instruere...inlustrare...delectare Disputations

Monday, May 24, 2004

Advice for priests

The Dominican Province of St. Joseph has seven new priests as of last Friday, the largest ordination of new priests in the province in many years.

On Saturday, I heard an older friar preach to the new priests. He referred to two Gospel passages that best sum up what he sees as the job of a priest.

The first was from Luke 4, when Jesus teaches in a synagogue. I expected the homilist to point out that Jesus's own homily was only nine words long, but he actually had in mind the reading Jesus chose from Isaiah:
"The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring glad tidings to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, and to proclaim a year acceptable to the Lord."
These, he said, are the things a priest should do.

But a priest should also notice Jesus' final instructions to His apostles, as recorded in Luke, which is, "Don't do anything yet!"
"...stay in the city until you are clothed with power from on high."
Though the homilist's words were directed to the new priests, I think they apply to the common priesthood as well. If we aren't bringing glad tidings to the poor, proclaiming liberty to captives and sight to the blind, then what are we doing as Christians? And if we aren't doing these things with power from on high, what power are we acting upon?

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Friday, May 21, 2004

The pilgrimage is this Sunday!

Everyone's invited to join the

St. Blog's Marian Year Pilgrimage to the
Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception
May 23, 2004


11:00 a.m.: Meet in the cafeteria on the lower level.
11:30 a.m.: Rosary in the Chapel of Our Lady of the Holy Rosary.
12:00 p.m.: Solemn Mass of the Ascension in the Great Upper Church.
Lunch following Mass.
Confession is offered at the Basilica from 10-12 and from 2-4.

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Loving Fido

There are lots of different kinds of love. In discussing the passions of the soul, St. Thomas writes that "the name 'love' is given to the principle movement towards the end loved." (Sorry for getting all mushy on you.)

Three articles later, he quotes Aristotle to the effect that "to love is to wish good to someone," from which he draws out two kinds of love: the "love of friendship," for the person you wish good; and the "love of concupiscence," for the good you wish someone.

Friendship, meanwhile, can be of three kinds: "that which is founded on 'usefulness,' that which is founded on 'pleasure,' and that which is founded on 'goodness.'" But "friendship of the useful or pleasant, in so far as it is connected with love of concupiscence, loses the character to true friendship."

To find out what St. Thomas means by "true friendship," we move to the article "Whether charity is friendship" in his treatment on charity as a virtue (as distinct from love as a passion). There, he writes:
... not every love has the character of friendship, but that love which is together with benevolence, when, to wit, we love someone so as to wish good to him....

Yet neither does well-wishing suffice for friendship, for a certain mutual love is requisite, since friendship is between friend and friend: and this well-wishing is founded on some kind of communication.
Which, clearly, brings us to the matter of loving our pets.

The thing about this love of true friendship is that, because it's founded on some kind of communication, it involves something being communicated to a person, so that a person becomes like the friend he loves. Does that mean you can't love a scoundrel without becoming a scoundrel? If you love him for being a scoundrel, yes!

And if you love your dog? Then you become like your dog.

That may not be such a bad thing, depending on the kind of person you are. If you love your dog for his loyalty or good cheer, that could make you more loyal and cheerful. You may love your dog for his sheer doggishness, which is probably more of a friendship of delight than the friendship of goodness St. Thomas has in mind when writing of charity.

But you can also love your dog in a way that communicates canine nature to you, if you will. This is a bad love, because canine nature is beneath human nature. What often happens, I think, is that an owner tries to communicate human nature to his dog, and thinks the dog is communicating human nature back to him. Humans, though, cannot communicate their nature like that; it's one of the signs we aren't God.

I suspect there's a general reluctance on the part of Christians today (in the West, at least) to accept the consequences of our place in creation. We seem to be slumming among the things that are beneath us -- not just because of the concupiscence that always has led humans to improperly love created things, but because of a false modesty (which may not be recognized as false) about what we are.

In a comment below, Neil Dhingra quotes Metropolitan John Zizoulas, who refers to mankind as "the priests of creation." That's true, but it's a priesthood in which the priests really are closer to God. We really are made in the image and likeness of God. We can never wholly efface that image in us, nor can we transfer it to other things in creation. We do neither us nor the rest of creation any favors by forgetting this.

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Thursday, May 20, 2004

Let those who serve idols be ashamed

So, granted that some things are beneath others, what things are beneath the human soul?

In a word: everything. In two words: every thing.
God created man in his image; in the divine image he created him; male and female he created them. God blessed them, saying: "Be fertile and multiply; fill the earth and subdue it. Have dominion over the fish of the sea, the birds of the air, and all the living things that move on the earth."
If "Man is the summit of the Creator's work," then everything else in creation (except angels, who technically aren't things anyway) must be beneath him. That would include, obviously, things man has created: sports and wine and poetry and countries.

Now, love is a kind of desire that reaches from the lover to the beloved. An act of love starts in the lover and ends up in what is loved. That's why what St. Thomas calls the "excellence" of an act of love is gauged by what is loved, rather than by who loves.

So if I love, say, my dog, the excellence of my love for my dog is measured by the excellence of my dog.

On the other hand, knowledge implies that something is added to the intellect. It starts in the thing known and ends up in the knower. The "excellence" of an act of knowing is gauged by what knows, rather than by what is known.

The excellence of my knowledge of my dog is measured by the excellence of me.

Despite what you may have heard, I am more excellent than my dog; I am, after all, the summit of the Creator's work. Therefore, my act of knowing my dog is more excellent than my act of loving my dog.

This doesn't mean that loving your dog is bad. But it does mean that loving your dog more than you love another person is bad, since love for any person is more excellent than love for any dog.

It also means that the purpose for learning about your dog cannot be to love your dog. More generally, the end of knowledge of other things in creation cannot be love of them. Why? Because the knowledge of other things is more excellent than the love of them, and the end of a thing cannot be less excellent than the thing itself.

What, then, is the end of knowledge of other things in creation? The love of God, of course, the excellence of which is gauged by the excellence of God Himself. Here, though, the important point is that it can't be anything less excellent than man.

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Wednesday, May 19, 2004

Above and beneath

It's of no particular use to observe that it is better to love than know what is above and to know than love what is beneath without an "above" and a "beneath." It seems to me, though, that getting rid of one or both of them has been an important goal in the West for centuries.

To suggest there are things beneath the human soul is to suggest the human soul is above them. In a blind, undirected, random universe, though, can we really say the human soul is any better than anything else -- assuming we're even willing to grant for the sake of argument that "the human soul" is a coherent concept. As one species among others, humans aren't objectively "better," Stephen Jay Gould argued on behalf of many; we simply came along later and so are (as the math would predict) are more complex.

As for anything above the human soul, have you ever heard of anything less scientific than belief in spirits? There is no God, the human soul (whatever it might be) does not survive physical death; what you see is what you get.

Rushing to fill the spiritual vacuum sciencism produces are various flavors of pagan syncretism. Sheep and chickens are our sisters and brothers, with the same natural rights we have; to think otherwise is immoral speciesism. And we ourselves are God; hadn't you noticed?

The result is a flattened universe in which all difference is explained away as one form of illusion or another. Maybe we're all just energy states, or maybe we're all just the Spirit (or, God help us, maybe we're both), but it's meaningless to speak of "above" and "beneath."

Or so, at least, we're told. Fortunately, very few humans are both crazy enough and stupid enough to believe that; whatever they might say, most people don't live as though there were nothing greater or lesser than themselves. Christian apologetics against sciencism and pantheism has the happy effect of preserving and restoring the instinctively-known distinctions between the human soul, what is above it, and what is below it.

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Tuesday, May 18, 2004

Feast for thought

One of the advantages to the sort of care and precision St. Thomas brings to theological questions is that, taking nothing for granted, it will ask stupid questions and get brilliant (in the "sparkling, glittering" sense) answers.

Consider, for example, the question of whether charity is the most excellent of the virtues. Anyone who half-listens to the Sunday Gospels during Easter (or, for that matter, anyone who's been to more than one wedding) knows the answer is yes:
So faith, hope, love remain, these three; but the greatest of these is love.
But though St. Thomas also knows the answer is yes, he needs to understand how that fact fits into his theology. After all:
[T]he higher power has the higher virtue even as it has a higher operation. Now the intellect is higher than the will, since it directs the will. Therefore, faith, which is in the intellect, is more excellent than charity, which is in the will.
How would you answer this objection?

I might argue that the higher power doesn't have the higher virtue, or I might argue that the intellect doesn't direct, but only informs the will. Either way, not the stuff to remember after the mid-term is turned in.

Here is the beginning of St. Thomas's reply:
The operation of the intellect is completed by the thing understood being in the intellectual subject, so that the excellence of the intellectual operation is assessed according to the measure of the intellect. On the other hand, the operation of the will and of every appetitive power is completed in the tendency of the appetite towards a thing as its term, wherefore the excellence of the appetitive operation is gauged according to the thing which is the object of the operation.
In short: the thinker is the measure of the thought, but the desired is the measure of the desire.

Fine, you might say, that's as may be, but what does this have to do with people who in their day-to-day life don't find much cause to measure thoughts and desires according to Aristotelean models of human nature?

Ask, and St. Thomas shall try to answer. He continues his reply to the objection:
Now those things which are beneath the soul are more excellent in the soul than they are in themselves, because a thing is contained according to the mode of the container (De Causis xii). On the other hand, things that are above the soul, are more excellent in themselves than they are in the soul. Consequently it is better to know than to love the things that are beneath us; for which reason the Philosopher gave the preference to the intellectual virtues over the moral virtues (Ethic. x, 7,8): whereas the love of the things that are above us, especially of God, ranks before the knowledge of such things. Therefore charity is more excellent than faith.
It's better to know than love what is beneath you. It's better to love than know what is above you. If that isn't a handy guide for daily life, a benchmark to test all our minor idolatries against, I don't know what is.

In fact, why don't you clip it out and carry in your wallet or purse:
It's better to know than love
what is beneath you.
It's better to love than know
what is above you.
This simple but profound truth, adherence to which would end countless sins great and small, is only a side effect of one of three arguments in one of eight articles in one of four questions on charity in itself. St. Thomas was writing for beginning theology students, of course, but who of us isn't, fundamentally, a beginning theology student?

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Monday, May 17, 2004

For good reasons, or for political ones

Cardinal McCarrick answers his critics.

I am not one to insist your motives must be pure before you can act, and I recognize that criticism offered out of impure motives may well be valid. Still, I wonder at the spirit of disdain for bishops cultivated among many politically conservative Roman Catholic Americans. (And I do mean "cultivated": consciously nurtured, watered, fed, and trellised.)

It seems terribly convenient to be able to say, whenever a bishop says something you disagree with, "What else do you expect from the Democratic Party at Prayer?"; and whenever a bishop says something you agree with, to say, "At last, one of that hapless bench is showing some spine." I don't see how someone could ever learn anything from a bishop -- or, even worse, "the bishops" -- by judging everything the bishop says against what he already believes. And I'm pretty sure the documents of Vatican II don't say the laity are no longer to learn from their bishops.

And so I come back to this unfortunate appetite for "categorical evil," which seems to dull the senses to other evils. Cardinal McCarrick writes:
Certainly, the defense of life from the moment of conception to the moment that God calls us home is the primary of these [gravely important] issues, since without life no other human rights are possible. I have also been consistent in teaching, as our Holy Father does, that the care of the poor, the weak and the stranger, as well as the protection of peace and justice must be an essential part of our commitment as Catholics.
I can already hear the responses: "Abortion is always evil; how we care for the poor is a matter of prudence. But what can we expect from this Democrat-at-prayer but an attempt to obscure the fact that the Republicans are good and the Democrats are evil?"

Again, it's a matter of preternatural convenience: When the bishops agree with the Republican platform, they are preaching the Word of God. When the bishops agree with the Democratic platform, they are being ignorant liberals meddling in matters they don't understand. When they agree with neither, they are being spineless.

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What do you know?

They really weren't exaggerating about all those cicadas.



Take the Cicada Test!

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An indifferent parry

Rob comments below:
But many of the same people who are horrified by the killing of a baby in the womb, are rather indifferent to the killing of a baby in its crib, if that crib happens to be in the home of a "terrorist" (as opposed to a "human"), or in a home next door to that of a terrorist, or in a home next door to a suspected terrorist, or in the home of a person known to consort with a suspected terrorist.
What if the baby is in the womb of a known terrorist? Bombs away! Right?
I assume everyone knows the canonical parry to Rob's thrust: The bombing death of a baby in its crib is an unintended side effect. The aborting death of a baby in its mother's womb is a deliberate act.

I won't assume, though, that everyone knows how flimsy this parry is. I have a strong impression that a lot of Catholic who consider themselves well-versed in moral reasoning believe that, if something is an unintended side effect, it does not affect the morality of an act. Practically speaking, they remove the "the good must outweigh the evil" condition in the principle of double effect.

Being well-versed in moral reasoning, they would (I do assume) deny they've removed that condition, but we're still left with the apparent indifference to the evil. Now, there's no way I can peer into someone's heart to determine whether he is honestly giving fair weight to the evil that comes with a good he very much desires. All I can do is ask, "Are you sure you're not too indifferent?" If he answers, "Yes," there's an end to it.

And yet... isn't this something to marvel at, that, in a particular instance when a greatly desired good can only be achieved along with some evil effect, a person is able to be morally certain he is properly and fairly weighing the good against the evil, and the good wins out? Personally, I am constantly discovering I've misjudged the relative weights of the factors that determine my judgment, almost always to the advantage of whichever judgment I want to be able to make, even in matters so trivial the objectively best decision can be found by inspection. I envy those who are certain of their prudence in difficult matters, even though I know I am too sinful myself to aspire to such certainty any time soon.

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Friday, May 14, 2004

O brave new world

Athanasius suggests a thought experiment:
[T]he next time you walk down the street or see a crowd in a store, think to yourself that more than half of these people think that, at some time or other, it is appropriate to kill the child in the womb.

We are a nation of killers. God help us.
That's one thing you might think to yourself. Another is this, an intercessory prayer addressed to Jesus, from the Liturgy of the Hours:
You gave life to the dead, and led mankind from death to life; give eternal life to all those we shall meet today.
The people we meet: great sinners all. The people we meet: beloved by God all.

It's said St. Catherine of Siena was able to perceive the state of other people's souls. That's not a charism I'd want for myself, tempting as it is to someone as filled with the vice of curiosity as I am, for fear that I might be able to perceive the state of my own soul.

I suspect, though, that it's my dullness regarding my own relationship with Christ that makes it so unnatural for me to even consider that the people I meet each have their own relationship with Him, whether they know it or not. If I were suitably aware of and concerned with my sins, and so suitably eager to ask Jesus to give me eternal life, then I bet I'd be more honestly concerned with the sins of others, not in a holier-than-they sense, but out of a zealous (St. Catherine might say burning) desire they too receive eternal life.

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Wednesday, May 12, 2004

Don't forget the pilgrimage!

Everyone's invited to join the

St. Blog's Marian Year Pilgrimage to the
Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception
May 23, 2004


11:00 a.m.: Meet in the cafeteria on the lower level.
11:30 a.m.: Rosary in the Chapel of Our Lady of the Holy Rosary.
12:00 p.m.: Solemn Mass of the Ascension in the Great Upper Church.
Lunch following Mass.
Confession is offered at the Basilica from 10-12 and from 2-4.

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Tuesday, May 11, 2004

"Love your neighbor" implies "Love your God"

Nothing we do can make God any happier than He already -- or rather, eternally -- is. Nothing we do can make God any less happy. Pious sentimentalism aside, there are no Divine feelings to be hurt, no Divine pain to be eased.

Strictly speaking, we can't act for God's good. Since acting for another's good is the meaning of love, how can we love God?

By loving our neighbors, of course. St. Catherine of Siena explains it this way, writing from God's perspective:
I wish also that you should know that every virtue is obtained by means of your neighbor, and likewise, every defect; he, therefore, who stands in hatred of Me, does an injury to his neighbor, and to himself, who is his own chief neighbor....

Thus, every act of help that [a man] performs should proceed from the charity which he has through love of Me. And every evil also, is done by means of his neighbor, for, if he do not love Me, he cannot be in charity with his neighbor; and thus, all evils derive from the soul's deprivation of love of Me and her neighbor; whence, inasmuch as such a man does no good, it follows that he must do evil.
The fact that we have neighbors to whom we can do good, and thereby express our love of God, is a mark of God's love for us.

The clearest sign of God's love for us is, of course, Jesus. In the Incarnation, we are given a Neighbor above all other neighbors to love. Our human love for the man Jesus is the means above all other means by which we express our creaturely love for the Creator God. If loving the least of Jesus' brothers is loving the Lord our God, how much moreso is loving Jesus loving God?

Watch out, though, for the too simple syllogism, "I love the man Jesus. The man Jesus is God. Therefore, I love God." There's an equivocation here. Love for a man is not the same kind of love as love for God.

The equivocation comes from the statement, "Jesus is God," which is an unfathomnable mystery. Jesus is man and Jesus is God, but He is not man in the same way He is God. He is both man and God together, but since man and God are utterly unlike, the "is" in "Jesus is man" is utterly unlike the "is" in "Jesus is God."

What this means, moving the matter back to love for God and love for neighbor, is that, although these two loves cannot be separated, they aren't simply combined. It's not quite like the case of a man who loves what his lover loves because she loves it, but of a man who loves what his lover loves with his lover's love. Which is impossible, unless the Lover is God.

But it's the same mystery as free will, so I won't pretend to have a satisfactory way of expressing it.

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With men it is impossible
You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and the first commandment. The second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. The whole law and the prophets depend on these two commandments.
Have you ever noticed that the greatest commandment and the second commandment are mutually incompatible?

Think about it. If you love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, soul, and mind, then what do you love your neighbor with? Or is it a riddle, with the answer that you love your neighbor as yourself by loving neither your neighbor nor yourself?

Okay, so this is the sort of thinkinng a teenager might offer as an excuse to sleep in on Sunday. Still, I think it is in the way the two commandments are followed together that we see what the Christian life really is.

This past Sunday, we heard the passage in John in which Jesus teaches the fulfillment of the second commandment:
"I give you a new commandment: love one another. As I have loved you, so you also should love one another. This is how all will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another."
If I love my neighbor as myself, and I love him as Jesus loves me, then I love both neighbor and self as God loves us both, which is to say by God's love for us both. My love for my neighbor is to be a participation in God's love for my neighbor, but I can only participate in God's love if I am incorporated into the Triune life. And that can only happen if I love God, so that He will come -- Father, Son, and Holy Spirit -- and dwell in me.

So how do I love God? It's a strange idea, when you think of it, since to love someone is to will the good for him, and God already has, indeed eternally is, perfect goodness. Still, as Jesus said, "If you love Me, you will keep My commandments." The only way to love God is to do what He commands us to do, because that is His desire for us.

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Monday, May 10, 2004

Why is easy listening music so hard to listen to?

Gerard Serafin links to a collection of Peter Maurin's Easy Essays.

About a year ago I took a cheap dig at Maurin's style. I still think the "Easy Essay" format makes it too easy to dress up routine observations as something profound and too easy to make insubstantial arguments appear impregnable. (Consider "The Fallacy of Saving," on this page,
which links saving money to communist revolutions.)

Still, there is something refreshing (in moderate doses) about the clarity with which "Easy Essay" arguments are made.

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Evil, more or less

In a comment below, Rob writes:
...as a people, e pluribus unum[,] we are not even able to define what's evil and what is not. Abortion is more evil to Catholics. War might be more evil than abortion to many Protestants.
Not being Catholic, Rob can be excused for basing his comment on what Catholics actually say, rather than what Catholicism actually teaches. Still, a point I've been trying to make is that moral questions in voting almost never depend on which of two evils is "more evil."

That's because it is never right to choose evil, not even a very slight evil, not even to avoid a much greater evil. Given a choice between a candidate who stands for unjust war and against abortion and one who stands against unjust war and for abortion, the only moral choice is to refuse both.

It is, however, legitimate to tolerate a lesser evil in order to avoid a greater evil. A voter may morally vote for a candidate whose position on every issue is no more evil than the other candidate's. Moreover, a voter need not support a candidate with a good position on all issues, if the voter judges that adopting the candidate's positions would cause more evil than it would prevent. (By the principle of double effect, the candidate's "good" positions are, in fact, not good.)

Making such judgments is one of the few political situations in which a Catholic need concern himself with greater and lesser evils. And even then, it's a comparison between sets of evil consequences, rather than between abstract categories of objectively evil acts. The question isn't, "Is abortion more evil than unjust war?," but, "Would the effects of this abortion policy be more evil than the effects of that unjust war policy?"

For that matter, I don't think the abstract question -- "Is abortion more evil than unjust war?" -- has a yes-or-no answer. They are both offenses against the Fifth Commandment. A single act of abortion might be objectively more evil than a single act of killing in an unjust war, because the relationship between mother and child (and, for that matter, between doctor and patient) is objectively closer than between soldier and civilian. As a political issue, though, it's a question of permitting abortions or requiring unjustified killings, and I don't think there's a way to compare the two.

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Friday, May 07, 2004

Friday fantasy

Quaterlex is a country with a unique form of government. The constitution allows for only four laws – a Tax law, a Contracts law, an Election law, and a Beer Purity law. Furthermore, each law must be one of two prescribed versions: a version in conformity with the true good (i.e., an objectively good version of the law), and a version not in conformity with the true good (an objectively evil version).

Each year, the country's Senate votes on a single omnibus bill, indicating which version of each law is to be put into effect. The bill is sent to the monarch, who may either accept it, in which case the laws are changed accordingly, or reject it, in which case the laws stay the way they were.

How can the monarch determine whether a particular bill should be accepted or rejected?

For example, suppose the Senate proposed a bill like this (red indicates an objectively evil law, blue an objectively good law):

TCEB

Bill

Should the monarch accept this?

It depends on what the current laws are, doesn't it? If they are like this:

TCEB

Status Quo #1

then accepting the bill is an objectively evil act, turning the election law from good to evil.

If the current laws look like this:

TCEB

Status Quo #2

then accepting the bill is an objectively good act, changing the contracts law to good while tolerating (with no power to remove) the evil tax and election laws.

These two cases are pretty straightforward, though some purists might prefer the monarch not be tainted by accepting anything less than this:

TCEB

The Perfect Bill

Suppose, though, the current laws look like this:

TCEB

Status Quo #3

Can the monarch in effect make a two-for-one trade, accepting the evil election law in order to get the good contracts and beer purity laws? Is this situation the same as #2, where accepting the bill is a legitimate act of removing certain evils while tolerating others?

The answer to both questions, alas, is no. You cannot do evil that good may result. Reasoning strictly according to the net change in conformity to the true good is proportionalism, and proportionalism is an error deriving from an inadequate understanding of the object of moral action.

If we switch things around, making the bill the status quo and status quo #3 the bill, we can see the monarch still cannot accept the bill. If a change from one set of laws to another is immoral, that doesn't mean the change in the other direction is moral. (Although it might be, as with status quo #1.)

It also seem that, while the monarch must reject the bill if #3 represents the status quo, meaning that the status quo continues for at least one more year, if the monarch were given a choice between the bill and the status quo, the choice must be refused. But that is a paradox for another post.

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Thursday, May 06, 2004

Cardinal Hickey

Speaking of praying for our bishops, James Cardinal Hickey, Archbishop Emeritus of Washington, may be in "his last illness."

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General agreement

Have you noticed how widely interpretations of recent public actions of the American bishops vary, depending on the observer's perspective?

Liberals think the American bishops are conservative stooges. Conservatives think the American bishops are liberal stooges. Democrats think the American bishops are Republican stooges. Republicans think the American bishops are Democratic stooges.

Then I noticed: They all agree on something.

St. John Neumann, pray for us!

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A one-sided argument

I think the false dilemma in Ono Ekeh's "More Than One Pro-Life Way" article in the National Catholic Reporter was obvious enough:
The conservative approach to reducing the number of abortions is a “supply-side” approach. The idea here is to criminalize abortion providers, thus resulting in a reduction in the number of abortions...
Pro-life moderates and liberals embrace the “demand-side” approach. This approach seeks to reduce the number of abortions by addressing the social issues that compel too many women to contemplate what would normally be unthinkable.
It isn't an "either/or" matter. In fact, it can't be. The same moral imperative that requires abortion to be illegal also requires abortion to be unthinkable. If you think one without the other suffices, you don't really understand what abortion is. Which is one reason why all pro-choice Catholics are foolish at best.

On giving this more thought, though, I realized that this "supply-side vs. demand-side" contrast is worse than a false dilemma. The fact of the matter is, there is no such thing as a "supply side" in contrast to a "demand side." It's all the same side.

Laws prohibiting abortion help make abortion unthinkable, just as laws allowing abortion make abortion not only thinkable, but unremarkable. Ono Ekeh writes:
If social conditions were changed so that women were empowered, and if we effectively addressed issues such as health care, child care, family leave, wage inequity, domestic violence and other women’s issues, we could reasonably expect a significant reduction in the number of abortions in the United States.
What he doesn't write is that prohibiting abortion would also produce a change in social conditions from which we could reasonably expect a significant reduction in the number of abortions. Changing the law is not attacking the abortion problem in a different way than addressing women's issues, it's attacking it in the same way, by reducing the "demand" for abortion.

So I'm disappointed to see Steven Riddle write:
Before legislation will work, the society must be so fundamentally changed as to make the legislation essentially useless anyway. There need to be options for young women who find themselves in this "Sophie's Choice" in which the apparent choice is between "my continued existence on a subsistence level" and "the existence below subsistence I would have with this child." I know it is not the reality, but fear is rarely rational.
For one thing, using Ono Ekeh's data, "inadequate finances" is the reason behind only 21 percent of U.S. abortions. Yes, "only." If we had effectively addressed issues such as health care, child care, family leave, wage inequity, domestic violence and other women’s issues in 1973, there would only have been 32 million abortions in the U.S. since then.

There seems to be an implication that "abortion legislation will work" is equivalent to "no one will have an abortion," but that's absurd. For some reason, abortion law is thought about in ways that would be unthinkable for laws proscribing any other activity. Someone breaking a law is evidence that we shouldn't bother having the law?

More to my point, though, Steven doesn't account for the fact that prohibiting abortion is a means of fundamentally changing society. Let me go further, and propose that society will not be fundamentally changed such that abortion is unthinkable until and unless it is prohibited by law. And that is one reason Ono Ekeh's "pro-life, pro-Kerry" stance is bunk.

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The fundamental right

The primary purpose of thtat last paragraph of Evangelium Vitae 73 is, I think, to confirm what traditional moral reasoning would conclude: the objective moral character of voting for a law "aimed at limiting the number of authorized abortions," "when it is not possible to overturn or completely abrogate a pro-abortion law," derives from the evil it limits rather than the evil it allows.

In other words, it rejects interpreting the encyclical's teaching that "[l]aws which authorize and promote abortion and euthanasia are ... radically opposed not only to the good of the individual but also to the common good" in a rigorist way. Voting for a law that restricts an existing abortion law but does not completely abrogate it is not necessarily immoral.

Note, though, that rejecting rigorism in a certain matter does not imply accepting laxism.

But note also that this paragraph discusses the application of principles to specific circumstances. Among the principles is this: "[C]ivil law must ensure that all members of society enjoy respect for certain fundamental rights which innately belong to the person, rights which every positive law must recognize and guarantee. First and fundamental among these is the inviolable right to life of every innocent human being."

The first and fundamental right belonging to the person is the right to life. Abortion, murder, and euthanasia are all offenses against this same fundamental right to life. There is no innate "right to be born" distinct from an innate "right to remain alive after birth" or "right to remain alive while dying;" it's the same right to life whether the person has been born or not, whether he is healthy or not.

In terms of civil law, then, we must avoid the trap of saying every innocent human being has an inviolable right to life, but some innocent human beings' right to life is more inviolable than others.

And I think this is a trap people do fall into. You need to be very careful, for example, when you say, "Abortion is categorically evil, but the death penalty is a matter of prudential judgment." Yes, the death penalty is a matter of prudential judgment, but if you judge a particular capital punishment law violates the right to life of innocent human beings, you cannot say, "Oh well, that's just my judgment, and my judgment might be wrong, so I can still vote for the law."

Moreover, you can't say, "The death penalty is a matter of prudential judgment, so I don't need to determine whether a particular law under which capital punishment is legal violates the right to life of innocent human beings before I vote for it."

Finally, you can't simply say, "Evangelium Vitae says I can vote for a law aimed at restricting abortions in place of a more permissive law, so I can vote for any candidate who would restrict abortions in place of a more permissive candidate." That he would restrict abortions does not by itself ensure voting for a particular candidate is objectively moral.

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St. Thomas the Apostle, pray for us!

In other Zenit reporting, "The Holy See recognized India's first international shrine, one dedicated to the apostle Thomas... The shrine in the state of Kerala has been the object of pilgrimages since the fifth century."

Which I think is pretty cool, because I'm all for St. Thomas being the Apostle to India as a matter of historical fact.

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What a relief!

A Zenit headline:
Man Isn't "a Useless Speck" Lost in the Universe, Says Pope

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Wednesday, May 05, 2004

Back to basics

Voting is a human act, which means a particular act of voting is -- like every particular human act -- either objectively good -- that is, "in conformity with the true good" -- or objectively evil.

How do we determine whether a particular act is objectively good? By using our prudential judgment, of course -- although that's almost tautological, since prudence is simply "the virtue that disposes practical reason to discern our true good in every circumstance".

It happens that some determinations are more straightforward than others. A particular human act may be an instance belonging to a category of acts all of which the Church teaches are evil; such acts are "categorically evil." If we know that certain acts are categorically evil, and we know how to determine whether a particular act belongs to the set of those acts, then we can easily reach the prudential judgment that a particular act is objectively evil. (And we all remember that an objectively evil act is illicit regardless of intention or circumstances, right?)

Here let me make three points:
  1. Determining that a particular act would be objectively evil is always and necessarily a matter of prudence. Church doctrine does not and cannot treat particular acts that aren't mentioned in Revelation.
  2. If an act may be licitly chosen, it cannot be objectively evil, which means it cannot belong to a category of acts that are categorically evil.
  3. If a person judges two acts to be objectively evil, but only one of them to be an instance of a categorical evil, his judgment regarding the non-categorical evil may be just as certain as his judgment of the categorical evil. (I return to my example of the unjust immigration law. Immigration laws are not categorically evil, but that does not mean there is no such thing as an objectively unjust immigration law, nor that a person cannot be certain a particular immigration law is unjust.)
[I know this sort of spadework makes a lot of people impatient -- "Just say it's a sin to vote for Kerry already! Just say it's a sin to vote for anyone!" -- but I trust my plodding reason more than my leaping intuition, or it might be better to say my leaping intuition has failed me more often than my plodding reason.]

Now, I stuck point 2 in there because I think that's where it belongs, but the reason it belongs in this post at all may not be evident outside the specific context of voting for a pro-abortion candidate. So here's the context:

Elinor Dashwood speaks for many, I think, when she writes:
I'm going to keep on saying this whether anybody wants to hear it or not: to vote for a pro-abortion candidate is wrong, and can never be right.
Yet, as I noted below, the Pope has written that voting for "a more restrictive law, aimed at limiting the number of authorized abortions, in place of a more permissive law already passed or ready to be voted on" can represent "a legitimate and proper attempt to limit [an unjust law's] evil aspects." But if an act may be licitly chosen, it cannot be objectively evil, which means it cannot belong to a category of acts that are categorically evil. Thus, voting for a law that permits abortion is not categorically evil. From which I think the conclusion necessarily follows that voting for a candidate who supports abortion rights is not categorically evil.

However, the fact that a category of acts is not categorically evil does not imply that an act belonging to the category is not objectively evil. Prudential judgment of whether an act is in conformity with the true good is not completed once one category of evils is judged inapplicable. In particular, it needs to be judged whether voting for Kerry fits the extremely narrow sub-category of legitimate attempts to limit evil the Pope outlines.

(And I realize it looks like I'm taking Evangelium Vitae here as Gospel (ha!), which not even every Catholic will accept, but what I think I'm really doing is using the Pope's formulation of a principle derivable almost entirely from human reason, leavened with a dollop of the Incarnation, so properly explained the principle should be accepted by any reasonable Christian.)

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Tuesday, May 04, 2004

Judgments defying credibility

Fr. Rob Johansen is hosting a discussion on the question of whether it is permissible according to Catholic doctrine to vote for John Kerry. I think he overstates his case, though to be fair he is understandably distracted by some very poor counterarguments from those who disagree with him.

I think Fr. Johansen's fundamental mistake is to insist that what he sees as self-evident fact is self-evident fact, instead of a well-founded prudential judgment. For example, he writes:
Some have argued that on abortion, "the Kerry v. Bush debate [is] close to a draw, with Bush only very slightly favorable - and still ultimately pro-choice."

This statement is a fiction of such staggering proportions as to defy credibility.
Believing, in good conscience, that Bush and Kerry are nearly at a draw regarding abortion might be wrong judgment, but it's not immoral, and in fact that judgment can form the basis of a vote for Kerry based on sound Catholic principles.

Fr. Johansen goes on to make this argument:
On issues like care for the poor, Kerry comes out ahead only if you accept that his rather doctrinaire leftist proposals on these matters are actually the best solutions. That is a debatable proposition, on which you have made a prudential judgment. You could be wrong. And if you are wrong, then you will have substituted your private erroneous judgment for the clear teaching of the Church on a matter which is not susceptible to error or reformation. And you will be culpable for that error, because the Church gave you unambiguous guidance in the matter.
For me, anything less than, "Voting for John Kerry is a grave sin," is ambiguous guidance, or at least guidance requiring prudential application to the circumstances I face.

In fact, among the unambiguous guidance Fr. Johansen cites is Evangelium Vitae, but that only proscribes voting for a law permitting abortion or euthanasia, unless
a legislative vote would be decisive for the passage of a more restrictive law, aimed at limiting the number of authorized abortions, in place of a more permissive law already passed or ready to be voted on.
That's a matter of prudential judgment for the legislator, not those who vote him into office, but I think it's reasonable to presume an analogous situation for the voter judging which of two candidates would better serve the common good in the light of the Gospel of Life.

Even if reaching a particular judgment is strong evidence of stupidity.

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Why the Pope always agrees with me

In his ad limina address to the bishops of Baltimore and Washington, Pope John Paul II said:
Indeed, for the renewal of the Church in holiness, it is essential that the Bishop must not only be one who contemplates; he must also be a teacher of the way of contemplation.
There's a reference in the text to Pastores Gregis 17, which concludes:
[The bishop] not only hands down what he himself has contemplated, but he opens to Christians the way of contemplation itself. The well-known motto contemplata aliis tradere thus becomes contemplationem aliis tradere.
Contemplata aliis tradere is, of course, a phrase from St. Thomas, "to give to others what is contemplated," one of the mottos of the Dominican Family.

I mention this not so much to suggest another prayer intention on behalf of our bishops as to bring up the fact that I find the Holy Father's writing style to be soporific. There's sort of a soothing rhythym to his words that lulls my mind to dullness, and it's only when a sentence is snatched up out of context that I have a decent chance of appreciating the point he is trying to make.

Consider this paragraph from his address to the bishops, as it appears on the Vatican website:
The sanctifying mission of the Bishop finds its source in the indefectible holiness of the Church. Because "Christ loved the Church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her" (Eph 5:25-26), she has been endowed with unfailing holiness and has become herself, "in Christ and through Christ, the source and origin of all holiness" (Lumen Gentium, 47). This fundamental truth of the faith, reaffirmed in every recitation of the Creed, needs to be more clearly understood and appreciated by all the members of Christ’s Body, for it is an essential part of the Church’s self-awareness and the basis of her universal mission.
Read it through once, wait a minute, then see how much you remember.

I've never understood the Pope's policy for what gets emphasized, but between that and the in-line references to Scripture and an ecumenical council, the meandering, phrase-paused sentences, and the steady thudding of absolutes like "indefectable... unfailing... source and origin... fundamental... needs to be... essential... basis," I get the feeling every sentence is the key to the whole document, which makes my reading of it monotone, and then I find myself saying, "Yeah, uh-huh, right-o," as I read through it. When I'm finished, I have a vague sense of agreeing with the Pope, but not a clear idea of what we've agreed upon.

The good news in this, though, is that whenever I go back and reread, I always find something I overlooked before.

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Unlikely prayers

Whew! I hope everyone's recovered from the Sts. Philip and James Day celebrations yesterday.

The opening of the collect for their feast struck me as difficult to pray with much sincerity:
God our Father, every year You give us joy on the festival of the Apostles Philip and James.
I don't say there was no joy given the the Church yesterday, but I didn't feel much like a direct participant in it.

Today's collect, too, speaks of joy:
Almighty God, as we celebrate the Resurrection, may we share with each other the joy the risen Christ has won for us.
Now, today is Tuesday of the Fourth Week of Easter; exactly how are we still celebrating the Resurrection?

The prayer speaks of joy in a curiously indirect way. It's not "may we share with each other our joy," nor even "Christ's joy," but "the joy the risen Christ has won for us." It's as though, through His Resurrection, Jesus has tapped a keg of joy for His disciples and said, "Come celebrate with Me!" It's up to us to fill our cups with this joy and to share it with each other. There's a whole process here, a movement directed first toward the risen Christ and then toward His Mystical Body.

But though there are two parts, it remains a single movement. If we don't complete the movement by sharing the joy with others, it's not that we're doing what Jesus invites us to do wrong, it's that we're not doing it at all.

I suppose there are also some who want to do only the second part, to share a joy other than that won for us by the risen Christ, and the futility of that is evident enough.

What saddens me more, though, are the Christians who seem to refuse Christ's offer of joy altogether. They draw from the Resurrection not so much the Good News of salvation as an indictment of reprobation. Obviously, I'm not in a position to say another person has no joy at all, but there are people whose words and actions betray no hint of Easter.

And since joy isn't an emotion, but a gift of the Holy Spirit, it can't be said there are circumstances, no matter how dire, in which joy is not called for.

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Monday, May 03, 2004

Estate sale, everything must go

Quick, copy your favorite posts from Peter Nixon's blog while they last!

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Curtains for catacombs

Fr. Dowd is trying to think of a depressing prophesy about the world turning against the Church that hasn't already come true. Meanwhile, a commenter at Catholic and Enjoying It! writes, "Catholics nowadays could use actual physical threat to mobilize them. A dog fights best when cornered."

I wrote several months ago against a "Bring it on!" attitude regarding persecutions. Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof, and the Church has had her share of folks who went looking for martyrdom only to choose apostasy once the torturers got to work.

I suspect the desire for persecution (if not for me personally, then at least for the spiritual slugabeds with whom I am in communion) is related to the desire for certainty. It's easier to act boldly, without hesitations or reservations, when you're certain of your course. An act of the will when the will is weak isn't much of an act at all, and it doesn't give you much confidence that you are acting properly.

Being Christian implies being opposed somehow by the world, so it can be unsettling when the world doesn't much oppose us. "Television is turning our kids into pagans!" is, when you think about it, a pretty lame battle cry -- and that's true regardless of how efficiently television may actually be turning our kids into pagans. It presents us with a broad matter of prudential judgment, and prudential judgment is not the stuff of categorical certainty.

If the world ups the ante, though -- to the point, say, that preaching or practicing Christianity is in various ways outlawed -- now we're talking! Now the lines are clear, and we can act with unreserved determination. We are the king's good servants, perhaps, but God's servants first. The rationalizations to go along and to get along in situations that brought us no personal glory can be given up, and we can boldly declare ourselves Christians.

But there's a difference between searching the signs of the times, with Fr. Dowd, for what may be coming, and rushing to embrace it as welcome medicine. We ourselves should be sufficient medicine for our fellow Catholics whom we deem insufficiently Catholic, if only we were ourselves were sufficiently potent doses of the charity of God. Persecution may come, and it should be welcomed insofar as it is God's will, but persecution is not a good to be desired for its own sake, nor one to be sought as the simplest cure for what ails God's Church.

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An oracle

The other night, I was musing over all the things I had read in the past weeks about politicians and bishops and canon law and sacraments and such. I wanted to compose a post that would correct the mistakes I'd seen, clarify certain distinctions, and generally lay out the proper understanding of the issues raised.

My difficulty was that I didn't myself know the proper understanding of the issues raised. But that's a problem easily fixed. Ask, and it shall be given to you. So I began to pray.

"Dear Lord, please give to me the wisdom, knowledge, and understanding I need to discern Your will in these matters, so that --"

"No, you don't."

" -- I may... er, what?"

"You don't need to discern My will in these matters."

And that was that.

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Friday, April 30, 2004

"Slowly I turned..."

Here are the rules for Black Out, a card game I invented:
Object: Get rid of all red cards from your hand.

Set-up: Dealer shuffles a normal deck of cards, deal each player 3 cards. Undealt cards are placed in the middle as a draw pile. Any player whose cards are all black shows his hand and sits out.

Play: The first remaining player to the left of the dealer draws a card from the draw pile and may either discard one card face up next to the draw pile or pass one card to the player to his left.

Play goes to the left. If a card was not passed to a player, he draws a card from the draw pile, then either discards a card or passes one to his left.

When all three cards in a player's hand are black, he shows his hand and is out.

The last remaining player is the loser.
This game is something like a dollar auction, in that the rules lead to unstable play. Players may find themselves frantically passing the same red card around, not because it helps their own hand any, but because it keeps other players from drawing a card that might be black.

I invented this game for a CCD class, with the idea that the red cards represent offenses toward us which we can choose to either pass on to someone else or simply discard.

For a long time, my primary way of thinking of the communal effects of sin has been like this. I sin against you, causing you to sin against someone else, and so on. At any link in this chain, a person may choose to end it by accepting the sin against him and refusing to sin in reaction.

But in the last day or so, I've noticed a different dynamic at work, or at least a different aspect of a dynamic I thought I understood. It's the communal nature of scandal.

As most of the fanatics who read Catholic blogs probably know, in moral theology "scandal" refers to an act that causes others to sin. A scandal isn't necessarily a sinful in itself (e.g., the "scandal of the Cross"), but it certainly can be, and when it is the fact it causes scandal increases its gravity.

I know all this; what's been brought home to me just now is how diffusive scandal can be.

When I act, I change things. The environment in which I act has more of what I act for and less of what I act against. When my act is a sin, the environment has less goodness, less of what it ought to have.

This will affect the other actors in that environment, but -- and this is what I mean by "diffusive scandal" -- each actor will be affected differently, because each actor has different virtues and vices and is susceptible to different temptations.

As a simple example, suppose a person steals office supplies, creating an environment in which office supplies are stolen. (Everyone still with me?) Two days ago, I would have said the scandal stealing office supplies causes is primarily making people think stealing office supplies isn't wrong. But only people who aren't convinced stealing office supplies is wrong would be scandalized in this way. Someone who was scrupulous about using office supplies would not suddenly think stealing them is fine just because a co-worker does it. Is it not more likely the scrupulous worker would be tempted to unrighteous anger at the thief, or even to detraction of the employer too stupid to notice what was going on?

My sin, then, doesn't only (maybe not even primarily) tempt you to that same sin. It also changes the circumstances you find yourself in, in a way that may lead you to a sin you would have resisted had I not committed mine. And there's no way, generally speaking, I could ever guess what sort of sins might be committed that can trace their causes back to include my own sin, which wasn't such a big deal and certainly is no one's business but my own.

I don't see this as a matter of moral culpability, but of the communal tragedy of sin. You bear responsibility for your own sins, but ah, if only I hadn't shifted things to expose your weakness!

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You think your religion textbook was cartoonish?

Check out this one:



And you can't blame this on the spirit of Vatican II. It's an instruction on general confession from a Sixteenth Century pictorial catechism the Dominican friar Pedro de Cordoba wrote to teach the Faith to the Indians of the New World.

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Come, pilgrims!

All are invited to join the
St. Blog's Marian Year Pilgrimage to the
Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception
May 23, 2004

11:00 a.m.: Meet in the cafeteria on the lower level.
11:30 a.m.: Rosary in the Chapel of Our Lady of the Holy Rosary.
12:00 p.m.: Solemn Mass of the Ascension in the Great Upper Church.
Lunch following Mass.
Confession is offered at the Basilica from 10-12 and from 2-4.

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Thursday, April 29, 2004

St. Catherine's charism of exhortation

These days, St. Catherine of Siena (as she is generally known) is widely invoked as an example of a layperson boldly giving bishops, cardinals, and even popes an earful of advice when they prove unable or unwilling to do what they ought to do. But, with the list of things bishops ought to do seemingly growing with each passing week, what sort of example is St. Catherine really, and what can the Catholic laity today learn from her?

St. Catherine was born into a large and prosperous Sienese family in 1347. She had her first reported vision of Jesus when she was six, and a year later she vowed herself to Jesus alone. This led, once she reached marriageable age, to years of struggle with her family, during which they treated her as a scullery maid in her own house. St. Catherine persevered, and eventually her father told the family to let her live as she wished.

After this, she spent several years doing little more than praying in a small, bare room in her family’s bustling house. At last, when she was twenty, she felt called to emerge from her cell and engage the world around her in service to the sick and the poor.

News of her sanctity, her wisdom, and not least her miracles quickly spread. She was also a dedicated letter writer; nearly four hundred of her letters survive. Though there were many who thought St. Catherine a fake at best, her fame grew to the point that, in 1375, she was invited to Florence to help negotiate an end to the politically and economically based hostilities between the city and the Papal States.

For seventy years, the popes had been living in Avignon rather than Rome, a fact St. Catherine was sure contributed to the stubbornness of the Florentines and the more general unrest throughout Italy. The Florentines suggested Catherine herself travel to Avignon as an intermediary, a suggestion she took up.

She met Gregory XI in the summer of 1376. During an audience with the pope a few days after her arrival, she informed him, “The truth is, even before I left my native city I was more conscious of the evil odor of the sins committed in the Roman Curia than were the persons themselves who were committing them; yes, and who continue to commit them daily.”

At these stunning words from an unlettered young woman, the Pope fell silent. Bl. Raymond of Capua, who served as St. Catherine’s interpreter for this meeting (she did not speak Latin), later wrote, “I was careful to imprint on my memory that striking picture of her as, radiating authority, she spoke to the Pope in such terms face to face.”

Within months, St. Catherine has persuaded to Pope to return to Rome. The disputed election of Pope Urban VI in the conclave following Gregory’s death in 1378, however, led to the Great Western Schism which was to divide the Church for decades. St. Catherine threw herself into Urban’s cause, writing stern letters to cardinals who supported the anti-pope: “You are flowers who shed no perfume, but stench that makes the whole world reek.”

To the autocratic Pope, meanwhile, she wrote, “I know that your holiness wants helpers who will really help you -- but you have to be patient enough to listen to them.”

These are just the sort of things many conservative Catholics would like to tell the American bishops, or even the pope. Still, there are several factors from Catherine’s own life that argue against a wholesale adoption of her methods.

To begin with, it was the inarguable holiness of her life that allowed her to radiate authority. When she told the Pope, “The honor of God compels me to speak bluntly,” she had already spent more than a dozen of her twenty-nine years wholly committed to discerning and following the will of God. This gave her advice, even her scolding, a contemplative foundation few today would claim for themselves.

Then too, there is the teaching she gave in her book The Dialogue, where she portrays God as saying: “I wish the laity to hold [priests] in due reverence, not for their own sakes… but for Mine, by reason of the authority I have given them… This reverence should never diminish in the case of priests whose virtue grows weak, any more than in the case of those virtuous ones...” This will not sit well with those Catholics who think reverence for bishops whose virtue has grown weak is itself a major contributor to the difficulties facing the Church.

Finally, there’s the practical matter that St. Catherine’s advice, however wise it may have been, was often resisted or ignored by those to whom she gave it. Pope Gregory XI’s return to Rome was a crucial step in the path that led to forty years of schism, and the schismatic cardinals could not have felt closer to Urban VI after being labeled “stench” by one of his most outspoken supporters.

But if St. Catherine’s life doesn’t provide carte blanche to excoriate bishops, it does suggest a basis for appropriate lay criticism of the bishops.

Catherinian scholar Sr. Suzanne Noffke, OP, has identified the cornerstone of St. Catherine’s sense of ecclesial obedience as an obedience to Christ, one therefore shared by bishops and laity alike, an obedience to which each member of the Church may legitimately call each other.

“There seem to have been only two ultimate questions for Catherine in matters of practical discernment,” Noffke writes. “’Is it true?’ and ‘Is it loving?’”

No doubt St. Catherine’s life of profound contemplation gave her clearer insight into what is true than most Catholics today have. Yet any Catholic might be reminded of his primary duty of obedience to Christ, Who (Catholics believe) is Truth, before and above all other duties.

The harder standard for today’s letter-writing layman may well be making sure his letters are written in love. There is much that is unlovable where the Church encounters the world, but truth separated from love would have been unthinkable for St. Catherine.

How is the letter writer sure he is acting out of love? By “remaining in the cell of self-knowledge… because knowledge must precede love,” St. Catherine teaches, “and only when [the soul] has attained love, can she strive to follow and to clothe herself with the truth.”

Certainly some things to which a bishop might be exhorted don’t require three years of prayer to discern. But anyone who calls upon St. Catherine of Siena as his model in advising or instructing the American bishops should be aware of the risks involved. He just might find himself called upon him to change, too. Saints are funny that way.

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"Is not not" is not "is"

In a post below, I wrote:
As a hypothetical example: Suppose we were faced with a choice between legalized abortion and unjust immigration law. What should we do?
A comment signed "goat" reads:
I'm not sure I accept the premise that "unjust immigration law" is something we would be choosing.

Is it Church doctrine that a nation cannot regulate immigration?
I'm pulling this out because I think a lot of people are still missing my point, and I think the point is very important, and I don't know whether I wasn't clear enough for goat or whether goat doesn't think the point is true.

Here's the point:
That you get to decide something doesn't mean you can't make an manifestly immoral decision.
>So the fact that it's Church doctrine that a nation can regulate immigration doesn't mean there's no such thing as an unjust immigration law.

As I say, I think a lot of people don't quite get this. "The Church teaches the death penalty isn't immoral per se" does not imply "There is no Catholic basis for objecting to a particular death penalty policy." To the contrary, there is a very pronounced Catholic basis for objecting to the vast majority of death penalty policies.

I think there's a lot of exaggeration over the practical implications of the moral distinction between "immoral per se" and "not immoral per se." The negatives in the latter expression don't cancel; "not immoral per se" does not mean "moral per se."

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You know how to, and You can, and You want to

St. Catherine of Siena had a large group of devoted followers, some of whom wrote down many of the words she uttered spontaneously while deep in prayer. Several collections of these prayers were produced in the years following her death; Suzanne Noffke, OP, has edited an English translation of the complete set of 26 prayers which can be browsed on-line before purchase.

One striking feature of St. Catherine's prayers is how Trinitarian they are. Not for her a pro forma "through Christ our Lord, amen," or an "and the Holy Spirit" squeezed in toward the end. She prayed as though she knew personally the Persons to Whom she prayed.

Prayer 5, below, seems to have been offered during a time when people were accusing her of political plotting. (In a letter, she wrote of the rumor-mongers, "They are telling the truth without knowing it. They are prophesying. For there is nothing I want to do, or want those with me to do, except to plot to defeat the devil and snatch from him the control over people that he has seized because of deadly sin, and to plot to take hatred from their hearts and reconcile them with Christ crucified and with their neighbors. These are the plots we are about, and I want all who are with me to be about these plots.")
Eternal Father, Power, help me!
Son of God, Wisdom, enlighten the eye of my understanding!
Holy Spirit, tender Mercy, enflame my heart and unite it to Yourself!

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

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

Oimè!
I wish You would not delay any longer!
I beg You, let Your infinite goodness force You not to close the eye of Your mercy!
Gentle Jesus!
Jesus love!
Has there been a day since these words were first spoken when this prayer was not timely?

[In a note on the text, by the way, Noffke points out the implicit Trinitarianism of the formula, "You know how to [=wisdom=Son], and You can[=power=Father], and You want to[=will=love=HolySpirit]." Doctor of the Church, indeed!]

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Wednesday, April 28, 2004

More on St. Catherine of Siena's favorite principles

From Bl. Raymond of Capua's Life, no. 100, St. Catherine speaking:
The soul which sees that itself is nothing, and which knows that all its good is in its Creator, turns its back, with all the powers of its being, on itself and every creature, and plunges totally into its Creator. From then on it directs all it does, above all and throughout all, to Him. Its whole mind is set on never going one step outside of Him in Whom it realizes it has found its whole good and its complete and perfect happiness. This union of love grows daily more intense, and eventually the soul is, in a manner, so transformed into God that all its thoughts -- its understanding and its love and its memory -- are taken up exclusively with God, and busy about God alone. Itself and other creatures it sees only in God; it thinks of them and of itself exclusively in God. It is like what happens when a person dives into the sea and swims underwater. He sees nothing and touches nothing but the water and whatever is submerged in the water. Outside the water he sees nothing, feels nothing, and touches nothing. And if the images of things outside fall in or on the water, he does not see them as they are in themselves, but only as they are or appear in the water. To envisage things in this way means that love of self and of other creatures is now brought under the rule of right order, and can no longer stray beyond its proper bounds. It is now subjected to a rule which is divine. Existing and acting only in God, it no longer lusts after anything outside of God.
Really makes you feel like St. Catherine was talking about you personally, doesn't it? Bl. Raymond goes on to comment:
...for my part, I regret to say, being without personal experience of them, I can only repeat in my own blundering way what I have been told. But do you take them in, dear Reader, and make them your own, according to the measure of the grace you have yourself received.

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Her fundamental maxim

In his Life of Catherine of Siena, Bl. Raymond of Capua records what St. Catherine had often told him Christ taught her when He first began appearing to her:
"Do you know, daughter, who you are and who I am? If you know these two things you have beatitude in your grasp. You are she who is not, and I AM HE WHO IS. Let your soul but become penetrated with this truth, and the Enemy can never lead you astray; you will never be caught in any snare of his, nor ever transgress any commandment of mine; you will have set your feet on the royal road which leads to the fulness of grace, and truth, and light."
[Life, no. 92, Conleth Hearns, OP, translator]

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The lesser of two lessers

The word "evil" has several different meanings, depending on how it's used. Illness, malicious laughter, and envy are all evil, but in different ways.

So of course the expression "the lesser of two evils" also has different meanings.

As I understand it, its original use was in reference to counselling someone bent on committing evil. If you are morally certain he will commit one of two evil acts, you may (some moral theologians contend) advise him to commit the lesser evil. [Side query: If you are morally certain he intends to commit an evil act, can you suggest a lesser evil? "No, don't kill him. Make fun of his ears."]

Now, the fact that you might be able to advise someone else to commit a lesser evil doesn't mean you yourself may commit any evil at all, be it ever so lesser. Still, the expression is catchy enough to have been adopted in the case where someone feels he must choose between two evil choices.

There are at least two ways the choices can be evil. They may be evil in the direct moral sense, i.e., choosing them may constitute a sin. But they may also be evil in the non-moral sense of being markedly imperfect. "Eating out of the vending machine" and "skipping lunch altogether" might each be considered an undesirable choice; they are evil, not because it's immoral to do either, but because both fall so far short of perfection.

When you're faced with the first situation, a choice between committing one sin or another, you must refuse the choice (which of course means you never face the first situation, since there's always the third choice of "neither").

When you're faced with the second situation, though, you may and perhaps should choose the lesser evil, at least when the third choice of "neither" is a greater evil than the lesser of the two.

So when it comes to voting, if you say you're given only evil choices, do you mean immoral choices or imperfect choices?

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De non gustibus est disputandum

Fr. Rob Johansen's post, "Abortion Is The Foremost Issue," is a solid rebuttal to those who say support for the death penalty is morally equivalent to support for legal abortion. I think, though, readers must be careful not to wind up giving away too much to the concept of "prudential judgment."

Fr. Johansen writes:
Once you start talking about whether the death penalty is justified in this or any case (and so must you reason, for circumstances do exist which warrant the death penalty), you have entered the realm of prudential judgment.

Who is to make that prudential judgment? As in other issues, the Church teaches that such judgments are to be made by "legitimate authority"....

Just as with the death penalty, even if George Bush was wrong in his judgment about the war, he is simply wrong, not immoral or criminal. One cannot attribute the same level of culpability to errors concerning prudential judgments on contingent matters as one can to deliberate and knowing violations of the moral law.
All very true.

At the same time, though, the fact that a decision is to be made using one's prudential judgment does not necessarily place the decision beyond moral reproach. A matter of prudential judgment can be decided in a culpably evil way.

For example, I have the right and responsibility of making prudential judgments concerning the education of my children. My judgment may prove more or less sound, depending on how prudent I am, but if I do my best there's not much others can say beyond, "A shame for those kids their father's an idiot."

However, I might also refuse my responsibility to judge prudently. If I decide my children's education will consist of watching television and dodging the truant officer, then it is not a matter of me being simply "wrong, not immoral or criminal." I would, in fact, be all three, and the fact that I would be all three would be observable to others.

Since the mere fact that something is a matter of someone's prudential judgment does not mean the person actually exercises his prudential judgment in choosing, matters of prudential judgment do come under moral analysis.

I think, then, Fr. Johansen is mistaken, or at least imprecise, when he writes:
If you say that you will not vote for George Bush because he supports the death penalty, that is your right. But if you do so, it's based on your opinion. You do so as a citizen, not as a Catholic. You cannot say that the teaching of the Church necessitates your position.
True, you can't say, "The Church teaches the death penalty is immoral per se, therefore as a Catholic I can't vote for George Bush." But you can say, "George Bush's stance on the death penalty is contrary to Catholic teaching, therefore as a Catholic I can't vote for George Bush." You'd have to defend the premise, of course, but your reasoning would most definitely be as a Catholic.

Similarly, it's invalid to argue, "Determining whether a war is just is left to the prudential judgment of the government, therefore as a Catholic I can't say the Iraq War is immoral." What you can't say as a Catholic is that there is a dogmatic Church teaching that the Iraq War is immoral.

What I'm writing is, of course, recursive. Deciding that, as a Catholic, you cannot vote for a candidate is a matter of prudential judgment, which means that decision may be wrong, and perhaps even immoral.

Near the end of his post, Fr. Johansen writes:
Even if George Bush were The Worst President Ever, that would not make voting for John Kerry, or any other pro-abort candidate, morally acceptable.
That's a strong claim, one I'm generally sympathetic to but not one universally accepted, even among pro-life Catholics. Quite often, as in "A Voter's Guide for Serious Catholics," there's a loophole allowing one to vote for the least objectionable candidate.

Still, if we accept the claim, we accept that a candidate's position on an issue may make him un-votable-for. The fact that an issue is a matter of prudential judgment does not, in itself, mean that a candidate's position on the issue cannot make him un-votable-for.

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Tuesday, April 27, 2004

"The active, responsible and generous involvement of everyone"

Little Red Hen found the need for a political party.

"Who will create this?" she asked.

"Not I," said the cat.

"Not I," said the goose.

"Not I," said the rat.

"Then I will," said Little Red Hen.

So she created the political party.

"The party exists now," said Little Red Hen. "Who will give it a platform?"

"Not I," said the cat.

"Not I," said the goose.

"Not I," said the rat.

"Then I will," said Little Red Hen.

So she wrote the party platform, based on what made good political sense to her.

Then she asked, "Who will organize the members of the party?"

"Not I," said the cat.

"Not I," said the goose.

"Not I," said the rat.

"Then I will," said Little Red Hen.

So she signed up her chicks as members of the political party.

Then she put a candidate for her party on the ballot.

"Who will vote for this party?" she asked.

"Not I," said the cat.

"Not I," said the goose.

"Not I," said the rat.

"Then I will," said Little Red Hen.

So she voted for her party's candidate, and the candidate won.

Then she said, "Now we shall see who will run this country."

"We will," said cat, goose, and rat.

"I am quite sure you would," said Little Red Hen, "if you could get to."

Then she called her chicks, and they ran the country.

There was no political power left at all for the cat, or the goose, or the rat.

"What more could we do?" the cat, the goose, and the rat asked each other. "We voted, didn't we?"

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Triumphalism of the truth

The thing about condescension isn't so much the lack of charity expressed toward those being condescended to as the lack of humility expressed toward the truth they allegedly lack.

I mean, how do you reconcile these two statements:
  1. "I possess the truth, and you do not."
  2. "I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life."
The truth isn't something you possess, it's Someone Who possesses you. And if it's really this Truth by Whom you're acting, you don't say, "Neener neener," or, "Let me know when you've finally arrived at the correct answer," you say, "Friend, rejoice with me over what I've found!"

My "Self-Directed Catherinian Mini-Retreat" was a light-hearted post, but now I think it should have come with a warning: "Not for children, invalids, or the complacently self-righteous." Meditating on the fact that God is He Who Is and you are he [or, in certain circumstances, she] who is not is a dangerous and destructive act that just might shred any sense of boastfulness or triumphalism you depend on to get through the day. It's positively vertiginous for those of us who habitually think it's us who somehow steady the Rock upon which we build our faith and hope.

Here's a rule of thumb for guarding against triumphalism of the truth: When, in your view, someone else takes a step in the right direction, don't think it's because he's stepping in your direction.

Update:Someone forwarded me an unattributed comment that led to this post. Originally, that comment was at the beginning of the post, but its writer noticed it, identified himself as its author, and objected to its use, so I have removed it.

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What I like about grave evil

The one thing I like about the moral act of abortion is how straightforward it is. "Direct abortion, that is to say, abortion willed either as an end or a means, is gravely contrary to the moral law." Period. So moral reasoning about abortion is duck soup.

(Yes, there are wrinkles like ectopic pregnancies, but ectopic pregnanices are not what the abortion debate is about.)

And yet, the very clarity of the categorical immorality of abortion can wind up clouding moral reasoning. Just as the sun's light blinds us to the other daytime stars, the evil of abortion can blind us to other evils in our world.

As a hypothetical example: Suppose we were faced with a choice between legalized abortion and unjust immigration law. What should we do?

An argument blinded by the enormity of abortion might look like this: "Life is the one absolute, bedrock, fundamental right, without which it's meaningless to speak of other rights. What constitutes just immigration law is a matter of prudential judgment, but abortion is everywhere and always evil. We must, therefore, resist legalized abortion and choose the purportedly unjust immigration law."

The correct answer, though, is: We should do neither.

The correctness of the answer is clearer when the evils are more proportionate: Should you punch the next person you see in the face, or in the gut?

I think the difficulty many have in recognizing that as a matter of fact we shouldn't choose unjust immigration law lies in part in the fact that many think "the lesser of two evils" is a legitimate way of choosing how to act. But the lesser of two evils is evil, and evil is never legitimate. Is this a failure of reason, do you think, or of faith?

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Monday, April 26, 2004

Personal charisms

From Pope Paul VI's homily when St. Catherine of Siena was declared a Doctor of the Church:
What did she mean by the renewal and reform of the Church? Certainly not the subverting of her essential structures, rebellion against the Pastors, the way freed for personal charisms, arbitrary innovations of cult and discipline, as some in our own time want. On the contrary, she affirms repeatedly that the beauty of the Spouse of Christ must be restored and reform should be brought about "not with war, but with peace and quiet, with humble and continual prayer, the sweat and tears of the servants of God." It is a question accordingly for the Saint of an interior reform first of all, then external, but always in communion with and filial obedience to the legitimate representatives of Christ. [emphasis added]
Folks who feel compelled to say with St. Catherine, "'The honor of Almighty God compels me to speak bluntly' to the bishops," would do well to first ask themselves, "How humble is my prayer? How continual is my prayer?"

But that's an old refrain here. What strikes me in this passage is the reference to "personal charisms."

According to the Catechism, "Whether extraordinary or simple and humble, charisms are graces of the Holy Spirit which directly or indirectly benefit the Church, ordered as they are to her building up, to the good of men, and to the needs of the world."

Yeah, yeah, yeah, so more slowly, a charism is
  1. a grace
  2. of the Holy Spirit
  3. for the benefit of the Church.
Since a charism is a grace, it can't be assumed, demanded of God, or manufactured out of a person's own will. Since a charism is of the Holy Spirit, it must be "in keeping with charity," which after all is what the Holy Spirit is. Since a charism is for the benefit of the Church, it can't be something exercised apart from, much less in opposition to, one's relationship with the entire Mystical Body of Christ.

Where does this leave the idea of a "personal charism"? If it has any legitimate sense, it cannot be something that benefits the person alone, or even those on the person's "side" alone. Whatever cuts off one part of the Body of Christ from another cannot be from the Spirit Who informs the entire Body.

And so "discernment of charisms is always necessary." Which brings us back to the questions, "How humble is my prayer? How continual is my prayer?"

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