instruere...inlustrare...delectare Disputations

Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Ribands of blue

Our text today comes from the First Book of Kings. (That would be B.B.'s lyrics. Albert's compose the Second Book, Freddie's the Third.)

We begin on the tonic with:
Nobody loves me...
In three words, all the longing and fear of the human heart is captured. The happiness that we seek as our final end is a matter of love. To find someone who, on finding us, loves us. There can be no greater loneliness than to be unloved, and man is by nature social, even as is the Godhead in Whose image man is created.

Yet this lyric is not one of complete despair:
...but my mother
A mother means you belong somewhere, belong to someone. And though the literal sense here is of a biological mother, we can appropriate the allegorical sense in which the mother is the Blessed Mother, or equivalently Holy Mother Church. Read this way, the lyric is the plaint of the martyr, of the one alone in a society whose only support is spiritual.

The text, however, continues:
And she could be jiving too
With this, the despair overwhelms. The thought of being so unlovable even your own mother can only pretend to love you, that is soul-crushing.

It does, of course, echo Isaiah 49:15:
Can a mother forget her infant, be without tenderness for the child of her womb? Even should she forget, I will never forget you.
But is this message of hope really available to one who doubts his own mother's love for him? For some, the objective fact that God loves them is like a nut inside a shell they lack the strength to crack. In these cases, repetition will not help; it might even hurt, perhaps driving the one who despairs to think, "Since I cannot see the truth of what you say for myself, it must not be true of myself."

And indeed, the verse concludes:
Now you see why I act so funny, baby,
When you do the things you do.
Again, the literal sense of a romantic relationship expresses a spiritual truth: those among us who feel unloved, perhaps even unlovable, will act funny when we do things that presume they do not feel that way. Our repeating our own actions more emphatically won't help, any more than speaking slowly and loudly to someone who doesn't understand your language helps.


It's never too early...

to start thinking about Lent!

Okay, it is. It's not even February, for crying out loud.

Nevertheless, the USCCB website has a lot of good resources already set up: on the Creed, the Sacraments, morality, and prayer. There's nothing particularly reserved to Lent about those things. (And only some of the links take you to a USCCB Publishing order form.)


Tuesday, January 30, 2007

The light is on for you

The associate pastor parochial vicar of my parish had holy cards printed for his ordination last May that concluded, "Open for Confession 24/7."

While I have no doubt of his commitment to the Sacrament -- not least because he mentions it again and again in his homilies -- I would be surprised to learn that many parishioners take him up on that offer. Surely only a tiny fraction of American Catholics would ever call to make an appointment for Confession, and I'd guess most of those would be Catholics who have been away from the Church for a while.

The rest of us make do with the parish's regular hours for Confession, perhaps the annual parish penance service -- or perhaps we make do without the Sacrament altogether.

The typical American parish seems to offer the Sacrament of Reconciliation for one hour each Saturday afternoon. There's not much original to say about the inadequacies of this system, so I'll settle for this: Between the time I get off work on Friday and the time I start work on Monday, it would be hard to pick a consistently less convenient hour for me to go to church than late Saturday afternoon.

Of course, convenience is a pretty light counterweight to forgiveness of sins, objectively speaking. But however we might speak, most of us live practically, and if it's a practical nuisance to break off what you're doing to go confess some venial sins that, objectively speaking, will be forgiven the next time you bless yourself with holy water, it's unlikely that the custom of regular confession will take hold any time soon.

For that matter, the more it does, the more inconvenient it will be as the lines get longer. (As it is, it seems to me there are usually enough penitents to fill the hour.) In this way, the demand for Confession might increase the supply of regular hours -- if, that is, the current supply doesn't cut off the demand before it grows enough to increase the supply.

All of which is why I am happy to see, in Archbishop Wuerl's pastoral letter on the Sacrament of Penance, the following:
...during this Lenten season, beginning with the Wednesday of the first week of Lent until the Wednesday of Holy Week, priests will be available in every church throughout the Archdiocese from 7:00 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. in order to hear confessions. The name given to this pastoral initiative is "The Light Is On For You," highlighting that the light will be on churches throughout the Archdiocese as a beacon of hope, reconciliation, and absolution.
I am, perhaps, too optimistic, but I hope the people of the Archdiocese of Washington prove equal to this initiative, and meet the increased supply with enough demand that it become a new custom. If in each deanery, there were one church where confession was available from 7 to 8:30 one night every week -- the church could rotate, and the schedule become a common part of every parish bulletin -- who knows but that we might become an archdiocese habitually made new and restored to the fullness of union with God and each other.


Monday, January 29, 2007

Archbishop Wuerl's first pastoral letter

His first as archbishop, that is.

"God's Mercy and the Sacrament of Penance" is now on-line. From the introduction:
My invitation to every Catholic in this Archdiocese is to join in a Lenten spiritual journey to celebrate the sacrament of Reconciliation or, as we have traditionally said, "go to Confession," preferably during the season of Lent.


Support vocations and youth programs in the Washington Archdiocese

On Sunday, April 15, 2007, the Washington Wizards will play the Chicago Bulls at the Verizon Center in Washington, D.C.

Following that game, four teams from the Archdiocese of Washington will play for the championship. The teams are DC 'Hood (composed of priests and seminarians); the CYO coaches; and the 11th and 12th grade co-ed CYO all-stars. The winner of the old people's game will play the winner of the young people's game.

The event will raise money for the Catholic Youth Organization / Office of Youth Ministry, as well as raise awareness of vocations to the priesthood and religious life.

Tickets are $85 for the lower level, $35 for upper level A, and $25 for upper level B. (Yeah, I know. Is it my fault the Wizards are having a good season?)

For more information, see this link; call Bill Anderson (Wizards sales manager) at 202-628-3200 ext. 3855; or call Deacon Mike Bond (CYO/OYM) at 202-281-2465.


Friday, January 26, 2007

Fr. Byrne's homily at the Youth Mass for Life

Many bloggers who attended the Youth Mass for Life this past Monday at the Verizon Center in Washington, DC, commented in particular about what a great homily they heard. Now you can hear it, too.


We can but hope

So will this book make the rounds of St. Blog's reviewers?


Fr. Ratzinger on lost zeal

Coincidentally, a post at Whispers in the Loggia links to a selection from a 1964 sermon by then-Fr. Joseph Ratzinger that relates to my post below:
Anyone who looks on the loss of salvation for others as the condition, as it were, on which he serves Christ will in the end only be able to turn away grumbling, because that kind of reward is contrary to the loving-kindness of God.
Fr. Ratzinger had in mind the grumblers who resent sharing salvation with non-Catholics. But what about the sluggards who are delighted by the thought, because of all that evangelization work it saves them?


Thursday, January 25, 2007

The zeal of Thy house

In reading the 95-year old Everyday Apostles, I was struck by how... I don't know, churchy it was. For Fr. Garesché, being Catholic was not merely a matter of faith, but of being an active member of the Catholic Church, understood in a brick-and-mortar sense perhaps as much as a spiritual sense. The apostleships he wrote of weren't for a moment Christian in any generic sense; they were Catholic apostleships, through and through.

As I read, I thought that a possible sub-title for the book would be, "You Might Be The Only Baltimore Catechism Another Person Reads." Even apart from the anachronisms of always defending your pastor and bishop and of the value of reading "the Catholic papers," it's simply not a style Catholics write in these days, unless they're consciously imitating it for reasons of nostalgia or parody.

It wasn't at all triumphalistic, though. There was nothing about Catholics being better than Protestants. The one passage I remember that dealt directly with such a comparison allowed that there were plenty of Protestants who were better than large numbers of Catholics; the lesson Fr. Garesché drew from this was, just think how much better they'd be if they had the sacraments to buck them up! (That may strike some Protestants today as triumphalistic enough, but that would just show how far Catholic style has come in the last hundred years.)

I suppose I'd say the attitude Fr. Garesché expresses regarding the Catholic Church is a confidence that she possesses the fullness of truth and that everyone is better off if they, too, possess it. In a word, that would be "zeal," specifically the zeal for souls that says, "I have something very good, and I really want others to have it, too."

I think Catholics nowadays would be generally embarrassed by that attitude. Some seem to prefer saying, "I have something very good, and I really want others to have their noses rubbed in it," others, "I have something very good, and others have their own very good things, or at least things that are good enough," still others, "I have something that's not so hot."

It's as though we can't find any ground between, "Non-Roman Catholics are damned, so we need to convert everyone," and, "Non-Roman Catholics aren't necessarily damned, so we don't need to convert anyone."

Several times, Fr. Garesché used examples from business: you wouldn't let a friend invest in what you knew to be a scam; why would you let him store up his treasure in the paltry things of this world? This lack of zeal for souls is like saying, "My friend could make a great deal more money if he invested in this business, but he's probably already making enough money, so I won't bother him about it." Do pagans do as little?


Wednesday, January 24, 2007

There is still time get the ingredients you need for your Burns Supper tomorrow night.

Or your Conversion of St. Paul Supper. Whichever.


Unintentional impressions

I am bemused by the bemusement surrounding the Catherine of Siena Institute and its new blog. The bloggers at Intentional Disciples can't understand why some people think they're arguing for the Protestantization of the Church. Bloggers elsewhere can't understand their argument as anything but the Protestantization of the Church.

I'd say the fundamental difficulty can be expressed in two words: "Intentional Disciples."

I'm pretty sure the bloggers at Intentional Disciples use the term in a generic sense -- you're a disciple if you follow Jesus, you're intentional if you do it with awareness. But it's easy to infer that they're using it in a specific sense -- you're an Intentional Disciple™ if you've attended the Intentional Disciple Training Course™ taught by a Certified Intentional Disciple Trainer®.

Other things contribute to the miscommunication. Things like measuring the success of a parish activity and taking an inventory of your personal charisms really are more commonly associated with evangelical Protestantism than with Catholicism (setting aside the question of whether they ought to be). And at least some skeptics betray their own Calvinistic tendencies in judging the Institute based on a handful of the organizations its website links to.

But even I, marginally familiar with the Institute's mission and supportive of it to the extent of my familiarity, have a hard time seeing the term "intentional disciple" over and over without visions of a display case in a Christian bookstore holding Intentional Discipleship for Teens! books, Intentional Disciples page-a-day calendars, and little gold-plated dogtags stamped "I.D." to go on your "W.W.J.D." charm bracelet.

All of which goes to show that, if nothing else, the Institute is correct that Catholics don't usually talk about the things the Institute talks about.


Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Maybe it's just news on your television

Here's one for the theologians: Can you turn on the radio and hear "God Trying to Get Your Attention" without it being God trying to get your attention?


Dominican Friars for Life

See an eighteen-minute video on the experiences of Dominicans at the 2007 March for Life, including student brothers, friars in parish work and campus ministry, students at Dominican schools, Nashville sisters, even a Franciscan deacon! Also, the singing of the Dominican Salve Regina in front of the Supreme Court.


Monday, January 22, 2007

Little-a apostles

"Are all apostles?," St. Paul asked the Corinthians, and the answer, of course, is no, not in the big-A Apostle sense of being sent by God on a particular mission to carry the Gospel to an area of the world that has not yet heard of Jesus.

But every Christian is called to be a little-a apostle, so to speak, to carry the Gospel to areas of their own little worlds of family, friends, and associates. Everyday Apostles: Commonsense Ways to Draw Others to Christ is a book about this sort of everyday apostleship, a Sophia Press reprint of a 1912 book by Fr. Edward F. Garesché, SJ.

The book contains eleven brief chapters covering different but interrelated apostleships:
  1. The Apostleship of the Common Man: Most of us will never work mighty deeds for the Faith, but we can bring Christ in countless ordinary ways.
  2. The Apostleship of Speech: Be ready to give reason for the hope within you. If your friend has a question, is he going to call up a priest or is he going to ask you?
  3. The Apostleship of Service: You aren't prepared to answer the need that lies before you? So you aren't prepared. Answer it.
  4. The Apostleship of Home: If you can't live your faith in front of your children, why would they live the Faith?
  5. The Apostleship of Encouragement: Don't fail to encourage people who need encouragement.
  6. The Apostleship of Praise: Praise virtue, and others might come to value it.
  7. The Apostleship of Speech in Business: Refrain from evil speech at work, and people might notice.
  8. The Apostleship of Character: "Put on a Catholic face," which is to say, live with a Catholic spirit so that you put a human face on Catholicism.
  9. The Apostleship of Counsel: You wouldn't let a friend invest in a losing stock. Will you let him invest in a losing worldview?
  10. The Apostleship of Charity: The poor you will always have with you, so the opportunity to help them you will always have, too.
  11. The Apostleship of Consistency: Imagine what effect just one non-hypocritical Catholic might have on the world.
Some of this amounts to pointing out the beneficial effects on others of simply doing what you ought to and not doing what you ought not do.

But a lot of it also requires a conscious decision or commitment to add to what is required of you. And a number of these apostleships -- Speech and Counsel in particular, I'd say -- are just the things in practice that give apostleship a bad name.

The artlessness with which counsel is so often offered is enough to put a body off counsel altogether. But of course, the problem isn't with counsel, it's with artlessness. We can overcome artlessness with preparation, and the best preparation is prayer.

Who doesn't think it would be nice to lead others to Christ? Well, whoever thinks that but doesn't pray for the gifts to actually do it is just daydreaming.

NOTE: I bought Everyday Apostles when I heard about the financial problems Sophia Institute Press is having. It has some excellent books in its catalog, and it would be a real shame if some of those old classics were to go out of print again. You might consider taking a look at their books and, if the spirit moves you, placing an order yourself.


The Perpetual Rosary Association

What a great idea! You can join in the apostolate of prayer of the Summit Dominicans by committing to spend one hour a month praying the Rosary.

Yes, it's an hour all at once, on the same day each month. Nobody said spiritual benefits come easy.


Friday, January 19, 2007

Curling heresies, pt. iii

Now it gets fun.
3. It is not possible that another team won more head-to-head matches than Bob's team.
If Bob's team won the round-robin tournament, then this statement is true. If you want to get picky about tie-breaking procedures, we can stipulate that the tie-breaking procedures used in the tournament were such that no team could win the most head-to-head matches without also winning the tournament.

So what might Alice believe about Statement #3? It might help to consider #3 together with its opposite:
4. It is possible that another team won more head-to-head matches than Bob's team.
As I say,
(#1 is true) => (#3 is true)
(#1 is true) => (#4 is false)
But these implications are both objective, or logical, or factual. The question is whether these logical implications imply
(belief that #1 is true) => (belief that #3 is true)
(belief that #1 is true) => (belief that #4 is false)
My contention is that they do not.

Wait, I'll go further: My contention is that the contention that they do not is not contentious. It's the common experience of humanity. Anyone who has ever mistaken someone on the street for someone else, anyone who has ever added a column of numbers incorrectly, has held contradictory beliefs ("beliefs" used here in the broad sense of things you assert through knowledge, faith, or opinion).

To hold contradictory beliefs is not itself contradictory, at least not necessarily. Given the three bases by which I might assert something -- knowledge, faith, and opinion -- the only combination of contradictory assertions I cannot make is of two things I know (since what I know is necessarily true and truths cannot contradict each other). Since what I assert by faith and what I assert by opinion is not necessarily true, I am not necessarily doing anything impossible in asserting something by faith or opinion that is objectively contradictory to something else I assert.

It might help to point out the distinction I'm implying with the term "objectively contradictory." I can assert two contradictory things, but only if I don't think they're contradictory. If I know, believe by faith, or opine that they are contradictory, I cannot rationally assert them both.

Next step is to actually try to answer the question of what Alice might believe about Statement #3.


Thursday, January 18, 2007

More on memorizing Scripture

Coincidentally, I heard this one the other day.

Seems there was a fellow who ran a country store down in Mississippi, and he never rang up a customer but he quoted some appropriate verse from the Holy Book. The boys at the back of the store playing dominoes were always interested in what verse he'd choose.

One day, a little girl came in to buy a nickel's worth of candy. As she left, the owner said, "'Suffer little children, and forbid them not, to come unto me.'"

Then a man came in looking for a birthday present for his father. After he selected something and paid for it, the store owner said, "'Honor thy father and thy mother.'"

The a big pick-up, hauling a bigger horse trailer, pulled up outside. The driver came into the store and said, "I'm headed to a horse show, and I just realized I forgot to bring a horse blanket. Do you have any?"

The owner went into the back room and brought out a black horse blanket. "This is five dollars."

The other man bristled. "I am not about to put a five dollar blanket on my show horse. Don't you have anything better?"

The owner looked again, but all he had was the same blanket in different colors. "I got a red one for ten dollars," he called to the front of the store.

"If that's the best you've got, I'll take my chances on finding another store before I get to the show."

"How about this green blanket for fifty dollars?"


So the store owner sold the man a five dollar horse blanket for fifty dollars, and it's hard to say who was happier about the transaction. As the pick-up pulled away, the boys playing dominoes sat in silence, waiting to see what Scripture quote was coming.

"'I was a stranger,'" the store owner said after a long pause, "'and ye took me in.'"


Wednesday, January 17, 2007

I thought for sure it would be the ski team

A proud day for U.S. curling. Food for thought for some other sports.


Our daily waybread

On Intentional Disciples, Fr. Mike, O.P., continues his series of posts on spiritual disciplines by writing about Scriptural memorization. (Previous disciplines are solitude and silence and fasting (a Dominican friar who hates to fast; imagine that).)

Coincidentally, just last week I came across St. Thomas' one-paragraph treatment on the art of memory, written in response to the objection that memory can't be a part of prudence because memory is natural and prudence is acquired. (Ever notice how context doesn't always help when you're quoting the Summa?):
There are four things whereby a man perfects his memory.
  • First, when a man wishes to remember a thing, he should take some suitable yet somewhat unwonted illustration of it, since the unwonted strikes us more, and so makes a greater and stronger impression on the mind....
  • Secondly, whatever a man wishes to retain in his memory he must carefully consider and set in order, so that he may pass easily from one memory to another...
  • Thirdly, we must be anxious and earnest about the things we wish to remember, because the more a thing is impressed on the mind, the less it is liable to slip out of it...
  • Fourthly, we should often reflect on the things we wish to remember.
St. Thomas doesn't refer directly to rote memorization (and by the way, when did "rote" become a four-letter word?), though his last two points essentially cover it.

What I have found works well is the old tradition of allowing the Holy Spirit to suggest a word or phrase from your morning meal of Scriptural reading that you can call to mind and snack on for the rest of the day. As Fr. Mike writes:
Our soul is re-formed as we meditate and chew over even a sentence of God's word during our day. That meditation can become a dialogue between us and God throughout the day, and just as we grow in love as we grow in knowledge of someone, we grow in love of God as we submerge ourself in His word.
If you don't make a morning meal of Scriptural reading, it's never too late in the day to break your fast! (Though that may be the one fast Catholics do well and willingly.)


Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Curling heresies, pt. ii

Alice believes that Bob's team won that day's round-robin tournament.

What might she think about this statement:
2. Bob's team won that day's bonspiel.
As you've guessed, "bonspiel" is simply curling jargon for "tournament." So Alice believes that Bob's team won that day's bonspiel.

Now, if she doesn't know what "bonspiel" means, she might say she doesn't believe Bob's team won that day's bonspiel. She might even insist on denying it: "No, they won the tournament. If they had won the bonspiel, too, Bob would have told me." In this case, her belief -- the thing she accepts as true based on what Bob said -- is correct, but she has somehow formed a false opinion about the term "bonspiel," which causes her to form a false opinion about the meaning (and therefore the truth) of Statement #2. If the meaning of #2 were made clear to her, she would necessarily have to admit her belief that it is true.

What I'm intending to suggest here is that different statements can have an identical (for practical purposes; again, I'm not constructing formalisms) meaning; that if someone is aware that two statements have an identical meaning, he can't think one is true and the other is false; and that if someone is not aware that two statements have an identical meaning, he can think one is true and the other false without necessarily being wrong about whether what they both mean is true.


Monday, January 15, 2007

It's flattering and all, but...

The Archdiocese of Washington has a FAQ that includes the following:
Is the Archdiocese of Washington the headquarters for the Catholic Church in the United States?

No, although people sometimes think we are because of our location in the nation’s capital. The United States is divided into geographic areas called dioceses or archdioceses (an archdiocese is a significant or large diocese and is headed by an archbishop). The Archdiocese of Washington includes Washington, DC and five Maryland counties: Calvert, Charles, Montgomery, Prince George’s and St. Mary’s.

If you have a concern or question about the Church and don’t live within the Archdiocesan boundaries, the place you want to start is your parish and then, if you have further questions, the (arch)diocese serving your area....
Some of the things written in St. Blog's leave the impression the writers think the Archdiocese of Washington covers six city blocks along Pennsylvania Avenue, and that the job of Archbishop is to keep people elsewhere in the country informed of his conversations with government officials.

Diocese envy. It's not pretty.


Curling heresies, pt. i

Some time back, I wrote about the differences between knowledge, belief, and opinion. As a brief recap: knowledge is something that has been demonstrated to the knower as true; belief is the assent to the knowledge of someone else; and opinion is personal judgment about the truth of a thing when you lack knowledge and belief of the truth of the thing.

These distinctions come to mind in thinking over a recent discussion I had with Zippy and Mike Liccione regarding heresy and the development of doctrine. In the comment boxes where the discussion occurred, I wasn't able to make my point clear, and I hope to be able to correct that with a -- well, "patient"/"bloviated", "to-may-to"/"to-mah-to" -- series of posts.

A final preliminary point: I will try to be precise without insisting on formal constructs. I want to be clear, not construct logic puzzles to trip up or fool unsuspecting readers.

The posts will use the following example:
Our Scenario
Bob plays on a curling team at the local rink. His wife Alice knows nothing about curling, but has faith that whatever Bob tells her about it is true.

One Saturday evening, Bob returns home from the rink with a big smile and a little trophy, and he tells Alice, "My team won today's round-robin tournament!"
Let's see how many interesting things can be said following from this set-up. But first, let's say something uninteresting: Alice necessarily believes this statement:
1. Bob's team won that day's round-robin tournament.
She necessarily believes this because, per the scenario description, she believes whatever Bob tells her about curling, and Statement 1 is something he has told her about curling. (Note, by the way, that she neither knows nor opines that #1 is true. That his team won has not been directly demonstrated to Alice; and she assents to #1 not on the basis of her judgment of what happened at the rink, but on the basis of her faith in Bob.)


Thursday, January 11, 2007

The Economy of Salvation in Sixty Words or Less

What do you think of this as a three-verse explanation of how Divine Providence and human free will work together:
So he went into their synagogues, preaching and driving out demons throughout the whole of Galilee. A leper came to him and kneeling down begged him and said, "If you wish, you can make me clean."

Moved with pity, he stretched out his hand, touched him, and said to him, "I do will it. Be made clean."
God acts first, man responds to His actions, and God completes His act, achieving His will of man fully healed.

No leper today can come up to Jesus as that leper did; no leper today can be touched by His hand as that leper was. Jesus' human body has ascended to heaven. He is not now physically present in the world as He was when that leper knelt before Him in Galilee.

That's not to say He isn't present at all, of course. He is present by His Divine nature. He is present spiritually or mystically in His Church. He is present sacramentally in the Eucharist.

But a leper today looking for a human being, in a human body, to kneel before will have to settle for one of us, a member of Christ's mystical body. What would we say, if a leper today came to us and kneeling down begged us and said, "If Christ wish, He can make me clean"?

I, for one, would feel dashed awkward about the whole thing, but then I don't think I run much of a risk of being put in that position. Not because there aren't plenty of lepers today, but because I don't give them much reason to think Christ can make them clean.


Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Do I have to draw you a picture?

Since several people have wondered what I have against good Catholics -- in particular, against them wondering what would make them bad Catholics -- allow me another post to make my point.

The following is a model of the sort of reasoning some people seem to employ and advocate when it comes to reading statements by bishops, episcopal conferences, Vatican officials, and (at least occasionally) popes:

If you think this oversimplifies things, all I can say is, I hope so!

In this model, "Is this statement dogmatically binding?" is the "Does this make me a bad Catholic?" question (in reverse). I hope it's evident why, in this context, that's not the right question to ask.


More densely packed than understated

I've never paid much attention to Peter's speech to Cornelius in Acts 10. When you've got four entire Gospels to study, there's not much need for a two hundred word summary of Jesus' life and mission.

This line, in particular, struck me as almost humorously understated:
He went about doing good and healing all those oppressed by the devil, for God was with him.
"He went about doing good" makes it sound like Jesus brought meals to shut-ins and spoke before zoning boards about improving pedestrian crosswalks. People who go about "doing good" may not always be exactly popular (recall C.S. Lewis's, "She's the sort of woman who lives for others -- you can always tell the others by their hunted expression."), but they're unlikely to wind up put to death by hanging on a tree.

I have to think, though, that this is more a mark of the ongoing debasement of the expression "doing good" than of the wishy-washiness of the original Greek. Peter saw the good that Jesus went about doing. He saw a dead child return to life, a leprous face become clean, and in seeing these things he came to believe that Jesus was the Messiah, the Son of God. That's not the sort of thing you talk of lightly.

(The same holds, at one remove, if we suppose Acts 10:38 is a Lucan paraphrase of Peter's actual words. Luke did, after all, write another book, too.)

But what about that "oppressed by the devil"? Well, if we manage not to smile at the backward superstition of the inspired authors, it's still hard to avoid the impression that people in First Century Judea were disproportionately oppressed by the devil. Nowadays, the devil might be thought to have a hard time getting a tempting word in edgewise between the world and the flesh.

At its most fundamental, though, what is the devil's oppression but a falsehood that leads to death? To be healed from oppression by the devil is to be freed from a death sentence. Freeing people from a death sentence is what Jesus went about doing, even those who didn't have seven or more demons in them. He was sent "to bring glad tidings to the lowly, to heal the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives and release to the prisoners."

And if we think that, apart from Him Who is the Truth and the Life, we aren't captives and prisoners, then no wonder the devil doesn't work any harder at oppressing us. Even today, "all those who are oppressed by the devil" means all of us.


Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Being formal ain't natural

In the post below, I gave an example of what I think is an error caused [in part] by thinking in "bad Catholic" terms rather than in terms of what is true. In (not-so-)brief, the error is dividing authoritative statements (that is, statements made by religious authorities as religious authorities) into doctrine and personal judgment (or "empirical claim[s] about contingent matters of fact"), then ignoring (with or without lip service toward respectful consideration) the latter.

Commenting on the post, Steven Riddle commits what I think is the dual of that error: of dividing authoritative statements into Big-T Tradition and little-t tradition, then ignoring (with or without lip service toward respectful consideration) the latter.

Note that in both cases, the distinction involved is real and important. The error lies in ignoring as "of little relevance" the non-doctrinal, non-Traditional category. To do that is to treat the Catholic Faith like a formal language with a symbology so rigorously defined that every sentence can be precisely and unambiguously interpreted.

Human language doesn't work that way. Non-doctrinal statements shed light on doctrinal statements. Small-t traditions shed light on capital-T Tradition. Non-doctrinal statements and small-t traditions are not difficulties the solutions to which we know exist but may not be interested in chasing down. They are human means by which, and along with which, doctrine and Tradition are related and passed on.


Monday, January 08, 2007

For example

A little more on last week's point about the limits of the question, "Does doing X make me a bad Catholic?"

CCC 2267, which has been quoted often in the last week and a half, says this:
Assuming that the guilty party's identity and responsibility have been fully determined, the traditional teaching of the Church does not exclude recourse to the death penalty, if this is the only possible way of effectively defending human lives against the unjust aggressor.
If, however, non-lethal means are sufficient to defend and protect people's safety from the aggressor, authority will limit itself to such means, as these are more in keeping with the concrete conditions of the common good and are more in conformity to the dignity of the human person.
Today, in fact, as a consequence of the possibilities which the state has for effectively preventing crime, by rendering one who has committed an offense incapable of doing harm - without definitely taking away from him the possibility of redeeming himself - the cases in which the execution of the offender is an absolute necessity "are very rare, if not practically non-existent."*
* John Paul II, Evangelium vitae 56.
The standard minimalist approach to this is to point out that the sentence beginning, "Today, in fact," is not Catholic doctrine but the personal judgment of Pope John Paul II some time around 1995. As such, one would not be a bad Catholic if one were to arrive at a different judgment about how frequent are the cases in which the execution of the offender is an absolute necessity.

The problem with this approach is that it completely separates the teaching of a principle and its application. Moral principles like the Church's teaching on the death penalty are not expressed as exact formalisms that can be applied with objective rigor in concrete cases. An application of a moral principle is itself a lesson about that principle.

When the blessed John Paul II wrote that "cases of absolute necessity...are very rare, if not practically non-existent," he wasn't merely giving his personal opinion, he was illustrating what it means that the death penalty must only be used in cases of absolute necessity. The basis of his statement is not a mystery. The "steady improvements in the organization of the penal system" is not an occult matter. We aren't left scratching our heads and wondering what leaps of logic he made to arrive at his judgment.

So while I won't call someone who asserts that cases in which the death penalty is absolutely necessary are not very rare a bad Catholic, I will wonder whether they really understand what "absolutely necessary" means.


"Please send us more [] priests"

Often the prayer for vocations during the Sunday Masses' Prayer of the Faithful at my parish is along the lines of, "That holy men and women will answer a call to the priesthood or religious life, we pray to the Lord."

If that were to happen, it'd be swell, but I can't help thinking that there's no particular need for the men and women who answer a call to the priesthood or religious life to be holy. In fact, I'm not sure I'd want anyone to be ordained who heard that prayer and said to himself, "Say, I'm holy! Maybe I should think about becoming a priest."

Maybe my standards are too low, but I'd be perfectly happy if plenty of non-holy men and women answer a call to the priesthood or religious life with the hope that they will become holy through living out their call. (Heck, some might even be fervent atheists when they first start hearing things.)


Saturday, January 06, 2007


Sure, it's too hot to sit on the deck in direct sunlight today. But that doesn't mean there's no hot curling action going on in the neighborhood!

Team Pustovar v. Team Edie, today at 2 p.m., looks like the one to watch.


Friday, January 05, 2007


Further investigation shows that "When it is not necessary to speak, it is necessary not to speak" is an old favorite of Fr. Neuhaus. (The formula goes back at least to Lucius Cary, 2nd Viscount Falkland, who used it in reference to change.)

Patrick Brennan of Mirror of Justice provides some context for Fr. Neuhaus's use of the maxim last Spring:
In Philadelphia in May to give the St. Thomas More Society's Gest Forum Lecture, Fr. Neuhaus was asked about what the U.S. Bishops had recently said about U.S. immigration policy. After some nice but uncharacteristic hemming and hawing, Neuhaus answered: "If it is not necessary for the Bishops to make a statement, it is necessary that they not." It's possible that Neuhaus qualified his principle in the colloquy that ensued (I was laughing too hard to hear everything), but, at least in substance, he meant it, and I think I agree with him, or pretty close to it.
I think one might well ask in what sense it is necessary that Catholic bishops not speak about justice for immigrants.

Still, this May 2003 reference suggests the qualification Patrick may have missed three years later:
The late Paul Ramsey, a Methodist ethicist who taught for many years at Princeton, urged upon religious leaders certain "self-denying ordinances." One such ordinance is the Wittgensteinian-sounding rule that, on those things on which one cannot speak with authority, one should remain silent. Put differently: when it is not necessary to speak, it is necessary not to speak. This came to mind as I was reading another roundup of religious pronouncements on the war....

The idea is not that religious leaders should remain silent in a time of war. Far from it. Precisely as religious leaders, they should have a great deal to say that needs saying.... My point, in agreement with Paul Ramsey, is that the trouble begins when religious leaders abandon their presumed competence as theological and moral teachers in favor of political punditry and policy prescriptions. As individuals, they may of course express political opinions, which others may take for what they are worth. But any political statement that begins with "As religious leaders, we..." should be accompanied by a warning label indicating the probable abuse of religion.
And my point is that the trouble begins when religious followers abandon their presumed leaders in favor of political pundits, due to a too-neat classification of their leaders' statements into "doctrinal" and "non-doctrinal" subsets. The authority of the bishops is not the two-valued, on/off thing that some make it out to be.


Could you repeat the question?

Let me begin this post by generalizing the last post:

We can think of how much teaching authority a person accords to his bishop as existing on a spectrum, from "Everything his Excellency says comes directly from God" to "His saying, 'God exists,' would be a lucky guess." My claim is that there is a tendency among politically conservative Roman Catholics in the United States to push towards a minimal position.

I don't think this claim is particularly controversial, largely because it's not terribly specific. And I suspect the tendency toward minimization is largely explained by the fact that politically conservative Roman Catholics in the United States disagree with so much of what their bishops say.

But I wonder if a secondary effect is suggested by these words of Mike Liccione, commenting on the Robert T. Miller post at First Things:
Thus, it is possible for a Catholic to disagree with the pope and the bishops about when conditions justifying the death penalty are present, without thereby being a bad Catholic. One might still be wrong, but one is not a bad Catholic just for being wrong in that way.
What Mike writes is, of course, absolutely true, and I hope you remember it the next time you're taking a test in a for-credit course on Catholicism.

But when you're not taking a test in a for-credit course on Catholicism, I hope you say, "Frankly, I care a lot more about whether I'm wrong than about whether I'm a bad Catholic." Being a bad Catholic is a question of rules. "But is is true?" is a question of virtue.


Not all that much truth

Robert T. Miller, an assistant professor at the Villanova University School of Law, begins a post at First Things by approvingly quoting something silly said by Fr. Richard John Neuhaus:
Speaking to the St. Thomas More Society of Philadelphia last spring, Fr. Neuhaus said, "When it is not necessary for the bishops to speak on a particular subject, it is necessary that they not speak on that subject." As with everything Fr. Neuhaus says, there is a lot of truth in that.
One might as well say there's a lot of truth in saying, "When it is not necessary for Fr. Neuhaus to speak on a particular subject, it is necessary that he not speak on that subject."

And actually, there is a lot of truth in the advice to refrain from idle speech, which is good advice for each of us.

But I find it highly inconsistent for a man best known for editing an opinion journal to hold the opinion that others should hold their opinions to themselves. So much so, I suspect he'd hold a different opinion if only the bishops did, too.

Yes, I get the distinction between Church doctrine and personal judgment. But that distinction does not entail the right to categorically ignore the non-doctrinal statements of either your own bishop or the national bishops in a group. (In his post, Miller writes that a Church authority's "empirical claim about the state of the world... need only be respected and considered in forming one's conscience;" that respect and consideration seems often to consist in nothing more than saying, "That claim need only be respected and considered.")

There are those who advocate for a position very much like this:
  1. Each sentence pronounced by one or more bishops is either doctrinal or it is not.
  2. Whether a sentence is doctrinal can be determined by an explicit deductive proof.
  3. In the absence of an explicit deductive proof, the sentence is non-doctrinal.
  4. A non-doctrinal statement by one or more bishops can be completely ignored by Catholics. (Some, not entirely in jest, add that every non-doctrinal statement by one or more bishops ought to be ignored.)
This position is no more Catholic than the old "Every word that falls from Sister's lips is Church dogma" popular with ex-Catholics and journalists. If you think it's maybe a little more Catholic, in that it seeks to correct the absolutism of the older position, note that what it actually does is invert the bishop-flock relationship. The bishop is no longer teacher, but student, submitting papers to be graded by the faithful.

One of my hobbyhorses is the distinction between being taught by someone and agreeing with him. A week or two ago, I read a comment on another blog that at a more innocent time would have dumbfounded me, to the effect that, "A bishop who does A, B, and C is a bishop I could follow." As though doing what you're told is leading!


Wednesday, January 03, 2007

The reason for the seasons

Fr. Richard John Neuhaus begins a reflection on Christmas in these words:
"I don't know why he has to spoil the season by bringing that up. For him every day is Good Friday." Her complaint was against Father's homily, which underscored that the baby Jesus was born to die. Yes, Good Friday, but Easter, too. Although Father insisted that we should not rush to Easter.
Christmas and Good Friday and Easter. These are sometimes treated as discrete and disparate things that happen to be linked, like a train engine and a passenger car and a caboose, but that can only be thought about individually. One's joyful, one's sorrowful, one's glorious. If they don't need to be treated as entirely different stories, they're at least different acts of the same play. There's a necessary progression: you need Christmas to get to Good Friday, and you need Good Friday to get to Easter, and you can't go back to Christmas after Easter, much less right after Good Friday.

This idea of a sequence -- of moving, in one direction only, from one thing to the next -- is inseparably bound with the fact that we are temporal creatures. Christ, too, in His created human nature really did experience Christmas and Good Friday and Easter as discrete and disparate things.

Yet from the divine perspective, I hazard to guess, they are all the same thing. To us, the Bethlehem stable and the Garden of Gethsemane are settings for stories that aren't generally both told in one sitting. To the Eternally-Begotten Son, the stable and the garden -- and the desert and the town and the sea and the cross and the tomb -- are all, somehow, the same setting, the same story, the same single word, which, as Mike Liccione points out Fr. Raniero Cantalamessa reminds us, is, "Love."

The challenge for us is to see how this can be, then make it be so in our own lives.


Tuesday, January 02, 2007

The Jesus of the New Year

I like how Archbishop Wuerl puts it in his New Year's message:
Babies are notoriously lovable. Jesus as an infant surrounded by Mary, his mother, Joseph, his foster father, shepherds and sheep within the setting of a manger evokes sympathy, empathy and an emotional outpouring that does not challenge us much. But Jesus grew up.
After a brief, dramatic flourish at His birth, Jesus disappeared from sight as completely as the Christmas decorations around the home. Unlike the decorations, though, He was not lying in a box waiting to be taken out, unchanged, and put in the same place as last year. Instead, he was growing and becoming strong, filled with wisdom, preparing for the public ministry that would follow His baptism.

This year, the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord is celebrated on January 8, a scant fourteen days after the Nativity of the Lord was celebrated. That's not much time -- not a few of us will still have some Christmas decorations unboxed -- to go from a notoriously lovable baby to a man whose neighbors wanted to hurl off a cliff.

But that's the liturgical year for you. The baby swaddled in sentiment is the same Person Who would one day preach that He is the Way -- the way, the only way, to the peace and goodwill people treat like a Christmas decoration, to be safely preserved until next year, and no more real or substantial than a spun glass snowman ornament.