de la Bédoyère’s Maxims, No. 1

A maxim is never completely true nor completely false; it is only of value to the active mind.

Truth is to be found at the place that the three roads meet: the road of paradox, the road of ambiguity and the road of contradiction. Oedipus found this out – too late.

The immature continually seek clear and certain answers; the mature know that they must often live with ambivalence and make the best of that.

If it is true that all men are at heart rapists then it is true that all women are at heart prostitutes. But it isn’t true.

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About Quentin

Science Editor, Catholic Herald. Portrait © Jacqueline Alma
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19 Responses to de la Bédoyère’s Maxims, No. 1

  1. John McClymont says:

    My reaction to the second maxim: I don’t believe that reality is genuinely contradictory but that it may appear contradictory owing to our incomplete knowledge. In order to validly use “paradox” we need to get firm evidence for both sides of the apparent contradiction. Otherwise our paradox may be simply an absurdity.

    On the other hand it is worth remembering that apparent contradictions in the sources of faith, between faith and science etc may simply arise from incompleteness of understanding, to be expected when dealing with religion. As Newman said “ten thousand difficulties do not make one doubt”.

  2. Frank says:

    About Maxim 3.
    I continually seek clear and certain answers – and I look to the Church to provide them. That is why I am a Catholic. Does this mean that Catholics are immature?

  3. Blue says:

    Not sure that John McClymont is right. We believe that every good thing we do is the work of grace, and we believe that we truly do it and so become holier. This looks like a paradox we can never solve, but exploring it seems to get us a little closer to understanding.

    Just for fun, how would he deal with a statement “I am a liar”. But if I am a liar then the statement that I am cannot be true.

  4. Frank has asked a key question: what is a mature Catholic? Is it the old lady who accepts everything the Church teaches, tells her beads throughout daily Mass and is close to God.

    Or is it the Catholic who thinks a great deal, and perhaps reserves his opinion on a number of Catholic teachings?

    I do hope someone will take up his challenge so that we can tease this out.

    Quentin

  5. Frank says:

    It depends what the teachings are, that he reserves his opinion about. Obviously, you can’t have an ‘opinion’ about the Trinity – that is revelation and we must accept it, whether we are the old lady in the pew or the ‘thinking’ Catholic. (Incidentally, why does Quentin imply that the old lady is bereft of brain power!).

    Don’t the saints accept everything the Church teaches? And don’t we want to imitate the saints?!

    A friend phoned me last week to point out the (millionth?) Letter in The Tablet, stating that Catholics can safely reject Humanae Vitae because it is not an infallible document and the ‘People of God’ are clever enough to have worked this out. But I understand that the recent Popes (JP II, Benedict XVI) have upheld Pope Paul.

    Presumably these Popes are thinking Catholics? (As well as being devoted to the Rosary).

  6. You’ve caught me out, Frank, stereotyping old ladies. Let me put the question in a less tendentious way.
    Which is better – the blind acceptance of a teaching because of authority or trying to think it through so that one’s acceptance involves the whole of one’s thinking self?
    I suspect that some people who query the ban on artificial conception in any circumstance whatsoever (Humanae Vitae) are saying that if it rests on the Natural Law (as the Popes have claimed) they would like to see this clearly demonstrated. The Papal Commission admitted that it was unable to do this, so has anyone succeeded?

  7. Frank says:

    ‘blind’ strikes me as a somewhat tendentious adjective! Didn’t Christ call the Pharisees blind? And were they not the thinking, educated Jews of their day?

    Jesus didn’t say to St Peter, ‘Upon this Papal Commission I will build My Church’. He built it on Peter and his successors. The Commission was an advisory body only, I think; and Paul VI’s encyclical is part of the ordinary teaching magisterium, building on his predecessors and supported by his successors.

    Just checked the Catechism of the CC on the matter; it’s too long to quote but the relevant pages are 507-8, paras 2369-70, in particular. The notes refer to Casti Connubii, Humanae Vitae and Familiaris Consortio (and GS: Gaudium et Spes?)
    Another thought: Jesus said, ‘Unless you become as little children…’ Little children have a trusting rather than a blind love; we are thus meant to ‘trust’ the Holy Spirit speaking through the Church, even when we cannot always understand. Thinking matters; but thought finally has to give way to trustful obedience.

  8. Certainly the Pharisees were blind, but precisely because they were trapped within the authority of their own traditions. And Jesus continually chided them for their unwillingness to extend their understanding to the fuller meaning of their own Scripture.
    You are right to describe the Commission as advisory, so the Pope was not bound by its conclusions. My question is pointed up by the phrase from HV: “.. a teaching which is based on the natural law as illuminated and enriched by divine Revelation.” The natural law is by definition the outcome of human reason – the application of which the Commission was unable to demonstrate in this case, and even the minority who argued for no change admitted this. I am open to any arguments which have been developed since then which do demonstrate this but, notwithstanding enquiry over the years, so far I get no answer.
    If therefore we have to rely on the Church’s authority, we must look to the degree of authority which is invoked. In this case it is not infallible, therefore it is fallible. And this matters when moral decisions based on it have consequences – such as endangering the stability of a marriage or putting someone’s life at risk. Truth, as one best understands it, must come before authority – or one does indeed become like the Pharisee.
    One must of course allow for those who are uncertain or who are not confident in their ability to understand such matters. They must certainly rely on authority as the best source of truth open to them. We make this sort of distinction every day when we have to decide whether or not to accept the diagnosis of a doctor in a medical matter in which we have little competence.

  9. Genera Bogen says:

    A maxim is merely a tool for giving a platitude the verneer of profundity.

  10. “A maxim is merely a tool for giving a platitude the veneer of profundity.”

    That’s an excellent maxim. I wish I’d been profound enough to think of it.

    But I’m not discouraged. I’ll add some more maxims soon.

  11. John McClymont says:

    Reply to Blue:

    Sorry this is a long comment.

    The statement “I am lying” when self-referential is to my mind an incomplete proposition. If I say: I am a hippo – er, no, I am lying” then my “I am lying” amounts to “the statement is false that I am a hippo”. But when “I am lying” is self-referential then it amounts to “the statement is false that I am lying” which amounts to “the statement is false that the statement is false that I am lying” which amounts to “the statement is false that the statement is false that the statement is false that I am lying” which amounts to “the statement is false that the statement is false that the statement is false that the statement is false that I am lying” which etc etc. Because we can never reduce the proposition to its lowest terms it is like one of these mathematical expressions with an infinite number of indented parentheses. Whether it is true or false depends on when you arbitrarily stop expanding. It’s like asking whether the decimal fraction for 1/3 has an odd or even number of places. It depends on where your calculator runs out of memory!

    As far as grace versus freedom is concerned, this paradox may be rationally solvable by treating God as an agent and man as an instrument of the supernatural act: how much of the letter X is written by me and how much by my word processor? Obviously both me and my computer both cause the whole letter but in different capacities. There is the difficulty that humanity has free will: but if God sustains our free will, and moves our will in response to our nonresistance to his call, couldn’t a free supernatural act be at the same time the act of an instrument in God’s hands?

  12. Frank says:

    For John: I always think of paradoxes in relation to Oscar Wilde e.g. “The only difference between caprice and a lifelong passion is that the caprice lasts a little longer.” In other words, a witty absurdity. To me the relationship between grace, God’s action, and free will, our response, is mysterious more than paradoxical; we are most free when we are most obedient to God and most enslaved when we are disobedient to Him.

  13. Frank says:

    Qunetin says that Humanae Vitae is a fallible document, therefore Catholics are not bound by it. But all the later Popes teach the same; why would they bother to repeat what is fallible and open to different opinions? Pope Benedict has only recently commented on the 40th anniversary of Humanae Vitae, saying that this fundamental view of human life and procreation is something that goes back to the creation of man and thus represents a paradigm for all genererations; he adds that it is a key part of natural law that deserves universal respect: “The transmission of life is inscribed in nature and its laws remain as unwritten norms to which everyone should refer.” He concludes that the teaching in HV is not easy but “it conforms to the fundamental structure through which life has always been transmitted from the creation of the world, in the respect of nature and in conformity with its demands.” (quoted from the Catholic Herald report).

    If I can ignore the Popes on this, and make up my own mind on it, why not on everything else? Answer: it would make me a Protestant.

  14. Blue says:

    John McClymont’s analysis of the ‘liar’ may be right. But isn’t it odd, and perhaps significant, that it has stuck in people’s minds for so long? I have heard it called the ‘Cretan paradox’ because it was a Cretan (Epimenides) who first said “All Cretans are liars’.
    But I wonder if we are taking Quentin’s paradoxes too literally. Perhaps it is only when we are faced to two incompatible facts that we are challenged to examine them, and perhaps discover a deeper truth.

  15. Frank quotes me as saying “Quentin says that Humanae Vitae is a fallible document, therefore Catholics are not bound by it.” Let me come in rapidly before the CDF comes knocking at the door.
    My position is more subtle than that. The Magisterium teaches that every act of marriage whatsoever must preserve openess to life, and it does so authoritatively but not infallibly. Therefore, to paraphrase Newman, to go against that teaching is a very serious matter for which one will have to answer. But, as Vat II makes clear, in the end, one has to follow one’s properly formed conscience. Truth, as one best understands it, rules.
    The papal reference to “The transmission of life is inscribed in nature and its laws” refers to the structure of the act, and this was always the traditional rationale.
    Now the Papal Commission, including those who were strongly against change, were unable to derive this unqualified conclusion on the basis of reason, which is the foundation of natural law. I am only asking for an explanation of why they were wrong, or what further advances in our understanding of the natural law have been achieved which would convincingly demonstrate that the Magisterium’s position was correct.
    Perhaps I should say that, from my personal point of view, I can declare lack of interest. Were my wife to conceive in her eighth decade it would be a wonder to be recorded in an additional book of the Old Testament. Oddly enough, if one of us suffered from a sexually transmissible disease we would still be bound by the same stricture. At our age that would not be a disaster; but if we were thirty, it might be.

  16. Frank says:

    We are told that Jesus spoke ‘with authority’. We are not told he spoke ‘infallibly’; he was only God, after all, not a Pope. Are we therefore free to discount what he says?

  17. I suspect that Frank thinks I may be unsound on the question of infallibility. Let me assure him that I fully accept the doctrine. It is of course heavily qualified – and negative in the sense that it certifies lack of error rather than fullness of truth. I also bear in mind Canon 749/3 “No doctrine is understood to be infallibly defined unless this is manifestly demonstrated.” Whatever else one may say about HV, no one would claim that its infallibility is manifestly demonstrated. If it were, laity and clergy would be leaving the Church in droves. I do not speak of the merits of the doctrine but the likely effect of it being understood as infallible.

    Instead of getting into the hermeneutics of Jesus’ infallibility, let me pose Frank a teaser. In John 7 v. 8, Jesus declares that he is not going to the festival. Yet 3 verses later we are told that he does go to the festival, and he clearly always intended to. Now what does Frank think of the infallibility of the first statement?

  18. Frank says:

    I have no doubt of Quentin’s steadfast loyalty to the concept of Infallibility. This means he only has to accept 2 Church teachings of the last 150 years: the dogmas of the Immaculate Conception and the Assumption. Lucky Quentin.

    As to the teaser: my Navarre Bible comments that what Jesus meant was “I am not going up to this feast in public” (because the time was not ripe for him to show Himself publicly). He planned to come up later, after the Sanhedrin had been lulled into thinking he would not come at all. Jesus does not contradict Himself here; He merely withholds some information.

    I never said Jesus was ‘infallible’, but that He speaks ‘with authority’ – just as the Church He founded speaks with authority in His name.

  19. I wish I were so lucky! But, first, the infallibility of the pope was only declared in the 19th century, but it had always been so. Second, he has – though independently – the same infallibility as that which the Church has. So, for example, the basic teaching on the Trinity or the Real Presence – and lots of other things.

    And of course I accept the Church’s general mandate to teach with authority, which is why I stressed that disagreeing with even a ‘fallible’ teaching was a serious matter.

    I don’t think your Navarre Bible explanation holds water as it stands. The text reads plainly in St John: Jesus told his disciples something which he knew not to be true. The point I was trying to make is that even Jesus’ words in the gospels are fragmentary and the outcome of an oral tradition. So we may be entitled to discount the literal text of his words. This has to be understood in full context, and its interpretation may still remain uncertain. Were the Navarre Bible explanation, which is standard apologetics, to be correct it would excuse Jesus as a liar, by simply making him a deceiver. I prefer the straightforward reaction that we simply don’t understand this passage, but we are confident that in fact he was neither.

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