instruere...inlustrare...delectare Disputations

Friday, May 12, 2006

Ha ha, black sheep

There's an old joke, usually told about specialists in three different sciences, that I will tell this way:
An American professor of logic is vacationing in Scotland with his wife and young son. The train they're taking passes a field in which a sheep is grazing. The boy says, "Mommy! Daddy! In Scotland, the sheep are black!"

His mother, having lived with her husband long enough to pick up some of his ways, says, "Now, honey, all we really know is that that one sheep is black."

"Actually, my dear," the professor says, "all we know is that that one sheep is black on one side."
If we think of the actions of another as the sheep population of Scotland -- and, really, how can we not? -- then, for the vast majority of others, the one side of that one sheep corresponds to their actions visible to us. What they do that we don't see is as unknown to us as the rest of the Scottish sheep are to the American family.

Obviously, it's reasonable to say that a sheep black on one side is black on the other. It's even reasonable to suppose that, where there's one black sheep, there may be more. But beyond what no one would reasonably deny, and beyond what many would reasonably suppose, there's a great deal that is unknown to us. Even the presumption of charity shouldn't lock us into a firm opinion about the truth of what we don't know.


Thursday, May 11, 2006

Cisterns, wells, and springs

People get their water in all sorts of ways.

A cistern is a storage tank for water. You put water in, then you draw water out. A well draws water up from the water underground. A spring releases water pretty much on its own.

Now let water stand for charity and water sources for Christians.

Some Christians are cisterns of charity. They store up a certain amount, but without regular refills will soon go empty.

Others are wells, tapped into deep and hidden reservoirs. They won't run dry, but they do require maintenance to stay in good working order and continue to offer charity to others.

And some are springs of charity. Not only do they not run dry, their charity comes forth unbidden and inexhaustible.

The metaphor could be extended to include fountains, those whose charity is extravagant, even prodigal, a wonder to behold, and visible from afar.


Wednesday, May 10, 2006

The intentions of my associates

Sometimes, during the Prayer of the Faithful, after the general intercessions the priest will ask, "And for whom or what else shall we pray?"

The answers are called out. For a niece preparing for an operation. For a sister-in-law who died overnight. For a son looking for work. For a chronically ill neighbor.

Some intentions are heartbreaking. Some by their very nature, but sometimes by the pain evident in the voice asking for prayers for something that, written down, sounds pretty run-of-the-mill.

Some intentions are too heavy to bear, perhaps especially when they become more general. An end to abortion, peace in the Middle East, the safe return of all our armed forces. Worthy things to pray for, certainly, but difficult to pray from that region between presumption (in the form of shallowness) and despair.

Some are curious. Someone asks for our prayers for her grandson who is traveling that day. Well, but traveling where and by what, that we should make room for him among the dead and the dying who have just been mentioned? Still, it's not for us to judge what weighs on the hearts of our brothers and sisters, but to help them bear the weight.

That's the great gift Christ gives us by giving us each other to love as He loves us. We can always help each other; we can always pray for -- on behalf of -- each other, and ounce for ounce that prayer, it seems to me, is more pleasing to God than our prayers for mercy for ourselves.


Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Meet the Blogger

Here's your chance to meet me under ideal circumstances!
WHEN: May 20, 2006, 7 p.m.
WHERE: St. Andrew Apostle Catholic Church, Silver Spring, MD
WHAT: Art Auction, Champagne Reception, and Premium Scotch Tasting
WHY: To benefit St. Andrew Apostle School
I'll be the one in the corner, pouring the Scotch (Macallan 15, Glenmorangie, Glenfiddich 18, Talisker, Auchentoshan, Bowmore 17, and Springbank, and there might be a bottle behind the table for friends of the bartender). Three bucks for a wee dram, five for a full. And, as always, the password is good for a free toot.


Monday, May 08, 2006


Saturday was our semi-annual regional meeting of the Dominican Laity. The provincial promoter repeated a distinction that is one of his key messages to us, between ministry, which is service to the Church, and apostolate, which is a mission to the world. While ministry -- serving a congregation, a parish, a diocese -- is a good and noble thing, it is not the Dominican apostolate of giving to others the fruits of our contemplation.

That evening, as I recuperated at home, I came across a comment on a post at open book that drew attention to a webpage on which two priests address "the unique role of the laity and the challenges they face in their ministries." One priest looks to the laity to do what non-ordained members of religious congregations used to do:
So when people ask what will your lay ministry students do, since they won’t be ordained priests? — the answer is the same as it was in the past. They will be the backbone of the wide range of ministries the church needs, alongside the sacramental ministry of priests... They are trained to animate the faithful to engage in the social mission of the church, as well as to sustain its religious spirit.
The other priest looks to the laity to perform a uniquely lay role:
At Vatican Council II the unique role of the laity was tied to the Church’s secular mission: the laity were given a fundamental responsibility both for evangelization and for the renewal of the whole social order. This responsibility is not a delegated one, but something that the laity possess in their own right: they are appointed to the apostolate by Christ himself. Cardinal Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI, proposed that the laity should be thought to have their own office in the Church, distinct from the ordained.
The priest who wrote in terms of apostolate is a Dominican; the priest who wrote in terms of ministry isn't.


Sunday, May 07, 2006

The words He has spoken to us

Yesterday's Gospel reading was John 6:60-69, which begins:
Many of the disciples of Jesus who were listening said, "This saying is hard; who can accept it?"
The homilist pointed out that the reading [i.e., vv. 60-69] never specifies what Jesus says that is hard for many of His disciples to accept; you'd have to remember or look it up to know this is the tail end of the Bread of Life discourse. He, the homilist, suggested that all of Jesus' saying are hard, but that for His disciples that doesn't really matter, since we have come to believe and are convinced that Jesus is the Holy One of God.

Is Jesus' saying hard? Very well, it is hard. But to whom shall we go?

In the Gospel, the disciples who couldn't accept what Jesus said about eating His flesh and drinking His blood "returned to their former way of life and no longer accompanied him." They didn't say, "On a few topics he's nuts, but we'll still accompany him because he says a lot of other things we do agree with." They didn't say, "I just ignore what he says when it doesn't make any sense to me." They didn't say, "His official position on eating his flesh is not important."

I suppose you can't really say such things when your master is right there in front of you, telling you if you don't accept his hard sayings you do not have life within you.


Wednesday, May 03, 2006

The company of Apostles praises You, O Lord

There's a curious tension of sorts, in the Church's relationship to the Apostles, between the importance of the Apostles and what you might call their irrelevance.

Their importance is clear and absolute. One of the four marks of the Church is that she is
apostolic because she is founded on the apostles, in three ways:
- she was and remains built on "the foundation of the Apostles," the witnesses chosen and sent on mission by Christ himself;
- with the help of the Spirit dwelling in her, the Church keeps and hands on the teaching, the "good deposit," the salutary words she has heard from the apostles;
- she continues to be taught, sanctified, and guided by the apostles until Christ's return, through their successors in pastoral office: the college of bishops, "assisted by priests, in union with the successor of Peter, the Church's supreme pastor"
If the Church is not built on the foundation of the Apostles, then she's just blowing smoke.

At the same time, though we know almost nothing about the Twelve as individual men -- who they were, what they thought, where they went, how they died -- we get along just fine not knowing. True, there are stories and legends about all of them that are generally accepted as true, by the pious if not by the historians. But in the end, these stories and legends are beside the point, which is that through the Apostles the Church has received... I was going to write "the Gospel and the Sacraments," but it's shorter and truer to simply say "everything she has and is."

Everything the Church has and is, everything she says, depends on these twelve men -- not as abstract symbols of the tribes of Israel, but as particular, specific individuals who lived particular, specific lives. That they lived particular, specific lives is absolutely critical, if Christianity is to be regarded as more than a set of made-up stories, but the particulars and specifics of their lives have been largely wiped away from the Church's perspective, making the Apostles, as the old image has it, near-perfectly transparent windows onto Christ.


Tuesday, April 25, 2006


I don't know. I haven't read everything, I haven't heard everything, so maybe I've just missed it. But I've never heard any Catholic ever claim that Christ's Resurrection amounted to "the resuscitation of a corpse."

And yet I keep coming across Catholics who claim that Christ's Resurrection did not amount to "the resuscitation of a corpse."

To these people, I reply: Nor did Christ's Resurrection amount to a recipe for Marillenknoedel.

Now, as I say, I haven't read or heard everything, but from what I have read and heard, I have the impression that the majority of people who are particularly keen on insisting that the Resurrection wasn't merely the resuscitation of a corpse are not particularly keen on the idea that a corpse was at any point involved in the Resurrection. The idea that Jesus' physical body rose from the dead is not an idea that much appeals to them.

And I'm kind of tired of it.

That Jesus' physical body rose from the dead is, not merely a dogma of the Catholic Faith, but the absolute foundation of it.

For various reasons, this undeniable fact is denied by various pseudo-sophisticates proposing various laughable bits of hokum as enlightened theology.

I call them "pseudo-sophisticates" because -- again, from what I've read and heard -- I get a strong sense that they regard an actual resurrection as somehow too crude or common to put much faith in, as something of an intellectual embarrassment, as something they'd be just as happy to define out of Christianity. I think they think asking questions like, "What would it mean if scientists discovered Jesus' skeleton?" is taking a more sophisticated approach to their faith.

But it isn't sophisticated. It's sophomoric. The answer to such questions should be, "Whoah, dude, I never thought of that before!," because such questions shouldn't be asked once you grow up and stop thinking everything revolves around you.

I don't mean to suggest there's no place for a discussion of the distinction between the Resurrection and the various returns to life mentioned elsewhere in Scripture and in history. I do mean to suggest -- or rather, to insist explicitly, that any obstinate denial or doubt that the risen body in which Jesus appeared to His disciples is the same body that had been tortured and crucified is heresy.


It's always the quiet ones you need to watch

I've been meaning to bask in the reflected wisdom of this post at Flos Carmeli, which quotes a fellow paraphrasing a reflection on the parable of the Good Samaritan and the Carmelite Rule:
The Carmelite is the Innkeeper and Christ has come bringing the sick and the wounded asking that they be cared for--that everything possible be done to help.
The parable has a large cast: the victim; the robbers; the priest; the Levite; the Samaritan; the innkeeper. And everyone in the cast does something, except the innkeeper. The parable ends with the Samaritan saying to him, "Take care of him. If you spend more than what I have given you, I shall repay you on my way back."

Jesus told the parable in answer to the question, "Who is my neighbor?," which is certainly a question we still ask today. But Christians should also recognize in the final words of the parable a promise of Christ to His disciples: "I shall repay you on my way back."

If we spend only what we have been given -- and, to avoid any Pelagian implications that we can do good without God's help, let's understand this as "if we fulfill only the demands of justice" -- then there will be nothing to repay when Christ returns. But we are to continue to work of the Samaritan among our neighbors. This work, spurred by compassion, is to approach, to anoint, to bear, and to care for, without concern for cost.

The Samaritan proposes to the innkeeper that he do this for the victim. He doesn't force him, he merely calls him to act with justice, and assures him he will be repaid for any further acts of charity he freely engages in.


Monday, April 24, 2006

Apologia pro namesake sua

Every year on the Octave Sunday of Easter, I brace myself for the inevitable criticism of my patron saint, Thomas (called Didymus). And every year, I try to add to my defense of him. A defense, not against his guilt before Christ, but more in the sentencing-phase, society-made-him-do-it sense.

This year's wrinkle is this: As everyone knows, Thomas told the other disciples, "Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands and put my finger into the nailmarks and put my hand into his side, I will not believe."

Okay, but why the "put my hand into his side"? The marks of the nails, sure; when you're crucified, your hands have nail marks. But crucifixion by no means implies being pierced in the side. Yet verifying that wound is one of Thomas's conditions of faith. Why?

Perhaps, we might speculate, because Thomas witnessed the soldier piercing Jesus.

Yes, certainly, he may have merely been told of it. But he strikes me as awfully obstinate in his refusal to believe the other disciples, particularly if his knowledge of Jesus' death comes by way of those same disciples, and awfully particular about what he'll accept as proof.

Let us suppose, for the sake of argument, that Thomas was himself an eyewitness to Jesus' death, or His deposition, from some suitably safe vantage point. This sets up an interesting parallel to Jesus' statement:
"Have you come to believe because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and have believed."
Thomas saw (we suppose) Jesus die, and would not believe that Jesus rose unless he saw Him alive. We have not seen Jesus die, and we are blessed if we believe He rose without seeing Him alive.

Thomas, we might say, was in a position of finding his faith in conflict with his knowledge, and refusing to correct his faith without first having his knowledge corrected. We are, in a sense, fortunate to have no direct knowledge of Jesus in His human body, because our faith cannot be impeded by what we think we know about His life in the flesh.

Of course, our faith can still be impeded by what we think we know about Jesus apart from His life in First Century Palestine. Thomas serves as the bad example, teaching us that, whatever we think we know, we are blessed if we believe what the apostolic Church tells us is true.


What I like

I was poking about on, an international arts and crafts website, when I came across the page of the Montalvo family. Taught woodcarving by Salesian priests, the three brothers are quoted as saying, "Every piece is an opportunity to express our profound relationship with the Catholic faith."

The prices prohibit casual or binge purchasing (the above is $170, the below $149), but they seem very reasonable, and the carved cedar panels are just the sort of thing I’d like in my home.


Conversational counsels, pt. 2

Let's see what sort of "conversational counsels" -- principles directed to the removal of things that hinder the act of charity in the context of conversation, and yet are not contrary to charity -- might be generated from the evangelical counsels of poverty, chastity, and obedience.

Though there are already plenty of poor conversationalists, here a spirit of poverty would prevent someone from claiming ownership of a conversation. He might also refrain from insisting on any particular standing in the conversation, or on claiming authority others don't readily grant him.

From chastity, I'd derive something like keeping custody of one's tongue, avoiding topics and comments that, though not sinful in themselves, might tend to direct attention away from the path of increasing charity. "For the witchery of paltry things obscures what is right."

An obedient conversationalist might regard himself as the servant of those with whom he is speaking, or at least of the conversation they are having. The discussion is an opportunity for service, not for self-advancement nor for forcing one's own position on others.

As with the evangelical counsels themselves, all these proposed counsels as they might be fleshed out would need to be applied, not as rules to be followed to the letter, but through the virtue of prudence.


Thursday, April 20, 2006

Et propter hoc ratio non sequitur

Speaking of conversational goals, I have a new one: to use the above Latin statement in a manner consonant with the Christian vocation to love.

Commenters should consider themselves forewarned.


What's with his spirit?

In a comment below, Jeff identifies a key element of "the Ratzinger spirituality":
But true "dialogue"--like true "love"--is something we can't do without. To engage with the other and not allow the conversation to become a contest of wills and an occasion of pride is a tremendously difficult thing to do. It becomes even more fraught with difficulty when we are convinced that we are defending something that is substantially connected with the Faith itself or with fundamental Goodness. But it is part of the Ratzinger spirituality and it is what makes him such a convincing and inspiring preacher and such a charming opponent.
There seems to be a line of thought that true dialogue and true disagreement are mutually incompatible. This leads people to choose the one they value more at the expense of the other and to assume that others will do likewise. Hence, perhaps, some of the fear of Pope Ratzinger, who was rightly believed to truly disagree but wrongly expected not to truly dialogue.

I wonder, though, supposing this really is a part of the Ratzinger spirituality, if it's appropriate to speak in these terms:
A purge coming from within is more important than one from above. Of course the Pope is setting the tone. But, instead of being the grand hatchetman, he has countless willing hatchetmen and -women on the ground. I got my hatchet right here.
If the Pope's spirituality is something to be admired, it can't be duplicitous. He can't be looking for people to do his dirty work for him which he charmingly engages opponents in true dialogue. He wouldn't want dirty work to be done at all.


Amongst our certain things are such diverse elements

At nunblog, Sr. Anne revisits the only two certain things:
  • "Do not be afraid" even if the certainties of the old order have been overthrown.
  • "Do not be afraid" even though you no longer know what you can count on, what you can rely on, what you can base your plans and prospects on.
  • "Do not be afraid" even though, with death no longer ultimate, you surely cannot look to the civic order to give you peace and security.
Now the only security is in Jesus himself.
It seems to me that the Resurrection has overthrown the certainties of the old order in a peculiar fashion. They still compose a viable system, of a sort. You can still live your life as though death were the end, and according to whatever principles and morals you choose.

Easter leaves that more or less intact. What it does is give us another choice. It says, "Or you can choose what's behind Door Number Two," which isn't a door but a large stone that has been rolled away, and what's behind it are Jesus' burial cloths, and the cloth that had covered His head, not with the burial cloths but rolled up in a separate place.

Death and taxes are still certain, but the sting of the former has been removed by another, new certainty, set along side the old ones but not really comparable to them.


Conversational counsels, pt. 1

So what conversational goals are consistent with the Christian vocation to love?

In trying to formulate an answer stricter than that given by general etiquette, I kept coming up with objections I could only answer along lines like, "True, this isn't a sin per se, but not doing it is objectively better." Then I realized my replies were expressed in much the same terms used to describe the evangelical counsels, which are a matter not of precept (which all are bound to follow) but of supererogation (which none is bound to follow, except to keep a vow).

As part of his consideration of the state of perfection in general, St. Thomas asks whether, in this life, perfection consists in the observance of the commandments or of the counsels. His answer is yes:
Primarily and essentially the perfection of the Christian life consists in charity, principally as to the love of God, secondarily as to the love of our neighbor, both of which are the matter of the chief commandments of the Divine law....
Secondarily and instrumentally, however, perfection consists in the observance of the counsels, all of which, like the commandments, are directed to charity; yet not in the same way.
Then he draws an interesting distinction between precepts and counsels:
For the commandments, other than the precepts of charity, are directed to the removal of things contrary to charity, with which, namely, charity is incompatible, whereas the counsels are directed to the removal of things that hinder the act of charity, and yet are not contrary to charity, such as marriage, the occupation of worldly business, and so forth.
On the question of conversational goals, then, we might say there are precepts to which all Christians are bound, precepts against acting without charity toward those you are conversing with. These precepts would look very much like etiquette guidelines, though probably stricter than most.

In addition to these precepts, we might propose conversational counsels "directed to the removal of things that hinder the act of charity, and yet are not contrary to charity." What might such counsels look like? Maybe like the evangelical counsels...


Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Magnificat -- optional

Ever wondered what the result would have been if the Psalmist had tried to compose a mission statement? Me neither.


Note to self
Win an argument, lose a soul. -- Servant of God Fulton Sheen

Disagreement is not an easy thing to reach. -- John Courtney Murray, SJ

You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means. -- Inigo Montoya
Discussion on the "moral equivalence" charge, here and at Catholic and Enjoying It!, has again brought home to me how hard it is to engage in a fruitful dispute.

The difficulties begin with the fact that participants -- especially self-selected participants in Internet forums -- so often approach the exchange with radically different goals. They can, I suppose, be roughly divided into competitive goals and cooperative goals. Competitive goals include counting coup, crushing an opponent, and getting the final word. Cooperative goals include getting everyone to be nice, or to reach uniform agreement, or to agree to disagree.

Some of these goals can be accomplished by a participant regardless of what other participants do. If my goal is to state my position forcefully and clearly, or to mock another participant, I can meet my goal and consider the exchange a success. Other goals -- complete surrender, for example, or a good time had by all -- require something from others.

Difficulties are compounded by the differences in communication style, experience, background, intelligence, preconceptions, and all the rest of the list we're familiar with. Even the old hands who have piloted through Internet conversations for years can strike unexpected shoals, through inattention or inadvertently pressing someone's hot button or just having a bad day.

As I say, this is all again brought home to me. What's new this time is this accompanying thought:

I need to keep a close eye on my own goals, judging them both on their inherent value and on their achievability. If they aren't worth achieving, I shouldn't bother with them. If they are worthwhile, I need to make sure I'm acting in a way that might possibly achieve them. And I need to revisit these questions frequently, because goals have a way of changing as a conversation evolves.


Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Invalid charges of invalid charges

I've noticed a sort of conversational tic among political conservatives, that of declaring that someone has proposed the "moral equivalence" of two acts that are patently inequivalent morally. Once the existence of an attempt at an invalid moral equivalence has been declared, everything else the person might have said is treated as answered.

I would guess this tic developed in response to explicit claims of the moral equivalence of the Soviet Union and the United States, but it's now reached the point where any suggestion that two sides in a conflict are both engaging in immoral behavior can be expected to be called an invalid charge of moral equivalence.

It's as though for some people the moral categories have collapsed into two, "Good" and "Evil," and all good things are equivalently good and all evil things equivalently evil. It's the reflexive style of thought of the soldier on the battlefield transported to the reflective environment of discussion and debate. The thought that two things can be similar -- both immoral, in this case -- without being equivalent is avoided whenever possible.

What to do, when discussing matters with people who exhibit this tic? You can avoid criticizing more than one thing at a time (per blog post, or op ed piece, or conversation). You can weigh down your words with caveats in an attempt to forestall the charge of invalid moral equivalence. You can counter the charges when they arise. You can ignore the charges. I'm not sure, though, that you can teach them not to insist you believe that all evil things are equivalently evil.


Monday, April 17, 2006

Resting in peace

It's a pity the way some of the best writing on St. Blog's happens during Holy Week, which is also a week when people are especially likely to not read blogs. Come Easter Monday, the profound and moving reflections on the passion and death of Christ have all the shelf appeal of plastic leprechaun hats at the grocery story on March 18th.

I overstate somewhat.

But Fra Lawrence has managed that most difficult task: writing a post about Holy Saturday, the S. ratti of the liturgical calendar, that is topical for more than sixteen hours a year.

He does this by quoting Fr. Geoffrey Preston, OP, in his book Hallowing the Time. Fr. Preston inverts a familiar metaphor to suggest that sleep is a kind of death:
How do we learn to die? By practising dying. How do we practise dying? By going to sleep properly night after night, letting the past day go and saying: 'Into your hands I commend my spirit.' Then we discover that it is not just obedience and acceptance of our biological situation but that we can freely and even gladly choose to fall asleep and to die. It can be a matter not just of necessity but of salvation.
This relates to something else Sr. Mary Martin de Porres of Jesus said in her Holy Thursday sermon:
We religious voluntarily make a vow of obedience until death, but the dying observe all the vows whether they want to or not.
The dying lack the strength to be physically disobedient, unchaste, or rich, but as long as their will remains they may (must, actually) choose whether to accept God's will for them. In His mercy, God gives us the opportunity to practice making this choice every night.

The Lord is Risen, Alleluia!


Sunday, April 16, 2006

When Easter comes

Right on time, as scheduled, Easter comes, ready or not. It comes for those who have kept a Lent for the ages, and for those who gave up Lent for Lent. It comes for those who forgot when Easter is this year, and for those who have never even heard of Easter.

But what it means to you when Easter comes depends very much on what you've been doing for the last six and a half weeks. The celebration of a feast by one who has kept a long fast is simply not the same as the celebration of a feast by one who hasn't. The deeper into penance one goes during Lent, the higher into joy one goes when Easter comes.

And if Easter comes, ready or not, so does Good Friday. It is the eleventh hour, when those who have kept a poor Lent, or none at all, might yet enter into Christ's passion and death, and be repaid with the blessings of Easter.

Sr. Mary Martin de Porres of Jesus, OP, prioress of the Monastery of Our Lady of the Rosary in Summit, New Jersey, speaking on Holy Thursday on the theme, "Christ for our sake became obedient unto death," said:
The antiphon says Christus factus est obediens. In Latin, factus est has both active and passive connotations: Christ became obedient, Christ was made obedient. The phrase can be translated either way and either translation is correct because, as we know, both senses of the word are true. Christ freely embraced our human state, including death, death on a cross: he became obedient. Christ did this by the will of the Father, and in conformity to the Father’s will he endured the suffering inflicted on him by sinful men, even unto death: he was made obedient.

The same is true for us. We will die, whether we like it or not, and when God wills. By our profession we have freely embraced this death in advance and try to live it every day. The measure in which we are faithful is the measure in which we will be ready to embrace the physical actuality when it comes.
And, if I may add to this, it is also the measure in which we will be ready to embrace the spiritual actuality when it comes. Good Friday comes once a year, and then comes Easter. Our own deaths will come once, and then comes the Day that has no evening. What it means to you when that Day comes depends very much on what you did on the days given to you in this life.

The Lord is Risen, Alleluia!