Yesterday, I found a book online by American Catholic ecumenical theologian Jeffrey Gros called “The Ecumenical Christian Dialogues and the Catechism of the Catholic Church”. It looks good and I have ordered a copy. Gros sets out to offer
selections from ecumenical dialogues formally sponsored by the Catholic Church arranged according to the order of the Cathechism of the Catholic Church; readers can learn what the Catholic Church believes and what other Christian churches believe on the same topic gathered together.
Isnt’ that a neat idea? I hope the project lives up to my expectations.
This leads me to another thought. In the combox on the previous post, Tony asked “what is ‘prevailing secular ideology’?” that the Holy Father refers to? It is true that we don’t have a collection of secular doctrines neatly arranged as a sort of “Secular Catechism” – but wouldn’t it be helpful if we did?
I was led to thinking about this when listening to an episode of ABC Radio National’s Encounter on then new secular ethics classes in NSW schools as an alternative to the religion classes. In this episode, Fr Gerald Gleeson (Professor of Philosophy at the Catholic Institute of Sydney) says:
Well secular ethics is part of a project of modernity. Philosophers think of modernity beginning about 400 years ago and it really begins with the attempt to rebuild the foundations of human knowledge and truth, but to build them on a human foundation. Now to some extent, what they were doing was understandable, they were reacting against the wars of religion, against misbehaviour of all sorts of people, and so the modern philosophers said, ‘Look, let’s start again. Let’s work out for ourselves what’s true and false, good and bad and so on’. And to some extent, this is an experiment, and Immanuel Kant actually describes his work as an experiment. Let’s see if we can make some progress if we say that everything has to be relative to the human understanding. [there is a connection here with Tracey Rowland’s recent article in the Tablet]
Now for a number of centuries, this modern project worked because it was still trading on a lot of inherited Christian ethics. But the difficulty for secular ethics is that when you try to develop your ethical foundations on purely human terms, on what human reasoning can establish for itself, you end up with a very minimal framework. And so I suppose the sort of minimal framework that many people would have these days is that first of all they’d emphasise autonomy, individual personal freedom, people should be free to do what they like. Second rule: that they shouldn’t do harm to other people. They should try and do good and they should act fairly. Now these four principles if you like, have become the mantra of many approaches to secular ethics.
From this, we could put together a little “secular catechism” on principles of ethics that would include sections on:
1) Individual Autonomy
2) “Do no harm”
3) Try to do “Good”
4) Act Fairly
I think Fr Gleeson’s analysis is fairly accurate on these points. However, he then goes on to say (again, quite correctly):
The difficulty is that they don’t bring enough content with them. Because immediately you say, ‘Well what is to harm another person?’ and as soon as you ask that question, the debate all begins, because to have an understanding of what’s truly harmful to a person, you need to have some understanding of, well, what’s good for a person?
I’m not expecting an edition of “The Catechism of Secular Ideology” out soon, but wouldn’t it be useful for our dialogue with secularism if we had access to such a compendium?
As a side note, Encounter follows this episode up with another one on Progressive Religion and Ethics. This is all about the same subject that Rachel Kohn addressed on the Spirit of Things recently. Here again, David Rutlege asks Fred Plummer:
David Rutledge: A question often asked of Progressive Christians is: if you privilege good works over confessional beliefs in the Incarnation, the Resurrection and so on, what are you left with that’s distinctively Christian, and that you can’t get from Buddhism or Reform Judaism, or a course in secular ethics?
Fred Plumer: …for me, being a Christian means I have spent forty years of my life studying a particular man, and trying to sort out what it was he was teaching, and trying to live that, and having discoveries about who I am and what I am, and what the world is and what the universe is, as a result of that.
And that led me back to thinking, is it not one thing to study a man and try to follow his teachings, and another thing to actually be in a relationship with that man and try to follow him himself as a person? And that leads us back to Papa Ratzinger’s opening paragraph of his first encyclical (again, what Tracey was talking about in her article):
We have come to believe in God’s love: in these words the Christian can express the fundamental decision of his life. Being Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction.
Just some thoughts.