Monday, January 27, 2014

What is the Catholic Catechism's view of reason?

In a December 19, 2013 post here, I reviewed the Catechism of the Catholic Church as a book. In a January 15, 2014 post here, I provided my notes about the metaphysical principles that the Catechism teaches. 

The next level of the Catholic worldview is its epistemology. The Catechism devotes many paragraphs to describing and illustrating Catholic epistemology. The most educational approach to it is an inductive one: Consider a series of narrow subjects, one in each post, and then, at the end, summarize in a final post.

There are two major components of Catholic epistemology: mysticism and reason. The Catechism says much more about mysticism, in its many forms, than it says about reason. The relatively few paragraphs that discuss reason are indirect. They speak of the limitations of reason, some of its potential benefits, and some applications. They do not define reason. Nor do they provide clear guidance for deciding when to use reason and when to rely on mysticism for "knowing." Consider a few example points in the notes below.

1. KNOWING GOD. Paragraphs 36-38 assert several points about reason. Man does have reason, the Catechism says, but the Catechism does not here define it except by implication: Reason is a faculty of understanding things. First among the things reason can understand is God:

'… God…can be known with certainty from the created world by the natural light of human reason'. (par. 36, quoting Vatican Council I; also, par. 286)

(Elsewhere, however, the Catechism says God is ineffable. At par. 42, the writers of the Catechism say, "Our human words always fall short of the mystery of God. Quoting St. John Chrysostom (347-407), a passage in par. 42 says that God is "the inexpressible, the incomprehensible, the invisible, the ungraspable." Par. 230, in an "In Brief section," says (in part quoting Augustine [354-430]): 

Even when he reveals himself, God remains a mystery beyond words: 'If you understood him, it would not be God'."

Nevertheless, the Church, relying on revelation in holy scripture, does speak about God. For example, God is "abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness" (Old Testament, Exodus, Chapter 34, Verse 6).

At this point, we can summarize: the Catechism says reason can know God—at least his existence—through arguments (which the Catechism does not provide)—but he is ineffable to reason except by inference from observing God's creatures, though our words expressing what we "know" fail to convey meaning and we are left with mystery. This account of "reason" presents the reader with a tangle of contradiction: You can know God and you cannot know God.

2. KNOWING NATURAL (MORAL) LAW. Second among the things that man's reason can come to know is "the natural law [of morals] written in our hearts by the Creator." (par. 37, quoting Pope Pius XII [papacy, 1939-1958]) These natural laws for guiding our actions are innate ideas, though the Catechism does not use that term.

What are examples of these "natural [moral] laws"? The Catechism does not give examples, but, in one much later passage (par. 1955) the Catechism does say that natural law's "principal precepts are expressed in the Decalogue," that is, the Ten Commandments revealed by God in the Old Testament Bible

Why does the Catechism confusingly call revealed law "natural law"? The explanation is equally confusing: "This law [the Ten Commandments] is called 'natural', not in reference to the nature of irrational beings, but because reason which decrees it properly belongs to human nature." (par. 1955) That is, reason in man tells man to follow the laws which God "wrote" inside man. 

How do revealed laws come to be inside man? From the Bible "the law passes into the heart of every man who does justice, not that it [the law] migrates into it [the heart], but that it [the law] places its imprint on it [the heart], like a seal on a ring that passes onto wax, without leaving the ring." (par. 1955, quoting Augustine) 

The natural law is nothing other than the light of understanding placed in us by God; through it we know what we must do and what we must avoid. God has given this light or law at creation. (par. 1955, quoting Thomas Aquinas [1225-1274])

LIMITS TO REASON. How effective is reason, according to the Catechism? Quoting Pope Pius XII, the Catechism says:

…there are many obstacles which prevent reason from the effective and fruitful use of this inborn faculty. For the truths that concern the relations between God and man wholly transcend the visible order of things, and, if they are translated into human action and influence it, they call for self-surrender and abnegation. The human mind, in its turn, is hampered in the attaining of such truths, not only by the impact of the senses and the imagination, but also by disordered appetites which are the consequences of original sin. (par.37)

The Catechism, speaking by its own writers, then adds:

This is why man stands in need of being enlightened by God's revelation, not only about those things that exceed his understanding, but also 'about those religious and moral truths which of themselves are not beyond the grasp of human reason, so that even in the present condition of the human race, they can be known by all men with ease, with firm certainty and with no admixture of error'. (par. 38, again quoting Pope Pius XII)

Further supporting the idea that reason is capable but crippled is this passage:

The precepts of natural law are not perceived by everyone clearly and immediately. In the present situation sinful man needs grace and revelation so moral and religious truths may be known 'by everyone with facility, with firm certainty and with no admixture of error'.… (par. 1960, quoting Pope Pius XII)

HUMAN REASON AND DIVINE REASON. The Catechism speaks of "human reason" and "divine reason." They are not the same. God's reason is higher; we must submit our lower reason to God's reason, which we come to know through revelation. (par. 1954, citing Pope Leo XIII [papacy, 1878-1903])

SYNONYMS FOR REASON. At paragraph 286, for example, the Catechism speaks of "human intelligence." Possibly "understanding," used elsewhere, is also a synonym of reason.

CONCLUSION. Catholicism's epistemology is an elaborate Rube Goldberg machine. Its framework is philosophical skepticism—the notion that we can know little or nothing. That skepticism arises from the belief that reason is crippled. The engine that operates within the skeptical framework is a kluge of forms of mysticism. They will be identified in later posts.

Burgess Laughlin
Author of The Power and the Glory: The Key Ideas and Crusading Lives of Eight Debaters of Reason vs. Faith, described here:

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