instruere...inlustrare...delectare Disputations

Tuesday, November 04, 2003

Explicating the inexplicable

"The Honour of Israel Gow" is one of G. K. Chesterton's less subtle Father Brown stories. If you've read it, you won't be shocked by a commentary suggesting the theme of the story is, "Bad looks can be deceiving."

Still, I like it, not least for the sequence of solutions to the mysteries of Glengyle Castle that Father Brown rattles off:
"... By no stretch of fancy can the human mind connect together snuff and diamonds and wax and loose clockwork."

"I think I see the connection," said the priest. "This Glengyle was mad against the French Revolution. He was an enthusiast for the ancien régime, and was trying to re-enact literally the family life of the last Bourbons. He had snuff because it was the eighteenth century luxury; wax candles, because they were the eighteenth century lighting; the mechanical bits of iron represent the locksmith hobby of Louis XVI; the diamonds are for the Diamond Necklace of Marie Antoinette."

Both the other men were staring at him with round eyes. "What a perfectly extraordinary notion!" cried Flambeau. "Do you really think that is the truth?"

"I am perfectly sure it isn't," answered Father Brown, "only you said that nobody could connect snuff and diamonds and clockwork and candles. I give you that connection offhand. The real truth, I am very sure, lies deeper."
What do we do when we are faced with the inexplicable? Too often, I think, we try to explain it. As Father Brown shows with this and two other offhand (and equally false) explanations, when put to it the human mind (particularly in groups) is very good at inventing patterns from nonsensical arrangements.

And not just nonsensical arrangements, either. If Father Brown's associates failed to see how any connections could exist, many people today fail to see how particular connections could not exist.

Suppose, for example, that Bishop Jotterbury of the Diocese of Malaize does something dumbfounding. Let's say he suppresses the Confraternity of the Holy Rosary in his diocese, forbidding its members to gather in any formal way associated with a church.

The natural question is, "Why would he do such a thing?" The unnatural -- but almost always for almost everyone correct -- answer is, "I don't know."

As Father Brown said, "Ten false philosophies will fit the universe; ten false theories will fit Glengyle Castle." Just so, ten false theories will fit Bishop Jotterbury suppressing the Rosary Confraternity. Yet we have no way of knowing which is the one true theory (particularly since, both Jotterbury and suppression being inventions, there is no one true theory), and if we have no way of knowing, we should admit it.

"Come on," some might answer. "We don't need documentary evidence to reach the prudential judgment that the bishop suppressed the confraternity because he's a liberal modernist hippie-dippie heretic who thinks honoring Mary is pagan superstition."

To which I might reply, "What do you mean, 'we'? I appreciate your offer, but I still have to make my own prudential judgments for myself." If the only evidence I have that Bishop Jotterbury is a liberal modernist hippie-dippie heretic who thinks honoring Mary is pagan superstition is that he suppressed the Rosary Confraternity, I can hardly explain the latter by the former.

Then, too, there's the distinction between what is obvious to any decent person and what is obvious to me.

My point is that there has to be something between failing to see how anyone could do such a thing and insisting that his reason could only be such-and-such. Especially if we don't learn anything new about the person or the thing done between our failure and our insistence. Ignorance isn't bliss, but when we concern ourselves with things happening far from our ken, we're going to have a lot of it to deal with.

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Just in time for Christmas

Want to impress others with your encyclopedic knowledge of Catholic devotions and practices? Then order your copy of Encyclopedia of Catholic Devotions and Practices today!

(And while I did contribute one 600 word article (distilled to an impactful 50 words by the editor), I have no further pecuniary interest in the book.)

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St. Martin and the Rats

TSO notes the rats in the St. Martin de Porres medallion posted below.

Here's the story of the rats:
It seems that the Priory of the Holy Rosary where St. Martin lived in Lima, Peru, was infested by rats, so much so that they were eating up all of the food and supplies that were reserved for the Dominican community. The prior of the community approached St. Martin and asked him to get rid of the rats. St. Martin agreed to kill the rats, but as he was rounding them up for the big slaughter, he engaged in a conversation with them and told them that the community was unhappy with their destruction in the priory and the prior wanted them dead. St. Martin, as the story is told, compromised with the rats, telling them to leave the priory and not to return, and if they would do so, he would supply their food from that day forward. It seems that Martin was able to persuade the rats to abandon "their" home, and the priory community was able to return to living a regular life.
The medallion, by the way, was sculpted by Thomas McGlynn, OP, whose most famous work is probably the statue of Mary at Fatima.

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Bishops and leaders

Commenting on the "Applying #5" post, Mark Windsor asks:
But if the bishop is supposed to be a teacher, does that role not confer upon him a special obligation to lead? And in such situations as the Terri Schiavo case, should they not have lead a bit more forcefully and energetically to defend a basic premise of church teaching?
What basic premise of Church teaching should the bishops have led a bit more forcefully and energetically?

I think a lot of American Catholics have an American notion of the leadership proper to a bishop. Lee Iacocca's tag line, "Lead, follow, or get out of the way," has even been invoked against the bishops in another failure to distinguish, this time between a bishop and a CEO. (And isn't much of the "conservative" criticism of the bishops that they behave too much like CEOs?)

Pastor gregis does refer to a bishop's "leadership in the community," but I think the Pope means the community of faith, rather than the political and social community.

More extensively, the Pope mentions "every Bishop's duty to lead the holy people of God as a devoted father and to guide them – together with his priests, his co-workers in the episcopal ministry, and with his deacons – in the way of salvation."

Note the duty to lead in the way of salvation, not in the way of court challenges and custom legislation.

Again, I take Kevin Miller's point that, in the Schiavo case, "the facts just seem very obvious," and so we might reasonably expect something more from the bishops. But that in itself doesn't mean we can demand something more, or are right to feel indignant that we aren't given something more.

As for who takes leadership in a case like this: whoever can and judges he should. Despite the protestations of many, this is not a case in which basic premises of Church teaching are being challenged. The bishops, then, would not be acting in their capacity as teachers, still less as sanctifiers. And they are governors of their Churches as Churches, not as politically organized blocks of voters.

So if a bishop did choose to take the lead on this -- and from what I know (which isn't much and mostly comes from utterly partisan sources) I think this would be great -- he would be doing so not as a bishop so much as a public figure who commands a certain level of respect, or at least media attention.

He might, of course, exercise leadership through his episcopal office -- by, say, having all the priests in his diocese read a letter urging parishioners to write letters in support of the Schindlers. If he does, though, I would suggest he is acting as a prudent man with specialized means at his disposal, rather than as a bishop governing his flock.

I would also point out to those who wish the bishops were more foreceful leaders that a bishop might well have all the priests in his diocese read a letter urging parishioners to write letters in support of Michael Schiavo's rights as husband. It is, after all, a matter of prudence to interpret the facts of the case.

If the Schiavo case is too immediate a concern to see this, go back to last February and change the subject of the bishop's letter to a preemptive attack against Iraq.

Anyone who insists his bishop be a leader must also be prepared to go where his bishop leads him. If he isn't, he doesn't want his bishop to be his leader, but his mouthpiece.

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Monday, November 03, 2003

Applying #5

Before berating the bishops for not doing what you want them to do, be sure to ask yourself whether you've made all the proper distinctions, especially the distinction between teaching moral principles and applying them.

A lot of people who say they're angry with the Florida bishops for failing to be bishops seem rather to be angry with the Florida bishops for failing to be public figures engaged on a particular side of a particular debate. It's true, of course, that a bishop is of necessity a public figure (in much of the world, at least), but his successes and failures as a bishop are in general distinct from his successes and failures as a public figure.

Confusing a bishop's two roles leads to a common form of clericalism. Such a clericalist might declare, "Forget about the bishops!" regarding something that, as a matter of prudential judgment, shouldn't bring the bishops to mind in the first place.

This, in turn, can produce a certain form of stubborn pride in one's own ability to see through this hapless bench of bishops, and to properly judge when they may safely be ignored -- such as, perhaps, when they issue a document on socially responsible investment. In fact, one might even find the idea of the U.S. bishops issuing a document on socially responsible investment to be laughable, this time taking the teaching of moral principles as a prudential application of them, instead of the other way around.

Here is a distilled version of the errors I've mentioned:
Our deacon in his homily on dealing with death tried to tie in the Schiavo case but unfortunately made a big ole mess of it by saying she was "dying" and on "life support" (exact quotes). I'm waiting to hear back from my parish pro-life coordinator before I write him a polite but pithy correction. I mean, if our own leaders can't get it right, how will the sheep?
Notice how the writer extends the demand for correct prudential judgment all the way down to the office of deacon, then wonders how the laity will "get it right" if the clergy does not. As though ordination conferred the grace to read all the right websites!

Here's my point:
  1. It's not the bishops' job to make our prudential decisions for us.
  2. We shouldn't feel smug about making our own prudential decisions without waiting for the bishops to make them for us.
  3. To those who do want the bishops to make our prudential decisions for us: be careful what you wish for.

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Five all-purpose replies

Variations on the following interjections can often be used to move a discussion along, even if you have no idea what the discussion is about:
  1. "Have you tried prayer and fasting?"
  2. "Have we defined our terms?"
  3. "Can we say 'both/and,' rather than 'either/or'?"
  4. "Are you justifying the means by the ends?"
  5. "Have you made all the proper distinctions?"
This last one is a bit risky, since they can always come back with, "What distinctions do you have in mind?" If you don't have any distinctions in mind, you can always try, "Well, between subject and object, for starters," and see where that takes you.

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A matter of balance



Today is the Feast of St. Martin de Porres, the lay Dominican friar whose life offers an important counterbalance to St. Thomas's heavyweight theologizing.

It was only out of obedience to a direct order from the prior of the Dominican house where St. Martin served as gatekeeper and doctor that he agreed to become a friar. Out of humility, he would have preferred to remain an unvowed associate.

The miracles during and following his life were prodigious. The evidence gathered for his cause would surely have led to his canonization in the century following his death had it not all gone down with the ship carrying it from the New World to Europe.

There's a lot to St. Martin's story that might make him fashionable today -- he was a black man whose parents weren't married and were of different racial and social classes, he planted orchards to provide food for the poor, he took care of sick dogs and cats -- but the reason we know his name today isn't his appearance or his work for the poor, but because he was a holy man who reserved nothing of himself for anything but Christ.

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Perennial validity

Bill Cork reports on a discussion at the American Catholic Philosophical Association's conference on the question, "Does the Catholic Church Teach that There Is No One True Philosophy?"

If they weren't philosophers, you'd think this would settle the matter:
The Church has no philosophy of her own nor does she canonize any one particular philosophy in preference to others. [Fides et Ratio 49]
The Pope goes on to explain, "The underlying reason for this reluctance is that, even when it engages theology, philosophy must remain faithful to its own principles and methods." And:
Yet history shows that philosophy—especially modern philosophy—has taken wrong turns and fallen into error. It is neither the task nor the competence of the Magisterium to intervene in order to make good the lacunas of deficient philosophical discourse. Rather, it is the Magisterium's duty to respond clearly and strongly when controversial philosophical opinions threaten right understanding of what has been revealed, and when false and partial theories which sow the seed of serious error, confusing the pure and simple faith of the People of God, begin to spread more widely.
As I see it, philosophy is by definition distinct from revelation, from which it follows that no "One True Philosophy" can be included in the deposit of faith which the Church preaches.

Of course, that doesn't mean that there isn't one true philosophy, or at least a certain "perennially valid philosophical heritage" (to use an expression from canon law) philosophers ignore at their own peril.

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Friday, October 31, 2003

With a twist

I love the stories of the Desert Fathers. Like stones polished in a tumbler, they're small gems of wisdom obtained through many hard knocks.

Plus, I can admire myself for admiring the wisdom, without doing anything much about it, because you know I'm not a desert monk or anything.

Still, there's a certain much of a muchness about many of the stories. There's the young monk doing the right thing wrong or the wrong thing write, and the old abba whose heroic humility corrects him.

Karen Marie Knapp, a reliable source of stories from the desert, offers a Desert Mother story that's different. It's not the true fable so many other desert stories are; it's an actual story, with characters who interact in unexpected ways. Graham Greene or Flannery O'Connor could have turned it into a work of art.

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Let's not make things too complicated

Amy Welborn's concerns over a gnostic revival seem well founded. T. S. O'Rama comments:
I know young people who are fascinated by the Gospel of Thomas but have never read or shown interest in the canonical gospels. I think we can all fall prey, of course, to what is beguiling rather than what is real.
So why doesn't the Catholic Church add the Gospel of Thomas to the canon, and make room for it by removing the Gospel of John? Then no one will read Thomas, and everyone will pore over John just to stick in in the eye of the Church.

Sometimes the simplest solution is the best.

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More on culpability

An evil human act -- an act a person ought to choose not to do -- produces two kinds of evil effects. You might call them "intended evil" and "reflected evil."

Intended evil is the intended result of the act: someone dies; someone's reputation is destroyed; someone's opinion of you is falsely inflated. It corresponds to an injury to society or to creation; St. Thomas would say it's the privation of a good due some creature. And if it refers to something withheld or taken away from another that is due the other, it's a matter of justice. The moral actors who, under justice, must make amends for the injustice of the intended evil are those I'm calling "morally responsible" for the evil human act.

Choosing to do an act one ought not do has another effect, though, which happens within the soul of the actor. Human are created to reach a specific end; our final and highest good is to participate in the Divine Life. When we choose to do evil, we are moving away from our good -- or better, we become smaller moral beings.

I say the image of "becoming smaller" is a good one because evil is in essence the absence of good. Our final end really is to be all that we can be, and when we choose to do evil, we really do become less than we were. There is a reflected evil that corrodes my spiritual being, depriving my soul of the good it should have by refusing to do the evil act.

"Moral culpability," as I'm using the term, refers to the degree to which a particular evil act corrodes the soul, reduces its goodness, and makes the person worse than before. Basically, it's a measure of the reflected evil, of how bad this effect actually is for the actor.

As such, although I may share moral responsibility for the intended evil of my act -- if we're in a bank heist together, you're not free and clear morally speaking just because I'm the one who stuffs the money in the sack -- I cannot share moral culpability. Culpability is a measure of how much worse off an evil choice leaves a chooser; if you didn't perform the act, you can't have chosen to perform it, so you can't be culpable for it.

According to the principle of double effect, a good human act may have an evil effect; more precisely, a human act that has an evil effect may nevertheless be a good human act. What can we say about moral culpability and responsibility for an unintended evil effect?

First, there is no moral culpability. Culpability refers to evil acts, and in this case the act itself is not evil.

Responsibility, though, is a different matter. It seems to me that a moral actor in many cases bears some morally responsibility for making amends when there is an unforseen (or even unforseeable) evil effect of his act. If I accidentally injure someone in some way, I probably (if not always) have a moral obligation to contribute to his recovery.

Still more, then, do I have a moral obligation to contribute to the recovery of someone injured as a forseeable effect of my morally good act. This is a form of moral responsibility for an evil that is "objective" -- it actually exists -- but not intended -- no one willed or desired it.

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Thursday, October 30, 2003

Culpability and responsibility

The business of morality is figuring out what we ought to do. If you believe there is such a thing as morality, you believe there are things you ought to do. (And, incidentally, whatever you ought to do has to be something you can do; otherwise it's just wishful thinking.)

As a soul informing a body, meanwhile, you are able to do two different kinds of things: things you choose to do, and things you don't choose to do. You choose to read this blog; you don't choose to digest the food in your stomach.

Combining these two ideas, we can say that there are things we ought to choose to do -- but can we say that there are things we ought to do without choosing them? Or things we ought not do that we can't not do?

Sure! Why not? Who wouldn't agree that it's bad if their stomach doesn't digest the food they eat?

But that isn't really a matter of morality. That's a matter of the proper operation of our bodies. Having a certain kind of nature -- human nature -- means there are certain kinds of things our bodies ought to do if they're operating properly.

Morality, though, is really concerned with those things we ought to do that we must choose to do, with that part of human nature not covered, so to speak, by spontaneous or reflexive or unthinking operations. The choices we make are made by our rational faculties, which is another way of seeing why rationality is the traditional distinction between humans and lower animals. Our human acts are those acts we choose by our rational faculties. We share acts of mastication and digestion with other animals, but other animals are not capable of performing human acts.

Human acts -- things we choose to do -- that we ought to do are called good acts; human acts that we ought not to do are called evil acts. We ourselves may be said to be good or evil, or a mixture of both, based on the human acts we choose to do. "Culpability" is a term referring to how much of the objective evil of an act is imputed to the actor, a measure of the damage a person does to his soul by committing an evil act.

An interesting question is, how culpable might I be for the evil of a particular act you commit?

One answer is that I might be extremely culpable. I may have talked you into the act, I may have so warped your judgment that the act can be said to be more mine than yours.

This answer, though, confuses "moral culpability" -- how much a person harms himself by choosing to commit an evil act -- with "moral responsibility" -- how much of the debt incurred under justice by an evil act a person is responsible for. No person can have any culpability at all for another person's evil act. It's not possible: the evil done to a soul is done by choosing to do an evil act, and no one can choose that someone else do an evil act.

But one person can be responsible for at least part of the evil committed by another. If I talk someone into committing a robbery, I am partly responsible for the robbery and owe the victim a debt in justice if not in law. (I am also culpable for the evil act of talking someone into committing a robbery; that culpability is mine whether or not the robbery is actually committed.)

How can I bear moral responsibility for evil caused by someone else? Only by having done something I ought not have done, or having not done something I ought to have done. In other words, by some human act I committed or omitted. This is so because, again, only human acts have a moral dimension.

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Seeds of contemplation

Camassia notes a curious sequence in Mark 4:
  1. Jesus teaches a very large crown the parable of the sower, concluding with, "Whoever has ears to hear ought to hear."
  2. The Twelve question Jesus about His parables when they are alone with Him. He replies, "The mystery of the kingdom of God has been granted to you. But to those outside everything comes in parables," scolds them for not understanding, then finally explains the parable.
  3. Jesus tells the Twelve, "For there is nothing hidden except to be made visible; nothing is secret except to come to light."
It is an odd educational theory, isn't it? If Jesus is teaching in parables rather than plain words, so that those He's teaching don't understand him, why bother teaching at all?

That there is nothing hidden except to be made visible suggests it will be the Twelve's job to explain Jesus' parables to the world. That makes sense, I suppose, but again, why not skip the instruction to the crowds? It's not as though the Twelve are making such great strides with their private instruction He's run out of things to teach them.

I think we can consider Jesus' use of parables as itself parabolic. His instructing the crowds in parables is a parable of His earthly mission. The pattern of Jesus telling a parable in public, His disciples failing to understand Him, His explaining the meaning to them, and their subsequent revelation of His meaning to the crowds exactly matches His crucifixion, His disciples' despair, His appearances to them, and their subsequent proclamation of Him as the Christ. Everything in Jesus' life, as Mark records it, is parabolic.

The sequence may also serve a catechetical purpose. Adherents to this new faith would be drawn to it for all sorts of reasons, as Messianic hopes, curiousity, and the need for healing drew the crowds to Jesus. Much of what they would learn, though, would be utterly baffling. God's Son is crucified? And that's a good thing? And He's here with us right now?

Such questions are not unexpected, in Mark's experience, but they can be answered, apart from the crowds, on Jesus' authority. And once a Christian has the answer, he is bound to make it visible, to bring the secret that we have been redeemed to light.

Finally, I think we can take Jesus' words literally without insisting on a double-predestination interpretation. Whoever has ears ought to hear. If you aren't merely a curiosity-seeker, if you believe Jesus is more than a miracle worker, you ought to hear His words, to ruminate on them to discover their meaning. If you insist that whatever comes from God be tailored to your tastes, you are not suitable to hear the Good News. Speaking in parables, then, provides the good a chance at virtue, and exposes the wicked in their vice.

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Wednesday, October 29, 2003

The Venerable in context

The Newman quotation in the previous post comes from Apologia Pro Vita Sua, Appendix 1, Part 8, "Lying and Equivocation."

He is discussing the various moral theories that have been made about lying. The passage begins with:
Almost all authors, Catholic and Protestant, admit, that when a just cause is present, there is some kind or other of verbal misleading, which is not sin.
He goes on to list several common views on how such a just cause can be exercised:
  • silence
  • "saying the thing that is not" is "not a lie, when there is a 'justa causa'"
  • "when we have no duty of justice to tell truth to another [as with children and madmen], it is no sin not to do so"
  • "veracity is for the sake of society," and so can be sacrificed for the sake of society
  • equivocation (distasteful to Newman's English sensibilities)
  • evasion
  • "the unscientific way of dealing with lies": a lie is always a sin, but must sometimes be done anyway
And of course, there's also the position denying any "just cause" exemption.

These position have varying amount of authority behind them. Some are put forth with more conviction than others; some seem to be argued as a weak accomodation to what people do anyway.

But it's only the "unscientific way" of declaring evil to be good that is patently absurd and "cannot for a moment be defended."

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For the thousandth time, no

My epitaph will probably read:

Here lie the mortal remains of Brother John of Fiesole
No means were justified by his end

Considering the fundamental importance of the moral principle that the ends do not justify the means, I am surprised by how often this needs pointing out, even to good Christians.

A comment on a post below illustrates a common misunderstanding of the principle:
Everyone agrees that some ends justify some means.

No one would object to forcibly separating a good and loving mother from her child -- if the mother was ill and delirous with a contagious disease, and the child was too young to understand.
The minor error here is that, to the extent the mother was ill and delirious, she was not a good mother.

The major error, though, is in misunderstanding what it means for something to "justify" an act.

The Catechism has a nice, short article on the morality of human acts that gives a clear exposition on what the Church teaches. In particular, see the "In Brief" statements:
The object, the intention, and the circumstances make up the three "sources" of the morality of human acts.

The object chosen morally specifies the act of willing accordingly as reason recognizes and judges it good or evil.

"An evil action cannot be justified by reference to a good intention" (cf. St. Thomas Aquinas, Dec. praec. 6). The end does not justify the means.

A morally good act requires the goodness of its object, of its end, and of its circumstances together.

There are concrete acts that it is always wrong to choose, because their choice entails a disorder of the will, i.e., a moral evil. One may not do evil so that good may result from it.
The morality of a human act, then, is drawn from three factors: its object, its intention, and its circumstances. All three must be good for the act to be good.

As a moral principle, "The end does not justify the means" means, "The good of the intention does not make the act good if the object of the act is evil."

Whenever I hear someone argue that a person can (or even should) commit a minor evil to avoid a greater evil, two things come to mind. First, that their notion of evil is different from mine, since by my definition evil is something that may never be committed.

Second, one of my favorite quotations from Newman, which I repost from time to time. Newman is writing about lying in an appendix of Apologia Pro Vita Sua, but with a little added emphasis it generalizes nicely:
To these must be added the unscientific way of dealing with lies — viz. that on a great or cruel occasion a man cannot help telling a lie, and he would not be a man, did he not tell it, but still it is very wrong and he ought not to do it, and he must trust that the sin will be forgiven him, though he goes about to commit it ever so deliberately, and is sure to commit it again under similar circumstances. It is a necessary frailty, and had better not be anticipated, and not thought of again, after it is once over. This view cannot for a moment be defended, but, I suppose, it is very common.

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The other problem of personal dignity

I posted yesterday on what you could call the practical problem of personal dignity.

Neil Dhingra continues to be concerned with what you could call the speculative problem of personal dignity:
Here are a couple authoritative Catholic discussions of human dignity:

"Moreover, God created man 'in His own image and likeness,' endowed him with intelligence and freedom, and made him lord of creation." (Pacem in Terris 3)

"But what is man? ... Sacred Scripture teaches that man was created 'to the image of God,' is capable of knowing and loving his Creator, and was appointed by Him as master of all earthly creatures that he might subdue them and use them to God's glory." (Gaudium et Spes 12)

You'll notice that these discussions describe human dignity rather traditionally - in terms of the capacity for cognitive and affective behavior (although they don't necessarily exclude other descriptions). Now, that means that they aren't terribly helpful when talking with those people who think a human being ceases to be human when she loses awareness and any capacity to exercise her intellect and will. That is, they aren't terribly helpful when thinking about the so-called persistent vegetative state.

Well, then, how do we describe human dignity when arguing against those people?
I wrote in the post below my thoughts about the difference between "human by individual capacity" and "human by shared nature."

To continue with the "we are all kings" metaphor, I'll adapt my definition of "personal dignity" to "that quality of personhood which demands that other persons reverence this person as created for beatitude."

I don't have a solid definition of "reverence," but I'm not sure there's much point of making it too different from "treating a being as a subject rather than an object."

There are times, the Church teaches and I believe, when we revere another by withholding disproportionate means of keeping him alive. The "life at all costs" approach -- which most people say they reject -- would seem to revere human life in the abstract, and treat the person as the object by which human life is sustained. The "death at discomfort" approach would seem to revere physical comfort, and treat the person as an object whose end is to be comfortable.

But to Neil's question: How do we describe human dignity when arguing against people who think a human being ceases to be human when he loses awareness and any capacity to exercise his intellect and will?

I think personal dignity is the wrong arrow to pull from our quiver for that argument. Obviously, if a being isn't a person, the being doesn't have personal dignity.

(Although human bodies possess some sort of dignity -- some demand for reverence -- after death. I'm not sure what can be argued from that fact.)

But to my mind, a human being doesn't cease being a human person simply by losing awareness. While life lasts, the being has a soul, and I am hard-pressed to make sense of the notion that a human soul can be (much less ever is) instantaneously swapped with a vegetative soul if a person's brain suffers a certain form of trauma.

O'Rourke doesn't claim this happens, either:
Some people object to the description of patients as "vegetative" as though it indicates they are less than human. While the term could be understood with this connotation, it more exactly refers to the person's ability to function only at the biological level, not to a lack of personhood of the individual person. Cognitive-affective function, the foundation of any spiritual activity, is not possible for a person in PVS. According to the concept of the human person common in Catholic theology, the spirit or the soul of the person still maintains the radical power to perform human acts of cognitive-affective function but the actual performance of these acts is impossible due to dysfunction in that part of the body which is necessary for cognitive-affective function: the cerebral cortex.
His position is not that "a person in PVS" lacks personal dignity -- that's logically impossible -- but that he lacks the individual capacity to perform human acts, which capacity is the source of the value of his biological life to him.

I'm not sure I disagree with O'Rourke on the speculative level. But because I'm not sure I agree with him, and because I'm not sure how much weight to give to "the degree of moral certitude possible in medicine" in doubtful matters, I think AHN should not be discontinued "because it offers no benefit to the patient."

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Without feathers

Smockmamma comments below:
i'm a little concerned that something i read not too long ago said that our ability to reason and that we have free will makes us human. that's a scary thought, isn't it?
Not to me. As far as I can tell, it's kind of a central tenet of Thomistic anthropology, which, while it isn't the last word, is a far, far better word than many others that have been spoken.

That our ability to reason and exercise free will is what makes us human does, however, have a scary misinterpretation: that if a being is unable to reason, that being is not human.

But that's a false corollary. It isn't, "I, as an individual being, am able to reason, and so am human." It's, "I, possessing human nature, am a being by nature able to reason." A person in PVS -- or, more traditionally, asleep or drunk -- remains a being by nature able to reason, even if by circumstance he is unable.

The words "by nature" are absolutely critical here. If we do away with them, we in effect do away with the notion of human nature as anything more than a description of observables.

The result of this isn't limited to the devastation of medical ethics. If there is no human nature, then you and I have no natural relation to one another. The deepest meaning of the word "human" becomes "a word applied to a set of beings whose actions provide evidence they are capable of reason." In which case, what value is it to any of us that the Son of God "became man"? He might as well have become a dolphin, for all the difference it would make to His ability to mediate between the Father and "us men."

And while we're at it, we'd have to admit that dolphins -- or, to use Peter Singer's evil canonical example, pigs -- are more "human" than human babies.

So before we start talking about what makes humans different from non-humans, we need to understand that what makes us human is not individual capacities, but a shared nature.

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Tuesday, October 28, 2003

The problem of personal dignity

Neil Dhingra and I have been talking about what "personal dignity" is. I think, though, that Neil is trying to take what I'm trying to say too far in a direction it isn't intended to go.

My point has been that people have the wrong idea of what dignity is. We think it's the thing a king has as he rides on his horse but loses when he slips on a banana peel.

A dignity that can be lost by slipping isn't worth the trouble of noticing. But since we're so occupied with worrying about just that sort of sham dignity, we fail to notice that we're all kings, simply because we're human.

The problem is not with ethical resistance. The problem is not with irreducible difference. The problem is not with eschatological destination.

The problem is this:
People think a human being ceases to be human when he loses control of his bowels.
You know what? That's not a problem we need to turn to Aquinas or Grisez or Levinas or the CDF to figure out how to solve.

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A couple of scraps

Inspired by recent comments:
  • "Absolute certainty" is not attainable in this life. "We can do X only when we are absolutely certain of Y" is equivalent to "We can never do X." What is attainable is "moral certainty," meaning a level of certainty such that we can make moral decisions based on it.
  • We cannot choose a lesser evil. We cannot choose any kind of evil at all. What we can do is counsel another to choose the lesser evil, but only when we are morally certain he will choose one evil or another.

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Double zero effect

I think, when the discussion turns to elections in an imperfect world, there's a debatable matter that too often goes unobserved. Sometimes the question "How should I vote?" is asked, but "How ought I vote?" is intended. That is, people are wondering whether they have a moral obligation to vote according to a particular rule.

This is another situation where I believe we're faced with making prudential decisions, and therefore there neither is nor can be a heuristic to follow.

The moral principles that inform our judgment are things like, "You may not intend evil," and its corollary, "You may not do evil that good may result."

I continue to maintain that the simple act of voting is practically insignificant. What matters is not who I vote for, but why, and it matters not to the body politic but to me.

Ah, but once we start telling others how we're planning to vote and why, we can start having practical effects. This may get at the difference between me and the Kairos Guy on what it means to say a third party candidate costs another candidate an election.

As political animals, people can't help but say things like, "I know the good guy can't win, so I'm voting for the lesser of two evils." And other people will say, "You're right. I am, too."

It's an interesting exercise to apply the principle of double effect to a situation in which people vote for one candidate to prevent another, worse candidate from winning.

To do it, you need an act, a good effect, and a bad effect. You could say the act is "Acting to elect LessBadCandidate," the good effect is "MoreBadCandidate can't do his evil," the bad effect is "LessBadCandidate can do his evil."

Next, look at the conditions under which the act can be performed according to the principle of double effect:
  1. The act must be moral per se.
  2. The bad effect must not be directly intended.
  3. The bad effect must not be the cause of the good effect.
  4. The good effect must outweigh the bad effect.
Is acting to elect a candidate who advocates evil a moral act in itself? Does acting to elect a candidate imply an intention to effect his ability to fulfill his campaign promises? Is one candidate's ability to fulfill his campaign promises the cause of another candidate's inability to fulfull his?

I think you can only answer these questions in such a way that you can vote for LessBadCandidate if you distinguish between electing a candidate and enacting his platform. If they are morally indistinguishable, then choosing a candidate who holds what you believe is an evil position is equivalent to choosing evil, and you can never do that. If you think electing a candidate and enacting his platform are distinguishable in pricinple, you can only vote for a candidate whose platform includes evil when you judge that electing him and enacting his platform are distinguishable in practice.

Personally, I think they are distinguishable in principle, and virtually always in practice.

If you throw in a third candidate, whose platform is free of evil but who is morally certain of losing, how does this affect the application of the principle of double effect?

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Move along, folks

Turns out Disputations isn't as reliable a guide to to refusing the evil and choosing the good as I thought.

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Monday, October 27, 2003

The numbers game

With general elections coming up next week in the U.S. (though not for Congress), American Catholics are revisiting their concerns over how to vote. I've already suggested we worry too much about voting and not enough about the rest of our civic duties, but for the sake of conversation consider this situation:

For a particular office, there are three candidates. Candidate A, belonging to Major Party X, has an Evil Position Rating of 80 (the higher, the more evil). Candidate B, belonging to Major Party Y, has an Evil Position Rating of 40. Candidate C, belonging to Minor Party Z, has an Evil Position Rating of 0. Suppose the polls show A and B divide the vote, with C getting a statistical goose egg.

There are those who would reason, "Since C cannot win, I'm throwing away my vote if I vote for C, and in fact taking a vote away from B, who isn't nearly so bad as A. So do I have a moral obligation to vote for B?"

I suppose the first question to ask is, "Does how I vote make any practical difference in who wins?" In which case, the first answer is, "No."

Suppose a poll accurately shows two candidate to be statistically even, each getting 50% of the vote with a margin of error of 1%. If there are 100 other voters, they will be split 49-51 (B wins), 50-50 (tie), or 51-49 (A wins). If you vote for B, you change the outcome in 1 of 3 cases -- pretty good leverage for a single vote.

If there are 1000 other voters, though, your vote for B gives B the election in 1 of 21 cases, or 4.76% of the time. With 10,000 other voters, it drops to less than 0.5% (1 of 201 cases).

Personally, I don't think odds as good as 20:1 against imply a moral necessity to vote for the lesser of two evils when a non-evil candidate is running. And of course, the odds get stiffer when either candidate has even a tiny edge or the margin of error is greater (as it always is). So unless there are significantly fewer than 1000 voters, I'd go with Candidate C every time.

More generally, "a vote for C is a vote for A" reasoning is fundamentally flawed. A vote for B-instead-of-C will look a lot like a vote for B to people who can't perceive your intentions from election results. You get more of what you reward; voting for B instead of C will get you, in public discourse, more of B's positions and less of C's. Why would anyone take C's positions seriously if even his supporters won't vote for him?

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My will for living

Peter Nixon puts it simply:
We need to be a community of "less than perfect" people who show how "less than perfect" lives can be sacramental.
I've told my wife that I have no objections at all to being a burden on her or on anyone else, but I may be in the minority on this. Almost everyone I've heard express an opinion has, in essence, recoiled in horror at the thought of being physically helpless. Very often, they say they would hate to lose their dignity by needing others to feed and bathe them.

But here's the thing: The dignity you can lose isn't much worth holding onto. True human dignity is part and parcel of true human nature. That cannot be lost; it can only be failed to be recognized. We, as Catholics, Christians, moderns, and human beings, can recognize this inalienable dignity in ourselves and in others if we choose to look for it.

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Friday, October 24, 2003

Well, I'm going to read it

A cloistered Dominican nun has written a novel about a cloistered Dominican nun: Amata Means Beloved

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In the end

All that said below, I return to the notion that medically assisted feeding is ultimately a prudential matter to be decided by the patient. I may not believe a particular treatment is burdensome for a particular patient, but in general I have no more right to decide that on the patient's behalf than I have the right to decide who someone else should marry.

If a patient determines that a particular treatment or care -- even assisted feeding -- is excessively burdensome, then, as long as he is not directly intending his own death, by any non-rigorist opinion he may refuse that treatment or care.

What changes in cases where the patient cannot make decisions about his care? I think this is right: Whoever is responsible for making the decisions ought to make them in accord with whatever is known about the patient's wishes (adjusted if necessary by correct moral principles; you can't choose evil on the patient's behalf simply because the patient would if he could). If the patient's wishes are not sufficiently known, the decisions ought to be made in favor of maintaining biological life.

I think it's important to note that the "excessively burdensome" criterion must be judged from the patient's perspective. There is a burden on the patient, a burden on the caregivers, and a burden on the family. The caregivers and the family may feel excessively burdened by caring for the patient, but it seems to me as I type this that what matters is whether the patient believes the caregivers and family are excessively burdened. If like me the patient has no objection to being a burden to others, I don't think those deciding on his care have the right to invoke the "excessive burden" principle on the others' behalf.

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My opinion on the opinions

Just to get this down in one vague but single piece, rather than having it drawn out in even worse fashion in the comments, let me react to the "three opinions," viz.,
The first opinion views AHN as ordinary care and morally obligatory. The second viewpoint contends that AHN is a medical treatment that should be offered unless it is physiologically futile or excessively burdensome. The third opinion states that AHN may be discontinued in the case of the patient in PVS primarily because it offers no benefit to the patient and secondarily because it may at times impose a grave burden.
Again: all this is in the context of a PVS patient who, by assumption, functions only at the biological level. If that assumption isn't true, then ... um ... there's not much point in this exercise, and you can go here for some good clean fun.

I've tried below to indicate why I'm unpersuaded by the first opinion.

I see the difference between the second and third opinions as primarily this: The second opinion regards the preservation of biological life to be a much greater good than the other goods at issue. The third opinion regards the preservation of biological life to be a good whose value is much closer to those of the other goods.

What to do in doubtful matters? In general, I'm inclined to take the safer approach if there is one, and to take the more probable approach if there is one. It seems to me that opinion 2 is both safer and more probable.

It's safer in the sense that it can be followed even if the Church doctrinally adopts opinion 3. These opinions, recall, only say whether AHN may be withdrawn; none require it. Opinion 2 is more probable, as far as I can tell, because it seems more in accord with the statements of bishops, episcopal conferences, Vatican congregations, and popes.

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Clean as you go

Let me straighten up my thoughts a bit before moving on.

Catholic moral teaching is unambiguous on the following points:
  1. A person can never choose to die as the means to an end.
  2. A person can never kill another person as the means to an end.
  3. Decisions regarding medical care have, from a moral viewpoint, two compontents: the intent with which an action is taken, and the action in itself. Both intent and action in itself must be moral for the decision to perform the action to be moral.
We might also dust off the Principle of Double Effect:
An action that has a forseeable bad consequence may be taken if all of the following are true:
  • The action is not immoral in itself.
  • The bad consequence is not intended.
  • The good consequence outweighs the bad consequence.
  • The bad consequence is not the means of obtaining the good consequence.
So, how does a decision to withdrawal medically assisted hydration and nutrition -- or a decision against beginning it, which morally speaking is equivalent -- relate to all this?

What jumps out at me is the importance of intent. There is an argument against ever withdrawing AHN that claims the intent is necessarily to "starve the person to death." But that begs the question, because starving a person to death can never be morally intended. And, as a matter of empirical observation, people do have other intentions than starving a person to death.

I think it is also clear that Catholic moral teaching has never required food be given to all patients whether they want it or not. (See Neil Dhingra's comment below about the history of Catholic teaching on the general question of patient care.) From this, I conclude that forcing food into a patient is not a moral imperative.

But there's another point that needs to be made:
Catholic moral teaching is unambiguous that assisted feeding -- be it with spoons or tubes -- is morally necessary in almost all circumstances.
I think this point gets obscured when people start bringing up various medical scenarios as though, because they also require assisted feeding, they were morally equivalent to a case of PVS. "It's immoral to not nurse an infant, so it's immoral to not feed a PVS patient" is not a valid argument. The arguments that are actually being made in favor of the morality of withdrawing AHN in certain cases are based on circumstances that are not present in cases where all Catholics agree AHN is morally necessary.

According to O'Rourke and Norris, among the circumstances present in diagnosed permanent vegetative states are the following (emphasis added):
A person in PVS is still a human being, but functions only at the biological level... People in a permanent vegetative state have "sleep-wake" cycles meaning that their eyes are often open but they do not track on anything and have no meaningful response to stimulus. Grunts and groans may also be emitted, but they have no meaningful significance. Because of injury or dysfunction in the cerebral cortex (sometimes called the "higher brain"), the power to think, choose, love, and relate to others is lost. The function of eating is also lost due to a lack of coordination between chewing and swallowing even though gag, swallowing, and cough reflexes may be preserved and the functions of digesting and waste elimination are maintained. Bodily nutrition may be maintained through AHN. As far as medical research is able to discern, withdrawal of AHN from patients in PVS does not cause any change in pain level for the patient.
How much of this is true, and how much simply guesswork by medical researchers, I have absolutely no way of knowing, but there are claims made here about PVS that are not made about a lot of other medical conditions that require assisted feeding.

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Thursday, October 23, 2003

Is AHN comfort care?

By "comfort care," I mean the sort of care that is always and everywhere, regardless of medical circumstances, to be given to whoever can't provide such care for himself. Bathing, watching out for bedsores, and adding or removing blankets are examples of normal care.

Assisted hydration and nutrition, as a form of feeding the patient, seems at first thought to be undoubtedly comfort care. You bring food to the bedside of someone too sick to get out of bed, you bring food to the mouth of someone unable to use his arms. So certainly you put food into the stomach of someone unable to swallow.

But AHN is not just a form of feeding. It is also a form of medical care. (I use the acronym from O'Rourke and Norris to mean "assisted hydration and nutrition," but the full term in the PLC document is "medically assisted hydration and nutrition.") Very limited anecdotal evidence suggests to me that, the more you know about medicine, the more you see AHN as "artificial," invasive, and potentially burdensome in a way utterly unlike spoon-feeding.

I think this fact -- for whatever it might be worth -- is easy to see if you imagine yourself caring for someone in your home. Most parents know how to care for a person with no bowel control. Few people could, on their own, do much about someone who cannot swallow. The helplessness of a healthy baby is simply not a good analogy to the helplessness of a PVS patient.

It's also true that such Church documents as have been issued, with such authority as they possess, do not seem to see AHN as morally-obligatory comfort care. The PLC document answers the question, "Is the withholding or withdrawing of medically assisted nutrition and hydration always a direct killing?" by denying both that it can never be a direct killing and that it is in all or most cases a direct killing. AHN, then, would be neither always necessary nor always optional. Various dioceses of the United States have followed the PLC document; the Archdiocese of New Orleans, for example, makes what I think is a useful distinction:
First, nutrition and hydration administered orally or through a peripheral vein should normally be considered as care rather than treatment. When, however, this brings no comfort to a person who is imminently dying or when it cannot be assimilated by the patient's body, even this need not be continued.

Secondly, nutrition and hydration via a nasogastric tube or a stomach tube are usually considered medical treatment since the necessitate a physician's involvement or surgery. When the benefits outweigh the burdens, these should ordinarily be used. When the burdens outweigh the benefits, these need not be initiated or continued.
This makes a great deal of sense to me. In fact, I think I can adopt it as it stands.

The next question is, what are the burdens and benefits of AHN, and how much do they weigh?

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The three opinions

"Care of PVS Patients: Catholic Opinion in the United States," by Kevin O'Rourke, O.P. and Patrick Norris, O.P., is a 2001 article that presents "three opinions held by people in the Catholic community in regard to the use of AHN [artificial hydration and nutrition; popularly, "feeding tubes"] for patients in PVS [persistent vegetative state]." Knowing no better, I will follow their division.

The three opinions, in my paraphrases, are:
  1. Feeding a patient whose body can process the food is basic care, like bathing and keeping him comfortable. Therefore, feeding such a patient is always morally necessary. A feeding tube is no different, morally speaking, from a spoon as a means of delivering food to the patient. Withdrawing AHN amounts to euthanasia.
  2. AHN is a form of medical care, and can therefore be withdrawn when it offers "no reasonable hope of sustaining life or pose excessive risks or burdens," to quote the U.S. Bishops Pro-Life Committee's "Nutrition and Hydration: Moral and Pastoral Reflections" 1992 document. In the case of a PVS patient whose body still processes food, AHN clearly offers reasonable hope of sustaining life, and so must not be withdrawn.
  3. AHN is a form of medical care, and can therefore be withdrawn when it is "of limited usefulness to the patient or unreasonably burdensome for the patient and the patient's family or caregivers," to quote the same PLC document. Prolonging life in a permanent vegetative state is of limited usefulness to the patient, and so AHN may be withdrawn. (Although I've quoted it here, the PLC document comes down explicitly behind Opinion 2.)
We begin as always by looking at our terms. In this case, there are two that jump out at me: AHN and PVS. To know what they mean morally, we need to know what they mean medically, but even before that point, what do the initials stand for? Is AHN "artificial hydration and nutrition," as O'Rourke and Norris say, or "assisted hydration and nutrition," as the PLC would say? The O'Rourke and Norris paper refers to "a permanent unconscious condition, in medical terminology often called persistent vegetative state (PVS, although more precisely for our discussion: permanent vegetative state)." But surely "persistent" can be distinguished from "permanent"!

So out of the blocks, the terms we use are influencing the discussion (and I'm not even talking about terms like "murder" and "starving to death"). An action that is "assisted" has a somewhat different moral flavor than one that is "artificial," don't you think? "Persistent" is descriptive; "permanent" is prescriptive. Saying a vegetative state is "permanent" seems, to me, to beg a crucial medical question. If we aren't careful, we might wind up with a solution to a moral problem that no one actually faces, or at least improperly applying a very specific solution (for "permanent" cases) to more general circumstances ("persistent but not necessarily permanent" cases).

To move as carefully as possible, I think I will use "assisted" and "persistent" for now.

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If it really is mud, how do you clarify it?

The 1980 "Declaration on Euthanasia" from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith contains this remarkable passage (emphasis added):
Everyone has the duty to care for his or he own health or to seek such care from others. Those whose task it is to care for the sick must do so conscientiously and administer the remedies that seem necessary or useful. However, is it necessary in all circumstances to have recourse to all possible remedies? In the past, moralists replied that one is never obliged to use "extraordinary" means. This reply, which as a principle still holds good, is perhaps less clear today, by reason of the imprecision of the term and the rapid progress made in the treatment of sickness. Thus some people prefer to speak of "proportionate" and "disproportionate" means. In any case, it will be possible to make a correct judgment as to the means by studying the type of treatment to be used, its degree of complexity or risk, its cost and the possibilities of using it, and comparing these elements with the result that can be expected, taking into account the state of the sick person and his or her physical and moral resources.
So there we have it: a correct judgment about whether a particular means of care for a patient is necessary can always be made.

Thanks for clearing that up, your Eminence.

It seems to me, though, that one thing Catholic teaching makes entirely clear is that these decisions are, fundamentally, prudential ones. The Church can and does provide guiding principles, but it's up to individuals to apply them to concrete situations.

To want the Church to issue, in effect, a detailed algorithm for making medical decisions, where by answering a set of detailed medical questions you get the "right" answer in every case, is understandable. No one wants to do the wrong thing in matters of suffering and death. But such an algorithm seems incompatible with the reality that these matters force us, as moral agents, to act on our own authority and by our own judgments.

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Minority opinion

David Morrison expresses misgivings about the Terri Schiavo case.

I think, more precisely, he's expressing misgivings about the "feeding tube as morally required care" opinion expressed by many on Catholic blogs.

I find that the more I know about the specifics of this debate -- even granting that nearly all information comes from sources siding with the Schindlers -- the less it seems exemplary of end-of-life care questions in general.

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A home away from Rome

Camassia announces:
I decided to stop being an ecclesial nomad and pitch my tent at a Lutheran church.
News which should prompt all Catholics of good will to respond with the traditional saying, "Nishkosheh, nisht erger."

She asks for recommendations for good introductory readings on "Uncle Marty" Luther. The only introductory book I've read is Demon Monk of Wittenburg, by Dom Delirareus Controriformati (reprinted by was it TAN Books?), which I don't think is what she's looking for.

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Wednesday, October 22, 2003

Hard cases make good laws

Teresa of Calcutta had been beatified for just two days when the Florida legislature passed a bill to save Terri Schiavo's life and the U.S. Senate passed a bill banning partial-birth abortion. Talk about hitting the ground running.

I am delighted -- and a bit unnerved, as I always am when God seems to act without His usual subtlety -- by what has happened in Florida.

At the same time, though, it really isn't the business of the state to assign the right to make medical decisions for a patient to the governor in general. We're happy with this law because it has preserved a life that should be preserved. But "Life at all costs!" isn't Catholic teaching, and I think a lot of us would be unhappy with a law demanding our own loved one be kept alive by means that impose burdens without providing benefits.

Following the Terri Schiavo case has shown me that there are two questions we, as a Church and as a society, need to answer:
  • How are "feeding tubes" to be understood morally?
  • How is "persistent vegetative state" to be understood medically?
I think we need to know what PVS is medically -- if, in fact, it's anything at all beyond a term to cover medical ignorance -- before we can know how to respond to it morally. As it happens, I am completely dependent on the work of others about all such medical matters.

As for feeding tubes, despite the dogmatism sometimes expressed, the question is not yet settled. I've heard a lot of calls for the bishops to settle the question already, but I've also seen evidence that some of these calls are really for the bishops to agree with the caller already. How long do you suppose it would be between the time an authoritative "Declaration on the Use of Feeding Tubes" was issued, which provided precise and unambiguous guidelines for all cases, and the first time the statement, "The bishops are exceeding their spiritual authority by meddling in medical matters," was made?

I'm not right now sure of my provisional answer to the right moral understanding of feeding tubes. I should probably do something about that.

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Tuesday, October 21, 2003

A couple of links via Zenit

You know how, early in a movie, when the bad guy's right hand man leers at some innocent who's about to die unpleasantly, you just know the bad guy's right hand man is going to die about ten times more unpleasantly before the lights come up? I have to think that interfering with shipments of rosaries is the police state analog of a movie bad guy's right hand man's leer.

And the Poor Clares of Ireland have a new website, including a page titled "Prayer: Ideas for busy people." Take a look at their "Psalms to suit different moods." How blessed is he who has been given the Psalms to pray!

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Another temperamental dimension

Sometimes overlooked in the concentration on the alleged conservative/progressive dichotomy is the less-frequently-but-still-at-times-alleged authoritarian/libertarian dichotomy, which really is a way of saying to what degree a person submits to authority other than himself.

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Round-heeled comment seeking

An easy way to generate a lot of comments is to ask, "How do us feel about them?" Because either you're an us and have certain feelings about them, or you're a them and have certain feelings about us, or you're neither and have certain feelings about both, and the Internet makes no sense unless you understand how much of it has to do with the opportunity to express feelings.

If you're not a secular journalist, you know how inadequate labels like "conservative" and "progressive" are when referring to contemporary Catholicism. Yet they continue to be used because they're so darn convenient. I think this is because human temperament really does have an "attraction to novelty" dimension. A person has a certain temperamental inclination -- which expresses itself in habit -- regarding doing new things.

I'll anticipate an objection and say I don't think of this "novelty temperament" as binary ("you're either conservative or you're progressive"), but more of a vague scale or partial order ("I'm more conservative than him and more progressive than her").

Chesterton's famous formulation -- "The business of Progressives is to go on making mistakes. The business of the Conservatives is to prevent the mistakes from being corrected." -- suggests that neither a progressive nor a conservative temperament is, in itself, any great virtue. St. Paul's more famous formulation of the Church as a body with many parts suggests the Church can benefit from both temperaments.

Several things seem to happen when these temperaments go out into the world. First, many people self-identify as "progressive" or "conservative."

This reinforces opinion clustering -- people with similar temperaments arrive at similar opinions on disputed questions -- and that's what makes it useful (though less useful than many think) to speak of "Progressive Catholics" and "Conservative Catholics."

Another thing is temperaments often cross domains: it's not unusual for someone who is religiously progressive to be politically, socially, and economically progressive.

A result of all this, I think, is a devaluation of the progressive temperament among self-identified conservatives and of the conservative temperament among self-identified progressives. There's a lot of ad hominem reasoning -- "He has boneheaded ideas on tax policy. Therefore, he's a bonehead. Therefore, his ideas on church polity are boneheaded." -- and a lot of guilt by association -- "If I have no opinion about it, but he's for it, then I'm against it."

If you're playing a video game, then yes, you have to rely on reflexive actions. But if you're trying to arrive at the truth, or determine the prudent course, then such statements as "Progressives feel no need for rational or substantive arguments" or "Conservatives check their minds at the door of papal pronouncements" will not help you.

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Or not so great?

This is to provide a comment box for people who don't like Pope John Paul II and are ill-mannered enough to think a post commemorating the Pope's silver jubilee is just the place for them to say so.

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Monday, October 20, 2003

Where is everyone?

Domenico Bettinelli was asked a question I suspect a lot of us have asked ourselves:
Where are all the 'progressive' Catholic bloggers?
While there are a few "progressive Catholic blogs" on Gerard's list -- Ono's Thoughts and Jcecil3's Progressive Catholic Reflections come to mind -- it's certainly true that the predominant perspective among the Catholic blogs I'm familiar with is opposed to the sort of things the National Catholic Reporter considers progressive.

I'm not as quick as some of Domenico's commenters to explain the disparity by an appeal to the particular vices of progressive American Catholics, tempting as that may be.

I think the first consideration should be any self-selection bias. Surely there are factors, independent of religious perspective, that make someone more likely to blog. Imitation, I think, may be one of the most important. Most or all of the most influential Catholic blogs in March 2002, just before the St. Blog's boom, were "conservative," so most of the blogs inspired by them would be conservative as well.

That, of course, raises the question of why most or all of the most influential Catholic blogs in March 2002 were "conservative," and I suspect part of the answer is, "Rod Dreher." The influence NRO and The Corner had on the nascent St. Blog's might explain, not only the predominance of "conservatives" among Catholic bloggers, but also the predominance of political conservatives among Catholic bloggers. And the influence of NRO would take us back to September 11 and its aftermath, which met the Boston clergy scandals like sodium meeting air.

There's also the self-selection of readership. If most of the blog readers are "conservative" Catholics, "progressive" Catholic bloggers won't get many visitors and so are (arguably) less likely to keep blogging. (Althogh, speaking of self-selection, if they did continue blogging I would be less likely to notice or to care.)

Then there's the question of age. If (and I don't know that it's so) "progressive" Catholics tend to be older, then they will tend to be underrepresented on the Web, regardless of other factors.

Finally, as a category, "Progressive Catholics" tends to be used in a well-defined sense to mean "favoring such things as artificial birth control, optional celibacy, women priests, acceptance of active homosexuality, and abolition of the death penalty." If "Conservative Catholics" is a category defined to mean "Not Progressive Catholics," then St. Blog's is almost entirely composed of "Conservative Catholics," but beyond opposition to "Progressive Catholicism" there is among Catholic blogs, as in the Church as a whole, a much greater variety of viewpoint than is typically credited by the casual observer.

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An unforgivable paraphrase

No one likes being misquoted.

Here are the synoptic Gospels on the "unforgivable sin":
Matthew: "Therefore, I say to you, every sin and blasphemy will be forgiven people, but blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven. And whoever speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven; but whoever speaks against the holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come."

Mark: "Amen, I say to you, all sins and all blasphemies that people utter will be forgiven them. But whoever blasphemes against the holy Spirit will never have forgiveness, but is guilty of an everlasting sin."

Luke: "Everyone who speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven, but the one who blasphemes against the holy Spirit will not be forgiven."
Notice a word none of the Evangelists uses? Like maybe "unforgivable"?

In comments on my post below, Rob wondered:
And if there is hope, then aren't all sins of that category just currently "unforgiven", rather than inexorably "unforgivable"?
And Kevin pointed out:
Might be worth noting that when Jesus speaks of this sin, it's in the context of his having been accused of casting out demons by the prince of demons....
All of which leads me to think that, CAUTION: AMATEUR THEOLOGY AHEAD! when Jesus said, "Whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit ... is guilty of an everlasting sin," He wasn't speaking as our Teacher, but as a prophet. In other words, He was saying what will happen to the actual, specific persons who blaspheme against the Holy Spirit, not what must, per se, be a consequence of blaspheming against the Holy Spirit. (On this reading, the folks I quoted before explain why the sin is "everlasting," rather than literally "unforgivable.")

Meanwhile, Lynn beats me at my own game by quoting extensively from the Catena Aurea. To make things worse, I had looked at the Catena Aurea on Friday, without seeing anything I wanted to quote.

In reparation, I'll link to the Catena Aurea's chapter on Matthew 12, which has a few extended selections from St. Augustine, including a development on this idea:
The first benefit therefore of them that believe is forgiveness of sins in the Holy Spirit. Against this gift of free grace the impenitent heart speaks; impenitence itself therefore is the blasphemy against the Spirit which shall not be forgiven, neither in this world, nor in that to come.
There's also a point made by St. Gregory:
Hence we may gather that there are some sins that are remitted in this world, and some in the world to come; for what is denied of one sin, must be supposed to be admitted of others. And this may be believed in the case of trifling faults; such as much idle discourse, immoderate laughter, or the sin of carefulness in our worldly affairs, which indeed can hardly be managed without sin even by one who knows how he ought to avoid sin; or sins through ignorance (if they be lesser sins) which burden us even after death, if they have not been remitted to us while yet in this life. But it should be known that none will there obtain any purgation even of the least sin, but he who by good actions has merited the same in this life.

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"A corner office in the Kingdom of God"

That was a memorable phrase from my pastor's homily yesterday, in reference to the Apostle's expectations once Israel recognized their Master as the Messiah.

Nowadays, we seem to have more moderate expectations for ourselves: eternal and perfect beatitude, but not a particularly exalted beatitude, since after all we're good people but not holy or anything.


Grant that in your glory we may sit one at your right and the other at your left.

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Friday, October 17, 2003

On to Mark 3

Nobody likes an unforgivable sin.

Camassia, for example, writes:
Of all the sins out there, the unforgivable one is just something you say? I mean, religion doesn't have a first amendment, but this still seems like a very strange priority.

The idea that a sin is unforgivable also raises the scary possibility that once you do it, it doesn't matter what you do afterward, you're still doomed. As I understand it, the Catholic Church has resolved this by saying that you're doomed only if you die still in the sin; so long as you're alive, you can still be saved. That makes sense, although that caveat is rather conspicuously lacking in Mark's account.
The Catechism says of these words of Jesus:
There are no limits to the mercy of God, but anyone who deliberately refuses to accept his mercy by repenting, rejects the forgiveness of his sins and the salvation offered by the Holy Spirit.
It refers to Pope John Paul II's Dominum et vivificantem, which includes a section dealing with "The Sin Against the Holy Spirit." The Pope writes:
Why is blasphemy against the Holy Spirit unforgivable? How should this blasphemy be understood ? St. Thomas Aquinas replies that it is a question of a sin that is "unforgivable by its very nature, insofar as it excludes the elements through which the forgiveness of sin takes place."

According to such an exegesis, "blasphemy" does not properly consist in offending against the Holy Spirit in words; it consists rather in the refusal to accept the salvation which God offers to man through the Holy Spirit, working through the power of the Cross. If man rejects the "convincing concerning sin" which comes from the Holy Spirit and which has the power to save, he also rejects the "coming" of the Counselor-that "coming" which was accomplished in the Paschal Mystery, in union with the redemptive power of Christ's Blood: the Blood which "purifies the conscience from dead works."
The idea of measuring sins by how easy they are to forgive, or how readily they are forgiven, and placing blasphemy against the Holy Spirit in the "impossible"/"never" range – of, more generally, understanding Jesus' statement to refer to God's attitude toward the sinner rather than the sinner's attitude toward God, seems to get things the wrong way round.

The Pope quotes St. Thomas in the middle of an analogy with disease:
[A] disease is said to be incurable in respect of the nature of the disease, which removes whatever might be a means of cure, as when it takes away the power of nature, or causes loathing for food and medicine, although God is able to cure such a disease. So too, the sin against the Holy Ghost is said to be unpardonable, by reason of its nature, in so far as it removes those things which are a means towards the pardon of sins.
A terminal disease is fatal, then, because if it weren't fatal it wouldn't be a terminal disease. Similarly, blasphemy against the Holy Spirit is unforgivable because if it were forgiveable, it wouldn't be blasphemy against the Holy Spirit.

St. Thomas, by the way, goes on to add a caveat rather conspicuously absent in Mark's account:
This does not, however, close the way of forgiveness and healing to an all-powerful and merciful God, Who, sometimes, by a miracle, so to speak, restores spiritual health to such men.
If you think of blasphemy against the Holy Spirit as a discrete act, that would sound like a contradiction. Thinking of it as a rejection of the "convincing concerning sin" which has the power to save, though, the caveat is more of a complement.

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A few public service links

For religion journalists everywhere.

And a question: When did "abortion" first get slipped in between "birth control" and "married priests" in the list of things that show how retrogressive the Pope is?

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Ya gotta believe

I'm not a big baseball fan -- being from Philly and living between Baltimore and Washington can do that to you. I've followed the MLB playoffs closely this week, though, and I'm struck by how religious so much of the reporting is. And not just religious, but medievally Catholic, with curses and exorcisms and everything. (There was even a sincere call for an actual exorcism, Catholic priest and all, at Wrigley Field.)

Professional football is my spectator sport of choice (despite being from Philly and living between Baltimore and Washington). My impression is that football is covered in more of a Norse pantheon way: occasionally this or that god might zap somebody or guide a ball into the right guy's hands at the right time, but by and large what happens is a matter of good or bad fortune. (Kurt Warner's alleged deal with the devil may be the exception that proves the rule.)

But there's something about baseball, at least in a week with two Game 7s, that brings out the Christian hierarchy of spiritual beings. The players, of course, are religious (and, I'd guess, more Catholic percentage-wise than in the NFL); even the Marlin's manager asks for St. Therese's help.

What's striking, though, is that the sports columns -- at least in Boston and Chicago -- are filled with religious references. Just now, I was looking for something I read a couple of days ago, and I see a Boston Globe article that begins:
The reward for all that fidelity will surely come in another life.
This is Red Sox fans as anawim, sports columnist as minor prophet.

One Chicago writer quoted Gerard Manley Hopkins -- from a poem first published in 1918, a significant year for several reasons -- after the Cubs lost game 6. And today there's a piece at ESPN.Com imagining God's conversation with the spirit in charge of overseeing baseball:
"Our compliments on your work. Downright diabolical, you little torturer."

"Well, I tried."

"Nonsense. You were brilliant. You know how much we value the Cubs and Red Sox and the way they make their fans believe in Us. You have no idea how often they have told Us they would stop drinking, whoring, coveting and generally screwing around if only We would grant them a World Series."

"True, Sir and/or Ma'am, but aren't they likely to keep their promises and become better people if their teams ever do win?"

"Of course not, you naïve little ball of plankton. The minute either one of them wins, they'll be standing naked on cab roofs, drinking bad beer out of a policeman's boot and swearing like the entire Russian navy on leave."
And when was the last time you saw a priest with a halo in a newspaper cartoon?

I'd be interested in a poll that compares answers to the questions, "Does God care whether you get married in a church?" and, "Does God care whether Pedro Martinez keeps his slider from hanging too high?"

Maybe the difference is that football has a season, and its name is Fall. Baseball's season is so long, it's more like a lifetime. (Each game seems to last a lifetime, too, which is one reason I'm not a big fan.) And a lifetime is time enough to learn to do good and avoid evil, to develop virtues... like hope. And when this lifetime ends, to look forward to the next.

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Thursday, October 16, 2003

A silverplate triolet
Pope John Paul the Great.
What man better matched his time?
Asked for heroes, simply state,
"Pope John Paul the Great."
"Totus Tuus" his one gate,
Petrus now as in his prime,
Pope John Paul the Great:
What man better matched his time?

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My fifth secret of the Rosary

I don't know if anyone really bought my first secret, so this last one might fall flat as well, but the Rosary is a profoundly Marian devotion.

Yeah, I know: "No kidding."

But I mean something more than what is immediately obvious about the form of the prayer, and even more than what becomes obvious when you realize that to pray the Rosary is "to contemplate the face of Christ in union with, and at the school of, his Most Holy Mother."

I mean that, if you are devoted to the Rosary -- even merely committed to its regular recitation -- you are probably going to find yourself becoming Marian.

What does it mean to find yourself becoming Marian? In my case, I have in mind two major changes.

The first is the development of a personal, filial relationship with Mamma Mary, in place of the more impersonal, political relationship with the Queen of Heaven. Invoking and honoring Mary makes a great deal of practical sense, considering that never was it known that anyone who fled to her protection, implored her help, or sought her intercession was left unaided. But as you come to see her as your spiritual mother, given to you at Calvary, you find yourself turning to her simply because children turn to their mother when they need help. The personal relationship with Jesus the importance of which evangelical Protestantism reminds us of is reflected in -- strengthens and is strengthened by -- the personal relationship with His mother.

The second change, following on the first, is acting like a child of Mary in public. You join in others' praise of her, you feel brotherly toward those who consider themselves her children, you defend her from others' attacks. Marian dogmas become personal matters, in a way that, say, the question of St. Peter's arrival in Rome does not. When the goofball associate pastor makes a passing reference to his devotion to Our Lady of Perpetual Help, you immediately and unreservedly forgive all his homiletic invocations of his hometown baseball team.

And the thing is, these changes are in no way intentional. They just happen. I firmly believe that, given the slightest opportunity, Mary is able (by God's grace and through His will) to make a place in your heart for herself, and therefore her Son, just as she did in Galilee and, later, at the foot of the Cross.

Her message, as always, is, "Do whatever He tells you." And He tells us, "Behold your mother."

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Wednesday, October 15, 2003

Ordered thoughts on detachment

A thought from St. Augustine:
For when you consider things beneath your53self to be admirable and desirable, what is this but to be cheated and misled by unreal goods? The man, then, who is temperate in such mortal and transient things has his rule of life confirmed by both Testaments, that he should love none of these things, nor think them desirable for their own sakes, but should use them as far as is required for the purposes and duties of life, with the moderation of an employer instead of the ardor of a lover.
A thought from St. Thomas:
Now the attachment of man's affections to earthly things is not only an obstacle to the perfection of charity, but sometimes leads to the loss of charity, when through turning inordinately to temporal goods man turns away from the immutable good by sinning mortally.
A thought from St. Teresa:
[I]f anybody is attached to any one thing, that is a proof 317 that he sets some value upon it; and if he sets any value upon it, it is painful to be compelled to give it up. In that case, everything is imperfect and lost. The saying is to the purpose here,--he who follows what is lost, is lost himself; and what greater loss, what greater blindness, what greater calamity, can there be than making much of that which is nothing!
A thought from Fr. Thomas Dubay, SM, via the Anchorhold:
It may be easier to see the point by explaining what attachment is in the pejorative sense. A handy and accurate definition is: a clinging or desiring of the will to do something created for its own sake.

There are three elements here: It is a willed desire, not a mere feeling; it concerns something finite, not God; "for its own sake" makes a mere means into an end, that is, something of an idol.

St. Paul puts the matter positively in 1 Corinthians 10:31: "Whether you eat or drink or do anything else, do all for the glory of God." All created goodness and beauty is meant to bring others and us to the unspeakable enthrallment of the beatific vision in risen body. To willingly cling to anything merely created for its own sake reminds me of Dostoyevsky's analysis: It is either idolatry or it tends in that direction.

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My fourth secret of the Rosary

I've mentioned this before, so even I can't pretend it's much of a secret, but the Rosary is an extraordinarily human prayer. By that, I mean the Rosary is extremely well-matched to the kind of being a human is.

It's a stock observation, when discussing the Rosary, that prayer beads are found in many different cultures and religions. I have my doubts about how similar the Rosary really is to the prayers Hindus count on their malas (despite "mala" meaning "rose" or "garland"), but I think the use of beads as a way of measuring prayers reflects the fact that we are creatures with both physical and spiritual existence.

The use of a rosary while praying the Rosary isn't necessary, of course, but it does get our bodies involved in our meditation and prayer. The same is true of vocal recitation; in my experience it's possible to pray the Rosary silently, but not satisfying, since getting the meditation and the silent "recitation" to happen in my mind at the same time is very difficult.

Posture and visual cues also add to the richness of the physical dimension of the Rosary, without interfering with its spiritual dimension.

A common analogy is that the vocal prayers compose the "body" of the Rosary, while the meditations compose its "soul." Certainly the prayers (along with counting them, and expressing them physically by kneeling, standing, or bowing) relate the Rosary to our bodies, while the meditations occupy our souls. But there's more to the humanness of the Rosary than the way it recognizes, and teaches, that man is body and soul.

The Rosary has been evolving ever since Our Lady's Psalter of 150 Aves (ending, as you probably know, with the words "blessed is the fruit of thy womb") was introduced a millenium ago. In its earliest form, there was no explicit "soul" to the devotion; it was a repetition, not even of prayers, strictly speaking, but of salutations. It may have been the "poor man's Psalter"; it was certainly a poor psalter.

Over time, meditations were attached to the prayers, one for each Ave. This is fine, but impractical for those with imperfect memory or without written lists of meditations. The Rosary would have died out outside of monasteries if it required prayerbooks for secular layfolk to pray it. The brilliance of the fifteen mysteries across fifteen decades is that it made it possible for nearly every Catholic alive to learn how to pray the Rosary, and then to actually pray it.

Furthermore, by giving the reciter three to five minutes to meditate on each mystery, the Rosary works in a naturally human way. A decade is neither too brief nor too long a time for such meditation. It allows a person to call the mystery fully to mind, to think on it or perhaps simply contemplate it, so that the mystery can subtly conform the person's soul to Christ -- and subtly conformity seems to be the natural human rule, with road-to-Damascus moments much rarer -- and then to move on, before the mind tires or the mystery gets too stale.

The rhythm of the mysteries -- from joy to sorrow to glory -- is also very human, as you'd expect of a meditation on the life, death, and resurrection of the One Perfect human. (I don't mean to slight the Luminous Mysteries here, I'm just thinking more in terms of the Rosary as it's been adapted through the centuries, and the new mysteries are quite new.)

And while I'm talking about how well the Rosary conforms to human nature, I should point out how well it conforms to the grace which perfects human nature. Joy and sorrow (and, for that matter, illumination) are constants of [fallen] human nature. Our Christian faith, though, teaches us that our end is not sorrow, nor illumination (as some philosophies more or less hold), nor even joy (as some uncareful Christians think), but glory. Moreover, glory isn't merely our eventual end; glory is ours today. The Kingdom of God is here, among us, even as we journey toward it. By praying the Rosary through to the end, we not only prepare ourselves for the glory that awaits us, but conform ourselves to the glory that is ours today. Our bodies have not yet been glorified, we have not yet been given our paper hats at the Bridegroom's banquet, but Christ's Resurrection and Ascension, His mother's Assumption and Coronation, are not simply pledges of future glory, but also signs of present glory.

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