Friday, February 12, 2010

Why Catholic Apologetics doesn't work

The crescendo of condemnation of the Church on her teachings on sexuality, especially as they impinge on public policy (civil partnerships, adoption, sex education) has led many Catholics to long for an effective apologetics, and effective apologists. It is true that apologetics is no longer taught: it was once the continuation of catechesis. But talented and forceful Catholic apologists do exist, and they make zero impact on the public debate. There are of course problems of coordination (who is pushed forward as a spokesman at the critical juncture) and media bias (how, if at all, they are reported), but the more fundamental problem is with their arguments. Vis-a-vis the secular humanists of modern Britain (and more widely), they don’t work.

Standard modern Catholic apologetics is based on two flawed arguments, which are frequently presented. First, that, on homosexuality, the Church condemns the sin (or the ‘lifestyle’) but not the sinner; second, that the separation of Church and State should guarantee religious freedom (and hence the freedom of Catholic parents and schools to teach what they like, of Catholic charities to have the employment policies they like, and so on).

The first does not work both superficially and more fundamentally. Superficially it is a con: of course the Church condemns sinners, as sinners. Liberals within the Church may prefer to forget this, but the Church’s enemies are not going to allow them to. One could adduce hundreds of such condemnations from the Church’s Scriptures and Magisterium. Naturally, the Church loves the sinner as a creature of God, and searches, weeping, in the desert for the lost sheep. But she condemns him too, and requires of him repentance and penance.

But this is a matter of words: there is a more fundamental problem. The Church’s position is characterised as holding that homosexuality is a sin, which is nonsense, or that the Church condemns people because of their sexual orientation, which is more nonsense. Acts and vices and agents are condemned; a natural inclination is none of these. The Church condemns ‘homosexual acts’ as they are called (sodomy), as sins; a voluntarily acquired habit of performing such acts, as a vice; and the people who perform them, as sinners. But when this is clarified the secular humanist won’t be satisfied, for he will say that sexual self-expression is a fundamental right, and that a homosexual inclination is essential to a person’s identity.

It is because the secularist believes these two claims that, by his own lights, the Church really does condemn people because of their sexual orientation. For, by the secularist’s argument the Church arbitrarily picks out one group of people, those with a homosexual inclination, and tells them they may not seek sexual fulfilment: she casts them as second-class citizens, to face either a half-life of impossible self denial, or moral condemnation. And really, the first option is itself a kind of moral condemnation, because the Church is condemning their only route to sexual self-expression. Saying that the Church condemns homosexuality is a convenient short-hand for this argument.

There is an interesting connection between this and the Church and State question, which will emerge below.

I heard with my own ears Cardinal Pell, when he came to Oxford, repeating the oft-made claim that the separation of Church and State should act to ‘protect the Church’. Those engaging with Pell in the public debate in Australia, as in Britain, will find this a very puzzling claim.

What the separation of Church and State, aka ‘State neutrality’, means is that the State withholds from using religious arguments and claims in justifying public policy, in order to avoid privileging one religion over another. Since the state has to use some basis for policy decisions (as I have discussed here), it uses a conception of rationality and an associated conception of justice which are supposed to be uncontroversial: common ground. The conception of justice protects us from criminals and guarantees contracts, so we can all get on with pursuing the good life as we understand it.

J.S. Mill, one of the pioneers of this approach, used the terms ‘public’ and ‘private’ to describe the two spheres, with their different kinds of justification and claims. These terms are still widely used, but they are misleading, because things only count as ‘private’ if they don’t infringe the principles of justice. So domestic violence is not immune from state interference. The same goes when we label something ‘religious’ or ‘the Church’: it is only immune from state interference if it is just. Clerical paedophilia or embezzlement are matters for the police, and human sacrifice would be as well.

And here’s the rub. If you examine the supposedly uncontroversial conceptions of justice and rationality, you will find that they are contrary to the Faith. The dominant theory of rationality since the Enlightenment centres on the idea that desires give people reasons for action, and rational action is action based on a weighing up of reasons. When the Church tells us that some desires are the result of Original Sin, and that we should desire things which we don’t currently desire, not only does it sound odd but we are not even supposed to be discussing it: we are all supposed to have accepted the Enlightenment conception of rationality as the basis upon which to discuss everything else.

Similarly with justice, for the secularist the ideology of ‘equality’ is, as David Cameron so memorably puts it, ‘a bottom-line, full essential’. It follows closely from a conception of justice based on Enlightenment rationality, of allowing each person to pursue his own desires without interference. When a ‘gay school pupil’ is taught the Faith in a Catholic school, or a Catholic parish declines to employ a catechist with an immoral lifestyle, these are barriers—not insuperable ones, but still illegitimate ones—to those people joyfully pursuing their desires. They are therefore are infringements of justice. The religious or private context, on this argument, can and should lend no protection from prosecution.

Look at it this way. The freedom the Church enjoys under a regime of ‘state neutrality’ is exactly the same as the freedom she is attempting to deny the pupil and the catechist: the freedom each individual has to pursue his own conception of the good. This is what the secularists mean when they say the Church is demanding special privileges, a ‘carve out’ from the law, and denying to others what she enjoys for herself.

It has taken the British debate a long time to catch up with the implications of these Enlightenment assumptions: the French caught up with them in the Revolution. It has now dawned on people that barriers to individuals pursuing their conception of the good are maintained not only by an oppressive state, but by employers and school teachers: including the Church as an employer and including Catholic teachers in Catholic schools. It has also dawned on people that a general atmosphere created by the expression of certain attitudes can be a barrier: notably racist and homophobic attitudes. It is beginning to dawn on people that the expression of the Church's teaching, by the Pope or by an ordinary Catholic in the street, creates just such an atmosphere, in which some people feel intimidated from pursuing their conception of the good (and doing so in accordance with the universally accepted conception of justice).

Until the intellectual leadership of the Catholic Church—bishops, spokesmen, apologists, bloggers, teachers—understand the terms of the debate, we are going to get nowhere with our apologetics. In the meantime we are going to hemmed in more and more in our proclamation of the Gospel and our charitable work.

An effective apologetics has to address the issues over which the secularists disagree with the Church, and not concede the assumptions which make their position correct and the Catholic position incoherent. The issues we need to press are these: the hedonism at the basis of modern political calculations is sterile and unsatisfying; and the state should not be neutral between value claims—something which is not even possible—but accept the correct values. This approach does not guarantee success, but we will at least be engaging in a useful debate, and not ‘beating the air.’