Take it from the Pope


For the “World Day of Peace,” which is today, instead of congratulating the newly weds — who are upholding the transformed but still living (for better or worse, in sickness and in health) institution of marriage — Pope Benedict (Ratzinger) issued a statement that included this about homogamous marriage:

There is also a need to acknowledge and promote the natural structure of marriage as the union of a man and a woman in the face of attempts to make it juridically equivalent to radically different types of union; such attempts actually harm and help to destabilize marriage, obscuring its specific nature and its indispensable role in society.

These principles are not truths of faith, nor are they simply a corollary of the right to religious freedom. They are inscribed in human nature itself, accessible to reason and thus common to all humanity. The Church’s efforts to promote them are not therefore confessional in character, but addressed to all people, whatever their religious affiliation. Efforts of this kind are all the more necessary the more these principles are denied or misunderstood, since this constitutes an offence against the truth of the human person, with serious harm to justice and peace.

I’m not enough of a Pope-ologist to know how rare this is, but what struck me was his claim that his opinion is “accessible to reason and thus common to all humanity.”

There is a convention in the U.S. that we can criticize each other’s opinions, but it’s impolite to criticize each other’s beliefs (as long as those beliefs are religious, meaning not too recent in origin). So it’s fine for me to say that you are wrong about secular subjects, like physics and sports, but it’s impolite to say you are wrong if you believe that God speaks directly to you or that cavemen played with dinosaurs. Or, more directly relevant to the Pope, scientists can say that virgin conception is generally unlikely, but it would be impolite to say it never ever happened, not even once.

Anyway, that’s a long way of getting around to the point that I find the Pope’s statement galling. If he wants to express political opinions, fine. I have no objection to that as long as the giant, multibillion-dollar real estate and educational empire he runs isn’t tax exempt.

But if he’s going to make statements with that hat on — that is, subject to a declaration of infallibility* — he should lay off the social-science proclamations. If he wants to argue in the realm of reason, rather than faith, then we may weigh his record of expressed belief in fairy tales against his scientific credibility.

Believe it or not

Learning as I go here: turns out the Pope has a whole scientific academy called the Pontifical Academy of Sciences (where the “peer review” is not done by your peers, if you know what I mean). And naturally they’ve been all over this subject of reason and faith. I read a 2006 talk titled “Secularism, Faith and Freedom,” which was apparently presented to this audience:


And I thought the American Sociological Association conference was a dynamic scene!

The paper says it’s necessary for religious people to argue their positions freely in a secular state’s public square. These positions include, “Faith is the root of freedom,” and “a proper secularism requires faith.” That is because liberal democracy otherwise is a moral vacuum of pragmatic consumerism with no higher purpose. So I gather that, just as any “gaps” in the fossil record summon Creation as an explanation, so does any lack of morality in the public sphere demand to be filled by faith — specifically, a “Creator who addresses us and engages us before ever we embark on social negotiation.” Absent that presence, “the liberal ideal becomes deeply anti-humanist.”

Although, after reading this whole paper and the Pope’s statement, I confess (my word choice) that I’m not sure “humanist” is really what they’re going for.

Can. 749 §1. By virtue of his office, the Supreme Pontiff possesses infallibility in teaching when as the supreme pastor and teacher of all the Christian faithful, who strengthens his brothers and sisters in the faith, he proclaims by definitive act that a doctrine of faith or morals is to be held.

33 thoughts on “Take it from the Pope

  1. Actually, this appeal to Natural Law is not unusual. The Pope has been using the framework for some time now. Eg. http://www.catholic.org/politics/story.php?id=33492. But I agree that it is political. If people understand papal infallibility to only apply to us Catholics or the Christian church in general (catholic with a small “c”), then declarations by the Pope are “religious” and narrow in scope. For example, teachings on the virgin birth are supposed to be infallible. However, even infallibility can be open to question. For example, there is disagreement about whether teachings concerning an all male priesthood are infallible or not. However, by broadening the basis for claims from Christian faith to Natural Law, the pope is claiming to make statements that apply to everyone of any or no religion which cannot be argued with because they are part of Natural Law – it just is. very canny.


  2. I truly feel sorry for you due to your notion that this is a healthy way to begin a New Year. For you to dismiss the Pope’s views as “political opinions” and avoid putting forth the actual reasoning used by the Catholic Church is intellectually lazy. If you want to critique the Catholic Church, then you should demonstrate that you have actually studied it and that you have actually grappled with the underlying reasoning behind the teachings.


    1. Thank you for your pity, assuming it is sincere. I will take the Pope’s opinions more seriously when he demonstrates that he has grappled with the underlying reasoning behind social science’s teachings on marriage and sexuality.


      1. My point was that you’re writing about a religion that you do not seem to have actually studied. Your reply seems to confirm this. I would be happy to recommend a list of books about Catholic moral theology. Contrary to your comment, Catholic teaching does, in fact, grapple with social science research. Failing to conform to your ideology and failing to grapple with social science research are two different things. This is also about more than just Catholic teaching on marriage and sexuality — your notion of infallibility seems muddled, and so does your notion of Catholic teaching on involvement in the public sphere. Nonetheless, I wish you peace in the New Year. God Bless.


  3. I am utterly shocked by the lack of intellectual depth of this post, and others by the author… It is not something I expect from a University Professor, to dismiss the arguments put forth by the Catholic Church, or anyone else, based upon a bunch of prejudices and misconceptions.
    Yes, Prof. Cohen, this post shows that you not only know very little (if anything) about the philosophical (not religious) tradition underlying the Pope’s statements, but (what worries me most) are totally unwilling to engage those arguments. I recently saw another of your posts dismissing the book “What is Marriage?” as grounded solely on religion, and to me this can only be called “prejudice”, because I have actually read the book and there is a very strong and coherent set of arguments there… and none of them is an argument from religion. You seem to call “religion” anything you disagree with, particularly if it comes from people who are positioned at your right in political terms.
    It is true: one needs some knowledge of philosophy to engage those arguments, and sociology alone will probably not help one get there… As long as you reject any thought prior to the Enlightenment (as you sometimes seem to do), you will only be able to scratch the surface of everything that the Catholic Church has to say. But at least you could show more openness to these arguments: even if you disagree, these people (the Pope, or the authors of the book I mention above) present a rationally grounded view of human sexuality and marriage. By presenting a caricature of them and then dismissing them with a mix of prejudice and wittiness you show a level of intellectual engagement that is far below what one would expect from a College Professor, and far from what I am sure you can do.
    I am looking forward to the day in which I read something from you that shows a willingness to engage an opposing argument at the level at which the argument is made (if it is philosophical, at that level). Dismissing philosophical arguments and enshrining yourself in a “scientific” aura does very little in this civic conversation. You might choose to keep doing this, but then you should at least refrain from even referring to these people’s arguments, and recognize that you are unwilling to argue at the epistemological level that their arguments are presented. That would be a more honest position.


    1. It’s true I’m not an expert on pre-Enlightenment philosophy. But I have two defenses:

      First, I sort of count on the successful post-Enlightenment philosophers to have distilled what is most important from the olden days and kept it alive for us modernists to use.

      And second, there are only so many hours in the day. There is no way I could have learned hierarchical linear modeling, made it through both seasons of Homeland, and mastered pre-Enlightenment philosophy. So I have to prioritize.

      Does that make me unqualified to comment on the Pope’s public pronouncements? No. And I since I do not owe him – or any religious figure – any deference simply on account of their religious authority, I can rely on what they actually say when I do a critique. The Pope gives no evidence for this supposed universal human marriage principle, but just asserts it. If that were about sports it would be run-of-the-mill ignorance or harmless personal taste. When it involves taking away the rights of a minority, it’s discrimination and it’s wrong.


      1. That’s precisely why you should (with that same honesty you show above when you recognize that you know very little pre-Enlightenment philosophy) refrain from commenting on the Pope’s argument. And in your post you don’t just comment on it, but dismiss it.
        No, you cannot disqualify the Pope’s argument, which is not sociological (neither is it religious: it is based on natural philosophy), based upon the premise that he does not provide any sociological evidence. That was precisely my point: if you want to respond to *his* argument, and not your own imaginary straw man, you have to address it at the level it was pronounced.
        To do that, you need to be minimally interested in the epistemological tradition from which this argument emanates… Post-Enlightenment philosophers will not help you get there, if (as it seems, from the way you write) they are from the tribe that dismisses all pre-Enlightenment thought with arrogance and a naive sense of superiority. From them you can learn arrogance, and a blind confidence in your “scientific” superiority… and both of these can be seen in your post. But, again, you will be ill-equipped to understand what some people (like the Pope, and many others…) have to say. That will not help improving the tone of the conversation, even less in topics that are as complex as same-sex marriage.
        The Pope does not go around dismissing your sociological arguments… because his argument is not sociological. It is rational –based on a long philosophical tradition that originates with Aristotle and Socrates (yes, they were pagans), and that has remained strong and vibrant for centuries, surviving other philosophical positions which were at some point more fashionable, but fell into oblivion with the passing of time.
        You might think you have a sociological argument against what the Pope is saying, and that’s fine. But in this case you should focus your energy and time on spelling this argument out. In other words, if you don’t think pre-Enlightenment philosophy is worth reading… please don’t waste time writing or reacting against it. Stop shooting in the dark… and limit yourself to running hierarchical linear models and writing about Homeland –and many other very interesting things that are worth your time.


  4. It’s highly disturbing (yet completely unsurprising, based on email you’ve sent me) that you consider principles are not truths of faith and not therefore confessional in character to somehow be an (infallible proclamation of a) definitive act that a doctrine of faith or morals is to be held.

    That’s not just bias, it’s willful delusion.


  5. A question for Phil’s Catholic readers: Is Father Corsi’s Christmas message — that women incite domestic violence and even “femicide” by serving cold dinners and wearing tight clothing — also so “inscribed in human nature” that it, too, is beyond debate? Or is it just the Pope whose lay theories about social cause and consequence cannot be questioned? Don’t practicing Catholics have a moral obligation to challenge statements whose consequences lead to discrimination or violence, even if they are issued by church leaders under the rhetoric of Natural Law? What makes the Pope’s statements on marriage any less odious Father Corsi’s statement on domestic violence any, given they both justify discrimination and violence against others?


    1. Pope whose lay theories about social cause and consequence cannot be questioned

      Since his speech was explicitly not therefore confessional in character, he was not speaking infallibly and therefore Catholics can actually think that he was wrong.

      Regarding Fr. Corsi, a quick Google would have answered your question: Luigi Ernesto Palletti, the region’s bishop, responded to Father Corsi’s message by saying the message was “unacceptable and go against the church’s common feeling on the matter.” http://www.irishcentral.com/news/Catholic-priest-claims-in-Christmas-message-that-women-bring-violence-upon-themselves-185152741.html

      Your blind hatred has shamefully short-circuited your rationalism.


      1. I were Catholic I think it would be bug me to be told when I am free to disagree.

        That’s one of the many reasons I’m not Catholic… 🙂


      2. Not to be all post-Enlightenment, but it doesn’t seem like choosing your religion deliberately is completely compatible with the Catholic model. I’m sure I didn’t discover this problem.


      3. Not to be all post-Enlightenment, but it doesn’t seem like choosing your religion deliberately is completely compatible with the Catholic model.

        Conquest and imposition is much more efficient that winning hearts and minds one by one.

        I’m sure I didn’t discover this problem.

        And Roman Catholics weren’t the first to impose their religion on conquered peoples.

        (Tell me that wasn’t news to you…)


      4. this google quote doesn’t, in fact, answer my questions.

        OK, I see that your last question (“What makes the Pope’s statements on marriage any less odious Father Corsi’s statement on domestic violence any, given they both justify discrimination and violence against others?”) isn’t answered by the Palletti quote.

        However, I expect highly educated men and women — academicians, no less — to be able to discern shades of gray instead of only seeing issues in black and white. (All morality is, after all, relative, multiculturalism is the highest goal and it’s very culturally imperialistic of you to tell them what’s right for their culture.)


  6. Yeah, the Catholic fundies seem all hopped up on that Natural Law (booogity booogity) nonsense, but other Catholics follow the tradition using quite a different lens to ascertain concordance with divine intentions. Of course, for an atheist like me, it’s all just a bunch of ridiculous nonsense, or an object of study for my research. I find it somewhat humorous that the faithful would rail poor Professor Cohen! What, do you want him to repent and worship Jesus? Go ahead, say it! Is that why Poor Professor Cohen cannot discern morality? I’d put his morals ahead of any religious devotee, and certainly ahead of the Pope!


    1. That Natural Law “nonsense” is what underpins the Age Of Enlightenment against the Divine Right Of Kings, the Declaration of Independence and — since I’d wager a dollar that you’re a Citizen Of The World — the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.


  7. The Pope’s view tracks the fictional “natural law” that the Catholic Church has tried to impose for centuries. In some countries there are more vestiges of this fiction than in others. For example, this French Constitutional Court opinion on same-sex marriage is much like its recent ruling that married women must be taxed at higher rates than married men. It says that “the illegality of same-sex marriages was not contrary to the [French] Constitution.”

    Our US Constitution in its deliberate reference to “rights of Persons” rather than the contemporaneously-drafted French Constitution’s use of “rights of Man” means we have to get a different ruling here. http://www.conseil-constitutionnel.fr/conseil-constitutionnel/francais/les-decisions/acces-par-date/decisions-depuis-1959/2011/2010-92-qpc/decision-n-2010-92-qpc-du-28-janvier-2011.52612.html

    Scalia and Thomas (and recently deceased Bork) promote a bogus type of legal scholarship (much like “Intelligent Design” scientists promote bogus theories of evolution) that says that women are not Persons.

    This is the very same battle that was fought in the 1600s and 1700s in England and in colonial America by groups who back in even earlier Britain had resisted the French Norman Conquest (the Conquest having been based in Catholic-originated concepts of “natural law” and related common law doctrines like coverture). In France, this “natural law” view (which had included the “divine right of kings”) later got updated, its religious origins obscured, and its basis partially democratized and de-monarchized in French Enlightenment concepts of “Rights of Man” that produced the French Revolution, French Constitution and Napoleonic Code (including code laws like “head and master marriage”). Coverture and “head and master marriage” laws were imported to America by other groups and imposed in some colonies and states in the early US but even in those states these laws requiring patriarchal marriage have been repealed for decades – for centuries in some places).

    Some regions of England, the colonial and early US always had a form of egalitarian marriage, however, especially the Delaware Valley and the Quaker cultures there. The framers who came from these regions are likely the reason our Const uses the term “Person” and not “Man.”

    Book that may be of interest to those who want to read more include: Albion’s Seed by David Hackett Fischer and “Quaker Constitutionalism and the Political Thought of John Dickinson” by Jane E. Calvert.


    1. even earlier Britain had resisted the French Norman Conquest (the Conquest having been based in Catholic-originated concepts of “natural law”

      That’s got to be the silliest thing I’ve read in the past 6 months.

      Even if there were some 947 year old document stating that William invaded Britain because of natural law, lex parsimoniae makes it much easier to think that the Norman Conquest was “nothing” but a hard-fought power grab by a Viking trying to enlarge his territory.


      1. The Norman Conquest originated in France. Although it was called “Norman” because of the Scandanavians allowed to settle in Normandy, it was based in French and Catholic cultural, religious, political and economic views.

        The Norman Conquest was not all bad – it eliminated slavery in Britain. It did impose the very primitive and childlike man-centric thinking of the Catholic Church, however, that caused internal conflict, war and resentful and resisting oppressed people for centuries in the British Isles. Eventually many of the non-Catholics (and non-Anglicans who thought Henry VIII was as bad as the Pope) came to America to found the US colonies, although even among them there was conflict. The Delaware Valley settlers had egalitarian marriage, opposed slavery, and negotiated with the native Americans (rather than just taking their land and/or going to war with them.)

        They also made key contributions to the US Const, including its concept of “rights of Person” rather than “rights of Man” like the French Const drafted at the same time.

        These cultures (in the US originally of the Delaware Valley), which were pacifistic, are one of the great strengths of the US. Dwight Eisenhower was from that background, for example. Can’t say that the French and Catholic preoccupation with “man” rather than “person” is the reason the French couldn’t defend against Hitler, but it is something to think about.


      2. “Norman” because of the Scandanavians allowed to settle in Normandy

        “Beat the crap out of the existing inhabitants and then overthrow their rulers” is an interesting definition of “allow”.

        It did impose the very primitive and childlike man-centric thinking of the Catholic Church, however, that caused internal conflict, war and resentful and resisting oppressed people for centuries in the British Isles.

        Now you’re just trolling.


    1. Good tip. I had a look at some of his other posts. I like this: “Erect a crèche in front of a post office and it’s an establishment of religion. Stick a menorah next to it and it’s a constitutional display of American spiritual folkways”


      1. Mark does some really nice stuff, he’s a true scholar who left medieval history of philosophy for journalism (focusing on religion in the US for several major newspapers), and then came back into academe as kind of a public intellectual. He KNOWS his per-enlightenment, I’ve seen his books….


  8. I’m a former Catholic, I *am* aware of the arguments behind the crap the Pope says, and they’re still bullshit. The Catholic Church bases an incredible amount of its reasoning on the subject of marriage, homosexuality, women’s rights, etc, on the fundamental premise that sex is bad. Yeah, every so often they come out with “Sex is a holy sacrament between married people”, but when you drill down, the existence of prohibitions against masturbation, oral sex, heterosexual anal sex, and birth control speak to the belief that *all* sex must be procreative, and if it is not procreative, it is inherently evil. Moreover, all procreative sex must be within the bounds of Church-sanctioned marriage, you are only allowed to have one Church-sanctioned marriage per lifetime unless your partner dies, and if you cannot have children you’re actually not supposed to have sex (though I suspect the number of Catholics who follow that teaching is very, very small); and, in order to hold power within the Catholic Church of any kind whatsoever, you must be celibate, and in order to hold any real power you must be male.

    If we were a species that goes into heat and has no interest in sex the rest of the time, this might actually make some sense, but this is *so* antithetical to human nature it borders on actual evil. The Church does not oppose women having power, except within the Church, but as soon as that woman has sex, her life itself is less important than any offspring she may have. No sexual satisfaction is permitted unless it has the potential of making a woman pregnant, women cannot end a pregnancy even if it will kill them, and it is permissible to glorify suffering such that if the result of women having more children than they are biologically capable of is pain and death, this merely makes them good Catholics. So it basically boils down to, women cannot enjoy sex unless it might kill them, destroy their health, or destroy their financial situation and make them less capable of caring for the kids they’ve already got; men cannot enjoy sex unless it might kill or destroy the health of the only person they are allowed to have sex with until she dies.

    There is nothing “natural” about a view of human nature which states that a loving God intended sex — something that causes humans to bond together emotionally, something that gives humans pleasure and relaxes them, something that, given that we do not go into heat, is *obviously* intended by our Creator to be something we do outside of procreation — to be for procreation only, particularly when humans are so poorly designed that reproduction has a higher rate of killing and maiming our females than it does for most other mammalian species. Basically, this view of what God intended sex to be for can only be derived by the wishful thinking of people who despise sex, as there’s no way to look at the difference between humans and animals and come to the conclusion that humans are supposed to have *less* sex than animals do by the design of some omnipotent and loving Creator. But then, this is the same religion that says that humans are born evil and if we die in utero before we can be cleansed through baptism, then we will go to Limbo (itself invented because people were outright refusing to believe in a religion that condemned their miscarried babies to Hell.)


  9. Since I am partially to blame for bringing up the issue of pre-Enlightenment philosophy and the Pope’s argument, I want to clarify one thing: I didn’t mean to defend the Pope’s position, or to argue that Natural Law is the right paradigm for morality (although I’d be curious to see if somebody could mention a stronger alternative basis for universal moral values… I haven’t seen any. Unless one is ready to give up all possibility of a universal system of morals… in which case, what are we left with?). I am grappling with these issues, as I explain below.

    Back to the original blog post of Prof. Cohen, my point is the following: in my opinion, intellectual honesty requires at least (feel free to add others) these three conditions:

    1. To recognize that the topic of SSM is complex and involves a variety of disciplines: Philosophy, Law, Sociology, Biology… and possibly other fields.
    2. To welcome other people’s contributions in each of these fields. Our public conversation will be strengthened if we invite all voices on all sides to put forth their arguments.
    3. To contribute to the dialogue by focusing on the field one knows best, and responding to other people’s arguments with fairness -which demands not just respect, but basic knowledge of the epistemology used by the other side. Otherwise, to abstain from criticism.

    We could start going off the tangent, dismissing Natural Law, trashing the Pope, rejecting pre-Enlightenment philosophy, and so on… But to me, the Pope in his original speech (which is not pronounced “ex-Cathedra” and thus is not infallible – and I wonder how many of the people posting here have actually read it in its integrity) respects each one of the three rules above, whereas Prof. Cohen’s blog post showed no respect for either one of them, and his responses in the comments confirm that he sees no problem with that. I just think those things are pretty basic, and feel disappointed when I go to a prestigious University Professor seeking serious arguments and I find that this is all he has to offer.

    OK, here’s where my disappointment comes from. I am a lesbian person, and I have some friends who use arguments that are similar to the Pope’s. I actually think those arguments are very strong, because when one considers them thoroughly (and yes, with some basic knowledge of pre-Enlightenment philosophy) they are actually pretty rational, they are definitely not religious (some religions do use those arguments, but it would be silly to say that they invented them), and they explain why marriage has to do with sex, why it demands exclusivity, why it requires permanence, and why the State should get involved in the marriage business in the first place. (The strongest book on this is “What is Marriage?”, which was recently given to me by one of my friends who supports the Pope’s view). Having read that, I came to Prof. Cohen’s blog (I am a big fan of his sociological work), because he is supposed to be part of the intellectual elite -according to his position and qualifications-, seeking to learn some arguments against my friends’ position. And what do I find: dismissals, wittiness, a naive superiority complex, and lack of respect for a position that I personally find intellectually strong. I wish we had academics with a more well-rounded mind, and I think specialization (knowing hierarchical linear modeling) is not an excuse: one has time for whatever one thinks important (Homeland), and it’s a pity that some professors think they cannot possibly have time for philosophy, but they definitely have time for trashing other people’s philosophical views.

    Many academics think they represent and defend the LGTB community, but they don’t help people like me who want serious arguments, and who are open to philosophical / moral views, but need counter-arguments for them. Actually, posts like the one above damage our position, because it comes across as frivolous and shallow. (Apologies for the long post)


Comments welcome (may be moderated)

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s