Wednesday, September 06, 2017

Under authority

This morning the news has broken that Jacob Rees-Mogg, a Roman Catholic, holds ethical positions consistent with Catholicism.  Alongside the almost comical shock that being a Catholic should involve Catholicism, there have been a couple of interesting reactions, for example this:
I don't think I'd considered that particular line before, but it is surely true that consistency here is critical.  Attempts to make compassionate exceptions to the right to life actually end up making our ethics awful woman bashing.

One thing I dread whenever Roman Catholic ethical positions come into public discussion is the widespread perception that Protestants are just a bit more easy-going on these sorts of things.  This was the heart of my GCSE Religious Education, as far as I recall (and I freely admit that I may not recall ever so accurately, so don't think too poorly of my teachers): here is a tricky ethical problem, Roman Catholics take this hard line, other Christians just do what they feel like.  There are perhaps two misconceptions about Protestantism that are put about in this context:

1.  Protestants, because they are not so much bound by tradition, are more likely to be progressive than Roman Catholics.  This is not true.  Protestants are no more free than Roman Catholics to take their lead on ethical issues from the trends of wider society.  They are under the authority of Christ, expressed concretely in Holy Scripture.  Where Protestants dissent from Roman Catholic teaching on ethics, it is because they do not think Scripture supports the Roman position.  It is not because they are free.

2.  Protestants, because they are all about individual conscience, are not bound to their church's ethical positions in the way that Roman Catholics are.  This is not true.  It is true that the Reformation made much of conscience, but the intention was not to overthrow the authority of the church.  It was to relativise it.  The church has the authority to take doctrinal and ethical positions.  The point of the Reformation was simply that these positions are open to challenge from Holy Scripture, because the church is not God.  The idea is not that every individualist church member can just believe and do whatever they feel is right.  The church is a disciplined community.

Of course I know that the reason people have these misconceptions about Protestants is partly because many people calling themselves Protestants really do think and behave like this.  All I can say is that this is bad Protestantism, Protestantism gone to seed.  Real Protestants are people bound under authority, no less than Roman Catholics - just not quite the same source of authority.


  1. two comments.

    first, RC are traditionally bound to a theory of natural law. Aquinas' distinction between real and apparent goods becomes epistemologically problematic for Anti-Aristotelian reformations in both (lutheran) theology and (calvinist) science.

    Bacon's view that 'real' goods (teleological principles) are idols of the mind, a measure of man's unnatural disposition since man's fall from his natural place.

    It's no accident that Hume is the son of a calvinist; reason is blind to real goods; discerns no essences, the slave of the passions, etc. It's the blindness and limits of fallen reason which therefore engenders the worry that the first principle of practical reason (synderesis) is blind, and cannot discern any real goods, only apparent goods, and thus needs radical help, correction, by being restored to God's laws. Kant is therefore an archetypical protestant here; it's precisely because he resists all appearances of natural teleological principles as apparent, not real. He does not deny that there is authority, he just thinks the authority is reason itself, the divine voice of law which booms its merciless commands to sinful flesh - nomatter what appears to be good, we should do the right thing. So even if "liberal" "protestants" believe there is a natural law, we need it to be revealed. In my view, Kant is thus the archetypical divine command theorist. It doesn't matter what it feels like, you are bound by God to do the right thing. But where Aquinas/natural law has synderesis (conscience), primary precepts (natural goods) and secondary precepts (rules), Kant thinks reason is only capable of recognising rules. But the capacity to recognise rules IS what's good about Kantian reason. "Protestants" can accept natural law in principle but not in practice - natural law doesnt help resolve disagreements about natural goods.

    For example, consider the subtle distinction between "RC" views of the natural good of sexual union: is it *every single* sexual union whose telos is procreative, or is it the general openness of sexual unions (see Robert Song, Covenant And Calling). If you think the former, you're against contraception, if the latter, you're cool with contraception in cases. But if so, then the "good"
    of sexual union in marriage can be fruitful but non-procreative ways.

    Second comment:
    for freedom christ has set us free.
    If protestants dissent, it is because we are free.

    1. On the second comment: yes. But from a Reformation perspective it would be at least as true to say that if Protestants dissent, it is because we are bound ("ich kann nicht anders"). The insight that being absolutely free and absolutely bound are not contradictory is surely part and parcel of Reformation thought in Lutheran and Reformed strands (I think more clearly understood in the latter).

      The first comment, I don't really follow - you're way outside my area of expertise. But I don't think I can accept Kant as an archetypal Protestant!

  2. Kant would say similarly that we're bound, but we're bound by law not grace. A kantian liberal is not an anything goes liberal. Liberals are bound to principles of justice, If you don't understand that, you don't understand liberals. Have a look at the course outline it may help explain.

    1. Looks like a great course. I confess to not quite understanding how it relates to what I was saying - I think you think I'm making a more profound point than I am!