The Private Intellectual
Ecclesiastes-Based Real Estate Advice


Sunday, March 31, 2013  

Making Arguments

We just finished a messy, splendid, very holy Holy Week at church. Not everything went as planned--it never does, in my experience--but one likes to imagine that grace abounds nonetheless, perhaps even because of, rather than despite, the moments of unevenness. "There is a crack in everything," as Rabbi Leonard of Montreal is fond of singing. "That's how the light gets in." The older I get, the less qualified I am to identify the light of God in distinction from some other experience of illumination, so take it for what it's worth: I saw a lot of light get in this week. My best, deepest wishes for a happy and blessed Easter to you all.

In entirely unrelated news, Michael Sean Winters flags a young priest who is unhappy with the new pope's washing of female feet on Maundy Thursday:

How can I speak about such things - the self-offering of Christ, the 12 viri selecti [chosen men, i.e, the apostles]- when our Holy Father is witnessing to something different?

Winters asks--presumably with a humorous intent--how anyone "who thinks this way" can get ordained. I'll leave that alone, but I am interested in why this ends up, in the priest's diatribe, as a rhetorical question. How indeed? For a moment let's leave the pope's actions out of it. It seems to me that there are two approaches one could take to this sort of question:

a) There are rational things one can say in favor of the confinement of footwashing to males. 
b) There are no rational things one can say in favor of the confinement of footwashing to males.

Here's my advice to this perplexed colleague: If a), then say those things. If b), then change your opinion. Now let's add the witness of the Holy Father to the mix:

a1) There are rational things one can say in favor of said confinement, and the Holy Father is wrong to suggest in his actions that these arguments are insufficient.
a2) There are rational things one can say in favor of said confinement, but the authority of the Holy Father overrules them in this instance, and the duty of faith is to find the spiritual truth disclosed in his actions.
b1) There are no rational things one can say in favor of said confinement, and the Holy Father has rightly abrogated it it.
b2) There are no rational things one can say in favor of said confinement, and the Holy Father's action is ultimately irrelevant to that fact.

So there are nuts for four sermons on Maundy Thursday. Each of them can be expressed with good faith, high reverence, and intellectual sincerity. I find the idea that footwashing must be confined to males only to be a little short of offensive on account of its comical triviality, but views differ. The point is not that one view or another is obviously better or more truthful. The point is that arguments either can be made because they exist, or they can't be made because they don't. Unless one's view is totally random and incoherent on its own account, no action or inaction by a person, even a pope, can diminish the arguments in its favor. Either those arguments were bogus from the start (in which case the pope's actions don't add to their error), they are overruled by authority (in which case tough), or they still stand despite what the pope does (hurrah!). Preach it either way! 

This is a larger problem with the structure of arguments that shift back and forth between reason and authority. When authority is hostile or (in the case of God, typically) not recognized, the terrain shifts to rational arguments. When rational arguments break down, then authority backstops the law. 

This is all a big waste of effort and spiritual energy. Priests (and all clergy) ought to preach the faith by the best lights of reason and tradition available to them. Whether that means deferring to or resisting the example of this or any pope is not for me to say, but answers are surely possible. 

posted by Benjamin Dueholm | 11:11 PM
Comments: Post a Comment
archives
links