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A Catholic view on old heresies in the news

Category: Nominalism

Aristotle -> Aquinas -> Atheism, Part 4

Proof 2: First Cause

Drawing on the previous proof of the first mover, Aquinas says there should also be a first causer.  Because we can deduce a single eternal source of motion from the fact that some things move, we can work in the same fashion to show that because some things have causes there must have been a first cause to set those causal chains in motion.

This works well because Aristotle was looking at change; how one thing can become another.  His word for motion had a much broader sense to it, and could encompass the idea of the motion of cause to effect and not just object to object.  Because our modern idea of motion is much more limited, this proof fleshes out what the first proof showed.

The proof also allows us to see the emphasis Aquinas placed on universals, which follows from his acceptance Aristotelian thought.  The two universal concepts (motion and cause) are proved the same way.  This is in contrast with the nominalism of the Franciscans Scotus and Ockham.  In nominalism there are no universals, only particulars which happen to appear similar to each other.  Subsequently we can only understand movement or cause in so far as we actually experience those things happening in particular cases.  We are unable to reason about first causes or motion because we have no experience with those things, so Aristotle (and consequently Aquinas) are seen as overstepping the bounds of reason.  In other words, if we could reasonably reason about these things, Aquinas would have a great proof, but regrettably we cannot reasonably reason about them, so they don’t provide good proofs of God.

Nominalism reintroduced the division between faith and reason in such a way that further fostered scientific development.  If we cannot reason about things we don’t experience, we better pay a lot of attention to all that we do experience.  By paying such close attention, the experimental side of science was confirmed and supported to the expense of metaphysics.  In a sense, we still live with this legacy.  Science even today only answers how things work the way they do, not why.  We have laws of science, but no reasoning as to why laws should exist rather than chaos.  The current understanding of metaphysics in our world is woefully inadequate.

Further, this division between faith and reason is also being lived out in daily life.  Recall the atheist picture showing all the contradictions in scriptures, and the religious picture of dinosaurs living with people, from part 2.  The denial of universals is part of why this division exists.  Some religious people deny scientific reasoning and some atheist people deny the contextual faith distinctions in scripture.  When we rely upon universals like Plato and Aristotle, this division can be erased.  By focusing on particulars and denying universals, we end up dividing reason and faith.

Recall from the last post how Dawkins considers Aristotle to be making the vaguely phrased, “unwarranted assumptions”.  A far better critique is to deny universals exist, as the nominalists did.  While this denies such abstract universals as “Love” or even “Tree”, it does successfully denude Aquinas of any meaningful claim to proof of God’s existence.  Again though, this denuding of Aquinas is only because it first denudes Aristotle of any room to reason about things people haven’t directly experienced.


Morality & Pastoral Care

It is a challenge to always stand aloof from the ideologies of every age.  Pope Francis touches on this when he says “The dogmatic and moral teachings of the church are not all equivalent, … The church’s pastoral ministry cannot be obsessed with the transmission of a disjointed multitude of doctrines to be imposed insistently.”  Here he is confronting the ideology of nominalism and how it has impacted Church teaching.

Recall that nominalism is seeing each personal action and decision as unique and standing alone from others.  It is a false but common belief that there is not a “type” of human that we can live up to, but rather a collection of humans obeying a collection of (usually arbitrary) rules.

When Church leaders fail to focus on the universal aspect of humanity, they can sound like they are beating up on particular sins of particular people, and this can disenfranchise those people.  While educating consciences as to what breeds communion and sows disharmony is important (and so discussion of particular sins has its place), it is only secondary to understanding that the goal is living a life in communion.  Making that first step of turning towards communion with our fellow pilgrims on this earth and turning towards communion with God is what Christianity is all about.  If we make following the detailed working out of communion more important than the communion, then we’ve slipped into a Pharisaic understanding of God.  We turn the law into a God and worship it, rather than seeing the law as a tool to guide our understanding of how to achieve communion.

This is not meant as an excuse for those with uneducated consciences to keep having uneducated consciences, but rather a reminder that our consciences are all deficient in one way or another.  We have a continual obligation to keep on further enlightening our consciences with the teaching of the Church; but one becomes a Christian when they decide to start loving, not when they have completed that journey and love perfectly.


Pope Francis Lays Down the Law

The Pope recently said this: “A commandment is valid if it comes from Jesus: I do this because the Lord wants me to do this. But if I am a Christian without Christ, I do this and I don’t know why I have to do it”.  This quote is further illuminated by another quote from him about how some people “make so many commandments the center of their religiosity”.  Together these form an argument against Luther, who saw commandments as external and arbitrary.

In the nominalist view of Luther and others, God issues forth commandments that are external to us.  In the Catholic view, commandments are those rules by which we can become more human, more authentically ourselves.  Christ is the center of those commands because in Christ we find communion with both God and neighbor, and communion is the fullest understanding of what it means to be human.  The more we further authentic communion, the more we follow Christ.

This contrasts with the nominalists, who say there is no “ideal humanity” to configure ourselves to so that we may become more authentically ourselves.  In this view, God’s law is laid down arbitrarily so that following the law can become and end into itself.  Since the law is arbitrary, following it doesn’t necessarily lead to communion.  Therefore following the law can be seen as an obstacle to following Jesus.

Sam Harris is right (but I wish he wasn’t)

I read The Moral Landscape by Sam Harris a while back.  While I would enjoy the cash from refuting his argument, I would despise what I would become in that refutation: a heretic.

The core of his argument is that a reasoned understanding of experiences can help us determine what is good and what is bad.  This, regrettably for my wallet, is the Catholic position on reason and science.  While acknowledging the difficulties in practice, the Catechism of the Catholic Church states: “human reason is, strictly speaking, truly capable by its own natural power and light of attaining … the natural [moral] law written in our hearts”.  Further, “religious and moral truths .. are not beyond the grasp of human reason”.  In addition, it is the heresy of Ontologism (popular in the seventeen and eighteen hundreds) that teaches we attain knowledge of God separate from the created world rather than mediated by the world.  This means rather than just reason alone, we need reason interacting with the world, which is nearly the perfect definition of science and precisely what Sam Harris is arguing for.

Why such a well known atheist would hold such a Catholic view might be because Christianity in America is strongly shaped by the heretical view held by Luther that “Reason is directly opposed to faith, and one ought to let it be; in believers it should be killed and buried.”

Poor Ms. Reason, looks like Luther got to her.

This comes out of Luther’s idea that God is nearly entirely transcendent when it comes to morals.  God’s law, for Luther, was arbitrary and external to humanity rather than an expression of the fullness of humanity.  For Luther, this was largely because of his nominalist tendencies.

However, Luther was hardly the first to espouse the idea that God is so transcendent that his law is beyond reason.  Perhaps the most well known body of believers who espouse this idea are some denominations of Islam.  Their understanding is that God is so transcendent that he doesn’t need reasons for his law (the Akhbari and Ash’arite schools).  While this may be the perceived common view, it isn’t the only view that could be held by Muslims.  The Mu’tazila and Usuli schools of thought teach more of what Catholic teaching is: that we can learn about God’s law through reason.

Amidst all this complexity then, Sam Harris hold quite orthodox religious views upon reason and science helping one understand how to apply God’s law to their lives.  Rather than encourageing atheism, his book could be seen as a call to return to a Catholic life for Christians and a call for Muslims to return to the Mu’tazila and Usuli schools of thought.

The Yuck Factor and Holistic Love

This article above is becoming much discussed around the blog world, so I consider it news.  However, I want to focus on a different part than what everyone else is talking about.  I think the following is more relevant to heresy (it is also not already covered in a thick layer of commentary): “If marriage wasn’t about the conjugal relationship, what was it about? ‘Love and commitment’ we were told. ‘What’s wrong with two people finding love?'”

Indeed, browsing Pinterest the other day, it was easy to find such images as below:


This idea that love has no gender is a form of dualism.  The body and soul are separated and seen as distinct.  This splitting apart of a whole person can be see even more clearly with this image, which shows what all the fuss is about:

The one human person is broken up into all these bits and then these bits are set against each other.  Expression might be at odds with sex which might not align with orientation.  While there are some cases of intersex (1 in 100 babies don’t appear normally male or female), these are the result of a breakdown in the normal genomic process.  Some children are born with tails:

And this is not considered an identity but a deformity in how the body would naturally express itself.  Being born with a tail or intersex is a breakdown of the person because of the fallen nature of the world.  The person, according to Catholic teaching, should still be seen as a whole person and not broken up into bits like the ginger bread man image above would suggest.  Dualism’s excessive drive to split apart whole beings into their component parts fuels the idea that love has no gender.  The soul is seen as entirely separate from the body.

Rejecting dualism, the Church teaches that the soul and the body are one person.  If that person is male, that means the soul has a certain “maleness” to it as well.

“The unity of soul and body is so profound that one has to consider the soul to be the “form” of the body: i.e., it is because of its spiritual soul that the body made of matter becomes a living, human body; spirit and matter, in man, are not two natures united, but rather their union forms a single nature.” (CCC 365)

If my nature is female, then my soul and body together are female.  This holistic approach by the Church guarantees the love of the whole person rather than just loving parts of a person.

Which brings us back to the point of the discussion: it is people who love, not merely the soul or the body which loves.  And because people come in two sexes (baring a medical problem) then love also comes in two sexes.  Love is gendered.  I love a woman in a different way than I love a man because I am a whole person, and my body and soul form a unity that has a sex.

This unity of a person, this holistic approach to people, restores the notion that marital love has a component of reproduction.  To say married love is both unitive and procreative is to recognize that love has a gender because people have a gender.

In turn, this walks us back the path laid out by LGBT activists to the “yuck factor” in the article.  There needn’t be a grossness to the external acts (Nothing that enters one from outside can defile that person; but the things that come out from within are what defile), but instead a blanching of the face that people are reduced to mere external acts.  The dualism required to think same sex sexuality is love appallingly divorces a person’s body from their soul.  It is a wretched thing to turn a person against him/her self by introducing a disunity into that person through dualism.  Homosexuality requires that disunity between ones body and soul and that’s why it’s bad.  It hurts a persons communion with themselves.  It is not wrong in the abstract because, “the Bible also teaches that homosexual behavior was wrongdoing or sin” (one might see the Nominalist roots of how the author proclaims it), but it is wrong concretely because it does injury to communion through dualist ideology.

“You are just a robot”

In this disturbing article we find out schools teach 9-10 year olds that their bodies can be treated as merely tools for pleasure.  While the teaching will include “beliefs and opinions may vary”, by not condemning treating bodies as things, it implicitly teaches that one permissible belief is to use people as things.  This is a dangerous and demeaning idea.

Masturbation, at it’s core, is Materialist.  The body is only a thing that can be used or not used at will.  A natural outcome of teaching bodies are things to be used is shown in this song called “Robot” by Nada Surf (at least PG13 for themes):

In the song, the main character is called a robot, because of how he blindly follows his impulses and uses people as things for sexual pleasure.  This is what masturbation is: using a body for pleasure.  If I may treat my own body as a thing, what would stop me from treating another person just as poorly?

In contrast, Catholics teach sexual pleasure is a good shared between people.  If the wife or husband is reduced to merely a sex toy, a body to use, then the good is no longer shared.  A communion of persons is a meeting of body and soul.  If only bodies meet then there is no communion, there is only robotic physical action to satisfy selfish lust.

We are people, not robots.  Materialism teaches our brains are only physical neurons firing off, just a robotic mind controlling a robotic body.  What a sad view of humans.  Catholics teach we are more than just our flesh and blood, and that is why masturbation is evil.  It is not an evil because God arbitrarily wants to deny us pleasure (that would be what Nominalism suggests), but it is an evil because it hurts our communion with ourselves and others by treating bodies as things rather than as persons.

A Nominal Right to Sex

What caught my eye about this article was near the end, when I read, “Since Kaitlyn’s arrest, the case has garnered national attention for what some say is a gay rights issue”.  It is considered a “right” to have sexual pleasure with someone too young to offer consent.

This comes from a mistaken notion of rights that arose out of a heretical notion of sin.  Originally this mistaken notion came from Ockham (of Ockham’s Razor fame) but was picked up and made more famous by Luther.

The Catholic understanding is that morality is found in our relationship with God and our neighbor — that our human nature is that of communion.  In our creation God made us in his image.  Therefore the more communion we have with God the more we live up to our nature, and more moral we are.  The life we live is a moral life because God is good, and our communion with him means we take on this goodness.  As St. Augustine said:

“Let us rejoice then and give thanks that we have become not only Christians, but Christ himself. Do you understand and grasp, brethren, God’s grace toward us? Marvel and rejoice: we have become Christ.”

What a thing to rejoice over!  We become Christ so we share in the goodness of God.  The more we live out that communion and share in that union through acts which encourage communion and union, the more moral we become.  This is not because the acts are morally good, but because we live up to our nature and partake in God’s goodness — our being becomes good.

This contrasts greatly with Ockham’s and Luther’s nominalism, the rejection of universals.  In their nominalism there is no universal call to communion to live a moral life, but rather morality is found in following a particular set of rules laid down by God.  Goodness isn’t found in being in communion, but in the actions one does.

Let’s see how Catholicism and Nominalism play out in the above article.  In Catholicism rights are those freedoms necessary to living out our lives in conformity with our nature.  We have to have the freedom to accept communion with God and neighbor and the freedom to live out that communion.  Ms. Hunt is in trouble for hurting another (a breakdown of communion).  To be sexually active with someone too young to be capable of consent harms our neighborly relationship.  Further, by misunderstanding male and female, Ms. Hunt further ruptured proper communion by being sexual with a girl.

In contrast, Nominalism requires the freedom to live in accord with an abstract set of laws.  A right is that which guarantees this freedom.  Culture and interpretation can change what that set of laws includes.  Certainly Luther had a different abstract set of laws than some of the other Protestant reformers, as can be seen in the fact that Zwingli and Calvin both had differing ideas about the law of God in regards to the Eucharist.  What this means is that as society shifts, so too does our rights so that our rights can keep up with societies norms.  Our society has sexualized young children and in large part approves of homosexuality.  Hence the ACLU thinks Ms. Hunt would have a right to be sexually active with a female minor.  There is no communion she is required to live up to, but rather only the specifics of how she feels towards the minor child.