Friday, August 31, 2018

Finnis contra Francis

Prof. John Finnis is the most eminent living “new natural law” theorist, and a longtime opponent of capital punishment.  Indeed, like other NNL writers, he regards capital punishment as always and inherently wrong, and believes that the Church could adopt this novel teaching.  You might think, then, that he would approve of Pope Francis’s recent revision to the catechism.  Not so.

In a recent article at Public Discourse, which is mostly devoted to defending the possibility of a change in teaching, Finnis makes some critical remarks about the recent revision.  Finnis believes that the revision did not in fact change Catholic teaching, though he thinks it did “create at least an impression of change.”  But he also thinks that it does so “in a form that obscures the one line of development that would, it seems, be authentic.”  In other words, though Finnis thinks the Church could change its traditional teaching, even he believes that the specific way that the revised language suggests such a change is not an “authentic” development of doctrine.

About Pope Francis’s address of October 11, 2017, wherein the pope first proposed a change to the catechism, Finnis has some harsh words:

[T]hat address is replete with untethered calls for doctrinal progress, and with assurances about consistency with “past teaching” that all ring hollow, offering quasi-arguments that seem at best question-begging and more likely just incoherent and unserious.  Behind such arguments, moreover, there becomes more and more evident an intent to smother key elements of the Church’s most constant and apostolic understanding of its moral teachings, elements reaffirmed most weightily only twenty-five years ago in Veritatis Splendor.

Thus [among] the main effects of the revision, given its ambiguities and, strictly speaking, unfruitfulness in doctrinal substance, seem likely to be [that]… widely felt uncertainties about the Church’s seaworthiness in faith and integrity of life will be exacerbated.

End quote.  One of Finnis’s objections to the revision, and to the CDF cover letter that announced it, concerns their “unwarrantable confidence” in certain empirical claims about what is sufficient in order to defend society.  Another and more important objection is that the documents put too much emphasis on human dignity and too little on “God’s absolute lordship over life and death.”  And that they do so in a way that seems to reflect secular rather than Catholic thinking.  Finnis writes:

By focusing all but exclusively on human dignity… this pair of documents arouses or reinforces, yet again, a serious misgiving. Is Christ’s Church coming to heel behind atheist or pantheist secular globalist powers, and agendas, that it would do well to desist from flattering? Does the adoption of these new formulations, silent about the teaching’s true sources (reverence for life, purity of intention, and divine lordship), prejudice the Church’s own dignity and authority and, worse, the integrity of its doctrine and life?

For we should be under no illusions: the organs of the European Council, the United Nations, and the European Union, unconcerned to exclude from human society all intent to kill, and disdainful of God’s lordship over life and death, are devoted to the opaque language of dignity. They deploy it constantly, bureaucratically, to promote their rejection of capital punishment but equally their indulgence towards euthanasia, suicide, and the many forms of anti-marital sex, and the radically unjust promotion of gender fluidity and same-sex parodies of marriage. And the educational institutions and programs they promote are nearly unanimous in denying or ignoring the justice of retribution, with its attention to the continuing and often justly decisive relevance of past deeds to present entitlement and conduct, attention and relevance essential to the truth of the Christian faith.

End quote.  When your apparent change to the Church’s teaching on capital punishment manages to outrage even those who have long wanted to change the Church’s teaching on capital punishment, you’ve got a problem. 

Finnis, with the late Germain Grisez, authored an appeal to Pope Francis to correct doctrinal errors that Amoris Laetitia appears to encourage.  Like all the other sober, respectful, and scholarly petitions that have been directed toward the pope over the last few years, it has been completely ignored by him.

I will have more to say about Finnis’s article in a forthcoming article of my own, which responds to the things Finnis says in criticism of my own views.


  1. Prof Feser

    Well it is fun that those of us who believe Francis is to ambigious here to have formally & clearly taught error to have on our "side"(in a loose evidential sense) someone who wants to change doctrine and thinks Francis has in fact failed to clearly do so.

    But with the current scandal going on I must channel my inner neo-Cato the younger and say "Benedict must speak" & further say I think CP is going to get zero attention till the scandal is sorted out one way or another.

    Cheers Dr. Feser.

    1. I couldn't care less about "fun" in this context, and whether the subject in question gets attention or not is irrelevant. What is relevant is what is in fact true, and what is true is always important, whether or not it happens to be the focus of current media attention, etc. This is a philosophy blog, not a controversy du jour blog, even if it sometimes addresses the latter.

      Having said that, it would in my view be naive to think that there is no connection between the way predatory perverts have been dealt with and the various doctrinal controversies. The same muddleheadedness, heterodoxy, irresponsibility, unseriousness, etc. is manifest in both cases.

    2. Don't worry Prof Feser I am not trying to change the topic of discussion here on the blog. I am merely realistically pointing out the petition to the Holy Father to clarify his teachings on CP beyond this blog isn't likely going to get any attention during this controversy IMHO.

      It has only been four or five days as of this post but I think there is a strong possibility Francis won't be Pope anymore sometime in the near future & sooner then we think (I could be wrong) and it will fall to who comes next to deal with it.

      That having been said it is fun to me that a guy who wants to change the Church's doctrine on CP(Finnis)doesn't think Francis has succeeded. You don't have to think that is fun. I do but then again I like watching Adam Sander movies so....ah...yeh.:D (one needs to keep up one's sense of humor in these dark times)

      There is likely some connection between the way predatory perverts have been dealt with and the various doctrinal controversies. Also it will be fun to read your take down of so called New Natural Law reasoning.

      Anyway Cheers again.

    3. "Sooner then [sic] we think..."
      Wishful thinking. None judges the Roman See, and if you watch the previews (I'm not a sadist, so I won't ask you to watch the film) of Wim Wender's "Pope Francis: A Man of His Word", you will come to realize that nothing but death, including probably a revelation from God, will loose that ring from his finger.

  2. "incoherent and unserious"

    Describes not just the catechism change, but Francis' whole pontificate.

  3. Keep up the great work. Looking forward to your response to Finnis.

  4. Note that the reason he doesn't think that the recent revision is a development is because he thinks that the 1992 Catechism had already developed the teaching. He thinks that the 1992 Catechism implies but does not explicitly teach that capital punishment is intrinsically immoral. The first of the two Public Discourse articles sets out his reading of the earlier Catechisms.

    To get his conclusion, I think Finnis just has to carve things up too selectively to offer a plausible reading. Compare the narrowness of his reading of the Waldensian oath to the expansiveness of his reading of the 1992/7 Catechisms.

    The Waldensians were asked to affirm the following: "Concerning secular power we declare that without mortal sin it is possible to exercise a judgment of blood as long as one proceeds to bring punishment not in hatred but in judgment, not incautiously but advisedly." Finnis says this does not rule out holding that capital punishment is intrinsically immoral because the Waldensians could have held consistently with it that secular rulers were subjective non-culpable in administering it. But that reading is mere legalism. Though the superficial grammar of the proposition suggests that the oath was about the subjective culpability of possible persons, it's clearly a precept, which is asking about the objective permissibility of an action, in abstraction from any mitigating factors.

    Compare that to his reading of the JPII Catechisms. There his evidence is that capital punishment has gathered under "legitimate defense" and that Aquinas is only quoted saying that death is permitted in self-defense when it is unintended. Yet the Catechism is still peppered with references to innocence; the thing is still referred to as "the death penalty" and as "execution of the offender"; and it is treated as a "way," that is to say a means, of protecting society.

    I think he has certainly uncovered the reading he would have to defend if the new natural law theory could be found compatible with the teaching there, but the text won't bear its weight. It is not an accident that no one who hasn't heard of the new natural law theory has read the text and come out with his interpretation.

    1. I find it astounding that serious and otherwise faithful Catholic philosophers were capable of spending all this time working up the theory of the New Natural Law and seem to have not noticed that taking the NNL in the direction they have means taking doctrinal teaching in favor of capital punishment in a sense contrary to the sense intended by 2000 years of Church teachers. Do they not remember that not only is doctrinal teaching to be upheld, but also that its meaning is not to be twisted to something different from its constant meaning down the centuries? Yes, they remember that when it comes to abortion and contraception, so what gives when it comes to capital punishment?

  5. At the end of the day , this is a matter of discipline ,not doctrine !!!! ....... and Prf John Finnis is griping over what isn't really his concern .

    Perhaps if the Dr was aware of the reality that church discipline can be lawfully altered , reversed , amended , abrogated , reaffirmed etc .. then he might not find himself at adds with Pope Francis very legitimate revision of the catechism

    When Prof Finnis becomes Pope , then he can make whatever provisions he feels is necessary . Until then he really aught to just take a valium or two , and just calm down .

    1. Perhaps he made a mistake because Francis failed to write the new rule into Canon Law, where you find disciplinary rules, and instead wrote it as a teaching. Of course, Francis is constantly making mistakes like that - like the time he tried to claim the Novus Ordo is infallible. I suppose Francis might have wanted to make a disciplinary change, but it seems to have escaped his notice that he did not actually enjoin any disciplinary change. SSHHHHH, don't tell him.

  6. Oxymoron, " **New** Natural Law theory". "New"? Then the old conception was never right? Do you even have the "natural law"?

    1. The theory was named by one of their critics, Russell Hittinger, which is why Finnis puts "New" in scare quotes. They think that their view is basically Aquinas's.

      (It is still "new" in the sense that even if they did read Aquinas correctly, the view would not have been held by anyone between Aquinas and Grisez.)

  7. I for one am fast losing patience with the disagreement, uncertainty & ambiguity as to what the Church does in fact teach. It *should* be enough to ask “What does the Pope teach ?” - but that itself is ambiguous, and needs to be interpreted by a competent authority. Such as the Pope. But the Pope does not explain his meaning.

    Catholics should not have put up with this constant flow of intellectual & spiritual diarrhoea. The heinous immorality of the hierarchy, the supposed teachers of the Church, and the back-stabbing in the Vatican, make the claims of the clergy for themselves impossible to take seriously.

    A drunkard who claimed to be reformed, but who constantly got sozzled, would not be believed; neither should the hierarchy be believed, when the bishops behave as atrociously they have, yet claim to be shepherds of the flock of Christ. There has to be a place for Christian behaviour even among the bishops.

  8. Dr. Feser,

    If you read Apologia pro Marcel Lefebvre, by Michael Davies, among other records of the post-V2 era, you will see that ignoring or dismissing erudite, respectful, and often heartfelt and urgent, appeals, is THE tactic adopted from right after Vatican II. It was a standard, virtually universally, applied, injustice. A contemptuous, violent (in the technical sense), injustice of approach.

    Francis is doing NOTHING new here.

    John Lane.

  9. Finnis is fond of the phrase "inherently wrong," by which I take him to mean "intrinsically evil." To achieve this conclusion (regarding the death penalty) he offers contentious readings of the Catechism, Evangelium Vitae, the Waldensian affair, and the statements of Pius XII. But it all really rests on his own conviction that an action taken by means of which you intend the death of another human being is always and everywhere (intrinsically) wrong. The modifier "innocent" is elided. It is no longer necessary. If he is right about this, he wins. And if he is right, consider the doctrinally culpable negligence of Cardinal Ratzinger who, in his memorandum to (ironically) Cardinal McCarrick, reminded us that "Not all moral issues have the same moral weight as abortion and euthanasia. For example, if a Catholic were to be at odds with the Holy Father on the application of capital punishment or on the decision to wage war, he would not for that reason be considered unworthy to present himself to receive Holy Communion." This was in 2004, well after the Catechism's promulgation. If the Catechism had indeed "developed" doctrine to the degree that public authority could never again intend the death of any human being, Ratzinger failed to notice, though he has never struck me as the inattentive type.

    And then I shudder to consider the millions of Christian warriors who throughout the ages have fought to save Christendom (in our own time, what's left of it) from its enemies, but must now be held complicit in numberless acts of intrinsic evil. The indictment is so massive as to be beyond contemplation. I suspect that the logical denouement of Finnis's position must be pacifism with regard to war (though I'm sure he would vehemently deny it), and relativism with regard to the sanctity of human life. I can't escape the conclusion that I should be no more troubled by the execution of an innocent in the womb than I am by that of a depraved murderer.

    1. Bill, I agree with your sense of this. I imagine that Finnis would respond with 3 arguments: (1) Those who are soldiers may contribute to combat that is defensive in nature, just as a person may engage in self-defense, because there the damage you do is "formally" intended to stop the attack, not to kill the unjust aggressor. (2) while the (old) Catechism can be read consistent with NNL, it is ambiguous and JPII was unwilling to be definitive about the matter. (3) While all killing is wrong, it is much more wrong to kill an innocent child than to kill a depraved murderer, and thus our intuition is preserved as to relative (de)merit of the two acts.

      I don't agree with these positions, as anyone who has read my posts knows. I believe (as did Elizabeth Anscombe) that there is something morally nutty in describing a soldier's action as "not intending to kill" the enemy when he slices the guy's head off or drops a 200 pound rock on him from 50 feet up. And the difficulty of reading the Catechism and EV as consistent with the NNL position, when it explicitly upholds the right of the state to execute criminals, is very severe - nothing they said makes their reading anything other than extremely odd and twisted.

  10. In the second of the two articles, Finnis makes this interesting comment:

    In that development, we should notice, nothing in the traditional teaching as such was reversed. What was reversed was a vast amount of practice that had been based on both an unawareness of the just-mentioned difference between senses of “religious liberty,” and a factual (so-called “prudential”) opinion that any and every religion that is false will constitute a threat to public order (including always the rights of others), if not by the falsity of one or other of its moral teachings then at least by inculcating disloyalty to any political community that officially or as a matter of predominant social practice adheres to the moral and other tenets of the true religion. And that now-rejected factual opinion/prediction could, with further historical experience, be modified or even reversed without reversing or even modifying either the first four traditional teachings, or the fifth teaching, articulated by Vatican II.

    Note that he explicitly allows for the possibility that the current general opinion in the hierarchy that public order does not require suppression of anti-Catholic behavior, religious practices, or teachings, and therefore government suppression of them is immoral - to a reversion to the former opinion that suppression is needed for public order.

    One might well be pilloried for pointing out in public circles how the failure to suppress anti-Catholic behavior, religions, and teachings HAS IN FACT damaged public order (to the tune of billions of abortions, just to pick one small facet of public order). But what is more interesting is that while not more than 2 bishops in 10 at Vatican II imagined the possibility that the Vatican would, subsequent to the approval of Dignitatis Humanae, demand the suppression of state constitutions that provided for Catholic states; whereas today, only 50 years later, not 2 bishops in 10 imagine that Catholic doctrine could countenance that state constitutions might rightly and properly provide for Catholic states. So, while Finnis is right that technically speaking the newer teaching allows for making a distinction between one sense of "religious liberty" that is invalid and another sense of religious liberty that is valid, in a practical sense the "teaching of Vatican II" on this turns out to have been - like we see so often - to sow confusion where it was unnecessary and where the truth was more accessible before than after. It is troubling to refer to this as "development" of doctrine. I would suggest going back to Leo XIII and carefully reading his encyclicals, and those of Pius X, XI, and XII, because whatever is true in Dignitatis Humanae is present already in those other teachings, and is present in the earlier works more clearly and with less confusion than it is present in DH. "Development" indeed.

  11. Beautifully put, Tony.

    Now, can the Catholic Church, pillar and ground of truth, animated by the Spirit of Truth Himself acting as the Soul of the Mystical Body, behave this way?

    Is it not entirely traditional and in accord with Holy Writ, in which Our Saviour instructs us to fly, in our weakness and humility, from wolves in the clothing of sheep, to avoid such bishops and their pernicious doctrine, as traditional Catholics do?

    Further, is it not wonderful to enjoy all of the traditional goods of the Church unsullied, whilst being untroubled by the passive-aggressive persecution of such Modernists? Yes, it is, I can testify from 30 years of experience!

  12. "I imagine that Finnis would respond with 3 arguments: ...While all killing is wrong, it is much more wrong to kill an innocent child than to kill a depraved murderer..."

    No doubt he would, but we already knew that intentionally killing the innocent was a graver crime than executing the guilty before Finnis discovered this 'development of doctrine.' The problem (as I see it) is that he oughtn't be allowed to keep this precious distinction. If it is intrinsically evil to intend the death of any human being, then the child's innocence - though it may pull at our heartstrings - becomes irrelevant. Our solicitude for it loses its moral force. A human being is a human being, and these are matters of life and death. The perpetrator of either act may find himself bound for hell.

    If Finnis is right, his position is a truth of the natural law. The more you think about it, it is a truth that should have been rather obvious to a 2,000 year parade of the most eminent Catholic thinkers, and yet it was not (as far as I know). You'd think that this would bother Finnis, but it doesn't seem to.

    Btw, I can think of an argument against the death penalty (one that I hope cannot hold up), but it isn't based on any of the grounds put forth by Finnis or Francis the Merciful.

  13. It would seem that based on traditional theology, and no definitive revelation to the contrary since, that Pope Francis is simply wrong. I realize this is simplistic in a sense, but then a lot of truth is. From King David to St. Paul to St. Thomas Aquinas, the burden is on those who deny the legitimacy of capital punishment. As for the teaching authority of the Pontiff, Church history is replete with Popes who have exceeded both their competence and authority to make statements that would be regarded today as most erroneous.

  14. Prof.feser recently the objectivist Dawson Bethrick responded to your post regarding ayn rand it seems to me that his criticisms are very confused let me quote the following to indicate that thats the case ''Feser continues:
    This is, for the Thomist, one reason (not the only one) for insisting on the real distinction between essence and existence.
    Then Rand has at least one very good reason for denying the Thomist distinction between essence and existence!

    Feser goes on:
    To deny the real distinction tends either to collapse essence into existence or collapse existence into essence.
    No, it doesn’t, and Feser’s mere assertion that it does, does not constitute a proof that it does. Again, existence is metaphysical, essence is epistemological – having to do with completing the formation of concepts by identifying the essential characteristic(s) distinguishing one class of units from all other classes through the process of definition. Again, we need an objective theory of concepts to understand these complex relations, but where does Catholicism give us any theory of concepts, let alone an objective theory of concepts? Blank out.'' , ''The supposition that such a metaphysical dichotomy exists arises, so far as I can tell, as a result of failing to distinguish between what exists from how we know. Given the primacy of existence, the processes by which man conceptualizes what he finds in the world cannot overwrite the nature of what he finds in the world.

    Given the primacy of existence, one of Rand’s hallmark achievements, theism has lost the battle once and for all. Given the fact that existence holds metaphysical primacy over conscious activity, there’s no room for a metaphysics of ‘wishing makes it so’. Theism has no objective basis to enter any philosophical contest against the primacy of existence. I think Rand considered this obvious if not self-evident, given her grasp of what the primacy of existence means for philosophy in particular and human cognition in general. But it will likely take other thinkers a brutal degree of self-honesty to reach the level of understanding that was basic to Rand’s worldview, a degree which most thinkers will ditch at the first sign of threat to their allegiance to mystical views.'' im wondering what is your opinion on all this and will you make a blog responce ?