instruere...inlustrare...delectare Disputations

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

The biennial electoral equivalency post

Here is my paraphrase of an argument that seems to be popular in some circles on days like this:
  1. In an election involving two unsatisfactory candidates one of whom is morally certain to win (for the purposes of this post, call them the two major party candidates), not to vote for one of the two candidates is equivalent to voting for the less satisfactory one.
  2. But voting for the less satisfactory one is wrong.
  3. Therefore, one ought to vote for one of the two candidates morally certain to win.
  4. And voting for the less satisfactory one is wrong.
  5. So one ought to vote for the less unsatisfactory of the two candidates morally certain to win.
The problem with this perfectly valid argument is that its first premise is false. Not to vote for one of the two candidates is not equivalent to voting for the less satisfactory one.

You can see where the premise comes from, of course. If one were to vote for one of the two major party candidates, one would vote for the less unsatisfactory one. Therefore, the reasoning goes, not voting for one of the two major party candidates "costs" the less unsatisfactory one a vote, which is numerically equivalent to giving the less satisfactory one a vote.

There are three problems with this. First, the voter is probably well aware of the numerical implications of his vote. If his decision to not vote for one of the two major party candidates already accounts for the purely conceptual (because it is relative to no existing reality) cost to the less unsatisfactory candidate, then pointing this out to him won't affect his decision.

Second, given that one is not going to vote for one of the two major party candidates, it doesn't matter what follows from the supposition that one is. The negation of a true statement implies anything you like. P->((~P)->Q) for any P and Q.

Third, a certain numerical equivalence (in this case, the difference in vote count between the two major party candidates) by no means implies an overall prudential, much less moral, equivalence. Of all the effects, public and private, of a single vote, perhaps the least significant is that on the margin of victory. To treat the margin of victory as the most (some would seem to have it the only) significant factor in determining how to vote is to misunderstand the act of voting.



Monday, November 06, 2006

You Kant have it both ways

Kevin Miller stoutly opposes any prudential decision regarding this year's Congressional elections other than voting Republican.

CORRECTION: Kevin corrects, "If Voter X in the 13th Congressional District in the State of Confusion is given a choice between Candidate A, a pro-abort GOPer, and Candidate B, a pro-life [or pro-abort] Dem, then I'm not going to say that X should vote for A."

When, in a comment at Catholic and Enjoying It!, I implied that my single vote does not determine any outcome, he replied with the Kant card:
... I don't think it makes a lot of sense for me to say that such-and-such is the right vote for me without saying also that it's the right vote for all pro-lifers (or at least, all pro-lifers similarly situated - say, voting in the same election).
Well, what happens if we do apply Kant's idea of universalizability -- that what's right for me is right for everyone -- to third-party (or no party) voting?

First, note that what Kant would universalize isn't merely "such-and-such is the right vote for me." That's only the final judgment, the conclusion of a reasoned argument beginning from premises known or judged to be true.

But one of the premises that has led me at times to vote for third-party candidates is essentially this: "Pretty much no one thinks the way I do." In other words, my conclusion that a third-party candidate is the right vote for me is based on the premise of non-universalization. Kant can say what he likes, the fact (in my opinion) remains that everyone won't do what I do.

But suppose they do. What then? Then everyone judges for themselves that everyone else won't do what they do, and we all do the same thing.

And so what if we do? We'd be mistaken in our premise, not immoral in our action. To argue that I ought not do what I judge I ought to do because I might misjudge would be silly (although some degree of risk analysis might be called for in some circumstances).

Kevin, though, believes bad things would happen if everyone did what everyone isn't going to do:
... it's very likely that all [pro-lifers] together, in boycotting both major party candidates, would throw the election to the pro-abort (when there is one).
Well, again, something being very likely to follow from something that won't happen doesn't carry much clout in a prudential decision.

But I think the question is being subtly begged here. By speaking in terms of pro-lifers throwing the election to the pro-abort -- or I'll just say Democrat, since Kevin is explicit in his support for the GOP -- he is suggesting that the normative case is for pro-lifers to vote for the Republican. And whether that's the case is precisely the question. (The question is begged less subtly by others who say, "If you vote third party or not at all, that's as good as voting Democratic.")

It's a question because it's by no means inarguable that the common good is best served by Republican candidates getting every pro-life vote tomorrow. In fact, it's arguable that the common good is harmed by arguing that Republicans should get every pro-life vote tomorrow.



One measure of how successfully the laity have responded to the universal call to holiness

Are the souls of the faithful departed better off today than they were forty years ago?


Are voter guides the devil's playthings?

Voter guides are the devil's playthings. They reinforce the common and false belief that voting in elections satisfies the democratic citizen's political responsibilities.

All the energy spent discussing how to choose from among lousy candidates would be better spent developing non-lousy candidates.



Thursday, November 02, 2006


Yes, yes, very handy for next year, no doubt, but why not something for a week from next Tuesday?


Too nice an argument

Fr. Brian Harrison has written a much-mentioned two-part article titled "Torture and Corporal Punishment as a Problem in Catholic Theology." [Part 1; Part 2]

Fr. Harrison concludes his article "by offering a few tentative theological conclusions, based on [his] reading of Scripture, Tradition, and the rather confused and even historically inconsistent witness of the Church's (non-infallible) magisterium." His final conclusion is the most controversial:
Thirdly, there remains the question -- nowadays a very practical and much-discussed one -- of torture inflicted not for any of the above purposes ["extracting confessions," "to frighten opponents, or satisfy hatred," "carried out not by public authority in accordance with a norm of law"], but for extracting life-saving information from, say, a captured terrorist known to be participating in an attack that may take thousands of lives (the now-famous 'ticking bomb' scenario).... My understanding would be that, given the present status questionis, the moral legitimacy of torture under the aforesaid desperate circumstances, while certainly not affirmed by the magisterium, remains open at present to legitimate discussion by Catholic theologians.
I find this conclusion to be brain-spraining.

Here is my understanding of Fr. Harrison's understanding of why this one case can be pared off from all the other kinds of torture he states are "intrinsically unjust" (someone should confirm that I've represented his position fairly):

If you compare what the 1984 UN Convention against Torture (of which, for what it's worth, the Holy See is a signatory) and the 1992 Catechism of the Catholic Church say about torture, you will find they offer the following purposes of intentional infliction of severe pain or suffering as constitutive of torture:
UN ConventionCatechism
"obtaining...a confession""extract confessions"
"punishing...for an act he...has committed""punish the guilty"
"intimidating or coercing""frighten opponents"
"any reason based on discrimination""satisfy hatred"

Fr. Harrison suggests that the drafters of the Catechism, "while generally following the Convention's proscriptions, deliberately decided not to do so on [the] particular point" of torture for obtaining information. Because it looks to Fr. Harrison "like a deliberate decision on the part of church authorities, rather than a mere oversight or coincidence," he regards the morality of torture for obtaining information to be an open theological question.

My subjective response to this is that this is precisely the sort of logic chopping that gives Roman Catholic theology a bad name. As much as we might wish it to be otherwise, human language does not -- and cannot -- define a formal system of moral action. Strings of words found in the Catechism do not define reality, they describe it, and all this tweezering about to determine the precise degree of authority and authenticity becomes a mug's game.

It isn't, though, merely an academic game played by theologians. If, as Fr. Harrison suggests, "the moral legitimacy of torture" "for life-saving information" "remains open to legitimate discussion," then guess what! We can torture for life-saving information! Lex dubia non obligat. And from "we can torture" to "we ought to torture" is but a syllogism or two. Pretty quickly, we're to the point where what the Church teaches is, practically speaking, the same as what any fair-minded pagan at leisure would opine.

A more objective response seems to require taking my own axe to Fr. Harrison's logic. Looking again at the comparison between the UN Convention and the Catechism, we can ask whether "intimidating or coercing" and "any reason based on discrimination" really correspond to "frighten opponents" and "satisfy hatred." Isn't it possible to act for a reason based on discrimination that isn't also based on satisfying hatred? Might one not intend to coerce without intending to frighten? And if so, are we to conclude that torturing in these cases "remains open to legitimate discussion"?

I would note also that the argument that torture for information is an open moral issue seems to require, not only the absence of a couple of words in the Catechism, but something very like Fr. Harrison's second tentative moral conclusion: seems that the exclusion of torture (flogging, etc.) as legal punishment can be seen as an appropriate practical implication of the Law of Christ, especially under modern circumstances, even though such punishment is not intrinsically unjust.
The exclusion of torture must be only "an appropriate practical implication of the Law of Christ," or else the list of motives given by the Catechism cannot be taken as normative. If torture to punish the guilty is a matter of balancing "their dignity as human persons" with the duty "to maintain public order and protect innocent citizens," then the Law of Christ functions here as less a law than a rule of thumb.

In short, as Fr. Harrison chops up the words of the Catechism,* both what it says and what it doesn't say are sources of legitimate freedom to torture.

*. And yes, I'm not entirely unaware of the irony of me complaining about someone else chopping up words.



Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Hahn on Opus Dei

In Ordinary Work, Extraordinary Grace: My Spiritual Journey in Opus Dei, Scott Hahn does a good job introducing the spirituality of Opus Dei. I say this as someone who knows basically nothing about Opus Dei spirituality apart from what I've read in this book; my "good job" isn't a judge's approval, but a learner's appreciation.

If you want Scott Hahn's take on what Opus Dei is all about, this is the book for you. More generally, if you want his take on a rich and fruitful spirituality for modern laity, this is the book for you.

That said, let me add a couple of observations.

First, the subtitle may be misleading. This is by no means a spiritual autobiography. There is certainly a personal dimension, in that Hahn is a member of Opus Dei, but the personal story serves more as a framework or a set-up for the theology.

Second, there's a "curious incident of the dog in the night-time" quality to the way he absolutely ignores all controversy involving Opus Dei. Several times as I was reading, I thought, "And now he'll mention and counter the well-known objection." But he doesn't. No doubt he gives no credence to the various controversies, but I don't think ignoring them altogether is the way to go in a popular introduction like this.


A so-zo Savior
Jesus said to him in reply, "What do you want me to do for you?"
The blind man replied to him, "Master, I want to see."
Jesus told him, "Go your way; your faith has saved you."
Immediately he received his sight and followed him on the way.
Instead of being cured, Bartimaeus is saved.

The Greek word translated by the NAB as "saved" appears seven times in the New Testament, each time in the same phrase, "η πιστιζ σον σεσωκεν," "your faith has saved you": Mt 9:22/Mk 5:34/Lk 8:48 (the woman cured of a hemorrhage); Mk 10:52/Lk 18:42 (Bartimaeus); Lk 7:50 (the sinful woman who washed Jesus' feet); Lk 17:19 (the Samaritan leper). It's an inflected form of the verb σωζω, meaning (when applied to people) "to save from death, keep alive, preserve."

It's kind of a curious thing to say to someone who has just been healed of something he or she has suffered from for years. "Healed," "cured," "restored," that sort of thing might be a more natural way to speak of a recovery like that. But "saved" suggests, not just a good obtained, but an evil averted.

Moreover, being saved from suggests at least the possibility of being saved for. Bartimaeus's transition isn't merely from "blind" to "sighted." It's from "blind" to "saved from blindness," which is a lot more than mere sightedness.

And what is Bartimaeus saved for? That's the thing: he doesn't know. All he knows is that he wants to see. He wants to see physically, of course, but he also wants to see whatever it is that Jesus wants to show him. His faith in Jesus isn't just faith in a wonder-worker. It's faith that the way of Jesus is his way.

There's something wonderfully pure in that sort of faith. Like a baptized infant, at the moment of his healing Bartimaeus has faith in Jesus but has not yet applied his faith to any particular thing. He can now see, but he has not yet seen anything, if you will. He is waiting for Jesus to show him what he should see.

Something like this might explain why Jesus says so little in the Gospels about His Kingdom, as it is in itself. In today's Gospel, Jesus gives a couple of those frustratingly (to Western rationalists) inexact parables:
Jesus said, "What is the Kingdom of God like? To what can I compare it? It is like a mustard seed that a man took and planted in the garden. When it was fully grown, it became a large bush and the birds of the sky dwelt in its branches... It is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of wheat flour until the whole batch of dough was leavened."
No doubt, Lord, but please, why not, instead of telling us what the Kingdom is like, simply tell us what it is?

Perhaps part of the answer is that this wouldn't be an invitation to faith in Jesus and His Kingdom, but an invitation to agree that the Kingdom is desirable.

NOTE: As a reminder, I don't know from Greek, but I can plink about on this Greek New Testament website and on Tuft's Perseus website.


Thursday, October 26, 2006

All Saints Vigil Goes National

National Catholic Register, to be precise.

Br. Dominic Legge, OP, quoted in the article, is the one whose vocations interview is featured on the provincial vocations blog.

(Speaking of the province, the newspaper article is incorrect in saying the House of Studies is "the order’s U.S. seminary." Each of the four provinces in the U.S. has its own seminary.)


The Crisis of Agreement

I suspect that the Church in the United States is in the midst of a crisis of faith.

That's not to say the Church elsewhere isn't, or elsewhere wasn't, nor is it to say my suspicions are shocking or extraordinary.

But the nature of the crisis I have in mind isn't that people are rejecting the Faith. It's that people are disagreeing with the Faith.

The Faith is, after all, a matter of faith. Which makes it a matter for faith. My suspicion, to put it more precisely, is that a lot of American Catholics regard the Faith as a matter of opinion -- as, in fact, a matter of any number of discrete opinions held more or less firmly for any number of reasons.

Thus the well-known phenomenon of "dissent," a term that gives away its object. You can't dissent from what I know. You either believe that I had macaroni and cheese for breakfast, or you don't; it's not something you can disagree with.

But I think it's also true of a certain sort of "loyal to the Magisterium" phenomenon, one which treats the statement, "What the Church says is so, is so," not so much as a matter of faith as the major premise of a whole series of dogmatic syllogisms.

The problems with this approach, which winds up expressing the whole of the Faith as a multi-step rational argument, are many. Chief among them is that the Faith is not a multi-step rational argument. This means that attempts to defend the Faith devolve into attempts to defend something that is wrong, and that's always a bad sign. It is unconvincing, often scandalously so, to non-believers, and it leaves believers -- who may, perhaps, more properly be called agree-ers -- susceptible to a sudden loss of faith -- if, again, "faith" is the right word.

Also, it's dumb. Christianity ≠ Christian apologetics, and the sooner Catholics realize this the better. As Daniel Mitsui put it in a comment at open book in a different context, "Worrying about what Protestants will think sucks all the fun out of being Catholic." It's pretty silly to understand yourself in contrast to a movement that understands itself in contrast to you.

This line of thinking suggests that reforming catechesis had better involve more than teaching facts better.


"Better there than here"...

means, "Better them for sure than us maybe."


Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Rich for God

In a comment below, Goodform brought up the parable that was proclaimed on Monday:
"There was a rich man whose land produced a bountiful harvest. He asked himself, 'What shall I do, for I do not have space to store my harvest?'

And he said, 'This is what I shall do: I shall tear down my barns and build larger ones. There I shall store all my grain and other goods and I shall say to myself, "Now as for you, you have so many good things stored up for many years, rest, eat, drink, be merry!"

But God said to him, 'You fool, this night your life will be demanded of you; and the things you have prepared, to whom will they belong?'

Thus will it be for the one who stores up treasure for himself but is not rich in what matters to God."
As Goodform observes of the rich man:
He should have given to God and the poor which is what I thought the "rich towards God" comment meant.
Before Monday, this parable always struck me as particularly harsh. That "Aφρων!," "You fool!," sounded like God was saying, "Oh, yeah? You think you're all that? ZOT! How do you like them apples?"

But vindictiveness is likely just something I was bringing to the reading, not something intended by Jesus. The rich man's life will be demanded of him that night, not in retribution for his selfishness (note how immediately we go from the harvest being the land's to it being the rich man's), but because, well, his number was up. The "fool" wasn't an insult added to injury, but an impassioned statement of truth.

Whether he kept the harvest or gave it away, whether he died that night or after years of merry-making, the material things he prepared didn't belong to him in any enduring sense. Even from a perspective of mere enlightened self-interest, rich men who hoard their wealth are fools.

In the parable, then, God is perhaps saying, "Oh, no! What a pinheaded thing you've done!," rather than, "Ha! What'cha gonna do now, Mr. Smartypants?" Maybe it's not so much God as Judge (much less Executioner), with its adversarial and condemnatory overtones, as God as Honest Appraiser.

UPDATE: Steven Riddle suggests an even more compassionate reading! Note that God speaks to the rich man before his death. Plenty of time for an act of contrition, maybe even some acts of reparation.


Needs and/are wants

A few weeks ago, the blogger at A Journey in Faith wrote about "Praying the right way":
For a long time I only prayed that God would take away all my pain, that he would simply make my crosses disappear because I didn't want them...

But I have come to the realization that GOD gave me those crosses, as strange as it sounds, because he does love me. And even though I have spent my entire life running away from my pain and in turn running away from GOD, I finally realized my crosses are a source of strength... a strength to turn towards GOD and it took me a very long time to come to that.

But most of all I learned to pray the right way... I learned to ask God not for the things I want but for the things I need.
I wanted to comment on this last idea, of praying for needs not wants, but I wasn't sure whether I agreed or disagreed with it.

But hey, I'm Catholic! I can do both/and!

In fact, the Breviary does both/and in Wednesday Morning Prayer for Week I. The reading is from Tobit:
At all times bless the Lord God, and ask him to make all your paths straight and to grant success to all your endeavors and plans.
That's praying for wants. The reading is followed immediately (or, perhaps more properly, after a moment's silence), with the responsory:
Incline my heart according to your will, O God.
That's praying for needs. (More or less.)

If you want the Gospel versions, you can go with, "Ask and you shall receive," and, "Give us this day our daily bread."

To pray for needs not wants is to turn needs into wants. Strictly speaking, you want whatever you pray for, and good Christians don't want what they don't pray for. So a program of praying for what you need rather than what you want produces the result of praying for what you want, which happens to be precisely what you need.

At the same time, though, God wants to give us ridiculous quantities of really good things. Some of these really good things are common or garden natural goods, the sorts of things we might want as individual human persons. As long as we ask with the conditio Jacobaea -- "if the Lord wills it" -- it is right and natural to ask our Father for them.

On the subject of natural goods it is right and natural to ask our Father for, since she wrote the post I linked to above, A Journey in Faith's blogger has been diagnosed with and begun treatment for Hodgkin's disease. Prayers, please, for someone who has already suffered a great deal.


Tuesday, October 24, 2006

If you don't love, you're dead; if you do love, they'll kill you

I mostly read the Commonweal blog in the hopes that Peter Nixon has a new post up. But the comments on a post about a couple of reviews of some piece of idiocy by Richard Dawkins (am I the only one wondering why people would pay to read the theological opinions of Cpl. Newkirk?) turn to a discussion of the late Herbert McCabe, OP.

I've read two of Fr. McCabe's books -- God Matters and The Good Life. (The title of this post is a paraphrase of his statement in, I think, God Matters.) I agree with the commenters at Commonweal who say his writing could stand a wider reading.

Oh, and Colbert's clip of "Cooking With Feminists" is pretty funny, too.


The denouement

Drawing on the last two posts:

Christians today are just as capable as the Jews of Jesus' time of approaching Him with a very poor understanding of the true nature of the relationship He offers.

One of the greatest misunderstandings may be that we can dictate the terms of the relationship. If Jesus sees to it that we succeed at whatever it is we want to do, then we will light five candles. This not only confuses the Covenant with a contract, it confuses the Originator of the Covenant with those invited to join it.

If we can't dictate the terms of the Covenant, though, we can always try to negotiate them. And to negotiate is to renegotiate. Where Christ is my Lord and my God in the morning, He is my friend in the afternoon and an absentee landlord by nightfall.

All these changes, all this confusion, is of course entirely on the part of those who approach Jesus. He Himself is unchanging. He knows what's best for us and won't be talked out of it.

As I wrote, there's no such thing as "a little divinity." If we approach Jesus, we don't get a little God. We get all of God, all three Persons, and God and imperfection cannot co-exist. We wind up with either all of God, or none of Him.

We can't ask God to be God the All Powerful in our lives without His being God the All Holy in our lives --

I was going to write, "It's a package deal," but maybe we can go beyond such a clumsy image of a composite God. It's not that God's power and His holiness are inseparable as a practical matter, it's that they are the same. God's power is His holiness. In fact, God's power is God.

And if we don't much understand that -- on a good day, I can kind of convince myself I have some idea of what the words mean -- we might at least be able to agree that the words express some mysterious truth.

We might even begin to see how such words that express such mysterious truths are not utterly beyond any contact with practical Christian living. It is God's simplicity that makes appealing to Jesus as a merely human judge, or even a merely divine wonderworker, a losing proposition in the long run.


A couple of quick ones

I like T.S. O'Rama's idea of the Church providing the body language of God's revelation in Scripture.

I also like Steven Riddle's idea that many of us, much of the time, would sooner mingle a little wine of divinity in our water of humanity than the other way around.

Of course, there's no such thing as "a little divinity."

That said, I don't have anything to add now about the mysterious way we participate in divinity, except that we don't "abandon our humanity" to do it.


Monday, October 23, 2006

You do not know what you are asking

Today's Gospel reading is, if you will, vintage Jesus:
Someone in the crowd said to Jesus, "Teacher, tell my brother to share the inheritance with me."
He replied to him, "Friend, who appointed me as your judge and arbitrator?"
Then he said to the crowd, "Take care to guard against all greed, for though one may be rich, one’s life does not consist of possessions."
Someone comes to Jesus, wanting something -- or not something, but some fleeting, insignificant little nothing. They think Jesus can get it for them, because He's a can-do sort of man.

Jesus meets them right where they are: "Friend." (Douay-Rheims: "Man.") If this fellow wants to presume some sort of special relationship with Jesus, He's more than happy to reflect that relationship right back -- and to challenge his understanding! "Why do you think I'm some circuit court judge?"

But His question isn't simply rhetorical. Jesus is, in fact, Judge and Arbitrator, and He was appointed by His Father. His challenge isn't so much to reject a false understanding of Who He Is as to complete and fulfill the fuzzy impression of Him as one possessing authority.

Then He goes on to do something remarkable: He does exactly what the man asks Him to do. The man may not have realized it, and perhaps more importantly his brother may not have realized it, but Jesus' words, "Take care to guard against all greed," are not a high-minded piety, they are a warning from the Just Judge to everyone who will come before Him for judgment.

It would do little good for Jesus to render a particular judgment in the case of the two brothers, when His authority is thought to be merely human. How would they resolve the next day's dispute, when the teacher had gone on to the next town? Instead, He points out the law by which they are to live, that day and forever. Note that, even if one brother is wholly in the wrong in the matter of the inheritance, Jesus' words do not allow the other much satisfaction, as he might have if Jesus settled the case in his favor.


Friday, October 20, 2006


The vocations blog for the Dominican Province of St. Joseph is afire these days, and not only with vocation news.

Recent talks at the Dominican House of Studies in Washington, DC, are also being posted. New additions are:This last was the first in a new series of talks to be presented at the House of Studies called, "In the Image of God, the Human Condition Today." I've seen the list of talks (though I can't find a copy online), and it's going to be a great series.

Coming up:
  • October 31: The Vigil of All Saints. Readings, Night Prayer, Reliquary Procession, the Litany of the Saints, with a reception and the opportunity for confession. Starts at 7:00 p.m., but if you go, arrive early or plan on standing
  • November 11: Solemn Profession of four brothers: Joseph Pius Pietrzyk, OP; Kevin Hugh Vincent Dyer, OP; Slavador John Martin Ruiz-Mayorga, OP; and John Gregory Schnakenberg, OP.
  • November 12: St. Albert the Great Lecture. Dr. Maiju Lehmijoki-Gardner of the University of Helsinki, will talk on "Practical Mystics -- Catherine of Siena and Her Circle of Dominican Lay Women"
In other good Dominican news, six novices recently entered the Collaborative Dominican Novitiate, which helps form members of a number of Congregations of Dominican Sisters.

Update: Another video post on the Vocations website: Brother Dominic Legge, OP, on his vocation, the Order, the Eucharist, Mary, and more.


Why did my wife have a headache by the time dinner was over?

What kind of street is most likely to be haunted?

A boolevard.

What happened to the journalism professor who was bitten by a lycanthrope?

He turned into a who-what-when-and-werewolf.

What happened to the geography professor who was bitten by a lycanthrope?

He turned into a herewolf.

What happened to the philosophy professor who was bitten by a lycanthrope?

He turned into a whywolf.

What kind of monsters are young flies most afraid of?


Why do vampires hate chickens?

Because they always cross the road.


Thursday, October 19, 2006

The Ten Commandments Aren't Multiple Choice

I may have seen it pointed out before, but notice the commandments Jesus mentions to the rich young man, who affirms that he has observed them from his youth: You shall not commit adultery; you shall not kill; you shall not steal; you shall not bear false witness; honor your father and your mother; you shall not defraud (Mark only); you shall love your neighbor as yourself (Matthew only).

Notice the ones missing?

Yes, numbers nine and ten, too, but I'm thinking in particular of the first three, which can be summed up as, "You shall love the LORD, your God, with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength."

Surely to get rid of everything that prevents you from following Christ is to love the LORD, your God.

Can we then read this passage as signifying a dialog between a Christian and Christ, in which the Christian asks if his love of neighbor is sufficient, and Christ calls him to a more perfect love of God? A reminder, perhaps, that we mustn't spend so much effort keeping the practical commandments that we overlook the impractical ones?


Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Retelling the tale

The rich young man of the synoptic Gospels is an intriguing figure. Matthew's and Luke's parallel accounts lack a couple of notable details Mark's Gospel includes: that the man ran up and knelt down before Jesus as He was setting out on a journey; and that, when he told Jesus he had observed the commandments from his youth, "Jesus, looking at him, loved him."

Some Church Fathers take the kneeling and the "good teacher" business as attempts at flattery, corrected by Jesus' answer, "Why do you call Me good?" I wonder, though, whether Jesus would look on someone who was trying to butter Him up, or even brag about his good works, and love him.

One way to understand this may be through comparing the young man with the Pharisees mentioned earlier in the chapter:

The Pharisees approached and asked, "Is it lawful for a husband to divorce his wife?" They were testing him.
He said to them in reply, "What did Moses command you?"
They replied, "Moses permitted him to write a bill of divorce and dismiss her."
But Jesus told them, "Because of the hardness of your hearts he wrote you this commandment..."
   As he was setting out on a journey, a man ran up, knelt down before him, and asked him, "Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?"
Jesus answered him, "Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. You know the commandments: 'You shall not kill; you shall not commit adultery; you shall not steal; you shall not bear false witness; you shall not defraud; honor your father and your mother.'"
He replied and said to him, "Teacher, all of these I have observed from my youth."
Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said to him, "You are lacking in one thing..."

Contrasted with the Pharisees, the young man comes off looking pretty good.

Let me propose this as a non-canonical interpretation, riffing off St. Bede's suggestion that it was a desire for a clear explanation of Jesus' teaching that the Kingdom of God belongs to the childlike that caused the young man to run to Jesus in such haste:

We have in the young man an upright Jew. He has, in fact, observed all the commandments from his youth, and so expects that he will rise, in the resurrection on the last day.

But then he hears Jesus preach as one having authority and not like the scribes. He begins to have doubts about what he has learned from the scribes. Jesus amends the Mosaic Law; He says whoever does not accept the kingdom of God like a child will not enter it.

What do Jesus' teachings mean for the young man? To this point, his conscience has found nothing to convict him of, but now he's not so sure he isn't missing something big, something essential.

His haste, his kneeling, show that he has determined to accept Jesus' spiritual direction. And Jesus, looking on him, sees that he is an upright man lacking only one thing, a thing the scribes would not have suggested.

The young man, then, in this telling, wasn't looking for praise or reassurance. He wanted Jesus to tell him what to do; he had faith enough in Him to believe Jesus would know.

But he did not, as he knelt in the road, have faith enough in Jesus to accept what Jesus would ask of him. Jesus went beyond the Law and made it personal: "Come, follow Me."

But the man was not looking to follow a Person, he was looking to follow a precept. He was ready to accept Jesus' word, but not to accept Jesus as the Word.

So first Jesus softens him up: "No one is good but God alone." This recalls his words to the mother of James and John, "You do not know what you are asking."

But when He lowers the boom, the man is caught unprepared. All the Gospel accounts explain it in terms of his many possessions, and of course Jesus goes on to talk of camels and needles. But perhaps in addition to, or alongside, or beneath, the lesson of wealth is a lesson of faith: If you believe Jesus is Who He is, then you will give up everything and follow Him. If not, not.


Tuesday, October 17, 2006

For David

And for the puzzled or curious, see here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.


The Church is a mystery, not a membership

In reading various responses to Rod Dreher's announcement last week, I've noticed what I think are two views of the Church current among American Roman Catholics.

The first, which I'll call "denominationalism," is something like this: Sure, the Catholic Church has the fullness of truth, etc. But its function is to bring people close to Christ, and if they can get closer to Christ in another Christian denomination, more power to them.

The second, call it "anti-denominationalism," though it may just be an expression of triumphalism, sees the Church's possession of the fullness of truth as a doctrine that expresses the Church's superiority to other Christian bodies.

Both views insist on the uniqueness of the Catholic Church, but they incorrectly interpret this uniqueness in terms of the multiplicity of Christian churches, creeds, sects, and denominations.

What is missing is the practical awareness that the Church is a mystery. In the first chapter of Lumen Gentium, titled "The Mystery of the Church," the Church is called "the kingdom of Christ now present in mystery." The Catechism, in its treatment of the statement, "I believe in the Holy Catholic Church," has a subsection likewise called "The Mystery of the Church," in which it says:
The Church's first purpose is to be the sacrament of the inner union of men with God. Because men's communion with one another is rooted in that union with God, the Church is also the sacrament of the unity of the human race.
I think it's common to separate this thing called "the Church" that is the sacrament of unity with God and mankind from that other thing called "the Church" that is the Christian body comprising those in union with the Bishop of Rome. If the Church-that-is-a-mystery is, for practical purposes, imperceptible, then a whole host of questions lose their awkwardness and discomfort.

But that isn't what the Church teaches. The Church is "the visible plan of God's love for humanity," and she can't be visible if she is a collection of individuals whose membership in her is known to God alone.

The Catholic Church is not the pre-eminent, or most correct, or only correct, or even one true Christian denomination. The Church is not a denomination at all, and to understand her in those terms is to misunderstand her.

I might add that of course "anti-denominationalists" don't think the Church is a Christian denomination. But to the extent that they express what the Church is in terms of her not being a denomination, they are making a mistake.


Monday, October 16, 2006

Torture roundup

I've been asked to compose a post that links to what I've written on this blog about torture.

My first post on this seems to have appeared on April 3, 2003.
Some committed Catholics have, in recent weeks, expressed the opinion that torture is acceptable under certain circumstances....
You see how far we've come.

Fourteen months later, I returned to the topic with a series of posts, beginning with Abortion for social conservatives: "Let's keep torture safe, legal, and rare.", and continuing withThen, in late November 2004, came this series on an article by Linda Chavez: In January 2005:In November 2005, I went after Linda Chavez again:If they don't float, they're not witches.

In March 2006, I find Essay or multiple choice.

Which brings us to the latest go-round:So there you have it.




Thursday, October 12, 2006

What's so glorious about Pentecost?

Notice something about the Five Glorious Mysteries?
  1. Jesus rises from the dead.
  2. Jesus ascends into heaven.
  3. The Holy Spirit descends at Pentecost.
  4. Mary is assumed into heaven.
  5. Mary is crowned Queen of Heaven and Earth.
You'll have to work with me on that last one, that a coronation is a sort of raising up to a throne. But Pentecost is the only one of these that involves a downward movement, from higher to lower, away from the Throne of Glory.

"Glory" is one of those slippery concepts; St. Augustine's formula, "brilliant celebrity with praise," contains the keynotes of brightness (and hence evident and attractive) and of praise (the proper response to glory, so much so that the response of praise is also called "glory").

Pentecost is certainly something worth praising, but what makes it brilliant? Not merely the tongues of light (if it were just that, it might better be a luminous mystery). It wasn't just that the Holy Spirit descended, the way your aged relative who sucks all the air out of the room does, but that He descended upon the disciples. The disciples themselves are what became brilliant, attractive evidence of God's praiseworthiness.

And how did they become this way? Is it, we might even ask, a way that we may follow today? 1 Peter 4:10-11 might be relevant:
As each one has received a gift, use it to serve one another as good stewards of God's varied grace. Whoever preaches, let it be with the words of God; whoever serves, let it be with the strength that God supplies, so that in all things God may be glorified through Jesus Christ, to whom belong glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen.
"Gift," as we all know, is the proper name of the Holy Spirit, and the charisms He gives to each of us are given, not for our own sake, not even for the sake of the Church, but to be used to build up the Church so that God may be glorified through Jesus Christ.

Had the Holy Spirit led the disciples out into the desert for a time of fasting and prayer, Pentecost would not have been glorious. Instead, He made the disciples, St. Peter foremost, shine before the crowds in Jerusalem, testifying to Jesus, to the glory of God the Father.


Another crack at coercion

Having read the comments on my post below and given it some more thought, let me propose this way of categorizing coercion:
  • Acts ordered toward getting another person to desire something
    • Persuasion: operates in a way that cooperates with the person's inclinations
      • Argument: operates by proposing a reasonable re-evaluation of the competing desires
      • Bribery: operates by introducing positive, otherwise unrelated consequences of desiring the thing
      • Etc.
    • Coercion: operates in a way that conflicts with the person's inclinations
      • Coerceion of the intellect: operates by introducing negative, otherwise unrelated consequences of not desiring the thing
        • Moral coercion of the intellect: operates by introducing only those consequences the actor has the right and authority to introduce
        • Immoral coercion of the intellect: operates by introducing consequences the actor lacks the right or authority to introduce
      • Coercion of the will: operates by interfering with the operation of and relationship between the person's intellect and will
        • Brainwashing: operates by suppressing the operation of the person's intellect
        • Breaking the will: operates by suppressing the operation of the person's will
    • Etc.
The live question, as I see it, is distinguishing between what I've called "moral coercion of the intellect" and "immoral coercion of the inellect." (All coercion of the will is immoral, and persuasion is a different discussion.)

Before the above is dismissed as simply pushing the problem off to deciding what rights and authority the actor has, let me suggest that this is exactly what we want to do. The difference between moral and immoral coercion has to lie in something added to the generic notion of coercion; my thought is to add the rights and authority of the actor. That he is acting to get another person to desire something in a way that conflicts with the person's inclinations is no longer the focus. Rather, that becomes the intent of the act, and we can focus on the object purely in terms of his right to act and his authority over the other person. If he lacks the right or authority to perform the act, then it is immoral. If not, then intent and circumstances will determine its morality.


Wednesday, October 11, 2006


Praise ye the Lord in his holy places: praise ye him in the firmament of his power.
Praise ye him for his mighty acts: praise ye him according to the multitude of his greatness.
Praise him with sound of trumpet: praise him with psaltery and harp.
Praise him with timbrel and choir: praise him with strings and organs.
Praise him on high sounding cymbals: praise him on cymbals of joy:
Let every spirit praise the Lord.


What is coercion, anyway?

I speculate:

The human will is our rational appetite. It's the thing in us by which we act to get things.

The things we act to get are determined by our intellect. We apprehend things as good, as desirable, under different aspects; sleeping in and getting up, for example, are both desirable, but (for me at least) for quite different reasons. Our intellect chooses between these goods, then hands off the winning good to the will, which then sets about trying to obtain it.

This is all [my crude understanding of] standard scholastic anthropology.

Let me propose this definition of coercion: Coercion is an act whose object is to force the will to desire something the intellect does not propose to the will. (If you prefer your definitions with genera, you can add "belonging to the genus of acts that violate the integrity of the human person.")

What I like about this definition is that it doesn't include acts whose object is to cause the will to desire something the will wouldn't otherwise desire. There has been talk about how imprisonment is coercion, since the prisoner doesn't will to be imprisoned, and how aiming a gun at a criminal and telling him to freeze is a form of coercion.

I see those acts, however, as changing the circumstances according to which the intellect reaches its judgment. The criminal still apprehends not freezing as desirable, but he now also apprehends the good of not being shot.

What concerns me about this proposed definition of coercion is that it might not prove all that useful. The sorts of acts under discussion may not include many that have as their object the substitution of the coercer's will for the coerced's will. And of course, it leaves untouched the question of the morality of changing the circumstances according to which the intellect reaches its judgment.

Still, something like this might unstick one wheel on the, ah, wagon train of public discourse on the moral treatment of prisoners.


Tuesday, October 10, 2006

What is torture, anyway?

In a comment below, doubting thomas invites me to offer an Aristotelian definition -- the genus and the species -- of torture.

Anyone who reads Catholic and Enjoying It! knows that the question of defining torture is not a simple one. I haven't tried to answer it myself, for a few reasons.

For one, as soon as a definition is offered, the discussion becomes one of the adequacy of the offered definition. It becomes, in other words, a linguistic exercise rather than a moral one.

For another, there seem to be a lot of people eager to apply this invalid syllogism: "Act X is not torture. Torture is not moral. Therefore, act X is moral." I think we're better off working through this fallacy as it stands before looking at whether the first premise is true. The fundamental moral principle is not, "Do good and avoid torture," it's, "Do good and avoid evil."

Nevertheless, being asked to come up with the general kind of thing torture is and the specific difference between torture and other acts that are the same general kind of thing seemed reasonable. So I took that statement from Gaudium et Spes 27:
Furthermore, whatever is opposed to life itself, such as any type of murder, genocide, abortion, euthanasia or willful self-destruction, whatever violates the integrity of the human person, such as mutilation, torments inflicted on body or mind, attempts to coerce the will itself; whatever insults human dignity, such as subhuman living conditions, arbitrary imprisonment, deportation, slavery, prostitution, the selling of women and children; as well as disgraceful working conditions, where men are treated as mere tools for profit, rather than as free and responsible persons; all these things and others of their like are infamies indeed. [emphasis added]
And proposed this definition of torture:
Torture is an act belonging to the genus of acts that violate the integrity of the human person; its specific difference is that its object is to inflict torments on body or mind.
What surprised me with this is that, though I left off the "attempts to coerce the will itself" bit, I don't really miss it.

Just recently, I'd begun to think of torture as being of two types: one that causes pain, and one that attacks the free will. Now, though -- and coming from the position that the debate in the public square should be, not "What acts are torture?," but, "What acts are moral?" -- I think it might be possible to get somewhere with the above definition, and set aside for a time consideration of the act belonging to the genus of acts that violate the integrity of the human person, the specific difference of which is that its object is to coerce the will itself.