Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Keyhole Catholicism

Pondering Catholic dogma on the morning-after pill, Ross Douthat spots daylight through a keyhole and charges gamely forth as though the door is open:

An orthodox Catholic is required to believe that the Church teaches truly in matters of faith and morals. He is not required to believe that the Church teaches truly in matters of science; indeed, the Church does not have "teachings," properly understood, on scientific questions. Where the two intersect - well, there things get a bit dicey.
Um, I hate to interrupt, but where don't the two intersect? An orthodox Catholic is required to believe that, for example, a cracker turns into the flesh of Jesus of Nazareth in certain dining contexts. An orthodox Catholic is required to believe that sentient beings in the universe include, at minimum, humans, demons, angels, Satan, and a quick-tempered deity. There is no disentangling the "matters of faith and morals" from the "matters of science" in these mandatory beliefs.

Similarly, under the Catholic doctrine of Just War, wars are adjudged to be either god-angering or god-pleasing depending on an inextricable compound of fact, faith, and morals:
[T]he Catechism of the Catholic Church, in paragraph 2309, lists four strict conditions for "legitimate defense by military force":
  • the damage inflicted by the aggressor on the nation or community of nations must be lasting, grave, and certain;
  • all other means of putting an end to it must have been shown to be impractical or ineffective;
  • there must be serious prospects of success;
  • the use of arms must not produce evils and disorders graver than the evil to be eliminated. The power of modern means of destruction weighs very heavily in evaluating this condition.
Douthat is untroubled and ambles forward:
My sense of that matter is that I am bound to accept the Church's moral judgment that the taking of innocent human life at any stage from conception to natural death is a grave evil (and would not have become a Catholic if I did not), but that I am not bound to accept a Vatican document's summary of where the science stands regarding whether the morning-after pill does in fact take a life, by preventing implantation of a fertilized embryo.
Douthat has drawn a boundary line here, one that he determines is grounded in solid science: an implanted fertilized embryo has all the rights of you, me, the Pope, or Ross Douthat, while a not-yet-implanted fertilized embryo -- even one prevented implantation by a morning-after pill -- might as well be a grain of sand for all the reverence it merits.

Catholic dogma places the same line in a different location.

The placement of the line is itself a moral judgment -- there is no looking through a microscope and observing the person/not-quite-person line. A disagreement over the line entails a disagreement over the morals, which makes Ross Douthat a bad, bad Catholic and a failure at squeezing through keyholes.

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