Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Abortion, faith, reason and morality

Werner Patel's post on free speech caught my attention for many reasons, but the main one is that he declares himself to be a Catholic. He doesn't toe the Catholic line on a host of issues, notably on abortion, but I'm not as concerned about that as he seems to be not very well-educated in his professed religion. I don't want to seem like I'm trying to put down the guy because he's writing in good faith But it pains me to see a Catholic put out opinions do not reflect an authentic Catholic education.

He writes:

Does life begin at conception? Does it begin a few months into the pregnancy? I really have no clue, nor does anyone else except the Almighty Himself. Since the Bible is not much help (e.g., due to major mistranslations and misinterpretations over thousands of years), we can only rely on our gut feeling or whatever it is we believe in terms of religion and/or morals.

"Relying on our gut feeling" is the antithesis of the Catholic worldview. Relying on one's gut okay for people who have no education and are brought up in solidly Catholic worldview and have nothing else to go on. But a higher standard is required of those who have education and the ability to think critically.

We as a society have to decide when a person comes into existence. That's a not a Catholic issue. It's not a Christian issue. It's a philosophical issue that every society must address, regardless of its religious roots (or lack thereof). "Relying on our gut" is not a good way to proceed. We have to be certain of our decision, otherwise, we may inadvertently be killing human beings.

From a religious perspective, it would be weird for God to give a commandment not to murder, but not give any indication as who is intended to be covered by that prohibition. Different versions of the bible have alternate readings or wordings. St. Augustine acknowledged this in The City of God. He believed that the two versions could be authoritative (he was especially thinking of the Hebrew versus the Septuagint text). How could he reconcile this? Because ultimately, the authority of the Bible isn't certified by itself, but by the Church, through which God intended the faithful know what is or is not true. It is the heart of the people, that is, the Church, that hands down the authoritative truth. A bible is a tool for that witness. It's a way to keep a record of Divine Revelation. But it does not produce the fruit of its own study. The role of discovering, knowing, preserving, teaching and expounding on the Truth falls to the Church, a role which was conferred by God through Jesus Christ.

The "mistranslations" issue is a red herring. The Early Church Fathers knew about them. Jerome translated the Bible from the original Hebrew. Origen, a third century Church Father, also studied in Hebrew, and Justin Martyr, a Samaritan, grew up in Israel. These were educated men, not Bible-thumping yokels. They were all cognizant of the fact that there were different translations of the Bible.

But because knowledge of the Truth rests ultimately on the authority of the Church,it's not essential that every Bible be a Xerox copy of the original. Sure, we want to get to the original text. But the dissemination of different translations doesn't destroy the credibility of the Christian faith.

The Bible was a widely circulated book. It was widely disseminated, and commented upon in countless writings. If anyone had attempted to mistranslate or misinterpret the Bible in a fashion that contradicted what the Church believed was true, there would have been an outcry. In fact, the gnostics did just that, and the early Church Fathers spent enormous amounts of energy combatting their errors. Through the study of the fathers and manuscripts, we know that all of the versions of biblical texts are sufficiently similar that whatever alternate texts do exist do not alter in any significant fashion the general gist of the text.

This is important because Biblical revelation not only consists of what was written down in the Bible, but what was understood to be true about it by the Church.

Since the first century, the Church has condemned all abortions. Even when there was a doubt as to when life begins (cf. St. Thomas Aquinas as his Aristotleian view), the unanimous consent of the Church was that it was always wrong. You will not find one mention of abortion in all the history of Church writing that says it's an acceptable practice, with the possible exception of when the mother's life is at stake.

He continues:

If the Bible is halfway correct, then people have been given a free will to make their own decisions -- right or wrong. In other words, we are all in charge of our lives and our actions. And if -- here we go again with "if" -- there's an afterlife the way Christians see it, the day will come when each and every one of us will have to answer for the life lived and actions taken.

If life actually begins at conception, and abortion is therefore equivalent to killing, then we're in no position to judge or condemn. The only one who can judge and condemn is the Almighty.

I think Werner is confused. We have free will. But that has nothing to do with standards of right or wrong. We're in charge of our actions, but we're not in making up standards of behaviour. And because each individual is responsible for his own behaviour, we can certainly judge his behaviour-- because changing it can be good for himself or for other. But we don't have the right to condemn him to hell for it. That's what is meant by not judging.

God doesn't give such a serious prohibition as "thou shalt not kill" then let people commit murder on the grounds that they're in charge of their own actions. A Catholic can know that abortion is wrong: through logic-- because human life begins at conception, and we may never take human life-- or through the constant witness of the Church.

Religion provides a lot of questions, but precious few answers.

I think that's a fairly shallow analysis of religious doctrine. Any religion, especially Catholicism, has answers on a whole range of moral beliefs. Sometimes the answer is "I don't know" or "it depends". But that doesn't mean that's always the answer.

It is therefore extremely wrong to use religion as an argument in secular matters, such as abortion, gay marriage, etc.

As I mentioned in another post, in a religion, there are natural truths-- those you can argue through reason-- and supernatural truths-- those that you can't. Moral behaviour is something you can argue based on reason alone.

Personally, we're all free to feel whatever we like about those issues, but government should never be permeated with those feelings. Doing so would set us on a course to becoming just as backward and crazy as those countries ruled by fanatic Islamists and imams.

Feelings are not what's at stake here: but truths. If governments were ruled by feelings-- anyone's feelings-- that would be chaotic. But the issue here is what is the truth about the taking of human life and the nature of marriage?
Those are two questions that every society has to address. Religious people may not be able to persuade those outside their faith with their Scripture, but they can certainly present a justification for their beliefs based on reason alone.

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