Thursday, May 27, 2010

Pruss on Boccaccio's argument for the Catholic faith

My Baylor colleague, Alexander Pruss, has published on his blog: "Boccaccio's argument for the Catholic faith." Here it is in its entirety:
In the second story of the first day of the Decameron, we have the story of how Giannotto tried to convince a Jewish friend named Abraham to become a Christian. Giannotto is a fairly ignorant merchant, but his arguments have sincerity. Abraham, on the other hand, is a theologically well-educated Jew. But instead of making mincemeat of his friend's arguments, out of friendship and perhaps a movement by the Holy Spirit (so the narrator suggests), he resolves he'll go to Rome to see what the alleged vicar of Christ is like, in order to decide which faith is correct. Giannotto thinks all is lost:
if he goes to the court of Rome and sees the wicked and filthy lives of the clergy, not only will he not change from a Jew to a Christian, but if if he had already become a Christian before, he would, no doubt, return to being a Jew.
Nonetheless, he sends his friend with his blessing. Abraham goes to Rome and sees all the sin among "the Pope, the cardinals, and the other prelates and courtiers". Abraham returns, and Giannotto is sure that there is no longer a chance of conversion. He asks Abraham what he thought of the Papal court. Abraham responds:
I don't like them a bit, and may God condemn them all; and I tell you think because as far as I was able to determine, I saw there no holiness, no devotion, no good work or exemplary life, or anything else among the clergy; instead, lust, avarice, gluttony, fraud, envy, pride, and the like and even worse (if worse than this is possible) were so completely in charge there that I believe that city is more of a forge for the Devil's work than for God's: in my opinion, that Shepherd of yours and, as a result, all of the others as well are trying as quickly as possible and with all the talent and skill they have to reduce the Christian religion to nothing and to drive it from the face of the earth when they really should act as its support and foundation. And since I have observed that in spite of all this, they do not succeed but, on the contrary, that your religion continuously grows and becomes brighter and more illustrious, I am justly of the opinion that it has the Holy Spirit as its foundation and support, and that it is truer and holier than any other religion.... So, let us go to church, and there, according to the custom of your holy faith, I shall be baptised.[note 1]
Now, while over the past century we've been blessed by popes of exemplary holiness (though of course there has been much wickedness elsewhere among the clergy and laity), the argument does not require present papal wickedness. What it requires is the surprising way that despite all the wickedness, the Church survives and grows. One might object: but if the Catholic faith were the true faith, wouldn't we expect that the hierarchy would be holy in the first place? While the analogy is not perfect, this is similar to asking, in the case of someone who was apparently miraculously healed, why God would have permitted the illness in the first place. The question is a good and tough one, but it does not make the healing (in the case of the cancer) or the survival and growth (in the case of the Church) less wonderful.

We might enhance the above by recalling another argument. The Catholic Church's formal teaching is coherent, despite having been developed over twenty centuries. The teachings are not only coherent at one time, but are coherent over time (and cohere with Scripture as well, but I don't want to rely on this if the argument is to be convincing to Protestants). The best explanation of this coherence is that it is the work of the Holy Spirit. Arguments along these lines have been developed by Menssen and Sullivan. Observe, too, how this consistency is not observed in most other Christian bodies—sexual ethics is a nice example, with contraception once condemned by all theologians (including Luther and Calvin) and now widely accepted by non-Catholic bodies (with the notable exception of some individual Protestants and some Orthodox bodies—though even in the latter, there is a reluctant acceptance of remarriage after divorce). But now combine this argument with Boccaccio's. The consistency over time is amazing enough—but when one notes that the consistency includes popes who were, apparently, quite wicked, but who, nonetheless, did not formally teach the Church anything contrary to the earlier faith, the argument becomes even stronger.
Be sure to visit Alex's blog early and often. You can find it here.


Alycin said...

I'm not sure how to contact you other than here on your blog. :)

I'm doing a study on Relativism using the book you and Greg Koukl wrote. I am the only Catholic in the group and so many times I kept thinking, "well... this is solid material but I have been learning about the evils of moral relativism since I converted to the Faith. Is this a Catholic thing?" It was after having that thought that I discovered upon further research that you had reverted. :) Welcome Home! I think it's awesome... I learn a lot from my evangelical friends and they apparently learn a lot from me (they are constantly saying they are surprised at how on top of Church History I am)... anyway... glory to God in the Highest and God bless!! :)

Constantine said...

When comparing Dr. Pruss’s writings with the pre-eminent Catholic scholar on the topic of contraception, one sees anything but a “coherency” over time.

The Honorable Dr. John T. Noonan, Jr. (Ph.D. Catholic University of America), in his magnum opus on contraception (Contraception: A History of Its Treatment by the Catholic Theologians and Canonists. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1986) masterfully details the history of the topic from a Catholic perspective – and it is anything but “coherent” or consistent.

One example (from a book of 600 pages!) will suffice:

“In the history of the thought of theologians on contraception, it is, no doubt, piquant that the first pronouncement on contraception by the most influential theologian teaching on such matters (i.e. Augustine) should be such a vigorous attack on the one method of avoiding procreation accepted by twentieth-century Catholic theologians as morally lawful. History has made doctrine take a topsy-turvy course.” (p. 120)

So Dr. Pruss errs when he maintains that there has never been a pope that “did not formally teach the Church anything contrary to the earlier faith”. Noonan is referring to Pius XII’s 1951 reversal of Augustine which , of course, contradicts Dr. Pruss’s thesis all by itself.

Dr. Noonan also shows that it was not until the 4th century, with Epiphanius, that the stand against contraception found its origin. And that Ephiphanius reacted not against contraception per se, but against its use as a ritual practice by the Gnostics. He notes further the condemnation of contraception by using “potions”. It was the concern over the magic in these concoctions, and their alleged tie with witchcraft, which gave rise to the ban. Not the contraceptive act, in and of itself.

So Dr. Pruss paints with too broad a brush. The history of the doctrine of contraception is far too nuanced to be held to be “coherent over time”. Pius XII’s invention of the “rhythm method”, and its rejection of long-standing Augustinian practice, is proof enough of that.

If one bases his decision to embrace Catholicism on the belief in consistent doctrines over time, this is certainly not the one to use. But, then again, I’m not sure there are any Catholic doctrines which fit that bill.


Alexander R Pruss said...

1. The teaching on the permissibility of the rhythm method is not an infallible papal or conciliar teaching as far as I can tell. It is not a formal teaching of the Church. I assume you are specifically referring to Pius XII's address to midwives. Formal Church teaching must be addressed to the whole Church. If it were proved that the permission of the rhythm method is inconsistent with earlier and weightier Church teaching, then the Catholic would just have to say: "I guess the rhythm method is wrong." That said, I think the teaching in question is quite correct, and easily argued for.

2. A writing by a single Church Father, even one as influential as St Augustine, does not constitute the formal teaching of the Catholic Church. If memory of the relevant text serves me (and my memory is not very good), Augustine was mistaken in thinking that procreation and pleasure were the only two possible motives for sex. Granting him that assumption, his conclusion follows, since indeed sex solely for the sake of pleasure is wrong. But there is a third option: union (or mutual help or the fulfillment of a Pauline duty). In the supplement to Thomas's Summa, we do not see such an assumption, which is some evidence that the Church did not follow Augustine on this.

3. As Noonan himself notes, Hippolytus of Rome (died c. 236) equates contraception with murder. That may be hyperbole or an excess, but in any case it certainly constitutes a "stand against contraception". Thus, neither is it true that the stand against contraception began with Epiphanius, nor that Noonan is unaware of earlier texts.

4. All of the Church Fathers who speak on contraception speak against it.

5. It is possible that the prohibition of pharmakeia in Gal. 5:20 and in the Didache referred euphemistically to contraception. "Pharmakeia" were magical potions. It is possible that among the most popular of these would have been contraceptive ones, and that it is these that are condemned. To my knowledge, we are not currently in a position to prove or disprove this exegetical thesis about Gal. 5:20 and the Didache, though I could be wrong.

6. The Epistle of Barnabas, in the 2nd century, assumes that it is uncontroversial that oral sex is forbidden. Philosophically, there seems to be little difference between oral sex and at least some forms of contraception (e.g., the use of condoms, or withdrawal).

7. There is a significant variety of views permissible within the essentials of Catholic orthodoxy, and this accounts for some of the variation within the tradition. Thus, one must hold that contraception is wrong, but there is room for disagreement on questions like (a) why contraception is wrong, (b) whether contraception is wrong in non-marital cases such as rape, and (c) what the exact boundaries of the concept of "contraception" are (though paradigm cases, like the pill, the condom and withdrawal are now clear).

8. As a minor point, it is probbaly historically incorrect to think Pius XII's address to midwives is where rhythm was first permitted. In the late 19th century, the Sacred Penitentiary allowed confessors to advise rhythm in some cases. In 1930the encyclical Casti Connubii expressly says that couples do not sin if they have marital relations during an infertile time. Since it is plainly not sinful to try to figure out whether a given time is fertile or not (knowledge is a good!), it follows that rhythm and NFP is permissible. (It is an interesting fact, thus, that rhythm was permitted almost immediately as soon as scientifically supported methods became available.)

Constantine said...

Thank you, Dr. Pruss. I am humbled by your response, if still unmoved by your thesis.

When you pit Aquinas against Augustine (your point #2) are you not making the case for an inconsistent teaching over time? And since Augustine’s teaching was the basis for later Canon Law, how can he dismissed so easily?

Thank you for your note about Hippolytus. What Noonan said about Epiphanius was that his writings were the first “explicit emphasis on contraception.” So Noonan allows for earlier mentions of contraception but just not in a direct or formal way. That would be in concert with his earlier note that, “In the Christian era of the Empire, there seems to have been no new inhibition to the dissemination of contraceptive techniques.” ( P. 19) ;and his later note that, “Indisputable reference to contraception is not earlier than the eighth century.” (P. 155.) So Hippolytus and others may have made mention of contraception, but Noonan thinks its evolution more nearly complete by the 4th century and finally so in the 8th.

I’m sure you are correct when you say, “All of the Church Fathers who speak on contraception speak against it”. But so much depends on what your definition of “it” is! As Noonan notes regarding interpretation of “patristic statements taken as a whole”: “it may be said that no one addresses himself solely to the sinfulness of a single contraceptive act by a married person with reason not to have more children.” If that is true, not much else need be said about “consistency over time” for today’s teaching is surely pointed at married persons not wanting more children. Noonan concludes this section by drawing a strong distinction between the clear and explicit prohibitions against abortion with the little that is said about contraception thusly: “If abortion is so often castigated and contraception so little, contraception cannot have been regarded generally as a major offense against God.” (pp. 104-105) Today, contraception is certainly considered a “major offense”, don’t you think?

Thank you, again, for mentioning “pharmakeia” or “potions”. What is interesting to me from Noonan’s analysis is that these were rejected because they represented “magic” from which the early church recoiled. They seem not to have been spoken against because of their abortifacient potential. In other words, “potions” were outlawed because they were “black magic” not because of any contraceptive effect they may have.

Your point of “variety…within…orthodoxy” is well taken. But the narrow confines of today’s “orthodoxy” has not been consistent over time. Think, for example, of the issue of ensoulment. Today the church teaches that ensoulment occurs at “the moment of conception.” However, Jerome held that “the fetus as at no point of development a human.” Augustine held to the Aristotelean view of 40 days for males and “the eighty-day period suggested by Leviticus for females.” (Noonan, p. 90). How is that possibly “consistent over time”?

To be continued…..

Constantine said...

Thank you, too, for your comments about Pius XII and the Italian midwives. I understand that this may not be “official” church teaching but the fact that Pius was only four pontiffs removed from Vatican I, his words can be said to carry the “stain of infallibility”. It is a de facto teaching if not de jure, don’t you think?

But I might disagree that the Penitentiary preceded Pius in this matter for one very significant reason. Pius’s intent was clearly to allow for marital relations where the focus was not to have children. (This follows from the pleasure allowed by Thomism previously denied by Augustinianism. Another change!) As Noonan describes, the bishop of Amiens inquired of the Penitentiary if his priests should counsel couples not to have relations during the sterile period. “The Penitentiary replied that “those about whom you ask are not to be distrubed provided they do nothing by which conception is prevented.” “ p. 439.

So here, again, is another about face. The Penitentiary says do not disturb the couples as long as they do not try to prevent conception and Pius promotes the rhythm method to allow couples to prevent conception – at least potentially.

Thank you, again, Dr. Pruss for your response. I am grateful to learn from you.

However, I still don’t see “consistency over time” in this doctrine – or any other for that matter.

I wish you all the best in the warm Texas summer!


Alexander R Pruss said...

1. An earlier variety of views followed by a later crystallization is certainly consistent with consistency. :-) Consistency does not mean that what is now authoritatively taught has always been authoritatively taught. It means that nothing that was authoritatively taught at one time contradicts anything that was authoritatively taught at another time. This is compatible with development, where earlier a question was open (such as the question of the time of ensoulment), and then it became closed.

2. As for the sacred penitentiary, the couples are permitted to have sexual relations during infertile times. NFP consists of two things: (a) refraining from sexual relations during fertile times and (b) engaging in sexual relations during infertile ones. The sacred penitentiary permits (b). And the tradition certainly would permit (a) when such relations would be imprudent, since it is permissible for a couple to abstain from sexual relations when the relations are imprudent (Aquinas is clear that for prudential reasons a couple might abstain).

I look at NFP as a day-by-day decision. The couple decides whether on each day on which they would like to join maritally whether sexual relations would be prudent. If not, then they don't engage in them. If yes, they do. The judgment as to prudence is based on all available data, including data as to fertility and the likely consequences of pregnancy.

The tradition allowed one method of preventing conception: abstinence. And abstinence is the modus operandi of NFP. (The fact that the couple engages in sexual relations during times they judge to be infertile does nothing to prevent conception!) So the only question is whether it is permitted for a couple who know themselves to be infertile to engage in sexual relations. And the tradition answered that in the positive--it did not, for instance, prohibit infertile couples from sexual relations.

3. A difference between Augustine and Aquinas does not constitute an inconsistency in Church teaching since neither spoke authoritatively for the Church.