Assent, Dissent, and Disagreement

J oe Cecil over at LiberalCatholicNews (technically known as In Today's News) says that he remains "frustrated because a point I am trying to make is not understood by the very people with whom I am raising the issue." I don't think I am the only one he has in mind, but since he mentions me by name I think I must be at least one of the folks contributing to his frustration.

His claim appears to be not that the war in Iraq is manifestly unjust, and that those of us who do not think so are dissenting from Church teaching because two Popes and who knows how many other theologians have said, several times, that "unilateral" and "preventative" or "pre-emptive" warfare is contrary to Just War Theory. Rather, he claims only that, whether or not the war in Iraq is objectively just or unjust, faithful Roman Catholics are bound to accept the judgments of Pope John Paul the Great, Pope Benedict XVI, and the many other worthies of the hierarchy who have decided that the war is, in fact, unjust according to the necessary and sufficient conditions of Just War Theory. For Joe, then, the requirement to give intellectual assent applies not just to magisterial Church teachings, but to the prudential judgments of certain prelates and theologians. Whether or not Joe intends this argument to be a mere tu quoque (he avers as how many "conservative" Catholics are just as much cafeteria Catholics as anybody else when it comes to issues such as this one) is, I suppose, beside the point--it is a claim seriously made and must be seriously addressed.

In all fairness I must point out that this may not, in the end, be the most accurate statement of Joe's position--it is entirely possible that I still do not fully understand him, so I strongly recommend that folks have a look at his argument for themselves. His posts are long, and thoughtfully argued, so I cannot pretend to be doing justice to them by giving a quick summary.

As for my position, I have no illusions that my views about the war in Iraq are shared by Pope Benedict XVI, or indeed by many in the episcopacy. I am an American, and many of them are Europeans, and, to be blunt, I attribute much of our disagreement to that. Nor will all American conservatives agree--there is a fair amount of isolationism among certain quarters of the conservative domain. My view is not a fully theological view--it is partly a moral claim. In my opinion the war is not merely a just war, it is a war that we are morally obliged to fight and to win. I believe this because I believe that we have a moral obligation to vindicate the rights of those who are not capable of vindicating their own rights. This vindication may take many forms, but in some cases only military intervention will be effective.

Whether this in itself will make the war justifiable from the point of view of Just War Theory is an open question, in my view. I do not take it as obvious that the war in Iraq does not meet the criteria of Just War Theory, but I am certainly open to the possibility that it does not, even though at present I believe that it does. But it is certainly worth noting, whatever else one might think about Just War Theory, that doctrine does, indeed, undergo development over time, and our understanding of Just War Theory is not something that we can regard as definitively settled even while we do believe that it is definitively settled that all warfare must be just. One of the criteria of a Just War, according to the classical formulation that we find in such authors as Aquinas, is that the cause be just. Just think about that criterion for a second. If you were to ask yourself, Is this war just? you would apparently have to also ask yourself Is my cause just? If that's not a question that is bound to lead to some question begging down the line somewhere, then I don't know what would count as question begging. The situation is fraught with difficulty, as they say.

Much of this, however, is irrelevant to the question of whether the Church requires assent to the prudential judgments of Popes and other Bishops. History is littered with manifestly bad prudential judgments of Popes and other Bishops, though, so one would think that a self-proclaimed "progressive Catholic" would be somewhat circumspect in this matter. It was the prudential judgment of several Popes that being a slave does not harm human dignity, but Vatican II taught otherwise. This is a clear case of the development of doctrine. We do not want to say that the Church's magisterial teachings are open to change, otherwise there can never be any assurance that what the Church teaches is definitively true. The truth is irreformable. But our understanding of the truth is not irreformable. We are now in a position to draw an important distinction--to say that, with regard to being a slave, there is one sense in which it does not harm human dignity, but another sense in which it does. From the point of view of the human essence, nothing temporal or corporal can change the fact that we are all, fully and equally, human beings, created by God out of love. Even the most abject slave under the worst conditions is no better or worse, qua human essence, than any other human being. But from the point of view of our capacity to pursue our divinely ordained end as humans, it is equally clear that slavery is an impediment and, as such, it is per se wrong to keep any human being as a slave. Did the Popes who said that serving as a slave is not harmful to human dignity mean it in the sense that I have outlined here? Probably not. The sense in which they intended it was probably false (though it is difficult to know for sure just what their innermost thoughts were), though in the end there is a sense in which the claim is true. A sense that must be balanced against the sense of Vatican II, which also must be regarded as true.

Some folks will complain that this is a kind of "backwards engineering", trying to force truth upon opinions that we no longer regard as true under ordinary conditions. There is a tension here. On the one hand, we do tend to think that our own views about morality are somehow benefitting from generations of hard work by moralists and theologians (not to mention historians, scientists, and all the others who contribute to the body of human knowledge). On the other hand, we must guard against the temptation to be overly positivistic about this fact--we must be careful not fall into the hubris of thinking that because we have come along at this moment in history therefore we must always be right and the moralists and theologians of the past, whenever they disagree with us, must be wrong. But we must also guard against the temptation to think that truth is relative. If we really do believe that the Church's magisterium is guided by the Holy Spirit, and if we really do believe that truth is not relative, then we are not "backwards engineering" the truth when we try to find ways of understanding just how the Holy Spirit has worked in the Church through centuries of temporal and contingent human history. If you don't accept the indefectibility of the Church and her magisterium, none of this is a problem. But then you're not a Catholic. Indeed, if you reject the indefectibility of the Church's magisterium, you don't have any reason to believe anything with any confidence. There will be no reason to believe that Jesus was the Son of God, or even that God exists--both of these claims are taught by the Church through her Scriptures and her Tradition. If the Church is not indefectible, then she may very well be wrong about the existence of God and there is no compelling reason why we ought to believe these things.

One of John Henry Cardinal Newman's most important works, in my opinion, is also one of his least read: An Essay in Aid of a Grammar of Assent, published in 1870. In this work Cardinal Newman explores the epistemology of intellectual assent of the sort required by the Church, and he notes that giving intellectual assent does not always entail fully agreeing with or even understanding what one is giving assent to. A favorite example of mine is what he has to say about the Athanasian Creed. He reminds us that it is also known as the "Psalmus Quicunque" and that
It is not a mere collection of notions, however momentous. It is a psalm or hymn of praise, of confession, and of profound, self-prostrating homage, parallel to the canticles of the elect in the Apocalypse. It appeals to the imagination quite as much as to the intellect. It is the war-song of faith, with which we warn first ourselves, then each other, and then all those who are within its hearing, and the hearing of the Truth, who our God is, and how we must worship Him, and how vast our responsibility will be, if we know what to believe and yet believe not.
Newman isolates two kinds of assent in his Essay. One form he calls "real assent", the other "notional assent". The latter is the sort that we give to demonstrative proofs; the former is the sort that we give to "realities", things that we have experienced in a more vivid way than by merely having them proved to us by a formally valid deduction. I can give notional assent without giving real assent, simply because the two kinds of assent are given to two very different kinds of object. This does not mean that they ought not always to be given together: clearly they ought to be if they can be. But it is not always possible that they come at the same time.

This is all a very long way of suggesting that it may be possible for folks who do not agree with Popes about slavery or the war in Iraq to still be operating within the confines of intellectual assent. We may assent without fully agreeing, and this does not entail dissent, especially if the form our disagreement takes turns out to be misunderstanding. Popes have a certain authority in matters of faith and morals that ordinary lay people do not have. If this were an argument about what follows, logically, from certain theological first principles, or which theological first principles are to be believed de fide, I would be a fool to say that the Pope has no more authority than I to make a determination of justice. But Pope Benedict XVI, for all his theological training and expertise in matters of morality and theology, may not, in the end, have all of the facts required for making the sort of judgment he is out to make. Of course, I may not have all the facts either. But given that it is a disagreement about matters of contingent fact, about empirical evidence in support of a claim of moral licitness, then Pope Benedict XVI has no more authority than I or anyone else to make the final call.

A similar case can be made about the death penalty. Although I am, myself, in agreement with John Paul the Great on this matter, I do not think that those who favor the death penalty are actually in a state of dissent. The Church has never taught, it never will teach, and JPII was not teaching, that the death penalty is per se wrong. Whether there are, or ever could be, conditions under which capital punishment would be required to protect the common good is not a moral judgment, but a prudential one, and JPII may very well have been mistaken in making the judgment that such conditions no longer obtain. I happen to think he was not mistaken, but of course, I could be mistaken. Those who disagree with me, I take it, do not do so as a matter of intentionally rejecting what they believe to be a teaching of the magisterium. Presumably they would say that they do not think that they are dissenting from what the Church teaches, but that they intend to be faithful and submissive to what they believe the Church does teach. There is disagreement, not dissent.


Steven said…
Dear Mr. Carson,

This is excellent and well-said. And perhaps it is far beyond the purview or intent of what you are doing, but I would greatly appreciate seeing an explanation about the "preemptive" nature of the war. It strikes me that this may be the greatest stumbling block for many opposed to the war in Iraq.

I have to admit at the time of the instigation of the war, I was quite conflicted in the matter and really couldn't determine the justness or lack thereof. There is the question of coming to the defense of the defenseless. And there can be no question that just or no, the removal of the tyrant was an act of mercy for the populace. (However, as with Tito's Yugoslavia, I've come to the conclusion that sometimes it takes a tyrant just to force persons of a certain temperament and sensibility to live with one another.)

And I am probably not quite so certain as I sometimes come across in posts. I am fairly certain that this war violates the "pre-emption" clause, but I do come back to the question as to whether it is licit to stand by while the evils of a regime continue. I suppose that doesn't really impact the doctrine as one cannot do evil that good may result, but perhaps our understanding of premption is too narrow.

Anyway, if you've the time and inclination, I would be delighted to read your thoughts on the matter.

Oh, I do intend to add this wonderful cite to my blogroll. However, today, blogrolling is giving me errors in fits and starts. Thanks for leaving me a note so I could find you over here. It will be one of those places where I stand to learn much.


Tom said…
In the post you link to, Joe takes as given (more precisely, as demonstrated in a previous post) that the Church teaches "with a level of authority claiming religious submission of intellect and will" that a nation cannot "unilaterally determine that humanitarian concerns provide jus ad bellum for the legitimate defense by military force."

His concern, then, is not to prove what the Church teaches, nor at what level of authority, but... well, as you suggest, the tu quoque argument that what he calls "more conservative Catholics" ought to acknowledge his right to dissent from the Church's teaching regarding women's ordination.

You'd need to go to other posts of his to find where he defends the claim -- not, I think, that Catholics are bound to accept the prudential judgments of popes and theologians regarding this particular war, but that Church teaching on war in general is such that the justifications given for this war are invalid.

I have two contributions. The first is as much a query as a statement to see whether my understanding is moving in the right direction, and I would appreciate illumination where I am mistaken.

Development of Doctrine: Inerrancy
"We do not want to say that the Church's magisterial teachings are open to change, otherwise there can never be any assurance that what the Church teaches is definitively true. The truth is irreformable. But our understanding of the truth is not irreformable."

As an outsider whose spirit lies somewhere between Protestant and Catholic, I hear this as the background to the infallibility doctrine but wonder whether the sense of necessity in this isn't misplaced. Is there really a necessity that IF an error can be made that then NOTHING can be right? In terms of pure logic, isn't this the fallacy of composition (what's true of the part being extended to be true of the whole)? Thus, the possibility of error doesn't seem itself a ready justification for a doctrine of inerrancy.

Though perhaps the emphasis should lie on the "..assurance..." part of the statement, consider that perhaps there is a need for asserting a positive immutability. Then, if there is to be something about a statement about which it could be asserted there is no change – and no error – no matter what, then it seems that we must be looking for something which is beyond the particulars of the statement and dealing in fact with the essence or "intent" of the statement. I think we could concede that it would be possible for the essence of a statement to be true and constant if the source is both true and constant. Yet it would seem that the truth of such a statement extends from but remains limited to the essence and not the particulars....except in a temporal or conditional sense in which the particulars may be applicable.

If then the Church is true and constant as the manifest Incarnation which we understand as Divine, then I can see the logic of this, and concede that the Church's intent or essence is true and constant despite the changes in the particulars of our experience thereof. I have not seen the church's expression of the doctrine of inerrancy, but the popular outsider's notion of it never comes close to suggesting that it is based a logic of this sort. I'm not supposing that it does match this, but it seems to me that it would make sense that it might. But that is only because I am not wired or motivated to have all the sorts of doubts that would see the limitations in the argument as I've made such that further elaboration would be clearly necessary. And yet I would think those elaborations would and could be made to add to the logic if further were needed.

And then bring it full circle, conformance of the logic to practice follows from the assessment of the merit of our actions and beliefs on the basis of our motives or intentions. This is the assurance part. Thus, if the motivations and intentions of an individual's actions and/or beliefs are consistent with the teachings which extend from statements made on this basis, the individual should not be faulted.

I do not have an issue with this. I can however conceive of a circumstance where an individual's motivations do not follow the particulars as expressed in a particular temporal setting, but conform to those of a later time. Accordingly, it is conceivable that the church's understanding of an individual at the time may be such that it does not comprehend their essence as it might be comprehended at a later time. Thus a person might seemingly be viewed as errant whom it might later be clearly understood to have been inspired. Unfortunate as this is when and as it occurs, the limitation of God's creatures in their capacities for understanding do not seem to be repealed by the sense of inerrancy or its necessity to assurance as I have defined it. Therefore, I it may be that I am leaving much out that a more fully informed person might not mistake. Yet at the my sense is that expectation of perfect understanding on our part could seem presumptious on our part.

Just War
Doctrine does develop. One of the requirements I don't think you mentioned is that the benefits gained in a Just War must exceed the costs. I am of mixed and continually evolving opinion on the War in Iraq. There seem to me to be benefits and costs, and I am at times opposed and upset, and at other times I can see the merit and logic within a certain range.

That said, I am partial to the Churchill phraseology I unfortunately cannot find at the moment where he describes the necessity of offsetting Just War with consideration of what constitutes a Just Peace. You might enjoy searching for it. Churchill of course puts it far better, but says something to effect that "...we choose to go to war to liberate people from the unjust, brutal and oppressive peace of the Nazis. We do this not for conquest, but out of charity, by which we mean to give our blood and the lives of our young men to see it through...".

Hope this helps. Many thanks!

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