Wednesday, January 06, 2010

“Faith of Our Holy Fathers” and the Principle of Correspondence

HAVEN'T HEARD MUCH from Dawn Eden since she's been busy with her studies, but she put up an article Faith of Our Holy Fathers at Headline Bistro. This describes a false view of the Theology of the Body which assumes that it is a break from the past. From the article:
John Paul II’s theology of the body is important to such apologists precisely because it is “new,” “dramatic,” “daring,” and “revolutionary,” in contrast with a preconciliar Church that was “juridical,” “negative,” or even “silent” about sexual matters.

Such generalizations are false on their face.

The Venerable John Henry Cardinal Newman's concept of the Development of Christian Doctrine, which describes how Catholic doctrine becomes more explicit over the centuries, reminds me very much of the Principle of Correspondence in Physics. When I was studying physics at Caltech, I found this principle to be quite useful, profound, although it is ultimately common-sensical.

According to this principle, new theories must correspond to, and build on, the older theories. The classical Newtonian Physics was not replaced by Quantum Mechanics and the theory of Relativity, but rather was elaborated on, in the domains of the exceedingly small and the ultimately fast.

Isaac Newton's physics remains valid in the domain of our ordinary experience. Imagine if an architect were to design a building using the theory of quanta or relativity — he would undoubtably be in a state of intellectual sin, and would open himself to making very grievous mathematical mistakes which could have an ultimate cost in loss of life and property. The Correspondence Principle tells us that this kind of project is within the domain of classical physics, even though that theory is admittedly simplistic and limited. The architect may become enamored of the quantum phenomena of tunneling and indeterminacy, but they simply do not apply to his task of designing a building, and to assume they have any applicability (other than the ultimate fact that all things on earth are shadows) shows that he really isn't taking his actual job seriously.

The same goes with the development of Christian doctrine.  The view that a new theory is a complete break with the past — like Pope John Paul II's Theology of the Body or the Second Vatican Council — is ultimately foolish.  Rather, we need to identify the expanded domain of the new theory, and most importantly, the new theory must correspond to the old where the domains are the same. For example, one can view the Council's Decree on Media of Social Communications as a development of doctrine, simply because film and television didn't exist at the time of the Council of Trent: but the moral doctrine derived from this Decree must correspond to earlier doctrines, like the prohibition against false witness found in the Ten Commandments.

Development of Doctrine and the Principle of Correspondence can be seen by some as limiting freedom, but rather they are practical tools to allow us to judge and select new theories, which lead to true intellectual progress.

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