instruere...inlustrare...delectare Disputations

Monday, October 06, 2003

And when it comes say, "Welcome friend."

Just as a compress stops the bleeding, but does not heal the wound, so too the theology of the Baroque period kept the faithful from spilling into the errors of the day, but it did not heal the wounds caused by nominalism, voluntarism, and the rationalism of the early Enlightenment. For this reason, just as a bandage must be removed before the wound can fully heal, so too the perspective of the manuals had to be set aside before the wounds in moral theology could be healed.
If that doesn't make you want to read "Four Challenges for Moral Theology in the New Century," by Michael S. Sherwin, O.P., I don't know what will.

(The four challenges, by the way, are reintegrating moral theology back into the whole of theology; developing a new philosophy of nature and philosophical anthropology as a theological foundation for reflecting on the effect of God's love on human nature; renewing our understanding of growing, by grace, in relationship with Christ; and living a life that expresses the spirituality required of a moral theologian.)


Reflexive errors

Here is my hypothesis for the day: "A is like B, and B is C, so A is C" is a very common error.

I even have a theory for one way this error propagates: Professional commentators are under deadline to generate a certain number of words per week or month. A technique that helps them meet their deadlines is to master the "B is C" argument, then keep an eye out for some A that is like B, then generate an "A is C" piece. Consumers of the work of professional commentators pick up this habit, and practice it in private or informal conversations.

A related situation is the argument, "A is like B, and B is C, so B is C." A professional commentator who uses this is a goldbricker. An amateur who uses it is a bore.


Corrupting influences

A final point on the Minute Particulars post. Mark writes:
The dispute is not about whether Christ died, versions of most creeds through the centuries squelch any such notions, but about whether his body corrupted at his death. This is important because it must be the same Christ who suffered, died, was buried, and rose. If Christ’s body corrupted then it would not be Christ in the tomb prior to the Resurrection, but decomposed matter....

Aquinas acknowledges this problem and explains in ST 3, 51, 3 that “Divine Power” prevented the corruption of Christ’s body. And elsewhere, in his Commentary on the Sentences, he explains that it is because of this divine intervention that it is accurate to say that it is the same Christ who suffered, died, was buried, and rose again.
This is a very subtle point.

After St. Paul died, his body was buried. One day, his soul will be reunited with that body, which will be glorified. It will be the same soul and the same body, hence the same Paul of Tarsus who once preached the Crucified Christ to anyone who would listen (and many who wouldn't).

I think St. Thomas's concern is how we can say "Christ was buried" when, strictly speaking, we can't say "Paul was buried," because Paul's body isn't Paul. If that isn't his concern, I'm not sure what is.

Still, he makes a curious claim in that Summa article:
Christ's body was a subject of corruption according to the condition of its passible nature, but not as to the deserving cause of putrefaction, which is sin....
If so, Christ's mother's body would also be a subject of corruption according to its passible nature but not according to the deserving cause of putrefaction. (Which leads us back to the problem of St. John the Baptist's relics, as according to tradition he was freed from original sin at the Visitation.)


It matters

As a follow-up, let me say that the question of whether Mary died is not a hermetically closed academic matter, like, "Were any of the Apostles left handed?"

If Mary did not die, then we need to deal with the fact that the historical basis on which the definition of the dogma of the Assumption was made was wrong, and with the fact that the Eastern Churches (and many in the Roman Catholic Church) continue to be wrong. Practically speaking, reunion with the Orthodox would be impossible.

And if Mary did die, then we need to adjust our theological understanding of original sin to account for that. If we have a wrong understanding of original sin, we have a wrong understanding of anthropology, which can lead to all sorts of errors all over the place.


More on the Dormition

There is a line of reasoning popular in the Roman Catholic Church that runs like this: "Death entered the world through Adam's sin. But the Blessed Virgin was free from all stain of original sin from the moment of her conception. Therefore, she did not die prior to her assumption into heaven."

I've written about this before (check the August 2002 archives, if you'd like), but I think Mark of Minute Particulars misses the point when he writes:
Death is unnatural. It entered the world when humans turned from God. To insist that Mary undergoes death seems, to my mind, to undermine this important point and attenuate the significance of Mary’s life and her perfect response to God.
The question of whether Mary died before her Assumption is not a matter of competing theological arguments. To insist she did not undergo death is a theological argument; to say she did is simply to state the belief of the universal Church for more than a millenium.

The doctrine of the Immaculate Conception -- and in particular to its definition in Ineffabilis Deus -- may seem to some to imply as a logical necessity that Mary would not die; to Mark, it implies her death would be an "extra" and "unnecessary requirement." Those implications, however, do not seem to have been drawn by the Church as a whole.

To pick two examples: Pope Pius XII approvingly quoted ancient liturgies referring explicitly to Mary's death in Munificentissimus Deus; Eastern Churches in union with the Roman Catholic Church, all of which accept the dogma of the Immaculate Conception, continue to celebrate the Feast of the Dormition of Mary. (I've encountered the claim that "dormition" means "sleep" rather than "death," but that's a feeble semantic argument that evaporates upon the slightest inspection.)

I wonder, too, what it would mean that the Blessed Virgin "completed the course of her earthly life" if, due to her preservation free from all stain of original sin, she were immortal. I need to read up on this, but I don't think anyone believed that had Adam not sinned, he would have completed the course of his earthly life and been assumed into heaven. So there's more going on than Mary being in a prelapsarian state.


Friday, October 03, 2003

Fly, Eagles, Fly!

Wait a minute. I thought McNabb was Irish!

It's hard for me to abstract a principle from the Rush Limbaugh/Donovan McNabb brouhaha. For one thing, I'm an Eagles fan. For another, I don't much like the word "brouhaha." But let me try:

There are a lot of commenters on Catholic blogs who like Limbaugh and don't much care for, or about, McNabb. These people, understandably enough, tend to support Limbaugh.

What bothers me -- apart from the stupid (and occasionally offensive) things said about McNabb, but then I'm an Eagles fan -- is the unthinking reflexivity of the support.

Mark Shea likes to say that people get in trouble when they "fail to observe the pieties" of the liberal media. Maybe so, and maybe failing to observe liberal pieties isn't a good reason to get in trouble with the media.

But it doesn't follow, contrary to what I infer many believe, that an act that fails to observe the liberal pieties is a good act. For that matter, not every liberal piety is a bad thing. "Anything that makes those liberals mad is good" is bad.

The thing about reflexes, whether physical or mental, is that they are reflexive. They occur without thought; "instinctively" is how it's often (and inaccurately) put. What occurs without thought isn't fully human, because what makes an act human is its rational basis, its intentionality.

Responding reflexively is great if you're playing football. (Being able to throw a touch pass from a five-step drop would be nice, too.) But a reflexive response in a cultural, social, political, or religious discussion is one that not only brings nothing new to the discussion, but also lacks the integrity of the full human person making the response.


Personal vocations

Germain Grisez, in a Zenit interview regarding his co-written book Personal Vocation: God Calls Everyone by Name:
We argue that there is no shortage of vocations -- the shortage, if you will, is a shortage of vocational discernment.
I think what Grisez talks about in the interview is among the most important challenges facing the Church today: to get Catholics to become disciples:
We define personal vocation as God's call and plan for one's entire life... Personal vocation is unique for each one, and it includes absolutely everything -- all the good choices God would prefer one to make, all the things he allows to come one's way and expects will be handled rightly...

Finding, accepting and faithfully fulfilling one's personal vocation is the way to respond to the universal call to holiness, for that means doing God's will in everything and accepting whatever comes as coming from, or at least permitted by, him....

It might help if I spelled out the three different but complementary senses in which the word "vocation" is used in the Church.

First, there is vocation in the sense of the common Christian vocation that comes with baptism...

Second, there is vocation in the sense of state in life. The clerical state, the consecrated life, the state of marriage, the single lay life in the world -- these are state-in-life vocations...

Third, there is vocation in the sense of personal vocation. This concretizes the common baptismal vocation and a Christian's state of life into the unique and unrepeatable part in God's redemptive plan that the Father calls each of us to play.
One point Grisez makes that I hadn't considered before is that the failure of Catholics in general to consider their personal vocations has lilely led to the failure of many Catholics in particular to recognize their personal religious or clerical vocations. The rise from "Do you go to Mass once a week?" to "Do you want to be a priest?" is pretty sharp without any intermediate steps.


Thursday, October 02, 2003

Happy Feast of the Guardian Angels

I once asked what the difference was between a feast and a solemnity. Someone answered that, with a feast, you get salad and a dessert.

So I'm thinking: appetizer, main course, dessert. All served with a suitable beverage.


Wenn der Gegner schüchtern oder dumm ist

Steven Riddle provides a link to Schopenhauer's The Art Of Controversy.

It's full of great ideas, like a perverse Boy Scout manual for Usenet. Which means there's a lot of "been there, done that" to it as well.

The final paragraph, though, is worth quoting in full, even if I don't endorse it categorically:
The only safe rule, therefore, is that which Aristotle mentions in the last chapter of his Topica: not to dispute with the first person you meet, but only with those of your acquaintance of whom you know that they possess sufficient intelligence and self-respect not to advance absurdities; to appeal to reason and not to authority, and to listen to reason and yield to it; and, finally, to cherish truth, to be willing to accept reason even from an opponent, and to be just enough to bear being proved to be in the wrong, should truth lie with him. From this it follows that scarcely one man in a hundred is worth your disputing with him. You may let the remainder say what they please, for every one is at liberty to be a fool - desipere est jus gentium. Remember what Voltaire says: La paix vaut encore mieux que la verite. Remember also an Arabian proverb which tells us that on the tree of silence there hangs its fruit, which is peace.
I don't know how many in a hundred are worth disputing with, but those who are are to be cherished as one cherishes the truth.


Light of Patriarchs, pray for us

Having read the chapter on St. Joseph's assumption in the somewhat creaky prose of The Life and Glories of St. Joseph, reprinted from long ago by TAN Books, I am moving from "deep skepticism" to "no real opinion."

This belief is different from a belief in a particular physical gift St. Joseph might have possessed in that it's based on the explicit Revelation of Matthew 27:52-53:
...and the bodies of many saints who had fallen asleep were raised. And coming forth from their tombs after his resurrection, they entered the holy city and appeared to many.
These words must mean something, and I see no sound basis for denying that they mean what they say.

The Catena Aurea isn't much use here. St. Remegius is quoted as writing:
But some one will ask, what became of those who rose again when the Lord rose. We must believe that they rose again to be witnesses of the Lord's resurrection. Some have said that they died again, and were turned to dust, as Lazarus and the rest whom the Lord raised. But we must by no means give credit to these men's sayings, since if they were to die again, it would be greater torment to them, than if they had not risen again. We ought therefore to believe without hesitation that they who rose from the dead at the Lord's resurrection, ascended also into heaven together with Him.
This puts the teaching in general back to the Sixth Century.

It's no surprise that St. Joseph wasn't named as one of the "saints who had fallen asleep" in the Sixth Century. No one gave him much thought in those days (which also goes a long way to explaining the lack of venerated relics). But then, if he had been resurrected and assumed, wouldn't he have been given more thought? But then, none of the saints who had fallen asleep were given much thought, as far as I know. Does that suggest a non-historical reading of Matthew 27:52-53? Deep waters.

Still, I'm unpersuaded by the arguments that St. Joseph must have been raised and assumed. They tend to be phrased in terms like "it is unthinkable that," "we cannot entertain the supposition," "whose heart is so cold as to imagine," and so forth. As an empirical matter, I can think, suppose, and imagine St. Joseph is not in heaven body and soul. Some of the arguments, like those on the re-establishment of the Holy Family in heaven, I even find theologially dubious.

As for what I wrote yesterday about the uniqueness of Mary's Assumption: It occurs to me now that uniqueness may lie in the combination of death (which Enoch and Elijah, according to some, did not experience) and incorruption in the tomb (which the saints who had fallen asleep did not experience) prior to her Assumption (and, obviously, the incorrupt saints known to us have not experienced bodily assumption (and, for that matter, their incorruption seems to be somewhat different than Mary's)).


Wednesday, October 01, 2003

Joseph most prudent, pray for us

My attitude toward the pious belief that St. Joseph was assumed bodily into heaven following Jesus' Resurrection hasn't changed much in the ten or so years since I first encountered it. It remains one of deep skepticism.

El Camino Real and And Then? have been discussing the belief, with the former defending the belief (as a legitimate opinion, at least) and the latter expressing deep skepticism.

The evidence in favor of St. Joseph's bodily assumption includes the opinions of St. Bernadine of Siena and Bl. John XXIII. The evidence against includes the lack of opinions of nearly everybody else.

My own skepticism is based on two points. First, there seems to be nothing about St. Joseph's assumption during the first millenium of the Church, and I've heard nothing about it from the East. That suggests the belief is based on theological speculation of a kind developed in the West not long before the Fifteenth Century.

Now, far be it from me to look unkindly on theological speculation of a kind developed in the West not long before the Fifteenth Century, but I think it's important to recognize that this particular speculation concerns a historical fact of which absolutely no hint of historical records exist. (In fact, the unimportance of St. Joseph throughout the First Millenium is evidence no one gave his assumption any thought.)

The other point is one that, to me, seems to trump the testimony of both St. Bernadine and Bl. John: namely, the stated or implied uniqueness of Mary's Assumption.

St. Bernadine lived long before the Assumption was infallibly declared a dogma, and I'd guess Bl. John's pious opinions were set well before 1950, so I don't see any competing authorities here. (For that matter, Bl. John's endorsement of St. Joseph's (and St. John the Baptist's) assumption as something "we can piously believe" came during a homily, an extremely weak exercise of teaching authority.)

But Munificentissimus Deus states (emphasis added):
What is here indicated in that sobriety characteristic of the Roman liturgy is presented more clearly and completely in other ancient liturgical books. To take one as an example, the Gallican sacramentary designates this privilege of Mary's as "an ineffable mystery all the more worthy of praise as the Virgin's Assumption is something unique among men." And, in the Byzantine liturgy, not only is the Virgin Mary's bodily Assumption connected time and time again with the dignity of the Mother of God, but also with the other privileges, and in particular with the virginal motherhood granted her by a singular decree of God's Providence. "God, the King of the universe, has granted you favors that surpass nature. As he kept you a virgin in childbirth, thus he has kept your body incorrupt in the tomb and has glorified it by his divine act of transferring it from the tomb." [MD 18]
Playing theologian, I suggest these two things are well attested in the Church:
  1. The connection between Mary's virginal motherhood and her assumption.
  2. The uniqueness of her assumption.
If St. Joseph (or anyone else) was assumed bodily, then both of these tenets fail...

Unless one suggests Mary did not die, but was assumed alive. But this suggestion is contrary to everything the Church said about Mary, excepting roughly the same times and places that people said St. Joseph was assumed bodily. Even the above excerpt from Munificentissimus Deus approvingly quotes the Byzantine liturgy's reference to Mary's "body incorrupt in the tomb."

I have the impression that the pious belief in St. Joseph's assumption is based on an intuition of what is "fitting" or "right" for God to do. I certainly do not want to toss out categorically all that has been written about the priviledges and special graces of St. Joseph over the past several centuries, but at the same time I think it's important to ask whether the intuitions by which they were written were themselves fitting or right, and what the implications are if they weren't.


So much for disinfectants

The promised National Catholic Register article exposing the chancery rats of the Archdiocese of Detroit has been written.

Ned McGrath, director of communications for the archdiocese, is quoted as saying:
"We receive calls on all sorts of things... If they are from people within the diocese, we deal with them as best we can. They are responded to on a case-by-case basis. If they come in as part of an organized effort, we handle them as such."
I'd hope people who organize efforts to generate calls to chanceries consider what McGrath is telling them the policy in Detroit is. (It's also the policy I'd recommend.)

On to the University of Detroit Mercy where the nail-in-the-Church's-coffin conference was held (you felt the disturbance in the Force, didn't you, when the Same Old said the Same Old to the Same Old):
University president Sister Fay did not respond to Register inquiries.

"The communications department has received no phone calls or e-mails regarding the event," said Gary Lichtman, media director for the University of Detroit Mercy. "If there were people who had comments, this is the first we’ve heard of these people. I cannot speak for the president or anyone else."
Mark Shea chooses to snort at Gary Lichtman's ability to communicate, but he doesn't mention what is significant about these paragraphs:

People sent letters and emails to the president. People CC'd their letters and emails to the NCR, which was writing an article about them. What people didn't do was CC their letters and emails to the media director.

Sending an email to a media director isn't a grand and noble thing to do in this time of profound crisis for the Church in the United States. He's just a scurrying rat, right?


Some thoughts from Eckhart

Robert J. Dobie has a challenging article in the July 2003 issue of The Thomist called "Reason and Revelation in the Thought of Meister Eckhart." His thesis is, roughly, that Eckhart believed one must read Scripture to uncover its mystical sense, which leads to "the birth of the Son in the soul[,] a process of illumination in which is revealed the inner truth not only of Scripture but of all the sciences."

The more common view, following St. Thomas, is that truth cannot contradict truth, so a scientific truth must be consistent with a revealed truth. Eckhart's view, if I understand Dobie correctly, was that all scientific truth is actually present in the inner sense of Scripture, and this must be true because God is truth and God is one.

Robie quotes Eckhart's claim
that detachment compels God to come to me in this way; it is because everything longs to achieve its own natural place. Now God's natural place is unity and purity, and that comes from detachment. Therefore God must of necessity give himself to a heart that has detachment.
To say "God must of necessity" do something sounds like presumption, but Eckhart doesn't mean someone can, by achieving detachment, "force" God to do something. Rather, he means (I think) that since nothing is one and pure but God, wherever unity and purity is God is. It's a logical necessity, not a causal necessity.

Furthermore, this religious understanding leads (Robie says Eckhart says) to a philosophical understanding of the Aristotelian concept of "natural place." It's common to "reason up" to God from philosophical observations; Eckhart insisted on doing it the other way around, since revelation is surer than reason.

What I thought was most interesting in this article was this idea of understanding the union of God and the soul (in Robie's words):
When God and the detached soul are united, then, it is in the same way that knower and known or perceived and perceiver are united in one activity.
Not everybody enjoys sentences like, "The knower as knowing the known knows the known as known by the knower," but for me this suggests a union that is intimate (there is nothing between the knower and the known but the knowing, and that knowing is not shared with any other knower), complete (like the circle of a wall illuminated by a flashlight), and timeless (any change in knower, known, and knowing is accidental to the relationship, and moreover impossible when knower and known do not change).

Robie goes on to write, quoting Eckhart:
In other words, it is not the case that the detached soul's dynamic union with God is a species of union of mover and the moved (or of the knower and the thing known) but rather these latter are merely species and imitations of the soul's union with God or, more fundamentally, of God's union with his Only-Begotten Son:
... And so the sense faculty and the sense object, the intellect and the intelligible object, though two in potency, are one in act. The one act belongs to both. The faculty of sight is actually seeing and the visible object is actually seen in the same utterly simple act.
Intellectually, it's interesting to think that Aristotelian realism is an imitation of the life of the Trinity. Spiritually, it's exciting to think that the "same utterly simple act" uniting the Father and the Son can, in eterninty, include us.


Happy Month of the Holy Rosary

To Catholics everywhere.


Happy Feast Day

To Carmelites everywhere.


Tuesday, September 30, 2003

One, holy, catholic, apostolic ... and varied

Gerard Serafin repeats his criticism of the simplicity of Frederica Matthewes-Green's theological reflections. His point is that neither East nor West is as completely polarized on the Good Friday/Easter Sunday paradox as her articles suggest.

A related point is that, however the West as a whole might emphasize the mysteries of faith, there is great variety within the Roman Catholic Church, too. I've written before about "Easter people" and such, but more generally there are Easter spiritualities and even, to a certain extent, Easter religious orders all co-existing in the Latin Rite.

This diversity is more than a strength and almost a mark of the Church. The failure to see, much less appreciate, this diversity isn't limited to Orthodox observers, but is also common within Roman Catholicism.


Passive hypocrisy?

In a comment below, Rob suggests a certain action would be the sin of "hypocrisy of omission." I'm not entirely sold on the idea.

On the one hand, there is something deplorable about thinking along the lines of, "If I just don't do anything stupid, people will keep believing I'm actually chaste."

On the other hand, what do we expect someone who is secretly unchaste to do? Tell his gossipy neighbor?

A man has a positive right to his good name, even if he isn't a particularly good person; infringing on that right is the sin of detraction. In charity, we should assume whatever virtues are consistent with what we know of another. If I know my neighbor is married, I ought to assume he is faithful to his wife. Adulterer he may be, but he is not a hypocrite for not correcting my assumption.

The situation Rob suggested was a hypocrisy of omission featured a secretely fornicating minister who preached against unchastity. That's a slightly different case than of the ordinary neighbor. It's reasonable to infer that someone who insists on the importance of chastity is himself chaste, whether or not he makes any personal claims about himself.

Still, a minister ought to preach chastity, however poorly he practices it. There's a form of Donatism that crops up here and there, holding more or less that a priest is worthless unless he is blameless, but that's simply false. We should expect a minister to preach chastity, just as we should expect a judge to rule justly and a gardener to weed properly. A traffic judge who speeds isn't necessarily being hypocritical when he fines speeders.

There's the further point, made eariler in the comments, that sometimes we rail against precisely those sins of which we are most guilty, not out of hypocrisy, but in response to a desire (probably not well realized) to stop sinning. There's a saying that a preacher must preach first to himself -- which, I think, is related to the idea that what we can always give another is a good example.


Monday, September 29, 2003

On the new cardinals

Here's some info no one else is reporting:
Cardinal eggs are glossy light green or dull gray, with reddish brown specks or blotches.

Fledgling cardinals can fly well within 20 days, but they seldom venture far.
The Dominican Order was honored by Pope John Paul II's appointment of fr. Georges Cottier, OP, theologian of the papal household, as a cardinal "for special service to the Church." In doing so, the Pope broke with tradition by not waiting until Fr. Cottier was tossed out of Rome on his ear to undergo a lukewarm and decades-long rehabilitation not completed until he lay on his deathbed.

I see a lot of people are commenting on the fact that Archbishop O'Malley of Boston was "passed over." You know what? I was passed over, too. See the related comments below about "withholding" grace.


Happy MichaelGabrielandRaphaelmas!

Of the three, who has lost the most?

St. Michael has to share his feast day, and they dumped his after-Mass prayer.

St. Gabriel lost his feast day, had to move in with St. Michael, and they've higher criticized his visits to Mary and Joseph into stylized theological representation.

St. Raphael lost his feast day, had to move in with Sts. Michael and Gabriel, and they've higher criticized his trip with Tobiah into a novel, and they've textually criticized his appearance in the Gospel of John clean out of the Bible.

Good thing they all enter and serve before the Glory of the Lord, or you might start feeling sorry for them.


Woe to us hypocrites

There's a discussion in a comment box below that's turned to the question of hypocrisy in Christianity.

It began with the question, "Can one be a Christian and a hypocrite?"

This soon became, "Can one not be a Christian and a hypocrite?"

To answer either question, we need to know (wait for it) what hypocrisy is.

St. Thomas, in discussing hypocrisy, quotes St. Augustine: the Church and in every department of human life, whoever wishes to seem what he is not is a hypocrite: for he pretends to be just without being so in reality.
A hypocrite, then, is someone who habitually pretends to possess a virtue he doesn't possess.

So sure, a person can be a Christian without being a hypocrite. On the other hand, insofar as he is a hypocrite, he is not a Christian:
If we say, 'We have fellowship with him,' while we continue to walk in darkness, we lie and do not act in truth."
If we acknowledge our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive our sins and cleanse us from every wrongdoing.
The point is, though, that a "hypocrite" is one who pretends to have a virtue he doesn't have. The correct term for a person who demands other people exercise a virtue he doesn't have is a "nuisance."


More on faith

A post and comments on various ways of looking at faith, belief, knowledge, opinion, and trust.

I'll highlight one point here: Someone asked, "Why should I have faith in something someone tells me?"

As I use the word, "faith" is something you have in a person, not a thing. (You believe things are true; you have faith someone is truthful.)

So I'd say the real question is, "Why should I have faith in someone?"

My answer is, "You shouldn't, unless you do."

I don't think you can trust someone as an act of will. You can't will yourself to believe "This person is truthful" is true. You either believe it or you don't.

Now, you can choose to act as though you have faith in someone. In other words, you can will yourself to accept what someone says as true for the purposes of reasoning and deliberation. But that's not the same as believing what they say is true because you have faith in them.

I can't, then, blame someone who doesn't believe in Christianity for not believing in Christianity. If he asks me why he should believe in Christianity, I should try to explain its reasonableness, its attractions, its benefits on the natural level, and maybe why it's a better answer than the one he currently favors. But I can't give him faith. The best I can do is be a person worthy of his trust, and maybe live a life that makes him say, "I want a life like that!" In the end, though, it's God Who gives him faith, and he himself who must unwrap and use the gift.


Sunday, September 28, 2003

Speaking of movies I haven't seen

Bill Cork, as a former Lutheran minister, has his own typically idiosyncratic review of the movie Luther.

One of his criticisms, which I haven't seen raised in any other review, is this:
The movie manages to present the Diet of Augsburg, and the Augsburg Confession, without mentioning the name of Phillip Melanchthon.
I am not surprised. I never mention the name of Phillip Melanchthon -- way too many consonants in a row -- and from what Bill writes the filmmakers had trouble pronouncing "papal."

The thing about a movie like Luther is how easily the reviews move from the plot of the movie to historical reality. If the story were a Western or some pseudo-historical Sir Walter Scott adaptation, talking about the bad guys and how obviously the hero is right wouldn't be questioned. When the movie villain is the Roman Catholic Church, though, it's very difficult to avoid realizing that the Roman Catholic Church actually exists. The secular reviews I've seen tend to assert that, as a matter of historical fact, the Reformers were right and the Church was wrong. The Catholic reviews, unsurprisingly, go the other way around.

I suppose that's always a problem when the hero of a movie isn't everyone's historical hero. I wonder what the reviews of Dubya will look like.


Friday, September 26, 2003

Speaking of loving the sinner

A lot of people hate George W. Bush. Some just feel the natural hatred a hefty number in any healthy democracy feels toward the one in charge; others hate hate hate George W. Bush, with the kind of spittle-flecked rancor that gets directed at the smirking rich kid who gets the part in the school play you wanted.

The New Republic has an article about Bush hatred on the Left, and an associated debate on its website. Bush-hating Jonathan Chait wrote something notable in his opening salvo:
The question that divides us is: Does Bush hatred have a rational basis, or is it an unreasonable prejudice?

... [L]et me briefly sum up the reasons why liberals hate Bush so intensely. First of all, he's conservative... Second, Bush ran for president as a moderate, and liberals (accurately) perceive his public persona as essentially a lie. Third, the country has rallied around Bush on two occasions--after he took office, and after September 11, 2001--in such a way that criticism of his qualifications and legitimacy was essentially driven out of mainstream discourse. Nothing feeds anger and bitterness like the belief that the media is ignoring your views.
Now, I don't have much of a political horse in this race (although hearing Wesley Clark describe himself as "pro-health" doesn't make me enthusiastic for the lastest Democratic front-runner), but let me try to abstract from the particulars and take a look at the principles Chait proposes.

First, he sees the question as whether venemous hatred focussed at this particular individual has a "rational basis." But what would the existence of a rational basis demonstrate? "He's richer than I am, he's always smirking, and he got the part I wanted" is a "rational basis" for hating the kid in your high school, but that doesn't make that hatred reasonable.

(And in fact, I'd say that's pretty much the basis on which people hate George W. Bush, although Chait has a different take.)

All hatred has some basis. Having a rational basis -- rather than an irrational, non-rational, or subrational one -- for your hatred is setting the bar mighty low. The question isn't whether I can rationalize my hatred for another person, but whether I can justify it.

Okay, next Chait gives his reasons for intense personal hatred of Bush:
  1. Bush is conservative.
  2. Bush is more conservative than he led voters to expect.
  3. Criticizing Bush's qualifications and legitimacy has been very difficult since his election.
Nos. 1 and 2 are essentially the same reason. No. 3 is peculiar for two reasons: first, his qualifications and legitimacy are moot issues, since he's been sworn in as president; second, Chait actually considers this a defensible reason for hating Bush. It's understandable, of course, because humans are petty and vindictive and envious, but it isn't really much in the way of an excuse, any more than the wealth of the smirking kid who got your part in the school play is an excuse for hating him. Hate the press and the public, I can see; but is hating Bush for what the press and the public do actually reasonable?

So there's really only one rational reason for hating Bush: He's a conservative. Abstracting: He has opinions we find repugnant.

Hating Bush, then, is rationalized on the basis of identifying his person with his opinions. Is hatred therefore justified?

I don't see how it can be, when the rationalization is based on a false identity.

Of course, hatred is an emotion, and we can't directly choose how we feel; I don't think hating George Bush, or anyone else, is in itself wicked. But to establish that the cause of my emotion lies outside myself -- in, say, the slugbrained incompetence of the local power company, to pick an example at random -- is not to justify allowing that emotion to rule, direct, or even necessarily inform my actions.


De fide

The canonical response to someone who says, "I have a hard time with that 'faith' thing," is to point out that almost everything he thinks he knows, he actually believes by faith in other people.

That's true enough, but of course what he has a hard time with isn't faith per se, but religious faith in a bunch of people who lived a long time ago in a distant place telling an incredible story. Believing that William Thompson, Lord Kelvin, died in 1907 and believing that Jesus Christ is the Way to eternal beatitude are acts that are different in kind, not just degree.

Skeptics like to say, "Extraordinary claims require extraordinary proofs," and few claims are as extraordinary as Christianity. But if someone is willing to believe that I had a donut for breakfast but unwilling to believe that God became man for our salvation, it isn't just that the latter strikes him as more extraordinary than the former. In the context of Christianity, "Faith is a gift of God, a supernatural virtue infused by him."

Believing that Jesus of Nazareth is the Son of God isn't simply hard, it's impossible... unless God grants us the gift of faith.

(That said, I suppose there may be people who believe in Jesus on a natural, but not a supernatural, level, in the same way there are people who believe Jesus was a space alien or angel or invention of St. Paul or whatever. I'm not sure what to make of that case, beyond pure coincidence.)

So pointing out that a skeptic has faith in the sports page isn't likely to move him far along the road to faith in Christ and Him Crucified. His intellectual objections to the demands of Christian faith seem to me to be perfectly reasonable. Christians shouldn't expect even perfect reason to overcome them.


It's not the One True Set of Sense Data

Commenting on various understandings of a healing in the Gospel According to Mark, Camassia's brother-in-law shows he understands what Christianity is all about:
Either way, it requires that "faith" thing that I have a hard time with. It's the "I know what REALLY went down and if you want to get to heaven YOU'LL JUST HAVE TO TRUST ME!" reasoning that drives me crazy sometimes.
Faith really does mean "you'll just have to trust me."

I think a lot of Christians don't realize this. I've read things that suggested the writers believe that if you read the Gospels, you'll know what happened in First Century Judea.

But you won't. If you read the Gospels, you'll know what the Gospels say. Knowing what happened in First Century Judea is impossible for us today, unless we have faith in the Gospels. Even then, we don't know what happened, properly speaking; we believe it.

Mark has conveniently quoted Josef Pieper for me: belief is "a participation in the knowledge of a knower." Our faith in Jesus Christ is a participation in the knowledge of the people who knew Him in First Century Judea and environs, and in the knowledge of the people who knew the people who knew Jesus, mediated through the Church which recognized those books containing knowledge worthy of belief.

That's why people can listen to all the arguments, read all the commentaries, and say, "I am unconvinced." That's why the whole world accepts the wheel, but not Christianity. That's why they call it "faith."


Thursday, September 25, 2003

A coincidental theme

Two unrelated posts:
  1. On the subject of evaluating Catholic elementary schools, Rachel Watkins writes that, of all the textbooks used by the school, "the texts used for Religion are most important."
  2. A friend writes the Pew Lady, "The other day my 11 year old A-student daughter was complaining about the heat, and I told her to 'offer it up for the poor souls in Purgatory.' She looked at me quizzically and asked what Purgatory was." This despite her attending a Catholic school.
The second example can be dispatched quicker: If an 11 year old A-student at a Catholic elementary school doesn't know what her parents think she should know about her faith, it's her parents' fault. The school may not have a decent religious ed program, but the school is not responsible for the child's religious education. It's evident that offering things up for the poor souls in Purgatory isn't much in evidence in that house; maybe the parents are otherwise exemplary, but they can hardly blame the school for this lacuna in their daughter's education.

When I read Rachel Watkins's statement that the most important textbooks are those used in Religion, I wondered why that would be true. The fact that their religious faith is the most important aspect of the students lives doesn't imply that the textbooks used for religious ed in their school are their most important textbooks. There are a few reasons why religious textbooks might not be the most important.

For one thing, religion is the one subject the Church explicitly expects parents to be the primary teachers of their children. Most households aren't, as a matter of course, going to be effective environments for teaching long division or American history. But every Catholic household should be an effective environment for teaching Catholic children what being Catholic means.

Another reason to think religious textbooks aren't uniquely important is that Catholicism isn't an especially bookish faith. (Certainly not Good Bookish, our beloved Protestant separated brethren mutter.) While learning from a text is valuable, it may be the least valuable way to learn about the faith. Learning by example (again in the home primarily, but also from faculty, administration, and the expectations students are held to), and learning by experience -- of Masses and paraliturgies and morning prayers and snacktime grace and religious art -- are two ways I suspect are better.

A third reason is that teachers use textbooks in different ways. A good teacher can teach well despite a poor text; a poor teacher will teach poorly despite a good text.

Finally, there's a matter many parents refuse to admit, which is that education is an art. I'm not sure how well prepared parents are to evaluate textbooks of any sort, including religious textbooks. Well, there might be positively harmful religious textbooks, but even then over the years I've seen a lot of cries of "Heresy!" directed at things that are not, objectively, heretical.

Supporting the idea that religious textbooks are the most important might be an argument that none of the other textbooks are all that important taken by themselves, so the religious ones win by being less unimportant. It may also be that there's a greater variety in religious texts than in math or social studies texts, so the religious texts are more likely to be deciding factors in choosing between schools.

On the whole, though, I think you can get a better sense of how important Catholicism is to the school from other factors -- what the school says about the importance of Catholicism, for example -- than from the textbooks. I happen to be fortunate (emphasis on "fortune," but what are you going to do) to live in a parish whose school thinks its commitment to Catholicism is quite important, and whose school principal seems very sincere about that commitment.

If my kids don't yet know what purgatory is, it's my fault. (I'll ask them when I get home this evening. We've been without power now for a week, so I shouldn't let the teaching opportunity pass. "Purgatory is where Daddy will be for what he's been saying about the electric company since Sunday.")

Most importantly, though:
Pray for the souls in Purgatory.


Wineskins old and new

Camassia suggests that Jesus' answer to the question of why His disciples didn't fast includes a cryptic segue:
People came to him and objected, "Why do the disciples of John and the disciples of the Pharisees fast, but your disciples do not fast?"

Jesus answered them, "Can the wedding guests fast while the bridegroom is with them? As long as they have the bridegroom with them they cannot fast. But the days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast on that day.

"No one sews a piece of unshrunken cloth on an old cloak. If he does, its fullness pulls away, the new from the old, and the tear gets worse. Likewise, no one pours new wine into old wineskins. Otherwise, the wine will burst the skins, and both the wine and the skins are ruined. Rather, new wine is poured into fresh wineskins."
It's easy to imagine the objectors weren't entirely satisfied with this explanation.

I would say that the parabolic references to the old cloak and the wineskins is another example showing that Jesus is not a simple continuation of the line of prophets, healers, exorcists, and teachers. What He is, what He has to offer, isn't a simple patch to an old problem, nor can it be contained within old assumptions.

But note also that He doesn't say, "Throw away the old cloak. Toss out the old wineskins." He is concerned about the tear getting worse and the skins being ruined. He comes not to replace the Law but to fulfill it; yet He fulfills it in terms of Himself, not in terms of the Law.

Moreover -- or perhaps more immediately -- Jesus is concerned for His disciples, who after all are the ones not fasting. To force them into the old customs would lead to their ruin, since they would be acting as though Jesus were not the Bridegroom. (This is cribbed from the Venerable Bede.)


Everywhere that man can go

I'll react indirectly to Camassia's and Lynn's posts on Mark 2 by starting with something from Mark 1:
A leper came to him and kneeling down begged him and said, "If you wish, you can make me clean."

Moved with pity, he stretched out his hand, touched him, and said to him, "I do will it. Be made clean."

The leprosy left him immediately, and he was made clean.
Here, in fifty words, is the Gospel of Mark. It tells us what Jesus can do for us, how we should approach Him, and what the results will be if we do. It even explains the motive of the Incarnation, and if we want to get fanciful with "he stretched out his hand," prefigures the means by which Jesus can make us clean.

Now the very next story, which is the first story of chapter 2, presents some men acting like the leper in 1:40-42 by lowering their friend through the roof to reach Jesus -- and it also shows, for the first time (is there a commentary on Mark 2 that doesn't use the phrase "for the first time"?), men reacting in the wrong way to Jesus. If a key question Mark's Gospel answers is, "How do I be Jesus' disciple?", the scribes of Mark 2:6-7 contribute to the "Not like this" part of his answer.

Mark presents a series of conflict stories, I think not so much because, chronologically, these conflicts are all that happened to Jesus between healing the leper and withdrawing to the Sea of Galilee, but to emphasize that what Jesus was doing was not more of the same. He was different, not just from the scribes and Pharisees, but even from the prophets up to and including John the Baptist.

Lynn suggests the plot to kill Jesus isn't credible because the things Jesus did were within the bounds of First Century Judaism as it was practiced. I suggest that Jesus Himself was not within the bounds of First Century Judaism as it was practiced. He taught "as one having authority and not as the scribes." He forgives sins. He claims His very presence should be treated as a wedding feast. He calls himself Lord of the Sabbath.

Moreover, He does all this while castigating the scribes and Pharisees, not as a prophet speaking truth to power, but as a master scolding erring servants.

What is clear through the second chapter is that -- and yes, it sounds a bit lame to say it, but it's true -- Jesus meets people where they are. He draws the sick out of illness, the sinners out of sin.

And the Pharisees?

They're different. The sick know they're sick. The sinners know they sin. The Pharisees, though, don't realize that Jesus is to be approached on bended knee, not analyzed through the lens of the Law.

But note that Jesus doesn't condemn them. Instead, he answers them in the very terms that they profess to understand, of reason and proverbial wisdom and the Law. Some indeed do understand him, although we may have to wait until chapter 12 to find one, but most of those Mark mentions do not. The reason is simple: "Those who are well do not need a physician," and the sick who think well of themselves do not seek a physician.


Wednesday, September 24, 2003

An exercise of reason

As you know, Steven Riddle is the Politest Working Man in Blogbusiness. From this, it follows that he has several annoying habits, starting with his unfailing courtesy. I would mail him an ill-tempered cat for him to kick in the privacy of his own home if I thought it would do any good, but I'm sure it would only lead to thoughtful posts on how contemplation of ill-tempered cats can illuminate the Thérèsan way of holiness.

Another irritant is his habit of scattering compliments and kind words like candied nuts at Christmas. Not a month goes by that he doesn't say how much he admires my habit of using many words to arrive at a position most people grasp instinctively. (Of course, a lot of them instinctively fling the position as far away as possible immediately upon grasping it.)

Still, I'm not sure what it means to be regarded as an admirable reasoner (although, lacking the humility of motherhood, I will allow that reasoning is a skill I try to develop and exercise). In a widely-quoted sentence, St. Thomas wrote that, without divine revelation, "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."

It's an odd skill whose finest practitioners take a long time to do anything with it, and even then make many errors using it. (Put that way, it's sort of like golf.) Personally, I'd say singing is a more admirable skill -- the difference being that most people who can't sing know it and don't try to sing too loudly in public.


Tuesday, September 23, 2003

A thought of wealth

It occurs to me that discussions on the role of wealth in Christian discipleship move too quickly to Matthew 19:24 --
Jesus said to him, "If you wish to be perfect, go, sell what you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come follow me." --
without paying enough, or any, attention to the preceding verses:
"If you wish to enter into life, keep the commandments."

... The young man said to him, "All of these I have observed."
Speaking for myself, I haven't done such a good job at keeping the commandments. Which means that, if I went and sold what I have and gave to the poor, I still wouldn't be perfect.

And that means, for me, worrying about whether I am properly keeping the spirit of Matthew 19:24 is decidedly premature. It's like worrying about what the Gospel reading of my festal Mass will be. [Note to future postulator: I've jotted down some suggestions in the back of my Knox Study Bible.]

Which leads to this final idea: If I keep asking myself whether I am sufficiently poor in spirit, I am not sufficiently poor in spirit. Scruples are a sign of someone who isn't yet serious about sanctity.


One more look

What if we get rid of conjunctions and definite articles?

"Love sinner, hate sin."

Everyone is a sinner, and "hate sin" is, so to speak, the imprint of "Love God" on a fallen world.

So we can translate the disputed saying to, "Love God. Love everyone."

If that's what we mean, fundamentally, when we say, "Love the sinner but hate the sin," then I think we're on the right track, even if we fall short of perfection.


Still more on that old saw

Those who regard the saying, "Love the sinner but hate the sin," with distaste often do so because of the behavior of the people they hear invoking the saying.

But is there anything wrong with the saying itself? That is, is there better advice for how one should relate to the sinner and the sin?

Some alternate possibilities:
  • Love the sinner and love the sin.
  • Hate the sinner and hate the sin.
  • Hate the sinner but love the sin.
I want to believe no one thinks these are improvements over the original. For that matter, I suspect pretty much everyone agrees "Love the sinner" is the right way to begin the saying.

So what about this:
Love the sinner and ignore the sin.
This, I think, is closer to what people who don't like the original saying are after. I'd also guess lots of social conservatives would say this is one of the principles by which modern society, to its detriment, is organized.

But is this really an argument for relativism? "Ignore the sins of others" is a piece of advice given throughout the life of the Church, by the great spiritual advisors after the Counter-Reformation, by the monks of the Middle Ages, by the Desert Fathers, even in a way by Christ Himself. When does the speck in your brother's eye become an object of concern for you?

Well, when you love your brother, of course. It's no sign of love to leave your brother in sin that could lead to his damnation.

But remember, love seeks the good of another, and so must take a path that leads to that good.
If a brother or sister has nothing to wear and has no food for the day, and one of you says to them, "Go in peace, keep warm, and eat well," but you do not give them the necessities of the body, what good is it?
Just so, if a brother or sister has no salvific grace, and one of you says to them, "Go stop sinning, be reconciled to God, and live forever," but you do not give them the necessities of the soul, what good is it? The purpose of admonishment isn't admonishment, but the perfection of the one admonished.

So what is the appropriate relation to the sins of others? I think it can only be based on the appropriate relation to others. There are some people whom we must admonish, and some we must counsel, and we must pray for all. I suspect, too, that there are far fewer people whose sins we should even notice than whose sins we do notice.


Love and sin

The suggestion has been made that people who say, "Love the sinner but hate the sin," are generally hypocrites who don't, in fact, love the sinner.

That may well be true. Loving the saint is hard enough -- at least if the saint is still alive, and especially if he lives with you -- that I'd expect many people to fall short of loving the sinner. And hypocrisy isn't a strange and unusual occurrence among humans. If the suggestion were that people who say, "Love the sinner but hate the sin," are generally cannibals, I'd be less open-minded about it.

But the further suggestion is also made that loving the sinner while hating the sin is impossible. After quoting 1 Corinthians 13:4-7, Kynn Bartlett writes:
How can you love the sinner and hate the wrong they do, if love keeps no record of wrongs? How can you love, without self-seeking, if you seek those whose beliefs differ to become just like you? How can you love, without being rude, if you declare the second-largest faith in the world to be the enemy of America? How can you love if you are angry, if you are proud, if you boast in having found the only true path to God? How can you love if you hate?
I think Kynn's difficulty comes from trying to use a description of love to look at the issue rather than a definition of love.

To love someone is to desire good for them. If you believe that being just like you is good for another person, then seeking to make them become just like you can be an act of love. If you believe that a certain habitual act will cause someone to be damned, then counseling them against that act can be an act of love.

Humans being as they are, an act motivated by love is often motivated by other, less lofty things as well. I teach my children honesty because being honest is good for them, but having honest children also makes my life easier. I desire the good of accepting the Catholic Faith for all my non-Catholic neighbors, but I don't dwell on the fact that if everyone in my neighborhood were Catholic we could have some really great block parties on major feasts.

But the presence of selfish motives does not imply the absence of love. In fallen man, an imperfect love is generally as good as you're going to find.


Monday, September 22, 2003

Another principle:

Beware of making things too easy for yourself.

When I get into discussions about what God really expects of me, or of each of us, I try to be suspicious of answers like, "Why, He expects exactly what I'm already doing, and not a thing more!"

So I'm prepared to agree with anyone who suggests that, historically and right now, Christians as a class haven't overburdened themselves with attempts to give of their want.

As I implied below, I don't believe all Christians are obligated to sell all that they have and give the money to the poor. Even at a time when all Christians were doing it, St. Peter seemed to suggest it wasn't necessary when he told Ananias that the land he sold, and the money he was paid, was his to control.

But of course, it's not enough to say my money is mine to control. It isn't even enough to say my money is mine to give in charity. Paragraph 2246 of the Catechism is a sequence of three astonishing quotations, all of which say the same thing:
  • "Not to enable the poor to share in our goods is to steal from them and deprive them of life. The goods we possess are not ours, but theirs." -- St. John Chrysostom
  • "The demands of justice must be satisfied first of all; that which is already due in justice is not to be offered as a gift of charity." -- Apostolicam Actuositatem
  • "When we attend to the needs of those in want, we give them what is theirs, not ours. More than performing works of mercy, we are paying a debt of justice." -- St. Gregory the Great
So before I get around to asking whether I am sufficiently charitable with my excess, I must ask whether I even manage to be just.


Silence equals what?

A comment-box discussion below turned to the subject of what the Gospels and the Church teach about material wealth -- with, of course, the immediate follow-up question of whether the Church teaches what the Gospels teach.

One part of the exchange went like this (my comments are in italics):
Where does Jesus ever refer to money in a positive way, other than in a couple of parables in which money is used as a metaphor for spirituality?

I don't know that the absence of positive references implies too much. I assume you're going for something like having lots of money is in itself incompatible with being a Christian. Suppose, though, that it weren't incompatible; what would Jesus have to say about having lots of money in that case?

I'd like to suppose that it weren't incompatible. But I thought that I wasn't to "suppose", but to take the words of the gospel, plus the specific instruction of the Church as my infallible guide to conduct?
Let me try to clarify what I was trying to point out with my "Suppose it weren't incompatible" line.

An argument from silence can be expressed as a syllogism:
  1. If X, then Y.
  2. ~Y.
  3. Therefore ~X.
Here X is something like "P believes W" and Y something like "P says Z." An argument from silence is a valid argument, but it's only as sound as its premise, "If P believes W, then P says Z."

In the discussion on Christianity and wealth, an argument from silence is used to support the conclusion that "Jesus had a particular disdain for money and material possessions." This is the ~X of the above syllogism. The ~Y is "Jesus never refers to money in a positive way." So the first premise works out to be something like, "If Jesus didn't have a particular disdain for money and material possessions, then He would have referred to money in a positive way."

Of course, we're at a disadvantage with Jesus, because we only have those words and actions of His recorded in the New Testament for the benefit of our salvation. The premise should really be more like, "If Jesus didn't have a particular disdain for money and material possessions, then the Gospels would have recorded Him referring to money in a positive way."

The truth of this premise is not immediately apparent. The Gospels are not complete records of everything anyone could remember Jesus ever saying; on a natural level, it's possible that Jesus said positive things about money that never got written down.

But without even moving to the supernatural level, I invite you to think about what positive things Jesus might have said about money if He didn't have a particular disdain for it. "I like money"? "Being rich is good, as long as you're good to your neighbor"?

And to whom would He have said such things? To the poor, who weren't much troubled by the moral issues of wealth? To the rich, taught from infancy that wealth itself was a sign of God's favor? To us (we're now at the supernatural level), by nature an avaricious and self-justifying species?

My point is that it doesn't do to point to Matthew 19:21 and say, "If Jesus hadn't meant that all Christians must sell all they have and give it to the poor, He would have said so." There's no hint that anyone thought He did mean everyone had to sell everything, and He seems not to have been in the habit of warning people against errors no one was making.

The underlying principle here is something like this: If your argument is that thing one is true because thing two never happened, make sure it makes sense for thing two to happen if thing one is false.


Friday, September 19, 2003

And you thought the Pope was Catholic!

There is a lively discussion at Church of the Masses on the question of whether God is Catholic. Most of the people who say He is argue on the basis of the truth of the Catholic Faith. Most of the people who say He isn't are upset at the perceived triumphalism of those who say He is.

Lane Core reduces his answer to a kind of syllogism:
God the Son, the Second Person of the Holy Trinity, is the Head of the Catholic Church. Therefore, God is Catholic.
This argument uses something like the "communication of idioms" principle by which we say things like, "God died on a cross."

Personally, I think the question, "Is God Catholic?" is extremely ill-formed, so much so that the unhesitating Yes!es I've seen make me suspect they're answers to a different question. Something like, "Is what the Catholic Church teaches about herself and her relationship to God true?"

And I would unhesitatingly answer that question, "Yes." But as far as I know -- and setting aside the communication of idioms for a moment -- in teaching about herself and her relationship to God, the Church doesn't teach that God is Catholic.

I'm not even sure what such a doctrine would mean. Does God have faith that what the Church teaches is true? Does God have hope in His salvation? Has God even been baptized in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit?

Some of the difficulties with this question can be resolved by answering the related question, "Is my guardian angel Catholic?" You can shake out what it means for a spiritual being to "be Catholic" without getting into issues of what it means to say "God is" something.

But the certainty with which many Catholics assert that God is Catholic makes me wonder about how clearly Catholics think about God. If God is Catholic because Jesus founded the Catholic Church, isn't God also Jewish? In fact, wouldn't God have become Jewish at one point in time, and at a later time become Catholic (or Christian, for Protestants who don't care for Catholic triumphalism)? And wouldn't that mean, contrary to Catholic dogma, that God changes?

Any time you say "God is [something]," you're saying something pretty outrageous, even -- especially! -- if it's true, and you need to be very careful about it.

My biggest objection to saying, "God is Catholic," though, is that it betrays a perception of a limited God. The Church, that statement tells me, is a container in which can be found you, me, God, and a bunch of other people. I don't think Catholics really appreciate how utterly not-like-us God really is. There are no categories that contain both us and God. God is, God is Being, and not just the Supreme Being imagined as the top of a pyramid of beings or the far endpoint of a line of beings.

God's Being is not somehow more than ours; it is other than ours. When God told St. Catherine of Siena, "I am He Who Is, and you are she who is not," He wasn't saying he was 100% on the Being Scale, while she was 0%. He was saying she couldn't even be placed on the scale.

We speak of an infinite God, as though "infinite" were a positive attribute: just keep adding one and you'll reach infinity; just keep moving in this direction and you'll reach God. What it really means, though, is God has no limits. The mathematical concept of infinity is as a limit, almost the opposite of Divine infinity. And God not only isn't at the end of the number line, He's not above or beyond it either. Creation, and all the number lines it contains, doesn't exist in the same space as God, because God doesn't exist in a space.

Okay, divide the number of words used with the number of points made to get an idea of how well I can express myself on this. But there's one further thing to notice about all this: To the extent we fail to appreciate how unlike us God is, we fail to appreciate the magnitude of His free offer to join in His Triune life.


Thursday, September 18, 2003

In case you were wondering about that "minor orders" crack...

... Disputations was mentioned in the latest issue of the Eastern Province Lay Dominican magazine, The Dominican Torch, which came out this week.

I'm just tossing my first-time-visiting brethren some red meat.

Nothing on this site should be taken as representing the official position of the Dominican Order or of the Promoter for the Laity of the Province of St. Joseph, who is known to all as a holy, wise, prudent, just, temperate, fortitudinous, charming, and comely man indeed.


Another childhood lie exposed

Where I live, they're predicting 30-45 mph winds and 4 inches of rain overnight.

We had a red sky last night.

Maybe nowadays sailors delight in taking a few days off to visit their brothers-in-law inland.


Brother Know-it-all Answers Your Questions

Q: I've heard that, before Vatican II, there were things called "minor orders," which the reforms following the Council did away with. What were they, and why were they suppressed?

A: The four "minor orders" were the Jesuits, Franciscans, Carmelites, and Benedictines.

Ha! No, I jest.

The "minor orders" were non-sacramental orders, or formal roles in the Church, most commonly given to men preparing for the Holy Orders of deacon and priest.

It's a common misconception that these orders were suppressed by the reforms following the Second Vatican Council. In fact, they were merely adapted to the needs of the Church in the modern world.

Here is a table showing the old and the new versions of the minor orders:

Pre-Vatican IIPost-Vatican II
PorterDiocesan Spokesman
ReaderLay Theology Professor at a
University in the Jesuit Tradition
ExorcistFormer Priest/Nun
AcolyteParish Liturgist

The "old-style" minor orders, beyond certain minor liturgical roles conferred, served as a path to sacramental ordination. It is not entirely clear just what purpose the "new-style" minor orders serve.


Up the Bollandists!

Tomorrow is Talk Like A Pirate Day.

Coincidentally, yesterday was the feast day of St. Robert Bellarmine, whose life was not boring.

Have you heard that, as a young man, St. Robert was a pirate, and was even the model for The Princess Bride's Dread Pirate Roberts?

Well, now you have.


Wednesday, September 17, 2003

Mansions and big black cars

As everyone who cares already knows, Peggy Noonan wrote that, at Deal Hudson's meeting last week, she
said the leaders of the church should now--"tomorrow, first thing"--take the mansions they live in and turn them into schools for children who have nothing, and take the big black cars they ride in and turn them into school buses. I noted that we were meeting across the street from the Hilton, and that it would be good for them to find out where the cleaning women at the Hilton live and go live there, in a rent-stabilized apartment on the edge of town or in its suburbs. And take the subway to work like the other Americans, and talk to the people there.

... [T]he princes of our church no longer need to live in mansions in the center of town. Those grand homes were bought and erected in part so the political leaders of our democracy would understand the Catholics have arrived. But they know it now. The point has been made.
Now, St. Dominic got his start as an itinerant preacher by agreeing with his biship, Diego of Osma (who, I think, gets short shrift in Dominican history), that luxuriantly accoutremented papal delegates made a poor (ha!) showing compared to the austere heretics they were sent to overcome. I recognize the value of divesting oneself of pomp.

But I can't help but point out there was only one prince of the Church in the room where Peggy Noonan was speaking, and Cardinal McCarrick lives on the top floor of an old high school that's been converted to the church of a Hispanic parish in downtown D.C. In fact, he moved there from a suburb (okay, it was literally across the street from D.C., but it was in Maryland) because he believes the Archbishop of Washington should live in Washington.

To get to his office by public transportation would require walking half a mile to the subway station and waiting five to thirty minutes for a bus. No great hardship for him, of course, and I'm sure thousands of his flock have much worse commutes, but it raises a few questions: What does he do when he wants to visit three parishes in Southern Maryland that day? When does he do the work he currently does while being driven around in his big black car? And most importantly, what problem, exactly, does this solve?

See, I'm not sure what Peggy Noonan meant. Was she offering advice to the cardinal who was there listening to her, or was she telling the people in the room what she thought American cardinals as an abstract class ought to do? If the former, she didn't do a particularly good job tailoring her advice to his situation. If the latter, then it really was just a gripe session for her, however passionately she felt about it.
"You know, your Eminence, Peggy Noonan says you should sell your residence tomorrow, first thing, and move into a rent-stabilized apartment on the edge of town or its suburbs."

"Does she, your Excellency? I'll get right on it."
Not to say I don't love telling other people how they should live, too ... until they return the favor.


A bit of precision

Kathy Shaidle quotes an article about foolishness in the Canadian parliament:
Many are still uncomfortable with a bill that would change the traditional definition of marriage.
See, the thing is, you can't change the traditional definition of marriage. Because if you did, it wouldn't be the traditional definition of marriage any more. That's why they call it "traditional."

What the bill really does (I assume; I haven't actually read the thing) is change the legal definition of marriage from the traditional definition to the hep definition.

A proposed rule of thumb: If people can't properly describe a change they want to make to the law, they shouldn't make the change.


Helpful hints on prayer

Gerard Serafin posts on one of my favorite topics: talking about prayer.

Talking about prayer is great. I love talking about prayer. I can always find time, no matter how busy my day is, to talk about prayer. I'll get up early, stay up late, whatever it takes, to talk about prayer.


Tuesday, September 16, 2003

Insert pun on "Mark" here

Like any good Catholic, Camassia is going through the Gospel According to Mark to see what she can find. Maybe a bunch of us can come along and point out to each other what we notice. (We can even backtrack, if we must.)

Unlike Camassia, Catholics have the paradoxical freedom of reading the Gospels in accord with Tradition -- and tradition, too. We know the Faith, so for us the question isn't, "What's this all about?" but, "What and how is Mark trying to tell us about Jesus Christ, Son of God and son of Mary?"

A commentary I've read suggests the following are the two key questions Mark answers:
  • Who is Jesus of Nazareth?
  • How am I to be Jesus' disciple?
Mark, of course, knows what his answers to these questions are. His Gospel is a very carefully crafted piece of literature, so some care has to be taken in reading it. (In fact, if Mark really was the earliest Evangelist, then he was the creator of a completely new type of literature, a type that can't be read as though it were just like anything else. The Bible, as a wise man once said, is not like other books, and the Gospels are not like other books of the Bible.)

Among the mistakes I think are often made in reading the Gospels are these:
  1. Arguments from silence. Mark's Gospel begins with John's preaching and Jesus' baptism. Does this mean that Jesus "became" the Son of God at His baptism? No. It doesn't even mean Mark thought Jesus became the Son of God at His baptism. The question to ask isn't, "How does this challenge the other Gospels or undermine the patriarchal hegemony of blind tradition?" but, "What does Mark want to tell us by beginning with John's preaching and Jesus' baptism?"
  2. Excessive psychoanalysis. Trying to understand the motivations that drive the people whose actions are described in the Gospels is good to a point, but I suspect many people go far beyond that point. When you start saying things like, "When that happened, Jesus must have felt...," you need to check to see whether you're seeing the reason the Evangelist wrote that passage.
  3. Neglecting the literary structure. Jesus' ministry seems to have provided plenty of material for the Evangelists, but they were (by our standards, at least) very sparing in their use, and very particular about the arrangement, of stories from His ministry. A healing story is never just a report of another healing; each story relates to the stories that come before and after. If you don't see how it fits into the Gospel as a whole, you're going to miss much of the point of a passage.
I should say I'm thinking in terms of Bible study here, rather than lectio divina or other forms of prayerful reflection on Scripture for which different approaches to the Gospels are suitable.


Monday, September 15, 2003

Another thought on incapacitated popes

There's a current of thought that Catholic teaching is arbitrarily malleable, that it is in effect whatever the Pope says it is at any given moment.

This current feeds and is fed on many different (and mutually incompatible) hopes for the future, various changes or corrections or repudiations a future pope will (it is hoped) make.

Now, if the Church is as the Pope does, if the Faith is whatever happens to be in the mind of the current pope today, then what happens if there isn't anything in the mind of the current pope today? The Faith falls into limbo; teachings become neither true nor false-- and not just the controversial teachings, because who can say what will be controversial tomorrow?

So if you regard the Church as some sort of absolute dictatorship, then of course you'll see the situation of an incapacitated dictator-pope as something of grave concern. The metaphysical error you've made in understanding what the Church is shows up in thinking (though probably not explicitly) that the Faith would face a metaphysical crisis given a helpless pope.


Closely related to Curiaeocentrism

Mark of Minute Particulars wonders who is supposed to care that, in the words of a New York Times journalist,
The Roman Catholic Church ... has virtually no provisions for the very modern problem of aging and physically or mentally declining popes.
Mark responds:
Now then, to whom is the above article about "no provisions for the very modern problem of aging and physically or mentally declining popes" supposed to appeal? To non-Catholics? But why would they care? It assumes claptrap that they would dismiss in a heartbeat. To Catholics? But how could it get any traction to be of interest in the context of the Faith?
Mark is forgetting the very modern problem of papocentrism.

Papocentrism is the belief that everything in the Catholic Church revolves around the pope. Does your pastor give poor homilies? The Pope should institute on-going homiletics training for all priests. Don't like that recessional hymn they always use at the 9:30 Mass? The Pope should review the hymnals used in the United States. What's the name of your diocesan chancellor? Um, well, I'm not sure, but I do know the name of the Under-Secretary of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

Given the current Pope, and given the current communication technologies, it's easy to understand the temptations of papocentrism. But it's a fundamentally flawed understanding of the Church, that feeds and is fed by larger false ecclesiologies very popular within and outside the Church.

If you imagine that Christ's Church is like a machine that runs only when the pope turns the crank, then the problem of a pope who cannot turn the crank will interest you strangely.


Friday, September 12, 2003

O the progress we've made

Replying to a comment below put me in mind of a post I wrote nearly a year ago, which shows just how far I've come on some issues since then.


Following up

Dom Bettinelli and Dale Price both bring up the important point that Catholicism is a corporate adventure, not a collection of me-&-Jesuses who get together for an hour every Sunday. In Dom's words:
We are not a bunch of individuals only responsible for ourselves and no others. We are a Church, the body of Christ, responsible for one another.
Very true.

But if "Catholic quietism" is anything close to an accurate characterization of what I wrote, I didn't do a very good job of putting into words what I had in mind. I suppose it could be distilled to these two points:
  1. Pointing out the faults of others is an extremely risky, and far too popular, avocation.
  2. The only sure means by which I contribute to my neighbor's sanctity is my own sanctity.
In a comment below, Kevin Miller points out that the Catechism refers to "the right and even at times a duty" lay people have "to manifest to the sacred pastors their opinion on matters which pertain to the good of the Church." I deny neither the right nor the occasional duty. But that sentence begins with the words, "In accord with the knowledge, competence, and preeminence which they possess," and I suspect I am not the only lay person who overestimates the knowledge, competence, and preeminence which he possesses.


Imbued with the spirit

The question has been asked, what's a faithful Catholic to do if not tell other people what to do?

Well, I'll tell you: Meet the enemy where he is. Do not shrink from taking all he throws at you. Keep what is good and true.

For example, the Presbyterianism of John Knox has a virulently anti-Catholic strain. When Scotchmen come to the U.S. to peddle their wares, we should be prepared to face them in charity.

Now, as a practical matter not everyone is able to meet such threats in person. But if a group of people got together and pledged money -- and prayers too, I suppose, what could it hurt? -- they could send a single representative to answer all anti-Catholic charges that might be raised in such a venue.

In the past, I've thought of myself as an idea man, someone who counsels rather than acts, but now it seems to me that, if I am unwilling to act, perhaps I am unfit to counsel. Therefore, I am prepared to go, if you are prepared to send me.

[Lest I be accused of pride in my own apologetical abilities, let me assure you it is not pride that causes me to volunteer. Attending will not be without personal cost; the event is, after all, on my wife's birthday.]


Thursday, September 11, 2003

Problems you know how to solve

There's an old joke about a mathematician who was interviewing for a job. First, he was shown a pot of water on a counter, sitting next to a hot plate, and told to bring the water to a boil. He put the pot on the hot plate, turned the hot plate on, and soon the water boiled.

Next, he was shown a pot of water on the floor, near the counter with a hot plate, and told to bring the water to a boil. He first set the pot on the counter, then put it on the hot plate, and then turned the hot plate on.

He got the job, because in the second test he reduced the problem to one he had already solved.

It occurs to me that one of the effects of original sin is a tendency to solve material problems by converting them to spiritual problems. We know how to solve spiritual problems:
  1. Convince ourselves they aren't problems.
  2. Repeat step 1 as necessary.
The obvious example is abortion, which converts the very physical problem of an unwanted pregnancy to the very moral problem of the unjust taking of an innocent life.

More generally, though, problems are often addressed by removing them from sight. If I don't see the poor, the hungry, the sick, the dying, then poverty, hunger, sickness, and death become relatively abstract mental conundrums, which I may choose to think about or not. And if the problem is whether I love my neighbor enough ... well, show me the instrument that measures my love, or stop bugging me if I say I obviously love my neighbor enough because I'm a nice person with an untroubled conscience.

The advantage to converting problems from material to spiritual, from seen to unseen, lies in the fact that human reasoning has been weakened by sin. It is much easier to reason weakly about spiritual matters than about material matters, to come to a personally satisfying answer to the question, "Am I good?" than to the question, "Does this person eat enough to survive?" Spiritual truth is as absolute as material truth, but it's far easier to lie to yourself about the spiritual than about the material. (Not that it takes much effort to lie to yourself about the material.)


Undiscerning a vocation

I don't think I'm destined to play much of a role in Church polity in the U.S. I am too easily, and too thoroughly, disgusted by the ubiquitous and unthinking arrogance with which pronouncements like this are made:
There really is no satisfactory solution to this other than the conversion of bishops (to Catholicism, of course).
This would probably strike many as an unremarkable, and undeniable, statement. I can't but take it as symptomatic of two very serious problems facing the Church.

The first is a kind of watery hyperCatholicism by which individuals on their own authority and as a matter of routine busy themselves excommunicating others. It's most explicit among self-styled traditionalists, and I've already brought up the matter of self-styled conservatives using the term "so-called Catholic," but there is no shortage of self-styled progressives who claim the Church is in one way or another refusing the clear demands of the Holy Spirit.

The other problem is the habit of locating the source of all problems in THEM! It's the Vatican's fault, it's the bishops' fault, it's the dissenters' fault! They have to change!

To make it worse, this habit isn't even recognized as a habit. It's seen as impartial analysis, or even simple observation, and passed off as evident truth. We're at the point where a Catholic journalist can say on a Monday "that dissent is the major cause of the sexual abuse crisis," and it strikes others as so natural and obvious that, by that Thursday, he still won't have been laughed out of Catholic journalism. A man who intends to join the Church, but who has not yet attended a single RCIA class, can muse about what the bishops would have to do to convince him they're Catholic, and the Catholics to whom he addresses his thoughts will see nothing worth challenging in them. A handful of people invent a handful of software programs, and suddenly everyone with a home computer and some free time has been divinely anointed a Hammer of Heretics and Scourge of Dissent and is taking detraction, gossip, and busybodiness for prophesy and bold defense of the One True Faith.

When the problem is always them, though, the problem is never me. And the problem that is me is the one problem we have each been commanded to resolve. My job is not to impose a plan of action that will guarantee the survival of the Church in the United States. My job is to guarantee the survival of the Church in the United States by seeing that it survives in me. That, ultimately, is the one thing I have control over -- and, it seems to me, it's also ultimately the only way of reforming and purifying the Church. I can't reform and purify you, I can't reform and purify them, and I certainly can't make you reform and purify them.

The one thing that reforms and purifies is God's grace. But His grace isn't sitting around in a pile such that I can get a shovelfull of it and toss it on you. The only way I can have any grace to pass to you is by first accepting it into myself. We are all moonlets, so to speak, reflecting God's light onto each other, and it does me no good to order someone else to move so that more of God's light falls on him.

If instead of worrying about them, I follow the command of Scripture and the counsel of saints and worry about me, something wholly unexpected will happen. I can't say what precisely will happen -- it is, after all, wholly unexpected -- because it's not by my will or intent that it will happen. It will be by God's will. And even if by worrying about them I could get them to do what I want them to do, that is still an obviously poor choice compared to them doing what God wants them to do by me worrying about me.


Wednesday, September 10, 2003

Whatever happens next...

Greg Popcak ponders the creation of a batallion of exhortationists, trained to lay seige to chanceries at the press of a button should anything the batallion commander deems inappropriate occur within the dioceses at issue. The suggested name for the organization is the Catholic League for Catherine of Siena Project; the suggested motto is Luke 18:2-5.

Nothing says "observant Catholic" like identifying bishops with dishonest judges who neither fear God nor respect any human being.

But just as when someone suggests the power of the blog be unleashed in the form of my sending strident emails regarding things I know almost nothing about to bishops I've never heard of in dioceses I've never been to, I will sit this one out. I wouldn't be surprised if, once constructed, such a machine were efficient and even effective, but it just doesn't strike me as very ... Catholic.


"Shut up," the orthodox Catholic faithful explained

Alan Phipps of Ad Altare Dei offers an antidote to a certain type of poison:
I can tell you that if *I* were a Bishop, people would be calling for my head by now! So instead of berating our Bishops, support them with powerful, prayerful intercession. Pray for your Bishop daily. Do it! It is our duty.
In my case, it's not just a question of not being bishop material. My bishop is a better bishop than I am a layman.

The reports I've seen so far on Monday's meeting forgot to include the part when the orthodox Catholic faithful said to the bishops, "What can we, as orthodox Catholic faithful, do to further the mission of the Church that you, as bishops, cannot do?" That's a question I think is worth a task force or two.


Open to a new idea

Hernan Gonzalez asks a question that hadn't occurred to me: Why did Mark write that Jesus said to the deaf man
"Ephphatha!" (that is, "Be opened!")
instead of simply
"Be opened!"
A suggestion Hernan came across: The Roman readers or listeners of Mark's Gospel would at first think Ephphatha was some sort of magical incantation, and maybe be excited by this glimpse into the hermetical arts, only to be rudely struck by the translation into the unremarkable, "Be opened!"

It's an idea that to me much likes, as Babelfish might say.

To develop it a little further: By providing the exact word (as he also does when Jesus tells the little girl, "Talitha koum!"), Mark tells his readers Jesus used no magical incantations to perform His miracles, and so His power did not come from magic.

Also (and I'm probably well into accomodation rather than exegesis here), notice the theme of the ordinary becoming extraordinary. Words that might be said every day change the world of those to whom they are spoken. Just so, those who are accounted as nothing in the world can become the adopted children of God, and bread can become God Himself.