dead infant is never going to see God either. Try passing around the money basket after that.

emphasis mine

Source? Citation? Unpopular huh? I don't know how many people are even aware that Limbo is still an issue. I have been told by my own acquaintances that Vatican II did away with Limbo (it didn't). So, given that so few even realise it's still an issue, just how unpopular can it be? Or does unpopular mean "not held by the populace"?

His question that follows show a singular lack of knowledge about how Pastoral care is administered (and has been administered through the Ages). I think it's safer to say that anyone worth their pastoral salt would give out something along these lines:

As regards children who have died without baptism, the Church can only entrust them to the mercy of God, as she does in her funeral rites for them. Indeed, the great mercy of God, who desires that all men should be saved, and Jesus' tenderness toward children, which caused him to say, 'Let the children come to me, do not hinder them' [Mark 10:14, cf. 1 Tim. 2:4], allow us to hope that there is a way of salvation for children who have died without baptism. All the more urgent is the Church's call not to prevent little children coming to Christ through the gift of holy baptism.
CCC #1261; emphasis mine

Pssst, John, that's from the current Catechism. This is John Paul II's teaching on the subject.

Notice the cynicism again with passing the plate?

Of course many clergy bottled it, and told mothers that if they intended to get the child baptised, that was good enough. The infant would go to heaven on the strength of this "baptism of desire".

An oversimplification of baptism by desire. Interestingly enough, Wikipedia actually has a good article on the subject. The desire is on the part of the would-be recipient of baptism, not anyone else. What priests and bishops would have told parents is much closer to what I quoted from today's catechism.

But more importantly is that "Limbo" was really something created by Theologians to serve a purpose. It would not have been thrown out at parents like a hammer to bludgeon them with. That was not its purpose, and would not have been used for that purpose except by the greenest of curates (who would almost certainly learn quickly what not to do by more senior priests).

Dropping limbo is not without problems. Baptism is bound to decrease in popularity. There's a bit of theological housekeeping to be done; some catechisms to rewrite. But the church has figured out how to do it. In 1984, when the pope was Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, head of the Vatican's doctrinal division, he said: "Limbo has never been a defined truth of faith. Personally, speaking as a theologian and not as head of the congregation, I would drop something that has always been only a theological hypothesis."

emphasis mine

Right, John, the only reason most Catholics get their babies baptised is over Limbo. Oh wait, most Catholics don't even know about Limbo, so uhhhhh ... your logic is kind of ... And of course, it's entirely impossible that parents would want to bring their children up in the Faith, beginning that process by sacramental process that not only removes the stain of original sin, but also makes them part of the community of believers? That last bit is completely impossible, right?

The rest of the paragraph is meant to indicate that the Church has had a wee rethink and declared a doctrine only an hypothesis. This would be shocking if it were not a lie. As I have said before, Limbo was never doctrinal, dogmatic, a tenet etc. Cardinal Ratzinger (now Benedict) was not out on a limb; just woke up one day and declared it an hypothesis. This has been an ongoing conversation for decades.

So hypotheses can be dropped. But that begs the question: what else is disposable? Nonbelievers would say, of course, that it's all a hypothesis, and not a convincing one. But even using the Bible as a bedrock, it is clear that many of the church's more contentious doctrines were iffy interpretations of scripture, some as recent as the Middle Ages.

The word purgatory does not appear in the Bible. It, too, is a theological hypothesis. You won't find "trinity" there either. But what about the ban on women priests or the categorisation of homosexuality as evil? Both hypotheses which could be stuck in the bin with limbo.

This is misdirection without attribution. While purgatory may not specifically be mentioned by name, the process is mentioned by Christ himself, and later by St Paul: (Mt 5:26, and 1 Cor 3:13-15 to name but two of many). The same is true of the Trinity. Again, while not mentioned using that term, the concept is certainly present at Christ's baptism, during his Discourse in the Gospel of John where he promises the Paraklete ... etc. They are therefore in the deposit of Faith, and are not going anywhere.

Now that people power has been shown to work in the church, however slowly, can we expect other unpopular doctrines to fall by the wayside? The outright ban on artificial contraception is rejected or ignored by 99% of the laity. Some softening of this dogma over the next few decades seems inevitable. Similarly, the church’s opposition to divorce and remarriage is a source of dissatisfaction to many within its ranks, particularly as it runs a parallel system of annulment

I'd definitely like a citation for that 99% figure. Shall I just politely say, I think it is not substantiated by any scholarly findings?

I am still not entirely sure how this concept was a) unpopular and b) done away with via people power. It seems if his argument is based on this, then it is a weak argument, as I have shown.

Of course determined popes, such as the last one, can see off internal pressure to soften unpopular political stances. But the church must face up to the problem that, as science and technology push back the boundary of what is known, and as growing affluence and self-fulfillment increase personal expectations, more of its teachings will be ignored or rejected by members. Literal belief in tenets such as transubstantiation, the birth in the stable at Bethlehem, and hell is already low, are likely to decline.

Or increase. Science has in fact performed transubstantiation of a sort, John. Yes, you see "substance" in philosophy are all of those qualities which are necessary to an object. I like using the example of gold. Being a "metal" is a necessary quality of gold. Take away it's being metal, and it ceases to be gold. Similarly, Science tells us that the number of protons are a necessary quality. And Science has been able to change that "substance" by atom smashing. So I am not sure that Science is actually on course to disprove all that we believe, sorry. Nor is it the case that if 1 billion people stop believing that 2+2=4 it will cease to be true. So is it with those Truths which the Catholic Church has taught and held infallibly through the ages.

At some point in the future a critical mass of the church’s own members, still holding a basic belief in God and the afterlife, may reject enough of the church’s teachings to cause a general theological rethink.

We've tried this before, John. Look up Aryanism, Neopalagianism and others. And the Catholic Church? Still here.

Wishful thinking? Perhaps. But consider that Bishop Willie Walsh, who recently spoke out trenchantly against the imposition of celibacy on priests, has been disciplined by neither Rome nor Armagh. His comments could scarcely have been a more direct challenge, albeit to a "theological hypothesis." The priesthood should be open to both married and celibate priests, he said, urging a full debate on this "very serious question".

I don't know the circumstances of the specific instance he refers to. But celibacy isn't doctrinal; it's a discipline. One blessed by Christ, certainly (cf Mt 19:10-12) and recommended by St. Paul (cf 1 Cor 7:7-8). But disciplines like in what language the Mass is said or sung or priestly celibacy can be changed.

In any case, I can find where the Bishop of Killaloe speaks of about the sex abuse scandal, but I am unable at this time to see what he actually said about celibacy.

Ten years ago, one of his colleagues, Brendan Comiskey, was summoned to the Vatican for making similar comments. Walsh is unlikely to suffer this fate. If the Vatican doesn't already realise, then Archbishop Diarmuid Martin can explain to them that in the aftermath of the Ferns report on child sexual abuse, this wouldn't be a good time to discipline an Irish bishop for saying in public what many of the "faithful" believe in private.

Although I don't know the precise circumstances again about Bishop Comiskey, I do know this (from RTE):

In 1995, as the Father Brendan Smyth controversy raged, Bishop Comiskey challenged the Vatican's ban on married priests and was summoned to Rome. Before he could go, he created a sensation by leaving Ferns in September of that year, saying he was taking a sabbatical of three months.

That suggests he was summoned to Rome because of more than just the comments. It's also not clear just what "the faithful" believe in private, since no citations are provided.

Religious belief will always be with us. It doesn't just satisfy a deep human desire; belief may even be an evolutionary construct. More than anything, religion gives a sense of community; people coming together to celebrate and mourn at intervals in their lives. For centuries, the Catholic church heaped cruel "theological hypotheses" on their members' heads, insisting that they believe in everything from the eternal fires of hell to the sun going round the earth, to unbaptised babies floating for ever out of reach of God and their parents.

This is the current, en vogue materialistic explanation of "belief." Good thing Faith isn't just belief. Faith is any assent to the Truth, John. You can, you may be surprised to learn, arrive at it purely via human reason. That's just as much Faith as the "blind belief" so many equate with the word Faith.

Notice however, he combines three things under a heading of "theological hypotheses" when only one of those fits the bill. Hell is not an hypothesis; it's an essential tenet of the Faith. The whole heliocentrism/geocentrism is so casually dismissed as to be funny. John, you may be surprised to learn Copernicus was a churchman. No joke. Moreover other senior prelates encouraged him to publish his heliocentric observations. Amazing! Galileo's problems had as much to do with his personality as his science: saying his observations disproved the book of Joshua and therefore the whole Bible, and calling the Pope an idiot. His case wasn't helped that the senior scholar in the world called him a crank.

With limbo going the way of the geocentric universe and the Latin mass, we can presumably look forward to a more realistic and human church. And if you believe that, you'll believe in anything. Even limbo.

John final thought. We're not only a human Church, we're also sacramental. And it has worked well for us for millennia; so we're going to keep it. Thanks.


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