instruere...inlustrare...delectare Disputations

Tuesday, April 29, 2003

More on merit

Human minds, as I've written, aren't very good at thinking two things at once. Losing the balance of "unmerited merit" is dead easy, and even if you can keep your balance it often looks to others as though you've fallen off in one direction or the other.

The Catechism sums up the Catholic teaching on merit with these words:
We can have merit in God's sight only because of God's free plan to associate man with the work of his grace. Merit is to be ascribed in the first place to the grace of God, and secondly to man's collaboration. Man's merit is due to God.

The grace of the Holy Spirit can confer true merit on us, by virtue of our adoptive filiation, and in accordance with God's gratuitous justice. Charity is the principal source of merit in us before God.

No one can merit the initial grace which is at the origin of conversion. Moved by the Holy Spirit, we can merit for ourselves and for others all the graces needed to attain eternal life, as well as necessary temporal goods. [CCC 2025-2027]
The balance this doctrine achieves isn't like the balance of a rock at the bottom of a hill. It's dynamic; like all mysteries of the faith, it's not a concept we relax in, but one we embrace with (ideally) a certain sense of exhiliration. We can't rest yet, because even though God has given us the fullness of truth we don't yet fully comprehend it.

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The doctor of self-knowledge

For St. Catherine of Siena, self-knowledge is the root of all virtue. Self-knowledge itself is based on the principle God explained to St. Catherine in the well-known words, "I am He Who Is, and you are she who is not."

Most people, probably, would readily agree that they are not God. Some people, though, find it more natural to observe that the people around them aren't God, and I'd guess almost everyone has trouble understanding that (and in what sense) they "are not." Sure, I obtained and preserve my being through a free act of God, but everybody else better treat me right if they aren't looking for trouble.

St. Catherine's Dialogue includes this passage, spoken to her by God:
This virtue of discretion is no other than a true knowledge which the soul should have of herself and of Me, and in this knowledge is virtue rooted. Discretion is the only child of self-knowledge, and, wedding with charity, has indeed many other descendants, as a tree which has many branches; but that which gives life to the tree, to its branches, and its root, is the ground of humility, in which it is planted, which humility is the foster-mother and nurse of charity, by whose means this tree remains in the perpetual calm of discretion. Because otherwise the tree would not produce the virtue of discretion, or any fruit of life, if it were not planted in the virtue of humility, because humility proceeds from self-knowledge.
Note St. Catherine's fondness for the untamed metaphor. I think it makes passages here and there somewhat confusing, especially when metaphors meet (e.g., when humility is both soil to the tree of virtue and nurse to charity in the same sentence); once untangled, though, they are powerful constructs for understanding and remembering her teachings. I recommend a modern translation, though; Algar Thorold's public domain translation is a bit tangled itself.

The passage continues:
And I have already said to you, that the root of discretion is a real knowledge of self and of My goodness, by which the soul immediately, and discreetly, renders to each one his due. Chiefly to Me in rendering praise and glory to My Name, and in referring to Me the graces and the gifts which she sees and knows she has received from Me; and rendering to herself that which she sees herself to have merited, knowing that she does not even exist of herself, and attributing to Me, and not to herself, her being, which she knows she has received by grace from Me, and every other grace which she has received besides.
The humility proceeding from self-knowledge is not a false humility, denying one's own merits, but one that understand merit properly belongs to a person, even as it understands that no merit is caused by anything intrinsic in the person, but only by the grace of God. That my merit is due to God is implied in the knowledge that I am not God, but I don't habitually dwell in that cell of self-knowledge where such implications are found. I rely on the words and intercessions of Dr. Benincasa to teach me what God would love to teach me directly if I really wanted to listen.

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Hail, victim of the love divine

The Little Office of St. Catherine of Siena is not much prayed these days, I suspect. Dominican tertiaries who once would have prayed it are now praying the Liturgy of the Hours. That's good, I think, although I have a sort of false romantic nostalgia for the little offices.

I have a copy of the Little Office of St. Catherine, featuring three hymns across the eight hours. Matins, Sext, and None use verses from this one:
Well do we count thee worthy of all praises,
O peerless virgin, for thy spirit bright
Ascends on high, crowned with triumphant graces
And robed in light.

To thee in all its fullness now is given
The high reward won by thy noble life;
Thou here on earth didst prove thy right to heaven
Where joys are rife.

   Sing we the Father anthems of thanksgiving;
   Sing we the Son who reigns eternally;
   Sing we the Holy Ghost forever living --
   The One and Three.

Thou shinest in the train of Him whose spirit
Did gather preacher bands from every shore,
Bright'ning the world with His effulgent merit,
Our pattern pure.

Earth ne'er could chain thy heart from love's sweet duty
Midst all the gilded pleasures of the flesh:
Maintaining still thy spiritual beauty
Forever fresh.

   Sing we the Father anthems of thanksgiving;
   Sing we the Son who reigns eternally;
   Sing we the Holy Ghost forever living --
   The One and Three.

Thy pure and blameless body, vowed to Heaven,
Chastising oft, thou in most dol'rous mood
Wouldst weep the sins of men, nor spared'st even
Thy willing blood.

All who by divers woes and great tormented,
Whom fickle fortune tossed in life like toys,
On every side by fearful cares prevented
From tasting joys.

   Sing we the Father anthems of thanksgiving;
   Sing we the Son who reigns eternally;
   Sing we the Holy Ghost forever living --
   The One and Three.
Lauds, Prime, Terce, and Vespers share this hymn:
The maid by angels taught to pray,
To heavenly secrets finds her way,
And by her signs of sore distress
Christ's bitter Passion doth express.

O happy Bride, who dost possess
The full of heavenly happiness,
Lend gracious ear unto the plea
Which we thy clients make to thee.

   O Spouse of Virgins, Jesus mild,
   Thy maiden Mother's only Child,
   May blessed spirits chant Thy praise
   Throughout the span of endless days.

The advent of the morning star
Now sends the shades of night afar,
And ushers in this day so bright
With Catherine's worth and deeds of might.

Hail, thou who didst forever yearn
The Passion and the Cross to learn!
Hail, victim of the love divine,
And modesty's pure lily shrine.

   O Spouse of Virgins, Jesus mild,
   Thy maiden Mother's only Child,
   May blessed spirits chant Thy praise
   Throughout the span of endless days.
Finally, Compline uses this:
O Virgin, summoned and drawn near
To virgins' Spouse by love's great power;
Yet not content with pains severe,
Still eager more on self to shower.

With firm resolve in pain she bows,
The sorrows of the Cross to know,
To suffer with her dol'rous Spouse,
Unvanquished friend in grief and woe.

For you the Lamb of love did die,
With Him, in turn, you then communed,
With blows of love you chastely vie,
Jesus' gentle heart to wound!

To thee, Jesus, be glory meet,
Of virgins both reward and crown;
With Father and the Paraclete,
Forevermore be all renown.

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"Have you come to believe because you have seen me?"

There's a good insight at Minute Particulars on St. Thomas the Apostle's culpability for failing to believe his fellow Apostles when they told him Jesus had appeared to them.

I'm a bit defensive on St. Thomas's part. Jesus did show the other Apostles His hands and His side, after all; He even breathed on them and gave them the Holy Spirit. Who can blame St. Thomas, who lacked these advantages, for his doubt? Or rather, who doubts he would doubt in St. Thomas's place?

I like to think St. Thomas's fault was an excess of piety: he couldn't believe Jesus was risen unless Jesus Himself told him, because as a faithful Jew St. Thomas couldn't believe Jesus was God unless God Himself told him.

From another perspective, though, this piety was presumptuous. As pointed out at Minute Particulars, it was wrong to refuse to believe the Apostles, to whom Jesus had transferred His authority by giving them the Holy Spirit. "Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained": whoever forgives sins possesses God's authority, as the Jews of Jesus' time knew well.

We are called to believe this without seeing. This may be harder than it sounds, especially for people who find Christianity, and in particular Catholicism, perfectly reasonable. "Of course Jesus' Church needs to act with His authority," we reason, "and there is nothing in this world that even could act that way other than the See of Peter and those sees in union with the Holy See." The final leap of faith is sometimes a hop over a tiny chink. The risk is that we might come to expect it to always be a tiny chink, then find ourselves ill prepared for the day when, from whatever causes, it suddenly becomes a blind chasm. When we no longer see, will we still cry out in faith, "My Lord and my God"?

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Monday, April 28, 2003

A limited-time offer

As I just wrote, today is St. Louis Marie Grignon de Montfort Day. St. Louis was one of the Church's greatest preachers on the Blessed Virgin Mary. Kathy the Carmelite posted today about an audiotape series on Mary she considers the best tool she's "ever seen for addressing the Protestant impasse on Mary."

Trusting Kathy's judgment, I'd be happy to send a set of the tapes to the first Protestant bothered by the Catholic Marian doctrines who sends me his address.

Here's the description of the series, "The Bible and Mary" by Steve Wood, on the L & C Christian Software online catalog:
Steve Wood is a former Protestant minister, noted pro-life leader and the founder and head of St. Joseph's Covenant Keepers, who became a Catholic only after much soul searching. One of the beliefs that kept him out of the Catholic Church so long was his misunderstanding of what Catholics really believe concerning Mary. In this fascinating series, Steve lays the groundwork for understanding the dramatically different views of Mary held by Protestants and Catholics. He shows, for example, how the definition of Mary as the "mother of God" was taken at the Council of Ephesus in 451 A.D. to combat the Nestorian heresy and how failure to do so would have undermined the divinity of Christ. This doctrine of theotokos (Greek for Mother of God) was universally accepted by Christians up until the Protestant Reformation. Steve also discusses the misunderstood doctrine of the Immaculate Conception as well as the perpetual virginity of Mary, in the context of both Scripture and Apostolic Tradition. Drawing on Biblical passages often overlooked, he explains two Marian doctrines often misunderstood by Protestants, the bodily assumption of Mary into heaven and her intercession before the throne of God for sinners on earth. His presentation is both enlightening and insightful, providing a view of the first Christian that all generations, according to Scripture, will call holy.

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It's Dominican Week in the Roman Calendar

Today is the feast of St. Louis Marie Grignon de Montfort, whose love of the Most Holy Rosary of the Blessed Virgin Mary was so great he was even willing to become a Third Order Dominican to be able to preach it.

Tomorrow is the feast of St. Catherine of Siena, Patroness of the Dominican Order and Doctor of the Church. She is admired and claimed as soul-sister by many people today, not all of whom are demonstrably keen on following her example of humility and discretion founded on the truth:
But, in no way, does the creature receive such a taste of the truth, or so brilliant a light therefrom, as by means of humble and continuous prayer, founded on knowledge of herself and of God; because prayer, exercising her in the above way, unites with God the soul that follows the footprints of Christ Crucified, and thus, by desire and affection, and union of love, makes her another Himself.


Wednesday is the feast of St. Pius V, of Lepanto and Our Lady of the Rosary fame. As bishop and later pope, he continued to wear his Dominican habit, with some modifications; to this day, popes wear white. In 1570, St. Pius excommunicated Queen Elizabeth of England and absolved English Catholics of their obedience to her, leading one Irish-American to say, on behalf of the Irish of the Penal Years, "Thanks, Pope."

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You get more of what you reward

If comments are the food pellets of the blogger's cage, then, as was pointed out at Flos Carmeli (inspired by The 7 Habitus), most of us are trained to avoid spirituality in favor of pressing the scandal lever. (Or my personal favorite, the unresolvable debate lever, which can prompt comments from people who haven't had a new thought on the subject since 1992.)

There are two not-quite-identical questions to ask: Why do non-spiritual posts generate relatively greater response? And why do spiritual posts generate relatively less response?

Part of the answer to the first question is, as Johann Tauler might have put it, that people don't live in the depths of their souls. Bobbing along on the surface of their existence, people naturally react to surface things, like whether a priest eight dioceses removed sat down during Mass without purifying a chalice. (Take a moment and imagine the conversation:
Jesus: So, what's on your mind today?
You: I am upset about how little love is shown to You.
Jesus: I forgive y-
You: Just today I read about what a priest in Des Moines said during a homily last month. The nerve!
Jesus: Indeed.
)

The religiosity I've been harping on comes into play here, too, since people (well, me, but presumably other people too) think that religiosity signifies depths, when what it really signifies is, I suppose, concentration.

The answer to why spiritual posts don't generate much of a visible response, whatever the interior response might be, is probably more involved. Speaking for myself, there are a lot of contributing reasons: Even by my low standards, I am relatively unlikely to be in the depths of my soul when I am sitting in front of a computer; when I read something that affects me, I often don't have anything to say about it right away; there's a sense that responding along the lines of, "Very good," is at the same time inadequate and condescending, like giving someone a good grade for surpassing my expectations of them. For posts on Catholic blogs, there's also the sense that everyone has already read them, or soon will, and that pointing them out is unnecessary and even a bit intrusive. (Also a bit clumsy, while Blogger's archiving remains flakey.)

Maybe we should create a Chrysostom blog (it would have to be a blog, of course; a mailing list would be so 1990s), where people can recommend good spiritual writing. That might make bloggers pander to people who want good spiritual writing, but maybe that wouldn't be an entirely bad thing.



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Saturday, April 26, 2003

Hammering on religiosity

Fr. Rob Johansen returns to the aptly-named Thrown Back, with these words:
But some of the comments directed at Bishop Murray were, to be blunt, nothing short of scurrilous. I am always amazed at the conclusions that people are willing to draw from scanty evidence, or the entire lack of it. I hope that those who were quick to condemn Bishop Murray will be equally ready to give him their support and prayers.
That quickness to condemn is one of the things that I meant to condemn when I started by "Remember the joy?" post below, until it wandered off in several other directions.

I think a lot of Catholics have bought into the me-and-Jesus notion of Christianity, in which whatever faith and spirituality they live by is lived in private. That means their public conversation, even when it's about religion, is not about faith and spirituality. It might be about aesthetics, it might be about ecclesiology, it might be about social politics at the parish level. All of these things have something to do with the Catholic faith, but they aren't the faith. They're part of the religiosity I mentioned the other day, with which a lot of people (myself included) busy ourselves.

The sort of combative religiosity that condemns a bishop as some sort of apostate for doing something not approved of doesn't really go well with Christian joy, and it doesn't do much to convince others that their lives will never be completed and fulfilled without a personal commitment to public prayer in a Catholic church.

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Which Twentieth Century Pope are you?

St. Pius X
You are Pope St. Pius X. You'd rather be right than newfangled.


Which Twentieth Century Pope Are You?
brought to you by Quizilla

Raise your hand if you're surprised.

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Friday, April 25, 2003

Remember the joy?

Last Friday, the Church commemorated the passion and death of our Lord. Last Sunday, the Church celebrated His resurrection. "Alleluia!" we all sang. We were joyful.

It's a peculiar kind of joy. Its source is the presence in our midst of a Man who once was dead but now lives. If we ask, He might show us the nail prints in His hands, but they aren't very noticable. He cleans up real good. The Crucifixion was last week's news.

When I was reading Ecclesia de Eucharistia, I was struck by the thought that the Eucharist is an extraordinarily clever idea:
In the Eucharist we have Jesus, we have his redemptive sacrifice, we have his resurrection, we have the gift of the Holy Spirit, we have adoration, obedience and love of the Father.
All of that, and more, packed into the most ordinary version of the most ordinary thing mankind makes.

With our wee brains, we can only think one thought at a time. We can think about the Crucifixion, or we can think about the Resurrection, or we can think about the link between them, but we really can't hold them both fully in our minds. And yet, through the magnanimity of God, we can hold them both fully in our hand, receive them both fully on our tongue. That may be the secret of Eucharistic adoration: whatever our minds are fixed on, our souls are made present to the fullness of Truth.

So the Eucharist gives us both the Crucifixion and the Resurrection. These are inseparable, not like two links of an unbreakable chain, but like two syllables in the name of our beloved. His death on the cross wasn't something Jesus endured on the way to His resurrection, like the stinky refineries you endure on the way to New York City. The Crucifixion was the way to the Resurrection. St. John's Gospel almost suggests an identity between them, and it may only be our boundedness to time that forces us to make a distinction. Perhaps when (God willing) we see Christ Jesus face to face, we will see the Crucifixion and the Resurrection at once and understand their essential unity.

Well, whatever the best way to think about it, it's certain that there's a relationship between the events of Good Friday and the events of Easter Sunday. The Passion isn't just a bad memory but an integral part of Who Jesus is, and so of who we are as His disciples. The human experience is of cycles of suffering and rejoicing. As Christians, though, we should always suffer and always rejoice, and whenever we're not doing one or the other we're shirking our discipleship of telling the world the Good News and of dying for each other.

In his Easterweek column for the archdiocesan newspaper (here this week; there after), Cardinal McCarrick writes of looking at the Triduum crowds in St. Matthew's Cathedral and being "troubled by the fact that they do not come to Mass every Sunday, that despite all the Church tries to do, we have not convinced them that their lives will never be completed and fulfilled without a personal commitment to public prayer."

I wonder if part of the reason we -- note the pronoun -- have not convinced the Christmas-and-Easter Catholics to come to Mass every Sunday is because we do an unconscionably poor job of manifesting Christian joy.

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Rumor Centralis

In a bid to broaden Disputation's appeal beyond the 18-35 market segment*, and taking advantage of the hunger for news caused by Zenit's vacation, I'm going to start peddling baseless ecclesial rumors. (Why not? It worked for that other blog. You know the one.)

Tell your friends.

The inaugural rumor is that, emboldened by the reception of his 20-page book of poetic meditations A Roman Tryptych, Pope John Paul II is planning on publishing several more poems, including A Krakow Tryptych, A Manila Tryptych, and A Cryptic Tryptych (this last being a poetic meditation on the Three Secrets of Fatima). Some senior Vatican officials, who fancy themselves custodians of John Paul the Great's legacy, are less than enthusiastic about this new program, possibly because they fear the publication of such lesser papal works as "Attraverso il Parabola Pallido di Gioia" will lessen the Pope's literary stature. One cardinal admitted off the record that he was made extremely nervous when the Pope asked him recently whether he knew of any language in which "blatzinger" was a real word.



*18-35 is an estimate of the number of people worldwide who are interested in arguments over Balthasar and Garrigou-Lagrange.

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Thursday, April 24, 2003

Probability and humility

Continuing on the "Knowing, Loving, and Comprehending" post at Flos Carmeli (my reply didn't fit in his comment box), Steven suspects our strongest disagreement might be over the probability of study becoming an end in itself, which I hope he'll allow me to interpret as believing that study is meritorious (in the Matthew 25 sense) before God. I'm not sure probability is the right way of framing the issue; it suggests an empirically observable distribution and statistical measures applied to populations, and I doubt either of us is interested in measuring the empirical correlation between theological study and pride.

Do theologians love God less than any other group (the canonical group being, for some reason, old peasant women)? I don't know, and I don't much care. I think it suffices to observe that the more exalted a thing the more debased it can be, and that knowledge of God is an exalted thing. But that doesn't make exalted things doubtful.

Personally, my concern is mistaking religiosity for sanctity. Religiosity can take the form of Googling the Summa Theologica, but it can also take the forms of reading Catholic periodicals, putting images of antique holy cards on the Web, writing letters to the local bishop, and singing in a church choir. The mistake is to say, "I spend this many hours a week doing Catholic stuff. That makes me a good Catholic."

As everyone from St. Paul to the Kairos Guy has observed, the way to avoid this mistake is the way of humility. Humility is the universal solvent of self-righteousness. I expect to be astonished on the Last Day, when I am shown how much time and effort I had to spend to avoid getting it on me.

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Wednesday, April 23, 2003

"Why did God make you?"

"God made me to know Him, to love Him, and to serve Him in this world, and to be happy with Him for ever in heaven."

I want to agree with Steven Riddle when he writes that "knowledge and study of the things of God are a good in themselves, but they are not the highest good, and they cease to be good when they become the sole purpose of our study. The point of knowing about God is to love God." After all, isn't loving God the greatest commandment?

Unfortunately, I don't think I do agree. I think the point of knowing about God is to know God, and following the trusty old Baltimore Catechism I think knowing God is distinct from loving God. Knowing God is a means of loving God, but it is also an end in itself. In fact, according to St. Thomas, knowing God -- the union of the human intellect with God's very Essence -- is the end, the way we will be happy with God for ever in heaven.

Of course, for St. Thomas the vision of the Divine Essence necessarily produces love of God, so saying our end is to know God as He is is equivalent to saying our end is to love God as He is. Some of my disagreement with Steven is like two people arguing over whether to say, "She is his aunt," or, "He is her nephew."

But if you go back before the part where I swapped "knowing God" for "knowing about God," it still sounds to me that Steven is saying that knowing about God is good only for its utility as a means for loving God, and I still think this is wrong. We know about God with our intellect; we love God with our will. The intellect has its own perfection, independent of the will.

Two examples come to mind to help explain my point. Physical health is good for me. Not as a means for me to love God, but in itself, it is good for me as a physical creature, and I ought to act so as to achieve and maintain physical health. Since physical health is not the greatest good, I shouldn't act to obtain it at all costs; when necessary, I should choose a greater good. But that fact doesn't reduce physical health to a merely useful good. Similarly, knowledge of God is good not merely as a means for me to love God.

The second example is more similar to knowledge of God, and one on which Steven might have further insight: Knowledge of mathematics. It can be a useful good, as a means of obtaining work -- and, as Steven has movingly written, as a means of appreciating the beauty of God. But it can also be a pleasant good, something in which the intellect rests in enjoyment. For mathematicians, knowledge of mathematics is good not primarily because it makes them love God, but because it is a form of perfection of their intellect.

Since humans are made in the image and likeness of a God Who is simple and of perfect integrity, and since our last end is to become like God, all of these things -- health, knowledge, love -- are related and can be considered relative to each other. But knowledge for knowledge's sake is not an optical illusion, so to speak, that clears up when we look at things properly according to the end of loving God. Knowledge genuinely is virtuous and pleasant, as well as useful.

I'm not sure Steven disagrees with any of this, though I suspect he does, and I certainly concede none of what I've written is all that useful for someone trying to follow St. John of the Cross along the narrow road of nada up Mt. Carmel.

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Links for the morbidly curious

In case you were wondering about the dust-up over Pere Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, OP (TOSO), EWTN has six of his books in its on-line library.

And in case that doesn't tell you enough, here they are:
  1. The Three Ways of the Spiritual Life
  2. Life Everlasting
  3. Christ the Savior
  4. Providence
  5. Reality: A Synthesis of Thomist Thought
  6. The Trinity and God the Creator

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Thinking about thinking

My favorite male Carmelite numerophilic blogger writes:
But the case of Balthasar once again raises a point I often make and often get derided for from the Thomists and proto-Thomists out there. Thought and speculation about God is wonderful and good so long as it leads the thinker and those who can follow him or her toward God. But thought about God is not an end in itself.
One place where St. Thomas touches on this is in his Treatise on Happiness (ST I-II, qq. 1-21). In arguing that everything we desire we desire for our last end, he considers the objection that (as Aristotle says) "speculative science is sought for its own sake."

St. Thomas's reply is that speculative science "is desired as the scientist's good, included in complete and perfect good, which is the ultimate end."

What is this "complete and perfect good," this "ultimate end"? Certainly not speculative sciences, which cannot raise a man above his natural human intellect. Still, St. Thomas insists, "the consideration of speculative sciences is a certain participation of true and perfect happiness." True and perfect happiness itself, however, "can consist in nothing else than the vision of the Divine Essence."

So are the Thomists and proto-Thomists out there right, from St. Thomas's perspective, to deride Mr. Riddle for raising his point?

Mostly no, but a bit yes, I think. Thought about God is not man's last end, but it is "included" in the last end. It doesn't constitute true and perfect happiness, but it is (or can be) "a certain participation" in that happiness. I think Mr. Riddle's point is, in Thomistic terms, that theology is only a "useful good," something desired as a means to another good. If I'm reading St. Thomas correctly (a big if), theology, as an "imperfect happiness," can actually be a "virtuous good," desired for its own sake.

That's not to say a good can't be virtuous from one aspect and useful from another; if everything is desired for the last end, then everything desired but the last end is a useful good relative to the last end. But I think it's better to speak of greater and lesser goods than of only one virtuous good with the rest being useful (or "not ends in themselves"). Bodily health is, I think, a straight-up good, to be desired for its own sake, even if it is not the highest good or the ruling desire or the last end. And I think the same is true of thinking about God.

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"He speaks the language of love"

You've probably already seen Gerard Serafin's list of reasons he likes Balthasar. I think they're all good reasons to like a theologian, although (as you might expect) they don't all resonate with me as much as with Gerard.

Let me add, with a hint of arrogance, that my issue with Balthasar is whether certain of his speculations are true. I think it's reasonable, based on the historical records of other significant theologians, to expect that at least some of them are false, even if it's not particularly reasonable to expect that I would be able to discern which ones they are. But a few incorrect speculations don't necessarily destroy a body of work, and even were we to accept none of Balthasar's conclusions, from what I know of his life he would still serve as a model of the humility and sensitivity to Tradition all good theologians should possess.

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Tuesday, April 22, 2003

The beauty of blogging

The best part about blogging is, if you play your posts right, you can get other people to write your best stuff for you. As witness the comments to the "Abandonment of a toady" post below. I mumble something that sounds reasoned -- like the mathematician's wife who learned to ask algebraists, "But do the roots lie in the field?" -- and people who know a lot of things I don't fill me in.

On the density of Balthasar's writings, Fr. Aidan Nichols, OP, has written a trilogy of guides to Balthasar's trilogy. They're basically a rewording of Balthasar's magnum opus, with a little bit of commentary here and there, and I expect them to suffice if or when the time comes for me to look more directly at Balthasar's theology.

(Frankly, I'm a bit disappointed that, so far, it looks like I'll turn out to be a paleo-Thomist. I'm working my way through TAN's Garrigou-Lagrange booklist, and I'm finding him brilliant. I'm such an Aeternipatrician.)

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Monday, April 21, 2003

You know how to and You can and You want to

Today is an excellent day to begin a novena to St. Catherine of Siena, whose feast day is in eight days.

You've probably noticed that St. Catherine has been frequently invoked since January 2002 as the model for how the laity should respond to clerical scandal. You've probably also noticed that she has been invoked both by those who want aggressive confrontation with sinful priests and bishops, and by those who want more passive and less public lay reactions. Who, if anyone, can claim St. Catherine's support is a matter of debate. As far as I know, she hasn't explicitly endorsed a particular group in this matter.

I hope to spend some part of the rest of April reading The Prayers of Catherine of Siena, if I can find my copy in time. (You can browse the entire text online, if you're feeling prayerful yet cheap.) The book is an English translation, by Sr. Suzanne Noffke, OP, of an Italian edition of the collected prayers of St. Catherine. Here is prayer number 5:
Eternal Father, Power,
help me!
Son of God, Wisdom,
enlighten the eye of my understanding!
Holy Spirit, tender Mercy,
enflame my heart
and unite it to Yourself!

I proclaim, eternal God,
that your power is powerful and strong enough
to free your Church and your people,
to snatch us from the devil's hand,
to stop the persecution of holy Church,
and to give me strength and victory
over my own enemies.
I proclaim that the wisdom of your Son,
who is one with you,
can enlighten the eye of my understanding
and that of your people,
and can relieve the darkness of your sweet bride.
And I proclaim, eternal gentle goodness of God,
that the mercy of the Holy Spirit,
your blazing charity,
wants to enflame my heart
and everyone's
and unite them with Yourself.

Eternal Father, Power;
with the Wisdom that is your only-begotten Son
in his precious blood,
and the Mercy that is your Holy Spirit,
fire and deep well of charity
that held this Son
fixed and nailed to the cross --
You know how to
and You can
and You want to,
so I plead with You:
have mercy on the world
and restore the warmth of charity
and peace
and unity
to holy Church.

Oimé!
I wish You would not delay any longer!
I beg You,
let Your infinite goodness force You
not to close the eye of Your mercy!
Gentle Jesus!
Jesus love!
This seems like a common or garden prayer of a saint, and I suppose it is, as long as we understand that a saint's garden is different from the gardens of the rest of us. The notes accompanying the prayer point out, not only the richness of the prayer's Scriptural basis, but also its theological depth. Note the Trinitarian understanding:

Father -- Power -- You can
Son -- Wisdom -- You know how to
Holy Spirit -- Mercy -- You want to


It would probably suffice for both my salvation and my perfection if I could merely learn to pray -- and I mean pray -- those final words, "Gentle Jesus! Jesus love!"

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It's like I was saying

Fr. Bryce Sibley quotes Fr. Hans Urs von Balthasar on the relationship between the Father and the Son when Christ descended to Sheol: "the moment of their separation is paradoxically their moment of most intense union."

Now, I'm not a very sophisticated thinker. When I hear "the moment of separation is the moment of most intense union," I assume that the "separation" and the "union" do not refer to the same relation in the same respect. If I say, "I am never closer to my wife than when we are far apart," "far apart" is a measure of physical distance and "closer" an analagous measure of spiritual or emotional "distance." That way of talking is, at least since Chesterton, called a "paradox," but really it's a sort of rhetorical equivocation. It's just a pithy way of making your point.

I sense, though, that Balthasar does not intend his statement the way I interpret it. I think he really does mean "separation" and "union" to describe the same relation in the same respect. As Melanie suggested in a comment below, this is not a paradox; this is a contradiction.

I'm partial to the idea that theology happens at the point where the language breaks, but I'm not sure anyone is trying to break language here. Perhaps, following Mr. Riddle, Balthasar is better thought of as a misdiagnosed poet.

Standard disclaimer: I am not a theologian. There is no particular reason why my sense of what is sound theology should be accurate.

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Happy Easter!

Every now and then, I get my mind, my heart, and my soul aligned with the Church's calendar and have a life-changing solemninty. More often, though, they're out of phase, and the day passes much as any other day, only with better food.

Easter is a particular challenge for me, for a lot of reasons. Lent is too long; I could do a nine-day Lent for the ages, but after a month I am slouching toward Ordinariness. Children do not add a Cistercian-like quality to the Triduum home.

Mostly, perhaps, I am an Easter person anyway. You'd think that would make keeping Easter easier, but for me it means Easter Sunday isn't that much different from the Nineteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time. Even on Good Friday, by temperament I'm thinking about how the story ends (or rather, how it doesn't end).

I take some comfort in the thought that my life, interior and exterior, need not track the liturgical year like the artwork on the EWTN homepage. The point, I think, is to be formed by the liturgy's cycles, not perfected in an instant. Perfection is the goal, of course, and we shouldn't dawdle on the way, but since I wasn't perfect at sunset on Thursday, it's no surprise I wasn't perfect at sunrise on Sunday.

But just wait till sunrise on the Nineteenth Sunday of Ordinary Time!

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Thursday, April 17, 2003

On encyclicals and the Ginger Factor

So I'm racing through Ecclesia de Eucharistia, to finish it before tonight's Mass of the Lord's Supper, and I get to the point (in no. 37) where it mentions that the Code of Canon Law "states that those who 'obstinately persist in manifest grave sin' are not to be admitted to Eucharistic communion."

And it suddenly hits me why reporters seize on such bits of rehashed doctrine as the hook on which to hang papal letters. It may have less to do with reporter's prefab notions of the Church than with everyone's experience of the Ginger Factor.

The Ginger Factor, named for a well-known "Far Side" cartoon, is a measure of the ratio of words said to words understood. A dog named Ginger, for example, only understands the word "Ginger" in the sentence, "Okay, Ginger, if you get into the garbage one more time, you'll be spending the night outside."

I think most people, not just benighted reporters, experience a high Ginger Factor with most papal encyclicals; my post below includes a paragraph from an apostolic letter that has a high G.F. for me. Naturally, a reporter doesn't report on the parts of a papal statement that sound like, "Blah blah blah, blah blah blah blah.blah" And naturally, a reporter does recognize (and report on) the part that sounds like, "This means Senator Rawkins is being naughty."

But as I say, it's not just reporters. I haven't seen much commentary on St. Blog's yet about Ecclesia de Eucharistia; let's see how much of it amounts to, "The liberals better watch out!"

A corollary of this -- which is what made me stop reading the encyclical to post this -- is that all the other stuff sounds like "Blah blah blah," even to us knowledgable Catholics.

To choose a sentence more or less at random, in no. 4 the Pope writes, "Whenever the Eucharist is celebrated at the tomb of Jesus in Jerusalem, there is an almost tangible return to his 'hour', the hour of his Cross and glorification." I read that and think, "Oh, umhm." It's not till I get to the bit about clean consciences that I sit up and think, "Oh, he's saying something to me, now."

The parts about specific, concrete disciplines or doctrines seem to actually be more concrete than the parts about union with God and others. The identity of the sacrament celebrated at St. Moribund's with the sacrifice on Calvary, that's just part of the comfortable background humming which is my experience of the riches and depths of the Catholic faith. But ooh, tell me an Episcopalian can't receive the Eucharist in my church, and now you're telling me something real.

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Abandonment of a toady

Scratch a boot-licking Vatican toady, and you'll find a cafeteria Catholic waiting to emerge at just the right (or wrong) papal statement.

Kevin Miller at HMS Blog identifies a papal statement that brings out my own "Here I stand" resistance:
When Christ says: "My God, My God, why have you abandoned me?", his words are not only an expression of that abandonment which many times found expression in the Old Testament, especially in the Psalms and in particular in that Psalm 22 [21] from which come the words quoted. One can say that these words on abandonment are born at the level of that inseparable union of the Son with the Father, and are born because the Father "laid on him the iniquity of us all." They also foreshadow the words of Saint Paul: "For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin." Together with this horrible weight, encompassing the "entire" evil of the turning away from God which is contained in sin, Christ, through the divine depth of his filial union with the Father, perceives in a humanly inexpressible way this suffering which is the separation, the rejection by the Father, the estrangement from God. [Savifici Doloris, no. 19]
In my abjectly amateur opinion, Kevin is right to say that this passage is "consistent with, and perhaps indeed informed by, Balthasar's theology."

Now, I am familiar with only a tiny portion of Balthasar's theology. I understand only a tiny portion of what I am familiar with. But the funny thing is, the more I understand it, the less I like it.

Part of it is, shall I say, a discontinuity of style; the English translations of Balthasar's German don't make much sense to me. I mean, I have a hard time figuring out what the actual words strung together in paragraphs (and, occasionally, sentences) actually mean. (It's been suggested to me that my mistake is assuming they mean anything at all.)

And frankly, the difficulty I have understanding Balthasar extends to the Balthasar-informed passages by Pope John Paul II. Note in the passage quoted above, first the reference to "that inseparable union of the Son with the Father," and second the reference to "this suffering which is the separation, the rejection by the Father." So ... is there a separation?

There's a sense I get -- and this sense has been confirmed by at least one professional theologian I've read -- that Balthasar likes to have his cake and eat it, too. This is sometimes defended as a mysterious paradox, or perhaps as a paradoxical mystery, but I'm not buying the defense, either. A paradox is not the same as a mystery, and if a thing is both a paradox and a mystery, it's paradoxical and mysterious natures can (and probably should) be considered separately. A thing can't both be and not be at the same time and in the same respect, whether or not someone is waving his hands and saying, "But it's a mystery!"

So do I actually reject what the Pope teaches in Savifici Doloris? How can I, when I don't know what he's actually teaching? I take the point that Jesus' cry from the Cross signifies more than His fulfillment of the prophecy of Psalm 22, but I honestly can't make out what the Pope is saying that more is. This sort of "One can say...born of the level of that inseparable union...encompassing the 'entire' evil...through the divine depth" way of speaking is, I think, one of the least attractive contributions Balthasar has made to the Church, and I hope (though who am I?) the Church will soon learn to take what is valuable from Balthasar's theology and put it in more comprehensible terms.

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Wednesday, April 16, 2003

The kenosis of the Son, the kenosis of the mother

Which stations in the Way of the Cross do you most relate to?

It's not a question I'd considered before it came up in a conversation last week. I don't do the Way of the Cross that often, nor when I do it is it with much depth of heart.

What I settled on was the pair of "Jesus Meets His Mother" and "Jesus is Taken Down From the Cross." (The presence of Mary as Jesus walked to Golgotha and as His body was taken down are supra-Scriptural intuitions, you might say, consistent with but not explicitly mentioned in the Gospel accounts of the Crucifixion.)

The role of Mary in the Church is not -- as many people, including many Catholics, think -- a way of sneaking into heaven, past Christ the Stern Judge, by way of His softie mother. Can anyone really believe any other person could love us more than Jesus does? Rather, Mary's role in the life of the Church is the same as her role in the life of the Savior. When we reflect with Mary on the things she kept in her heart, we are "led to contemplate the beauty on the face of Christ and to experience the depths of his love," as Pope John Paul II put it in Rosarium Virginis Mariae.

"There is no beauty in him, nor comeliness," Isaiah prophesized of Jesus, "and we have seen him, and there was no sightliness, that we should be desirous of him." Did His mother see the beauty of the face of Christ as He was led to His death? I imagine her, as striken in her heart as her Son was in His. What did she hold in her immaculate heart? The memory of the angel's promise: "He will rule over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end"; of her faith in that promise, her hope in its accomplishment, her love of God for His love of her.

And not just love of God, but of her child, her infant whom foreign magi worshipped. That unwavering faith and hope and love, renewed each time she caught sight of, even thought of her Son Jesus, todlding though the house, playing with other children, learning from His father, shocking His parents with a painful and confusing reminder that He was not theirs to keep always.

Mary carried her faith, hope, and love with her, and at the sight of her condemned Son, what was she to do? Lose faith, abandon hope, cry out bitterly against the God Who would ordain this for His, for her, only Son?

No. In the emptiness and abandonment of Jesus, Mary saw her own emptiness and abandonment. There was nothing for her to do but offer the husks of her faith, hope, and love, now hollow and weightless, to the Father. "May it be done to me according to your word."

Jesus gave a loud cry and breathed his last. While others engaged in political machinations, His mother stood vigil over His body, the Bread of Life dead to bring forth fruit, to yield a hundredfold. At last, His body is released, first from Roman possession, then from the Cross. Mary receives the body, again not hers to keep always.

How can there be anything left of her faith or her hope? Jesus did not come down from the Cross. He was not given the throne of David. At the sight of His tortured body on the way to Golgotha, Mary offered God all that she had. God accepted her offering, and gave her nothing back.

And yet... offering up hope is not the same as giving up hope. As empty as the body she holds, Mary is still receptive to God's will and His ways. She is, so to speak, between breaths; she has exhaled all she has, and there will be a pause before she draws in the sweet fragrance of the news of Easter, before God fills her like an overflowing fountain at Pentecost, and gives her a crown above all crowns and honor above all honor once she is assumed into the presence of her Risen Son.

But that fulfillment must wait. Now she sits at the foot of the Cross, her dead Son in her arms a reality no knowledge of the future, no wisdom of divine providence, can set aside. And still she offers God her faith and her hope and her love.

Michaelangelo understood something of this moment, and his Pieta puts it better than words ever could. The expression on Mary's face, the gesture of her left hand, these do not belong to a woman for whom life has lost meaning, on whom God has turned His back. Rather, in her sorrow and misery, she sees that the Cross is not something Jesus had to endure along the way to His glory, but the very means of His glory. She is telling us, "Come, contemplate with me the beauty on the face of Christ. Experience the depths of his love."

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He has been silent because we make much noise

Zenit reports an interview with Fr. Georges Cottier, OP, theologian of the papal household, on the job of rebuilding Iraq. Here are some selections:
Q: In response to the Pope's appeal, millions of people prayed for peace. Have they been heard?

Father Cottier: By God? I think so. He listens to what we say, although the way he responds is something else. We hope for verifiable, immediate results, but we must not think that this is God's way of acting.

Q: Why pray then?

Father Cottier: Pray, pray ... because there is a very strong belief that peace is almost beyond man's ability. We are all ready to oppose, to dominate, to fuel hatred.

Peace is a gift of God. So we must pray that he will transform us into builders of peace. In this way, he answers our prayers.

...

Q: How should one act, then?

Father Cottier: We need prayer to obtain wisdom, courage and generosity....

Q: You say God is not absent, but many have perceived his silence as a weight.

Father Cottier: What is the silence of God? God is always silent. He speaks in the depth of hearts. He inspires us through the Holy Spirit -- let us think about the many persons during these days who have prayed and called on God.

I would not say, therefore, that he was absent. He has been silent because we make much noise.
You can read the whole report for the more political bits; mention of the United Nations seems to be distracting, and what I wanted to emphasize with the above edits is the primacy Fr. Cottier places on prayer as action. Note his answer to the question, "How should one act, then?"

God speaks silently in the depth of hearts. How, then, can He speak to someone who never attends to the depth of his heart? How can you hear a silent voice if you are never silent?

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Monday, April 14, 2003

Those passing by reviled Him

It seems to me that one source of anguish Jesus felt in the garden before He was arrested was how poor a job He had done convincing the Jewish religious leaders He was the Messiah. Only a tiny fraction of the Jews with whom He spoke would come to believe in Him. And remember, these were His Chosen People, His dearly beloved from among all the nations.

What might have made the anguish all the sharper was Jesus' knowledge that He had the power to make them believe. He could perform the signs they demanded of Him, call upon the angels who waited upon Him to show themselves. He could even have answered the taunts of the chief priests and scribes as He was dying, "He saved others; he cannot save himself. Let the Messiah, the King of Israel, come down now from the cross that we may see and believe." He could have come down from the cross.

Would they have then believed?

Suppose so. Suppose that, in a flash, Jesus came down from the cross and stood before the Sanhedrin in clothes of gold and purple, cherubim on His right and His left. Suppose that this, at last, opened their eyes, and they flung themselves on the ground before Him and worshipped.

Even then they would not have believed in Jesus!

God became man to die on a cross, forsaken and reviled. This is Who Jesus was, so much so that if He had done what, strictly speaking, was within His power and come down from the cross, the King in glory the Pharisees might have worshipped would not have been the Son of God. It would have been the Son of God playing the role of the Pharisees' idea of the Son of God. Faith in the Pharisees' idea of the Son of God never has and never could save anyone. Jesus had the power to make His enemies believe in Him, but it would have been a false belief. They would have known Him no better serving Him from His throne in the Temple than they did mocking Him from His throne on Golgotha.

I've sometimes wondered why Jesus tried to keep the Messianic secret, why He didn't adopt a more irenic approach to the Pharisees and the Sanhedrin, whether fewer insults and more diplomacy might not have won Him more believers. But maybe He did literally all He could to show them, short of disobeying the Father. Maybe the limit on what Jesus can do for those whom He meets is set, not by some divine tough love standard, but by the way we have closed off all but a narrow approach to our minds and our hearts, along which we insist the King travel if He is to reach us.

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"Defined not by history, but by faith"

Br. Don Kania, O.P., has written a brief essay on the Way of the Cross which is sure to infuriate all those who think The Last Temptation of Christ was produced and distributed by Satan. Others might find in it an opportunity to consider the Way of the Cross as something more than a simple fact of Catholic culture.

For example, I didn't realize the standard fourteen stations weren't fixed until 1731. That makes them venerable, but hardly ancient by Church standards. And since devotions exist for man, not man for devotions, there is surely room for development.

I see two different ways in which development can happen. One is a change in the basic devotion, as with the addition of the fifteenth station or the use of more scriptural stations. The other is the abstraction from the devotion of some of the aspects that has made it a success through the centuries -- I'd say the physical movement and prayers combined with a series of concrete but open topics for meditation (where have we seen that combination before?), a very appropriate mix for our human nature -- and building other devotions from it.

Development, of course, means change, and as we know, Change Is Bad. The first type of development is fixing what isn't broken, and often taken as an insult to one's personal traditions and memory; what's good enough for Fr. Faber is good enough for you. The second type is an attempt to replace a proven source of grace with an artifact of dubious provenance.

While there's the obvious problem -- and consequent intra-parish strife -- that a private devotion observed in public cannot both change and not change, I think we must also recognize that a specific form of a devotion isn't carved in stone.

Well, okay, maybe the Way of the Cross is carved in stone, as often as not. What I mean is there is no divinely mandated precept that it's St. Alphonsus Liguori's Via or no Via.

Back to Br. Don's essay, he makes an interesting point about the question of scriptural basis for Station Six, Veronica wipes Jesus' Face:
...it should not be categorized as having no scriptural antecedents. The inclusion of Veronica (station 6) is reminiscent of Luke's focus on the feminine and Luke's literary style of pairing men with women throughout his gospel. Thus, Veronica becomes a female counterpart to the male Simon of Cyrene (station 5): both encounter Jesus on the way to the cross.

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The leftists and the righteous

The Contrarian makes a valuable distinction (emphasis added):
I am no leftist and I usually disagree with most pronouncements and press releases on social justice issues that emanate from diocesan chanceries and bishops' conferences. Yet, I am not particularly perplexed or angered by those pronouncements with which I disagree so long as they flow directly from a belief that ... "if God took flesh, then this has social implications" and not out of allegiance to purely secular ideologies as a substitute for lapsed faith.
I infer a certain uncharitable imputation of motives in some of the "Democratic Party at prayer" derision aimed at American bishops. It's a cheap way out of listening to your bishop to say, "He only says that because he's a toady of the Left."

Maybe his toadyhood explains part of it; maybe it explains most of it. But if we ignore what our bishops say -- or worse, listen to them with a hermeneutic of suspicion -- from whom are we supposed to learn about the part Leftist toadyhood doesn't explain, the part based on a belief that the Incarnation has social implications?

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Don't forget "Complaining"

Dappled Things presents a couple of lists of Things Catholics Do. I call attention to one item --
Keeping blessed palms in one's home.
I keep blessed palms in on room in my home. In fact, that's all I keep in the room. There's no space for anything else, and every year we just keep getting more blessed palms. If it weren't for the compaction they undergo as they decompose into blessed mulch, we'd need to move to a bigger house. I'm just waiting for the day I see a notice in a church bulletin to bring in the palms for Ash Wednesday. I'll rent a truck and haul the blessed things in. There will be enough ashes to mark the foreheads of every Catholic in the diocese, plus those on Mt. Rushmore.

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Friday, April 11, 2003

Is "necessary evil" Greek for "just war"?

Here is an excerpt from an article by Fr. Stanley Harakas, a Greek Orthodox priest, as quoted in a Flos Carmeli comment box:
The West, beginning with St. Augustine, had developed a set of ethical prescriptions and proscriptions concerning entrance into war (jus ad bellum) and behavior during war (jus in bello). I couldn't find such ethical reasoning in the Greek Fathers or in the canonical tradition of the Orthodox Church.

... I found an amazing consistency [in Eastern Orthodoxy] in the almost totally negative moral assessment of war coupled with an admission that war may be necessary under certain circumstances to protect the innocent and to limit even greater evils. In this framework, war may be an unavoidable alternative, but it nevertheless remains an evil. Virtually absent in the tradition is any mention of a "just" war, much less a "good" war. The tradition also precludes the possibility of a crusade. For the Eastern Orthodox tradition, I concluded, war can be seen only as a "necessary evil," with all the difficulty and imprecision such a designation carries.
As you might guess, I think "necessary evil" is a difficult and imprecise designation. The only sense I can make of the term in this context is that the "evil" has the nature of a natural harm suffered rather than a moral fault committed.

Or is it perhaps a "natural fault," so to speak, when someone is required by circumstances to act in a way less perfect than he is capable of?

Fr. Harakas's conclusion is this:
[The East's] view of war, unlike that of the West, was that it is a necessary evil. The peace ideal continued to remain normative, and no theoretical efforts were made to make conduct of war into a positive norm.
I can see how having a just war theory to refer to can affect one's attitude toward war. That, at any rate, has been made absolutely clear over the past several months.

What I'm not convinced of is that this signifies a substantive theological difference between East and West. Is it really true that the view of war as a necessary evil is "unlike that of the West"? Saying just war theory makes conduct of war into a positive norm seems somewhat misleading, even if the applications suggest positively good wars. The theory, after all, is a set of negative propositions: Don't go to war if these narrow conditions don't hold, don't do these many things if you do go to war. St. Thomas places war among the vices opposed to charity, and preserves a teaching on clerical pacifism like that found in Orthodoxy.

While I wouldn't go so far as to say the peace ideal has always remained normative throughout the Roman Catholic tradition, I think it has always remained fundamental and the proper foundation for just war theory. And as a systematic Westerner, I don't find it adequate to say, "War is sometimes a necessary evil," and leave it at that. If you make no theoretical efforts to develop a norm of when war is "necessary," what do you do when the question arises as a practical matter?

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An argument on moral obligation

An interesting thought experiment is proposed at fotos del apocalipsis:
Let A be a conscious spectator of the following situation:
B suffers an evil. [1]
Suppose in addition that
A is able [2] to eradicate the evil.
Consider the thesis:
A has the moral obligation to eradicate B's evil.
Justify the affirmative answer: get rid of all false trails (evil should be "real"), reject apparent remedies (it's not worth eradicating one evil and creating another, greater one), consider the gravity of relief from evil and the temptation of the sin of omission, show the connection with the theological virtue of charity, and with the evangelical exhortations ("I was hungry and you did not feed me"). Carefully distinguish the domains of each concept; construct the syllogisms. Elucidated and frame the full argument, with all its considerations, restrictions, and precisions.

Revised it all.


[1] Assumed complete generality, without characterizing: B can be a person, a group of persons, a nation, a world; evil can be a pure suffering without intervention of third parties, can be an evil committed against B by another or by B against B.
[2] In the physical sense of the word: "is in its power."
(My apologies for translation errors.)

When you're done, Hernán has a proposal for particular values of A and B against which to test the robustness of your argument.

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Thursday, April 10, 2003

Metablogging: A programming note

For those who were wondering: Yes, you may comment on my blog. Yes, you may leave anonymous comments. Yes, you may be offensive. No, you may not do all three at once.

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Current events at the breakfast table

    "Daddy, who's that?" my young son asks, pointing to a file photograph in a newspaper.
    "Oh, that's the evil man our army is trying to stop being bad to his people," I answer.
    "What does 'evil' mean?"
    I set down my glass of orange juice. This is going to be an important discussion. "Evil," I say, "is the privation of a due good."
    His eyes grow wide. "You mean like corruption and our inability to preserve our own existence?"
    "Distinguo. Corruption is indeed an evil, being the loss or lessening of being, which is controvertible to goodness. But an ability to preserve our own existence is not a good due us as creatures."
    "So that's why you say evil isn't simply the absence of a good, but the privation of a good?"
    "Exactly. A stone lacks the good of sight, but we don't say, 'The stone's blindness is evil.' Just so, we don't say, 'My inability to conserve my existence is evil.'"
    "But you wear glasses, Daddy," he points out, looking worried. "That's a privation of eyesight, which is a good of your eyes. Does that mean you're evil like the man in the picture?"
    "No, son. The implication doesn't hold. There are different kinds of evil."
    "Like what?"
    "Well, there's involuntary evil and voluntary evil. Some of the privations of due goods a moral being such as man experiences aren't chosen by him, and some are."
    "Daddy, you're tricking me! No one would choose to deprive himself of a good due him."
    "It does sound strange, I know, but people do it all the time. We usually call it 'sin.'"
    "I call it dumb."
    "Well, yes, sin is foolish twice over. First because when he sins a man freely chooses to deprive himself of the perfect operation of his faculties. And second, because whenever he sins he incurs a penalty or punishment, the deprivation or diminishment of some form of good he does or should possess."
    "So what happens when the evil man in the picture does something bad to someone?"
    "Three things. First, when he chooses to do something bad his will becomes less perfect, which is an evil found in his operation. Second, whatever he does is experienced as an involuntary evil -- perhaps a physical injury, or the denial of something that is due -- by the person to whom it is done. And finally, he will experience some evil of punishment or penalty. He will lose some good that he would otherwise have possessed."
    My son wrinkles his nose. "That means that the evil man gets two evils, and the person he's bad to only gets one. So he's twice as evil."
    "No, it's not additive like that. The only evil that makes a person evil is the evil they directly choose, their sin, when they freely choose to do a less perfect act than they are capable of."
    "Oh."
    "But you're right to point out that, when one person does something bad to another person, it's the person doing the bad thing that winds up worse off -- at least from the perspective of human happiness."
    "I'm not very happy when someone does something bad to me."
    "No, but the happiness I mean is the state in which you have everything you desire, and everything you desire is good for you. If you lose something you desire due to an involuntary evil someone inflicts on you, you're better off than the person who inflicts it, who desires something that isn't good for him. What you've lost can be restored, but he may be stuck with his wrong desire for eternity."
    "But what if he kills me?"
    "That would indeed be a great evil to endure. But it is not as great an evil as the penalty of damnation which your murderer might incur for killing you."
    "Does that mean that stopping someone from doing something bad to someone else does as much good for the person doing the bad thing as it does for the person the bad thing is done to?"
    "It may be so, and remember that doing good for someone is the meaning of charity."
    "So if we drop four two thousand pound bombs on someone, it means we love him?"
    "Ah, now you're moving from speculative to practical questions. Why don't you run along and ask Mommy?"

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For those not yet at their limit

On the day Baghdad fell, Pope John Paul II spoke these words at the end of his general audience:
While in Baghdad and in other places in Iraq the clashes continue, with destruction and death, news no less worrying arrives from the African continent, where, in the past days, comes information about massacres and summary executions. The theater of these crimes is the tormented region of the Great Lakes, and particularly an area of the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

In raising to God a fervent prayer of hope for the victims, I direct a heartfelt appeal to the politicians in charge, and also to all men of good will, that they pledge to stop violence and abuses of power, putting aside personal selfishness and group interests, with the active collaboration of the international community.

For this reason, every effort of reconciliation between the Congolese, Ugandan, and Rwandese people is to be encouraged, as are similar efforts in Burundi and in Sudan, hoping that from them the dearly wanted peace will soon be able to bloom.
Why oh why would the Pope interrupt our taunts of, "We told you so!" to make the same old tired appeal to the "international community" -- read the dictator-coddling, abortion-and-contraception-promoting U.N. -- to help a region in the world achieve peace? Doesn't he know that the happiness of Iraqis to be freed from tyranny proves that the international community is in the dump truck on the way to the trash heap of history? Why won't he let us enjoy our triumph in peace?

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Wednesday, April 09, 2003

Those three little words

I'm sure you know the words I mean: Beware consequentialist thinking.

It's natural, when a plan of action turns out very well, to conclude that it was a good plan. Not merely good in the sense of effective, but even in the sense of moral.

That the end doesn't justify beginning, though, can be seen by imagining that I aim a deer rifle in the air and fire off a round. If the bullet breaks a window, scaring a man about to murder some orphans into dropping his knife and surrendering to police, I would be wrong to conclude that shooting the rifle was a good idea.

Now let's imagine a happy days ending to the war against Iraq. Fighting stops later today, humanitarian aid reaches all who need it, looting stops, Iraq gets off to a good political restart, the Coalition forces go home soon, no subsequent acts of terroism attributable to the invasion occur -- even, if you like, WMD are discovered.

Such a scenario will -- and to the extent it's begun to play out, already has -- lead many who supported the invasion to say things like, "The Iraqis were happy to be liberated. That shows this was a just war."

There are two problems with this sort of talk.

First, it's untrue; that the Iraqis were happy to be liberated does not show that the war is just (and not only because the cause of the war was not the subjugation of Iraq).

Second, most people who say such things will never believe it's untrue.

The time will come, if it hasn't already arrived, when conservative American Roman Catholics say, "If we'd listened to the Vatican in 2003, the Baathists would still be putting Iraqis into meat shredders." Maybe, although if they'd listened to the Vatican in 2003, they would have been praying the Rosary daily for a just peace without war. Maybe it isn't just the Vatican some conservative American Roman Catholics didn't listen to in 2003, but the Gospel.

Anyway, I am not sulking and saying, "The costs of the war were remarkably low, and the benefits remarkably high? Rats! But I don't care, the war was still immoral!" I am saying, "Whether the war's costs and benefits turn out to be low or high does not affect the morality of the decision to go to war."

And indeed, how could it? How can something that happens now affect circumstances in the past?

What something happening now can affect is the evaluation of the soundness of past judgments. Still, evaluating their soundness is not the same as proving their soundness. Sometimes you get lucky. Sometimes you get help.

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Come then, let us set things right

Mr. Riddle of Flos Carmeli is right to caution against exaggerating the ineluctability of the conclusions of human reason. In the very first article of his Summa Theologica, St. Thomas admits the weakness of human reason by pointing out divine revelation is necessary even for "those truths about God which human reason could have discovered... because the truth about God such as reason could discover, would only be known by a few, and that after a long time, and with the admixture of many errors."

But I still think the way the matter of assassination of a tyrant is framed at Flos Carmeli is wrong insufficiently nuanced:
To take an old, proven, and accepted argument, when John da Fiesole presents an axiomatic system that says "God frowns as greatly upon the death of one as He does upon the deaths of millions," and shows proof of this, I understand the proof, and I even believe the proof. On the other hand, what kind of God, I ask myself, am I worshipping who allows the continued slaughter of millions by the interdiction of the death of one? While it is not good to think about God fashioning a squad of hit men, neither is it salutary to consider a God who sits back and allows the chaos that we see in many countries and forbids the obvious remedy.
(Speaking of unspoken assumptions, we'll take as granted that the circumstances are such that a tyrant is morally certain to kill millions, and that the means of preventing this by assassinating him are immoral.)

First, I think we need to look at the term "the obvious remedy." What is it that makes this remedy obvious? If, as we're supposing, it is morally impermissible to assassinate the tyrant, then assassination ought to be removed from consideration, as it is said "taken off the table." A bowling ball on a small table may be obvious, but if I take it off the table, then it is no longer "obvious" (in the way) to someone whose attention is limited to the table. We might analagously say that an obvious way of "remedying" the situation that I can't get a soccer ball past the other team's goalie is to pick up the ball and run it into the goal.

The soccer analogy looks weak, since the goal in soccer is not to get the ball in the goal but to score, while the goal with the tyrant is to stop him killing people, which will necessarily happen if we kill him. But I think framing the problem this way is incorrect; the end of the Christian is not "People aren't being killed," but "People are living according to God's will." Just as putting the ball into the goal does not necessarily constitute scoring in soccer, stopping a tyrant from killing people does not necessarily constitute the charity toward others required of us by God.
You cannot look at the sheer logic and not ask the question, "God would prefer the deaths of millions to the death of one?" Now the answer is that He would prefer no deaths--but what is the reality?
Ah, now we're getting somewhere. What is the reality? According to Mr. Riddle, it is this:
If God forbids the removal of the one, then He approves the slaughter of the millions. You cannot have Him disapproving both because if He did so, the slaughter obviously would not occur.
Here, I think, the reasoning is salted with additional propositions that come to us unproven. If God disapproves of an act, it is sinful; if an act is sinful, God disapproves of it. By construction, God disapproves of my assassinating the tyrant. But who is the moral actor slaughtering millions? Obviously, it is the tyrant. There is no dilemma or paradox or problem with God disapproving both my sinful act and the tyrant's.

Mr. Riddle's position, though, is that we somehow share in the act of slaughtering millions. I don't understand how he comes to this position, or perhaps I misundertand what his position really is.

As a member of the human race, I am not perfected until the whole human race is perfected. An act of adultery in Bhutan affects me; the Great Commission is not completed until there is no more sin anywhere.

But that mystery does not imply that I am morally culpable for each act of Bhutanese adultery. As I've argued before, the coincidence of my earthly life with a particular injustice does not imply my complicity in that injustice. Is it reasonable to hold a fifteen-year-old Christian slave in Sudan responsible for the enslavement of a fifteen-year-old prostitute in Thailand?

If we are not necessarily morally complicit in every act of injustice, the question still remains whether we are in fact morally complicit in a particular act of injustice. It seems to me that we cannot be morally complicit if we are powerless to stop or prevent it. Returning to the example raised at Flos Carmeli, we could say a just actor does not have the power to assassinate a tyrant. If physical options are limited to assassination and nothing, and assassination is not a moral choice, how can doing nothing physically be immoral?

That's not a rhetorical question. You could answer, "You can make me say, 'Doing nothing physically couldn't be immoral,' but you can't make me like it." That's fine. In fact, I'd say that's good. Impotence to oppose evil shouldn't produce a warm, fuzzy feeling. But neither should it produce a feeling that opposing a greater evil with a lesser evil is preferable to feeling impotent.

By now, several strong letters have begun to be composed pointing out that Christians are never impotent to oppose evil, that prayer and fasting are always and necessarily effective means of combatting sin. Amen, amen, this is true, and when on the Last Day the Lord shows us our knowledge of iniquity and asks where our prayers against it were, we may not have much to say. But this, I think, is a different matter from moral culpability for not physically acting to stop injustice.

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Tuesday, April 08, 2003

A little sorbet

To cleanse the blogging palate.

Whether borogroves are all mimsy

Objection 1. It would seem that borogroves are not all mimsy. For to say that one thing is all or entirely another is to say that the idea of the first thing is entirely contained in the idea of the second. But mimsiness is, as the Philosopher states (Organon), an accident, while a borogrove is a substance. And no substance can be an accident. Therefore borogroves cannot be all mimsy.

Objection 2. Further, borogroves are subject to change, which implies that either their mimsiness changes, in which case as its mimsy diminishes a borogrove cannot be all mimsy, that is to say, the perfection of mimsiness; or that something other than their mimsiness changes, in which case it is manifest that the borogrove is not entirely mimsy.

On the contrary, Lewis Carroll states, "All mimsy were the borogroves."

I answer that, to say that borogroves are all mimsy can be understood in three ways. First, in the sense that borogroves belong to mimsy as a species to a genus. Second, that borogroves always possess complete mimsy. Third, that under certain circumstances borogroves possess complete mimsy, and it is in this third sense that we understand the borogroves to be all mimsy.

Reply to Objection 1.This is the first sense, of relating species to genus, and this is not the sense intended.

Reply to Objection 2.This is the second sense, but that this is not the sense intended is shown by Lewis Carrol's observation that "'Twas brillig," implying that, if 'twasn't brillig, the borogroves would not necessarily be all mimsy.

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Everything's coming up roses

Hernán González has been posting a whole series of comments and reflection about St. Therese of Lisieux at fotos del apocalysis. She, in turn, was gracious enough to thank him by joining him for lunch.

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Monday, April 07, 2003

No hard feelings

Irritated by my typically true-but-useless words, Steven replies to my post below:
I, for one, would be vastly comforted to know how I am not sinning by complicity in support of a regime that we know destroys innocent human lives, and how I am not sinning in supporting a war that might be unjust (and if unjust, therefore a sin).
Let me start by saying that one reason my words are so often useless is because I have no particular competence to judge circumstances as they actually exist in the world. I am far more confident in my ability to parrot principles enunciated by others than in my ability to correctly apply them. Which is to say, in my memory than in my virtue.

I take "sinning in complicity" to mean "sinning by doing nothing to stop an evil." I don't really buy the "for us or against us," "objectively pro-Fascist" dichotomy that is sometimes proposed; I don't think omitting to act against a regime is a form of support for that regime.

But is "doing nothing to stop an evil" always a sin? Well, one ought to pray at least generally that everyone avoid evil and do good, and for the end of all current evil, so in the sense that prayer is doing something it's wrong to do nothing. But beyond prayer and fasting, is it always a sin of omission to fail to do something to stop an evil?

I don't think so. For one reason, beyond prayer and fasting, there is often nothing a person can do to stop an evil; what can I do (other than prayer and fasting) to stop, say, adultery in Bhutan? Further, in my judgment there is more evil in the world than I have time to fight (other than by prayer and fasting); there are two dozen armed conflicts per year, just for starters.

On the other hand, "doing nothing to stop an evil" is certainly a sin sometimes. How do we decide about a particular case?

It makes sense to say that, for it to be a sin, it is necessary to be able to stop the evil. But we need to be careful about what "to be able" means. It doesn't mean "physically able;" the U.S. is physically able to stop adultery in Bhutan by systematic nuclear strikes. Instead, it means "morally able," that moral means exist to achieve the end of stopping the evil.

Killing everyone living in a particular country is clearly not a moral means. Invading a country, perhaps even in the form of a decapitation attack, is not so clearly immoral. However, the fact that one country is physically able to invade another country and remove its oppressive regime does not imply that doing so is moral. In other words, just because our army can beat up their army, that doesn't necessarily mean it is a sin if we don't attack.

So it doesn't follow from necessity that someone who doesn't support the war against Saddam's regime is sinning by complicity in support of a regime that destroys innocent human lives.

Now, is it a sin to support a war that might be unjust? Again, I think we need to start by defining terms, in this case what "might be unjust" means. I'll take it to refer to an act whose justness I am not morally certain of.

The justness of a war is, as we know, a slippery thing to establish, but I don't think it is necessary for a private citizen to reach a prudential judgment that a war is just for him to support the war. Not so much because he should trust the proper authorities to make the proper prudential judgment as because the support of a war declared by an authority is, I think, a different moral act from the declaration of the war by the authority. The circumstances in which the individual is reasoning necessarily include the fact of the declaration of war; the choices he has to make, the likely effects of those choices, and the overall range of outcomes is different for the individual than for the authority.

In the particular case of the war in Iraq, once the fighting started I think there could be no worse outcome -- for Iraq, the West, and the world -- than for the coalition forces to unilaterally withdraw. I think the cease fire requested by the bishops of Baghdad -- an entirely understandable request, coming from a city under attack -- would be a military and political disaster. Since March 19, then, my prayer has been for a swift, complete, and bloodless victory, followed by a just peace. I don't see that so much as support for a war that might be unjust as support for the best possible outcome given the circumstances as I know them. (With, as always, the recognition that what I think is the best possible outcome is unlikely to be quite what God thinks it is.)

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Sunday, April 06, 2003

A bad feeling

Flos Carmeli has a series of recent posts expressing conflict over conflict. It seems to me, though, that you can't resolve moral difficulties by denying what you know.

After stating, "Just war seems to me an irreconcilable verbal construction," Steven writes:
I also wonder whether it is just not to oppose and depose a person who oppresses, represses, tortures, and kills his people systematically. Don't we have Biblical precedent for this (Judith, for example). I speculated a while back that it might not be all that great a sin to remove someone like Hitler who was slaughtering millions rather than to stand by and allow them to be slaughtered. Are there instances in which the good of the many outweight the good of the few. John da Fiesole said, "Never," in my previous discussion of this, and I must submit to the logic of it--but this is where I do not trust logic.
Note that Steven speaks of "logic," rather than "reason." Who, after all, likes logic? Reason is a dubious enough enterprise, but logic is downright cold, inhuman, dead.

Personally, I wouldn't even call it "reason." The term I'd use is "revelation": "And why not say--as we are accused and as some claim we say--that we should do evil that good may come of it? Their penalty is what they deserve." [Romans 3:8]

Note also this expression Steven uses: "it might not be all that great a sin." Why not say that we should do not all that great an evil that great good may come of it? Ask St. Paul.
I cannot imagine that God regarding the relative merits of say Hitler and his would-be assassin would place them in the same frame. (Sorry, John, all the logical arguments in the world will not move me from the intuition that love expresses itself sometimes in actions that do not seem very loving--a deep love for humanity might have driven an assassin of Stalin, and the world might have been a better place sooner.)
When the standard for a Christian becomes, "I'm okay as long as I'm less evil than Hitler," the devil must throw back its head and laugh until sulfur tears roll down its cheeks. And I find the thought of an assasin acting out of "a deep love for humanity" terrifying.
So even apart from a just war--the meaning of which I find sufficiently slippery to be suspect, there are times at which we are given a choice of two evils--allow someone to continue killing, destroying, and terrorizing, or remove that person. Either one of them might be regarded as a sin. But personally, I would rather be complicit in the removal of a tyrant than in the destruction of a single innocent life.
Here Steven makes a very simple error, by claiming that it is possible to be in a situation in which one must sin. There's an equally simple syllogism that demonstrates his claim is false --
  1. God commands us to avoid sin.
  2. God never commands the impossible.
  3. Therefore, avoiding sin is not impossible. --
but Steven, distrusting logic, prefers his intuition that love of God sometimes demands disobedience to God.

Well, my intuition is that an intuition that leads to an impossibility is a bad intuition. As the Kairos Guy pointed out regarding torture:
A person under threat of nuclear annihilation has very much less free will than a person not under such threat, in determining how best to extract information about the threat.
This is why we ought to reason about such things when we aren't under threat. What we ought to seek is not an excuse for doing evil, nor a clean conscience about doing evil, but an abhorrence of evil in our own souls at least as great as the abhorrence of the evil in the world as a whole. Such an abhorrence is not the selfish concern for ritual purity of the priest and Levite in the parable of the Good Samaritan, but an awareness that we are God's adopted children and temples of the Holy Spirit, and it is not for us to choose to defile our souls as a means to obtain some temporal good.

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Friday, April 04, 2003

The three-sided cup

In his Gospel, Mark uses the word "cup" six times:
"Anyone who gives you a cup of water to drink because you belong to Christ, amen, I say to you, will surely not lose his reward." [Mk 9:41]

Jesus said to [James and John], "You do not know what you are asking. Can you drink the cup that I drink or be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?" They said to him, "We can." Jesus said to them, "The cup that I drink, you will drink, and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized." [Mk 10-38-39]

Then he took a cup, gave thanks, and gave it to them, and they all drank from it. He said to them, "This is my blood of the covenant, which will be shed for many. Amen, I say to you, I shall not drink again the fruit of the vine until the day when I drink it new in the kingdom of God." [Mk 14:23-25]

[Jesus] said, "Abba, Father, all things are possible to you. Take this cup away from me, but not what I will but what you will." [Mk 14:36]
Notice that there are three ideas associated with the image of a cup: comfort and pleasure (9:41, 14:25); suffering (10:38-39, 14:24); and the blood of the covenant (14:24).

The suffering and the pleasure are clear contrasts. Many religions see suffering as something to be endured, if it can't be avoided. The special genius of Christianity, if I may so speak, is that it sees suffering as the very means to the joy and comfort to come.

I don't think many Catholics look at the chalice during Mass and think of it as the cup of suffering. It contains, rather, the Blood of the New Covenant, poured out for our salvation, and by receiving It we join ourselves more firmly to the Mystical Body of Christ.

But what if we identify the cup Jesus speaks of to James and John, that He asks be taken away in Gethsemane, with the cup He passes to His disciples in the upper room? Then by the same single act, we attach ourselves to Jesus as our savior and we accept the cup of suffering that Jesus accepted. Saying, "Amen," when we drink from the chalice is saying, "Not what I will but what You will," to the Father. It is an act of will that accepts the sufferings that might come our way as Jesus accepted His.

I've read that the Passover celebration of Jesus' day involved drinking quite a lot of wine. Who blames Peter, James, and John, after accepting the cup from Jesus, for falling asleep in the middle of the night while Jesus accepted the cup from the Father? But we do not, as a rule, show up for Mass after drinking and staying up late. Are we nevertheless asleep when we drink the Cup?

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Thursday, April 03, 2003

Note to self

Next time I agree to let what I write here be cross-posted to a Dominican website at the editor's discretion, I will stick to criticizing Jesuits for at least a week.

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