Monday, October 10, 2016

Commentary on Anne Stensvold's History of Pregnancy in Christianity

Madonna del Parto Unknown Master, Italian (late 15th century in Valsesia)

Rather than write a book review, which would require more time than I care to spend on this blogpost, I thought I'd comment on one aspect of the book.

The History of Pregnancy in Christianity is an attempt to discuss the Christian conceptualization of pregnancy throughout the ages, viewed through a doctrinal lense.

Anne Stensvold is a feminist professor of religion, and the book is the exercise in Church-bashing that you would expect it to be. If I had the time, I would love to refute all her false statements (including some pretty serious errors-- Pope Benedict XIV was not pope in 1768...). But I have other projects.

The book is not all bad, but one of its most galling aspects is the way it does history by deduction. What do I mean by that? In history, when you make assertions about the past, you are expected to back it up. If I say "King Henry VIII rejected papal supremacy because he was a Protestant", then I would normally have to provide evidence of his Protestant leanings. I deliberately used an ambiguous example like King Henry VIII because he wasn't exactly Protestant-- at least not in the beginning. Sure, he rejected papal supremacy, but overall his religious beliefs were fairly conservative. A serious student of history would be expected to prove and elaborate on such statements as I just did. But, the deductive method of history I'm criticizing, it's assumed that because Henry VIII rejected papal supremacy, that effectively made him a Lutheran or a Calvinist. It operates on a non-existent dichotomy: if this, then that.  No proof is required to bolster that claim.

Stensvold does this all the time in her book. I want to focus on an example that drove me nuts: her discussion of Pope Pius IX and his definition of the Immaculate Conception. In summary, she writes: During the 19th century, scientists were making important advances in learning about the beginning of life. Karl Ernst von Baer discovered the mammalian egg. Scheleiden and Schwann developped cell theory. The egg was becoming more important in embryology. So what does Pope Pius IX do? Define the dogma of the Immaculate Conception. As she puts it, he did it to show his contempt of modern science. He believed in an Augustinian/Aristotelian view of biological development in which the life-force came from seed, and in order to preserve that patriarchal worldview on reproduction, he discarded Thomistic views of biological development (which were closer to the epigenetic views under development!)

What evidence does she provide for Pope Pius' thought process regarding the Immaculate Conception and its relation to embryology?

Absolutely none.

It's just assumed that Pope Pius' definition of the Immaculate Conception was in reaction to the recent developments in embryology. I suppose it could be true, but I doubt it. But it seems like every statement regarding Catholic doctrine is viewed through a conspiratorial lens: it was either done in contempt of science, or women, or to preserve its tenuous justification.

And by the way, Thomistic views of biological development were Aristotelian, so... she somewhat contradicts herself.

Another example of her history-by-assumption: Science discovered a greater role for the egg in reproduction. That means that Mary should have played more of  role in the Incarnation. Instead, the Immaculate Conception made Mary more god-like (sigh, I know) and Jesus less human-- because his humanity was dependent on hers. Thus she was pushed out of the picture, made less important in the Incarnation

It drives me nuts. What direct textual evidence does she offer for this Catholic thought process? None.

You get the picture.

And by the way, the egg was already very important in reproductive science. Karl Ernst von Baer discovered the mammalian egg but the egg was thought to have already been discovered by Regnier de Graaf in 1672 (he only discovered the follicle around the egg). Ovism was the predominant theory of generation until the 19th century. So if the Church had wanted to act against the predominance of the egg in reproductive theory, it would have done so in the age of ovism. Which it didn't. Because it wasn't a threat in the least. In fact, its first propagator was Nicolas Malebranche, a priest, and a number of Catholic priest-scientists like Spallanzani adopted it.

And the fact that the egg was discovered to play a role in reproduction has no bearing on this doctrine. The whole point of a miracle like the Incarnation is that it defies the laws of science. Science can have an effect on theology, but it wouldn't have any effect on supernatural mysteries.

A book review would not have done justice to all the fallacious statements made in the book, which is why I just focused on a couple. I will credit her with understanding a number of theological concepts that most people don't get. The problem is that as a feminist, she studies social conservatives with contempt. And when you study with a view to contempt, you can't properly understand your subject. You study to react, to assign responsibility, to blame, not to understand.