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Feser: "[D]iscourse of Pope Francis’s defenders has essentially degenerated into a voluntarist war of wills, rather than a rational discussion..Benedict XVI emphasized that for Catholicism, God is not conceived of in voluntarist terms"

The discourse of Pope Francis’s defenders has essentially degenerated into a voluntarist war of wills, rather than a rational discussion between disagreeing intellects. Every criticism is attributed to bad motives. Every argument boils down to an appeal to authority. And counter-arguments are evaluated as if they were appeals to some rival authority. (I find that no matter what argument you give them from scripture, tradition, previous popes, natural law, philosophy, etc., they routinely spin it as if you were somehow appealing to your own “authority” and pitting it against the pope’s.) These people have come habitually to think and feel in authoritarian terms and couldn’t reason their way out of a paper bag. They refuse to engage others at the intellectual level, but see only malign agents who must be condemned rather than argued with. This is contrary to reason and contrary to charity. In his famous Regensburg address, Pope Benedict XVI emphasized that for Catholicism, God is not conceived of in voluntarist terms – that is to say, not as a blind, overwhelming will that simply wills what it wills with no rhyme or reason – but rather as an infinitely wise intellect whose commands are always intelligible. And he emphasized elsewhere that popes have to govern in like manner. Naturally, that does not mean that they do not exercise authority. But the demands of reason and charity require that they exercise it in a reasonable way, not arbitrarily but in a manner that respects tradition, canon law, and the spiritual needs of the faithful, including their confidence in the consistency and continuity of the Church’s doctrine and liturgical practice. The irony is that Benedict had a reputation as a cruelly authoritarian “panzer cardinal,” one entirely manufactured by the media. The reality is that he was gentle, scholarly, reasonable, and disinclined to punish. Francis, meanwhile, is constantly chatted up as merciful and easygoing when in reality his style of governance is sometimes punitive and routinely authoritarian, relying on diktat backed not by tradition, reason, or Church law – indeed, not infrequently they depart from one or more of these – but simply by the authority of his office. This style partially accounts for the quality of his defenders. Because those of an authoritarian bent are very impatient with reason and disagreement, they tend to favor those more easily swayed by emotion than strong in intellect, and those whose moral fiber is not too tough, lest they be resistant to his will when it is unreasonable. But the attraction goes the other way as well. Those of weak intellect and weak moral character are sometimes also attracted to authoritarians. Virtue is easier when it boils down to just agreeing with whatever the authority says, however arbitrary. Indeed, a willingness to go along with arbitrary and irrational decrees – which, because of their arbitrariness and irrationality, are bound to be resisted by others – can seem to make one more virtuous than others. (“See, I’m obedient, and all these other people are not!”) For the same reason, those of weak intellect can be drawn to irrational teaching. For one thing, they are less likely to be bothered by contradictions, bad arguments, lack of evidence, etc. For another, because such teachings are irrational, they are bound to be resisted by many. This gives the weak-minded person an opportunity to think himself wiser than others. (“See, I embrace this teaching, while all these smarty-pants types don’t understand it!”) Because this kind of situation is contrary to our nature as rational beings, it does great damage to any social order in which it prevails. It introduces too much chaos, and generates too much division, and ultimately revulsion, among those governed by it. For that reason it is also unlikely to last. But restoring peace to the Church – true peace, the tranquility of order, as Augustine defines it – will require a pope with a will no less strong than Francis’s, but a will governed by an intellect more like Benedict’s.


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