Friday, March 24, 2006

Damon Linker on Neuhaus

Damon Linker certainly seems to have had a falling out with Father Neuhaus, whose magazine First Things used to be edited by none other than Linker.

There are two passages in particular that I find puzzling:
All of these and many other problems, he claims, can be traced to an insidious culture of dissent infesting American Catholicism. The proper response, according to Neuhaus, is for Catholics to learn how to "think with the Church"--by which he means to submit absolutely to the authority of the Vatican. Readers of Neuhaus's magazine column, "The Public Square," will recall this line of argument from his response to the sex-abuse scandal. For many Catholics, the scandal raised serious questions about what it was in the institutional practices of the Church that made possible such sordid crimes. The fact that so many priests were accused of sexually molesting children and teenagers--as opposed to, say, embezzling from church coffers--seemed to point directly to a problem in the Church's teachings and practices regarding sex. But not according to Neuhaus. In a series of essays published throughout 2002 and 2003, he argued instead that the scandal should be blamed on a widespread lack of "fidelity" among clergy to the moral and sexual teachings of the Church: "If bishops and priests had been faithful to the Church's teachings and their sacred vows, there would be no crisis." This was, to say the least, an odd interpretation--one that was about as enlightening as saying that theft would never occur if people obeyed laws against stealing.
Linker is right that it's not very "enlightening" to put forward a tautology -- i.e., that if bishops and priests had obeyed the Catholic Church's teachings on sexual issues, they wouldn't have been caught disobeying the Catholic Church's teachings on sexual issues.

But what's really "odd" is Linker's suggestion (not explained) that the problem arose from "the Church's teachings and practices regarding sex." To use Linker's analogy, this is somewhat like saying that if too many people are caught stealing, the answer is to do away with the laws against theft.

The practical consequences of such fanciful and willfully uncritical thinking can be seen most vividly in Neuhaus's discussion of the Church's sexual teachings, especially on contraception. Pope Paul VI re-affirmed the absolute ban on all artificial birth control, over the strenuous objections of theologians whom he had convened to discuss the possibility of liberalization, in the notorious encyclical Humanae Vitae in 1968. More than thirty-five years later, the ban is ignored by a vast majority of the Catholic laity in the United States. So few Catholics in their twenties and thirties accept the Church's teaching on the subject, in fact, that the percentage who do falls within the margin of error (less than 3 percent).

Many have concluded from these trends that the ban on birth control lacks a basis in natural law and instead reflects the Vatican's desire to uphold an antiquarian and sexist ideal of order in the family that clashes violently with the way most modern Catholics think and live. But not Neuhaus. As far as he is concerned, the widespread disregard for Church teaching on contraception can be traced entirely to the failure of the American clergy to defend Pope Paul's encyclical. If only parish priests had obeyed the pope's edict--if only they had railed from the altar for the past three decades against the use of condoms and the culture of "disordered sexual desire" that pervades modern America--then American Catholics today would enthusiastically embrace the ban on contraception. Needless to say, this position makes a rather extreme assumption about the power of Church authorities to mold the minds of the laity. Neuhaus's Catholicism is supremely a religion of credulity.
I gather that Linker is using the typical journalist's trick of presenting his own beliefs under the cover of claiming that "many" unidentified people have claimed that, etc., etc.

In any event, Linker's point is deeply confused. The social practices found in America (or any other nation) on a particular date in history do not undermine a conclusion of "natural law" (i.e., reasoning based on human nature), any more than the argument that "natural law proscribes torture" would be refuted by pointing to various nations (including our own, on occasion) that have defended or secretly used torture. If the term "natural law" has any meaning at all, "natural law" cannot be decided by democratic vote any more than people could vote on whether the sun revolves around the earth.

UPDATE: More on Linker's article here. And here, Linker's overstatements inspire my friend Rick Garnett to write a blistering denunciation; given that Rick is normally respectful to a fault, even to the most undeserving of opponents, this is quite an achievement on Linker's part.


Blogger Václav Patrik Šulik said...

More here:

5:44 PM  
Blogger Tibor said...

This idea, that "I gather that Linker is using the typical journalist's trick of presenting his own beliefs under the cover of claiming that "many" unidentified people have claimed that, etc., etc." can be challenged by noting that when so many decent, non-perverse people fail to follow a teaching, the credibility of that teaching is put in jeopardy. Certainly, whether contraception should or should not be used is not a matter of natural law--natural law has rather minimal content in most renditions (see Aquinas, for example). The supposed wrongfulness of using contraception is at best an inference several steps removed from any purported foundation in natural law. So Linker isn't open to the charge leveled at him here, namely, that he is confusing widespread non-compliance with a natural law with the doubtfulness of the law itself. For this criticism to hold, first it would have to be shown that what is alleged to be a natural law is in fact such a law. Neuhaus hasn't shown this at all. Linker is merely noting that most Catholics seem to agree and act accordingly. BTW, as a long ago "fallen" catholic, I found Linker's comments on the role of blind faith in the Church's authority aligned with my own reason for leaving the fold. How could anyone with the desire to know comply with such a demand? (When I initially challenged it to my priest mentor, he asked me to read Kempis' Immitation of Christ, which only hastened my departure.)

1:55 AM  
Blogger Stuart Buck said...

Thanks for the comment, Prof. Machan.

With respect, I think your comment doesn't exonerate Linker. You say, for example, that "whether contraception should or should not be used is not a matter of natural law . . . The supposed wrongfulness of using contraception is at best an inference several steps removed from any purported foundation in natural law."

You may be right -- but if you're right, it's only because you have provided a sufficient for doubting either 1) the existence of natural law per se, or 2) the application of natural law in this instance.

The problem is that Linker does neither. He does not suggest any reasoning that would indicate that natural law is either non-existent or non-applicable here.

Instead, Linker merely suggests that the ban on contraception lacks a basis in natural law because of various "trends" -- i.e., trends in American behavior. To my mind, Linker is simply confused. A proposition of natural law cannot be settled by looking at how many people assent to it at any given time. To the contrary, there are many times and places where people's consciences are "deformed," such that they fail to recognize moral truths. (Again, this is not to say that a ban on contraception is a moral truth; it's to say that the existence of such a moral truth doesn't depend on how many people recognize it, as Linker suggests.)

12:32 PM  

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