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Wednesday, February 11, 2009

"The Catholic Church and Intellectual Freedom"

This is the title of Sandy Levinson's post, over at Balkinization, reacting to (the New York Times'  account and characterization of) Pope Benedict XVI's recent dealings with several formerly-schismatic Catholic bishops, including one who is clearly a loathesome Holocaust denier.  Sandy writes:

But I also confess to having very mixed views on reading that the "Vatican Secretariat of State said that Bishop Williamson 'must absolutely, unequivocally and publicly distance himself from his positions on the Shoah.'" . . .

"Recantation" or "distancing" would not only raise the most severe questions about Bishop Williamson's own intellectual integrity (assuming one can use such terms with regard to a Holocaust denier); it would also reinforce the view that the Church--especially under the current Pope?--does not intend to be friendly to anyone who fails to toe a given Vatican line.

Put aside also the "under the current Pope . . . toe a given Vatican line" jab (which reflects, it seems to me, a common misunderstanding of this Pope's views and record), I'm not sure why the Secretariat's demand should necessarily be seen as demanding what Sandy (and I) regard as pretty-near impossible, i.e., willing away one's mistaken beliefs, or as threatening his "intellectual freedom." 

Williamson is a Catholic bishop (albeit, it seems to me, a very bad one).  Part of being a bishop, I would think, is avoiding scandalizing one's flock and refraining from teaching error.  It is, as it happens, entirely orthodox Catholic teaching that one's beliefs are, and can only be, one's own (see, e.g., Dignitatis humanae); the Pope is not under any illusion that he can (or should) command a change in views (nor, to be clear, does his decision to permit this bishop back into communion signal, remotely, an endorsement of or approval of these views.)  

I suppose I'm not the best judge -- given that I buy into the Church's claims-to-teaching-authority -- but it does not strike me as worrisome, strange, or "[un]friendly" to say -- if one is, well, the Pope -- to a bishop, "given that you are a successor to the Apostles, charged with caring for the spiritual welfare of Christians, do not say and teach things, as bishop, that are grossly wrong and hateful, to say nothing of un-Christian.  And, even if you believe those things, it is part of your job -- in this case, your vocation and sacred charge -- to withdraw your endorsement of them."  After all, one's role constrains what one is, and is not, supposed to say, in the context of that role, all the time.

I assume that Sandy, like me, would not be moved by a public-school science teacher's argument that his "intellectual freedom" required that he be permitted not only to believe, but to teach in class, young-Earth creationism?  What's the difference?

Posted by Rick Garnett on February 11, 2009 at 08:09 PM | Permalink


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I am not qualified to say whether the phrase "toe a given Vatican line" reflects "a common misunderstanding of this Pope's views and record."

I can say, however, that it reflects a common misunderstanding of the metaphor itself. "Toeing the line" does not refer to following a particular doctrine, but rather to placing one's toe on the painted line in the center of a boxing ring. In the bareknuckle days, each fighter had to "toe the line" at the beginning of every round. If you couldn't "toe the line," you lost the fight.

"Toe a given Vatican line" appears to be a common conflation of "toe" and "tow," along with the conflation of a painted line with a party line.

Just thought

Posted by: Steve Lubet | Feb 12, 2009 11:32:29 AM

The reporting on this issue has been miserable - including that of the NY Times.

There is a big difference between lifting an excommunication (which is what Benedict XVI did), and restoring a schismatic bishop to his position in the Church (which is something Benedict XVI did not do).

Excommunication is an extreme penalty which basically kicks a person out of the Church -- thereby denying to them the means of their salvation. One's views of history -- indeed, even one's own criminal past, perhaps -- has nothing whatsoever to do with whether one is or should be excommunicated from the Church. Excommunication is generally reserved for someone who rejects Church authority or Church dogma - in other words, for someone who rejects THE CHURCH itself.

So, by lifting Bishop Williamson's excommunication, all Benedict XVI did was permit Williamson back into the Church. Believing crazy things that have nothing to do with the Faith -- such as the Loch Ness Monster, the Tooth Fairy, etc -- play no role in whether one can be a Catholic or not.

But Benedict XVI did NOT lift Williamson's "suspension" as a bishop. He did not restore Williamson to the episcopacy. And there's the critical rub: Benedict XVI is not telling Williamson that he must "toe the Vatican line" simply to be a Catholic. But he is telling Williamson that he must do so in order to be restored as a BISHOP in the Church. This is completely reasonable and legitimate -- no organization would promote someone to a position of authority within that organization who did not sign onto the organization's goals, mission, image, etc.

Therefore, to critique Benedict for laying down certain "conditions" that Williamson must accede to in order to be recognized as a BISHOP is quite hypocritical -- for it's exactly the same sort of thing that our organizations (i.e., law schools, universities, and colleges) do all the time (explicitly or implicitly) when they promote people to positions of authority within the administration.

Posted by: DR | Feb 11, 2009 11:00:12 PM

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