instruere...inlustrare...delectare Disputations

Friday, August 30, 2013

The problem with Catholic Answers...

... isn't Catholic answers, it's Catholic questions.

UPDATE: Sorry, that's pretty obscure. To flesh it out a bit: Sometimes I listen to "Catholic Answers Live" on my drive home from work, and I've noticed I usually don't find it inspiring. It doesn't make me think, "Glory be to God!," or, "O my Jesus, I love you!," or, "Have mercy on me, a sinner," or even, "Ain't Catholicism grand?" But then, what they're doing is simply answering the questions people call in and ask. If the questions are all narrow and technical, then the answer will be, too. But the Catholic Faith, the burning realization that God is love and His Son died for our sins, is not narrow and technical. This sort of thing is not, of course, unique to or even particularly associated with "Catholic Answers Live." It's ubiquitous. When Catholics talk about Catholicism, we sound like people trying to make sure we're getting all the details right, not like we're trying to keep up as best we can with the love and mercy and graces our mad lover Jesus is giving us. How come?


Thursday, August 29, 2013

You weren't baptized, you ARE baptized

Stealing something I read yesterday:

Don't think of "being baptized" as an event, think of it as a condition. Don't say, "I was baptized," say, "I am baptized."

Then live that way. Live as one who is baptized, who is dead to sin and who lives for God.

The Sacrament of Baptism doesn't give you a supernatural ticket you put in a file with your baptismal certificate, to pull out and show St. Peter after your death. It gives you supernatural powers you can and should use every day of your natural life.


Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Hey kids! Let's contradicentibus resistendo!

Someone asked me about the tag-line from St. Thomas that's been in the left-hand corner of this blog from its earliest days. It took a little bit of searching, since I'd long since forgotten where I first found it, and the wording I use turns out to be based on a translation of a translation by Josef Pieper. The quotation comes from the conclusion of On the Perfection of the Spiritual Life, a polemical work defending mendicant religious life -- still a new phenomenon during St. Thomas's lifetime -- as a means to perfection.

St. Thomas introduces the work with these words (to use the Procter/Kenny translation on the "Thomas Aquinas Works in English" page at the Dominican Priory of the Immaculate Conception website):
As certain persons, who know nothing about perfection, have nevertheless presumed to publish follies concerning this state, it is our purpose to draw up a treatise on perfection, explaining what is meant by the term; how perfection is acquired; what is the state of perfection; and what are the employments befitting those who embrace this state.
As polemics go, this is pretty weak stuff, although I expect his opponents were stung by reading that their arguments were "worthless," "absolutely frivolous," or "too foolish to need an answer" (St. Thomas provides an answer).

Still, having said his piece, St. Thomas ends with the following:
It has occurred to me to say these things in answer to those who strive to detract from the perfection of religious life. Nevertheless, I abstain from reproaches. For, “he who utters reproach is foolish” (Prov. x. 18), and “all fools are meddling with reproaches” (Prov. xx. 3). If anyone desire to send me a reply, his words will be very welcome to me. For the surest way to elucidate truth and to confound error is by confuting the arguments brought against the truth.  Solomon says, “Iron sharpens iron, so a man sharpens the countenance of a friend” (Prov. xxvii. 17).

And may the Lord God, blessed for ever, judge between us and them. Amen.

The original Latin of my tag-line is:
Nullo enim modo melius quam contradicentibus resistendo, aperitur veritas et falsitas confutatur.
My own pretend-Wiktionary-can-teach-me-Latin translation would be, "There is no better way than resisting a contradiction to uncover truth and confute falsehood." Here "contradiction" doesn't mean the logical incompatibility of two statements, but the actual act of one person contradicting another.

It's this direct engagement of contradictory opinions, offering argument and counterargument, that St. Thomas sees as the best way for the truth of a contested matter to be seen.

In the ideal case, two conditions hold:
  1. All parties involved want to uncover truth and confute falsehood.
  2. All parties involved are able to understand the arguments offered and see which ones are sound and which are not.
In other words, everyone is both willing and able to see and accept the truth that is uncovered in dispute.

The ideal case does not always obtain. But as long as at least one party is willing and able to arrive at the truth, a direct engagement of arguments is helpful -- and of course there may be third party observers of the dispute, who have no particular investment in either position but are invested in knowing the truth, who may benefit as well.

In St. Thomas's case, I do think he was willing and able to see and accept the truth of arguments contrary to his opinion, though I have to say I can't quite read the conclusion of De Perfectione as a butter-wouldn't-melt invitation to correct his mistakes. He does leave room for having made mistakes; "It has occurred to me to say these things" isn't an assertion of incontrovertible authority. But I get the sense that he expected any contradictory replies -- and note how he's poisoned the well against reproaches by way of replies -- to be mostly further errors for him to confute. (What's Latin for "Bring it!"?)


Sunday, August 25, 2013

A glacial crisis

Having written the previous post on Ralph Martin's essay on the sacramental crisis, I find that it's worse than I thought. Worse, because I knew about this problem more than eight years ago, and I've done very little about it since.

Sacramental preparation, and therefore sacramental fruitfulness, isn't just a concern for people who want to receive the Sacraments of Initiation, and those who are instructing them. It's a concern for all Catholics, every time we receive the Sacrament of the Eucharist. Just as repentance and conversion are necessary for baptism to be fruitful, so is the disposition to be sanctified according to God's will, not our own, necessary for the Eucharist to be fruitful. To the extent I recoil from embracing the Cross in my life, I recoil from receiving the Eucharist with a right disposition, and I make the work of Christ and His Church useless in my life.

Sacramental Preparation: It Isn't Just for First Communion!


Fruitful Sacramental Preparation

Ralph Martin, president of Renewal Ministries and associate professor of theology at Detroit's Sacred Heart Major Seminary, has an article in Nova et Vetera titled, "The Post-Christendom Sacramental Crisis: The Wisdom of Thomas Aquinas."

The sacramental crisis of the title has two interrelated aspects:
  1. A "radical drop in the numbers of those who still bother to approach the sacraments."
  2. "[T]he apparent lack of sacramental fruitfulness in the lives of many who still partake of the sacraments."
Obviously, an unreceived sacrament is a fruitless sacrament, but if a sacrament is not fruitful, why bother to receive it in the first place?

The key section of the essay is a discussion on making reception of the sacraments more fruitful, in light of St. Thomas's teaching on adult baptism. Specifically, Martin recommends recovering a balance in sacramental preparation, reflected in St. Thomas's writings, that was thrown off after the Protestant revolution:
The reaction to the theology of the Protestant reformers produced in the Catholic Church what could be regarded as an overemphasis on the ex opere operato (by the fact of the action being performed) aspect of the sacraments working, to the neglect of the practical importance of the ex opere operantis (from the action of the doer) aspect. The Catechism of the Catholic Church affirms the importance of both aspects:
From the moment that a sacrament is celebrated in accordance with the intention of the Church, the power of Christ and his Spirit acts in and through it, independently of the personal holiness of the minister. Nevertheless, the fruits of the sacraments also depend on the disposition of the one who receives them.
While no one would intentionally ignore the disposition of the one in sacramental preparation -- I use "no one" in a rhetorical sense here; empirically, people are capable of anything -- it's not only inadequate to argue that the sacrament itself will make up for what is lacking in the recipient, it's flat-out contrary to what the Church teaches. If "Ex opere operato" is how a given sacramental preparation program addresses the question of subjective disposition, then, objectively, that sacramental preparation program doesn't address the question of subjective disposition.

Martin quotes St. Thomas's article on "Whether sinners should be baptized" to explain why subjective disposition needs to be addressed in the sacramental preparation of adults:
[A] man may be called a sinner because he wills to sin and purposes to remain in sin: and on sinners in this sense the sacrament of Baptism should not be conferred.

First, indeed, because by Baptism men are incorporated in Christ, according to Galatians 3:27: "As many of you as have been baptized in Christ, have put on Christ." Now so long as a man wills to sin, he cannot be united to Christ, according to 2 Corinthians 6:14: "What participation hath justice with injustice?" Wherefore Augustine says in his book on Penance (Serm. cccli) that "no man who has the use of free-will can begin the new life, except he repent of his former life."

Secondly, because there should be nothing useless in the works of Christ and of the Church. Now that is useless which does not reach the end to which it is ordained; and, on the other hand, no one having the will to sin can, at the same time, be cleansed from sin, which is the purpose of Baptism; for this would be to combine two contradictory things.

Thirdly, because there should be no falsehood in the sacramental signs. Now a sign is false if it does not correspond with the thing signified. But the very fact that a man presents himself to be cleansed by Baptism, signifies that he prepares himself for the inward cleansing: while this cannot be the case with one who purposes to remain in sin. Therefore it is manifest that on such a man the sacrament of Baptism is not to be conferred.
 To put it in positive terms, baptismal preparation ought to attend to subjective, personal repentance and conversion, as well as presentation of doctrine. Arguably, repentance and conversion are the more important part.

And as with baptism, so mutatis mutandis with the other sacraments.


Thursday, August 22, 2013

Here's to the Queen Mother!

Seems like a good time for a Coronation Cocktail.

(No, not one of those nasty ones with gin. The nice one with applejack.)


Friday, August 09, 2013

Reaching out multiplies our capacity to love

Rocco Palmo posts the English translation of a message Pope Francis recorded for Argentinians as they celebrated the Feast of St. Cajetan on Wednesday. In it, he calls his countrymen to a St. Francis and the leper moment:
Sometimes, I ask people, "Do you give alms." They say, "Yes, father." "And when you give alms, do you look into the eyes of people you are giving alms to?" "Ah, I do not know, I don't really think about it". "Then you have not reached out to those people. You just tossed them some charity and went away. When you give alms, do you touch their hands or just toss them the coins?". "No, I toss them the coins". "Then you have not touched them. And if you have not touched them, you have not reached out to them." What Jesus teaches us, first of all, is to reach out to each other, and in reaching out, helping one another.
There are Catholics who always rush to say that what Pope Francis says is nothing new. True enough. Pope Francis says what the Church has always said.

What would be new is if Catholics did what the Church has always said to do.

(Okay, it'd be new if I did.)

Towards the end of his message, Pope Francis says:
When you meet those most in need, your heart will begin to grow bigger, bigger and bigger! Because reaching out multiplies our capacity to love. An encounter with others makes our heart bigger.
The metaphor works. Like a physical muscle, your spiritual heart gets bigger and stronger with use, but shrinks and weakens otherwise. When your heart gets bigger by meeting with those most in need -- or, not to dull the Pope's point too much, by loving whoever you meet today who needs your love -- you can turn right around and use your increased capacity to love on those you are already loving. If you bring Jesus' love to a stranger, you'll have more of His love to bring to those closest to you.


Thursday, August 08, 2013

One and a half out of five ain't bad

In writing about the Lord's Prayer, St. Thomas says, "A prayer must be confident, ordered, suitable, devout and humble." I've got my work cut out for me.

The confidence with which I pray, for example, has changed over time. Not just the daily waxing and waning due to distractions, but the very way I would characterize my confidence in prayer can (through oversimplification) be put into four stages.

The first stage I'll call unreflective confidence. As a child, I prayed in the way and with the words I was taught, and God did whatever it was He did, and that was about that. Prayer, like genuflecting, was just something I did, and I figured God would make the best of it.

Frankly, I stayed in this stage well past childhood. But as time went on, and the tension grew between the promises of Jesus -- "Ask, and it shall be given," etc. -- and the visible consequences of my prayers, I began to pray with more of a dogmatic confidence. Like Mark's Galilean leper, I held firm to the belief that, if God wished, He could give me what I asked Him for.

That's a pretty weak sort of thing to be called "confidence," though. It's more of a consequence of the doctrines of Divine omnipotence and omniscience. Looking back, my prayers were pretty weak, too. "If You wish it" sounds pious enough, but it's not piety when it's shorthand for, "If You wish it, which maybe You don't, in which case there's no point in pressing You too hard on this, and if You do wish it, then You'll do it anyway, I suppose, so... yeah, anyway, just a suggestion, but of course it's Your call."

I knew all along that I was terrible at intercessory prayer (SPOILER ALERT: I'm still terrible). I could occasionally reach the level of the Galilean leper, which works fine if God answers, "I do will it," after the first request. But anything at all resembling the persistent widow? No.

Then I started noticing how many saints (including authors of Scripture) listed confidence as a necessary condition for our prayer. And I thought, "I have full and complete confidence in God. I don't have confidence in me." And I entered a third stage; for lack of a better term, call it divided confidence. It also seems pious enough, and there's plenty in the great spiritual works of the Church (including Scripture) that tells us to trust in God, not in ourselves.

For me, though, I think the appeal to a divided confidence was more of an excuse than a humbling of self. It explained a lot about my prayer life -- well, duh, of course a barren tree won't bear figs -- but I didn't need an explanation, I needed an improvement. And I came to see that praying without confidence in myself really amounted to praying without confidence in God, without the confidence that He will come to the aid of my weakness -- not, granted, with the promptness of Jesus healing the leper, but then a) God doesn't make that promise, and b) we aren't told how long the leper prayed to God before His Son passed by.

Which brings me to the fourth stage, which I shall grandly call theological confidence, since it's a confidence that aims at being grounded in the full and living faith, hope, and love of a fallible, adopted child of the Father, redeemed by the Blood of the Son and sustained by the intercession of the Holy Spirit. I say "aims at" because I'm still working on making such confidence habitual, and old habits of thought die hard.


Tuesday, August 06, 2013

What color are your glasses?

It's not really optimism so much as wishful thinking, and it's not really pessimism so much as resentment at not being Pope yourself.


Sunday, August 04, 2013

The old familiar

It occurred to me that today's warhorse Responsorial Psalm refrain might also work the other way around:
If you harden not your hearts, you will hear His voice today.


Saturday, August 03, 2013

Get fr. Jordan Aumann's Spiritual Theology free

PDF is here.

UPDATE: Epub & Kindle editions here.

(First link via Michael Liccione. Second via Jeff Miller.)


The problem of specific gravity

This week's addition to the list of Things I Understood Until I Tried Explaining Them is distinguishing  between grave matter and non-grave matter.

It came up in a discussion on the difference between intrinsically evil acts and mortal sins. "Intrinsically evil acts" is a class of sins based on what makes the act sinful: 
Reason attests that there are objects of the human act which are by their nature "incapable of being ordered" to God, because they radically contradict the good of the person made in his image. These are the acts which, in the Church's moral tradition, have been termed "intrinsically evil" (intrinsece malum): they are such always and per se, in other words, on account of their very object, and quite apart from the ulterior intentions of the one acting and the circumstances. [Veritatis splendor 80]
"Mortal sins," on the other hand, is a class of sins based on whether the sin is congruent with loving God. Bl. John Paul II gives us the familiar list of three necessary conditions for a sin to be mortal:
...mortal sin is sin whose object is grave matter and which is also committed with full knowledge and deliberate consent. [Reconciliatio et paenitentia 17]
On the other hand,
when, in a less serious matter, he does not observe the standard prescribed by the moral law, or when he disobeys the moral law in a grave matter, but without full knowledge or without complete consent. [Catechism of the Catholic Church 1862]
So "intrinsically evil acts" relates to what makes an act evil and "mortal sins" relates to how evil the act is.
The conclusion.

From here, the question becomes whether there are any intrinsically evil acts that don't have grave matter as its object. And I have to say, when the Church talks about intrinsically evil acts, she tends to focus on those that are gravely evil; e.g., St. Paul:
Do not be deceived; neither fornicators nor idolaters nor adulterers nor boy prostitutes nor sodomites nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor robbers will inherit the kingdom of God.
In Reconciliatio et paenitentia 17, Bl. John Paul II explicitly links the two concepts:
It must be added... that some sins are intrinsically grave and mortal by reason of their matter. That is, there exist acts which, per se and in themselves, independently of circumstances, are always seriously wrong by reason of their object. These acts, if carried out with sufficient awareness and freedom, are always gravely sinful.
So what about sins that are intrinsically non-grave and venial by reason of their matter? These are among the "light and daily sins" the Council of Trent teaches even the holiest of men commit on occasion (absent a special privilege of God). The Church does talk about them often enough, just not usually in explicit terms of "light matter." Which I suppose makes sense; what chiefly matters about them isn't that they are objectively venial, but that they are objectively sinful, while the "mortal" part of a mortal sin is worth a foot stomp.

And what is the difference between "grave matter" and "light matter"? Here the language of the Church tends to be vague and inexact:
Man knows well by experience that along the road of faith and justice which leads to the knowledge and love of God in this life and toward perfect union with him in eternity, he can cease to go forward or can go astray without abandoning the way of God; and in this case there occurs venial sin. This however must never be underestimated, as though it were automatically something that can be ignored or regarded as "a sin of little importance."

For man also knows, through painful experience, that by a conscious and free act of his will he can change course and go in a direction opposed to God's will, separating himself from God (aversio a Deo), rejecting loving communion with him, detaching himself from the life principle which God is and consequently choosing death.[Reconciliatio et paenitentia 17]
 So... you know it when you see it? And I'm not just cherry picking a quotation to back up my point; a few paragraphs earlier, Bl. John Paul II comes right out and says:
Why and to what degree is sin a serious matter in the offense it commits against God and in its effects on man? The Church has a teaching on this matter which she reaffirms in its essential elements, while recognizing that it is not always easy in concrete situations to define clear and exact limits.

While frustrating to someone looking for a tidy quotation to sum it up, I think this open-ended vagueness  reflects the actual nature of the distinction rather than the fuzziness to date of the Church's thinking. "The object of the act of willing is in fact a freely chosen kind of behavior [VS 78]," and there's no single scale of human behavior such that all behavior below some level is light and all at or above that level is grave. The different species of human acts can't be put in order heuristically; it seems to be, necessarily, a matter of sorting them into their different categories one at a time.

Now, the language used to describe the distinction between light and grave, or between mortal and venial, is often suggestive of a continuum on which a threshold could be set. Reconciliatio et paenitentia quotes St. Thomas:
Therefore when the soul is so disordered by sin as to turn away from its last end, viz. God, to Whom it is united by charity, there is mortal sin; but when it is disordered without turning away from God, there is venial sin.
But if you want to specify a threshold a priori, you're posing a sorites paradox for yourself, and those are tough to get much benefit from. In that same article, St. Thomas explains why we don't need to do that to ourselves:
Now the difference between venial and mortal sin is consequent to the diversity of that inordinateness which constitutes the notion of sin. For inordinateness is twofold, one that destroys the principle of order, and another which, without destroying the principle of order, implies inordinateness in the things which follow the principle: thus, in an animal's body, the frame may be so out of order that the vital principle is destroyed; this is the inordinateness of death; while, on the other hand, saving the vital principle, there may be disorder in the bodily humors; and then there is sickness.
In other words, there isn't a single continuum of gravity of objectively evil behavior, on one end of which the sins are light, while at the other end they are grave. There are two continua, along each of which the gravity of behavior increases, but the continua don't connect. On the grave continuum, all behavior destroys the habitual love of God; on the light continuum, no behavior destroys the habitual love of God. There are no two behaviors such that the difference in the behaviors themselves is incremental, yet one is an abandonment of God and the other is not.

How do we know which continuum a specific behavior falls on? I don't think there's any way around looking at it as a specific case. We have dogmatic but incomplete lists of objectively grave sins, we have centuries of pastoral theology treating light and daily sins, and we have the Sacrament of Penance to work through the details in concrete situations.

If you're particularly concerned about knowing whether a sin is objectively grave, I'd say the best way is to pray that the Holy Spirit will vivify the gifts of knowledge and wisdom He gave you when you were baptized.