Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Catholic intellectuals: authority and reason


Great series of posts over at Mirror of Justice on the motivations, and outside perceptions, of Catholic scholars. When such scholars are working in the context of a strong tradition of magisterial authority on certain matters, should they present the best argument within the tradition? The best argument in general, but continuously and explicitly confront their argument with the tradition? Or just have those discussions "internally"? When people perceive that Catholics have certain motivations that the world at large doesn't share, does that undercut their impact? (What about the authorities other traditions recognize, such as political correctness or Marxist theory?)

Check out Eduardo Penalver's first (self-described "inflammatory") post, linked above, and then scroll upwards to follow the debate. The most recent post, as of this second, is by Robert Araujo. He notes the Catholic tradition of the “Two Francises”--de Vitoria and Suárez--who debated openly and freely in sixteenth century Spain. They argued both from faith and reason, continuously annoying the civil authorities by demanding basic rights for indigenous people based on--and seeing little division between--religious truth and public reason. [See, for example, The Catholic Neo-Scholastic Contribution to Human Rights: The Natural Law Foundation, 1 AVE MARIA LAW REVIEW 159 (2003), with which I tormented Genius Pony a few weeks ago.] Humility when interacting with one's colleagues, and with the world in general, is essential, since faith is not a trump card: we do not have the whole of God's knowledge available to us. The Catholic tradition is simply that part of the vineyard which many of us have chosen to cultivate.

Araujo (S.J.) makes many wonderful points. And Penalver himself, too, with his "inflammatory" questioning, is also at the heart of the tradition of the Two Francises. This is an important discussion, since none of us come to knowledge without preconceptual assistance from some tradition.

It is interesting to consider how the Jews have approached this problem, since their intellectual context of course rivals the richness of Catholic history. Disputation is highly valued by the Jews, and thought trends like Hillel duke it out with opposing views to apply the doctrines of faith to updated conditions, and reconcile faith and reason. There is a strong feeling of tension between faith and reason, but little sense that "faith is absurd" by reason's pale, false light. This latter view would be developed by early Patristic writers like Tertullian, and held as a valuable but incomplete strand of thought in the Catholic Church. It would only come into its own, as a doctrinal reflection of original sin, with the Protestant Reformation and Luther's assertion that "reason is the handmaid of the devil."

The Jewish and Catholic heritages are perhaps quite similar in their need to solve the problem of the apparent conflict between revealed truth (especially as passed through an authoritative tradition) and rational exploration. Most Protestant lineages have less trust in reason, and less authority to reconcile it with. (What about Islam?) Surely the Catholics can learn from the Jews, both in generating ideas capable and worthy of influencing the world, and also in generating a rich, uncompromising internal discussion within the family.

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