Tuesday, September 27, 2005

The National Catholic Op-Ed Page

First Amy the Fair, and now John the Master....

Allen's on in today's New York Times, reinforcing the point that Roman law is, well, Roman law.
Although this is a difficult point for many Anglo-Saxons to grasp, when the Vatican makes statements like "no gays in the priesthood," it doesn't actually mean "no gays in the priesthood." It means, "As a general rule, this is not a good idea, but we all know there will be exceptions."

Understanding this distinction requires an appreciation of Italian concepts of law, which hold sway throughout the thought world of the Vatican. The law, according to such thinking, expresses an ideal. It describes a perfect state of affairs from which many people will inevitably fall short. This view is far removed from the typical Anglo-Saxon approach, which expects the law to dictate what people actually do.

While Italians grumble about lawlessness, fundamentally they believe in subjectivity. Anyone who's tried to negotiate the traffic in Italian cities will appreciate the point. No law, most Italians believe, can capture the infinite complexity of human situations, and it's more important for the law to describe a vision of the ideal community than for it to be rigidly obeyed. Italians have tough laws, but their enforcement is enormously forgiving. Not for nothing was their equivalent of the attorney general's office once known as the Ministry of Justice and Grace.

The British historian Christopher Dawson has described this as the "erotic" spirit of cultures shaped by Roman Catholicism. Catholic cultures are based on the passionate quest for spiritual perfection, Dawson writes, unlike the "bourgeois" culture of the United States, which, shaped by Protestantism and based on practical reason, gives priority to economic concerns. As one senior Vatican official put it to me some time ago, "Law describes the way things would work if men were angels."

So much for the vaunted "nuclear option."

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5 Comments:

Blogger John Hearn said...

But then we still don't know just how seriously Rome is going to take its own "angalic" standards. It may will be that the nukes will still fall.

27/9/05 16:16  
Blogger patrick said...

If John Allen's interpretation is correct, then some dioceses/religious orders and some seminaries will not detonate the nukes in the first place, though a few might.

I have heard this constrast between Roman law and Anglo-American law before. The question that I have, and that only a canonist could answer I suppose, is how one tells the differene between a law that assumes that there will be unwritten exceptions in which the strict letter of the law would not apply versus a law that is an exceptionless norm, i.e., no females can be validly ordained.

27/9/05 16:24  
Blogger Jeff said...

Hmm. I wonder how "Roman" say Pius XII (a REAL Roman) or Pius XI were in their enforcment of canon law, or how much of a laxist St. Pius X was.

I think there is a grain of truth in this sort of analysis of Italian cultural attitudes, but that does not mean that there is some kind of principle in Roman law that doesn't demand adherence. Nor does the piece really try to differentiate the two. I think it's basically an attempt at apologetics: "Why we shouldn't have to do what we don't want to do."

27/9/05 17:46  
Blogger RC said...

Patrick wonders:

how one tells the difference between a law that assumes that there will be unwritten exceptions in which the strict letter of the law would not apply versus a law that is an exceptionless norm, i.e., no females can be validly ordained.

Well, I'm not a JCL, but let me propose this as a start: when the validity of sacraments would be threatened by an exception, the law requires strict compliance.

27/9/05 19:02  
Blogger Shaun G said...

I don't know what Vatican John Allen is talking about, but it bears little resemblance to the Vatican (and the Pope Benedict) I know:

Understanding this distinction requires an appreciation of Italian concepts of law, which hold sway throughout the thought world of the Vatican. The law, according to such thinking, expresses an ideal. It describes a perfect state of affairs from which many people will inevitably fall short. This view is far removed from the typical Anglo-Saxon approach, which expects the law to dictate what people actually do.

While Italians grumble about lawlessness, fundamentally they believe in subjectivity.


Allen suggests that the Vatican is influenced by Italian legal concepts, which, later in his essay, he says are influenced by Catholicism itself. Kind of a round-about way for the Vatican to be influenced, but whatever.

Now, on the face of it, the way Allen describes the Italian "law as ideal" concept isn't strikingly out of line with Catholicism. Catholics acknowledge that we all sometimes fall short of the ideal (the life of Christ), but that because of the forgiveness God offers us through Christ, we can still be sanctified. But here's where he errs: He isn't saying that falling short of the ideal is anticipated and forgivable -- he's saying that falling short of the ideal is anticipated and, depending on one's circumstances, the real ideal.

Red flag! Red flag! When Allen says this way of thinking is grounded in a fundamental belief in subjectivity, it should be a key indicator that the concept is really just relativism in disguise. (Not a very elaborate disguise, at that — more like Superman wearing glasses.) And as we all know, relativism is not exactly core Catholic doctrine. In fact, in the opening Mass of the conclave this spring, Pope Benedict (then Cardinal Ratzinger) singled out relativism as the greatest contemporary threat to the Christian faith.

In effect, Allen is saying that the Church is presenting a rule as an ideal, with the expectation that the rule will be subverted, and that in at least some such cases, the subversions will be justifiable, or permissable, or at least tolerated.

But if, in some cases, the subversion of the formally propagated ideal is in fact the true ideal, doesn't that suggest that the formally propagated ideal isn't actually ... ideal? I mean, ideals, by their very nature, are objective. So if you arrive at a case where an ideal is not always ideal, then it's not truly an ideal to start with.

Better to replace what Allen implies is the ideal ("no gays in the priesthood") with an objective ideal that has no justifiable, permissable, or tolerable exceptions: chastity.

When you consider the ideal as chastity, there is no need for subversion. Seminaries could then deny those applicants (whatever their sexual orientation) who do not seem like they assent to Church teachings about sexuality and could live chastely in a formation environment, and they could admit those applicants who seem like they do agree with Church teachings and can indeed live chastely.

Now, might it be the case that only a small percentage of those applicants who self-identify as gay would pass this test? Perhaps. And if that is the case, then yes, "no gays in the priesthood" could be considered a type of general rule — but not an ideal, in the Allen sense. General rules have exceptions. Ideals don't.

28/9/05 11:46  

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