Professor Jim Sterba and the Arrogance of the Age

In the most recent edition of the Irish Rover (Sept. 13, 2012), Jim Sterba, professor of philosophy at Notre Dame, provided remarks in “Point-counterpoint: debating Notre Dame’s HHS lawsuit.” At the crux of his argument is the claim that, if the University is to be successful in its lawsuit, it “should abandon its opposition to providing contraceptives, unless it can come up with a reason-alone (non-religiously-based) argument in support of its opposition.” Such an argument, indeed, is one that ought to be sought out by the University and its members. However, the reasons to pursue such an argument, as stated in this article, are unworthy of the department and the University of which Professor Sterba claims to be a part.

Professor Sterba is quite right to cite that a Thomistic doctrine exists, teaching that “faith and reason do not conflict.” However, in his Summa Contra Gentiles, Aquinas chides those who “think that points which reason is unable to investigate ought not to be proposed to man to believe, since Divine Wisdom provides for every being according to the measure of its nature.” Man, not being God, is neither privileged to nor capable of understanding all things. Thus, the acceptance of faith is quite the opposite of how Professor Sterba presents it. It is not that faith may only be accepted by society when it is rationally justified. Rather, faith may only be questioned by society when the truth of reality seems to contradict a tenet of faith. Surely, as a professor of philosophy at a Catholic university, Professor Sterba ought to know how frail and petty pursuits by human reason can be. Surely, as a professor of philosophy, Professor Sterba ought to be thankful that all belief does not require a logical justification.

However, Professor Sterba does not seem to exhibit such a thankfulness in his forced manipulation of Thomistic doctrine. This is surely not something new to Professor Sterba, in signing a petition against Notre Dame’s lawsuit, claiming that the services required by the healthcare mandate do “not appear to be intrinsically wrong (as it is permissibly provided both for non-contraceptive medical purposes and to rape victims). The doctrine of double effect allows as morally permissible actions which are not intrinsically wrong, even if they have foreseen harmful effects…” Here, Professor Sterba and the other signers deliberately choose to ignore the fact that abortifacient drugs required by the mandate are intrinsically evil, even if some other contraceptive drugs are not.

Indeed, it seems that when the philosophy cited by Professor Sterba is properly employed, the university is not in need of ‘rational justification’. Rather, the arguments of Professor Sterba and his co-signers are in such a need.

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