Natural Law, Part II--The Problem of Truthiness

Stephen Colbert famously coined (or, at least, popularized) the word "truthiness" early-on in his Colbert Report program.  "Truthiness" is an assertion that something is true based not on facts, but on one's own subjective sense of what is correct.  Importantly, a statement is not "truthy" if is it incapable of being proven or disproven by objective criteria--"I love you" cannot be demonstrated to be true or false according to any kind of objective criteria, but that doesn't make it truthy.  Instead, truthiness comes where a claim can be judged by objective criteria, but the person making the statement simply chooses to ignore those criteria and assert it anyway.  So, while "I love you" is not truthy, "I am capable of hitting a Major League fastball" is certain truthy in my case, in light of my mediocre eyesight and lack of discernible hand-eye coordination.  No amount of believing I can do it changes the fact that I would be completely over-matched physically by a 98 mph Justin Verlander fastball.

Truthiness is not limited to comedy news programs and fantasies of playing short-stop in the Major Leagues.  Truthiness is a big part of the discourse in Catholicism, especially in regard to natural law.  In my previous post, I talked about the problem of bad scientific ideas still floating underneath theological concepts.  But another version of natural law argument uses examples of conditions or outcomes in the real world to prove or support theological concepts.  For example, if we observe that people who are the victims of child abuse have a higher likelihood of abusing drugs later in life, this provides support for the notion that abusing children is morally unacceptable.  The arrow also works in the other direction--if this connection is a valid one, than we can predict that a softening of the notion that child abuse is morally unacceptable will lead to more child abuse, and thus an increase in drug abuse.

The problem, and where the truthiness comes in, is that the outcomes and causal connections that are deployed by Catholic apologists to support various moral teachings are often either unsupported or flat out not true.  In fact, what is often done is to start with the moral teaching and then assert that various factual outcomes have occurred as a result of people not following the moral teaching.  But, when one actually looks at actual data, one finds that these things are not in fact occurring.  That's classic truthiness.

Here are two examples of what I am talking about.

The first has to do with the "predictions" contained in the famous birth control encyclical Humanae Vitae.  Pope Paul VI predicted that the widespread use of contraception will lead to rampant sexual promiscuity, particularly among young people.  Stated in this way, this is a perfect natural law argument--observable predicted phenomenon (teenage sexual activity) that supports a moral or theological premise (contraception is bad).  Seems pretty straight-forward.  And, true to form, many in the Catholic right have asserted that teenagers are having more sex, and thus Pope Paul was "prophetic."

Except the problem is that the factual predicate is wrong--pre-marital sex has not risen among young people.  Letters to the Catholic Right has chronicled this extensively, and the fact is that all almost all measures of teenage sexual activity have either been consistent or trending steadily downward.  The peak year of the teen birth rate in the United States was 1991, with 61.8 births per 1,000 teenage females.  In 2012, it was 29.4.  But, you might say, isn't that because of increasing access to abortion?  Nope, teen pregnancy rates are also declining steadily, dropping from 116.9/1000 teenage girls in 1990 to 67.8 in 2008 (and likely lower after that, as this particular data set stops at 2008).  Plus, teenage abortions have gone from 43.8/1000 in 1988 to 17.8 in 2008.  OK, fine, but is that drop a product of using contraception?  Well, certainly some or even most of the drop is due to contraception, but some of it is the fact that the number of teenagers having sex has more or less been stable for years.

It is simply wrong to say there is a rise in premarital sex among young people in the last forty years.  And I don't think anyone seriously disputes that contraception has become more prominent and available over the same time period.  So, the natural law argument advanced by Pope Paul VI in Humanae Vitae appears to be wrong, at least with regards to the US over that last 30 years or so.  The fact that people continue to suggest that Humanae Vitae is "prophetic" is pure truthiness.

A second example is the recent dust-up in Charlotte, North Carolina.  On March 21st, Charlotte Catholic High School invited Sister Jane Dominic Laurel of the Nashville Dominicans to speak to the student body.  According to reports of students at the assembly, the topic of her talk was homosexuality, and she advanced a number of theories as to why people become gay, including teenage masturbation, watching of porn, and lack of a father figure in the household growing up.  In addition, she evidently asserted that gay men have an average of 500 to 1000 sexual partners in their lives, and are often abusive to children (based, it appears, on one anecdote of a gay couple in Australia).  Students and parents complained and put together an online petition, which as of today it has over 4000 signatures, protesting the remarks.  The usual suspects have taken the students and parents to task for whining about receiving the Hard Medicine of Catholic Truth.

Let's put aside for a moment the question of whether the idea Sr. Laurel's remarks represent authentic Catholic teaching--the notion that homosexuality is entirely the product of environmental factors is in direct contradiction to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, see CCC 2358.  Sr. Laurel advances factual claims that are either entirely unsupported or factually inaccurate.  Based on comments from the Charlotte diocese's Vicar of Education, Sr. Laurel relied on "data from the Linacre Quarterly, a reputable (Catholic Medical Association) journal."  A quick check of the Linacre Journal reveals a 2011 paper entitled "On the Psychogenesis of Homosexuality" by one Gerard van den Aardweg.  I haven't read his paper, as it is behind a paywall, and I don't feel like shelling out $40--the abstract can be found here.  In the same issue of journal, Dr. van den Aardweg has a second paper, entitled "Abuse By Priests, Homosexuality, Humanae Vitae, and the Crisis of Masculinity in the Church."  The first line of the abstract of that paper reads "[d]ata on the age of the preferred partner of same-sex attracted men show that the abuse of minors by priests and deacons is primarily a question of 'ordinary' homosexuality, and secondarily of homosexual pedophilia (not just unspecified 'pedophilia')."

The linkage between homosexuality and child abuse is unsupported by real data, as this review of the research shows.  Likewise, this review of the General Social Survey data suggests that the number of sexual partners an average single gay man has over a five year period is 6--one more than the average single straight man.  If you assume a person's active sexual life is from 15 to 60 (which is generous), and assume our hypothetical average gay man never enters a monogamous relationship (which is highly unlikely), you still end up with a maximum 54 sexual partners in a lifetime--orders of magnitude lower than "500 to 1000" figure quoted by Sr. Laurel.  Given that two of the claims asserted in the supposedly "reputable" Linacre Quarterly were disproven by about 30 minutes of googling by an amateur with no experience with the literature, I am confident that the rest of the claims of Sr. Laurel will be similarly specious.  It's worth noting that this same googling reveals that Dr. van den Aardweg is closely tied to the National Association for Research and Therapy of Homosexuality (NARTH), the leading American center for "research" on the discredited practice of reparative therapy, furthering skepticism about the soundness of his conclusions from a scientific standpoint.

As I talked about in my last post, if natural law has any meaning, it has to be grounded in an analysis of the world as it actually is.  If you are going to use natural law reasoning to make predictions about the world, you have to be willing to discard that reasoning if your predictions do not prove to be accurate.  As it is currently being utilized in the Church, natural law is a complex intellectual cloak that covers a series of what are ultimately positive assertions of morality (i.e. "contraception is bad because we say so and we've always said so.")  If that is how you want go about it, fine.  But the endless appeals to the "intellectual" cache of natural law doesn't place your positive assertions on any firmer footing if you insist on responding to counter-evidence with truthiness.

I believe that the world, and especially the Catholic Church, could really benefit from some real natural law thinking and analysis.  It has been almost 800 years since Thomas Aquinas was writing.  We have a wealth of new knowledge in science, politics, art, and philosophy to consider, reflect on, and pray about.  I think the Catholic people are hungry for a greater emphasis on natural law.  But they need genuine, honest talk and analysis from the Catholic hierarchy, not more truthiness.       


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