Tuesday, October 17, 2006


The other day I was driving withy my 5 year old daughter on the way to doing some Krogering when she asked me, from her perch in the booster seat in the back, "Daddy, can we get that thing that's with the open part?" To which I replied, "I'm not sure what you're talking about, Olivia." Her reaction to this statement on my part was to say, in just about the loudest voice she could muster: "I SAID, CAN WE GET THAT THING THAT'S WITH THE OPEN PART?"

This is a tactic that is believed by many to work extremely well with older folks and foreigners. They don't understand you the first time, either because they're confused or they don't speak your language, and so you JUST SAY IT LOUDER, because then, obviously, they will understand you perfectly.

This appears to be Mark Shea's strategy in the present Torture Blogorama. Goodness knows I agree with him completely, but he really is starting to say the same things over and over again, only not in different ways so as to make himself understood, but rather just more loudly, so to speak, by adding invective, condescension, and sarcasm to the mix. I'm certainly not above any of that myself, so I won't criticize him for it, I'll just point out that it's about as effective as what Olivia said to me in the car.

In one sense it is very important, when saying it more loudly, to be sure that what you're saying very loudly is actually correct, otherwise you're just advertising your own ignorance. For example, in discussing some of the strategies of those who wish to wiggle out of the teaching on torture, Shea mentions this one:
Still another ploy is the "but it's just in one document" feint. Apparently, some Catholics think that the Magisterium is obliged to build up a pile of paper before we have to bother taking it seriously. Unfortunately for them, this is not so. When the Magisterium teaches something, that is what the Magisterium teaches, even if it has never taught on the subject before. This is why we are bound to pay attention to the Church's teaching on stem cell research, even though it has only addressed the issue recently. This was also why Catholics were bound to listen to the (then brand new) social teaching of Rerum Novarum a hundred years ago. Nobody said, "But there's only *one* social encyclical, so we can ignore it.
On the one hand, it is certainly true that Veritatis Splendor, along with various other "magisterial" documents, teaches that torture is intrinsically wrong. I suspect, as I remarked in this post, that what most people involved in this discussion are really trying to say is not that torture is sometimes morally licit, but rather that there are some acts that are sometimes classified as torture that perhaps ought not to be so classified, but that is a topic I have already addressed. Here my point is that Mark is not being careful enough in what he the way he frames the issue. I see why he wants to put it this way--he's trying to win a point. But you can't win points by saying things that aren't true, and it isn't strictly true that every papal encyclical has equal teaching authority. Certainly they are not all of them infallible, but even putting aside the issue of infallibility the simple fact of the matter is that Popes are often mistaken when it comes to matters of prudential judgments and, indeed, the Magisterium itself is not indefectible when it comes to such matters. But aside from all of that, it seriously begs the question to suggest, as Mark does here without warrant, that a papal encyclical is to be automatically identified with a teaching of the Magisterium. He makes this suggestion rather explicit by starting off his post with a citation from Veritatis Splendor, and then going on to say in support of what VS teaches that "When the Magisterium teaches something, that is what the Magisterium teaches." That is tantamount to saying "I know that what this newspaper article says is true, because it says right here in the article itself that it is only reporting the true facts."

This kind of dialectical maneuver is not even necessary in the present debate, since the teaching on torture does not flow from any particular Papal encyclical anyway. There are certainly some scholars who would dispute Mark's assertion (again, made without argument) that it is not really the case that the Magisterium needs to "build up a pile of paper", but in this particular case, it has built up such a pile, and it is fully unnecessary to engage in any pettifoggery to make the case against torture.

Having said all of that, I certainly sympathize with Mark Shea, and to a certain extent I share his sense of frustration that some folks who claim allegiance to a certain kind of Catholicism just aren't seeing straight on this issue. Maybe there are some folks for whom just saying it louder really is the only recourse, because some of them don't seem to respond all that well to the giving of reasons.


Tom said...

But aside from all of that, it seriously begs the question to suggest, as Mark does here without warrant, that a papal encyclical is to be automatically identified with a teaching of the Magisterium.

Well, but a papal encyclical is a teaching of the Magisterium. Automatically.

What it is not automatically, as you wrote, is of equal authority as every other teaching of the Magisterium.

Scott Carson said...


It's possible that you're right--I confess I'm not absolutely certain. But I don't see how you could be. The "encyclical", as we know it, is a relatively recent invention; taken more generally, "letters to the whole world" cannot be regarded as automatically a part of the Magisterium if what you mean here by "Magisterium" is something along the lines of "the indefectible teaching of the Universal Church". If all you mean by "Magisterium" is that the letter is one of the things written by one of the teachers in the church, then sure, it's a part of the magisterium. That makes the question of how much authority we are to regard it as having a lot more complex, however. Certainly we are bound to take it very seriously, simply by virtue of it being a teaching of a pope. But history, not we individual particular members of some particular point in history, will be the ultimate judge of whether any particular encyclical in our sense becomes a rock solid deposit in the treasury of infallible teachings of the Magisterium.

Tom said...

My point is merely that the term "Magisterium," all by itself, doesn't mean "the indefectible teaching of the Universal Church." It means "the teaching office of the Church."

So the claim "this is a teaching of the Magisterium" is relatively weak, and should be the beginning of a discussion about how the teaching is to be received, not its culmination.

Scott Carson said...

Well I thought that was what I was saying too, but it would come as no surprise to me to discover that I didn't actually know what I was talking about after all, since that happens to me all the time. I certainly agree with you that the question at issue is how, precisely, we are to regard the various documents in the "pile of paper".

Darwin said...

This is pretty much why I've found myself not reading Shea's blog for the last 3+ months. It's not necessarily that I disagree with him substantively on that many issues, but that he seems to spend so much time shouting the same thing over and over with only slight variation.

Sort of like talk radio in print...

Which is a shame, because every so often (as with his post on Dreher's conversion) he puts something up which makes it clear how intelligent, thoughtful and sensitive to human foibles he can be.

James said...

Once again, you speak to my concerns very effectively. While I wholeheartedly agree with Mr. Shea's broader point, I think he errs gravely in how he relates to those who don't or who have genuine doubts or questions that they'd like answered before they can accept what he says is the Church's position.

I honestly think Mr. Shea would be better off letting the topic lie for a while and not addressing it. His posts of late have been ever more sarcastic and, I think, uncharitable. They're an occasion for sin for him and probably for others on both sides of the debate. I understand well the temptation to needle one's intellectual opponents, but it's not a good activity in which to engage and inevitably it undermines the truth of what one is saying.

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I. Shawn McElhinney said...


I wish Mark could approach this subject as you have -and I say that as someone who probably does not agree with you (at least in part). The problem I suspect stems from the mentality of the apologist having to speak on any issue out there as if they know what they are speaking of. Mark is good on a lot of subjects (and superb on some as well) but this is an area he would do better to not make one of his crusading issues for reasons which (thus far) are obvious.


On Torture and General Norms of Theological Interpretation Contra Certain "Apologist" Fundamentalist Hermeneutics--Parts I-III

Scott Carson said...


Thanks for your comment. I agree that Mark is very good when it comes to certain sorts of issues, and he often has very valuable insights. It might be time for him to take a step back from this one.

I love your blog, by the way.