Acton Institute Powerblog

Samuel Gregg on Feelings and Reason

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Acton’s prolific director of research Samuel Gregg writes at Crisis Magazine about those who would modernize the Catholic Church (theologically): “Dissenting Catholics’ Modernity Problem.” His reflection centers on the thought of Pope Benedict XVI, whose recent visit toGermany brought the modernizers out of the woodwork, and whose speeches and writings have placed the faithful in their proper context.

Judging from the hundreds of thousands of Germans who attended and watched Pope Benedict XVI’s September trip to his homeland (not to mention the tsunami of commentaries sparked by his Bundestag address), the pope’s visit was — once again — a success. And, once again, it was also an occasion for self-identified dissenting Catholics to inform the rest of us what the Church must do if it wants to remain “relevant.” To no-one’s surprise, their bottom-line remains the same. The Church is “out of touch.” Why? Because it’s insufficiently “modern.”

The “we-must-be-more-modern” argument reflects the workings of a logic that privileges whatever is considered “contemporary” (an ever-moving target) over the knowledge imparted by Christ to His Church from its very beginning.

Such reasoning often runs along the following lines. In modernity, X is considered not good; ergo, the Church must accept X is not good. Or, modern people regard X as good or licit; ergo, the Church should teach X is good or licit.


You don’t need to be a professional philosopher to recognize that these are what logicians call non sequiturs: arguments in which the conclusions don’t follow from the premises. The fact that something is considered modern tells us nothing about its goodness or evil, let alone whether it conforms to the truth found in Divine Revelation. It also produces very strange arguments such as the claim made in 1968 (of course) by the ex-Jesuit theologian John Giles Milhaven, that “modern people” (whoever they are) by virtue of their “modernity of spirit” (whatever that means) enjoyed a type of “standing dispensation” from God to pursue what they “feel” to be good.

Gregg sets this post-Enlightenment ethic of feelings against the Church’s foundation in reason, which makes it truly catholic. Those who would re-orient the Church,

marginalize the conviction that the fullness of Christian truth is to be found in the reasonable faith entrusted to and proclaimed by the Church. And the faith of that Church goes beyond the particular views held by us today to embrace the right belief (orthosdoxa) of the whole communio of believers, the living and the dead, from the apostles onward — the truth of which is confirmed by the consensus of the Church Fathers, the lives of the saints, the witness of the martyrs, and the teaching authority of the successors of Peter and the other apostles.

Of course, Catholicism doesn’t have an in-principle opposition to the post-Enlightenment world per se, any more than it allegedly locates everything that is good and true in the 13th century. Any effort to associate the fullness of Catholic faith with any one historical period risks relativizing those truths knowable by faith and reason that transcend time and bind Catholics across the ages.

Perhaps such a relativizing is what many dissenting Catholic activists want. If so, they should concede that this would mean making the Church in their own image rather than that of Christ the Logos. And there is no surer way of making the Church truly irrelevant in a modern world that desperately needs more reason and light than emotivism and darkness.

Full text here.

Kenneth Spence


  • Don A.

    How many times do we hear “find a Church that fits you”, like we all need to go Church shopping because we have somehow been inspired with full knowledge.  That is great if all we are looking to do is justify our actions.  This is the audience that the “Reformers” want to target, but raises the question:  Does the Catholic Church want to stand with tradition and stay with what Christ charged us to do or be one of 30,000 other Christian congragations constantly changing to attract more people for the pews.  Is the Catholic Church in the business of Popularity or Salvation?

    My reply when I hear “Find a Church that fits you” is “Find the truth and fit yourself to it” instead.  I am a Catholic Convert, and have seen both sides of this coin.

    • I agree…in all but one aspect. We all believe in our own sense of the truth and that is where the phrase “find a Church that fits you” originates. It is not that we know the answer but that we can tell when one answer is wrong.

  • Mts0130

    Seems to me your points reflect ‘logic and reason’ stuck in a medieval scholastic perspective. Valid as this perspective was, it does not reflect higher, deeper and more inclusive levels of awareness that have manifested since this period. What frustrates many post-modern or even post-post-modern Catholics is that the Vatican seems ‘frozen’ in its perspective(s) as if new ones never arise disclosing relevant truth. And if one acknowledges the truth manifested in the fact that we evolve and actually are transformed through this process (something not known or revealed even to Jesus), then the perspectives that were relevant to ‘pre-modernity or even modernity’ are less relevant today since they have been transcended through evolution. I am not stating that these perspectives were not valid. They were at the time they manifested. The fault lies in the claim that ‘this perspective is the final truth and no new perspective(s) can arise’. A good read on this would be the writings of Ken Wilber or Ilia Delio’s latest ‘The Emergent Christ: Exploring the Meaning of Catholic in an Evolutionary Universe’.

    • Since you claim to have evolved to a higher awareness “not known or even revealed to Jesus,” you have taken on the mantle of being greater than God. However, I find no reason in reading this post to give any credence to your claim.

  • Roger McKinney

    The Church is definitely out of touch! But so is
    conservative Protestantism. We hold to an outdate view of truth: it is
    objective and always the same. Modernists see objective truth as existing only
    in the natural sciences, an attitude that Hayek labeled scientism. Since
    religion is not part of the natural sciences, it can’t possibly have any truth.
    All that the Church can claim is opinion, and since opinions change with time
    so should the Church.

    As far as I know, God hasn’t changed since the middle ages
    and neither has human nature, so any truths related to those haven’t changed
    either. I don’t understand why such reformers don’t form their own church so
    they can change doctrines like they change clothes. Oh wait! Mainstream
    Protestant groups, such as the Episcopalians, Lutherans, Methodists and
    Presbyterians, tried that and they are dying.