instruere...inlustrare...delectare Disputations

Tuesday, December 31, 2002

Rigorous interpretation of a Claus

In another reply to my Santa Claus post, an anonymous commenter commented:
Also,the "most of us turned out okay" statement has limited value -- one could say that in reference to many bad influences and sins -- indeed, the world is soaked in sin, yet on the surface most people seem okay. Civil and pleasant enough. Happy enough. Just because we all seem to have gotten along okay with various bad influences in our life is no reason to promote those influences.
This, I think, is an example of begging the question -- which, in this case, is, "Is telling your children Santa Claus brings them presents while they sleep on Christmas Eve a bad influence in their lives?"

The commenter continues:
Finally, I think it undermines a belief in the supernatural (and, thereby, God) to tell children from an early age that there is a supernatural being living at the North Pole only to tell them later that it is not true. Can they distinguish between God and Santa? Sure. But why plant a seed of distrust in things supernatural simply because it is fun and you had Santa as a child?
Again, this begs the question, "Does telling your children Santa Claus brings them presents while they sleep on Christmas Eve plant a seed of distrust in things supernatural?"

Obviously, if one believes that telling children Santa Claus brings them presents while they sleep on Christmas Eve is a bad influence in their lives and plants a seed of distrust in things supernatural, one shouldn't tell children Santa Claus brings them presents while they sleep on Christmas Eve.

However, if one believes neither of these things, what should one do?

That depends on the approach one takes on doubtful matters. I use a taxonomy of four such approaches, lifted with no promise of correctness from traditional moral theology.
  • Laxism: If there is any possibility at all that something is acceptable, then it may be done.
  • Probabilism: If there is a good possibility that something is acceptable, even if it is more likely to be unacceptable, then it may be done. (The Old Oligarch, a real theologian, has given his own opinion on probabilism recently.)
  • Probabiliorism: Only if it is clearly more likely that something is acceptable than that it is not acceptable, then it may be done.
  • Rigorism: Only if it it certain that something is acceptable may it be done.
I apply these to the question of the Santa Claus myth thusly: if someone somewhere was not adversely affected by it as a child, then a lax parent would feel free to tell it to his children; if a respectable proportion of people are not adversely affected by it, then a probabilistic parent would feel free to tell it to his children; if most people are not adversely affected by it, then a probabilioristic parent would feel free to tell it to his children; and if no one anywhere was adversely affected by it, then a rigorist parent would feel free to tell it to his children.

A probabiliorist myself, what I'm looking for is the "most people are not adversely affected" standard. In my judgment, the Santa Claus myth meets this standard.

We could attempt a full-bore risk assessment on the question, with follow-on risk management if necessary, but I suspect that, in the absence of any data on the subject, everyone's estimate of the various probabilities and costs would merely lead to confirmation of their own pre-assessment opinions.


Happy Valley vs. lacrimarum valle

In the comment thread on my Santa Claus post, Zorak writes, "The world is not a happy place. Heaven is."

It seems to me that she is posing something of a false dilemma here. The distinction between the world and heaven is not as clear-cut as these words imply. This is particularly true, of course, since the coming of Christ, but even the Psalmist knew that the bitter valley of this life can be transformed by following God's way:
Happy are those who find refuge in you, whose hearts are set on pilgrim roads.
As they pass through the Baca valley, they find spring water to drink. Also from pools the Lord provides water for those who lose their way. [Psalm 84:6-7]
St. Paul, no stranger to lacrimation, rejoiced in his sufferings and urged others to rejoice as well:
But, even if I am poured out as a libation upon the sacrificial service of your faith, I rejoice and share my joy with all of you. In the same way you also should rejoice and share your joy with me.... Rejoice in the Lord always. I shall say it again: rejoice! [Philippians 2:17-18, 4:4]
In this, of course, he was simply echoing the words of his Master, Who said, "Blessed are you when they insult you and persecute you and utter every kind of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward will be great in heaven." [Mt 5:11-12]

For that matter, all the beatitudes speak of those who are blesséd -- that is, who are fortunate or happy. Not happy in the sense of carefree and giggly, but in the sense of being on the right path and sure of their way.

The simultaneity of joy and sorrow in this life is, I could argue, a mark of the truth of our faith. We humans do experience both joy and sorrow, and we can feel both at the same time. The life of Christ provides the framework for us to find meaning in this, and for us to see the shallowness and transience of so much of what, when we stray from God, we think of as happiness and sadness. (And yes, I am being sloppy about the distinctions between joy and happiness and sorrow and sadness.)

So, while if by "happy place" you mean a place without sadness, then certainly the world is not a happy place. But if you mean a place wherein one can, and should, be happy, then I think the world is a happy place. And isn't that the true meaning of Christmas?


Thursday, December 26, 2002

Wisdom from disputed questions

Speaking of St. Thomas and spiritual reading, there is a nice on-line selection of quotations from his various Quaestio disputata, provided for our instruction and enlightenment by Fr. Joseph Kenny, OP.

At this time of year, for example, we might learn from the answer to the question, "How many ways can you sin by eating?":
Gluttony is the disordered desire for the pleasure of eating.

1. The pleasure can be natural or artificial:
1.1 As for the natural pleasure of food, one may be over-concerned to get the best, and that is lavishness.
1.2 As for artificial pleasures, one may look for too fancy a preparation, and that is finickiness.

2. The desire can be disordered in three ways:
2.1 Before eating one can be over-eager and therefore rush to eat.
2.2 During eating one may be too ardent, and that is voraciousness.
2.3 In the end result one may have eaten too much, and that is over-eating.
Quaestiones disputatae de malo, 14:4, c.
We must each search our own consciences, of course, but at least I've never been accused of being a finicky eater.


The year of the Carmelites

Steven Riddle's fancy has turned to thoughts of spiritual reading. I've read (and concur with including) several of the books on his list of "top-notch spiritual reading for the contemplative life," but what I'm missing is pretty much the entire OCD section.

Realizing this reminds me that, several months back, I had determined to read representative works of St. Teresa, St. John of the Cross, and St. Therese in 2003 -- which, now that I think of it, is coming fast upon us. Since among my top ten lessons of 2002 is that I am not contemplative enough, this program should provide a welcome corrective. (Note how I see the goal of becoming more contemplative as something useful; there should be a good inter-order joke in that.)

[I will add, though, that it has never occurred to me that I have the ability to lord it over St. Thomas Aquinas because of his errors in biology and cosmology. Partly because I am morally certain, if St. Thomas were given the chance, it would be the work of a moment for him to amend his natural philosophy according to current scientific theories (which will likely sound foolish in 750 years anyway). Partly because the use he makes of the faulty science of his day [which science, incidentally, was, under the penomniscient mind of St. Albert the Great, at the cutting edge of the Thirteenth Century] is usually in service to still-valid theological points of such clarity and depth I'm too busy trying to appreciate them to be distracted by tangential errors. And partly, too, it should be said, because I find a dog-like submission to St. Thomas to be the most sensible starting point for me to begin to understand almost every theologicial discussion I get into.]


Sancte Stephane, ora pro nobis.

Stephen, filled with grace and power,
Preached fulfillment of the Law.
Jealous hearts cut down the flower
Stephen, filled with grace and power.
Blessed by God at his last hour,
Jesus Glorified he saw.
Stephen, filled with grace and power,
Preached fulfillment of the Law.


Monday, December 23, 2002

No Claus for alarm

Or, How I learned to stop worrying and love the jolly old elf.

When I was a boy, Santa brought one or two presents and filled my stocking. When my wife was a girl, angels brought presents and decorated her Christmas tree during Christmas Eve dinner, while at midnight the animals in the barn talked. When other people were children, Saint Nicholas or the Magi or even the Christkind brought them goodies on December 6 or December 25 or January 6.

Most of us turned out okay.

As a probabiliorist, that's good enough for me to tell my kids Santa brings them a present and fills their stockings on Christmas Eve.

I've been exposed to the Rigorist Christmas Virus (RCV) often enough to build up an immunity. The RCV is often transmitted unwittingly in statements like, "I would never lie to my children about Santa Claus," and "In my home, we don't sing Christmas carols until after sundown on Christmas Eve, when the Christmas season starts." Symptoms that you've been infected by the RCV include feelings of guilt over your lifelong Christmas traditions, worry that you have inadequately Catholic Advents, and the fear that your children are being raised as post-Christian pagans because you use no particular ritual to set up your Nativity scene.

It's worth mentioning that people can say things that trigger RCV infections in others without themselves being Christmas rigorists. It's the felt imposition of an imaginary law where none exists that marks the rigorism, not the simple expression of an opinion.


Friday, December 20, 2002

East and West

On Random Mumble Generator (via Blogs4God), Kevin Basil writes
A dear priest I know calls fasting without prayer “the fast of demons, for demons do not eat, but they do not pray, either!”
I like that very much. Human nature abhors a vacuum, and if we empty ourselves we are bound to be filled with something else. If we don't fill it with God....

Of course (and alas), fasting is more of an issue for the Orthodox, who have around 160 fasting days a year. Perhaps we should also be cautioned against "the prayer of Catholics, for Catholics do not neglect their prayers, but they do not fast, either!"


Thursday, December 19, 2002

Just a figure of speech

"St. Blog's Parish" is, of course, just an expression used to describe an imprecise on-line community. It is in no sense a real parish.

And yet, there is something real here. We share some part of our lives with each other, from [pending] birth announcements to notices of loved ones' deaths, and much of what happens in between; and we respond in joy and sorrow and prayer. Just like a real community. Or I should say, like any other real community.


In theory, theory is the same as practice

Just War Theory keeps getting tested and found wanting in the confrontation between the U.S. and Iraq.

I don't think it does a very good job, as it stands, at discriminating between an unjustifiable pre-emptive war and a justifiable first-strike war. And if the Washington Post report is correct --
U.S. intelligence officials warned yesterday that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein plans to pursue a "scorched earth" strategy in the event of war with the United States and would destroy his country's oil fields, electrical power plants, food storage sites and other facilities while blaming U.S. military forces for the damage. --
it adds a new wrinkle to thinking about proportionality that I'm pretty sure St. Augustine never had to face.

As a principle of jus ad bellum, proportionality is the consideration of whether "the overall destruction expected from the use of force must be outweighed by the good to be achieved." I don't think we can distinguish, morally speaking, between the destruction by Iraq of Iraqi power plants and the destruction by Iraq of Israeli power plants, so if we credit this report I think earth scorching has to be added to the overall expected destruction side of the scale.

On the other side, what is the good to be achieved? Sometimes I get the impression that it's peace of mind for American parents, and I suspect how you answer that question goes a long way to determining how you feel about the war. Regardless, the often-mentioned secondary good toward the Iraqi people of getting rid of their despotic government becomes harder to mention if it comes coupled with several years of starvation and suffering.

Just to clarify, I don't think the U.S. would be morally responsible for civilian suffering inflicted by the Iraqi government. But the U.S. is morally responsible for taking that suffering into account in determining whether and how to wage war.

On the other hand, as long as you're believing U.S. intelligence officials, there's another report that the Iraqi army is demoralized, poorly trained, and distrustful of Saddam.

Yeah, I know. And a Happy New Year, too.


That's my plan and I'm sticking to it

In a comment below, Therese mentions the ubiquitous alternative to St. Vincent Ferrer's recommendation to study to become a saint: Study to make others into the saint you don't have time to become.

That's pretty much my plan. I encourage others -- you, in particular -- to become saints, in the hope that I will outlive them and have plenty of heavenly advocates praying for my final perseverance and a plenary indulgence on the day of my death. The ones who outlive me (may you be among them) will offer numerous Masses in sufferage for my soul. At the eternal banquet, while these others are drinking champagne and eating fatted calves, I'll be at a card table in the back saying, "Oh, boy, Chocodiles and Moxie! This is great!"

Hmm. The plan doesn't sound quite as good written down as it did when I first thought it up....


Wednesday, December 18, 2002

Looking back to look forward

Over the past year,
  • the amount of information I have about the state of the Roman Catholic Church in the United States has measurably increased
  • the number of words I've written about the state of the Roman Catholic Church in the United States has measurably increased
  • the amount of time I have before my particular judgment has measurably decreased
  • my personal sanctity has not measurably increased
I can't escape the sense that the above are all somehow related. And for some reason, I am reminded of St. Vincent Ferrer's statement, "Study not to become learned, but to become a saint."


The anti-social society

The Kairos Guy is becoming a codgy old bore. If his blogging isn't proof enough, consider this: When I first heard of him, earlier this year, he was 32. Now he's 33. He's aging faster than 1 year/year. That's big-time codgy.

I'm sure his wife has noticed and will be giving him a gift membership in the Society of Codgy Old Bores. I look forward to welcoming him at our next meeting -- or would, but the SCOB doesn't have meetings, because about the last thing a codgy old bore wants to do is spend time with codgy old bores. (It beats spending time with eternal children, but not by much.)


Monday, December 16, 2002

To be understood

Ordinarily, all I expect from The Washington Post Magazine is Dave Barry. Yesterday, though, I found profound thinking by an Ecuadorian priest, by way of writer Max Steele.

Steele described a painting he saw in the priest's small church outside Quito:
Beyond the altar, on the back wall, was a life-size painting of an almost nude man who had so many spears pointing at him, I thought it must be Saint Sebastian a moment before his agony. But then, through the gloom, I saw the crown of thorns, and the blood trickling from the spear wound under his ribs. To my surprise, there were a dozen other wounds where blood was spurting, or trickling, or drying.

... Gradually I could determine there were arrows or small spears embedded in the childish soft muscles above the collarbone.

The painter, I assumed, was self-indulgent in his sadism, and I told the priest what I thought.

He shook his head in denial.

"Then why so many wounds?" I asked. "Why the exaggeration? Was the painter crazy or just ignorant?"

The priest continued shaking his head and then shook his finger directly at me, almost grazing my nose. "Neither," he said. "Neither. He painted it for the Indians, for the people around here. He knew how they felt."

... "But why, if the painter was not mad," I asked in the hallway, "are there so many scars and wounds on the figure?"

"You are a grown man." His voice was that of a father speaking to a child. "You have suffered in your way. But you are from a rich country. A wealthy country. Your suffering may seem heavy to you. But it is different. For you one spear wound would be enough."

I nodded, a bit resentful that he might be considering me a shallow man.

"Here, though, the suffering is great. For centuries it has been great. Every day is great suffering. One spear wound is not enough. But our people here want to be sure He has suffered more so they can be sure He understands their suffering. To be understood is to be cured."


Just in time for the holidays

One of the distinguishing characteristics of Christianity as a way of life is its emphasis on forgiveness: us forgiving others, and God forgiving us. For all its importance, though, forgiveness is a very confusing notion for Christians.

For example, it was only recently that I realized that the following is completely and categorically true:

You don't have to forgive anyone.

This may be unexpectedly good news for those who have issues with relatives they have to visit with this time of the year, and it may be denied by many others, so let me explain what it means and what it implies.

By forgiveness, I mean the cancellation of a debt someone owes you under justice. This, obviously requires two things: first, that there is an actual (rather than imagined or desired) debt that is actually owed (rather than payed back in an emotionally unsatisfying way) to you (rather than to someone else); and second, that the debt is actually forgiven (rather than partly forgiven or unilaterally transferred into a different category of debt (such as guilt)).

So when someone steps on your foot and says, "Oh, I'm very sorry," and you say, "That's all right," you probably haven't forgiven them. Not that you're harboring a grudge, but that the debt they owe you is to apologize; saying, "That's all right," is, so to speak, giving them a receipt that payment has been received in full.

Now what does it mean that you, a good Christian, don't have to forgive anyone? Simply this: that no debt owed another under justice necessarily has to be forgiven. If it did have to be forgiven, then it wouldn't be a debt under justice. It might be some sort of formality, like asking a congregation whether they accept the catechumens, but it isn't a genuine debt.

But if no debt under justice ever has to be forgiven, why the Christian emphasis on forgiveness? Because what's true for us is also true for God: no debt we owe to God ever has to be forgiven. As you know, though, God has promised to forgive us according to the way we forgive others. God doesn't have to forgive us; He didn't have to give us that promise (As a matter of justice, at least. Since forgiveness isn't required by justice, it's really a matter of charity. Still, any statement beginning, "God has to ...." says more about the limits of human language than about God.).

And what does all this mean, other than the trivial observation that if you want to be saved you have to forgive others? I see it as a strong framework from which to consider those tough questions about reconciling God's goodness with the reality of damnation. It isn't unfair or unjust of God to give one person, but not another, the grace of final perseverance. As a matter of justice, God need not have given it to anyone (and therefore, incidentally, Judaism need not insist on an afterlife to recognize the value of worshipping Him). The hard teaching, then, isn't why God would create an eternal soul and then damn it, but why He would create an eternal soul and then save it.


Sunday, December 15, 2002

Through a glass darkly

Hernan Gonzalez suggests that whisky-guzzling yanquishave something to learn from Argentinians.

Bueno. I am, as it were, thirsty for knowledge of the good, and will learn from whomever will teach. But this, from the link Hernan includes, interests me strangely:
Jesuits tried to ban mate for they consider it was addictive, but as soon as they discovered natives would actually work more and better, they abandoned the idea.
If the Jesuits are both for and against mate, what position is left for a Dominican?


Friday, December 13, 2002

Sloppy thinking & whisky, neat

I want to thank Minute Particulars for introducing me to the saying, "Writing is Nature's way of showing us how sloppy our thinking is." To a certain extent, though, we see what we expect to see; as a result, writing is even better at showing everyone else how sloppy our thinking is.

I also find significance in the fact that this post includes a picture of a bottle of Macallan whisky, since blogging with a glass of whisky on hand is neither unheard of in these parts nor unrelated to sloppy thinking.

While we're on the subject, have you seen this on Relapsed Catholic:
And he's not even Catholic! Rev. wants to open "religious-themed saloon"
Which reminds me of an old joke:
Two men on a passenger train enter a car, and one of them calls out, "Excuse me, is there a Catholic priest here?"

Heads shake, and the man says, "Well, how about an Episcopalian priest?"

A passenger in the middle of the train stands up and says, "I'm a Baptist minister. Is there anything I can do to help you?"

The man answers, "I don't think so, Reverend. We're looking for a bottle opener."
A touch of cheer on a sad day.
Has ever been the Catholic way.


Thursday, December 12, 2002

The Why You Do the Things You Do

I am becoming increasingly convinced that people spend entirely too much time worrying about why other people do things.

More than sixty years ago, C. S. Lewis coined the term Bulverism to describe the logical fallacy of arguing why someone is wrong about something rather than that he is wrong. (The canonical example is a wife telling her husband, “Oh, you say that because you are a man.”) As the Kairos Guy once pointed out to me, Bulverism is alive and well these days, even on the Internet.

But I'm not only concerned about bad arguments. I think indulging in the urge to decide why someone does something can be spiritually harmful.

Suppose, for example, someone bumps into you on the street, then continues on his way without any form of apology. Why did he do this?

You have no idea, right? Maybe he's simply rude, maybe he's drunk, maybe he's stressed, maybe he's in love, maybe he's afraid of strangers, maybe he's French. You can propose all these answers and more, then pick the one you prefer, but what's the point?

It seems to me a better use of your time is to note that you do not like being jostled, particularly without apology, and vow to avoid doing so to others in the future, and to teach your children to do likewise. Even if you happen to recognize the man and have found him to be rude in the past, what good does that knowledge do you? You don't avoid him because of his subjective state of mind, you avoid him because of his objective behavior. And should your own state of mind incline to rudeness, you still apologize to people you bump into, because you're trying to be the best person you can be.

I think one of the reasons we like to decide why other people do things is because it offers such descriptive power. If someone expresses venemous opinions on the Pope because his own father never loved him, then we have a neat little Freudian complex to poke at. We don't have to address any of the issues he raises, since the real issue is between himself and his father. We might even ask him what he thinks of the mayor or the president, just to see how broad his complex is. But our theories of other people's psychology don't make us any holier; in fact, to the extent they cause us to judge others rather than ourselves, they may make us more sinful.

The problem is made worse because so often we are so bad at judging others. We combine our state of mind with another person's actions, then conclude the other person must possess the state of mind that would cause us to take that action. "He thinks priests should marry. The only way I can see myself thinking priests should marry is if I only cared about sheer numbers, rather than about true discernment of individual vocations. So he thinks priests should marry because he only cares about sheer numbers, not true discernment of individual vocations. And that explains why he receives Communion in the hand; obviously someone who has no respect for the priesthood isn't going to express much reverence toward That which only the priesthood can give us."

There are, of course, situations where it is helpful or even necessary to know why someone does something, as anyone who's ever held a crying baby knows. But these situations are less common than some might think, and as a rule of thumb I'd limit them to cases where we use our knowledge of why to help the other person and not just ourselves.


I love it when other people do my projects for me

In this case, Bill White is not only doing my project, but he even thought up the idea for me, too. Very gracious of him.

(One notes without comment that, while discerning whether he has a Dominican or a Benedictine vocation, Bill starts a Rosary blog.)


Wednesday, December 11, 2002

Responsible blogging

And Then? offers some good thoughts about responsible Catholic blogging, as well as a link to the article, "A Crisis of Saints, " in which Fr. Roger Landry writes:
The only adequate response to this terrible scandal, the only fully Catholic response -- as Francis of Assisi recognized in the 1200s, as Francis de Sales recognized in the 1600s, and as countless other saints have recognized in every century -- is holiness. Every crisis that the Church faces, every crisis that the world faces, is a crisis of saints. Holiness is crucial because it is the real face of the Church.
This is true, of course, yet though in a sense St. Francis of Assisi rebuilt the Church, the gilt of Thirteenth Century Christendom comes off pretty quickly once you start examining it. It's not the personal holiness of one or even several saints that revives the Church -- nor, for that matter is a revived Church free of crisis. Saints (including you, perhaps?) will see the Church through this crisis, but crises we will always have with us.


Practicing what he preaches

Steve Mattson acknowledges the value of silence by ending his blog In Formation.

Seems a bit selfish, if you ask me, preferring to make himself more Christ-like rather than enlighten and entertain the rest of us. But what are you going to do? I hear a lot of seminarians are like that.


Tuesday, December 10, 2002

There is no Chapter 11 in the Book of Lamentations
"The cartoons, parodies, and ridicule are now in force. It will be a stigma, a mark of shame we will all have to carry."
-- letter from the Boston Priests Forum to Cardinal Law, December 9, 2002
The stigma spoken of in the letter is, of course, that of bankruptcy. (Link from in between naps.)

For some reason, this reminds me that the earliest known representation of the Crucifixion is a graffito in Rome, showing a man praying to a donkey-headed man on a cross, with the inscription, "Alexamenos worships his god."

The cartoons, parodies, and ridicule, the stigma and the shame, will always accompany the Church. When Christ Crucified is preached, it will be Christ Crucified who is ridiculed. When something else is preached, it will be something else.


Good thing it's just a metaphor

The usually sound Fr. Jeffrey Keyes proves that, nowadays at least, the laity are not actual sheep:
Working on tomorrow's homily makes me realize that no shepherd in their right mind would have even left the 99 to go seek out the one. Any shepherd listening to Jesus would have laughed and scoffed.
If the laity were actual sheep, Fr. Keyes would know by now that shepherds do, in fact, go seek out the one.

Here's an excerpt from my bishop's newspaper column a few week's back:
One of the best visits I had during those four days in Lebanon was the afternoon that I drove up to the "Holy Valley." This is a mountainous area in north central Lebanon, a couple of hours by car from Beirut, up winding mountain roads and deep picturesque valleys. This was the real homeland of the Maronite Catholics during the centuries of occupation by the Turks and other rulers. Here, half hidden in the forest and glens, they preserved their heritage, their culture and, in a special way, their faith....

As I stood almost dizzyingly close to the edge of the cliff and looked out at the villages that rim the canyons of the valley, I spotted a sheep lost in some brambles a couple of hundred yards away. I asked about it and was told that it had probably wandered from the flock and was now trapped there until the shepherd spotted it and climbed down to rescue it. Sure enough, a few moments later one could see in the distance a man slowly and painstakingly climbing down to the place where the sheep was bleating in fright. It was a real re-enactment of the New Testament story for me! I asked my guides whether it would not be very dangerous for the shepherd to climb down that steep slope and then try to free the poor animal. I was told, "He doesn't have a choice. He has to save the sheep. It belongs to him!"


Friday, December 06, 2002

Psalms every Catholic should know

I was reading a biography of Bl. Pier Giorgio Frassati, a remarkable man of God whose love of mountain climbing is well known. One of his habits was praying the De Profundis (Psalm 129/130) upon reaching a mountain peak, for the souls of those who had died on the mountain. (As the old Catholic Encyclopedia explains, "The Church recites this psalm principally in her prayers for the dead; it is the psalm of the holy souls in purgatory, the words of the Psalmist applying well to the longing and sighing of the souls exiled from heaven.")

It's a great idea, and can be adapted for those of us unlikely to find ourselves on a mountain peak (or at least one that people have died attempting to reach) by, for example, praying the De Profundis when getting onto a major highway, for the souls of those killed in accidents on it.

The problem is that it sort of requires you to know the De Profundis. And this got me to thinking of what psalms Catholics should have memorized.

The De Profundis and the Miserere (Psalm 50/51) are the two psalms explicitly listed in the Enchiridion of Indulgences. The former, as has been said, is useful for praying for the souls in purgatory; the latter for praying for oneself (in particular during penitential times and Fridays).

Other good psalms to know include:
  • Dominus reget me ("The Lord is my Shepherd," Psalm 22/23), popular at funerals and ecumenical occasions
  • Venite exultemus ("Come, Let us Sing to the Lord," Psalm 94/95), which appears frequently in the Liturgy of the Mass (and every day in the Liturgy of the Hours)
  • Iubilate Domino ("Cry Out With Joy to the Lord," Psalm 99/100), a psalm for cheerful occasions
  • Laudate Dominum ("O Praise the Lord," Psalm 116/117), the shortest in the psalter
  • Ecce nunc benedicite ("Come Bless the Lord," Psalm 133/134), a fantastic bedtime prayer (also suitable for moments of wakefulness during the night)
Now, I don't have all (or even most) of these memorized, but there's something to be said for being prepared to pray them (or a similar set) at a moment's notice. If we could all just agree on a translation.


Wednesday, December 04, 2002

For example

A Zenit article reports on a gathering of Franciscans on the U.S.-Mexico border. They
called on the U.S. government to end Operation Gatekeeper, which they said forces migrants to cross in the most dangerous sections of the border through the desert and mountainous terrain, the Misna agency reported.

"This plan is killing innocent human beings who are in search of better lives," said Father Gearoid Ó Conaire, leader of the International Council for Justice, Peace and the Integrity of Creation, for the Order of Friars Minor in Rome. "In the nonviolent spirit of St. Francis and St. Clare, we call on the U.S. government to end this policy of death."
Let me attempt a conservative response:

"Operation Gatekeeper kills no one. Those who die have chosen to break the laws of a sovereign nation, and must be held to be responsible for their own deaths. If they were truly in search of better lives, let them apply to enter the country legally -- or better yet, to copy what they like about the U.S. in their own countries. If the U.S. opened its boarders, as these liberal and ignorant Franciscans insist, then we would soon be swamped with out-of-work immigrants not much better off than they were before, while the rest of us would find ourselves much worse off in the attempt to provide them with all the services the nanny state would insist we provide. We have the right and the duty to refuse entry to those who would make our country worse off."

I suspect a fair number of American Catholic National Review subscribers would agree with the above paragraph and disagree with the Franciscans, once they finish rolling their eyes at the existence of something called the International Council for Justice, Peace and the Integrity of Creation.

But the Franciscans are making a moral argument, and my imaginary conservative is making an economic argument. Once the economic argument is made, a moral argument can be constructed to oppose the Franciscans (e.g., they don't understand or are misapplying the "nonviolent spirit of St. Francis," or the virtue of justice speaks against open borders, or immigration policy is a matter of prudential judgment and friars have no competence to speak on it).

What isn't clear to me is how one judges the worth of a moral argument when his mind has already been made up by an economic argument.


Well, I thought it was funny

A post on the New Gasparian begins:
There is a National Magazine that would like you to believe that it carries on a serious conversation in both culture and politics.
When I saw that the entire sentence was a link to National Review, I laughed long and hard.

Mostly because I know about, and am largely sympathetic to, Fr. Keyes's on-going opposition to the tone, tenor, and content of much of what NR's Rod Dreher writes about the American bishops. But also because I too have wondered about the fealty so many American Catholics show toward the magazine and its on-line presence. As Fr. Keyes puts it,
Unfortunately, there are many Catholics who take what they write seriously, and even form their opinions of the Church on what they read there. This is a serious mistake.
A criticism of the bishops that I've seen time and again from National Review Online and its supporters is that, while they may be competent to speak about matters of religion, the bishops know nothing about economics or politics, and therefore they should say nothing. It's interesting that journalists (and this is by no means limited to those writing for NRO) seldom direct such criticism toward themselves.

I've read that National Review's role in the conservative movement is to keep the loyalists feisty and girded for battle, while other magazines do more of the intellectual heavy lifting. If this is a fair characterization, then NR and NRO should be thought of as more revival sermon than catechism. And while there is a place for revival sermons, it can be a real challenge to separate the emotional delivery from the dogmatic content and evaluate the dogma objectively and rationally.


Tuesday, December 03, 2002

Keeping the X in Xmas

On the one hand, the Knights of Columbus's "Keep Christ in Christmas" campaign is a noble effort in the exercise of the virtue of religion. On the other hand, it's as hopeless as a "Keep St. Sylvester in New Year's Eve" campaign.

My resolution to the tension between the sacred and the profane on Christmas is to acknowledge that there are two different events -- one sacred, one profane -- that happen to occur on the same day and that happen to both be called the same thing.

The sacred Christmas is the celebration of the Solemnity of the Nativity of the Lord. The profane Christmas is our culture's winter festival. Other than the name and the date, the two celebrations don't have much in common.

It wasn't till I realized that the secular Christmas really is a winter festival, rather than just a debasement of a religious holy day, that I understood why people sing "Winter Wonderland" and "Jingle Bells" in December, most of which falls during autumn, yet disapprove of singing them in January and February, when (in my experience) it might actually snow. We celebrate winter when it first arrives -- a thoroughly human response in the face of the inexorable -- but within a week begin to treat it like an out-of-work uncle who has overstayed his welcome. This also explains why the sentimental notion of a white Christmas is such a big deal: it effects what it symbolizes, the arrival of winter.

From this perspective, calls to "remember the reason for the season" are misguided. The season is winter; the reason is the tilt of the earth and the eccentricity of its orbit. If there were no Christmas holiday, we would have invented it.

At the same time, of course -- quite literally the same time -- the Nativity of the Lord is of tremendous religious importance to most Christians, and those Christians who also celebrate the winter festival called Christmas need to maintain an appropriate balance between observance of the holy day and celebration on the holiday. This is the same balance we have been called to since the first Christian Pentecost. But though the appropriate balance heavily favors the religious over the secular, it eliminates neither, and I don't see our culture's winter festival as in direct competition with, still less opposed to, our Church's solemnity. Over-eating, over-drinking, and over-spending are as wrong -- no more and no less -- on Christmas as on St. Elizabeth of Portugal's Day.


31 Days, 31 Ways: The Website

It's here, unedited and unadorned.

I'll be happy to have it printed up as a booklet (about 48 pp) if I can get pledges to buy 25 copies @ $6 each, including shipping.


Monday, December 02, 2002

Good homilies

What do you consider a good homily?, Amy Welborn asks on behalf of Fr. Stanley.

The answers are, generally, hard to argue against. But that won't stop me from trying.

Several commenters said they like homilies that stick with the basics of the faith, explicitly condemn abortion, and stay away from politics. All of which is fine, but I can't help but think such a homily is intended for everyone else. (You know, those hour-a-week Catholics, the ignorant, undercatechised, cultural or cafeteria Catholics who keep trying to hold our hands during the Lord's Prayer.) A homily we approve of, not one we are affected by.

There are various techniques of rhetoric and delivery that can make a homily more effective on the natural level; we are, remember, physical beings, and physical things (including temporal arrangement of spoken words) matter to us (so to speak). But I think the most important effect of a homily is to enable me to leave Mass a better disciple of Christ than I entered. This means it has to change me, to give me something I didn't have before.

[As an aside: part of the insipidity of the common or garden parish homily is likely due to the wide variety among the parishioners. There is no single homily whose content and delivery will have something for, and be well received by, everyone in a typical Ordinary Time Sunday morning congregation.]

There are a lot of things a homilist can give me: historical information; an anecdote; an insight into the implications of the Gospel reading. But I've found one of the most valuable things he can give me is the sight of a man of faith talking about his faith. Meister Eckhart said that a good preacher is a man on fire with the love of God, and his listeners watch him burn. Exhortation and explanation are necessary, but on any given Sunday they may miss the mark. I may have already heard the anecdote, or the insight may go over my head. But I am always going to be affected by the sight of a man on fire with love.