Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Can we know the truth about.....?

I've had a fascinating e-mail conversation with a person, not Catholic, about truth. She believes that because we are all fallible we can't know the truth, that truth changes over time, and that she has to simply go by her gut instincts about whether something is true or not for her at this point. We should just let each one make his own decision about what is true or not and not try to impose our ideas on others.

I was trying to make the point that we can know some truth, even though we are fallible. Further, that everyone, whether Catholic or atheist, tries to order society according to the truths we perceive. Therefore it is important to get at the truth as much as possible. She then asked me if I was uncomfortable with ambiguity. In answer I said, imprudently, "Depends on what you mean by ambiguous." Since the context of the conversation was St. Benedict and the Sex abuse scandal, I followed up the previous, admittedly tongue-in-cheek comment with the following:
Actually, this is what I think. I think the fact that we are all fallible doesn't mean we can't actually know that some things are true and/or false. For instance, I am sitting in a chair right now. I know that is true (David Hume be darned).
I think the level of certainty varies, and is probably less than many people thing, because life is complicated and we can't see all things at once. Besides, we tend to think irrationally a lot of the time. I think our feelings play an important role in deciding what is true and what is not (a 19th century theologian named Newman wrote a great book about this), but they are also fallible. I think when demonstrable facts contradict our feelings, it is because our feelings are misguided. I think we especially have to be careful in areas where we have strong feelings. The feelings may have a good basis for judgment in many cases, but they may cause us to make judgment where judgment is not justifiable.
For instance, I may be very angry at the Church for one reason or another. I am therefore predisposed to think the worst about a member of the Church, especially one who is high ranking. Benedict XVI, for instance. He may, in fact, stand for things I disagree with, or have done something in the past I think was despicable. For instance, he may have silenced a theologian I particularly like or think ought not to have been silenced. Or that silencing theologians is evil as such.
Now, the abuse scandal comes up. Terrible things are done by priests. Other priests and bishops cover up and lie and otherwise prevent justice from occurring. There is some evidence that Benedict, when he was Archbishop of Munich, may have been part of the problem (although it is only one instance and he wasn't the key player in the situation, whether he ought to have been or not).
Now, how does one judge, for instance, his role in the Milwaukee affair that came out in the NYT article the other day, which basically puts the blame on him and indicates that he has been a central part of the problem since 1981 when he took his position at the Vatican.
Okay, I'm mad at the Church and don't like Benedict. So, my emotions are predisposed to say to me, "Yeah,NYT--this guy is evil. You must be right"

What do the facts of the cases indicate. First, that in the Milwaukee case at least the onus of the responsibility rests squarely on Archbishop Weakland. And that Ratzinger's office at the Vatican did not impede the investigation. The evidence for this judgment is actually in the documentation provided by the NYT itself. http://corner.nationalreview.com/post/?q=ZDkxYmUzMTQ1YWUyMzRkMzg4Y2RiN2UyOWIzNDVkNDM=.

(Oh, by the way, I might see that this link goes to the NRO and automatically feel that it is untrustworthy--that is another example of the problem that feelings can cause in discovering the truth. The question is valid whether what Fr. D'Sousa says is true, but that has to be taken on an item by item basis; I can't simply say "It is in the NRO, therefore wrong.")

If the NYT said that Ratzinger impeded the investigation, that is not TRUE, no matter what my feelings about Ratzinger are, or whether he did something else evil in his life, or whatever. If my feelings are saying, "He impeded the investigation," then my feelings are off base.

And, more important, that Benedict appears to have been part of the problem at one time (although not a central part), but that at one point, in about 2001, he underwent a REAL change in his perspective and decide that something really had to be done to get this all out of the life of the Church. Since 2001 he has done more to make that happen than any one churchman, many of whom are still obfuscating and lying and preventing justice from being accomplished (like Cardinal Mahoney of L.A.). See this article, which, by the way, was written by a reporter for the National Catholic Reporter, which is almost invariably anti-Vatican in its perspective. http://ncronline.org/blogs/all-things-catholic/keeping-record-straight-benedict-and-crisis.

So, I may be justifiably mad at Ratzinger/Benedict about one thing or another, but this isn't one of the things I ought to be mad at him about. There are others prelates, such as Cardinal Law and Cardinal Maloney--and to a certain extent even John Paul II, who seems to have hesitated to act on the evidence, for example, in the Legionaries of Christ situation, whom I should be much more justifiably angry about.

This is why we should try to REDUCE ambiguity when we can to the extent that we can. We can't eliminate it and we are fallible, but we can reduce the extent of our fallibility.


Robert Gotcher said...

Her response was basically, "This is all rationalization."

Joe said...

Sigh. At some point, you just have to realize that there is no reasoning with some people. Hey, and I'm of a skeptical bent and I'm saying this!