Saturday, 13 June 2009

On objectivity and Church doctrine

I had been absolutely intrigued by the articles that Dr Ricardo Baschetti and Ms Marie Benoît contributed to the last issues of First (The Malta Independent). Mainly because they touch on a couple of themes that pique my philosophical and theological sensitivities: the issue of objectivity, on the one hand, and, on the other, Catholic doctrine, especially regarding bioethical concerns. What I would like to submit covers some ground that is held in common by both Dr Baschetti and Ms Benoît.

First, about objectivity. I would like to say, at the onset, that I share Dr Baschetti’s enthusiasm for neurology. The fascinating developments and progress made during the last half century in successfully mapping the brain and discovering the physical stimulations and chemical reactions that take place there is producing ever novel ways of understanding mental processes. We all stand to learn from these advances, as Dr Baschetti indicates. Neurological science and, in particular, biological psychology, is providing fresh hermeneutical tools with which to go about deciphering the human spirit and also the animal kingdom. I find stimulating, for instance, the work done in this field by Temple Grandin. Philosophy, for one, is surely very interested in these advancements.

The question of objectivity, of course, has a long history. Though from Plato onwards philosophers have grappled with this concept unceasingly, it has acquired an absolutely fresh thrust with the advent of post-modernism, doubting, as it does, any absolute. And with some sound arguments to boot. Dr Baschetti’s claim to objectivity has not been the first nor the last. However, in this time and age it is difficult, to say the least, to be taken in very easily with any such argument. The problem is not whether we should confide in naturalistic morality or not or whether naturalistic morality is a reliable measure to go by, but whether we should trust in any claim to objectivity at all. This position goes way beyond Dr Baschetti’s belief in evolutionary morality or even beyond any other objective moral belief, religious or otherwise.

The alternative is not scepticism. It is a consensual agreement on interpretation and naming; a sort of conventionalism that solidly retains a belief in facts, but at the same time considers any human understanding and explanation of them as variable and open-ended. Ultimately, morality is a matter of choice according to equally conventional principles and objectives. Whatever indications may be gathered from matter, animate or inanimate, or revealed, they will still have to be perceived, and thus interpreted, by the human subject, and this means that, whatever their origin, as subjective interpretations they remain arbitrary and artificial. In other words, only existent matter is objective, and this is, in itself, valueless, senseless and purposeless. Whatever value, sense and purpose it may have is imposed upon it by the human subject.

I do not subscribe to the opinion that the arguments for any naturalistic morality are from necessity flawed or prejudiced. I submit that it is its very claim to objectivity that is insubstantial. And it is so as much as that of any other similar claim, be it religious, philosophical or otherwise.

In particular this also bears, of course, on Catholic doctrine and on the Church’s apparent intransigence based on such a claim to objectivity. I submit that what is objective in this or any other similar case is revelation, but not the interpretation or understanding of it. This means to say that objectivity, if anything, lies with the ‘sending’, and not with the ‘receiving’, end of the divine communication technique. Revelation may indeed be complete, but this does not mean that the human recipient has it or understands it completely or even correctly. Consequently, the understanding process involved in the revelation of divine truths is a progressive, learning experience.

In this context, it may be said that Dr Baschetti’s and Ms Benoît’s arguments defeat themselves. Not that they are unworthy in themselves. Not at all. But that they seem to have the same underlying attitude of what they criticise, namely, they consider Church doctrine as being static, immutable and eternal. This is precisely what Catholic conservative theologians, or pseudo-theologians, project and would like everyone to believe, utterly ignoring alternative theological interpretations or views or even feigning that they do not exist at all. The esteemed Dr Baschetti and Ms Benoît, for instance, refer to Pope John Paul II’s moral positions as if they were the sole acceptable Catholic perspective. True, at the moment these positions may indeed be currently in the lead, but this must absolutely not in the least overlook, first, other vying theological positions that, though unendorsed, are equally orthodox and valid and, secondly, the ongoing internal theological and pastoral vivid discussion that continues to contribute to the gestation of official positions. To consider Catholic doctrine or, more specifically, morality as some kind of monolith hunk is, in all effects, playing in the hands of conservative, and maybe retrograde, theologians, whether they enjoy official status or not, and doing a disservice to theology and, I may add, to the Church itself.

Of course, lest confusion reigns, official positions have to be taken, and they have to be taken by one or more people in command. The problem is: what kind of decision processes must prevail, that that vests decisive power in the hands of local bishops in harmony with a collegial model of the Church, or rather that that vests decisive power in the hands of the Pope and the Roman Curia. This is the real crux of the problem. As probably known, Vatican II, John XXIII and Paul VI favoured the former, while Pius XII, John Paul II and Benedict XVI favour the latter. Positions regarding issues such as those highlighted by Dr Baschetti and Ms Benoît depend very much on what option is favoured across this divide.

Not only, there is another crucial issue that came to the fore during the latter part of John Paul II’s pontificate, and now sustained, as was expected, by Benedict XVI. It is as momentous as the other, and one that concerns the spirit of philosophical and theological discussion, and the place of dissent, within the Church. Understandably, official positions are, almost by definition, a choice of one view or perspective over others. But should this imply exclusivity? Should the chosen view be held as absolute in a way that excludes all other possibilities? Many members of the Church hierarchy, and also some leading Catholic philosophers and theologians, maintain that, no, it should not. But this was not John Paul II’s belief, and neither is it that of Benedict XVI. But one must not ignore two important facts: one, popes are not the Church but part of it; and, two, unlike the Church, popes are transient.

In responding to Dr Baschetti’s and Ms Benoît’s highly interesting and challenging contributions I may have probably widened the perspective of the discussion a bit more than would have been expected. However, it is my opinion that overlooking such matters, even if somewhat complex and philosophical, may distort the beauty of the Church, its verve or even the nature of its official teachings.

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