Professor Jim Sterba and the Arrogance of the Age

This is a revised version of my earlier post by the same title, which was submitted to but not published in Notre Dame’s Irish Rover.

In the last edition of the Irish Rover, Dr. Jim Sterba, professor of philosophy at Notre Dame, offered remarks in “Point-counterpoint: debating Notre Dame’s HHS lawsuit.” At the crux of his argument is the claim that, if the University is to be successful in its lawsuit, it “should abandon its opposition to providing contraceptives, unless it can come up with a reason-alone (non-religiously-based) argument in support of its opposition.” Indeed, a reason-based argument is one that ought to be sought out by the University and its members. However, the motivations to pursue such an argument, as stated in this article, are quite questionable.

The article is right to cite that a Thomistic doctrine exists, teaching that “faith and reason do not conflict.” However, in his Summa Contra Gentiles, Aquinas chides those who “think that points which reason is unable to investigate ought not to be proposed to man to believe, since Divine Wisdom provides for every being according to the measure of its nature.” Man, not being God, is neither privileged to nor capable of understanding all things. Thus, the acceptance of faith is quite the opposite of how this article presents it. It is not that faith ought to be rejected by society until it is rationally justified. Rather, it is reason that ought to be questioned by the faithful when the truth of reality seems to contradict a tenet of faith. As a philosophy major, I know how frail and petty pursuits by human reason can be, and I am quite thankful that all belief does not require a logical justification.

However, the article in question does not seem to exhibit such a gratitude in its forced manipulation of Thomistic doctrine. Such manipulation may remind one of a recent petition against Notre Dame’s lawsuit, which Professor Sterba signed. The petition claims that the requirement that Notre Dame provide contraception does “not appear to be intrinsically wrong… The [Thomistic] doctrine of double effect allows as morally permissible actions which are not intrinsically wrong, even if they have foreseen harmful effects.” Here, the signers disregard the fact that the Catechism of the Catholic Church states explicitly that any action seeking “to render procreation impossible is intrinsically evil” (2370), and, thus, a Catholic institution directly providing contraception for such ends is committing an evil. The doctrine of double effect cannot be applied here.

Further, Professor Sterba’s article fails to provide a tenable account of what constitutes a tenet of the Catholic faith. It suggests that the freedom of Catholics who “interpret their religion as permitting the use and favoring the provision of contraceptives” would be restricted by the failure of the University to provide contraceptives. How a Catholic could interpret the Church’s explicit teaching, that contraception is “intrinsically evil,” to permit the use and favor the provision of contraceptives is beyond me.

Finally, this article does not seem to be interested in religious freedom at all. Rather, like the healthcare mandate, it places the will of the individual as the supreme good and suggests that one is only bound by narrow “reason-alone” justifications. One would wonder whether its arguments could permit institutional religion and religious institutions to exist in society. It states, “If… we then limit ourselves to enforcing only requirements that are justified on reason-alone, then we won’t have to interfere with the freedom of religion of anyone.” In such a case, we would not be concerned with religious freedom, because there could exist no religious institutions at all.

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