The Feuerbach Exchange: an Application

Let’s apply this, shall we? This notion of that God represents humanity’s attempt to understand itself. Rather than rummage through old religious doctrine, let’s examine something political.

Just perusing the news of the day, I suppose the issue of contraceptives will do. The Catholic Conference of Bishops objects that they should not have to pay for insurance coverage for contraceptives for their employees. If we want to know what “God” thinks about this issue, according to Feuerbach we should try (and no doubt fail, but at least try) to guess what opinion “humanity” as a species might have. We employ anthropomorphic imagination and various other tricks developed by religion over millennia for making “God” in our own image as an intelligent, intentional entity, capable of having an opinion and communicating it with language. The difference being, we do not limit ourselves to the canon of sacred text or official opinions (in Greek: “dogma”) crafted over the centuries by experts sitting in committees.

First, though, let’s review the best opinion crafted the traditional way. The current Catholic position on contraceptives is a long-standing position of the Church. The Old Testament is not entirely clear on the matter. It contains some artifacts of archaic practices such as the rite of Sotah described in Numbers, chapter 5, where a woman accused of adultery was given an abortifacient to drink.

By the time “Christians” appeared (as a distinct Jewish sect) that was entirely gone. This was probably a reaction to the dominant Hellenic (Greek and Roman) culture in which killing unwanted or sickly infants was permitted. Hence the Oedipus myth: he was called “oedipus” or club-foot because he was left with a stake through his foot at a cross-roads, in the then-traditional method of disposing of unwanted children. (He somehow survived and was raised by wolves, only to return to depose and murder his father and take his mother as wife). There is ample evidence that Semitic peoples, including the Jews, practiced child sacrifice for religious reasons, the most astounding example being the story of Abraham and Isaac. In that very story, however, we see a transition to a new agreement with God that child sacrifice is deprecated. Rabbis and early Christian leaders were pretty much resolved against any kind of contraceptive or abortion by the First Century. The only question remaining was the legal status of the conduct of terminating a pregnancy, and what penalty attached in different cases, i.e. spontaneous miscarriage, accidentally caused abortion, at different stages of pregnancy and so on.

Gregory XIV, in 1591, reserved excommunication (the penalty for intentional homicide) to the killing of a “formed” fetus, relying on the Aristotelian view that a human fetus is “animated” (acquires a “soul”) only after 40-90 days after conception. In a city full of prostitutes, as Rome was in Gregory XIV’s time, pronouncements on the legality of abortion had immediate and dire practical and political consequences. In these days the Pope was a temporal ruler as well as a religious leader. Gregory, for example, raised an army to intervene in the French wars of religion against Henry IV.

The Catholic Church’s willingness to make legal, if not moral compromises ended at about the same time as its political sovereignty. Prior to 1870, the Popes actually ruled (or mis-ruled) some Italian territories as King. After losing French military support as a result of the Franco-Prussian War, revolutionaries captured Rome and deposed the Pope, after which he styled himself a “prisoner of the Vatican”, that is, the few blocks of the Eternal City which the Church was allowed to control and still controls to this day. Shortly before his final, total defeat as sovereign and general, in the 1869, Bull Apostolicae Sedis, Pius IX rescinded Gregory XIV’s not-yet-animated fetus exception and re-enacted the penalty of excommunication for abortions at any stage of pregnancy.

As a result of my half-Protestant, half-humanist upbringing, I must admit I could not possibly give an unbiased account of the Pius IX and the transformation of the Roman Catholic Church under his leadership. I think it’s fair to state, however, that Church reform coincided with loss of political power. Against the background of the Italian Risorgiamento (resurgence: the name given to the century-long process of Italian unification and establishment of a democratic republic) Pius IX convened the First Vatican Council, enacted the doctrine of “infallibility” and elevated the notion of the Immaculate Conception of Mary to an official church doctrine. Pius IX was a political liberal when he began as sovereign of the Papal States, and became a conservative as he lost the struggle with republican revolutionaries for control over his territories within a unified Italian nation. What was “liberal” then, of course, was rather contextual. For example, while his predecessors had banned the development of railways in the Papal State, and Pius IX encouraged them, along with other kinds of economic development. Fighting with the republican revolutionaries for control of the Papal States, however, seems to have converted Pius IX into a bitter, reactionary conservative. For example, in his liberal phase he moderated discrimination against Jews in his Catholic theocratic state by opening the Jewish Ghetto of Rome, but in his later conservative years he closed the Ghetto once again.

From my perspective then, everything the Church says about contraception comes from a group that once ruled the “known world” (at the height of its power during the decline of the Roman Empire) and constantly reminds us that it would like to do so again. They seem very bitter about the fact that everyone now laughs at their threats of excommunication, that someone like Stalin could dismiss the Pope’s relevnce with the question “how many divisions has he got?” (The Second World War(1948) by Winston Churchill, vol. 1, ch. 8, p. 105.). This is a group that would use the arm of the State and the sword of Justice to force you to drop out of school or quit your job to have a baby. While they are currently limited to using the persuasive powers of reason and superstition as the only tools at their disposal, that was not by choice.

That having been said, at least you can have a rational conversation with these guys, and trust that many of them have been thinking about this and deliberating about it for thousands of years. Not so with the conservative Evangelical Protestants, who will toss arguments they came up with about five minutes ago (and took about five minutes to bake up from their dough of whacky Biblical misinterpretation). There was no consensus on contraceptives among conservative Protestants until just a few years ago, when they jumped on the Catholic pro-Life bandwagon, apparently in reaction to the success of second-wave feminism and the entry of many women into the workforce, and into the ranks of hitherto all-male professional preserves, including the Protestant clergy in the mainline liberal denominations.

Thus, while I am biased against the Roman Catholic Church, I have some respect for its opinions. What marks Apostolicae Sedis as a legal code, moreover, is the recognition of advances in human embryology and a rejection of the use of Aristotelian theories which Gregory had found politically convenient. Evidently the Church had come a long way since its bungling of the Copernican Revolution and the trial of Galileo. While it was easier for Pius IX to take a principled stand on abortion after he had lost the temporal authority and responsibility for enforcing it, it has withstood the test of time and has been incorporated into an ever-more sophisticated “theological anthropology” as the Church continues to monitor, debate and deliberate over the implications of developments in the sciences of human reproduction. As hitherto unthinkable processes, like “asexual human reproduction”, became practical possibilities, the Vatican has poured thousands if not millions of man-hours cogitating about the implications, and you can be sure they didn’t waste too much of that time (maybe a little) reinterpreting Aristotle’s De Anima, or re-hashing the pros and cons set forth in the Summa of Aquinas.

All of which is to say, at least with the Catholic Bishops you can have a rational conversation. That having been said, just who do the Bishops represent? Our premise of God as humanity mandates that we try to ascertain this. The Vatican does not speak for (though it might speak to… with varying degrees of animosity) the billions of people who are not Christian. It lost the authority to speak for the Orthodox around 1000 CE and for the Protestants in the years around 1500. On the issue of contraceptives, the Vatican doesn’t even speak for most Catholics, who use them and will no doubt continue to do so.

Following the dictum of Dennis the Peasant (Monty Python’s Holy Grail) that “supreme executive power derives from a mandate from the masses” the Catholic Bishops would appear to have none. And as a lawyer I can assure you that their position in a United States court is completely untenable, perhaps even sanctionable as frivolous. Whatever the status of the Bishops’s position against paying for contraceptives for their employees might have as “morality”, it is certainly not a viable legal position in the United States. The Supreme Court covered this in United States v. Lee, 455 U.S. 252 (1982), which involved the Amish, who don’t approve of Social Security, believing that it is an individual or community religious duty to care for the elderly and disabled, which should not be delegated to the temporal government. Congress gave them a religious exemption, if they were self-employed. If they employed others, however, they were required to withhold and pay Social Security taxes for their employees regardless of their objections. Under the Free Exercise clause, the rule is to accommodate religious practice where possible and practical. The Court in Lee found the existing self-employment religious exemption was enough of an accommodation, reasoning that without some limit, the tax code would be swallowed up with religious exemptions (the opinion mentions pacifists objecting to war taxes). The analogy to insurance coverage seems pretty straightforward. Mandating employers to pay for health insurance for their employees is a kind of tax. A religious accommodation has been made for employees of religious institutions, but not church-affiliated commercial or charitable agencies.

The sphere of autonomy with respect to our bodies and our reproductive decisions was expanded in the Griswold case to include laws prohibiting the sale or distribution of contraceptives. This wasn’t moral approval or disapproval, it was an announcement that government (whether by a “mandate from the masses” or not) cannot be allowed to make decisions in this area. While many people take Griswold as legal “approval” of the use of contraceptives, just as they take Roe v. Wade as approval of abortions, that is not the intent, though it seems to have been the effect. The difference can be illustrated by considering whether the government should be allowed to require certain people to use contraceptives, as in the case of China’s One Child policy. Put in that way, I think even the Catholic Conference of Bishops would have to agree that government or majority rule does not have jurisdiction over the matter, though of course they would defend their agreement on the grounds that forcing people to use contraceptives would be unjust or immoral, rather than a deprivation of an inalienable right to privacy.

There are now 7 billion people in the world, and few of them express even nominal allegiance to the Church, and even most Catholics ignore the Church’s positions on contraceptives. This doesn’t result from a failure of education. It results from the fact that the dogmas of the Church are utterly preposterous and the human mind simply refuses to accept, absorb and live by them. Authority in the Church, however, doesn’t come from opinion polls, from the conduct of Church members, or from “a mandate from the masses”. It is based on the inspiration of the Holy Spirit as revealed in scripture and tradition.

Many positive things can be said about tradition, primarily that it moderates and mediates the conflicts between personal and individual moral positions, and tends to smooth off the rough edges created by personal self-interest or the biases inherent in solutions to immediate crises in particular times, places and cases. We have a saying in American law, attributed to Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.: “widows and orphans make bad law”. Of course we make exceptions for unusual or sympathetic cases, and we should continue to look out for the “widows and orphans” and disadvantaged of all types. General principles of law, however, should not be based on the exceptional cases, they should be acknowledged as exceptions. In the United States, and everywhere the Anglo-American legal tradition holds sway, we give precedent a high value, up to the point where it conflicts with another kind of precedent: the Constitutional recognition of human rights, with which no government should be permitted to interfere.

Tradition is always relative and particular. It is narrow-minded because it comes from a particular time and space occupied by particular human beings, however impressively long that time period might be or the space occupied by the people who follow that tradition. The dodge used by Catholics is that the Holy Spirit inspires and elevates their peculiar apostolic tradition to the level of a universal and absolute morality for all times and places and all people. This is obviously bullshit. The use of religion as a means of social control created the “Catholic” church in the first place. Before its adoption as the state religion of the Roman Empire, Christianity existed in a splendid multiplicity reflecting the diversity of its geography, adherents and the preceding religious practices which it absorbed. (For example, the Eucharist symbolism of a feast of bread and wine as “body” and “blood” seems to have been based on Mithraic rites.) After the Roman Emperor Constantine adopted Christianity, however, he convened a number of councils to create a uniform dogma, a “catholic” (Greek for “universal”) theology. These councils were the source of the Nicene Creed and various articles of faith such as the mystical doctrine of the Trinity. The dogma were deliberately crafted to be illogical and preposterous (ask any knowledgable Muslim about the notion of “God” having a “Son”, for example) and thus suppress reasoned debate about the nature of God. Christians did, of course, continue to have reasoned debate about God’s nature, but forever afterward had to circle around certain mysteries as “given”.

This was the thrust of the second, “critical” part of Feuerbach’s Essence of Christianity, culminating with Chapter XXVI on the distinction between “Faith” and “Love”. “Faith” for Feuerbach is the negative tendency to make distinctions between humanity and God, and between believers and non-believers, and thus to insist on dogmas such that people’s religious ideas and feelings can be determined to be “true” or “false”, and thus leading to Heaven or Hell. Of course, critical dichotomies like this have been a constant feature of Christian thinking ever since Paul’s letters distinguishing “Law” and “Gospel”. A distinction between “faith” and “love” is a rhetorical device which has been used to convey the opposite of what Feuerbach meant (as with Karl Barth, who championed the absurd and the irrational qualities of Christian “faith” and deemed them essential to Christian theology and practice) or something entirely different, as in the case of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, whose expressed his horror over the transformation of the state church in Germany into a propaganda arm of the Nazi Party by talking about the distinction between “religion” and “revelation” (with “religion” taking on a distinctly negative and evil connotation not all that dissimilar from Feuerbach’s “faith”, but definitely referring to an organization which could be put under Fascist control through the simple expedient of appointing party agents to leadership positions in rigged elections).

We lawyers speak of “presumptions”. It is the nature of dogmatic religion to presume that dogma is true and seek to conform our understanding to it. With Feuerbach and virtually all liberal theology since, the presumption is reversed: the dogma is presumed to be a finite, limited, aesthetic image or symbol, a product of human imagination and not self-sufficient divine revelation, which must be interrogated to make it explain itself to us. An individual’s failure to understand is thus not evidence of “sin”, “brokenness” or serving the Devil, but to the contrary a natural starting point in a search for the meaning or beauty in the doctrine. For me the mysteries are not “given”, but to the contrary stand accused of being unintelligible, or superstitious gibberish. It is the nature of “presumptions” in the law, however, that they can be rebutted with evidence to the contrary. I remain open to the possibility of truth and beauty in apparently nonsensical expressions such as the Easter story of Jesus’ resurrection, and mindful of Paul’s dictum that “faith” is the “evidence of things not seen”. Meaning could well emerge, but I’m not going to hold my breath waiting for it to reveal itself.

So the position of the Catholic Bishops of the United States stands as an attempt to invoke the authority and general validity of a tradition as such (in the case of contraceptives, one that substantially predates any scientific understanding of embryology and the technological ability to control reproduction via hormone therapy). A tradition is always going to incorporate more facts, more points of view, more applications to a variety of specific problems, than a single person’s hastily conceived opinion based on personal biases or limited to a specific problem at hand. Tradition, as such, therefore moves toward the conception of God offered to us by Feuerbach, that of species-level self-understanding. But it still falls well short. The Catholic tradition is primarily European and limited to a relatively brief slice of historical time. The human species as currently constituted, however, has existed for hundreds of thousands of years before that, and hopefully will continue for hundreds of thousands more.

A full account of the human stance toward contraceptives would have to include viewpoints from the deep past, and to the extent we can imagine it, the future. For me, what emerges from trying to think like that is no general rule, with which we can critique the Catholic position as “right” or “wrong”. Rather, I have a strong feeling that “it depends”. Precisely what “it” (morality) “depends” on is something Feuerbach is rather weak on, if we consider carefully what his Marxist critics had to say about him later. They in turn asserted that “morality” was an ideological superstructure erected upon the basis of economics: class struggle over the means of production, to be precise. One could criticize the Marxists in turn for being overly narrow in their fixation on a particular period in history and the economic transition which dominated it: the transition from feudal to industrial means of production.

One cannot simply take a poll or hold a referendum of all humanity, past, present and future. Attempts to find propositions which everyone at all times would agree with either suffer from generality to the point of uselessness or a peculiar political bias (such as that of the Catholic Church) which refuses to recognize itself as biased.

Nor does “science” help us out. One could state as empirical “fact” that we already have quite enough human beings, and that population growth at current levels is not ecologically sustainable. We’ve heard this “fact” restated in many different ways and with different timelines since the days of Malthus (1798). On the other hand, it appears that once people have reached a certain standard of living, population growth tends the slow down to below replacement rate and thus, without any overt interference from Church or State, our population “bomb” seems to defuse itself. Of course, “standard of living” includes access to contraceptives, and what follows from that, a real and viable opportunity for women to pursue education and a personally and financially rewarding career. So it seems that “science” suggests a pro-choice position on contraceptives, but that’s not really “science” there. That’s “science” plus certain political and moral choices about the right way to treat fellow human beings. From a strictly empirical, “scientific” standpoint, just killing a few billion people would be a more direct and efficient solution to overpopulation. We reject that solution for moral reasons.

When the Catholic Church consecrates a female Pope, or even just a bishop or two, I suppose we can take them more seriously on this issue. In the end, I suppose that’s all I can say for my experiment of holding this particular Catholic doctrine up to the Feuerbachian measuring stick of God-as-humanity. Until you include the viewpoint of half of humanity –the female half– you can’t really say you’re speaking for God.

Of course, this indictment of the Catholic Church as narrow-minded and patriarchal flows directly from the issue chosen: contraceptives. Other religious groups and dogmas could be criticized in a similar manner if we chose some other issue in which “religion” or “morals” sought to intrude into the political sphere. And, because I started with an “issue”, the use of Feuerbach had to be negative and critical. There is also a positive side to Feuerbach which I haven’t mentioned in this essay at all. Suffice to say that I remain open to a Christian God who is something more than all-of-humanity, something or someone “transcendant”, but until I find a Christian sect that at least passes the all-of-humanity test, that receptiveness remains unchallenged.

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About Hazen Hammel

Lawyer, husband, father, and explorer of ancient intellectual ruins.
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