Thursday, 20 May 2010

Which hermeneutic?

Meetings are part of my bread and butter, some of them being at school but many in my role as a trade union representative. One becomes very wary of the person in a meeting who will say something in a way that is full of confidence, and thereby sway the meeting in a particular direction. Sometimes that person might come out with something that everyone else in the meeting knows is a non-runner, in which case the meeting just carries on and leaves the remarks on one side. Saying something confidently doesn't mean that it has substance, but it can be difficult on-the-spot to develop a response. Quite often what one needs to examine is something that has not been said, not said either as part of the process of persuasion or not said because it is a hidden assumption that you may or may not share with the other speaker.

I think this paragraph from Tina Beattie's post Save the foetus - let the mother die falls into this kind of category. You will need to read her entire post to see the context to which she refers.
We have seen in recent months just how reluctant the Catholic hierarchy has been to take decisive action against abusive priests. Yet once again, we are reminded that no such prevarication afflicts its ability to act with ruthless efficiency when it comes to policing women's bodies by appealing to a form of moral absolutism which has little justification in the Catholic tradition. Until the last century, there has always been far greater flexibility in the Church's understanding of early abortion than Bishop Olmsted's actions suggest - particularly in situations when the mother's life is at risk. Until the men who govern the Church become less intoxicated with their own power and more willing to listen to women who live and love in situations which sometimes create profound moral dilemmas, they will remain the most brutal and ignorant of moral dictators. Once again, the actions of a bishop bring shame upon the Church.
What is Tina's hidden assumption, her hidden premise? This, from another recent post Time for a women's reformation? perhaps gives us a hint. Agian, read the original post to see the full context.

Christianity was and is a religion made for and by men. Of course women have played a role, sometimes a significant role, in influencing its development, but in its doctrines, structures of leadership and practices of faith, it is a religion designed to meet men's expectations on earth as in heaven, and to satisfy their spiritual and intellectual desires.
I have added the italics because of their tremendous implications. Leaving aside the question of the legitimacy of a feminist hermeneutic, to see Christianity as being a religion made by humans of either gender is to deny to that religion a supernatural origin. On the basis of this hidden assumption, even were the perceived male domination to be corrected, there would still be a denial of a supernatural origin to Christian faith. From such a premise, a reconstruction of Christianity in the image of one's own favoured hermeneutic and without regard to those criteria arising from within Christian faith itself, is entirely licit.
One can also spot some other unstated premises. Does the use of the word "foetus" in the title of the post imply something about Tina's understanding of the nature of the unborn baby?

"Moral absolutism", as used in Tina's post, decries an action on the part of Bishop Olmsted that is seen as uncharitable and harsh.  In Pope John Paul II's encyclical Veritatis Splendor nn.52, 80, it refers to something altogether different, to the idea that there is an objective moral nature of an action, and that in consequence there are some actions that can never be morally good whatever their motive or surrounding circumstances.  As n.2271 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church points out, such a statement of the objective moral wrong of abortion goes back to the first century. So far as I can tell, the suggestion that a certain flexibility applied to the Church's understanding of early abortion has only been maintained by those who would in other respects also dissent from Catholic teaching (cf the references given on p.99 of R F R Gardner's 1972 book Abortion: the personal dilemma).

It should also be noted that Bishop Olmsted has not excommunicated those involved in this abortion. He has just made a public declaration of the automatic excommunication that is incurred by those who procure a directly intended abortion - cf n.2272 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church and canons 1323-1324 of the Code of Canon Law. Whether or not Bishop Olmsted had made the public declaration, the teaching of the Church would have indicated such excommunication in the circumstances of this abortion - the terms of the Church's teaching on this matter include abortions sought as either a means to another end, or as an end in themselves.

"Until the men who govern the Church become less intoxicated with their own power" - a generalisation from an individual or small number of possible cases to the general, that would actually need a quite wide ranging sociological study of the Catholic episcopate to receive justification - "and more willing to listen to women ..." - see remarks above about a feminist hermeneutic.

The comment that implies that the Bishops of the Church are "the most brutal and ignorant of moral dictators" is frankly offensive.

A concluding thought: I have genuine difficulty in seeing how a feminist hermeneutic as it is manifested in Tina's post can sit alongside an expression of Catholic faith. The sources of judgement in the former seem to be incompatible with those in the latter, and it appears to me that it is the former that is trumping the latter in Tina's thought.


Tina Beattie said...

May I offer two comments to clarify the above? I too attend many meetings, and there's another ruse which you don't mention. This happens when people subtly change what one has said, in order to make it better fit their own agenda (and perhaps to make it easier to dismiss what one is saying).

I make clear what I mean when I describe Christianity as 'a religion made for and by men' in the qualification which follows. Religion does not equal faith, and I have never in any of my theological writings sought to minimise or deny the supernatural dimension of the Christian faith and the life of grace that flows from it. Feminism informs my work because it is part of our culture which offers challenging insights and poses questions to Christian theology (just as Aristotelian philosophy was part of Thomas Aquinas's culture and provided an invaluable resource for his theological reflection.) In my view, it is through the sacramental life of prayer and worship in the Christian community that we can together address the profound androcentrism which prevents the Catholic religion from being as effective a vehicle for the expression and development of women's faith as it might become, if we could only address some of the fears, phobias and hostilities which surround the whole question of sex and gender in Catholic teaching and practice. This would surely be beneficial for men as well as for women, if we could become an inclusive community of people made in the image of God in all aspects of the Church's life and teaching?

Second, as a mother of four and as someone who has spent quite some time studying the history of Catholic teaching on the development of human personhood, I deliberately use the word 'foetus'when referring to early abortion, whereas I would use 'unborn baby' for a later stage in pregnancy.

The case I cite in my blog refers to an 11 week pregnancy, and normally I think that is too late for an abortion. But this was a terrible moral dilemma, and it is consistent with some interpretations of Catholic tradition - and indeed with the teachings of Islam, Judaism and many Protestant churches - that in such situations the life of the mother takes precedence over the life of the developing foetus. I don't think it serves our moral development well to brand everyone who disagrees with us on this most complex moral question as someone in the business of killing unborn babies.

Thank you for enabling me to offer some clarification - and I hope this intervention won't stifle discussion on your interesting blog.

Tina Beattie.

Unknown said...

I had a quick squint her posts, Joe, and I tend to agree that her position is untenable. In one post she writes:

Even today, in the midst of the worst crisis in modern history, women's religious orders in America are undergoing a process of enquiry by Rome to weed out feminists and secularists.

My heavens, fancy the Church trying to weed out secularists in its midst! I also notice that she privileges women's orders for her sympathies. Don't the males get the same treatment?

If she feels the Church is so wrong, why not just leave? I mean, if it is wrong, God can hardly punish her for leaving, can he?

Also, of course the Church establishment will come down harder on dissenting theologans more than sexual crime because from their point of view the former goes to the heart of the religion: it threatens to undermine God's message/teaching.

I'd be interested to know what the woman at the centre of all this wanted (assuming she was conscious and rational).

What puzzles me, too, is that,as I understand it, the soul of the aborted foetus is now in heaven (what happened to Limbo?).

Had it lived it may have lived out a life and gone to heaven or it may have spent eternity consumed in the fires of hell for no other reason then not believing in God (interestingly enough, he would be receving the same punishment as Lucifer who KNEW there was a God and still defied him). It may have had a close shave and come off safely.

Except, of course,I don't mean that. I don't believe in an afterlife and the child has been denied the opportunity to experience this stunning universe and all the wonders it contains and the incredible experience of consciousness and life. And that's very sad. But it sounds as if the child couldn't have lived once the mother was allowed to die anyway so its all very, very sad.

Joe said...


As you will realise, I have a link to your blog in one of my sidebars. The reason for this is that, in the world of Catholic blogs, it is quite easy for different views to pass each other by without meeting or engaging with each other. I think they should intersect and engage, rather than ignoring each other. So I am quite happy to post your comment.

I am not sure that I understand what you intend by distinguishing Catholic religion from Catholic faith. If "faith" is taken in a restricted sense as assent to beliefs, then the object of that assent, ie the beliefs themselves, can be seen as "Catholic religion". And if "faith" is taken in its wider sense as an adherence in life and knowledge to the God who has revealed himself in Christ and in the life and teaching of the Church, then again the object of that act can be seen as "Catholic religion". In both senses,I think there is a problem in distinguishing "faith" from "religion".

Perhaps my real question is: if "faith" (either as an act of adherence to God, or as a living practice of life) is distinguished from "religion", what is the object towards which "faith" is intended?

Or is "faith" as you intend it not an act of adherence/belief but, as in the sense of your phrase "the faith of women", a term for a particular experience of life, yes, in some degree of relation to "Catholic religion", but with a content or object that is defined from a different hermeneutic?

Joe said...


Perhaps the idea that the Church authorities are more ready to crack down on dissenting theologians than on sexually errant clergy needs a closer study. The number of dissenting theologians subject to study and sanction from the Vatican is perhaps not as big a percentage of the total number of dissenting theologians as one might think - look at the "notifications" of the Congregation for Doctrine to assess this.

One thing that the Church has learnt the hard way as a result of the clerical sex abuse crisis is that sexual crime does indeed undermine the effectiveness of the teaching of the Gospel. There is good reason for Tina to condemn the inadequacy of the Church in this regard.

It is some years ago now, but I think the Jesuits were subject to a degree of enquiry.

Tina Beattie said...

Joe, thank you for your comment, and forgive me if I don't actively participate in discussions. I like to keep a blog going when I can, but I'm not really a blogger!

Very briefly, perhaps I'd say the relationship between faith and religion is a bit like the relationship between love and marriage - very good when it works, deeply troubling when it doesn't. So, just as one can have love without marriage and marriage without love, even if they work best when they go together, so one can have faith without religion and religion without faith. And religion, like marriage, can sometimes become so violent and abusive that faith (like love) requires us to preserve our human dignity by avoiding its institutional power. By women's faith, I simply mean the incarnate faith that is involved in being a paticular kind of body with particular kinds of biological, social and ecclesial roles. For me, that is nurtured, expressed and lived within the Catholic Church, but that doesn't make me a robot with no questions, struggles or criticisms. Do people really want a church in which such struggles between faith and the institution never happen, because if they do, they'd better begin by eliminating most of the saints?

These are vastly complex questions, and I am probably over-simplifying. But then, blogs allow us to say things which we might say differently if we had more time or thought more carefully first - which is why I remain deeply ambivalent about the whole business of blogging.

So, farewell for now, and thank you for the time and space you've given me - and for the link.


Anonymous said...

Francis, "Limbo" was got rid of.

Unknown said...

Anonymous: Hello. Yes, I know. And a good thing too, in my opinion. I'm surprised that anybody took the idea seriously and even more surprised that if one did beleive it one would worship the God behind it.

Now, I also remember the nuns telling me that on one particular day of the year, I think it was All Souls, you could go into church, say some prayers and one soul would be released early from purgatory. You could do this as often as you liked BUT you had to step outside the church door and re-enter each time.

I was a child at the time and took them at their word. But presumably some adults believed this nonsense -by which I don't mean the early release but the stepping outside the door part- and never questioned/wondered why a supernatural being capable of creating the entire universe would carry on like that.

On another note I notioce that Tina seems not to want to debate with Joe, yet I think she is an academic. Oxford 1 Roehampton 0 !

Joe said...

Now, Francis, please behave yourself. As a general principle, I try to make all my commenters welcome - including Tina. I think she has probably debated more with me than others in similar positions to her would have done.

As far as the release of souls from purgatory on All Souls Day. The Catholic Church still teaches about indulgences, though the rules (as opposed to the doctrine itself) were revised after the Second Vatican Council. See here:

Silliness is always possible, byt wouldn't get you anywhere with the revised rules ...

Unknown said...

Joe, I put up my hand and admit it: I was deliberately behaving badly!!

You do make everybody welcome, even Zen Buddhist atheist wind up merchants like myself...and it's appreciated.

Have a great Sabbath!