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Silenced by the Vatican

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William Crawley | 18:32 UK time, Saturday, 13 November 2010

An Irish Catholic priest has been effectively silenced by the Vatican. His crime? He argued, in an article in a Catholic religious journal, that homosexuality "is simply a facet of the human condition". Capuchin priest Fr Owen O'Sullivan published his article, titled "On Including Gays", in the March edition of The Furrow, but the priest's thoughts have proven too radical for the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith which is headed by american Cardinal William Levada (pictured, right).

As Patsy McGarry reports in today's Irish Times, "the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith at the Vatican contacted the Capuchin secretary general in Rome with an instruction Fr O'Sullivan was no longer to write for publication without first having his articles approved by it." Presumably this means that Fr O'Sullivan is "free" to continue publishing articles as long as he maintains the party line on controversial issues. Patsy's article is headed "Priest banned from writing", and pedants will question the literal accuracy of that headline. But the CDF's intervention certainly represents a serious limitation on this priest's freedom to publish his own ideas or to question traditional orthodoxies.

Traditionalists will say this is precisely the point of the CDF: to protect and defend the Church's historic teaching. Obedient speech, rather than free speech, they will tell us, is -- or should be -- the calling of a priest. Others will be both surprised and angry that, in the 21st century, a priest has been effectively silenced in a draconian response by the Vatican.

Still other commentators will ask more fundamental questions about the action of the CDF: how can this body respond so swiftly, and so severely, to a priest who writes a theological commentary piece about human sexuality but take so long, if at all, to respond to priests accused of child sexual abuse? The CDF's treatment of Owen O'Sullivan (pictured, left) will inevitable have some asking if free thought a greater crime in the Vatican than child abuse.

But how will lay Catholics in Ireland respond to an intervention by the Vatican which denies a priest the right to publish or broadcast his own ideas without the approval of a superior in Rome? Will Catholics regard this as an outrageous anachronism, an assault on one man's freedom to exercise his God-given intelligence? Will any of Fr O'Sullivan's parishioners -- or brother-priests -- step forward to speak up for a man who has been silenced? Or will the silencing of Owen O'Sullivan be greeted with widespread indifference by the Catholic faithful?

We wait to find out.

Additional resources
Read excerpts from Owen O'Sullivan's article "On Including Gays".
Read "Where are the Priest-Prophets?", a previous Furrow article by Owen O'Sullivan, in which he invites a prophetic re-examination of some of the most controversial issues facing the church and the world today.


  • Comment number 1.

    In http://www.womenpriests.org/teaching/osulliva.asp Fr O'Sullivan makes many good points which, not unpredictably, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) would object to. On the subject of celibacy he writes:

    "The arguments for change on celibacy seem to have won the intellectual battle and are reinforced by the evidence on the ground."

    On the use of condoms he writes:

    "It may be, in some cases, the more responsible thing to do." Interestingly, he points out that the world's population is growing at a rate of 1.5 million a week.

    He deals with many subjects in his article, including the scourge of paedophile priests, in a way that simply does not toe the Vatican line. That decent priests do not speak out is no surprise. Only blind faith could make a Catholic not see the perversity of the CDF's decision to effectively censor Fr O'Sullivan.

  • Comment number 2.

    Thanks Newlach - I was about to say there's more to this heretic than just one article. About time to the CDF took some action. Hopefully the likes of Iggy O'Donovan can be silenced as well.

    Of course they can always show some integrity and leave the Church since they so clearly don't agree with many of her teachings. But then dissenting Catholics get a lot more free publicity from the likes of William than Protestants who share the same opinions.

  • Comment number 3.

    Heretic? The true heretics of your Church are the abusers, those that cover them up and lay catholics who turn a blind eye. They are the ones that will slowly unravel the Catholic Church in Europe and North America. An organisation is only as strong as its weakest members and the Catholic Church has many weak members. Instead of seeking them out and cleansing the Church they've sanctioned the abuse by allowing it to continue and swept it under the mat- or should I say mitre. You talk of integrity. Selective aren't you.
    And you mention publicity. It doesn't work the same way for a Church as it does an actor. The phrase bad publicity is still publicity doesn't have quite the same bums on seats, box office effect

  • Comment number 4.

    Ryan - I know you enjoy these ongoing rants but it doesn't change the meaning of words, heresy is false teaching and child abuse and hiding it is sin.

    As for "an organisation is only as strong as its weakest members" I really doubt that that is the case.

    How many organisations allow their officers to speak openly against the policy of the organisations? When a priest is "silenced" we get the William's outrage; when a politician loses the whip for disagreeing with his party we get silence; civil servants can't even write letters to the newspapers on public issues. Is there any major organisations which allows its officials to publicly attack it?

  • Comment number 5.

    Yes there was one huge organisation which allowed its members to attack it, MCC. It was called Vatican II Council.

    Yet again your posts belie a deep seated insecurity. Silence them! Get them out!

    Grow up for goodness sake.

  • Comment number 6.

    This is not all that surprising. CNN broadcast a documentary some time ago 'What the pope knew'. It came to a similar conclusion, i.e. that pedophile priests could carry on for years but those who broke the party line (in case of the CNN documentary it was fr Thomas J. Reese, editor-in-chief of America Magazine) were swiftly dealt with.

    The documentary is online, the relevant part of it is at


  • Comment number 7.

    Mccamely, what can be a better description of false teaching than teaching one thing and practicing another. Teaching should be practiced if it's to be taken seriously.There have been occasions when I've thought after reading your posts that this is all a rather clever subterfuge. What better way to undermine the Catholic Church than to extol the extremes, its arrogance and lack of compassion. Who needs enemies when the Catholic Church has you championing it. If you really can't see the damage of your views in comparison to let's say- Romejellybeen, then there really is no hope for you. You are as morally bankrupt and removed from the rest of society as those cancerous elements of the church heirachy that are emotionally dead to the damage abuse has caused, who sought to hide it and prayed it to go away but were too morally and spiritually weak to confront it head on and root it out.

    You talk of ranting. Do you even know the etymology of the word? A group associated with the Levellers & Diggers in C17th Britain who "held the common belief that England had become subjugated by the "Norman Yoke." This legend offered an explanation that at one time a golden Era had existed in England before the Norman Conquest in 1066. From the conquest on, they argued, the "common people of England" had been robbed of their birthrights and exploited by a foreign ruling class"

    Sounds rather familiar doesn't it, to many attitudes here today.

  • Comment number 8.

    mccamleyc writes; "But then dissenting Catholics get a lot more free publicity from the likes of William than Protestants who share the same opinions."

    Christopher, I'm not sure what "the likes of William" means, but it is perfectly appropriate to cover this story on a blog of this kind. Just as it was appropriate to cover the spat between the former Church of Ireland dean of Clonmacnoise, Andrew Furlong, when he faced heresy charges before a church court. I was present in the court to cover that short-lived trial, and I interviewed the dean at least three times.

    If any Protestant church similarly silences one of its clergy, I promise you I'll cover that story too.

  • Comment number 9.

    PeterK - you're recommending CNN for an opinion on the Pope? Like I'm going to do. Repeating a lie - that the Pope covered up child abuse - doesn't make it true - it just makes the liars bigger liars.

    As for the jumping into action to deal with Reese - like how long did it take, forty years?

    William - I know people hate being banded together in "people like you" statements. My point about Protestants wasn't that you and other media don't cover stories about Protestants who are silenced by their ecclesial communions, my point was that identical statements issued by Protestants and dissenting Catholics are treated differently and that the dissenting Catholics know this. They lack the integrity to leave and present their views outside. They want to stay even though they know their views are not in accordance with body they claim to be a member of. They lack integrity.

  • Comment number 10.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 11.

    "Others will be both surprised and angry that, in the 21st century, a priest has been effectively silenced in a draconian response by the Vatican"

    Angry yes, but I rather agree with Peter, hardly surprised.

  • Comment number 12.

    Not surprising at all,

    As one previous fly in the catholic churches ointment once said reason is the enemy of faith.

    If you want to control people the last thing you want is for them to think for themselves, they might discover the truth.

  • Comment number 13.

    The control and actions excerised by the Vatican is so far removed from the Word of God that it beggars belief that people still trust in it.

  • Comment number 14.

    Who would want to be part of such a draconian, backward organization as the Catholic Church anyway??? Thankfully within the next 3 generations religious belief will be the minority, possibly dying out all together. Belief in a supremem being was the first answer our ancestors could come up with to explain the things around us. Earthquakes?? God must be angry! But now that we have the answers, Earthquakes?? Rupture of geological fault! The sooner religion is consigned to the history books the better! I watched a documentary recently with the Vaticans media puppet Mthr Theresa (who for the last 4 decades of her life didn't actually believe) saying "Ireland should ban abortions and condoms!" What a loony! Who gives her the right, this presumed virgin, to offer social commentary on something she has no experience of?? It's crazy! But sums up the iron fisted and totally misguided rule of the Vatican.

  • Comment number 15.

    rogers1892 (@ 14) -

    "Belief in a supremem being was the first answer our ancestors could come up with to explain the things around us."

    And your evidence for this assertion is??

    I would be most interested to see your evidence, especially considering that you were not there at the time when this 'idea' was supposedly first dreamt up.

    (Remember: evidence is what I am asking for - not assumptions, assuming you understand the difference between the two, which I'm tempted to doubt, judging by the rather low intellectual content of your post).

    "Thankfully within the next 3 generations religious belief will be the minority, possibly dying out all together."

    Well, would ya believe it! We have a prophet here. Funny, but I didn't think atheists believed in prophecy. Isn't it nice to learn something new every day?!

    Not only can rogers peer into the distant past with such assurance, he can also tell us what the future holds. Lottery numbers for Wednesday possibly, rogers?

  • Comment number 16.

    mccamleyc, there's an old assertion that, when posted on the internet, it is impossible to seperate fundamentalism from satire. Good to see further reinforcement of that. Someone said of the US, 'I love my country; therefore, I reserve the right to criticise her incessantly.' America's strength in this area is your church's weakness.

    LSV, you surprise me. Since when were you so concerned with evidence? The man fails to preface his opinions as such, but it's a fairly common view that religions arose to provide authoritative answers to troubling questions.

    Which leads me to my point. Why is anybody surprised that the Catholic Church prioritises its authority over the right answer? It has centuries of prior form on this...Galileio being the obvious example.

  • Comment number 17.

    sean -

    Well well well! Look who's popped up again: Mr 'Subjective Logic'. Oh, I am quaking in my boots at your reappearance (not!). It really is a bit of a laugh for someone who doesn't even believe in the objective validity of logic to start lecturing me about evidence!!

    I have always been concerned about evidence, and I challenge you to find ONE post of mine that contradicts that position. Go on. Instead of trying to pull the wool over people's eyes, allow me to call your bluff. C'mon then, put your cards on the table, because I'm not folding (if you know what that poker term means).

    "...it's a fairly common view that religions arose to provide authoritative answers to troubling questions."

    It's a 'fairly common view' among many billions of people that God is real. But I well imagine that in your benighted, confused, conceited and prejudiced world, the views of such people 'don't count'.

  • Comment number 18.

    LSV is right, majority opinion and consensus don't make a theory or point of view either valid, or correct. There have been many, many studies on the origin of religion and it seems that any psychologist who wants to make a name for themselves does a study on this (Freud, Weber, Marx, etc).

    However, given religions cannot seem to agree on the basic fundamentals, other than there is something they cannot explain, then that seems to be the common denominator and is a valid conjecture to make, just not an assertion.

    On the subject topic, it's good to see the Catholic church engaging in free thinking. Nothing like the supression of views that go against the conservative viewpoint of a religon to encourage an open mind and improve inclusivity.


  • Comment number 19.


    Sounds like more garbage from the V II crowd. Ryan please proof read before posting. Since McCamleyc already pointed out out the fact ya misused theological terminology I don't feel the need to do so. I'm not sure what kind of religious background ya have, but maybe ya should have paid more attention during Catechism class or if ya never had it pick up a Catechism book.
    Most pedos are heterosexual identifying men who are married with kids. Sorry ya can't take the fact it was Adam and Eve not Adam and Steve. That's about one of the only things that Catholics, prods, muslims, and most other world religions can agree on.

  • Comment number 20.

    Brian , are you Spanish? Or are you trying to say my command of Catholism ranks about as highly as your English?
    I never mentioned homosexuality. Something playing on your mind?
    If you can't translate outside of specific word play you miss the entire reasoning behind something being said. As in don't teach one thing while you practice the opposite and mess up peoples lives and don't abuse anyone in your care. You're the one in need of that Catechism class ain't YA, if religion guided your reply & that's all you grasped from what I wrote.
    You can really see why Catholics ,Prods and Muslims fight so much.

    Post 16-Sean, I agree with you

    Quote "Someone said of the US, 'I love my country; therefore, I reserve the right to criticise her incessantly.' America's strength in this area is your church's weakness"

    It's been proven time and gain in the past, but very rarely do people learn from history. If you can't be relevant to your time and you don't offer the spiritual support and needs of people you will be discarded by many for something more effective.Has happened to Judaism and others in the past. History will decide whether the C20th was a defining moment or not in the demise of Catholism in the western world

  • Comment number 21.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 22.

    "Most pedos are heterosexual identifying men who are married with kids."(citation needed)

    "Sorry ya can't take the fact it was Adam and Eve not Adam and Steve."

    Adam and Eve what? Don't go making invalid and flawed assumptions that just because your specific version of a creation myth only included one male and one female that, miraculously, managed to provide wives for their many sons without a risk of inbreeding, there's some inherant wrongness with homosexuality.

    Keep your (dare I say it) narrow-minded views to yourself and your out-dated church, Brian.

  • Comment number 23.

    The topic was catholic church silencing a priest who was merely articulating the fact based truth about homosexuality, which is at odds with church doctrine (not biblical teaching, just church doctrine) and going on to compare it with the speed with which it did (or didn't) deal with their child abuse scandal.

    How is that addressed by your silly Adam and Eve statement or your disingenuous attempt to associate the act of child abuse with he subject as opposed to how the church dealt with it. I would point out however that if your god exists he made Adam and Steve just as much as he made Adam and Eve.

  • Comment number 24.

    My FSM, now that I've read up on some more recent threads, I see LSV certainly is on one big victory claiming spree. On a handful of threads the second-most often beaten poster of this blog claims victory over both theists and atheists. It really seems like the infinite loop that has been used to describe a debate with him. So at the risk of appearing lazy, let me just reply to his question about where he does not take an evidence-based approach by pasting questions asked to him previously, and reminders of those questions.


  • Comment number 25.

    William, please do not get annoyed at any suggestion from your punters that this story may be a deliberate personal angle taken by your good self. I am sure you are completely a person of equals.

    However ,why the fuss, if you sign up to certain rules in your job you either stay by them or not. IF THOSE RULES ALLOW YOU TO CHALLANGE TEACHINGS FINE IF THEY DO NOT WELL WHAT CAN ONE SAY, LEAVE! sling ones hook!

    What one holds as views in which they are are privately taken are another matter but if you represent an order/cult/teaching/religion/body/society etc then when engaged in public speaking as a representative you must tow the line(or should I say lie!!! to keep lovely decenters happy) I am afraid thats the way life goes. Is that so difficult for everyone to understand? all very sad really!

  • Comment number 26.

    One thing I must say that it is high time the church reviewed teachings on the use of Contaceptives. The reality tells a tale and I agree with this priests view. It is a simple understanding to save people on the ground this action must happen no matter how painful it may be. No matter how we think teachings can change the world, the reality is I'm afraid different. Lets take the greater of two evils as a prominent brazilian cardinal once said. for now.

  • Comment number 27.

    PK (@ 24) -

    Having just gone round your labyrinth of links, I am still none the wiser as to what it is that I am not answering, or that I am running away from. All you have linked to is a load of your posts telling me that I am not answering a question. Perhaps it might be a good idea to just repeat the question in a post now, so that I don't have to go on this long internet journey again.

    I suspect that it is to do with some comment I made about randomness, and that random events take place within ordered environments, according to certain laws of nature. In other words, there is no such thing as 'total randomness'. I remember writing at length on the whole subject of randomness on another thread, and I asked a certain question about adaptation among robots, which went unanswered by someone who seemed to think that this robotic experiment constituted a slam dunk proof of philosophical materialism! I'll see if I can find it later.

    Perhaps this thread is not the right place to talk about this, unless you can find some Catholic angle to work in. But on an open thread perhaps?

    As for running away... I am still waiting for a proper and logically coherent refutation of my empiricism question. (I'll just keep mentioning this until someone is brave enough to face up to it).

  • Comment number 28.


    post 25 automatically bans you from making post 26!! Dont you get it?!!

  • Comment number 29.

    Go LSV, go. IIRC that was the thread you did a scientific experiment at your keyboard. I think it was the high point of this blog.

    Oh and have you heard? Empiricism is self defeating. The sun still rises, though, as far as we can make out.

  • Comment number 30.

    grokesx -

    "The sun still rises, though, as far as we can make out."

    Oh yes, I forgot (how truly remiss of me). The rising of the sun (or the rotation of the earth, to be pedantic) proves conclusively that matter is all that exists.

    Now that's what I call a real humdinger piece of 'evidence' in the service of philosophical materialism. (Perhaps even more convincing than the clever robots!)

  • Comment number 31.

    You're burning poor Ed again. Can you just leave the poor guy in peace? If you can find any post of mine that goes further than a slight inclination towards philosophical naturalism due to the continuing success of methodological naturalism, I'd be happy for you to point it out.

    So, no claimed proof. Not now. Not ever.

    The proposition, should you choose to engage with it, is this, with apologies to Winston Churchill: Empiricism is the worst way of gathering knowledge, apart from all the others.

    Oh, and the robots thing - you missed the point, as per.

  • Comment number 32.

    Let's try to remain calm here. It occurs to me that, considering that we are contributing to a blog concerning ethics, each one of us would do well to put a little more effort into maintaining the moral high ground. Including me!

    LSV, I find it rather annoying that you request evidence to support the assertions of others whilst simultaneously holding forth that empiricism is self-refuting. Either you value an evidence-based approach to the truth or you don't; you're in double-think territory here, methinks. The fact that belief in God is fairly common was irrelevant to my point, and that is the only reason I need to give for failing to mention it. Whether these people 'count' in a wider context is a moot point; as regards my point, their irrelevance leads me to question why they should 'count' within the context under discussion.

    Where I stand on the whole issue of extra-materialistic existence is where I've stood since I renounced Catholicism. If there is a God that created the universe, then it was created in such a way that has made it impossible to know of the existence of such a creator, at least not with the certainty we can attribute to our knowledge of, say, Newtonian physics or planetary orbits. That certainty is a result of modern empiricism, something that simply hadn't been developed during most of the histories of the major religions. For me, this certainty trumps the certainty offered by religion. This isn't an article of faith; I can point to ever-accelerating technological advance since the beginning of Empiricism in the Enlightenment period as evidence that Empiricism produces reliable knowledge, the certainty of which can easily be observed in action.
    In contrast, I find, along with most others, that religious methods for the acquisition of knowledge are not as reliable. This is because they lack the evidence brought forth by experimentation. So I perceived that it is reasonable to, at the very least, acknowledge the lack of certainty with which one can assert the existence of a creator-god. According to the higher standard of certainty with which we are now able make assertions, anyway.

    Here's where it gets into subjective conjecture. I personally think that the evidence for a creator would be more obviously observable than it has proven to be if such a God were to exist. I find myself even more in agreement with this idea if we are considering the kind of active god that is touted by the Abrahamic religions. The fact that we are yet to observe such evidence leads one to deduce that if God is out there, He's hidden Himself from us rather effectively. If He's not, then the continuing lack of evidence to support His existence is indicative of the paradigm we inhabit.

    The plurality of religious interpretation of the nature of God also serves to undermine the credibilty of the notion in my mind, as does the certainty with which religions assert their own versions of God. From here, via a study of religious history, it is a short journey towards cynicism regarding the motives of people who promulgate belief in God, and skepticism regarding claims about the nature of the universe which are not rooted in empirical data.

  • Comment number 33.

    By the way LSV, my original point to you was that you should have inferred the speculative nature of the assertion in question; after all, it's a commonly held view. I can't believe you found the idea so worthy of attack when any idiot can see that the idea is only conjecture on notional, impossible to verify historical events. A more interesting line of thought might be to considered why it is that such a line of conjecture resonates with people.

  • Comment number 34.

    When eminent scientist/philosphers make comments on the the 'mysteries of life' they at least have the commonsense to phrase their remarks in language that people can understand before drinking their nightime cocoa or whisky re Einstein : (1)God does not play dice with the Universe ; and Planks response to Einstein :stop telling God what to do.
    Please 'seanthenoisemaker' come down to their level and put your gobbledegook in the trash can wher it belongs

  • Comment number 35.

    John, criticism I will accept; insults I shall not.

  • Comment number 36.

    John, I am afraid I cannot express myself any more clearly or concisely. Are there any words I can paraphrase for you, or is it the complexity of the piece overall that you feel goes over your head?

    I wouldn't claim the clarity of thought nor the brevity of expression of, say, an Einstein, but then I really don't consider the line of thought described above to be especially complex.

    If you don't understand what I've written, beyond explaining the definitions of individual words, I'm afraid I feel unable to help you to understand further.

    Still, to quote the great Howard Marks on philosophy, 'Non-comprehension is no bar to contribution.'

  • Comment number 37.

    sean (@ 32) -

    "LSV, I find it rather annoying that you request evidence to support the assertions of others whilst simultaneously holding forth that empiricism is self-refuting. Either you value an evidence-based approach to the truth or you don't; you're in double-think territory here, methinks."

    Errmm. Nope.

    I am not in 'double-think territory' at all. And 'empiricism' - by which I mean the view that "all (not some) knowledge derives from sense perception" is indeed self-refuting. If you don't agree then please direct me to the scientific experiment which proves that "all knowledge derives from sense perception". I've asked for this piece of evidence umpteen times, and I would have thought by now that, if I am wrong, someone would have been so good as to furnish me with the requisite data.

    This really isn't a lot to ask from people who accuse me of all sorts of things, including 'double-think'. You know, in a court of law, when a defendant is accused, it is generally accepted that the prosecutor should back up the charge with some evidence. So come on, then, please read me the riot act. Now that is what I would call an 'ethical' approach to debate.

    By the way, I've addressed this issue on another 'live' thread, as I am rather conscious that this thread is supposed to be related to things Catholic.

    "The fact that we are yet to observe such evidence leads one to deduce that if God is out there, He's hidden Himself from us rather effectively. If He's not, then the continuing lack of evidence to support His existence is indicative of the paradigm we inhabit."

    The much (and unjustly) maligned William Paley has magnificently addressed this issue in his work "The Evidences of Christianity". The objection that God has not provided sufficient evidence is as old as the hills, as they say. For fear of being moderated, I am reluctant to quote much of what Paley wrote (although his words are now surely public domain, since he has been dead at least 70 years - 205 years to be exact). Here is a short quote:

    "... irresistible proof would restrain the voluntary powers too much; would not answer the purpose of trial and probation; would call for no exercise of candour, seriousness, humility, inquiry; no submission of passions, interests, and prejudices to moral evidence and to probable truth; no habits of reflection..."

    I would love to quote much more of this, as it is brilliant stuff. Paley's basic point is that irresistible proof would undermine human free will and the spirit of enquiry. In short, we need to make an effort to seek truth, not just expect it to be handed to us on a plate. That is part of what it means to be authentically human.

    Now I do find it rather strange that certain materialistic scientists should use this argument against theism. The very people who (allegedly) dedicate their lives to enquiry and the seeking after truth, claim that God is only allowed to exist if he reveals himself to them without any need for effort on their part. What is more, your objection could be applied to your own philosophy, as it is also not at all obvious that the materialistic explanation for life is true. I fail to see any empirical evidence that life self-assembled. If that is true (which thankfully it is not), then I don't see this truth 'handed to us on a plate'!! In fact, on the contrary, the empirical evidence of complexity contradicts such a notion. And yet those who criticise theism for not 'being obvious' then have the audacity to promote a worldview which is also not obvious!

    Now shall I find a way of working in some Catholic angle, just to appease my conscience, given that my comments are a little off topic on this thread? Hmmm. Perhaps William Paley's point about natural theology could be applied to moral doctrines. Could the paucity of evidence in the Bible concerning homosexuality be God's way of encouraging us to think about the issue and not resort to unthinking dogmatism (the latter being the case if it was all so clear and obvious)? Perhaps this is why the Bible is not set out as a legal document, but is almost perverse in its variety (and even 'awkwardness') of expression? God keeps things hidden and 'coy' in order that we may use our minds and not just submit blindly. Worth thinking about this issue.

    There, that last paragraph has appeased my conscience, and, Sean, if you want to follow up the empiricism / natural theology discussion, then off to another thread we must go...

  • Comment number 38.

    OK, first off, that's not how I understand empiricism. I understand it to be the process of elevating knowledge from ideas. This is achieved through research of previously gathered data, production of new data through experimentation and meta-analysis, criticism of methodology and a rigorous falsification process.

    I fully accept that information can be produced by sources other than sensory perception; as a musician I like to believe in imagination as a source of originality. However, there's a huge difference between ideas and knowledge, which is the degree of certainty we can ascribe.

    The knowledge produced by the empirical process can, for my money, be afforded much greater certainty than any other type of knowledge. Or, to put it another way, the empirical process confers validity upon the knowledge it produces as a result of the fiercest possible criticism being an intrinsic part of the process.

    By contrast, 'knowledge' of the supernatural does not pass the hurdles that empiricism requires in order to confer that level of certainty. Therefore it is reasonable to conclude that the idea of supernaturalism does not carry the same weight of certainty as, say, the laws of thermodynamics.

  • Comment number 39.

    Oops, posted too soon there...

  • Comment number 40.

    Where doubt lingers, especially regarding ideas which are expressed with venomous certainty by vested interest groups, skepticism is a perfectly reasonable position to adopt.

    I think materialism is intrinsically a skeptical position within the philosophical debate. As such, there inevitably arises a tension between those who adopt the skeptical view as a result of their belief in empiricism's power to confer greater certainty, and those who adopt a different standard in assessing certainty. The former bemoan the lack of rigour employed by other systems of extracting knowledge from ideas. The latter perceive an unbearable elitism inherent in the empiricists' attitude towards their own system, the superiority of which they have failed to or refused to be persuaded of.

    My belief is that empiricism as a concept is condemned most vehemently by those who misunderstand it in some fundamental way. Conversely, it has been shown by surveys that the higher one's educational attainment, the more likely one was to lack a belief in God. I feel it reasonable to hypothesise that this is due to the greater understanding of empiricism's value (and that of the requirement of skepticism therein) and efficacy that accompanies greater levels of scholastic endeavour and achievement. But then, I've been persuaded of the merits of empiricism!

    Your response to my doubt is actually a pretty standard one given to me by religious people. It doesn't assuage my skepticism. The idea that this is God's way of testing us doesn't make sense to me.

    For me, it seems that this is an answer that discourages further investigation, as that would entail indulging one's lingering doubt and thus failing God's test of faith. Which goes back to what I was saying...God, if he's the all-powerful creator, made me both inquisitive and hungry for certainty, which He then supposedly punishes by making the evidence for His own existence vague, ambiguous and impossible to verify, and by testing my faith which, given the characteristics described above, I cannot possibly maintain.

    This is where my skepticism comes in. Given the vested interests of those who promulgate the widespread belief in God, ie the power and influence it helps them to maintain, and given the idea's inability, despite the best efforts of many, to pass the tests set for the idea laid down in the empirical process, I am forced to suspect that the idea was not developed on the basis of fact. I also suspect that its continued existence owes more to the principles of power than it does to factual discovery.

  • Comment number 41.

    Paley's basic point is that irresistible proof would undermine human free will and the spirit of enquiry. In short, we need to make an effort to seek truth, not just expect it to be handed to us on a plate. That is part of what it means to be authentically human.

    Wow. I mean wow. When Doc Daneeka said, ""It's the best there is," he clearly hadn't met you on a good day. When arguing your corner, you can routinely demand irrefutable proof of natural selection and abiogenesis while being armour plated from any reciprocity because the provision would deny the experience of being authentically human.

    I love your chutzpah, if nothing else.

  • Comment number 42.

    Oh yeah, when you criticise someone's argument for lack of evidence whilst maintaining that the most rigorous form of evidence-based investigation, empiricism, is by its very nature self-refuting, you imply that you both trust evidential verification and that you do not trust evidential verification. Which is classic doublethink.

  • Comment number 43.

    As an aside, I'd suggest that the rigours of the empirical process fit quite well with the value Paley places on the effort to seek truth, whereas the practice of religious indoctrination (including the belief in God) seems more akin to encouraging its adherents to accept the 'truth' as handed to them on a plate.

  • Comment number 44.

    sean (@ 42) -

    "Oh yeah, when you criticise someone's argument for lack of evidence whilst maintaining that the most rigorous form of evidence-based investigation, empiricism, is by its very nature self-refuting, you imply that you both trust evidential verification and that you do not trust evidential verification. Which is classic doublethink."

    Well, I guess it would be 'doublethink' if your definition of 'empiricism' were correct. But I have to stress yet again that I believe in 'the empirical method' as far as some knowledge is concerned. If I did not believe in that method I would be unable to write this post. But 'empiricism' as an epistemology is the claim that ALL - I repeat the word ALL - knowledge derives from sense perception. Take yourself off into a dark quiet room somewhere and spend half an hour meditating on the word 'all' in this context and then come back so we can have an intelligent discussion, please.

    Have I made myself sufficiently clear? Of course science delivers results. I have never disputed that. But 'empiricism' as an 'absolute' is self-refuting, and until such time as you can show me which scientific experiment has proven that "all knowledge derives from sense perception" (remember the word 'all'), then my argument stands.

    So if you want to define logical proof as 'doublethink', then that's your problem, but don't start dumping your illogicality on the rest of us.

    As for illogicality...

    "Given the vested interests of those who promulgate the widespread belief in God, ie the power and influence it helps them to maintain..."

    I think that if you bothered to do proper research you would discover that the vast majority of people, who believe in God, are not in positions of power and influence. In fact, quite the opposite. Nothing like empirical evidence is there?

    But then again, I suspect that people like you may then twist this evidence to argue that believers are just a load of uneducated peasants (as one of your co-ideologues once put it). "Believers are wrong, because they are in positions of power and influence .... uhmm no... they are actually wrong because they are poor uneducated peasants, etc...."

    I notice that you have made the (spurious) judgment that theists are 'less educated', but apparently in positions of power and influence. And you accuse me of doublethink!!!! (Of course, I don't suppose for one minute that our dear darling 'oh so righteous and upright' atheists could possibly be trying to force a certain way of thinking on the masses. Oh no! Perish the thought!)

    You can fool some of the people all of the time, and all of the people some of the time, but you cannot fool all of the people all of the time, as the great Abe Lincoln so perspicaciously put it.

  • Comment number 45.

    Nothing like being quote mined to make you realise you're debating with a true theist. ;-)

    The passage LSV is referring to relates to a discussion when it was claimed that China, whilst becoming more capitalistic and more prosperous was also showing an increase in Christianity.

    I countered that, despite the pictures we see on TV, "The vast majority of China is uneducated, repressed and subject to extremely poor human rights from a corrupt pseudo-communist government. It's far from 'enlightened'. Religion offer the peasants (for that is how they are seen) a possibily of escape from the existance that they endure under the regime and a chance to show 'legal' rebellion."

    It was to show that religion can still thrive in uneducated people groups, and that to claim China is some kind of massive middle-class anomoly of true christian conversion was a flawed statement.

    The conception of the majority of Chinese as 'peasants' is one purpetuated by their ruling elite, however, they're still ( relatively) uneducated and far from representative of all religous adherants.

    I also think, if you read Sean's post properly, he's talking about those who promulgate the faith, not just the believers. And the vast majority of those are in positions of religous power and influence.

  • Comment number 46.


    In order to avoid more word definition uselessness (such as your 'I decide what it is atheists think, and if it is shown they don't think that, then I'm still right and they are just doing it wrong'), let me address the bit where you said

    "But 'empiricism' as an epistemology is the claim that ALL - I repeat the word ALL - knowledge derives from sense perception."

    Whatever your definition of empiricism is, is not that interesting to me. Can you point out even one atheist-minded scientists on this blog here who has stated that ALL knowledge must be derived from observation only? It seems to me such a straw man is the only thing you can manage to knock down.

    As for your scientifically flavoured claims, let me just copy-paste them here, as you say you have difficulty simply clicking on a link. You made the following statements:

    "I am proceeding by a process of falsification. As far as I see, science rules out the idea of the complexity of life arising by purely natural means."

    Please provide the scientific evidence to support that. So scientific evidence, not your usual hand waving pseudo-philosophical tosh.

    "But I do have the power to at least express why I think the whole idea of the complexity of life arising by "nature left to its own devices" is pure superstition and has no scientific basis."

    Actually, there is some tentative scientific basis for it, although I will freely admit there are considerable gaps in it still. But when I pointed you to some examples how in astrobiology moderately complex organic molecules are formed, you ran as usual. Perhaps you could elaborate what evidence for your 'goddunnit' outweighs even the few very little bits I presented?

    "I am stripping the whole argument down to a simple point. Does nature, left to its own devices, account for life? My answer is: no. I believe the answer of science is also no. The alternative to this, of course, is to posit the existence of an intelligent creator."

    Please provide the scientific evidence to support that. So scientific evidence, not your usual hand waving pseudo-philosophical tosh. The support for how you make the jump to what the alternative then is, should be fascinating.

    "Concerning randomness and snowflakes - what I meant by "controlled randomness" is that some random events occur within stable and ordered ecosystems - such as planet earth - which function according to stable and predictable laws. It would be foolish of me to pretend that I understand all the processes involved, but surely there are varying degrees and types of randomness."

    Perhaps you would elaborate on the science of varying degrees of randomness. What theories are we talking about exactly?

    "There is not one shred of evidence that supports the view that "orderly and stable forms" are going to last longer than "unstable and chaotic forms". All the empirical evidence tells us that the opposite is true when nature is left to its own devices. Therefore the order we see in nature has another, more truly rational, explanation."

    See previous request, please provide the scientific evidence to support that. So scientific evidence, not your usual hand waving pseudo-philosophical tosh. Some elaboration as to what systems you are talking about and the time scales involved would be a good start. And please define 'orderly and stable' so that we can avoid any confusion over that.

  • Comment number 47.

    William, what you have got to remember is that the role of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith is to help ensure that all the Catholic faithful adhere, so far as possible, to the teachings of the Church. This particular priest, writing in an Irish theological journal, has questioned several important elements of Catholic teaching, showing that either (a) he doesn't properly understand the basis for these teachings, or (b) he is wilfully trying to contradict the established teachings of the Church. Your readers have to understand that the Church isn't a democracy, where anything goes - Catholic teaching has been established over centuries, there are now well-established norms, and it is basically like any private club that you join - there are rules that everyone has to follow, and if you don't like the rules, you can leave. I normally enjoy your reports William, but you are quite wrong in your comments in relation to child sex abuse scandals - the primary responsibility for investigating such matters is for diocesan bishops, not for the CDF. The CDF's primary responsibility is for ensuring that the faithful understand the Magisterium of the Catholic Church, and, equally, that they are not led astray by priests/bishops who may in error as to certain elements of teaching. The CDF is a transparent and open organisation, your readers can see its website here - http://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/congregations/cfaith/
    Keep up the interesting and thought-provoking articles!

  • Comment number 48.

    Peter K -

    The presupposition that lies behind your questions is the view that there is a materialistic 'default' position, which we must accept if we cannot directly observe an intelligent creator doing his work of creation. So it's the usual biased 'burden of proof' fallacy: that those who hold to a particular philosophy have to 'prove' their theory, whereas those who hold to the opposite philosophy do not have to do so. On what basis is this premise verified, I ask myself?

    I accept that there is no direct empirical evidence of creation. There is also no direct empirical evidence of life self-assembling. All we both have are theories based on philosophical presuppositions.

    It would be laughable, if it were not so sad, that some people simply cannot understand the difference between the limited and highly focused scientific method (methodological materialism) and the philosophy of naturalism. All the strictly scientific evidence (i.e. evidence not contaminated with unproven philosophical presuppositions) that you think supports your naturalistic theory can fit very well into a theistic framework. But there is an attitude of unbelievable hubris that states that "if we can come up with any remotely plausible explanation to do away with the idea of an intelligent first cause, then that explanation must be accepted as true". Sorry, but this is not logic. In fact it's a total travesty of logic. And, of course, that premise cannot be arrived at by the empirical scientific method!

    If you want evidence, then I am very satisfied with the evidence of complexity, which is all around us. I presume that you think that year after year after year of repeatedly saying that "the argument from design doesn't count" will somehow mean that "it doesn't count". Just repeating a mantra does not establish truth. The argument from design and complexity does count. From the point of view of logic, there is no justification for believing an abstruse and highly implausible and improbable theory (i.e. the theory of self-assembly) over the more plausible theory that complexity derives from the ordered input of information (in other words, complexity derives from an intelligent source).

    The philosophy of naturalism is unproveable anyway, by its very nature. No matter how many theories are concocted, they bring us no nearer to certainty, since we have no direct evidence - and also repeatable evidence - of the alleged process of abiogenesis. Now, I agree, as I have stated, that we have no direct evidence of the creative act of an intelligent creator. Therefore, from a strictly empirical point of view, we are in the area of agnosticism. Science is helpless when dealing with ultimate questions. All empirical science can do is bow before the mystery of it all.

    As for the self-refuting nature of empiricism: I put this argument to show that the epistemological basis of philosophical materialism is a matter of what you would term 'faith'. If you accept that the entirety of reality is simply a closed system of matter, energy and deterministic cause and effect, then you have to account for everything within that system. The system itself has to be the source of everything. The moment you find just one necessary thing which does not fit within the system, then the whole philosophy collapses. That is my point. If empiricism (by which I mean the epistemological theory and not merely the limited empirical method) falls, then philosophical (not methodological) materialism falls.

    Now you may say that atheistic scientists don't accept this absolutist view of empiricism. But, as I have noted before, you seem to hold to a sociological or 'observational' view of atheism, in other words, "atheism is whatever atheists choose to believe" (irrespective of whether it is actually logically consistent with the implications of philosophical materialism). I don't accept that this approach is valid. Atheism is built on the philosophy of materialism, and that philosophy has conceptual implications. If professing atheists want to live contrary to those implications, then they are in fact de facto non-atheists, whether they like it or not.

    I hold to a philosophical definition of atheism, in which I understand 'true atheists' to be those who are able and willing to live consistently with the logical implications of their philosophy. One of those implications is an adherence to the epistemological theory which is a necessary condition for philosophical materialism, namely, empiricism (you may perhaps discern that I actually don't believe that there are any 'true atheists', since it is actually impossible to live consistently with a worldview which is false).

    Of course, no one can operate on the basis of the epistemology of empiricism. That is because it is simply not true - we know that, because its fundamental premise cannot be verified by its own rule. And since it is not true, then we must understand what the implications are of its falsity. That is what I have been saying all along. Non-empirical 'reason' is a necessary fact of life. It is a phenomenon that we all acknowledge, atheistic scientists included. But does this reality fit into a materialistic framework? The answer is: no. The only conceivable source of human reason within a naturalistic process is animal instinct. And 'instinct' is the opposite of 'reason', the former being merely a reflex reaction to environmental factors, whereas the latter enables us to 'stand back' from our environment, understand it and even control it. Instinct is subjective, whereas reason is objective. The objective validity of 'reason' itself - and the limitations of the empirical method - constitutes evidence that philosophical materialism is false.

    Natman -

    I'll try - I really will (honest!) - not to mention your 'Chinese peasant' comment again (although admittedly it was hard to resist).

    A hundred lines on the blackboard for me I think, by way of penance... "I must not mention...."

  • Comment number 49.

    My definition of empiricism should interest you, LSV, because your argument rests on an assumption you make about empiricism that is not implied by the definition of it which is, I think, generally accepted.

    Would anyone with scientific pedigree disagree with my definition of empiricism? Or, LSV, would you care to provide YOUR definition of empiricism in order that we can establish who is labouring under a misapprehension?

    I'm pretty sure my definition of empiricism is spot on. But please, go ahead and criticise it. If I'm as correct as I think I am, I ought to trust my definition's ability to survive the onslaught.

    Nobody claims that only that knowledge which arises from empiricism can be called knowledge. I know I'm going to trim my moustache tonight; this is knowledge, but there's no need for empiricism.

    However, there is a relativity of certainty for all knowledge, and empiricism allows knowledge which passes the test a greater degree of certainty than other types of knowledge that can't or don't pass the test.

    For knowledge which does not pass the test, a greater degree of uncertainty is inevitable, as is the associated skepticism and cynicism.

    In summary, nowhere does the definition of empiricism imply that all knowledge comes from sensory perception. However, empiricism confers the greatest level of universally acceptable certainty, leading to skepticism regarding knowledge which fails the criteria of empiricism.

    Please refer to Natman's observation regarding your criticism of my statement on the promulgation of beliefs. To clarify, I was not necessarily referring to believers; most are not evangelists, despite what their creed instructs. Not to mention the many preachers who have been exposed as leading lives that totally contradict the messages they promote. You took the time to reproduce the quote; now I invite you to read it.

  • Comment number 50.

    There are studies which suggest an inverse correlation between educational/academic achievement and religious uptake. Make of that what you will!

  • Comment number 51.

    sean (@ 50) -

    "There are studies which suggest an inverse correlation between educational/academic achievement and religious uptake. Make of that what you will!"

    A truly desperate subjective argument, if ever there was one! Scientific rigour as always as well, I notice.

    You know, Einstein must have been a bit thick to think so highly of Newton, Faraday and Clerk Maxwell, all heroes of his, and believers in God to boot (even if Einstein's own metaphysical views may be a subject of debate).

    I don't suppose it has occurred to you that the vast majority of people in the world are not able to obtain the benefit of a western style education, and so therefore their numbers are bound to skew the figures (or were they not included in the survey?). But be that as it may, your comment is irrelevant concerning what is actually true. Truth is not established simply by mere force of qualified opinion, but by the facts and coherent logic. This latter point can be proven by a very simple argument: equally qualified academics disagree about many things, therefore it follows that the mere possession of qualifications does not prove anything to be true (that is not to say that education doesn't matter, far from it).

    I am sure you can do better than this, Sean, or are you really that desperate?

  • Comment number 52.

    LSV, you continue to project the nature of theistic belief onto your evaluation of theistic disbelief.

    There are very few atheists who would say they can say, without doubt, that there is definitely no God. Most would say, 'I see no reason to believe in or suspect the existence of a God.'

    There's a huge difference between the two statements. You constantly portray atheists as coming from the former position because, as an absolutist position, it is easier to ridicule, but I've never in my life come across an atheist with that view.

    As the positor of a positive assertion, it is incumbent upon the theist to back his assertion up. Lack of persuasive evidence is enough to justify disbelief. 'Prove that God does not exist,' is not a valid argument in favour of God existing, and my inability to disprove an assertion does not reasonably preclude disbelief of said assertion. You cannot disprove the existence of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, but that is not reasonable ground for defending my belief in it.

    You seem to confuse the nature of disbelief; either that or you deliberately twist someone's disbelief into a belief they never subscribed to or expressed in order to validate your existing arguments and save yourself the effort of engaging with the argument as it is presented.

    Atheism is not a belief. It is the lack of a belief. As such, your theistic argument against atheism is built on either a misunderstanding or a misrepresentation of the nature of the atheistic position.

    As far as materialism goes, it's pretty much the same argument. A materialist would accept extra-material existence if he was presented with verifiable evidence for it, but until that time his skepticism is perfectly justifiable.

    Logic is only good for hypothesising, because, much like pure mathematics, it has a tendency to produce elegant theory that both holds true to the principles of the process and turns out to be demonstrably falsifiable.

  • Comment number 53.

    LSV, I was quite obviously being humorously flippant; note my use of the exclamation mark.

  • Comment number 54.

    sean (@ 49) -

    "My definition of empiricism should interest you, LSV, because your argument rests on an assumption you make about empiricism that is not implied by the definition of it which is, I think, generally accepted."

    There is a distinction between 'empiricism' and 'rationalism'. Now if 'empiricism' only means that we can gain some knowledge from sense perception, then that is no different from 'rationalism', since rationalists (apart from the most Cartesian extremists) also believe that we can gain knowledge by that method. Subjective idealists would oppose that partial and weak understanding of empiricism, but they are really nothing other than solipsists (you know, the kind of thing we are when we're dreaming).

    If the word 'empiricism' means anything at all, it has to be defined as the view that "all knowledge is derived from sense perception". Some people may define this as 'strong empiricism', to distinguish it from 'weak empiricism' (although that is just another term for 'rationalism' with a recognition of methodological empiricism).

    Now we can argue till the cows come home about 'official definitions' according to which dictionary of philosophy you refer to. But let's actually look at the concept itself and its philosophical implications.

    Perhaps I'll modify my definition slightly to say that empiricists demand that observational evidence is essential for every aspect of our understanding of reality. Now this viewpoint is a necessary condition for the affirmation of the philosophy of naturalism (materialism). If one were to argue that it were possible to have some knowledge of reality without the support of observational evidence, then that person could not be a materialist, since he would be acknowledging the validity of non-material realities. This is why I say that 'empiricism' (by which I mean that epistemological theory sometimes called 'strong empiricism') is a necessary condition for belief in the philosophy of materialism. At a popular level this theory is encapsulated in the adage: "seeing is believing".

    How many times on this blog have I read comments about theism lacking 'evidence' - comments which clearly reveal a commitment to empiricism? 'Evidence' is understood as 'observational evidence'. 'Scientific evidence' is understood to mean 'empirical evidence'. Empiricism (strong empiricism) lies at the heart of all the claims and pleas of materialism, and is used to justify the vehement rejection of theistic claims ("you have no evidence" - meaning, of course, 'empirical evidence').

    Suppose I decided (God forbid) to become a materialist (a philosophical one). How would I go about it? How would I justify it? How would I go about attempting to refute non-materialistic theories? Well, there is only one epistemology that I can appeal to and draw on in order to achieve this, and that is 'empiricism' (i.e. 'strong empiricism'): "seeing is believing". If I were to become sceptical of empiricism (strong empiricism) then all my arguments in support of materialism would collapse, since I would have to acknowledge that it is possible for knowledge to derive from sources which are non-empirical. And this, of course, opens the door to non-materialistic theories of reality.

    If I were to say that "all that exists is matter", then how could I know that? What is the theory of knowledge that leads me to that conclusion? Well, there is only one theory that can do that, and that is (strong) empiricism, since our only cognitive and epistemic relationship with matter is through sense perception.

    Now I have proven that this kind of empiricism - strong empiricism (which is the only theory which can be termed 'empiricism') - is self-refuting, because its fundamental premise is not verified by its own rule. I am well aware that there are those who think this argument is irrelevant, abstruse or pedantic. Nothing could be further from the truth, and I am explaining why it is so important. It shows that empiricism (i.e. the form of empiricism which is the necessary condition for the affirmation of materialism) cannot be true, and what we are left with is rationalism (which obviously allows for a more limited form of empiricism, as I have explained above).

    If 'strong empiricism' falls, then materialism, as a philosophy (not as a methodology), falls. Even if materialism is true (which I, of course, do not believe), we cannot know it and assert it to be true, since to do so would require adherence to an epistemology which is self-refuting. The implication of this is that the fundamental criticism of supernaturalism (that it lacks 'empirical' proof) is both incoherent and invalid. Sound epistemology affirms the validity of theism, and therefore it doesn't surprise me that those with a vested interest in opposing theism refuse to acknowledge this proof and without presenting a coherent counter argument (which, according to their philosophy would have to be an empirical proof, otherwise they have contradicted themselves).

    Now this is nothing to do with a criticism of the empirical scientific method, because that concerns 'weak' or methodological empiricism, which is an entirely different matter. That is something limited and which does not speak to metaphysical matters. But, as I have explained, 'weak empiricism' isn't really an epistemological theory at all - it's just a method.

  • Comment number 55.

    No 47 Jim Arnauld

    What a lovely description of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Jim, you missed out where they help old ladies across the road and buy their mums flowers.

    The CDF, formerly known as the Inquisition - a group of clerics who took it upon themselves to torture and kill people for questioning or disagreeing with THEIR very narrow version of faith - has over the last number of decades absolutely refused to do anything about the abuse of children by priests and the cover up of these crimes by Bishops and Cardinals across the globe.

    Under Cardinal Ratzinger, this nauseous department refused to do anything about Marcel Maciel and actually did their best to thwart the attaining of justice by Maciel's victims.

    Ratzinger and Bertone sent out a letter in 2001 reminding Bishops of the oath of secrecy and the grave consequences - excommunication - for those who did not obey.

    No Catholic Bishop or Cardinal has yet been penalised by this group of men, but anyone who has questioned Catholic Doctrine has been sacked or excommunicated.

    This group has worked away relentlessly to remove power from the College of Cardinals, who incidentally will meet in Rome to be lectured to tomorrow and who will not be given the right of reply.

    You are right, it is not a democracy. It has turned into a totalitarian, despotic regime. Are you saying that this is what Jesus intended?

    There IS no Magisterium of the Catholic Church, so how can a body like the CDF be responsible for teaching about it to the Catholic Faithful?

    But by far and away your funniest comment is that the CDF is a transparent organisation - proved by the fact that they have a website!! Lol! So why wont they release or give access to the documentation for all the abuse cases they shelved and ignored?

    They are about as open as you are informed.

  • Comment number 56.


    But, as I have explained, 'weak empiricism' isn't really an epistemological theory at all - it's just a method.

    Who knew? I always wondered why we call it the Scientific Method.

    Anyway - congratulations, you've talked your way close to the place that the rest of us have been all along.

    There are just a couple of small points that separate us - I have raised them before in various guises.

    The first concerns:

    ...and what we are left with is rationalism .

    In what way are the fundamental propositions of rationalism immune from the type of arguments you use against empiricism? Can you use rationalism to prove rationalism is true? (I mean positively, not merely by negating empiricism, which, you may be disappointed to learn, is not the same thing at all.) You might find it difficult, but I'm not about to claim this means anything other than the essential Godelian problem inherent in all propositions such as "This sentence is false." In any case, what flavour of rationalism do you hold to? I can guess, but the godded version is not the only interpretation. Many of a materialistic bent don't have a problem with the intuition/deduction thesis or the innate knowledge thesis, since our innate nature is open to a purely naturalistic explanation.

    So, you've got a sight more work to do to lift your alternative onto a higher philosophical plane than our poor old sciency weak empiricism.

    The other point is:

    Sound epistemology affirms the validity of theism.

    I think you must have deleted the part of your post that goes from saying we can't positively affirm empiricism to this statement. Unless of course it is part of the denial of our essential humanity stuff and your very own Catch 22. In which case it seems you are just doing the armchair philosophical equivalent of saying, "If I told you that, I'd have to kill you."

    More please. This is fun.

  • Comment number 57.

    So in short, you disagree with my definition of empiricism. But you offer no criticism of it by charging on ahead with an essay on what you think are the implications of YOUR definition of empiricism. I am left to infer that you disagree with my understanding of empiricism by way of the fact that you do not mention it. I could speculate as to why you've done this, and failing a proper response from you that is what I intend to do.

    I would prefer that you engage with the arguments I have made as they have been presented to you, instead of categorising them under schools of philosophy that I've not even read, let alone pinned my colours to the flag of. The fact that I am unfamiliar with these schools of thought means that, if you read what I have actually written, perhaps you will discover that there are subtle differences between my arguments and the ones you blithely lump them in with.

    There is a huge difference between simple sensory perception and painstakingly produced empirical evidence, as well you know. Do not misleadingly present the two as synonyms.

    You have failed to address my discourse upon the relativity of certainty we can attach to knowledge. You therefore have not approached the central pillar of my argument. Which is that subjecting knowledge to the rigours of the empirical process confers upon the knowledge that survives a certainty that we cannot attribute to any other type of knowledge. That certainty is lacking in any theistic hypothesis thus far posited, and has elicited a divided response from theism.

    Either we are told that the empirical process is unsuitable for questions of this type, or that the universe is constructed in such a way as to make empirical evidence on this subject impossible to acquire.

    The first argument essentially requests clemency from the rigours of the empirical process, implying that, somehow, the question of the existence of God must be judged a case worthy of special status, beyond the remit of empirical investigation. It is not. The question of God's existence is a scientific one, regardless of whether or not science is equipped to answer the question definitively at this moment in time. Applying the empirical process to the evidence thus far gathered, the only correct response is to state that there is no verifiable evidence to support the hypothesis at this time. I invite you, and theists in general, to gather more evidence for your hypothesis if you hope to earn legitimate certainty for your hypothesis.

    The second argument deserves only a brief response. 'Really? How convenient for your argument and your beliefs! Not good enough to persuade me to relinquish my skepticism though!'

  • Comment number 58.

    Actually, I do feel this discussion's going somewhere for a change!

  • Comment number 59.

    OK, I have to apologise to you LSV; I had intended to allow you the right of reply, but I rather ineptly posted the whole thing in one go. If you can address the issues raised in the first part of my post I will gladly reconsider everything written after, 'There is a huge difference between...'

  • Comment number 60.

    >47. Jim writes: "I normally enjoy your reports William, but you are quite wrong in your comments in relation to child sex abuse scandals - the primary responsibility for investigating such matters is for diocesan bishops, not for the CDF. The CDF's primary responsibility is for ensuring that the faithful understand the Magisterium of the Catholic Church, and, equally, that they are not led astray by priests/bishops who may in error as to certain elements of teaching."

    Sorry, Jim, but the CDF has assumed responsibility in child abuse cases relating to priests. It's role is NOT simply to address issues of teaching. I made a TV investigation programme from Rome exploring the CDF's role. You can read their guidelines, which summarise this responsibility, here:


  • Comment number 61.

    The empiricism discussion is interesting, but can we return to the subject of this thread? Owen O'Sullivan's experience merits discussion.

  • Comment number 62.

    Sorreee, Will.

    LSV, if you are up for it, lift up an open thread.

  • Comment number 63.

    I find it fascinating that the same old arguments are rolled out to justify the most obnoxious bullying by the hierarchy i.e. that someone who spoke against his political party, or employers, or golf club(!) could justifiably be kicked out of the said, party, job or golf club.

    This argument goes against everything Ratzinger is presently preaching i.e. The Church is NOT a secular organisation and should not behave like one.

    The truth is that Ratzi's anti-secular nonsense is just an intellectual smoke screen for his real agenda - a return to the perceived halcion days of yore, and the 'duty to save the faithful from falling into error' is simply a desperate attempt to cling to their own power and to demolish anyone who points that out to them.

  • Comment number 64.

    William, to some extent your raising of the child sexual abuse issue is a red herring - clearly, if such allegations are made against a priest, and the diocesan bishop, after his initial investigation, refers the matter to the CDF, investigation of such an issue by the CDF is likely, in order to allow for due process, and a full exploration of all the facts, to take more time than an investigation in relation to an article/book that might be in error. In the latter case, the error is normally plain from the article/book, without further investigation being necessary. So you are in a sense comparing apples with oranges, the two sorts of investigations by the CDF are quite different.

    The key issue that you raise in your article above is what is the level of freedom accorded to theological discussion within the Catholic Church on sensitive/controversial aspects of Church teaching. This is a difficult and complex topic. In thinking about this, it is not necessarily helpful to approach this issue with what one might call a "Protestant mindset". In Protestant ecclesial communities, there is a emphasis on free thinking/elements of democracy; an emphasis on justification by faith alone; and an emphasis on the primacy of individual conscience. In the Catholic Church, there is an emphasis on the Church as sacrament/community; less of an emphasis on the individual; more of an emphasis on settled doctrine, to which the faithful accord; and an important concept of doctrine being the sensus fidelium, the "sense of the faithful". There is an old saying, in relation to the last concept, that the Catholic Church can only change doctrine as fast as its slowest member will permit.

    From a Protestant perspective, the policing of theological discussions by the CDF can seem oppressive and anti-democratic. But the Catholic Church, which see itself as guarding the divine revealed Truth, by its very nature does not set out to be a democratic organisation. The possibility of erroneous thought leading the faithful astray from their rightful place at the right hand of the Father in Heaven is potentially a great evil. The need to avoid such an evil outweighs any general right for Catholic theologians to be permitted an "anything goes" theological debate on issues that are settled Church teaching. Theological discussion therefore quite logically takes place within defined parameters, set down by the Magisterium of the Church. For the Catholic Church, the divine, revealed Truth must always be defended vigorously.

    To check out these issues further, I would suggest that you check out the following two resources:

    (a) The "Instruction on the ecclesial vocation of the theologian", adopted by the CDF in 1990, when the Holy Father was then Prefect for the CDF, see the link here- http://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/congregations/cfaith/documents/rc_con_cfaith_doc_19900524_theologian-vocation_en.html
    In particular, this document makes the pertinent point that the ideology of philosophical liberalism, which permeates the thinking of our age, idolises freedom of judgment to such an extent that freedom of judgment becomes more important than the truth itself which one is attempting to examine.

    (b) Chapter 1 ("Ratzinger and contemporary theological circles") of Tracey Rowlands' excellent study of the theology of Pope Benedict XVI, "Ratzinger's Faith: the Theology of Pope Benedict XVI" (Oxford University Press, 2008), where there is a helpful discussion of this precise issue.

    Best wishes, Jim

  • Comment number 65.

    Come on Will, if sticking to the topic rigidly was such a priority for you then I'd suggest you should have brought the matter up 40 posts ago! In order to carry on the debate somewhere more acceptable, would you permit LSV to use this thread to direct me there?

    Incidentally, the point I initially contributed to the debate has been largely ignored. If anyone's interested, check out the last paragraph of post 16.

    To that, I'd further suggest that if the Catholic Church judges itself entitled to act so fiercely in defence of its doctrine even where it is opposed by proven fact, why would anyone think that they would have more respect for free debate in this case? The issue is clearly addressed by established doctrine and this case is not one that involves objective fact, but judgemental opinion.

    The reason there is no debate about the actions of the Church is because there is no surprise. Catholics will point out the consistency of their Church's behaviour and nobody else is foolish enough to expect Catholics to enter free and open personal debate, especially on the issues raised, because dissent is not a valued part of their culture.

  • Comment number 66.

    Jim, first you tell me I am wrong -- that the CDF do not have competence in cases of child sexual abuse. Then when I provide you with evidence that they DO have competence, you accept this evidence and tell me I am raising a red herring!

    On the wider point of how the church should police dissent, that's a serious question and one we'll discuss inn detail this Sunday on Sunday Sequence. The Catholic Church officially permits a certain measure of space for theological debate on a host of controversial issues, and there are many examples of Catholic theologians publishing articles and books that raise important questions about the church's teaching who have not been silenced by the CDF. So this intervention requires some examination.

    Some priests I've spoken to this week raise one possibility. When an Apostolic Visitation begins its work, they suggest, it can quickly turn into an exercise in policing orthodoxy rather than dealing with the issues prompting the Visitation (in the case of Ireland, child abuse).

    As for the so-called Protestant mindset, I can assure you that many Protestant clergy would be out of a job if they preached in defence of same-sex relationships, so this kind of response is not limited to the Catholic Church.

    Pope Benedict's theology is an interesting topic, and I've interviewed the authors of half a dozen studies of his theology, along with some of his former students and colleagues (such as Hans Kung). Suffice to say that not all Catholic theologians and priests would accept that Benedict's approach to the contemporary world is either the most "Catholic" or the most persuasive.

    All of which points to the need for an continuing OPEN debate about theological ideas. But one voice that is now excluded from that public debate is Owen O'Sullivan's. He has been silenced.

    You are right to mention conscience, but it would be a mistake to regard this as a "protestant" idea. Conscience plays a fundamental role in Catholic theology and ethics. Consider this:

    "Man perceives and acknowledges the imperatives of the divine law through the mediation of conscience. In all his activity a man is bound to follow his conscience in order that he may come to God, the end and purpose of life. It follows that he is not to be forced to act in manner contrary to his conscience. Nor, on the other hand, is he to be restrained from acting in accordance with his conscience, especially in matters religious."

    This is from the Vatican II document DIGNITATIS HUMANAE. Has Fr Owen O'Sullivan been "restrained from acting in accordance with his conscience"?

  • Comment number 67.

    Will, it only merits discussion if your contributors judge it to be so. I think if I were you, I might be wary of trying to solicit discussion so directly. I'm not going so far as to criticise the action directly in this case. I don't want to pre-empt a potential debate; I might be totally wrong about this. But I think it might give the impression that the topic wasn't a strong strong enough issue to begin with if it needed a secondary plea for discussion.

  • Comment number 68.

    See I like that much better Will. I think contributing to the debate is a much more powerful way of encouraging it than simply requesting contribution. I'm interested now!

    Do you think the reason this particular priest was sanctioned in this way was in any way to do with a perception that he'd overstepped his place?

    There's a difference between making a personal statement of position and coming out with statements that imply the certainty of conviction that this priest's tone implies. I think perhaps the problem was not a priest expressing his views, but rather the way he phrased his message not being perceived to show adequate respect for the authority of the Church to which he is publicly affiliated with. That and the fact that he attempted to circumvent the standard procedure proscribed for such debate.

    What this says about the way the Church conducts itself is open to personal interpretation (unless you're a Catholic hohoho); I think the phrasing I've employed in previous posts implies what my own opinion is pretty clearly.

  • Comment number 69.

    Oh and Will, you may stress the need for OPEN debate on theological issues, but I feel the implication of this regarding the policy of the Catholic Church is that you are aiming a veiled criticism about the way they go about their business.

    In that case, may I refer you to the quote I referenced above?

    'I love my country (USA); therefore I reserve the right to criticise her incessantly.'

    I stated above that America's strength in this regard was the Catholic Church's weakness. How far would you go in agreeing with that sentiment?

  • Comment number 70.

    Sean (@ 65) -

    I've put something on the open thread, which is listed below.

    I've replied to grokesx, but not yet to you, but I will do.

  • Comment number 71.

    Nay bo, as the man might acceptingly verbalise!

  • Comment number 72.

    As for your final question Will, that's an easy one. There's a world of difference between acting according to one's conscience, and expressing your conscientious interpretation of an issue with such implied authority, under the banner of a religious organisation (whose whole business, one might argue, is authoritative conscientious interpretation) that you know for certain fundamentally opposes your interpretation.

    In other words, the doctrine you quoted above doesn't permit a priest to mouth off so publicly!

  • Comment number 73.

    Jim Arnauld , let's be clear. Stop immersing yourself in self-delusion & offloading criticism as being from a *protestant mindset*
    This *mindset* you criticize is mainly displayed by Catholics inside & outside the Church.These critics might not tow the line,but the goodness in their hearts and souls stands up for what is objectionable and evil.Some, like father O'Sullivan are also pragmatic enough to offer practical solutions, rather than tut tut,simply denounce or cover it up.

    Many lay Catholics critical of the hierachy can't understand how so much abuse was allowed to continue unabated.In many peoples eyes, it has become the only lense through which they see the Catholic Church.It has coloured perception so inextricably

    Tell me, what could explain those who seek spiritual authority on earth & find solace in the Catholic Church to exploit their positions of trust and responsability with such sexual depravity. The lack of action from the heirachy speaks. It says the Catholic Church condones and engenders these type of behaviour. The idea of men of the cloth, not only indulging in paedophilia , but under the banner of religion is an insult to every human being - their dignity and their human rights. It says the Catholic Church has more in common with baphomet than Christ

    You talk of red herrings-there aren't any- it all matters. The sex abuse, the systemic cruelty unearthed in Catholic Childrens homes- the total disconnect and lack of understanding by Church hierachy to the needs of many Catholics to see accountability and democracy at work within the organisation- especially when so many people have struggled to achieve these Democratic freedoms for themselves in society -yet here you are saying Democracy is irrelevant & the rules here are the same as a gentlemans club.

    Only the ineptitude of the Catholic Church is prolonging & exacerbating their gradual fall from grace - by the unwillingless of those in charge to deal with it. It's no *Protestant mindset* that's driving tens of thousands of Catholics away from the Catholic Church. It's the Catholic Church doing it . The organisation must be in a catatonic stupor not to understand the extent to which they are out of step with the reality of the outside world. You will continue to be on the defensive until someone wise enough, high enough up the food chain is able to implement reforms to stem the bleeding. The *evil* you refer to is in your own Church, not outside it .That many don't comprehend that is a great pity.

    Interestingly- when you agree the Catholic Church is un-democratic as a way of defending its position, you automatically alientate most of those you reach out to. Very few wars are fought between 2 democratic nations. Maybe you would do well to understand why

  • Comment number 74.

    May I add to your excellent analysis, Ryan.

    Jim, your post is so profoundly sad. Karl Rahner once stated that it is a gift given to this age,namely, "The critical distance from the cross of Jesus Christ..." He meant that given our knowledge, the access we have to so much more understanding than our predecessors, we can approach the gospel in a far more enlightened manner. I wonder from your posts if you approach the gospel at all. Where is it in any of your outpourings? It is, as it were, posted missing.

    You are looking at faith like a doctor looking at medicine armed with a jar of leeches.

    You choose not to be enlightened, and to throw that gift away. You approach faith - and use the same language - as some medieval cleric who still believes the earth is flat. He had an excuse, he was unenlightened, he had no access to the knowledge - the gift - we have been given. You have access to that knowledge, but refuse it. Therefore your guilt is the greater.

    Someone, somewhere has walked much more than a few miles to make a proselyte of you - and make you twice as fit for hell as they.

    Page after page of the gospel warn us against the very things that your posts exemplify, the attitude you display.

    See how easy you dismiss the horror of the hierarchy's willful and culpable innaction over child abuse. And see how readily you would pull the lever on the gallows to send a very holy and good priest to his death, never for one second countenancing the thought that maybe, just maybe, this man is speaking the truth. The cock was crowing deafeningly from your first sentence.

    So wrapped up in Denzinger, so immersed in selfrighteousness, so blind. I would like to say that I'll pray for you, but that would be a lie. I wont. I'll pray instead for your victims.

  • Comment number 75.

    Sean -- I'll continue to nudge contibutors towards the subject of a thread, as I've done many times before (and it's a pretty common thing to do amongst blog writers). I regularly post Open Threads to permit people to talk about any subject that takes their fancy without cluttering up or confusing a subject thread. I'll add another Open Post now.

  • Comment number 76.

    I take your point Will, it's perfectly right that you do so. I simply suspected that you could do better than your first attempt, which I feel you have proven me right about.

    Care to continue your involvement in the debate? I've asked a few questions in response to your post, and I'd be interested to read a response from you addressing them.


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