Sunday, July 18, 2010


As a lay Dominican, I am a member of a venerable, 800-year-old Catholic religious order known as the Order of Preachers. This membership indicates a calling, a vocation to live my life according to the Rule of the Lay Fraternities of St. Dominic and in doing so promote accountability for my solemn promise to live that way: to study, to pray, to contemplate--in community--and share what I can with the world. They do not indicate that I speak in an official capacity, either for the Order or for the Church, nor are they any kind of guarantee that what I say is without error.

What I share on this blog and elsewhere is my personal take on all this stuff. If any of it is right or true, it's only because I happen to be correctly representing the truth; if any of it is not, it's because I am imperfect and only see the truth dimly. All I can guarantee is that I do my best to represent what is good and right and true, and hopefully my being a lay Dominican helps me to do that more often than not.


Mr. Ambrose Little, O.P.

(Br. Albertus Magnus, in the Order)

P.S. If you're interested in learning more about being a lay Dominican, check out our province's Web site.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Defending the Indefensible?


This post has been long in coming but has just been delayed cuz I've been too busy. I told Bertrand I'd respond in due time; it's a good thing that can mean basically anything. :)

You see, few months ago, Bertrand Le Roy posted his thoughts on a post I wrote about four years ago that very briefly dealt with the Inquisition (which really is properly called inquisitions as they came and went over a period of several hundred years in different places, but I'll stick with the standard singular for convention's sake). Now, please bear with me because I intend not to get into debating the finer points of the inquisitions; I just need to set up the context for this post.

Apparently, Bertrand didn't read even the rather short article I referenced, by historian Thomas F. Madden, much less consult the book I referred to, but he seems to have just grasped onto the summation I gave, which without the context provided by my references is hard to come to terms with. In fact, although I can't recall my thoughts at the time exactly, I tend to think I was being a bit controversial intentionally to tease people to read the references or, at least, explore the subject more thoroughly than accepting the popular mythos about it.

Since it spawned such a heartfelt response by Bertrand, though, I feel he deserves a thorough response. So prepare yourself for some slow reading!

Chapter I

First of all, let me quote the referenced article by Professor Madden:

When most people think of the Inquisition today what they are really thinking of is the Spanish Inquisition. No, not even that is correct. They are thinking of the myth of the Spanish Inquisition. Amazingly, before 1530 the Spanish Inquisition was widely hailed as the best run, most humane court in Europe. There are actually records of convicts in Spain purposely blaspheming so that they could be transferred to the prisons of the Spanish Inquisition.

Now I've read more than the average person about the Inquisition. But having been trained as an historian (that's what my Bachelor's degree is in, and I graduated summa cum laude), I would by no means call myself a historian of the Inquisition. I've barely scratched the surface, and frankly, using the professional study of history, one could spend a career researching and writing on the topic.

And yet, I do think I've spent more time trying to delve into the reality of the historical situation than most have; plus, my studies in school focused in large part on the high and late medieval period, so I rely on that to further contextualize my understanding of the subject--it's why I can read what I have and think, yeah, that sounds about right for the thinking of the period, and feel relatively confident in the conclusions of these other historians who actually have studied the topic professionally.

As a trained historian, I'm also cognizant of the bias introduced both by earlier Protestant and Enlightenment writers who are largely responsible for the myth as well as that of the Catholic historians who possibly are too indulgent and forgiving while, in my opinion, rightly trying to balance and correct the myth.

On to Bertrand's comments.. I'll cite three paragraphs that I think sum up his position.

No, really, you shouldn't defend Inquisition and pretend it was a benevolent organization. Please, be an adult and recognize when something you or an organization you belong to screwed up. It will elevate you, whereas the defensive position brings you down to the level of the guilty.

I cannot think of a single reason why one would unconditionally support the worst that religion has done and still does today. There are plenty of religious people who embrace humanism as something fully compatible with their faith, and who are not embarrassed to recognize evil when they see it.

Instead of apologizing for the indefensible, you should be the first to forcefully reject the parts of your own religion that are archaic, barbaric and evil. That should only reinforce the core of it, which I understand is supposed to be love.

First off, let me say I appreciate that Bertrand, unlike the militant atheists in the Dawkins and Hitchens crowd, seems to recognize there is goodness in religion, even if it only extends in as much as religious people share his humanistic values. It is good in debate to seek common ground!

Let me say unequivocally that the Catholic faith is a humanistic faith in that we see all of creation as inherently good because it comes from God whom we believe to be infinitely good. One need not go far to see reiterated pronouncements by bishops on the dignity of human life and its inviolability these days in the face of what the Venerable John Paul II termed "the culture of death" that does what Bertrand accuses "three great monotheistic religions" of doing: separating humanity into two categories--those who have full human rights and those who don't ("sub-human").

For The Big Three, Bertrand claims that we use heresy or apostasy as the condition upon which human rights are predicated. I won't speak for Judaism or Islam, but I will say this is not true for Christianity, nor has it ever been--even in the inquisitions.

To judge that a person is deserving of punishment is a matter of justice, not a determination that they are sub-human or lacking in human dignity. The very fact that the accused in the inquisitions were tried--that the inquisitions themselves were courts of justice--bespeaks an implicit recognition of the dignity of the accused and their right to a trial (keep in mind the inquisitions began pre-Magna Carta), a trial that tries, even with imperfect means, to determine truth and mete out justice. Even if you disagree with the premise that religious belief is a matter for public judgment (and the corresponding execution of sentences based on that judgment), it remains that this is not a question of denying human dignity but rather of what is a matter for public judgment.

Furthermore, punishing people, even with capital punishment, is also not a matter of denying human dignity but of determining that the individual has harmed human society and poses so great a threat for ongoing harm to society that their natural right to life must be forfeit in order to serve justice (for the harm done society) and to protect the society going forward from more harm. I happen to be an advocate against capital punishment, but I recognize the rationale behind it and think in certain circumstances it can be acceptable. But the validity of capital punishment as a means of justice is also another debate.

In any case, to suggest this sort of thorough judicial procedure that underpinned the inquisitions is an a priori denial of human dignity is simply wrong.

Take, on the other hand, our contemporaries. I would say that it is rather they in the culture of death who use arbitrary measures to determine if a life bears human dignity, if is "worth living" and thus worth protecting. They use arbitrary and unverifiable criteria based on conjecture--not established judicial procedure by a qualified judge--to determine if a life has human dignity. They use unverifiable conjecture on the perception of pain, self-consciousness, viability, too much pain, ability to be cared for, etc. to determine without due process that a human person does not bear the human dignity that calls for protection.

I don't know where Bertrand stands on life issues, but Catholics certainly are at the forefront in defending human life and human dignity, from conception to natural death. This stems from our belief that creation is good because it comes from God and, more specifically, that human life is good because we are made in the image of God and are called to a special participation in Divine life, a sharing in the love of the Trinity.

For humanists to pretend that belief in the dignity of the human person is an invention of the so-called Enlightenment is just preposterous. At the very foundation of the Christian religion lies a sublime recognition of the dignity of human persons, a dignity so great that God, in his infinite goodness, deigned to make it in his own image and then took on that human nature to more fully bring it into communion with his own being. It's not for nothing that we call the Gospel the Good News!

Chapter II

Which leads me to the second contention of Bertrand's...

I hold the opinion that this is in large part caused by the fact that this organization believes itself to be holy and infallible.

After very tenuously comparing the Inquisition to the Vichy government and then looping in the contemporary specter of the child abuse crisis (after all, what critique of the Church today would be complete without that?), he really gets to the heart of the matter. How can an organization that does things like the Inquisition and abuses children dare to call itself holy and infallible??

The gauntlet is thrown. The evidence is in. It's clear that it is patently moronic to claim such a thing given the indisputable (and self-documented, I might add) wrongs done by "the Church." How can one even begin to defend such a clearly indefensible position?

The answer lies in a not-too-fine theological point. I say that to preclude pretense at dismissing what I'm about to say as theological finery because, trust me, this is pretty straightforward compared to theological finery. When the Church says that it is holy and infallible, it is not without qualification, that is, not without a requisite understanding of what the Church is and how we understand it to be such.

There are multiple dimensions to the reality of the Church. Book upon book upon book has been written about this, so forgive me for my necessary simplification.

The Church is the mystical body of Christ, with Jesus as its head, made up of:

  1. the communion of the faithful living today

  2. the communion of the faithful departed who are being purified (popularly known as "in purgatory")

  3. the communion of the faithful departed who are purified and participating fully (as fully as humanly possible) in the Divine communion of persons known as the Trinity (popularly known as "in heaven")

When speaking of the Church as the corporation of its members, the Church is holy and infallible only in as much as the Church's members are conformed to their head--Jesus Christ. Those living today and in purgatory are being sanctified (made holy) through the grace of God. Those in heaven have been sanctified.

The holiness of individuals living today is not complete nor guaranteed--we must cooperate with the grace of God, and our holiness is not our own doing but a gift of God that we receive and cooperate in effecting. Therefore, speaking of the Church as a corporation of such individuals, it's obvious that it is not possible to speak unqualifiedly about the Church's holiness. Even without the ample objective evidence we have of our imperfection, you can see that our understanding of our nature as living, faithful humans informs us that we are imperfectly holy.

Similarly, infallibility is not an unqualified quality of the Church. No individual possesses it unqualifiedly before "getting to heaven," and we only are infallible in heaven because we see God, who is Truth in essence, face-to-face (what we call "the beatific vision"). So even in heaven, infallibility is not a matter of some arbitrary definition of truth, as is popularly conceived, but simply a seeing and recognition of the Truth that is.

The infallibility granted to the Church on earth is essentially the same--it is a seeing and recognition of the Truth that already is, not a creation of truth. On earth, we see the Truth only partially, and the truth that the Church proclaims infallibly is only what the Church believes it has received from God. The conditions for an infallible definition are actually quite rigorous, and the Church is in practice quite reluctant to define things in such a way.

Papal infallibility is also a gift granted under special circumstances (more on that here). It is never arbitrary (i.e., a whim or personal opinion of the pope) but is a way to formally recognize a truth that is implicit in Divine Revelation. We only have two instances where theologians agree this gift has been exercised, and there have been only twenty-one ecumenical councils (the other way things are definitively proclaimed infallibly) in two millennia.

I say all this about infallibility not so much to dig deep into the subject but rather to impress that it is actually quite unusual for it to be actively exercised and that is not possessed by individuals (bishops nor popes) in an unqualified way nor as a tool for them to shove their opinions down others throats. That's not to say that Catholics are only bound to consent and obedience for infallibly defined dogmas, but that's another discussion.

The important thing here is to realize the very qualified and rare way that definitive, active infallibility is exercised in the Church and, as noted, only there have been only two known infallible definitions by a pope. So there is no burden on the faithful Catholic to defend every proclamation of a bishop or even the pope as if it were infallible.

Especially in matters of discipline (e.g., how ecclesiastical trials are exercised), there is no guarantee of infallibility, so it is entirely unnecessary to defend, for instance, the decision of a pope to authorize torture as a tool in the inquisitions. That, I would argue, is a purely human decision by a human conditioned by his culture and time, and I wouldn't defend it beyond defending any such historical fact or personage--that perhaps in that time and culture it was understandable. Would it have been better had torture not been authorized? Almost certainly, but it would be anachronistic of me to suggest that he should have known better. Surprise! Even popes can be wrong!

Chapter III

So why the heck am I bothering to defend the Church in regards to the inquisition or any other controversial matter? Because too often the facts get severely distorted and generalizations are made that really do strike at the deeper realities of the Church and, worse, endanger others' faith.

When I defend the Church in regards to the Inquisition, the Crusades, the priestly abuse crisis, etc., it is in no way to defend the evil and abuses perpetrated by individuals--even bishops and popes. The fact that popes and bishops and priests are imperfect does not endanger my faith because I have a right understanding of the holiness and infallibility of the Church. Personally, I am of the conviction that we should recognize and address the serious failings of priests (and bishops and popes), both past and present.

In each controversial situation, there was real wrong, real evil, real suffering caused by members (even leaders) in the Church. THAT is the scandal; that is what we can all agree to decry. While priests and bishops are admittedly "just human," they are called to live a holiness of life that is exemplary to others, and Christian Scripture says that they will be judged more harshly precisely because they are expected to be Christian models and have at their disposal the graces to realize their calling. It is right to expect them to live exemplary lives, and because of this, it is just as right to be more offended when they don't, as compared to other members of human society. (That's why my stomach turns when the defense is made that "there are so many other child abusers out there, why not talk about them??" It's because priests should be better--they're supposed to be examples to us all!)

But to recognize and address the real evils perpetrated does not require one to condemn the whole. Abusus non tollit usum--the abuse of a thing does not nullify the proper use of it. In the case of the inquisitions, as an institution set up in a culture where heresy was a capital offense, where there was little to no regulation of means of interrogation, and where presumption of innocence was not par for the course, it was good (even juridically advanced for the time) to have competent judges who had strict regulations on the methods of interrogation they could use, who had (for their time) very enlightened understanding of ulterior motives of witnesses, who had a deep grounding in theology and Catholic doctrine and could rightly discern real heresy, and who were enjoined to presume innocence and do everything they could to convert and correct a person (rather than, as in the myth, gleefully handing them over to punishment).

Torture, specifically, was recognized as an extremely imperfect means of learning the truth, despite its being authorized. It was not authorized in the beginning, and once it was, as I understand it, the guidelines were to use it rarely, much like we understand the current situation for the U.S.. I'm not defending torture; I'm just pointing out that for those on the front lines in protecting the society, the Inquisition was in its inception as "enlightened" as the policy makers today. Even after all this time and "enlightenment," there are supposedly enlightened people today who still defend it in some circumstances. I am not one of them, nor would I defend it in the case of the Inquisition except to point out what I have pointed out.

Would it have been better for the Church of the time to refuse to cooperate and pressure for a change in societal structure? Maybe. In fact there have always been Christians calling for social reform, even if not always the hierarchy. But if the Church had refused to participate as it did, it seems to me that far worse would have happened. The Church has to work within societal structures that exist, even while working for a more just society in the future. Let's not forget that the goal of a good inquisitor was to establish innocence and bring the guilty back to the Church, even in opposition to the local authorities (who were more than once hostile to the imposition of the inquisition as a regulating "meddling" force in their affairs). This is quite different from the picture painted by comparing it to the Vichy government--just going through the motions to achieve the ends of the state.

And there is something to be said for the fact that the Church at the time was made up of humans at the time who were conditioned by their cultures just like we are. Our culture can either help or hurt our ability to see the truth clearly, and it can certainly hamper our freedom to act on it. In this sense, yes, I agree that from my distant vantage point, it seems like the Church could have done more and advocated against the state more for religious freedom. That the leaders of the time did not fully see or act on what I think is a richer understanding of religious freedom is unfortunate, but from a historical perspective, it is understandable.

In Summary

To sum up, I agree that what is truly wrong and evil--even when done by leaders of the Church--should be decried and not defended. What I defend against is not such real evil but rather the exaggerations, extrapolations, and outright lies brought to bear against the Church, using these lamentable, real evils as a basis.

Do I therefore risk being seen as "defensive" as Bertrand put it? Do I even risk being thought to defend the indefensible, bringing me "down to the level of the guilty"? Obviously! As is evidenced by Bertrand's musings. But for me those are risks worth taking in the love and service of truth, the Church (that holy and infallible Divine institution, rightly understood), and those who might be led astray by those same distortions of truth to their own harm and detriment.

Pax vobiscum!