• Strange Notions Strange Notions Strange Notions

Beating a Catholic Straw-Man: A Review of “The Swerve”

Stephen Greenblatt

In 2005, Harvard scholar Stephen Greenblatt published a wonderful book on Shakespeare called Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare. Witty, insightful and surprising, it caused thousands of people, including your humble scribe, to look at the Bard with new eyes. Thus it was with great anticipation that I opened my copy of Greenblatt’s latest The Swerve: How the World Became Modern. Like its forebear, this new book is indeed lively, intelligent and fun to read, but as I moved through it I grew increasingly irritated and finally exasperated by its steady insistence upon one of the most tired myths of the contemporary academy, namely, that the modern world, in all of its wonder and promise, emerged out of a long and desperate struggle with (wait for it) Roman Catholicism.

The SwerveThe unlikely hero of Greenblatt’s story is one Poggio Bracciolini, a humanist of the early 15th century who labored as a scribe at the papal court and who, in his spare time, searched for ancient texts, neglected and moldering in monastic libraries across Europe. On a hunting expedition, most likely to the great monastery at Fulda, Poggio liberated a text that, Greenblatt holds, decisively shaped the evolution of the modern mind: the De rerum natura (On the Nature of Things), composed by the first century BC Roman writer Lucretius. In this philosophical poem Lucretius argued that the universe is made up exclusively of atoms—tiny, invisible particles—that, across infinite time and through infinite space, randomly arrange themselves into patterns and then fall apart. Furthermore, he taught that there is no divine mind governing the process; the soul is as mortal and dissoluble as the body; there is no afterlife; humans are not unique in the cosmos but rather are animals somewhat more evolved than others; religion is fear-based and cruel; and the whole point of life is to maximize pleasure and avoid pain. The rather cold and grim vision of the universe laid out in the De rerum natura Greenblatt takes as a harbinger of “modern” view that happily holds sway today—at least in Ivy League faculty lounges.

To make his story more dramatic, Greenblatt had to portray Poggio as a culture warrior, battling against a retrenched and oppressive Catholicism—and this is where his book really goes off the rails. I will give just a few examples of the egregious caricature of medieval Christianity that he feels compelled to present.

Whereas Lucretius, Poggio, and their modern intellectual successors were marked by a restless curiosity and an adventurous desire to explore the physical universe, Catholics, Greenblatt maintains, were dogmatic, repressive, and exclusively other-worldly. As evidence for this claim, he cites the medieval conviction, cultivated especially in the monasteries, that curiositas is a sin. Well, it might have helped if he had searched out what medieval Christians meant by that term. He would have discovered that curiositas names, not intellectual curiosity, but what we might characterize as gossip or minding other people’s business, seeking to know that which you have no business knowing.

In point of fact, the virtue that answers the vice of curiositas is studiositas (studiousness), the serious pursuit of knowledge. And as anyone even mildly familiar with medieval Christianity knows, this virtue was exemplified by some of the greatest spirits that western civilization has produced. St. Albert the Great assiduously studied Aristotelianism, which was the leading science of his time and which was concerned, above all, with searching out the causes of things; St. Thomas Aquinas’s soaring intellectualism is on vivid display on every page of his voluminous work, which runs the gamut from God and the angels to planets, plants, human societies, economics, politics, animals, etc.

Bonaventure, Duns Scotus, William of Occam, Alexander of Hales, Henry of Ghent, Roger Bacon—to name just some of the most prominent figures—pursued scientific, practical and metaphysical questions with an intensity and, yes, curiosity rarely rivaled. I readily grant that an intellectual paradigm shift occurred in the 16th century, but to claim that the sciences emerged out of rank and uncurious superstition is simply a calumny.

A second feature of Greenblatt’s caricature is that medieval Christianity was dualistic, morose, deeply opposed to the pleasures of the body, and masochistic in its asceticism. As evidence he brings forward the many accounts of self-flagellation and use of the “discipline” that took place in medieval monasteries and among penitential societies. No one can deny that such practices were a feature of medieval religious life, but to take them as somehow paradigmatic of the medieval attitude toward the body is simply ridiculous.

Nowhere in the literature of the world do we see more boisterous and even bawdy celebrations of the body, sensual pleasure and sexuality than in Dante’s Divine Comedy, Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, and Boccaccio’s Decameron; and even a casual glance at the figures in the colored glass windows of Chartres Cathedral or the Sainte Chapelle reveals an extraordinary celebration of the energy and color of ordinary life. That the dominant Christian attitude in the Middle Ages was a life-denying asceticism is quite absurd.

Despite Greenblatt’s assertions, the Catholic Middle Ages did not require Lucretius’s De rerum natura to learn the importance of either intellectual curiosity or the joys of this life. And in point of fact, the cultural world of modernity that emerged through the exertions of Descartes, Pascal, Galileo, Newton, Jefferson and company actually owed a great deal, intellectually and artistically, to the medieval period. The story of modernity’s rise is much more complex and finally much more interesting than the one told by Stephen Greenblatt, and it is altogether possible to celebrate the legitimate achievements of modern culture without knocking down a straw-man version of Catholicism.
 
 
Originally posted at Word on Fire. Used with permission.

Bishop Robert Barron

Written by

Bishop Robert Barron is Auxiliary Bishop of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles. He is an acclaimed author, speaker, and theologian. He’s America’s first podcasting priest and one of the world’s most innovative teachers of Catholicism. His global, non-profit media ministry called Word On Fire reaches millions of people by utilizing new media to draw people into or back to the Faith. Bishop Barron is also the creator and host of CATHOLICISM, a groundbreaking, 10-part documentary series and study program about the Catholic Faith. He is the author of several books including Thomas Aquinas: Spiritual Master (Crossroad, 2008); The Strangest Way: Walking the Christian Path (Orbis, 2002); and Catholicism: A Journey to the Heart of the Faith (Image, 2011). Find more of his writing and videos at WordOnFire.org.

Note: Our goal is to cultivate serious and respectful dialogue. While it's OK to disagree—even encouraged!—any snarky, offensive, or off-topic comments will be deleted. Before commenting please read the Commenting Rules and Tips. If you're having trouble commenting, read the Commenting Instructions.

  • David Nickol

    “modern” view that happily holds sway today—at least in Ivy League faculty lounges.

    Is Fr. Barron beating his own straw man here?

    • Do you doubt that the view Fr. Barron describes holds sway in modern academia? It certainly resonates with my experience.

      • Andre Boillot

        First of all, Fr. Barron goes down a long lists of things which apparently represent this "view" -- from the notions of atoms through to the notion that the meaning of life boils down to hedonism -- so it's quite a vague statement. Second, I'm not sure these concepts are particularly limited to, or representative of, "Ivy League faculty lounges", and his use of this strikes me as a bit of a pejorative.

        EDIT: Lest I be accused of not addressing the topic - I do agree that there are certainly many Catholic thinkers we can point at in response to claims that the Church was entirely opposed to inquiry.

        • Well, both of those things are part of Lucretius' philosophy, but in the interest of intellectual honesty, hedonism in Lucretius does not mean what it means today. Hedonism, the idea that life should be the pursuit of pleasure, is not summed up in the phrase "Eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow we die".

          Pleasure for Lucretius is found outside of physical things. Physical things can be pleasurable, but Lucretius emphasizes that physical pleasure often precedes physical pain (hangovers, indigestion, syphilis...). Rather, spiritual pleasure for Lucretius, friendship, success, and so on, is the highest goal of Lucretius' philosophy.

          Also, I wonder how one could write about Lucretius without even mentioning Epicurus, since Lucretius is an Epicurean in exactly the same tradition as Epicurus himself.

          • Vasco Gama

            But the relevant point is the failure to address Catholicism, for what it really is or was (and on the reasonability of this perspective)

            EDIT
            This was supposed to be addressed to Andre, sorry.

          • Andre Boillot

            I'm intrigued by this Epicurus fellow. Call me, epicurious.

            "Well, both of those things are part of Lucretius' philosophy..."

            Here's my point [counting mine], there's a lot of concepts that Fr. Barron is apparently referring to when talking about Lucretius' views. I feel I'm being quite conservative in my counting too, each of these topics are fairly dense on their own, and needing of quite a bit of unpacking.

            In this philosophical poem Lucretius argued that [1] the universe is made up exclusively of atoms—tiny, invisible particles—that, [2] across infinite time and through infinite space, randomly arrange themselves into patterns and then fall apart. Furthermore, he taught that [3] there is no divine mind governing the process; [4] the soul is as mortal and dissoluble as the body; [5] there is no afterlife; [6] humans are not unique in the cosmos but rather are animals somewhat more evolved than others; [7] religion is fear-based and cruel; and [8] the whole point of life is to maximize pleasure and avoid pain.

            I believe it's a lazy tactic to label these views as limited to, or representative of "Ivy League faculty lounges", especially given that the first is near universal at this point.

            To be fair, perhaps the bleak vision Fr. Barron refers to is referencing the only the last bit, though even then I can't see how that's a hallmark of the Ivy Leagues.

          • Octavo

            I know this is a bit of a sidetrail, but I really love the beginning of that poem. I have a particularly epic translation in a book from my school, and I haven't been able to find it elsewhere. Maybe when I get home, I'll copy some of it out here.

            It's like the intro to Hercules: the Legendary Journey, but..uh...less cheesy.

            ~Jesse Webster

      • Danny Getchell

        Many well known Christian apologists like to sneer at "college professors" to the point where it is almost a verbal tic. William Craig, Lee Strobel and Josh McDowell come most readily to mind.

        I have more respect for Fr. Barron than I do for the abovementioned trio and would be disappointed to see him going down that road.

        • fredx2

          There is a decided reason for the sneering. Colleges have become what they accuse the church of having been - elitist, those with other ideas are ostracized and careers ruined, etc.

          • Rick

            I agree fredx2. Mainstream modern academia is not just agnostic or neutral, but tends to be hatefully & viciously anti-Christian (& usually also anti-Western civilization, & to be frank, anti-white). I'm sure its different in some smaller colleges and religious institutions, but in the ivy leagues, top 30, & most state universities, there is a dogmatically anti-Christian intellectual culture that has been entrenched since the 1960's & 70s.

          • Andre Boillot

            Of course you and fred have the weight of the many studies showing the gradual effects of this left-wing academic culture on the population at large. Right? You have that evidence to support what's otherwise just a Fox News meme.

          • Rick

            The left-wing academic culture just happens to not only educate our young, but be intimately linked with our media, entertainment industry, government, and corporations. They are not sitting sequestered away in some ivory tower, but are social engineers at their finest (or most poisonous, depending on your point of view).

          • Michael Murray

            For your info Rick Andre B has been banned and is unable to post here. If you want to discuss this with him you will find him posting here

            http://outshine-the-sun.blogspot.com

          • Rick

            Sorry, thank you for letting me know:-)

        • modscott

          Citing examples of an ongoing trends doesn't suggest "sneering". I might refer you to Robert George, Peter Kreeft, Donald Knuth all highly esteemed university professors from various disciplines who would likely recognize the same trends as what Father Barron is pointing out. The also serve as examples of some apologists who make the mistake of blanketing all academicians under the same umbrella.

      • David Nickol

        Do you doubt that the view Fr. Barron describes holds sway in modern academia?

        First, Fr. Barron doesn't actually describe the "'modern' view that happily holds sway today—at least in Ivy League faculty lounges." He says that the view in De rerum natura is seen by Greenblatt as a harbinger of the “modern" view. (It seems to me the word the is missing before modern in Fr. Barron's text, but if so, it's missing on his own web site, too.)

        Second, you say "modern academia," but Fr. Barron says "Ivy League faculty lounges." If there is a view that "holds sway in modern academia," as you suggest, then isn't specifying "Ivy League faculty lounges" setting up a straw man? It seems to me quite clear that the reference to Ivy League faculty lounges was deliberately meant as a sneer. And of course it is common for political and cultural conservatives to sneer at Ivy League colleges as bastions of liberalism (and everything else that is wrong with American society today).

        I think the remark was unnecessary for the point Fr. Barron was trying to make, and it strikes me as just a bit of "red meat" (as the expression goes) thrown out by Fr. Barron for politically and culturally conservative readers.

        I would not attempt to characterize such a huge and ill-defined group as "modern academia," and I don't consider myself to be in a particularly bad position to do so, since I spent my entire career since 1972 to March of this year in the college textbook industry, most of it working directly with university professors.

        • Scott O’Connor

          "If there is a view that "holds sway in modern academia," as you suggest, then isn't specifying "Ivy League faculty lounges" setting up a straw man? It seems to me quite clear that the reference to Ivy League faculty lounges was deliberately meant as a sneer."

          I think Father Barron didn't elaborate on this point well.
          "modern” view that happily holds sway today—at least in Ivy League faculty lounges."

          I think the point he is trying to make is that Ivy League schools have great influence over modern politics and academic thought in general. Since Ronald Reagan, every president and presidential candidate (minus Bob Dole and John McCain) have attended Harvard, Yale or Columbia. Ivy league faculty have also greatly contributed modern ideas like gender theory. Brown Universities professor Anne Fausto-Sterling's "The Five Sexes" is one example. The problem in general is how "modern" is defined. I interpret that as "postmodern". To really sort this one out, it would be usefully to have a concrete definite of what "modern" means. Whether or not Ivy league have influenced on modern thought is a different argument.

          • fredx2

            Any college worthy of the name would have equal numbers of courses led by liberal and conservative scholars. They don't. They are overwhelmingly liberal. This is a deep disgrace to the intellectual tradition.

      • Johnny Vo

        Liberal, secular, modernism certainly will be found in ivy league faculty lounges but they are more status quo oriented than people commonly think and that is where Father Barron errs.

        We live in a modern society. Modernism is pervasive and ascendant throughout. The Church will not roll it back and in fact is rapidly absorbing it, just like the faculty lounges. Sign of the times.

        • Johnny Vo

          Barron is correct though in questioning the origins of modernism. It is choc full of Catholic DNA and comes from the Church itself, as do all emerging heresies. The question is whether the church will absorb it and take ownership or be able to roll it back though not even a question, really. The question is how long will it take. In historical terms, probably not long.

          • modscott

            Is 2000 years considered short term, historically? In a Providential time frame it probably is but a second. Today's secular humanistic ideologies have not presented any challenges to Christianity and the Church that it hasn't withstood through the centuries. While the attitudes and arguments are modern to us, a review of history shows they are only recycled. I agree, Johnny, that modernity, however it's defined, resides inside the Church itself. That's because the "Catholic DNA" you coined is "human" DNA. And yet the Institution founded by Christ has outlasted every other human institution, or political ideology over time, despite our best efforts to subvert it. After thinking about it at length, I reluctantly was forced to give serious consideration to the passage..."and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it."

  • Danny Getchell

    For once I find it impossible to disagree with Father Barron. The really miserable, joyless nature of Christianity (for the laity at least) began with the Reformed sects, not Catholicism.

    • josh

      I don't know, have you read the New Testament?

      • Danny Getchell

        Not sure what you are getting at.

        That most Christian laity were unable to read the Bible in their native tongues prior to ca.1500 may in fact have been beneficial to their morale.......

        • josh

          I mean that a joyless detachment from earthly life is a pretty easy message to find in the Bible itself. One of Jesus's more consistent themes is a sort of aesthetic rejection of this world in preparation for the (apocalyptically immanent) next. Pluck out your eye, cut off your hand. To look with lust is adultery. Abandon your family, sell your possessions, etc.

          Not that some of the Catholic hierarchy didn't live it up. Their hypocrisy of course prompted the Reformation in part, which, as you say, could be quite bleak in it's own way. But St. Augustine and Chaucer aren't exactly birds of a feather and I'm pretty sure only one is a Doctor of the Church.

          • Danny Getchell

            Agree in part.

            The "joyless detachment from earthly life" is certainly not unknown in Catholic scholarship and in the Bible itself prior to the Reformation.

            But the extension of that general air of miserableness to the lives of everyday people seems to have really ramped up in the era of Calvin and Knox.

          • josh

            Certainly agree that Calvin sounds like a miserable SOB and I'm sure there are Catholic societies I'd rather have lived in than the more extreme Protestant ones. Just trying to point out that it was with some justification that the Protestants saw themselves as returning to the roots of Christianity. (A lot of blame should properly go to earlier Judaism too of course.)

          • modscott

            Josh, I think your interpretation of Scripture should be revisited. There isn't anything in Christianity that says life should be joyless or bleak. Eastern philosophy and religions suggest a detachment from the world, as the natural order as seen as evil. Christianity embraces the world as good. Desire is good..it professes the dignity of humanity, the quest to be free. You seem to be confusing metaphor and the point of the message. "Pluck out your eye if it causes you to sin" isn't ment to be taken in a literal sense and Jesus's audience would have understood that. It means, if you are shackled by bad habits or addictions, remove the root cause. It ties into the greater lesson which you have seemed to ignore. " I you give life that you may have it more abundantly. "

  • josh

    It's always dangerous to reduce broad cultural shifts to a single event or person, so I would be wary of hanging everything on De rerum natura, (which certainly sounds less grim than the prevailing Catholic doctrine at the time). But Chaucer and Dante are hardly strong arguments that medieval Catholicism wasn't morose and masochistic. Religion was never going to kill off all worldliness in any society that survives, not in Catholic Europe any more than in Buddhist or Confucian China.

    Similarly, it's never going to stop all intellectual inquiry and there will always be curious people. But it doesn't follow that Catholic hegemony (or Islamic, or Confucian, or Puritan, etc.) is a positive effect on the intellectual climate. When alleged 'soaring intellect' Aquinas advocates the death penalty for heretics, I'm not inclined to see that as a path to open and effective inquiry.

    • Octavo

      I didn't know that he advocating killing heretics.

      "With regard to heretics two points must be observed: one, on their own side; the other, on the side of the Church. On their own side there is the sin, whereby they deserve not only to be separated from the Church by excommunication, but also to be severed from the world by death. For it is a much graver matter to corrupt the faith which quickens the soul, than to forge money, which supports temporal life. Wherefore if forgers of money and other evil-doers are forthwith condemned to death by the secular authority, much more reason is there for heretics, as soon as they are convicted of heresy, to be not only excommunicated but even put to death.

      On the part of the Church, however, there is mercy which looks to the conversion of the wanderer, wherefore she condemns not at once, but "after the first and second admonition," as the Apostle directs: after that, if he is yet stubborn, the Church no longer hoping for his conversion, looks to the salvation of others, by excommunicating him and separating him from the Church, and furthermore delivers him to the secular tribunal to be exterminated thereby from the world by death. For Jerome commenting on Galatians 5:9, "A little leaven," says: "Cut off the decayed flesh, expel the mangy sheep from the fold, lest the whole house, the whole paste, the whole body, the whole flock, burn, perish, rot, die. Arius was but one spark in Alexandria, but as that spark was not at once put out, the whole earth was laid waste by its flame."

      http://www.newadvent.org/summa/3011.htm#article3

      Does advocating the killing of heretics count as anti-intellectual?

      ~Jesse Webster

      • josh

        "Does advocating the killing of heretics count as anti-intellectual?"

        Yes, especially for someone trotted out as the intellectual foundation of Catholicism. But at least he advocated one or two strikes to change their minds under threat of death or pariahism. :) As long as it was clear that they deserved to die.

        • josh, we've discussed this before yet you keep bringing it up. I'm not sure Aquinas' view here is morally defensible, but it does demand a fair amount of nuance and context that you continue to ignore.

          But relevant to your comment here, I struggle to see how this particular view of Aquinas', regardless of its moral stature, can be counted as anti-intellectual. Surely heretics can be of *any* intellectual ilk. Aquinas didn't only advocate punishing "intellectual" heretics. Therefore your comment seems to be irrelevant to the main topic at hand.

          • Octavo

            "I'm not sure Aquinas' view here is morally defensible"

            As a heretic and apostate, I'm disturbed that you're not sure. What nuance and context could excuse this even in theory?

            Killing heretics (people who dissent from orthodoxy) is by definition anti-intellectual whether or not the heretic considers himself/herself intellectual, since the threat of violence has a chilling effect on the expression of ideas. This is not irrelevant since we are discussing the effect the church's activities in the middle ages and renaissance had on intellectual trends and whether there was a struggle against an oppressive church.

            I'm pretty sure that in the middle ages and beyond, Jews, heretics, and apostates felt that the church was oppressive and impaired their intellectual and religious freedoms.

            ~Jesse Webster

          • "As a heretic and apostate, I'm disturbed that you're not sure. What nuance and context could excuse this even in theory?"

            In the thirteenth century, where Church and state were far more aligned than in contemporary times, heretics were considered equally threatening to the state as to the Church.

            If you're sincerely interested in the nuance and context behind Thomas' views on this, I suggest you begin with Michael Novak's article from a few years ago: http://bvogt.us/1dV6WZ3.

          • josh

            Putting the justifications of every tyrant in history in Aquinas mouth doesn't change the fact that his views on heretics (and pagans) were anti-intellectual. I'm sure that opposition to Lysenkoism was seen as a threat to the stability and peace of the Soviet Union. That doesn't change the argument.

          • Vasco Gama

            «I'm sure that opposition to Lysenkoism was seen as a threat to the stability and peace of the Soviet Union.»

            Not really that was a crime against the people (not a treat to peace and progress), genetics (which was the scientific notion that opposed to Lysenkoism) was supposed to be a bourgeois corruption (pseudoscience).

          • josh

            Just as teaching or holding to heresy was a crime against the people (or oneself), rooted in demonic corruption.

          • MichaelNewsham

            The equivalent is saying "dissidents in the Soviet Union weren't punished for opposing the Communist Party; they were opposed for threatening the State." And how were they threatening the State? By questioning the supremacy of the Communist Party.

            .

          • David Nickol

            In the thirteenth century, where Church and state were far more aligned than in contemporary times, heretics were considered equally threatening to the state as to the Church.

            Why did the Church go in so much for "temporal" power when Jesus had said, "My kingdom is not of this world" and "Render to Caesar the things that are Ceasar's and to God the things that are Gods." There are many people who feel that something important was lost from the teachings of Jesus when the Christianity became the state religion of the Roman Empire in the 4th century.

            One has to wonder how the Catholic Church would feel about executing heretics today if it were still in a very strong position to do so. It has only been quite recently that the Catholic Church has stopped condemning separation of Church and state.

          • Andrew Brew

            On the contrary, it was they who established such separation in the Hildebrandine reforms of the 10th century. The state had never been subject to the church, but the emperors would very much have liked to have the moral authority of the church subject to them (as it was in Constantinople). The popes resisted becoming an organ of state.

            The American separation clause is not a reaction to the situation in medieval Catholic Europe, but to that in early modern England, where the church had been torn away from Rome and made subject (by force) to the secular state.

          • MichaelNewsham

            The Church engaged in a long struggle for supremacy with the secular rulers; sometimes it lost; sometimes it won e.g.Holy Roman Emperor Henry IV; English King Henry II

            As for the American separation clause,take a look at Thomas Jefferson's opinion of the Catholic Church.

          • Andre Boillot

            "The American separation clause is not a reaction to the situation in medieval Catholic Europe, but to that in early modern England"

            I don't think either of those are accurate representations for the origin of the US separation clause.

            The Bill of Rights was one of the earliest examples in the world of complete religious freedom (adopted in 1791, only preceded by the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen in 1789) but it was interpreted as establishing a separation of Church and State only after the letter of Jefferson [see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Danbury_Baptists%5D. At the time of the passage of the Bill of Rights, many states acted in ways that would now be held unconstitutional, some of them with official state churches. All of the early official state churches were disestablished by 1833.

            http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Separation_of_church_and_state#Jefferson_and_the_Bill_of_Rights

            http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Danbury_Baptists

          • fredx2

            The church did not go for temporal power so much as local governments insisted on appointing bishops, etc. See Henry II and Thomas More, see Charles V and the new world bishops. In the 1500's the Popes were basically appointed by the Medicis. Not the other way around.

          • josh

            Now why would the Medicis want control of the papacy if it wasn't a source of temporal power? The Church was one of several powers competing for its share at any given time. Pointing out that people fought over it's 'throne' like any secular seat is hardly evidence that it was some otherworldly institution.

          • Geena Safire

            [H]eretics were considered equally threatening to the state as to the Church.

            "Many religions now come before us with ingratiating smirks and outspread hands, like an unctuous merchant in a bazaar. They offer consolation and solidarity and uplift, competing as they do in a marketplace. But we have a right to remember how barbarically they behaved when they were strong and were making an offer that people could not refuse.”
            -- Christopher Hitchens

          • Vasco Gama

            Geena,

            Quoting Hitchens, doesn’t add anything to whatever statement you are trying to make, in fact it is the other way around.

            And Brandon is right, heretics were considered equally threatning to the state as to the Church, however absurd as it might seem to you, me or Hitchens.

          • Andre Boillot

            "Quoting Hitchens, doesn’t add anything to whatever statement you are trying to make"

            I'm not sure that's the case. In the context of the discussion we're having, I think it's quite appropriate to note the actions of the Church when it had state-backing, and the lengths it went to silence dissenting voices.

            "in fact it is the other way around."

            Perhaps you could support such a bald assertion.

          • Vasco Gama

            It just happens that I have more respect for Geena (or yours) opinion than for Hitchens's (the point being that on what concerns to religion he has no particular expertise, or anything else besides contempt and prejudice), and I would add that Geena and you, by the time you hang around here (Strange Notions) probably have a better perspective about what religion is about.

          • Andre Boillot

            Ad hominem.

          • Vasco Gama

            Sorry, I am no fan of Hitchens

          • fredx2

            As regards Hitchens: Never did a person have a more deeply psychological need to hate the church. At age 9, his parents sent him away to a church run school. He hated it. At age 24, his mother ran off with an Anglican priest and they both ended up committing suicide in a hotel in Italy.
            Hitchens spent his whole life being an polemecist. This means you should never take what they say at face value, because they are not trying to be fair, they are trying to win.
            And so, he used his considerable gifts to write beautiful hate passages like the one referenced above.l

          • Andre Boillot

            More ad hominem

          • Geena Safire

            The Catholic Church (claimed it) considered heretics equally threatening to the state as to the church. That doesn't mean that they were.

            It appears much more like collusion between two power centers. The Catholic Church, like other organizations, is quite adept at developing arguments in favor of whatever it believes is in its best interest.

          • Vasco Gama

            That it was the understanding of the time. The society was very different back then. It is a fact that the Church had a key role (in a variety of the domains of society besides religion, in the legal and judicial system, in education, in all instances of human knowledge, heath care,…), and it was seen as a sort of regulator in what respect the balances of power, such as regional conflicts, the constitution of nations, and the general regulation of the society. This doesn’t make any sense today, as it has no correspondence to our situation, but if we got this far, it was only possible as we made the way to get here, and we are able to recognize that much of that was wrong, or that there would be possible to consider a better way to accomplish things. Our progress as a society was not the product of magic or spells, it required learning with errors and wrongdoings, however it allowed us to go faster and further than any other society that existed back then.

            Of course today we are allowed to think that the development of the society, involved all kind of evil and error, however we can’t know if it could be different or if it was possible, it would lead us to a better situation, all we can do is presume (but that is all there is left a presumption that it could be better, I am not so sure it could). Does this imply that it was perfect, no (and what does guaranty to us that if those errors were possible to avoid, that the results would be better? Well nothing, as a matter of fact)

          • Methodological Naturalist

            Perhaps subconsciously I was thinking of that quote, (particularly the word marketplace) when Brandon Vogt asked me, on the last Akin's discussion, what the biggest problem for Catholicism was.

            I said it wasn't evil, it was peace. Where there is peace, there is a marketplace of ideas and, naturally, winners and losers. Evil is a great device for theology, not so great elsewhere as in, well, everywhere else.

            So thank you for that quote. I do miss him.

          • Johnny Vo

            "Church and state were far more aligned than in contemporary times,"

            Father Barron seeks a return to those times. It will not happen.

          • josh

            I don't think I've mentioned Aquinas views on punishment for heretics before, but it's relevant to the topic at hand. How much nuance and context do you think is needed to escape the conclusion that killing people for their ideas is anti-intellectual? Not to mention ethically reprehensible.

            If there are ideas which cannot be advocated due to fear of death (or other severe punishment), that is anti-intellectual. What is controversial about that? If, as you insist, Aquinas ideas about God, causality, cosmology, the trinity, etc. are intellectual, then opposition to those ideas obviously can fall under the same category. Fighting your opposition with threats rather than arguments is anti-intellectual.

          • Danny Getchell

            In that he advocated the punishment of those with other religious beliefs, Aquinas was a man of his time. A time which extended from the prehistoric era through the 1600's in the West (and which has not yet run its course in the Islamic world).

            We should not hold it against Aquinas that he failed to rise above his time in that regard, but neither should we accept that portion of his doctrine as continuing to be valid.

          • josh

            I'm not saying he was atypical for his time, although that doesn't make his doctrine valid at the time either. He and his contemporaries were anti-intellectual in the sense I described.

          • "We should not hold it against Aquinas that he failed to rise above his time in that regard, but neither should we accept that portion of his doctrine as continuing to be valid."

            Danny, thanks for the comment. I think this succinctly summarizes my own position.

            I don't think Thomas' views should hold sway today, but that's an altogether different question than gauging their morality in his day. This is the primary point I've been trying to make.

          • fredx2
          • Danny Getchell

            I'm not sure Aquinas' view here is morally defensible

            I think the constant recycling of this argument could be avoided if we could all just agree that punishing people for expressing their beliefs is wrong, and that Aquinas was wrong for such advocacy. It does not in my opinion invalidate the rest of his body of scholarship to say that.

          • Vasco Gama

            I would agree with you (I think Aquinas was wrong), in spite of admiring his work.

          • "I think the constant recycling of this argument could be avoided if we could all just agree that punishing people for expressing their beliefs is wrong"

            But see, here's the problem: I would not agree with that statement, as you posed it.

            What if expressing my belief involved painting swastikas on public buildings or flying planes into buildings? Should we punish or prevent religious expressions that threaten the common good?

            This is a similar question to the one thirteenth-century theologians concerned themselves with. For more on Thomas' view, I'll point you to the same article I pointed Jess to, namely Michael Novak's piece from a few years ago: http://bvogt.us/1dV6WZ3.

          • Andre Boillot

            "What if expressing my belief involved painting swastikas on public buildings or flying planes into buildings?"

            It's unlikely that this is what Danny would include in his definition, but let's restrict the meaning of 'expression' to verbal or written voicing of ideas. Would you agree now?

          • "It's unlikely that this is what Danny would include in his definition, but let's restrict the meaning of 'expression' to verbal or written voicing of ideas. Would you agree now?"

            Again, I'd much prefer a specific example than answering such a general question.

            If I may pose another scenario without seeming to duck your question, what if someone published bestselling books and op-ed articles advocating a violent uprising in America to eliminate all black people and, ideally, assassinate the president of the United States?

            Wouldn't you agree that this written expression of ideas, precisely because it threatens the common good, should be punished or suppressed?

            Even if you don't agree that it should, could you see how such a written expression could threaten the common good far more in the thirteenth-century than today?

            If you do agree with that statement, it would imply that we both hold it's not "heretical" ideas that are the problem. It's the extent to which they threaten the common good which needs to be gauged.

          • Andre Boillot

            what if someone published bestselling books and op-ed articles advocating a violent uprising in America to eliminate all black people and, ideally, assassinate the president of the United States?

            Unless the Tea Party can be shown to be acting in accordance to some of its more violent rhetoric, they should definitely not be punished or suppressed.

            Wouldn't you agree that this written expression of ideas, precisely because it threatens the common good, should be punished or suppressed?[...]If you do agree with that statement, it would imply that we both hold it's not "heretical" ideas that are the problem. It's the extent to which they threaten the common good which needs to be gauged.

            This sounds like the thought process of somebody who's long been in the majority and, as others have pointed out, is the refrain of many a tyrant. I do not agree with these statements, and I loathe any system where one's failure to adhere to some prescribed orthodoxy makes one an enemy of the state. Also, I feel like you might be misrepresenting some things. That which was being threatened was primarily the divine right of kings, which isn't the same as "the common good" as we - 'children' of a revolution - should well know and appreciate.

          • Brandon, is the government going to suppress those who call for the overthrow of the government by any means necessary as a response to legalizing same-sex marriage? Apparently not. Nor should it.

            The First Amendment guarantees that talk of treason is not inherently treasonous. You would have to act on your threat or incite imminent lawless action to be guilty.

          • Rob, thanks for the comment, all of which I agree with. I just think the heretics Thomas was concerned with meet your second definition: people who "act on [their] threats or incite imminent lawless action."

            This is clear in the article titled "Whether heresy is properly about matters of faith?" where he writes that: "Now heresy is not only about things [of belief], but also about works."

            Again, Thomas is not concerned here with the private religious beliefs of non-Christians. He's concerned with "those who profess the Christian faith, but corrupt its dogmas" so as to bring about religious and social unrest. These, he says, should be suppressed to the extent they threaten the common good.

          • Brandon, your first paragraph contradicts your last one. Promoting views that may eventually lead to religious and social unrest is not at all the same as inciting imminent lawless action: Offering an alternative view of the Trinity is not the same as, "Let's burn down all the priests' homes on Thursday at 3!"

          • Here's an explanation of "imminent lawless action" and the supprssion of free speech: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Imminent_lawless_action

          • josh

            "If I may pose another scenario without seeming to duck your question,
            what if someone published bestselling books and op-ed articles
            advocating a violent uprising in America to eliminate all black people
            and, ideally, assassinate the president of the United States?"

            You mean, like The Turner Diaries? (Not best-selling except among racist paranoids.) Because those are legal in the US as far as I know. See Rob's link. If the Church had written some nuanced argument about exactly how loud you can yell 'Fire!' in a crowded theater, that would be one thing. But we're talking about non-violent promotion of ideas here.

            The thing is, most of us accept that it is not just some perceived threat to the common good that can justify suppression of free speech. That could be used to suppress one political party's views on tax policy. Here in the US (and many other countries) the right to advocate for changes in government is central to our conception of liberty. As is the right to hold and promote your own religious ideas. Also consider the concept of academic freedom. It seems clear that Aquinas would disagree with these standards of intellectual freedom. Do you?

          • Vasco Gama

            The interesting thing is the claim that most of us accept that X, and depending of what one assumes most of us is and does that makes us accept, X, it can be a variety of things abortion or abortive contraception, killing babies, killing blacks, killing whites, killing the handicap, killing inferior races, killing Jews, killing the enemies of fatherland, killing reactionary and the enemies of the people, killing those who threaten the common good, killing Muslim terrorists (and whoever is around when the drone arrives), killing the enemies of the US (or France or Island or Mozambique). Depending on who it us that will justify all sort of killing.

            Today it may well be that some of this killing seems more justified to you than other. It so did in the medieval times (of course they didn't have your precious insights on morality) and apparently the secular societies regarded that some cases of heresy were very dangerous and menacing and justify the execution of heretics. Today we clearly understand that all that was clearly wrong, not just atheists (too bad we are not capable of teach them how wrong that was). We not only fail to see any justification to that, as it slightly beyond our imagination to find any justification for that. But it is not that we don't know what is to persecute people for their ideas, because we have this type of occurrences very present, not just historically in regions that attained a high degree of culture (such as the URSS and in Nazi Germany) it still occurs in a variety of places, such as in China, Korea, in African states and in some Muslim middle-east states. However these evil deeds seem to be justified in the XX/XXI centuries. However what seem to impress, concern you, and denounce are the middle ages in Europe, that Catholics and atheists agree that were wrong and clearly condemn (in the light of our current understanding).

          • Danny Getchell

            Aw, c'mon, man. This response is not worthy of you.

            The examples you give are properly punishable as vandalism in the first instance, hijacking/murder in the second. Difference of religious opinion is entirely irrelevant to trial and punishment in these cases.

            I certainly agree that the common good can be enhanced by criminalizing selected actions. But never - not in Aquinas' day, not today - by criminalizing opinions.

          • I'd upvote this a thousand times if I could. Danny's right when he says, Brandon, your response was not worthy of you.

          • "I'd upvote this a thousand times if I could. Danny's right when he says, Brandon, your response was not worthy of you."

            I appreciate the comment, Rob, which I'll take as a backhanded compliment. Whether true or not, it suggests I typically float on a higher moral plane.

            But I'm not sure why the comment is so objective. I merely pointed out an (admittedly extreme) example that contradicted Danny's assertion. What I proposed was a) a religious expression that b) deserved to be suppressed because it threatened the common good.

            Would you disagree with either a) or b) above?

            They're precisely the same traits of the thirteenth-century heretics whom Thomas concerned himself with. The article I linked to above explains this in detail.

          • It seemed unworthy of you because it appeared you were ducking a question by bringing up examples that might be technically withing the parameters of the question but were clearly outside the range of question's context.

            And yes, you can take my protest as a compliment. :)

          • Rob, thanks for the kind reply. I'm sorry it seemed I was ducking the question. I didn't mean to do that. I was simply trying to show how that question, and others like it here in the comment boxes, need to be far more nuanced than expressed.

            My original reply shows how most of us--I think--would agree that the morality of punishing heretics differs depending on whether the heretical beliefs pose a serious threat to the common good.

            Would you agree that if someone today expressed, and acted upon, a belief that threatened the safety and security of our country, they should be suppressed?

          • Brandon, you're mixing up the issues again. In one paragraph you write, "depending on whether the heretical beliefs pose a serious threat to the common good," which indicates you might be willing to outlaw beliefs.

            In the next paragraph, you alter it to "if someone today expressed, and acted upon, a belief," where the what is being suppressed may not be the belief but the action used to express it -- as when someone flies a plane into a building, in which case we're suppressing the action regardless of what the belief is.

          • "I certainly agree that the common good can be enhanced by criminalizing selected actions. But never - not in Aquinas' day, not today - by criminalizing opinions."

            This is not true, as far as I'm aware. In the Summa, Thomas never advocates punishing privately held, heretical beliefs (after all, how would the authorities know about them?)

            What he's concerned with are heretical beliefs acted upon and advocated--in other words, expressed.

            Likewise, our modern state would not suppress someone who held anarchistic opinions, so long as they remained private. But it would seriously concern itself with public and active anarchists because they threaten the common good.

          • Susan

            The original charge was the executing "heretics" is anti-intellectual.

            You responded with a link to a very long, article from First Things that didn't seem to have much to do with that and suggested that "heretics were equally threatening to the State as to the Church".

            The trouble is that Aquinas's comment on the subject didn't seem concerned with the impact on the State in the least (at least in the link provided from Summa Theologica).

            For it is a much graver matter to corrupt the faith which quickens the soul, than to forge money, which supports temporal life

            .

            Wherefore if forgers of money and other evil-doers are forthwith condemned to death by the secular authority, much more reason is there for heretics, as soon as they are convicted of heresy, to be not only excommunicated but even put to death.

            You seem much more interested in defending Aquinas than addressing the charge that executing "heretics" is anti-intellectual.

            After much wriggling, you finally conceded only this:

            What he's concerned with are heretical beliefs acted upon and advocated--in other words, expressed.

            Likewise, our modern state would not suppress someone who held anarchistic opinions, so long as they remained private. But it would seriously concern itself with public and active anarchists because they threaten the common good.

            Expressing beliefs can certainly impact the common good but SUPPRESSING the expression of beliefs is worse and IS anti-intellectual.

            I consider many RCC beliefs to have a negative impact on the common good but to suppress them would definitely be anti-intellectual and detrimental to the common good.

            What do YOU mean by "expressing" beliefs?

          • What he's concerned with are heretical beliefs acted upon and advocated--in other words, expressed.

            Likewise, our modern state would not suppress someone who held anarchistic opinions, so long as they remained private.

            Whoa! It's not illegal to express anarchist views. You don't have keep them private. You can write op-eds and get on soapboxes and write blogs about them. I'm sure you know this!

          • Geena Safire

            Should we punish or prevent religious expressions that threaten the common good?

            Should we burn people at the stake for expressions such as "Consubstantiation is true and transubstantiation is false" or "There might exist other worlds"? Should we burn them at the stake for leaving the Catholic faith for another?

            Yes, said the Catholic Church, and yes, and yes, and it did so.

            Do you think it is the role of the church staff to have absolute control over which spoken expressions should be considered a threat to the common good?

            Brandon, could we could all just agree that punishing people for verbally expressing their beliefs is wrong*?

            *With exceptions for such things as abuse of children and inciting riots.

          • Danny Getchell

            I'm not sure Brandon will answer - he doesn't always, we know - but I suspect his response would be that openly denying the Trinity in the 13th ct. was exactly the equivalent of inciting a riot. Because the divine right of the king to rule, or something.

          • Geena Safire

            We're asking whether Brandon will today agree that it is wrong. (Not whether he thinks that it was not or could not have been considered wrong then.)

          • Danny Getchell

            I'd be happy to hear him say it was wrong at any particular time. It would be a start.

          • "We're asking whether Brandon will today agree that it is wrong. (Not whether he thinks that it was not or could not have been considered wrong then.)"

            Yes, I agree that in today's society such punishment is wrong.

            I'm not necessarily disagreeing that it was wrong in the thirteenth century earlier, but my "I'm not sure" was only to point out that thirteenth-century societal politics are extremely relevant to the morality of a particular act, a fact which previous commenters haven't seemed to account for.

            Perhaps a similar example will help. Suppose you lived in a rural, peasant village seven hundred years ago, and you saw a known mass murderer walking down the street, through the middle of your town. It may be completely moral for you to kill him if you were convinced it was the only way to protect the common good.

            But as Pope John Paul II has pointed out, modern capital punishment is all but immoral since there are other ways to protect the common good (namely through incarcertaion) without necessitating murdering the murderer.

            This is one clear case where the morality of a particular act--an identical *type* of act, the intentional killing of a murderer--depends deeply on the context--on the time, place, and circumstance.

            Thomas, I believe, would argue the same thing about punishing heretics. In his day, heretics posed a much greater and immediate threat to the general common good than they do today. This again is all explained in the article I've twice linked to in the comboxes.

            Hope this helps!

          • "I'm not sure Brandon will answer - he doesn't always, we know"

            Just so we're clear in this and other conversations, I have an extremely limited time to participate in the comment boxes. I work a demanding job, run three major websites, and lead a family with four children under four. For obvious reasons, I've shut off the Disqus alerts letting me know anytime someone has left a new comment, and I don't have time to check the comboxes more than once or twice a day.

            So I hope you'll forgive me for not replying to each question while also giving me the benefit of the doubt in not assuming that each non-reply is either a sign of defeat or an incapacity to answer.

          • Brandon, then let's say, "Can we all just agree that punishing people for expressing their beliefs based on the content of those beliefs is wrong"

          • "Can we all just agree that punishing people for expressing their beliefs based on the content of those beliefs is wrong"

            Thanks for the comment, Rob.

            Yes, I'd agree to that. But this is not the situation Thomas was speaking to in the thirteenth century. Per the article above (have you read it?) the heretics Thomas referred to were not just who *believed* faulty doctrines, but who used those beliefs to create schismatic groups that subverted the secular rule. I'm not saying he was correct in doing so, but we must be clear that it wasn't the heretical beliefs that Thomas thought should be punished but the heretics who threatened the common good.

          • Johnny Vo

            Or forcing women to bear children they do not want and haven't the resources to raise. Or vilifying and ostracizing out LGBT. Or denying a person Catholic community if they vote in opposition to the instructions of the hierarchy.

          • Danny Getchell

            I would question this line of comment, Johnny.

            To the extent that the Church takes these actions toward its membership it is perfectly entitled to do so. If you want to be part of the Catholic community, you have to follow its teachings, and I really have no problem with that.

            It's when they try to extend their authority to the larger, non Catholic community that I object.

          • fredx2

            Or murdering children in the womb. You forgot that one.

          • It is anti-intellectual because it seeks to limit freedom of expression and therefore stunts open exploration of new lines of thought. Insofar as Catholics support Aquinas's position on executing heretics, even insofar as they are "unsure Aquinas's view is defensible, but deserves a fair amount of nuance", they continue a long Catholic tradition of anti-intellectualism.

          • Vasco Gama

            I think you can't say that "Catholics support Aquinas's position on executing heretics", as that is not true.

            Besides there is no such thing as "a long Catholic tradition of anti-intellectualism".

          • josh

            Vasco, 'insofar as' means that if one does, to the extent one does something then whatever follows. Brandon seems to be one Catholic who can't clearly say that executing heretics is wrong and suppressive.

          • Methodological Naturalist

            That's a bingo. Thank you for saying it.

          • Vasco Gama

            The thing is that we can't be fools to address the things that occurred in the past, as if they were similar to this that we see today. The times were different and the way of dealing with things was different, the evaluating of things was different, while dealing with the past, we have to know what it meant back then (and things doesn’t seem to be so simple as you pretend). Now we come to realize immediately that those things were wrong (but we are more than 500 year apart). By that time the worst offense was to counterfeit money, which is somewhat trivial today.

          • mriehm

            Well, the Catholic Church has always been quite excellent at lionizing its members who were on the receiving end of martyrdom, while forgetting or excusing those who were on the giving end of things.

            If Catholics can be forgiven for martyring heretics in the past, because "that was the way things were", cannot Romans be similarly excused for martyring Christians?

          • Vasco Gama

            mriehm

            Romans were excused for their wrongdoings a long time ago, and no one in the Church holds any resentment against Romans.

          • Thank you.

            I worry about this stance of Brandon's. I'm not sure I can continue open and rational discourse with someone who advocates that it is possibly a good thing that I be put to death for my part in the conversation.

          • Vasco Gama

            I am sure that that was not what he meant.

          • Then he should clearly and strongly come out against Aquinas on this issue.

            Look, I might like Nietzsche, but I better make it clear I don't agree with his views on women, especially if I set up a forum about women and philosophy.

            It would be good... it may be necessary... for Brandon to admit on this Catholic-atheist forum that the Catholic philosopher Thomas Aquinas was wrong about heretics.

          • Vasco Gama

            I guess he will clarify what he means.

          • Danny Getchell

            Last time I checked, no work of Aquinas is within the scriptural
            canon. Nor did he ever speak ex cathedra as pope.

            Therefore Brandon's opinion must be a personal endorsement rather than an acquiesence to doctrine.

          • Vasco Gama

            Quite differently it seems to me totally absurd that he is endorsing the persecution of heretics, even in the past (I have to feel myself completely ridiculous in writing this).

            EDIT (added)
            That was wrong, regardless if they could or couldn't evaluate it correctly.

          • David Nickol

            That was wrong, regardless if they could or couldn't evaluate it correctly.

            If there is anything that the Catholic Church teaches, it is objective morality—if something is wrong today, then it was always wrong. Of course, circumstances cannot be ignored. If capital execution is allowable only to protect society from a murderer committing additional murders, then capital punishment may be morally permissible in a time or place with no modern penal system capable of reliably segregating murderers. But I think we would all agree that, while execution may be morally permissible to safeguard society from murderers, it is not morally permissible to safeguard society from religious ideas that authorities currently in charge consider harmful to society. They way to deal with a murderer is to lock him up and maybe execute him, but the way to deal with a "heretic" is to make good arguments against what he or she says.

            We of course make allowances for people who life in different places or different eras and it was difficult for them to know any moral views other than the ones that were prevalent. So, for example, we may not denounce the Founding Fathers for being slave owners. But we certainly don't say that for them, slavery was not morally wrong. Their degree of culpability for owning slaves in late 18th-century and early 19th-century America may be dramatically less than and American in the 21st century who owned slaves. But we still can't claim that slavery was not morally wrong in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, or in the first century in Palestine, either.

          • Vasco Gama

            Persecuting heretics or keeping slaves was moraly wrong, even if we failed to recognize it (I am not claiming that those thing were right or moral).
            That is not different than claiming that killing babies or abortion being moraly wrong in spite of someone likes or dislikes (or conveniences), or the ignorance, or the particular understanding of the time. I would say that today we can have a better understanding of morality than five hundred or two tousend years ago.

          • Andrew Brew

            and all of those things bar one were explicitly condemned by the medieval church. The exception (persecution of heretics, although that is a rather loaded term) was permitted precisely because of the perceived threat to society. Bruno and the Albigensians, to take a couple of oft-mentioned examples, attracted attention for, respectively, praeching and attempting the subversion of Western civilisation, not for holding unusual views. We are not very tolerant of such today, either.

          • "If there is anything that the Catholic Church teaches, it is objective morality—if something is wrong today, then it was always wrong."

            This is true to an extent, but it depends what you mean by "something." You seem to recognize this in the rest of your comment, but I'll reemphasize it below:

            For example, the Church has always taught that murder is objectively wrong--it's wrong for all people, at all times, and in all places.

            But depending on the context and circumstances, a particular act of killing may or may not be classified as murder. In mediaval, rural Europe, for instance, it may be necessary to kill a murderer because there was no other way to prevent him from murdering again. In that case, such a killing may have been moral (and, in fact, a duty.)

            But as Pope John Paul II pointed out, such scenarios are virtually nonexistent today. In the modern world, it's almost always possible to suppress a murdered and prevent him from killing again without resorting to capital punishment. Therefore, according to the pope, capital punishment is immoral is almost every modern case.

            This is but one example of how an identical act--killing a murderer--can be moral in one context but immoral in another.

            Whether or not the same holds with the "killing heretics" scenario, we at least need to nuance our judgement of the act's morality by considering all the relevant contextual details. This is all I've been arguing.

          • "I worry about this stance of Brandon's. I'm not sure I can continue open and rational discourse with someone who advocates that it is possibly a good thing that I be put to death for my part in the conversation."

            Paul, that's not what I meant. This is a poor caricature of what I stated and I hope my follow-up comments above will flesh out my position.

            A twenty-first century atheist blog commenter is in a wholly different category than a thirteenth century social revolutionary. I don't think you should be punished for your beliefs today, even if acted upon, because:

            1) They are not heretical. Per the article I've linked to, heretical beliefs are unorthodox views purported to be authentic Catholic teaching. Thus they can only come from people who think their views *are* what the Catholic Church teaches. As far as I know, when you posit "God does not exist", you are not claiming this is what the Catholic Church teaches.

            2) Your beliefs, even when acted upon, pose no threat to the common good.

            Hopefully we can continue to engage in the open and rational discourse we've enjoyed together for months. If you don't think that's possible, you're welcome to comment elsewhere. But I for one hope you stay because I typically enjoy your comments.

          • I was genuinely concerned about this. I have had Catholic friends, mostly of the traditionalist persuasion, who in conversations after my leaving the Catholic Religion, admit that it would be ethical in a truly Christian society that I be put to death for my apostasy. They also tend to argue that in such a society I would not have become an apostate, and that would have been a better thing for me. Our faithless culture is a symptom in part of Christendom's historical failure to properly deal with heretics and humanists during the reformation and renaissance.

            This position is even parodied in a joke.

            Two men considering a religious vocation were having a conversation. “What is similar about the Jesuit and Dominican Orders? ” the one asked.

            The second replied, “Well, they were both founded by Spaniards — St. Dominic for the Dominicans, and St. Ignatius of Loyola for the Jesuits. They were also both founded to combat heresy — the Dominicans to fight the Albigensians, and the Jesuits to fight the Protestants.”

            “What is different about the Jesuit and Dominican Orders?”

            “Met any Albigensians lately?”

            I don't engage these friends in serious discussion about the Catholic faith. It wouldn't be worth my time, for obvious reasons. I'm glad for your clarification, because I enjoy commenting here.

          • "Brandon seems to be one Catholic who can't clearly say that executing heretics is wrong and suppressive."

            josh, I agree that executing someone merely for their private beliefs is deplorable.

            But I refuse to endorse such a general and unnuanced statement as the one I excerpted from your comment. It demands at least two clarifications before we can answer it:

            1) What do you mean by heretic?

            2) What is the effect of the heresy?

            Surely you would agree that the answer to your question hinges, in part, on whether we're referring to someone who privately holds an unorthodox belief or someone who publicly and intentionally stirs up dissension--both religious and social--by standing on heretical beliefs?

            (Also, when you say 'heretic' are you only referring to Catholics? Or does your definition also include non-Catholics?)

            All of these facts would shape both my and Thomas' answer to your question--as would the relevant time, place, and circumstances in which your question is posed.

          • Andre Boillot

            Vasco,

            Let me help you clean up your un-noted edit.

          • I think there was a miscommunication. I'm not saying that the current position among Catholics is to execute heretics. I'm saying that those Catholics who equivocate on executing heretics perpetuate a history of Catholic anti-intellectualism.

          • Vasco Gama

            I see what you mean, and I agree with you (to some extent).

            What was done was done, but that was the past (and stayed there), and it can’t be corrected (it is a fact). Now we just can try to understand it, and discuss it. Something from the past can’t perpetuate to the future (as it unable to change anything), our understanding (or our memory) is what perpetuates past actions (not the actions per se).

            This doesn't mean one doesn't use the past to make assumptions (that are not reasonable in this case, but they could be if things stayed the same)

          • That will be great, so long as we all agree to make a clear break with that part of the past.

          • Vasco Gama

            We already agree on that. The Church (namely through the declarations of a variety of Popes) already acknowledged wrongdoings in the past and asked for forgiveness (namely in situations such as these).

          • I believe you and I (and probably 90% of the Catholic Church) agree on that. I'm glad we agree.

            I don't know if Brandon does.

          • Methodological Naturalist

            you keep bringing it up

            Flagged for whinging.

          • Why does it matter that he didn't only advocate punishing "intellectual" heretics? As long as he did advocate punishing those heretics, it's solidly related to the main topic at hand.

  • Do Catholics really assert that medieval Catholicism championed free enquiry of secular explanations of natural phenomena? That it did not in fact direct all enquiry towards God, the divine etc?

    Are we really expected that at a time when the church was ok with torturing and burning heretics alive, that it would not condemn a philosophy that suggested no God is necessary for the creation and mAintenance of the world?

    That it did not view the flesh and pleasures thereof as in some way corrupt and that self-beating it was a good and holy thing?

    Have a look at St Rose of Lima, her interest in fasting, literally wearing a crown of thorns and tying barbed wire around her breasts was celebrated by the church.

    • Vasco Gama

      «Do Catholics really assert that medieval Catholicism championed free enquiry of secular explanations of natural phenomena? [1] That it did not in fact direct all enquiry towards God, the divine etc? [2]»

      [1] I can’t guarantee that, however it is absurd to claim that medieval Catholicism persecuted free enquiry of explanations of natural phenomena (if that is the case they were pretty inefficient at it). Plus it is quite inconsistent with the promotion of education and knowledge, which was a prime concern of the Church. But then it is easy to establish a comparison between Christendom with other areas of the globe that were Catholic free.

      [2] It is possible to look at it in that way, as God is seen as the creator and sustainer of whatever exists.

      «Are we really expected that at a time when the church was ok with torturing and burning heretics alive, that it would not condemn a philosophy that suggested no God is necessary for the creation and mAintenance of the world?»

      The main activity of the Church never was to persecute heretics, however the actions of the Church weren’t always as reasonable as they should, and many times exceeded what is clearly perceived as reasonable today, and the Church regrets the wrong doings that were committed

      That it did not view the flesh and pleasures thereof as in some way corrupt and that self-beating it was a good and holy thing?

      I really don’t think so (as a general view of medieval Catholicism).

      • The Catholic Church enforce strict adherence to its interpretation of the Bible for several hundred years. Google "heretics burned by the Catholic Church". You will find scores of names between 1000 and 1800.

        Free societies do not have crimes of "heresy" and "blasphemy". They do not ban books.

        Look, pretty much all of Europe was bloodthirsty during this period and had little interest in education, science or diversity. But when these things arose, they did not come from the Catholic Church. Much or these ideas came from the authors of the books banned by Rome. It is not like the church had been championing free enquiry for 1700 years telling people to be tolerant of other religions and look to earthly causes as well, not to jump to God as an explanation, and that secular institutions finally relented.

        • Vasco Gama

          Brian,

          «The Catholic Church enforce strict adherence to its interpretation of the Bible for several hundred years.»

          Your point being that the Church should support a vague (or a moderate) adherence to its interpretation of the Bible, or that people should interpret the Bible at their convenience, or according to the spirit of the season?

          Maybe for you it only natural that our conception of a free society should have always existed (as if it could appear by magic), and we could expect that it should be something that came along with existence. So that people always had the same concept of society, which is the one we have today. Although cone could desire) this (and imagine that that was possible), there is little sense in it.

          Look, pretty much all of Europe was bloodthirsty during this period and had little interest in education, science or diversity. But when these things arose, they did not come from the Catholic Church. Much or these ideas came from the authors of the books banned by Rome.

          « Look, pretty much all of Europe was bloodthirsty during this period and had little interest in education, science or diversity. …»

          There is little point in contradicting your notions. But I would say that you must consider seriously your historical perspective, and try to see if it is coherent with outcome, in the sense of this all powerful reactionary and superstitious Church you described could produce the situation we experience (and then try to compare the situation in the western countries, that had a strong Catholic influence, with the other regions in the world, then I guess you have to claim a miracle that Catholicism could produce such an amazing amount of geniuses that were able to contradict the action of the Church, while producing the wonders you may see, of course for some mysterious reason those genius were absent elsewhere).

        • fredx2

          You are aware, aren't you, that there were no real "free societies" until at least the very end of the 18th century, and a little after?

  • David Nickol

    It seems to me that on the topic of whether Catholicism championed "free inquiry," one need only take a look at the Index of Forbidden books, which was extant from 1557 to 1966. The following are some authors who had one or more works on the forbidden list:

    Francis Bacon
    Balzac
    Bishop Berkeley
    John Calvin
    Daniel Defoe
    Descartes
    Alexandre Dumas
    Erasmus
    Gustave Flaubert
    Victor Hugo
    David Hume
    John Locke
    Nicholas Machiavelli
    John Stuart Mill
    John Milton
    Montaigne
    Pascal
    Jean-Jacques Rousseau
    Jean Paul Sartre
    Baruch Spinoza
    Stendhal
    Jonathan Swift
    Voltaire
    Emile Zola

    Obviously some of the greatest minds in history were important people in the Catholic Church, and surely the Catholic Church made many contributions to learning and education. It would be foolish to try to write an alternate history (a la Harry Turtledove) and speculate on what would have happened had there been no Catholic Church. Obviously the Catholic Church doesn't get the blame for every hindrance that got in the way of free inquiry and the advance of human knowledge, nor does it get the credit, merely because it held such tremendous power for such a long time, for every advance that was made by people who happened to be Catholic. It is probably impossible to do an unbiased assessment of the role of the Catholic Church in the history of the West since, aside from being too immense a topic to generalize about, there would be a serious danger for it to be an exercise of anti-Catholic prejudice or Catholic chauvinism.

    It is at least in part foolish to judge the Catholic Church based on today's standards, when not only don't we burn heretics, but the Catholic Church itself takes a fairly "hands off" policy in disciplining even priests and nuns who are perceived as straying from "orthodoxy." Nevertheless, it does have to be taken into account that the Church claims to have been under divine guidance since its earliest times and takes pride in its alleged consistency going all the way back to the Apostles, sometimes making tortured rationalizations explaining why clear shifts were, if viewed correctly, models of continuity.

    There was a joke back in the 1960s when it was widely (and, unfortunately, erroneously) believed that the Church would permit contraception, at least in the form of the pill, that the announcement of the change would begin, "As the Church has always taught . . . ." And that was an inside joke, not something said by non-Catholic outsiders.

    • Danny Getchell

      The Protestants, when they change doctrine, splinter.

      The Catholics, when they change doctrine, retcon.

      • Hey Danny - I had to look up "retcon" - a clever insult, I have to admit!

        But I do disagree with the equivalence of the development of doctrine with Protestant "changes" in doctrine (which actually involved explicit rejection of dogmas, not simply doctrines, which are not necessarily infallible.) Do you have specific examples of changed doctrines in mind?

        As far as I understand it, the Index was not taught as doctrine but was a decree of the CDF to protect doctrine - so its disintegration wouldn't count as a change in doctrine. (And just to be clear I think that was a terrible idea - but we should be sensitive to historical context when judging history.)

        • David Nickol

          The classic response is to put in evidence John T. Noonan's book A Church That Can and Cannot Change: The Development of Catholic Moral Teaching. It deals with only a small number of issues, among them usury and slavery. Full disclosure: I have not read it cover to cover. But I would say that in the parts I have read, he makes clear case that the Church definitively forbid usury (the lending of money for interest, not just the lending of money at exorbitant rates), the general public ignored the teaching, and it was basically just forgotten.

          Christianity did not, of course, condemn slavery from day 1 either, and he examines that as well.

          One of the things it seems to me that the Catholic Church does is to teach with great authority matters that are not really official doctrine. If I had dared tell one of my grade-school teachers I did not believe unbaptized babies went to Limbo, I do not doubt that I would have been in serious trouble. But when the idea of Limbo was deprecated (in the computer science sense, at least), it could honestly be said that it was never official doctrine. Everyone just had treated it as though it had been.

          • Danny Getchell

            One of the things it seems to me that the Catholic Church does is to teach with great authority matters that are not really official doctrine.

            A very good point, and one that would be a great topic for a future article here.

          • Hey David - I haven't read Noonan's book either and am unfamiliar with the argument in depth. It seems like a clear-eyed and respectable assessment. But I did find this response to Noonan which you may find interesting. The short answer to each problem you raised is:

            The error concerning the charging of interest is an example of correct moral principles (against economic exploitation and so forth) mistakenly applied on account of the inadequacies of early economic theory...

            The change of the Church's attitude toward slavery reflects the changed circumstances of the world more than it reflects any revolution in moral theology.

            http://www.ewtn.com/library/THEOLOGY/FRNOONAN.htm

            I don't think the Church would deny for a second that it evolves and grows on doctrine - Newman explicated that reality beautifully. But I think it would argue that there is a deeper hermeneutic of continuity informing this growth, not a thinly veiled hermeneutic of rupture. (My favorite image is that of a tree. If you looked at a fully grown tree branch or hanging fruit, then compared it to the tree's seed, you would be startled by the surface change. But dig deeper into the biological history linking the two phases and you find one long organic unity and outgrowth.)

          • David Nickol

            But I think it would argue that there is a deeper hermeneutic of continuity informing this growth, not a thinly veiled hermeneutic of rupture.

            Before getting into the actual discussion of the positions the Church has taken on usury and slavery, I think we have to acknowledge that both you and I are bound to be biased in our interpretations of the various arguments regarding whether the Church teaching has changed or merely "developed." You (as any "orthodox" Catholic) have made a commitment of faith in accepting that the Church is infallible and cannot err in matters of faith and morals. I, as someone who was raised a Catholic but am now quite skeptical, am at minimum not committed to seeing nearly two-thousand years of continuity in Church, and am inclined to not see continuity, because to acknowledge continuity would undermine my skeptical position.

            What I am saying is that both you and I, in all good faith, have positions that we have a vested interest in maintaining. And the psychological forces at work on both of us will influence our "rational" conclusions. This happens all the time in politics, where politicians rarely admit to changing their positions and offer rationales of why current positions that appear to be a change of direction is really in continuity with past positions. Supporters of those politicians find their claims of continuity credible, but opponents view the same politicians as "flip-floppers." Of course, one of the most common rationales as to why a new position is not a "flip-flop" is, "I still believe what I believed before, but circumstances have changed." Hence we have

            The change of the Church's attitude toward slavery reflects the changed circumstances of the world more than it reflects any revolution in moral theology.

          • David Nickol

            I have had the opportunity to read A Response to John T. Noonan, Jr., Concerning the Development of Catholic
            Moral Doctrine
            by Patrick M. O'Neil, which you linked to on the EWTN website. John T. Noonan's book A Church That Can and Cannot Change was published in 2005, but O'Neil's article was published in 1996, so obviously it is not a response to Noonan's book but a response (as made clear in footnote 1) to a 1993 essay by Noonan. It seems to take the most familiar approach to Noonan (at least the most familiar that I have seen) which is often a a mix of two assertions: (1) Times have changed, and what was wrong under past economic conditions is not wrong under current ones, and (2) when the Church condemned usury, it didn't really condemn the lending of money for interest but rather the lending of money at exorbitant rates.

            However, Noonan says (p. 135)

            I will not set out here the immense legal and moral structure that was then developed on the basis of the usury prohibition. For a very long time, at least until the partial withdrawal of the teaching that occurred in the nineteenth century, the flat prohibition of profit on a lon appeard to be an essential moral precept of the Catholic Church. It was an injunction based on nature itself, because for money to reproduce itself was unnatural. The evil was intrinsic. The injunction was confirmed by the teaching on lending of the Lord himself: it was a dominical precept. So taught a series of popes; so taught three general councils of the Church; so taught all the bishops. Everywhere and at all time usury, the making of profit from a loan, was condemned as sin.

            So usury was an intrinsic evil, something that may never be done no matter what the circumstances. Intrinsic evils cannot be right under some circumstances and wrong under others. The very meaning of the term intrinsic evil makes this clear. Interestingly, O'Neil demotes slavery from an intrinsic evil to something that may be acceptable under certain circumstances.

            If we were to posit a science-fiction scenario, we might hold that if the Church were to find itself in a devastated, post-nuclear world, as in the excellent novel A Canticle for Leibowitz,[23] where conditions identical to those in ancient Israel, the European Middle Ages, or the early modern era existed, then in those circumstances, the Church might again have to accept (prudentially, as the lesser of evils) the reinstatement of slavery. However, one would naturally expect the Church's historical experience to facilitate her efforts to mitigate, restrict, or eliminate the more serious evils attendant upon this lesser evil.

            This is in contrast to Veritatis Splendor:

            80. Reason attests that there are objects of the human act which are by their nature "incapable of being ordered" to God, because they radically contradict the good of the person made in his image. These are the acts which, in the Church's moral tradition, have been termed "intrinsically evil" (intrinsece malum): they are such always and per se, in other words, on account of their very object, and quite apart from the ulterior intentions of the one acting and the circumstances. Consequently, without in the least denying the influence on morality exercised by circumstances and especially by intentions, the Church teaches that "there exist acts which per se and in themselves, independently of circumstances, are always seriously wrong by reason of their object". The Second Vatican Council itself, in discussing the respect due to the human person, gives a number of examples of such acts: "Whatever is hostile to life itself, such as any kind of homicide, genocide, abortion, euthanasia and voluntary suicide; whatever violates the integrity of the human person, such as mutilation, physical and mental torture and attempts to coerce the spirit; whatever is offensive to human dignity, such as subhuman living conditions, arbitrary imprisonment, deportation, slavery, prostitution and trafficking in women and children; degrading conditions of work which treat labourers as mere instruments of profit, and not as free responsible persons: all these and the like are a disgrace, and so long as they infect human civilization they contaminate those who inflict them more than those who suffer injustice, and they are a negation of the honour due to the Creator".

            I have seen similar arguments from others trying to explain why Jesus did not condemn slavery, or why the Church took so many centuries to conclude that slavery was evil. It is argued that in certain times and under certain circumstances, slavery is not evil, or that there are different kinds of slavery, and some kinds are evil while others are not. This puts O'Neil and others in the strange position of defending slavery to defend the Catholic Church.

          • fredx2

            Note that the rhetorical trick that some play in regards to slavery is this: "The church never CATEGORICALLY denounced slavery until the second Vatican council"

            That is because "slavery" was many things.

            When you send a criminal to prison, and make them work, you have made them a slave.

            When indentured servants sign a contract for their labor for a term of years, they have entered into 'slavery"

            When Prisoners of war are kept alive and made to work rather than be killed, this was considered "slavery"

            So no, the church never "categorically denied" these things because some of them were useful and normal and morally OK.

            However, from the time racial slavery first began to be practices, in the 1400's, the Popes denounced it. They considred that "unjust slavery". That much is made clear by Joel Panzer.

            http://www.ewtn.com/library/ANSWERS/POPSLAVE.HTM
            This is the church's problem. Decisions they made centuries ago under circumstances barely imaginalbe today are used as examples of perfidy.

          • David Nickol

            Your argument seems to be that there are acceptable forms of slavery and unacceptable forms of slavery, and the Church understandably didn't condemn all slavery because that would have meant condemning the acceptable forms of slavery. It seems to be a familiar argument among defenders of the Church's late condemnation of slavery that the Church rightly didn't condemn slavery, because not all slavery is wrong, and what the Church does condemn is "chattel slavery."

            I disagree that requiring convicted criminals or POWs to work is slavery or that voluntary indentured servitude, by mutual agreement, is slavery.

            Noonan notes the following:

            The new Code of Canon Law, published in 1917, maintained the positions set out in the old law that a free person contracting marriage with one believed to be free but in fact a slave contracted invalidly; and that slavery was an impediment to the reception of holy orders. The law establishing slavery in the regions where it still existed was still strong enough to trump a Christian's reception of the sacrament's of matrimony and orders.

            If slavery was condemned by the Catholic Church, why would being a slave be an impediment to the reception of holy orders?

          • Andre Boillot

            "However, from the time racial slavery first began to be practices, in the 1400's, the Popes denounced it."

            I'm not sure what you mean by 'racial slavery', would doubt that even this began as late as the 1400s, and wonder why you're not addressing the issue of chattel ("traditional") slavery - a practice older than recorded history, and condoned in the Old Testament.

          • David Nickol

            Decisions they made centuries ago under circumstances barely imaginalbe today are used as examples of perfidy.

            Just as most Americans do not accuse the Founding Fathers who were slave owners of "perfidy," but rather judge them as men who lived under different cultural conditions, I don't think reasonable people judge the Catholic Church harshly—as a purely human institution—for not condemning slavery from day one.

            However, the Catholic Church claims to operate under divine guidance, so the question is why it took so very long for the Catholic Church to come to the conclusion that is universally held today—that slavery is intrinsically evil and a profoundly grave offense against human dignity. Some of the teachings of Jesus were in stark contrast to the thinking even of his own time—for example, the prohibition of divorce or the eating and drinking (even symbolically) of flesh and blood. Going all the way back to the Old Testament, God gave commands for which the rationale was not understood (in some cases because there was no rationale—such as for certain dietary laws). Why didn't the Catholic Church, under the guidance of God, condemn slavery beginning in the first century instead of tolerating it, in some respects, into the twentieth century?

            The question is not whether the Catholic Church was wicked. It is why, when it claims to be Christ's representative on earth, it took the Church so incredibly long to unequivocally oppose slavery.

          • severalspeciesof

            The question is not whether the Catholic Church was wicked. It is why, when it claims to be Christ's representative on earth, it
            took the Church so incredibly long to unequivocally oppose slavery.

            Because its claims to be Christ's representative is basically an assertion (based on the idea that Jesus actually said to Peter "Upon this rock I will build my church" which many scholars believe to be the idea of the writer of Matthew and not any actual statement by Jesus, written to lend credence to his writings and the fledgling followers of Jesus), and the church is a human made institution, locked into itself, and because it is locked into itself, changes come ever so slowly...

            Glen

          • severalspeciesof

            I have seen similar arguments from others trying to explain why Jesus did not condemn slavery, or why the Church took so many centuries to conclude that slavery was evil. It is argued that in certain times and under certain circumstances, slavery is not evil, or that there are different kinds of slavery, and some kinds are evil while others are not.

            IMO, those that use that argument then cannot oppose moral relativism...

            Glen

          • David Nickol

            I think the position of the Church now, in the 21st century, is that slavery is intrinsically evil—never permissible at any time, under any circumstances, for any reason.

            The Catechism says:

            2414 The seventh commandment forbids acts or enterprises that for any reason - selfish or ideological, commercial, or totalitarian - lead to the enslavement of human beings, to their being bought, sold and exchanged like merchandise, in disregard for their personal dignity. It is a sin against the dignity of persons and their fundamental rights to reduce them by violence to their productive value or to a source of profit. St. Paul directed a Christian master to treat his Christian slave "no longer as a slave but more than a slave, as a beloved brother, . . . both in the flesh and in the Lord."

            The last sentence is very strange. A slave treated like a beloved brother is still a slave. If St. Paul opposed slavery, he should have told masters to free slaves.

          • Sqrat

            The whole thing is very strange, given that the tenth commandment implicitly asserts the moral legitimacy of slavery: "Thou shalt not covet your neighbor's ... male servant, nor his female servant...."

          • severalspeciesof

            The Catechism says:

            2414 The seventh commandment forbids acts or
            enterprises that for any reason - selfish or ideological, commercial, or
            totalitarian - lead to the enslavement of human beings, to their being
            bought, sold and exchanged like merchandise, in disregard for their
            personal dignity. It is a sin against the dignity of persons and their
            fundamental rights to reduce them by violence to their productive value
            or to a source of profit. St. Paul directed a Christian master to treat
            his Christian slave "no longer as a slave but more than a slave, as a
            beloved brother, . . . both in the flesh and in the Lord."

            Maybe I'm reading the above wrong (correct me if I am) but this part: "...in disregard for their
            personal dignity." looks to be a loophole of sorts. If one can keep their 'personal dignity' (whatever that may be defined as) it would then be permissible for slavery to exist, wouldn't it?

            The last sentence is very strange. A slave treated like a beloved brother is still a slave. If St. Paul opposed slavery, he should have told masters to free slaves.

            True dat...

          • Randy Gritter

            It comes from the book of Philemon. It is short book. You can read the whole thing in a few minutes. It is about Onesimus. He is a slave of Philemon and he runs away to Paul. Paul sends him back with this letter. He says he could order Philemon to release Onesimus but wants him to be free to make the right choice on his own. So Paul gives a strong hint but not an order.

          • Sqrat

            There is no indication in the book of Philemon that Paul held that all slaves should be freed because it was wrong, in general, to hold slaves. Rather, he thought that one particular slave, Onesimus, should be freed because "Onesimus is much more than a slave. To me he is a dear friend, but to you he is even more, both as a person and as a follower of the Lord."

          • But Paul's argument is rooted in the dignity of the human person. But Jesus taught that we all have that dignity. So it does not take a major leap to get from Philemon to the idea that taking anyone as a slave is wrong. Still culture is strong. I think St Patrick of Ireland was the first to suggest slavery was immoral for anyone. Of course, he was a slave for a time.

          • Sqrat

            If it did not take a major leap to get from Philemon to the idea that holding slaves was wrong, it is nevertheless noteworthy that early Christianity did not make such a leap. We are not aware that Paul made such a leap. Indeed, we are not aware that Jesus himself made such a leap, for we have nothing in the Gospels indicating explicitly that Jesus taught that slavery was inherently wrong -- perhaps he might have objected to it on the grounds that only the wealthy were likely to own slaves, and, insofar as we can tell, he does not seem to have cared much for wealthy people.

            The idea that slavery was inherently wrong failed to take sufficiently strong root within Christianity to prevent the practice for living on for the better part of 2,000 years. What did take root, to some extent, was the idea that slaves should not be ill-treated -- although what constituted ill-treatment was a matter for debate. Surely a just God would not object to whipping a slave for running away, would he?

          • fredx2

            And the response to Noonan is (theologian) Cardinal Dulles piece in First Things - a good read, which ends with:

            "All in all, Noonan has written a stimulating book dealing with questions of great importance. He shows himself to be knowledgeable about the history of the four problems here treated. He brings to bear many of the skills of a historian, a civil lawyer, a canon lawyer, and to some degree those of a theologian. Anyone who wishes to question Noonan's conclusions must at least take account of the facts he has unearthed. He renders no small service in presenting the most powerful objections against continuity that can be raised.

            The reader should be warned, however, that Noonan manipulates the evidence to make it seem to favor his own preconceived conclusions. For some reason, he is intent on finding discontinuity—but he fails to establish that the Church has reversed her teaching in any of the four areas he examines.
            http://www.firstthings.com/article/2007/01/development-or-reversal-37"

          • fredx2

            And as to Limbo, I was taught in grade school about Limbo. By nuns. But it never was a doctrine of the church. it was the latest speculation by a group of theologians. I think in some ways the media had a role to play in that, perhaps magnifying things more than they should have been. And, I think some were looking for an answer to that question about what happens to babies that die before baptism. So they may have latched on to something that was not authoritative.

        • Danny Getchell

          The Church's positions on slavery, on the lending of money at interest, and on the punishment of heresy as a civil crime are the three which come most readily to mind.

          And Protestant churches have split on issues both more major and more trivial than the above, so I think my original statement stands up.

          • Hey Danny - Can you source the documents from the Magisterium (papal bull, council document, etc.) where the positive teaching on these issues was pronounced and then abandoned? I confess that Church history is not an area I'm very well versed in, and something I'm still struggling to catch up on.

          • Danny Getchell

            There are articles in the Catholic Encyclopedia which cover these topics with references.

            I am reconsidering my original comment (slightly) in the light of David Nickol's excellent point that the line may be blurred between the actual doctrines of the church and non-doctrinal opinions which are taught as if they were doctrine.

            A good example of this today can be found on the website of the USCCB, where political and economic opinions of the bishops are given nearly the same emphasis as issues such as abortion and contraception.

        • David Nickol

          I had to look up "retcon" - a clever insult, I have to admit!

          I think Catholics have to acknowledge (especially when in dialogue with atheist) that Catholicism doesn't look the same to atheists or people of other religions than it does to Catholics. I certainly would not say there is an equivalence between the Church and soap opera writers or writers of science fiction or fan fiction, in that I would not accuse the Catholic Church of "making stuff up" to impose retroactive continuity. I am sure the continuity is "discovered" in all sincerity. But to an outsider, it certainly looks like "retconning." A prime example is the case the Catholic Church makes for marriage as a sacrament. It was only in the 13th century that marriage was officially recognized as a sacrament (Fourth Lateran Council in 1215). For a good thousand years, Christians got married the way their non-Christian neighbors did, privately or civilly, according to local customs and laws. Garry Wills describes the early history of marriage within Christianity as follows:

          The early church had no specific rite for marriage. This was left up to the secular authorities of the Roman Empire, since marriage is a legal concern for the legitimacy of heirs. When the Empire became Christian under Constantine, Christian emperors continued the imperial control of marriage, as the Code of Justinian makes clear. When the Empire faltered in the West, church courts took up the role of legal adjudicator of valid marriages. But there was still no special religious meaning to the institution. As the best scholar of sacramental history, Joseph Martos, puts it: “Before the eleventh century there was no such thing as a Christian wedding ceremony in the Latin church, and throughout the Middle Ages there was no single church ritual for solemnizing marriage between Christians.”

          That description is accurate, although "orthodox" Catholics will find much to disagree with in the rest of that piece!

          Now, Catholics maintain that the seven sacraments were "instituted by Christ." As Wills notes, it is frequently argued that Jesus "raised marriage to the dignity of a sacrament" by attending the wedding feast at Cana and performing (according to John's account) his first miracle there. Since it took more than a thousand years for the Catholic Church to figure that out, to outsiders (and to many Catholics, too), that looks like an example of "retcon." But I would never claim whoever first came up with that notion thought of it as a clever invention rather than a valid insight.

          If atheists or people of other religions believed the claims the Catholic Church makes about itself, they would become Catholics, and two millennia of perfect and infallible continuity is one of the claims the Catholic Church makes about itself that Catholics should not be offended that people who are not Catholics believe.

          • Argon

            "Retcon"
            I hadn't heard that before but it's certainly apt for me now that I'm dealing with the annual performance review season at work.

          • Methodological Naturalist

            Nice post except for one thing. You said:

            If atheists or people of other religions believed the claims the Catholic Church makes about itself, they would become Catholics

            I don't accept your premise that if people believed the claims of Catholicism that they would then become Catholics.

            Of course there is no evidence for any gods, but even if it were all true (like the home page video asks), I would still see it to be my moral duty to condemn it.

            Christianity is a particularly ugly theology from my perspective.

          • remke

            You run into a bit of a problem there. If you indeed believe the claims of Catholicism are true then rejecting those claims on moral grounds becomes impossible, since the truth claims of Catholicism contain an understanding of morality (however incomplete) as part of the theology. So in accepting those truth claims, you've already got the moral standard which you have to use in making moral judgements. So you either have to use the moral claims of Catholicism to argue that Catholicism's truth claims are morally condemnable, or you have to use some other moral standard - one that you have already rejected when you accept that the Catholic claims are true - in order to base your condemnation. I don't see how either option is not contradictory.

          • David Nickol

            I agree. If you accept the claims of the Catholic Church, you accept that God is the creator, that Jesus was God incarnate, and that the Catholic Church is the only organization representing God on earth. Aside from deciding that it is preferable to rule in hell rather than serve in heaven, it seems to me the only rational choice is to become a Catholic—especially since odds are you will not rule, but serve, in hell!

            Please let no one accuse me of saying those who aren't Catholics go to hell. What I am saying is that if you believe the truth claims of the Catholic Church, and if you are correct in believing those truth claims, and if you morally condemn the Church (and, of necessity, God), then the consequences will not be happy. Morally condemning Christianity because you think it is false is one thing, but condemning it when you think it is true is quite another.

            Probably (hopefully) we are misunderstanding what Methodological Naturalist said.

          • Ben Posin

            This is an interesting point. I think it's pretty clear that M. N. is talking about hypothetically accepting what might be called the factual claims of Catholicism, while rejecting the Church's moral interpretation of them. That is to say, M N. is saying that if there is a creator God, who due to his rules and nature will punish us eternally as a result of us not meeting his standards, who then incarnated as Jesus and died to allow those who accept this "sacrifice" to avoid punishment, and so forth...this is not a morally acceptable situation.

            I'm not sure this is a contradictory position; I hold it myself (though as David Nickol points out, as a practical matter rebelling against this evil system wouldn't do anyone much good). But then to me this division of factual and moral claims seems natural; I'm guessing you wouldn't agree?

          • remke

            I'm a little unclear how you personally separate the factual from the moral on issues like this. It seems to me like we're discussing a topic that necessarily defines the nature of reality itself. So what reality (writ-large) actually is is in large part determined by how one answers the question about whether God exists and what his nature is. So I'd love to hear more on your belief there.

            But to the initial issue, I'd say that the central claim of Catholicism is that the creator god that you mention is responsible of the creation of all of reality - including the very concepts of Good and Evil. Hence, Catholic philosophers have historically associated the Christian God with something along the lines of Plato's form of the Good. So if you accept that this God exists, his existence seems to define what is indeed Good right along with it.

          • Ben Posin

            I can see how that wouldn't be clear. It's related to some points made during the debate on this website concerning whether God is necessary for "objective" morality (in the comments, anyway). You could sum up my view as believing that the Euthyphro dilemma is valid despite the protests of apologists, and that there is no logically demonstrated connection between the existence of a God and a non-arbitrary good. Attempts to show otherwise tend to redefine "good" into a synonym for "God's nature" and the like, with no additional meaning or explanatory power.

            Some apologists, when discussing God's omnipotence, sometimes talk about how that means only being able to do that which is logically possible (e.g., God can't create a three sided figure with 90 degree angles). I'm not sure this is a perfect fit, but that's what's coming to mind when you talk about how accepting Catholicism as true requires accepting that the God of Catholicism is good; I could maybe imagine as a logical possibility that the Catholic God is a real thing, but I can't accept that God can make a three sided square,and I can't accept that the Catholic God's setup is a moral or good one, based on the sorts of things one usually means when talking about "moral" or "good."

            Of course, you can always pick a horn of the Euthyphro dilemma, and say that "good" is whatever God says it is, that it has no meaning outside of a set of things that God has stated are appropriate and desirable. If that's what you mean by good, then yes, by definition I'd have no choice but to call what God does good. Reminds me of William Lane Craig and divine command theory. Is that your position, or that of the Catholic church?

          • Danny Getchell

            "a horn of the Euthypro dilemma"

            There is not much I like about Calvinism, but one thing it does do is to face the question of God's omnipotence squarely and without flinching. God is the boss of bosses, he can do to us what he desires, and we have no choice but to accept it as our just deserts.

            This is a pretty dismal view, but if one accepts the existence of an omnipotent God, it certainly fits the facts of the universe as observed.

          • Danny Getchell

            the central claim of Catholicism is that the creator god that you mention is responsible of the creation of all of
            reality - including the very concepts of Good and Evil.

            That's pretty interesting, remke. In the recent series on objective morality I several times queried our Catholic authors and posters as to whether our notions of good and evil are God's creation, and did not receive a clear response.

            I'll continue to ask that question, and hope for an answer.

          • remke

            Sorry I've been a little loose with what I was saying. And I should caveat that I'm decidedly an amateur when dealing with such questions, so what I'm saying really only reflects my own beliefs.

            I would accept equivalence between God and the Good, so I suppose it is somewhat wrong to suggest that "the concepts of Good and Evil" are created by God, who logically pre-exists them (and so is, in some sense, above them). What I was really trying to say was something more negative, along the following lines. If you accept that God has created the entirety of reality then I don't see how you find something separate from God which you can use to base a morality, and so I don't see how one can separate the moral and factual claims of Catholicism, as Ben had originally suggested.

          • Methodological Naturalist

            remke, thank you for the reply.

            You're arguing that if I saw creation through the 20/20 lens of Catholicism I would have no justification to reject its tenets on moral grounds. Let's patent that ophthalmic model of yours and apply it to something else.

            Can a Catholic who observes nature through the 20/20 lens of Darwinian evolution still maintain there were two first humans?

          • remke

            This question deeply depends upon what we are defining as "Darwinian evolution"; in particular, are you positing a scientific hypothesis or are you asserting something with more metaphysical implications. But in general, no I don't think that Darwinian evolution particularly supports the idea that there was a single couple who are the only source of all people. So no a Catholic observing nature through such a lens cannot say that there was that single couple. But I don't think that accepting Darwinian evolution has quite the same kind of moral implications that accepting the truth claims of Catholicism does.

          • Methodological Naturalist

            remke,

            a Catholic observing nature through such a lens cannot say that there was that single couple.

            You're right, Darwinian evolution cannot be used to support the Catholic claim of a first parent. Anyone who understands evolution knows this.

            Paradoxically, Catholics do claim to support Darwin's theory and I do see this as painting oneself into a corner. It's similar, with one major exception, to the corner you see me painted into with my hypothetical.

            The exception of course is that evolution is evidence-based, factual. The moral faith claims of Catholicism are not.

            That's why it's strikingly odd for me and my friends to witness Catholics apply such sophisticated reasoning within the walls of their chapels one hour a week, but not so much during the other 167 hours outside of chapel.

            A 20/20 view of Darwin's theory of evolution lays waste to the Catholic claim of a first parent. It closes the door to that paradox and makes my moral hypothetical impossible to be anything but.

          • Alypius

            A 20/20 view of Darwin's theory of evolution lays waste to the Catholic claim of a first parent

            Not necessarily. Remember that Catholics read Genesis anagogically, not literally. Given that, there may be any number of ways of reconciling the Adam & Eve of the creation narrative with what we now know about evolution.

            Not that the Church has worked out the "official" details yet or anything, but this is why you do see a confidence among Catholics that they are not in conflict. JPII and Benedict XVI both at various points insisted on that fact.

          • remke

            Well now I'm rather confused!! In particular, I'm not sure where you stand on the issue that started our conversation.

            I started by suggesting that the following implication is unsound: IF X THEN Y, where X was "I believe the truth claims of Catholicism are correct" and Y was "I reject Catholicism on moral grounds". (I take this to be essentially what you meant when you said: "even if it were all true (like the home page video asks), I would still see it to be my moral duty to condemn it.") I don't think that this is a sound implication because I think that the truth claims of Catholicism contain within them a claim about what is morally correct, so that in accepting the truth claim you end up accepting the basic moral structure as well. Ben and I have gotten into this some below, as he disagrees with this idea.

            You returned with a similar implication that went something like this: IF X THEN Y where X is "Darwinian evolution is true" and Y is "There was a first human [or pair of humans who were the only source of all later humans]". I agree that this implication is not sound. I would suggest, however, that the existence of a single source of all future humans is not a central Catholic truth claim (though plenty of Catholics do/did believe that Y is true). To make my general beliefs explicit, I am a Catholic and I do believe that evolution is the best scientific explanation for the existence of humanity and life (though we may well differ on some of the details of the process). Ultimately this requires reading Genesis in a non-literal fashion, but I have little problem with doing so - a position that has a long history in the Church.

            So where does this leave us?

          • Andrew Brew

            Even if the truth were incontrovertibly demonstrated to you, you would still reject it. Interesting. We will read your comments in that light.

          • Methodological Naturalist

            As well you should, that view is devoid of dishonesty.

      • Vasco Gama

        I am also curious, to what exactly do you refer when you say

        «The Catholics, when they change doctrine, retcon.»

        • Danny Getchell

          See my reply to Matthew Becklo's same question.

          • Vasco Gama

            If I understand you correctly you are saying that after all the Catholics don’t change the doctrine, but are able to commit errors (even if it concerns to the interpretation of doctrine), I totally agree with you.

          • Danny Getchell

            If the church tells its members in year X that lending money at interest is sinful, but then tells its members in year X+100 that it is not sinful, how would you characterize it?

            More to the point, if the church in that year X is now admitted to have taught an erroneous interpretation of doctrine, how can one be sure of what is being taught in the year 2013?

          • Vasco Gama

            I don’t possess a detailed insight of the Church position on the justification of charging interests for lending money, and I guess that lending money wasn’t always considered virtuous or even acceptable for a Catholic to do. Anyway the Church always opposed strongly to usury. I would say that it is still a delicate matter for the Church, and maybe it should be more clear.

            The Church is made by people, and people error, make mistakes, and learn from their experience, does it look strange to you (have you heard any claim that the people from the Church were supposed to be perfect, saints, or anything of the sort, besides the irrational view that some atheists seem to possess on this matter).

          • Andre Boillot

            "The Church is made by people, and people error, make mistakes, and learn from their experience, does it look strange to you"

            No, it seems *entirely* human. :)

          • Vasco Gama

            You are very insightful

          • Danny Getchell

            Precisely, Andre.

          • David Nickol

            Vasco, you seem to forget that the Church is infallible on matters of faith and morals. Prohibition of usury is a matter of morals. If usury was definitively prohibited at some point in the history of the Church, then it must be wrong, although it is undoubtedly and universally accepted today by Catholics who have savings accounts, mortgages, and car loans. The Bible is very clear on the matter. Many Muslims take seriously prohibitions against charging interest, and there are Muslim Banks that offer alternative financial instruments to avoid usury.

          • Vasco Gama

            The Catholic Church clearly denounces usury, this was recently expressed by Pope Francis in the apostolic exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium (see link below) and the Church was always quite clear about that. But has no power to enforce its recommendations.

            http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/francesco/apost_exhortations/documents/papa-francesco_esortazione-ap_20131124_evangelii-gaudium_en.html

          • Andre Boillot

            "But has no power to enforce its recommendations."

            Then surely - though they lack the ability to force others - they themselves are careful not to participate in the practice, or benefit from it in any way. I'm equally as sure that they dedicate similar levels of resources to combating these practices as they would, say, contraception.

          • Vasco Gama

            Yes, I would say that your assumption is correct (it would also depend on the importance that each of those matters has and in the effectiveness of any proper action, but in general I would say that I agree with you). Surely both matters are important to the Church.

          • Andre Boillot

            Vasco,

            Apologies, I was hoping that the obvious disparity in the importance the Church seems to give the two issues would make it clear that I was being sarcastic.

          • Vasco Gama

            I understood your sarcasm, and I choose not to address it. The fact that the Church may seem more enthusiast about some issues than others may be misleading, as this impression mostly results from the emphasis that the media choose to give to some particular subjects, or to the fact that lay people are also more polarized to the most simple and least uncomfortable subjects, nothing particularly mysterious.

          • Andre Boillot

            "this impression mostly results from the emphasis that the media choose to give"

            This old canard. I don't think you can blame the media coverage for the lack of attention some of these issues have received in the public sphere. They've been plenty successful getting their message out when it comes to things like contraception (see: religious exemptions re: ACA), as well as Pope Francis' message on inequality.

            "or to the fact that lay people are also more polarized to the most simple and least uncomfortable subjects"

            Please, people are plenty polarized about abortion and contraception - hardly the "least uncomfortable subjects" one can think of.

          • Vasco Gama

            I am not blaming (or complaining) the media, their business is to call the attention of people and attract readers, and they tend to report what they seem is more appealing. And they are naturally drawn to subjects that are more appealing (where there is a stronger public debate) such as the same sex marriage (SSM), SSM adoption, abortion, contraception or the ordination of woman. Or debating if the pope Francis will come to do the reforms and bring a new conception about those issues. And that is about it that is covered both by the conservative and liberal media.

            The positions of the Church in what respects to the critics of usury or the condition of the poor and the excluded by the western economic system, or the rights of those that are marginalized by modern societies, the problems and inhumane treatment of the immigrants, are subjects that are inconvenient both to liberals and to conservatives. So it is no news (as probably is too challenging).

          • David Nickol

            The Catholic Church clearly denounces usury, this was recently expressed by Pope Francis in the apostolic exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium (see
            link below) and the Church was always quite clear about that.

            Where in Evangelii Gaudium is usury condemned? It is not even mentioned. There are two currently accurate definitions of usury, with one additional definition being archaic, and which I have omitted:

            2 : the lending out of money with an interest charge for its use : the taking or practice of taking interest

            3 : an unconscionable or exorbitant rate or amount of interest; specifically : interest in excess of a legal rate charged to a borrower for the use of money

            What is condemned in the Bible and what was condemned in earlier times by the Catholic Church was definition 2. Many people, who claim the Church has always condemned usury are using definition 3. That is an exercise in "retcon." The Church at one time condemned "the lending out of money with an interest charge for its use : the taking or practice of taking interest." It does not today, or at least I can find no evidence of it. Perhaps you can bring to light I have overlooked that proves Catholics are not permitted to take out mortgages, borrow money to go to college, or use credit cards.

          • Vasco Gama

            I am not entirely sure that you can’t find an explicit condemnation of usury in the exhortation. Anyway that is the official position of the Church (there is nothing new here and that was clearly addressed in a variety of documents of the Church). Perhaps your reading (if you manage to read anything at all, which I doubt) was too superficial.

          • David Nickol

            Please document your claim that the Catholic Church prohibits usury. There are two reference in the Catechism:

            2269 The fifth commandment forbids doing anything with the intention of indirectly bringing about a person's death. . . . . Those whose usurious and avaricious dealings lead to the hunger and death of their brethren in the human family indirectly commit homicide, which is imputable to them.

            . . .

            2449 Beginning with the Old Testament, all kinds of juridical measures (the jubilee year of forgiveness of debts, prohibition of loans at interest and the keeping of collateral, the obligation to tithe, the daily payment of the day-laborer, the right to glean vines and fields) answer the exhortation of Deuteronomy: "For the poor will never cease out of the land; therefore I command you, 'You shall open wide your hand to your brother, to the needy and to the poor in the land.'" Jesus makes these words his own: "The poor you always have with you, but you do not always have me." In so doing he does not soften the vehemence of former oracles against "buying the poor for silver and the needy for a pair of sandals . . .," but invites us to recognize his own presence in the poor who are his brethren:

            When her mother reproached her for caring for the poor and the sick at home, St. Rose of Lima said to her: "When we serve the poor and the sick, we serve Jesus. We must not fail to help our neighbors, because in them we serve Jesus.

            Neither of these comes anywhere near condemning charging interest on a loan. The entire economy of the Western world (the whole world) would collapse without the payment of interest on loans. It is preposterous to suggest that the Church forbids it. Has the Catholic Church ever suggested in modern times that it is immoral to take out a mortgage to buy a house? Many Catholic parishes have credit unions that pay interest on savings accounts and charge interest on loans.

          • David Nickol

            I am not entirely sure that you can’t find an explicit condemnation of usury in the exhortation.

            I am entirely sure that you can't! :P

          • Vasco Gama

            To be clear, you open the document then made a search with the word "usury", and nothing came up, was that it?

          • David Nickol

            Point out where Evangelii Gaudium says anything about the Church prohibiting usury. It doesn't say the Church prohibits usury, because the Church doesn't prohibit usury. Prove me wrong. Don't play games.

          • fredx2

            USURY implies an unfair taking advantage of someone. In most borrowing situations in a market economy, both prosper as a result. therefore it is not usury.

          • Andrew G.

            You're projecting the modern connotations of the word into the past. The Latin word means nothing more than "interest on a loan", the connotation of unfair or excessive interest is a modern one.

            When the church, for over a thousand years and sporadically for another 2-3 hundred, forbade taking any interest on loans there was no ambiguity about it, no attempt to distinguish fairness or unfairness in interest rates; it was simply forbidden. What's more, this had nothing to do with "village economics"; the early church was very much an urban phenomenon, which arose in a culture in which commercial loans were routine and interest on them was normal.

          • fredx2

            It depends on the meaning of words. "usury" changed over time. Before there was much of a market economy, people never needed to borrow money to get businesses started, etc. People lent money to people who needed it. In my village if you were in trouble and needed 1000 and I said I would, but you would have to pay me back 1200, that would be slimy and a morally reprehensible thing to do.
            But with the rise of a market economy, borrowing money at interest was a good thing, one that both profited from. So it simply was not USURY to borrow someone money. USURY implies taking advantage of the other person. So USURY is still considered wrong by the church. Borrowing money is not.

          • David Nickol

            It depends on the meaning of words. "usury" changed over time.

            Usury currently has two meanings:

            : the lending out of money with an interest charge for its use : the taking or practice of taking interest

            : an unconscionable or exorbitant rate or amount of interest; specifically : interest in excess of a legal rate charged to a borrower for the use of money

            I can't document this at the moment, but I don't feel I am going out on a limb to say that it is the second meaning that is the more modern. It was the first meaning of the word that the Church intended when it condemned usury.

            I answer that in some detail in this post, but let me just reproduce the quote from Noonan I give there:

            I will not set out here the immense legal and moral structure that was then developed on the basis of the usury prohibition. For a very long time, at least until the partial withdrawal of the teaching that occurred in the nineteenth century, the flat prohibition of profit on a lon appeard to be an essential moral precept of the Catholic Church. It was an injunction based on nature itself, because for money to reproduce itself was unnatural. The evil was intrinsic. The injunction was confirmed by the teaching on lending of the Lord himself: it was a dominical precept. So taught a series of popes; so taught three general councils of the Church; so taught all the bishops. Everywhere and at all time usury, the making of profit from a loan, was condemned as sin.

            In other words, what the Church condemned was "the making of profit from a loan." Of course the Church condemned exploiting the poor by charging them exorbitant rates of interest (and still does), but usury (the making of profit from a loan) was condemned whether it was exploitative or not. Usury (the making of profit from a loan) was against natural law. We do not see the Church making that argument today, because the Church no longer condemns usury (in the sense of the first definition I give above). But it did once.

            Wikipedia tells us:

            St. Thomas Aquinas, the leading theologian of the Catholic Church, argued charging of interest is wrong because it amounts to "double charging", charging for both the thing and the use of the thing. Aquinas said this would be morally wrong in the same way as if one sold a bottle of wine, charged for the bottle of wine, and then charged for the person using the wine to actually drink it.[34] Similarly, one cannot charge for a piece of cake and for the eating of the piece of cake. Yet this, said Aquinas, is what usury does. Money is exchange-medium. It is used up when it is spent. To charge for the money and for its use (by spending) is to charge for the money twice. It is also to sell time since the usurer charges, in effect, for the time that the money is in the hands of the borrower. Time, however, is not a commodity that anyone can sell. In condemning usury Aquinas was much influenced by the recently rediscovered philosophical writings of Aristotle and his desire to assimilate Greek philosophy with Christian theology. Aquinas argued that in the case of usury, as in other aspects of Christian revelation, Christian doctrine is reinforced by Aristotelian natural law rationalism. Aristotle's argument is that interest is unnatural, since money, as a sterile element, cannot naturally reproduce itself. Thus, usury conflicts with natural law just as it offends Christian revelation. see Thought of Thomas Aquinas).

          • Andrew G.

            The Latin word is usura meaning roughly "the use or enjoyment of a thing" (participle of utor "to make use of"); interest is the amount paid "for the use of" the capital sum. There was no other Latin word for "interest" in the financial sense, and no connotation of excessive interest rates.

            (The Greek term is tokos, "childbirth; offspring")

    • Vasco Gama

      I have no problem in the existence a list of books that are considered pernicious by the Church, as a matter of fact I would consider it quite useful, my only doubt is the amount of work it would require (and if the Church could be effective in doing so), considering the amount of garbage that is actually
      published.

      • Vasco, do you think the Church should also work with civil authorities to see such books banned by civil law as well?

        • Vasco Gama

          no, I think people must be free to read whatever they want. My only claim is that I find reasonable that the Church could provide advice (if that was possible, that would be a service).

          yes and writers should be free to publish their thoughts, ideas, delusions, whatever.

          • Vasco Gama

            I have some doubt about educational and technical books, such as one pretending to teach how to make bombs or how to exterminate a large number of people at once, I am not sure about this. Not simple.

          • Don't kid yourself that this list was an opinion. It was a list of books that you were not allowed to read. These books were banned as much as a book could be banned.

          • Vasco Gama

            I am not kidding myself.

            What exactly means that I was not allowed to read? Is it in the same way as I am not allowed to act immorally, is that what you mean?

            In spite being in the list of books, many of those writers were quite popular among Catholics (I have little understanding about your claim).

            «These books were banned as much as a book could be banned.»

            And what exactly does this mean. Did those books disappear by dark magic, or were the editors persecuted and burned, did the Church persecuted those who wrote or read those books, was there a prize on their heads, did the army, the police, or the inquisition conducting searches throughout private and public libraries.

          • David Nickol

            Note the following:

            The purpose of these indexes was to guide censors in their decisions of what publications to authorize and which to disallow, for printers were not free to publish books without official permission. In January of 1562 the Council of Trent took up the issue of the Index and was deeply divided. The Pauline index had been seen by many as too controversial and excessively restrictive. After the opening speeches, the council appointed a commission to draft a new index. Although the council closed before the task of the commission was completed, the new Tridentine index was taken up by Pope Pius IV and published in 1564 by Paulus Manutius in Rome. This index constituted the most authoritative guide the church had yet published; its lists formed the basis of all subsequent indexes, while its rules were accepted as the guide for future censors and compilers.

            Also, from Wikipedia:

            Censorship and enforcement

            The Index was not simply a reactive work. Roman Catholic authors had the opportunity to defend their writings and could prepare a new edition with the necessary corrections or deletions, either to avoid or to limit a ban. Pre-publication censorship was encouraged.

            The Index was enforceable within the Papal States, but elsewhere only if adopted by the civil powers, as happened in several Italian states. Other areas adopted their own lists of forbidden books. In the Holy Roman Empire book censorship, which preceded publication of the Index, came under control of the Jesuits at the end of the 16th century, but had little effect, since the German princes within the empire set up their own systems. In France it was French officials who decided what books were banned and the Church's Index was not recognized. Spain had its own Index Librorum Prohibitorum, which corresponded largely to the Church's.

          • Vasco Gama

            Well the all powerful Church after all had no power to forbid books.

          • David Nickol

            Well the all powerful Church after all had no power to forbid books.

            It is interesting that you interpret "limited power" as "no power." The fact that the Catholic Church did not have absolute power in all of "Christendom" to demand alterations in books before they were printed or absolute power in all of "Christendom" to ban the printing of books on the Index does not mean the Church had "no power." Censorship in the Papal States and (in effect) in Spain was still censorship, and it must certainly have been the case that others in "Christendom" who had civil censorship laws where at least influenced by the Index.

            Also, I think it is fair to say that those who promulgated the Index would have preferred that it be universally honored. Their intention was that books on the list not be published or read. The fact that they did not have the power to completely suppress the works on the Index did not mean it was not their intention to do everything in their power to suppress them.

            Also, note this paragraph that I did not previously quote from the Fordham web site:

            In 1966 the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith ceased publication of the INDEX but claimed that it still served as a "moral guide in so far as it reminds the conscience of the faithful they must avoid writings which can be dangerous to faith & morals." Today the Church may issue an "admonitum," a warning to the faithful, that a book might be dangerous. It is only a moral guide, however, without the force of ecclesiastical law.

            For Catholics, a "moral guide" from the Church not to read specific works is certainly less of an offense against intellectual freedom in general than keeping the works from being published, but for faithful Catholics who abide by the moral guidance of the Church on these matters, it is still an effective form of censorship.

            So when the Church prohibited something by placing on the Index between 1557 and 1966, it wasn't mere "advice." It was a matter of canon law and in some places civil law, and even without an enforcement mechanism, listing something on the Index placed a moral obligation on all Catholics to shun the work, even if it was perfectly permissible for them to obtain and read it according to the civil laws in the locality in which they lived.

          • Vasco Gama

            In fact, the real and effective ban of books in the western societies only came to take place and be to be really effective in the XX century, by the hand of a large variety of secular totalitary regimes an ideologies, such as the large number of comunist, nazi, fascist and other conservative fascist like states (not really under the authority of the Church, any time before XX century).

          • David Nickol

            In fact, the real and effective ban of books in the western societies only came to take place . . .

            Your argument seems to be that the Church didn't really ban books because 20th-century totalitarian regimes like Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union banned books more effectively.

            The ban of any book by the Church never had any other result than merely attesting that . . . .

            This has already been shown to be false.

          • Vasco Gama

            The Church never had the power to ban books (although you might dream that that was the case, or that the Church was idiotic enough to think that it was the case), in the sense that the declaration of banning of books, was already known to be ineffective (it was merely a moral statement, and an effective way of the Church denounce works that she didn’t approve, not to mention a variety of authors that claimed to be in agreement with the Church teachings in order to seek adherence to whatever they wanted to claim, such as the infamous book Malleus Maleficarum of Heinrich Kramer ). The mention to the effective power that was possessed by the totalitarian secular states in the XX century is just to contrast with the Church position and capability to enforce this type of measurement (this doesn’t have the purpose to justify anything the Church did or did not).

            Just to put it in clear terms the baning of books by the Church had no pratical efective consequences (besides a dubious moral censorship), while in various countries in the XX century (the state had real power about was really printed and eddited) and people could dye as a result of the reading the wrong kind of books.

            I really fail to see what you think is proven (besides your misconceptions about the Church).

        • Geena Safire

          Or have the authors jailed for what they wrote?

          • Argon

            Where would we be without Monty Python's "Life of Brian" or "The Meaning of Life". It would be a colder, bleaker world for sure...

  • Ed

    Father Barron is basically telling Stephen Greenblatt to stick with a subject he knows well, like Shakespeare, instead of "going off the rails" in "The Swerve". Greenblatt is stretching it when he turns "De rerum natura" into manifesto for modern society while presenting a dismissive"caricature" of the medieval period. Western society is just as indebted to the medieval period as it is to the Greek philosophers, Augustine, Pascal, Locke, et al.

    • David Nickol

      Have you read The Swerve? (I haven't.) If not you are criticizing Greenblatt on the assumption that Fr. Barron accurately interprets what Greenblatt really intended to say. When reading a review of a book that you haven't already read yourself, I think the reviewer's criticisms are going to seem more valid than they might be, since since the reviewer gets to say what (he thinks) the author meant and then react to it. This is not to say that Fr. Barron is not correct in his criticisms, but it is to say one must consider the possibility that even if Greenblatt has biases, Fr. Barron has biases of his own.

      • remke

        That's fair in general. At the same time, part of reading reviews is so that you can avoid books that will waste your time. So the question is do you trust the review author to fairly represent the author's meaning, and then critique it? And in this case I see that there is fair evidence that this is the case. It's helped that others with very different viewpoints about the philosophical/theological issues related to the book have said similar things. See for example Tim O'Neill: http://armariummagnus.blogspot.com/2013/01/stephen-greenblatt-swerve-how-world.html

        • David Nickol

          So the question is do you trust the review author to fairly represent the author's meaning, and then critique it?

          I agree entirely with this. But I am sure our levels of trust in Fr. Barron are different. This is not to say that I don't think Fr. Barron is honest. It's just that I expect him to have a different perspective than I do. There have been times when I have sat through a business meeting and later, when discussing it with various other attendees, been amazed at how different people's accounts can be of what took place. Consequently, we often have people complaining about a book review they didn't agree with saying something like, "I really wonder if the reviewer read the same book as I did."

  • Paul Boillot

    From Pope Francis in November:

    "The Kingdom of God is among us: do not seek strange things, do not seek novelties with this worldly curiosity."

    http://en.radiovaticana.va/m_articolo.asp?c=746498

  • After reflecting more on the issue, and considering many of the comments below, I'd just like to clarify that I don't think it's morally permissible to kill heretics (or anyone else) merely for holding unorthodox beliefs. To the extent that conflicts with Aquinas' answer to the question "Are heretics to be tolerated?" is the extent to which I disagree with him.

    Thanks for all the intriguing and (mostly) helpful back-and-forth. You've really helped clarify my own thinking on this.

    • John Bell

      The fact you needed to clarify your position on this is really pathetic.

    • Thank you very much for this clarification! One of the surest signs of healthy dialogue is when people from both sides modify the way they think about things and express their thoughts.

    • Danny Getchell

      But you do seem to hold nonetheless that it is acceptable to criminalize the public expression of unorthodox beliefs. So the "back-and-forth" is not concluded, it's just taking a breather.

      • David Nickol

        One of the deep concerns of some contemporary American Catholics is that "liberals" or "secularists" are trying to construe the First Amendment to guarantee "freedom of worship" instead of "freedom of religion." Freedom of worship would allow Catholics to believe whatever they believe, attend Mass on Sundays, say the Rosary in the privacy of their own homes, and so on. Freedom of worship would not permit Catholics to refuse to provide their employees with insurance that covered contraception, would not permit Catholic medical workers to refuse to perform (or assist in the performance of) abortions if their employers required it, and so on. Freedom of worship would guarantee the right to what would basically be private behavior. Freedom of religion, on the other hand, would guarantee the right to follow the dictates of ones religion in private as well as in public situations—the latter including on the job working for a private employer, in one's capacity as a government official, as an inmate in a prison, and so on. (If you monitor the excellent Religion Clause Blog or some similar source, you will find that there are many, many cases of prisoners suing to get halal or kosher food, accommodations for special prayer times for their particular religion, appropriate religious reading material, and so on.

        When Brandon says, "I'd just like to clarify that I don't think it's morally permissible to kill heretics (or anyone else) merely for holding unorthodox beliefs," it is unclear to me whether he is supporting freedom of religion, freedom of worship, or simply freedom of purely private thought. Of course, it is very difficult for a government or religious body to abridge freedom of purely private thought unless they resort to extremely intrusive measures such as lie detector tests or harsh interrogation techniques (which may include torture).

  • GothAgatha

    Oh, goodness, not Lucretius! His atoms may have been prescient but why take his views on the soul seriously? And he was a lousy poet, painful to read in Latin and not much fun in English. Actually, thinking about it, maybe the perfect writer for the humourless (sorry, I'm a Brit) dullards who preside over academia these days.