Burke, Mill, and the Catholic Church
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.