Monday, March 15, 2010

Theological Truth vs. Ethics: On the Illict Attempt of Catholic Apologists to Separate the Two

Regarding what I wrote last week about hate and the slowly (very slowly) dawning consciousness of the American Catholic center that the purge of gay Catholics begun by Cardinal Ratzinger’s 1986 “pastoral” document about homosexuality has been all about hate-filled prejudice, and not about sexual ethics: one of the tactics the center uses to marginalize insights from the margins is the claim that one must sharply distinguish the pursuit and articulation of theological truth from ethics.

What’s surprising about this tactic, which is central to Ratzinger’s (Pope Benedict’s) thought itself, is that it has been considered intellectually untenable for several centuries now, from the Enlightenment forward.  It was considered intellectually untenable throughout the entire project of modernity, from Kant and Hume forward. 

From the point at which Kant and Hume linked epistemology and ethics as integrally connected intellectual pursuits, two legs of a single process that cannot stand on one or the other leg alone.

In reaction to the Enlightenment and the way in which that movement initially made significant inroads into Protestant thinking while Catholics remained in a defensive cultural shell, Catholic thinkers began to talk about the reduction of systematic theology to ethics in liberal Protestant theology.  The claim was that the rigor and intent to find ultimate meaning had gone out the window in Protestant theology, as theologians began to follow the dictates of culture and adapt their thinking to successive waves of cultural insights about ethical issues.  

But this is a bastardization of the insights of the Enlightenment, insofar as they entered Christian theology in the 18th and 19th century.  The epistemological insights of the Enlightenment reframe the entire project of Christian theology at a fundamental level, so that it is impossible to think about truth and systematic theology at all without adverting to the practical (and therefore ethical) meaning of theological truth.

What’s puzzling about the assurance of contemporary Catholic apologists at the center that we can convincingly continue to bash the merger of ethics and systematic theology is that we don’t even live in modernity anymore.  We entered postmodernity at the end of the 20th century.  In the postmodern period, Catholic thinkers want to revive an attack on modernity, which postmodernity has already eclipsed.

And postmodern thought has completely absorbed the insight that truth doesn’t exist apart from its practical (its real-world) manifestation.  Apart from its ethical manifestations.  Postmodernity has completely absorbed that insight because it’s built into the modern project on which postmodernity builds, and which it eclipses.

What theological truths mean—what they do to real people in the real world—is part and parcel of the truth they claim to convey.  The ethical import of theological ideas is not simply some surplus of meaning added on to an intellectual meaning that exists in isolation from the ethical effects exhibited by theological ideas.

It’s part and parcel of the meaning itself—of what we mean when we speak of a doctrine or a theological idea as true or false.

If we imagine that we can talk about theological truth without examining carefully how theological truth manifests itself in the real world, in real people’s real everyday lives, what we’re really admitting is that we don’t have confidence that what we proclaim as theological truth can stand up to careful examination when we look at how that truth plays out in the real world.

This is why, of course, it’s simply easier—if we want to continue to be connected to the church institutionally and to talk about its teachings as true—to ignore many of the effects of what we teach, even as we talk about proclaiming theological truth in a world hungry for truth.

It’s easier to continue talking confidently about catholicism while ignoring the planned, carefully executed disappearing of gay and lesbian Catholics and the carefully executed invisibilization of women in the church—it’s easier, that is, to talk about catholicism while ignoring these realities, if we want to remain confident that we unilaterally own theological truth and proclaim it to a world hungry for it, and what the world does with it (in practical and ethical applications) is the world’s business.

Not our business.  We live at a remove above the world, at another level apart from the world.  We live at the level at which absolute truth resides. 

If we unilaterally own and hand theological truth down to the world and then trust the world to do the ethical applying of this truth, then we can go about our business of finding, proclaiming, and safeguarding the truth of Catholicism, even as the planned purge of gay and lesbian Catholics from the church and the planned invisibilization of women in the church undercuts our most fundamental affirmations about what it means to be catholic.

The alternative would be, of course, to begin imagining that the testimony of gays who have been disappeared and women who have been made powerless and invisible might matter to us in our enterprise of finding and articulating theological truth.   And that it is dishonest in the extreme for us to go on talking about catholic truth when we refuse even to advert to those silenced voices in the church.

But taking that route would be painful, because it would cause us to reconfigure everything we say about the truth.  And about ourselves. 

And about love, redemption, the church, catholicism, communion, justice, human rights.  And the truth.

It’s easier, in the long run, to keep talking about truth as if how truth articulates itself in the real lives of real people doesn’t have any implication for what we mean by truth.  It’s easier to talk about catholicity while ignoring those deliberately and systematically excluded from or made invisible by the Catholic enterprise.  If we want to remain comfortable with and in the church, that is.