instruere...inlustrare...delectare Disputations

Tuesday, September 06, 2005


I'm of two minds about the news that my bishop's resignation will not be accepted for a while yet.

On the one hand, I'm pleased, because Cardinal McCarrick is okay by me.

On the other hand, I'm pleased, because this news irritates people whose irritation is for me a temptation to morose delectation.


Ownership and free use

In his article on whether almsgiving is a matter of precept (a precept is a law that binds under penalty of mortal sin, so following it is necessary for salvation, while a counsel is a means to a perfection greater than what is necessary for salvation), St. Thomas begins his response to the objection that, since "it is lawful for everyone to use and to keep what is his own... it is lawful not to give alms," with this:
The temporal goods which God grants us are ours as to the ownership, but as to the use of them, they belong not to us alone but also to such others as we are able to succor out of what we have over and above our needs.
So we have ownership of our goods, but not free use of them.

Isn't this just the sort of distinction that drives some people up the wall? What's the point of my saying you own something if you can't stop me from using it? It sort of sounds like one of those stories of a burglar who sues his victim because he stubbed his toe on the victim's coffee table.

For St. Thomas, though, the distinction between owning something and using it was far from academic. As a member of a religious order, he himself was forbidden to own anything. In fact, he goes so far as to write "that in the attainment of the perfection of charity the first foundation is voluntary poverty, whereby a man lives without property of his own"; in other words, the evangelical counsel of poverty is a primary and necessary part of religious life. But a religious can still use things he doesn't own: the bed he sleeps in, for example, or the prayerbook he uses in the chapel.

I won't say it's unthinkable that a religious might come to regard something he uses as something he owns. Nor is it unthinkable that a secular person might come to regard something he owns as something that is necessarily his alone to use. But if we are to understand what St. Thomas teaches about temporal goods, we need to understand that the one doesn't always imply the other.

So what does ownership always imply, if not free use? "Stewardship" may be a better way of thinking about possessing temporal goods than the contemporary notion of "ownership," which would be expressed in terms of individual rights. What I own is for me, not anyone else, to dispose of, but that doesn't mean it's for me to dispose of however I want. I am, you might say, the rightful authority for determining what's to be done with what I own, but mine is not an absolute nor sovereign authority. In the case of my surplus or your need, I am bound by precept to let you use my goods (which may involve transferring ownership to you); if I fail, then under certain circumstances my ownership is forfeit and the goods are yours to take.


Monday, September 05, 2005

The Great Diocese Handicap, concl.

"Not feeling a bit down, are you, Reeves?"

"Not to my knowledge, your Excellency."

I eyed the fellow. Monsignor Reeves had taken news of the collapse of his plan with manly reserve. I wondered, though, whether the shock of failure had somewhat unnerved him. In the days since, he had been rather distant on the whole subj., as though the memory was still too fresh.

I decided a little pastoral care was wanted. "I think, Reeves, we must face up to failure and move on. The best laid plans of mice and men, and so forth, as you often remind me. Even Homer nods."

"Very true, your Excellency."

"On the other hand, what lasting harm has been done? Admittedly, Cardinal Vittoria thinks I'm some sort of criminal lunatic, but such misunderstandings are common within the episcopate. And Pimples did lose out on the Congregation to that Italian chap."

"Bishop Giovanni Fulsca, your Excellency. He was ordained a bishop by --"

"Yes, yes, Reeves. We shall review his C.V. in due time. My point now is that Vittoria's visit was no batsman's paradise for Pimples anyway. Mark my word, Reeves, a chap who will kick a football through a chap's window in the middle of the night is a chap who isn't destined for Congregations in Rome."

"They would seem mutually incompatible destinies, your Excellency."

"And true, Berggo didn't get his new cathedral. But do you know, I spoke with him yesterday evening, and he sounded quite relieved. 'I would hate to leave my dear lambs,' he said. A turn of heart" -- and here, I'm afraid, I registered a touch of disapproval, considering all the trouble Berggo's fickleness had put me through -- "that seems related to the Knights of Columbus raising three hundred fifty thousand dollars for his soup kitchen project."

"A shared goal does smooth over differences, your Excellency."

"He went so far as to say he would never have been happy with St. Glaphyra's. His very words were, 'A right horror it looks in the bright light of day.'"

"The aesthetics of that cathedral do not speak to the broad experiences of the human soul, your Excellency."

"And how, Reeves!" I poked through the mail Monsignor Reeves had brought me, reaching for a picture postcard that caught my eye. "On balance, the one lasting pain brought on by this whole affair was the lost opportunity to bet on the shuffling of bishops. Even there, though, your note of caution stopped me from placing a loser."

A sound like a sheep coughing on a distant peak came from the spot where Monsignor Reeves was standing. "As it happens, your Excellency, I --"

"Great Scott!" I exclaimed. "This postcard is from Pimples! Dateline Seattle, he writes as follows: 'Many thanks, old thing, for taking the rap. Now I'm taking the job you were to get, as Apostolic Visitator.'"

"Yes, your Excellency. Rumors abounded that you were to be named to that post."

At these words, my each particular hair stood an end, like quills upon the fretful porpentine. "But... an Apostolic Visitator! That would have completely ruined my fall schedule!"

"Undoubtedly, your Excellency. It seems, however, the impression you left on Cardinal Vittoria was such that minds in Rome were changed regarding the wisdom of assigning you to that post."

"But Pimples...?"

"After your hasty departure, Bishop Legendre and Cardinal Vittoria had a long and pleasant conversation, your Excellency. I have been informed that, in the course of their talk, they agreed that the Congregation was not the place for Bishop Legendre, football broadcasts being too rare in Rome, but that he would very much enjoy serving as Apostolic Visitator."

"Well, well, well. So even though your plan failed, we've all landed on our feet."

"So it would seem, your Excellency."

A cog turned a notch. "Tell me, Reeves. I don't mean to pry, but is it possible... that is, did your plan for me to visit Pimples take into account the possibility..."

"I did not wish to trouble you with rumors regarding the position of Apostolic Visitator, your Excellency. It did occur to me, however, that a day or two in the company of Cardinal Vittoria, under stressful circumstances, might prevent the appointment, which I took the liberty of feeling sure was a consummation you would devoutly wish."

"Certainly, Reeves."

"Furthermore, your Excellency, I placed modest bets on your behalf against your appointment, and also against Cardinal Legendre's appointment to the Congregation. The parlay paid off in three Eucharistic Congresses and one retreat of your choice."

"Did it indeed?" I leaned back and let out a deep breath. "I feel positively storm-tossed by events, Reeves. A retreat sounds like just the thing to recover."

"Yes, your Excellency. You are scheduled for a four-day retreat at a Redemptorist house in the Adirondacks next week. You need only give one two-hour conference to a women's sodality on the first day."

"Just the stuff! I say, Reeves, you have family in the area, don't you? Why don't you come with me, and take a few days to visit them?"

"Yes, your Excellency, my sister and her family. Thank you, your Excellency."

"Not at all, Reeves. When one lucks into something like this, I think it best to share the good fortune."

"If I may say so, your Excellency, that is an attitude toward which Divine Providence tends to respond with further good fortune."

"At least I've always found it so, Reeves. And what's the rest of it?"

"Benedicamus Domino, your Excellency."

"That's it, Reeves. Benedicamus Domino."



Saturday, September 03, 2005

In his riches

If you read the question on almsdeeds in St. Thomas's Summa Theologica, you can construct the following model of the levels of wealth he identifies.

A preliminary note: St. Thomas assumes, perhaps even insists on, a just disparity of wealth based on station in life. I have no particular insight regarding how much of this is due to his society (highly stratified), his upbringing (as an Italian nobleman, albeit one destined for the Church), his state in life (a mendicant religious), or his temperament (he is very fond of hierarchy), as opposed to his recognition of the truth of things. I suspect, though I am no medievalist, that at least part of what St. Thomas has in mind with this is the idea that certain stations in life imply maintaining one or more households, including servants, and extending hospitality, showing noblesse oblige, and so forth; so that the idea goes beyond the lines of, "Really, lawyers' wives ought to wear cashmere."

In any case, here's the model; the ideas are St. Thomas's, the terminology is my own.

At the bottom, the least wealthy are in a state of "Physical Insufficiency." This means they don't have enough to meet their physical needs, and if they don't get something from somewhere, they're going to die soon.

Next comes "Physical Sufficiency," a state in which people have enough to keep body and soul together. They don't need help just to stay alive, but they aren't doing much better than just staying alive.

Third is "Unbecoming Adequacy." Those whose wealth is unbecomingly adequate have sufficient wealth that strangers wouldn't think of them as charity cases, but not enough to live as they ought according to their station in life.

The next stage is "Becoming Adequacy," in which people have all the wealth required to maintain them in a manner suited to their station in life. The man of becomingly adequate wealth can take care of himself and those he's responsible for, and might even have a little set aside for the predictable vicissitudes of life.

Wealth at the level of "Excessive Adequacy" is wealth that not only maintains the household in a suitable manner, but ensures against even the remote and highly improbable downturns that might come in the future.

Finally, there is simply "Surplus Wealth," greater wealth than could reasonably, or even not-so-reasonably, be required for the household.

Now, how do these levels of wealth fit into St. Thomas's conception of the virtue of almsdeeds?

For starters, he regards giving corporal alms -- material aid given to someone in need -- as a matter of precept -- meaning we are categorically bound to do it, on pain of mortal sin -- in certain circumstances. Those circumstances may have to do with the giver or with the receiver. "On the part of the giver, it must be noted that he should give of his surplus... On the part of the recipient ... we are not bound to relieve all who are in need, but only those who could not be succored if we not did succor them."

So St. Thomas teaches that all surplus wealth is to be given in alms, on pain of mortal sin, which should not surprise anyone who has ever read the Gospels. But he adds that, in determining what is surplus wealth and what isn't, the giver shouldn't "consider every case that may possibly occur in the future, for this would be to think about the morrow, which Our Lord forbade us to do, but he should judge what is superfluous and what necessary, according as things probably and generally occur." What I've called "Excessive Adequacy," then, must also be given to those in need.


Thursday, September 01, 2005

The Great Diocese Handicap, cont.


I don't know if you've ever been "Oi"ed at by a Spanish cardinal looking down from his bedroom window on the shady side of midnight. It is not an experience one soon forgets. Spanish cardinals can "Oi" with the best of them, pouring into that brief expression the full passion of the Mediterranean temperament.

Pimples had vanished like a magician's rabbit the moment the ball had left his foot, and I could see the right reasoning of the thing to be done he had employed. But before I could follow suit, Cardinal Vittoria addressed me by name. "Booster? Is that you?"

"Oh, ah, what ho, your Eminence! Up late too, what?"

"What are you doing down there?"

"Me? Oh, you know, just out for an evening stroll. In the nights lift up your hands, and all that. I find that nothing clears the mind quite like emptying it, and what is more empty than a garden in the middle of the night? Not another soul here. I'm quite alone. Well, of course now you've joined me, if it can be called joining me when you're still --"

"Bishop Booster, do cease babbling."

"Oh, right-o."

"I take it, since you are alone, that you must be the one responsible for this object that came crashing through my window a moment ago."

"I? No, no! I strongly oppose crashing objects through windows. Ask anyone. Perhaps it was a prowler."

"And are the prowlers of your country, Bishop Booster, in the habit of throwing pointed balls through bedroom windows in the nighttime?" the cardinal asked, and if he was trying to keep the skepticism from his voice he failed.

"Not that I've heard. But there is a university in town. Perhaps it was a fraternity prank."

By way of answer, Cardinal Vittoria said nothing. Sister Mary Kathleen, the headmistress of Ss. Soter and Caius Day School during my time there, had also frequently employed this technique, under not dissimilar circs., so I knew from experience that, if the silence weren't broken, I would blurt out the full truth.

"Well, cheerio, then!" I offered, and, pivoting briskly, set off at a dignified trot toward a hedge some distance from the light spilling from the cardinal's window.

Had a surgeon examined me as soon as I achieved full concealment, he would have been baffled by the two red circular marks in the center of my back, until I explained they were made by the burning stare I could feel Cardinal Vittoria directing at me during my retreat.



Wednesday, August 31, 2005

Metablogging: That's what I'm here for

I don't like to brag, because it's so enjoyable, but events have brought to my attention the fact that Disputations currently ranks #3 (of about 42,000) for the Google search
forgiving when someone says stupid things when your drunk
And people say Dominicans never have any practical advice to offer.


The Thomism Blues

For full effect, hit the bumper before every line.

Now, when I was conceived,
Though my momma didn't know,
My body was infused
With a rational soul.
Now I'm a man
With one final end:
Eternal beatitude
With God as a true friend.

I'm a man
Spell it M
Y'all listen to me,
'Cause you know I ain't teasing.
I'm an individual substance
Of a nature with reason.

Repeat Chorus

Ain't just made of matter.
Ain't spirit trapped in mud.
I ain't just my soul,
I'm my soul plus my flesh and blood.

Repeat Chorus

I stand at the top
Of the material order,
But I also cross
The spiritual border.

Repeat Chorus

If you gotta ask, I can't explain.


Tuesday, August 30, 2005

A comment from the biship

So the Most Rev. Michael "Clubber" Sheridan hangs out in Jamie's combox. I must put a hulking beast of a man, with shoulders as broad as a gorilla and a frat boy haircut, into one of the Reeves and Booster pastiches.

But Bishop John Manz of Chicago is still the Bishop I'd Most Like to Have a Beer and a Sausage Pizza With.


Monday, August 29, 2005

The Great Diocese Handicap, cont.

"I should not advise it, your Excellency."

I set down the 'phone. "You interest me strangely, Reeves. Do you mean to say the odds are not with me?"

"An outcome in your favor would require Bishop Legendre to be assigned to Rome, your Excellency."

"Precisely, Reeves. Then all the other reassignments will follow as the night the day. And on Pimples's appointment, I happen to have a gold-embossed tip, laying on velvet. That's what makes the whole proposition such a daisy."

"It is true, your Excellency, that Bishop Legendre's assignation to the Congregation is regarded as a fait accompli by those in the know in the Vatican."

I furrowed the b. "You speak in riddles, Reeves."

"The matter is multilayered, your Excellency."

"What you give with one hand, you take with another."

"This is a situation that illustrates the adage, 'If it 'twere done when 'tis done, then 'twere well it were done quickly,' your Excellency."

"And where does the cat come in, Reeves?"

"Your Excellency?"

"I thought there was a cat i' the adage."

"That would be a different adage, your Excellency. 'The cat loves fish, but does not like to wet her paws.'"

"I'm not altogether certain I've ever heard that one, Reeves."

"It is alluded to in a monologue by Lady Macbeth, your Excellency, who bemoans that her husband is letting 'I dare not' wait upon 'I would.'"

I chewed on this for a moment, then said, "Bring us back round to Pimples, Reeves."

"Yes, your Excellency. Bishop Legendre's appointment is to be announced the first Tuesday of next month. Prior to that time, however, he will be visited by Cardinal Vittoria."

"Not unexpected, Reeves. Vittoria is something of the power behind the throne in the Congregation."

"An apt observation, your Excellency. His visit is, as it were, the final T to be crossed prior to the announcement of Bishop Legendre's appointment."

"But why should his visit throw off Pimples's appointment? He must already know all about him."

"They have never spent time together socially, your Excellency. In the three days Cardinal Vittoria will be a guest of Bishop Legendre's, it is likely the cardinal will discover something off-putting about him."

"Off-putting about Pimples? Why, he's the soul of geniality!"

"Yes, your Excellency. But, as is common among such open-hearted persons, there is one subject on which he is adamant and humourless, a subject on which Cardinal Vittoria happens to hold an equally adamant, but opposite, position."

"Do you mean to suggest, Reeves, that Vittoria might come away so hot under the collar he'd squash Pimples's appointment?"

"The potential is there, your Excellency."

"This is red hot stuff, Reeves! What's the bone of contention?"

"The superiority of American football to soccer, your Excellency."



Sunday, August 28, 2005

Parish life in these United States

Seen on the back of a T-shirt at Mass today:
Pain is unavoidable.
Suffering is optional.
An enigmatic saying, particularly given today's Gospel.

Speaking of which, I noticed today that Peter was affected by the Ginger Factor.
What Jesus began to show His disciples: That He must go to Jerusalem and suffer greatly from the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed and on the third day be raised.

What Peter saw: That Jesus must go to Jerusalem and suffer greatly from the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed blah blah blah blah blah.
Not only must a Christian disciple not be a satan, he must also listen.


Saturday, August 27, 2005

The Great Diocese Handicap

"What ho, Berggo! I wasn't expecting to see you till November."

"I was in a neighboring diocese, and I thought I'd pop in," Berggo replied distractedly.

"I'm certainly glad you did, old thing. Let me clear my schedule, and we'll lunch at my club."

"Willie," Berggo said as he absent-mindedly pulled copies of the Patrologia Latina off a shelf and dropping them on the carpet, "what do you think of when you hear the name St. Glaphyra?"

"When I hear the name St. Glaphyra?"

"Yes, the name St. Glaphyra. Do you think of Principalities singing to Dominions in aeviternal beatitude?"

"When I hear the name St. Glaphyra?"

"Yes. Doesn't the very sound of the name St. Glaphyra bring to mind the beauty of morning in Eden before the Fall?"

"To that question, Berggo, I must answer no."


"An emphatic no. A no without qualm or doubt."

There was a moment's pause, then Berggo's eyebrows, which normally float harmlessly in the middle of his forehead, fell down upon his eyes like an avalanche on an Alpine village. "No, of course you wouldn't. You always were a fat-headed ass with no soul."

I nodded. "I see that this Saint Whatsit has gotten up your nose. Are you going to tell me about it now, or over lunch?"

The Most Rev. Patrick Berger collapsed in a chair. "Oh, Willie," he sighed, "I've just seen the Cathedral of St. Glaphyra, and I know that we were meant to be together."

"Oh, the Cathedral of St. Glaphyra. I thought the name was familiar. That's old Pimples Legendre's pile."

Berggo looked up eagerly. "You know it, then, Willie? You've seen St. Glaphyra's with your own eyes?"

"Rather. Pimples has me over from time to time to help out with women's sodality pilgrimages and what not. Women's sodalities and I go together like billy-o."

"Then you know what a lovely, exquisite, well-mannered place it is!"

"Er... yes, they've always treated me well there."

"Exactly, Willie! Exactly!" With that, Berggo sank into the chair in a reverie.

Which suited me, if you want to know, because if there was a mot less juste than "lovely" for the concrete monstrosity that served as Pimples's cathedral, it was "exquisite," and I could tell by his manner, and more than half a lifetime dealing with him, that Berggo was in no mood to let pass any slight at his current fancy.

Still, there was the matter of the unexploded mine he had set between us. "I say, Berggo, what was that you said about you and St. Glaphyra's being meant to be together?"

"Isn't it obvious, Willie? I must be transferred to that see."

"But, I mean to say, you silly ass, what about your current see?"

Berggo shot me a look like a duke who had been reminded that his sister had married a street sweeper. "Kindly do not mention my current see in my presence. We are not at present on speaking terms."



Wednesday, August 24, 2005

The good, the bad, and the ugly of the beautiful

Disclaimer: This post is terminologically sloppy.

The human intellect is able to derive a concept from a percept of an object. It makes sense of what we sense. If it does this correctly, the derived concept is true, it corresponds in some way to the object that we perceive.

There are a couple of ways the intellect can use this newly minted concept. It can use it speculatively, to derive further concepts, including ideas about things we do not or even cannot perceive. It can also use it practically, in the process of deciding what we should want to do.

Using this model, then, there are three areas where the intellect can make a mistake: in deriving concepts from precepts; in deriving concepts from concepts; and in directing the will. Mistakes in the first two areas are falsehoods; mistakes in the third area are sins.

In the post below, I proposed that making a certain kind of mistake regarding the beauty of a perceived object -- of deriving a concept of a useful good rather than of a pleasurable good -- is relatively common. I also suggested that, since this sort of mistake generally leads to many other mistakes (especially in directing the will), some people wind up mistrusting perceivable beauty.

But there's nothing in this model of the intellect that requires the concepts to be concepts relating to beauty. They can be concepts related to race, or to risk, or to toxicity. An absolute mistrust of perceivable beauty -- of that which is beautiful -- amounts to an absolute mistrust of perceivable creation, which ought to be unthinkable for a Christian. There is no barb in beauty, unless the Author of Beauty placed it there.

It may be, though, that a mistrust of the human intellect, a recognition of the frequency with which it makes mistakes regarding beauty, is expressed as what might be called a prudential mistrust of beauty. If we can't make the intellect work better, we can at least avoid giving it things it works poorly on.

There's not much to say in general about prudential matters. If someone is sanctifying himself by never looking upon created beauty, more power to him. I do question, though, how common is the temperament that can be sanctified in this way.

Because, returning to the model, the areas where mistakes can be made are also areas where the correct thing can be done. Speculating on beautiful objects can lead us to the concept of divine beauty. Adding concepts of beautiful objects to our prudential reasoning can lead us to choose what is better for us.

The problems of materialism are evident to most of us, but I think we should be careful about the opposite problems of angelism, which in this context arise from thinking created beauty is never to be desired for itself. Creatures are beautiful in themselves, just as they are good in themselves, and taking pleasure in the beauties of creation is one means in which we give glory to God, by enjoying the beauty He in His wondrous love has given us to enjoy.


Tuesday, August 23, 2005

See, but the thing is,

when I vowed that I was through buying books for the calendar year, I didn't know about this.


The eye of the beholder

If all beauty is a participation in the transcendent Beauty of Almighty God, the Author of beauty, then why is it that, so often, encountering beauty not only fails to make us more holy, but actually causes us to turn further away from God? Some people are so scandalized by beauty that they mistrust it entirely, which may contribute to the enduring popularity of Manichaeism.

Of course, encountering goodness and truth can also cause a person to sin, but I don't think it's nearly so common to mistrust goodness or truth entirely.

My thought for today is that, though we know beauty when we see it, too many of us don't know what beauty actually is. So our response to beauty is incorrect, and therefore frequently sinful.

What happens, I propose, is this: Beauty is experienced as a pleasurable good, as something that is pleasant to experience, as something that satisfies the appetite. But we often misapprehend a pleasurable good as a useful good, as something that is good because it lets us acquire some further good. We don't always recognize, for instance, that looking at the physical beauty of another person ought to suffice; the pleasure of apprehending a beautiful human body is itself the good we are apprehending, not the opportunity to use the beauty of the body to obtain some other, carnal good.

This idea is at least consistent with the fact that so many people find the beauty of nature conducive to contemplation in a way the beauty of other people is not. In general, the sight of a green tree against a blue sky is not perceived as the means to some other good. (I saw a science fiction program on TV once, set in a future dystopia, in which someone was trying to get rich by selling trees to people who had never seen one; when asked what good trees were, he would say, "They make a nice sound when the wind blow through them.")

So perhaps we need to educate ourselves and each other about what beauty is, what it isn't, and how we ought to respond to it.


They're much sweeter, goodness knows

My Honeysuckle Rose of Lima Beans.


Monday, August 22, 2005

The Plumber Almighty

"Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How inscrutable are His judgments and how unsearchable His ways!" St. Paul rhapsodizes. "'For who has known the mind of the Lord or who has been His counselor?'"

But really, with all due respect to the Apostle and to the Prophet whom he quotes, who hasn't been God's counselor?

Who hasn't said words to the effect of, "You know, Lord, what would be great is if," or, "Now all that needs to happen is"? Who hasn't tried, one way or another, to make clear to God that there are unsearchable ways and there are unsearchable ways, and that a little more give and take would be best for everyone? If God has refused all human counsel, it's not for want of offers.

On the other hand, a counselor implies someone who makes the decisions, and I think often enough we don't see God as a king in need of a counselor so much as a contractor in need of a client. God is our divine handyman, whom we call to fix things in our lives. "Straighten her out, fix him up, and see what You can do about that mess in the yard. I'll be back later, You can let Yourself out when You're done."

People even recommend God to each other, just like they recommend plumbers. "Oh, I was going through the same thing you are. Then I learned to let go and let God. You should do the same."

Not everyone is a satisfied customer, though. There is no shortage of people who are unhappy with what God has done to, or not done for, them. Some are vocal and angry, others merely disappointed in Him.

To the extent we have them, we ought to shake from our thoughts all impressions of God as provider of goods and services. The relationship He offers us through Christ is not a contract, but a covenant. He shall be our Father, and we shall be His children. And until we see Him face to face, we for our part must trust that He does not give stones to children who need bread, even when they tell Him what would be great is if He gave them stones.


Friday, August 12, 2005

First, do no harm

"Don't canonize me yet," St. Francis of Assisi told his admirers. "I'm perfectly capable of fathering a child."

I don't know whether they believed him, but sexual immorality has always been high on the list of things that interfere with an apostolate. My guess is, if you asked people why this is the case, overall they'd overstate the importance of how much humans love sex and understate the importance of how much we love truth.

A Christian apostle is a sign of Christ, the One Who sends the apostle on his mission. This is true whether or not the apostle wants it to be, whether or not he even realizes it's true.

Humans love truth, so we hate falsehood, so we hate someone who represents himself as a sign of Christ but whose life does not signify Him. Christians, perhaps, hate such false signs all the more in that they are false, not merely to someone admirable, but to Truth Himself.

One conversation that seems to occur whenever a new scandal arises involves the charge of hypocrisy. "What a hypocrite!" some say, while others tease at the definition of the term to see whether it applies in this case. Let me suggest that the sincere charges of hypocrisy indicate, not the misapplication of a specific term, but the imprecisely expressed recognition of this failure to signify what one ought to signify. Saying, "But he isn't a hypocrite as such," is really beside the point when no one really means he is a hypocrite as such.

If moral scandal -- the turning away from Christ caused by another's sin -- that comes with the tabloid scandal -- public reports of the sins of a Christian apostle -- is motivated by hatred of falsehood, anyone involved in preaching the Gospel ought to make clear that he himself recognizes he is to some extent a false sign of Christ, that for example he is perfectly capable of fathering a child. The apostle necessarily signifies Christ; his choice is whether to be an imperfect sign or a false sign.

It's often remarked that, the holier a person becomes, the more aware he is of his own sins. Less often is it remarked that we are aware of how aware the saints are of their own sins. We know this because they have told others of their awareness, and telling others serves not only to instruct us on how sinful we must be, but to make of the saints' lives a true, because admittedly imperfect, sign of Christ.


Thursday, August 11, 2005

Dies Irae

Anger is an ever-present factor of human interaction. If you don't understand anger, you don't understand a lot of what goes on between people, including between Catholics discussing their Church.

Since I don't understand anger, I'm looking at what St. Thomas has to say about it, both as an irascible passion (considered in itself, its causes, and its effects) and as a capital vice.

Anger is a peculiar phenomenon. As St. Thomas puts it, "it is a passion somewhat made up of contrary passions;" it's the one passion that has no contrary passion, but as a vice it does have a contrary, which doesn't have a one-word name but amounts to not being angry when you should be angry (that lacking anger is a vice is explained just after anger is shown to be a capital vice).

What may be immediately useful in all this is the distinction between species of anger made by Aristotle, St. Gregory of Nyssa, and St. John Damascene. The three species are "choleric," "sullen," and "ill-tempered" -- or equivalently, "wrath," "ill-will" and "rancor." In St. John Damascene's words:
When anger arises and begins to be roused, it is called rage [or choler] .... [Ill-will]implies that the bile endures, that is to say, that the memory of the wrong abides.... Rancor, on the other hand, implies watching for a suitable moment for revenge....
St. Thomas corresponds these three kinds of anger to three things that give increase to anger. The choleric man is easily moved to anger; the passion of anger because of an excess of bile (okay, we can tighten up the biology), the vice in response to any slight cause. The sullen or ill-willed man is moved by an inflicted injury that remains in his memory -- for too long, if his anger is sinful. The ill-tempered or rancorous man has a stubborn desire for vengeance that lasts until they have inflicted punishment.

I think these three kinds of anger can all be discerned and distinguished in the heated arguments that characterize so much of on-line Catholic discussion. Some people are easily moved to anger that quickly dissipates; perhaps most everyone is, if they're having a bad day. Others feed their sense of personal injury with angry words, and still others are clearly aiming to inflict injury on their opponents.

The difference between ill-will and rancor, between anger is turned inward and anger turned outward, may not always be easy to detect, but I think I have encountered people who are clearly rancorous, who are habitually angry and habitually trying to bring down their enemies, yet who show no sign of acting out of memory of some grievance against themselves or others.



Wednesday, August 10, 2005

A hermeneutical key to pneumatological hermeneutics

It has become a cliche to complain about this or that action by this or that bishop as being "contrary to the spirit of Vatican II." It has even become a cliche to complain about these complaints. "The spirit of Vatican II" is both a battle cry and a badge of shame.

But it wasn't till I was reading Teófilo's response to a statement by Fr. Joseph O'Leary (whose blog happens to be titled "The Spirit of Vatican II") that the irreducible source of this conflict became apparent to me:
Fr. O'Leary: "John Paul II thus bypassed and reached over the heads of the educated baby boomers, influenced by Vatican II...."

Teófilo: "... and our generation was not influenced by Vatican II? We can't read its documents?"
What I realized -- an obvious insight in hindsight -- is that, for some people, the term "Vatican II" refers to experiences during a fixed period of time, while for others it refers to a set of documents.

So Teófilo is talking past Fr. O'Leary by asking questions about reading documents. For Fr. O'Leary, "Vatican II" isn't only -- and likely enough not even principally -- about what documents say. The "spirit" he speaks of isn't a poor paraphrase of the documents; it's not like the "spirit of the law" contrasted with the "letter of the law." It's a Zeitgeist, not an, um, Wortgeist. The conciliar documents are a record of that Zeitgeist, from this perspective, but not the only record, and in fact, the memories of the Zeitgeist, whether original or transferred to a later generation, are seen as just as authoritative as the documents, indeed the context in which the documents are to be read.

So when anti-"spirit of Vatican II" folks write cuttingly, "Read the documents! You won't find what those 'spirit of Vatican II' folks are saying in the documents!," the "spirit of Vatican II" folks may well reply, "Exactly!"

To make the distinction clear, perhaps we should begin speaking of the Council Event, whose full ecclesio-ontological dimensions cannot be grounded within brute fundamentalist literalism that, taken to its logical conclusions, is itself a denial of the chrono-physio-spiritual reality of Church.


Tuesday, August 09, 2005

What interferes with the preaching mission?

In a comment below, TSO makes a suggestion along a line of thought I haven't much considered:
It seems to publically identify oneself with a [political] party or ideology is to some extent compromise the mission, at least if you are a member of a religious order.
I don't publicly identify myself with a party or ideology because I don't privately identify myself with a party of ideology. Now that I think of it, though, I'm not at all confident I'd do well identifying the party affiliation (if any) of the Third Order (much less First Order) Dominicans I know. (The party affiliation of the Second Order seems generally to be Ice Cream.)

If anyone else has any thoughts about what doors open or close with respect to apostolic works as a result of a person belonging to a political party or identifying with an ideological camp, I'd love to hear them.

And here's a question to the Reader: To what extent does the American phenomenon of belonging to a political party without a strong sense of association with that party (e.g., how many members of either major party have ever attended a party meeting?) affect the American perspective on one's religious affiliation?


Holy hypocrisy

Immediately following the description of St. Dominic's tears for sinners comes a description of a somewhat different habit:
If it chanced that after the fatigues of along journey he had to lodge with secular persons, he would first quench his thirst at some handy spring, fearing to draw attention to any excess in drinking from his intense thirst, due to his wearisome traveling on foot. This he was always most careful to avoid, not only in drinking, but in everything else besides.
I know what you're thinking. You're thinking that if this fellow weren't the canonized founder of my Order, I'd be knocking him as a hypocrite, or at least as no respecter of truth.

Or you may be thinking this is mighty rich, considering how he got his start as a preacher: his bishop, Diego de Acebes, recognized that making headway in preaching against the Albigensian heresy required travel on foot and begging, to match the austerity of the heresiarchs.

But St. Dominic seems to have had a very clear understanding both of the strength of the Truth and the fragility of man. The Order he founded manifests that trust in the power of Truth -- in fact, of faith in He Who is Truth -- to save those who encounter Him.

At the same time, though, St. Dominic was aware of how easily men invent excuses to avoid seeing the truth, and of the consequent necessity for preachers to provide no opportunity for excuses to develop. Anything that might distract a person's attention from the Gospel, even something as natural as a very thirsty traveler, was to be avoided if at all possible.

What serves the preaching mission? What interferes with it? Answer these questions, and you understand St. Dominic and his spiritual children. Live the answers, and you are his spiritual child.


"We all belong to Iraq"

An interview with Fr. Yousif Thomas Mirkis, OP, who lives in Baghdad. (Link via DomLife.)
We [Christians] are not only 2 to 3 percent of the population. We have between 30 and 40 percent of the high [college] diplomas. Twenty percent of doctors in Iraq are Christian, 30 percent of engineers and architects. And we can have another role in this society....

If you mix religion with our constitution, we will have a headache for 100 years....

What can the American church do? Pray for us. Not only the Church, but all Iraqis who suffer too much. We need to take some rest....

We need wise people who can think not only how to preserve the constitution with Muslim influence, but how to preserve Iraqis from death. From death and despair. We are psychologically in a very bad situation. Every Iraqi needs a psychologist to help him get rid of the trauma. Families are suffering from big traumas. The economic situation makes big traumas.

Don't forget us.... The needs are material and psychological, spiritual....

The man on the street is really poor. He is looking for bread. He is looking out for the life of his family. And he is very tired.
I recently read about a woman who prayed every day that the Pope would have a good night's sleep. Perhaps, for starters, a good night's sleep is what Iraqis need us to pray for on their behalf.


Babelfish beauty

Hernan Gonzalez has posted a list of 250 beautiful Spanish words. If asked, Babelfish will translate them. An eclectic sampling:


On a related note, Fray Nelson (who is always worth reading) has been writing (in Spanish) about the Irish Republican Army. Babelfish obligingly translates "IRA" as "WRATH."


Sufficient unto the day

Oh boy! Oh boy!


Monday, August 08, 2005

Bred in the bone

It's been years since the last time I read a science fiction novel, and even when I was reading science fiction regularly, I tended toward the lighter entertainments of the genre.

So when a review copy of Robert Charles Wilson's Spin came my way a few weeks ago, I was somewhat surprised to find that it was... well, a novel, about characters and their relationships and how they respond to events, rather than a sixty thousand word "What if?"

Though the "What if?" is pretty cool, from the perspective of someone who doesn't read much science fiction: What if one day Earth were enveloped by some sort of temporal distortion such that, for every second that passed on Earth, 3.7 years passed in the universe at large? So every month as experienced on Earth, the solar system aged about ten million years. And what would happen in forty or fifty years, when the Sun died and took Earth with it, temporal distortion or no?

As a character-driven novel, the real question isn't what happens to mankind as a whole, but what happens to the major characters, how they react to the Spin (the name for whatever it is that happened to Earth) and to each other. That probably makes it a better novel, in terms of its focus and scope.

At the same time, the smaller scope means the novel only incidentally addresses the larger cultural and anthropological questions an end of the world scenario raises, and when it does address them it tends toward superficiality and plot advancement. What makes it a better novel artistically makes it a less important novel culturally.

I am, of course, tuned to look for how religion is treated, but in Spin Wilson is only concerned with how religion directly affects his characters. One of the main characters gets involved in various kooky end-times pseudo-Christian cults, while the rest are either utterly indifferent or actively hostile toward religion. As a result, not a word is written about how non-kooks might have reacted to the Spin.

And again, within the scope of the novel, it makes sense for ordinary, non-plot-advancing religion to be invisible. But again, and even beyond questions of verisimilitude, it makes what Wilson says about humanity in general (rather than the particular characters the novel is mostly concerned with) much less convincing or relevant.

Well, convincing or relevant to us religious people, at least. But suppose he had, for example, written in the Vatican's reaction to the Spin? Would it have been convincing, the sort of thing the Vatican might say in such circumstances? It seems doubtful that anything made up would sound convincing to both those who think the Vatican can say wise things about science and those who think it can't.

And personally, I prefer an author to leave religion out of his book rather than put it in in a dismissive way. (Kooky end-times pseudo-Christian cultists may well really hate this book.) If it's a choice between ignoring religion and turning a novel into a work of apologetics (perhaps for atheism), ignoring religion may well be the way to go.

But no good novel can ignore all religious themes, and of course the end of the world takes on a religious dimension, willy nilly, when it's coming in a few decades rather than a few billion years. Faith -- in God, in science, in others -- is a major theme of Spin, which is good anthropology if not good theology. And in the end, faith is for the most part rewarded. Of course, to say it's "rewarded" is to imply there's Something giving the reward, which may be more than Wilson intends, but there are some things that are true -- such as happy endings -- and what the truth implies can't be false.



Love and loyalty

Oh, and before this washes back to the ephemeral sea of old comments, Talmida writes about the relationship between love and obedience:
I don't know if I'm too late to contribute to this line of discussion, but it strongly reminds me of trying to understand the Hebrew word hhesed, which is variously translated as lovingkindness, kindness, love, mercy.

I read a Rabbi who said that the true meaning of the word on God's part was loyalty to the Covenant. Not "God will show his love" or "God will be merciful" but rather "God will be faithful to the Covenant, will uphold His end of the deal."

And God's end of the deal is that He will be our God. "Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One" (or the Lord is our God, the Lord alone).

This is the reply that Jesus gives in Mark when asked what the greatest commandment is. Before telling us to love God & neighbour, Jesus recites this statement of faith reminding us of the Covenant with Abraham. In essence, the greatest commandment is the Covenant.

The terms of the Covenant with God are the Torah, the Law. And the 2 commandments of Love that Jesus teaches sum up the Law.

When Jesus commands us to Love, could we not substitute Be Faithful to the Covenant (and the obedience to the Law that that implies)?
The point that the Greatest Commandment begins with the Shema Yisrael is worth exploring, I think, even for us presumptive monotheists. And how far does faithfulness to His Covenant get us to God's lovingkindness, or even to "God is Love"?


What will become of sinners?

In the Legend of Saint Dominic, it is recorded of him that,
So wonderfully tender-hearted was he touching the sins and miseries of men, that when he came near any city or town from where he could overlook it, he would burst into tears at the thought of the miseries of mankind, of the sins committed therein, and of the numbers who were going down into hell.
That's a wonderful mark of piety -- for a saint dead nearly eight centuries. How, though, if it were your Pentecostal neighbor, distracting your backyard nap with loud rooftop cries of, "O Lord, what will become of sinners?"

It's a paradox: holier-than-thou people who are, in fact, holier than thou. Is it possible we like them even less than holier-than-thou people who aren't?

Of course, St. Dominic himself wasn't holier-than-thou in the sense we usually mean. He did his crying and his sighing out of earshot of the sinners over whom he cried and sighed, while still on the road or at night while the other brothers were (usually) asleep.

But our Christian faith enables the fast-knit friend of Christ to worry over the fate of sinners without denying that he himself is a sinner. First, there is genuine cause to worry over their fate; damnation is a real possibility. But also, the more one turns to God, the more one is aware of how far short of human perfection one is; a true friend of Christ necessarily knows he is a sinner. On top of that, though, a true friend of Christ has a sure and certain hope of his own salvation, a hope that rests not in his own actions (that would be presumption) but on Christ's promise of eternal life. And this promise is given to everyone who comes to faith in Christ, which in principle -- and purely through the grace of God -- can be everyone to whom Christ is preached.

St. Dominic's prayer for those sinners, the ones he sees from afar, comes only after his prayer for the sinner he sees in the mirror. And the answer to his prayer for the sinner in the mirror is what both compels him to pray for the sinners far off and gives him hope that what will become of them is what will become of him, that they too will become friends of Christ and children of the Father.