instruere...inlustrare...delectare Disputations

Friday, January 31, 2003

More on reason

To make any sense of the following, read Camassia's post and the comments on it first. Then read her follow-up.

(The writer should be the one setting the context, not the reader, but that's life in hypertext.)

Anyway, Camassia writes:
First of all, what is "reason" in this scheme, and what does it have to do with goodness?
Roughly speaking, by "reason" I mean the ability to correctly determine how good a thing is. The "clouding of reason" I mentioned as a consequence of original sin means I am likely to think something is better or worse than it actually is, so given a choice I am likely to choose what is actually less good.

(If no one minds, I'll set aside the question about what kind of sex is rational for now. I don't have anything original or persuasive to say on the subject.)
Reason can, of course, be helpful in ethics -- making them more consistent, for instance. But ultimate judgments about good and evil aren't based on it. Consider St. Paul's concise summary of ethics in Romans 13:9:... "Love your neighbor as yourself." I don't see what reason has to do with that.
Since by "reason" I basically mean "that by which judgments about good and evil are based," I think we've got a problem with terminology.

We could suppose, though, that "Love your neighbor as yourself" is a revealed precept that human reasoning alone would not arrive at. Then what? Then I have to figure out how to love my neighbor as myself, by figuring out what love is, how I love myself, and what means are available to me to love my neighbor in the same way.
LF seems to be saying that the need to control and suppress our feelings is an effect of our fallenness, while Tom seems to be saying that was in the original plan, we're just not doing it right. One version says being moral is fighting our nature, the other says it's harmonizing with it.
What I'm saying is that in the original plan there was no need to fight our nature, because there was to be no strife between reason and passion. If everyone always agrees on where to go for lunch, there's no need to fight over it. Wolves are not conflicted, toads are one with their emotions, because they aren't fallen.

Well, that was the original plan. Now we're on Plan B, which Louder Fenn describes as "all about fighting your...fallen nature." We most certainly are not to harmonize with our nature, since our nature is distorted. It would be like straightening your hair in a broken mirror. What we are to do is to perfect our nature, which we do by cooperating with God's action in our lives, with His grace.
On Tom's side, we have the problem of what this "harmony" means in practical terms. In fact, homosexuality is an especially good example of this. This is an emotion that, in Catholic thinking, should never be acted upon. It serves no conceivable good purpose to feel it. So as a sin, it's an absence of...what? In a theoretical pre-fallen Eden, what happens to it?
Homosexuality isn't a sin; it's an inclination or preference. I believe it is objectively disordered, and as such wouldn't occur in a pre-fallen Eden. I don't know what I'd say it's an absence of; maybe the discrimination of proper from improper objects of sexual attraction.


A science experiment

In a comment below, Joseph McFaul offers an interesting bet:
I bet that women's ordination could be "developed" if we gave 10 theologians the job of ghostwriting a future Pope's decision to permit women's ordination. I don't think those 10 would take too long in developing a document that could reasonably be characterized as a "development" and not a "reversal."
I wouldn't bet against him. In fact, I'd guess that there are more than 10 theologians now living who feel they've already done this, and are now just waiting for a future pope to recognize it.

But can't we turn it around, and say that 10 theologians could ghostwrite a future pope's decision to formally and explicitly pronounce, declare, and define it to be a divinely revealed dogma that only men can be ordained? And which group of ten, do you think, would have an easier job of it?

I see a significant problem with the "ten theologians on typewriters" sort of reasoning, which is that it makes theology a sort of sophistry. Ask a theologian what is truth, and he'll say, "What do you want it to be?"

But theology is actually a science, in the old-fashioned sense of a discipline that makes true statements. We forget that, because so much of the theology we hear these days is highly speculative, but that, I think, is because so much of the easy theology has already been done. (Of course the easy theology is being rejected these days -- that's an even easier way to bang out a scholarly paper -- but that's a separate matter.)

So what sort of data does theology operate on? Among other things, it operates on papal statements. When Joseph proposes that ghostwriting team, he is actually proposing a new datum: that a pope has decided to permit women's ordination.

But that's like saying 10 physicists can prove the existence of ghosts if a ghost agrees to be tested in a physics lab. The proposal substantially changes the nature of the question.

From the other side, so does the proposal that a pope wants to explicitly invoke divine revelation to declare women's ordination impossible.

How, then, do we think with the mind of the Church on this matter? It seems to me that we try not to interject any hypotheticals into our thinking -- in particular, what a future pope might want to do -- and satisfy ourselves with the data we have. And I cannot come to any other conclusion, based on the data we have, than that women's ordination is impossible.


Thursday, January 30, 2003

Yankee dispatch from south of the Mason-Dixon line

One of the secrets to keeping Disputations a family friendly place of < html >-to-< /html > sweetness and light is that, when I'm feeling particularly unbearable, I will go and leave a comment on someone else's blog. Then I return, refreshed and relaxed, to write some more balanced commentary in the Dominican tradition here.

Despite the obvious advantages, for both myself and Disputations readers, there is a regrettable downside to this. I need to work on that.

Still, I doubt there is a less sympathetic ear than mine to "War for Southern Independence"-type talk. When I read that Southerners resent Lincoln, I have to think that they are trying to have it both ways, to hold a dual USA-CSA citizenship. I wrote below about mutually incompatible desires; this may be an ideal political example.

There is a lot to regret about the Civil War and its aftermath. But to regret that the North won, while at the same time to be happy and proud that the South is part of the United States ... well, that may be how people feel, but it's a self-contradicting way to think.


The purpose of pointing things out

Mark Shea explains why he points out bishops' miscreancy:
It seems to me that, if it is truly the purpose of the Pope to compel the bishops to face the people they have hurt and betrayed, then it is the duty of the betrayed to speak clearly to those bishops about just how they have (and in some cases, continue to) hurt us by their lousy fidelity to their office.
Fair enough. I'll even go a step further and say it's the duty of the betrayed to speak clearly to those bishops regardless of the Pope's purpose.

But I wouldn't characterize most of what I read along these lines on Catholic blogs as the betrayed speaking clearly to lousy bishops. I would characterize it as gossip.

(I pick on Catholic and Enjoying It! because it's one of the few blogs that indulges in the sport of bad bishop baiting that I enjoy reading nonetheless.)

In a comment on Mark's post, Rod Dreher writes of me:
He makes it appear that there's no difference between orthodox laymen working to get rid of a bishop whose leadership has brought rack and ruin to the diocese, and VOTF... Does Disputations really believe the only legitimate reaction for faithful orthodox Catholics faced with this kind of prelate is to keep their heads down, not complain, and keep giving?
I explicitly mentioned three differences between Dallas and Boston; the difference I'm looking for is the one that matters. I really believe the only legitimate reaction for faithful orthodox Catholics faced with the kind of prelate Bishop Grahmann is accused of being is to hold their heads up, complain prudently, and keep giving.


It is easy for little monkeys to forget

I am puzzled by the enthusiasm expressed for the Dallas cabal that is trying to depose the bishop. What I am missing, I suppose, is the significant difference between the situation in Dallas and the situation last year in Boston, when public calls to stop contributing to the archdiocese were treated as a power grab.

It's not that I don't see several differences. The "ad hoc committee" in Dallas already had power, enough to summon the bishop and make him agree to the "facts" it "presented," including his own resignation. They were certainly more discreet, waiting nearly six years before revealing details of a private meeting in the magazine one of them owns; I'd expect VOTF to fax the minutes of such a meeting to the Boston Globe from the hotel lobby during coffee breaks. I'll even grant, for the sake of argument, that the intentions of the Dallas committee are better than those of VOTF.

What I can't see, though, is why any of that matters. Is supporting your local Church really a morally neutral act, such that in one set of circumstances refusing that support is good, and in another it is evil?

I should admit, if it's not already clear, that I find Wick Allison's editorial extremely off-putting. He complains that Bishop Grahmann "reneged on a deal to resign," a deal dictated by a self-appointed group of laymen who forced his "back to the wall." I would expect people who shudder at the thought of the American laity electing their own bishops to be just as unhappy at the thought of secret oligarchies making the decisions.

I also find the historical interlude very peculiar. Allison implies that, because a Moroney assisted at the founding of the diocese, it's a Moroney's business to tell the Church how it should be run:
In the same issue of Texas Catholic that denounced the News, a separate story announced the donation of a new 49-bell carillon by another publisher of the News, Jim Moroney's father, who is leading the campaign for the renovation of the bishop's own cathedral. That cathedral might not exist, and Dallas might not even have a bishop, if a Moroney had not been here to raise the money for it, to campaign for it, to protect it, to fight for it.
So there is his justification. Not, as with VOTF, an idiosyncratic interpretation of the Second Vatican Council, but good old fashioned money. "We own the dancehall, the stool you're sitting on, and the pipe you're playing, so you'd better play the tune we call."

I don't find any of this inspirational.


When the knowledge of sensible things is directed to something harmful

Complaining about other people doesn't make me a better person. I suspect it doesn't make anyone a better person. In fact, I'd even argue that complaining about other people prevents the complainers from becoming better, if only as far as time spent on the faults of others is time not spent on the faults of oneself.

So I don't think Mark Shea's running "Worst Still-Serving American Bishop" award gag serves a good purpose. Folks who have never been and never will be in New Hampshire or Texas are gossipping about bishops there as though such gossip were itself meritorious.

And yes, my complaining about the complaining of others isn't meritorious either, although I pretend to justify it by using it as the context in which to point out that

Curiosity is a vice. It is a form of intemperance, an inordinate desire to know.

It's one of my chief vices, if you couldn't tell, which is why it bothers me so much to see it in others.


Wednesday, January 29, 2003

Moving right along

This is supposed to be a happy occasion. Let's not bicker and argue about who misrepresented who.

A question is asked:
How do I know, when I survey Church teaching on various controversial subjects, the difference between doctrine subject to legitimate development and doctrine that cannot change?
This is a tough question, and I'm not qualified to give a complete answer.

But for the vast majority of Church teaching, I don't think it's tough to make this distinction in practice. You avoid over-literalism in one direction ("Obviously 'outside the church' includes those protesting on the steps.") and in the other ("But where does it actually say we aren't descended from space aliens?"). You try to "think with the mind of the Church" -- which means understand things the way the Church understands them.

And you find, or at least I find, that the areas of legitimate controversy are much more limited than it might first seem. A lot of the arguments on one side are based on heretical Protestant theologies -- and I mean explicitly heretical, like with the anathemas of ecumenical councils and everything -- of the Nineteenth Century. A lot of the arguments on the other side are based on heretical Jansenist theologies -- and I mean ditto. A lot of the remaining arguments on all sides are based on ahistorical splicings of very small sets of texts, either producing or precluding wiggle room that, in context, none of the cited texts can seriously be held to have intended.

The stock problem of usury is not one I've look at much, but I'm willing to accept for the purpose of argument that, had I lived several centuries ago, I would have said the Church has always taught that earning 3% on a savings account is immoral, and that that teaching could never change. (I mean, I didn't live then, so anything is possible.) The question then becomes, "What is the usury of today?"

My answer is, "How would I know? If by assumption I didn't know the usury of usury's day, why would I be able to pick out a usury of today?" (Conversely, how does the other guy know? Maybe several centuries ago he would have been a disciple of Bruno.) It's a bit sophist, but I think the sophism sits on top of a sound argument.

How do I decide which of the teachings that, as best I can tell, the Church says are irreformable really are irreformable? I decide that they all are. Is it possible I'm wrong? Sure. I could be wrong about what the Church teaches; even the Church's teachers could be wrong, in certain ways, about what the Church teaches. But that's what I mean when I say, "I believe in one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church." If I knew all this stuff, it wouldn't be a matter of faith.


Tuesday, January 28, 2003

The magic word

In a comment below, Lisa pointed out:
most of the folks who advocate women's ordination ... view women's "inclusion" as a matter of human rights & simple justice.
When I admitted to finding this view absurd, she replied:
the issue is power ...
You have to read the comments to get the proper context of all this, of course.

But I note again that in one step we move from talk of justice to talk of power. What is the priesthood about? Power! Writing governing documents, naming sins, making the rules. Why would anyone, man or woman, want to be called to that?

I think Lisa is concerned that the particular natural power that prevents women from becoming priests lies wholly in the hands of men. This is a tough challenge to combat. It's not only true, it's necessarily true if God doesn't want women ordained. As an observable fact, it's hardly a reason to suspect that God wants women ordained; in fact, given the way the Church works, isn't it a reason to suspect He doesn't?

But why would it matter that power lies wholly in the hands of men anyway? Unless priests somehow represent men in a way they don't represent women, in which case there is some difference between men and women that has a significant effect on the nature of the priesthood ... but I wouldn't think that's a line of reasoning women's ordination advocates would be eager to pursue.

And if it isn't a men vs. women thing, but that power lies wholly in the hands of the particular men who hold it, well, what of that? When I hear, "Men have all the power in the Church," my first thought is, "Not this one." I don't have any more power, by virtue of my sex, than any woman in the Church. If the problem is which men do have the power, where do we go from here? Do we keep cycling through bishops until we hit a configuration that will permit women's ordination, then say, "Aha! At last we have properly discerned God's will!"

I can't help but think there's an awful lot of question begging being done by women's ordination advocates. (It can be argued that there's a lot being done by its opponents, too, but "But we've always done it this way" does actually count for something in the Church.) I suspect that the first question begged is the bedrock principle of women's ordination, that it's "a matter of human rights & simple justice."

Let me briefly explain why I think this bedrock principle is absurd. It's not an original explanation, but it's pretty straightforward. Ordination to the priesthood is a mystery, a sacrament instituted by God for our supernatural salvation. It is by definition not a matter of human rights; no human has the inalienable right to be a priest. Justice is the giving of what is due to whom it is due; to no human is ordination due. Ordination is no more a matter of human rights than it is a matter of aesthetics or sport.

Now, the way (the only way, as far as I can see) it could be a matter of human rights and justice is if the Church could ordain women, but refuses to. But that's not an argument, that's an assertion. The teaching authority of the Church, meanwhile, more asserts than argues that the Church cannot ordain women. But the teaching authority of the Church can make such an assertion; making such assertions is the business of the teaching authority of the Church. So again, the arguments for and against begin by assuming what they set out to prove, and again, only one side has the authority to do that.

I'm not accusing anyone of bad faith or mean spiritedness, but some people do seem to be trying to construct arguments on a non-existent foundation.


Desires right and wrong

Someone who should have her own blog (possibly shared with a should-have-a-blog Carmelite, if one could be found, and called "In Black and White") points out "there are hundreds of churches in various states of separation from Rome that have" the various things what can be called "progressive Roman Catholicism" is campaigning for. This is certainly true; in fact, there are plenty of "autocephalous Catholic" organizations that seem to define themselves in precisely this way, as Roman Catholicism minus the rules and regulations.

Still, there's wanting and there's wanting. For example, I want to be married to my wife, and I want to own a pistol crossbow. I happen to know these wants are mutually incompatible; they will not both be satisfied in this life. This knowledge doesn't stop me from wanting a pistol crossbow, just from ever expecting to own one.

Similarly, I don't expect Roman Catholics who want women to be ordained to stop wanting women to be ordained. But they must recognize that being Roman Catholic and being a woman priest are mutually exclusive. To fail to see this, in particular to agitate for women's ordination, is to engage in a form of syncreticism, only instead mixing paganism into Catholicism, they're mixing in Congregationalism.

I can sympathize with the desire for things to be other than how they are, and with the experience of desiring two things I cannot both obtain. The moral choice, though, is the greater good. To the extent that people remain Catholic while wanting women's ordination, they are making the correct choice, even if it leads to such wearisome consequences as the National Catholic Reporter's editorial policies.


Happy Universalis Day

Several people have wished me a happy St. Thomas Aquinas Day, and I wish it right back at them.

Today is a feast day for Dominicans, and a patronal feast day for me, so I observe it with somewhat more enthusiasm (and more calories) than most, but please remember that St. Thomas is a saint of the Universal Church, and so "belongs" to all of us.

Think of him as a tuba player in the symphony that is the Church. The other tuba players may feel closest to him, playing the same notes on the same instrument, but he is playing the same song, for the same reason, as the violins and the oboes. (A wrong-minded metaphor is thinking of the different orders as different countries; when I wish Australians a Happy Australia Day, it doesn't make much sense for them to say, "And to you as well!")

St. Thomas has a reputation as a difficult writer to understand. This is true, in more ways than one, and I think when we thank him for his contributions to the Church, we ought to thank his secretary Reginald de Piperno as well. To see what I mean, here is a sample of St. Thomas's handwriting:

On Summa Contra Mundum, Karl Schudt writes, "The model for Aquinas is not his own preferred activity, but the activity of Christ." It's true that the activity of Christ is his model, but we should probably keep in mind that he was writing during a time of confrontation between the established religious customs and the emerging customs of the mendicant orders. The "active life that consists in passing on to others through preaching and teaching truths that have been contemplated" Aquinas says is "more perfect than the solely contemplative life" happens to be precisely the life the Dominicans considered their own. To the extent St. Thomas was a philosopher, he was bucking the trend, but to the extent he was a Dominican, he was greasing the rails.

Finally, don't forget to make a hearty and filling pot of Dumb Ox Tail Soup tonight.


Contemplative prayer

Eve Tushnet asks what contemplative prayer is, then answers her own question:
There have definitely been times when I felt really sharply focused on one aspect of God, for example God the Creator, or the Crucifixion--almost always this was in the presence of the Eucharist, often right after receiving Communion. Basically it was like I snapped into a visceral awareness of God, an intense "noticing" of an aspect of God and a sense of how this aspect is directly relevant to my own life. Seeing what is always there, in other words, underneath the inattention and pride and other accumulated grime of the Fall--as if a curtain had moved away from a window, or the sun come out from clouds.
I think the difficulty with recognizing this experience as prayer -- in fact, the highest form of prayer -- is that it isn't active and discursive. Since we in the West are active and discursive, and since from our mothers' laps we have been trained in the ways of active and discursive prayer, a prayer that is receptive and ineffable seems like a completely different thing than prayer, rather than its perfection.

Fr. William McNamara, OCD, defined contemplation as a long, lingering, loving look at the real, and in a natural sense this is something we can (and should) do every day. The most real real, though, is God, and we cannot look upon God in this life. In His love for us, He occasionally moves the curtain for us, so that we can (and must) look at Him. This experience is what I understand by contemplative prayer. And it's for everyone, not just the professional contemplatives.


Sunday, January 26, 2003

On married priests

A follow-up to the last post, in which I wrote progressive Roman Catholics often prefer that priests can marry.

I'm sure you know the stock exchange on married priests, the one with the words "discipline, not dogma," and the comparison with the Eastern Churches.

But I think we should recognize that, among progressive American Catholics, what's really being recommended is that priests be allowed to marry, not just that married men be allowed to be ordained priests.

Married bishops? What do you think the answer will be, from people who think the answer to the question of whether women can be ordained is, "Sure. Why not?"

Their model is not Eastern Orthodox, but Episcopalian. Which again, is not a move in a direction I can imagine marks progress from where the Church is today.


No token of esteem

Katherine of Not for Sheep has discovered that being "the token progressive in St. Blog's" could be lucrative, if only the shots taken at her weren't so cheap.

But while, as the word is used nowadays, her opinions on a lot of things do make her "progressive," that only reminds me of my dissatisfaction with the way the word is used nowadays.

The sorts of things that are usually taken to distinguish a "progressive Roman Catholic" from a "conservative Roman Catholic" include preferences for priests who can marry, for women priests, for giving Communion to divorced-and-remarried Catholics, for giving Communion to non-Catholics, for recognizing gay unions, for liturgical innovations unconnected with Church tradition, indeed for personal preference over tradition generally, for the morality of contraception and often enough of abortion, for action at the expense of contemplation, for the laity at the expense of the hierarchy.

When I bundle these things up and imagine a church that adopted them whole, it seems to me to mark an advancement toward Unitarianism as compared to the Church as she exists today. With apologies to my Unitarian readership, I cannot believe that such a change would mark progess for the Church founded by Jesus Christ.

There are legitimate tensions between "progressive" and "conservative" dispositions, between the personal and the general, the immediate and the universal, the laity and the hierarchy, the immanent and the transcendent, the becoming and the being. But the "progressivism" of the National Catholic Reporter is suspiciously like the "progressivism" of the American media culture. Do we really think Hollywood movie stars are more faithful prophets of God than is the Church?


Friday, January 24, 2003

Stop proving my point before I've made it!

I believe this statement by House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi is supposed to draw appreciative nods from the National Catholic Reporter readership:
"I didn’t think I wanted to be a nun. But I thought I might want to be a priest. There seemed to be a little more power there, a little more discretion over what was going on in the parish."
There's that magic word. The word that explains too much about the Roman Catholicism of Nancy Pelosi and NCR.


Including the headline, the word "power" appears five times in this article. The word "service" doesn't appear at all.

(Link via Amy Welborn.)


Pacifism and fortitude

De Virtutibus has an insightful post on pacifist virtues, and how they might relate to warrior virtues.

It may be time for those of us who are neither pacifists nor warriors to start figuring out the virtues of those who only stand and wait.


Thursday, January 23, 2003

Just because

I need to do truth before I even get to beauty, but


Lost by the translation

Hernan Gonzales might be saying something bad about me:
Leyendo ahora la explicación de Jim del corporal, parece que la teoría de John, sin dejar de ser perfecta, tiene el inconveniente de estar en contradicción con los hechos.

Bueno... No me acuerdo quién fue el que dijo -es de esas frases de atribución variada ... creo que la leí adjudicada a Lenin- lo de «Si los hechos no se corresponden con mi teoría, peor para los hechos». Pero, si uno puede esperar eso de un político, de un intelectual ideologizado, (y de algún científico moderno...), uno mantiene la ilusión de que un dominico jamás lo va a decir...
I will simply note that the fact that a theory is false does not imply that it must be discarded entirely. One might keep it around, like a dried alligator head, for conversational purposes.

Here, however, Babelfish utterly fails me:
Cuando leí esto -en su contexto ... y en el mío- me dije: «Este Tomás... es un capo».
Because I'm pretty sure Hernan is not saying, "This Tomás... is I castrate". (Nor, per FreeTranslation, "This Thomas is a boss.")

Still, at least now I have a word to scream out at the world should I ever be driving in Argentina.


I feel better now

I got that whole Washington Post front page thing off my chest.


Anger-filled subscriber

Despite having been a subscriber for several years, I was still surprised by the front page of this morning's Washington Post. Below the words, "Anger-filled anniversary" was a picture of a few ABORTION RIGHTS SUPPORTERS screaming at pro-life marchers.

The utter, filthy mendacity of using the three abortionistas in a sea of fifty thousand pro-lifers as the visual, full-color, above-the-fold icon of the March for Life is beneath contempt. This should prompt several resignations from the Post, if only from a sense of personal integrity.

Oh, if you really care, you can go to the Metro section to actually read an article about the march. Apparently, tens of thousands marching in Washington is only a front-section story when they're opposing killing babies outside the U.S. But that's to be expected from the Post.


Wednesday, January 22, 2003

I will not put a pun here

Camassia is probably right that our dialogue is winding down. If I do have a that's-just-the-way-it-is attitude, I think it would be because we are pretty close to the point where, in fact, from the Catholic perspective, that is just the way it is.

I think the questions she's been asking are tremendously important, particularly for Christians, but as I've written before, fundamentally they aren't the sort of questions we can answer adequately. Not after a lifetime of contemplation, much less prior to making a leap of faith into Christianity.

I don't see this as a weakness of Christianity, though. I see it as a mark that Christianity preaches something bigger than human reason, and if anything should be unsurprising it's that reality is bigger than human reason.

However, since no one has yet commented on another of Camassia's posts, I thought I'd give it a shot:
I disagree that the "will" must be some sort of free-floating entity within the mind.... Reason and emotion -- not to mention our many conflicting reasons and emotions -- are ultimately part of one organism. I think of my "will" as what I end up doing once all those factors play out within myself.
I'll buy that. Traditional language does make it sound as though the will, the intellect, the emotions, and so forth exist as little boxes exchanging messages inside a human person, but that's mostly a formalism to provide a more or less rigorous way to talk about how and why people act. The will is simply the "faculty," the means by which a person makes choices. That such means exist can be inferred from the fact that people make choices, but speaking of "the faculty of the will" doesn't imply that the will is somehow physically or spiritually separate from the rest of the person.
...Christians say unbelievers "choose to reject God," as if everybody looked coolly over the situation -- Jesus, love and heaven or sin, death and hell -- and inexplicably chose the latter.
Yes, that does sound as if a written test will be administered following an extensive explanation of the options. What it means, though, is that the choices a person makes amount to a choice for or against Christ, whether the person thinks so or has even ever heard of Christ.

This can lead to all sorts of problems and paradoxes in trying to figure out whether a person in a particular situation has or has not chosen God -- which makes me think trying to figure out whether a person in a particular situation has or has not chosen God is not something a Christian is supposed to do, unless the person in question is himself.
God is supposedly our Creator. So even if we are not his slaves, he made us complete with our impulses and desires and capacities and what have you. While you cannot control what is in your slave's heart, God can control our hearts -- he made our hearts. Where does the love in your heart come from? Do you will it? Or does it just happen? What does freedom really mean here?
Following the principle that all goodness comes from God, the love in my heart comes from God. But we should also follow the principle that God is more unlike us than He is like us. If I say, "God put my love for Him in my heart," I'm speaking analogically. God doesn't put things in my heart the way I put pennies in a coin bank. He is the "first cause" of things, and He causes things in a way wholly different from the way I cause things, mostly because He is not a thing Himself.

I know I can't make myself very clear on this -- and frankly, this is a subject on which there are longstanding and bitter divisions within Christianity -- but God can cause me to cause myself to love Him. A common analogy is the rose: does God cause the rose to bloom, or does the rosebush? My answer is that both God and the rosebush cause the rose to bloom, but in very different ways: God as the first cause making the rosebush as the second cause make the rose bloom.
I can't say, of course, what goes on in the mind of a Christian. But I wonder, again, how serious the option to walk away is. Many Christians -- if not all of them -- wrestle with belief in God, but I doubt many have believed firmly in God and chosen to walk away. Again, the question seems to be of faith rather than morality or even choice.
Oh, my yes, the option to walk away is extremely serious. And extremely appealing.

Now "walking away from God" need not entail apostasy, a categorical and intentional renunciation of one's faith in Christ. A Christian walks away from God whenever he choses something instead of God; in other words, each time he sins. And remember, one's choices reflect one's faith; you can't choose God without faith, and you can't lose faith without choosing against God.

So it is a question of both faith and morality. It's sort of like reading a paperback while on a date; the action is a sure and certain indication that you are not fully committed to the relationship.


Fideism makes perfect sense...

when you're unable to reason.

Of the last fifteen hundred Masses I've assisted at, exactly one was said according to the 1962 Rite. During that Mass, a dog wandered in through an open door and strolled around the church for a few minutes. That was the only Mass during which that happened.

Now, I know what you're thinking. You're thinking, "A return to Latin means dogs wandering around our churches." But you would be wrong, because two of the Masses I've assisted at that were said according to the Paul VI Rite were in Latin, and no dogs wandered around during either of them.

So let's not say that Latin causes wandering dogs, when it's clearly the 1962 Rite that causes it.

O yes, all you traditionalists, I know: The 1962 Rite is approved by the Church, supported by legitimate authority, and all that. I'm not saying the 1962 Rite, as found in the liturgical books, requires wandering dogs. I'm just saying that, in my experience, its use inevitably leads to wandering dogs.

So I know which rite I seek out, and which I avoid.


The changing of the guard

The Washington Post has a front-page story today about the young people involved on both sides of the abortion debate. The picture of the anti-abortion young people is of the punk Christian band Last Tuesday performing in a Capitol Hill hotel.

The picture of the pro-abortion young people is of several glum-faced white female college sophomores at a feminist group meeting. It is such a stereotypical representation of glum-faced sophomore feminism The Onion could use it for an article like, "Feminism's Next Generation: Less Militant, Just As Cranky."

To my mind, glum-faced sophomore feminism is self-refuting. If it really does pose a serious threat to pro-life efforts, there's something profoundly wrong with pro-life efforts.


Another perfectly good theory ruined by facts

Fr. Jim Tucker, explaining the use of the corporal at Mass, writes
Any bread or wine to be consecrated at that Mass ought to be placed upon the corporal, for two reasons: (1) they will become Christ’s Body and Blood at the consecration, and the Eucharist must rest upon a corporal; (2) the general (or “default”) intention of the priest is only to consecrate the elements upon the corporal and so, unless he specifically intends otherwise, bread and wine outside the corporal (for instance, if he leaves a cruet of wine upon the altar) will not be consecrated.
I did not know about this limiting general intention, and I find its existence inconvenient for a pet theory of mine, which holds that the reason the valid ingredients for the bread used for consecration are so constrained is to prevent the Cheerios the little kids in the back of the church are dropping from being consecrated.


Tuesday, January 21, 2003

Another way of looking at it

If we divide all wars, from the perspective of a nation fighting them, into offensive wars and defensive wars; and

If we define a "defensive war" as a war begun in direct response to an attack by another country; and

If we define an "offensive war" as a war not begun in direct response to an attack by another country; and

If we use this definition of "offensive war" in the U.S. bishop's 1983 statement that "Offensive war of any kind is not morally justifiable"; and

If we note that a country always maintains the right to legitimate defense against unjust attack; then

Offensive wars are always unjust; defensive wars are always just. We can skip all that "proper authority" and "just cause" jazz and hop right into questions of ius in bellum.

My guess is that, since the U.S. bishops have not skipped the "proper authority" and "just cause" jazz since 1983, it follows that their definition of "offensive war" is not "war not begun in direct response to an attack by another country."

The Kairos Guy is concerned that the Church is moving toward declaring that war is by its nature unjust. I don't share his concern; as recently as the last U.S. military operation, those notorious leftists in the U.S.C.C.B. supported the use of military force.

But I do see the scope of what constitutes a just war narrowing. Why? At least in part because, to use St. Thomas's phrase, a just war requires "that those who are attacked should be attacked because they deserve it on account of some fault." The world now affords means other than war of punishing a country because they deserve it on account of some fault, and almost all means of redressing injustice are preferable to war.

I think it's unfortunate that American Catholics are having to work through the current hard case with Iraq without ever having fully digested Magisterial teaching on the morality of the Cold War. We are a results-oriented society -- "Hey, we won, right? Good thing we didn't listen to the Church!" -- and that's a bias we need to overcome if we want to make prudent decisions.


I wish I'd said that

At the end of his "2002 in Review," Greg Krehbiel of Journeyman writes:
John Paul II added five new mysteries to the rosary. Since I don't pray the rosary it doesn't matter much to me, but that's probably the only thing that happened in 2002 that will be significant in 3002.


Monday, January 20, 2003

In practice, theory isn't even the same as theory

Catholics often appeal to just war theory when reasoning about the use of force against Iraq. That different Catholics come to different conclusions isn't due entirely to differences in prudential judgments.

There has been a divergence of thought about just war theory into two competing camps. According to one, the fundamental presumption is a presumption against war, that war is so terrible a just cause for it exists only in extreme cases. The other camp begins with a presumption against injustice, that a just cause for war exists when one nation sufficiently impedes the good that is due another nation (or possibly its own people).

Both camps appeal to the just war tradition, but it seems to me that the "presumption against injustice" side has the better case to make that, for example, they are closer to what St. Thomas had in mind when he discussed war.

Granting that, though, it doesn't follow that the "presumption against injustice" side has the better case to make for how to judge just cause. St. Thomas is an excellent source to start thinking about a problem with, but unless the question is, "What did St. Thomas think?," he does not necessarily get the last word.

I've seen arguments along these lines: "The U.S. bishops, the Vatican, and the Pope all say just war theory entails this. St. Thomas, however, said it entails that. Therefore the U.S. bishops, the Vatican, and the Pope are wrong." (Some arguments go on to disparage the minds and hearts of those said to be wrong.)

I would say, though, that in a situation when the U.S. bishops, the Vatican, and the Pope all agree, and St. Thomas disagrees, you really have to go with the Magisterium over the theologian. (I'm not saying, by the way, that St. Thomas would disagree with the Magisterium; I think the fairer way to put it is that what the Magisterium has been saying, from here to Brunei and even unto the ends of the earth, represents a natural development of what St. Thomas wrote 750 years ago.) It seems pretty obvious in the case of most living theologians; I don't see why it should be less obvious in the case of a dead one.


Salvation by what?

As expected, Camassia did not find what I wrote about the Atonement to be entirely satisfying, which may be about the only sense in which I resemble St. Paul:
Romans was pretty confusing to me too, especially on the topic of Jewish law. The gist seemed to be that God laid down the law but no one followed it perfectly, hence the need for Jesus to come and render forgiveness. What I can't tell is whether this was because giving the laws to Moses was a previous attempt at getting people to live right that failed, or whether the Law itself is somehow inherently inadequate to actually make people good enough to meet God.
My understanding is that following the Law sufficed to maintain the proper Creator-creature relationship, but that no one was able to follow the Law perfectly ("the just man falls seven times"). Even if someone did follow it perfectly, though, I don't think he would be able to enter into the Father-Son relationship that Jesus' life, death, and resurrection makes possible.

To my mind, the wider purpose of giving the Law was as preparation for the coming of the Messiah. Putting it awkwardly, there had to be a people who knew the Law well enough to recognize its fulfillment in Jesus.
But anyway, this is a roundabout way of getting to the question that I asked earlier: what was the fate of those who lived before Jesus? ... So no man can see God and live, but what of the afterlife? If none were righteous, was everyone damned? Could Christ save the dead?
Yes, Christ could save the dead; this is what the Apostles' Creed refers to when it says, "He descended into hell." Traditionally, this is called "the Harrowing of Hell," when Christ brought the predestined souls of those who died before Him into heaven.
I am also a bit doubtful that Catholics believe that mankind's whole side of the bargain was paid through the Crucifixion. Aside from the faith caveat -- an awfully big one -- people also evidently have to repent their sins. Maybe I'm taking Shakespearean theology too seriously, but I was under the impression that even a believer who died "in his sins," that is before repenting them, was destined for otherworldly punishment.
Well, yes, but then again no.

The whole side of the bargain was paid through the Crucifixion, but each of us must still choose whether we are on Christ's side. Our choice is indicated by whether we have faith in Christ, and whether we have faith in Christ is indicated by whether we follow him. ("If you love Me, obey My commands.")

To "die in one's sins" generally means to die in mortal sin, which leads to damnation. To commit a mortal sin means to refuse the bargain struck between Jesus and the Father, which is to say to reject faith in Christ. One can also die in venial sin, which leads to purgation before entering into God's presence; this isn't so much a "payment" in addition to Jesus' sacrifice as recognition that nothing imperfect can bear the sight of God.

Camassia continues to be unhappy with "the idea that your whole salvation rests on faith in one person," because, as she wrote earlier, "you don't choose what you believe... belief replaces morality as the criterion for how God treats you." Here she is, I think, both right and wrong.

Faith in Christ is a gift of God, offered to everyone. We are each free to accept or reject this gift, which is to say we are each free to believe in Christ or not. As a free choice, our decision is a moral decision, and so our eternal destiny is based on morality, as well as belief, as well as God's grace. Thinking our eternal destiny is based only on one or two of these things, instead of all three (and likely more things I'm not thinking of right now), leads to a variety of errors (from the Catholic perspective, at least).

Camassia's point, of course, is that, by its nature, belief is not something we choose. You either believe something or you don't; you can't will yourself to believe something. I don't know whether belief cannot be willed, but I agree with her that this position raises a fundamental objection to Christianity, which insists that belief in Christ be willed for salvation.

But if I say I'm a Christian, and I say that being a Christian means believing that belief in Christ must be willed for salvation and believing that some are saved, aren't I saying that belief can be willed? It sounds like it, but it may not be necessarily true. Belief in Christ is different from, say, belief in one's government, because it is a gift of God. And I'm not prepared to rule out God's ability to offer a gift to us -- the gift of a faith that cannot be willed -- in such a manner that we are free to choose whether we accept it.


Saturday, January 18, 2003

Rally big news

I was just about to send another letter to the editors of The Washington Post, when I remembered there's a blog for just such an occasion.


Friday, January 17, 2003

El camino a Dios

"The road to God," wrote a secular Carmelite who ought to found a blog (perhaps a group OCDS blog), "is through the desert."

This reminds me of a comment by Fr. William Hinnebusch, OP, in Dominican Spirituality. I don't have the exact quotation, but it was along the lines of, "People think the life of St. Therese of Lisieux was all poetry and roses. They don't know the rule of Carmel."


What "Jesus died for our sins" means

Part two: dying for sins

Last time, I wrote that Jesus died for us, that is, for our benefit, and in particular so that we might be able to be eternally happy in God’s presence. Now I want to look more specifically at what it means to say Jesus died for our sins.

Another quick search turns up the following verses:
Now I am reminding you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you… that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures; that he was buried; that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures… [1 Corinthians 15:1,3b-4]

[We] know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Christ Jesus that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified…. I do not nullify the grace of God; for if justification comes through the law, then Christ died for nothing. [Galatians 2:16,21]

For Christ also suffered for sins once, the righteous for the sake of the unrighteous, that he might lead you to God. [1 Peter 3:18]
Again and again, Scripture reminds us that Jesus' suffering was undertaken "while we were yet sinners," that "the righteous for the sake of the unrighteous" endured condemnation and death.

But the unrighteous cannot enjoy God's presence eternally. They can't enjoy it at all; they would be destroyed if they saw God's face. The unrighteous, then, have to become righteous, their sins must be forgiven, before they can become children of God and co-heirs with Jesus of eternal glory.

And the way the unrighteous become righteous is through Jesus' death. There is no other way. The Law was God's revelation to Moses and the Jews of how they were to live if they were to be righteous in His sight, yet as St. Paul points out "by works of the Law no one will be justified." If the Law could make someone righteous, then there would be no need for Christ to die.

Now again, the spiritual mechanics of how this happens have not been fully explained by God, although there are indications of how we might think of it. The Letter to the Hebrews explains that Jesus acted as the perfect High Priest, offering the perfect sacrifice to God in atonement for our sins:
For Christ did not enter into a sanctuary made by hands, a copy of the true one, but heaven itself, that he might now appear before God on our behalf.... But now once for all he has appeared at the end of the ages to take away sin by his sacrifice. [Hebrews 9:24,26]
How does a sacrifice take away sins? By covenant: God had promised that He would forgive the sins of His people if they offered the sacrifices required by the Law.

Note, by the way, that He really was (and still is) forgiving sins. It is not a matter of justice, as when I buy something in exchange for an agreed amount of money. The sacrifices of the Mosaic Law didn't give God just remuneration for His blotting out of sins; no sacrifice can do that, as St. Paul writes, or else Christ died for nothing. In a sense, when God asks for sacrifice, He is saying, "This is the way you are to tell Me you are sorry, and I promise to forgive you whenever you tell Me you're sorry."

But God goes beyond merely forgiving sins; He takes them away from us, He purifies us, He washes us clean. This is even more wonderful than simply forgiving sins; the latter affects the relationship between us and God, but the former changes us within our very selves:
I will give them a new heart and put a new spirit within them; I will remove the stony heart from their bodies, and replace it with a natural heart, so that they will live according to my statutes, and observe and carry out my ordinances; thus they shall be my people and I will be their God. [Ezekiel 11:19-20]
So Jesus' sacrifice, once for all, establishes a new covenant, a new agreement between God and all mankind, by which God promises to forgive our sins if we have faith in His Son. The one necessary sacrifice of this covenant -- the whole of mankind's side of the bargain -- was made before people even became aware the covenant was offered. Jesus died so that we would have a sacrifice through which our sins can be forgiven.

There's more to be said about all this, of course, whole libraries' worth. There are countless questions to ask -- why a covenant, and why this covenant, spring to mind -- if not quite so many answers to come by. But I'm ignorant enough about all this to suspect that questions of a form like, "Couldn't God have just ... instead?" or "Was ... really necessary?" will lead to a lot of just-so guesswork, and that questions beginning, "Considering the type of creatures humans are, what is the effect of ...?" -- questions, in other words, that help us to understand the implications and meaning of what did happen -- will prove more fruitful.

I doubt this will be of much help to Camassia, or anyone else who doesn't already accept the idea of the Atonement at some level, but I learned a bit from writing it.


Thursday, January 16, 2003

A harmonic convergence of ideas

The idea of the body at war with the spirit goes back at least to St. Paul. Proper Catholic thought is to achieve harmony between them (thanks for that, Hernan; if we're to use the image of balance, maybe a dancer's balance is better than a tightrope-walker's), rather than to ignore or debase the body, but perhaps spiritual writing isn't always clear on this because people start with their spirits so ignored or debased that the necessary correction sounds harsher than it really is.

A few pages into St. John of the Cross's Collected Works, I'm struck by his insistence on detachment. In the hands of a small-hearted superior, the "Sayings of Light and Love" could become a manual of indifference or even hostility to creation. St. John himself, though, was captivated by the natural beauty he encountered and made sure his friars had the chance to enjoy it as well. Not entirely coincidentally, there is a lot to read about detachment, what it is and what it isn't, over at Flos Carmeli (as you probably know).


Wednesday, January 15, 2003

A good balabce

At Not For Sheep, Katherine meditates on one of the things that has surprised her about Christianity:
Much of my initial attraction to Buddhism was because it offered a balancing of the mental with the physical; Christianity seemed such a head-centered religion. If you read the Spiritual Exercises casually, any non-Christian would probably be inclined to agree with such an assessment. That was even one of my original criticisms against Christianity!

But as I move further along this spiritual journey, I realize that was wrong. Much of Christian history, much less mysticism, is not so much pre-occupied with the problem of mental versus physical as rather working on the integration of mental and physical.
I see the integration of mental and physical -- and the related integration of the spiritual and physical -- as one of the major lessons Catholics have to learn from the Catholic faith. There is something called "Catholicism" that gets people into the habit of crossing themselves and going to Mass; there's another something, also called "Catholicism," that gets people to think about and pray to God.

The Catholic faith, though, tells us that both of these things go together, that a human by nature is an immortal soul informing a physical body, and that both soul and body count. I think, on the whole, we're leaning too far over the "spiritual" side of the balance beam these days, perhaps in reaction to the [alleged] excesses of outward appearance over inward conversion of a few generations past.

Among head-centered Christians, you are likely to find Dominicans, and yet St. Dominic himself is revered for his "Nine Ways of Prayer," each of which was as essentially physical as it was mental. He understood, in a way not all of his spiritual children have, the importance of incarnate prayer.



On the question of why the Incarnation and Passion, Sean Gallagher posts some thoughts on why salvation by divine fiat might not fit well with human nature.

And I am also delighted to find a claim I made -- "you become what you love" -- supported in these words:
En los amores perfectos
esta ley se requería:
que se haga semejante
el amante a quien quería.
"In perfect love / this law holds: / that the lover become / like the one he loves." In fact, the entire poem -- a romance on the opening words of John's Gospel, "In the Beginning Was the Word," by St. John of the Cross -- is worth reading for people thinking about why the Incarnation happened.


What "Jesus died for our sins" means

Part one: dying for us

Camassia called my bluff. So here goes:

I am going to break this up into at least two parts. In this part, I will look at what it means to say, "Jesus died for us." The second part will then look at what it means to say, "Jesus died for our sins."

A quick search of the New Testament turns up the following verses:
For Christ, while we were still helpless, yet died at the appointed time for the ungodly. Indeed, only with difficulty does one die for a just person, though perhaps for a good person one might even find courage to die. But God proves his love for us in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us. [Romans 5:6-8]

For the love of Christ impels us, once we have come to the conviction that one died for all; therefore, all have died. He indeed died for all, so that those who live might no longer live for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised. [2 Corinthians 5:14-15]

For God did not destine us for wrath, but to gain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us, so that whether we are awake or asleep we may live together with him. [1 Thessalonians 5:9-10]
To say that Jesus died for us means, then, that He died for our benefit. What is the nature of this benefit? Before Jesus' death, men were helpless, unable to please God by their lives. After His death, men were no longer helpless. By their faith in Jesus, they could live for Him rather than themselves, and living for Christ means living together with Him. Since Christ is living at the right hand of the Father, living with Christ means living in the presence of the Father, an unthinkable thought before Jesus, since no man sees God and still lives (Exodus 33:20).

So Jesus died in order for us to be able to gain salvation, which is eternal happiness with God.

How, exactly, does Jesus' death enable us to "live for" and "live with" Him? That's a trickier question. St. Paul isn't particularly interested in the metaphysics of salvation; he seems satisfied to say that, through baptism, we die with Christ and receive His Spirit, which makes us one body in Him (Romans 6:3, 1 Corinthians 12:12-13). His simile is that, just as a human soul unites the head, the hands, the feet, and the rest of the parts into a single body, so the Holy Spirit unites all the faithful into the single Body of Christ. Where the Head -- Christ -- leads, the Body follows.

One last point on Romans 5:8, "But God proves his love for us in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us." How does Christ dying for us prove God's love for us? As I wrote in the previous post, the definition of love is the desire to do something that benefits the beloved, and certainly enabling them to experience eternal happiness expresses that desire. St. Paul is making an even stronger point, though. It's not just that God did something loving, but that He did something loving for people who we
weren't very lovable.

You might think, "That Jesus died for us might demonstrate Jesus' love for us, but how does letting Him do all the hard work show the Father's love for us?" The full answer lies within the Trinity, and you're welcome to seek it there. But here are a couple of suggestions: First, Jesus' death was explicitly ordained by the Father's will, which means the Father is the origin of Jesus' love for us. Second, there is no way for God as God to sacrifice anything for us; nothing He can possibly do for us costs Him any effort at all. That's just the way it is with Infinite Perfection. We need to be careful, when we're trying to understand this central mystery of Christianity, not to expect God to do what God can't do.


Tuesday, January 14, 2003

Love and death

Camassia gamely continues to try to make sense of my attempts to set the stage to begin to sketch a way to try to begin to attempt to answer her perfectly sensible questions:
OK, but you seem to be affirming my original complaint when you say, "there is no greater love than to lay down your life for your friend." I mean, I understand why you say that, because dying for someone is a statement that you value the other person at least as much as you value yourself. But dying isn't the only way to say that, and the only reason dying for another even happens is that we humans are weak and mortal, and there arise situations where somebody has to die.
Right. Which is why, perhaps, Jesus said, "There is no greater love," rather than, "All other loves are inferior." A love that doesn't lead to death can be as great, but not greater.

And in fact, the idea of "dying to yourself" and living your "new" life entirely for Christ is an ideal Christians ought to be striving for.
How it was a loving thing for God to make himself weak and mortal, and therefore in a position to die, is what I'm not following.
I think it depends on what it means to love someone. If it means making choices that result in good things for the other person, then surely God becoming man in order for man to be able to participate in the perfect happiness of the inner life of God is a loving act.
Also, I have always wondered how God's sacrifice could be considered as great as a human dying for another human, given that he knew he was going to get up again.
Well, it was a human dying for another human. But yes, so what, He was going to rise again in three days.

I'm afraid the answer to this is a mystery, because we don't really know what it was like to be both God and human. But there's no reason why Jesus' suffering and sacrifice couldn't have been greater than anyone else's, and there have been lots of reasons proposed for why it was greater.
Man, this trinity stuff makes my head spin...
And you don't even have to believe it!


So far, so good

Or, a potted transcendental theology, part 1

God exists.

Even more, God is existence. His very nature, His essence, is to be, to exist. "This is what you shall tell the Israelites: I AM sent me to you."

God is the only such Being. All other beings rely on something other than themselves to give them existence (both to come into existence and to continue existing). And that something other than themselves that all other beings rely on must be God, because God is the only Being that doesn't rely on something else for existence. (If I get my existence from you, where do you get that existence from? Eventually, it has to trace back to God.)

So everything that exists gets its existence from God, which means everything that can exist would have to get its existence from God. This means that God must, in some sense, "possess" or "have" everything that does or can exist.

But "having everything" means "lacking nothing," which means "being without a lack of anything," which means "being perfect." Since God has everything that does or can exist, God is perfect in every respect. (If God weren't perfect, that would mean that there was something He didn't have; but there can't be a "something" that God doesn't have, because everything that exists -- including, necessarily, this hypothetical "something" -- gets its existence from God.)

Now let me offer a definition of goodness: Goodness is how we measure how perfect something is. And since God is perfect in every respect, God is entirely good in every respect. Supremely perfect, God is supremely good.

So far, it all follows as the night the day. Here is where it gets interesting:

A falling rock is a good rock.

What does this mean? It means that a rock is a being which (under appropriate circumstances) ought to fall -- in other words, whose nature is to fall. (Okay, the physics is more complicated, but let's set that aside here.) A floating rock is not acting in accord with its rock nature, it is an imperfect rock, it is not a good rock: all these mean the same thing.

So a rock that moves according to its nature is a good rock. Conceptually, there is something that "attracts" the rock to this movement. For the rock, this attraction is good, meaning that following it perfects the rock according to its nature. To be a perfect rock, it should follow what attracts it.

Now a rock doesn't have much choice in the matter. Beings that do have the ability to choose, though (this ability is called an appetite), experience such attractions as desires. We can recast the definition of goodness given above as "how we measure how desirable something is."

This is why we can say -- should we want to -- that goodness is being considered under the aspect of desire. A thing exists insofar as it approaches its own perfection. A piano that is less perfect than another piano is, quite literally, less of a piano than the other. So any measure of perfection is a measure of being, and the usual meaning of goodness is as a measure of perfection in terms of desire.

This gives us goodness, the first of the "transcendentals," those qualities of being that are found in all being, thus transcending every category of being.


Monday, January 13, 2003

A thought experiment

Continuing the discussions in the comments below, I propose the following question:

A thirsty man sees a mirage of a lake, and desires to go to it in order to drink. How do we understand the operation of the man's mind and the nature of goodness (where does it lie, is it simply good or apparently good, etc.) in this situation?


Sunday, January 12, 2003

A popular objection

In a comment below, Steven Riddle objects to St. Thomas's definition of beauty as "that which, being seen, pleases":
It is, ultimately, a relativist, and almost modernist definition, and horrendously objective. If what is seen is pleases, then one must assume a well-formed conscience and a "normal" individual. Gladiatorial games, undoubtely pleased, there would not have been so many of them. Judging from the numbers, pornography pleases, yet, I hardly think this would meet St. Thomas's criterion.
Pointing out that the definition is a definition according to the effect of beauty rather than its essence helps, but there's more, and I don't know that Steven will like it.

For St. Thomas, the good is what is desired.

What! All the problems of the world are caused by the fact that people desire bad things, and St. Thomas says that what is desired is, by definition, good?

Pretty much, yeah: "The essence of goodness consists in this, that it is in some way desirable."

Had St. Thomas never heard of people who desired pornography and gladitorial games? No, he recognized that it was possible for someone to desire something he shouldn't desire. This (following Aristotle) he called an "apparent good," "that which is not good in itself [but] in respect of some individual..., through something unsuitable being esteemed suitable."

In this way of thinking, there is something good in pornography and gladitorial games -- conjugal union and physical strength, say -- making them good "in a certain respect." A desire for them is like a compass needle pointing at a pile of iron ore; the goodness is in the thing, but it is bound up in dross. (If I've got it right, a desire can be wrong for two reasons: either it's wrong everywhere and always, like pornography, or it's for a lesser good chosen over a greater good, like a sixth slice of extra cheese pizza.)

Now, recalling that goodness and beauty are different names for the same thing -- viz., being -- considered under different aspects -- what is desired and what is pleasing, respectively -- the same line of reasoning can be applied to beauty.

I think this approach works for almost everyone. There may be a problem if we imagine a being who is utterly depraved, whose one desire and one pleasure is non-being, but before looking into that problem I'd want such a being's existence to be demonstrated, or at least shown to be possible.


Friday, January 10, 2003

A favorite argument

The discussion at Flos Carmeli has turned to the question of objective beauty.

It's not hard to find people who deny that there is, or even can be, such a thing as objective beauty. "It's all subjective," they might say.

I have two answers to that, both based on St. Thomas's definition of beauty as "that which, being seen, pleases."

The first answer is that the experience of beauty requires a subject, which experiences pleasure, and an object, which causes pleasure. (The object doesn't have to be a physical object like a work of art; it just has to be something that exists.) Someone might say, "When you see the object, you are pleased. When I see it, I am not. Therefore, there is no beauty in the object." But if there is no beauty in the object, how can seeing it please me? If it's in my mind, then it wasn't the object that pleased me in the first place, which contradicts the assumption that we've both seen the same thing. The result of this, I think, is that it is reasonable to define "objective beauty" in a way that does not mean, "Everyone who sees it is pleased."

The second answer is a little briefer: God is the measure of all creation. Therefore, "what pleases God" is a reasonable definition of "objectively beautiful." Scripture is full of things which, being seen by God, please Him. Therefore, objective beauty exists.


It's not like this site is called "Soothing Murmurs"

Davey's mommy picked the wrong blog to read in the middle of the night:
I dislike the idea of predestination pretty intensely. I'm hoping this is one of those "it's a mystery and that means it's not what it sounds like" Catholic things.
The problem with disliking predestination is that it's taught throughout the Bible, most famously in Romans 8:
For those he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, so that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. And those he predestined he also called; and those he called he also justified; and those he justified he also glorified.
These words have to mean something. Fortunately, there is a lot of "it's not what it sounds like," and yes, St. Augustine is not the final word.

Here is one way to think about predestination in ten words or less: "God is the cause of all goodness, including yours." If you can agree with that, the rest of the Church's dogmatic teachings on this fall more or less into line.

(I'm just glad I didn't write anything on the question of whether pets go to heaven.)


"Begin at the beginning," the King said gravely

ME: [Clears throat.]

CAMASSIA: Whoa! Let's back up, there.
I've just finished my preface to the introduction, and Camassia points out I've gone too far:
Christians take as a given that God is both good and omnipotent, and I assume neither....
I don't think it's strictly accurate to say that Christians take God's goodness and omnipotence as a given. I think, rather, that both qualities are taught by Scripture.

At this point, our exchange has probably already gone too far in too many different directions, because Camassia goes on to write:
I must say, answers like John's make me wonder if this type of inquiry even has a point. If faith is a gift, maybe this is a gift people like him have and I do not have, and there is no way around it. That in itself makes me wonder even more if God can be good, if salvation is so arbitrary. In fact, John pondered this question a post earlier and answered, well, it's a mystery. This may be a satisfactory answer for him, but I hope he understands why, for some of us, this question is more personal than esoteric.
All of which makes me want to say, "Whoa! Let's back up, there."

First, it seems to me that, in order to answer the question, "Why do Christians believe what they believe?", we first have to answer the question, "What do Christians believe?" As is readily apparent, "What do Christians believe about the meaning of the death of Jesus?" is by no means an easy question to answer, particularly if you ask more than one Christian. Still, the point of this type of inquiry, to my mind, is to answer the "What?" question enough to begin to think about the "Why?" (And leaving aside the "How can they possibly?" question entirely.)

Second, faith is a gift, but it's not so much a matter of having it or not having it. Anyone who believes in God has faith, and faith the size of a mustard seed can move mountains. The way around not having faith is to ask God for it.

Third, salvation is not arbitrary, but mysterious (and I'll be getting to "mysterious" next). We do not know why one person is saved and another isn't, but that doesn't mean there's no reason at all. (Like the old question of why the next number in the sequence {4, 14, 23, 34, 42, ...} is 50.) Apart from the inscruitability of God's will, though, life as we live it is a series of free choices. Should anyone ask, "Lord, why didn't You give me faith?" God can truthfully answer, "You didn't want Me to."

Finally, Camassia confuses mystery with esotericism (in her choice of words, if nothing else). But as the old Catholic Encyclopedia explains, the word "mystery" refers to "revealed truths that surpass the powers of natural reason... a supernatural truth, one that of its very nature lies above the finite intelligence." The sort of questions and problems Camassia raises takes us straight into the mind of God, which no one should expect to fully comprehend.

But lack of full comprehension doesn't mean lack of all comprehension. We find God's goodness to be mysterious, but not in the same sense that we find the statement "Frembuility is ostragonacious" mysterious. The former extends out beyond the reach of our finite reason; to understand the latter, you just need to be given a couple of definitions.


The LORD has made his salvation known

Camassia is unsatisfied with the answers she’s seen to the question, “What does it mean to say Jesus died for our sins?”

On one level, this dissatisfaction is expected and even commendable. Unlike, “What is six plus seven?,” it’s not a question with a fundamentally satisfying answer. It treats of a mystery, the central mystery of our faith, and we should plan on meditating on this mystery our whole lives without exhausting it.

Still, just because something’s a mystery doesn’t mean that nothing can be known about it. So let me add my voice to the confusion of armchair soteriology.

My first thought is to recommend against asking questions about necessity, mostly because that confuses me. Was Jesus’ death “necessary” in the sense that a square necessarily has four corners? That I had eggs for breakfast yesterday? That I must eat to live?

Instead of getting bogged down right away, I think we should grant that Jesus did sacrifice Himself on the Cross, and try to understand what it means, rather than why God ordained this means of salvation rather than another.


Are you being reprobated?

The Kairos Guy is wrestling with universalism, the belief that everyone is necessarily saved:
It will be here how Christ calls and wants all under His standard; and Lucifer, on the contrary, under his.

This obviously does not say all people will be brought under either standard. But my first reflection on this is, if Christ wills something for all eternity, sooner or later He will get what He wills.
That's the mystery, how to resolve the two apparently contradictory ideas that God wills salvation for everyone and that not everyone is saved.

Universalism resolves it by saying that of course everyone is saved. Calvinism resolves it by saying that of course God doesn't will salvation for everyone.

Catholicism, alas, doesn't resolve it. Instead, it recognizes that this is a mystery, the mystery of how perfect Mercy and perfect Justice can be identical. It's a mystery of God in His Essential Nature, and one that no one can reasonably expect to resolve in this life. In fact, it's only by a great and undeserved act of condescension on God's part that we have hope of resolving it in the next life.

(Just to show that neither universalism nor Calvinism is necessarily correct on this point, ask yourself whether God wanted you to commit your last sin. The answer is, "No, but He let me anyway," which actually will scale all the way up to the question of whether God wants you to be damned.)


Apropos of nothing, a bibliographic fact

In a theological dictionary published in 1998 by Presses Universitaires de France, the author of the articles on "Catharism," "Congregationalism," "Doctor of the Church," "Limbo," and "Sabbath" is listed as one Galahad Threepwood, MA, London.


Thursday, January 09, 2003

Are you being saved?

As you know, God has either predestined you to be with Him for eternity, or ... er, He hasn't. As you also know, short of a special revelation there's no way in this life for you to be certain of whether you are predestined.

(Why doesn't this lead to fatalism? Because you know God won't save you if you don't want to be saved, and living a debauched life while betting that you'll be saved at the last instant is telling God that you don't want to be saved, and nobody doesn't want to be saved.)

However, there are reasons for hope. In his book Predestination, the theologian Fr. Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, O.P., identifies some of the "signs of predestination" various Fathers and Doctors have mentioned over the years:
  1. a good life
  2. the testimony of a conscience that is free from serious sins and prepared rather to die than offend God grievously
  3. patience in adversities endured for the love of God
  4. readiness to hear the word of God
  5. compassion for the poor
  6. love of one's enemies
  7. humility
  8. a special devotion to the Blessed Virgin whom we ask every day to pray for us at the hour of our death
I'll leave it to someone cleverer than I to turn this into an on-line quiz. But personally, when I read this list, I come away feeling that it isn't entirely helpful. What I want is something concrete, something like, "Never knowingly ate a bat." Something that will make me say, "All right! The smart money is on me!"

Instead, it reads like a daily review-of-conscience list from one of those Seventeenth Century spirituality guidebooks. Like advice from a saint.

Which is, after all, the point. We aren't gnostics; the road to salvation isn't a big secret. It's merely narrow, and easy to stray from.

But despite the horror stories of people who led blameless lives, only to commit a mortal sin a minute before they died and burn in hell forever, ours is a hopeful faith. Jesus has already done the impossible part of our salvation for us, and He offers us His grace to do what remains. If we have grace enough to manifest the above signs, God will not snatch our salvation away at the last moment. If we don't have grace enough, God will answer our prayers for more grace.

Conversely, if we do what God asks of us, if we are patient and compassionate and loving and humble, then we may hope to be with God for eternity. These signs of predestination are no license for presumption; the stronger the signs are in your life, the less likely you are to feel they are strong enough.

The signs can be boiled down to, "Follow Christ." Any way you read them, the signs you follow tell you where you're going.


Tuesday, January 07, 2003

It's still Christmas someplace, right?

This fascinating article describes the theological significance of the various features of Eastern icons of the Nativity.


The real question

I've just realized, in thinking about the Case of the Scandalized Seminarian, that my attitude toward concerns with heresy is similar to my attitude toward concerns with infallibility.

Both concepts define, let's call them, neighborhoods of unambiguity. Sabellianism is a heresy. Molinism is not a heresy. The doctrine of the Real Presence is infallibly defined. The impeccability of St. John the Baptist is not infallibly defined.

Both are concepts with ill-defined borders. "Outside the Church there is no salvation" seems, to me, to be a statement admitting heretical, orthodox, infallible, and non-infallible meanings. You can't move too far from an explicit anathema before getting into deep speculation.

Both concepts have, in my opinion, too many people who are too concerned with them. Away from the neighborhoods of unambiguity, the question of whether a proposition is heretical or infallible is of vanishingly small interest to me, compared to the question of whether it is true!

Just to take a trivial example: Suppose a theologian teaches that, historically, Jesus didn't really rise bodily from His tomb the Sunday following His crucifixion. We might attempt to show that denying the historicity of this event is heresy. We might attempt to show that its historicity has been infallibly defined. But wouldn't we be better off showing that, historically, Jesus did rise bodily from the tomb? In other words, show not that the historian is a bad Catholic, but that he is flat wrong?

Now, in my opinion, the bodily Resurrection is infallibly defined and to deny it is heresy. But spending the time Googling conciliar documents to support this opinion will, I think, pay much poorer dividends than spending the same time Googling Scripture and Apostolic Age writings to show that the bodily Resurrection happened.


On Eagles' Wings

This newspaper article reminds me of an old joke:
A priest and a rabbi are watching a high school basketball game. A player getting ready to shoot a free throw crosses himself, and the rabbi asks the priest, "Does that really help?"

"Not if he can't shoot free throws."
Note that most of the Christian players mentioned in the article are Evangelicals, yet the accompanying photograph is of a rosary in a Catholic player's locker. Further evidence that, when our culture needs an icon of religion, it turns to Catholicism.


Monday, January 06, 2003

I'd rather be in Philadelphia than schism

Patrick Rothwell of The Contrarian has long been the lens through which I observe the livelier aspects of contemporary Episcopalianism. Yesterday he wrote about an ongoing spat outside Philadelphia, describing the area's Episcopal bishop as, "by even the loosest standard of Christian orthodoxy, ... a notorious heretic."

I don't know from Bishop Bennison, but I do note that yesterday was the feast (bumped liturgically by the Epiphany) of St. John Neumann, Roman Catholic Bishop of Philadelphia. It's an unfortunate accident of the calendar that, at a time when the Church in the United States could particularly benefit from a long, lingering look at her one canonized saint who was also ordained -- and consecrated bishop, no less -- his feast will go unobserved until next year.

If you can't visit his shrine in Philadelphia, you can always visit it on the Web. Here is the prayer for his intercession found there:
O Saint John Neumann, your ardent desire of bringing all souls to Christ impelled you to leave home and country; teach us to live worthily in the spirit of our Baptism which makes us all children of the one Heavenly Father and brothers of Jesus Christ, the first-born of the family of God.

Obtain for us that complete dedication in the service of the needy, the weak, the afflicted and the abandoned which so characterized your life. Help us to walk perseveringly in the difficult and, at times, painful paths of duty, strengthened by the Body and Blood of our Redeemer and under the watchful protection of Mary our Mother.

May death still find us on the sure road to our Father's house with the light of living Faith in our hearts. Amen.
I doubt your bishop would be too offended if you were to pray this occasionally on his behalf.


Hunting license

The sport of heresy hunting can be great fun, but avocational hunters should be aware of the risks of falling into paranoia. This paranoia assumes different but related forms: the fear of reading a book containing heresy; the fear of reading an orthodox book whose author also wrote a book containing heresy; the fear of reading an orthodox book whose author was on good terms with someone who wrote a book containing heresy.

Based on these fears, people are told not to read various modern theologians (e.g., Rahner and Schillebeeckx) or spiritual writers (e.g., Merton and Nouwen).

It seems to me that all this is based on a viral theory of heresy, the idea that humans have no defense against exposure to falsehood. For some people, heresy is so virulent that Thomas Merton's popular books of the early 1950s must be quarantined due to infection from something he wrote in his private journal in 1967.

Logically, the first question is whether a particular statement is heretical at all, but you know the saying: When all you have is a hammer of heretics, everything looks like a nail.

Even if we were to grant a claim of false theology, though, where does that leave us? Are we required to avoid everything that is not unalloyed truth? The answer must be no, because the writings of the Fathers and Doctors of the Church are richly seasoned with material heresy.

So then, in reading modern theologians, do we need warning signs? ("Caution: May Contain Heretical, Ill-sounding, Rash, and/or Doubtful Material") But that's saying nothing new, because the writings of the Fathers and Doctors of the Church are richly seasoned with material heresy.

In my own limited exposure to modern theologians, I've found I'm far less likely to be convinced of error than to fail, more or less entirely, to understand what I read. This contributes to a suspicion that modern heresy hunting consists in saying, "Don't read Rahner," to people who wouldn't read Rahner for a dollar a minute.

Just because God is simple and salvation is simple, it doesn't follow that theology -- much less the language of theology -- is simple. Maybe that's why there are corporeal and spiritual works of mercy, but no literary or speculative works of mercy.


One person's work

It's sometimes said that a single chapter is alone worth the price of a book.

There is some truth to that, although I don't think I'd buy too many 20-page books at $18.95. I've found reading a book is a worthwhile experience if I can derive even a single good idea from it. (This may say something about how many worthless books I've read.)

I was delighted, in opening the copy of Caryll Houselander's The Reed of God I bought last week, to recover my investment within minutes. It is a book about Mary, the hollow "reed through which the Eternal Love was to be piped as a shepherd's song." The introduction begins:
When I was a small child someone for whom I had a great respect told me never to do anything that Our Lady would not do.... But even if I faced a blank future shackled with respectability, it was still impossible to imagine Our Lady doing anything that I would do, for the very simple reason that I simply could not imagine her doing anything at all.
This is a failure of imagination shared by many, not helped by the countless "Madonna and Child" paintings showing Our Lady so passive she isn't even standing.

But if this opening convinced me that I was going to enjoy the book, the return on investment came a couple of pages later. Houselander writes (and I ruthlessly abridge):
When we are attracted to a particular saint it is usually the little human details which attract us. These touches bridge the immense gap between heroic virtue and our weakness.

Of our Lady such things are not recorded. We complain that so little is recorded of her personality, so few of her words, so few deeds, that we can form no picture of her, and there is nothing that we can lay hold of to imitate.

But it is Our Lady -- and no other saint -- whom we can really imitate.

Each saint has his special work: one person's work. But Our Lady has to include in her vocation, in her life's work, the essential thing that was to be hidden in every other vocation, in every life.

The one thing that she did and does is the one thing that we all have to do, namely, to bear Christ into the world.


Thursday, January 02, 2003

Have you met any Albigensians lately?

This is the punchline to a joke quoted by Will in a comment below. Taking nothing away from the glories of the Order of Preachers, though, there are plenty of Albigensians around these days.

There are those who identify themselves as Cathars (another name given the Albigensians of St. Dominic's day), which after a moment's thought isn't that surprising. But probably more populous are those who share with the Albigensians a Manichean dualism, a belief that, fundamentally, matter is bad and spirit is good.

The odd thing is that a lot of contemporary Albigensians are also materialists. For them, what exists is bad, and only something that doesn't exist is good. But since this good thing doesn't exist, they are free to define it however they like -- as license, or promiscuity, or enlightened self-interest, or pleasure, or altruism. (It's interesting how often a Manichean, while hating matter, makes serving the little bit of matter which he controls the center of his life.) There's no reason any two persons have to define the good in the same way, so each person is free to invent his own goodness -- and therefore his own beauty and truth as well.

The Albigensianism of eight hundred years ago was unabashedly a culture of death; suicide by starvation was highly commendable, while marriage and procreation were forbidden to the perfecti, those who had taken stringent vows. The rest (which, of course, was almost everybody) were credentes, believers, who were able to give free reign to their desires with a simple promise to become one of the perfect before they died. Today's culture of death is in many ways similar, although I don't think Planned Parenthood's leadership practices rigorous fasting.

It's interesting that, according to the Catholic faith, it is God communicating His goodness that makes material creation good. If you deny the existence of spirit in general and God in particular, a Catholic has no real way of demonstrating that the remaining matter is good. Semi-Manichean materialists who deny (or more likely live lives denying) matter is good seem to be doing what comes naturally when God's existence is rejected.