Yesterday’s back and forth between NeoChal and I on the morality of artificial contraception raises for me an interesting question. How did the Fathers of the Church regard what today we would see as the findings of empirical science? When, in other words, the Fathers appeal to the scientific understanding of their era, do the see this data as normative or only illustrative? In other words, is a moral positions being advanced based on the best possible science of the day or do the Fathers simply appeal to that science to elucidate an moral argument?
This is important not only for the question of the morality of artificial contraception, but also those areas of the Church’s dogmatic tradition that touch on matters explored today by the natural, social and human sciences. Think about what it might me for a central dogma of the Christian faith, the Incarnation of the Second Person of the Holy Trinity in the womb of the Mother of God.
In the ancient world, the best science of the day understood reproduction in a as analogous to agriculture. The male implanted a child in the female much as a farmer would sow seed in a field. The womb was merely the receptacle of the semen and the female was either fertile or not in much the same way that soil was capable of sustaining a crop. In this model of reproduction, the idea of the Virgin conceiving without a human father for the Christ Child isn’t much of a stress. But is the dogma isn’t dependent on the science, even if the science of the time offered humanity a way of entering more deeply into an appreciative understanding of the mystery.
Returning to the realm of moral theology, those who dismiss the patristic prohibitions against contraception, or the biblical texts cited in against homosexual activity because these positions are based in faulty science are (I think) following into much the same error as I sketched out above. We ought not to confuse, much less reduce, dogmatic or moral truths to our explanation of the truth.
Clearly this is much easier to say then to do in practice. We often don’t come to realize that we have conflated dogma and its explanation until science (or philosophy) undergirding our understanding of the truth is challenged. Thinking about this a bit more, it seems to me that we must always be on our guard that we do not put our faith in the fruits of our own reason. Reason is, or at least, should be at the service of faith. Does this mean that faith trumps reason? I don’t think so since faith needs reason even as reason needs faith.
Commenting on Wisdom 9.11 (“Wisdom knows all and understands all”) the late Pope John Paul II argues in Fides et Ratio that what “is distinctive in the biblical text is the conviction that there is a profound and indissoluble unity between the knowledge (cognitio) of reason and the knowledge of faith.” The Pope continues by reminding his readers that the “world and all that happens within it, including history and the fate of peoples, are realities to be observed, analysed and assessed with all the resources of reason, but without faith ever being foreign to the process.” How is this possible? It is possible because “Faith intervenes not to abolish reason’s autonomy nor to reduce its scope for action, but solely to bring the human being to understand that in these events it is the God of Israel who acts.” For this reason, he conclude, “the world and the events of history cannot be understood in depth without professing faith in the God who is at work in them. Faith sharpens the inner eye, opening the mind to discover in the flux of events the workings of Providence” (#16).
What this means is that when the Fathers appealed to the best science of their day they were not confining the Mystery of Faith to the merely empirical, they were not arguing that faith was dependent upon human reason, much less scientific research. What were they doing then? I would argue that they were illuming science, putting it at the service of faith and, in so doing, making clear the necessarily limited character of not only science but human reason itself.
Often when people, in innocence and without a self-seeking motive, dismiss patristic moral teaching because it is based on faulty science, they do so because they fail to reckon with the provision nature of empirical, and especially experimental science. Even the best scientific research is only provisional and this not simply because ALL human knowledge limited, but because scientific research is predicated on the willingness of the scientist to critically re-evaluate and even challenge today what was yesterday’s newly discovered truth. Ironically, even if we do so without malice, when we reject patristic moral (or dogmatic for that matter) teaching because it is based on faulty science we inadvertently wed ourselves to what itself will one day be judged as faulty or deficient science.
That said, however, I do not think we can go “backwards.” We can’t come to the Fathers as if the intervening centuries and changes in human knowledge and understanding of ourselves and the natural world has not happened. To do this is to dishonor the work of the Fathers and their willingness to struggle with the great issues and thoughts of their day. More than that though, when I “flee” to the Fathers as if the intervening centuries had not happened, I reduce faith to merely history and strip it of its personal quality. How? By imagining that I can divest myself of my own time and culture and imagining—fantasizing really—that I am a Christian not on my own time, but of another.
But I here to tell you, this is the path of delusion, of prelast. I either stand before Christ as a man of my time, faithful not only to what has gone before, but also of what is here and now, or I do not stand before Him at all.