What is "Advancing Progressive Views"?

Tuesday, July 13, 2004



On Advancing "Progressive" Views

Over the past few days, the charge is made that I am not open to real discussion and dialogue and the evidence is right at the top of my blog. I explicitly state I am "advancing progressive views".

Of course, nobody making this accusation of being closed to dialogue has taken the time even ask what "advancing progressive views" even means.

The term "progressive" refers to the fact that I believe that doctrine develops in the Church in a progressive fashion - one insight leading to another. For example, from the divinity of Christ, we can be lead through a logical progression to a belief in the Immaculate Conception of Mary.

In and of itself, the way I just described it may not sound the least bit controversial, and it's not.

I also believe that this progressive development of doctrine occurs over time. Thus, I do not think it necessary for Catholics to try to prove that Saint Peter knew about Mary's sinlessness and passed it on in unwritten form. The Church came to know Mary was immaculately conceived as she reflected on revelation over centuries. It might have taken Saint Peter close to 1900 years to realize with certitude and clarity that Mary really was sinless if he had lived that long.

To take this a simple step further, I believe that doctrine is still in the process of progressive development. The process by which doctrine develops is through debate.

Thus, at the core of my belief is that Catholics must disagree with one another on certain issues if we are to continue to deepen our understanding of the faith. This disagreement is not over issues that are truly "settled" - those that have been infallibly defined. Rather, on any issue that is not infallibly defined, we can - and even should - engage the current teaching critically: simultaneously looking for its strengths and weaknesses, and pointing those weaknesses out.

The term "progressive" as I am using it is a widely held opinion among a large number of professional Catholic theologians teaching in Universities. I would even venture to say that this view is held by the majority. It is held as well by a large number of priests, nuns, laity, and quite a few Bishops. Indeed, Ratzinger once espoused it himself, and there are still some Cardinals who espouse this view.

While "progressives" as I have defined it are very well represented in acedemia and among the ordained, we are not well represented in the world of blogdom or the entire world of cyberspace.

As I am using the term, there are even what could be called "conservative" progressives, "moderate" progressives and "liberal" progressives. Those who wear the term "progressive" as a label, however, typically have come to some conclusions that the Church needs to undergo some sort of structural reform beyond what Vatican II has initiated. Even the relatively mild suggestion that we should ordain married men is a sort of "progressive" thought.

Ultimately, the idea of being "progressive", however, is not all that bad.

There are some Catholic bloggers who would not buy the very premise that this is an authentic Catholic position. These are the types who tend to try to prove everything the Church teaches today is exactly what it taught 2,000 years ago. They may admit that something was taught with slightly different terminology, but they deny that the Church has basically discovered something it did not know 2,000 years ago. These are the people who tend to label themselves variously as conservatives, orthodox and so forth.

They also tend to label those who do not buy their fundamental premise that the Church has not, will not and cannot change as "progressive".

To the right of this group are a group that tend to call themselves "traditionalists". Some of these folks are really just conservatives, but a good number actually adhere to a belief that our current Pope is invalid, and/or that Vatican II was invalid.

These are the people associated with the Society of Saint Pius X (SSPX), and they are also well represented on the web. Conservatives and traditionalists will often argue with one another, but neither like "progressives".

Finally, there is a group that does not easily wear any of these labels, and tends to prefer to call themselves simply "Catholic" and they are also very well represented in cyberspace. This group simply adheres to whatever the current Pope says, whether it is different than the last Pope or not, and whether it makes sense to them or not. They admit change and development has occurred, but make no attempt to predict what the next Pope will do, and they tend to argue towards a spirituality that many other Catholics would call "blind obedience". In my heading, I refer to this more politely as the "ultramontane" position, which refers to bishops at Vatican I who held a similar position.

One trait all of these more conservative voices in cyberspace all seem to share more or less in common is a tendency to define being Catholic as thinking in entire agreement with their own group down to the last jot and tiddle. They want the Church to be crystal clear on every imaginable position with no debate on anything. Then anyone who does not ascribe to the clear teaching needs to get the heck out.

At a very fundamental level, many of these folks are constantly trying to define Catholicism as narrowly as possible with the goal of looking for ways to exclude someone from the fold - prove once and for all that John Kerry is unworthy of Communion, and that theologian, Father Richard McBrien, is a heretic, and so forth.

A blog promoting itself as "progressive" will take a different approach. I want to define Catholicism as broadly as infallible doctrine and canon law will possibly allow. I am intentionally looking for the ways to say maybe John Kerry and Richard McBrien and all other so-called "dissidents" have something to say to the rest of us, and we should not be in such a rush to exclude.

If there were more liberal voices than mine slamming the SSPX, I might even take up some aspects of their cause (For example, I actually do think every diocese should offer a Latin Mass if possible)!

As a progressive who believes that debate is a fundamental good and necessary to the development of doctrine, it is not my goal to have everyone here agree. I don't care whether you agree with me on every issue. Ed Deluzain and I have a very fundamental disagreement on the personhood of the unborn, but I respect him and consider him a "good Catholic" who is trying to contribute to the great discussion that is the Roman Catholic Tradition.

If too many "liberal" progressives were commenting here, I'd probably start arguing a few "conservatively" progressive positions just to balance it out and help spur on a truly "progressive" discussion. As it stands, most of my readers and commentors come from a perspective that is decidedly suspicious of anything liberal or progressive.

Caught in the middle are some readers who have sent me private emails suggesting that I am too controversial, and spend too much time arguing, and that I should stop trying to convince others of my position.

Well, to be honest, that simply isn't going to happen, because it goes against what I am trying to do at a very fundamental level.

I care less about persuading anyone that Humanae Vitae is inconsistent than persuading people that it does not exclude one from the Church to ask some questions about it.

At a very fundamental level, I believe it would be the death of the Church itself if we simply stopped asking questions and stopped debating the answers. In fact, I would argue against those I actually agree with if all of my readers actually thought exactly like me on every issue (but that could not actually happen, since if you thought exactly like me, you'd probably be picking apart the very premise that doctrine progressively develops just to make the argument).

Bottom line: If you don't like debate, you'll likely have to go somewhere else.

This said, I do wish people to conduct debate in a civilized fashion. Separate issues from the person. Avoid rash judgment. Avoid ad hominem attacks, insults, excessive sarcasm, fowl language and so forth. Don't misrepresent each other and don't simply dismiss each other in a facile manner.

What prompts me to write this particular post is a particular "nastiness" that is creeping into our debates. I want debate on this blog, but let's be nice about it. Remember, most of us profess to be Christian. Let's conduct ourselves with charity.

Despite the fact that I am encouraging debate, I also expect that Catholic participants can find common sources, common experiences, common language and common ground and a framework for any debate that is recognizably Catholic to any outside observer. If I did not expect this, there would no reason to call the blog "Progressive Catholic Reflections".

My hope is that readers with as diverse viewpoints as Nick and Elena could come to see that each other has something to say. There have been moments when I thought PMC and I were making a break-through in mutual understanding on some things, even though we bicker constantly. I hope he has had a similar experience of feeling that maybe there was a glimmer of mutual understanding.

Non-Catholics are welcome to join discussion here too, but the discussion will take a very different direction, framework and tone (and people would see just how "Catholic" I am if a Muslim came along and condemned the Trinity as polytheistic).

We can even occassionally agree, and sometimes we will be forced to disagree in an agreeable manner. The truth will emerge sometimes in ways that even the most stubborn debator is forced to say, "I've run out of arguments against your position, and your position seems unassailable. It seems you may have some gold here."

But this doesn't mean we stop debating. When we reach agreement on one issue, we'll move on the next. Indeed, from the "progressive" perspective, we should actively seek questions that are hard to answer, perspectives that challenge the current status quo, challenges that require a complete moral re-evaluation of what was uncritically thought to be the tried and true. If people never did this, priests would still own slaves and teach at Universities professing geocentrism and enforced discipline through torture.

This does not mean throwing out our past or denying infallible doctrines. The ex cathedra statements of the Popes and the Ecumenical Councils provide us a framework and common ground for having a meaningful debate. The Scriptures and the writings of the saints provide insights into new questions and how to approach a question. Progressive development of doctrine will always be in continuity with the past. Yet, it will also always be edgy and confrontational.

More on Advancing Progressive Views, Using HV as an Example

I realize that some of what I have written above on advancing progressive views could be misleading in several ways, and some things should probably be clarified. From this point forward, I will be using Humanae Vitae as an example.

On Infallibility:

The first clarification was actually made above but needs to be reiterated for greater clarity. I fully and wholeheartedly give the assent of faith to infallible definitions solemnly defined through ex cathedra authority of the Pope, and give full assent to the infallible definitions solemnly defined at the Ecumenical Councils acknowledged by the Roman Catholic Church.

For any of my more liberal readers, I am not saying that an infallible definition ends the process of questions and discussion. It becomes a starting poist.

For example, knowing that Mary was Immaculately Conceived and Assumed into heaven, I can still ask if either doctrine means that she did not die a natural death. I have heard theologians argue both sides of the answer to this question: some arguing that since death is a result of the Fall, it would seem impossible, while others argue that even Jesus died, and that perhaps before the Fall, we would have died, but not feared death.

In this example, the infallible definitions must be the starting point of further reflection, but we cannot debate the truth of the statements themselves. Mary was conceived without sin, and she is assumed body and soul into heaven as first fruits of the general resurrection.

In saying this, I am affirming with almost all practicing Roman Catholics that the meaning intended and conveyed in these propositional statements (such as the creeds, beliefs about sacraments, doctrines on Mary, etc...) are without error. I accept these truths as divinely revealed. If I were to ever find myself in a position where such a definition seemed to me irrational, my faith would impel me to assume that I am making some sort of error in my reasoning and probably not understanding properly what the definition intends to say.

If there are readers who believe an infallible teaching seems to contradict reason or Scripture, those questions could be legitimate to ask on this blog, and I would maintain that both in faith and in my own experience of grappling with theology that adequate answers exist to assist one in making an assent of faith.

I do not wish to address in this post some of the intricate distinctions that are involved in dealing with infallibility, such as how the concept developed over time, the primary and secondary objects of infallibility, whether the ordinary magisterium can be infallible, or how an infallible definition is recognized as such a definition, and which doctrines are infallible. These are complex issues that can be saved for another day.

Authoritive but Non-Infallible Teaching:

Where a teaching is not solemnly defined as infallible, I wrote yesterday that we can, and even should engage the teaching critically, looking at its strengths and weaknesses, and pointing those weaknesses out. I wrote that we should debate the doctrine in question as a process of clarifying and "progressively" developing the doctrine. This is where I probably need to do some more clarification.

A non-infallible teaching requires religious submission of mind and will according to LG 25 (which some of my opponents have pointed out). Therefore, I probably should have been just a bit clearer that any of these teachings will have its strengths as well as its weaknesses.

Submission of the Mind:

I believe that the religious submission of the mind requires that every Catholic who is troubled by a doctrine should examine the teaching carefully looking for its strengths prior to pointing out any deficiencies. In other words, we should give the Vatican enough benefit of the doubt to assume or presume that even if a teaching challenges our very fundamental assumptions about what is true, there is something valuable and true in that teaching. Our first reading should be biased toward the Vatican.

In the process of debate on a blog, we can lose sight of this, and I have not done a very good job of pointing this out in one very specific instance.

The specific instance is Humanae Vitae. There are several truths in this letter that I have not highlighted. Perhaps the most fundamental is that the procreative dimension of human sexuality is a fundamental and inherent good. Marriage, itself, should be open to procreation.

Marriage is not solely a convenient living arrangement, but a vocation from God that allows us to participate in a sacramental way in the very life of God. Through marriage, a union of persons is formed resembling the inner life of the Trinity. Procreation permits us to share in the creative power of God, the Lord and giver and life. Marriage itself is a sign to the world of the love of Christ. It is school for growing in love. The Holy Father, Paul VI, was not wrong to highlight this theme, nor has John Paul II been wrong to eloquently expand on this theme.

Second, when we deal with the issue of contraception, the latter sections of Humanae Vitae that may seem to argue toward a slippery slope type of reasoning is not entirely without merit. While the slippery slope argument is a logical fallacy in itself, the specific instances of concern for the virtue of chastity, especially among the young, that concerned Paul VI should concern us all.

Even if artificial contraception is morally legitimate within a marriage bond, it does not follow that it is legitimate in any other sexual union. Fornication, adultery, and so forth need to examined separately, and Scripture, Tradition, Church teaching and reason would impel most Christians to reject most sexual activity outside of marriage as immoral.

Third, though I believe that Paul VI was using the term "natural" in its theological sense in reference to the natural law of reason written on the human heart, the way the letter has been interpreted by many laity who adhere to Humanae Vitae may have some value.

The concern that many laypeople have about using "artificial" substances to manipulate the internal workings of body to avoid natural functions may not be absolutely immoral. However, it may be very immoral for one partner in a marriage to try to force the other to use such substances against the will of the other. If a woman had health concerns about using the pill, for instance, her husband should not force her to use the pill. Likewise, if a man is uncomfortable with a reversible vasectomy, no wife should try to pressure him into it. Other means of preventing conception should be explored. This is a simple application of the golden rule.

Fourth, the letter specifically condemns such techniques as permanent sterilization and, worse, abortion as means of birth control. I do not want to go into the reasons that these things are wrong here, but I agree wholeheartedly with Paul VI that these methods of birth control are gravely immoral. Paul VI also rightly condemns the notion of the state forcing birth control on citizens.

Fifth, the letter affirms that marital love expressed conjugally by involuntarily infertile couples is holy and blessed. It's a shame that this even needed to be said. It needed to be said because some theologians in history have argued that since each sex act should be open to procreation, marriage for infertile couples is invalid. The letter affirms Vatican II in condemning this notion, since the couple does not intend infertility, and may even overcome the condition through advances in science.

Sixth, Humanae Vitae acknowledged the experience of many Catholic couples and stated that their experience is valid and moral. It stated that "responsible parenthood" does involve instances where a couple will wish to limit the number of children. This desire to avoid conception of offspring is not only not condemned, but acknowledged as a moral choice!

Seventh, Humanae Vitae introduced the idea that sexual activity during the infertile periods of a women's cycle is morally legitimate based on the unitive dimension of human sexuality within a marriage bond. This was a progressive development of doctrine never seen before - at least not this clearly.

Not only does this teaching affirm the experience of married people for centuries, but combined with the fifth point, it allows us to begin to ask questions about where else this guideline might apply.

For example, could a gay couple be considered somewhat like an infertile couple? Might their own sexual expression be an expression of unitive love that is morally legitimate if contained within the bond of a permanent loving commitment?

To conclude and summarize the strength of Humanae Vitae, I think the letter says at a high level that marriage is a sacred institution. Married sex is a blessed act and that marriage itself should be open to children. Children are a blessing from the Lord that generally should not be thought of as a disease to be prevented by pills or removed by surgery. This is an important message in the modern world of skepticism about commitment and skepticism about chastity and an almost hostile view of childrearing.

As we approach any Church teaching, we should have a bias to finding truth in the teaching. We should seek to understand the teaching as it is intended, and open our minds to the challenge of finding what is true and good.

Legitimate Dissent:

Knowing that a teaching has not been defined infallibility, we can also presume that there may be errors in the teaching. In order to help ourselves deepen our own understanding of faith, and in order to help the Church develop doctrine, there is nothing wrong with seeking those weaknesses in the framing of teaching.

I have spent a good deal of time exploring what I see as a weaknesses in Humane Vitae. By stating that responsible parenthood involves limiting the number of children by refraining from conjugal love during ovulation, the letter points to an obvious moral means of avoiding conception - abstinence.

However, by stating that couples may intentionally express conjugal love during periods of known temporary infertility, the letter created a sort of internal contradiction with its own notion of natural law: that the law in our heart would preclude one from intentionally separating the procreative dimension from an individual sex act.

This contradiction opens the door to other questions already pointed out above. How can one conclude that a gay couple, neither partner choosing to be homosexually inclined, is not the moral equivalent of the infertile couple? If the gay couple were open to children and willing to adopt, could their sexual expression be seen as an expression of unitive love equivalent in nature to the married heterosexual couple expressing unitive love during a period of known infertility?

Likewise, what is the moral distinction between sex with an artificial contraceptive and a sex act during a period of known infertility where the timing of the act was intentionally chosen in order to separate the possibility of procreation from the unitive dimension of sexuality? Could it be that Paul VI was simply mistaken in implying that artificial contraception is always wrong within a marriage bond? If the couple mutually decides that such means are appropriate, are we right to judge them in sin?

Here we get into the trickiest area of LG 25 and the meaning of giving a doctrine religious submission of mind and will. And here, I should probably add some real clarification on my personal views.

Religious submission of the mind means that I looked for the truth in the document, examining the teaching in question with a presumption that there is some truth in it. In some cases, a papal teaching will be so well reasoned or so well describe our experience of faith that we have no further questions. In such cases, we might even presume that the teaching is just as true as a teaching that has been infallibly defined, though we should never presume to judge another who may find a question we did not conceive.

In other cases, such as Humanae Vitae, we may have intellectual doubts and questions. Indeed, because the teaching is not infallible, we should even seek these questions to understand the limits of the teaching. I would hold that so long as you analyzed the teaching looking for its strengths and presuming there is genuine truth in there somewhere, you have fulfilled your obligation to give religious submission of the mind. But what about the will?


I would argue that my own conscience would dictate that papal teaching should also be obeyed unless one has a compelling reason not to obey the teaching.

For example, a Catholic married couple who discerns in conscience that they have a moral obligation to limit the number of children, and is in the process of deciding whether to use artificial contraception or natural family planning may have some of the same doubts and questions about the binding character of the letter, I have. However, in practice, they ought to try natural family planning anyway unless there is a compelling reason not to.

Such a compelling reason might be that the women's cycle is so irregular that the measurements required to determine the period of infertility are nearly impossible. Another compelling reason is actually addressed in the letter itself: a woman may use artificial contraception for other reasons than preventing conception. For example, a woman with endometriosis may use progesterone-estrogen combinations to relieve severe pain.

Still another reason may that a woman with low sexual desire generally feels most amorous during the period of ovulation, and is seeking a way to express unitive love that is meaningful to her as well as her husband. Another compelling reason may be simply that one member of the couple is not Catholic, and does not accept the teaching. Still another compelling reason may be that the periods of abstinence become so burdensome that one partner is strongly tempted toward sin, such as masturbation with pornography, prostitution, or adultery.

While many of these reasons do not apply to any couple, and the various merits of each reason is debatable in itself, there may also be reasons that I have not imagined. Thus, while my wife and I may feel compelled to obey the Holy Father due to lack of a compelling reason not to obey, I must avoid judgment of those who make a different choice.

And this is partially my motive for starting a blog that "advances progressive views".

I do not believe that anyone comes to my blog and reads something I wrote and decides to disobey the Pope when they were otherwise predisposed to obey him.

Rather, I think there are people out there who feel alienated from the Church because a non-infallible teaching was presented to them as absolutely binding in every case, unquestionable, and un-debatable. When they tried to ask questions becasue they saw a contradiction or felt it did not address their circumstances, they were told, "You either accept this, or go somewhere else."

So they went elsewhere....

Personally, I think they should not have been told such a thing. This comes from people seeking absolute clarity from the Church on every issue and who are in a rush to exclude others outside their own group of thought from the Church. That basic attitude is not the attitude of Christ.

Christ tells us to leave the ninety nine sheep to go after the one. He was inclusive of traitors, prostitutes, adulterers, tax collectors, and half-breed Samaritans. After his resurrection, his Church reached out to Gentiles of every nation, and dropped the Jewish ceremonial laws to make it easier to belong. He taught indirectly through stories, and never wrote down his own teachings.

We should be inclusive in our attitude, trying to define being Catholic as broadly as the Church allows. We should help people make real sense not only of the strength of a teaching, but of the rightness of their own questions about the teaching. If we had this spirit, people may not feel so compelled to simply walk away.

We all know that the non-infallible teaching is just that - not infallible. Since it was drafted by a human being, there is a very high likelihood that the teaching has limits, deficiencies, weaknesses and even errors in it along with its strengths. Even infallible teaching is limited in scope. It does not serve the Church's interests, or the interest of the believer who seeks an understanding of faith to sweep these limits and deficiencies under the rug and try to bully the individual believer into quiet submission that may even be wrong with appeals to authority alone.

Peace and Blessings!

Readers may contact me at jcecil3@attglobal.net


posted by Jcecil3 2:24 PM

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