Against the Magisterium of Specialists

In the Church, specialists should not rule, but instead it is the bishops who should act as “experts of the whole.” But, in practice, they often abandon this duty.

Earlier this year, Cardinal Hollerich of Luxembourg claimed that the Church’s teaching on homosexual behavior was “false.” He explained that the Church’s understanding of homosexuality was wrong because the “sociological-scientific foundation of this teaching is no longer correct.” There are many, many things wrong with his statements, but I want to focus on one aspect: his appeal to the “social-scientific foundation” of teaching, for I think it reveals a problem with how we often articulate the Church’s teaching.

One could say that the modern world is dominated by a particular type of expertthe specialist. Years ago, the philosopher Paul Feyerabend wrote about the Galileo affair as an example of a conflict between two types of experts. On the one hand, there was the hero of Enlightenment history, Galileo Galilei, who championed the use of reason to understand the universe by dividing the physical world up into primary qualities—basically, anything that could be determined by mathematics—from everything else, and treating only those as properly being the subject of scientific knowledge. 

This is the great trade-off of modern science: precise, virtually unassailable knowledge about one limited aspect of the world, in exchange for the whole. As the atheist philosopher Bertrand Russell put it, “physics is mathematical, not because we know so much about the physical world, but because we know so little: it is only its mathematical properties that we can discover.” For the rest our knowledge is negative.

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The other type of expertise was represented in the Galileo affair by Robert Bellarmine. This type of expert, according to Feyerabend, was concerned with the whole of our knowledge, not merely bits and pieces of it. In this instance, he took Bellarmine’s caution with regard to modifying the Church’s stance on the Bible in light of Galileo’s findings to be an effort to safeguard the whole of the Church’s understanding about the role of humanity in the universe. In Feyerabend’s telling, Bellarmine was right to consider the impact Galileo’s findings might have on society and how his new findings might relate to the faith of the Church, since it represented a “wider point of view” about the world than the merely mathematical. 

Similar conflicts bedevil modern society. Take, for example, the very sensitive topic of human intelligence. There is a large and growing body of evidence that indicates that human intelligence is the result of genetic inheritance. To say the least, these findings are at odds with the notion of human equality which has dominated Western life since the 18th century. The response to these findings is often one of dismissal, as if they cannot be true; but, of course, one might reasonably ask whether mathematically measurable intelligence is the sole measure of human worth (it isn’t).

I mention all of this in the context of the Catholic Church because, for many decades now, it has embraced the findings of specialized experts as a guiding authority in presenting the Faith to the wider world. Though this has brought some benefits with it, I think this was a serious mistake. 

One can see why by comparing how the specialist idea of expertise became prominent within German Protestantism in the 19th century. German Liberal Protestant thinkers such as Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768-1834) pioneered what we now think of as modern biblical scholarship. Their idea was that a “critical” examination of biblical texts, using rigorous philological methods to investigate the meanings of words and texts in their immediate historical context alone, would yield more certain knowledge than that of traditional exegesis. 

One goal of this exercise was to overcome the divisions among Protestants. In effect, applying the methods of the new sciences to the Bible was supposed to yield a consensus that would obviate the need for an authority to settle disputes over the meaning of Scripture. In effect, it was intended as a replacement for the Magisterium which they rejected. 

Unsurprisingly, this project did not overcome such divisions among Protestants. Instead, it exacerbated them, creating the modernist-fundamentalist divide later in the 19th century. But something similar has happened to the secular academy over time as well. 

The founders of the modern university across Europe and America in the 19th century all replaced traditional curricula with a new emphasis on “research” in imitation of the natural sciences. All disciplines, whether or not they really were, aspired to become “scientific” in the sense outlined above. This is why, for example, at many universities today, history as a discipline is often listed under the “social sciences” rather than the humanities. Modern academic history is predicated on not being merely a true story about the past but a “science,” one marked by rigorous philological analysis and careful documentation of sources. 

The idea was that if every discipline conducted itself in this way, the emerging divide between the sciences and the humanistic disciplines would be overcome. The sum total of research by specialists would amount to truth. Anyone familiar with the Tower-of-Babel-like degree of specialization in our universities today knows how completely this endeavor has failed. The division between the “two cultures” as C.P. Snow called thembetween humanistic and scientific inquiryis greater than ever, and no one can tell you what all the specialized knowledge we have acquired about the world in the past 150-plus years amounts to. (That we do possess much greater knowledge today I do not dispute. Specialist knowledge is real, and necessary, even if it cannot replace a more holistic view of the world.)

It is a sad irony that, just as scholars were becoming aware of this failure, the Catholic Church embraced such expertise with abandon. Readers of Crisis Magazine likely know the devastating impact that psychological experts had upon religious life after Vatican II. While on the commission studying contraception in the 1960s, Cardinal Suenens of Belgium invoked the specter of Galileo to justify altering the Church’s teaching, pleading that scientific progress had made it untenable and urging his fellow bishops to “avoid another Galileo affair.” Cardinal Hollerich’s remark about the “social-scientific” failure of Church teaching is merely the latest assertion that specialist expertise of some kind has debunked fundamental aspects of the Faith.

Modern experts focus on the particular, the contingent, the concrete, which have their place in the life of the Church. But taking their assertions as automatically authoritative distorts the Faith by cutting it up into pieces and treating each in isolation. The truths of the Faith are a whole and cannot be separated. They must be believed as a whole or not at all. 

As Newman put it, for the believer, they “form one body one with another, so that to reject one is to disparage the rest…and which, do what he will, he cannot intelligibly separate.” The mania for adapting the Church to the present era by lopping off those parts of the Faith that don’t fit into contemporary categories, dividing the Faith up into those aspects that can be validated by sociological research and those that can’t, is the result of this over-reliance on specialist expertise.  

In the Church, it is the bishops who should act as “experts of the whole,” to use Feyerabend’s terminology. But, in practice, they often abandon this duty. Some seem to think that it is the role of specialists in theology to determine what the Church’s teaching is and that the role of the Magisterium is to rubber stamp their conclusions. Pope Francis’ attempt to describe doctrinal development on his flight back from Canada is a good example of this confusion:

It is consolidated over time, it expands and consolidates, and becomes always more solid, but always progressing. That is why the duty of theologians is research, theological reflection. You cannot do theology with a “no” in front. Then it is up to the Magisterium to say, “No, you’ve gone too far, come back.” But theological development must be open, that’s what theologians are for. And the Magisterium must help to understand the limits.

One might venture several criticisms of these remarks, but, for our purposes, the main problem with this way of viewing doctrinal development is that the Church already possesses the whole revelation of God, including what its limits are. We don’t need specialized research to find out. The bishops’ role is to safeguard this Revelation with the assistance of theologians, whose efforts are ancillary to this process. This understanding of the Faith makes it seems as if Revelation is so opaque as to be unknowable apart from the oracular findings of academic theologians and social scientists. 

Of course, many wish to portray the Church’s teaching on contraception or homosexuality as so difficult and obscure that only specialists can address them—so that they can hide their rejection of those teachings behind the authority of experts. But an excessive credulity concerning what expertise can and cannot do enables this.

It is the duty of bishops to resist this atomization of the Faith and not outsource their authority to experts as Cardinal Hollerich seemingly wishes to do. Preaching the Gospel of Jesus Christ does not consist in promoting the latest “findings” of social scientists as if they were on par with Revelation. It consists in proclaiming to the world without reserve “the whole counsel of God” (Acts 20:27).

[Photo: Cardinal Jean-Claude Hollerich, Archbishop of Luxembourg (Catholic News Agency)]

  • Darrick Taylor

    Darrick Taylor teaches history at Johnson County Community College in Overland Park, Kansas.

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