"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Sunday, November 17, 2013

The Age Of Reason–How Old Did You Say That Was?

The Catholic Church has always defined ‘the age of reason’ as seven years old:

The name given to that period of human life at which persons are deemed to begin to be morally responsible. This, as a rule, happens at the age of seven, or thereabouts, though the use of reason requisite for moral discernment may come before, or may be delayed until notably after, that time (NewAdvent.org)  

The Church, as can be seen in the passage above, hedges its bets, but given its ex cathedra tradition, knew it couldn’t waffle.  Catholic scholars admit that the age is somewhat arbitrary, since there are no scriptural references to the concept, and Jesus only said that children were innocent and needed his protection. Vatican prelates, however, decided that children should be responsible for their actions, and the younger the better.  Put a bit more practically, they wanted to increase union membership. It was never too early to start haranguing parishioners with fire and brimstone and increase both church and confessional attendance.

‘Tradition’ is an official term in the Catholic lexicon, and is basically a catch-all category for Canon Law.

Briefly put, canon law is the internal legal system of the Catholic Church. Canon law has everything one would expect to find in a mature legal system: laws, courts, cases, judges, lawyers, and so on. Canon law affects, to one degree or another, virtually every aspect of Catholic life, sometimes much more intimately than many people realize; other times, though, much less directly than one might have otherwise thought. (www.canonlaw.info.org)

This last bit about “more intimately than many people realize” of course meant sex – no ‘impure thoughts, words, or deeds’. Everyone knows that this injunction was as impossible for young boys as water running uphill, but, to use the labor metaphor once again, it meant far more customers for repentance and more priests. 

Now, anyone who has been around a child of seven knows that he still needs a lot of moral guidance.

In fact, given how American adolescents behave, most parents would advise the Church that they might like to consider raising the age to sixteen…No, wait, eighteen.  Researchers at the University of Texas at Dallas have suggested that if teenagers are not taught moral reasoning during a critical period of brain formation, they may never learn.

The frontal lobes, the area of the brain associated with critical thinking and reasoning, develop rapidly throughout adolescence. High-level reasoning and critical thinking are skills that have to be learned and practiced. Teens must be taught to block unimportant details and to condense critical information into main ideas or concepts, rather than trying to memorize and repeat facts verbatim.

Learning to use reasoning skills helps the brain process more efficiently and thoroughly, and results in long-term retention of information. If teens do not acquire the ability to learn strategically during this developmental period, they might never do so. (UT Dallas, 9.15.08)

Worse, concludes UT, “The United States ranks 24th out of 29 developed countries in critical thinking, according to the National Center for Education Statistics”. So, God only knows what the Catholic Church was thinking when it hazarded its guess about the age of reason.  Human beings acquire the brain architecture to reason, but there is nothing to say that they make use of it. For many people, it seems, the architectural house of reason is quite vacant. We all have to be taught how to reason, and if we never learn how, then we are sure to pass on the most cockamamie excuses for right behavior imaginable to our children.

Which brings us to the age of consent. There is no fixed age for the ability to decide for yourself on when to have sex, but the Vatican has recently raised the age from 12 to 18 in the wake of all the buggery scandals in the Church. Most parents had to wonder where on earth the Church ever got the idea that 12-year old girls were capable of making rational decisions about sex since it didn’t coincide at all with what they knew; but if the Pope said it, it must be right .

Now, it is true that Juliet was only 12 when she went off with Romeo, and her consent has been immortalized by Shakespeare as true love.  In fact, every other play that Shakespeare wrote expressed a cynical mistrust of love; so he must have been a Catholic (there is considerable dispute as to whether he was Catholic or Protestant) when he wrote a defining role for a twelve-year old girl. Then again, Desdemona wasn’t much older, and she certainly couldn’t be trusted with Othello; and the most unreasonable girl of all – Ophelia – was crazy to even consider such a weak, shilly-shallier like Hamlet.

So, it makes good sense that the Church is raising the age of consent, but I wonder why they settled on 18? The United States made a huge mistake by lowering the voting age from 21 to 18 (the Twenty-Sixth Amendment to the Constitution,1971).  Although most saner Americans thought that this was nonsense, and wondered how a bunch of weed-smoking ne’er-do-well layabouts could ever cast a rational vote.  They were right, because history has shown that not only did these dopers vote irrationally, they went on to run American government and business irrationally as well.

The Brits are getting into the age of consent controversy.  The Prime Minister has held his ground by insisting that 16 is already way too young for sex, but the opposition has arrayed its forces and seems set to win. Great Britain is headed down to Romeo and Juliet territory, while the Pope’s trajectory is in the opposite direction.

Prime minister David Cameron has rejected a call to lower the age of consent from the current age of 16. Faculty of Public Health president Prof John Ashton said society had to accept that some girls and boys were having sex younger, and that the move would make it easier for 15-year-olds to get sexual health advice from the NHS.

There are a lot of inconsistencies in age limits.  Why should a young man of 17 be able to get himself killed in Iraq but not be allowed to vote? Or to buy alcohol or cigarettes, for which privilege he will have to wait four more years?  That is, a young man or woman of 17 is judged competent to assess the risk of death or maiming against the immediate returns of job and income; but is considered incompetent to carry out the same analysis concerning tobacco.  How crazy is that?

It always seems amusing that a society which seems to have a lot of trouble with reason (only 26 percent of Alabamans believe in Evolution; and 22 percent of all Americans believe that a fiery Armageddon will happen in their lifetimes) can have the chutzpah to set limits on the ages of reason and consent.  That is like having the inmates of a mental institution set the rules.

Well, no institution which claims moral authority – the Catholic Church, the Congress, or the White House – has ever given any reason for us to trust them; so I guess we will all have to live with arbitrary age rules.  And, by the way, we haven’t even begun to discuss rules and regulations about older people who lose their ability to reason.  All I know is whatever age most people agree upon, it is definitively not my age.  

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