instruere...inlustrare...delectare Disputations

Tuesday, February 08, 2005

In the monastery one does not merely observe Lent

One lives it.

(Link via Moniales, OP.)


It is as it was

You may have heard about a survey done for the BBC on contemporary attitudes toward the Seven Deadly Sins:
Most people believe the seven deadly sins are out of date, and that traditional transgressions such as sloth, gluttony and lust should not stop you passing through the pearly gates.

Cruelty is considered the worst sin anyone can commit nowadays, followed by adultery, bigotry, dishonesty, hypocrisy and selfishness. Of the seven deadly sins enumerated in their present form by Thomas Aquinas in the 13th century, only greed is still viewed as a reliable passport to eternal damnation.

Anger is the sin we commit most often, followed by pride, envy, gluttony, lust, sloth and greed. Not surprisingly, we rather enjoy lust and gluttony, but get the least pleasure from anger and envy, according to a survey of 1,001 adults for the BBC.
Where to begin? I know!

St. Thomas didn't enumerate the "seven deadly sins." He enumerated -- or, more precisely, repeated St. Gregory the Great's list of -- the seven capital vices:
...a capital vice is one from which other vices arise, chiefly by being their final cause....
I'd like the BBC to go back and ask those 1,001 adults what a final cause is before reaching any final conclusions about the import of this survey.

Still, taking the survey at face value, I think Ross Kelly's take is on the mark:
"We're less concerned with the seven deadly sins and more concerned with actions that hurt others."
But then, that's what you get when you shift your attention from vices, which are habits, to sins, which are acts. You lose the perspective of where sins come from and look only at the symptoms.

Which symptoms, by the way -- cruelty, adultery, bigotry, dishonesty, hypocrisy, greed, and selfishness -- the Angelic Doctor does treat.

I think, though, that we might make too much of the difference in attitude toward sin on the part of the general public. Should we think, for example, that people of the Thirteenth Century did not "rather enjoy lust and gluttony" or that they approved of cruelty? And, pace the surveyed, I suspect we get a lot more enjoyment out of anger and envy than we like to admit.

(Link via the informative, humorous, and creative Relapsed Catholic; also see the Curt Jester for other comments on this survey.)


Especially for Washington, Baltimore, and NoVa Readers

It's time once more for the Bishop Fenwick Chapter of the Third Order of St. Dominic to sponsor a Lenten Lecture Series on the Tuesdays of Lent at St. Andrew Apostle Church, Silver Spring, Maryland.

In observation of the Year of the Eucharist, the talks this year will focus on the place of the Eucharist in the lives of lay Catholics.

The first speaker and topic are
Fr. Giles Dimock, OP
"Why Do We Have To Go To Church?"

What does it mean to say the Eucharistic sacrifice is the "source and summit of the whole Christian life"? How is the Mass different from other forms of worship? What do these differences mean to us?
Tuesday, February 15
St. Andrew Apostle Church
Silver Spring, MD
7:30 p.m. -- Chanted Evening Prayer
8:00 p.m. -- talk begins
There will be time to ask questions of Fr. Dimock, an internationally known expert on liturgy and sacramental theology and dean of students at the Dominican House of Studies in Washington, and refreshments (suitable to the season) will be served.

And I need hardly add that it's not every day you get to hear me chant the Divine Office in public.


Monday, February 07, 2005

The case for Marian devotion

In a comment below, Neil suggests that, regarding our Mariology,
the two real questions we have to answer are:

1. The Pope says that Mary is both "a member of the Church and "Mother of the Church." When do our claims for Mary's motherhood interfere with our ability to see her as a member of the Church in any meaningful way?

2. Lumen Gentium says that "while the Mother is honored, the Son, through whom all things have their being and in whom it has pleased the Father that all fullness should dwell, is rightly known, loved and glorified." When does our honor for Mary threaten to "obscure or diminish this unique mediation of Christ"?

Without honest answers to these questions, I don't think that our Mariology will be convincing to others.
I replied that these "two questions ... are apologetical. I think the Church has spent several centuries defending her Mariology, at the expense of explaining it." Neil responded:
I did not pose my two questions as some sort of "apologetical" exercise. I intended them as the start of dialogue, a real "exchange of gifts" (Ut Unum Sint). As Cardinal Kasper has written, "Through every dialogue I do not only intend to impart something to somebody else, I also intend to impart what is most important and dearest for myself to him. I even wish that the other one partakes in it." Thus, it would seem no less than obligatory that we share with our Protestant "partners," just how, in our very own spiritual lives, seeing Mary as Mother intensifies our ecclesiology, and honoring Mary intensifies our Christology. This should be done in a way that invites them to "partake in it." And our answer really must be existential - "what is most important and dearest for myself" - not some abstract appeal to "several centuries."
I completely agree that we must share -- not just with Protestants, but also (and perhaps more importantly) with other Catholics -- how devotion to Mary intensifies our ecclesiology and our Christology.

I maintain, though, that the original two questions -- when does Marian devotion "interfere with" and "obscure or diminish" devotion to Christ -- are defensive.

My point is that, since the Reformation, the Church has been treating Mariology as a matter of apologetics at the expense of teaching Mariology as a matter of the living Catholic faith. To focus on the question, "When does Marian devotion make us bad Christians?" is to walk from the public square into court and sit down at the defendant's table.

I suggest we, as Catholics devoted to Mary, would do better to focus less on apologetics and more on fundamentals. The first question is not, "What is bad about Marian devotion?," but, "What is good about it?" And we won't convince many people of what is good about it if we start from a defensive posture by denying that it's bad.

But true devotion to Mary involves -- comes from and returns to -- mystery. Courts, apologetics, proof texting: these may have their place, but they don't really come to terms with mystery. What we need to do, then, is set aside questions on what is wrong with Mariology until we've first explained what Mariology is. And this takes time, and patience, and prayer. It might even require our partners in dialogue to be quiet a while, to listen to the story we have to tell ("have" meaning both "possess" and "must"), and to enter into the mystery of the Ever-Virgin Mother of God with us.


The Canticle of the Passion

Moniales, OP, posts St. Catherine de Ricci's "Canticle of the Passion."

Directions for use: Chant weekly for seven weeks, beginning this Friday.

A little more on this devotion, from William Hinnebusch's 1965 book Dominican Spirituality:
St. Catherine de Ricci, who for twelve years, from 1542 to 1554, experienced an ecstatic vision of the Passion every week, developed a devotion called the Canticle of the Passion. Its verses, selected from the Scriptures, are arranged as a summary of Christ's sufferings. The brief meditation made on each verse powerfully impresses the soul with the greatness of the Passion and brings it the fruits of redemption. This devotion is still practiced in some of the priories of the Order. At Santa Sabina, its headquarters in Rome, the Canticle occupies the period of mental prayer on the Fridays of Lent. The cantor, kneeling before the altar, begins the verses, which are taken up by the choir, or he sings them alone. Between each he pauses for some minutes to permit the friars to ponder the verse just sung. As a fitting close to the exercise, though not part of it, he blesses the community with a relic of the True Cross which, meanwhile, has been exposed on the altar, flanked by lighted candles.


Friday, February 04, 2005

A difference

In a comment below, Rob writes:
In his "New Seeds of Contemplation", Thomas Merton says this about Mary:
"In the actual living, human person who is the Virgin Mother of Christ are all the poverty and all the wisdom of all the saints." A bit later on he writes: "She was and is in the highest sense a person precisely because, being 'immaculate,' she was free from every taint of selfishness that might obscure God's light in her being. She was then a freedom that obeyed Him perfectly and in this obedience found the fulfillment of perfect love."
As a Protestant, I find insights like these to be, in a certain sense, more important than the 'mysterious' aspects of the Incarnation itself...
Mary's perfect obedience instructs us all in the humility necessary to love.
Which is kind of funny, since as a Catholic, I find insights like these to be unsatisfying, for pretty much the same reason Rob finds them important.

They're unsatisfying because, baldly stated, they are utilitarian. As Rob says, Mary instructs us in the humility necessary to love. That's fine, as far as it goes; we can all use all the instruction on that we can get.

But if that's all there is, if Mary's life is merely exemplary, two things follow. First, the Church has completely bungled its treatment of Mary. What kind of example can her immaculate conception set for me? What does her Assumption add but confusion to the dogma of the General Resurrection? What are the odds I'll be crowned Queen of Angels?

And second, so what? As exemplars go, there is precious little known about Mary's life, and even if she did everything better than everyone else, the fact remains that there are countless saints who did everything better than I and whose lives are well known enough for me to learn all I have time in this life to learn. From a practical standpoint, what's the big deal about Mary?

But of course, learning how to act isn't all there is to Mary. (And I don't mean to imply that Merton -- or Rob, for that matter -- say it is.) I wouldn't even say it's the most important thing about her. What she is is more important than what she does, and what she is, I'm afraid, is a mystery.

As I suggested below, we probably use her title "Mother of God" too glibly. When we do stop to think about it, it's often in the context of the history of the Council of Ephesus or in terms of the "Communication of Idioms" theologians invoke to express the truth in absurd language. If the mystery is acknowledged, it may be regarded as a spiritual/mechanical puzzle or a philosophical paradox or as something that is simply to be accepted as unknowable.

If we never get past Mary as the first and best Christian, we won't see her as part of God's Revelation, and therefore as something not only good but true and beautiful, and surely a fit subject of contemplation for all Christians for her own sake.


Thursday, February 03, 2005

A note on Our Lady

In the foreword to Our Lady and the Church, Fr. Rahner writes, "The most important formative element in Catholic piety today [c. 1958] is probably the newly-found understanding of our holy mother the Church in her sacraments and her liturgy." The book was written to show that this element not only did not contradict the ever-growing Marian piety (remember, the Dogma of the Assumption was defined in 1950), but that they reinforce each other, and in a sense are the same idea.

I don't have my finger on the pulse of Catholic piety today, but I have the impression that neither Holy Mother Church nor Holy Mother Mary have quite the appeal, in the United States at least, they had among Catholics fifty years ago. To the extent either has any appeal, though, the ideas in Our Lady and the Church will surely strengthen both forms of piety.

But the book deals with a mystery, you could say with the mystery: the Incarnation. That places the subject outside the realm of human wisdom, and to really understand it requires, not study, but prayer.

I don't think American Catholics are really used to thinking about the Marian dogmas as mysteries. Mary was ever-virgin; what's so mysterious about that? Sure, we don't understand the mechanics of the Holy Spirit overshadowing her, but we don't understand the mechanics of our cars, and there's nothing beyond all human wisdom about them.

How many people, if asked to define the word "virginity," would do so without using a negative, like "not" or "never"? We have a mechanical understanding of virginity, and so can't really see anything mysterious about it.

So Catholics say, "It doesn't make any difference to my faith if Mary had other children." That may be true of their faith, but to the Catholic faith it certainly does. And if we fail to see this about Mary, we will fail to see it about the Church, ever-virgin because ever-faithful to Christ.


What's in Style today

If you don't subscribe to The Washington Post, you might reasonably assume that the Post is the Post, and that a car review is as Posty, as "the other newspaper of record"y, as what appears on A-1 above the fold.

In fact, though, the "Style" section has entirely different standards than the news sections, which may be why Tina Brown's columns appear in "Style" rather than on the op-ed pages. Whatever her virtues, she is not a deep thinker, and her role for the Post seems to be to provide a sort of "You Are There" sensation for liberal readers who don't attend New York magazine cocktail parties.

So it's not a surprise, exactly, to read this in her February 3 column:
Hillary Clinton's move to a sensitive centrism on abortion has beaten everyone's expectations about how long she would wait before starting Phase Two of her Permanent Campaign. The same big Manhattan donors who vehemently wrote her off at the end of last year after all the crusading for a red-state male are grudgingly admitting that the woman is a warrior. At this rate she'll be guest-hosting "The 700 Club" by Easter.
The impression I get, though, is that the people who read Tina Brown nodding their heads and saying, "Exactly!" honestly do regard Hillary Clinton's speech the other week as a "move to a sensitive centrism on abortion." After all, if you believe abortion is an inalienable human right, anything that goes much further than a law requiring teenage girls to be told about adoption options quickly becomes, not just right-of-center, but positively evil.

I even suspect that some readers did imagine a whiff of The 700 Club in Clinton's remarks. That the Christian Right is unlikely to embrace a proposal that amounts to, "We keep killing babies, and you fund universal health care," may not occur to them. After all, if they were the Christian Right, they'd jump at it, and so would all their friends.

Sharing space with the Tina Brown column was TV critic Tom Shales's review of the State of the Union speech. Now, I hate to pick on someone who writes about television shows for a living; it's a degrading enough job as it is. But Shales will go out of his way to make his (brace yourselves) liberal political and social opinions known -- last year he wrote that Mel Gibson will surely burn in hell for making The Passion of the Christ -- and when he does, what he writes is fair game for criticism itself.

Today, he identifies one of the things in President Bush's speech that grates on his Posty nerve:
Bush soon divided the hall again when he said he supported a constitutional amendment "to protect the institution of marriage," which was a euphemism for banning same-sex marriages, though Bush didn't mention them. The man who likes to speak, as he did in this speech, of America's great "compassion" and who has been holding forth loudly of late on the sanctity of freedom apparently believes both compassion and freedom should have their limits.
From which we conclude what? Mostly that Shales was writing on deadline, I suppose, and threw the first brickbat that came to hand, however absurd it might be.

Is it possible that Tom Shales doesn't believe both compassion and freedom should have their limits? Should compassion for producer and director Gary Marshall, whom in another column today Shales calls an "obnoxious huckster," move a fan of "Happy Days" to kneecap Shales? Should Kathy Lee Gifford, whom Shales unloaded on like a Nineteenth Century Know-Nothing venting against the Irish when reviewing her Christmas specials, be free to unload buckshot into his hindquarters?

No, of course not. Compassion and freedom must have their limits, if a society is to have any of either. So we are left with Shales's meaning to be that he disagrees with Bush on where and how compassion and freedom should be limited regarding marriage.

Well, no kidding. Is there anyone writing for the Post (outside a few opinion columnists) who doesn't?


Wednesday, February 02, 2005

Well, but these things happen

I haven't read much in the way of reaction to this story from people who cheered the success of the elections in Iraq.

Let me suggest that very few Christians adequately value the Sacrament of Baptism. It's such an awesome mystery, how could we? But even relative to other things, I suspect many Christians severely underestimate what Baptism means. There is a misplaced impulse in interfaith relations to downplay union with the Body of Christ, and a certain embarrassment regarding the Gospel has bleached nearly all meaning out of the dogma of the absolute necessity of Baptism for salvation. There are those who seem to regard Baptism as the way you keep score, and when another game is being played, Baptism doesn't count.

Which binds us more tightly to others, faith in democracy or faith in Christ?



I've got a week before Lent starts to read Our Lady and the Church, by Hugo Rahner, SJ. Written shortly after the promulgation of the Dogma of the Assumption, it is an exploration of the Patristic doctrine that what is true of the Blessed Mother is true of Holy Mother Church.

The Fathers were not given to hesitancy in their teaching. The idea is not that Mary is kind of like the Church, since both give birth, so to speak, to the Body of Christ. If I understand them correctly, the teaching is that everything that can be said in faith of the Church in general can be said of Mary in particular, and everything said in faith of Mary can be said of the Church.

You might, as an experiment, try thinking of the "Hail Mary" as being directed to the Church:
Hail, Church of Christ, full of grace, the Lord is with you.
Blessed are you among the nations, and blessed is the Fruit of your womb, Jesus.
Holy Church, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death. Amen.
It works, doesn't it? The Church is full of grace, the Lord is with her, she is uniquely blessed, she is holy, she does pray for sinners now and at the hour of their death.

The idea of the Church as Mother of God might sound a bit odd to us, but it is found throughout the Fathers. It may be that Mary as the Mother of God doesn't sound odd enough to us, that reclaiming the doctrine of this book will help us to see how strange and wonderful the familiar title for the Blessed Virgin really is.

A few pages into the book, I find that the spotlessness of the Church as taught by Scripture points to the spotlessness of our Lady as proclaimed by Ineffabilis Deus. In Ephesians 5:27, for example, when the Church is described in the NAB as "holy and without blemish," the Vulgate has "sancta et inmaculata." And whom do we know as the Immaculata?

I wonder, this morning, where this book will take me regarding the "fifth Marian dogma" of the Blessed Virgin as "Co-redemptrix, Advocate, and Mediatrix of all Graces." If what is true of the Church is true of Mary, I may have to rethink my opinion that this goes too far....


Take two

So a while back, I got an email from John O'Leary, the publisher of Zaccheus Press, who told me they're following up on their successful publication of Abbot Vonier's A Key to the Doctrine of the Eucharist with a reprint of Hugo Rahner's Our Lady and the Church.

Terrific, I replied, I have a copy of that book somewhere, and I'll read it and give you a plug when your edition comes out.

Then time passes, as it will, and yesterday I find a package from Zaccheus Press containing, not only their new Rahner book, but another copy of the Vonier book -- from a printing including a blurb from me:
"An excellent book. Abbot Vonier’s writing is profound enough to yield a deeper meaning each time it is pondered."
Naturally, I promptly showed my name in print to my wife, who read the blurb, laughed, and said it sounded awfully pompous. A just reaction, since it's hard to take seriously the ponderings of someone who, at least twice a week, loses track of his coffee cup on his way from the kitchen to the garage.

As it happens, my blurb came from a post in which I proposed to go through A Key to the Doctrine of the Eucharist for Lent. And, as it happened, I got about twenty pages and one week into it before that plan fell apart.

This year, though, I'm going to make pondering the book part of my Lenten discipline, and set up a separate blog (seeded with the posts I wrote last year back) to keep track of it.

So I once more invite people to read A Key along with me, during the Lenten Season of this Year of the Eucharist. And if I don't keep up, you can send me sharply worded emails, CCing my spiritual director.


Monday, January 31, 2005

Blessed unity

Ad Limina Apostolorum reports that, by deftly discarding the eighth Beatitude, St. Augustine was able to develop a parallel between the Beatitudes and the Gifts of the Holy Spirit:
Poor in Spirit: Fear of God
Meekness: Piety
Mourning: Knowledge
Hunger and Thirst for Righteousness: Fortitude
Merciful: Counsel
Pure in Heart: Understanding
Peacemakers: Wisdom
I love this sort of thing. As Jamie observes, it "demonstrates the unity of all Scripture, especially between the Old and New Covenants." And behind the unity of all Scripture is the unity of all Revelation, and ultimately the unity of God, a unity into which the Holy Spirit draws all disciples of Christ.

Once in grade school we had to draw a picture representing a beatitude of our choice. I went with peacemaking, probably because it seems such a concrete act: there's war (represented by two soldiers standing fifteen feet apart pointing rifles at each other), and then I come in and do my thing, and then there's peace. Yay for me. A child of God, no less.

But if peace is the tranquility of order, you don't make peace between others before making peace within yourself. St. Jerome puts it plainly, "The peacemakers are pronounced blessed, they namely who make peace first within their own hearts, then between brethren at variance. For what avails it to make peace between others, while in your own heart are wars of rebellious vices."

Which would I pick now? It's hard to say, without false humility or too-real pride. On St. Augustine's reading, though, we are all to live all of them, if we are to be truly blessed.


Sound mind and body, but don't forget the soul

The science of psychology is human wisdom. It teaches us a lot that is good to know about human behavior. But absent the Gospel, the prescriptions of psychology will be at best incomplete, at worst wrong. The Christian knows only grace can perfect nature, and that we are made for an end psychology cannot discern. When, instead of serving the Faith, it interferes with it, psychology must be rejected.

Most of us, perhaps, are so far from perfect that the acts of self-worship recommended for mental health have a negligible (though of course negative) effect on our relationship with God. But I doubt I'm the only one who finds it easy to believe that indulging my own will, from time to time, is objectively good.

God, meanwhile, doesn't play psychological tricks on us, is my guess. He doesn't humble the proud as a way to break down their resistance. He doesn't have to. Pride itself is humiliating.

"There are set before you fire and water," Sirach tells us. "To whichever you choose, stretch forth your hand." No tricks there; it's a straightforward proposition.

The Church must teach and worship in accord with human nature, but She can neither be satisfied with human nature as it exists now nor rely on carrot-and-stick means to bring her children home.


Friday, January 28, 2005

More feastday stuff

A biochemist quotes Josef Pieper on Aquinas, and links to an Aquinas website.

Also, today St. Thomas gets a bunch of new brothers and sisters.

And the man with black hat is passing his family's Thomism on to the next generation.

I rejoiced when I heard them say, "Let us go to the Summa-thon."

Why would any normal person want to read the Summa? How would I know?


Why I like Aquinas

I don't know very much about Catholicism. I took one (rather poor) five week course on Scripture over the Internet a couple of years ago; other than that, I've had no formal religious instruction since I dropped out of eighth grade CCD.

The little I have learned, in the fifteen or so years since I realized how little I knew, has come from discussing things with other people (who may or may not have known more than I did) and from reading this or that book. That means that what I do know, I know neither very broadly nor very deeply. (It also means I'm probably wrong about a lot of things I think I know, from historical facts to eternal mysteries.)

Still, I enjoy learning things, and when I learned the Dominican Third Order stresses study in addition to an ordered prayer life, I got a very good feeling about it. And when I joined, I got as an elder brother St. Thomas Aquinas, about whom I knew little more than that he had a fine and tasteful first name and was a big fish in Catholic theology.

I soon learned that St. Thomas had written a book in which he purposed "to treat of whatever belongs to the Christian religion, in such a way as may tend to the instruction of beginners." Well, that's me: a beginner looking for instruction in whatever belongs to the Christian religion.

The Summa is not an easy book to read -- as compared, say, to another book of Theology for Beginners. But neither is it impenetrable. And once you get the hang of a relatively small number of philosophical concepts, it starts to make sense, by and large.

(Many people, I believe, are thrown when they read something that only makes sense to them by and large; they focus on the parts that don't make sense, and the whole work is lost to them. I have read enough math textbooks and papers not to be brought up short by incomprehension. I can keep plowing through in the hope that the obscure passage will yield to a later reading, or at least not completely mess up my understanding of the stuff I think I understand.)

So in thinking about why I like St. Thomas, I have to admit that a lot of it is because I find his writing to be useful. No, his is not the last word. Yes, he was wrong insufficiently nuanced about things both small and large. No, I don't agree with all his opinions and judgments. But if a beginner like me wants to think about something that belongs to the Christian religion, time and again I have found that the teachings of St. Thomas is the place to begin.

Now, my knowledge of his teaching is neither broad nor deep. If New Advent goes down, I'm largely helpless. I refer to myself as a Tomist, too informal a student to be called a Thomist. But let me propose that it would be a great mistake to think of St. Thomas as representing the "reason" wing of Catholicism, as opposed to the "faith" wing.

I wrote about 1 Corinthians 1:17 below, the beginning of St. Paul's treatment of the folly of the Cross, in which he goes on to write that "the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom."

St. Thomas knew this about as well as anyone. In his own commentary on this verse, he writes:
But the fact that many teachers in the Church have used human reason and human wisdom as well as elegant words would seem to be contrary to [verse 17]....

The answer is that it is one thing to teach in eloquent wisdom [sophia logou], however you take it, and another to use it to teach eloquent wisdom in teaching. A person teaches in eloquent wisdom, when he takes the eloquent wisdom as the main source of his doctrine, so that he admits only those things which contain eloquent wisdom and rejects the others which do not have eloquent wisdom: and this is destructive of the faith.

But one uses eloquent wisdom, when he builds on the foundations of the true faith, so that if he finds any truths in the teachings of the philosophers, he employs them in the service of the faith.
For St. Thomas, the ingenuity or eloquence of a teaching counted for nothing; he was concerned only with how the truth of a teaching could be used in the service of the Faith. And "the chief element in the doctrines of the Catholic faith is salvation effected by the cross of Christ."

So, although what do I know, I suggest that they are wrong who see any sort of radical break between the St. Thomas who wrote the Summa and the St. Thomas who said that all his works were as straw unfit for a stable compared to what had been revealed to him. The truth of his eloquent wisdom was always at the service of the faith; the humility and nonisity with which he accepted the vision were not merely lifelong habits, but absolutely essential to the eloquent wisdom he used to help beginners like me begin to have some small inkling of what eye has not seen, and ear has not heard, and what has not entered the human heart: what God has prepared for those who love him.


Thursday, January 27, 2005

Speaking of limits on human reason

I don't remember reading this story in those children's Book of Saints booklets.


Wednesday, January 26, 2005

The wisdom of the wise

The second reading from this past Sunday ends in the middle of St. Paul's thought on the difference between human and Divine wisdom:
For Christ did not send me to baptize but to preach the gospel, and not with the wisdom of human eloquence, so that the cross of Christ might not be emptied of its meaning.
Where the NAB has "the wisdom of human eloquence," the Douay-Rheims has "wisdom of speech" and the KJV "the wisdom of words." (The Greek is sophia logou; see the NAB note for different connotations of "sophia" and "logos.")

This verse is the beginning of the well-known passage in which St. Paul writes that "we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles."

It's kind of interesting, I think, that St. Paul takes two words that have been identified with the Second Person of the Trinity, puts them together, and asserts that they would empty the cross of Christ of its meaning. (The Douay-Rheims has it that the Cross would "be made void.") If we preach Christ from a strictly human perspective, we preach nothing.

Yes, we all know that God's ways are not our ways, but I think this verse goes further. Human wisdom, human reason, human speech doesn't merely fall short of Divine wisdom; it empties it of meaning. We Catholics are perhaps too glib when we assert that faith and reason are compatible. They are, of course, in the sense that nothing in the Faith is contrary to human reason. But the Faith goes further, asserting Divine reason without which the Faith makes no sense.

We say, for example, that last month's tsunami is, in some way we do not understand, part of God's providence for the world. But all we're really saying is that there's nothing in human reason that makes that impossible. We can make no positive claim from human reason alone, and since the time of Job God has revealed to us that we cannot claim any right to be able to make such claims.

It is with God's wisdom, from His Word alone that the Cross makes sense, that the sufferings of the present time make sense. Christianity goes far beyond a philosophy of suffering, but it can go beyond philosophy only in and through Christ. When Christ lives in us, the Sophia and the Logos live in us, and the Cross is made full.

In practice, of course, we must fall back on human speech, as Jesus did in His public ministry. Or perhaps the better parallel is with St. John the Baptist; as we bring the Gospel to the world, we begin with our human wisdom and reason, but we must decrease and He must increase. Otherwise, we offer nothing but a man-made faith. Perhaps a gospel of delayed gratification, or triumphalism, or nobility in suffering, or virtue. But if we try to do it without Christ, we cannot offer the Gospel of Christ.


Tuesday, January 25, 2005

A wee retraction

Lest my jokes about "the proverbial Dominican reluctance to speak" be taken as a criticism of the friars of the Eastern Province, I should mention that they have truly been very supportive of the "Crisis of Truth" apostolate, and indeed of the Third Order generally.

In recent decades, the Lay Fraternities of St. Dominic have come to see themselves as active participants in the preaching mission of the Order, and that, if they fail to participate in this mission, they will wither and die -- and rightfully so.

Naturally, there remain those -- friars, tertiaries, and outside observers -- who regard the Third Order as canonically recognized prayer groups who gather once a month to listen to Father, pray the Rosary for the souls in purgatory, and collect donations for charity.

But if that image was ever accurate, it has long since been set aside. I know very little about what goes on in other provinces, but in the Eastern Province, the president of the Third Order Provincial Council has been working indefatigably to stress sound, ongoing formation for all tertiaries, as well as the necessity of specific chapter apostolates. The Prior Provincial, meanwhile, has assigned one of the province's finest young friars to be our full time promoter, and he in turn has been ceaseless in both calling the tertiaries to "go out into the deep" without fear, and in calling on other friars throughout the province to promote and support the Third Order.

As a result of the vision and hope of both friars and tertiaries (I should add that the vision and hope do predate the current office holders, though it seems to be coming into full bloom now), the Third Order is positively thriving, with a gorgeous quarterly journal, a Third Order Congress coming up this June (theme: Duc in Altum), a province-wide program to offer Bible study courses wherever a chapter exists, and much more.

While most of the attention these days is directed at the "new movements," we Third Order Dominicans have been undergoing new movement of our own, growing in numbers, activity, and perhaps even wisdom and charity. Whether we fulfill our role as Dominicans remains to be seen, but our brothers in the First Order are doing what they can to support and encourage us to succeed.


Monday, January 24, 2005

Worthy of the promises of Christ

The theme of the homily I heard yesterday was "the peace of love and the love of peace." The priest suggested that there are two reasons why Christians do not possess this peace and love.

The first is avoidance of the responsibilities of one's personal Christian vocation. Each Christian owes something to everyone else, generally a whole lot more than the culture requires and fallen human nature wants to give. We are free to refuse to love others as God loves them, but such freedom leads to slavery to sin, not to Christ dwelling in our hearts.

The second reason Christians lack peace and love, according to the homilist, is the evasion of one's responsibilities. It is not hard to become convinced that the culture, or the unreflective human heart, is the proper judge of how we are to live. It's not my job; I do enough; I'm a good person, fundamentally. The hard sayings of Jesus, of the Church, of the saints aren't meant for me; surely no one can expect more of me. Forgive them? Are you nuts?

I'm not doing justice to the homily, of course, and surely there's more to be said about the peace of love and the love of peace. But the Gospel contains Christ's promises to His true disciples, and even if we lack the living faith St. James preaches we ought to believe Christ will fulfill His promises for everyone who is, truly, His disciple. True Christian discipleship is the bearing of a cross, and no one will rise with Christ who rejects or denies the cross he is to bear.


In case you were wondering,

No, it's not enough. But it's a start.



Peter DePalma and Joseph Schreiber are Third Order Dominicans who will be hosting a weekly radio show called "Crisis of Truth/Shield of Faith: A Dominican Response" beginning Tuesday, February 1, at 4 p.m. Eastern on Holy Spirit Radio, WISP in Doylestown, PA. If you don't live in the WISP coverage area, you can listen in on the web.

The first few programs will cover the different branches of the Dominican Family. I know they interviewed the nuns at Summit for one program, and the president of the Third Order council for the Eastern Province for another. Perhaps they've even managed to turn up a friar or two willing to overcome the proverbial Dominican reluctance to speak.


Friday, January 21, 2005

Amateur Catholics

The last post was prompted by mention of Waugh's confession in this post at Summa Mamas, containing a quoted suggestion that the same could be said of Alec Guinness, another Twentieth Century English Catholic convert.
In "the minute details of daily life, where . . . men excel each other only by prudence and by virtue," Guinness did not altogether shine. Yet, to be fair, if at times he was insufferable, he was a loyal friend and a faithful husband. He was grandly munificent. He recognized his faults and sought to combat them.
The book review for Alec Guinness: The Authorized Biography, from which this quotation comes, has made MamaT eager to read the book.

In such conversion stories, I think Catholics find an appeal that goes beyond both the angelic joy of a lost sheep restored and the partisan delight of another run for our team. There is something bracing and refreshing in the story of someone for whom the Faith matters. Especially, perhaps, when that someone does not become in any sense a "professional Catholic," so that his faith does not become something to be defended or explained or even much talked about, but simply something to be lived as best he is able in his chosen vocation.

In a confession that practices infant baptism, there's no way around having significant numbers for whom their religious practice is just something they do because it's something they've always done. You wash clothes on Monday, you go to Mass on Sunday. There are Catholics who aren't Presbyterians or Hindus only because they were raised Catholics and there's never been a reason for them to change.

Let me say that this last paragraph expresses only my impression that there are many Catholics for whom Catholicism-as-opposed-to-anything-else doesn't really matter. Maybe there aren't any such Catholics, or maybe there are only a few. But this impression is at least entirely consistent with my experience of Catholics in the United States, who as a class don't tell me whether or how their Catholic faith makes a difference in their lives.

So I extrapolate from my own experience and impression to suggest that one thing that's nice about people who are unobtrusively Catholic -- more concerned with recognizing and combating their own faults than those of others -- is simply knowing that such people exist, by their very unobtrusiveness going unobserved by us, and perhaps in far larger numbers than those of us who are obtrusively Catholic might suspect.


A fault admitted, not celebrated

Evelyn Waugh is widely known to have said -- and, I think, widely admired for saying -- that, while it was true he was not a nice person, he would have been much worse if he hadn't been a Catholic.

There are at least two admirable things in Waugh's admission. One is his personal honesty (and, perhaps, a reflection of humility as well). The other is the tidy way the statement expresses a fundamental truth of the Catholic faith, that it is (as another well-known expression has it) a hospital for sinners. The perfecti of the Church have always been those most aware of their imperfections, and the crumbiest Catholic is no more than an act of perfect contrition away from joining their ranks (however briefly).

But recognition that you would be worse if you weren't Catholic is no basis for being satisfied with how un-bad you are now. I have the impression that some people positively admire Waugh's vices, as though a man's vice becomes virtue if he has some other virtue to accompany it. Does it make sense to enjoy Waugh's misanthropy because he was pious? No more than to enjoy our own vices under cover of our own virtues.

This character of the Church as comprising sinners is easily misused. The Church, in her teachings and actions, acknowledges the sinfulness of her members; she doesn't accept it. With the Eucharist, Confession, sacramentals, indulgences, and so forth, the Church accounts for sin; she never accommodates it. As the Church as a whole, so should each of her members.


Thursday, January 20, 2005

An observation

If today you were to begin a novena to St. Thomas Aquinas -- for the children of your parish school, say, if you have no other pressing intention -- you would finish it on his feast day.


Keeping the heart aboon

Next Tuesday is, as you know, the 246th anniversary of the birth of Robert Burns, the Bard of Scotland.

Burns was not renowned for sanctity, nor was he much of a friend to the Catholic Church. But he did adapt a couple of psalms into common meter, meaning you could sing them to many tunes you already know.

O Thou, the first, the greatest friend
Of all the human race!
Whose strong right hand has ever been
Their stay and dwelling place!

Before the mountains heav'd their heads
Beneath Thy forming hand,
Before this ponderous globe itself
Arose at Thy command;

That Pow'r which rais'd and still upholds
This universal frame,
From countless, unbeginning time
Was ever still the same.

Those mighty periods of years
Which seem to us so vast,
Appear no more before Thy sight
Than yesterday that's past.
Thou giv'st the word: Thy creature, man,
Is to existence brought;
Again Thou say'st, "Ye sons of men,
Return ye into nought!"

Thou layest them, with all their cares,
In everlasting sleep;
As with a flood Thou tak'st them off
With overwhelming sweep.

They flourish like the morning flow'r,
In beauty's pride array'd;
But long ere night cut down it lies
All wither'd and decay'd.

He also composed some simple graces, for both before a meal:
O thou who kindly dost provide
For every creature's want!
We bless Thee, God of Nature wide,
For all Thy goodness lent:
And if it please Thee, Heavenly Guide,
May never worse be sent;
But, whether granted, or denied,
Lord, bless us with content. Amen!
And after:
O Lord, since we have feasted thus,
Which we so little merit,
Let Meg now take away the flesh,
And Jock bring in the spirit! Amen.
And if you're looking for some old-fashioned theology, there's always "On a Suicide":
Earth'd up, here lies an imp o' hell,
Planted by Satan's dibble;
Poor silly wretch, he's damned himsel',
To save the Lord the trouble.


Wednesday, January 19, 2005


Zadok the Roman quotes a British newspaper article that recommends shooting wasps with a Berloque pistole loaded with 78 rpm gramophone needles.

What, you might ask, is a Berloque pistole? It is, reportedly, "the smallest pistol of the world." And what might it be used for, other than wasp hunting? If you click on the "Purpose" link on Berloque's main page, you'll learn that,







Tuesday, January 18, 2005

Infallibly, but contingently

You can't talk about free will with other Catholics for very long before the problem of reconciling that concept with the doctrine of predestination (or, more fundamentally, Divine providence) is brought up.

As I see it, the root of the problem is that Revelation doesn't leave an easy out. If you say we don't choose whether we will be saved, what do you do with all the Scriptural passages that say we do? If you say God doesn't cause us to choose, what do you do with all the passages that say He does? And if you try to bring the two ideas together in your mind at the same time... well, it's understandable why some people prefer to deny one or the other truth rather than accept them both.

The way St. Thomas explains it is something like this: God created human nature to be free -- that is, to be able to make free choices. And grace doesn't stamp out nature, but perfects it. So God's grace acts upon us in keeping with our human nature. This means that God's grace acts upon us such that we are able to make free choices in response to it.

So far, so good, I think. There are Scriptural bases for saying both that grace perfects nature and that human nature has free will.

The difficulties arise when you add in the infallibility of providence and predestination. Without denying the mystery, I think most of the difficulties I've heard expressed with this are due to thinking of God as a super-human, as basically just like us only much more powerful, rather than realizing that God is unutterably different from us. He doesn't know things the way we know them, He doesn't think the way we think (and I don't just mean He sees things differently than we do, I mean what we mean when we say we "think" is a different act than what we mean when we say God "thinks"; it's like if we say a tree is singing a hymn, only what a tree does is more like singing than God's "thinking" is like thinking). God doesn't cause things the way we cause them.

So if we say (following Revelation) that God knows who will be saved from eternity, and causes them to choose salvation, we need to realize that we're using "knows" and "causes" in highly analogical ways.

That's where the mystery lies. Not in how God can do that at the same time as we freely choose whether to accept salvation, but within the nature of God Himself, Who knows and causes in ways we can only indirectly and approximately even begin to understand.


Friday, January 14, 2005

What I like about Aristotle

Eve Tushnet writes that
right now I pretty much think of Aristotelians as people who won't admit to their parents that Plato is the Bomb....
I've read almost nothing by either Plato or Aristotle, so my impressions of them are drawn almost entirely from secondary sources at best. But from the time I first read the Allegory of the Cave, I have failed to find Plato compelling. Yeah, yeah, more about me than him, all the rest is footnotes, etc., etc. I'm sure studying him is not a complete and utter bore, and is more valuable than composing a monograph on strategies for tic-tac-toe.

What I like about Aristotle (again, more from hearsay than direct experience) is the way he says, "Well, what do we have here?," and then proceeds to answer his own question.

And it's his process, perhaps more than his answers, that appeals to me. There's a fundamental optimism and confidence in saying, "This thing is that way." That "'is' of predication" is at once bold and unremarkable. It says, "Things are one way or another, and the human mind is capable of determining which way they are." For a philosopher, that's quite a leap of faith. For a normal person, that's just common sense.

Beyond that, Aristotle created a framework St. Thomas relied on in organizing his own theology, and for almost any topic he considered St. Thomas is an excellent place to start your own thinking.

Of course, Aristotle is not to be accepted passively. It's said St. Thomas baptized him, but even after his writings are adapted to or interpreted in light of Christian Revelation, there remains a lot of stuff that just ain't so. Some philosophies are so carefully constructed they would crumble if that happened. Aristotle, or at least an Aristotelian, could say, "It isn't? Okay, then, what is so?"

And with that, I've written enough to convince anyone who's actually studied Aristotle that I don't hardly know what I'm talking about.


Thursday, January 13, 2005

St. Thomas answers the psychological determinists

Let me see if this helps at all. From the question, "Does man have free-will?":
Objection 5. Further, the Philosopher says (Ethic. iii, 5): "According as each one is, such does the end seem to him." But it is not in our power to be of one quality or another; for this comes to us from nature. Therefore it is natural to us to follow some particular end, and therefore we are not free in so doing....

Reply to Objection 5. Quality in man is of two kinds: natural and adventitious. Now the natural quality may be in the intellectual part, or in the body and its powers. From the very fact, therefore, that man is such by virtue of a natural quality which is in the intellectual part, he naturally desires his last end, which is happiness. Which desire, indeed, is a natural desire, and is not subject to free-will, as is clear from what we have said above (82, 1,2). But on the part of the body and its powers man may be such by virtue of a natural quality, inasmuch as he is of such a temperament or disposition due to any impression whatever produced by corporeal causes, which cannot affect the intellectual part, since it is not the act of a corporeal organ. And such as a man is by virtue of a corporeal quality, such also does his end seem to him, because from such a disposition a man is inclined to choose or reject something. But these inclinations are subject to the judgment of reason, which the lower appetite obeys, as we have said (81, 3). Wherefore this is in no way prejudicial to free-will.

The adventitious qualities are habits and passions, by virtue of which a man is inclined to one thing rather than to another. And yet even these inclinations are subject to the judgment of reason. Such qualities, too, are subject to reason, as it is in our power either to acquire them, whether by causing them or disposing ourselves to them, or to reject them. And so there is nothing in this that is repugnant to free-will.
Long story short: Yes, a man being as he is causes certain inclinations in him. But in order for him to act on these inclinations, they must be evaluated by his reason, which means they aren't all necessarily chosen.

Furthermore, a man's "being as he is" is itself the product of his past choices, so even if (purely hypothetically) I were unable to not eat a donut, that very fact would probably be a result of my use of free will in the past (assuming there's no chemical imbalance).


Why worship?

Come, let us worship the Lord, for He is our God.
Man is capax Dei, capable of God. In practice, this means everyone has at least one god (or possibly the one God) they worship.

So while there are many deep and rich ways of answering the question, "Why worship?," a simple and short answer is, "Because that's what it means to say the one God is your God."


Wednesday, January 12, 2005

Determined free will

Determinism is usually presented as a philosophical position contrary to the notion of free will.

The way free will works, as I understand it, is along these lines: At some point as we tootle along through life, we notice that we might do A, or we might do B. Our intellects marshal our thoughts about doing A and doing B, gathering whatever seems relevant in deciding between the two, and determines that there is something good about doing A and something good about doing B, but that, in the end, doing A is better than doing B. At this point, our intellect's judgment is presented to our will, which then makes the choice to go with is A.

The point to notice is that it wasn't absolutely necessary to go with one or the other. A real and for true choice was made.

There is a form of psychological determinism, though, holding that we are simply mistaken in our perception that we could have chosen either A or B, that in reality our psychological make-up was such that there was no way we could have made the choice we didn't make. Our minds act like bragging cowards who say, "I coulda taken that guy in the bar apart, I just felt like going home instead, is all," and we, like the cowards' dim but loyal girls, fall for it every time.

The important point is that this psychological determinism insists we're fooled every time. It's not just certain circumstances, or certain emotionally crippled people. There is never a single instance when what we perceive as a choice we could have made but didn't is a choice we could have made.

The Aristotelian in me idly wonders how, if our perception is that untrustworthy, we can trust the perceptions that led us to conclude our perception is untrustworthy. More seriously, I think this sort of determinism contains a fundamental misunderstanding of what free will is.

Let's say, purely hypothetically, that I absolutely love love love donuts. Someone brings a dozen donuts to the office to share, and I face the choice of whether to take a donut.

A psychological determinist might say something like, "No, you only think you face a choice. In fact, there is no choice; your will is determined by your psychology. You will take a donut."

To which I, as a believer in free will, would reply, "Well, of course I will take a donut. Just look at 'em! Yum!"

But that doesn't mean I did not exercise my free will. What my psychology determines is a certain contribution to how desirable eating a donut, and how desirable not eating a donut, is to me.

Free will doesn't mean I may, or even can, choose something I find less desirable over something I find more desirable. That would be a silly faculty for humans to have. What free will means is that I am able, first, to decide which possible act, which is somehow desirable, I find the most desirable of all possible and somehow desirable acts; and second, to choose that most desirable act.

Now, I may be less psychologically free to determine intellectually how desirable a possible act is than some in the Church have believed. But that doesn't mean that a necessity apart from my will determines every choice I perceive myself making.


So what is coercion of the will, anyway?

What do you think of this:

In order to use our free will, to make a choice, we need
  • to have in mind
  • at least two courses of action that are
  • possible for us;
  • mutually exclusive; and
  • in some way desirable to us.
If any of these elements is missing, it seems to me, we can't be said to be using our free will.

I think it makes sense to distinguish between compulsion and coercion by saying that, in compulsion, the opportunity to make a choice is taken from one, while in coercion the opportunity remains.

You could then compel someone to do something
  • by preventing him from thinking, or
  • by preventing him from thinking of more than one course of action, or
  • by convincing him that all other possible courses are impossible for him, or
  • by convincing him that no other possible course of action is desirable to him.
I'm not sure you can do anything about mutual exclusivity to destroy his ability to make a choice.

In coercion, though, all the elements of a free choice are present. What happens when I coerce someone, let me propose, is that I substitute my will for his will. I get him (through compulsion, I suppose) to weigh the desirability of the possible choices on a scale I provide, rather than the scale he himself would use if I did not coerce him.

What I have in mind is different from simply making a possible choice more or less desirable, by for example adding consequences ("If you don't talk, I'll...") or by changing the person's perception of the course of action ("Your friends are already talking, you know."). Coercion is an attempt to get at the part of the mind that says, "Given the choice between A and B, I choose A," and make it say, "I choose B."


Where there's a will, there's an image of God

I need to do a lot more thinking about this before I'm confident about any of it, but I'll just put it out here for discussion.

Free will -- which, as St. John Damascene teaches, "is nothing else than volition," or the power of choice -- is necessary to our humanity. Any being that lacks free will, either actual or potential, is not a human being, a point indicated by the fact that the term "human act" is used in moral theology to refer to an act freely willed.

Any attempt to destroy or coerce the free will of another person, then, is in a real sense an attempt to dehumanize that person, to literally change the human being into a non-human being. From this aspect, torture intended to crush someone's will is worse than murder.

But free will is not only necessary for our humanity. It is necessary for us to be the image of God. Free will, the faculty of choice, is what we use to love, to choose the good of another. Any being that doesn't have free will is incapable of love, and therefore incapable of bearing God's image.

An attempt to destroy or coerce the free will of another person is not only an attempt to make the person a non-person. It is an attempt to efface the image of God, even the potential for the image of God, within that person. It won't simply sever the victim from the rest of humanity, but in a way from God Himself.

Which might be something for Christians who advocate proportionalism to think about.



Tuesday, January 11, 2005

Applying your method

Here's an example of one reported interrogation:
   Stress broke a young bomb maker, for instance. Six months into the war, special forces brought a young Afghan to the Kandahar facility, the likely accomplice of a Taliban explosives expert who had been blowing up aid workers. Joe Martin [a pseudonymous American interrogator] got the assignment.
   "Who's your friend the Americans are looking for?" the interrogation began.
   "I don't know."
   "You think this is a joke? What do you think I'll do?"
   "Torture me."
   So now I understand his fear, Martin recollects.
   The interrogation continued: "You'll stand here until you tell me your friend."
   "No, sir, he's not my friend."
   Martin picked up a book and started reading. Several hours later, the young Taliban was losing his balance and was clearly terrified. Moreover, he’s got two "big hillbilly guards staring at him who want to kill him," the interrogator recalls.
   "You think THIS is bad?!" the questioning starts up again.
   "No, sir."
   The prisoner starts to fall; the guards stand him back up. If he falls again, and can't get back up, Martin can do nothing further. "I have no rack," he says matter-of-factly. The interrogator's power is an illusion; if a detainee refuses to obey a stress order, an American interrogator has no recourse.
   Martin risks a final display of his imaginary authority. "I get in his face, ‘What do you think I will do next?’" he barks. In the captive's mind, days have passed, and he has no idea what awaits him. He discloses where he planted bombs on a road and where to find his associate. "The price?" Martin asks. "I made a man stand up. Is this unlawful coercion?"
Moral? Immoral?