The Archbishop of San Francisco, Salvatore Cordileone, recently mandated that teachers in Catholic schools must refrain from contradicting Catholic teaching on faith and morals. The Archbishop says he wants to remove the “toxic confusion” which results when Catholic schools do not teach Catholicism.

Yet this seemingly innocuous step in the direction of integrity has drawn down the ire of Professor Gary Gutting, a philosopher, who has censured the Archbishop from the secure perch of a New York Times blog and his endowed chair at the University of Notre Dame.

Is it too simplistic, as a preliminary matter, to step back and wonder why Archdiocesan policy in San Francisco is Gary Gutting’s business? I take it he lives in frosty South Bend, Indiana, and does not send any children commuting 1500 miles away to the Archbishop’s schools. What explains, then, his intense interest?

I refuse to believe that it’s because Gutting himself aims to undermine Catholic teaching, while drawing a salary from a Catholic institution, so that the charge of spreading “toxic confusion” hits too close to home. I prefer the explanation that, as a professor at Notre Dame, he takes seriously the late Father Hesburgh’s idea that “Notre Dame is where the Catholic Church does its thinking.” Gutting evidently does not believe the Archbishop is thinking very well and is kindly offering to do his thinking for him.

But, if so, what is the quality of the thinking in Gutting’s article? How well is Notre Dame doing some thinking here for the Church?

You may be interested to know that sometimes philosophy professors use journalistic articles in the classroom as case studies in “informal logic”: the professor sets the article before students and invites them to discover the sophisms it contains, if any. In that way, students can see that logic and clear thinking have a real and valuable application. I proposed Gutting’s article as that sort of exercise to my students at Ave Maria University, and I will tell you the criticisms that they raised.

The first thing my students said is that Gutting seems to violate what is known as the “principle of charity” for criticizing the statements of others. This principle requires us to understand the basic framework from which someone is speaking, and to engage that person only after having taken that framework into account.

Archbishop Cordileone is very clear about what basically motivates him. He is concerned about “inner city neighborhoods plagued by fatherlessness and all the suffering it produces: youth violence, poverty, drugs, crime, gangs, school dropouts, and incredibly high murder rates. Walk those blocks and you can see with your own eyes: A society that is careless about getting fathers and mothers together to raise their children in one loving family is causing enormous heartache.”

He believes that Catholic moral teaching, which affirms what he calls “the natural moral law” about sex and the family, provides a necessary antidote and corrective. He wants Catholic schools to be part of the solution, not the problem. His policy decision about those schools follows as a reasonable consequence.

My students pointed out that Gutting ignores all of that. Writing blithely as if no one has ever raised concerns about the ill effects of the sexual revolution, he instead wags his finger and lectures that “the church needs to undertake a thorough rethinking of its teachings on sexual ethics, including premarital sex, masturbation and remarriage after divorce.”

For the Archbishop, that many Catholics do not accept –they actually do not even understand—the church’s teaching on sex and the family, is a chief reason to teach it more clearly in the schools. In contrast, failing to grasp any of this, Gutting advises the Archbishop that because “a vast number of Catholics reject the [Church’s] teachings”, he should just forget about teaching it!

My students then said it was not surprising—this was the second thing they observed—that Gutting goes on to misunderstand the Archbishop, with a gross mistake. The Archbishop asserts that the culture of promiscuity, and the breakdown of the family it implies, are “contrary to the natural law.” In saying this, the Archbishop means something big and broad: he means that the natural ideal is to “get fathers and mothers together to raise their children in one loving family,” and that anything contrary to that ideal is “contrary to the natural law.”

But Gutting through a kind of logical hiccup takes “contrary to the natural law” to mean “unnatural” and then spends most of his article lampooning the claim that homosexual acts are unnatural. My students were perplexed by this bizarre restriction of Gutting’s focus. What could explain his apparent obsession with the philosophical characterization of homosexual acts, when the Archbishop had said nothing like that? They joked that this was precisely the kind of case where some uncharitable person would be tempted to impute an unconscious homophobia.

My students’ third criticism was that for all the pretense of rigor in Gutting’s article, he shows little patience with argument. In one place, Gutting alerts the reader that “The church claims that its moral condemnation of homosexual acts can be established by rigorous philosophical argument.” I don’t see that the Church does claim that. But in any case Gutting then presents in capsule what he takes to be one such argument, namely, that “[in] any sexual act that could not in principle result in pregnancy … each partner is using it as a means to his or her pleasure. Only a shared act directed toward reproduction can prevent this ultimate selfishness.”

He tells us that “just trying to formulate the argument shows how strained it is,” and that (like any philosophical argument, one would suppose) “numerous subtle distinctions [are] employed to defend it, requiring equal subtlety to respond.”

But so much seems to be more than enough “thinking” for this Notre Dame professor. All of these subtleties are irrelevant, he says, because the argument “proves too much”, as it would show that masturbation is forbidden!

It is truly amazing to what length one must go to refute an argument these days. Samuel Johnson only had to kick a stone.

As an afterthought my students pointed out that Gutting seems unaware that the argument he summarizes looks a lot like Karol Wojtyła’s main argument in Love and Responsibility. So one could not criticize it responsibly without engaging with the outlook called “theology of the body.” And in that context, Gutting’s idea that the Church should just forget about all that stuff looks ignorant and ridiculous—as if the Church might just dismiss the papacy of John Paul II.

I could tell you too about how they were disturbed that Gutting seemed to ridicule the very idea of natural law, when they are aware that the appeal to natural law–in the Declaration of Independence, at the Nuremburg trials, in the civil rights movement–has historically been a powerful weapon against unjust oppression. Indeed, the Archbishop appeals to natural law in that spirit.

Thank goodness, then, that Gutting does not actually do the thinking for the Catholic Church. The poor and the children of the poor need champions for their cause, and rescue from the absurd logic of the sexual revolution. Elitist defenses of alternative sexual behaviors are irrelevant to the cause of social justice.

Michael Pakaluk is Chairman and Professor of Philosophy at Ave Maria University.

Michael Pakaluk, educated at Harvard (A.B., Ph.D.) and, as a Marshall Scholar, at the University of Edinburgh (M.Litt.), wrote his dissertation on Aristotle's theory of friendship under John Rawls, and...