The Corner


The Catholic Church Has a Functioning Right Brain

“We treasure the confessions because they contain a systematized statement of the Bible’s teachings,” said the pastor of his mainline Protestant denomination. He was reading from a statement issued by a recent synod of his church.

From the back of the room, a fellow raised his hand. He explained that he belonged to a small, unaffiliated church that had no need of creeds or confessions. “We believe the Bible,” he said,  “and that’s that.”

“Of course,” the pastor agreed. “But there are so many words!”

Most people are left-brain-dominant and need information to be distilled and rationalized before they can digest it. The Talmud and biblical commentaries provide a service, for which the demand is great and legitimate. Of all the churches to organize the life of the mind of the Christian faith, Rome stands out for the breadth and sheer volume of its achievement. The irony is that the accumulation of literature it has produced over the millennia adds to the material, the body of knowledge and wisdom, that was already too much, even in the Church’s infancy, for any one person to master in its entirety. And as long as the Church lives, the documents will proliferate. There are so many words.

I sympathize with but ultimately disagree with my Catholic friends who over the past week and a half have made their case against the Vatican’s decision to revise Church doctrine on the death penalty. I elaborate further at Commonweal. Some critics have helpfully pointed out a logical hole or two and a spot of vagueness in the new version of paragraph 2267 in the catechism, but the arguments of theirs that are most instructive for anyone attempting to understand the divisions in the contemporary Church begin on legal and procedural grounds. Whether you love or hate the Church’s prior version of its teaching on the death penalty, it cannot be changed, we hear, because it’s infallible, and we know that it’s infallible because . . . To follow, you need to go down a rabbit hole, as far as I can tell.

Two American scholars, Edward Feser and Joseph M. Bessette, a philosopher and a political scientist, respectively, are your go-to sources if you’re looking for a vigorous defense of the proposition that a faithful Catholic must accept that capital punishment is a licit exercise of power by the state. That doctrine, they argue, is infallible and immutable. (Bear in mind, however, that in the immediately preceding formulation of the teaching, shaped by John Paul II, the cases in which the execution of a criminal could be considered morally justified were “very rare, if not practically nonexistent”). Feser and Bessette make their case at length in their book By Man Shall His Blood Be Shed: A Catholic Defense of the Death Penalty (2017). In his review, David Bentley Hart sets out to show that the authors misread Scripture and the Church Fathers. He chides them for imagining that “the past legal practices of the church or its political adjuncts oblige modern Catholics to accept whatever rationales, however loathsome, those practices might have embodied. None of them rested on dogmatic principles.”

The Catholic Church has a reputation for codifying moral precepts with the exacting rigor of a watchmaker. Its capacity in that regard can be exaggerated. We would be wrong to assume that written in stone on tablets kept in a secure vault in the Vatican is a compendium of precise statements of all 613 Catholic doctrines to which the faithful must assent on pain of anathema. When exercising its teaching authority, the Church’s intention “to set forth a doctrine as definitive is not generally linked to technical formulations of particular solemnity,” Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, later Pope Benedict XVI, remarked in 1998, in his capacity as prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. “It is enough that this be clear from the tenor of the words used and from their context.”

“Tenor of the words,” did he say? “Context”? Nietzsche said that there were no facts, only interpretations. Some Catholics seem to think the converse: that there are no interpretations, only facts. Both parties are wrong. There are facts, the Church maintains, and interpretations. Don’t confuse the two categories. Don’t oversimplify the relation between them, either. To think with the Church, we need to have a functioning right brain.

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