instruere...inlustrare...delectare Disputations

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

One jot, or one tittle shall not pass

As many times as I've heard or read James 2:14, I didn't really notice that little "that" until this past Sunday at Mass:
What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him?
I've always read James from the perspective of The Great Faith v. Works Debate, and not given it much thought, since the Catholic position of "both/and" (to put it crudely) always made perfect sense to me.

But of course what I know as The Great Faith v. Works Debate did not arise until the Sixteenth Century, so that can't have been the context in which St. James was writing. And in verse 14, James doesn't ask, "Can faith alone save him?", but, "Can that faith save him?"

"That faith": among all possible faiths, the faith that does not produce works. I don't think he is saying we need to add works to our faith, as though salvation were due to an additive combination of that univocal thing Faith and that univocal thing Works. Rather, he is saying that there are two different faiths. When he writes, in verse 18:
Demonstrate your faith to me without works, and I will demonstrate my faith to you from my works.
The "your faith" and the "my faith" are not the same faith. Verse 26 caps it off:
For just as a body without a spirit is dead, so also faith without works is dead.
Note that a body without a spirit is literally substantially different from a body with a spirit. A human being is not the additive combinations of a corpse plus a soul. Similarly, the dead faith lacking works is substantially different from the living faith with works.

And all from finally noticing the little word "that." (Which, incidentally, is missing from the King James Version and the Douay Rheims.)


A dangerous coincidence

Coincidence in the sense that they coincide, not that their coinciding is by chance:

Today, as you know, is International Talk Like a Pirate Day*.

It is also the official publication date for Saints Behaving Badly**, which as you'll recall includes the story of St. Olaf. He was a Viking***.

I need hardly point out the risk this poses of rekindling the Great Pirates vs. Viking Debate.

*. It is not, however, International Type Like a Pirate Day, which is why this blog is pirate lingo free.
**. In case you thought that was about the worst title possible, The Way of the Fathers demonstrates that it could have been called Saint Misbehavin'.
***. Note that "viking" is also a verb, meaning basically "acting like a Viking," though I don't think "to vike" quite made it into English, which is a shame.


Monday, September 18, 2006

News in Black and White

Today: It is the Feast of St. Juan Macias, OP. Have you had your rice today?

Fr. John Langlois, O.P., will lecture on the history and spirituality of the Holy Rosary on Tuesday, September 19, 2006 at 7:00 pm at the Dominican House of Studies. The lecture, The Origins of the Rosary and Why We Should Pray It, is free and open to the public. Light refreshments and discussion will follow.
Vocation Weekend 2006!

On into the Third Millennium: The Province of St. Joseph is planning to build a new academic center at the Dominican House of Studies. It's the lighter colored building in the lower left in the artist's rendition. Duc in altum, indeed!


Thursday, September 14, 2006

An everlasting trophy

You probably know that Happy Catholic has been featuring selections from The Ignatian Workout: Daily Spiritual Exercises for a Healthy Faith, by Tim Mul. Today, Julie quotes a passage on the meaning of Jesus' wounds, still visible after the Resurrection:
That the risen Jesus still bears his wounds is good news, for it tells us that there is a continuity between the lives we have now and the lives that we will enjoy in the Resurrection. Jesus is the same person. His wounds, though, are different: they are not a source of suffering but a source of recognition.
St. Thomas lists the Venerable Bede's five reasons "[i]t was fitting for Christ's soul at His Resurrection to resume the body with its scars":
  1. "[F]or Christ's own glory. For Bede says ... that He kept His scars not from inability to heal them, 'but to wear them as an everlasting trophy of His victory.'"
  2. "[T]o confirm the hearts of the disciples as to 'the faith in His Resurrection.'"
  3. "'[T]hat when He pleads for us with the Father, He may always show the manner of death He endured for us.'"
  4. "'[T]hat He may convince those redeemed in His blood, how mercifully they have been helped, as He exposes before them the traces of the same death."
  5. "'[T]hat in the Judgment-day He may upbraid them with their just condemnation.'"
St. Thomas also seems to follow St. Augustine's supposition that, following their Master, the martyrs too will bear their scars into the New Creation:
But the love we bear to the blessed martyrs causes us, I know not how, to desire to see in the heavenly kingdom the marks of the wounds which they received for the name of Christ, and possibly we shall see them. For this will not be a deformity, but a mark of honor, and will add lustre to their appearance, and a spiritual, if not a bodily beauty.
At the very least, representing martyrs with their wounds in paintings and statues calls to mind some of the reasons St. Bede taught Christ still bears His wounds.

Here's a thought: The suffering we experience in this life and offer to God, in reparation or expiation or obedience or charity, will in some way be transformed into a spiritual beauty, to the glory of Christ, in the heavenly kingdom. The suffering we experience but don't offer to God will be washed away (in the water from Christ's side, it could be said), but will not produce any spiritual beauty within ourselves.

That potential for spiritual beauty won't be wasted -- it will be exercised, so to speak, in Christ's act of washing away that suffering -- but it will be a missed opportunity for us to bring glory to God. (And it's because it all redounds to God's glory that it's a false modesty that would say, "Oh, I don't care about my own spiritual beauty." Would I say, "Oh, I'm not vain about my appearance, so I'm not going to shave before going to a party at my wife's friend's home"?)


Wednesday, September 13, 2006

If we'd do it anyway, it wouldn't need to be a rule

And if being decent were easy, everyone would do it.


Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Made fishers of fish

The cover of this book reminds me of a couple of T shirts I saw recently that said:
Jesus said, "Go fishing,"...
Jesus said, "Go for a walk,"...
Below, in smaller print, they went on along the lines of, "He didn't say, 'Take out the garbage, mulch the trees, dust the bookcase, recaulk the bathtub,....'"

On a related note, here's an article titled, "Cast Your Nets: Fishing at the Time of Jesus." It has some interesting information, but I'm not particularly sold on its exegesis of the miraculous catch of John 21:
When winter comes, the musht, which are tropical fish, congregate in shoals in the northern part of the [Sea of Galilee] where they are attracted to the warm water of the springs rising at the foot of the Eremos hill flowing into the lake. The attraction is fatal to the fish for it offers the fishermen an opportunity to make abundant catches. It was probably here that Jesus, having seen a shoal of musht, told Peter to let down his net, and he made a successful haul.
Who wouldn't conclude that someone capable of seeing a shoal of musht is the Lord?

(First link via open book.)


Monday, September 11, 2006

Priorities and balance

St. Thomas begins his study of morality, not with the question, "What ought man do?," but with, "Why does anyone do anything?" Though he's writing as a teacher of beginning students of sacra doctrina, his approach is also pastorally congenial, as I suggested below.

You do things because you want things, and above all you want to be happy, a state St. Augustine defined with deceptive simplicity as "the complete attainment of all we desire."

Of course, people desire all sorts of things, good and bad, many of which are mutually incompatible. To achieve happiness, then, isn't merely a matter of obtaining everything you might happen to desire. You first have to make sure that everything you desire can be completely attained.

This fact is a big reason virtue-based morality -- expressing what man ought do in terms of virtues (good habits we should cultivate) and vices (bad habits we should eliminate) -- is preferable to rule-based morality -- expressing what man ought to do in terms of proscriptions and prescriptions. You can follow all the rules and still not be happy.

Which is not to say proscriptions and prescriptions are unimportant, but that they work neither as a starting point nor as an ending point if the human moral life is to flourish. As Fr. Romanus Cessario, OP, puts it in A Short History of Thomism [p. 22]:
In moral philosophy, Thomists agree that by nature man enjoys the right to dwell in community and to pursue personal happiness within the common good, and that the right conduct of human beings is best described by appeal to the virtues of human life, although laws, both natural and positive, also legitimately direct human action.



Friday, September 08, 2006

Morality is getting what you want

When St. Thomas begins "to treat of [God's] image, i.e. man, inasmuch as he too is the principle of his actions, as having free-will and control of his actions," the first question he looks at is man's last end, which is, per St. Augustine, happiness.

See how his thinking works? He's writing a textbook on sacra doctrina, on the science of divine revelation, and so begins naturally enough with its object -- viz, God. Man first enters into the discussion as a special feature of God's creation.

The specialest feature of man is his free will, and how he does and ought to use it is basically the subject of the whole Secunda Partis. The thing is, St. Thomas begins this discussion with the question of why man uses his free will. To the fundamental question of moral theology, "What must I do?," St. Thomas replies, "That depends on what you want." Seven articles in, St. Thomas recalls the words of St. Augustine:
But if he had said, You all will to be blessed, you do not will to be wretched; he would have said something which there is no one that would not recognize in his own will. For whatever else a man may will secretly, he does not withdraw from that will, which is well known to all men, and well known to be in all men.
The remaining 303 questions in this part of the Summa look at what "to be blessed" means and how to achieve it.

Note how natural, human, and congenial this approach to moral theology is. Natural, because it situates moral theology in its proper place within the whole of sacra doctrina*. Human, because it considers the human act of moral choice as it is in itself, an act of free will directed by reason. Congenial, because it begins by asking what you want, and everyone, of whatever age and whatever spiritual stage, wants to be happy.

* I use "sacra doctrina" not merely to be pretentious, but because I've been told it's a tricky term to translate to English. "Sacred doctrine," "holy teaching," and suchlike evidently don't quite capture the full scope of the term as St. Thomas used it, and as early as the first article of the first question of the first part of the Summa Theologiae, St. Thomas distinguishes between sacra doctrina and theology.



Thursday, September 07, 2006

You can't take the Dominican out of the Thomist

A Short History of Thomism, by Fr. Romanus Cessario, OP, is perfectly described by its title. It runs to a mere 96 pages, justifying the "Short," and its ten-page index suggests the density with which the history of Thomism is covered.

In the conclusion, Fr. Cessario writes:
In the brief space that a study of this kind allows, it has been my intention to stress the real, dare I say personal, unity that binds all these diverse members of the Thomist school. By examining, even in a brief and cursory way, the work of past and present Thomists, their manuscripts and printed volumes, their translations, commentaries, and compendia, I have endeavored to establish clearly that Thomism is not an abstraction, but an active force that has shaped the minds of clerics as well as of lay and religious scholars in a most personal way.
The book is certainly brief and cursory. While it mentions the various debates between Thomists and Scotists, Molinists, etc., it will cover the point of contention -- which in some cases practically consumed entire careers -- in a page or less, and if you want to learn much more about any particular Thomist than when he lived and the name of his most important works, you'll probably have to look elsewhere. As for the various schools of Thomism that are around today, they're mentioned, but again not in enough detail to really understand the differences involved.

The question, "What is Thomism?" is not easily answered, though a couple of passages do give, not categorical definitions, but descriptions of Thomism; I may get around to quoting those passages. For now, I'll finish with the final words of the book, which offer a suggestion of why the question might be worth asking:
Thomism, we know, centers the searching mind on God, from whom all blessings flow, and then moves to capture the searcher's heart. The supreme blessing that first drew the attention of Aquinas is the mystery before which he knelt each day, the blessed gift of the hidden Godhead, which under the figures of bread and wine held Aquinas captive to his Lord, and which today continues to sustain those Thomists who want to enter into his thought with the most perfect assurance.


Wednesday, September 06, 2006

A dumbell model

Prudence, as you know, is right reasoning about a thing to be done. To be prudent requires, among other things, knowing the difference between what must be done and what may be done, between what is prescribed (or proscribed) by law and what you are free to choose.

Sometimes, the moral law is overstated at the expense of human freedom. This can happen by inventing laws where none really exist, as I suggested happens with Grand Theories of Pure Living. It also happens with rule-based morality, where human freedom is for the most part left implied in whatever isn't covered by an explicit rule.

Sometimes, too, human freedom is overstated at the expense of the moral law. Some seem to hold that freedom always trumps the law, others that the law is a very vague and general thing, still others that the law comprises only a small and specific set of edicts (e.g., those found in dogmatic canons of Ecumenical Councils).

And then, sometimes, the proper balance between law and freedom is found, although of course it will look imbalanced to those whose own balance is misplaced.



Tuesday, September 05, 2006

A Short History of a Thomist

Among several new posts on the Dominican Province of St. Joseph's Vocations Blog is an interview with Fr. Romanus Cessario, O.P., whose A Short History of Thomism I started a couple of days ago. Fr. Cessario identifies three things St. Thomas can teach theologians today:
First, that theology remains at the service of the Church and therefore is subject to the pleasure of the Roman Pontiff...

Second, that the Christian thinker must interest himself in both nature and grace, faith and reason, Church and State....

Third and finally, that the Christian thinker himself must live a holy life.
By "a holy life," Fr. Cessario means something other than sinlessness:
To live a holy life in the Thomist sense is to observe the rhythms of sin and forgiveness, of sacramental mediation and the personal renewal that it ensures, and to keep one's eye on the mystery of God's love which always exceeds our expectations and our imaginations. Aquinas lived his own life according to the adage that God loves us not because we are good but because He alone is good. The creature can only participate in this goodness, which for angelic and human persons includes the possibility of elevation to divine friendship through grace.
From this perspective, the distinction isn't between a holy person and a sinner, but between someone who seeks friendship with God and someone who doesn't. In a sense, whether the one seeking divine friendship sins matters little more than whether the one not seeking it doesn't sin.


Sunday, September 03, 2006

Theoretically speaking

Today is not a good day to press the case for a Grand Theory of Pure Living.

Grand Theories of Pure Living purport to demonstrate the incompatibility of the Christian Faith with some particular aspect of modern life, leading to the conclusion that that particular aspect of modern life must be forsworn by all Christians who are serious about their faith. Particular aspects of modern life vary from Grand Theory to Grand Theory; examples are television, the suburbs, democracy, and veal.

What makes today a good day for Grand Theorists to stay off the soapbox is the Lectionary, which offers us, not one, not two, but three readings that pour sand in a Grand Theory's gearworks. Deuteronomy 4:2 commands,
In your observance of the commandments of the LORD, your God, which I enjoin upon you, you shall not add to what I command you nor subtract from it.
A Grand Theory that does not command is not a Grand Theory. James 1:27, meanwhile, teaches,
Religion that is pure and undefiled before God and the Father is this: to care for orphans and widows in their affliction and to keep oneself unstained by the world.
A Grand Theorist, though, is not satisfied with one's religion keeping oneself unstained by the world. Rather, he condemns what might stain, or what sometimes stains someone, and would change matters of prudence to matters of precept.

Finally, in Mark 7:18-20, Jesus teaches us,
Do you not realize that everything that goes into a person from outside cannot defile, since it enters not the heart but the stomach and passes out into the latrine? ... But what comes out of a person, that is what defiles.
These verses pose a grave challenge to Grand Theories, which insist that things that go into a person from outside defile.


Friday, August 25, 2006

Afterwards holy

Michaelus asks, "Who has a problem with St. Olaf?"

Who would dare? As Thomas J. Craughwell put it in Saints Behaving Badly:
The conversion of Norway proved to be a slow, tedious business, and Olaf was in a hurry to get the job done. With three hundred of his best men-at-arms he marched to those regions of Norway where resistance to Christianity was strongest. He destroyed pagan temples and smashed images of pagan gods. Anyone, of whatever rank, who would not abandon paganism risked execution, or blinding, or having a hand or foot lopped off. As Snorri tells us, the king "let none go unpunished who would not serve God."

It's interesting to note that Olaf's brutal, violent approach to converting a brutal, violent society worked. By 1030, Norway was a Christian country, nor did it backslide into paganism after Olaf's death.
Though not terribly popular in life, miracles after his death in battle (while trying to regain his throne, a common means of martyrdom for the saint-kings of the time) (and the miracles began pretty much immediately; there are reports of wounded soldiers being cured when they touched St. Olaf's blood while recovering his body) contributed to a very speedy canonization by his good friend Bishop Grimkell of Trondheim.

All the versions of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle being kept up in the early eleventh century record his death, while MS C adds an express acknowledgement of his sanctity: "Her wæs Olaf cing ofslagen on Norwegon of his agenum folce [ond] wæs syððan halig," "In this year [1030] king Óláfr was killed in Norway by his own people, and was afterwards holy."
A lot of us, I think, sort of plan on being "syððan halig," though I don't know how many of us will be working miracles.


You will do well

We possess the prophetic message that is altogether reliable. You will do well to be attentive to it, as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts.
This is, of course, from the Second Epistle of St. Peter.

But it could also be part of the tract left on your doorstep by the Temple of Enlightened Venusian Consciousness.

This one verse shows both the need for and the limitations of Christian apologetics and catechesis. The need, because there are reasons to believe the Church rather than the Temple of Enlightened Venusian Consciousness, and the Church ought to be able to explain them.

The limitations, because in the end, Christianity is a matter of faith, and while faith can be found to be reliable, it cannot be proven so.

The need for apologetics and catechesis confers dignity; the limitations, risk -- in particular, the risk of presenting Christianity as a set of clever arguments in favor of a somewhat arbitrary set of rules. As, so to speak, a Faith-without-faith. And if faith without works is dead....


Wednesday, August 23, 2006

On the subject of adorable saints

Some people just don't look like they could possibly need much post-mortem prayer.

May the souls of the faithful departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace.


Don't hate us because we're beatiful

Because, frankly, as a class Dominicans are no oil paintings. But there are exceptions.


Not coming this fall to Fox

Last week, I read a review copy of a book by Thomas J. Craughwell, Saints Behaving Badly: The Cutthroats, Crooks, Trollops, Con Men, and Devil-Worshippers Who Became Saints, due out in September.

The subtitle gives perhaps a better indication of the contents than the main title. There are twenty-eight brief biographies, about six pages on average, ranging from "Saint Matthew, Extortionist" to "Venerable Matt Talbot, Chronic Alcoholic." In his introduction, Craughwell explains the theme behind the selection:
At least since the nineteenth century many authors have gone out of their way to sanitize the lives of the saints, often glossing over the more embarrassing cases with the phrase "he/she was once a great sinner." I don't doubt the hagiographers' good intentions, but I can't help thinking it is misguided to edit out the wayward years of a saint's life...

The point of reading these stories is not to experience some tabloid thrill, but to understand how grace works in the world. Every day, all day long, God pours out his grace upon us, urging us, coaxing us, to turn away from everything that is base and cheap and unsatisfying, and turn toward the only thing that is eternal, perfect, and true -- that is, himself...

[The message of] great sinners who became great saints... is reassuring: if these people can be saved, then so can you!
And in fact, Craughwell records the facts (and the legends) in an admirably forthright, non-tabloid style. Bad behavior is understood broadly, ranging from "St. Vladimir, Fratricide, Rapist, and Practitioner of Human Sacrifice" to "St. Peter Claver, Dithering Novice," and in a couple of cases, the misbehavior may be entirely legendary.

The full list of saints:
  • St. Matthew, Extortionist
  • St. Dismas, Thief
  • St. Callixtus, Embezzler
  • St. Hippolytus, Antipope
  • St. Christopher, Servant of the Devil
  • St. Pelagia, Promiscuous Actress
  • St. Genesius, Scoffer
  • St. Moses the Ethiopian, Cutthroat and Gang Leader
  • St. Fabiola, Bigamist
  • St. Augustine, Heretic and Playboy
  • St. Alipius, Obsessed with Blood Sports
  • St. Patrick, Worshipper of False Gods
  • St. Mary of Egypt, Seductress
  • St. Columba, Warmonger
  • St. Olga, Mass Murderer
  • St. Vladimir, Fratricide, Rapist, and Practitioner of Human Sacrifice
  • St. Olaf, Viking
  • St. Thomas Becket, Hedonist
  • St. Francis of Assisi, Wastrel
  • Bl. Giles of Portugal, Satanist
  • St. Margaret of Cortona, Rich Man's Mistress
  • Bl. Angela of Foligno, Gossip and Hedonist
  • St. Ignatius of Loyola, Egotist
  • St. John of God, Gambler and Drunkard
  • St. Camillus de Lellis, Cardsharp and Con Man
  • St. Philip Howard, Cynic and Negligent Husband
  • St. Peter Claver, Dithering Novice
  • Ven. Matt Talbot, Chronic Alcoholic
As you can see, it's a varied list. Some of their stories are well-known, some relatively obscure.

I should point out that Craughwell leaves implicit what he calls the message of these stories, that no one is beyond salvation. There's very little editorializing, systematizing, or moralizing. Perhaps the closest he comes to this is in writing, "It is safe to say that under the formal process of canonization that has been in place in the Catholic Church for the last several hundred years, Olaf would never have made the cut."

Limiting Saints Behaving Badly to biography makes it a hard book to fault. It does raise some interesting questions -- not least what we today should say and think of St. Olaf -- without trying to answer them, but that leaves the reader free to come up with his own answers. And his own questions, too, for that matter.

I'd think this book could lead to some good discussions for a book club, and I intend to suggest it to my parish's DRE as a possible resource for teenage catechesis. (A few misbehaviors don't make suitable reading for younger children.)

There's a five page bibliography, so although you could get the gist of most of these lives at e.g. Saints O' the Day, most of the sketches are more extensive and detailed than you're likely to find online.



Tuesday, August 22, 2006

The Dairy of a Country Priest

After the milking this morning, I noticed that Mme. Bessie had remained behind, standing quietly in the shadows by the side entrance. She is a Guernsey, a proud member of a breed my own people have been bred to treat with reverence. Only with great effort did I refrain from bowing my head respectfully as I addressed her, "Git along."

Mme. Bessie did not move. She may not have even heard me, or noticed. She appeared lost in thought, and from her flowed the gentle melancholy of her kind, a conditional resignation to the ways of the world, with yet a hint of resistance, folded upon itself like a creased but unsealed letter which might be read at any time.

As I watched her, I searched my own heart for such a note: the mere awareness of what was, not rising to indignation, but silently marking indignity, which itself points to the dignity overlooked by the world. I felt that I should offer Mme. Bessie some small gesture of comfort, which would redound to my own comfort, yet I feared to presume on her fellow-feeling. And so I merely said, "Ha, cow!," and waved my hand ineffectually.

After a long moment, as though to impress upon me that it was her choice and none of my doing -- which, were she but to understand, she would find is entirely how I would have all the cows treat me -- she turned slowly and lumbered at a stately pace through the double doors. A prayer of thanksgiving for this humiliation reached my lips, but I did not speak it, for I know well I am too worthless to deserve to be humbled.