This blog started out as a companion piece to my book, Musings from the Christian Left (excerpts of which can be found in the July 2004 link) and to support a planned radio show. Now, its simply a long term writing project from a Christian Left Libertarian perspective (meaning I often argue for liberty within the (Catholic) Church, rather than liberty because the church takes care of a conservative view of morality.

Friday, November 06, 2009

What exactly is heresy?

In the last few weeks, the Bishop of Portland campaigned heavily, and even funded (probably at risk of the Church's non-profit status) the campaign to overturn the gay marriage law. This invited organized opposition from a group of organized Catholics, who campaigned against the referendum.

In prior years, this would have been considered unthinkable. Most believers were not well educated and took the bishop's word to be law. Nowadays, many Catholics have college educations and even training in the same philosophy programs most seminarians take. Quite a few others also have taken public policy courses at the undergraduate and graduate levels and find it laughable that theology majors are telling us how to vote.

We are required to act from well formed consciouses. However, in some areas, such as public policy, it could be argued that our conciouses have undergone better formation, especially in democratic societies. Some of us also know a bit more about human sexuality, (both the psychological aspects and the biological processes) through training and experience. Again, such knowledge is as much part of the formation of the conscious as the teachings of the Church, especially when in matters sexual teaching is developed by a celibate clergy whose celibacy evolved from the rather obnoxious belief that one could not engage in sexual intercourse and then celibrate the Eucharist too soon (a belief that the Eastern Church finds anethema).
The question arises, is disagreement with the Church in these areas really considered heresy when our information was better? Galileo was better informed. Did he have a right to be defiant when it was obvious that the Church was wrong?

Is it servant leadership to insist that you are always right? Jesus washed the feet of his disciples and commented how worldly leaders lord their position over their subjects, which echoes what he told James and John when Salome (Jesus big sister from Joseph's first marriage) goaded them into asking for seats on his right and left. Are the bishops acting in this spirit when or as secular rulers when they insist they must always be right - even when those that disagree with them have better information?

Perhaps we need to define heresy only in terms of theological belief - and even then we need to be careful that the belief in question is really essential. Esoteric beliefs about the Trinity (such as the Filioque, or even the difference between consubstantiation and transubstantiation) should probably be open for debate. Certain beliefs, such as the divinity of Jesus and the fact of the resurrection, are essential since without them there is no reason for faith. Let's keep charges of heresy to what is essential and keep an open mind about the rest.

I am not arguing here for relativism. Relativism says that you can make up your own mind about everything. Instead, I am arguing that there is such a thing as truth, but on occassion it must be sought outside the hallowed halls of the Vatican. As time goes on, I believe such perspective will be more widely expected. Indeed, the survival of the Church depends on it. Since the Church is promised to survive (although not necessarily the way it is governed from Rome), I think it eventually will come out alright, even if it is hard for some.

4 Comments:

Blogger Michael Bindner said...

Regarding sexual morality, in one of the discussion groups the practice of celibacy and its roots in the belief that one may not celebrate (or receive) the Eucharist after having sexual relations with your spouse (that morning or the night before) came up. I argued this belief is misogynistic and was asked for clarification. This is my response:

When the practice began, sex with a woman was thought to be denigrating to one's purity in the culture of the day, as women were considered inferior and the carnal was considered somehow sinful, even with the spouse.

Sex is part of the married vocation. It is not at all sinful or lesser. Indeed, it is a positive good. The idea that one must "forgo pleasure" to be worthy of Communion with God is insulting to marriage and women. Indeed, sex is part of the marital sacrament. There is no conflict - it is a positive good.

The fact that celibacy is based on an alternative belief shows that it is wrong and all of the moral teaching that arises from it is wrong. While there is a place for sexual morality, it is not about being pure for God but about justice within relationships and one's own peace of mind.

We don't avoid masturbation because every sperm is sacred, but because frequent masturbation gets in the way of having a relationship with a partner. To use the moralistic term, it prevents unitive sexuality. We avoid fornication because it is a sin against one's own self - not because of the spread of disease or the problem of unplanned pregnancy - but because it excites the unitive instinct without being able to fulfill it with relationship (which is to distinguish between "trial marriage" and fornication).

God's stake in the matter is our happiness, not our attainment of some Godly level of sexual purity or conduct. He wants us to love ourselves and others perfectly - not for his sake - but for our own.

1:23 PM

 
Blogger Aquinas Dad said...

You make a fair number of unsupported statements in this piece. For example, when were most believers "not that well educated"? What do levels of education and obedience to the Church have to do with one another? Most college graduates that I know took *no* philosophy and certainly no theology in college - how do you support your claim that
"Nowadays, many Catholics have college educations and even training in the same philosophy programs most seminarians take."?

You state "...in some areas, such as public policy, it could be argued that our conciouses [sic] have undergone better formation, especially in democratic societies"

Better than whom? Are you perhaps referring to priests who often were born, raised, and educated in the exact same schools as other citizens of these nebulous 'democratic societies' before they went on to specialized training in morals, ethics, and religious leadership?

Then you state "Some of us also know a bit more about human sexuality, (both the psychological aspects and the biological processes) through training and experience.". Who is "us"? Who is the implied "they"? What does direct knowledge of intercourse have to do with the formation of moral and ethical conceptualization? Must one have direct knowledge of homosexual activity before one can have a 'properly formed conscience' concerning the same? If so, when did you receive your own personal experience?

You then go on to state "...a celibate clergy whose celibacy evolved from the rather obnoxious belief that one could not engage in sexual intercourse and then celibrate the Eucharist too soon..."
Please cite the primary sources for this rather interesting claim. English or Latin translations will do if the Greek is unavailable online. No, a line of posts from some comment string on a blog is not a primary source.

I look forward to your response.

9:10 AM

 
Blogger Michael Bindner said...

When the American church was confused of mostly poor immigrants, they did tend to let the hierarchy do their thinking for them - indeed when most of the faithful were working class, this seemed to be the case. I think it troubles the hierarchy that this is no longer true.

As far as current knowledge, I was referring to graduates of Catholic colleges, especially those of us who took pre-law.

As far as public policy, many Catholics have advanced degrees in biology, medicine, psychology, law and public policy. We may have a better grounding in these issues, yet some in the hierarchy don't even ask for our guidance. It also seems to many of us that those who do advise them are giving bad advise. It is telling that Evangelicum Vitae was written by a cardiologist and not an expert in genetics and development.

As far as sexuality, I was referring to the professionals, as well as to married people who know a bit more about how sexuality works in a relationship than do celibates.

It is also tragic that the hierarchy regards homosexuality as disordered, which begs the question of who defines the natural order for homosexuals. Most will relate that they were created that way and are ordered just find. A functional analysis in this area is meaningless sophistry in this light. How shall we expect homosexuals to believe the Church on salvation when the hierarchy does not believe them when they describe their own sexuality.

As for celibacy, here is an excerpt from my book, posted in the June 2004 entries:

Religious historian Philip Jenkins reported in an op-ed in The Washington Post that the true origin of priestly celibacy in the Latin Rite is not, as many wrongly suppose, the desire to keep control of Church property by making Episcopal heirs illegitimate. Its origin also has nothing to do with the modern justification that the vow of celibacy frees Priests to fully minister to their flocks. He reveals that in the ancient church, priests were required to abstain from sexual intercourse the night before offering Mass. When they began to offer Mass on a daily basis, celibacy became a practical necessity. If this is the case, and I have no doubt that it is, then priestly celibacy is based on what most modern Catholics view as a warped notion of sexuality, particularly sexuality within marriage. If sexuality is a gift from God, which is part of being a whole person, than such a reactionary view of sex has no place in a mature spirituality. As a married person, I find such a view of sexuality in this day and age to be deeply offensive, as well as an insult to my wife. Perhaps the best reason to end priestly celibacy is to dignify marriage, women and sexuality within marriage.

3:33 PM

 
Blogger Aquinas Dad said...

You state,
"When the American church was confused of mostly poor immigrants, they did tend to let the hierarchy do their thinking for them - indeed when most of the faithful were working class, this seemed to be the case. "

First - can you demonstrate with something other than "Michael Binder said so' that this was ever so? If so, when? How did you determine that these working class folks let the hierarchy do their thinking for them - necromancy or actual primary data? Further, how did the general population of the rest of the country differ from the average Catholic during the as-yet-to-be-determined time that all this things were supposedly just so? Or is your knowledge of Catholic immigrants more informed by the Know-Nothings than by demographic research?

Then;
"As far as current knowledge, I was referring to graduates of Catholic colleges, especially those of us who took pre-law."

How much philosophy did you take? How much theology? Are you aware that many of the members of the hierarchy that discuss ethics are canon lawyers, meaning they have an education in law at least equal to a JD *AND* training in ethics, philosophy, and theology?

Then;
"As far as public policy, many Catholics have advanced degrees in biology, medicine, psychology, law and public policy. We may have a better grounding in these issues, yet some in the hierarchy don't even ask for our guidance."

And many of those Catholics are priests and nuns. Also, who is "we"? Who is the implied "they"? The statement "...ome in the hierarchy don't even ask for our guidance" implies that others in the hierarchy *do* ask for guidance from the laity.... Whom and whom?

12:41 PM

 

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