Sunday, March 10, 2019

A Catholic university teaches humanist ethics

By Mathew Goldstein

Dr. Innes Mitchell has taught at Saint Edward’s University in Texas for twenty years. The university describes itself this way: “St. Edward’s expresses its Catholic identity by communicating the dignity of the human person as created in the image of God.” The Catholic Church is not what I would call a font of intellectualism. It promotes and endorses beliefs that are not grounded in best fit with the available evidence, such as the claim that everyone is descended from a single “Adam and Eve” pair. The story of Jesus is rooted in that first couple tainting humanity with a sin, so that claim is difficult for Christianity (in general, across denominations) to discard. Quoting Pius XII’s “Humani Generis” 1950 encyclical: “The faithful cannot embrace that opinion which maintains that … Adam represents a certain number of first parents. Now it is in no way apparent how such an opinion can be reconciled with that which … the documents of the teaching authority of the church propose with regard to original sin, which proceeds from a sin actually committed by an individual Adam.”

It is most likely that the evolution of humanity was complicated and messy, it was a many generation, many century, many locations, gradual process. Trying to fit that into an Adam and Eve scenario sounds more like sophistry than reason. Some Catholics in particular cite Thomas Aquinas for his philosophical, sometimes non—literalist approach, but they conveniently overlook that he believed in a literal seven day = 168 hours creation, a literal Adam, and a literal Eve. Christianity is big and diverse, and at St. Edward University we find a positive example of a deeper commitment to the students and society from within a Catholic institution.

Professor Mitchell teaches a course Perspectives of Atheism. This is not a course where students are introduced to arguments for why we should be atheists. Instead, A.C. Greyling’s book “Meditations from the Humanist: Ethics for a Secular Age” is assigned to the students. Given the tendency for too many religions to negatively promote fear of atheism (for example, the Vatican equates atheism with Hell) instead of positively promoting understanding, it is noteworthy that every now and then some institutions with religious affiliations are better than that. We should not underestimate how significant and positive it is that we sometimes have a willingness like this to reach across differences of belief. To be flexible this way can also be good for religiously affiliated institutions that want to attract and retain religion skeptical and non-believing current and future customers.

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