instruere...inlustrare...delectare Disputations

Saturday, August 27, 2016

Sign of the times


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Tuesday, August 23, 2016

They is us

"Us vs. Them" thinkersing in the Church tears at that unity for which Jesus prayed.

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Thursday, July 14, 2016

Zen Diagram


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Sunday, April 17, 2016

Corrigere delinquentem magis ad severitatem

Today was the last RCIA session of the year, and I finally achieved my goal of not saying anything. (Or at least nothing that anyone could think was intended to be instructive. After the presenter joked about not being sure whether a turn of phrase she used came from our pastor or the Pope, I said, "The Pope is less busy. He'll return your email." And when the RCIA director asked if I had any parting comments, I said, "See you next week." (You know, Mass.) Other than that, silence.) The closest I came to having an audible thought was while looking at the list of the spiritual works of mercy:
  • To instruct the ignorant 
  • To counsel the doubtful 
  • To admonish sinners 
  • To patiently bear with those who annoy us 
  • To forgive offenses willingly 
  • To comfort the afflicted 
  • To pray for the living and the dead
This middle one is more often expressed as, "To bear wrongs patiently."  The presenter went with this version as being more concrete -- and besides, St. Thomas renders it "to bear with those who trouble and annoy us" (portare onerosos et graves).

Another catechist offered a variation on the old joke that admonishing sinners seems to come naturally to people, and I imagined an amended list:
  • To admonish the ignorant 
  • To admonish the doubtful 
  • To admonish sinners 
  • To admonish those who annoy us
  • To admonish prior to forgiving offenses
  • To admonish the afflicted 
  • To admonish the living and the dead
In an uncharacteristic moment of prudence, I kept this to myself. This particular crew of baby Catholics doesn't strike me as likely to weaponize the catechism. But let me try this here:

One item on the second list is merciful. At first glance, though, it looks like the other six items, none of which is merciful. It may similarly be difficult to be altogether sure whether a particular instance of admonishment is merciful.

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Sunday, April 10, 2016

An icon, not an idol

"The natural order has been so imbued with the redemptive grace of Jesus," Pope Francis writes, "that 'a valid matrimonial contract cannot exist between the baptized without it being by that fact a sacrament.' [AL 75]

Marriage is a natural sign of the Trinity, present from creation ("God created mankind in his image; in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them." "The LORD God said: 'It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper suited to him.'"). AL 11 extends the sign from the married couple to the human family:

The couple that loves and begets life is a true, living icon – not an idol like those of stone or gold prohibited by the Decalogue – capable of revealing God the Creator and Saviour. For this reason, fruitful love becomes a symbol of God’s inner life.... [T]he couple’s fruitful relationship becomes an image for understanding and describing the mystery of God himself, for in the Christian vision of the Trinity, God is contemplated as Father, Son and Spirit of love.
The love of God, perfect and complete in itself, overflows into this perfectly gratuitous creation we are all a part of, that all of creation may give glory to God, joining according to the nature we've been given in that one eternal act of love. In a similar way, the love of a family is to overflow into the rest of creation, drawing a similar response -- although, since the family is an icon, not an idol, the love with which creation responds to the family's own love isn't returned to the family itself, but through the family returns to the Source of all love.

All that is simply what families are, necessarily, from the very nature of things as God created them.

To that, Christian families -- which is to say, fruitful Christian (and therefore sacramental) marriages -- add the supernatural sign of the union of Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh, and His Church. This is so, not through God's act of creation, but through His act of redemption, through Jesus' passion, death, and resurrection. That is simply what Christian families are, necessarily. Ephesians 5:21-33 may be best known for, "Wives should be subordinate to their husbands," but the key is verse 32: "This is a great mystery, but I speak in reference to Christ and the church." And as the Church as a whole is to proclaim the Gospel to every creature, so the domestic church of the Christian family is to proclaim the Gospel to every creature it encounters. A Christian family, based on a marriage that can only exist as a sign that effects the grace it signifies, is to demonstrate -- not just among its members, but to all who encounter it -- the sacrificial and salvific love that held Jesus to the cross and brought Him forth from the grave on the third day.

It's not really up to us whether our particular love or marriage is actually fruitful. The will to be fruitful is what we can provide; the rest is in God's hands.

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Saturday, April 09, 2016

Love is patient

In p. 91 of Amoris laetitia, Pope Francis discusses St. Paul's teaching that love is "patient" (in Greek, makrothyméi):
This does not simply have to do with “enduring all things”, because we find that idea expressed at the end of the seventh verse. Its meaning is clarified by the Greek translation of the Old Testament, where we read that God is “slow to anger” ( Ex 34:6; Num 14:18). It refers, then, to the quality of one who does not act on impulse and avoids giving offense. We find this quality in the God of the Covenant, who calls us to imitate him also within the life of the family. Saint Paul’s texts using this word need to be read in the light of the Book of Wisdom (cf. 11:23; 12:2, 15-18), which extols God’s restraint, as leaving open the possibility of repentance, yet insists on his power, as revealed in his acts of mercy. God’s “patience”, shown in his mercy towards sinners, is a sign of his real power.
Someone who is impotent to change things is not makrothyméi when they endure them without complaint (which is not to knock endurance without complaint). Off of which thought I riff thusly:

Sheep are not sheeplike. A thing can only be like something else, something it is also in some way unlike. While it is good for a sheep to do things sheep do, it's not remarkable, much less virtuous or praiseworthy or glorious, because the sheep lacks the capacity to do anything else.

We praise Jesus as the Lamb of God because He is also the Lion of Judah. He is a lamb-like lion, and we glorify Him for it.

Moreover, we are called to follow Him, in this as in all He has revealed to us. There aren't many aspects of our lives in which we have more real power than in the relationships within our own families. If this seems more evident in familial relationships that lack love -- the cold and distant father, the son who breaks his mother's heart -- that speaks to St. Paul's point that love is patient, that for the good of the beloved it forebears even the legitimate exercise of power.

Parents need to be patient in this sense with their children, so that they can learn to make the right choice when their parents aren't there to make it for them. Spouses, too, need to be patient, not only so we don't "end up incapable of living together, antisocial, unable to control our impulses, and our families will become battlegrounds [AL 92]," but to leave room for the other to grow in love for us. Husbands and wives who are always corrected right away will not develop the habit of correcting themselves; not only will they remain dependent and immature, they aren't given the opportunity to show love for their wives and husbands that correcting themselves affords. Impatience, even without anger, hurts both the lover and the beloved.

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Saturday, February 20, 2016

Counseling the counselors

I'm not particularly interested in the Pope's answer, but let's look at this question he was recently asked:
Holy Father, for several weeks there’s been a lot of concern in many Latin American countries but also in Europe regarding the Zika virus. The greatest risk would be for pregnant women. There is anguish. Some authorities have proposed abortion, or else to avoiding pregnancy. As regards avoiding pregnancy, on this issue, can the Church take into consideration the concept of “the lesser of two evils?”
The principle of the lesser of two evils holds that, if someone else is intent on committing evil, you may counsel them to commit a lesser evil instead. You might counsel someone to get revenge in a less violent manner than they're intent on, for example.

The principle doesn't say committing the lesser evil is morally acceptable -- evil is never morally acceptable -- it says counseling the lesser evil is, under some circumstances, morally acceptable. And yes, that means that counseling someone to commit evil isn't always evil. Counseling someone to sin isn't a field to go boldly marching through, and moral theologians don't all agree on exactly where and when you're allowed to step on that field.

Given that, what was the question again?
Some authorities have proposed abortion, or else to avoiding pregnancy. As regards avoiding pregnancy, on this issue, can the Church take into consideration the concept of “the lesser of two evils?”
It frames abortion as the greater evil and avoiding pregnancy as the lesser evil. We could stop there, since avoiding pregnancy isn't evil per se. But let's take "avoiding pregnancy" as a euphemism for "having contraceptive sex," which is evil per se, and a lesser evil than abortion.

The question becomes: Is it acceptable to counsel women to have contraceptive sex rather than abortions?

Which is kind of a screwy question, in a few different ways. For one, notice how the whole Zika virus angle is gone. We can stick it back in, but before we do, notice that it's still a pertinent question. Having a baby with microcephaly is not the only circumstance women say, "If I get pregnant in this circumstance, I will get an abortion." The Zika virus may make the issue newsworthy, but not new.

Okay, I'll restore the newsworthy angle: Is it acceptable to counsel women to have contraceptive sex rather than have an abortion if their baby has microcephaly?

This makes explicit the fact that the greater evil is conditional. If a child is conceived, and if that child has microcephaly, then the mother will abort her child. Does the principle of the lesser of two evils apply when the greater evil is uncertain?

I don't know. In my ignorance, I'll propose that the conditional evil can be treated like a near occasion of sin. Abortion doesn't necessarily follow having sex, but there's certainly a risk that it will. This is similar (the question being, is it similar enough) to, "An act of gluttony doesn't necessarily follow my going to an all-you-can-eat buffet, but there's certainly a risk that it will."1

Now, it is not morally acceptable to counsel committing a lesser sin to avoid a near occasion of a greater sin; that's simply counseling doing evil to achieve good. It might, then, be likewise morally unacceptable to counsel committing a lesser sin to avoid the chance of committing a greater sin.

Even if not, though, notice that the question violates one of the key conditions of the lesser of two evils principle. The evils are not mutually exclusive. Contraceptive sex may still produce a child. Can you counsel committing a lesser evil today, not to avoid the risk of committing a greater evil tomorrow, but merely to reduce that risk? I don't insist I know the answer, but we do seem to be getting farther from the central idea of the principle of the lesser of two evils.

Moreover, the principle of the lesser of two evils only applies when the counselor is morally certain the counseled will commit evil. If the greater evil would be committed tomorrow, it can be asked how morally certain that evil is; the counselor has until tomorrow to talk the counseled out of the evil. In the case of abortion, the counselor has until an unknown hour on an unknown future day. I'm not suggesting that you can never be morally certain, just that you aren't necessarily always morally certain, even when a woman says, "If I knew my baby had microcephaly, I'd definitely get an abortion."

Which brings me to my big point about the question: The principle of the lesser of two evils applies only in specific contexts, with a specific counselor and a specific counseled. It does not apply to what "some authorities have proposed." It doesn't cover blanket recommendations or PSAs. I might be allowed to tell my friend, "If you can't be good, be careful," but I can't tell the world, because there are people in the world who can be good.

Which also means the answer to the question the Pope was asked can't be, "Yes," even if the principle of the lesser of two evils might apply. There is no way that answer would be heard as anything other than a blanket PSA allowing the use of contraception until the Zika virus is completely eradicated. In the event, of course, he didn't answer, "Yes," and it was still heard as "Contraceptives could be permissible to avoid Zika," to quote February 19th's front page Washington Post headline.
 

1. To go into this a little more: With a conditional evil, it's, "If X occurs, I am morally certain of doing Y"; the chance lies with X, while Y is certain. With a near occasion of sin, it's, "In the presence of X, I am likely to do Y" the chance lies with Y, while X is certain.

Suppose you flip a coin, and win if it comes up heads. An occasion of sin is analogous to your flipping a coin with heads on on side and tails on the other; the odds of your winning depend on how fair the coin is. A conditional evil is analogous to your randomly picking a coin that has either heads or tails on both sides, and then flipping it; the odds of your winning depend on how many of each kind of trick coin you chose from.

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