instruere...inlustrare...delectare Disputations

Friday, February 27, 2004

Abba, Abba, lema sabachthani?

Father Dowd offers an intriguing suggestion for praying the Psalms "with the mindset of Jesus."


In all the world the most beloved

Steven Riddle has mentioned the on-line collection of unpublished poems by Marie Ely. I don't know from poetry, but I do like the idea of the "Sacred Paintings" cycle, a set of twelve poems inspired by a collection of 18th Century paintings done by Franciscan missionaries in what is now the American Southwest. (The images on the site are silkscreen reproductions of the now-faded originals.)

Saying the first poem in the cycle, "The Passion," is timely is something of an understatement. It reminds me of Psalm 22, which also begins in abandonment and concludes in celebration. The opening lines are
Betrayed and tortured, there upon the cross
Christ hung: His tired head with a crown of thorns
Bowed to one side; his desperate, aching arms,
His pain emblazoned hands, outstretched.


According to the mode of the one receiving it

I don't think it takes much subtlety of thought to resolve the historical accounts of Pontius Pilate as a ruthless (and ultimately failed) procurator in Judea with the Gospel accounts of his disinclination to crucify Jesus. There are any number of psychological and sociological explanations for why he might truly have been generally inclined to brutality but specifically inclined to leniency, and not all of them require much of Pilate in the way of virtue.

The 1988 document "Criteria for the Evaluation of Dramatizations of the Passion" states:
Certain of the gospels, especially the two latest ones, Matthew and John, seem on the surface to portray Pilate as a vacillating administrator who himself found "no fault" with Jesus and sought, though in a weak way, to free him. Other data from the gospels and secular sources contemporary with the events portray Pilate as a ruthless tyrant.... There is, then, room for more than one dramatic style of portraying the character of Pilate while still being faithful to the biblical record. Again, it is suggested here that the hermeneutical insight of Nostra Aetate and the use of the best available biblical scholarship cannot be ignored in the creative process and provide the most prudent and secure criterion for contemporary dramatic reconstructions.
Well and good. If there is room for more than one dramatic style of portraying the character of Pilate while still being faithful to the Biblical record, perhaps one of those styles is as a vacillating administrator who himself found "no fault" with Jesus and sought, though in a weak way, to free Him.

I have observed, though, that portraying Pilate in this way is seen by many as tantamount to excusing him.

If, for a moment, we can set aside the history of Christian anti-Semitism, which is inextricably related to all this, I think we still have a phenomenon worth ruminating on. Presented with a man (or character, if you prefer) who, knowing the man before him is innocent, orders his execution for political reasons, some see a man all but free of guilt.

This is astonishing. It is as though they believe washing his hands actually removes Pilate's guilt. As though they believe Pilate's attempt to deny responsibility for Jesus' death actually transferred responsibility elsewhere. As though they believe not wanting to do evil makes doing evil acceptable. As though they believe violating one's conscience is okay, as long as one's conscience was right. As though they believe being less evil than another makes one good.

Do they believe this? Do they believe others believe this?


The Vatican does not officially comment on works of art

[A]t the Feb. 18 general audience on the feast of Blessed Fra Angelico[...] John Paul II urged young people to look to the example of Fra Angelico, patron of artists, as "encouragement to live faithfully your Christian vocation."

... Fra Angelico died in 1454 while carrying out a commission for Pope Nicholas V, the tiny private chapel dedicated to Sts. Lawrence and Stephen in the tower of Innocent III. Today, Raphael's fresco tour de force in the neighboring apartments of Julius II eclipses these works, so that many Vatican visitors walk by without even a peek, but John Paul II described the room in his letter of beatification "authentic prayer expressed in colors."

... On Feb. 18, 1984, in the church of Santa Maria sopra Minerva where the friar is buried, John Paul II declared Blessed Angelico the patron of artists.

In his homily, the Holy Father lauded Fra Angelico as "a model of life in which art is revealed as a path which can lead to Christian perfection: He was an exemplary religious and a great artist."
I emphasized what the Pope said about Beato Angelico, because of course I would, but perhaps more interesting to those not devoted to the blessed friar is the idea of " a path which can lead to Christian perfection."

Most of us make things, even if it's only the occasional slice of toast. Benedictine wisdom sees toasting bread as a form of prayer, or at least a forum for prayer. More directly, it's the making of a thing, and if the making of a religious painting can lead to Christian perfection, who's to say the making of a slice of toast can't as well, if it's seen as a forum for prayer, for being present to God?

One of Chesterton's most popular aphorisms is, "A thing worth doing is worth doing poorly." It's an idea that brings welcome relief to the imperfect among us (Chesterton said it while discussing housewives who have to work at a thousand trades while their husbands are off working at one). Relief, but not excuses.

Making toast well is art. (Not an exalted art, but let's not be snobs.) For those who don't work in a commercial kitchen, making toast well may not constitute a complete path leading to Christian perfection, but it can be a step. Everything we do, everything we make, is a step in some direction. It might as well be a step toward Christ.


Thursday, February 26, 2004

"Oh, I wish I could live like that."

"Oh, no, you don't."

fr Don Goergen, OP, founded the Friends of God Dominican Ashram several years ago, and recently came in for some criticism at A Saintly Salmagundi for his article "Regular Observance: Reflections of a Dominican Yogi."

I think a certain amount of criticism is warranted. I've noticed there's a tendency among some Westerners to prefer Eastern religious and philosophical terms to their Western counterparts, even when there's a substantial difference in the meaning of the terms. I think Fr. Goergen overindulged in this in "Regular Observance." The point of calling St. Dominic a yogi is too small for an angel to balance on it, much less dance.

That's not to say he's gone all syncretic at the ashram, though, and in fact his new Lenten reflection proves (for those who doubt) Fr. Goergen's experiences are entirely within the Catholic tradition:
Faith is the human act and divine gift to which we keep coming back. To be sure this is a faith formed by love, as love of God and love of neighbor are integral to each other, but it is not as if there is some higher knowledge to which our experience leads us. Contemplative experience leads one more and more deeply into faith in the face of mystery, a trusting faith in a trustworthy God.
Now, how they relate to the Dominican tradition, that's another question.


After the fast

There now, that wasn't so hard, was it?

After a few hours, the nausea passes and you can almost convince yourself you feel okay.

My personal experience: Fasting made me grouchy. And irritable and snappish and crabby. (By "fasting," I of course mean to imply "according to Roman Catholic guidelines," as opposed to actual fasting.)

Then one day, I didn't eat breakfast or lunch. Not through any higher motive, I just didn't get around to it. (Though I have no great love for good, tilled earth, I am hobbit-like in my appreciation of the standard six square meals a day.)

And I noticed that I didn't get grouchy. Or irritable or snappish or crabby.

I learned that my attitude was not physiologically determined. I was grouchy because I wanted to eat and I couldn't. I had been fasting from food as an act, but not abstaining from food as an idea. I'd have been better off -- and truer to the ideal of fasting -- if I were chewing caramels all day, rather than chewing over the idea that I wasn't eating even though I was hungry and no one around me seemed to care.

So now I know: I can go without eating and without getting grouchy, both at the same time. If I choose to. As with anything, it gets easier with practice. Just as I don't spend much time thinking about standing and kneeling during Mass, I'm spending less and less time thinking about eating and not eating during fasts.

This is my experience. Another of my experiences is that fasting is a very personal thing, and people take great offense when they feel they're being told what they should do or should experience while doing it. So I'll finish by saying I'm not telling anyone what they should do or what they should experience while doing it.


In pulverem reverteris

Is there any thought more liberating than, "I will die one day"?

Think about all the things you want to do, all the books you want to read, all the plays and movies and concerts you want to enjoy, all the places you want to visit, all the people you want to meet, all the dishes you want to taste, all the wines you want to sample, all the problems you want to solve, all the questions you want to answer.

You can't do them.

It's not that circumstance and fortune conspire against you doing all you desire. It's time.

If you read a book a day for a hundred years, you could make your way through one third of all books published. In the U.K. In 2001.

Once you realize you will die one day (I'm getting closer to that realization all the time), you realize you can't do everything you want to do. From which it follows that you don't have to try.

Ah, sweet freedom! That Library of America volume of Zora Neale Hurston that showed up in the mail years ago: am I ever going to read it? Don't count on it. I have nothing against Zora Neale Hurston, and I'm sure reading her works would improve me, but there are more things that would improve me than I have time to be improved by.

Death is an evil, yes, but it does serve to guarantee that there are more goods in the world than we can ever obtain. (Which means, incidentally, that "wanting it all" is a mug's game.)

So though we must wait until after death to obtain an infinitude of good (while now participating in that infinitude in an imperfect way through Baptism), we are now faced with an overabundance of good. There are more goods in the grocery store of this world than will fit in our mortal-sized shopping carts.

Is that fact liberating? Well, it should free you from indiscriminate desire. "Yes, Rocky Road, I would have enjoyed you had I chosen you. But today, I freely choose Mint Chocolate Chip, and I release you, Rocky Road, from my will."

It should also free you from the "witchery of paltry things." Too often, we complain about having only evil choices, but in fact our lives are bombarded with choices between good things. And too often, we choose the lesser good over the greater good.

Why? Because we're concupiscent, and not very good at figuring out which good is the greater and which is the lesser. But also, perhaps, because we don't stop to think that, since we only make a finite number of choices in this life, choosing one good really does mean refusing another. Life is not like a box of chocolates, where I can choose the maple creme now because I know I'll be getting around to the cherry liqueur in a minute.

So if you can't do everything, you shouldn't even try. But if you shouldn't try to do everything, you should always try to do the best things. Read the best books (and blogs); see the best movies; drink the best wines (how's that for Lenten exhortation?). What "best" means is not entirely objective; I think it does depend on you and the circumstances. (So the best wine for you, for example, may not be the finest wine. It may be the cheapest drinkable wine. It may even be water. Sorry.)

If you're doing something, you can ask yourself, "Is this the best I could be doing?" If it isn't, when were you planning on doing the best?


Metareviews lets readers post their own reviews of movies, using a 4-star rating system.

Of the 18 reader reviews of The Passion of the Christ (with an "average reader rating" of 3 stars) posted as of this writing, six give it 1 star and 12 give it 4 stars. (One reviewer would have given it 0 stars if possible.)

Not a lot of middle ground.

In an on-line chat on the movie yesterday, Catholic University of America president Fr. David O'Connell recalled a scholastic maxim that I think explains a lot of the commentary I've read: "Whatever is received is received according to the mode of the one receiving it."

Speaking of which, here is one anonymous reader review:
As a Muslim, I think this is a great movie. It makes the pain that the Arabs are suffering today even more of a reality
Might this movie be like a peanut? For some, it is appealing. For some, it is distasteful. For some, it triggers a toxic reaction.

"Who do you say that I am?"


Wednesday, February 25, 2004

More Lenten reading

Other suggestions for Lenten reading:
  • Isaiah
  • Lamentations
  • Wisdom
  • Matthew
  • Mark
  • Luke
  • John
  • James
  • 1 Peter
  • 2 Peter
  • 1 John
  • 2 John
  • 3 John
  • Jude
If you don't know these, why fool with those?


A Lenten program

I'm going to attempt a series of posts on A Key to the Doctrine of the Eucharist, Zaccheus Press's reprint of Abbot Vonier's excellent book. I think the writing is clear enough to be understood by pretty much everyone who would pick up a book with such a title and author, but what Abbot Vonier writes is profound enough to yield a deeper meaning each time it is pondered.

I'll try to start on or about the Second Sunday of Lent, which should give you enough time to get the book yourself (from Amazon UPDATE: It's not available from Amazon; try All Catholic Books, Aquinas and More, or your favorite independent bookstore (that's still legal!)) if you want to read along at home.

I don't usually post about what I'm going to post about because a) who cares?, and b) what if I don't get around to it? I'm doing it this time because a) I've been marking about every other page in the book for comment anyway, and b) this seems like a good way to get people to buy a book I think is great stuff on the source and summit of our faith.

[Disclaimer: I should mention that I myself didn't buy the book. Zacchaeus Press sent me a free copy in the hope that I would talk it up if I liked it. I liked it. I'm talking it up.]


This joyful season
Come, let us worship Christ the Lord, Who for our sake endured temptation and suffering.
With these words, the Church invites us to begin another season of Lent, a time of penance and conversion. "By the solemn forty days of Lent the Church unites herself each year to the mystery of Jesus in the desert."

During the day, though, millions of rosaries will be picked up, the words "the first glorious mystery, the Resurrection of Our Lord" recited.

Or perhaps the words will be "the first sorrowful mystery, the Agony in the Garden." There's nothing wrong with, and much to be said for, adjusting the mysteries of the Rosary to the liturgical calendar. "Wednesdays are Glorious" is a custom of convenience.

And yet, there's also something to be said for letting the Rosary march along to its own rhythym. Meditating on the Resurrection on Ash Wednesday may seem discordant at first thought, but I think in reality they're in harmony. The purpose of Jesus' retreat to the desert was preparation for His mission, which led to His Resurrection and Ascension. The end of our penance and self-denial is not penance and self-denial, but union with God through Jesus Christ, as most perfectly experienced by His mother Mary.

The gem of great price is not a faceted crystal, but a smooth pearl. Although we incarnate creatures can only touch one part of it at any given moment, there is no division to it. Jesus' fasting, His teaching, His passion, His exaltation: they are not separate pieces, they are the temporal extension of the one act of love between the Father and the Son.

So even this early in a season of repentance, it makes sense to anticipate briefly the end for which we repent, and the end for which He Whose title we bear came among us. It did not end in the desert. It did not end on Calvary. It has not yet ended, and it never shall end.


Tuesday, February 24, 2004

Jocose Tuesday

There sure are a lot of names for today, the day before Ash Wednesday. Most of them are now purely historical, no more relevant to how we live than the old god whose name gives us "Tuesday." Not many people get shriven today. If someone has pancakes, it usually doesn't mean he won't have pancakes till Easter.

Okay, "Fat" Tuesday is still relevant. For some of us more than others.

For Lent, I want Disputations to stress enlightenment, downplaying instruction (a.k.a., fraternal correction) and pretty much nixing entertaining. So today is the last day to post humorless criticism of the views of others on current events. And yet, today of all days, I can find nothing to dispute.

All I've got is an old, blurry picture of a bighorn glider (technically, a Cornutumated Flying Squirrel), an animal thought to be extinct, as a symbol of that most unlikely of creatures, the Catholic whose good intentions last him from Ash Wednesday through to Easter Sunday.



Lent is a time when Catholics traditionally try to develop or strengthen their discipline of prayer, by adding something to, or returning to, or creating from nothing, their daily prayers.

There aren't many principles governing this that apply to everyone. Maybe just, "Try to do an act of prayer every day during Lent that you didn't do every day in the forty days prior to Lent." But then you've got the people whose prayers are already numerous -- the Liturgy of the Hours, the Rosary, lectio divina, the Angelus, a personalized set of litanies and standard prayers -- who are better off simply trying to say their prayers better.

It occurs to me, though, that beyond this work on one's discipline of prayer lies the goal of a habit of prayer.

If prayer, broadly speaking, is a facing toward God, then although prayer at regular intervals during the day is a great good, it seems to imply that, during the longer intervals between prayers one isn't facing toward God. You just know that's no good, even without calling to mind St. Paul's exhortation, "Pray without ceasing."

I get the sense that St. Thomas took the "Pray without ceasing" command too literally, and therefore not literally enough: since he didn't think it's literally possible to pray without ceasing (prayer being, for him, an act of reason), he sort of explains the verse away:
The cause of prayer is the desire of charity, from which prayer ought to arise: and this desire ought to be in us continually, either actually or virtually, for the virtue of this desire remains in whatever we do out of charity; and we ought to "do all things to the glory of God" (1 Cor. 10:31). From this point of view prayer ought to be continual: wherefore Augustine says (ad Probam, Ep. cxxx, 9): "Faith, hope and charity are by themselves a prayer of continual longing." But prayer, considered in itself, cannot be continual, because we have to be busy about other works....

One may pray continually, either through having a continual desire, as stated above; or through praying at certain fixed times, though interruptedly; or by reason of the effect, whether in the person who prays--because he remains more devout even after praying, or in some other person--as when by his kindness a man incites another to pray for him, even after he himself has ceased praying.
What St. Thomas does think we can do continually is have the desire of charity, whether we're acting on it or not.

As far as I know, St. Thomas wasn't aware of the Eastern custom of praying the Jesus Prayer continually, or at least regularly enough that your body begins to pray it even in your sleep. (Or so The Way of the Pilgrim teaches; I wouldn't know from personal experience. In any case, according to this page, people who don't have a spiritual guide should only recite the Jesus Prayer for short periods of time.)

But the Roman Catholic Church does have the custom of (and even a plenary indulgence for) ejaculatory prayer:
A partial indulgence is granted to the Christian faithful who, while performing their duties and enduring the difficulties of life, raise their minds in humble trust to God and make, at least mentally, some pious invocation.
Someone with the habit of prayer will raise his mind to God over and over throughout the day, as will a young man turn to look at his beloved or a mother to look at her child. God becomes always present -- or rather, the awareness of God's presence is always present.

My awareness of God's presence waxes and wanes with my habit of prayer, which in turn depends on my discipline of prayer. The better I pray my regular prayers -- the Liturgy of the Hours and the Rosary -- the more likely I am to raise my mind to God betweentimes, and the more likely my mind is to raise itself to God (in the same way I find myself whistling a song I'd been singing earlier). And the more aware I am of God's presence, the fewer bad things happen, and the more good things.

(As a very simple and unremarkable example, I have found the simple habit of saying, "Bless the LORD through the night," from Psalm 134, whenever I wake during the night to be a great way to carry the prayerfulness of Night Prayer through to Morning Prayer. (I think I sleep better, too.))

Being aware of God's presence is the special and supreme case of being aware of the present, and a habit of being aware of the present supports the habit of being aware of God's presence. Both acts are forms of contemplation, that word of countless meanings. There's an old St. Anthony Messenger article on "How to Pray Always" that looks
at how to discover the contemplative dimension of everyday life, in other words, how to do the things we do each and every day with contemplative ease. The sun rising in the kitchen window, the walk to the post office, the church bell ringing on Sunday morning, the little niece's kiss on her uncle's cheek, the bright red tomato in the salad: They are all an opportunity to breathe deeply and "be filled with all the fullness of God" (Ephesians 3:19).

We will look at five dimensions of daily life: seeing, breathing, walking, eating and speaking.
The article discusses a different route to the habit of prayer, not directly based on a daily prayer regimen. There are no doubt many other routes as well.



It's time for my annual "Television doesn't count" post.

Lent is a season for repentance and conversion. Fasting has always played a role in repentance and conversion. Not just because of the symbolism that man does not live by bread alone, but because fasting works. Maybe not for everyone every time, but on the whole the evidence is that human nature is such that fasting as a means to draw closer to God draws us closer to God.

Now, the act of fasting is not a very complicated concept. It means this: Don't eat.

For some reason, people don't think "Don't eat" is good enough. And we get junk like this:
Lenten fasts have a tendency to be oriented toward things like giving up food or television. But there are many other creative ways we can welcome Jesus’ healing touch this Lent. Below are some suggestions you may want to consider.
  1. Fast from anger and hatred.
  2. Fast from judging others.
  3. Fast from discouragement.
  4. Fast from complaining.
  5. Fast from resentment or bitterness.
  6. Fast from spending too much money.
I don't know why anyone who gave it any thought -- which, presumably, includes anyone who writes advice to others on Lenten fasting -- would think "fasting" means "not doing something you shouldn't do." I mean, I'm not fasting from throwing rocks at children and dogs, I'm just not throwing them.

Imagine someone waking up on Easter Sunday thinking, "I made it! Now I can stop fasting from anger, hatred, judging others, discouragement, complaining, resentment, bitterness, and spending too much money!" Alleluia, He is Risen!

The author of this article slips a mention of the traditional Lenten fast of "giving up...television" into the first sentence. It's certainly true that giving up some minor comfort or pleasure is a Lenten custom, and in recent decades television has become a minor comfort or pleasure of choice.

This is fine; this is good. As a form of mild mortification, giving up television is well-suited to us soft-bellied Americans. In fact, it's even indulgenced:
A partial indulgence is granted to the Christian faithful who, in a spirit of penitence, voluntarily abstain from something which is licit for and pleasing to them.
What it isn't, though, is fasting.

Not everyone agrees with me, of course. But the relation between a human and food is fundamentally different than the relation between a human and entertainment. Eating has physical, biological, physiological, psychological, familial, sociological, cultural, and anthropological dimensions. The central Christian ritual is a meal, itself derived from the meal that is the central Jewish ritual. Simply put, eating is not just one of many licit and pleasing things people do. We should not expect it to be just one of many licit and pleasing things people give up.

When he heard Jonah's prophecy, the King of Nineveh did not proclaim, "Neither man nor beast, neither cattle nor sheep, shall watch television." Jesus did not go into the desert to fast from chocolate and Starbucks. We should not begin building a tower we can't complete, but neither should we call the hut we do build a tower.

As with almsgiving, the concept of fasting has been diluted. As with almsgiving, as a consequence of this dilution, people aren't fasting but think they are. As with almsgiving, people are missing out on the graces available through fasting.



No one gives alms any more. We give "to charity."

This substitution of "charity" for "almsgiving" suggests an impoverished understanding of both charity and almsgiving.

Charity can be defined as the habit, infused into the human soul by God, of desiring the glory of God and the salvation of men. There's a big drop-off from that to "giving money to a tax-exempt organization."

If the idea of charity has dwindled, the idea of almsgiving has been diluted. We may give to the poor, but we also give to the parish, and to the school, and to any number of "charitable organizations." To the IRS:
The term charitable is used in its generally accepted legal sense and includes relief of the poor, the distressed, or the underprivileged; advancement of religion; advancement of education or science; erection or maintenance of public buildings, monuments, or works; lessening the burdens of government; lessening of neighborhood tensions; elimination of prejudice and discrimination; defense of human and civil rights secured by law; and combating community deterioration and juvenile delinquency.
These may all be noble goals, but they aren't all matter for almsgiving.

There is a sort of sophisticated thinking that says, "Material poverty is just one form of poverty. We can be rich in material goods yet poor in [civil rights/education/the arts]." I see such thought as tending toward a form of stealing from the poor: taking the prescriptions, commandments, and exhortations to give to the poor -- the literally poor, the underfed, underhoused, underclothed poor -- that have been given to us in Scripture and tradition, and directing them, by means of semantic and analogical tricks, at people who are not poor.

This isn't to say working to enrich the civil rights, education, and artistic experience of people who may not be materially poor has no basis in Scripture and tradition, much less that it's a bad idea. But it is not almsgiving.

"Almsgiving saves one from death and expiates every sin," Tobit told his son. We have no such guarantee about giving money to the local orchestra.

Note, by the way, this distinction made in Canon 222 of the Code of Canon Law, a distinction the IRS is not concerned with:
§1. The Christian faithful are obliged to assist with the needs of the Church so that the Church has what is necessary for divine worship, for the works of the apostolate and of charity, and for the decent support of ministers.

§2. They are also obliged to promote social justice and, mindful of the precept of the Lord, to assist the poor from their own resources.
Assisting with the needs of the Church is a precept of the Church. Assisting the poor from our own resources is a precept of the Lord. Catholics must do both, but we shouldn't confuse them. That weekly check to the parish, while morally required, is not almsgiving.


Monday, February 23, 2004

Necessary words reconsidered

Christine comments below on the "Use words if necessary" aphorism:
I come from a Protestant background in which--in my own experience--too much emphasis was placed on preaching and not enough on living out the Gospel. That's why when I became a Catholic, I found the aphorism (which you find so irritating) so refreshing. The fact is, people in this country have heard the gospel to death--they know that Jesus died for them, and sadly, they do not care. There is such a thing as talking too much, i.e., preaching without discernment to anything that will move, when it is clear the recipient of your communication will not be moved by words but rather by witnessing your actions. In my own experience I have seen more repentance and conversion through love lived out consistently in my life rather than through preaching news these people have already heard a thousand times.
Christine's experience has been in what could be called a "Franciscan environment," where everyone knows the truth and no one acts on it. This is what St. Francis saw in 13th Century Italy.

But there's also a "Dominican environment," in which people don't even know the truth. This is what St. Dominic saw in 13th Century France.

I think most places where the Gospel has been preached have a mixed environment. Even those familiar with the Gospel don't know the fullness of truth contained, and most of us don't fully live the truth we do know.

The end for which a preacher acts is the salvation of those to whom he preaches. Working backwards from this end, the preacher should give them a reason to live the truth that leads to salvation, by his own example of living it; he should give them the truth that leads to salvation, by his preaching; and he should give them a reason to listen to him preach, by his own example as someone worth listening to.

(What makes someone worth listening to depends on what the people who would listen value. St. Dominic used to practice what I've heard called "holy hypocrisy," quenching his thirst and removing his shoes before entering an Albigensian town, since the Albigensians valued the asceticism of their own leaders. Nowadays, equanimity and joy are in short enough supply to be highly valued, while asceticism is so rare as to be suspect.)

Since the Church is a union of persons, in practice the person who is worth listening to doesn't have to be the one who does the [explicit] preaching. My enthusiasm might be enough to bring someone to listen to a preacher he's never met. The Body of Christ is corporate; most of us don't need to be evangelizer, godparent, confirmation sponsor, and spiritual advisor to everyone we meet.

Being personally inclined to sloth, I can't help but hear the "use words if necessary" saying as an excuse for not preaching, an aggrandizement of social manners, as though being polite amounts to preaching Christ and Him Crucified. Christine, though, has put her finger on its real value, as a check to those who would preach without concern for the other things necessary for that preaching to bear fruit.

I find that idea more congenially, if less Franciscanly, expressed in the words, "Shut up and love."


No good deed

So of course, at Mass yesterday, the priest begins his homily by reading from a list of Christian aphorisms making the email rounds -- you know, "What part of 'Thou shalt not' don't you understand?" and, "Prevent truth decay; brush up on your Bible" -- and singles out as particularly profound, "Preach the Gospel always. Use words only when absolutely necessary."


Sunday, February 22, 2004

Chesterton comes to Washington

I received a letter the other day -- an actual, genuine, material letter, delivered by the United States Postal Service -- from a fellow who wants to get a chapter of the American Chesterton Soceity started in Washington, DC.

On the whole, I'm not much of a joiner. I first heard of the ACS when I was a member of the Wodehouse Society. I figured if I joined societies for both P. G. Wodehouse and G. K. Chesterton, next I'd be joining the C. S. Lewis Society, then the I. F. Stone Society, then the C. P. Snow Society. Where would it end? "Sorry, dear, Thursday is the executive committee meeting for the E. T. A. Hoffman Society. Can we reschedule our anniversary?"

However, this fellow who wants to get a chapter of the American Chesterton Society started in Washington, DC, has thrown in a new wrinkle: he suggests the first meeting be at an Irish pub.

His idea interests strangely.

The scheduled meeting is at 3 p.m. on Saturday, March 6, at Kelly's Ellis Island Restaurant and Pub, 3908 12th St. NE. I believe I shall try to make it. If there are other DC area folks interested, send me an email and I'll have the fellow who wants to get a chapter of the American Chesterton Society started in Washington, DC, contact you.


Friday, February 20, 2004

We believe in the communion of sinners

Because, whether we like it or not, that's what we've got.


Preaching to myself

Of those pithy Christian sayings, which seem the distillation of pure life-changing wisdom on the first hearing and the tritest set of syllables ever collected on the hundredth, my least favorite is probably, "Preach the Gospel always. If necessary, use words."

Mostly it's a matter of personal taste. My preferred version, as I've mentioned before, is, "Preach the Gospel always. If necessary, use pie charts."

But sometimes I think the saying is used reflexively, as though the fact that words aren't being used somehow proves the Gospel is being preached.

As I wrote earlier this week, the pluralistic American society has adopted an interfaith set of public virtues. A Christian's social concern may be rooted in the Gospel, but it can be expressed in a "mere humanistic" way. Jews who are concerned for the poor are not necessarily demonstrating Christian charity. There are even rumors of people with no religious faith who believe in helping the less fortunate.

It's not just a matter of distinguishing Christian charity from good citizenship, though. If we want to preach the Gospel, before we get to the matter of how, we have to look at the matter of what: What is the Gospel?

The Gospel is not, "Love your neighbor as yourself." That's a commandment. The Gospel is news, and news is telling someone something he doesn't already know, not telling him to do something he doesn't already do.

The first three words of the good news Christians have for the world are, "God loves you." As mind-blowing as those words are (God loves you, God loves you, God loves you!), it gets better: "And God's Son was born, died, rose, and returned to Him so that we can love Him back."

Now, however briefly you want to express this good news, there remain significant facets that cannot be conveyed by smiling at the cashier in the grocery store. Do not the Gentiles do as much?

Let me suggest that the Franciscan ideal behind the "if necessary, use words" saying assumes a society in which Christianity has been found difficult and left untried. A bad Christian is far more likely to understand the good example of a good Christian to be an example of Christianity than is a bad non-Christian; for that matter, a good Muslim, say, might understand it to be an example of Islam!

So what am I saying? Only that showing love for another, even if it can be an expression of the Gospel, is not necessarily preaching the Gospel. As a lay member of the Order of Preachers, that's something I need to remind myself of from time to time.


Thursday, February 19, 2004

A thought experiment

Through the centuries, a lot of people have spent a lot of time trying to prove a lot of peculiar things about Jesus of Nazareth (albeit few things as peculiar as the dogma of the Incarnation). It's probably not complete coincidence that a lot of these people would be able to say, as a corollary to the truth of their peculiar thing about Jesus, "That means I am better than you think I am."

In short, the peculiar things people want to prove about Jesus tend to be self-serving. (Of course, saying anything peculiar about Jesus is self-serving, to a certain extent, for a college professor, academic neophilia being what it is.)

I'm wondering whether we can learn anything useful from an attempt to prove something peculiar about Jesus that isn't self-serving.

Suppose I wanted to write a book called Jesus, Fisherman of Galilee, which advanced the thesis that Jesus was not, in fact, a carpenter, but a fisherman. (I'm guessing, though now I'm by no means sure, that no one else has written in support of this thesis yet.) What evidence could I bring of this from the Gospels? Off the top of my head:
  1. "He left Nazareth and went to live in Capernaum by the sea...." And what does a man do for a living in a city by the sea but fish?
  2. Just look at the passage where Jesus meets Simon and Andrew: "As he was walking by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon who is called Peter, and his brother Andrew, casting a net into the sea; they were fishermen. He said to them, 'Come after me, and I will make you fishers of men.'" It makes no sense to think Jesus was simply walking by the sea. Obviously, He was working on it. Notice how He even speaks in fisherman terms. Need I even point out that the text says, "He said..."? If He weren't working in the same boat with them, He would have had to shout.
  3. Jesus knows fish. He knows where to catch fish, He knows which fish to catch, He knows how to cook fish. (and where do you suppose He got that fish, anyway? He caught it Himself, of course!)
  4. Jesus also knows the Sea of Galilee. He knows how to sail on it, He knows where to sail on it, He knows how to calm it. Heck, He even knows how to walk on it! Can anyone really believe He could learn all this in a carpenter's shop in Nazareth?
  5. And what evidence do we have that Jesus was a carpenter any way? Mark 6:3a -- "Is he not the carpenter?" -- is hardly enough to support the thesis, especially when we notice that the parallel in Matthew calls Him "the carpenter's son." That's an absurdly convoluted expression if Jesus Himself were a carpenter. Obviously, He moved to Capernaum to become a fisherman, possibly after His father's death. Could envy and resentment play into His rejection in Nazareth?
I think I'd better stop here; I'm starting to convince myself. Still, I'm pretty sure that with generous margins and a few chapters lifted from Daily Life in the Time of Jesus, there's enough to pad out into a book.

What lessons can be drawn from this little exercise? For one thing, the length and complexity of the defense of a thesis is no sure guide to the truth of the thesis. Another might be a generalized test all alleged proofs of peculiar things about Jesus should be able to pass: Being able to answer "No" to the question, "You're just making this up, aren't you?"


Brace yourselves

Disputations finished first in the "Most Intellectual Blog" and "Most Theological Blog" polls of the optimistically ordinalled 1st Annual St. Blog's Awards.

(Most intellectual and theological. I guess Disputations would be the opening favorite if they ever add a "Too Dull For Words" category.)

While recognizing these results are only what they are (e.g., hugely dependent on simple familiarity) and aren't what they don't pretend to be (e.g., a reliable indicator of which blogs actually are most intellectual and most theological), I also note the distinction between blog and blogger. A great deal of whatever value Disputations offers readers comes from the many fine commenters here; these awards are as much for them as for me. (So help yourselves to the images and wear them proudly.)

Of course, I am naturally pleased for myself, in the unsought-but-welcome way one is, for example, when the subject turns to ugly babies and one's acquaintance says, "Of course, your baby is just the cutest ever." And the next time some Jesuit-trained blogger gets all uppity, I can simply put the intellectually theological smackdown-by-authority on him, saving us all a great deal of time and grief.

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Wednesday, February 18, 2004

Like a bad sitcom

You know how sometimes, out of sheer peversity, you spend a minute watching some bad sitcom, and the obnoxious sex-crazed neighbor walks into the kitchen without knocking, and the main character says something harmless, and you say, "The obnoxious sex-crazed neighbor is going to misunderstand that as a sexual double entendre and make some bad joke," and the obnoxious sex-crazed neighbor misunderstands it as a sexual double entendre and makes some bad joke?

Today I received an email which began
Please consider and respond to my 4 comments.
There followed four tightly-packed, Bible verse-filled paragraphs on how Mary must have sinned and how St. Peter couldn't have been the first pope and so forth.

Being a good son of St. Dominic, I naturally replied:
No thanks.
Because fundamentalists who cruise the Net for Catholic emails they can hand-spam with their modified "Answering the Romish Scourge" tracts are not interested in learning, or really even in handing on the truth, but in bludgeoning, and prudence and experience tell me any effort I spend in hand-holding this fellow's way through his errors and misunderstandings will be wasted.

I assume that would be that, but later I got a one-line reply:
Blind yourself to the false doctrines you believe.
Which, you know, doesn't exactly make me regret characterizing him as someone not interested in learning or really even in handing on the truth. All movers move toward an end, and I wondered what end he thought his statement was moving him toward. But my end being Christian love toward all, I naturally replied:
I love you, too.
And got right back:
Same here but you are still blinded by the false gospel of Catholicism.
Then the scales fell from my eyes and I became a Christian fundamentalist under the mighty force of his assertions.

No, actually I decided to help him out with a little advice:
If you're actually sending out your emails for any reason beyond personal gratification, here's a tip: Catholics aren't Evangelical Fundamentalists. Arguing against us as though we were gets no one anywhere. Learn what we believe and why, then argue against it as best you can in some sort of rational fashion.
And then it came. The bad joke you who are reading this saw telegraphed from the very beginning, the bad joke I almost predicted when wondering about his motivation:
I know pretty well what you believe. I was a Catholic for many years.
Which, as anyone who has encountered it before knows, is the religious discourse equivalent of
Hello. I am ELIZA. How can I help you?


A few more words on Br. John

I wrote below, "From what we know, Fra Giovanni's life, by the standards of those raised to the altars, was unremarkable." That could probably do with a little expansion.

First, we don't know very much about Beato Angelico's life, and most of what is known -- dates he was in this or that city, for example, or working on this or that painting -- aren't particularly illuminating. The saying, "Who would do the work of Christ must always be next to Christ," seems to be the only words of his that have been preserved. It's a profound idea, to be sure, but it doesn't tell us much about him as a person.

The handful of anecdotes that are told of him -- that he always wept when he painted the Crucifixion, that he turned down the bishopric of Florence, that his brother Dominican St. Antoninus (whom Beato Angelico is said to have recommended for the bishopric in his place) said he was the holiest friar he knew -- confirm his piety, but aren't the sort of portable examples of heroic virtue that make saints compelling to the Catholic imagination. Even being the holiest friar in Fifteenth Century Florence might not, on reflection, be much of a boast.

Much like his master St. Thomas, Beato Angelico is best understood as through what he produced. We know that morally bad men can make aesthetically good art. Some can even make morally good art. But there's a certain integrity in the paintings of Beato Angelico that, combined with the few stories we know, offers a convincing argument that Beato Angelico really was the sort of man who would paint the sort of paintings he painted.

What sort of paintings did he paint? Paintings of beauty and of truth. Incarnational paintings. Thomistic paintings, if you can believe such a thing is possible.

From the luminous skin of the blessed -- as though the glory of God were literally shining through them -- to the implications of an ordered cosmos in the composition of background arches, Beato Angelico's paintings are a pictorial expression of the union and harmony St. Thomas recognized in creation and of the immanence and transcendence of God in and over that creation. His paintings are Catholic, not merely in subject matter, but in their implicit theology. And any man who can make theology that attractive is a man I want to learn from.


A stupid test makes the rounds. Again.

Mark Zappala thinks he doesn't like Dante's Inferno Hell Test?


They're different, so they're different

I've learned the hard way that identical computer systems can and do behave differently. This is because they aren't actually identical. If they were identical, they'd be the same system. When we say "identical," we really mean "very similar." Since they are in fact different, though, they may well act differently under identical (i.e., "very similar") circumstances.

So when I read, at And Then?:
I think the problem is that there are some men who must believe that there is something inherently worthy about being a man that specially endows him to serve the Church. This sort of person does not draw the line of distinction between the priesthood and the laity, saying that there is something inherently unique to the priesthood that enables priests to serve the Church in a manner the laity does not possess. He draws that line of distinction between men and women, saying that there is something inherently unique to men that enables them to serve the Church in a manner that women do not possess.

My Screaming Inner Feminist is here to tell such a man that he's dangerously mistaken.
My Thrice-Burned Inner Systems Engineer is here to tell her that she's simply mistaken.

If men and women are different -- and, let's be frank, only a fool says, and no one thinks, otherwise -- then they're different. And if they're different, they must be different in some way, which is to say, there must be something inherently unique to men that women do not possess and something inherently unique to women that men do not possess. (These are fatherhood and motherhood, respectively, but we don't need to get into that here.)

Does it follow from this that these differences apply to service of the Church? If we add to it a decent ecclesiology, I'd say it does. The Church is as fully human as Christ Himself, and it makes no sense for a man to fail to use that which makes him fully human. (Note that, while men and women are of course both fully human, neither would be fully human without a sex. Human nature may not be sexed, but humans are.)

This is not to say I have much sympathy for the "manly men need a manly Church" arguments Michelle is rebutting. Maybe adolescent boys don't like to do girly things, and maybe (per Newman) the vast majority of boys remain boys all their lives, but maybe boys should grow up when they become men.

The way I would put it is that there is room for and value in a "manly man spirituality" within the Church, just as there is room for Franciscan spiritualities and Cappadocian spiritualities. These streams of spirituality tend, especially in a fluid society like the United States, to be found intermingled in parishes. They should be recognized, respected, and nurtured as much as possible, but that doesn't mean any one stream should dominate (with obvious exceptions, like in a Franciscan parish). If my pastor doesn't drink Scotch and smoke cigars, there's no law -- divine, natural, or positive -- that says he has to.


Other than St. Dominic's Feast, I mean

The Theoscope has a series of posts (start here and work your way up) on women entering religious life, which by tradition occurs in August. One post has links to many vocation stories, in case you were wondering how others first discerned a call.

The days when everyone was taught by sisters for twelve straight years offered perhaps more opportunities for girls to hear a call, as well as perhaps more opportunities for girls to mishear a call. I've heard of one Dominican congregation that ran a school as well as an orchard. Most postulants began their religious lives spending five weeks (starting in August) canning peaches, which is probably about as good a way as any to identify those girls who were called to a life outside the convent.


Reginald the Tiger Quoll says:

"Who does the things of Christ, should always be with Christ."

So taught Bl. Giovanni da Fiesole, O.P., my chosen namesake in the Order, whose feast is observed today in the Dominican Calendar.

Bl. Giovanni is better known to students of art as Fra Angelico, although the Italians were wise enough to call him Beato Angelico for centuries before Pope John Paul II, by papal prerogative, officially conceded him the liturgical honors of a beatus in 1983.

From what we know, Fra Giovanni's life, by the standards of those raised to the altars, was unremarkable. His paintings are anything but.


Tuesday, February 17, 2004

Of the recommending of books there is no end

There's been a rash of books mentioned by others in the comments below over the past day or so. I list them here for easy reference:
  • All You Who Labor: Work and the Santification of Daily Life, by Stefan Cardinal Wyszynski
  • The Moment of Christian Witness, by Hans Urs von Balthasar
  • Catholicism and Secularization in America: Essays on Nature, Grace and Culture, edited by David Schindler
Because, you know, there's that space between the couch and the window that doesn't have a book in it.


Some observations

I saw most of Diane Sawyer's interview with Mel Gibson last night. On the whole, I thought it was fair, by my "for a fat girl you don't sweat much" standard for network television, and that Gibson acquitted himself of the more extreme charges that have been made against him (including a Messiah complex, so I won't go so far as to say I find no guilt in this man).

The producers of the movie Hidalgo have been buying a whole lot of commercial time, including at least one spot during the Gibson interview last night. Say what you will, few movies get a free one-hour, prime-time network ad. (The local station also ran some promos saying, "Stay tuned to our eleven o'clock news for where to see the movie and join the debate.")

From this follows two observations:
  1. Sincerely-held Christian belief is endlessly fascinating to Americans, even post-Christian Americans.
  2. Sincerely-held Christian belief, expressed sincerely but unsubtly, sounds like lunacy on prime-time network television.
This last point touches on what I wrote yesterday about the contradiction between Catholicism and American culture. If, as American culture would have it, there are no really true truths and what counts is us all getting along, then holding truths that seem offensive to others makes no sense.


Monday, February 16, 2004

Ministers of Christ

I've been invited to expand on how to be "publicly Catholic," to be "someone whom people look at and know to be acting according to his faith."

That's a bit too practical a matter for this blog. I'm more of an ideas man myself.

So instead, I'll expand on being publicly Catholic per effectum, by the effect it has on others.

Luke 6:26 -- "Woe to you when all speak well of you, for their ancestors treated the false prophets in this way." -- is of course a parallel with Luke 6:22-23:
Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude and insult you, and denounce your name as evil on account of the Son of Man. Rejoice and leap for joy on that day! Behold, your reward will be great in heaven. For their ancestors treated the prophets in the same way.
Note two things: first, Jesus is speaking here to His disciples (v. 20); second, He compares the treatment they (which is to say, we) can expect to the treatment prophets, true and false, have received in the past.

I think, taken together, these are significant. In the Sermon on the Plain, Jesus does not speak of poverty, hunger, and grief as blessings in general, but as blessings within the context of Christian discipleship. He teaches that those who suffer because they follow Him are better off than those who don't. This alone is worth pondering. What kind of a Messiah says, "If you're poor, hungry, and griefstricken, you're doing something right!"?

On top of that, Jesus compares his disciples to the prophets. Scripture refers to lots of just and upright men who were mistreated by others. Perhaps the reason Jesus referred to prophets, rather than simply to the just, is that His disciples are called to be, not merely just, but prophets.

The threefold ministry of Christ as Priest, Prophet, and King is well known, and we give at least some recognition to our participation, by baptism, in His ministry:
"The holy People of God shares also in Christ's prophetic office," above all in the supernatural sense of faith that belongs to the whole People, lay and clergy, when it "unfailingly adheres to this faith . . . once for all delivered to the saints," [LG 12; cf. Jude 3] and when it deepens its understanding and becomes Christ's witness in the midst of this world.
Again, how we exercise our share in the prophetic ministry of Christ is beyond my scope here, but look again at Jesus' words on the effect our actions might have on others: If people hate, exclude, and insult us, we are to rejoice; if all speak well of us, we are to mourn.

Now, these are only signs or indications of how well we're doing our job as disciples. They aren't guarantees. I can be hated, excluded, and insulted without being a good disciple. I can be spoken well of by all without being a bad disciple. But if I am hated, excluded, and insulted, I shouldn't conclude I am doing something wrong, and if I am spoken well of, I shouldn't conclude I am doing something right.

Perhaps more importantly, I shouldn't avoid the former or seek the latter as ends in themselves. I might even ask myself whether by coming closer to the former and moving away from the latter, I would be a better disciple of Christ.


The tension between integrity and reputation

"Woe to you when all speak well of you, for their ancestors treated the false prophets in this way."
Anyone who thinks all speak well of him need only spend a few weeks in St. Blog's contributing comments to be disabused of that notion. Still, let me propose this accomodation of the verse:

There are ways in which American culture and Catholic culture contradict each other. I have in mind, not the old know-nothing ideas like American Catholics taking their marching orders from Rome, but, in a word, division. In American culture, people are divided into different parts: the professional; the social; the political; the religious. That's nonsense in Catholicism; religion isn't something you do on Sunday, and you are literally the same person at work as at home.

Since there are conflicts between Catholicism and American culture, a Catholic should expect to be conflicted in American culture. He should also expect to be a source of conflict. If he is neither conflicted nor a source of conflict, he should ask himself whether he's doing something wrong.

If he's not conflicted, has he disengaged from the culture? Has he bought into the culture?

If he's not a source of conflict, has he divided himself into a private Catholic part and a public secular part? I think this might be a particularly subtle problem. If I am in my private life a good Catholic, or even a great Catholic, then it might be hard for me to see that, in my public life, I am not particularly "publicly Catholic."

By "publicly Catholic," I mean one who serves as a public witness of the Faith. Not necessarily a vocal witness, still less an outspoken one, but someone whom people look at and know to be acting according to his faith.

Consider the popular whipping girl of traditionally-minded Catholics, the habit-less religious sister. She spends however many hours a day in private prayer, then goes out into the world to advocate for various social justice causes. All well and good, but what if she neglects to connect in public her advocacy to Christ? There's no fear she will be spoken well of by all, but by leaving the Christian foundation of her actions implicit -- and I mean the foundation renewed daily, not a dusty old foundation cobbled together from a few Scriptural passages thirty years ago -- she permits those who look only for Christian foundations to dismiss her social work and those who look only for social work to dismiss her Christian foundation.

Can we say woe to such a one? Not in terms of judgment or future reward, but in terms of missed opportunity and overlooked signs.


Friday, February 13, 2004

"If you make any sentient creature jump,

you render it by no means improbable that it will jump on you." -- GKC

In a comment below, Matthew Sullivan writes:
It seems to me that Tom always recommends prayer and fasting to all problems because it is both safe and effective.
Actually, I always recommend it because I'm always forgetting it.

I wonder, though, just how safe prayer is.

Suppose I pray for something, and God gives it to me. Now what? I'm like a tourist in Yellowstone who whistles at a grizzly bear, only to have the grizzly climb into my car and say, "Here I am." I can try to get the bear out of my car, or I can pretend he isn't in the car with me, or I can face the fact I'm not the biggest and most powerful thing in my car any more.

My current preferred epitaph:
You Pray,
I'm Fasting.


Do the right thing

On the complex question of justice for workers -- in particular, of course, workers in the Third World, but all humans operate under the same justice -- let me ask, What is the end I should be working toward?

And I will answer, The good of the workers and the good of the owners.

The good of the workers is (roughly) a living wage, safe working conditions, relative job security, and generally being treated as a subject of work rather than an object.

The good of the owners is a just profit and treating the workers justly. (Although our fundamental option may not be for the owner, it's worth recognizing that a justly-operated business is good for the owner's soul.)

What can I do to effect these goods?

I think the first step has to be to make sure I am not culpably cooperating in injustice. (For my own soul's sake, as much as for helping others obtain goods my cooperation in injustice is preventing them from obtaining.)

So, having moved into a cave where I survive by eating of the blind fish who dwell in the icy black pools, what's next?

For the worker to have a just wage, he must have a wage. For the owner to make a just profit, he must make a profit. This suggests there must be an environment -- social, political, economic, legal -- in which a business can operate, and I would do well doing what I could to see that such an environment exists.

An environment in which a business can operate does not necessarily offer justice to workers (or to owners). One form of injustice could be called "systemic injustice" -- the injustice caused by the environment surrounding the business, the injustice workers would experience if St. Katharine Drexel herself were running things.

Another form of injustice we might call "discretionary injustice," or "owner-added injustice," caused by the owner's personal failures in justice.

I have a lightly-informed impression that a lot of the concern with worker exploitation is directed at this owner-added injustice. It is an injustice, by definition, so it should be resisted, but I wonder whether its importance as compared to systemic injustice is exaggerated due to its relative tractability. An owner who underpays his workers to pad his own profit -- that's a problem easy to understand, and the desired change is easy to state: get the owner to pay his workers what their work is worth while keeping no more profit than is just. (The fine details of means are left as an exercise for the reader.)

Should those concerned with worker exploitation focus more on systemic injustice? After all, there has to be a system before there can be a just system. Making a just system may reduce owner injustice, as well. A well-ordered economy in a country without much corruption is not an ideal environment for venal owners.

At the same time, I wonder whether the complexity of the problem makes some Christians too passive. Thomas Sowell claims the "underlying problem" of poverty among Third World workers is that "the people in such countries got a raw deal from fate, history, geography or culture." Well, what are you going to do about a raw deal? Wait for the next hand, seems to be the answer. (In his essay, at least, Sowell doesn't suggest doing anything, and might imply doing nothing.)


An observation

The natural human genius for creating patterns gangs aft agley.

A common example of this is when two people -- call them A and B -- have an argument on a certain topic -- call it X -- which is not resolved to their satisfaction. When the topic arises again later (as it always seems to do), should a third person -- say, C -- say something that reminds Person B of something Person A once said, Person B picks up the earlier argument where he left off, placing Person C in the role of Person A and assigning to Person C all of what Person B believes Person A believes. Person B, in this case, notices a similarity and completes a pattern that isn't necessarily correct.

It can be a bit disconcerting to play the role of Person C in such a situation, especially if you wouldn't know Person A from Adam or A's and B's earlier argument from the Lincoln-Douglas debates, but it's usually easy enough to notice when Person B is arguing at someone else but with you.


Thursday, February 12, 2004

Irony alert

Bishop talks about silence. Will anyone listen?


How not to "How to Vote"

Catholic Answers offers "A Voter's Guide for Serious Catholics." (Link via And Then?.)

The guide identifies five "non-negotiable issues" -- abortion, euthanasia, fetal stem cell research, human cloning, and "homosexual 'marriage'" -- which together correspond to the "focus issue" in my full-color model.

The guide defines a helpful "How to Vote" process:
  1. For each office, first determine how each candidate stands on each of the five non-negotiable issues.
  2. Eliminate from consideration candidates who are wrong on any of the non-negotiable issues. No matter how right they may be on other issues, they should be considered disqualified if they are wrong on even one of the non-negotiables.
  3. Choose from among the remaining candidates, based on your assessment of each candidate's views on other, lesser issues.
As it happens, this is pretty much how I vote. It's pretty much how everyone votes, except everyone's "non-negotiable issues" tend to vary. ("Not the incumbent" seems to be a perennially popular non-negotiable issue.)

Regarding the guide, I have a few questions:

Who died and made Catholic Answers the Magisterium? This is a question based on style more than substance, I suppose, but beginning with the title -- "I can't say how non-thinking Catholics go about things, but this is what thinking Catholics do" -- the tone of the guide is one of command.

Why five non-negotiable issues, and why these five? I don't object to making these five issues as non-negotiable, but there is no attempt in the guide to justify these five an no other. One might reasonably ask whether, say, "pre-emptive war" should be a non-negotiable issue and whether fetal stem cell research and human cloning really need to be separate issues.

When you say non-negotiable, do you mean negotiable? Let me quote three sections of the guide, in the order they appear:
Candidates who endorse or promote any of the five non-negotiables should be considered to have disqualified themselves from holding public office, and you should not vote for them. You should make your choice from among the remaining candidates.

Eliminate from consideration candidates who are wrong on any of the non-negotiable issues. No matter how right they may be on other issues, they should be considered disqualified if they are wrong on even one of the non-negotiables.

In some political races, each candidate takes a wrong position on one or more of the five non-negotiables. In such a case you may vote for the candidate who takes the fewest such positions or who seems least likely to be able to advance immoral legislation, or you may choose to vote for no one.
Emphasis added.

So after repeatedly saying you should not vote for candidates who are wrong on any of the non-negotiable issues, the guide says you may vote for a candidate who is wrong on the non-negotiable issues. This seems to lack a certain intellectual rigor.

Looking through the guide, I think a better title would be "A Voter's Guide for Newly Serious Catholics," as in Catholics who are, for the first time, trying to vote with the mind of the Church. That would explain (if not wholly excuse) the didactic tone and some of the staggeringly obvious observations. (E.g., "Do not cast your vote based on candidates' appearance, personality, or 'media savvy.'")(Not that I'm in a position to criticize the making of staggeringly obvious observations.)

Still, the core of the guide is its list of focus issues ("non-negotiable," unless you've already lost the negotiations), and the list is presented without comment on how it was created. A supplement to the guide on how to construct a set of necessary and sufficient non-negotiable issues (and how to negotiate among them) might be helpful for those serious Catholics who have moved beyond "vot[ing] for candidates simply because they declare themselves to be Catholic."


Exploiting a comment

There's a remarkable comment in a discussion sparked by a post at Catholic and Enjoying It! Mark Shea, in his laconic and measured way, writes:
Conservatives have as much trouble with Catholic teaching as liberals, just in different places. Sweatshops? No problem! Just invoke different cultural standards.
Steven (late of Removing All Doubt) replies:
Mark - since we've established that 3rd world labor is inherently exploited, what would you propose as the alternative? A minimum wage that removes the profit motive of creating third-world factories? So instead of working 12 hours for, say, $2/day, they're working 0 hours for $0/day. Not to mention the happy side-effect of removing what little developmental steps they've taken.
I can read this comment in one of two ways. One is, "Evil will be done. Shouldn't we do the least amount of it?" The other is, "Evil will be done. Shouldn't we recommend the least amount of it is done?"

The first way is a version of doing evil that good may result. We are the ones doing evil, or at least cooperating with evil in a morally culpable way. The only answer to this question -- and I don't mean the ideal Catholic answer, or the traditional Christian answer, I mean the only rational answer -- is, "No, we shouldn't do any evil whatsoever."

If the answer were, "Yes, we should do evil to someone if it betters his standard of living," then why not enslave destitute foreigners? The money paid for them would help their families, and they themselves would be materially better off sleeping in the basements of suburban American houses and eating day-old suburban American bread than living in their own countries.

The second way of reading the comment seems to be a version of counseling the lesser of two evils, which holds that, when someone else is morally certain to do some evil, we may counsel him to do a lesser evil instead. (I recently read that not all Catholic moralists believe counseling the lesser of two evils is morally acceptable, but that's a discussion for another time.)

What are the two evils we are to counsel others -- specifically, an American corporation -- regarding?

One evil, clearly, is exploiting Third World laborers. Stephen seems to be suggesting the other evil is not opening a just factory in the Third World. But "not opening a just factory in the Third World" is not an evil act for an American corporation. We can't tell a corporation, "You should choose to exploit these workers in this foreign city rather than allow them to starve," because the corporation isn't allowing them to starve if it doesn't open a factory there. A given corporation has no specific moral duty toward the poor of some arbitrarily-chosen city. It shares -- or rather, its stockholders and directors share -- a moral duty toward the poor of the whole world, but that does not imply a moral failure if it doesn't open a factory in a particular Third World location.

Still, if we grant that recommending factories exploit laborers is counseling the lesser of two evils (whatever the other evil might be), we need to consider our own culpability. Most of us aren't formally culpable; we aren't making (or failing to make) decisions that directly cause exploitation. We may not even be immediately cooperating with the exploitation. But our moral distance from exploitation -- especially for rich Americans who read all sorts of stuff on the Internet -- isn't necessarily great enough for us to reasonably argue we're counseling others to do the lesser evil.

I suppose my wrap-up is to deny that Third World laborers are "inherently exploited." If indeed they are exploited, they are exploited by other humans. If those other humans are us, we need to stop it. If they aren't us, we need to counsel the exploiters to stop it, or at least to limit their exploitation, without inventiong moral burdens they do not actually bear.


A successful argument

Jcecil3 reports that his essay, "Abortion?", has changed the mind of "a Catholic Democrat who was pro-life, but thought abortion should be legal;" now "she would consider a Constitutional amendment to protect the unborn in the context of other life issues."

Anyone trying to reach the mind and heart of a Catholic Democrat who favors legal abortion should probably see what he has to say.


Wednesday, February 11, 2004

A new paradigm

I think yesterday's speech given by Javier Lozano Cardinal Barragan of the Pontifical Council for Health Care Workers at Lourdes as part of the World Day of the Sick celebrations -- titled "The New Paradigm: Bioethics That Is Closed and Bioethics That Is Open to the Transcendent" -- would repay close study.

So far, all I can find is a Zenit summary. (Without disparaging their many virtues, I have to say Zenit summaries can make for painful reading. All those tortuous dialog tags -- "According to the cardinal," "he added," "the papal envoy continued".... Is it against Italian telecommunications law to transmit ellipses or something?)

Extracting from the summary, Cardinal Barragan sees a "new paradigm," which preaches a "global ethic," being imposed on the world by the World Health Organization and the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization -- with the Women's Environment & Development Organization, Earth Council Green Peace, and International Planned Parenthood Federation among its most important promoters:
"[T]he different religions existing in the world have not been able to generate this global ethic; therefore, they must be replaced by a new spirituality that has as its objective global well-being within sustainable development....

"The religions existing to date have been concerned with the other life; this spirituality is concerned with this earthly life. It is a spirituality without God, at the secular level. Its ultimate objective is the viability of the present world, and man's well-being in it."

"[It's most important 'anti-value' is a] new spirituality that replaces all religions, as the latter are inept in preserving the ecosystem...."

"Practically speaking, it is a new secularist religion, a religion without God, or, if one wishes a new god, that would be the earth itself, to which the name Gaia is given. This divinity would have man as a subordinate element....

"The series of values upheld by the New Paradigm are values subordinated to this divinity, which is translated into the supreme ecological value that it calls sustainable development. And within this sustainable development is the supreme ethical objective of well-being." [emphasis added]

"[T]he New Paradigm is not accepted [by Christianity] because of its denial of God and its denial of the other life....

"[Christianity] accepts the equality of the sexes, but not in the sense of homosexuality and destruction of the family. It accepts the control of birth, but not its destruction as planned in the culture of death, applied especially in the Third World....

"The New Paradigm faces one of its greatest problems when it realizes that it must base everything on a consensus that does not stem from objective truths, but from subjective opinions; then it makes an effort to forge artificial consensus.

"Such consensus is absolutely vain. This is why an ethic or bioethics based on the New Paradigm has no consistency."
The "bioethics open to transcendence" has two principles:
  1. "[H]uman life is created by God."
  2. "Human life is received by humanity, not as property but as administration. Human life is inviolable from its conception until its natural end. The dignity of the human person is inviolable."
So on the one hand, you've got sustainable development and well-being as the supreme values, on the other hand you've got human life and the dignity of the human person as supreme values.

A rational mind might notice the former depend on the latter, and so can't be supreme. I suspect those pushing the closed bioethics resolve this conflict with the simple trick of letting it go without saying that their own lives and personal dignity are to be presumed.


A minor point, an important distinction

There are no Church teachings on how Catholics have to vote. In fact, there can't be any Church teachings on how Catholics have to vote, now or ever.

What the Church can and does teach (to some extent) is how Catholics should vote, or more generally how they should go about voting. The Church doesn't say, "All Catholics must...," but, "Everyone with a well-formed conscience will...," which teaches us what having a well-formed conscience implies and whether we have one.

It's true that, at various times and in various ways, Church authority is invoked to direct or order Catholics to do certain things. But directions and orders are not teachings.

In an attempt to "vote with the mind of the Church," as it were, I think this distinction is important. Not for its own sake -- the effective difference between "you should" and "you must" isn't very large for someone inclined to listen regardless -- but for the sake of answering the... ah, inexperts who consider statements like, "I don't let the Pope tell me how to vote," sound arguments.


Note to self

Remember to found at least two religious congregations.


Tuesday, February 10, 2004

More on the model

I should add another type of voter represented by the focus issue model: the sine qua non voter, for whom all possible candidates must score over a certain threshold on the focus issue but, beyond that, being better on the issue is of relatively slight importance. This is indicated by an equivalent candidate line more nearly horizontal than one for a dominant-but-not-determining focal issue voter. (The solid line starting at the dashed threshold line T, vs. the dotted line running through p, q, r, and s.)

Note that this is a descriptive model. It describes how people actually vote, or at least how they say they plan to vote; it doesn't prescribe how anyone ought to vote. (Not that people plot the candidates on a 2-dimensional color-coded grid, but they do say things like, "He may be better on domestic issues, but he's pro-abortion," which can be modeled as q vs. r.)

So, what can you do with this model? Give qualitative descriptions of candidates, for one thing. "Are you crazy? He's lower left!" "Yes, he's over my threshold, but he's down at the bottom." "Sorry, but given the nature of politics, I think a high-upper left candidate is better than a middle-right candidate."

It can also help explain and examine voting strategies.

There is no shortage of socially conservative American Catholics who say things like, "I can't in good conscience vote for a pro-abortion Democrat for president." This makes them threshold voters, refusing to vote for candidates below a certain level of pro-life policy.

What's interesting is how many of them define their threshold to lie between the "best" Democratic candidate and George W. Bush. Granted, there's a lot of space between the best Democratic candidate and Bush on life issues, but I suspect for many their threshold is highly influenced by practical considerations.

Not that there's anything wrong with that.

Still, I've been struck by the thought that some absolutist single-issue voters, who in effect say they must vote for the most pro-life candidate, would if they're serious have to vote for Jcecil3 if his name got on their ballots.


Focal issue voting

More noodling with the process of deciding how to vote.

Here's a diagram modeling various schemes for evaluating candidates based on a "focal issue" -- some single issue (or, for that matter, set of issues) which the voter considers of dominant importance. Think abortion, obviously, or life issues generally, or the war on terror, or socialized medicine.

I think interpreting the model is straightforward enough. For those who disagree:

The basic idea is that the voter somehow rates each candidate, from however bad to however good, along two scales or axes. One is the focal issue, the other is an aggregate of all the other issues. Given these two scores, the position of each candidate can be plotted on a graph like the one shown (e.g., points p,q, r, s, and t).

Now, by definition a single-issue voter doesn't care about the other issues; to him all candidates who fall on the same vertical line (e.g., A, B, C, D) are equivalent, and the candidate on the right-most line is his preferred candidate. Given candidates at p, q, r, s, and t, then, a single-issue voter would vote for the s candidate every time.

Some single-issue voters impose a threshold on candidates (e.g., the dashed line T), refusing to vote for any candidate whose score on the focal issue isn't higher than the threshold. If the choice facing such a voter were candidates at points p and q, the voter wouldn't vote. (A single-issue voter without a threshold would, of course, vote for the q candidate.)

One would hope a single-issue voter, given a choice between candidates who have the same focal issue score -- say, candidates at points r and t -- would choose the candidate with the highest score on the other issues (t, in this case), but I suppose if someone were literally a single-issue voter, he might just toss a coin. (This might even be rational, if he knows he knows nothing about any other issue, and so can't tell which candidate is better, although next time he should prepare better.)

Some voters consider a single issue to be a dominant, but not determing, factor. For these voters, a candidate who is a little worse on the focus issue but much better on the other issues -- who is at t, say, rather than s -- will be preferred. A straight line in the graph represents points such voters assign equal worth to, so a particular voter might find candidates at points p, q, r, and s all equally appealing (with one at t clearly better). The steeper the line, the more the voter values the focal issue over all the other issues.


The lesser of two evils

Several commenters have noted below that all the cool moral theologians say you can vote for a bad candidate against a worse candidate. That's significant for a probabiliorist like me, so let me poke at this idea a bit.

What pops out first is the diciness of the colloquial way of expressing the idea -- viz., "to vote for the lesser of two evils." Now, you can never licitly choose to do evil yourself, so clearly moral theologians discern some moral distance between the act of voting for a "bad" candidate and the bad acts the candidate would commit if and only if he were elected. Moral theologian Kevin Miller puts it this way:
...the evil act is voting for the candidate qua evil. But no one is absolutely evil. If you're voting for the candidate qua better than the alternative, then you're not voting for him qua evil.
Here I'll grant that voting for a candidate qua better than the alternative is possible. Once that's granted -- or more precisely, once it's granted that voting for a candidate is not necessarily voting for a candidate's bad positions – we can dust off the Principle of Double Effect apparatus.

By the Principle of Double Effect, an act is permissible, despite having a morally certain bad effect, if a) the act itself is not immoral per se; b) the bad effect is not intended; c) the bad effect is not the means to the intended good effect; and d) the good effect outweighs the bad effect.

On the question of voting for a bad candidate to prevent the election of a worse candidate, I've just granted that a) the act itself is not immoral per se. Is the bad effect intended? It is if the bad effect is the election of the bad candidate, so we should cast the bad effect as the implementation of the bad candidate's bad policies. (This will be important for understanding what the moral act of voting really is.) This bad effect is not intended, which we can see because we would be perfectly happy if it never occurred, so (b) is satisfied. The implementation of the bad candidate's bad policies is not the means of preventing the worse candidate's worse policies, so we're fine with (c).

Now, does the good effect outweigh the bad effect? Here, I think, we need to be careful.

The bad effect, as I've said, is the implementation of the bad candidate's bad policies; the good effect is the prevention of the implementation of the worse candidate's worse policies. But we can't simply subtract the one from the other and say, "The net result is less badness with the bad candidate than with the worse candidate." The Principle of Double Effect doesn't speak about net results, it speaks about effects.

If we return to my example of the Dystopian Party candidate vs. the Atheist Dystopian Party candidate: the bad effect of voting for the former is the execution and consumption of everyone over 30; the good effect is those accused of possessing religious faith are not executed and consumed until they reach 30. While it's clear the Dystopian Party candidate is better, it's not so clear that the good effect of his election outweighs the bad. (To remove all lack of clarity, we could make the second choice an Anti-Parrot Dystopian Party, identical to the Dystopian Party except it also calls for the extermination of parrots in the wild.)

So while it may be possible to vote for a bad candidate over a worse candidate, a straightforward application of the Principle of Double Effect doesn't suggest it's always permissible.

Corners cut in this post include a failure to address what it means for a candidate to be "bad" in a morally significant sense and a failure to observe that the election of a candidate is not a sufficient cause of the implementation of his policies.


Bible quiz

Q. What is the primary theme of the Book of Ninevites?

A. There is no Book of Ninevites in the Bible.

Q. What role did Roman political and judicial authority play in the death of Jesus?

A. Who cares?

The Book of Jonah is not about the Ninevites. Obviously, they play a role -- a larger role in Jonah than the Romans do in the Gospels -- but they aren't really important to the story. Nineveh is just a place whose proverbial wickedness warranted a prophet to preach against it. It's the prophet's reactions, both to his call and to God's response to the Ninevite's conversion, that convey the spiritual senses of the book.

I'm starting to suspect the same is true of the Romans who crucified Jesus.

There's been a lot of talk lately on the question of "Who Killed Jesus?" Much of what I've seen strikes me as a fundamentally silly discussion: people saying, "You know, it was actually the Roman who crucified Him," with the sort of wide-eyed who'd've-thunk-it also used with, "You know, the Bible doesn't actually say there were three wise men." (This is opposed to a not-at-all silly discussion on the fact of human deicide.)

I'm starting to think the role of the Romans in Jesus' crucifixion was, from the perspective of the New Testament writers (and therefore, of the Church in the First Century), primarily a historical accident. Yes, there is theological meaning in the exercise of authority depicted, but mostly the Gospels record Roman involvement as a matter of historical, not spiritual, fact. If it hadn't been Pilate acting for Caesar, it would have been Herod, or Philip, or some other political power acting for itself. The New Testament is concerned, for the most part, with things far more important than political power.

Revelation is about God's relationship with man, in particular with His people Israel and those who come to know God through He Who is Israel's Glory. Pilate's sin was a failure of natural justice; we don't need Revelation to teach us about natural justice (although it helps). The sin of the one who handed Jesus over to Pilate -- a sin greater than Pilate's -- was a failure of faith, and teaching faith in Jesus Christ was the reason the Gospels were written.


Sunday, February 08, 2004

Beyond the pale

Can there be a candidate whose positions are so evil that no one with a well-formed conscience could ever vote for him?

The obvious, and even correct, answer is, “Sure.” We can imagine a candidate running on the Dystopian Party platform, the sole plank of which is passage of a law to kill everyone over the age of thirty and use their bodies for food. There is no way to justify voting for such a candidate.

Ah, but is the physical act of marking a ballot in a certain way equivalent to the moral act of “voting for” a candidate? After all, the “risk management” and “symbolic” views sometimes see a vote as being primarily directed against another candidate.

Suppose there were two candidates for an office, one from the Dystopian Party and the other from the Atheist Dystopian Party, which advocates killing and eating, not just everyone over thirty, but everyone accused of having a religious faith as well. Isn’t it reasonable to vote against the Atheist Dystopian by casting a ballot in favor of the Dystopian, especially if polls show a statistical dead heat going into Election Day?

Well, it may be reasonable, but it’s also immoral. By construction, a Dystopian Party candidate can never be voted for. Since the ends do not justify the means, the existence of a worse candidate does not suddenly make a per se immoral vote moral, nor does it change the nature of the moral act whose physical expression is marking a ballot.

If you can never vote for an evil candidate, you can’t vote for an evil candidate ever. And, as the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith reminds us:
[A] well-formed Christian conscience does not permit one to vote for a political program or an individual law which contradicts the fundamental contents of faith and morals.
Which is to say, you can’t vote for an evil candidate ever.

So…how do you recognize an evil candidate? Or, in CDF terms, what constitutes a political program which contradicts the fundamental contents of faith and morals, and what, in a representative democracy, constitutes voting for a political program?