instruere...inlustrare...delectare Disputations

Thursday, July 01, 2004

His love must be perceived

Being on the receiving end of a correction can be painful. The best way to avoid it is to be free of moral and intellectual faults.

But if one who would admonish his brother in fraternal charity must be sure his authority will be recognized and his love perceived, one who would be admonished -- which is to say, one who is not certain he has no faults -- must recognize authority and perceive love.

Recognizing authority is a snap, since every Christian has made himself a servant of all, so all have authority over him.

Perceiving love can be more difficult; admonishers often betray no sign of the love with which they act. However, the Christian who has made himself docile to the will of God will know, even if he cannot articulate, the Divine love illuminating everything that happens to him, and so will be open to the correction given him.

Just because admonishment is a form of correction doesn't mean all admonishment is correct. Still, I think we can say as a general guideline that all admonishment should be accepted with gratitude -- toward God, at least -- and honestly evaluated. We are, after all, called to perfection, not adequacy, and it may be that even a completely wrong-headed attempt at correction leads you to see some fault you've missed before (like, for starters, dismissing out-of-hand completely wrong-headed attempts at correction).

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Corrections

Comments on yesterday's "This love must be perceived" post point out that there are several different forms of correction, which, since they differ in the end sought, may also differ in the means used.

Admonishment, which I usually have in mind when speaking of "fraternal correction," seeks the elimination (or at least reduction) of a moral fault. The Church has a lot in Her treasuries that deals with admonishment of sinners, from Jesus' observation about the speck and the plank to St. Ignatius' comments and beyond. It's a spiritual work of mercy, but a particularly dicey one to do properly.

Instruction, another spiritual work of mercy, has as its end the correction of an intellectual fault. Where you admonish the sinner for doing something wrong, you instruct the ignorant for thinking something wrong -- or, perhaps more commonly, for not thinking something right. In a comment below, Christine brought up the example of correcting an untruth being spread by another, where you're not so much concerned with instructing the person teaching the untruth as with instructing those who might come to believe it.

Kathy pointed out another form of correction, "intended to change a wrong course of action." Here the end sought is purely external, and I'm sure there's a better term than resistance.

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The major problem

Here is a valid syllogism; if the two premises are true, then the conclusion is true:
  1. Most Democratic candidates are pro-abortion.
  2. You should not vote for a pro-abortion candidate.
  3. Therefore, you should not vote for most Democratic candidates.
Catholic bishops are getting increasingly explicit in their teachings that one or another form of the minor premise -- "you should not vote for a pro-abortion candidate" -- is true, and many lay Catholics are responding in anger to the implication that the conclusion -- "you should not vote for most Democratic candidates" -- is true.

They are right to be angry. It should not be true that you shouldn't vote for most Democrats.

What doesn't make sense to me is why they're angry at the bishops, for teaching that the minor premise is true, and not (as far as I can tell) particularly angry at a major political party for teaching that abortion is a public good. I can't think of a flattering explanation for the selective indignation.

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Wednesday, June 30, 2004

The extra step

In a prayer written down by her companions, St. Catherine of Siena developed the image of mankind as fruit trees grafted onto Jesus through our shared humanity. At one point, she pondered the problem of evil:
And if, God eternal, You made us into trees of life again when we were trees of death by engrafting Yourself, Life, into us
(though many because of their sins produce only fruits of death because they do not engraft themselves into You, eternal Life),
then You can provide as well for the salvation of everyone I see refusing to engraft themselves into You today.
In fact, most of them are persisting in their death of selfish sensuality,
and none of them comes to the fountain where they could find the Blood to water their trees.
I come across such sentiments all the time, if not usually expressed in so relentless a metaphor. Even the allowance that God can provide for the salvation of all the louts we run into today is something plenty of folks will grant if asked.

But then St. Catherine takes her prayer in a direction most of us don't:
Oh, within us is eternal life, and we do not know it!
Oh my poor blind soul, where is your crying?
Where are the tears you ought to be shedding in the sight of your God Who is constantly inviting you?
Where is your heartfelt sorrow for the trees who remain planted in death;
where are your anguished desires in the presence of divine compassion?
These things are not in me because I still have not lost myself.
For if I had lost myself and had sought only God and the glory and praise of His name,
my heart would pour itself out in my voice and my bones would weep out their marrow.
But I have never produced anything but the fruit of death because I have not engrafted myself into You.
If I had sought only God, my bones would weep out their marrow.

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The Extra Plate

Enbrethiliel quotes a story told by Bl. Teresa of Calcutta:
Not so long ago, a very wealthy Hindu lady came to see me. She sat down and told me, "I would like to share in your work." ... It occurred to me to say to her, "I would start with the saris. The next time you go buy one, instead of paying 800 rupies, buy one that costs five hundred. Then with the extra 300 rupies, buy saris for the poor."
Simplicity itself: give to the hungry some of your bread and to the naked some of your clothing.

For the most part, I am something of a tight-fisted cheeseparer, and the only time I buy clothes is when I go somewhere and forget to pack enough to wear, so the poor would notice little benefit if I gave them a 38% cut of my clothing budget.

On the giving to the hungry some of your bread angle, though, I recently thought of an even simpler idea, based on the custom of setting an extra plate at the dinner table for an unexpected guest: You divide your monthly food budget by the size of your family, then give that amount to a food shelter. In effect, you're spending enough money on food to feed one extra person the same stuff you're feeding yourself.

I haven't yet screwed up my courage to estimate my family's monthly food budget, so I mention this not to lecture anyone on the proper way of charitable giving, but just as a suggestion for whoever has the means and interest to give it a try.

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This love must be perceived

Steve Bogner quotes St. Ignatius of Loyola on the question of correcting others:
An important factor in doing this successfully is the authority enjoyed by the person giving the correction, or his love - and this love must be perceived. Lacking either of these, the correction will be ineffective; there will be no amendment. Hence correcting others is not for everyone.
Let me rewind St. Ignatius's words: Correcting others isn't for everyone, because it isn't always effective, because the one being corrected doesn't always perceive the love and grant the authority of the corrector.

If the correction will be ineffective, don't do it. You can't get much more effect-oriented than that.

I see many, many attempts at correction that appear to be cause-oriented, along the lines of, "But what that guy's doing is wrong! I've got to say something!" That's a mechanical response, and humans (as reason and faith together proclaim) are more than machines. If the effect you want is to release the emotions what that guy's doing causes in you, then go into a deserted place and reel off an imprecatory psalm or two. If the effect you want is for that guy to stop doing something wrong, then first ask yourself whether he will acknowledge your authority and perceive your love if you say something to him.

See how subjective this is? It's all well and good if you act out of love, but if he can't see that, it won't do any good. And since love is desire for another's good, acting in a such a way that he can't perceive your love may well not be acting out of love after all.

But even if I have a friend who I know is willing to accept correction from me, I still need to be very careful about correcting him. If he is very sensitive to mockery, for example, then I shouldn't use mockery while correcting him. If his eyes glaze over at the sight of a syllogism, then I shouldn't use syllogisms.

Put this way, it sounds obvious, but in practice I find it's hard not to leave it up to others to find the love in the way I express myself. That, of course, is to put love of myself ahead of love of others, and who would fault the other for not doing the work to perceive my love for him buried under my love for myself?

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Tuesday, June 29, 2004

The yoke of slavery

Perhaps because the Gospel reading was too challenging, the words from Sunday's Mass that stuck with me are from Galatians 5:1:
Do not submit again to the yoke of slavery.
There's a lot going on in these few words.
  • Do not submit: Most of the English translations are along the lines of "be not held" or "be not entangled." Each variation implies that we have a choice in the matter. Submission is an act of the will. We may, if we choose, accept the yoke of slavery, but it cannot be forced on us, since Christ Himself has set us free.
  • again: The yoke of slavery is known to all. Each of us has worn it. Many of us, I suspect, have submitted to it again and again throughout our lives.

    Now, why would anyone do this, submit again to slavery? St. Paul goes on to suggest a reason:
    For the flesh has desires against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh; these are opposed to each other, so that you may not do what you want.
    Not only may we prefer the usual desires of the flesh to those of the Spirit, but it's entirely possible for us to confuse the two, to -- if you'll pardon the overextended metaphor -- unhitch the yoke of slavery from the plow of carnal pleasures, say, only to hitch it to the plow of self-righteousness, without noticing that we're still yoked to slavery.
  • to the yoke of slavery: We must not think that to be free in Christ is to be free of all burdens, to be out from under all yokes. Jesus Himself promises us a yoke in on of the tenderest passages in Matthew:
    "Come to me, all you who labor and are burdened, 16 and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am meek and humble of heart; and you will find rest for your selves. For my yoke is easy, and my burden light."
    And a few verses after St. Paul warns the Galatians against submitting again to the yoke of slavery, he orders them to serve each other:
    For you were called for freedom, brothers and sisters. But do not use this freedom as an opportunity for the flesh; rather, serve one another through love.
    In both cases, there is servitude: the old servitude is enforced by a yoke, the new servitude is given in love. Or, if you like, in both cases there is a yoke: the old yoke is of slavery, the new yoke is of love.

    The human spirit chafes against its fallen nature, and the unwise interpret this as a sign that servitude of any sort is contrary to human perfection. The fool thinks he can only achieve freedom by refusing to serve, but those given the wisdom of the Holy Spirit know the freedom they were called for, the only true human freedom, is a freedom of love, and to love is to serve.

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Who knew?

I am told I am an SEDF-- Sober Emotional Destructive Follower. This makes me an evil genius. I am extremely focused and difficult to distract from my tasks. With luck, I have learned to channel my energies into improving my intellect, rather than destroying the weak and unsuspecting.

My friends may find me remote and a hard nut to crack. Few of my peers know me very well--even those I have known a long time--because I have expert control of the face I put forth to the world. I prefer to observe, calculate, discern and decide. My decisions are final, and my desire to be right is impenetrable.

I am not to be messed with. I may explode.

(Link via Sister Christer. Image from the Portrait Illustration Maker.)

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It never comes bad to resume

I don't have much of an ear for poetry (in the same way that I don't have much of a shot at becoming Queen of England), but I will admit that I've missed reading this sort of stuff over the past half year:
Good, Greene and Bloy also are of those friends who one has, and that one had wished to amigar to each other... And if in this case my friendship by Bloy almost made forget me to the other, perhaps this discovery does not come badly. It never comes bad to resume friendships.
And here I thought I'd never remove fotos del apocalipsis from my blogroll.

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Thursday, June 24, 2004

Great mind thinks; I like

Bill White links to a page of nuggets from the writings of Fr. James V. Schall, SJ. The full collection begins here, and repays browsing.

One nugget in particular has caught my eye. In a 1984 article in The Thomist, Fr. Schall wrote of St. Albert the Great:
Albert ... realized the wonderful paradox that the human and political life, to remain human and political, somehow must recognize the place of the contemplative order, that politics without metaphysics and theology, in its own fashion, becomes itself a metaphysics and a theology, becomes an attempt to create what is, but by criteria other than the what is of primary being.
I think it is tremendously important that any proposal to order human life -- be it at the individual, family, or social level -- accurately account for what is.

It's an obvious enough principle when applied to something like cooking. I doubt my family is unusual in having stories of someone using salt instead of sugar in a holiday pie or trying to eat biscuits made without the requisite baking powder. If you make a mistake about what is in the kitchen, people will notice. In the old Scholastic formulation, the proof is in the pudding.

And yet in politics, metaphysical mistakes are made all the time. We either assert that what isn't is, or that what is isn't, and for some reason we believe the fact of the assertion establishes the truth of the assertion.

I'm not thinking of Big Lie policies, of repeating an untruth until people believe it. I'm thinking of people who believe, for example, that "I am a victim" is necessarily an objectively true statement if it is stated with sincerity.

Human words, it shouldn't need pointing out, don't work that way. In the real world, my saying "I have an apple on my desk" doesn't cause there to be an apple on my desk, any more than my saying "I am adding salt to the eggs" makes it metaphysically impossible that I am adding sugar by mistake.

As you know, though, God's words do work that way. "God said, 'Let there be light,' and there was light." And I don't think it's entirely coincidental that, in today's "politics without metaphysics and theology," we try to do ourselves what only God can do. Nor is creation ex nihilo the only Divine power we seem to think we possess.

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Wednesday, June 23, 2004

God's way different

Why isn't the dogma of predestination a prescription for indifference?

It's a tough question, because predestination is a mystery of the Divine Will, but various ways of addressing it have been attempted.

There's the pragmatic, "ours is not to reason why" approach, which points out that Scripture tells us to choose good and avoid evil if we want to be saved, not if we know we are going to be saved. We follow Christ's commandments because following His commandments is our job; worrying about how what we do meshes with Divine predestination is above our pay grade.

This suggests the "if it quacks like a duck" approach, which looks at something like Fr. Garrigou-Lagrange's "signs of predestination" and reasons, "If you bring about these signs in your life, you're doing a good job keeping up your end of the Covenant." Jesus did, after all, make various promises He will certainly fulfill, but these promises all require us to do something. (This is not salvation by works, but salvation following upon faith, which can be shown to exist through works.)

But I think there's also a metaphysical reason why predestination doesn't imply indifference.

Scripture tells us God's ways are not our ways, but do we see what this really means? It's not merely that God's ways and our ways are disjoint subsets of some set of all possible ways -- as we might say "Russian ways are not Algerian ways" -- but that God's ways and our ways cannot possibly be classified in the same set. "God's thoughts are not our thoughts" doesn't mean that, of all possible thoughts, God thinks some of them and we think different ones, like "My thoughts are not Bishop Griswold's thoughts," or even, "My thoughts are not a fly's thoughts." It means that what we call "God's thoughts" are not of the same order of being as our thoughts, that though we can speak of God's thoughts analogically, the differences between His and our's are greater than the similarities.

This means that predestination and human freedom are not contradictory -- in fact, they can't be contradictory, because they are in no way comparable. It's like the way a musical note can't contradict a tree; if anything, saying, "Middle C contradicts that oak tree," makes more sense than saying "predestination contradicts human freedom," because notes and trees are at least both elements of Creation.

Now, we are saved by God's sovereign will and our faith in His Son, but the "and" here is not additive, because God's will and our faith are not commensurate. It's a bit like saying a mother is pleased on Mother's Day by her daughter's cookies and her son's song. The baking adds nothing to the singing, and the singing nothing to the baking, but together they result in the mother's pleasure.

(It's a weak simile, admittedly, since the mother would presumably be pleased with either one by itself, and our faith depends on God's grace in a way the singing does not depend on the baking, but it's the best I can think of right now.)

In short (if it's not too late to be short), predestination doesn't mean God is "doing" something for our salvation, so we don't have to. God's doings are not our doings, as you might say; His will for our salvation operates on a different order of existence than our own, and our salvation depends on operations in both the Divine order and the created order.

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The most happy dogma

A lot of people seem to find the idea of predestination oppressive. Isn't it fundamentally contrary to any notion of human freedom? Even in its most passive form, where God (so to speak) has merely peeked at the last page in the book of our lives, doesn't it mean that there is a book of our lives, and we're doomed to follow the plot automatically and wind up, blessed or damned, as chance or fate or Divine whimsy or... well, something, anything other than us, decides?

Looked at with less petulance, though, predesination is positively liberating -- at least for moral indolents like myself. Jesus promised:
Everything that the Father gives me will come to me, and I will not reject anyone who comes to me, because I came down from heaven not to do my own will but the will of the one who sent me. And this is the will of the one who sent me, that I should not lose anything of what he gave me, but that I should raise it on the last day.
What this means is I can't screw up God's plan!

Now, it doesn't mean I can't screw up myself, or that I can't cause other people to screw up. But it does mean that I can't spoil what God wills for Creation from eternity, that whatever else might be said of me on the Last Day, it won't be, "If only he had done this rather than that, God's Spirit would not have returned empty."

In particular, if the Father has given those in my care to the care of His Son, then His Son will care for them, regardless of the terrible mistakes, or even gross evils, I might commit.

This isn't a prescription for indifference, but an aspect of the dogma of predestination that eases anxiety. In the end, I can no more cost someone their predestined salvation than I can save them myself. My failures should no more cause me to despair than my successes should cause me to hope -- because again, our hope is in God, not ourselves.

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Tuesday, June 22, 2004

The Divine Bookie

St. Thomas More's speech (posted below) came to mind as I read Camassia's post about the problem of a paralyzing fear of hell some people have, not on their own account, but on account of their loved ones who are not Christian:
But I can't imagine that Jesus meant for his apocalyptic talk to drive nice Christian women sick with worry that God will torture their beloved relations, or to encourage the attitude that I often hear that everyone makes his or her own choice, so you just have to deal. (Not to mention the "abominable fancy" that part of the fun of heaven will be watching the torments of the damned.) Many people I know, including myself for a long time, dismiss Christianity out of hand because they find hell so immoral.

... I do think that if my creator cares about morals at all, he could hardly have created a being more moral than himself. If human compassion spills unruly once it is released, what must the compassion of God do?
Here's how I reply to such questions these days: Everyone whom God can bring to heaven is brought to heaven.

This isn't the first part of a syllogism that concludes, "Therefore, everyone is brought to heaven." The "can" in "whom God can bring to heaven" doesn't refer to God's sovereign and unlimited power. In that sense, God "can" raise up children of Abraham from stones and God "can" bring everyone to heaven.

What I have in mind is something different. I don't see Creation as an exercise in divine power so much as an exercise in, shall we say, communication of divine freedom. Yes, God "can" bring me to heaven by binding my will and dragging me along. But the "me" who would be saved through binding and dragging is not the "me" whom God wills to be saved, any more than the "lion" that has edible leaves and a yellow flower is the "lion" that roams the African plains and eats wildebeests. The freedom to choose between good and evil is a sine qua non of human nature, and it is free humans that God created to be saved. God can't save free humans by making them bound humans, any more than He can create a spherical cube.

And this reassures nice Christian women who are sick with worry that God will torture their beloved relations how?

Well, why aren't these nice Christian women sick with worry that God will torture them? (Some nice Christian women are, no doubt, but that's another post.) They aren't worried about themselves because they hope in God. They hope in His promises, those same promises that make them worry about their beloved relations.

If God is trustworthy enough to have such hope in Him -- and in particular, to base that hope in the love God showed mortal man by sending His Son into the world to die on a cross -- then He is trustworthy enough to have hope that, indeed, mercy will triumph over judgment, that the promises of Christ are not carefully worded legalities but a covenential offer of eternal love. That, in short, Christian hope is based, not in human technicalities, but in Love Itself, in Goodness and Truth and Beauty.

We hope, then, that our beloved relations will be saved with the same hope with which we believe we will be saved. Moreover, if we don't hope for others with the same hope we hope for ourselves, then the hope for ourselves is not Christian hope, but some sort of natural expectation. We would be serving as our own bookmaker, laying odds on our own salvation -- and, by extension, on the salvation of others.

As the gospel says, though, "Bet not, lest ye be bet against." Or again, "Hope in God, I will praise Him still, and put my little all into His hands for all parlays."

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To our everlasting salvation
"More have I not to say (my Lords) but like as the blessed Apostle St. Paul, as we read in the Acts of the Apostles, was present, and consented to the death of St. Stephen, and kept their clothes that stoned him to death, and yet be they now both twain holy saints in heaven, and shall continue there friends for ever, so I verily trust and shall therefore right heartily pray, that though your Lordships have now in earth been judges to my condemnation, we may yet hereafter in heaven merrily all meet together to our everlasting salvation." - St. Thomas More to the commissioners who had just condemned him to death
For a lawyer who would side with the devil ("his cause being good") over his own father to respond in this way after being sentened to death based on testimony everyone in the room knew everyone in the room knew was perjury -- that's what I call heroic virtue. In particular, the virtue of charity: the habit of loving others through loving God.

I think it's fair to say that if you don't habitually love other people, you are not going to actually love them at the moment when, say, they shoot a nasty look at your tie, or wrongly order your hanging, drawing, and quartering. Or even when they insult your child.

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Monday, June 21, 2004

Sacred housekeeping

If I'm thinking at all about the purification of the sacred vessels during Mass, odds are I'm thinking about ways it could be done a little faster. With due reverence, of course, but faster.

Yesterday, though, it occurred to me that the act of purifying the vessels -- of cleaning with water and a cloth the vessels that held the Body and Blood of Christ -- effects a tremendously important change in the vessels. Before they are washed, they are in contact with God Himself in a very particular way. Afterward, though, they are just objects; still sacred, still reserved for holy use, but no longer do they contain Christ's Real Presence. They go back into the sacristy until the next Mass.

The Real Presence has been transferred from these sacred vessels to the congregation, which a few minutes later is sent out into the world.

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Friday, June 18, 2004

Exercising my First North American Serial Rights

Excuse me while I pad Disputations by cutting and pasting the following, which I emailed to an atheist who asked me the opening question.

Why are you a Christian?

Because of God's grace, of course.

I don't expect you'll find that a very satisfying answer, but it is the literal truth: God's grace is the cause of my accepting what He says about Himself to be true.

As for the natural reasons upon which this grace builds, I was raised a Roman Catholic and quickly outgrew the sophomoric atheism I tried on in college. The more I learn about what the Church teaches, the more reasonable I see it to be, the more sense it makes, the more questions it answers, the better answers it provides to those questions.

Which brings me back to my first statement, on God's grace. Human reason can tell someone what the Church teaches, it can examine the arguments for validity and soundness, it can apply philosophy to determine to some extent what must be true and what can't be true, it can determine whether a particular religious belief is reasonable.

But "reasonable" here does not mean "likely" or "probable" or "I'll take that bet." It means "in accord with reason," not "provable from reason"; the difference between the two is a distinction a lot of evangelical atheists fail to make.

Apart from what can be shown must be true or can't be true, human reason cannot determine what is true, any more than a tape recorder can determine the size of the person speaking into it.

So though I do have reasons for why I believe this or that religious or moral proposition is true – reasons that can be stated and debated, judged for soundness or persuasiveness –fundamentally, Christianity is a matter of faith. Faith is neither a subcategory of nor contrary to reason, just as hearing is neither a subcategory of nor contrary to sight.

There are what I'd call reasons for why I have faith in God, and through Him in His Church, but these reasons are not arguments whose conclusion is, "Therefore, Catholicism is the one true faith." They are, more properly, reasons for why my faith in God is reasonable.

Faith that can be demonstrated from reason is not faith. The atheist and the Christian agree that the Christian faith cannot be demonstrated from reason, but the Christian never said it could, and the atheist never proved it had to.

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Idols, idle and otherwise

Just as the dust here settles over whether Protestants have the Real Presence, Fr. Dowd adds Hindus to the question:
I asked her about the worship of this statue, and she replied that it wasn't really worship of a statue, but of the presence of the deity in the statue.... I said, "So it's a real presence, taking the place of the substance of the statue will keeping all the external characteristics." "Exactly!" was her enthusiastic response. This is what transformed the statue into a proper idol, worthy of true worship and not mere veneration.
This puts in a different light my joining in the condescension with which some contemporary Biblical commentators view the various Scriptural condemnations of idolatry. Isaiah satirizes the idol-maker:
Half of [a tree] he burns in the fire, and on its embers he roasts his meat; he eats what he has roasted until he is full, and then warms himself and says, "Ah! I am warm, I feel the fire."
Of what remains he makes a god, his idol, and prostrate before it in worship, he implores it, "Rescue me, for you are my god."
A commentator says, "Of course, the pagans didn't think the idols themselves were gods, they merely represented the gods," and I say, "Yes, yes, poor old deutero-Isaiah's rhetoric got a tad overheated, what?"

Well, maybe not. And maybe the proper response to the Bible Christian's condemnation of the Eucharist as idolatry isn't, "No, it's not an idol, we believe the Eucharist is actually God Himself," but, "Yes, it is an idol, as the term would be used in comparative religious studies -- but then, so was Jesus during His earthly life!"

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Thursday, June 17, 2004

Something you don't hear every day

Sister Mary of the Holy Spirit, O.P., is a cloistered nun at Corpus Christi Monastery in Menlo Park, CA. If you're looking for recordings of 84-year-old nuns singing "Ave Maria" as a duet with a canary that happened by the recording session, she's your nun.

And don't miss her on-line autobiography, Memoirs of a Nutty Nun.

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Now that you mention it

Therese Z writes about the Joyful Mysteries of the Rosary as "the 'Girly' Mysteries":
When I pray the Joyful Mysteries, I'm sometimes struck by the intensely feminine spirituality of them. Not to the exclusion of men, but there is a special dimension accessible to women's understanding, I think.

One of the most notable is the Mystery of the Visitation. Mary, now pregnant by the power of the Holy Spirit, but not married, goes, maybe even flees, to visit her relative Elizabeth in a distant town. Elizabeth, with some surprise, finds herself pregnant at an age where she must have lost hope. So we have two bemused women (holy does not stop bemusement, I'm sure) who come together, who visit.
I only recently became aware of the traditional pious belief that St. Joseph accompanied Mary on her visit:
St. Joseph probably accompanied Mary, returned to Nazareth, and when, after three months, he came again to Hebron to take his wife home, the apparition of the angel, mentioned in Matthew 1:19-25, may have taken place to end the tormenting doubts of Joseph regarding Mary's maternity.
I have no firm opinion on the question, but I doubt I'm the only husband who knows his presence when his wife meets a beloved female relative doesn't make the moment any less girly.



Scripture records the conversation in the foreground. The conversation in the background I imagine along these lines:
JOSEPH: Hey, Zechariah.

ZECHARIAH nods.

JOSEPH: The main road through Jerusalem was in pretty bad shape, so we cut over onto that southeast trail at Jericho, you know, the one that goes past Bethany. We made pretty good time.

ZECHARIAH nods.

JOSEPH: Not much traffic, just muddy in spots. But what are you gonna do, this time of year?

ZECHARIAH shrugs.

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Wednesday, June 16, 2004

"Pray for me"

There's a story of a worldly Sienese friar who out of curiosity visited one Catherine Benincasa, that week's talk of the town. She wasn't the fraud or hysteric he had expected, and after a decent interval he excused himself, tossing out his habitual, "And pray for me," as he left.

She answered that she would.

He went back to his richly appointed cell and tried to do some work, but as the day wore on he got more and more disgusted by all the luxurious things he -- he, a son of St. Francis! -- had surrounded himself with.

At last, he couldn't bear it any longer. He went into the friary's church, made a vow to God to return to the asceticism of his Rule, then hurried back to the Benincasa household. When he found Catherine, he said, "You did pray for me, didn't you?"

She smiled at him and repled, "Yes."

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Tough question

Is this question harder to ask or harder to answer?

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Forgive the obvious question: what job does "the Pope’s thelogian" do?

The Italian magazine 30 Days ran an interesting interview with Georges Cardinal Cottier, O.P., Theologian of the Papal Household.

One interesting point is the effect technology has had on the teaching office of the papacy:
If we go back to Pius XI, the official texts are very few. For audiences and public gatherings Pius XI almost never wrote anything official. He spoke extempore. But one can no longer do that. Not least because there is always some recorder in ambush, the newspapers would write what the Pope said according to their interpretation in any case, maybe forcing the Holy See to make a denial when the information is inaccurate. That’s why, even when he receives a small group, there must always be a text, brief maybe, but that is official and authoritative.
Assuming society doesn't lose tape recording technology any time soon, this will lead to an explosion of "official and authoritative" papal statements to fuel arguments for centuries. (It also moderates the complaint that the current Pope writes too much. Cardinal Cottier adds, "Until the Sixties people traveled much less. Now everybody comes to Rome, all the congresses want an audience with the Pope....")

I do rather like his reactionary position relative to certain modernist conservatives:
I was struck by the debate on the crucifix that developed in Italy in recent months. When even some Catholics said that the cross is highly important even for those who don’t believe, as cultural symbol. But no! That is the cross of Jesus! That Christianity also has cultural consequences, we’re all agreed. But Catholicism is not a cultural fact.
Speaking of the relevance of Maritain's Thomism:
The refusal to distinguish what is distinct leads to confusion and denies what maybe you wanted to defend in the first place. If everything is grace, then grace is no more. One of the dangers, that I note for example in the theology of religions, is that of attributing univocally to the Holy Spirit all that is religious. There are very praiseworthy human religious values, but that doesn’t mean they are salvific. They belong to a different order than the grace of Christ that saves. The distinction between grace and nature has perhaps at times been presented badly, as if there were an overlap of grace upon nature. That is never the thinking of Thomas. Grace operates from within nature. But nature has its own consistence.
And last, something that struck me because just yesterday I came across the stock "we're all born atheists, so atheism doesn't need to be defended" argument:
We are not born Christians. One is born a Jew, one is born a Moslem. One becomes Christian, with baptism and the faith. Hence Christianity is unarmed. It is a divine helplessness. Because Christians are not manufactured, as those belonging to other religions can become so simply by being brought into the world. Every child must take its own step, nobody can do it in its place.
Here's a distinction I hadn't distinguished before. The atheist is right that no one is born with a religious faith, but it's not a persuasive point, since Christianity not only agrees but insists on it!

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Tuesday, June 15, 2004

Semi-proportionalist lapsism

It's surprisingly difficult, in practice, to believe that it's wrong to sin.

We've been discussing torture and what might be called modern lapsism, and though most of the arguments have been over whether this or that act constitutes a sin, occasionally someone will make a comment like this:
...even if it were a serious sin I would still do it if it meant safeguarding my kids' souls...
I think you can abstract that sentiment from any particular scenario and be left with something most Catholic parents would sympathize with and many would subscribe to.

Let me suggest a couple of reasons why a good Christian, when considering a tough but hypothetical decision, will from the comfort of his own living room resolve to commit a sin should he ever find himself required to make that tough decision.

First, a good Christian doesn't like vainglory, and the better the Christian the less he likes it. "Of course I would do the right thing, come what may," are cheap words in the comfort of your own living room. For many of us, they also ring false. I don't do the right thing in the church parking lot, where the cost is ten more seconds of waiting, and now I'm supposed to do the right thing under coersion by the State, where the cost is my family, because the wrong thing is, technically, a sin not much worse (in the circumstances) than cutting someone off in a parking lot? Since when am I trying to be St. Perfect?

And second, it's really really really hard to believe that an act with absolutely horrific consequences can be required, while the contrary act with absolutely wonderful consequences is proscribed. Even if you know it's the case, that doesn't mean you necessarily believe it. Who isn't, to some degree, a "semi-proportionalist"? A proportionalist would argue that, since the outcome of the one act is so much better, the act isn't a sin. A "semi-proportionalist" would argue that, since the outcome is so much better, the act just can't be a sin.

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Entr'acte

And to think I went with the Cuban villagers scenario to frame the "conditional contrition" problem so we wouldn't get side-tracked by the question, "What is torure?"

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Monday, June 14, 2004

Here Comes Everybody
"You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you, and you will be My witnesses in Jerusalem, throughout Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth."
Anyone who wants to keep God to himself shouldn't join the Catholic Church.

That's as true of God in the Sacrament of the Eucharist as it is of God in the heart or of God speaking through the councils of the Church.

What comes after the good old-fashioned Catholic statement, "We have the Real Presence and Protestants don't."
  • "Ha ha!" is good old-fashioned Catholic triumphalism, and perfectly ridiculous when frankly expressed.
  • "So what?" is religious indifferentism, and completely incompatible with a Catholic understanding of the Blessed Sacrament.
  • "Let's pretend they have It." is religious liberalism, and fundamentally incompatible with a Catholic understanding of the Sacraments.
  • "Let's give It to them." is, as standing policy, to seek a great good at the expense of a much greater good.
  • "Oh no!" is, I think, a suitable reaction when you think about what, or rather Who, the Eucharist really is, and what it means to receive Holy Communion, and what it means to be unable to receive It.

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Nothing to forgive

I have a friend who likes to pose moral conundrums. Here is one that isn't entirely hypothetical:
Government officials call together all the adults of a small Cuban village. The officials announce that it is illegal to raise children as Catholics and that any practicing Catholic will have his children taken from him and raised as atheists by the State.

A villager, who happens to be raising his children in the Faith, is called forward and ordered to sign a document and swear that he is not a Christian and that there is no God.

What should the villager do?
The correct answer is, "He ought to refuse to sign and swear." (If you don't agree, ask yourself, "What would Peter do?")

And if the villager should sign and swear? Then he must confess his sin at the earliest opportunity.

Notice, though, that he can only confess his sin if he thinks it's a sin. If he thinks he was just dealt a lousy hand, he played it as best he could, and he'd play it the same way the next time, then what does he have to confess? What is he asking God to forgive?

The Sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation (as the Catechism inelegantly refers to it) requires three acts by the penitent: contrition, confession, and satisfaction. I suppose something like, "I don't see it that way myself, Father, but if you say it's a sin, I'll ask forgiveness for it," might be a sufficient confession, but there's not much in the way of contrition in it. The Council of Trent defined contrition as "a sorrow of mind and a detestation for sin committed with the purpose of not sinning in the future."

As for satisfaction, performing the assigned penance may expiate the particular sin, but it won't touch the disposition of soul that led to the sin to begin with, and that would lead to the sin again in similar circumstances. One purpose of the assigned penance is to "help configure us to Christ," and that requires a desire distinct from the desire that God forgive whatever sins He might be holding against us.

Conditional contrition, then -- "if this is a sin, then please forgive me" -- is a very dangerous attitude. It may be the best we can do right now, but the goal of the Christian is perfect contrition, sorrow for the sin because it offends God Who is to be loved above all else. We can't be satisfied leaving it up to the priest, or even to God, to determine whether our acts are sins; we ought to love God enough to want to know for ourselves ahead of time what is and is not sinful.

Moreover, we absolutely cannot plan to sin and then ask God for forgiveness. We might, again, be able to obtain forgiveness for the discrete sinful act, but not for the habitual disposition through which we sinned -- not that the disposition is unforgivable, but that we wouldn't be asking that it be forgiven.

Today is the time God has given us to pray for the graces to resist the tempations that might come tomorrow.

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Friday, June 11, 2004

St. Thomas Aquinas on praying always

Should we pray continuously?

St. Thomas never met a yes-or-no question he couldn't expand to a full lecture:
We may speak about prayer in two ways: first, by considering it in itself; secondly, by considering it in its cause. The root 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: "Faith, hope and charity are by themselves a prayer of continual longing."
I posted something about St. Augustine's words the other day, and St. Thomas follows him closely.

However, there's continual prayer and there's continual prayer:
But prayer, considered in itself, cannot be continual, because we have to be busy about other works.... Now the quantity of a thing should be commensurate with its end, for instance the quantity of the dose should be commensurate with health. And so it is becoming that prayer should last long enough to arouse the fervor of the interior desire: and when it exceeds this measure, so that it cannot be continued any longer without causing weariness, it should be discontinued.
Not only can't we pray all the time -- considering prayer "in itself" (e.g., St. Isidore's "to pray is to speak," Cassiodorus's "oratio est oris ratio [prayer is spoken reason]") -- but we shouldn't even try, since any act of speech will eventually wear us out. Our voices become hoarse, if you will.

Still, you've got St. Paul's teaching, and even St. Luke's, "Then [Jesus] told them a parable about the necessity for them to pray always without becoming weary." St. Thomas neatly sums up his understanding of the possibilities:
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.
And what about rejoicing always?
...a twofold joy in God arises from charity. One, the more excellent, is proper to charity; and with this joy we rejoice in the Divine good considered in itself. This joy of charity is incompatible with an admixture of sorrow, even as the good which is its object is incompatible with any admixture of evil: hence the Apostle says: "Rejoice in the Lord always."
So again, the charity through which our hearts can be continually directed toward God, so that we can be said to be praying always, also produces the fruit of continual joy.

In the first quotation of this post, I emphasized the phrase "either actually or virtually." The idea of a "virtual charity" is a bit tricky; I understand it to be something like the idea of someone who can speak English, but doesn't happen to be doing so at the moment, being a "virtual Anglophone." Of course, being able to speak English does not (pace the King James Version Only crowd) direct you to the shower of perfect love from your Creator whether you are actively
thinking about it or not.

If we are instructed to rejoice always, then we can rejoice always. If the joy of charity is incompatible with an admixture of sorrow, and yet we do experience sorrow in this life, then if we can rejoice always, even when we are sorrowful, then there must be something in us that remains untouched when we are sorrowful. We speak of being "consumed by grief," but as long as we possess faith, hope, and love, we can never be entirely consumed, even if for a time our thoughts are given over entirely.

If this be the case for something as opposed to joy as grief, it is also true of other things that occupy our minds -- presuming, as always, that faith, hope, and love remain.

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The Sacred Body of the Lord Jesus

I often come across the term "orthodox Catholic" used as though being an orthodox Catholic were a big accomplishment. Being orthodox, having correct beliefs, is certainly important, but it's like being a non-cannibal: necessary, but not really exalting.

The Christian does not seek orthodoxy, but Christ. (Cherchez la téléologie!) In finding Christ, he finds orthodoxy. In seeking orthodoxy as an end, he will find neither Christ nor orthodoxy.

So I am very happy to learn that there is a Year of the Eucharist beginning in October. Catholics with unorthodox beliefs about the Eucharist may come to the correct belief. Catholics with orthodox beliefs about the Eucharist may deepen their personal relationship with the Christ they profess.

Coincidentally, perhaps, Cardinal McCarrick's newspaper column this week also touches on what he referred to a few weeks ago as "the Sacred Body of the Lord Jesus in my hands":
Over the last few decades, many Catholics have sadly moved away from the mystery of the Eucharist. Sometimes under the pressures of the secular media or of friends whose faith is weak or non-existent, they have adopted a pseudo-anthropological or "politically correct" approach to the great Sacrament of the Altar. They call it merely a symbol of the Presence of Christ, or something reminding us of the Presence of Christ, or a poetic way of speaking about the Lord. All of this is false and harmful and it obscures the whole point of our Eucharistic faith. It is indeed the Lord, the Sacred Body of Jesus....

I believe that this controversy about receiving the Eucharist will give us two most important gifts. First, it will remind us clearly of what the Blessed Sacrament really is - the very Body and Blood of Christ. Secondly, it will remind us that we should not approach the altar if we are not properly disposed by the way we live our lives. Unless we are deeply in communion with the Lord and His Church, we should not receive His Sacred Body and Blood in Holy Communion. In my responsibility to teach the Good News of Jesus here in our local Church, I'm always thinking of you and praying that I will teach it well.

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Thursday, June 10, 2004

To cleanse the palate

How about a reflection on beauty from Athanasius?

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Today's second torture post

It has been asked why, if torture is objectively immoral, doesn't the Catechism state this unequivocally?

My answer is that the Catechism is to be read, not by lawyers, but by Christians seeking to be holy as the Father is holy. The paragraph at issue lists and condemns a series of acts against bodily integrity. The Catechism is not a manual of moral theology; rules of statutory construction do not apply.

To understand the Catechism, cherchez la téléologie:
This catechism aims at presenting an organic synthesis of the essential and fundamental contents of Catholic doctrine, as regards both faith and morals, in the light of the Second Vatican Council and the whole of the Church's Tradition. Its principal sources are the Sacred Scriptures, the Fathers of the Church, the liturgy, and the Church's Magisterium. [CCC 11, but see the whole of 11 and 12 for a fuller picture]
Note the sources; the Catechism can't be read apart from Scripture and the Magisterium -- and the Magisterium can't be read apart from Scripture, or the Magisterium's own understanding of itself.

So not only is it wrong to read the Catechism without reference to, for example, Gaudium et Spes, it's also wrong to argue that papal bulls of excommunication constitute irreformable doctrine against which the texts of an ecumenical council are to be judged and rejected if found wanting.

Still, there is a case to be answered on the specifics of the Catechism's treatment of torture. The imperfect parallels really do exist:

Kidnapping and hostage taking...are morally wrong
Terrorism...is gravely against justice and charity
Torture...is contrary to respect for the person and for human dignity
amputations, mutilations, and sterilizations...are against the moral law


I don't think the relatively cumbersome condemnation of torture is there simply to vary the rhythm of the paragraph. I think it is there because it represents an honest to goodness development in the teaching of the Church, a development further explored in the subsequent paragraph. To have the sentence read "Torture ... is objectively evil" is to invite just the sort of complaints that have been made about the Church changing her teachings. By explaining the development, the Catechism undercuts the complaints: No, this isn't a novelty of the tyranny of nice, it's a fuller recognition of what has been revealed by Christ.

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Today's first torture post

In a comment below, feddie (who is a recent convert and a lawyer; comprendre tout, c'est pardonner tout) writes:
There is a rule of statutory construction, Expressio unius est exclusio alterius, which means "to express or include one thing implies the exclusion of the other."

The Catholic Church says torture is bad with respect to a, b, c, and d. To me, that implies not that e is o.k., but that something between e and z might be morally acceptable.

But this leads me back to my question. If you're right, and torture is always morally repugnant, then why not say so unequivocally in the CCC?
Here is CCC 2297, with emphasis as it appears in the text:
Kidnapping and hostage taking bring on a reign of terror; by means of threats they subject their victims to intolerable pressures. They are morally wrong. Terrorism threatens, wounds, and kills indiscriminately; it is gravely against justice and charity. Torture which uses physical or moral violence to extract confessions, punish the guilty, frighten opponents, or satisfy hatred is contrary to respect for the person and for human dignity. Except when performed for strictly therapeutic medical reasons, directly intended amputations, mutilations, and sterilizations performed on innocent persons are against the moral law.
First, let's set aside the "What is torture?" question and assume we're talking about acts everyone agrees is torture.

The question is then whether the sentence on torture is to be understood as proscribing all torture, or only those acts of torture performed to "extract confessions, punish the guilty, frighten opponents, or satisfy hatred." In other words, does this teach that torture is objectively immoral, or only immoral in certain cases?

Well, what determines the morality of an act? "The morality of human acts depends on: the object chosen; the end in view or the intention; the circumstances of the action." [CCC 1750] If the object of an act is evil, the act is "objectively evil." If the object is not evil, the act is not objectively evil, and can only be immoral in certain cases.

Now, what would make an act immoral only in certain cases? It must be either the intention or the circumstances. Satisfying hatred is certainly an evil intention, but punishing the guilty is not. If torture is not objectively immoral, then, the Catechism gives an explicit example of an act of torture which the circumstances alone make evil.

So we would understand the Catechism to be teaching: a) that every act of torture with the intent of punishing the guilty necessarily involves circumstances which make the act contrary to respect for the person and for human dignity; and b) these circumstances do not obtain for every act of torture.

What are the circumstances that would make torture to punish the guilty contrary to respect for the person and for human dignity, but torture for some other reason not contrary? Circumstances do include the consequences, so the only answer I can see is based on double effect reasoning: The Catechism would be teaching that the good of punishing the guilty can never outweigh the evil of the offense to the prisoner's human dignity, but that there are other goods that can.

For this to be the case, though, the offense to the tortured person's human dignity needs to be an unintended secondary effect of torture. That strikes me as a tough argument to make.

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A programming note

I don't want to write about torture. I want to write about praying always. I've got three more posts on praying always planned, and more might suggest themselves.

But I think believing that torture is evil is important enough to spend some time arguing for. The arguments are, perhaps more than necessary, doctrinal, but I don't think it's fundamentally a question of doctrinal correctness vs. doctrinal error. The end toward which we strive is not freedom from error but holiness, and if (as I believe) torture is incompatible with holiness, we must not advocate torture.

I've got a new catchphrase: Cherchez la téléologie! Seek the end sought! Think about what you're trying to accomplish, and about what you're trying will accomplish.

I think Kathy puts it best in her comment:
One must ask then, relatively speaking, do you think you would be closer to stopping another 9/11 if you spent 20 minutes in prayer or 20 minutes torturing a potential informer? That is truly the question each Catholic must answer.

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Wednesday, June 09, 2004

But I know it when I see it

There seem to be two arguments about torture going on. One is whether torture is objectively immoral (and no, I don't distinguish between "objectively immoral" and "intrinsically immoral"). The other is whether particular acts constitute torture.

I've already written my piece on the objective immorality of torture, but as several commenters have noted, saying, "Torture is evil," isn't very helpful if you don't know what is and is not torture.

A Washington Post editorial reports that "the Army's interrogation procedures -- which were unclassified -- established this simple and sensible test: No technique should be used that, if used by an enemy on an American, would be regarded as a violation of U.S. or international law." A nicely put Golden Rule-type definition, even if in terms of specifics it leaves things up to U.S. and international law.

In the comments below, I offered "an act the object of which is the infliction of physical or mental torment" as a working definition, and so far people have been distracted enough by what the object of an act is that they haven't asked me what "torment" is. Which is fine by me.

But while I won't pretend I can come up with a universally applicable definition of the "torture" that is objectively evil, I do think we can get a good general idea of what it is by looking at the language of the texts that proscribe it. Torture is "contrary to respect for the person and for human dignity;" it "violates the integrity of the human person."

Furthermore, I'd suggest it connotes circumstances in which the torturer has more or less complete and persistent control over the victim and the torment is premeditated.

So an act of torture is an act that
  1. has as its object the physical or mental torment -- okay, pain and anguish -- of a person;
  2. constitutes a violation of the victim's personal integrity or human dignity;
  3. manifests the torturer's control over the victim
  4. is premeditated.
I'm sure this can be refined in all sorts of ways. In particular, Gaudium et Spes says #1 implies #2, but as we all know there are forms of humiliation that are clear violations of the victim's dignity but aren't so clearly painful and anguishing.

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Only in cases of rape and incest terrorism

To me, the idea that the United States government might advocate torture is not particularly shocking. I mean, what do we expect, when push comes to shove?

What I find truly appalling are the statements of politically conservative American Roman Catholics who positively do advocate torture.
Am I in favor of torturing that guy? You bet I am....

Look, you can cite as much sweeping, vague, out-of-context language as you desire, but unless you can cite a specific, ex cathedra pronouncment that prohibits torture in any circumstance whatsoever, I'll take my chances with the Lord on judgement day....

If it were my duty to stop such an attack, I would kick that person in the teeth with no moral problems whatsoever. It wouldn't be a sin.
This isn't the worst stuff I've ever heard from practicing Roman Catholics, but it's close to it.

The arguments that torture is not objectively immoral seem to be variations on the following:
  1. If torture were objectively immoral, then really bad things could happen, so it can't be objectively immoral.
  2. Torture can prevent really bad things from happening, so it can't be objectively immoral.
  3. In certain circumstances, I'd torture someone, so it can't be objectively immoral.
  4. The Church used to use torture, so it can't be objectively immoral.
  5. The Church has never said torture is objectively immoral, so it isn't objectively immoral.
The first three arguments can all be answered with variations on, "So what?" Of course, it's one of those answers that, while impeccably reasonable, is utterly unsatisfying emotionally, which I suppose is why the responses are so emotional, along the lines of this:
Not everybody lives in your world. Only a few very lucky people. Quit judging the real world by what you read in the comfort of your living rooms.
When someone takes what happens in the "real world" -- which is to say, what sinful people do in a fallen world -- as the standard of morality, how can he possibly believe he is thinking with the mind of the Church?

Well, there's always #4: the Church used to advocate torture. That's true, but we must not equivocate on the meaning of "the Church" here. If the question is whether something is objectively immoral, that "the Church" as an organization once advocated it may be evidence that it's not immoral, but no one with any knowledge of Church history would claim that it's proof. And in fact, the Catechism speaks directly to this point:
In times past, cruel practices were commonly used by legitimate governments to maintain law and order, often without protest from the Pastors of the Church, who themselves adopted in their own tribunals the prescriptions of Roman law concerning torture. Regrettable as these facts are, the Church always taught the duty of clemency and mercy. She forbade clerics to shed blood. In recent times it has become evident that these cruel practices were neither necessary for public order, nor in conformity with the legitimate rights of the human person. On the contrary, these practices led to ones even more degrading. It is necessary to work for their abolition. We must pray for the victims and their tormentors.
Which brings us to the final argument, that the Church has never taught that torture is objectively immoral. This strikes me as an argument based on semantic games. We have, for example, the Catechism stating that torture is not "in conformity with the legitimate rights of the human person." We have the CDF teaching:
One can never approve, whether perpetrated by established power or insurgents, crimes such as reprisals against the general population, torture, or methods of terrorism and deliberate provocation aimed at causing deaths during popular demonstrations.
We have Gaudium et Spes teaching:
Furthermore, whatever is opposed to life itself, such as any type of murder, genocide, abortion, euthanasia or wilful self-destruction, whatever violates the integrity of the human person, such as mutilation, torments inflicted on body or mind, attempts to coerce the will itself; whatever insults human dignity, such as subhuman living conditions, arbitrary imprisonment, deportation, slavery, prostitution, the selling of women and children; as well as disgraceful working conditions, where men are treated as mere tools for profit, rather than as free and responsible persons; all these things and others of their like are infamies indeed. They poison human society, but they do more harm to those who practice them than those who suffer from the injury. Moreover, they are supreme dishonor to the Creator.
Insisting on the specific words "torture is intrinsically evil" is not thinking with the mind of the Church, it's morality by incantation.

At the risk of being uncharacteristically concise: To advocate torture, under any circumstances, is to support objective evil.

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St. Augustine on praying always

One place St. Augustine discussed St. Paul's admonition to "pray without ceasing" is in a letter to Proba:
When we cherish uninterrupted desire along with the exercise of faith and hope and charity, we "pray always." But at certain stated hours and seasons we also use words in prayer to God, that by these signs of things we may admonish ourselves, and may acquaint ourselves with the measure of progress which we have made in this desire, and may more warmly excite ourselves to obtain an increase of its strength.... And therefore, what else is intended by the words of the apostle: "Pray without ceasing," than, "Desire without intermission, from Him who alone can give it, a happy life, which no life can be but that which is eternal"? This, therefore, let us desire continually from the Lord our God; and thus let us pray continually.
I think of prayer as a means of increasing in faith, hope, and charity. St. Augustine puts things the other way round, with prayer an expression of the theological virtues. As long as we possess faith, hope, and charity, we necessarily desire eternal life with God, and this desire, says St. Augustine, is prayer.

Which, when you look at it, matches perfectly with the traditional definition of prayer as "the raising of the heart and mind to God." If we have faith in God, our minds are raised to Him. If we love God, our hearts are raised to Him. If we hope in God, both minds and hearts are raised. (That's an overly systematic way of putting it, I suppose, but let it stand.)

St. Augustine goes on to suggest that specific acts of prayer are undertaken to support these virtues in three ways:
  1. To admonish ourselves for our failings in faith, hope, and love.
  2. To measure the progress we've made in faith, hope, and love.
  3. To excite ourselves in the increase of faith, hope, and love.
This isn't all St. Augustine has to say about prayer, of course, but it's probably enough to meditate on for a few months.

[Laignappe: Remember St. Paul's "Rejoice always, pray always, give thanks always"? If you always have faith, hope, and charity, St. Augustine points out you are always praying. But you can no more always have faith, hope, and charity without always praying than you can without always rejoicing and always giving thanks.]

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Tuesday, June 08, 2004

St. Paul on praying always

I think the usual Scriptural reference to "pray always" is 1 Thessalonians 5:17, which appears in the middle of this passage:
We urge you, brothers, admonish the idle, cheer the fainthearted, support the weak, be patient with all. See that no one returns evil for evil; rather, always seek what is good (both) for each other and for all.

Rejoice always. Pray without ceasing. In all circumstances give thanks, for this is the will of God for you in Christ Jesus.

Do not quench the Spirit. Do not despise prophetic utterances. Test everything; retain what is good. Refrain from every kind of evil.
Notice the overall tone of the passage, the last words of the letter before the final benediction. In broad strokes, St. Paul covers the sorts of day-to-day things Christians should do. "Pray without ceasing" is one of more than a dozen general instructions.

Ephesians 6:18 contains a similar instruction, but the context is different:
With all prayer and supplication, pray at every opportunity in the Spirit. To that end, be watchful with all perseverance and supplication for all the holy ones and also for me, that speech may be given me to open my mouth, to make known with boldness the mystery of the gospel for which I am an ambassador in chains, so that I may have the courage to speak as I must.
The first passage, in particular, has something of what would be called "motherhood and apple pie" if it were found at the end of a speech given by a university chaplain at a congregation ceremony.

But though St. Paul doesn't write boilerplate, and he certainly did mean the Thessalonians should pray without ceasing, that is clearly not the particular theme of this part of the letter, much less the letter as a whole. It would fall to subsequent generations of Christians to resolve the theoretical appeal of praying always with the practical difficulties.

Here let me just point out that prayer is not the only thing we are enjoined to do always in 1 Thes 5:17:
Rejoice always. Pray always. Give thanks always.
Thanksgiving is a form of prayer (remember ACTS: adoration, confession, thanksgiving, supplication), and it may be only through always giving thanks that one can always rejoice, which is not so much a form of prayer as a fruit of the Holy Spirit ripened through prayer.

But if we want to pray always, we'd better be prepared to rejoice and give thanks always, too.

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What do you expect?

Suppose you had the following conversation with your friend:
FRIEND:Today I'm only going to speak German.
YOU:Do you even know how to speak German?
FRIEND:
I bought a book to help -- Darn it!... Er, Ich... kaufte ein Buch... helfen.... Oh, this will never work. I can't speak German. I'll never be able to speak German!
I think it would be reasonable to conclude that your friend was expecting too much of himself right away, and therefore expecting too little of himself over time.

And I think most people would understand this, that a person can't just switch from the language he's spoken all his life to a language he hasn't spoken much, if at all.

So why do some people say, in effect, "Today I'm going to pray like a saint," then get frustrated when they fail to pray like a saint?

Prayer is no less a habit than speaking a particular langauge. Just as speaking a new language in place of an old language requires both developing a new habit and breaking an old habit, so too does prayer require, not just developing the habit of prayer, but also breaking the old habit of, in Romano Guardini's words as quoted on Flos Carmeli, being "incapable of standing still or of concentrating."

Steven Riddle goes on to consider the problem of recollectedness. To his post I would only add that most of us should neither assume recollectedness will require no effort to attain nor conclude that we will never attain it.

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Abortion for social conservatives

"Let's keep torture safe, legal, and rare."

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Monday, June 07, 2004

A holy desire for continual prayer

There is much to write about St. Paul's famous instruction to "pray always," one of the most explained-away elements in all of Revelation. But here, I just want to point out one small thing about prayer, in the too-mystical-to-be-a-useful-definition sense of "looking toward God in your heart."

Imagine if you can someone who prays sometimes. Someone, that is, who at times looks toward God in his heart, but at other times looks toward things that aren't God in his heart. However devout his thoughts while in prayer, for this person God belongs to a set of things he looks toward in his heart.

That's bad enough, but consider the process this person goes through. At one time, he is -- well, "looking toward in his heart" is just the definition of "praying," so -- he is praying to his golf game. Then his hummingbird mind flits elsewhere, and he begins praying to his landscaping. Landscaping reminds him of the beauty of nature, and he begins to pray to God in thanksgiving. After a few moments, he might find himself praying to the parish council, which had better hire a halfway decent music director this time.

"After a few moments, he might find himself...." But he won't find himself when his heart is looking toward the parish council. The Prodigal Son "came to himself" when he realized his father would show him mercy. Similarly, we only come to, or find, or arrive at, ourselves when we direct our hearts to God -- and, similarly, we find our Father shows us mercy, every time we return.

I think the oddest part of this whole process isn't what happens to us the hypothetical person who goes through it, but what happens to God. Which, in a word, is nothing. He's still there, still All-Holy, All-Mighty, still Goodness and Truth and Beauty, still loving us with an eternal and perfect love expressed in the life, death, and resurrection of His Co-Eternal Son.

But, somehow, the human heart is capable of only noticing God occasionally. And, apart from all considerations of piety or hope of future glory, only noticing God occasionally is daft. That's like only occasionally noticing the fellow standing behind you swinging an axe at your head. Some things just aren't suited to notice occasionally.

Now, how we can notice God constantly, how we can pray always, is another topic. But there's just something so obviously wrong with not praying always -- again, looked at strictly from the point of view of what is, apart from piety, hope, and even love -- that everyone ought to be yearning, as the hart for springs of water, for this grace.

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