Monday, April 28, 2014

Example of Fundamental Conflicts within a Mystical Movement

In the two preceding posts I provided my notes on Richard M. Gula's Reason Informed by Faith: Foundations of Catholic Morality. In the post below I focus on one element of the book, Gula's account of a debate among Catholic theologians in the 20th Century. 

Catholicism is a 2000-year old religion. Its theologians have always debated about the ideal relationship between reason and mysticism (faith in particular). Most Catholic theologians have tried to integrate them. Philosopher Leonard Peikoff has rightly called this attempt "misintegration." It is logically impossible to integrate contradictories. "Misintegration" is the result of such an attempt. (See the Nov. 28, 2012 post (here) for a review of Leonard Peikoff's The DIM Hypothesis.)

The following example, taken from Gula's confusing account, looks at the debate among Catholic theologians from about 1940 to about 1990 (and presumably today). The key question in the debate was: What should be the source of Catholic morality? Should theologians start with the principles provided by mystical sources (Holy Scripture, Church Tradition, and the magisterium guided by the Holy Spirit)? Or should theologians begin with natural law, that is, principles which thinking about the world (which God created) can produce?


Early 20th Century: The manuals which Catholic teachers used to teach Catholic morality presented the "classical moral theology" of Catholicism. Gula is unclear here, but apparently the classical moral theology was the result of Catholic theologians thinking about ("reflecting on" ) moral problems as natural law, without referring directly to the roots of Catholic morality in specifically Christian beliefs. (p. 1, par. 1)

1940-1970: A movement arose wanting to "Christianize" Catholic morality by rooting that morality directly into Holy Scripture and "the mysteries of faith." (p. 1, par. 2) Gula does not say so, but apparently this Christianizing movement was a reaction against an earlier movement to root Catholic morality in natural law.

1962-1965: The Second Vatican Council calls for radical revision of the manuals of morality. (p. 1, par. 1)

Late 1960s-early 1970s: Some Catholic theologians agreed with the Second Vatican Council's call to revise the manuals but broke from the early revisionists, the ones who wanted to base morality directly on Holy Scripture and other specifically Catholic sources. These new theologians instead wanted to use a philosophical method to develop "autonomous ethics," that is, ethics based on, not God's revelations (in Holy Scripture), but on thinking about the human person who was created by God to have a certain nature and must discover morality for himself through reason. (p. 1, par. 2)

Why did many Catholic theologians of the autonomous-ethics movement in the 1960s to 1970s want to revise Catholic morality's roots? They had two motivations. First was that the non-Catholic culture around them was becoming more secular, and a philosophical approach would be more acceptable to secularists. Second was that Catholic theologians of the autonomous-ethics movement reacted against the earlier Christianizing phase of renewal, the phase that began in the 1940s and wanted to ground Catholic morality in Catholic mystical sources. Apparently the Catholic theologians of the autonomous-ethics movement of the 1970s objected to relying on specifically Catholic roots for two reasons. First, the earlier renewalists, the Christianizers, apparently published essays that were "uncritical," that is, they did not meet rigorous academic standards and therefore were an embarrassment. (Gula is not clear here.) Second, the earlier, Christianizing renewal movement's products (which were rooted in specifically Catholic sources) were too sectarian, that is, too Catholic. That was a problem in the 1970s and later because by then Catholic theologians wanted to appeal to intellectuals all over the world regardless of their religious choices. (Apparently these Catholic autonomous- ethics theologians of the 1970s wanted to be "multicultural" in appeal.) (p. 1, par. 3)

1970s: Apparently still another movement arose among Catholic theologians. (Gula is not clear about the timing.) This movement, the "faith ethics" movement, arose in reaction against the autonomous-ethics movement. The faith-ethics movement's theologians said that mysticism (specifically in the form of God's revelations) must have a role in forming Catholic morality. Thus this movement of the late 1970s wanted to restore the Christianizing renewalist movement of the 1940s to 1950s. (p. 1, par. 4)

1980s: At the time of Gula's writing (1989), Catholic theologians, considered as a group, were in "tension." (That is the academic word for "contradiction.") They were trying to meet both demands—"trying to include the orientation of faith ethics, while preserving at the same time reason's critical reflection on human experience which characterizes autonomous ethics." 

In other words, Gula says, Catholic theologians generally wanted to avoid relying on either sectarianism (faith ethics) or humanism (autonomous ethics) in isolation. (p. 1, par. 4) Instead, the Catholic theologians of the 1980s wanted to speak of Catholic morality "in a language accessible to nonbelievers" as well as Catholic believers. (p. 1, par. 4 continuing onto p. 2) This is an example of the Catholic "both/and" approach to many issues. ("Faith and reason" is an example.) It is "misintegration," and the Church advocates both at the same time.

Catholic theologians from around 1940 to around 1990 turned from one pole to another, that is, from open mysticism to the truncated, Catholic version of reason. They made their turns sometimes for loyalty to their mystical sources and at other times for the hope of reaching their modern goal of being able to talk to all individuals everywhere, regardless of religious or cultural background.  Catholic theologians continue today trying to find the right mix of contradictory sources of knowledge. Trying to "integrate" mysticism and (alleged) reason is an effort that is inherently unstable. The instability leads to conflict and confusion in the movement.

Burgess Laughlin
Author, The Power and the Glory: The Key Ideas and Crusading Lives of Eight Debaters of Reason vs. Faith, described at

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