Thursday, 3 June 2010

On Authority IV

In the field of science that I work in it’s a lot of hard work to refute erroneous theories and studies once they get established in the literature. The fact that it is such hard work and that the kudos for demolishing false theories tends to be much lower than that available for creating new theories or buttressing established theories, tends to lead to the situation that rubbish is just left to die a natural death rather than being killed off promptly. Of course, reputations get established on the top of nonsense, and these erroneous theories often have to wait for the passing of their creators before they themselves get consigned to oblivion. The trouble is, when public health policy becomes involved, these erroneous theories lead to irrelevant or just plain damaging consequences. Bad science does kill people.

The same would appear to be true in dogmatic theology. Although, in principle, erroneous science would appear to be easier to refute (after all, to be optimistic for a moment, if it is irrefutable it cannot be science), errors in dogmatic theology are exposable and yet many theories seem to live on in a zombie existence long after they have been torn to shreds. One of the things that struck me very forcibly whilst reading Feingold’s book was how the huge problems of de Lubac’s theory of the supernatural were identified pretty much as soon as the ideas appeared. Why then does such a theory live on? One might make similar comments about Rahner’s idea of the transcendental existential. Perhaps it is simply due to the intrinsic seductiveness of the ideas and to the fact that few are intellectually equipped to actually understand the problems. Perhaps, as well, we are looking at the collapse of the idea of theological authority.

If one approaches a new idea from the point of view of the deposit of faith interpreted in the light of the perennial philosophy, then (and again, I’m being optimistic here) one might realistically hope that a deductive proof of the truth, falsity, fittingness or inconsistency of the new idea might be amenable. However, if hermeneutical principles are themselves disputed, then pretty much anything goes.

Ecclesiastical authorities rarely step in to theological disputes; and when they do these days there tend to be howls of indignation from those academic theologians who consider their intellectual freedom to be under attack. And yet perhaps in these days we do need the Magisterium to say more through its positive affirmation of the deposit of faith and through the condemnation of error. It’s perfectly reasonable to ask whether seemingly abstruse theological arguments actually have any effect on “ordinary people” at all and therefore why not just let erroneous theology fade into the sunset. But ideas have consequences; these erroneous ideas become simplified and popularized and they do influence ordinary folk. Lives are at risk with bad science but souls are at risk with bad theology.


  1. We like your blog.

    Jackie and myself are "ordinary Catholics" - we think!

    Your blog is everyday reality, we think that theology has meaning when it leads us to the common good in our every day lives.

    Pax, Paul & Jackie

  2. Hello Paul & Jackie, welcome to the cave. Thank-you for your kind words.

    I found your blog a little while ago; it looks excellent!