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Burke, Mill, and the Catholic Church

December 6, 2010

In case you don’t keep up with current events, the big news this week out of the Catholic Church is that Pope Benedict XVI recently approved of the use of condoms in cases such as prostitution or the prevention of spreading HIV.  To you or I, this may seem like a trivial matter; however, in context, this admission of the Catholic Church that using any form of birth control other than god’s will will affect the lives of millions of devout Catholics.

The pope’s comments sparked my own curiosity as to how would Edmund Burke and J.S. Mill would react to the relationship the Catholic Church has had with science during these hundreds of years of Catholic power and scientific enlightenment.  Before delving into analysis, I wanted to highlight a couple examples of when science and the church were at odds.  First, there was Copernicus’s finding that the world in fact revolved around the sun and that the earth was not the center of the universe.  Soon after, Galileo discovered gravity, which supported Copernicus’s heliocentric theory and was quickly condemned by Catholics.  Lastly, there is Darwin’s evolution, a topic that is still hotly contested amongst the devout and the evolutionists.

Edmund Burke, in my opinion, would have supported the Catholic Church’s attempts to stand by the Bible and fight the revolutionary ideas brought forth by the scientists of the time.  Known as one of the father’s of modern conservatism, Burke supported stability and gradual change.  The Catholic Church has been a political power for hundreds of years and has an ancient book that explains many of the world’s phenomena.  Their power is derived from this text, and a radical idea like evolution is a direct attack at the text and authority of the church.  If the world was not created in seven days, why should we also believe that the Ten Commandments are the correct ideals with which to lead our lives?  Although I don’t agree with Burke, I can reconcile his belief that tradition and stability takes precedence over rationalization and progress.

In contrast, I feel J.S. Mill would staunchly oppose the church’s attempt to monopolize knowledge.  Mill believed in the harm principle, or that liberty should only be sacrificed when it comes at the detriment of another.  Freedom of speech was something to be revered and respected, not a threatening force to be dealt with.  Even if evolution, a heliocentric solar system, and gravity theories were incorrect, Mill would have still supported their quest for knowledge because only through questioning and analysis can refine our own beliefs.  Even though a groundbreaking idea like evolution could transform our understanding of the world and the living organisms that inhabit it, Mill would insist that we should not fear a shakeup of the status quo.  Frankly, I agree.  Had we only advanced in gradual, stable change, where would we be today?  Would we have an American flag on the moon or computers rivaling the capabilities of the human brain?  I for one am not afraid of the unknown.

4 Comments
  1. December 6, 2010 4:40 PM

    This is a very interesting viewpoint on religion and its connection to contraceptives. I agree with your belief that Burke would support the Catholic Church and standby the religious beliefs that have been imbedded in the core of Catholicism over a very long history. Your right, Burke believes in gradual change and this “progressive step” by this church is not gradual relative to religion. However, I do not agree that Mill would oppose the choice by the church. Mill supports the harm principle and utilitarian viewpoint. By promoting protection the church is potentially saving people from life-threatening diseases and moral dilemmas, hence, promoting the overall good.

  2. Lorna Malja permalink
    December 6, 2010 5:18 PM

    Very very very interesting blog post! I definitely must side with the Pope on this one, i think it is a great idea that he approved the use of condomns. All women living there do not want to have kids, and keep on having kids just because they engage in sex. It is very difficult to take care of numerous kids! So, allowing them to use condomns will also prevent these individuals from getting STD’s and or HIV. This is important for the populations health. I just don’t think it should be seen as a negative idea just because they are not following gods will. They should be able to have as many kids as they wish, and if they don’t want to keep having kids, then condoms are a great way to not let this happen.

  3. hadohe permalink
    December 6, 2010 10:39 PM

    This post is really interesting, in that it combines innovation and tradition. It is very surprising to me that Pope Benedict approved of the use of condoms in certain situations because its goal is still to prevent pregnancy not in the HIV case, but possibly in the prostitution case. Being a Catholic, this seems like a very confusing statement made by the leader of the Catholic Church itself. In fact, even the Pope’s recognition of prostitution goes against Catholic ideology, and of most other religious institutions as well. Even though I definitely agree with you that Burke would support the Catholic Church’s very stern accordance with tradition for thousands of years, I think he would strongly disagree with Pope Benedict’s current supposed statements. The church is the one institution, in my opinion, that should remain traditional in an ever-changing society. If we alter the church to make it “modernized” we shatter one of the only traditions that remain in the world: a Burkean point. Even though I know the Pope’s approvals are probably true, a link to his statements might have been helpful to this post, but in any case, this is still intriguing.

    • hadohe permalink
      December 6, 2010 10:46 PM

      I forgot to mention that I feel the church is not correct in their traditions, but that in order to remain at all legitimate, it seems they must stick to them. This is why I think individually, people who follow any religion must have the freedom to think outside of tradition and apply it to their own lives, especially with things such as contraceptives.

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