instruere...inlustrare...delectare Disputations

Monday, August 16, 2004

The measure that you measure

To me, one of the least appealing features of St. Blogs (and Catholicism on the Internet in general) is the game of Musical Judgment Seats played when a new story about an imperfect Roman Catholic comes up. The music stops the moment you've read the linked 800-word article. Quick! Make a judgment on the background, ethics, hidden agenda, and current state of grace of the principal figures! Don't wait, or you'll be out of the game until the next story.

What puzzles me about this game isn't how it's played -- the human mind is, after all, a pattern-making machine, and someone whose mind is set to "those lousy modernists" will encounter a lot of lousy modernists -- so much as why it's played.

What end is both desirable and achievable by condemning people you've never heard of living in dioceses you've never been to based on a brief newspaper article?

Whether the condemnation is accurate is a secondary matter. The person condemned may well be the self-centered relativist out to destroy Church tradition that the Musical Judgment Seat player pegs him as. What desirable end is achieved by saying so?

And yes, I do know that Jesus called people whited sepulchers and said we should treat people who won't listen to the Church as pagans and tax collectors. I don't think that explains the gratuitous vilification so often indulged in.

Last week, Karen Marie Knapp quoted St. Isaac of Nineveh, who said a compassionate heart
is a heart on fire for the whole of creation, for humanity, for the birds, for the animals, for all that exists. At the recollection and at the sight of them such a person's eyes overflow with tears owing to the vehemence of the compassion which grips his heart....
That is why he constantly offers up prayer full of tears, even for the irrational animals and for the enemies of truth, even for those who harm him, so that they may be protected and find mercy.
Among the grave injuries done to the Church in the United States through imprudence in the years following the Second Vatican Council is the distrust, among those reacting against that imprudence, of compassion and love as motives. As someone commented below,
...I am also sick of charity being used as an excuse to cover up, if not ignore, the doctrines and dogmas of the church. This is the approach that has been used since the late 60s, it is time we see it has not worked, and has led millions upon millions of souls astray.
This seems to be where we are. One generation called ignoring the teachings of the Church "charity"; the next generation regards expressions of charity with suspicion.

If we don't pay attention to the doctrines and dogmas of the Church in order to produce compassionate hearts, though, why do we pay attention?

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Applying a distinction

Let me overgeneralize:

The East is far more comfortable with mythos than with logos. The West is far less satisfied with mythos.

The mythos/logos tension captures one of the challenges of Roman Catholic apologetics. Some Christian denominations have all but reduced the Christian mythos to a logos: you are saved if and only if you have accepted Jesus as your personal Savior; the logos is clear from the Bible, and anything else is at best excessive. Sacraments and mysteries are by nature mythos, and therefore not part of Christianity.

Other Christians, though, reject either the particular Catholic logos or even the whole idea of a Christian logos. All that rationality, all that theologizing, is in this view a Hellenization of Christianity. Jesus told stories; He didn't write treatises. The God of the Bible is not the god of the philosophers; He gets mad, He changes His mind. Without a logos, what matters is my story, my experiences, and these don't depend on what a bunch of men said at some council or other.

So, depending on who he's talking to, a Catholic may be seen as either a poet (boo!)or a philosopher (hiss!). [I'm not suggesting this situation is unique to Catholics.] In fact, he might even be seen as both a poet and a philosopher, choosing his persona based on which best suits his purposes.

Am I talking about the doctrine of the Trinity? Then let me mention procession and relation and models of memory, understanding, and will. If pressed on it, though, let me switch to shamrocks and a love so great it becomes a person, like the myth of Narcissus in reverse -- except (pardon the switch) that it doesn't become a person, since as you'll recall the Divinity can have no potential.

In order to understand someone, you need to have some idea of where he's coming from on the mythos/logos graph (a representation of which I will spare my readers. For now). It would help avoid endless "But you just said..." counterarguments to reach some agreement on whether and how poetry and philosophy apply to the matters you're discussing.

My position, obviously, is that Catholicism (if not each individual Catholic) is both poetic and philosophical, and rightly so. The trick is to present both story and reason in a way that isn't entirely ad hoc and self-serving. It's a trick I've by no means mastered myself, but I think it has to be based on one of the assumptions any attempt at a logos has to make: that the world is intelligible to humans.

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Introducing a distinction

I recently came across a distinction that is very helpful for understanding other points of view, a distinction with the added bonus -- since the context was a discussion of ancient Greek philosophy -- of using Greek terms, which makes it sound extra-clever.

There are two contrasting views of the world: the mythos view and the logos view. The mythical and the rational, you might say. Mythos doesn't so much explain the world as describe it with story. With mythos, the question of why is not really important, compared to who and what.

Logos (we know the term from St. John's Gospel; it means "organizing thought" as well as "word") explains the world according to some principle. It seeks to answer the question "Why?" Logos is fundamentally philosophical, where mythos is fundamentally poetical. (Though see Mark Shea's Catholic Exchange article for a good distinction between story and poetry.)

When you think about it, an appeal to logos is an extremely bold position. It assumes not only that there is an objective answer to the question "Why?", but that the answer can be known and understood by humans. Neither assumption is self-evident.

What struck me most when I heard about the opposition of mythos and logos in Greek culture twenty-five centuries ago is how familiar I am with it. I am on a mailing list that has a published poet and a philosophy professor who seem incapable of communicating with each other. The philosopher makes jokes about what he will eat if the poet ever offers an actual argument for something he says; the poet is deeply scornful of what he sees as an indifference to suffering in the actual arguments of the philosopher.

If you know my methods and apply them, you'll know how I'd answer the question, "Is the Catholic view that of mythos or of logos?"

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Friday, August 13, 2004

Star chamber rulings

Mark Shea links to a story of a woman -- a celiac sufferer whose daughter is also gluten-intolerant -- who is upset that rice wafers cannot be used for the Eucharist. "Why not just give her the Cup?" Mark writes. "I don't understand these sob stories."

Yeah. Mothers acting with less than perfect logic in matters concerning their daughters' (and their own) physical and spiritual health. Inconceivable.

Unsurprisingly, many of Mark's commenters are quite ready to sit in judgment on the woman:
This is the fruit of thirty years of teaching that the Eucharist is merely a sentimental re-enactment of the "Upper Room Event" in which Christ is confected by our feelings of solidarity with others....

You can't blame poor catechesis, because the option of receiving the Blood only was explained and offered. The girl's mother is at fault, not the Church....

Seriously though, this Mother needs to get over the fact that her daughter is not like everyone else and deal with what she has....

That solution [receiving the Cup] would seem to address the girl's spiritual and physical health. Unless, of course, Mom has another, more vocal, agenda in mind....
And, most contemptibly:
10 to 1 says this Mommy flees the Church when her request gets rejected by the Big Mean Vatican. This lady stinks of self-importance.
What matters, evidently, are the rules. If the rules make your life difficult, get over yourself. If you've been told the rules and don't understand them, it's your fault. If you want the rules changed, you're an obstinate stinker, an ignorant relativist, and an odds on favorite to leave the Church -- and good riddance! Who needs troublemakers like that in the Church?

Given the choice, I personally would rather be in a Church with confused, ignorant, and overly protective troublemakers than with well-catechized and theologically educated people who don't give a rat's ass about the confused and the ignorant.

But I'm not given that choice. I'm told there's only one Church, and what ultimately determines whether I personally am in that one Church is how well I love others, the troublemakers and the self-satisfied included.

At this point, I don't do that very well. So either everyone is going to have to become a whole lot more lovable, or I am going to have to become a whole lot more loving.

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Extricating Young Beaky

As everyone who, like me, has passed through Sr. Bernard's fifth grade American History class at St. Jude Thaddeus Academy knows, when the time came to establish a capital city for the United States, it was Maryland who coughed up the acreage. "Awfully sporting of Maryland," about sums up my own fifth-grade reaction to this fact.

Years later, however, as I found myself swimming through an August afternoon in Washington, DC, on my way to a church supply store to pick up an icon for my secretary, Monsignor Reeves, I wondered whether, in unloading this particular piece of real estate, Maryland hadn't come out the clear winner in the deal. If, in fact, "swindle" rather than "deal" wouldn't be the mot juste.

These political ruminations were interrupted by the sound of my cell phone. I had scarcely managed a welcoming "Hallo!" down the line when a voice rushed upon me with the force of the Scotch Express.

"Willie, lad, is that you? Tell me, where in blazes are you?"

"Right here," I replied, looking around to make sure.

"Try not to be an ass for just a moment, will you? Are you or are you not in Washington, DC?"

The p. dropped. "Mother Mary Dahlia! How nice of you to call!"

"Of course it is. Now answer the question, blast you!"

Mother M. Dahlia is one of those Natural Forces in the Church who are always founding congregations, opening orphanages, and telling cardinals to put a sock in it. Her brusqueness toward me was a sign of fondness; she has known me from my youth, even before I had ever set foot in Sr. Bernard's fifth grade American History classroom.

"I am indeed, as you suggest, in Washington, Mother M.," I told her. "Though how you guessed is beyond me. Have you ever wondered whether, when swindlers get together, they begin the proceedings with a teary-eyed toast to Maryland, the standard against --"

"You'll be teary eyed when I get hold of you if you don't stop babbling for a moment."

"Oh, right ho."

"Now then. I suspected you were in Washington because Reeves told me you should be, for one of your USCCB committee meetings. Though, knowing you were traveling on your own, it was entirely possible you were wandering through downtown Seattle, wondering why you were there."

"Seattle would certainly be an improvement. I hear the summers there --"

"Teary eyed, Willie."

"Ah, right."

"The reason I want to know whether you are in Washington, DC, is that I need you to do a small favor for me."

"Absolutely, aged mother! Always glad to lend a hand to one of your projects."

"And I do appreciate it, Willie, dear. Though this particular favor isn't exactly for one of my projects. It's more of a favor for one of your brother bishops."

"Not Beaky, by any chance?" The Most Rev. Thos. "Beaky" Becksmith was Mother M. D.'s spiritual son, though even she would admit he was a work in progress. One of several assistants to a Midwestern cardinal, Beaky made me look positively Solomonic by comparison.

"Er, yes, actually. It does have to do with Tommy. But only indirectly."

"I see. If Beaky is playing to type, what you're telling me is that he is as we speak neck-deep in the bisque -- not unlike Washington in August, I might add -- and completely unaware of his predicament."

"That's right."

"So, naturally you turn to me for help in devising a way to ladle out young Thos. before he goes under for the third time."

There was a bark over the phone like a German shepherd stifling a laugh at the sight of a French poodle. "Don't be absurd, Willie. I turned to Reeves, and he's already provided the solution."

"Oh." I had to admit that this made even more sense. Monsignor Reeves was widely known to have a ready answer to any conundrum. I put it down to all the fish he eats during Lent. "And you want to run his solution by me?"

"I want you to execute his solution. Even you shouldn't be able to mess it up, and since you're already in Washington, you're the obvious choice."

"Ah, the plan requires a man on the spot, is that it?"

"Exactly. All you need to do is drop by the papal nuncio's office and pick something up for me."

At the thought of dropping by Cardinal Fratricidelli's office, involving as it did the very real possibility of seeing the nuncio himself, no joy welled in my bosom. As it was Mother M. Dahlia asking, though, I answered readily enough, "Certainly, old thing! Will they have it ready for me?"

"Unlikely. It's a letter Tommy imprudently sent, via the nuncio, to the Pope. You need to steal it before Cardinal Fratricidelli opens it."

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Thursday, August 12, 2004

Prating about God

Meister Eckhart once preached, "If thou wilt be without sin, prate not about God." Keeping that in mind...

Someone asked me recently for my thoughts on why God would create someone whom He knows will go to an eternal punishment.

My first thought is that the mystery of why God would create someone He knows will go to an eternal punishment is bound up in the mystery of why God would create anyone at all. You can't truly solve the former without solving the latter, and mysteries aren't things you truly solve.

With that note of caution sounded, the short answer to the question has to be that God wants to create someone He knows will go to an eternal punishment. That sounds awful, doesn't it? Why would God want to do that?

The idea that works best for me, today, is that God wants to create someone who will be damned because God wants that person to share in the divine life of the Trinity
forever, and the person can't share in that life unless he's created.

The key here is that God wants me to share eternal life with Him. He wants me-as-He-created-me. He doesn't want me-as-I-would-be-if-I-couldn't-be-damned. Or rather, me-as-I-would-be-if-I-couldn't-be-damned is not me-as-God-created-me. Those terms describe two different people -- people belonging to two different species, in fact.

Now, I don't know what's so hot about me-as-God-created-me that He would want to spend eternity with me. I have the impression, though, that He wants to spend eternity with creatures who freely choose to spend eternity with Him, which clearly means He has to create creatures who can freely choose to spend eternity with Him. And if they can do that, then they have to be able to freely choose not to spend eternity with Him.

Could God create only those people whom He knows will freely choose to spend eternity with Him? Maybe, but by not creating those who would have freely chosen
otherwise, He would be failing to love them, and that's impossible for God.

I'd be surprised if any of this actually helps anyone troubled by the question. I wouldn't be surprised if it causes people to be troubled by the question who didn't used to be. But it's the best response I have right now in the face of this deep mystery of love, freedom, and justice.

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Wednesday, August 11, 2004

A really good prayer

Happy Catholic, meeting your really good prayer needs.

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A perfect finish

To wrap things up for now: It's a bit tricky to say, "Human perfection has to be multiform," because what human perfection is is entirely up to the will of God.

Still, if we keep this contingency in the back of our minds, I think we can say that in order for humanity to be what God evidently intends humanity to be, individual humans must be both perfect and distinct. They must be perfect, or else God's will would not be effective; they must be distinct, or else they cannot constitute a community.

But why must they constitute a community? Or rather -- since the answer to that is "God wills it" -- why does God desire humanity to constitute a community?

Again, saying "God desires something because..." is tricky, and can only be done with the understanding that it doesn't impose an absolute necessity on God. But let me suggest two consequences of perfected humanity constituting a community, which God may (for further reasons of His own) desire.

First, the Trinity is a community of persons, so any participation in the life of the Trinity is a participation in a community of persons. Divine life is fullness, so two humans cannot both participate in the Divine life without participating in each other's life. If, then, we are not to be annihilated as individual persons, we must constitute a community if we are to participate in the Divine life.

(Annihilation can happen in at least two ways. We could be made identical, differing only in number like so many sanctified toothpicks; this, as I suggested earlier, makes us unlovable to any but a miser. Or we could somehow fuse into a single person distributed across all our bodies; we'd be the Body of Christ literally infused with a single personal soul, which would necessarily be Jesus', which would mean we would cease to exist as such.)

Another consequence of the eschatological human community is what might be called a richness of expression. As St. Thomas puts it:
[God] brought things into being in order that His goodness might be communicated to creatures, and be represented by them; and because His goodness could not be adequately represented by one creature alone, He produced many and diverse creatures, that what was wanting to one in the representation of the divine goodness might be supplied by another. For goodness, which in God is simple and uniform, in creatures is manifold and divided and hence the whole universe together participates the divine goodness more perfectly, and represents it better than any single creature whatever.
What's true of the whole universe together is in a particular way true of mankind. We are all created in God's image and likeness, but God's image and likeness cannot be expressed by creatures, not even by human creatures, in a simple and uniform way. Our differences in perfection, then, have value in themselves, apart from their usefulness in making communion possible. And what better means of communion is there than varied participations in the divine goodness?

One final point: God's perfection is perfectly perfect. The participation in the Divine life by the human community neither adds to nor subtracts from that perfection. Nor would participation by a collection of glorified toothpicks, or by a single person distributed across many bodies. It's not a question of what effect an arrangement has on God, but on what is capable of the participation God desires.

This line of thought confirms the dogma of the sovereign effectiveness of God's will. No one can be absent from the community of the saved if that community is to be perfect, as it must be. It also confirms the hope of salvation (not the presumption!) of everyone we love, whose absence would mean imperfection in the community of the saved.

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Multipart posts on multiform perfection

I wrote below to the effect that the uniform perfection of humanity consists in the multiform perfection of individual humans, that my perfection is not your perfection, and that each of our perfections lies in becoming what God wills us to be.

All this does raise some difficulties. For example, if my perfection is not your perfection, what is my perfection? What standard should we aim for, and how do we know, if each of us is aiming for a different standard?

The Christian impulse is to answer, "Jesus is the standard," then figure out what that means. But if the Christian impulse is correct here, then Jesus is the standard for all of us, which seems to mean the perfection of individual humans is uniform. And if the Christian impulse is not correct, then what are we to make of the Christian doctrine that we are to conform ourselves to Jesus. For that matter, isn't Jesus the perfect human, so that no one else who is perfect can be unlike Him?

I think these difficulties can be resolved by appealing to the original thesis. First, if each individual's perfection lies in becoming what God wills him to be, then Jesus is "the perfect human," and the standard of perfection for us all, because in His humanity He perfectly was what God willed Him to be. Again, that is what human perfection is; not this or that particular perfection, a certain standard of physical or mental ability, but to be what God wills us to be. "Son though He was, He learned obedience from what he suffered; and when He was made perfect, He became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him, declared by God high priest according to the order of Melchizedek."

(A side note: In His humanity, Jesus had two perfections (says I). First, He was perfect at every moment of His life, doing His Father's will. Second, He
became perfect by completing His Father's will for His life. As a time-bound human, Jesus could not instantly be what the Father willed Him to be. Though He was our Savior from the moment of His conception, He didn't effectively become our Savior until His death and resurrection, if you see what I mean.)

So we can see Jesus as the single standard of human perfection, where that perfection is obedience to the will of the Father. Every perfect human would be identical to Jesus only if the Father wills that every human be identical to Jesus. But we can't be identical to Jesus. He, recall, is God. We are to be divinized, perhaps, but we will remain children by adoption. We simply can't become children by nature, so we simply can't become identical to Jesus.

That doesn't mean we have nothing to learn from the human standard Jesus sets other than obedience to the Father (although if we learned that perfectly, it would suffice). There remains the fact that we all share a common human nature; in terms of the thesis, this means that though God wills different things for each of us, He wills some things for all of us.

This is where the whole Christian moral tradition comes in. God wills that everyone love Him with all their heart, mind, soul, and strength, and their neighbor as themselves. God wills that we all have perfect faith and hope in Him. These are the universal human perfections, the things in which, the closer we are to Jesus, the closer we are to our own individual perfection.

We don't need to be itinerant First Century Jewish rabbis from Galilee to perfect ourselves. The Father doesn't want copies of His Eternal Son, He wants brothers and sisters for Him. We become Jesus' brothers and sisters by letting Him live in us, so that we share His universal perfections, but we become perfected as His brothers and sisters by achieving our individual perfections.

But why is the perfection of humanity multiform? Clearly it needs to be multiform in the present, since corporeal limitations prevent us from all being identical, but what does it buy us in eternity? And what does it buy God, the One who really does have everything? Sounds like there's one more post to be written on this.

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Tuesday, August 10, 2004

Human perfection

Kevin Miller writes:
There is what de Lubac refers to as "the Christian paradox of man." We are truly open, by nature, to being made one with Christ - and - in fact even more so precisely by virtue of that union - we are truly made to be distinct persons. Perhaps it could be said that some saints reveal especially one of those truths, and some saints the other. Francis's distinctiveness in Christ is known to all. Dominic even more fully "decreases" so that Christ - and the saint - may "increase."
The idea that "we are truly made to be distinct persons" has some important consequences.

First, if we are made to be distinct, then if we were all perfectly what we were made to be (as we will be, God willing), we would all be different. My perfection is not your perfection.

This means there is no single idea of human perfection; the perfection of mankind, or rather of the Mystical Body of Christ, necessarily involves the individual perfections of individual men. Which means humans by nature exist in community.

Of course, you don't need a chain of theological reasoning to conclude that humans by nature exist in community. But the human community we simply observe is only a pale suggestion of the eschatological community of the Divine Family -- the Father, His Son by nature, and all His children by adoption, united by the Holy Spirit. For this Family to be perfect (as it pretty obviously will be), each member must be distinct, and therefore every member will relate to every other member in a unique way. It's a very dynamic picture, I think.

Suppose, though, that perfect humans weren't distinct. Then one would have the identical relationship with every other perfect human. And if one of these perfect humans happened to not be there -- happened to have died cut off from God -- who would know? What difference would it make, even to God. Divine perfection does not consist in infinite accumulation; the measure of the Divine Family is not in sheer number, as though it would be more perfect with eighty billion humans than with seventy-nine billion. (If numbers were the measure of perfection, there would have to be an infinite number of children-by-adoption, which is impossible.)

So when we are perfect we must be distinct if anyone is to care that we exist -- if, that is, we are to be lovable.

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Monday, August 09, 2004

Difference #62 between Sts. Francis and Dominic

Neil mentions a miracle of St. Dominic that caused all those watching to laugh. I believe this is the one he has in mind:
At one time on his return journey from Spain, St. Dominic carried by way of a small present some wooden spoons, one for each of the sisters [of the convent of St. Sixtus]. One day, after preaching and other deeds of charity, he came when it was late to the sisters, and carried the spoons with him he had brought them from Spain.

As they were sitting together behind the grille, and his brethren were likewise seated beside him, he began to preach to them once more about the wiles of the enemy, showing how Satan, for the sake of deceiving souls, transforms himself not merely into an angel of light, but assumes the shapes of the vilest creatures to hinder preaching and other good works, sometimes even taking the shape of a common sparrow.

The venerable father had scarcely said the word ere the enemy of mankind came on the scene in the shape of a sparrow, and began to fly through the air, and hopping even on the sisters' heads, so that they could have handled him had they been so minded, and all this to hinder the preaching.

St Dominic observing this, called Sister Maximilla, and said, "Get up and catch him, and fetch him here to me."

She got up and, putting out her hand, had no difficulty in seizing hold of him, and handed him out through the window to St Dominic. St Dominic held him fast in one hand and commenced plucking off the feathers with the other, saying the while, "You wretch, you rogue!"

When he had plucked him clean of all his feathers amid much laughter from the brothers and sisters, and awful shrieks of the sparrow, he pitched him out, saying: "Fly now if you can, enemy of mankind! You can cry out and trouble us, but you can't hurt us!"

The sparrow hopped once more through the window into the church, while all the sisters sat down to hear the sermon, then climbing up to the brass vessel, suspended by chains, which held the oil lamp, he broke the chains with a strong wrench and overturned the vessel. The lamp fell out, but not only was it not damaged or extinguished, but went on burning upside down. The sisters all looked up at the crash of the upset, and saw the lamp standing without any support in mid-air.

And so it fell out as St Dominic had foretold, for although the lamp continued upturned not one drop of oil was spilled. Neither was the lamp put out, nor was the bran, put under the lamp for safety's sake, shaken out, but everything remained untouched as if it had stood unshaken in its right place.

When St Dominic and his brethren saw this they returned thanks to God. He then ordered Sister Sabina -- the same whom he had named sacristan when he appointed all the officials in St Sixtus' -- to put the lamp in its right place, and she did so. And so it came about that he employed for God's glory what the enemy of mankind had from envy done for their hurt and hindrance. The sparrow which flew in that night disappeared, and no one saw whither he went.

As it was late while St Dominic was preaching the sisters lit the large lamps in the enclosure and the brothers lit those without, so that all could easily see what was going on in the church. St Dominic wrought this laughter-stirring miracle by the window in St Sixtus' church, in the presence of Sister Cecilia, who saw and heard all that had been said, and of the other sisters of St Sixtus who were also present.

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Family resemblance

In a way, St. Dominic makes an unlikely Dominican.

The founder of an order of theologians himself contributed nothing, basically, to theology. The founder of an order of scholars himself wasn't interested in studying. The founder of an order of academics himself never held an academic position. The founder of an order that produced two doctors of the Church in the decades after its founding himself is not a doctor of the Church (and would have no business being one). The founder of the Order of Preachers himself left us no real samples of his preaching.

But the Order of Preachers is not about forming its members into new St. Dominics. Which is just as well, since if it were all we'd know about it would come from a paragraph on the optional memorial of St. Domingo and Companions, Martyrs, who were killed while preaching the Gospel to the Tartars about the year 1220.

What the Order of Preachers is about, what St. Dominic was about, is identified in the opening words of the Fundamental Constitution of the friars:
The purpose of the Order was expressed by Pope Honorius III writing to St. Dominic and his brothers in these words: "He who ever makes His Church fruitful with new offspring, wanting to make these modern times measure up to former times, and to propagate the Catholic faith, inspired you with a holy desire by which, having embraced poverty and made profession of regular life, you have given yourselves to the proclamation of the Word of God, preaching the name of our Lord Jesus Christ throughout the world.

For the Order of Friars Preachers founded by St. Dominic "is known from the beginning to have been instituted especially for preaching and the salvation of souls."
That is the end of the Order of Preachers: preaching and the salvation of souls. It is, you'll note, a subjective end; the subjects are the souls to be saved through preaching. The means to a subjective end are necessarily subjective. The way you preach to someone dying in an American hospital is not necessarily the way you preach to someone in a university in Pakistan. The way you preach in 2004 Germany is not necessarily the way you preach in 1904 France.

That is why the specifics of St. Dominic's personality and life are not precisely copied by his faithful children. What defined him, what defines his Order, is the end sought, and the ways in which this end is sought are as different as the times, places, and people who seek it.

I'm not saying there are no means whatsoever common to all Dominicans. Preaching the name of our Lord Jesus Christ does have an objective component -- viz., our Lord Jesus Christ -- and St. Dominic's enduring vision of the Order is that a balance between prayer, study, and the common life is the means by which Dominicans acquire Jesus in their hearts in order to preach Him to others.

And I'm not saying the specifics of St. Dominic's personality and life do not at all influence his faithful children. The stories of his life have always been mined for their wisdom and guidance. Still, it's worth pointing out that he may not even have been aware of perhaps his richest personal example to the Order -- his Nine Ways of Prayer, written after his death from reports of those who had observed him -- and that the lessons they teach are not about preaching per se, but about the absorption in holiness necessary to preach as a saint.

Finally, his whole life teaches his children boldness and flexibility in response to the local need. To miss this while trying to recreate the details of a medieval Spanish priest's biography is to miss the gift St. Dominic has given the Order and the Church.

[I'll stipulate here that the above is pretty much all my personal opinion, and you can expect other Dominicans to disagree.]

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Friday, August 06, 2004

I wish he'd stop

Whenever Mark Shea writes about the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, proportionalist commenters boast of their evil-for-the-sake-of-good moral theories. I find that depressing, particularly on August 6.

And yet, I also find I admire the moxie of this comment:
But I still think [the] passage from the Catechism...

"Every act of war directed to the indiscriminate destruction of whole cities or vast areas with their inhabitants is a crime against God and man, which merits firm and unequivocal condemnation."

...cannot be read as a priori condemning every conceivable strategic nuclear attack.

We should have the strongest possible presumption against such attacks, without absolutely ruling them out.
Reading "firm and unequivocal condemnation" to mean "strongest possible presumption against, without absolutely ruling out" is utterly unsound, of course, but it does have a certain entertainment value.

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The Feast of the Loud Voice

When you think about it, isn't the Transfiguration kind of an odd choice for a feast?

I mean, sure, it's a dramatic story, an inexhaustible font of fruitful meditation, good homilies, and fine art.

But in terms of advancing the story of Jesus through the liturgical year, what really happened on Mount Tabor? The witnesses to this awesome theophany first babbled, then forgot about it, then reverted to the same squabbling bumblers they had always been.

The Transfiguration is a moment of profound theology plopped like a blinking neon light into a sequence of stories of Jesus' teaching and healing. It seems like the sort of thing that belongs in John's Gospel, rather than the synoptics.

Why the Feast of the Transfiguration, though, and not the Feast of the Multiplication of the Loaves and Fishes, or the Feast of the Wedding at Cana?

The old Catholic Encyclopedia suggests it was instituted as a practical substitution for a pagan feast. The role it seems to play in the current Roman Catholic calendar, though, seems to be the same it plays in the Gospels: a sudden confrontation with the declaration of God:
This is My chosen Son; listen to Him.
The implications of this are, as I say, inexhaustible, but I think that, fundamentally, the Feast of the Transfiguration is about a loud, startling noise or a splash of cold water to shake us out of the kircheschlaft routine of religion and say, "Hey, you know what? All that stuff we say about Jesus? IT'S TRUE!"

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Extremes, social and un-

Among extremists, I think we can distinguish two types: the witness and the scold.

The witness is a living testament to the truth of what he lives. The one truth to which he clings serves as both his own path to the fullness of truth and a sign to the rest of society that we not forget that truth.

The scold insists that everyone cling to his one truth, as either the only path to the fullness of truth or even the fullness of truth itself. His insistence is not necessarily annoying and offensive, though it often is, and it is not necessarily explicit. He may simply assert that decency demands the adoption of his extremism, and leave the conclusion regarding those who don't adopt it unspoken.

I agree with Steven Riddle that extremists, even scolds, are useful to society. I'd guess, though, that among extremists, only witnesses are good in themselves, and then only when what they witness to is actually true.

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Thursday, August 05, 2004

Pacifism is a harsh mistress

It seems to me that pacifism is a very demanding personal discipline, and that a committed Christian pacifist -- one who forswore all forms of violence to follow Christ -- would have to be tough as nails.

That's one reason I've never cared much for Pax Christi USA, which strikes me as a, what's the word, squishy? A squishy organization, sharing a "now, now, let's not be mean" version of pacifism, coupled for whatever reason with advocacy for "primacy of conscience, economic and social justice, and respect for creation."

I also find something unctuous in the holier-than-thou-but-we-still-love-you tone of many of their public statements, "'All Are Welcome' - A statement by Pax Christi Illinois regarding the denial of Communion" being a case in point. According to the statement,
We in Pax Christi are very passionate about Catholic Social Teaching and the call to protect and defend the dignity of life from womb to tomb. At the same time we are often disappointed by the lack of commitment to the principles of Catholic Social Teaching by many of our Catholic brothers and sisters who hold positions of responsibility in politics, business and sadly even in the Church. But it would never occur to us to seek the exclusion of any of these members of our Catholic family from the Eucharistic Table.
Which is a funny coincidence, because it would never occur to me to care whether it would ever occur to Pax Christi Illinois to do the bishops' job for them.

This paragraph also demonstrates the moral equivalence, which a subsequent paragraph spells out in more detail, that Pax Christi USA assigns to abortion and Catholic social teaching.

The subsequent paragraph begins, "As followers of the nonviolent Jesus, Pax Christi members assert that all who feel called to approach the Table of the Lord should be welcomed." This implicit call for open Communion is followed by a list of four parallel sets of people who should be welcomed:

those who reject war as a means of resolving conflictand those who feel that war is sometimes justified
those who reject the death penaltyand those who cling to the death penalty as an expression of justice
those who work to make abortion illegalas well as those who believe that criminalizing abortion is not the answer
those who believe that the needs of the poor and laborers have a priority over capitalas well as those who believe that the unfettered free market is the best way to distribute wealth and resources

Several points can be made regarding this list.

For instance, the presence of the first pair makes no real sense. It is Catholic teaching that war is sometimes justified; who would argue that people who follow Catholic teaching should be excluded from the Eucharist? If anything, it should be the pacifists who are listed second, but even that would be a strawman.

Note, too, the disingenuous expression "those who believe that criminalizing abortion is not the answer," as though this were a reasonable description of the pro-abortion Catholics under consideration. Is there be a squishier euphemism for their true position than "criminalizing abortion is not the answer"?

Note as well that, instead of a squishy euphemism, question-begging hyperbole is used to characterize free market advocates. Not only do they insist on an "unfettered" free market, but they are explicitly distinguished from people who value people more than capital. To be fair to Pax Christi Illinois, there may well be more unfettered free marketeer Catholics who value capital more than people than there are pro-abortion Catholic politicians who merely believe criminalization is not the answer, making this misrepresentation less egregious.

Note, finally, the overall composition of the list. Legalized abortion is set next to the actual Catholic teaching on war, a prudential judgment on capital punishment, and a prudential judgment on economic and business policy in a set of things regrettable to believe but certainly no cause for refusal of Communion.

I found the most astonishing sentence in the statement to be this:
In the same way, we urge our Illinois Catholic Bishops to continue to plead and pray for all of us sinners in the Catholic Body of Christ, without recourse to the violence of coercion or threats.
That is how Pax Christi Illinois characterizes what the USCCB considers "decisions [that] rest with the individual bishop in accord with the established canonical and pastoral principles": "the violence of coercion or threats."

Apparently, to Pax Christi Illinois, any act contrary to another's desire is violence and the assertion of the bishop's teaching office is coercion. No doubt accusations of "violence" come readily to Pax Christi pens, but somebody really needs to scrub their statements for unadulterated foolishness like this if they want to be considered a serious voice in society.

(Link via In Today's News.)

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Beauty is a bear

The most common mistake people make when thinking about beauty is probably to confuse "pleasure" with "beauty."

You and I both look at a painting. I am pleased by the painting, and say it is beautiful. You are not pleased by it, and deny that it is beautiful. What do we conclude?

Rob would conclude (or perhaps he wouldn't; see his subsequent comments in that thread):
...the inner beauty--the state of the soul/spirit--of the beholder must be projected onto the object-in-the-world, endowing it with beauty, rather than the reverse.
If taken literally, that's absurd. My looking at a painting doesn't change the painting. The only change occurs inside me. But what is there inside me to change? My knowledge (or experience or idea) of the painting.

Now, if you want to say that I think a painting is beautiful because of my own inner beauty, who am I to argue? Even so, the fact would remain that it is the painting I experience as beautiful. There is something about the object-in-the-world that, when apprehended by my mind, I find pleasing.

In Rob's example of a dandelion, we have the color and shape of the dandelion, set perhaps against the uniform background of trimmed green grass, that the admirer finds beautiful. The color and shape of the dandelion exist in the dandelion (or, if you prefer, there is that which exists in the dandelion that produces the sense of color and shape in the observer); these are objective properties, properties of the object-in-the-world. It is the same color and shape that the gardener perceives as ugly.

So while "beauty is in the eye of the beholder" certainly means "beauty is subjective," it's also certainly false. What is subjective is the pleasure beauty causes. But this is an intellectual pleasure, which means that two people can have the same sense experience yet apprehend it differently because they derive different ideas from the sense experience.

Beauty itself exists in the thing sensed, by definition. (And if you don't agree, try defining beauty in a way that doesn't mean the pleasure caused by beauty as I define it.)

As an analogy, think of two people in a forest, both looking in the same direction. The sight causes one person to feel excitement and a degree of anxiety. The other person, who does not realize that that tree stump fifty yards away is actually a large black bear, does not feel any excitement or anxiety. Is the bear projected onto the forest-view-in-the-world by the first viewer?

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Wednesday, August 04, 2004

Metablogging: Justice in the Third Millennium

Hernan has received the just penalty of a page rank of 0 from Google.

Speaking of which, I'd just like to say, with characteristic modesty, that if you can't get Dr. Peter Kreeft to deliver a keynote lecture, write a forward for a book, or answer your philosophical conundrum, I seem to be your next best choice. I wouldn't have thought so myself, but Google never lies.

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The beauty of it

TSO observes:
The paradox is that we are driven to thirst for beauty and yet we must see beauty in our fellow wounded human beings who often are not beautiful in any way we can see.
Not beautiful in any way we can see. That's certainly a problem when beauty is thought of as what is pleasing to behold.

But what exactly is it that's being pleased by beholding something beautiful? No one thinks beauty is literally in the eye of the beholder. When we say something is pleasing to the eye, we mean its beauty is perceived through the eye, not experienced within the eye. No one thinks a beautiful poem's beauty is wholly experienced by the ear canal.*

No, the pleasure by which we recognize the beautiful exists in the mind. It's primarily an intellectual pleasure, not a sensual one (though there may be some sensual pleasure along with the intellectual pleasure).

Once you realize that beauty is perceived by the mind of the beholder, the idea that there is beauty in other people becomes easier to at least entertain (even if, for certain people, the idea remains more entertaining than self-evident). We apprehend other people, not just as shapes and sounds, but as human beings, and human beings have by nature both a specific beauty (specific, that is, to the human species) and an individual beauty (each possessing different levels of different perfections).

I suggested some time back that a lot of people are better at acknowledging beauty than truth. There are cases, though, that it's only by admitting the truth of another's humanity that we can perceive anything beautiful about him -- a fact that would be less dire if our society weren't so blithe in denying the truth of others' humanity.


* I shouldn't say "no one," I suppose. "Beauty is experienced only in the sense organs" is no more cracked than a lot of philosophies that have made their expositors famous.

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Quiz time
Alice was talking with Bob and happened to ask him if he had seen Carl recently. "No," Bob answered cooly. "I asked him to take me sailing in his sailboat, and he wouldn't, which tells me what kind of person he is."

Later that day, Alice saw Carl and told him what Bob had said. "Yes, he asked me to take him sailing," Carl said. "And I said, 'Sure thing! Come on down to the marina any time.' Then he said, 'No, bring the sailboat to my kitchen. I want to go sailing in my sink.'"

What did Alice say in reply?
  1. "Man, Bob is nuts!"
  2. "A true friend would have brought the sailboat to his kitchen, Carl."
  3. "If these stories get any lamer, I'm going to color outside the lines of conformity to strident stale mores and theologies!"
I've never met Alice, so I have no idea what she said. But I think the only sensible choice is #1. I even think almost everyone can easily see that if you want to go sailing, you can't stay in your kitchen.

It's harder to see, though, that in prayer we might be asking God for things that He literally cannot give us if we refuse to move from where we are. The man in the parable who knocks on his neighbor's door in the middle of the night does get the bread he asks for, but only because he first goes to his neighbor's door. If he had stayed in his own house and tried shouting, it wouldn't have worked.

I may respond to Jesus' promise that it shall be given by praying for the gift of piety, say, but it's simply impossible for me to receive that gift from the position of desiring it in order to show up those holier-than-thou types on the parish council. In fact, for me to say "I want to be pious in order to show them up" is as nonsensical as Bob's saying "I want to go sailing in my sink." Whatever it is Bob wants to do, it isn't sailing, properly speaking. Whatever gift it is I want, it isn't true piety.

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But I know what I like

There's a Peter DeVries novel in which a character taking a college course on poetry is given the assignment of answering the question, "Is 'Dare I eat a peach?' poetry?"

DeVries uses this as an excuse to slip an undigested lump of praise for T. S. Eliot and "Prufrock" past his editor, but as someone for whom poetry has little appeal, I didn't really understand the point of the question. Doesn't whether "Dare I eat a peach?" is poetry depend on the context?

Years later, though, I now see that not every question can be poetic, regardless of the context. For example, there's this, from a poem called "You have colored outside the lines!":
Am I bold to color outside the lines
    of conformity to strident stale mores
        and theologies?
No context in the world can make that poetry.

I mention this, though, not just to make fun of a really, really bad poem (you color outside the lines? How sassy! You go, girl!) that appears in a newsletter for the Dominican Institute for the Arts, but to point out (for those with Acrobat Reader) what I think is quite a good poem in that same newsletter. It's "mount tabor," by Sr. Ruthann Williams, OP, appears on the last page, and begins thusly:
transfigured...
homespun blushed to gold
your hair in maple glory
and eyes a sacrament
our joy was such
we could not turn aside
but longed to hold the moment still

can this be
the carpenter's son?
The poem pulls out the Gospel questions asked of (more than to) Jesus:
...what sort
of man is this one?

...what wrong
is this man guilty of?
Of course, these are the same questions people ask about Jesus today, and it's as true today as it was when the Evangelists first wrote them down that we need to be able to give our own answers.

Memorized answers certainly have their place, but they also have their limitations. We should not only be able to tell Who Jesus is, but to show Who He is, to be able to introduce Him to those who ask, to recognize Him when we need His help.

Now, I readily admit to knowing little about poetry, and all I'm going on is my own reaction. But the newsletter contains two poems, one about the wonder that is the poet, the other about the wonder that is Jesus. I have no difficulty in figuring out which poem is the work of a preacher.

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Tuesday, August 03, 2004

Another reason I don't have disciples

My parables lack the deft touch:
A man returned from a long journey, and called his stewards to settle their accounts. The first steward came before him and said, "Master, when you left, you gave me ten talents. See, I have used them to earn you ten talents more." And he presented him with twenty talents.

The master replied, "What about the rest?"

The servant answered him, "The rest?"

"Yes, the rest. I sent you a talent a month while I was gone. What profit have you made from them?"

"A talent a month?" The steward was confused. "You mean... did you... was that what was in all those letters? I... I didn't... that is to say, I never quite got around to opening those letters, exactly. I was, ah, occupied with the talents... the, the first batch of talents, if you see what I mean, the ones I... I knew about."

"So what did you do with all the letters I sent you?" asked the master.

"Well, I... they're in my office. I sort of thought we would, you know, go over them when you returned. After you, you know, praised me for doing such a good job with... with the talents you had given me... to begin with, you see."

And the master answered him, "By my accounts, I gave you ten talents before I left, and ninety more while I was gone. You show me a profit of ten talents for the hundred I gave you, and you expect to be praised? The postage alone cost me ten talents."

And the master sent the steward out, having appointed him the household boot-polisher, which wasn't what you'd consider a promotion, seeing as everyone in the household wore sandals.
St. Catherine of Siena teaches us that the soul is always moving, either toward God or away from Him. I suppose this can be resolved with the sense of idling in spiritual neutral, of apparently neither approaching nor moving away from God, by considering the fact that God is always giving us graces, which we are expected to use to our good and the good of our neighbor. What we fail to do today is greater than what we failed to do yesterday by the amount of graces we have received but left unused since yesterday.

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The Fifth Glorious Mystery is biblical

Karl Thienes points out that the role of intercessor to the King did not originate with Mary. (I must say I never thought of Bathsheba as a type of Mary before.)

Jennifer's comments include "the obvious Protestant question":
Why do I need to go through Mary to get to Jesus? Why not go directly to Jesus?
And the obvious answer -- "you ask your friends to pray for you, right? So why not the Mother of God?" -- is given.

It might help to make something implicit in that answer explicit: Those who ask Mary for her intercession don't "need" to do that to "get to" Jesus. We want to do that. We love and revere Mary; we have an active, personal relationship with her, just as we do with our natural mothers.

Asking, "Why do you need to pray to Mary?" is like asking, "Why do you need to call your mother every week?" It's not a matter of logical necessity, but of natural desire. It would be unnatural for someone who knows and loves Mary not to pray to her.

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Monday, August 02, 2004

Happy August
I'm not a big fan of fisking.
Why is that? Could it be he's incapable of it himself? Or maybe he's been fisked by others one too many times.
I know:
Don't count on it. If he knew, he wouldn't make the "fake Latin makes me sound smart" mistake:
Bloggere est fiskere. The fisk is the rhetorical pinnacle of blogging. It works nowhere else but on a blog. A fine fisk is why many people bother reading (and, for that matter, writing) blogs in the first place. And boy, when one of us lets go with both barrels at one of them, what a great feeling!
I suppose he has peer-reviewed references for all these claims? I could say the sentence "The fisk is the rhetorical pinnacle of blogging" is the rhetorical sewer of blogging, but at least I wouldn't be making overblown claims I had no intention of backing up.
But the principle of fisking seems to lie in a kind of dishonesty.
That's funny. I thought it lay in pointing out the dishonesty of others. Or at least their idiocy. To wit:
To fisk an article is to treat it as one half of a dialogue, to set up the original writer as the oblivious straight man upstaged by the witty and biting satire of the fisker. When you read a fisk, what is striking is how the fisked writer can bear to continue when all his previous points, and quite likely his own character, have already been badly maligned.
You're right, that is what is striking when you read a fisk... if you're too stupid to realize the fisking isn't a dialogue, but is, in fact, a fisk. In other words, his complaint about what "[t]o fisk an article is" is based on his utter failure to understand what "to fisk an article is."
A fisk is a form of theater that uses the original as a slapstick whacked against its author's head.
As appealing as the thought of whacking him upside his head is, a fisk is a piece of writing, not theater. Correct his basic misunderstanding, and what's left of his point? Absolutely nothing.
It presents a false image of the author, as though in an actual give-and-take conversation he would completely ignore what is said against him.

Fisking also does a disservice to the whole point of communication. Though language is necessarily imperfect, it can still be used to communicate ideas.
And so, Dear Reader, rest assured that, in his eminent opinion, even something as "necessarily imperfect" as language "can still be used to communicate ideas." I guess we'll put our plans to burn all books for fuel and return to grunting and pointing on hold.
Fisking, though, takes advantage of imperfections, holding them up for condemnation or ridicule as though their very presence undercut the original writer's point. Any sentence, or even a part of a sentence, taken in isolation, can be mocked,
Some writers' sentences more than others.
but what does doing so prove?
Oh, I don't know, maybe that the writer is an idiot?
There is also the fact that, as it's generally done, fisking makes such heavy use of personal derision and insult. True, fisking doesn't positively require derision,
So why mention it? Anyone for a hasty generalization?
but I think by its very nature -- studying each sentence for some weakness, some opening for a quick shot to the short ribs -- composing a fisk is at least a near temptation of sins against charity. Add to that the encouraging reactions cheap shots often produce among the like-minded, and the habit of fisking is very likely to be at least tainted with vice.
It took him long enough, but he finally gets to his real point: unlike the rest of us, who occasionally get encouraging reactions from what we write, he is not tainted with vice.

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Saturday, July 31, 2004

Proportionate reasoning

Jcecil3 proposes a proportionate reason for voting for John Kerry:
With an unjust war, it seems to me that the state would be killing innocent people. Therefore, an unjust war is on par with the state mandating abortion, which is worse than the state allowing abortion.
I think this is a pretty good argument. Not unanswerable, maybe; state-mandated abortion and unjust war are significantly different evils. But the idea that directly killing an innocent person is objectively worse than immediate material cooperation in that killing seems plausible to me, and I can see the reason to extend that to directly killing one innocent person being objectively worse than immediate material cooperation in another killing.

Jcecil3 goes on:
Therefore, I could be wrong, but it seems to me that the most moral choice is to vote for John Kerry....
Which is quite a different argument.

It seems to me you can extend the "unjust war is worse than permissive abortion laws" claim to a "George Bush is worse than John Kerry" claim in one of three ways.

You can say Bush has prosecuted an unjust war, and therefore is necessarily worse than Kerry, who hasn't; or you can say Bush will prosecute an unjust war, and Kerry won't. I don't think either of these is necessarily sound. As someone who prefers virtuous candidates, I can see why someone who starts an unjust war might be seen as unfit for office, but that by itself doesn't mean everyone who hasn't started an unjust war is necessarily more fit. As for what will happen, it seems to me Kerry's aggressive push of legal abortion through birth, worldwide and in perpetuity is far more certain than either another war under Bush or the absence of a war under Kerry.

A third way of arguing that Bush is worse than Kerry because unjust war is worse than permissive abortion laws, what might be called an operational argument, is that the very fact of having, and even reelecting, a president who has caused an unjust war is worse for the common good than having, or electing, a president who loves loves loves to immediately materially cooperate with abortions through birth, worldwide and in perpetuity. I don't know that this can be strictly proven, but I think it is a defensible personal judgment. (Defensible meaning consonant with reason and faith, not correct, persuasive, or even highly probable.)

Still, in my personal judgment (which I of course consider defensible, but what do I know), Kerry's own position on government-funded abortions and fetal stem cell research constitutes the state killing innocent people, so even accepting Jcecil3's first principle (and his judgment of the war) without reservations leaves no clear choice between the two candidates.

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Friday, July 30, 2004

Choosing sides

Two things that irk me deeply are mendacity -- deliberate falsehoods only an ignoramus or a fool could actually believe as he speaks them -- and stubbornly offered invalid arguments -- arguments that don't prove their conclusions even if their premises are true, but that continue to be offered long after their invalidity has been demonstrated.

So, as you can imagine, I haven't been enjoying the coverage of the Democratic National Convention. Nor do I expect to enjoy the coverage of the V shaped depression in the offing known as the Republican National Convention.

Jcecil3, on the other hand, has now drunk the Kool-Aid, as the saying goes. He writes:
I still feel a great deal of discomfort about the abortion issue... this was the stumbling block between me and Kerry. He answered it for me in the bolded sentence.
The bolded sentences in which Kerry answered Jcecil3's great deal of discomfort about the abortion issue are these, from last night's acceptance speech:
I don't want to claim that God is on our side. As Abraham Lincoln told us, I want to pray humbly that we are on God's side.
It's a curious line of reasoning, followed in the bright light of the day: John Kerry has publicly vowed to undo every small effort George Bush has done to resist worldwide abortion-on-demand-through-birth, which fact discomforts Jcecil3, who is pro-life. On the other hand, Kerry says that he doesn't want to claim that God is on his side, but that he does want to pray humbly that he is on God's side. And this not only overcomes Jcecil3's discomfort, it makes him positively enthusiastic about the fellow.

Now, it happens that, pray all he might, John Kerry is categorically not on God's side. On the matter of abortion, John Kerry, whether he realizes it or not, spits in God's eye. His position is literally damnable.

So I, personally, don't see much in the way of persuasiveness to his saying, "I want to pray humbly that we are on God's side." In fact, I see much that is ridiculous, and once again I must conclude that Kerry is either a liar or a fool to say this.

Still, I think Jcecil3's enthusiasm for this sort of guff hints at something worth noting. What he is responding to emotionally, if I read him correctly, is Kerry's profession of anti-dogmatism, of claiming the allowance, "I could be wrong." (And what matters is the profession of anti-dogmatism, since Kerry's speech was otherwise (and properly) full of dogmas.)

This week's hypothesis is that many self-described progressive Roman Catholics think it is better to be wrong and say "I could be wrong" than to be right and say "I am not wrong." And if the choice is between "a very intelligent man who tries to do what he thinks is right and who consistently makes fine hair-splitting distinctions and careful nuance" and who is flat wrong and a man of middling intelligence and laconic speech who accurately insists he is right, there's simply no question the progressive will embrace the former.

And if I had to guess at the answer to the question of why someone would prefer intelligent and nuanced error to unsophisticated and uncompromising truth, my guess would be, "Sloth."

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The more you see

This is how St. Catherine of Siena, one of the holiest people who have ever lived, finished a meditative prayer on Christ's passion:
Oh my wretched soul, you who have embraced not the light but the darkness! Get up! Get up out of the darkness! Rouse yourself! Open the eye of your understanding and look into the depth within the deep well of divine charity!

For unless you see, you cannot love.

The more you see, the more you will love.

Once you love, you will follow, and you will clothe yourself in His will.

I have sinned, Lord!
Have mercy on me!
Amen.

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Tuesday, July 27, 2004

A question for political observers

Okay, I understand everyone says stupid things at times. When we do, we should notice that what we've said was stupid and correct ourselves without compounding the stupidity.

So, when are the politicians who have said they can't force their morality on their constituents going to correct themselves without compounding their stupidity?

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Monday, July 26, 2004

Metablogging: In answer to your questions,

No, I don't want to be put on your mailing list. If you put me on your mailing list without asking me, I will cuss at you until you remove me.

No, I'm not interested in becoming an affiliate. I don't know how to spend all the money I make blogging as it is.

No, I won't exchange links with you. I'll link to you if I want to. You can link to me if you want to. Ain't blogging grand?

No, I don't find your critique of Roman Catholicism devastating. I do, though, find the fact that you troll the World Wide Web for email addresses of Catholics to broadcast it to pathetic, and a little creepy.

Yes, by all means send me a copy of the book.

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From where she grandstands

I've read practically nothing by Sr. Joan Chittister, OSB, under the untested assumption that there are better things for me to do. Having chanced upon a couple of her recent National Catholic Reporter columns, all I can say is, sometimes untested assumptions are true.

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More in sorrow

Steven Riddle writes about the sliding scale of sloth:
I think early in the Christian journey all legitimate and licit pleasures are good and should be gratefully accepted. However, as we grow in the faith, it seem to me that the things we take pleasure in should also advance. That is, that while we might enjoy light reading at the start of our Christian career, as our lives move into conformity with God, we might move on from this legitimate interest to more profound things....

So it leads me to wonder if our indulgence in these pass-times isn't sometimes also a way of avoiding deeper commitment.
Sloth, as you know, is sorrow for spiritual good. In an article in the April 2004 The Thomist, Rebecca Konyndyk-DeYoung suggests a cause of this odd yet common vice is the recognition that joyful acceptance of spiritual good demands conversion.

We cannot experience the goodness of God and remain unchanged. If we don't want to change, then, we have to somehow avoid experiencing God's goodness, which means we have to avoid doing things that bring us in contact with God. Things like praying; things like reading better books than we used to read.

I mention a "sliding scale of sloth" because what will bring us into contact with God depends on where we are. Reading P. G. Wodehouse may be an escape, but for most of us it isn't an escape from God. It's only when we are close to God that to read Wodehouse is to turn from God. (I speak, of course, of all right-thinking persons. For those objectively disordered souls who do not appreciate Wodehouse, we pray in silence.)

But as with all such freedoms, we can't let it become a license. When a good keeps us from God, we cannot choose it, and we must watch out for those goods that at one time did not keep us from God -- perhaps they even drew us toward Him -- but are now holding us back.

I think I once used the analogy of a hot air balloon, tethered to the ground by ropes of varying lengths. At any given time, only certain ropes prevent the balloon from rising, and it is only when these are untied that other, longer ropes begin to hold the balloon down.

None of us is good enough. Each of us is being held back from God by something, and we need to search our lives to find out what it is. The search does not end in this life, and what was once a licit and even beneficial pleasure may well be what we are clinging to, out of sloth, out of implicit sorrow at the thought that becoming what we are meant to be means letting go of some temporary pleasure.

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The last part

I hope.

One final point on forgiveness I didn't manage to sneak into an earlier post:

For fallen man, Christian forgiveness is hard.

It's hard because it takes humility and meekness to renounce a just debt. It takes an uncomfortable degree of self-knowledge to recognize our own need to be forgiven. It takes a robust faith to leave all judging to God. It takes, God help us, practice to love our friends as we love ourselves, to say nothing of loving our enemies. And all this needs to be done under the one organizing principle of human acts: to love God with all our heart, all our soul, all our mind, all our strength.

But it's also hard because, unlike clemency, forgiveness is an interior act. That means there's nothing external and irrevocable you can do to forgive. If you're lenient toward someone, there's firm evidence of your clemency, and you can't later on not have been lenient. If you give alms, there's physical proof of your almsgiving, and you can't (practically speaking) get your money back later.

But to forgive someone, in particular someone who doesn't ask you for forgiveness... well, how do you actually do that? You can say, "I forgive him," but unless you're God your words do not create the reality they signify. You have to somehow or other... just forgive him.

Of course, Christian forgiveness happens by grace, and becomes a virtue by practice, so saying, "I forgive him, the miserable rat," is a good way to start, as long as it isn't where you stop. A prayer like, "Dear Lord, please grant me the grace to desire to pray for the grace to desire to forgive," may be in order.

And once you've forgiven someone, what's to stop you from unforgiving him later? Nothing, as far as I can see, except grace.

Christian forgiveness, then, demands all sorts of prior virtues and is given in an intangible and so-to-speak insecure manner. No wonder Christians are so bad at it.

And how do we get better? Well, have you tried prayer and fasting?

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Sunday, July 25, 2004

The Christian part

I've written more than enough about forgiveness over the past two weeks, but I do want to emphasize a point or two about the intent of forgiving (I wrote about the object of forgiving here).

Why does a Christian forgive the wrongs done against him? Earlier, I argued the fundamental answer was, "Because Jesus told us to." As with most of my answers, though, that was incomplete. Since Jesus told us to forgive unconditionally, we know it's the right thing to do, but what makes Christian forgiveness the right thing to do is love. We know that to forgive others is to love them.

(And yes, that knowledge can be misunderstood, causing people to forgive what they have no authority to forgive, but I've been over that, too.)

So: Why does a Christian forgive the wrongs done against him? Because he loves the wrongdoers as he loves himself. Because he loves the wrongdoers as Christ loves them.

The thing to note here is that a Christian loves the wrongdoers. That love is what makes the Christian's forgiveness Christian -- or better, Christ-like. Or even Christ's.

So yes, forgiving another person is the only way you'll get over the wrong, and yes, nursing a grudge is spiritual poison, but Christ didn't forgive because it was psychologically and spiritually healthy for Him to forgive. It's not an act of love for another to act out of love for yourself.

We must begin where we are. As St. Augustine wrote in his Enchiridion on Faith, Hope, and Love:
It is a smaller thing to wish well or even to do well to one who has done you no evil. It is far greater - a sort of magnificent goodness - to love your enemy, and always to wish him well and, as you can, do well to him who wishes you ill and who does you harm when he can....

Such counsels are for the perfect sons of God. And although all the faithful should strive toward them and through prayer to God and earnest endeavor bring their souls up to this level, still so high a degree of goodness is not possible for so great a multitude as we believe are heard when, in prayer, they say, "Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors." Accordingly, it cannot be doubted that the terms of this pledge are fulfilled if a man, not yet so perfect that he already loves his enemies, still forgives from the heart one who has sinned against him and who now asks his forgiveness.
Those who think we need only forgive those who ask our forgiveness, then, think we are called to be imperfect sons of God.

I've read a lot of comments recently that don't seem to appreciate what it means for Christian forgiveness to be based -- as all things Christian are -- on love. In particular, the "God doesn't forgive unconditionally, so neither should we" sort of argument that I've already looked at betrays a misunderstanding of mercy.

If you love someone, you forgive him the reparation that is due you out of love. Love doesn't wait to be asked before it acts, thank God. As David pointed out in a comment below, love does not seek its own interests, it does not brood over injury. The father of the prodigal son did not forgive his son when he knelt before him; the father had forgiven the son long before, or else he would not have been watching for his return. In fact, there's no suggestion there was ever a point in time when the father hadn't forgiven his son. That's perfect love.

And that, it seems to me, is God's love for us. "God doesn't forgive unconditionally" is, in fact, a false statement. He does forgive, He has forgiven us all we have done wrong and all we will do wrong. He does not seek His own interests, He does not brood over injury.

Indeed, we cannot harm God's interests, we cannot injure Him. What our sins do is harm and injure ourselves and each other. These injuries God does not repair instantly, because that would be contrary to His will for us as free beings.

As all good Catholics know, there are temporal punishments due our sins even after we are given sacramental absolution. But the punishment due us, as I've tried to show below, is a different matter than the reparation due God. This reparation is something God forgives, not because of anything we do, but because God is love.

The perfect sons of God forgive even as they are offended, just as their Father does. Few of us are perfect; all of us can pray for the graces we need to be better today than we were yesterday.

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Friday, July 23, 2004

Second verse

The post below looks at punishment due a wrongdoer for the harm done to another or to the common good. But what about punishment due a wrongdoer for the moral harm done to himself?

Here is where justice and mercy meet. If a punishment is just, it may be imposed; that's what justice is all about. Mercy, on the other hand, is all about loving compassion. Mercy isn't opposed to justice, but it has a different end in mind -- the good of the other rather than giving to each what is due -- and so it employs different means.

Suppose you have the moral authority to forgive a punishment due me for some wrong I've done. That means, among other things, it isn't strictly necessary that I be punished for the sake of the common good, or for the good of our relationship. Should you forgive?

In terms of justice, the answer is, "It doesn't matter." The punishment would be just, but it's your prerogative to waive it.

In terms of mercy, the answer is, "Yes if it's better for me, and no if it's not."

How can being punished be better for me than not being punished? If it better repairs the harm I've done myself by doing wrong. If punishment causes me to repent, where being forgiven would confirm me in my bad ways, then mercy requires you not forgive my punishment. This is the old "Since I love you, I must kill you" line of reasoning favored by some when arguing against unconditional forgiveness.

What the Gospel should do here, though, is make us consider very carefully whether forgiving a just punishment is better than imposing it (and again, they are both perfectly just). It does this by superimposing charity upon justice (as the Gospel superimposes charity upon all things).

Under justice, neither forgiveness nor imposition of a just punishment is "better" than the other. But mercy, which is an interior act of charity, uses a different scale: the perfection of the other according to the will of God, which can never be opposed to justice. When forgiveness better serves the perfection of the other -- if he will be a better person if forgiven -- then Christian charity commands us to forgive.

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My song is of mercy and justice

Many people who reject the command to forgive unconditionally claim it makes a travesty of justice. They are mistaken, and though it's true people sometimes act contrary to justice in the name of forgiveness, that's not a knock against forgiveness, but against mistaken ideas of forgiveness.

Why doesn't forgiveness make a travesty of justice? Forgiveness is the renunciation of a just claim to some good due from another. Forgiveness presupposes justice. If I don't know what is just, I can't know whether my act is one of forgiveness.

If you order a drink in my bar and I say, "This one's on the house," I am forgiving the price of the drink due me. Where is the injustice?

The critical point here is that, for me to forgive, I must renounce a just claim to something due me. As everyone who says "I can't forgive a murderer who murdered someone I don't know" argues, something due someone else cannot be forgiven by me (unless I have authority over the other person, as a father, say, or an elected official).

Think about what happens when one person wrongs another. Harm is done to the person wronged, of course, but harm is also done to the wrongdoer, interior moral harm if nothing else. Harm may also be done to the larger group (the family, the society) within which the two people are related. Assuming the wrong done is sufficiently grave, the wronged person has some reparation due, as does the larger group, and the wrongdoer has some punishment due him.

The wronged person can choose to forgive the reparation due him. The larger group can choose to forgive the reparation due it. Can the wrongdoer choose to forgive the punishment due him? Actually, the way I've set things up, he can, but since no one can force another to accept forgiveness, he's likely to hear, "No, no, we insist!"

I think the interesting question is, can the wronged person or the larger group forgive the punishment due the wrongdoer? Again, you can only forgive what you have the authority to forgive. Just to fix ideas, let's think of the case where the wrong is a crime and the larger group is a society. Then, if the crime harms the common good and the only way to repair that harm is by punishing the wrongdoer, the society really doesn't have the authority to forgive punishment. That is, it might have the legal authority, but it is unjust for a society to forgive just punishment at the cost of harm to the common good.

But it's not unjust for a society to forgive just punishment if doing so doesn't harm the common good. Equally, it's not unjust for an individual to forgive the punishment of another (or to advocate forgiveness, if he doesn't have direct authority) if doing so doesn't harm the relationship between the two.

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True devotion to Mary

Nathan Nelson went all out blogging on his patron saint, St. Mary Magdalen. He refutes the Mrs. Christ theory; he posts proper prayers from the Tridentine Mass, the Pauline Mass, Eastern hymns, the Liturgy of the Hours; he quotes a homily by Pope John Paul II; he posts a litany; he even writes an apology for reclaiming the Magdalen from those who would dismiss her or deify her.

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Thursday, July 22, 2004

The entire community of humankind

There's an interesting CNS report on a speech given by fr. Paul Philibert, O.P., earlier this month at the Eastern Regional Convention of the National Association of Pastoral Musicians.
Father Philibert, who teaches at the Aquinas Institute of Theology in St. Louis, said that, according to Vatican II, in the liturgy "Christ joins the entire community of humankind to himself, associating it with himself in singing his divine song of praise....

"This is your vocation as a minister of sacred music. You are artist, leader, teacher, coach and spiritual director for your teams of musicians and for your parishes as well," he said. ...

"From a liturgical analysis, something is missing from a celebration of Eucharist in which large numbers of those who have gathered to celebrate abstain from the common song of the assembly," he said. "That sacred common song is not only a symbol of the idea of solidarity in the body of Christ, it is the very instrument and vehicle of achieving the sacrament of that solidarity.

"So, for the love of Pete, please stop making them sing crap."

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Mary's Songs

If there's something you want to say to God, chances are there's a psalm that says it.

That's true not only of you, but of the saints. I've found that, when praying the Liturgy of the Hours on any given saint's day, there is almost always at least one or two verses that pop out as specifically relevant to the saint.

Today, for example, is the feast of St. Mary Magdalen. Setting aside the questions of whether she is Mary of Bethany or the "sinful woman" of Luke 7, she is known to be the Apostle to the Apostles, herald of Christ's Resurrection and prophet of His Ascension. Oh, and Patroness of the Order of Preachers.

It's also Thursday of the Sixteenth Week in Ordinary Time, which means the psalms and canticle for Morning Prayer may be taken from Thursday Week IV in the psalter.

It's not difficult to imagine St. Mary praying Psalm 143 as she weeps in the garden that Sunday morning:
I remember the days that are past:
I ponder all your works.
I muse on what your hand has wrought
and to you I stretch out my hands.
Like a parched land my soul thirsts for you.

Lord, make haste and answer;
for my spirit fails within me.
Do not hide your face
lest I become like those in the grave.

In the morning let me know your love
for I put my trust in you.
And Psalm 147, as she hurries to tell the disciples she has seen the Lord:
The Lord builds up Jerusalem
and brings back Israel's exiles,
He heals the broken-hearted,
He binds up all their wounds.
He fixes the number of the stars;
He calls each one by its name.
"He calls each one by its name."

"Jesus said to her, 'Mary!'"

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The forgiveness part

To understand what Christian forgiveness is, you need to understand the "forgiveness" part as well as the "Christian" part.

Objectively, forgiveness involves matters of justice, the giving to someone what is due him.

If we enter into a pig buyer/pig seller relationship, then what is due me is the pig and what is due you is money in the agreed upon amount. (Of course, the agreed upon amount is not necessarily just, but that's another question.) If we enter into a pig stealer/pig owner relationship, then what is due me is punishment for the harm my theft has caused and what is due you is the pig I stole (plus, perhaps, some further reparation).

In these terms, forgiveness means a person who in justice is due some good cancels the debt. The Latin verb used in the Lord's Prayer ("forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us") is dimittere, which can mean to renounce or give up and is the root for the English word dismiss. If I steal your pig and you forgive me, you are renouncing your claim to reparation (and, if you're a Desert Father, even your claim to the pig).

Suppose someone is in a bad mood and snaps at you when you try to talk to them. Later, they come to you and apologize for their harshness, and you say, "That's all right, I forgive you."* What exactly are you forgiving? In other words, to what are you renouncing your claim?

I think what's renounced in such cases is very often the right to act on feelings of hurt, offense, or resentment. Since this is a right people do claim for themselves, renouncing it does seem like an act of forgiveness, and many Christians do believe they are following Christ's commandment to forgive when they renounce it.

But if you accept what I've written so far, an act can only be forgiveness if it renounces something that is due in justice. Do we have a just claim to the right to act on hurt or offended feelings? Are we truly due that right?

I don't think we are. I think we are due an apology; the harsh words have unjustly caused an injury, and the person who causes an injury owes some comfort or care to the person injured.

But if this is the case, then properly speaking unconditional forgiveness is the only forgiveness we can offer. If we wait to forgive until the person has apologized, then we've already received what is due us. In fact, what we call our forgiveness is itself due the other person, as acknowledgement that their debt has been paid. "I forgive you," in this case, isn't a statement of forgiveness, it's a receipt for an apology. To refuse to accept the apology would be unjust.

All this suggests that the common social understanding of forgiveness needs correction, purely from the consideration of the object of the act. When you bring in the intention of the act -- the "Christian" part of "Christian forgiveness" -- then you're really talking about something scandalous.



* This assumes you're in a relationship in which the words, "I forgive you," can be spoken. There's probably something to be gained by thinking about who could and could not say those words to you in a sincere and unironic way without offending you.

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Wednesday, July 21, 2004

Just do it

The unconditional forgiveness demanded of a Christian derives from the love of enemies demanded of a Christian.

When Christ said, "Love your enemies," what He actually meant was, "Love your enemies." That sounds obvious, but I suspect a lot of people take Him to mean, "Love everyone, including your enemies."

But although this is what Christ commands of us, it's not really what, "Love your enemies" means. An enemy isn't someone who happens to be included among the people you are to love. An enemy is one who hates you, who wills evil for you, who acts so that bad things happen to you and good things don't happen to you.

I know I tend to water down the idea of "enemy" when I see the word used in Scripture. As far as I know, I don't spend a lot of time with people who hate me, and though there are plenty of people who might be pleased if something bad happens to me, I doubt there are many who are actively working to cause me evil. (Me personally, I mean, as opposed to me as an American or Christian or whatever.)

So I do a lot of the "love the people who cut you off on the road" kind of substitutions. "Pray for those who drone on in meetings you attend." These are fine sentiments, but clearly they fall far short of Jesus' call to Christian perfection.

Love the person who wants you dead. Love the person who wants your children dead and your house burned down, who wants you sitting on an ash heap amidst desolation, weeping like Job. This is the love of enemies which gives birth to Christian forgiveness.

Such a forgiveness is not a philosophical position. We don't arrive at it by reason. The only sound argument for it is, "Jesus told us to."

That's not to say unconditional forgiveness isn't reasonable, or that we can't identify its good effects. But we don't forgive unconditionally because it's good for us both spiritually and psychologically, we do it because Jesus commands us to.

It's a tricky point, since by the fact Jesus commands us to do it we know it is good for us, and the fact that it's good for us is [at least one of the reasons] why Jesus commands us to do it. But if we reason our way to unconditional forgiveness, if the premise upon which we accept it is not, fundamentally, "Jesus commands it," then there is the very real possibility that circumstances might arise in which we find that the natural reasons for which we forgive unconditionally are no longer valid. If I forgive others because of the psychological benefits letting go of a grudge gives me, then if there comes a time when I decide the psychological cost of forgiveness outweighs the psychological benefit, it would be irrational for me to forgive.

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He knows something that you do not know

Real Live Preacher posts an essay, "There’s Something About the Way You Use the Bible," highly critical of people who "see the bible as a thing to be used at all."
That old man that you brushed aside? The one you called a liberal and a wishy-washy Christian? He spent the last fifty years with his hands and his heart in the pages of that sacred book. He has wept over it and searched for truth in its stories. His unanswered questions have increased every year until finally he knows nothing at all but the love of God and neighbor.

He knows something that you do not know.
This can be translated into Catholic experience by replacing "the Bible" with "Scripture and Tradition."

There are reactions to guard against when you read essays like this: "He's certainly not talking about me." "My, someone's awfully full of himself." "That's very sweet, but in the real world, we have to be realistic." "Preach it, brother! Lay it on them!" (This last is a particularly subtle way of not listening.)

Reactions to foster? "Is it true?" "Is it true of me?"

(Link via Noli Irritare Leones.)

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