Monday, June 9, 2014

Thoughts on Reason, Catholicism and its Opponents

[3] To proceed against individual errors, however, is a difficult business, and this for two reasons. In the first place, it is difficult because the sacrilegious remarks of individual men who have erred are not so well known to us so that we may use what they say as the basis of proceeding to a refutation of their errors. This is, indeed, the method that the ancient Doctors of the Church used in the refutation of the errors of the Gentiles. For they could know the positions taken by the Gentiles since they themselves had been Gentiles, or at least had lived among the Gentiles and had been instructed in their teaching.

In the second place, it is difficult because some of them, such as the Mohammedans and the pagans, do not agree with us in accepting the authority of any Scripture, by which they may be convinced of their error. Thus, against the Jews we are able to argue by means of the Old Testament, while against heretics we are able to argue by means of the New Testament. But the Muslims and the pagans accept neither the one nor the other. We must, therefore, have recourse to the natural reason, to which all men are forced to give their assent. However, it is true, in divine matters the natural reason has its failings. (St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Contra Gentiles Bk 1. Emphasis added)

I find it interesting that the Church is attacked as being irrational even though she recognizes the importance of using reason to dialogue with those who do not share any other sources of information in common. While the Church recognizes that the finite ability to reason by a finite human being can have its weaknesses, she still recognizes the importance of sharing the truth through means that both groups will accept.


Nowadays, reason is a badly misused term. It used to be understood as holding one's views as "the power of the mind to think, understand, and form judgments logically." Now, it's used as a mark of ideological purity--where the views which go against that of the individual setting himself or herself up as a judge are deemed "irrational."

It's also abused in the sense of being redefined to only hold to certain kinds of knowledge. This abuse denies that religious knowledge is reasoning. It instead limits reason to judging only that which can be known by the human intellect. Any knowledge which goes beyond the level of what the human mind knows is deemed irrational.

Of course, there's a slight problem with that. The problem is that limiting of reason to what can be known by the human intellect alone cannot be proven by the human intellect alone. It is basically an assertion that there is no knowledge beyond human knowledge... but how can human knowledge know this?

It is the problem of making a universal negative: No knowledge above human knowledge exists. The problem is, one has to have all knowledge to know there is nothing more than human knowledge that exists. One has to have all knowledge to know there is no knowledge beyond human knowledge. In other words, such an allegation is a self contradiction because it asserts knowledge beyond what human knowledge can know on its own.

That's why the rejection of religious knowledge as irrational cannot be anything other than an ideology held by a person who believes--in the negative sense of "an acceptance that something exists or is true, especially one without proof."

Going Beyond the Name Calling to Seeking the Truth

Once one realizes this major flaw in the belief that no knowledge beyond human knowledge exists, one can understand that the majority of the attacks on the Christian faith and the moral obligations which come from this faith do not come from reason. They are essentially acts of name calling which avoids asking whether the Christian claims are true. If one merely slaps a label like irrational or bigoted on the Christian claims, then it is easy to refuse to look at what justification is offered for the claims. After all, who wants to look at an irrational or bigoted idea?

That is unfortunate. Especially when an individual seeking the truth  encounters a Christian with an irrational or bigoted outlook on life. But, just as it is wrong to presume all African Americans are felons because a person encountered one who was a felon, it is also wrong to assume that Christianity is irrational or bigoted merely because they encountered one with that attitude.

The truth is, Christianity--at least in the Catholic view (I will not presume to speak for the non-Catholic Christians, leaving them to explain their own understanding)--does see reason as an important part of the faith. If we did not, we could not try to come to a deeper understanding of what His commands require of us. If God forbids a thing and we know God is all powerful, all knowing, omnipresent and infinitely good, we can reason that the prohibition can be understood as more than something God arbitrarily decreed because He was in a bad mood.

Catholic theology is based on the understanding that God's will is reasonable. As Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen once put it, while God's actions can be beyond reason, it is never contrary to reason. Thus when He issues His Ten Commandments, we can understand and reason from them that right behavior in our life has a basis on the proper use of things He created.

For example, when we see the prohibition of adultery, fornication, homosexual acts, etc., we can understand that it's not that we have an "anti sex" God, but that God intends the family to be an important part of His intent for how we live. Sins against His intent for the family break down how we are to live. We can reason both how they affect us at the human level (reducing family to a mere sexual union between two or more people based on the gratification of the individual leads to the breakdown of society) and in relation to Him.

The deeper one goes into the Catholic teaching on morality, the deeper and more well thought out the reasoning becomes. One learns that our belief that homosexual acts is wrong is not based on the fear or homosexuals or the "ick factor" so commonly invoked as the reason for our belief. Our opposition to contraception and our belief that Our Lord only called men to be priests is not based on a belief that women are inferior or good only for producing children.

The fact is, we absolutely deny the charges that bigotry is the motivation for our teachings.

Irrationality in the Condemnation of Catholic Teaching

There are not over a hundred people in the United States who hate the Catholic Church. There are millions, however, who hate what they wrongly believe to be the Catholic Church — which is, of course quite a different thing. These millions can hardly be blamed for hating Catholics because Catholics “adore statues”; because they “put the Blessed Mother on the same level with God”; because they say “indulgence is a permission to commit sin”; because the Pope “is a Fascist”; because the “Church is the defender of Capitalism.” If the Church taught or believed any one of these things it should be hated, but the fact is that the Church does not believe nor teach any one of them. It follows then that the hatred of the millions is directed against error and not against truth. As a matter of fact, if we Catholics believed all of the untruths and lies which were said against the Church, we probably would hate the Church a thousand times more than they do. (Archbishop Fulton J Sheen, Radio Replies)

Unfortunately, what we believe and the reasoning we use in holding our beliefs are not understood. We are denounced, not through reason, but through mere assertions that:

  • Whoever does not hold X is bigoted [all A is B]
  • The Catholic Church does not hold X [C is part of A]
  • Therefore the Catholic Church is bigoted [Therefore C is part of B]

The problem is, the major premise (Whoever does not hold X is bigoted) needs to be proven. It assumes the cause and effect without considering whether it is possible to "Not hold X" without being bigoted.

If it is possible, then the major premise is false and the conclusion (Therefore the Catholic Church is bigoted) is not proven to be true!

So in reality, the charges of bigotry made against the Catholic Church have no basis in reason or logic. They simply come from the unproven assertion that disagreement with positions held by the elites of the society must be based on ill will towards certain groups of people.

The Remedy—Seeking, Finding, Following Truth

“To say of what is that it is not, or of what is not that it is, is false, while to say of what is that it is, and of what is not that it is not, is true” (Aristotle, Metaphysics, 1011b25)

The remedy, recognized by the saints of all ages and the philosophers of ancient and medieval times, but forgotten by modern philosophers, is the recognition that truth exists. It must be sought after.  It must be found.  It must be followed.

The first step (seeking the truth) may seem obvious, but too many people simply don't take that step. The reason is because too many people don't realize that they don't know. They rely on what they have had repeated to them without asking if it is true. "Everyone knows that the Church is anti-women, anti-gay, etc. etc. etc."

But once you start asking questions about what everybody knows, you start to find that maybe everybody doesn't know and you have to go back to the beginning and see what is true, rather than what is thought to be true.

When it comes to finding the truth, we have to do investigations into claims. What is the basis for holding such a claim? Are the claims reasonable? But we also have to ask "Are my presuppositions true? Do I hold them reasonably?" If we hold presuppositions without examining them, they can lead us astray if they turn out to be false.

Following truth means that once we discover what is true, we are bound to live in accordance with it. Many people cite the old adage, Knowledge is Power, but that is only true if you act on it. To use an obvious example, If you know what tomorrow's lotto numbers are going to be, but don't bother to buy a ticket or at least share the numbers with someone, your knowledge is effectively worthless.

That's how it works with examining the claims of the Church. If you recognize the truth of the Church, but choose not to act on it, that knowledge grants you no power.


Whoever listens to you listens to me. Whoever rejects you rejects me. And whoever rejects me rejects the one who sent me. (Luke 10:16)

Thus, people need to recognize what the claims of the Church are and whether she reasonably holds them. If God exists, if Jesus is God and if Jesus chose to establish one visible, hierarchical and apostolic Church to carry out His mission while He protects her from teaching error, then it is reasonable to recognize that what the Church teaches is true and following it is not merely "good for you" like yogurt or green vegetables, but is vital to be heeded.

If the Church teaches something about what must or must not be done, and the Church was given her authority by Christ, it stands to reason that rejecting the Church is rejecting Christ. Once one understands that, the hostility to Church teaching is shown to be irrational and actually harmful.

Some may not recognize that the Catholic Church is that Church. Even so, that does not excuse anyone for seeking out the truth, always asking what is true about what is claimed and what is true about the preconceptions the seeker is carrying.

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