Natural Law, Part I: Dissing Science--It's Not Just for Evangelicals

I wouldn't describe myself as coming from a particularly "science-y" family, but we were certainly exposed to science and encouraged to view it in a positive light.  When I was young, I got really into astronomy, and my parents certainly encouraged that.  I remember that they let me go to a "backward astronomy" course on a Saturday morning, where we looked at sunspots through a telescope and talked about how to find constellations in the night sky.  Viewing conditions in central New Jersey will never be mistaken for the top of a mountain in the Arizona desert, but at one point I was pretty good at picking out specific stars, and I think my parents let themselves get dragged outside in the cold to look at stars with me.

The other area of science that I loved as a kid (like many kids, I suspect) was dinosaurs.  My mother took my brother and I to the Museum of Natural History in New York City to look at the dinosaurs, and we had numerous books about the various types of dinosaurs in the house as a kid.  All of the books made clear that dinosaurs lived hundreds of millions of years ago and evolved from other organisms.  None of my parents made anything of that one way or the other--it was no more remarkable than the existence of a Tyrannosaurus Rex.  It just was.

From the Creation Museum in Petersburg, KY
When we moved down South when I was in middle school, I was stunned to find people who had a problem with the idea of evolution and still believed the Earth was 6000 years old.  Sure, I knew people used to think that, but surely no one still did, right?  After all, hadn't they read any dinosaur books?  I drew a very simple, if uncharitable, conclusion from this stunning development--these people were idiots.  As the locus of the anti-evolution crowd was with the evangelical churches (of which Jacksonville, Florida has many), I concluded that evangelical Christianity was a religion for stupid people.  By contrast, Catholicism was a religion for smart people, since it didn't force you to choose between science and faith.  I will readily admit that I smugly viewed Catholicism (and, by extension, myself) as intellectually superior to these knuckle-dragging evangelicals.

I am coming to realize that my arrogance and condescension was misplaced.  Not because I have a greater respect for Young Earth Creationism--that is still ridiculous.  No, my arrogance was misplaced because I am coming to see that Catholicism doesn't accept science nearly as much as I first thought (or they would like you to believe).  While evangelicalism's hostility to science is more overt, Catholicism's is more subtle but still present.  And, I am coming to see that this hostility really is at the heart of many of the hot-button issues in our day.  Birth control, gay marriage, the role of women in the Church--these can be seen not so much as theological problems, at least at their heart.  They can be seen as deriving from science, or more accurately, a particular view of science that undergirds the Church's position on these issues.

Last week I raved about the blog "Letter's From a Ewe."  In her response to the Vatican survey, she mentions in several places the of an outdated, "medieval" view of science as a barrier to people accepting the Catholic position on various issues.  This post goes into more detail on this topic, and crystalized a number of unorganized thoughts I've had for a while.

When Catholics talk about natural law, what they really mean is the work of the great Dominican, Thomas Aquinas.  Here's the definition of natural law from the Catholic Encyclopedia, the early 20th century reference book that those of a conservative cast still hold up as authoritative (so that no one can argue I am stacking the deck):

According to St. Thomas, the natural law is "nothing else than the rational creature's participation in the eternal law" (I-II.94). . . .  Unlike the things of the mere material world [a human] can vary his action, act, or abstain from action, as he pleases. Yet he is not a lawless being in an ordered universe. In the very constitution of his nature, he too has a law laid down for him, reflecting that ordination and direction of all things, which is the eternal law. The rule, then, which God has prescribed for our conduct, is found in our nature itself. Those actions which conform with its tendencies, lead to our destined end, and are thereby constituted right and morally good; those at variance with our nature are wrong and immoral.

Got that?  Basically, natural law states that one can discern the principles of divine law from an observation of "nature," because in nature we see the plan of God revealed in the manner of His creation.  If we can determine what human beings (or anything else, for that matter) "naturally" do, then we can get insight into what the should do.

But, before you can derive religious principles from nature, you must know something about nature.  When St. Thomas was writing, he drew from then state-of-the-art scientific knowledge, primarily the thought of Aristotle.  The problem, of course, is that we have 800 years of scientific knowledge between us and St. Thomas.  Much of what Aristotle (and thus Aquinas) thought was the "nature" of the natural world we now understand to be uninformed speculation, superstition, and bias.  To the extent Aquinas's theological conclusions rest on these incorrect ideas about the way things actually are, it makes sense that the theological conclusions would be at least called into question, and likely invalidated.  You might think that a reasonable response to this fact would be to accept Aquinas's methods, but rework his conclusions to account for this new knowledge.

You might think that, but you would be wrong, as Catholicism has shown itself to be completely unwilling to engage in this project.  Rather than embracing Aquinas's methods and rejecting the conclusions based on faulty premises, or even defending the faulty premises as actually correct somehow, Catholicism's approach has been to simply declare that the conclusions are correct and hope that people won't poke too deeply into the rationale used to get there.  As a result, you get a lot of discussion in Catholic circles of "natural law" teaching or explaining this or that, without addressing the fact that these conclusions are grounded in very unstable foundations.  The blog post says it perfectly:

Over the last few thousand years many things have disproven foundational understandings about science, nature, biology, sexuality, philosophy and psychology.  These foundational understandings themselves were not religious dogma.  But religious dogma was built upon them.  So if advances in secular knowledge disprove secular foundations upon which theology and dogma are based, the theological and dogmatic stories fall like a house of cards unless the theology and dogma accommodate change. 


The example used in the blog post, and probably the best example of this problem, is Aristotlean reproductive biology.  The Greeks, and other ancient people, thought that a man's sperm truly was a "seed," in the sense it contained the entirety of the material needed for a new life.  The woman, in contrast, was simply the "soil" in which the seed "sprouted" to become a new person.  Indeed, in Aristotle's telling, a woman was simply a man who did not fully develop, due to flaws in the "soil" in which it grew.  Being a woman, to Aristotle and thus to Aquinas, was literally a birth defect.

This is, of course, nonsense.  But it is this foundation that Aquinas uses to build a theological structure that answers questions and sexuality and gender issues.  It comes as no surprise, given his starting point, that Aquinas concludes that women cannot be priests--under the biology he is drawing from, women are literally defective simply by virtue of being women.  Aquinas also not surprisingly concludes that anything that results in the "waste" of a "seed" is immoral--from the perspective of Aristotlean biology, spilling seed as a result of masturbation (or, for that matter, gay male sex) is basically the same as an abortion, as it results in an otherwise fully viable potential person to be lost.

When presented this way, as Aquinas would explain it, these positions seem ridiculous.  And yet, Catholicism attempts to argue that the ultimate conclusions are still just as valid as they were in the 13th Century.  The Church is not so much rejecting 800 years of science as much as ignoring it.  It makes the whole idea of natural law something of a farce.

Put aside the grandiose arguments of the Richard Dawkins's of the world.  At a minimum, to take science seriously is to admit that it provides an accurate description of how the physical world is and how it works.  When science says that women are equal providers of the genetic material making up a new baby with a man, we should accept that as true.  If Catholicism has a theological system that is premised on other, incorrect, notions of biology, taking science seriously means that Catholicism has to tear down its theological system and start from scratch from the proper foundation.  Until we do that, we have no basis for laughing at the creationists.

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