instruere...inlustrare...delectare Disputations

Monday, July 12, 2004

Proportionate to what?

Jamie Blosser considers the meaning of Cardinal Ratzinger's statement:
"When a Catholic does not share a candidate's stand in favour of abortion and/or euthanasia, but votes for that candidate for other reasons, it is considered remote material cooperation, which can be permitted in the presence of proportionate reasons."
The question is, what would such proportionate reasons look like?
And since the purpose of Ratzinger's memo is to explicitly highlight the relative gravity of abortion/euthanasia vis-a-vis other concerns, the burden seems to be squarely on the shoulders of those who would propose that any other concerns -- those, I mean, which are 'on the table' in the upcoming American elections -- are genuinely equal to the moral gravity of these fundamental matters, literally, of life and death.
My understanding is that the reasons whose presence permit remote material cooperation must be proportionate, not to the evil act itself, but to the degree of cooperation involved. If that's the case, there need not be "on the table" concerns equal to the moral gravity of abortion to vote for a pro-abortion candidate.

So, taking an example Jamie mentions, to licitly use a product made by a company that donates money to Planned Parenthood, you don't need a reason proportionate to the abortions Planned Parenthood performs, but one merely proportionate to the level of cooperation in donating money to Planned Parenthood that using the product constitutes.

This raises the question, what level of cooperation in legal abortions does voting for a pro-abortion candidate constitute? The answer is, "It depends."

Some people think the answer is, "The level of cooperation is miniscule, at least for any candidate I want to vote for." The problem with this, it seems to me, is that voting for a candidate constitutes equal cooperation with every policy a candidate holds. Yes, if you vote for someone because of a policy, you are formally cooperating with that policy, while if you vote despite a policy, you are only materially cooperating with it. But the effect of your vote is the same either way. If the remoteness of cooperation with unfavored policies is the same as the remoteness of cooperation with favored policies, in evaluating them for proportionality you must consider the policies in themselves.

The Church has been absolutely clear that human life issues are the most important political issues of our time. (And, for that matter, that there is a difference between "human life issues" and "quality of life issues," despite the efforts of many politically liberal Catholics to fuse them.)

Yet I think the Church has also been clear that human life issues exist on a continuum, that though they are far more important than all other issues, they are comparable. If so, then it is possible for the difference on human life issues between candidates to be less than the difference on other issues, in which case proportionate reasons for voting for a pro-abortion candidate would exist.



Don't read good posts, read great posts

Karen Marie Knapp posts an article on forgiveness in a communist prison that is more worth reading than anything I'm going to write.


Get your act together

Yesterday, the Dominican homilist pointed out all the verbs in the Parable of the Good Samaritan. The Samaritan
approached the victim,
poured oil and wine over his wounds and
bandaged them. Then he
lifted him up on his own animal,
took him to an inn, and
cared for him. The next day he
took out two silver coins and
gave them to the innkeeper....
But before all this action, he
was moved with compassion....
The first movement was interior; the Samaritan traveler was the receiver of the movement.

The priest and the Levite did a lot of moving, too. In fact, they never stopped. Whatever was moving them wasn't compassion, mercy, and love. What was it, then? It could have been all sorts of laudable virtues: piety or chastity or counsel or prayer or honesty.

Jesus doesn't say. It doesn't matter. If I speak with the tongues of men, and of angels, and have not charity....


Friday, July 09, 2004

The effect of exegesis

Jamie Blosser of Ad Limina Apostolorum is doing us all the favor of offering summaries of St. Augustine's commentaries on the Sunday Gospel readings. Coming up: the parable of the Good Samaritan, for which St. Augustine offers a mystical exegesis:
The 'man' for St. Augustine is none other than Adam, representative of all of humanity; 'Jerusalem' is the heavenly city, representing his original state of justice and free-will; his falling into the hands of robbers represents his falling into sin, under the persuasion of the devil, and his resulting forfeiture of immortality and condemnation to death. The priest and Levite represent the priesthood and ministry of the old covenant, which proved unable to remedy his fallen condition. The Good Samaritan, of course, is Christ Himself, who alone is able to save: His binding of the wounds, the forgiveness of sin; the oil and wine, the comfort of hope and the encouragement to work. The beast upon which man is hoisted is the Incarnation, the enfleshment of the Word, by which man is raised up to share in the divine nature. The inn - you guessed it - is the Church where man recovers from the sickness of sin under the influence of the medicine of grace, and the innkeeper is - you didn't guess this - the Apostle Paul. The two silver coins are the dual commandments of love of God and neighbor (which Christ affirmed immediately before giving this parable) (cf., Quaest. Evan. 2.19; Hom. 31; Hom. 81).
I love this sort of stuff. It hints at the bottomless depths of meaning in Scripture.

The human response to Revelation is not memorization but creative engagement. If you meet someone who tells you, "I grew up on a farm," you don't reply, "You grew up on a farm," you ask, "What was that like?" And you know that what it meant for him to have grown up on a farm will not be exhausted in a two or three minute answer.

But did Jesus "really" intend the donkey of the parable to signify the Incarnation? That's probably not a well-formed question. Jamie explains St. Augustine's approach to exegesis:
The ultimate standard for such interpretation, for St. Augustine, is once again the law of charity. An interpretation is useful (n.b. he does not say 'correct,' but 'useful') inasmuch as it inclines the reader to the love of God and neighbor.
"Useful" is the strongest claim I should make about any commenting I do on Scripture, which isn't exegesis so much as conversation sparked by reading a passage from the Bible.

In any case, if Scripture is God's revelation to man, it necessarily contains an infinite meaning, and in reading it we should feel free to let our conversation with God wander where it will, knowing that when we wander from charity we are no longer speaking with God.


Thursday, July 08, 2004

Pictorial Predestination

An email conversation has prompted me to do something I've been meaning to do for some time.

The dogma of predestination is very delicate and difficult to get just right. A step too far in one direction, and you slide into Semi-Pelagianism. A step too far in the other direction, and you're into Calvinism. And even within the legitimate bounds of the Church's teaching, there are various swamps, thickets, and blind canyons.

I've come up with what I believe is an original contribution to the question: a simple, easily remembered pictorial representation of the various schools of thought on predestination, in the form of a Venn diagram.

Visualizing the Dogma of Predestination

I don't have time to post the key right now -- which, if you've done any reading at all on the subject, should be relatively self-evident -- but I wanted to put up the drawing itself while I was thinking of it.


Love 'em all, and let God sort 'em out

In the Scriptural verses I've been writing about -- "If a peaceful person lives there, your peace will rest on him; but if not, it will return to you"; "love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your heavenly Father"; "if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals upon his head" -- I detect some hints about Christian communion.

In the first quotation, Jesus tells His disciples they needn't worry about their peace resting on those who aren't fit for it. In the second, He tells them to be like God in showering love upon everyone, regardless of their fitness. The proverb can (I think) be read as teaching that loving your enemy is a means of inviting him into the New Covenant.

In each case, there is at least an implicit concern that a Christian might be too free with the gifts Christ has given him to distribute. In each case, there is reassurance that he needn't worry, that he is to give freely and leave the bookkeeping to God.

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus prefaces His call to love our enemies with the words, "You have heard that it was said, 'You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.'" Under the Mosaic Law, the distinction between who was under the Law and who wasn't was clear. A Jew, at least at the time of Jesus, was required to treat Gentiles in a markedly different way than other Jews. Whether someone was a neighbor, whether someone was Jewish, was critical knowledge. For a Jew to cast pearls before swine was not only to waste the pearls, but to become unclean himself.

In the fulfillment of the Law, though, such concerns are all but eliminated. No act of love can be misdirected, and if the distinction between believer and non-believer is still important, it is not the cause of anxious separation it was under Moses. It seems to me the concern is more to avoid the company of sinners than of non-believers -- and, for that matter, an evangelizing faith can hardly counsel avoiding non-believers generally.


The rain falls on the just and the unjust

When Jesus was preaching the fulfillment of the Law in the Sermon on the Mount, He explained that we are to love our enemies that we may be children of our heavenly Father, Who "makes His sun rise on the bad and the good, and causes rain to fall on the just and the unjust." If we do so, we will be perfect, just as our heavenly Father is perfect.

Okay, but what does making His sun rise on the bad and the good have to do with the Father being perfect?

For one thing, I suppose, it is a mark of His justice. In Psalm 51, David sings to God: "You are just in Your sentence, blameless when You condemn." The criticisms against God for being somehow unfair to His creatures is unfounded.

Moreover, without the sun and the rain man cannot live. By blessing the unjust with these gifts, God gives them time to repent -- time that will count against them in judgment should they fail to repent.

So perhaps loving your enemies that you may be a child of your heavenly Father is not so different from loving them that burning coals may be heaped upon their heads.


Burning coals

Camassia points out a difference between how Jesus and St. Paul taught charity toward enemies. She refers to these two passages:
But I say to you, love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your heavenly Father, for he makes his sun rise on the bad and the good, and causes rain to fall on the just and the unjust.

Beloved, do not look for revenge but leave room for the wrath; for it is written, "Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord." Rather, "if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals upon his head."
Camassia comments:
They seem to be arguing for pacifism from opposite directions. Paul is saying, don't crush your enemies because God will crush them for you. Jesus seems to be saying, God doesn't crush your enemies, therefore you shouldn't either. Paul's reasoning is more in line with the Old Testament theme that Yoder points out, though Jesus' point is not without foundation. Particularly apposite is the book of Jonah, where the hero explains why he wouldn't preach to the evil Ninevites: "I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity." (The fact that Jesus refers to his three-day entombment as "the sign of Jonah" may be for more reason than the fish episode.)
St. Paul's "burning coals" bit was lifted from Proverbs:
If your enemy be hungry, give him food to eat, if he be thirsty, give him to drink; For live coals you will heap on his head, and the LORD will vindicate you.
The NAB has this note on "live coals": "either remorse and embarrassment for the harm done, or increased punishment for refusing reconciliation."

I'd always thought of the coals as a psychological punishment for your enemy and a psychological reward for yourself. But as the NAB note suggests, burning coals can also signify divine punishment (in, for example, Ezekiel 10).

So the proverb (and St. Paul's use of it) can be understood as meaning that if you love your enemies, you place them under divine judgment. If they accept and reciprocate your love (as the Ninevites accepted and acted upon Jonah's prophecy), then they are saved. If not, not.

On this reading (well, maybe "accommodation"), loving your enemies is a way of extending the New Covenant to them. If they love you back, then they are keeping Christ's commandment to love their enemies, and He and His Father will come and dwell with them. If they don't love you back, the LORD will still vindicate you (and perhaps we could say your love will return to you).


Wednesday, July 07, 2004

Not just one friar,

but a whole batch of them have been accepted to take vows in a certain Dominican Province. Congratulations to Brother Andrew et al.!


V. Pax vobiscum.
R. Right back at you.

Hernan puzzles over a couple of verses from Sunday's Gospel that has always rolled right past me:
"Into whatever house you enter, first say, 'Peace to this household.' If a peaceful person lives there, your peace will rest on him; but if not, it will return to you."
Hernan muses:
What is the sense of the warning, "but if the house is not worthy, your peace will return to you", like calming the disciples so that they do not fear to waste it, as if peace were a thing one could lose when giving it? ...

A possible answer came to me now. Indeed, because when "giving peace" we are not giving a material thing, because peace is one of those goods that can only be increased when shared: it was not necessary to give to warnings or consolations for the successful case (to give peace and that the other receives it). It is clear that in this case we do not lose peace, but that we gained it. Yes perhaps for the failures: because it is then when we felt that the peace got "lost" .... But it sounds a little too spiritual to me, a little rationalist even; and that does not line up absolutely with the literal text (Jesus speech of peace that "goes" and that "returns").
I certainly can't speak for how the disciples understood Jesus' words. For me, they call to mind the words of Isaiah:
For just as from the heavens the rain and snow come down and do not return there till they have watered the earth, making it fertile and fruitful, giving seed to him who sows and bread to him who eats, so shall My Word be that goes forth from My Mouth; it shall not return to Me void, but shall do My will, achieving the end for which I sent it.
In a sense, the disciples' blessing is a sacrament, a verbal sign that effects what it signifies: the conferral of peace upon a household. But what if the household is not worthy, or those who live there are not peaceful? Then they refuse the grace and peace is not conferred upon them.

Jesus is explicit, though, that this is the nature of this "sacrament" of peace. It is a gift that can be refused, but the refusal in no way debases the gift. Nor does it return to the disciples void; it serves as a condemnation of those who refuse, and "it will be more tolerable for Tyre and Sidon at the judgment" than for them.


Tuesday, July 06, 2004

Thank God!

The thought occurs that thankfulness would make an excellent self-measure of sanctity.

Being thankful at all is a great way to start. I don't think a person can be both thankful and covetous at the same time; you can't really hold what you have and what you want together in your mind. Thankfulness implies a kind of restfulness, a pause (however temporary) in concern for tomorrow, and as we know tomorrow is God's concern, not ours.

Being thankful for what's good in bad situations is even better. Nobody likes a Pollyanna showing up to spoil their misery, but the truth is, if things could be worse (and for most of us most of the time, they could be (and often enough will be)), then there is some good for which we ought to be thankful. Genuinely thankful, too; there's no such thing as being thankful grudgingly.

There is such a thing as giving thanks grudgingly, though. This is fortunate, since giving thanks grudgingly is how a lot of us learn to give thanks, as a few minutes in the presence of a child being taught manners will show. Thankfulness is a virtue, a habitual disposition of soul that can be developed through acts of thankfulness, just like the disposition to kindness can be developed through acts of kindness.

The highest form of thankfulness, found among the great saints and not much looked for by the rest of us, is being thankful for the bad things that happen. Not because the saint is wicked and deserves punishment, but because he knows "that all things work for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose." Suffering has been sanctified by Christ on the Cross; Christians know, and Christian saints believe, that our suffering is an evil permitted by Providence to draw us closer to Jesus and therefore deeper into participation in the Divine Life.

Though you may not do moral evil that good may result, you certainly may endure natural evil in the Christian hope of the good that will result. In fact, that's by far the most sensible reaction to the natural evils we necessarily face, but few of us are holy enough to be that sensible.


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).



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.


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.


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.


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.


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?


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.


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.)


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.


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.


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.


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.


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."


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.


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.


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.


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!"


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.


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.


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.


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




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."


Tough question

Is this question harder to ask or harder to answer?


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!


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.




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?"


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.


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.