instruere...inlustrare...delectare Disputations

Monday, January 12, 2004

Not what, but Who

I should add that, although I've been writing today about truth in the ordinary sense of whether an idea corresponds to something that exists in reality, the Veritas with which the Dominican Order is primarily concerned is Jesus Christ.

Not facts about Jesus Christ. Not what the Church says about Jesus Christ. Not this or that Christology.

Jesus Christ Himself.

In practice, of course, Dominicans spend a lot of time talking about facts and what the Church says and this or that Christology. They also spend a lot of time talking about what's going on in the world and what should be done about it.

But before, behind, and beyond all that, the Truth a Dominican has to offer is the Person of Jesus Christ.

The post-conciliar period has been a time when the idea of apostolate has been stressed. Not just within the Dominican Family, but throughout the Church. Saying hello to people as they walk in a door is now a ministry. Googling "apostolate" returns more than 100,000 hits, "lay apostolate" more than 7,000. Religious sisters are out there (some are way out there) working in fields far beyond healthcare and education.

But before and behind and beyond all that must be Jesus Christ. Or else (as William Hinnebusch, OP, put it) you have people with active apostolates who have ceased to be apostles.


A motto of the Order

Veritas -- Truth -- is one of the mottoes of the Dominican Order. Obviously, the Order isn't for everyone.

Disinterest in the question of whether something is true (rather than useful, or convenient, or calming, or adequate) is not the same thing as belief that nothing is true. Several of the things I mentioned in the previous post were said by active Catholics, who from all evidence believe not only that objective truth exists but that the Catholic Church is capable of dogmatically declaring what is objectively true. They aren't relativists, properly speaking, but relatively unimportantists.

Yes, people can and do grieve over lost pets. But to demand, during the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, prayers for a dead pet's soul goes beyond harmless comfort and into ... well, a lot of other discussions, but here it suffices to say that the Mass is for us men and our salvation, not for cats and dogs.

But that doesn't seem to matter to a lot of people. There is a good to be obtained, and whether truth must be sacrificed to obtain the good isn't a question that even occurs to people. They aren't consequentialists, because they don't even consider adverse consequences; they're inconsequentialists.

As someone for whom truth is an extraordinarily important matter, I have a hard time dealing with this; inconsequentialist statements tend to leave me silent. They somehow introduce an etiquette into the conversation, making it bad form to even ask, "But is it true?"

I can discuss things, and I can dispute things, but when a conversation becomes a sequence of unquestionable opinions in which the question of truth can't even be raised, I usually find I have nothing to say.

I may have to add, "But is it true?" to my list of all-purpose replies.


Truth, for its own sake

I've been in several conversations over the past few weeks that, taken together, suggest a fundamental difference between me and many others:
  • Someone said, "It doesn't matter what religion you are as long as you're a good person."
  • Someone recommended the work of Marcus Borg as interesting and worthwhile.
  • Someone defended a supplication for the soul of a deceased pet during the Prayer of the Faitful with the argument, "What does it hurt?"
  • Someone commented, "Actually I was thinking that you should start a blog that specialized in giving satisfying answers to people, regardless of the Truth." (This one, at least, was a joke.)
What I have come to realize is that, for a lot of people in a lot of circumstances, the answer to the question, "But is it true?" is of no interest whatever.

Having put it into words, this fact is so obvious that the only way I could have overlooked it before is because I really want people to care whether something is true.

I recall that, after the very first Lay Dominican chapter meeting I attended as an inquirer, I mentioned to someone that the meeting had featured a talk by a Dominican friar about how science, though useful, wasn't true. The person I was talking to said, "That sounds like a Dominican, always talking about 'Truth.'" She said "Truth" with a quaver in her voice, like you'd use if you were saying, "What, you're afraid of the 'bogeyman'?" Like it was ridiculous that some people took it seriously.

And even though I thought at the time the friar had mischaracterized science (now I suspect I had mischaracterized the friar), I was dumbfounded by the idea that truth wasn't something to be valued.


And they is us

When I see someone say, "The problem with the Church today is the liberal bishops" -- or "the rigid Curia," or "the gay priests," or "the fearful traditionalists" --- my first thought is usually, "Well, at least the problem isn't me."

Alas, the problem with the Church today isn't the liberal bishops, or the rigid Curia, or with any othey they you choose. The problem with the Church today is sin, a willful turning away from God, and it's not very satisfying to choose "sinners" as your they.

But even if we have a speck in our eye while they have a plank, grousing about them betrays a misunderstanding of what Christian discipleship is all about.
Then Jesus said to his disciples, "Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it."
Yes, different people play different parts in the Mystical Body of Christ, but no one is assigned a passive role. If I wish to come after Jesus into the eternal presence of God, then I must deny myself. My bishop can't deny me on my behalf. The pope isn't going to tell St. Peter, "Oh, he's with me," when I arrive at the Pearly Gates.

This brings up the "both/and" tension in Catholicism, between both the fact that I choose for myself and the fact that we're all in this together. If someone else is failing, that is a cause for sorrow, for prayer, and sometimes for strong words. But it is not a cause for abandonment, and it's certainly not a cause for self-praise that I am not waiting for someone else before I choose to deny myself and take up my cross.


Friday, January 09, 2004

The utility of uselessness

In a comment below, Cheryl Tyiska writes:
Would it be wrong to say that "mercy" first and foremost is a matter of me being and acting the way I believe I should be and act because it is the Christ-like way to be and act, and then only secondarily considering whether my mercy toward another is good for them? For example, would my mercy toward them be "useless" if it didn't necessarily result in remorse and repentance? I don't think so.
Well, mercy as such is good for them, regardless of whether they obtain the good we seek for them. And, too, being Christ-like is good for us, whatever effect it has on others.

I think we are, generally speaking, too concerned with questions of utility, with what is desirable because it is useful rather than with what is desirable in itself. It's understandable, since in this life we can only imperfectly obtain what is desirable in itself.

But if we only understand mercy, say, as something useful -- to us, if to no one else -- then we don't understand God's mercy, and we can't really be merciful as God is merciful.

Because mercy is of no use to God. It's just what He does. We benefit by being merciful, because we are imperfect and being merciful toward others brings us closer to perfection. God, though, is already perfect. He didn't gain anything by sending His only Son into the world. He can't gain anything; there's literally nothing for Him to gain, Who created all things.

Jesus' prayer to forgive those who crucified Him didn't make Him a more perfect Person; strictly speaking, "more perfect" is an oxymoron, even for a Being Who isn't Eternal Beatitude. But it was part of the perfection of the humanity He assumed.

We tend to focus on the process, but I think keeping our final end in mind -- to be merciful as our Father is merciful, to be perfect as our Father is perfect -- would make our mercy more Christ-like by emphasizing both the selflessness with which we should act and the sheer grace of the mercy God has shown us.


The original scandal

Mark Shea, calling mercy "The Gospel's Most Scandalous Teaching," writes, "Mercy is the desire that the person's best good be achieved."

Robert Diaz comments, "If mercy is the desire that the person's best good be achieved, then mercy is the very definition of love."

Which is true, and which goes to show we shouldn't expect too much in the way of precision from milk-drinking popular writers.

Still, mercy is an interior act of love, according to St. Thomas, a fruit of charity, according to the Catechism.

The mercy Mark has in mind, the mercy that is scandalous, is the mercy shown to those who have wronged us, the mercy we are to show because of the mercy God has shown us. In discussing mercy, though, St. Thomas quotes St. Augustine: "And what is compassion but a fellow-feeling for another's misery, which prompts us to help him if we can?"

Are these really the same concept? Can the object of this mercy be both a wrongdoer and a sufferer?

The benefits to the one who shows mercy to a wrongdoer are often pointed out, starting with the fact that we will be forgiven in the same measure with which we forgive others. But mercy is more than forgiveness; it's an act of love directed to the one forgiven.

So what is the good of the wrongdoer we desire when we show him mercy? St. Thomas writes:
It is essential to fault that it be voluntary; and in this respect it deserves punishment rather than mercy. Since, however, fault may be, in a way, a punishment, through having something connected with it that is against the sinner's will, it may, in this respect, call for mercy. It is in this sense that we pity and commiserate sinners.
When someone wrongs me, he causes me a material evil, but he also causes himself a moral evil, a lessening of his being. The resoration of this part of his being is the good sought by my act of mercy toward him. A sinner necessarily wounds himself by his sin, whether he realizes it or not, and Christian mercy seeks to heal this moral wound without first demanding the healing of the material wound caused by the same sin.

This is an astonishing thought. It doesn't merely outstrip taking an eye for an eye; it makes turning the other cheek sound unremarkable. It's like being punched and immediately offering to get some ice for the puncher's knuckles.

Temperamentally, I find it easy to forgive. That's my temperament, though, not Christ acting within me. Not holding a grudge, letting bygones be bygone isn't hard for me on a natural level. But on a supernatural level? Can I find Christ's sorrow at another's sin in my own heart?


Thursday, January 08, 2004

Submitted for whose approval?

A common criticism of Catholics is that we don't know the Bible. This isn't entirely fair. It's true that, as a class, we aren't big on quoting chapter and verse, but then (as I like to point out) Catholics have been quoting the Bible since before it had verses, which can't be said of the confessions of a lot of our critics.

Admittedly, the Catholic habit of quoting Scripture without realizing we're quoting it can introduce some slight errors. A lot of irritated comments made by American Catholics today can be explained by the hypothesis that the commenters have in mind a slight misreading of Romans 7:19:
For the good which I will, they do not; but the evil which I will not, that they do.
God would seem to be profligate these days in distributing the charism of knowing how other people should live their lives.

I have in mind in particular the large number of secular layfolk prepared to instruct any number of religious sisters that they ought to wear habits. They have plenty of other instructions for them -- when to pray, how long to pray, where to live, with whom to live -- but wearing habits seems to always be one of the major ones. I think that's because all the instructions boil down, more or less, to "Live the traditional Rule of your congregation in such a way that I can tell you are," and wearing habits is the most visible sign of traditional Rules.

I am sympathetic to the impulse behind the unsolicited instruction. Much that is post hoc and regrettable about the break with tradition religious congregations made after Vatican II can't be ruled out as entirely non propter hoc. There's a sense that, if the congregations that can't seem to attract vocations would simply return to their roots, they could soon be flourishing again. There might even be a sense of betrayal, that those who inherited a great heritage have squandered it, at a cost to the whole Church.

And yet, what does the instruction amount to in the end but an insistence that people who are not me live a lifestyle they themselves do not choose to live? A congregation's rule must be approved by Rome, not by me.

For that matter, traditionalist-minded people don't need my approval to attend only Latin Masses and charismatics don't need my approval to hug each other during prayer meetings.

Yes, I know there are argument for a correlation between choices strictly unobjectionable in themselves and imprudent or simply wrong actions. But unless the unobjectionable choices cause imprudence or error, making different choices won't do much to correct what is wrong, and I think effort would be better spent resisting the wrongs themselves rather than whatever red flags might accompany them.


Tuesday, January 06, 2004

Reputable words

Albertus M comments below:
I suspect there's room here for an interesting discussion of what a person should or should not say in response to an accusation, true or not. A person's reputation is worth preserving, though lying seems like a bad way to protect it.
That's a question I've never thought about before. The Catechism states:
Honor is the social witness given to human dignity, and everyone enjoys a natural right to the honor of his name and reputation and to respect.
If the honor of one's reputation is a natural right, does that make preserving one's reputation something to be sought for its own sake? If there is an "objectively valid reason" to disclose "another's faults and failings to persons who did not know them" (the Catechism defines detraction as such disclosure when there is no such reason) -- if, in other words, my reputation is justly injured, what natural right to my reputation and to respect do I still possess?

My inclination is to think the Christian's interest in the social witness to his human dignity ought to be selfless. He should defend his reputation not so much for his own sake as for the sake of others.

He has a duty to provide for himself (and his family, if any), and so to that extent should be concerned about how injuries to his reputation affect his ability to provide for himself.

In addition, he should protect and preserve his reputation insofar as doing so helps others who might otherwise be similarly unjustly harmed. If I insist society bears witness to my human dignity, I am also (at least implicitly) insisting witness be borne to everyone's human dignity. How people treat me teaches them how others may be treated.

Finally, Christians are commissioned disciples of Christ. We are to make disciples of all nations, to carry the Good News of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, to all creatures. As a disciple, I should be concerned with my reputation to the extent it helps me make disciples of others, and only to that extent.

St. Paul can sound a little huffy on the point that he worked for a living while preaching among the churches he founded, even though the churches should have been willing to support him. His concern, though, isn't that the Thessalonians admire him for being such a hard worker, but that they imitate him as a servant of Christ.

So too, I shouldn't care if my reputation suffers but my ability to give witness to Christ does not. We are called to put all of ourselves into the service of Christ, and what cannot be put to such service is of no great value.


Inconsequential wrongs

I'm not much of a baseball fan, and my interest in Pete Rose ended the day he left the Phillies. I don't care whether he returns to baseball, or is made eligible for or elected to the Hall of Fame. I think he's trying one last hustle, but if Major League Baseball lets him pull it off, that's their decision.

That said, I do think it's worth noting something about this story. Rose did what in context was an awful thing (betting on baseball games while managing a baseball team), denied it publically for fifteen years, then admitted it was true. Much of the discussion about what to do now centers on the seriousness of his actions as a manager, and on his waiting so long to admit the truth. What seems of less concern is that, by denying the truth for fifteen years, he was effectively calling those who publically said they knew he was gambling liars.

Again, whether such calumny affects his eligibility for the Hall of Fame isn't for me to decide. But a lot of people seem to accept it as simply par for the denial-of-wrongdoing course.

In other words, many people seem to discount what you might call "consequent wrongs" when judging others. If a person does something wrong, then anything else he does wrong as a consequence -- usually including lying, possibly allowing others to be punished in his place -- somehow doesn't count against him. After all, of course an adulterer is going to lie to his wife, of course a corrupt politician is going to smear his accusers' reputations, of course a misbehaving child will deflect the blame to some other kid at school. It's as though lying, calumnating, and deflecting blame aren't wrong in themselves, and are no more blameworthy if done as a consequence of some initial wrong than is tuning the radio to a different pre-set station in a car you've stolen.

The problem with this, obviously, is that, if we are willing to dismiss the consequent wrongs of other people in relatively big things, we are almost certainly willing to dismiss our own consequent wrongs in relatively little things. Then consequent wrongs become habits, and we become vicious people. People who are vicious in little things will be vicious when big things happen, too.
And lead us not into temptation.
But deliver us from evil. Amen.


Monday, January 05, 2004

Well, there's a real square cat

I like Christmas music and I like rockabilly, so the day I learned Brian Setzer has a Christmas album is the day I bought Brian Setzer's Christmas album.

It met expectations, and the song "Baby It's Cold Outside" (a duet with Ann-Margaret) was gravy. The last two songs, "O Holy Night" and "The Amens" heartfully sung, were icing on the gravy.

Today I find (via Relapsed Catholic) an interview with Brian Setzer in which he admits he's Catholic.

Now, we all know being Catholic doesn't necessarily mean too much, perhaps especially among performers. I'd be surprised if Setzer were sufficiently Thomistic for my tastes, and who can say what he thinks of the various disputed questions our society faces?

Still, being Catholic isn't nothing, especially when a public figure mentions it in an interview without an immediate "but" attached. And Setzer has even gone so far as to include a song called "St. Jude" on his latest album, with the following lyrics:
[Spirituality is] scorned from the left
And abused by the right
It’s something so misunderstood
And ignored in daily life...

If you proclaim the mystery of faith
You’ll be absolved from daily strife
Through Him, in Him, and within Him
Springs our eternal life...
Setzer is quoted as saying:
I hate to say anything about 9/11, because everybody exploits the hell out of that, but we’ve been hearing all kinds of stuff about what we should do: we should beat people up, we shouldn’t beat people up, we should do this, that, and the other thing…but how about prayer? I believe in prayer; I never let that out in a song before, but it’s true. And sometimes it’s the most important thing you can do.
Which, you know, actually is sufficiently Thomistic for my tastes.


Immigrant shepherd and shepherd of immigrants, pray for us!

Today is the feast of St. John Nepomucene Neumann, fourth bishop of Philadelphia and patron saint of short Central Europeans who travel a lot. Of the 1,927 men who have been ordained bishops for dioceses in the United States (a number I made up just now, so don't quote it), St. John is the only one to have been canonized a saint. So far.

It seems to me circumstances today are such that a confraternity of Catholics who promise to pray daily for their bishop and for all the bishops of the United States, under the patronage of St. John Neumann, would be timely and fruitful. Until it gets organized -- and I think the Redemptorists are just the folks to organize it -- we might simply commit ourselves as individuals to reciting every morning a simple prayer, along the following lines:
Almighty God, You called St. John Neumann to a life of service, zeal, and compassion for the guidance of your people in the new world. By the help of his prayers, keep our bishop N., and all the bishops who serve your Church in the United States, strong in faith and love. May they be conformed to the Sacred Heart of your Son, leading their flocks to salvation through Him Who lives and reigns with You for ever and ever. Amen.
No doubt all good Catholics already say similar prayers, but I suspect the Church in the U.S. isn't making full use of the graces of St. John's canonization, which came at a time (1977) when making full use of the graces of canonizations was out of favor.


Wednesday, December 31, 2003

Time 3

Finally, Fr. Dowd writes:
...St. Thomas moved things even closer to the Reductionism end of things away from the Platonism approach. But he was still vexed by the problems inherent in Reductionism. His solution, as presented in the Summa, was to fall back on the "science of vision" explanation:
... Hence all things that are in time are present to God from eternity, not only because He has the types of things present within Him, as some say; but because His glance is carried from eternity over all things as they are in their presentiality....(ST, prima pars, q. 14, a. 13)
It's a remarkable attempt to reconcile the two, in that it doesn't really place God "outside of time" as much as it places all times in God. But it suffers from a lack of precision around the word "presentiality", which in its common understanding drags things right back into the Platonism approach -- because it ultimately means the same thing: God sees the future as present.
Since I don't understand his criticism, my criticism of this is likely to be wrong, but here goes:

Strictly speaking, it's improper to say "God sees the future," since objectively there is no such thing as "the future." There can't be, because all objectivity comes from God, and God has no future, being "outside of space-time" or, equivalently, unchanging. It's not as though, although all of time is somehow "present" to Him, God is tracing the cosmic timeline with His finger to mark what we experience as "the present." There is no, there can be no, temporal moment that demarks past, present, and future in eternity.

Notice how careful St. Thomas is, in the same article quoted above, with the idea of "future contingent things":
Since as was shown above (9), God knows all things; not only things actual but also things possible to Him and creature; and since some of these are future contingent to us, it follows that God knows future contingent things. [emphasis added]
It only makes sense to speak of "future contingent things" relative to us, to temporally bound creatures. When St. Thomas refers to future contingent things relative to God, he says "things are they are in their presentiality."

Fr. Dowd thinks this is a problem because to him "things in their presentiality" means "future things as present things," and for a Reductionist (which both Fr. Dowd and St. Thomas are), future things don't exist. But the one doesn't mean the other, because again there is no future for God. There are no -- there can be no -- future things to God, and if God knows things that are future to us... well, He is, after all, God.


Time 2

Fr. Dowd sees a difficulty in Reductionism:
Where this approach has difficulty is in understanding how God can have knowledge of changing things and himself not be changing -- if the thing known changes, doesn't it imply that God must also change, at least in his knowledge?
It seems to me, though, that this difficulty is illusory. If God is not subject to any change, then He exists outside of space-time. This means God doesn't know the things He knows as changing things; He doesn't observe things while they change, since He experiences no "while."

A common analogy is that we can look at a piece of paper and see an unchanging rectangle, which a sentient point on the paper, traveling around the rectangle, can only see a line segment of varying length (and intensity, if like Flatland, objects are luminous and there's a bit of fog about).

Now, this analogy is in effect one of the "science of vision," whereby God "sees all things in His eternal Present." That may or may not be true of God, although I'm with St. Thomas in thinking it is; the important point is that the existence of changing things is not incompatible with the existence of an unchanging God Who, in one way or another, knows the changing things.


Time 1

Fr. Dowd posts what will probably not develop into his Ash Wednesday homily at Exploring the Nature of God:
... there have historically been two approaches to examining the nature of time: "Reductionism/Relationism with Respect to Time", and "Platonism with Respect to Time". In the first, time does not exist outside of the events (i.e. changes) that occur in time. In the second, time exists independently of whether or not anything actually changes.

So while it is possible to state that God is "outside of time" in either system, the phrase will mean different things depending, not on your view of God, but on your view of time.

If you hold to the "Platonism" approach, then you are stating that God exists outside of space-time, and so he sees all things in his eternal Present, whether those things are past, present, or future... This kind of knowledge is called the "science of vision".

On the other hand, if you hold to the "Reductionism" approach, then to state that God is "outside of time" is the same as stating that God is not subject to any sort of change (as, in this view, time is simply the measure of change).
Notice, though, what the two meanings of "God is outside of time," based on two contrary understandings of time, are. Setting aside what Fr. Dowd writes about the "science of vision," we have:
  1. God exists outside of space-time.
  2. God is not subject to any sort of change.
These two statements, unlike the views of time from which they derive, are not contradictory. In fact, if (as I think everyone agrees) change implies time, then essentially they imply each other.

In short, the Reductionists and the Platonists mean equivalent things when they say, "God is outside of time."


Tuesday, December 30, 2003

Dominican Joy: Live!

See a seven minute video on the remarkable Nashville Dominicans.


Ontological arithmetic

Mark Woodward of CowPi Journal quotes a bit of Anthony de Mello:
"How does one seek union with God?"
"The harder you seek, the more distance you create between Him and you."
"So what does one do about the distance?"
"Understand that it isn’t there."
"Does that mean that God and I are one?"
"Not one. Not two."
"How is that possible?"
"The sun and its light, the ocean and the wave, the singer and his song—not one. Not two."
I'm not sure how literally de Mello intended his vignettes to be read, but I'm not keen on the sun/light and ocean/wave images similes to illustrate the distinction without distance in our relationship with God.

The sun and its light are not one, but they most certainly are two, as anyone who has ever seen the moon at night can attest. The wave is a part of the ocean, or at least the water giving shape to the wave is.

The larger problem, though, is that both similes obscure the implicit equivocation in de Mello's formula, "Not one. Not two." (The singer and his song are also not one, but two, but this simile preserves the equivocation to a much greater extent.)

"Not one" means that, although there is no "distance" between us, God and I are not identical. I am not God; furthermore, (unlike the wave to the ocean) I am not a part of God. (It also means that I am not consubstantial with God, that I cannot say with Jesus, "The Father and I are one," but I don't think that's de Mello's point here.)

I think "Not two," though, properly means that God and I are not additive. The syllogism, "God is one. I am one. Therefore, God plus I are two." is invalid.

And it's not (or not just) that God is infinite, and infinity plus one is infinity. But God and I belong to utterly different orders of being. If I say, "God and I are two," the question is, "Two what?" And there is no "what" that we both are, except by analogy. It would be like saying, "Brer Rabbit and Middle C are two," only more so, since the difference between God and me is greater than the difference between an imaginary folk hero and a musical note.

(This fact, by the way, underscores the infinite and pure grace of Christmas. God is not a man-like spirit who finally got around to creating a body for himself. Rather, he assumed a nature utterly unlike His own (albeit one that is capax Dei, capable of God).)

So I read de Mello's formula as meaning, "God and I are not one being, nor are we two co-measurable beings." Of the three examples he gives, "the singer and his song" comes closest to expressing this distinction.


Monday, December 29, 2003

No space-time like the present

There's some fun stuff on the nature of time at Fr. Dowd's Exploring the Nature of God blog.

Something I don't think is very widely known is that contemporary physics suggests that, in some fundamental ways, that tiresomely unenlightened Aristotle, with his let's pretend deductive science, understood the universe better than History's Greatest Scientist, Sir Isaac Newton. Newton regarded space and time as existing apart from things to fill it (in the case of space) and things to change during it (in the case of time). Aristotle used the idea of "place," which implied an object to define the place, rather than "space," and he regarded time as inseparable from the changes by which we mark its passing.

The most recent cosmological theory I've read about (which, granted, may well have been completely overthrown by the most recent cosmological theory) held that space was effectively created by matter and energy, of which there's a finite amount, so that space itself is finite, contra Newton. Time, too, is meaningless apart from matter and energy -- or, perhaps better, there can be no "privileged clock" measuring an objective universal time.

It should be admitted that we'd never know Aristotle was right (assuming he was) if we hadn't assumed Newton was right. The mathematical abstractions Newtonian physics uses have been essential for developing the models used to interpret the physical observations. Aristotle was big on physical observation, but didn't care for mathematical abstractions.

As long as the sun rises in the morning and things still fall when they're dropped, most people probably aren't too concerned over who was right about what, but I think it's very unfortunate for our culture that Aristotle the philosopher was tossed out along with Aristotle the scientist several hundred years ago.


Friday, December 19, 2003

Reginald the Tiger Quoll, getting in touch with his Ignatian side, says:


Political wisdom

From a response in a Zenit interview with Pittsburgh Bishop Donald Wuerl:
I remember speaking with a young aspirant to political life who asked why the Church did not address political issues more directly. I pointed out to him that it is the task of bishops to proclaim the teaching of Christ and the principles that underlie Christian living. It is the task of politicians to translate those principles into action.

His response was, "You have the easier part."


Thursday, December 18, 2003

Lector's block

I've been trying to think of something instructive, enlightening, or entertaining to write about last Sunday's first reading, which contained a striking image I've never noticed before. But nothing has really come to me, beyond, "Gosh, what a striking image."

So I'll just quote the striking image, and leave it to others to flesh it all out:
The LORD, your God, is in your midst,
a mighty Savior;
He will rejoice over you with gladness,
and renew you in His love,
He will sing joyfully because of you,
as one sings at festivals.
It makes a nice blessing, doesn't it?

May the LORD sing joyfully because of you, from eternity to eternity, amen.


Just Returned from The King

A very good movie.

Check that.

A very entertaining movie. A successful translation of the rest of the story to film. I'll leave the detailed discussion of the artistic and structural merits -- as well as its fidelity to Tolkien's work -- to others.

A few random comments:

I thought the opening worked well, a good way to get the audience back into Middle Earth.

Although the character of Denethor was a chump -- does Peter Jackson have something against lines of stewards or something? -- the scene of him eating while Pippin sings and Faramir's men ride to slaughter was extremely effective. (One of the artier bits of the whole series, I think.)

I still don't like slow motion shots. Especially slow motion shots of people smiling.

The battle scenes worked for me. There's nothing else that satisfies in quite the same way as the sight of an orc looking worriedly at six thousand charging horsemen. (Although considering what Legolas, a Wood Elf, does, it's hard to believe every single High Elf archer was killed at Helm's Deep. (And if they weren't killed, where'd they go? The West?))

Generally speaking, I approve of the changes Jackson & Co. made. The original story is better, but dealing with what was left out would have added another hour to the movie.

I'm not sure, though, about having Arwen rescue Frodo from Shelob.

(Oh, and the Dark Lord comes off looking like a big cartoon lighthouse, whose two lines are, "Hmmmm..." and, "Huh?")


Wednesday, December 17, 2003

I agree with the Pope

And with Mark of Minute Particulars, who quoted the Pope as saying the dogmatic definition of the Immaculate Conception "prescinds from all explanations about how the soul is infused into the body and attributes to the person of Mary, at the first moment of her conception, the fact of her being preserved from every stain of original sin."

Which means I disagree, somewhat, with my previous agreement with the old Catholic Encyclopedia, which stated, "The term conception [in the definition] does not mean the active or generative conception by her parents."

Well before the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception gained much attention, the Church was keeping the Feast of the Conception of Mary. A conception is something people naturally understand, just as they understand a birth and a death. Conception is the beginning of a life made public by birth and ended by death. These are events humans naturally think in terms of.

An infusion of a soul into a body... that's a bit too philosophical to get dressed up and go to church for. If there ever was a Feast of Somebody or Other Attaining the Age of Reason, it hasn't survived in the reason-loving West.

I do still agree with this statement from the Encyclopedia: "The person is truly conceived when the soul is created and infused into the body." So I still don't think the definition of the Immaculate Conception necessarily implies the soul is infused into the body at biological conception (although I think other things do necessarily imply that). Rather, I think it means that there was never any being that could be said to be, or on its way to becoming, Mary that was not preserved from every stain of original sin.

Well, so what? So I'm now formulating a principle to look for and expect a "natural human" expression or development in even the more philosophical and theological aspects of Catholicism.


A beneficent blind eye to the negative

So Barb Nicolosi remains steadfast in her opinion that the Lord of the Rings movies are tedious and confusing, although The Return of the King is the least tedious and confusing of the lot.

Some find this attitude laughable, especially considering the many rave reviews it has received.

Can't we say "both/and", rather than "either/or"?

Tolkien biographer Joseph Pearce doesn't believe "Tolkien [would] have given Peter Jackson's movies the thumbs-up." Why can't Barb consider the movie, not from a purist's point of view, but from a story-telling point of view?

Those of us who love the trilogy are a lot closer to understanding the purist's view than the story-teller's, I'd say. We already know the story, and have little trouble filling in the films' lacunae and wallowing in their excesses. The Two Towers is the only non-family movie I've seen in a theater in half a dozen years, and even as I watched it I was thinking, "I hope everyone else here already knows the story," and, "This really isn't a very good movie." Everyone is sort of moping around, and there's no obvious motivation for a lot of what the characters do. It's like an early rehearsal for the Battle of Helm's Deep, where everyone is more concerned with where to stand and when to walk to their next mark than with why they're standing or walking.

But it's still a hugely entertaining movie, for me at least, and I look forward to seeing the final installment. Not being a fanatic, though, I'm not seeing it on opening day. My pre-ordered ticket is for tomorrow morning.


Tuesday, December 16, 2003

An Advent affirmation

You are Absolutely Wonderful!
How Wonderful Are You?

brought to you by Quizilla


Pope Embarrasses Self, Church
Rambles on ignorantly about the one true economic system

Generally speaking, Catholics seem pretty sound on rejecting the idea that truth can contradict truth. What we're not so good at is rejecting the idea that our own pet economic or social or political theory is the truth against which the Faith is to be judged.


Poetical by nature

I am a strong believer in seeing truth where it's to be found, as well as how it's to be found. The truth to be found in a story or poem is just as valid as the truth to be found in a systematic exposition, even if it can't be systematically exposited.

That's why I worry when a new poetry review leads with its dogmatic hook. These guidelines speak the language of debate, not poetry, and no one wants to read poems written by debaters.

I wonder whether the folks behind St. Linus Review realize how unnecessary their concern for doctrinal purity is. Catholicism is incarnational, which makes it a naturally poetical faith. A good poem, artistically speaking, is likely to be a good poem, morally speaking, because Catholicism teaches that art is good.

If I were to write guidelines for a Catholic poetry magazine, they would look something like this:
Beauty. Mystery. Creation. Transcendence. Immanence. Any length, any style.
Now, I have nothing against supporting poets and editors who are "in full communion with the Pope" because they are in full communion with the Pope. I think, though, we should acknowledge the parallel with choosing the housepainter with the icthus in his ad, whose Christian faith is no guarantee of housepainting skill.

Moreover, I think we should recognize that art is a field in which Catholics who are 100% faithful to the Magisterium can and ought to engage the culture without fear or hesistation. Poetry is a briar patch Catholicism was born and bred in, and I'm afraid trying to fence it in, clear of near occasions of sin, helps neither poetry nor Catholicism.


Reports from Iraq

A couple of American Dominicans are visiting family in Iraq and reporting back. They arrived in Baghdad just in time to learn of Saddam's capture, which had an immediate practical effect I haven't seen reported elsewhere:
...we all knew that there would be gunfire expressing many emotions. This meant that for Sunday we would not leave the hospital or convent.


Because this is a personal blog, not a religious website

Fly, Eagles, fly!


Monday, December 15, 2003


While I think I understand, and even to an extent sympathize with, the motivation behind something like St. Linus Review, I have to wonder about writer's guidelines that include the requirement:
Those submitting works to be considered for publication should be in full communion with the Pope.
I mean, everyone should be in full communion with the Pope, in my judgment, but what does that have to do with the quality of someone's poetry? To me, this requirement sounds like something from the guidelines for Pieties: A Catholic Ghetto.

I have no reason to think the editors have any intention of producing a review of bad Catholic poetry, but I do think wearing your fidelity on your sleeve like that is going to cost you something in quality. It goes back to the side I take in the art vs. prudence discussion, that a work of art can be well-made without being morally good. Not that I would want a poetry magazine to run morally evil poems, but that art (right reasoning about something to be made) is not subservient to prudence (right reasoning about something to be done). It's the job of the editor, not the poet, to be prudent, and I think the guidelines for St. Linus Review push prudence on the contributor too hard. (And doesn't "content which could be considered a near occasion of sin for readers," which "will also not be accepted," cover pretty much every human experience?)

I have a similar reaction to the many websites that proclaim, "We are 100% faithful to the Magisterium," or some such formula. It suggests a certain naivite regarding the relationship between the Church's teaching authority and the Christian faithful. Is anyone 87% faithful to the Magisterium? What does it mean to be "faithful to the Magisterium," anyway, and why should I care how faithful someone is to the Magisterium? If he's repeating what the Magisterium said, I can get that information straight from the Magisterium; if he's not, then his faithfulness is somewhat beside the point.

(Not entirely beside the point; believing what the Church teaches is evidence of wisdom and prudence. But as anyone who has spent much time on the Internet talking Catholicism knows, it's not very strong evidence.)

All that said, we're still months away from the first issue of St. Linus Review. I'm reacting to a paragraph of guidelines for contributors, not the finished product. The final quality of the review will depend on the quality of the submissions.

And I might also admit I know nothing about poetry.


Catholics for Kerry

I have an unhealthy fascination for the "Catholics for Kerry" discussion group, founded by Ono Ekeh as a forum for discussing why Kerry is the candidate Catholics should vote for.

And along comes this helpful post:


In good company

Fr. Dowd riffs on the comment discussion below on purgatory:
The big question is how intercessory prayer fits into this, such as indulgences. Indulgences for ourselves I can is part of the "perfecting of repentence" mentioned before. But indulgences for others? My own theologically unsophisticated view on things goes like this: the soul in purgatory is there precisely because it has lived some degree of hardness of heart, and therefore not been in perfect harmony with the will of God, whether through sin or 'imperfections' (to use St. John[ of the Cross]'s term), and it remains in purgatory until it is. When someone undertakes a penance for the soul, it is somehow exposed to it (especially the love with which the penance was undertaken), and this 'softens' whatever hardness still remains (in whole or in part) so that the soul ceases living its own resistance to grace and is able to repent more perfectly.
On reading this, my first thought was, "I guess he doesn't really understand the mechanics of purgatory either."

But that's okay. We just have to use the system, not operate it. I don't really understand the telephone network, but I know how to use a telephone. (Actually, I'm not sure I could explain how a toaster works without using the term "doohickey.")

And what we know of how to use the purgatorial system, if I may so speak, probably suffices for our needs: We offer prayers for the dead, and these prayers help the souls in purgatory attain heaven.

Now, I would like to know all that can be known about purgatory, and I think Fr. Dowd's idea that the souls in purgatory share "somehow" in our love might have something to it. But I also know that I have not fully appropriated into my spiritual life this dogmatic truth:
My prayers help souls attain heaven.
And that's a truth that, if contemplated, will produce more fruit (if fewer words) than all my speculating about distinctions between punishment and reorientation in purification.