The Catholic Thing
Faith, Reason, and Secular Ignorance Print E-mail
By Francis J. Beckwith   
Friday, 31 August 2012

I have already noted and critiqued (here and here) several of the strange, and uninformed, claims about religion’s rationality embraced by some legal scholars.

Today, I want to discuss another one of these claims, namely, that the fundamental beliefs of religious traditions, unlike those of the sciences, are not revisable in light of new evidence.

There are several problems with this claim. First, it’s not clear what counts as a “fundamental belief” in the sciences. Theories, of course, change, or are replaced by other theories in light of new evidence or better theories that account for old evidence. But in either case, the scientific enterprise itself requires a commitment to first principles.

The scientist, for example, must assume that nature exists, that it is intelligible, that simple and elegant theories should be preferred over ones with ad hoc hypotheses, and so forth.  These are not deliverances of the sciences, but presuppositions that make the sciences possible. Thus, it is difficult to imagine what sort of “evidence” would require that we revise them.

Second, the idea of doctrinal development – the progressive changing of beliefs over time in response to a variety of external and internal challenges and insights  -- is integral to both Protestant and Catholic Christianity, as well as to other faiths. Consider just four examples from the history of Christianity.

(1) One of the most important developments in Christian theology occurred as a consequence of its encounter with Greek philosophy. As some scholars have noted, most Christian thinkers in the Church’s first six centuries, rather than seeing pagan philosophical traditions as a threat, conscripted their insights to such an extent that the Early Church was able to formulate its most important creeds and resolve what otherwise would have been intractable theological issues. Later on, as Christianity moved into the Middle Ages and into the modern period, the Church’s philosophical inheritance continued to play an important role in the development of dogmatic and moral theology. Ironically, some writers, claiming to offer a more “scientific” understanding of theology, fault the Church for not insulating itself from the influence of Greek philosophy. 

(2) St. Thomas Aquinas, relying almost exclusively on Aristotle’s view of biology, held that the human fetus did not receive its rational soul until several weeks after conception. It was for centuries the dominant view of the Catholic Church as well as for many non-Catholic Christians. But as the science of embryology discovered more about human development, and biology rejected Aristotle’s views, the Church, though never discarding Aquinas’ metaphysics, embraced the view that an individual human being, with a rational soul, begins at conception.

(3) Although Darwin’s theory of evolution has been widely accepted in the academy, it has been rejected by some segments of the religious world, most notably among some (but by no means all) Fundamentalist and conservative Evangelical Protestants. Nevertheless, the wider Christian world has engaged evolution rather impressively, showing respect for the deliverances of the natural sciences while pressing for philosophical modesty and rigor on the part of materialists who mistakenly believe that evolution is a defeater to theism. (Alvin Plantinga’s most recent work is an impressive example of this.)

            God the Geometer (frontispiece, Bible Moralisee, 13th century)

The Catholic Church has dealt with the creation/evolution question by making important and careful distinctions between science, metaphysics, and Biblical hermeneutics. Several Catholic authors, thoroughly committed to the Church and its teachings, have made valuable contributions in understanding the relationship between science and theology and why the proposals by certain segments of the Christian world – e.g., creationism and intelligent design – may not be fruitful approaches.  

Others, from a variety of Christian traditions, have advanced similar efforts, though in some cases showing a bit more sympathy for intelligent design or at least the theoretical issues raised by it (while, however, engaging its critics).

What this shows is that Christian thinkers – regardless of where they may stand on the intersection of theology and science – are having an important conversation among themselves and with those critics outside their communities, precisely because they do not believe that their theological beliefs are insulated from external challenges that may lead to true development and better understanding. 

(4) The relationship between Christianity, its moral and political theologies, and the idea of religious liberty has clearly changed over time. As the late Avery Cardinal Dulles, S. J. has pointed out, “The problem of religious freedom, as understood today, has emerged only since the Enlightenment. In the Middle Ages, no doubt, the Church tolerated or authorized practices that strike us today as inconsistent with due respect for religious freedom. . .”

The changing cultural and political landscape of post-Reformation Western Europe called for Christians to reassess how they thought church and state should interact. But the Protestant and Catholic communities did not have the luxury of just affirming religious liberty by fiat. If they were to affirm it, it had to be consistent with Scripture and (in the case of Catholics) Tradition (including the Church’s prior authoritative pronouncements) and thus a legitimate development of doctrine.

If theology is truly a knowledge tradition – and thus must take account of, and not insulate itself from, serious intellectual and cultural challenges – thoughtful Christians had to proceed in this fashion. And they did. The Catholic Church, for instance, grounds its defense of religious liberty in its rich theological anthropology, connecting this doctrinal development to the deliverances of its predecessors, while other Christians have made a different sort of case.

For informed and careful scholars, believers and unbelievers alike, none of this is surprising. Why then does the alternative account have so much traction in the legal academy? After all, if it were about race, gender, or sexual orientation, rather than religion, it would be roundly dismissed as bigotry borne of ignorance. Perhaps that is the answer. If so, we must work “as long as it is day; night is coming when no one can work. (Jn 9:4-5)

Francis J. Beckwith is Professor of Philosophy and Church-State Studies, Baylor University.
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Comments (8)Add Comment
written by Jack,CT, August 31, 2012
WE are made in the Lords image, if it was his plan for us to
change or adapt to our surroundings, this has little bearing
on church teaching.The Lord would not have created "Science"
if it was to move us away from him!
written by Other Joe, August 31, 2012
The argument from intelligent design seems to be gaining ground with each new discovery in physics. The idea that an infinite number of universes were bubbled up from nothing and then discarded by blind chance waiting for the random occurrence of an anthropic set of conditions is looking increasingly silly.
written by Michael Paterson-Seymour, August 31, 2012
On the question of "ensoulment," Donum Vitae(1987)says, "the Magisterium has not expressly committed itself to an affirmation of a philosophical nature, but it constantly reaffirms the moral condemnation of any kind of procured abortion. This teaching has not been changed and is unchangeable."

No doubt, this is because legitimate questions around individuality and identity are raised by monozygotic twinning and the Magisterium has not seen fit to pronounce on them.

It goes without saying that this does not affect the oral status of the zygote, one way or the other.
written by G.K. Thursday, August 31, 2012
Why do legal scholars react with " bigotry borne of ignorance" with respect to religion? Especially the Christian traditions?

Well, the answer lies in the history of American jurisprudence. If we look there we find two strong tendencies: a primitive support for a variable religious freedom in society, and a distinct hostility to any particular religion becoming too dominant there. As time has gone by the hostility has come to over power the support. Oliver Wendell Holmes is a pivotal character in this development. Holmes represented that strain of American intellectual life which yielded the crude pragmatism governing much of our public life at this point.

For many legal scholars, no philosophical or historical information needs to be considered other than the most immediately pragmatic. That this approach truncates complex human reality into reductionistic unreal frames, is not of concern to them. Their "bigotry due to ignorance" is not innocently acquired. It is a now a legal tradition with a substantial pedigree in American jurisprudence.
written by Gabe, August 31, 2012
Is religious freedom really a true development, or more like a "given the circumstances, we have no other choice" kind of thing?
I've always wondered about that. Religious freedom seems to be OUR thing, rather than THE thing.
At least to me, it seems like the medievals (and the Christians who came before them) would have scratched their heads at the idea, and said something like "ah, nope!". Maybe I'm wrong here, but it just seems like a foreign thing that was foisted apon us.
written by Dave, August 31, 2012
This article, with all of its links, is quite simply one of the best articles I've ever read in The Catholic Thing, or any blog. For the assiduous reader, there's a semester's worth of work in it, or a year's worth. Thank you, Dr. Beckwith.
written by Athanasius, August 31, 2012
I beg to differ with Gabe. It seems to me that religious freedom is THE thing, as non-religious freedom leads to coerced belief which is really no belief at all. That hardly seems consistent with free will. Rather, the medievals probably hesitated on religious freedom because It was THEIR thing for the surrounding world, and it took time for the darkened intellect of fallen man to really listen to the enlightened truth of the Holy Spirit.
written by G.K. Thursday, September 01, 2012
Religious freedom is not THE thing. Religious truth is. Freedom is important only in that it provides the opportunity for human persons to come to the true faith. In the conditions of modernity, the best that can be afforded in society is the freedom to seek religious truth. Under the very different conditions of the patristic and medieval Church it was possible to have positive social safeguards for the true faith.

Of course it is important that the faith be entered into freely, but even so the theological virtue of faith is a divine gift, not something created by our choice, no matter how free. So in other times and places, with different underlying social conditions, hedging the true faith with safeguards is not a offense against human dignity, but an aid to salvation. Given the conditions of modernity under which we live today (the emphasis on the Enlightenment and its values, political developments following the American and French Revolutions, the post-WWII breakdown of the family, etc.), such safeguards are not possible or even advisable.

Freedom is a part of human moral agency which often needs assistance to become ordered to God as its highest good. This assistance can be given in a variety of ways, depending on the circumstances human persons find themselves in. It is good to recognize that the conditions of modernity are not binding on God or the Church. Instead the True Church (Catholic) is led by the Holy Spirit to the unfolding of truths implicit in the faith which apply in the evolving historical conditions whatever those may be. In time modernity will pass and the Church will be led by the Spirit to preserve and evangelize the true faith in those future circumstances.

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