instruere...inlustrare...delectare Disputations

Friday, January 30, 2004

Moral principles and prudential policies

I've decided that, from now on, whenever I see or hear someone write or say, "We need a political party that is good on all aspects of Catholic social teaching," I will reply, "So start one."

If eveyone starts doing this, maybe someone really will start one, and we can all join it and find something else to complain about (like, "We need to win an election once in a while.") (Actually, in Maryland we'd just need to win 1% of the votes for the highest office on the ballot (on the order of 20,000 votes) to remain a recognized political party.)

The rub, however, comes in the form of the questions: What are "all aspects of Catholic social teaching"? And what does it mean to be "good" on them?

The USCCB produces its "Faithful Citizenship" document every four years, which at the very least should inform the party's platform review. (I'm assuming a party good on Catholic social teaching isn't going to be schismatic or monarchistic.)

I've noticed, though, a tendency to move from quoting a magisterial or episcopal document on social issues straight to a particular policy. To invent an example:
As "Faithful Citizenship" says, "The Church calls on all of us to embrace this preferential option for the poor and vulnerable, to embody it in our lives, and to work to have it shape public policies and priorities." We support a workfare program to raise the poor out of poverty; our opponents do not. Therefore, we are closer to Catholic social teaching than they are.
What is missing is the recognition that such a prudential policy is not an exact translation of the moral principle, but an application of that principle combined with other principles, some from fields other than morality, to yield a prudential judgment on the best way to embody the principle in our lives, public policies, and priorities.

I suppose, then, if you want to evaluate a party against Catholic social teaching, you need to do the following:
  1. Construct a list of the key "themes at the heart of our Catholic social tradition."
  2. Determine whether and how the party addresses each theme.
  3. Determine how far the party's stated or implied moral principles guiding how the theme is addressed match those of the Church.
  4. Compare the importance the party assigns to the theme to the importance assigned by the Church.
At this point, you should have a good sense of how well the party aligns itself with Catholic principles. Notice this can be done without evaluating the party's specific policies, except insofar as they embody the principles. Whether a particular policy has a chance of working is a separate question from whether it is an expression of a preferential option for the poor.

Too often, I've seen the inference made that, because a particular policy is judged by the inferrer to be ineffective, the policy itself is evidence the party doesn't really accept the moral principle on which the policy is based, when the real disagreement is over other, perhaps economic or political, principles.



Dominicans. Again.

While other groups made valiant attempts at banners, all paled in comparison to the noble beauty of the standard carried aloft by the Dominican brethren.

There are more pictures of Washington's Dominican House of Studies' student brothers' participation in the March for Life at their website.

Some of the captions are a bit goofy, given the enormity of the matter, but the brothers are, on the whole, young, and a sense of joy in being about our Father's business is always appropriate.


Putting the "Fun" back in fundamental theology

Mr. Riddle of Flos Carmeli writes, of A Key to the Doctrine of the Eucharist:
And I will note that while Tom of Disputations is reading this book, it is not nearly so daunting a prospect as that fact would suggest. I, too, am reading it, though I'll grant you probably much more slowly, and understanding it well. Vonier is a fairly lively writer with a good sense of rhythm and some excellent examples and metaphors. So don't let the title deceive you--this is a most excellent book for the average Catholic who is seeking to understand the faith.
I agree with him about the quality and accessibility of the book, but I am brought up short by the idea that the fact I am reading a book makes it a daunting prospect. I am also, at this time, making my way through The New Adventures of Dick and Jane (pub. c. 1960)....
"Oh, Jane," said Dick. "A sacrament is a gift.
A sacrament is a wonderful gift.
It is a gift from God."

"A sacrament is a sign," said Jane. "It is an outward sign.
A sacrament is an outward sign of inward grace."

"It is efficacious, too," said Sally. "A sacrament is efficacious.
It is Christ Himself Who acts in a sacrament.
This is why it is efficacious."

"Bow wow," said Spot.

"Oh, Spot," said Sally. "You cannont have a sacrament.
Dogs cannot have sacraments.
Sacraments are for the sanctification of men."
Anybody got the name of a Catholic book editor with an opening in his publishing schedule?


Thursday, January 29, 2004

Speaking of the Shrine

People within striking distance of the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception might want to keep September 24 and 25 open. That's when the Shrine hosts a Eucharistic Congress, "Heaven Unites With Earth," sponsored by the Council of Major Superiors of Women Religious. Speakers include:
Francis Cardinal Arinze - Prefect, Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments
James Francis Cardinal Stafford - Grand Penitenziere -This is the office that conceded the Indulgence during the "Marian Year"
Bishop Daniel DiNardo, named Coadjutor, Galveston - Houston Diocese
Reflections by:
Justin Cardinal Rigali - Episcopal Liaison to the CMSWR
Bishop William E. Lori - Bridgeport - Diocesan Pilgrimage
Father Peter Girard, OP
Ann Van Thuan (Sister of the late Cardinal Van Thuan)
Sister Nirmila.M.C.- From Calcutta, India, Sister Nirmila, M.C. the Superior General of the Missionaries of Charity
Attending the closing Mass of a Eucharistic Congress is good for a plenary indulgence, and if you were to do that after praying the Rosary at the Shrine, why, you'd be so remitted of the temporal punishment due for sins already forgiven as far as their guilt is concerned, you'd practically glow!

(Note to non-Catholic readers: No, you wouldn't. But it couldn't hurt to try it.)


Cut-rate pilgrims

Mark Windsor is arranging a pilgrimage to Lourdes and other French shrines next September, hosted by Mark Shea and Fr. Rob Johansen. I'm not sure what all is involved in hosting a pilgrimage, but being a non-host involves a substantial investment in capital and time.

Not everyone has the deep pockets and wide open schedules of a freelance writer or a parochial vicar, though, so we won't all be able to go to Lourdes.

I'm thinking that those of us left behind might feel better if we had our own pilgrimage, quick and on the cheap. Maybe something like a St. Blog's Pilgrimage to the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception.

Why the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception? Because it's a twenty-minute drive from my house and it has plenty of free parking.

But also because next December is the 150th anniversary of the definition of the dogma of the Immaculate Conception, and in anticipation of that event Cardinal McCarrick has obtained a grant for a plenary indulgence for all pilgrims who visit the Basilica:
The Apostolic Penitentiary, by the command of the Supreme Pontiff, gladly grants that a Plenary Indulgence, provided that disposition toward any sin is excluded and under the customary conditions (sacramental confession, reception of Holy Communion, and prayer for the intention of the Supreme Pontiff), is to be attained by the Christian faithful in the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception from December 8, 2003 to December 8, 2004, whenever they will travel there for a pious pilgrimage or in a crowd and they devoutly attend any sacred function or at least recite in common the Lord's Prayer and the Symbol of Faith and even just once, on a day freely chosen by each member of the faithful.
And also because there are enough NoVa/DC/MD folks around these blogs that I suspect we could get at least half a dozen people together for Mass and lunch.

Just to pick a date, we could say May 15, a Saturday. But I'm pretty flexible.


Catholics for Lycanthropy

I figured out why I have such a visceral dislike of "Catholics for [Insert Kill The Babies Democrat]" organizations. It's not the weakness of their arguments, as I used to think, but the wrongness.

Pro-life Catholics who think Catholics, as Catholics, should support a Kill The Babies Democrat offer arguments along these lines: "My candidate is at or nearer than everyone else to the Church's position on almost every social issue. Yes, the obvious exception is legalized abortion, which regrettably he favors, and we must continue to work to change his mind on this most critical issue, about which the president can do little in any event. Nevertheless, summing over the whole of his platform, it is clear that his presidency would be more 'pro-life' in all its aspects than that of any other candidate."

An argument like this is susceptible to attack on many fronts, and I've been sketching out some attacks to myself for a while. Now, though, I realize that, before worrying about the various weaknesses of the above argument, we should confront its fundamental falsehood.

The Democratic presidential candidates do not merely hold the wrong position on the grave matter of abortion. It's not, as their pro-life Catholic supporters want to believe, simply a matter of a red X in a table of Candidates' Positions vs. Catholic Teaching.

John Kerry makes a positive fetish out of legal abortion.

Howard Dean makes a positive fetish out of legal abortion.

I will not knowing vote for anyone, for any office, who makes a positive fetish out of legal abortion.

This is what is wrong with the "Catholics for [Insert Kill The Babies Democrat]" argument: The candidates don't support legal abortion. They love it. They revel in it. They positively glory in it.

A pro-life Catholic who offers an argument like the above is like a person who says, "Sure, John is a werewolf. But that's only three nights a month. When he's not out on the moors ripping out throats, he's a dedicated surgeon giving sick children hope. We should do what we can to keep him caged up when the moon is full, but on the whole he's the finest man in the village," but doesn't seem to notice that, on nights when John isn't a bloodthirsty wolf, he's in the pub bragging about how many throats he's ripped out and how sleek and strong and merciless he is under the light of the full moon.

So sure, we can point out that fatuity of saying things like, "Other than abortion, he's pro-life." We can question the truth of the claims of fidelity (or infidelity) to Catholic teaching. We can quote the bishops on the importance of the right to life of infants in the womb relative to other issues. We can distinguish between moral principles and prudential policies. We can point out the effects a president can have on the state of the question of legal abortion, which do not touch the yet-remote hope of overturning Roe and Doe.

But first, I think we should point out to the pro-life Catholic supporters of Kill The Babies Democrats that their position ignores what we've long known about the candidates: they don't simply have one monstrous policy, they absolutely worship it.

[Link from Deo Omnis Gloria, via My Domestic Church.]


Wednesday, January 28, 2004

Lord, make me a humble idiot

Abstracting from the political and social context in which it was made, let me point out this argument of Kathy Shaidle: are, what? 20? 21? Therefore you are an idiot.
That a 22-year-old philosophy major might fail to recognize this as an argument -- and, for that matter, as a valid and sound argument, more or less -- shouldn't be too surprising. For one thing, it's missing the major premise, if I've got my terms right, which is obviously, "All 20- and 21-year-olds are idiots." For another thing, all 20- and 21-year-olds are idiots, which puts all 22-year-olds in the neighborhood of idiocy, and it's very common for an idiot to be offended when he's told he's being idiotic.

That all 20-22 year olds are idiots is a practical truth apparent to most people who are no longer 22 years old. There's no more shame in this than in the fact that toddlers aren't good jugglers. It's simply the nature of us time-bound creatures to start out as idiots, and these days a college education only exacerbates it.

The real question, then, isn't whether we were, are, or will be idiots at 22, but, When did we or will we stop being idiots? As the Ven. John Henry Newman observed, the majority of boys remain boys all their lives. Are we, or will we be, in the minority?

I use "idiot" to mean "someone who talks about something he doesn't understand, without realizing he doesn't understand it." To me, then, idiocy is topic-related. I am an economics idiot, for example, but only when I talk about economics and forget I don't understand it.

Ceasing to be an idiot is a two-step process:
  1. Realize what you don't understand.
  2. Don't talk about what you don't understand as though you understand it.
Now, take a look at St. Thomas's rules for study posted below. Do you see how one side-effect of following his prescription is that you will cease to be an idiot?

Note also the fundamental need for humility. If you are not humble, how can you realize what you don't understand? How can you avoid spending time on things beyond your grasp, or wishing to jump immediately from the streams to the sea?

From all accounts, St. Thomas himself practiced heroic humility. This is remarkable, not so much because he was such a gifted man -- denying one's gifts is a false form of humility -- but because humility, as he puts it, is a virtue "to temper and restrain the mind, lest it tend to high things immoderately," and he spent his whole life tending to know Who or What God is.

But this may just show St. Thomas living out his own doctrine. For him, human nature perfected by grace tends toward the highest thing: the Beatific Vision of God. And so, if we are prepared to begin by swimming the streams, there is nothing too high for us to reach.


How to study

St. Thomas has a reputation for thinking deeply about... let's say, matters the immediate relevance of which is not everywhere and always acknowledged.

For my part, I'm inclined to believe the stories showing him as a person driven by "nonisity," a word I made up meaning "the state of being satisfied with nothing less, and nothing other, than God." If so, then everything he wrote served at least an ancillary role in drawing him close to God.

If I were fanciful, I might even suggest the way to understand his famous words, "All I've written is like straw," is that his writing was the tinder through which the flame of Love roared to life in his soul.

All this isn't to say everything St. Thomas wrote will draw us, who still find his words more valuable than straw, close to God. I'm not convinced, for example, that every paper written about the precise meaning of an obscure passage in the Summa is written in St. Thomas's spirit of concern with what is true rather than with what other people say.

There is a lesser known work of St. Thomas, a reply to a fellow Dominican who'd written him asking how best to study, which gives a characteristically brief rule for following in St. Thomas's nonisitic footsteps. (And yes, one of St. Thomas's characteristics is brevity, in terms of words per concept.)

St. Thomas begins his letter to the young Brother John with this warning:
Do not wish to jump immediately from the streams to the sea, because one has to go through easier things to the more difficult.
Then comes the following list of instructions:
  • Be slow to speak, and slow to go to the conversation room.
  • Embrace purity of conscience.
  • Do not give up spending time in prayer.
  • Love spending much time in your cell, if you want to be led into the wine cellar.
  • Show yourself amiable to all.
  • Do not query at all what others are doing.
  • Do not be very familiar with anyone, because familiarity breeds contempt, and provides matter for distracting you from study.
  • Do not get involved at all in the discussions and affairs of lay people.
  • Avoid conversations about all, any, and every matter.
  • Do not fail to imitate the example of good and holy men.
  • Do not consider who the person is you are listening to, but whatever good he says commit to memory.
  • Whatever you are doing and hearing try to understand. Resolve doubts, and put whatever you can in the storeroom of your mind, like someone wanting to fill a container.
  • Do not spend time on things beyond your grasp.
Some of these I'm better at than others. I'm not very good, for example, at avoiding the discussions and affairs of lay people, but then, the original Latin phrase was de factis et verbis saecularium, so for my purposes as a Lay Dominican I might take it to mean "of the world."

No one who reads or writes a blog can claim to avoid conversations about "all, any, and every matter," but here the word St. Thomas used was discursum, which can be translated as "idle conversation," and it's hard to make a case in favor of idle conversation as such.

Overall, this letter reads like it came from the hand of a faithful son of St. Dominic, of whom it was said he spoke only of God or with God -- and, if I may suggest, from the hand of a close spiritual kinsman to St. John of the Cross, and probably every other great spiritual director.

But how many people would have guessed St. Thomas as the author of the line, "Love being in your cell, if you want to be introduced to the wine cellar"? And no, it's not what you think; the "wine cellar," the cellam vinariam, is a Scriptural reference, to Song of Songs 2:4:
"He brought me into the cellar of wine, he set in order charity in me." Douay Rheims

"He brings me into the banquet hall and his emblem over me is love."NAB
The NAB's note states, "The banquet hall: the sweet things of the table, the embrace of the bride and bridegroom, express the delicacy of their affection and the intimacy of their love."

Over and over and over, in his books and his letters and his life, St. Thomas teaches us that the purpose of study, of the ascetic life, of everything we should do, is loving God. "Nothing but Thee, Lord."


Tuesday, January 27, 2004

A reminder on the vigil

Don't forget to stop by the store today to pick up your ox tails.


It's Gerard

The first name of the Catholic Blog for Lovers and Some Catholic Blogs guy is Gerard.

Not Gerald. Gerard.

Sure, it's despicable the way he's always going off on cruises while I'm driving through freezing rain, but that's no reason to call him Gerald. His name is Gerard.


Beyond parody

Yesterday, I thought of creating a "Catholics for Moloch" parody webpage. You know, "Other than roasting infants alive, Moloch's positions are all but direct citations of the Catechism."

This morning, though, I decided the "Catholics for [insert KILL THE BABIES Democratic candidate here]" sites are beyond parody. "And once he's elected, we can work to change his mind about abortion" is simply too, too lame to even joke about. (Plus, the "Pretend Howard Dean is God" post is funnier than anything I could write.)

Then I saw this, on the front page of The Washington Post:
In New Hampshire, A Testy Primary Eve

On the threshold of the nation's first primary, the Democratic presidential candidates raced across the frigid New Hampshire landscape Monday, offering closing arguments to large and attentive crowds and undermining their rivals with barbed exchanges on issues from abortion rights to the Iraq war.
Abortion rights?, I thought to myself. Somebody's distinguishing himself from the pack on abortion rights?

Alas, no:
Sen. John F. Kerry (Mass.), who is hoping to match his come-from-behind victory last week in the Iowa caucuses with a stay-on-top victory Tuesday, ignited one of several closing-hour skirmishes Monday morning with his assertion that he is "the only candidate running for president who has not played games, fudged around" on the issue of abortion rights.

"I laughed when I heard that," scoffed former Vermont governor Howard Dean. In a television interview, Dean said Kerry has equivocated and "couldn't give a straight answer" on the issue of parental notification when minors seek abortions.
So there you have it. The day before the New Hampshire primary, Kerry and Dean are shoving each other for the prize of Most Absolutely Unfudgedly Devoted to the One True Good of Abortion Above and Before All Else.

But yeah, other than that, it's like they're channelling St. Gregory the Great.


Monday, January 26, 2004

An Open Letter to J.—B.—, A Young Gentleman with Desires

I am reminded that I wanted to post Fr. Vincent McNabb's, O.P., list of "Fifteen Things a Distributist May Do."

I am not a distributist myself, although I am sympathetic to its ideals. A major knock against distributism, though, is that it is all ideals with no pragmatics, so it's instructive to see what one of the major thinkers behind distributism recommended a distributist do:
  1. If you have a mantelpiece, remove everything from it except perhaps the clock. If you are fortunate enough to have no mantelpiece, remove from the walls of your home all pictures and such like, except a crucific. This will teach you the Poverty of Thrift. It may be called an empiric approach to Economics.
  2. Clean out your own room daily. Clean it if possible on your knees. This will teach you the Poverty of Work....
  3. For forty days or more—say, during Lent—do not smoke (and neither grouse about it nor boast about it)....
  4. Buy some hand-woven cloth. Wear it. Buy some more. Wear that too... Your home-spun will instruct you better than the Declaration of Independence will instruct you on the dignity and rights of man.
  5. Buy boots you can walk in. Walk in them... you will discover the human foot. On discovering it, your joy will be as great as if you had invented it.
  6. Find another young Distributist... with brains and feet. Invite him to use his feet by tramping with you across any English county... Invite him to use his brains by standing on his feet, but not on his dignity, in market-places, telling the village-folk what is the matter with Staffordshire. This will lead him to tell them what is the matter with himself....
  7. [S]pend your summer holiday as a farm-hand. You will not be worth your keep; but it will be worth your while. If Babylondon has not befogged your intellectus agens—your active intellect, in the noble phrase of Scholasticism, you will gradually see the Poverty of Work. This is the other empiric approach to Economics.
  8. If through the machinations of Beelzebub or his fellow-devil Mammon, your house is in suburbia, plant your garden not with things lovely to see like roses, or sweet to smell like lavender; but good to eat like potatoes or French beans...
  9. ... For twelve months, if possible, or at least for twelve days, do not use anything ‘canned’, neither canned meat nor canned music....
  10. I will now appeal to the artist that is within every one of us. Art, as you know, is the right way of making a good thing... make something—a cup of tea, a boiled egg, a hatpeg (from a fallen branch), a chair!...
  11. Talk your young architect friend into spending two weeks of his holiday making an abode (formerly called a house).... Give him a wood axe, a hatchet, and adze, and a few tools. Tell him from me that if in two weeks and for less that 100 pounds you and he cannot make an abode more spacious and sanitary than ninety per cent of the dwellings in the Borough of Westminster or St. Pancras, you should be certified.
  12. Set down for the information and inspiration of young Distributists one hundred answers to the usually despairing question: "How can I get out of London?" Begin with the simplest answer: "Walk out."...
  13. ... If you make up your mind to marry, do not marry merely a good wife: marry a good mother to your children. A wife that is a good mother to your children is the Angel of the House; the other sort is the very devil.
  14. Before asking her hand and her heart, tell her how to test you. Advise her to ask herself not whether you would make her a good husband, but whether you would make a good father to her and your children....
  15. If you do not feel called to the state of marriage vows, there is another state of vows—where mysticism and asceticism prove themselves the redemption of Economics.
Read the whole thing if you want a better idea of McNabb's ideas.

So what are McNabb's ideas? The Poverty of Thrift, the Poverty of Work, an active and healthy body. (Following in the footsteps of St. Albert, now called "the Great" but called "Boots" by his flock in Regensburg, Fr. McNabb walked everywhere, to the point where an atheist once begged him to accept cab fare home, for decency's sake.) Make what you can yourself -- and, by the way, you can make a lot more yourself than other people want you to think. The importance of the family, the importance of the religious life.

Put this way, distributism sounds like a perfectly sound rule of life for a Christian interested in what is sometimes called an "authentic life." But it still doesn't sound like a prescriptive economic system....


We are all anawim

There's a priest I know who follows what I'll call an "anawim spirituality." His homilies are generally directed at people who are beaten down by life and need to hear, again and again, that God loves them.

Now, that's not a message I, personally, need to hear very often. I've done quite well by life, all things considered. And of course God loves me. What's not to love?

Still, I take the broad, flexible outlook on Catholicism and am prepared to allow this priest his trickling stream of spirituality for his own benefit, and whoever among his hearers might be anawim in spirit.

This is a glib way of expressing my belief that most American Catholics today need to hear more about how sin keeps them apart from God, but some genuinely do need to hear more about how close God is.

Yesterday's first reading from Nehemiah, though, teaches me that it's not an either/or matter, even for a single person with a single dominant temperament:
"Today is holy to the LORD your God. Do not be sad, and do not weep"-- for all the people were weeping as they heard the words of the law.... "Do not be saddened this day, for rejoicing in the LORD must be your strength!"
The words of the Law should not be for us a condemning indictment, even though we stand condemned before the Law. Rather, it should be a cause for rejoicing:
Your words, Lord, are Spirit and Life....
The precepts of the LORD are right, rejoicing the heart....
If we're condemned under the Law, how can its precepts rejoice the heart? Because the simple fact of the Law is proof of God's love. The Law of Moses proved God's love for Israel; its fulfillment in the Person of Jesus Christ proves God's love for all of us – that is, for each of us.

It seems to me this is the better way to understand sin. We do not overcome sin in order to become close to God, but because God is close to us we desire to overcome sin.


Poker faced

Bluffing in poker, Peter Nixon argues, "is an exercise of the sacramental imagination."

Well, whatever gets you out the door. I'd just say something like, "Come on, honey, I'll be home by midnight and I'll watch the kids all day Saturday."


Friday, January 23, 2004

Why all the hubub?

I propose the following hypothesis as a partial explanation for why something as trivial as the "Itisasitwas Intrigue" (which includes the argument that it is not trivial) is getting the play it is:

The story, such as it is, lies at the intersection of the two most important stories in the history of the world.

The most important story in the history of the world are the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. The second most important story in the history of the world is the most important story's sequel: the story of the Church. Since they are the two most important stories in the history of the world, who gets to tell them and how they are told are matters of grave importance.

The debate over The Passion of the Christ is a part of the debate over who gets to tell the story of the death of Jesus, and how they get to tell it. That, I think, is clear enough (though others don't share my opinion that it is a very small part of the larger debate).

The debate over the Pope's reaction to the movie is, I suggest, a part of the debate over who gets to tell the story of the Church, and how they get to tell it. One version of the story -- the "Vatican ≡ bad" version -- serves to sever the institutional Church from the metaphysical reality of the Mystical Body of Christ. Thus, both people who want the story of the Church told this way and people who are adamantly opposed to the story of the Church being told this way have a lot to say about it.

So this fleeting little story, by itself a trifling part of the two most important stories in the world, is so to speak borrowing importance from the larger and enduring stories, simply by being at the spot where people have chosen to stand for their debate.


The wind shifts?

When I went to the Metro section page of the Post's website to get the link for the post below, the banner ad at the top of the page, for a life insurance company, featured this design:

The name of the image was "stomach_hold_her_728x90.gif".

"She." "Her."

I suppose "Kate Michelman, president of NARAL Pro-Choice America, a national abortion-rights group," would say it's a sad day for American women when we have people speaking of unborn children as though they were persons.

(Note to self: Did I get this post's title subconsciously from Peter Nixon's post?)


Quiz Time

Suppose you are a photo editor with a major metropolitan newspaper. A news story about a controversial subject needs some photographs above the fold on the front page of the Metro section. The story reports that "Tens of thousands" on one side of the controversy marched through the streets, forming a parade that stretched through "several long blocks" of your city.

Those on the other side of the controversy responded, "not with a mass demonstration but with ... news conferences, dinners ... and vigils."

What photographs do you choose to accompany the story?

If you work at The Washington Post, and the news story is about the 2004 March for Life, you choose two photographs, one showing several pro-life marchers (including two pro-life signs), the other showing just a few pro-life marchers (including two pro-life signs) completely surrounded by pro-abortion demonstrators (including six pro-abortion signs).

That's balance, in the editorial judgment of The Washington Post.

There were a couple of other pictures -- one at the bottom of the front page showing a group of high school students holding a banner in the March for Life, the other a black-and-white on the jump page of the Metro section article showing a priest holding a crucifix -- but the primary impression of the large color photos next to the top of the article is of roughly equal numbers, with the pro-abortion side having a slight edge.

The article itself gives a much fairer representation -- just two of the eighteen paragraphs present "the other side of the issue" -- but notice the segue from the headline to the lead:
Abortion Protest Draws Thousands
Marchers Brave Cold to Speak Out Against 1973 Roe v. Wade Decision
Tens of thousands of antiabortion advocates marched to the U.S. Supreme Court yesterday....
The headline writer has his thousands, and the reporter has his ten thousands....


Thursday, January 22, 2004

Sometimes, yes, it does

Comments on the post below suggest that far more interesting than Romish duplicity or American nobility is the question of papal "opinions about subjects that affect our everyday life."

I agree, but unfortunately I don't have much to say about it.

For now, I'll just point out two things: the obvious distinction between the opinion of a pope considered as a pope and the opinion of a man who happens to be pope; and the fact that Catholics tend to value a particular papal opinion in proportion to the degree the papal opinion happens to agree with the Catholic's opinion prior to hearing the pope's.


It is as it was

So let's say the Pope watches a movie with his secretary, and they both enjoy it. The secretary tells the movie's producers the Pope enjoyed it. The movie's producers ask the Pope's spokesman if the Pope really enjoyed it, and the spokesman says yes.

When the fact of the Pope's enjoyment is used to promote the movie, people in the Vatican remind each other that the Pope doesn't blurb ad copy. When the Pope's secretary and spokesman are reminded of this, they announce that the Pope hasn't blurbed ad copy.

That would be the end of an uninteresting story, so to punch it up let's throw in a couple of journalists who have some kind of emotional investment in the commercial and critical success of the movie and/or the acknowledgement of the Pope's enjoyment.

Peggy Noonan writes that all this:
is important for several reasons. The truth matters. What a pope says matters. And what this pontiff says about this film matters.
Starting from the last, what this pontiff says about this film certainly matters to the filmmakers, and to a lesser extent to potential filmgoers, but ... so what? Sure, the Pope could help settle an argument about a movie that hasn't been released yet. He could also help settle an argument about which statue a parish should order for the front of its church. Settling arguments like that isn't an important part of the Pope's job, though. There's a difference between saying the Pope's opinion makes a difference in an argument and saying his opinion matters, in the sense that makes it an important news story.

Which brings us to the idea that all this is important because what a pope says matters. Sometimes, yes, it does. Sometimes, no, it doesn't. Let's not beg the question that this is a time when it does.

And finally, I absolutely agree that the truth matters -- in the sense that lying is a sin and one ought never commit a sin. To the extent people are lying about this, that's bad.

To what extent are people lying about this, though? Rod "To Hell With the Bishops" Dreher is characteristically outraged at what he sees as the Vatican "hanging Gibson and his team out to dry." Taking a more pragmatic view, Michael Dubruiel suggests the denials are Vaticanese for, "We forgot that, 'It is the Holy Father's custom not to express public judgments on artistic works.'"

In the end, people are going to see what they are in the habit of seeing -- in a movie, in an opinion piece, in the words of a Vatican spokesman.

It is as it was.


Wednesday, January 21, 2004

It depends on what your definition of credo is

I could use a taxonomy of beliefs.

I know, I know: Who couldn't? But I've noticed a few types of belief recently that I didn't have ready terms for.

A belief, let's say, is an affirmation that a thing is true without direct knowledge of its truth. (Let me set aside the question of direct knowledge.) There are lots of ways and causes of beliefs.

One way of classifying beliefs is by the means by which the belief is achieved. A believer can reason his way to a belief, which might then be called a judgment. The belief might, for all practical purposes, simply pop into a believer's mind fully formed; I'm not sure what to call such a belief -- maybe an axiomatic belief -- although they are as common as noses.

Faith is, to use the old formula, the participation in the knowledge of another. If I have a belief due to faith, my affirmation that a thing is true is anchored in my faith in another person. A religious faith as a set of beliefs is the mapping of one's faith in God (or someone else) onto a set of affirmations believed to have been made by God (or someone else).

Another way of classifying beliefs is by the means with which they could in principle change.

There's a kind of belief that is, for the believer, irrevocable. The believer interprets the world in terms of this belief. If an interpretation of an event exists which supports that belief, it is taken to be the true interpretation. If no such interpretation exists, the event is an anomaly and may be ignored. I think I'll call such a belief a conviction.

If conversation with someone who holds a conviction inevitably turns, as the dawn the day, toward that conviction, it's the believer's hobbyhorse (i.e., a topic the believer is always riding). A believer with a hobbyhorse is a bore.

Many beliefs assert the truth of things that are unknown but, at least in principle, empirically knowable. I might believe my wife is picking up the kids; I might believe a certain candidate will win an election. I might call such a belief a guess, and I ought to at least be aware that it's possible for new information to come to my attention that proves my guess was wrong.

Yet another classification of beliefs is by the content or nature of the belief.

A belief regarding a concept that isn't well-formed or empirically knowable -- e.g., who was the best football player ever, or the "best" of any group that has no single definition of "best" associated with it -- might be called an opinion. (I am of the opinion that this definition could stand some tightening up.)

If the belief regards the secret motivations or actions of one or more people, then I think it might be called a conspiracy theory, although admittedly it may not be a particularly elaborate theory. Also, not all conspiracy theories are far-fetched, and some are even true. (Note that, since by definition the motivations or actions are secret, a conspiracy theory is also a guess.)

If the belief affirms that every member of a particular group or population possesses the same quality, when that quality is not possessed by those in the group or population by definition, the belief is a prejudice. A believer can, of course, be prejudiced for or against a group. A believer whose prejudice against a group amounts to a conviction is a bigot.

There. It's not complete, and it's not as well organized as it could be, but I think it's a good working draft. Have at it.


Tuesday, January 20, 2004

"Laughter is indeed a blessing"
‘The Blessings of Laughter,' a film festival sponsored by the U.S. Bishops' Catholic Communication Campaign (CCC), will take place March 19-21, at New York City's Directors Guild Theater in mid-town Manhattan.
I happen to like the idea of belonging to a Church that screens Marx Brothers movies. Why? Because laughter "is something that Christians, who are filled with the joy of the Good News, can embrace and appreciate," and an incarnate joy is something Catholics could stand to be better witnesses to.

Besides, it's the Marx Brothers!
"Have you got any stewed prunes?"
"Yes, Sir."
"Well, give them some black coffee. That'll sober them up."


Accommodating the accommodater

If I offer an interpretation of a passage of Scripture, how do I know whether I'm proposing one of the meanings of the passage intended by the author, validly accommodating the passage to a different meaning, or simply distorting the passage beyond reason?

I'd say, first, I ought to at least know whether I'm trying to do exegesis, or simply trying to say something true that is suggested by the passage. In my "The wine always runs short" post, I pointed out that taking the wines as symbols of the Mosaic Law and the Law of the Spirit of Life in Christ Jesus was an accommodation, so I don't need to argue that Jesus intended this symbolism or that John wrote the passage to emphasize it.

Athanasius has a post interpreting the blind man near Jericho as signifying the sinner in his blindness -- i.e., all of us:
Consider the blind man. Is this story merely a tale about a miraculous cure? I don't think so. Think about the blind man in connection with Matt 5:8: Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God. If you are pure of heart, you will see, but what if you aren't pure of heart? Isn't it reasonable to suppose that if purity causes vision, sin causes blindness? ...
This story represents the core of Eastern spirituality, I think. We are lost in a culture of sin and death, blind to the true dignity of both man and creation, but we hear the marvelous news proclaimed to us that God is with us. Our response can only properly be "Lord Jesus Christ, Son of David, have mercy on me a sinner!"
It's not clear to me if Athanasius means Jesus healed the blind man in order to signify restoration of purity through Him, or that Luke included the story to signify restoration of purity through Jesus to his readers, or simply that we are, in fact, restored to purity through Jesus, just as the blind man was restored to sight.

But -- and here I show my bias -- I don't think it matters in the end, for us non-scholars, as long as our commentary leads to the truth. (I assume we've already passed the Catholic Encyclopedia's second and third rules, so that what we say is neither farfetched nor irreverent.)

Which raises the question, how do we know whether we're saying something true? If we're accommodating Scripture, we can't simply point to the passage we're accommodating (that's the first rule). But we can argue from other passages, as I did below with Romans, or from extra-Biblical principles, as Athanasius does with his proposed experiment of weekly confession (an excellent suggestion, by the way).

Why bother with potentially accommodating commentary at all? Why not stick with firm exegesis? I think part of the reason is that Scripture is not merely a static text; it's the Word of God, and in reading it we meet Christ. Accommodation is a way of saying, "This is what Jesus just told me." A truth is rarely expressed the same way twice, and expressing it in different ways brings out different aspects, which resonate with different people at different times.

The Bible is not a "User's Guide to Human Nature, Creation, and Right Worship." It's a means to encounter our God, and no two encounters with God can be the same.


Accommodating the Word

There's a good discussion in the comments on the post below regarding the proper use of "Biblical accommodation," which the old Catholic Encyclopedia defines as "the adaptation of words or sentences from Sacred Scripture to signify ideas different from those expressed by the sacred author."

Quoting myself:
The Church Fathers were very fond of suggesting symbolisms and spiritual meanings of passages. For example, Jesus' explanation of the parable of the sower in Mark 4 includes mention of "the ones who hear the word and accept it and bear fruit thirty and sixty and a hundredfold." The Catena Aurea lists several interpretations, including Bede's "he bears thirty-fold, who instills into the minds of the elect faith in the Holy Trinity; sixty-fold, who teaches the perfection of good works; a hundred-fold, who shews the rewards of the heavenly kingdom."

Nowadays, Scripture scholars frown on such accommodations, and prefer to argue that none of the miracle stories are authentic, since miracles are impossible.

Personally, I like accommodations, as long as it's clear that they are accommodations, and not proposed as necessarily the meaning God intended the passage to bear.
The Catholic Encyclopedia article proposes three rules for appropriate accommodation:
  • Accommodated texts should never be used as arguments drawn from revelation; for the words are not employed in the sense, either literal or typical, intended by the Holy Ghost. Violations of this rule are not rare, either in sermons or in pious literature.
  • Accommodation should not be farfetched. Allusive accommodations in many cases are mere distortions of the sacred text.
  • Accommodations should be reverent. Holy words should be employed for purposes of edification, not to excite laughter, much less to cloak errors.
The article also refers to the decree of the Council of Trent against "the wresting of Scripture to profane uses":
...wishing to repress that temerity, by which the words and sentences of sacred Scripture are turned and twisted to all sorts of profane uses, to wit, to things scurrilous, fabulous, vain, to flatteries, detractions, superstitions, impious and diabolical incantations, sorceries, and defamatory libels; (the Synod) commands and enjoins, for the doing away with this kind of irreverence and contempt, and that no one may hence forth dare in any way to apply the words of sacred Scripture to these and such like purposes; that all men of this description, profaners and violators of the word of God, be by the bishops restrained by the penalties of law, and others of their own appointment.
I think we can see the difference between the Venerable Bede's interpretation of Mark 4:20 and diabolical incantations, sorceries, and defamatory libels.


Monday, January 19, 2004

The wine always runs short

When the wine ran short during that wedding party at Cana in Galilee, Jesus was there to make up the shortfall in superabundance.

I suggest below that the wine can be said to symbolize our own human efforts in contrast to what Jesus is prepared to do for us. (That's probably more of an accomodation than a genuine spiritual sense of the passage.)

But it isn't just our individual efforts that come up short. Entire movements and whole societies reach the limits of human nature, crest, and collapse.

Even the faithful among the Chosen People, those who obeyed the Law given them by the Lord, were doomed to fail.

St. Paul puts it this way:
So then the law is holy, and the commandment is holy and righteous and good. Did the good, then, become death for me? Of course not! Sin, in order that it might be shown to be sin, worked death in me through the good, so that sin might become sinful beyond measure through the commandment.
The Law convicts those who do not obey it -- which is to say, everyone. But:
...the law of the spirit of life in Christ Jesus has freed you from the law of sin and death. For what the law, weakened by the flesh, was powerless to do, this God has done: by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for the sake of sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, so that the righteous decree of the law might be fulfilled in us, who live not according to the flesh but according to the spirit.
A positive way of expressing this (although we shouldn't gloss over the negative fact of sin) is to say that even obedience to the Law is not enough for us, because what we desire -- stripped of the distortions of our fallen nature -- is union with God. We can't join ourselves to God, but God can join Himself to us.

Sooner or later, the wine of the Law runs short -- and this even if we observe the custom of serving inferior wines as time goes by. When this happened in Israel, there was the Son of God to give them a new, and better, wine. When this happens in our own lives, there is the Son of God to refill our cups with the best of wines.


When the wine ran short

As the beginning of His signs, Jesus turned water into wine at a wedding in Galilee. But what led up to this first miracle?

A family of good Jews (good enough, at least, to perform the required ceremonial washings) plans a wedding celebration. How much wine is needed? About this much. Start with the best available, then move on to inferior wines.

Well. We can see how far all that careful planning got them.

As the crisis looms, someone notices. That someone happens to be the first and best disciple of Christ, who pleads with him (as perhaps only a mother can) to help.

If He is to help, though, there must be faith. Not on the part of the host, or even the headwaiter, but on the part of a few servers. "Do whatever He tells you." "Fill them with water." No great faith is required, I suppose, and yet how it is rewarded!

The crisis is averted, and hardly anyone even knows there was a crisis. Custom is turned upside down, a party continues with a superabundance of superb wine, a handful of people begin to believe their Teacher is more than a teacher.

How far will our own plans and efforts take us? Do we see that Jesus is present, that to ask Him in faith is to receive, in superabundance, far better than we even think to desire?


Friday, January 16, 2004

Not the official organ of conservative American Catholics

Mark Shea laments
the ascendancy of "Mammon First" Conservatism over "Family First" Conservatism at [National Review Online].
NRO's Ramesh Ponnuru responds on NRO's blog The Corner, in a post titled "Attack of the Social Conservatives":
But I would remind these guys that National Review editorializes consistently and runs articles regularly against gay marriage, abortion, cloning, euthanasia, illegitimacy, divorce, day care, and gender integration in the military. Do social conservatives control so many editorial offices that it is wise of them to attack those allies they have?
I'll point out just two things from just these two sentences in a much longer post.

First, notice the list of things NR editorializes and runs articles against. The first four are gay marriage, abortion, cloning, and euthanasia. The last four are illegitimacy, divorce, day care, and gender integration in the military. Do you notice a certain disparity in the enormities represented by the two groups? On the one hand, cloning and euthanasia. On the other hand, day care and gender integration in the military. I suppose the latter group represents issues "social conservatives" get het up about -- Ramesh Ponnuru ought to know better than I about that -- but I don't really think running anti-day care articles excuses running pro-pornography articles. That aside, I think this list illustrates, both by what is on it and what is not, that a distinction can be made between "social conservativism" as NR (or at least Ramesh Ponnuru) understands it and the "social Catholicism" through which the Church has called the faithful to social and political action.

Second, notice the language used: "Attack of the Social Conservatives." " is wise of them to attack those allies they have?" This is the language of war. From NRO's perspective, as I perceive it, there is very little room for discussion. There's a war going on, and any criticism from an "ally" is an "attack" that distracts from the war effort.

Well, that's not entirely true. There is room for disagreement between some conservatives on some issues, but evidently not for pointing out that there's more room for disagreement on family issues than on military issues.

A result of this war mentality, this habit of belligerence, is that an otherwise-sensible person finds himself asking, "Do you think that's wise?" when someone else argues his priorities may not be properly ordered.

Kathryn Lopez, NRO's editor, gives her take on its editorial posture:
I wanna make sure we educate the choir, but I also want to evangelize. We might have to show a little leg sometimes to do that.
Notice, though, that the evangelizing she wants to do with NRO is not Christian, per se, but conservative. Recognizing that distinction, it's to be expected that NRO's editorial decisions will not always coincide with Christian prudence.


Coming in threes

The same day I post on the Google Ichthus Index, TS O'Rama and Bill White post on the Jesus Christ Google number.

What they fail to do -- and really, I'm surprised at Bill -- is normalize. What does it mean for two sites to have the same number if one site has 10 pages in total and the other has 3,000?

The GII for the Sisters of Mercy is 12.0. The Spiritual Life Institute gets a 14.3. TSO's own website has a GII of 59.4, while Summa Minutiae comes in at 20.1.

Which goes to show you, if you want a high GII, don't use blogging software that archives every post as a separate page.

(And yes, I am a little uneasy about using the Holy Name to generate useless statistics.)


Thursday, January 15, 2004

The Google Ichthus Index

A Saintly Salmagundi observed that the Holy Name of Jesus is hard to find on the website of the United States Province of the Society of the Sacred Heart.

I've noticed something similar about websites of other U.S. religious congregations, and while it's a bit puzzling I'm not sure it means anything much. (By "anything much," I mean, of course, "their lives aren't particularly centered on Jesus," but that sounds terribly harsh, so I leave it at "anything much.")

Just to generate some data, I've computed the Google Ichthus Index -- the percentage of website pages containing the words "Jesus" and/or "Christ" -- for several websites not entirely chosen at random:
The World Wide Web0.6
National Review Online2.7
Nashville Dominicans39.9
The Vatican59.2
New Advent88.4

I did some fiddling with a few of these, to account for non-English pages, especially the Vatican's site, since it has so many pages in so many different languages. So they can't be directly compared to each other -- and of course, the index itself is of doubtful meaning, so direct comparisons are even less meaningful.

Still, there are a couple of interesting things. Blogspot has a surprisingly high GII. Either it's disproportionately devoted to discussions of Christianity compared to the Web as a whole, or there's a whole lot of cussing going on.

The Nashville Dominicans are often held up as the standard example for how a religious congregation should have come through the immediate post-conciliar period. I computed the GII for a few other congregations; they were about half to a quarter of the Nashville Dominicans.

New Advent, of course, has the old Catholic Encyclopedia, the Summa Theologica, a selection of Church Fathers, and other stuff like that.

The actual Vatican GII is somewhat higher, since I didn't account for all the different languages at the site. (The same is true for the Web as a whole.)

Disputations has a relatively high GII, but it still means that about 18 times a year, I go a week writing about Catholicism and stuff without mentioning Jesus.

I included National Review Online because some folks seem to think it's the official organ of conservative American Catholics. It's not.


Who's your daddy?

Gerard Serafin links to a John Schmitt opinion piece in the National Catholic Reporter arguing for Catholic "openness" to Islam along the model of the rapproachment with Judaism:
But Judaism is not the only monotheistic religion that Christianity has suspected and persecuted. Logic and charity seem to demand that such openness be extended to another Abrahamic faith: Islam.

Islam has been the subject of some statements issued by the pope and the congregations, but there is no major text that asserts the essential ties among Judaism, Christianity and Islam.

Even the current Catechism of the Catholic Church seems to rank Islam lower than Judaism as an Abrahamic faith....

One wonders if this is the divine view. Does God see Christians and Jews having a close relationship, while Muslims -- who worship the same God -- are off to the side? Do we recognize that Islam, too, is a response to God’s revelation?
I think Schmitt, associate professor of theology at Marquette, accepts Islam's claims far too uncritically for his opinion to have much value in guiding Christian-Muslim relations.

Let's start with the notion of an "Abrahimic faith." What is an Abrahimic faith? How long has such a notion existed? What makes Abraham the cut-off point for "essential ties" between faiths, rather than Moses or David -- or Noah, for that matter?

Certainly Abraham is "our father in faith." But we claim to worship the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, the God of Jacob. Muslims do not, as I understand it, but believe Abraham was himself a Muslim, as was his son Ishmael, whose heirs bore the divine blessing Jews and Christians believe passed through Isaac and Jacob.

To say that Islam is an Abrahimic faith is to say that Muslims believe some of the same things about God's covenant with Abraham that Jews and Christians believe. At the same time, though, Muslims deny many of the things, and arguably the most important things, Jews and Christians believe about Abraham.

It's simply false to picture Christianity, Judaism, and Islam as three paths splitting off of the Abrahamic covenant. After all, the death of Abraham is recorded in Genesis 25, yet Christianity acknowledges several dozen other books of Hebrew Scripture as Divine revelation. Islam does not even accept Genesis.

Finally, we could ask, "But is it true?" Is it true that Islam is a response to God's revelation? Does Islam really descend from a covenant with Abraham?

About two thousand years separate the death of Abraham and the birth of Mohammed. Islam is "Abrahimic" in the same sense that a newly-created New Age religion that regards Jesus of Nazareth as an Enlightened Spirit is "Christian."

For the purposes of promoting peace, we may certainly stress the shared claims of paternity through Abraham. But from a Catholic perspective, Islam is no more a response to God's revelation than is Mormonism.

The differences in the Church's relationship to Judaism and to Islam are real, and they should endure. There is an essential tie between Christianity and Judaism that does not exist between Christianity and Islam. Islam does "rank lower" than Judaism as an "Abrahimic faith." Islam is not a response to God's revelation in the same way Judaism and Christianity are; it is a human response to God's revelation to Jews and Christians. Logic and charity demand that we acknowledge this, even as we work for cordial and productive relationships with Muslims.


Wednesday, January 14, 2004

Not just one of many

Peter Nixon mentions an article by Beliefnet editor in chief Steven Waldman about the American-ness of the religious backgrounds of Howard Dean (baptized Catholic, raised Episcopalian, now Congregationalist) and Wesley "I'm a Catholic but I go to a Presbyterian church" Clark. Waldman writes:
But if Dean and Clark are therefore spiritually promiscuous, they have excellent company. Twenty to 30 percent of Americans now practice a faith different from the one in which they were raised, according to sociologist Robert Wuthnow. And a much higher percentage have switched houses of worship.
Peter comments:
I'm much less convinced than Waldman that the "consumer" approach to religion and spirituality is a positive thing. But there is no question that Dean and Clark are, on this issue at least, solidly in the American mainstream.
Something I think Waldman overlooks is that two of those he mentions as critics of Dean and Clark -- Tim Russert and Deal Hudson -- are Roman Catholics.

I don't think you'd mistake an article on Catholicism by Tim Russert for one by Deal Hudson, but the fact is that moving to and from the Catholic Church is still a Big Deal to many Catholics, in a way that perhaps moving from one Protestant denomination to another is not to many Protestants. For good reasons and bad, Roman Catholics really aren't just one of many Christian confession in the U.S., and although as time goes on we as a group become more distinctly American and less distinctly Catholic the divide between "Roman Catholic" and "Non-Roman Catholic" lessens, it's still there.

Waldman also writes:
Another misconception that has crept into the media analysis of the candidates' religious statements is the idea that Americans approach religion with the mind-set of theologians. Thus, Dean and Clark were maligned not only because they shifted a lot but because they seemed to do so for superficial reasons....
But again, this isn't unusual behavior. Americans often choose houses of worship, and denominations, based on a combination of both the doctrinal and the practical and emotional. Which church has the best choir? Which is closest to home? Whose preacher is the least boring? Where do my friends go? How does the service make me feel?
Put it that way, I wonder whether Catholics actually do approach religion with the mind-set of theologians, at least relative to Americans as a whole. We may choose parishes based on choirs, convenience, and preaching, but how many Catholics leave the Church for such "practical and emotional" reasons? Yes, a lot of people do leave for emotional reasons, but aren't they generally deeply felt emotions like betrayal or outrage, rather than musical sympathies?

I'd guess most of the people I know who have left the Church left because they simply do not believe the extravagant claims She makes regarding herself. Their disbelief may not often arise from particularly deep theological reasoning, but it does seem to be at least roughly theological in character.

Waldman's final paragraph includes these sentences:
Every religion seems absurd to those who don't believe in it. Each person's spiritual path makes more sense to them than to anyone else.
I agree with the first statement, if not read too literally. The second one, though, is not necessarily true. Many person's spiritual paths only make sense as paths toward or away from God, and the person on the path can't always tell which direction he's moving.


One act

BARBARA NICOLOSI: The L.A. Times ran a story recently about a new book detailing the "spirituality" of many Hollywood celebrities.

LARRY (the wisecracking neighbor): Yeah, celebrities. Those are people who are famous for being famous.

BRUCE WILLIS: Organized religions in general, in my opinion, are dying forms.

BARBARA: Kind of like marriages, eh Bruce?

JOHN DA FIESOLE: What Bruce Willis says is the sort of thing that can raise the hackles of someone who belongs to an organized religion --

LARRY: I don't belong to an organized religion. I'm a Franciscan.

JOHN: -- Especially if you belong to a religion that teaches the gates of hell will not prevail against it. But an organized religion must be organized according to some principle, and the religion can be no more enduring than the principle.

LARRY: I thought I could no longer endure my high school principal. Longest eight years of my life.

JOHN: Catholics believe the principle organizing our Church is the Holy Spirit, and you can't get more enduring than that. Other Christians believe Catholicism mixes in impure principles such as man-made doctrine, hyperrationality, worldliness, and even (at the far end of the ecumenical spectrum) the demonic.

LARRY: The demonic? Sounds like my high school principal.

JOHN: If you're not Christian, though, you pretty much have to deny that the Catholic Church has any privileged claim on being guided by a personal Creator. That leaves you with anthropological and sociological explanations for the survival of the Church. People have a natural desire for some sort of spiritual life, and people like to join groups of the like-minded. But people also don't like to be told what to think or what to do. If the social pressure to belong to a particular religion eases, the desire for autonomy will cause many people to leave, or to never join, such a religion. If God isn't acting to draw people to this faith or that, then once people can meet their social needs apart from a specific religious stance, the result is likely to be individualistic syncretism based on unfocussed "spirituality."

LARRY: That's pretty dull. Does it have a point?

JOHN: Er... yeah. My point is that we would expect what Bruce Willis says of organized religions in general to be true in particular of all organized religions that are not directed by the Holy Spirit. Moreover, Catholics might expect it to be true of Catholicism to the extent we fail to be directed by the Holy Spirit. And though the Church can never fail entirely, She certainly can fail in particulars. It's analagous to someone with sanctifying grace who commits venial sins without committing mortal sins.

KEVIN MILLER: For more on why we should, with the help of God's grace, refrain from lying, see Lawrence Dewan, "St. Thomas, Lying, and Venial Sin," Thomist 61 (1997): 279-300.

LAWRENCE DEWAN: This helps us to get the picture of ourselves as caught in venial sin, and yet as habitually ordered towards God as source of beatitude (even though what we are actually doing does not have such a character as to advance us actually towards beatitude)... We are loving God as ultimate end, not actually, but habitually.

ST. THOMAS AQUINAS: He that sins venially, cleaves to temporal good, not as enjoying it, because he does not fix his end in it, but as using it, by referring it to God, not actually but habitually.

LARRY: Looks like somebody's been cleaving habitually to the breakfast buffet.

JOHN: So a person is not actually loving God when he sins venially, but he is still habitually fixed on loving God. Analagously, the Church as a human institution does not always and in every way follow the Holy Spirit, yet as the Mystical Body of Christ Her Soul always remains the Holy Spirit. And just as our attachment to venial sins will come to an end, that in the Church which does not follow the Holy Spirit will die out. So even within the Church, there are always dying forms.


JOHN: So everything we do is either done by the Spirit of Jesus Christ, or it's dying even as it's done. Also, in that article, Bruce Willis comes off much better than Nick Nolte.

NICK NOLTE: I have difficulty with God and with beliefs. You have to ask the question, "If God created man in his own image, what kind of an image is God?"

ST. THOMAS AQUINAS: [Clears throat.] It would seem that --

ALL throw up their hands and laugh, except ST. THOMAS AQUINAS and NICK NOLTE.


Monday, January 12, 2004

Not what, but Who

I should add that, although I've been writing today about truth in the ordinary sense of whether an idea corresponds to something that exists in reality, the Veritas with which the Dominican Order is primarily concerned is Jesus Christ.

Not facts about Jesus Christ. Not what the Church says about Jesus Christ. Not this or that Christology.

Jesus Christ Himself.

In practice, of course, Dominicans spend a lot of time talking about facts and what the Church says and this or that Christology. They also spend a lot of time talking about what's going on in the world and what should be done about it.

But before, behind, and beyond all that, the Truth a Dominican has to offer is the Person of Jesus Christ.

The post-conciliar period has been a time when the idea of apostolate has been stressed. Not just within the Dominican Family, but throughout the Church. Saying hello to people as they walk in a door is now a ministry. Googling "apostolate" returns more than 100,000 hits, "lay apostolate" more than 7,000. Religious sisters are out there (some are way out there) working in fields far beyond healthcare and education.

But before and behind and beyond all that must be Jesus Christ. Or else (as William Hinnebusch, OP, put it) you have people with active apostolates who have ceased to be apostles.


A motto of the Order

Veritas -- Truth -- is one of the mottoes of the Dominican Order. Obviously, the Order isn't for everyone.

Disinterest in the question of whether something is true (rather than useful, or convenient, or calming, or adequate) is not the same thing as belief that nothing is true. Several of the things I mentioned in the previous post were said by active Catholics, who from all evidence believe not only that objective truth exists but that the Catholic Church is capable of dogmatically declaring what is objectively true. They aren't relativists, properly speaking, but relatively unimportantists.

Yes, people can and do grieve over lost pets. But to demand, during the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, prayers for a dead pet's soul goes beyond harmless comfort and into ... well, a lot of other discussions, but here it suffices to say that the Mass is for us men and our salvation, not for cats and dogs.

But that doesn't seem to matter to a lot of people. There is a good to be obtained, and whether truth must be sacrificed to obtain the good isn't a question that even occurs to people. They aren't consequentialists, because they don't even consider adverse consequences; they're inconsequentialists.

As someone for whom truth is an extraordinarily important matter, I have a hard time dealing with this; inconsequentialist statements tend to leave me silent. They somehow introduce an etiquette into the conversation, making it bad form to even ask, "But is it true?"

I can discuss things, and I can dispute things, but when a conversation becomes a sequence of unquestionable opinions in which the question of truth can't even be raised, I usually find I have nothing to say.

I may have to add, "But is it true?" to my list of all-purpose replies.


Truth, for its own sake

I've been in several conversations over the past few weeks that, taken together, suggest a fundamental difference between me and many others:
  • Someone said, "It doesn't matter what religion you are as long as you're a good person."
  • Someone recommended the work of Marcus Borg as interesting and worthwhile.
  • Someone defended a supplication for the soul of a deceased pet during the Prayer of the Faitful with the argument, "What does it hurt?"
  • Someone commented, "Actually I was thinking that you should start a blog that specialized in giving satisfying answers to people, regardless of the Truth." (This one, at least, was a joke.)
What I have come to realize is that, for a lot of people in a lot of circumstances, the answer to the question, "But is it true?" is of no interest whatever.

Having put it into words, this fact is so obvious that the only way I could have overlooked it before is because I really want people to care whether something is true.

I recall that, after the very first Lay Dominican chapter meeting I attended as an inquirer, I mentioned to someone that the meeting had featured a talk by a Dominican friar about how science, though useful, wasn't true. The person I was talking to said, "That sounds like a Dominican, always talking about 'Truth.'" She said "Truth" with a quaver in her voice, like you'd use if you were saying, "What, you're afraid of the 'bogeyman'?" Like it was ridiculous that some people took it seriously.

And even though I thought at the time the friar had mischaracterized science (now I suspect I had mischaracterized the friar), I was dumbfounded by the idea that truth wasn't something to be valued.


And they is us

When I see someone say, "The problem with the Church today is the liberal bishops" -- or "the rigid Curia," or "the gay priests," or "the fearful traditionalists" --- my first thought is usually, "Well, at least the problem isn't me."

Alas, the problem with the Church today isn't the liberal bishops, or the rigid Curia, or with any othey they you choose. The problem with the Church today is sin, a willful turning away from God, and it's not very satisfying to choose "sinners" as your they.

But even if we have a speck in our eye while they have a plank, grousing about them betrays a misunderstanding of what Christian discipleship is all about.
Then Jesus said to his disciples, "Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it."
Yes, different people play different parts in the Mystical Body of Christ, but no one is assigned a passive role. If I wish to come after Jesus into the eternal presence of God, then I must deny myself. My bishop can't deny me on my behalf. The pope isn't going to tell St. Peter, "Oh, he's with me," when I arrive at the Pearly Gates.

This brings up the "both/and" tension in Catholicism, between both the fact that I choose for myself and the fact that we're all in this together. If someone else is failing, that is a cause for sorrow, for prayer, and sometimes for strong words. But it is not a cause for abandonment, and it's certainly not a cause for self-praise that I am not waiting for someone else before I choose to deny myself and take up my cross.


Friday, January 09, 2004

The utility of uselessness

In a comment below, Cheryl Tyiska writes:
Would it be wrong to say that "mercy" first and foremost is a matter of me being and acting the way I believe I should be and act because it is the Christ-like way to be and act, and then only secondarily considering whether my mercy toward another is good for them? For example, would my mercy toward them be "useless" if it didn't necessarily result in remorse and repentance? I don't think so.
Well, mercy as such is good for them, regardless of whether they obtain the good we seek for them. And, too, being Christ-like is good for us, whatever effect it has on others.

I think we are, generally speaking, too concerned with questions of utility, with what is desirable because it is useful rather than with what is desirable in itself. It's understandable, since in this life we can only imperfectly obtain what is desirable in itself.

But if we only understand mercy, say, as something useful -- to us, if to no one else -- then we don't understand God's mercy, and we can't really be merciful as God is merciful.

Because mercy is of no use to God. It's just what He does. We benefit by being merciful, because we are imperfect and being merciful toward others brings us closer to perfection. God, though, is already perfect. He didn't gain anything by sending His only Son into the world. He can't gain anything; there's literally nothing for Him to gain, Who created all things.

Jesus' prayer to forgive those who crucified Him didn't make Him a more perfect Person; strictly speaking, "more perfect" is an oxymoron, even for a Being Who isn't Eternal Beatitude. But it was part of the perfection of the humanity He assumed.

We tend to focus on the process, but I think keeping our final end in mind -- to be merciful as our Father is merciful, to be perfect as our Father is perfect -- would make our mercy more Christ-like by emphasizing both the selflessness with which we should act and the sheer grace of the mercy God has shown us.


The original scandal

Mark Shea, calling mercy "The Gospel's Most Scandalous Teaching," writes, "Mercy is the desire that the person's best good be achieved."

Robert Diaz comments, "If mercy is the desire that the person's best good be achieved, then mercy is the very definition of love."

Which is true, and which goes to show we shouldn't expect too much in the way of precision from milk-drinking popular writers.

Still, mercy is an interior act of love, according to St. Thomas, a fruit of charity, according to the Catechism.

The mercy Mark has in mind, the mercy that is scandalous, is the mercy shown to those who have wronged us, the mercy we are to show because of the mercy God has shown us. In discussing mercy, though, St. Thomas quotes St. Augustine: "And what is compassion but a fellow-feeling for another's misery, which prompts us to help him if we can?"

Are these really the same concept? Can the object of this mercy be both a wrongdoer and a sufferer?

The benefits to the one who shows mercy to a wrongdoer are often pointed out, starting with the fact that we will be forgiven in the same measure with which we forgive others. But mercy is more than forgiveness; it's an act of love directed to the one forgiven.

So what is the good of the wrongdoer we desire when we show him mercy? St. Thomas writes:
It is essential to fault that it be voluntary; and in this respect it deserves punishment rather than mercy. Since, however, fault may be, in a way, a punishment, through having something connected with it that is against the sinner's will, it may, in this respect, call for mercy. It is in this sense that we pity and commiserate sinners.
When someone wrongs me, he causes me a material evil, but he also causes himself a moral evil, a lessening of his being. The resoration of this part of his being is the good sought by my act of mercy toward him. A sinner necessarily wounds himself by his sin, whether he realizes it or not, and Christian mercy seeks to heal this moral wound without first demanding the healing of the material wound caused by the same sin.

This is an astonishing thought. It doesn't merely outstrip taking an eye for an eye; it makes turning the other cheek sound unremarkable. It's like being punched and immediately offering to get some ice for the puncher's knuckles.

Temperamentally, I find it easy to forgive. That's my temperament, though, not Christ acting within me. Not holding a grudge, letting bygones be bygone isn't hard for me on a natural level. But on a supernatural level? Can I find Christ's sorrow at another's sin in my own heart?


Thursday, January 08, 2004

Submitted for whose approval?

A common criticism of Catholics is that we don't know the Bible. This isn't entirely fair. It's true that, as a class, we aren't big on quoting chapter and verse, but then (as I like to point out) Catholics have been quoting the Bible since before it had verses, which can't be said of the confessions of a lot of our critics.

Admittedly, the Catholic habit of quoting Scripture without realizing we're quoting it can introduce some slight errors. A lot of irritated comments made by American Catholics today can be explained by the hypothesis that the commenters have in mind a slight misreading of Romans 7:19:
For the good which I will, they do not; but the evil which I will not, that they do.
God would seem to be profligate these days in distributing the charism of knowing how other people should live their lives.

I have in mind in particular the large number of secular layfolk prepared to instruct any number of religious sisters that they ought to wear habits. They have plenty of other instructions for them -- when to pray, how long to pray, where to live, with whom to live -- but wearing habits seems to always be one of the major ones. I think that's because all the instructions boil down, more or less, to "Live the traditional Rule of your congregation in such a way that I can tell you are," and wearing habits is the most visible sign of traditional Rules.

I am sympathetic to the impulse behind the unsolicited instruction. Much that is post hoc and regrettable about the break with tradition religious congregations made after Vatican II can't be ruled out as entirely non propter hoc. There's a sense that, if the congregations that can't seem to attract vocations would simply return to their roots, they could soon be flourishing again. There might even be a sense of betrayal, that those who inherited a great heritage have squandered it, at a cost to the whole Church.

And yet, what does the instruction amount to in the end but an insistence that people who are not me live a lifestyle they themselves do not choose to live? A congregation's rule must be approved by Rome, not by me.

For that matter, traditionalist-minded people don't need my approval to attend only Latin Masses and charismatics don't need my approval to hug each other during prayer meetings.

Yes, I know there are argument for a correlation between choices strictly unobjectionable in themselves and imprudent or simply wrong actions. But unless the unobjectionable choices cause imprudence or error, making different choices won't do much to correct what is wrong, and I think effort would be better spent resisting the wrongs themselves rather than whatever red flags might accompany them.


Tuesday, January 06, 2004

Reputable words

Albertus M comments below:
I suspect there's room here for an interesting discussion of what a person should or should not say in response to an accusation, true or not. A person's reputation is worth preserving, though lying seems like a bad way to protect it.
That's a question I've never thought about before. The Catechism states:
Honor is the social witness given to human dignity, and everyone enjoys a natural right to the honor of his name and reputation and to respect.
If the honor of one's reputation is a natural right, does that make preserving one's reputation something to be sought for its own sake? If there is an "objectively valid reason" to disclose "another's faults and failings to persons who did not know them" (the Catechism defines detraction as such disclosure when there is no such reason) -- if, in other words, my reputation is justly injured, what natural right to my reputation and to respect do I still possess?

My inclination is to think the Christian's interest in the social witness to his human dignity ought to be selfless. He should defend his reputation not so much for his own sake as for the sake of others.

He has a duty to provide for himself (and his family, if any), and so to that extent should be concerned about how injuries to his reputation affect his ability to provide for himself.

In addition, he should protect and preserve his reputation insofar as doing so helps others who might otherwise be similarly unjustly harmed. If I insist society bears witness to my human dignity, I am also (at least implicitly) insisting witness be borne to everyone's human dignity. How people treat me teaches them how others may be treated.

Finally, Christians are commissioned disciples of Christ. We are to make disciples of all nations, to carry the Good News of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, to all creatures. As a disciple, I should be concerned with my reputation to the extent it helps me make disciples of others, and only to that extent.

St. Paul can sound a little huffy on the point that he worked for a living while preaching among the churches he founded, even though the churches should have been willing to support him. His concern, though, isn't that the Thessalonians admire him for being such a hard worker, but that they imitate him as a servant of Christ.

So too, I shouldn't care if my reputation suffers but my ability to give witness to Christ does not. We are called to put all of ourselves into the service of Christ, and what cannot be put to such service is of no great value.


Inconsequential wrongs

I'm not much of a baseball fan, and my interest in Pete Rose ended the day he left the Phillies. I don't care whether he returns to baseball, or is made eligible for or elected to the Hall of Fame. I think he's trying one last hustle, but if Major League Baseball lets him pull it off, that's their decision.

That said, I do think it's worth noting something about this story. Rose did what in context was an awful thing (betting on baseball games while managing a baseball team), denied it publically for fifteen years, then admitted it was true. Much of the discussion about what to do now centers on the seriousness of his actions as a manager, and on his waiting so long to admit the truth. What seems of less concern is that, by denying the truth for fifteen years, he was effectively calling those who publically said they knew he was gambling liars.

Again, whether such calumny affects his eligibility for the Hall of Fame isn't for me to decide. But a lot of people seem to accept it as simply par for the denial-of-wrongdoing course.

In other words, many people seem to discount what you might call "consequent wrongs" when judging others. If a person does something wrong, then anything else he does wrong as a consequence -- usually including lying, possibly allowing others to be punished in his place -- somehow doesn't count against him. After all, of course an adulterer is going to lie to his wife, of course a corrupt politician is going to smear his accusers' reputations, of course a misbehaving child will deflect the blame to some other kid at school. It's as though lying, calumnating, and deflecting blame aren't wrong in themselves, and are no more blameworthy if done as a consequence of some initial wrong than is tuning the radio to a different pre-set station in a car you've stolen.

The problem with this, obviously, is that, if we are willing to dismiss the consequent wrongs of other people in relatively big things, we are almost certainly willing to dismiss our own consequent wrongs in relatively little things. Then consequent wrongs become habits, and we become vicious people. People who are vicious in little things will be vicious when big things happen, too.
And lead us not into temptation.
But deliver us from evil. Amen.


Monday, January 05, 2004

Well, there's a real square cat

I like Christmas music and I like rockabilly, so the day I learned Brian Setzer has a Christmas album is the day I bought Brian Setzer's Christmas album.

It met expectations, and the song "Baby It's Cold Outside" (a duet with Ann-Margaret) was gravy. The last two songs, "O Holy Night" and "The Amens" heartfully sung, were icing on the gravy.

Today I find (via Relapsed Catholic) an interview with Brian Setzer in which he admits he's Catholic.

Now, we all know being Catholic doesn't necessarily mean too much, perhaps especially among performers. I'd be surprised if Setzer were sufficiently Thomistic for my tastes, and who can say what he thinks of the various disputed questions our society faces?

Still, being Catholic isn't nothing, especially when a public figure mentions it in an interview without an immediate "but" attached. And Setzer has even gone so far as to include a song called "St. Jude" on his latest album, with the following lyrics:
[Spirituality is] scorned from the left
And abused by the right
It’s something so misunderstood
And ignored in daily life...

If you proclaim the mystery of faith
You’ll be absolved from daily strife
Through Him, in Him, and within Him
Springs our eternal life...
Setzer is quoted as saying:
I hate to say anything about 9/11, because everybody exploits the hell out of that, but we’ve been hearing all kinds of stuff about what we should do: we should beat people up, we shouldn’t beat people up, we should do this, that, and the other thing…but how about prayer? I believe in prayer; I never let that out in a song before, but it’s true. And sometimes it’s the most important thing you can do.
Which, you know, actually is sufficiently Thomistic for my tastes.


Immigrant shepherd and shepherd of immigrants, pray for us!

Today is the feast of St. John Nepomucene Neumann, fourth bishop of Philadelphia and patron saint of short Central Europeans who travel a lot. Of the 1,927 men who have been ordained bishops for dioceses in the United States (a number I made up just now, so don't quote it), St. John is the only one to have been canonized a saint. So far.

It seems to me circumstances today are such that a confraternity of Catholics who promise to pray daily for their bishop and for all the bishops of the United States, under the patronage of St. John Neumann, would be timely and fruitful. Until it gets organized -- and I think the Redemptorists are just the folks to organize it -- we might simply commit ourselves as individuals to reciting every morning a simple prayer, along the following lines:
Almighty God, You called St. John Neumann to a life of service, zeal, and compassion for the guidance of your people in the new world. By the help of his prayers, keep our bishop N., and all the bishops who serve your Church in the United States, strong in faith and love. May they be conformed to the Sacred Heart of your Son, leading their flocks to salvation through Him Who lives and reigns with You for ever and ever. Amen.
No doubt all good Catholics already say similar prayers, but I suspect the Church in the U.S. isn't making full use of the graces of St. John's canonization, which came at a time (1977) when making full use of the graces of canonizations was out of favor.