Wednesday, 2 October 2013

The Pope Errs Again?

In my last post I wrote that the Pope, in an interview with the Italian journal la Repubblica appeared to place conscience over Divine Revelation as a religious authority. Now, in a second interview with the same (atheist) journalist, the Pope certainly seems to repeat the same error:

 "Proselytism is solemn nonsense, it makes no sense. We need to get to know each other, listen to each other and improve our knowledge of the world around us. Sometimes after a meeting I want to arrange another one because new ideas are born and I discover new needs. This is important: to get to know people, listen, expand the circle of ideas. The world is crisscrossed by roads that come closer together and move apart, but the important thing is that they lead towards the Good."
"Each of us has a vision of good and of evil. We have to encourage people to move towards what they think is Good."
 "And I repeat it here. Everyone has his own idea of good and evil and must choose to follow the good and fight evil as he conceives them. That would be enough to make the world a better place."

To say this is not only to place individual conscience over Divine Revelation, it is to espouse moral relativism. Either that or the Pope is a poor communicator.

These must be "interesting" times in which to be a conservative Roman Catholic. 


Stephen K said...

Pastor Mark, I don’t see that what he said should cause you concern. I think you’re mixing discussions. Divine revelation stands for both or either a message and body of truths conveyed and set out through sacred scriptures and the Church on the one hand, and/or the subjective perception of God and these truths in and by a person. Conscience is popularly understood as the reflective perception of right and wrong. Of course churches insist that conscience, this perception, will only be “properly” and “accurately” formed if it coincides with the expounded interpretations of said churches. This is called ‘having a vested interest’! It is also to assume that one of the truths that ought to be perceived is that the said churches’ authority and veracity are divinely revealed and that the whole thing is largely self-evident. Not so. Actually it’s circular. Most of us know that conscience is a formable and reformable faculty and that it follows understanding not precedes it. Thus there is a sense in which conscience cannot but be diverse, individual, subjective. Conscience is not exactly a synonym for understanding but rather a psychological reflex on one’s action whether to do or not.

Take the question of Jesus’ resurrection. Ultimately we are each going to understand this in some way, rejecting or accepting some concepts. Why do we do so? At some point we form an understanding about the scriptures, or the tradition, or the reliability of the expounders. Do we accept a notion of infallibility or inerrancy? And, if so, in what way? The conclusions we come to will be the product of our convictions, through the various weightings we give to experience and logic etc. If we are convinced of x or unpersuaded by y, this will ground a criterion for conscience. In some areas, our subsequent actions may not necessarily be consistent with our understanding because of other factors: we may realise that drinking to excess is harmful but we may be addicted. Religion and religious activity can also be addictive in this way: a person may suspect that not everything in one’s religious life is good but still be unable or unwilling to discontinue or free themselves from their religious milieu or abandon a single attractive religious element. Conscience will prick at incongruities between our weighting priorities and our acts. Conscience grounds honesty. To the extent that a person is honest, they are being truthful. Truthfulness is not a synonym for “Objective Truth”, but our only experience of the latter is through a process involving the former, and I think that this is what Pope Francis is alluding to. If everyone really tried to always act truthfully and honestly, the world would be so much less free of lying and cheating, no?

Conscience, to which Pope Francis refers, is not a synonym for personal desire. The ‘good’ which he thinks everyone has an idea about is that which is good in some way (i.e. reflecting the Good) even if it is limited, not that which is simply personal benefit. The key phrases at the heart of this excerpt are surely “....the important thing is that they lead towards the Good” and “We have to encourage people to move towards what they think is Good”. Pope Francis is surely reflecting a concept that conversion of hearts can and only must come about through love and liberty, not terror and insistence.

Mark Henderson said...


Thank you for your comment.

I don't necessarily disagree with what you say about pursuing the Good, although I might say it differently. But I think you've skipped over the Pope's remark that every person has his own idea of good and evil and must choose to follow it. That is subjectivism bordering on relativism, or (and I wanted to be charitable here) it is poor communication. Since the Pope now appears to have said it at least twice, I'm starting to doubt the latter alternative and that the Pope holds to a skewed teaching on conscience which seems to have plagues the RCC since Vatican II and which is ultimately irreconcilable with Catholicism.

As a pastor, my theological starting point in counselling is not what a person's conscience tells them (although that will usually be made more or less clear by the counselee from the beginning), but with what the Word of God written teaches us on the matter at hand: "Let us see what God's Word says..." The Word, with the Spirit's accompanying power, will then do its work - instructing, convicting, guiding. There is nothing coercive about this process - in the final analysis it is God the Holy Spirit, not me, to whom the counselee will either yield or whom they will reject. In the latter case, their conscience may falsely permit them to commit or abide in sin. What I cannot say in such a circumstance is "Oh well, after all, everyone has his own idea of good and evil and must choose to follow the good and fight evil as he conceives them". Rather, I grieve over their decision and pray for them.

I should add, for context, that Roman Catholics have a rather more optimistic view of the powers of conscience and reason unaided by Divine grace than Lutherans. For Lutherans, conscience, while precious, must be taught and led by the Spirit and the Word in order to be a reliable guide in religious and moral matters. Failing that, even the 'religious man' otherwise living under grace can be led astray by it.

Stephen K said...

I think we might also differ on how we regard the sources or character of revelation. I do not, for example think that the scriptures are on every level inerrant or revelatory: it all depends on the light. An inch to the side or more and one does not see the sparkle, but the light changes through the day so the angle can constantly elude us. If we take the whole thing literally, it is rather like having a stopped watch, it will be right only twice a day, not enough to do us much good. I don't think the writers were amenuenses but their writings can reveal insight into God and Incarnation if and each time we approach it in the right way. The new testament shows the particular insight into the Incarnation, something not attempted by other sacred writings. But it is surely something like a wine that can give new and different nuances and flavours as it ages.

I am not extolling reason unaided by grace, Pastor Mark; I am saying rather that grace works on and with reason in probably more ways than we can ever understand, and so simply relying on one meaning of scripture over several is limited and self-referential. I think that is not far off what Pope Francis may be saying.

Mark Henderson said...

Dear Stephen,

Let's cut to the chase then: Do the Holy Scriptures err?

Stephen K said...

Pastor Mark, your question is a ‘do you still beat your spouse?’ one - there’s too little regard for the different premisses involved. I’ve already said the scriptures were not inerrant on every level. I had in mind what I thought were obvious, almost trivial, examples. Did Eve eat an apple or speak to a serpent, or did 5 loaves and 2 fishes multiply physically to feed 5,000? I say no. I say that the literal meaning is sometimes not a correct one. And if it didn’t happen literally, then I guess it’s an “error”.

But on reflection I shouldn’t perhaps have said the scriptures themselves were inerrant, but its readers, for I’m talking about meanings here. Was that the intent and meaning of the stories? If not, then any errors might be more accurately said of the meanings we give them rather blaming the words/verses as such.

Of course if one thinks the scriptures are God’s very own words, then by definition how could they ‘err’? I don’t think the scriptures are God’s words, but human words. I admit I don’t understand how inspiration works. To the extent we can discern in the scriptures ideas about God and ourselves that lead us to act well to others, then I guess they don’t lead us astray, but why should we be surprised that human words would contain errors? Our disagreements about them have led us to add in or exclude from the canon different works, render different translations and come up with a bewildering diversity of exegesis!

The Bible runs to many pages and words, and not all of them are going to make sense to me, with or without commentary, or have any immediate relevance at any given time. The way I see it, it’s not so much a question to be framed in terms whether scriptures “err” but whether you or I draw anything salutary from our reading of them.

Mark Henderson said...

You're mot a Roman Catholic then, Stephen? (Honest question - I thought you were from your presence on David's blog). You seem to be more of a rationalist, judging by your view of scripture. (Sorry it took a while to moderate your comment - I've been rather busy).

Stephen K said...

God only knows what I am (Jer. 1:5) But you’re probably right. What is, however, much more important than what I think, is, what’s the significance of what Francis is saying? Should we be reducing everything to simple binaries, total error/total truth? Is there any truth or power at all in what he is saying?

Mark Henderson said...

So, you are a prophet to the nations then, Stephen? ;0)

Total error/total truth - interesting. Lutherans claim less truth for church doctrine than Rome does, that is to say church doctrine can be in need of reform and bears marks of contingency as to time and place of drafting and so on which nevertheless do not detract from its meaning. But what we do claim as true is "total truth" because it is based on God's Word - the sedes doctrinae or "seats of doctrine" where Holy Scripture teaches authoritatively on an article of faith. Certainly the theological conviction that God's Word is inerrant is the catholic view which Lutherans - at least the confessional ones - share.

As to the Pope, I wouldn't expect "total truth" from a man (Ps 146:3) nor indeed total error - and indeed Francis has spoken both truth and error in his interviews. But when the Pope speaks on doctrinal matters, which is what I am most interested in, I would have thought he is obliged to enunciate Roman Catholic doctrine (?).