Nae Popery

Bloody Pope. In a major speech reported all over the UK and probably around the world, the Pope whinged about religion being silenced [1]. Quite why he can’t see the obvious problem in that is a mystery. Maybe self-awareness isn’t his strong point. For extra fun, Ian Paisley denounces the Pope is worth a watch (really you want “The old Orange flute” in the Clancy / Makem version, but I can’t find that). I must be getting old if I think that Ian Paisley makes sense.

Actually, despite the badge, I’ve no objection to him coming here, or even preaching. Nowt wrong with either. I just wish he wouldn’t talk twaddle, and that he would know his and his religions place in the world, which is a minor one.

Though El Papa does know the real answer, because he said: There are those who would advocate that the voice of religion be silenced, or at least relegated to the purely private sphere. Yes, indeed there are such people who would like the second half (properly interpreted), like me, and nominally like the US constitution. So you’re welcome to believe but you’re not welcome to have an official place in our democracy.

The Beeb spins his speech as His essential message was that democracy relies on the use of reason… reason needed to be judged against the unchanging teaching offered by religion – based as it was on “natural law”, the fundamental nature of people. This is std.trash. For one thing, the idea that religious teaching is unchanging is obvious twaddle. Just try stoning someone to death in the UK these days and see if they’ll let you, or burning a witch. They’re even trying to stop their priests fiddling with kiddies, in a clear breach of long-hallowed tradition (or maybe not. The Torygraph says he said that “politicians must not interfere with the running of Roman Catholic institutions” so perhaps they do want to keep it up). But for another, the idea that relgion will help you reason better, or is the only source of morality, is just silly. No-one believes that stuff any more.

Meanwhile, *after* reading the speech

Well, I did have fun writing that. But I really should have known better than to trust the meeja – I only did so cos I couldn’t find the full text easily. But my uneasy consience lead me to search and here it is – seek, and ye shall find, as someone once said. So:

The central question at issue, then, is this: where is the ethical foundation for political choices to be found? The Catholic tradition maintains that the objective norms governing right action are accessible to reason, prescinding from the content of revelation.

This is interesting, because it uses a word I don’t know, viz “prescinding”. Apparently it means To separate or divide in thought; consider individually [3]. Soooooo… Right Action can be discerned *without* revelation – I presume that means, without the Bible. Supporting that, he continues:

According to this understanding, the role of religion in political debate is not so much to supply these norms, as if they could not be known by non-believers… but rather to help purify and shed light upon the application of reason to the discovery of objective moral principles.

So that is weird: it looks, in fact, like a nearly complete retreat from the moral sphere, rather in the way the Churches have retreated from the scientific one. So religion *isn’t* to be the basis for morality at all. Religion, in some rather ill-defined way, is to “shed light upon the application of reason”, whatever that means. Ah, but then later on it all falls apart again – Reason is what gave us slavery, and we need religion to correct Reason – so the atheists are doomed after all. Well, I call that rather confused.

[Updates: I’m please to say that this blog is now the #1 google hit for “nae popery” even without quotes. More seriously, from the comments: the Pope isn’t a native-speaker, so maybe he didn’t mean “prescinds”? I don’t think that is plausible: (1) people will have carefully checked over every word of the speech (2) especially for a non-native speaker “prescinds” isn’t a word you use without being sure what it means. OTOH it could have been chosen carefully to be deliberately obscure to most listeners.]

11 thoughts on “Nae Popery”

  1. > But for another, the idea that relgion will
    > help you reason better, or is the only source
    > of morality, is just silly. No-one believes
    > that stuff any more.

    I hate to break it to you, but a large chunk of the US population believes exactly that, though they’d probably disagree with the Pope about which religion.

    [Ah well hold on: I meant “no one sensible” -W]


  2. My wife is going to the big demo at Hyde Park Corner tomorrow, armed with a sign concocted in gentler days before the awfulness of the Roman Catholic Church became truly apparent. It is two-sided. The first side says “Down with this sort of thing” and the other side says “Steady now.” This is a reference to a protest from the great television series Father Ted.

    The other day one of Father Ted’s creators, Graham Linehan, said that if he and his cowriter had to do it again they would not be able to summon up the innocent joy necessary to write such a lighthearted work about Catholic priests.

    Actually I just checked and apparently already some Father Ted fans have shown up with placards taken from Father Ted. Linehan says he couldn’t be more proud.


  3. I read it as: You can arrive at objective norms of what is right by reason alone, but it’s a long, stony path; you would arrive at roughly the same set of norms, but in a polished form, by taking religon as a guide.


  4. English is not the pope’s native language. Perhaps ‘prescinding’ should have been ‘preceeding’?

    As in ‘objective norms governing right action are accessible to reason, preceeding from the content of revelation.’

    That seems to me to be more in keeping with Catholic philosophy. Just a thought.


  5. I think what the pope is saying is that while morals are naturally derived and not dependent upon religion; they tend to eventually go awry without some formal, precedent-driven structure. That is Jesus laid down the law, the church recorded it, and the papal leadership interpreted and codified it. Religion, especially one with a long documented and strict rule-making hierarchy (i.e. Roman Catholicism) is necessary to keep us straight in the long run. Otherwise you get folks making stuff up as they go along because the human condition is characterized by fundamental weaknesses (i.e. King Henry VIII). So maybe it would be a good idea for governments to consult the pope more often (my paraphrasing his words as I hear them on down the line each Sunday).

    The kiddie fiddling thingy you mention has seriously caused the church to tighten up and clamp down on what priests say each Sunday. Kind of like going in totally the wrong direction in my opinion. The thing about no homosexual priests also has me upset as they are obvious and seem to have the best, most enlightening sermons. I think this is a mistake. As long as a priest is celibate what should it matter? This is my biologist side over ruling my religious side as I tend to believe sexuality is largely genetically derived; i.e. a gift from God.


  6. “Prescinding from” was the Pope’s precise meaning. He could not have intended predeeding, to come before. Nor would he say reason proceeds from revelation. He says separate them in thought. In Catholicism, the only thing that proceeds is the Holy Spirit from the Father and Son.


  7. I guess this shows you don’t become pope without being a clever man. Seems to me he is having his cake and eating it in a very subtle way. He gets to make a speech that sounds all religion-should-be-the-source-of-moral-judgementy to most listeners, but for those who understand (or look up!) the long words it turns out he is saying something different.


  8. For a pitch-perfect spoof of this sort of religious obscurantism, see the latest blog from Colin “Nae Bogrollery” Beavan. An anguished, overworked pro-bono lawyer has so many clients that he can’t help any of them properly. He asks his Zen master for advice. The Zen master congratulates the lawyer on being so busy, then tells him he’s not actually busy, that’s all in his mind, and he’d know this if he thought like an elevator. Bevan’s super-eco-hero “No Impact, Man” reckons this advice is “perfect in the face of all we’re dealing with in [the] environment. … May we all be blessed with elevator minds!” The usual cast of characters marvel at this wisdom and at their own wonderfulness in the comments.

    Beavan is a comic genius – as funny as Denial Depot but more subtle and far more prolific and sustained. I don’t know why he isn’t famous. He ought to write a book.


  9. William,

    I raised your point in a different forum (Ophelia Benson’s ‘Butterflies and Wheels’) and one commenter there had what sounds like a very plausible elucidation of the Pope’s remark as alluding directly to ‘the natural law tradition’:

    ‘…What he is saying is that, given the use of (what the church calls) reason, we can come to the same conclusions that the church would come to depending solely on revelation. … In these terms, if, by the use of reason, we arrive at conclusions that are not confirmed by revelation, then our use of reason is faulty….

    There’s more on the Catholic tradition of ‘natural law’ here

    Assuming this interpretation is right (and it makes sense, since it places the statement within a real Catholic tradition rather that being a surprising break from orthodoxy) the quote is a lot less interesting (and significant) than it seems – and it certainly doesn’t place atheists on equal moral footing with the faithful adherents of the Church!

    [If that is the interpretation, then it is bad. Redundancy is stupid. If you can get the same results from Natural Reason and Revelatin, then you don’t need the Revelation. However, the point is pretty well mot, since it is glaringly obvious that you *can’t* get the same results. if, by the use of reason, we arrive at conclusions that are not confirmed by revelation, then our use of reason is faulty is obviously wrong, or at least in need of severe restriction: stuff like the-earth-goes-round-the-sun is true (well, you know) and is *not* confirmed by revelation ~~~~


  10. Well, we shouldn’t ignore the constraint that the Pope was talking about ‘the objective norms governing right action’, not naturalistic fact.

    There’s precedent in St Paul, who apparently argued that the Gentiles had no excuses for their immoral behaviour because they should have been able to arrive at a correct understanding of morality (meaning a Christian one, of course!) through ‘reason’.

    According to the Catholic Encyclopaedia, the Vatican Council arrived at a ‘compromise’ between reasobn and faith thusly:

    [R]evealed truth can never contradict the positive results of the investigation of reason. Contrariwise, however, every assertion is false that contradicts the truth of enlightened faith.

    I take this to mean that correct reasoning cannot contradict revealed truth by definition, since it depends upon interpreting evidence that ultimately derives from God anyway. More:

    [Faith] has been entrusted as a Divine deposit to the Church for protection and infallible interpretation.

    The inconsistencies between demonstrable scientific fact and church-held truths seem to have been reasoned away through the post-hoc definition of ‘infallible interpretation’, ie the Church’s earlier stance on heliocentrism never fell under the ‘infallibility’ clause:

    As to the Galileo affair, it is quite enough to point out the fact that the condemnation of the heliocentric theory was the work of a fallible tribunal. The pope cannot delegate the exercise of his infallible authority to the Roman Congregations, and whatever issues formally in the name of any of these, even when approved and confirmed in the ordinary official way by the pope, does not pretend to be ex cathedra and infallible. … The broad fact, therefore, remains certain that no ex cathedra definition of any pope has ever been shown to be erroneous.

    From all this, I understand the Pope to have meant that one can deduce God’s moral code from the world because the world is God’s creation, and hence cannot be rationally compatible with any moral code that is not God’s; and that while revelation is not necessary for such deduction, the test of whether your reasoning is correct is whether it comes out at the same conclusions as revelation (hence the stuff about ‘purify[ing] and shed[ding] light upon the application of reason’, which seems a bit meaningless otherwise). Indeed, this seems to be what the Pope says elsewhere – that reason is fallible (because human), revelation not (because divine):

    Without the corrective supplied by religion, though, reason too can fall prey to distortions, as when it is manipulated by ideology, or applied in a partial way that fails to take full account of the dignity of the human person.

    Sorry to go on…


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