instruere...inlustrare...delectare Disputations

Monday, July 17, 2006

Heroic islands

Let me reach back into the distant past to recall a comment made by Matthew Fish, defending his examples of "what the islands and oases [of Catholic culture] we need should look like" against my criticism:
I did not mean to imply that one must go to Mexico or the Lord's Ranch; I think it was clear from my post that it was a suggestion. It might even be a heroic (and not normative) one. But I'd like to think that suggesting the heroic is always praiseworthy, and indeed informs and shapes the normative, as long as you do not exclude the possibility of the normative ("normative" of course being a far fuzzier concept).
Here he joins with an "and" an idea I agree with and an idea I disagree with.

To begin agreeably, yes, the heroic does inform and shape the normative. I think it is too easy to view them as completely separate categories, rather than imprecise and sometimes overlapping points along a spectrum. The evangelical counsel of poverty, for example, is something lived in its full expression by only a few, but that doesn't mean poverty means nothing for those who do not make that vow.

Moreover, I have sometimes seen what I think is a too-quick spiritualization of poverty. While it is possible to be rich in material things and poor in spirit, this point is sometimes made as though what's great about it is the "rich in material things" part. If we don't allow our normative understanding of poverty to flow freely into our heroic understanding, we risk dividing them, at the cost of an anemic and ultimately worthless normative understanding.

That said, suggesting the heroic is not always praiseworthy. Certainly suggesting the heroic as though it were normative is wrong, both in itself and in its possible effect of despondency on those who, not called by God to heroism, are yet told by another that it's that or nothing. Given the choice between doing something you can't do and not doing it, most people are going to choose the latter.

(It might even be argued (or at least proposed; I don't know how strong the historical argument would actually be) that a heroism-as-normative approach to catechesis contributed to an attenuated view of the lay vocation in the history of the Church. If what it means to be holy is to be burned to death on an iron grill for your faith, then there aren't going to be many holy housewives and tradesmen.)

In order for the heroic to inform and shape the normative, there needs to be a normative to be informed and shaped. Note: to be informed and shaped, not disparaged or set up merely to contrast with the heroic.

Furthermore, just as I can easily ignore a suggestion of heroism to which I am not called, thereby also dodging the universal call to the normative, I can cheaply and indifferently offer a suggestion of heroism to others, thereby perhaps dodging a responsibility to instruct others on their normative calling.


Friday, July 14, 2006

I know what I don't like

Kathy Shaidle passionately defends the rights of moviemakers against the actions of movie bowdlerizers:
Ned Flanders type Christians have to choose. Do they want their own counterculture, with its Veggie Tales and end times video games, or do they want to be able to sample "what normal people are watching" as well? Because they can't have it both ways. Then again, I doubt they are quite clever enough to even be bothered by the contradiction....

Yes, yes, I know: raising children is the most important job in the whole wide world. When you present yourselves to God at the End of Days, you are getting straight into heaven, while I, the childless arrogant artiste, is going straight to hell, shouting out, "'Ode to a Grecian Urn' is worth any number of little old ladies" as I tumble into the sulfur.

On that we are all agreed.

Now: back slowly away from the moviola or I will kill you with my pudgy little hands....

So let's be careful what we cut from movies, people. How do you know it isn't the bit with God in it? Are you really so very wise?
I think her "Which do you want?" argument is much stronger than her "God of the sex scenes" argument, which in turn is much stronger than her "You DO NOT deserve the movies" argument.

Regarding this last, the idea that the "physical integrity" of a commercial movie is inviolable doesn't really hold water. To accept it, we'd have a hard time explaining the existence of directors' cuts, the popularity of added and deleted scenes in DVD releases, the use of advanced screenings, the filming of alternate endings, and most importantly the fact that Hollywood moviemaking is a business. And since the idea would make it wrong for me to skip past the romantic ballads when I rent Horse Feathers, the legal basis for denying third-party editors the right to do what they want can't be grounded in a fundamental moral prohibition against modifying a work of art.

As for the question, "Are you really so very wise?," I'd say the answer is, "Pretty much, yeah." I don't think it takes much wisdom to determine that, for example, changing a line of dialog to "Forget you," is not an assault on a joint endeavor between Mankind and the Holy Spirit.

It can, though, be bad art, which is why I think third-party editing is a silly business (in the literal sense of "business"). My suspicion is that, in most cases, what's left after editing out objectionable elements (whoever determines what's objectionable) isn't much worth watching. If, considered as a work of art, a movie is bad enough that chunks of it can be cut without loss, the badness is likely to pervade the whole movie, even the parts no one finds objectionable.

My position in brief: Filmmakers have the right to control production of their films, not because films mediate God's grace nor because integrity is inviolable, but because -- and therefore only to the extent that -- the films are the property of the filmmakers. Any categorical argument from art is going to fail, since filmmakers aren't categorically better artists than filmwatchers.


Wednesday, July 12, 2006

The height of madness

St. Thomas begins his Summa Contra Gentiles with a discussion on the nature and function of wisdom in human life. In Book I, Chapter 3, he explains the difference between faith and reason as means by which we determine what is true. On the reasonableness of accepting truths of faith in addition to truths of reason, he writes:
As therefore it would be the height of madness in a "plain man" to declare a philosopher's propositions false, because he could not understand them, so and much more would a man show exceeding folly if he suspected of falsehood a divine revelation given by the ministry of angels, on the mere ground that it was beyond the investigation of reason.
Put baldly, it's easy to agree that the opinion, "Whatever I don't understand can't be true," is irrational. But it can also be easy to fall into this opinion unwittingly, by not realizing that you don't understand something. "It's not what you don't know," as [insert homespun American humorist] put it, "but what you know that ain't so."1

And the easiest way to not realize you don't understand something may be when the thing you don't understand is expressed in words you use, but understand differently.

If, for example, someone says, "Aseity calls for nonisity," almost no one will seriously reply, "It most certainly does not!," because almost everyone will realize they have no idea what, if anything, that statement means. If, on the other hand, someone says, "Wives must be submissive to their husbands," a lot more people will with a lot more confidence reply, "They most certainly need not!"

The need to come to terms with someone -- to understand what he is saying before evaluating it -- is more evident when the term means nothing to me than when it means something. It's easy to forget to check that the term means the same to the person using it as it does to me, and the consequences are often me saying something idiotic.

1. The term "plain man" in the quotation from SCG translates the perhaps more expressive Latin word idiota, which literally means someone who can only speak his native language. Hence my custom of using "idiot" to mean "someone who talks about something without realizing he doesn't know what he's talking about."


Sunday, July 09, 2006

Gimme that old-time oasis

The Way of the Fathers (which should run in every church bulletin) calls attention to the Letter to Diognetus, a Second Century work of Christian apologetics. You can read the whole thing in twenty minutes, but let me call attention to this passage, excerpted on the Vatican website, which offers some insight into how Second Century Christians answered the sorts of questions discussed in the comments on this post below:
Christians are indistinguishable from other men either by nationality, language or customs. They do not inhabit separate cities of their own, or speak a strange dialect, or follow some outlandish way of life... With regard to dress, food and manner of life in general, they follow the customs of whatever city they happen to be living in, whether it is Greek or foreign.

And yet there is something extraordinary about their lives. They live in their own countries as though they were only passing through. They play their full role as citizens, but labor under all the disabilities of aliens. Any country can be their homeland, but for them their homeland, wherever it may be, is a foreign country. Like others, they marry and have children, but they do not expose them. They share their meals, but not their wives.

They live in the flesh, but they are not governed by the desires of the flesh. They pass their days upon earth, but they are citizens of heaven. Obedient to the laws, they yet live on a level that transcends the law. Christians love all men, but all men persecute them. Condemned because they are not understood, they are put to death, but raised to life again. They live in poverty, but enrich many; they are totally destitute, but possess an abundance of everything. They suffer dishonor, but that is their glory....

To speak in general terms, we may say that the Christian is to the world what the soul is to the body. As the soul is present in every part of the body, while remaining distinct from it, so Christians are found in all the cities of the world, but cannot be identified with the world. As the visible body contains the invisible soul, so Christians are seen living in the world, but their religious life remains unseen. The body hates the soul and wars against it, not because of any injury the soul has done it, but because of the restriction the soul places on its pleasures. Similarly, the world hates the Christians, not because they have done it any wrong, but because they are opposed to its enjoyments.

.... The soul, though immortal, has a mortal dwelling place; and Christians also live for a time amidst perishable things, while awaiting the freedom from change and decay that will be theirs in heaven. As the soul benefits from the deprivation of food and drink, so Christians flourish under persecution. Such is the Christian's lofty and divinely appointed function, from which he is not permitted to excuse himself.
I'd say we've got the first six words down pat.


Friday, July 07, 2006


Eve Tushnet is matching movies to the Ten Commandments. My first thought was The Postman Always Rings Twice for the Sixth Commandment, and Double Indemnity for the Fifth Commandment, but really either goes with either, and you can throw in the Ninth Commandment for both, too. Oh, and Mildred Pierce for the Fourth Commandment. Heck, the complete works of James M. Cain for all of them.

From Kathy Shaidle:
Must be seen to be believed
The Statue of Liberation Through Christ

Bad Protestant "art". (Sigh).
Even thusly warned, I gasped at the sight.


Wednesday, July 05, 2006

You first, me never

Pope Benedict XVI has occasionally and variously expressed the notion that the renewal of the Church will start small. We have this, for example, from a meeting with the youth of Rome and the Lazio region this past April:
Since a consumer culture exists that wants to prevent us from living in accordance with the Creator's plan, we must have the courage to create islands, oases, and then great stretches of land of Catholic culture where the Creator's design is lived out.
Matthew Fish uses this as an epigraph for his blog Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita, and presents some of his thoughts on what these "islands" and "oases" might look like here:
For starters, here are two examples:
The first, The Lord's Ranch, a community of Catholics outside of El Paso that serve the poor of Ciudad Juarez, and includes many families in the ranch that have grown up and lived there....
A second is Family Missions Company. Maybe moving your family to a small village in Mexico and giving the remainder of your life to the service of the poor and evangelization, is in fact, the best thing for your family too!
Yes, and maybe it is in fact the worst thing for your family!

As a tertiary, I am in the habit of interpreting various statements "according to my state in life," as the expression goes. I do not find it in the least difficult to apply Pope Benedict's words to my suburban American life -- a life with an inherently "vicious nature," according to Matthew, "inimical to real human flourishing" we choose because "we've got to make money. Money, money, money."

The application is this: I must form an oasis in my heart, given over to God's plan.

There. Not terribly radical, not terribly romantic, not an act people fifteen centuries from today will cite as the reason Western civilization survived. But it does have the advantage of being God's will for me, or at least the next step in His will.

It is the following step in His will that I move my family to a small village in Mexico? I gotta say, I don't see it. Maybe because of all the "obstacles to grace" Matthew would say I've surrounded myself with in Suburbia. Or, then again, maybe because it's not the following step.

The choice between vicious suburban cesspool and Mexican white martyrdom is a classic false dilemma, and it breaks in the classic ways, too. People who haven't counted the cost go to Mexico and fail; people who have remain home and do nothing.

Perhaps I'm misreading the Pope, but I don't think he's insisting on a reclamation based on extravagance-or-bust. That lets the non-extravagant -- always the majority of the Church -- off the hook. In fact, it lets the Church off the hook, by writing off her presence among the economically comfortable as at best unimportant.

(And there might even be a reason for the absence of any good examples of an old-time Catholic Worker farming commune out there.)


The rub

The response to my unoriginal invitation, "Let us also go, that we may die with Him":
You go first!
Which, as the responder may know, is usually my response when others extend similar invitations to me.

A lot of truth is packed into that response. There's the hint that even if the inviter does go first, the responder won't go second. There's the acknowledgement that accepting the invitation is a good idea, and the confession that it's a very difficult thing to do. There's the challenge to the inviter: is he all talk? There's the accusation against the inviter: he hasn't accepted his own invitation yet.

Ridicule directed at a nutritionist who doesn't follow his own recommendations may not harm anyone else, but if ridicule is directed at his recommendations, then -- assuming they were sound -- he has harmed those he set out to help. Better to be silent than to scandalize people against a healthy diet. Much more so with spiritual and moral truths.


Monday, July 03, 2006

A triolet for St. Thomas
Let us also go,
That we may die with Him.
If you wish it so,
Let us also go.
Though we be brought low
Far from Jerusalem,
Let us also go,
That we may die with Him.


The Seventy Percent Solution

I'd guess most Americans who have spent much time in Catholic Internet haunts have come across references to the infamous statistic that 70% of Roman Catholics think the Eucharist is just a symbol.

I've always been skeptical of that number. Sure, there are bound to be some freethinkers who attend Mass, but nowhere near seven in ten, and even they have to know what the Church teaches.

Which raises methodological questions. How was the poll conducted? Were "raised Catholics" included? What were the questions? Would I have given the answer the Church gives? I've even seen an on-line piece that examines the actual poll and finds it confusing and poorly written -- at least if the goal is to get a good handle on the percentage of Roman Catholics who think the Eucharist is just a symbol.

And yet. In recent weeks I've encountered several people who not only thought the Eucharist is just a symbol, they thought that's what the Church taught. When they found out otherwise -- that "'this is my body' means 'THIS IS MY BODY,'" as Monsignor Tom Wells put it -- the reaction wasn't, "Don't be ridiculous," but, "This changes everything!"

I am reminded of Servant of God Fulton Sheen's statement that not one hundred people hate the Church, but millions hate what they think she is. There may be more than one hundred Catholics who knowingly reject the Church's most basic teaching on the Eucharist, but if there are even one hundred Catholics who don't know it, that's too many.

The solution seems to be: Tell them. We can worry about the obstinate after we've instructed the ignorant.


Sunday, July 02, 2006

Settling disputes

The commentary on my previous post prompts me to record the following heuristic that can be applied to any disputed theological question:
  1. If the Jesuits and the Dominicans agree, then they're right.
  2. If the Jesuits and the Dominicans disagree, then the Jesuits are wrong.
  3. If the Dominicans are wrong, someone misinterpreted St. Thomas.
The "someone" in step 3 seems usually to be Bañez, poor fellow, although I've seen John of St. Thomas get it in the neck once or twice. That's the problem with being the Master of your generation: your mistakes live on under your name, while your true contributions become simply what everyone knows.


Friday, June 30, 2006

Straining at gnats

Mark Mossa, SJ, is once again defending his order in a semper reformanda kind of way, this time sparked by a trio of rants by a couple of Jesuitophiles (and supplemented by several additional posts at You Duped Me Lord).

What I don't understand about critics of the Company is why they always go on about how it's all messed up and led by heretics and should be suppressed and other suchlike trivialities, without ever mentioning the real problem with the Jesuits: congruism.


Thursday, June 29, 2006

A draft syllabus of opinionated errors
This is a day in which all men are obliged to have an opinion on all questions, political, social, and religious, because they have in some way or other an influence upon the decision; yet the multitude are for the most part absolutely without capacity to take their part in it. -- Ven. J.H. Cardinal Newman, Parochial and Plain Sermons, Vol 5, no 3

The following propositions are false:
  1. It is good, important, or laudable to have an opinion about every matter that comes to your attention.
  2. A reflexive, visceral response to a matter that comes to your attention constitutes an opinion on that matter.
  3. If you do not have an opinion about a matter, then you do not think the matter is important.
  4. The more important a matter is, the more important your opinion about the matter is.
  5. Subjective certainty implies objective certainty.


Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Speaking of identity through time

In giving to the Church the gift of the Luminous Mysteries of the Rosary, the blessed Pope John Paul II wrote:
Certainly the whole mystery of Christ is a mystery of light. He is the "light of the world" (Jn 8:12). Yet this truth emerges in a special way during the years of his public life, when he proclaims the Gospel of the Kingdom...
Each of these mysteries is a revelation of the Kingdom now present in the very person of Jesus.
(Emphasis in the original, of course.)

The thought occurs that the Church herself is a revelation of the Kingdom now present in the very Person of Jesus. The five Luminous Mysteries reflect the Church in action from the day of her birth:
  1. Christ's Baptism in the Jordan is continued in the Baptism that brings new members into the fold.
  2. Christ's self-manifestation at the wedding of Cana continues in the Church's blessings of marriage.
  3. Christ's proclamation of the Kingdom of God, with his call to conversion, continues in the missionary and preaching activity of the Church.
  4. Christ's Transfiguration is recalled in the Church's worship of our Lord and our God.
  5. Christ's institution of the Eucharist, as the sacramental expression of the Paschal Mystery, continues as the source and summit of the Christian life.
This notion tracks closely with the alignment of the mysteries with the Seven Sacraments, as you might expect considering the relationship between the Church and the Sacraments. The difference (in my mind at least) is that the sacramental view is more personal and the ecclesial view is more corporate, treating the Church as the Body of Christ that endures through time for no other purpose than to reveal the Kingdom now present in the very Person of Jesus.



Successor to a successor to an Apostle

St. Irenaeus taught me that the Church is apostolic.

Some years back, I was reading something he had written -- I don't remember what, I don't remember why -- and what struck me was how utterly Catholic it was.

I'd read a passage here and a short letter there from the Patristic Age, which was all well and good, but for the most part what I'd read all seemed quite ancient. Bishops going in chains from town to town? Offerings to the gods? The numerological significance of seventy-two? Connected to us today, certainly, but by way of a long, dusty trail.

And then whatever passage it was of St. Irenaeus, and it could have been written today. This is what the Church believes, and hey, that's what I believe, and the words I'd use to say it! This is what the Church does, and hey, that's what I do, and the reason I do it!

Coincidentally, I caught a few minutes of EWTN radio last week, during an interview with Alex Jones. To quote from the ad page for his book, No Price Too High:
Alex Jones was an "on-fire" Pentecostal minister in Detroit who was a completely dedicated shepherd of his flock. He greatly loved his people and they loved him. In seeking to give his flock the most genuine experience of the early Church prayer and worship services, he carefully read Scripture, the Fathers of the Church and writings of the early saints.
As he tells the story, his Pentecostal church didn't much like his reconstructed worship service. "It was 'too Catholic,'" even though at the time he had never been to a Mass.

There's a reason for that, of course, which he has since come to see; he's now a permanent deacon in the Roman Catholic Church.

More and better on St. Irenaeus is of course to be found at The Way of the Fathers.


Tuesday, June 27, 2006

The Excelsior Principle

Paula at More Light quotes Ilia Delio's book Franciscan Prayer:
Although St Clare sought a unity with God through contemplation with the crucified Spouse, union is not the goal of the relationship with God, rather, the goal is imitation. The gaze on the crucified Spouse is to lead to imitation of the Spouse.

We become what we love and who we love shapes what we become. If we love things, we become a thing. If we love nothing, we become nothing. Imitation is not a literal mimicking of Christ, rather it means becoming the image of the beloved, an image disclosed through transformation. This means we are to become vessels of God´s compassionate love for others.
That is, perhaps, a Franciscan formulation of St. Thomas's maxim of bringing to others the fruits of one's contemplation. The final end is, in fact, resting in union with God, but in the meantime contemplative union assumes the active form of imitation.

"We become what we love." In Scriptural terms, "For where your treasure is, there also will your heart be." This metaphor is embraced today by sports fans who claim to bleed their team colors, an extremely literal expression of becoming what they love.

God, too, became what He loves, "that man might become God," as the saying goes.

But if we become what we love whether we intend it or not, we can embrace what can be called the Excelsior Principle: "Love the highest, that you might become the highest." A critical part of the Good News is that man is capax Dei, capable of God. We can love God Himself -- and that "Himself" is also critical. We don't have to settle for loving God-the-Lawgiver, which would make us lawgivers, or for loving God-the-Sovereign, which would make us sovereigns set over and apart from creation. We can love God-the-Father-the-Son-and-the-Holy-Spirit, which will make us God's adopted children and eternal sharers in the Divine Life of the Trinity.


Archbishop Wuerl's installation homily

May be read here.


Monday, June 26, 2006


In other Dominican news, friars and sisters -- and plenty of others -- joined "the herculean efforts of the Third Order Dominicans of New Hope, KY," to help pull off the second annual Ignite Your Torch Youth Conference. (I'm not sure I've ever seen a conference registration form that directs attendees to bring a rosary but no low-riding pants.)

And there's a new batch of eight novices for the Dominican Province of St. Joseph. Varied backgrounds, from six different states plus two other countries, generally young, several are musically inclined, most like sports, a couple of Domers, might be one Redskins fan. A typical Dominican crew.



No, no, no, no, no, no, no!

No, the "New Cosmology" is NOT "the critical lens from which all preaching needs to flow and all justice action should emerge."

The CROSS is, you ridiculous persons! The CROSS!


Worth a third of a picture

Here, briefly, is my position on the question of pro-abortion politicians and the Eucharist:

To begin with, whoever acts in formal or proximate material cooperation with legalized abortion should not present himself for Communion.

That said, whether a particular person who presents himself for Communion is to be denied on the basis of imputed formal or material cooperation with legalized abortion is a matter of prudential judgment, not Church precept or canon law. A bishop has the authority to make this judgment for the Masses celebrated within his jurisdiction.

The above paragraph contains two concepts I think are often mangled. The first is of something being "a matter of prudential judgment." Being a matter of prudential judgment doesn't mean that the thing is a matter of moral indifference, that an objectively wrong decision can't be made, much less that a viciously immoral decision cannot be made. Intentionally or not, prudence can fail in matters of prudential judgment in ways similar to ways justice can fail in matters of judicial judgment. But it does mean there's no law that can be cited to determine fully what must be done. A matter of prudential judgment is a classic example of the incompleteness of rule-based morality.

The second concept a lot of people seem to mangle is that of episcopal authority. That doesn't merely mean the bishop is the one who gets to make the rules; again, rule-based morality is inadequate. The bishop's authority is apostolic, and the Christian faithful reject that authority at the risk of rejecting the authority of the Apostles, which was given to them by Christ.

Rejecting authority takes many forms that fall short of explicitly denying that the bishop has it. Lumen Gentium goes to far as to say that "the faithful must cling to their bishop, as the Church does to Christ, and Jesus Christ to the Father, so that all may be of one mind through unity, and abound to the glory of God." I don't think the claim that some Catholics today fail to cling to their bishop as the Church does to Christ is very controversial.



Sunday, June 25, 2006

The new normal

The new parochial vicar of my parish, Fr. Greg Shaffer, was ordained not quite a month ago. Today he announced that he has started a blog as
a forum for St. Andrew parishioners to leave comments and questions to my posts. Please feel free to ask ANY (appropriate) questions about the Catholic faith, related or unrelated to my posts.
If you check his profile, you'll see he's already an old hand at blogging.

Fr. Greg at his First Mass of Thanksgiving

How long, I wonder, till the question is, "Your parish doesn't have a blog?"


Friday, June 23, 2006

Same as the old crows

Evidently, Archbishop Wuerl got it wrong, as did the blessed Pope John Paul II before him. The threefold task of the bishop is actually to teach, to sanctify, and to deny Communion to pro-abortion politicians.

Or so it would seem from the comments of some people who today are not the Archbishop of Washington, nor even the Pope. As a service to them, I offer this image, which they may print, complete, and hang in their kitchen:


But who's counting?

This (via this) I did not know:
When Pope John Paul wanted to give a speech to the Cardinals reminding them that the cardinalatial red signified a readiness to die for the faith, there was only one Cardinal martyr that he could refer to.
And St. John's martyrdom was all but completed before he was named a cardinal.

In defense of the thousands of non-martyr cardinals, though, by the time the office developed it was quite uncommon for a bishop to be martyred, which isn't altogether a bad thing. One might also suggest some cardinals, such as Cardinal Kung, have been white martyrs, although that doesn't do much to illustrate the cardinalatial red.

And of course the question is never, "How did your team do?" Who can count the number of lay martyrs? Does that make layfolk feel complacent, as the dearth of cardinal martyrs might make cardinals feel uneasy?


Habemus Archbishopem



Thursday, June 22, 2006

Always in stock

"Can we say 'both/and'?" is one of my stock questions (see the full stock in the left-hand column).

Generally, the things to be linked with the "and" have something of a competitive or adversarial relationship. They aren't naturally additive, like tea and crumpets; they're the sort of things that might be easier to take one at a time. Hence the question's implied "... rather than 'either/or'?"

The word I usually use to describe this sort of relationship is "tension." You have to be careful with that word, or you might wind up using it to trap the other side of the argument: "Yes, I agree, these two values are in tension. [There, I've conceded the point that you have a point. Now I can freeze your point there, and step around it thusly:] But in these circumstances, it is clear that my value determines the proper course."

It seems to me, though, that you have to be particularly careful with an argument that acknowledges no tension. In general, and assuming good will on everyone's part, everyone in a disputation has a point. Any particular point may happen to be beside the point, but if there is disagreement it has to be coming from somewhere, and it should at least be acknowledged.

I'll even go so far as to suggest that, in certain matters of the Faith, the absence of any tension in an argument may be evidence that the arguer has failed to actually engage the matter.

Mark Shea anticipates this suggestion somewhat, in listing "a number of curious currents of thought that puzzle and intrigue me" about how some people interpret Scripture:
...readers give not the vaguest hint that it disturbs them at all that God should command genocide in the Pentateuch. Hey! He's God! ...

The weird notion that if something in Scripture is mysterious, that's a bad thing....

The correlative notion that anybody who wrestles with these mysteries and comes up with different answers is, not just mistaken, but an "imbecile", an enemy, and a heretic.

The peculiar notion that someplace else, there's a happy land without ambiguity and mystery where diagrams rule and persons can be safely dismissed.
Setting aside a certain baffling hostility toward diagrams, Mark's point is that, since Scripture does not give a closed answer to every question asked of it, closed answers aren't always a good thing.

The Catholic Faith is inherently and inescapably mysterious, and I suggest part of that mystery lies in tension between things -- free will and grace, omnibenevolence and evil, and so forth -- the final key to which Revelation has not provided human reason.

Now, the fact that free will and grace, to choose a much-discussed pair, are in tension doesn't mean that nothing can be said about how they co-exist. It might even be possible to resolve the tension, in the sense of showing how both fit into the entirety of the Faith.

But if the tension is not even recognized, there's a good chance the whole question is being mishandled. And if the tension is completely dissolved -- by, for example, getting rid of free will altogether -- then it's almost certain the answer is wrong.


"I feel bad for him. He just wants to eat."

Sometimes I suspect the wisdom Waiter distills from his daily life only seems deep by comparison to the shallowness of the people involved. Even if so, it's effective.


Moving bishops

In chess, a bishop can only move diagonally. Not so in the Church.

Whispers in the Loggia has three posts in a row about moving bishops, and two of them involve bishops moving up. The third is about bishops moving sideways.

At this point, I'm only interested in one possibility for such a sideways move. Bishop Edward Dominic Fenwick, OP -- founder of the Dominican Province of St. Joseph in the United States, first Bishop of Cincinnati, and namesake of my Lay Dominican chapter -- is currently buried in a cemetery associated with neither the Archdiocese of Cincinnati nor the Dominicans, and there has been some talk of a more fitting resting place (which would make his fifth grave, if my count is correct; an itinerant preacher once responsible for Ohio, Michigan, and Points West, not even death stopped his moving about).

As for the "boom" of the Curial movements: I have only accidental interest. There's a rumor Cardinal Sodano is a Third Order Dominican, and Cardinal Szoka's an American.

Now, the installation interests me keenly. Not the installation itself -- I've got other stuff to do this afternoon -- but its effect, viz, a new archbishop of my archdiocese.

As I think I mentioned before, today is an auspicious day to assume a see, it being the Feast of St. John Fisher, who from all accounts was a most excellent man and a red hot bishop. We shall see whether a red hat arrives in Washington with more timeliness than it arrived in Rochester.

Today is a doubly auspicious day to assume the see of Washington, it being the Feast of St. Thomas More, patron of statesmen (and also of politicians (or at least some of them). Coincidence, message, or joke, the date can't have gone unnoticed and I'm sure won't go unremarked.


Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Not just the law

While I'm thinking of it, let me strike a blow for Virtue-Based Morality by taking up a point made by Herbert McCabe in his posthumously published The Good Life (and touched on in a comment below by JohnMcG).

To repeat myself, what makes an act of giving to neighbor his due virtuous is that the act is chosen as an act of giving to neighbor his due. The wicked judge gave the widow her due so she would stop bugging him. He chose his act, not as a just act, but as an act that would shut her up. Even though he did "the right," he did not act with justice.

In addition to virtue and self-interest, there is a third way in which one can choose "the right," which is to choose the act as in accordance with rules. A different judge, for example, might give the widow what she asked for, not because it is the right thing to do, nor because it will get her out of his chambers, but because that's what the law tells him to do. Should the law change, his decision would change.

In effect, such a rule-based justice doesn't recognize natural rights; the positive law defines the set of positive rights, and those are the only rights that matter. From this perspective, "unjust law" is a meaningless expression, and anything that is not contrary to an explicit law cannot be unjust.

Of course it's true that a virtue-based concept of justice follows the positive laws -- at least those that are not "a perversion of law," i.e., those that do not violate natural law -- but it does so because following a just positive law is just. That may sound like a meaningless distinction, but it preserves both concepts of "unjust law" and "unjust but legal."



Justice and magic

Let me now offer a response to my question, "In what sense, if any, can it be said that a man acts in accordance with the virtue of justice when he mistakenly fails to give to another his due?"

Well, again, "Justice is the moral virtue that consists in the constant and firm will to give their due to God and neighbor." As St. Thomas puts it, justice is in the will. It's the habit of choosing the right thing to do as the right thing to do.

Imagine a judge who settles questions by using a Magic 8 Ball he bought at a local toy store. He does this because it's easier than trying to figure out all those laws and stuff. He does not act with justice, even when his decision does happen to give their due to the parties before him, because he is not choosing to do what he does because what he does is the right thing to do.

Now suppose that Magic 8 Ball is actually magic (or, if you prefer, guided by an angel), that to every yes-or-no question that has a correct answer it gives the correct answer. Then in every instance the judge would be giving the parties their due, but he still wouldn't be a just judge -- that is, he still wouldn't possess the virtue of justice, because he still wouldn't be choosing to act according to what is due to the parties.

As a final wrinkle, suppose the judge was for whatever reason morally certain that the Magic 8 Ball gave the correct answer to every yes-or-no question that has a correct answer. In this case, he consults it because he knows it will tell him how to act in order to give to the parties their due. He chooses to do what he does because it is the right thing to do.

Where I'm going with this, of course, is that the question of whether the judge "acts justly" in the sense of giving what is, in fact, due the parties involves is not the same as the question of whether the judge "acts justly" in the sense of willing to give what is due the parties. If the judge chooses to give to the parties what he judges is their due -- whether his judgment is based on faith in a Magic 8 Ball or on a free and full confession -- then he is acting in accordance with the virtue of justice.

And if he's wrong? Then his error lies not in the will, which is constantly and firmly directed toward choosing to give the parties their due, but in the intellect, which for whatever reason muffed the determination of what is due the parties.

This doesn't entirely settle the question, since I'm left with the case of the well-meaning fool who is wrongly convinced his Magic 8 Ball is magical. Surely there's a stronger connection between willing to give their due to God and neighbor and actually giving them their due.

But if we were to insist that the former, the willing to give others their due, counts for nothing, then we would essentially get rid of justice as a concept we can talk about. To answer the question, "Is it just?" would require a logical certainty unavailable in the real world, and in the theoretical case we would have to say the judge with the magic Magic 8 Ball always acted justly.


Monday, June 19, 2006

Breaking the habit

Since his habit (intentional or not) of twisting conversations to his personal hobbyhorse is a temptation against both charity and temperance for me, I've banned Chris from commenting here. It might reflect badly on my fortitude that I just couldn't take it any more, but I'm flat out of hope that he'd ever stop on his own. It seems to me that it is just, though, since I don't think anyone has a natural right to post whatever comment he wants wherever he wants to.


A gathering up

Fra Lawrence of Contemplata aliis Tradere is taking a blogging break, an investment in introversion that will (God willing) pay off by October:
As I now enter the final stage of my Novitiate and (hopefully) prepare to make Simple Profession in September, it would be expedient for me to take a break from this blog. I ask my readers to pray for me and for my brother, Paul Mills in these months ahead as we hope to proceed towards making first vows on 20 September. I shall need to apply for an extension for my religious visa too and ask your additional prayers for this intention.
He goes on to quote Johann Tauler:
"Moreover, should a going forth, an elevation beyond and above ourselves ever come about, then we must renounce our own will, desire and worldly activity, so that we can orient ourselves single-mindedly toward God, and meet Him only in complete abandonment of self..."
You can't be much truer to your blog name than that.