instruere...inlustrare...delectare Disputations

Tuesday, August 31, 2004

Let us not sleep

I've read this verse many times, but today the words struck me:
Therefore, let us not sleep as the rest do, but let us stay alert and sober.
Being asleep rather than awake is a mild (and expressive) metaphor for unconverted sinners. It suggests that what unconverted sinners need is a wake-up call, rather than to be left alone, given a snooze alarm, or simply mockery from a distance. Wake-up calls are not always welcome, of course, nor even gentle, but they certainly can always be charitable.

What particularly caught my attention, though, were the words "as the rest do." If we do "as the rest do," we ourselves are asleep, we are children of the night -- which is to say, we are dead.

What do "the rest" do, as though unconscious or drunk? How much of our culture -- and I don't just mean the cultures of the countries in which we live, I mean of the culture in our own homes -- is a culture of the night or of darkness. How much do we do unthinkingly for which we will have to answer, and have no answer for, one day?

In the same chapter, St. Paul writes:
Test everything; retain what is good.
Are we trying to retain what is good without first testing everything?


Darkness and light

From this morning's Office:
Lord, send forth your light and your truth.

O send forth your light and your truth;
let these be my guide.

Almighty Father, source of everlasting light, send forth Your truth into our hearts and pour over us the brightness of Your light.

You are not in the dark, brothers, that the day should catch you off guard, like a thief. No, all of you are children of light and of the day. We belong neither to darkness nor to night; therefore let us not be asleep like the rest, but awake and sober!

Dawn finds me watching, crying out for You.

In the tender compassion of our God
the dawn from on high shall break upon us,
to shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death,
and to guide our feet into the way of peace.

Let us bless our Savior Who enlightens the world by His resurrection.

Make our light shine so brightly before men, that seeing our good works they may give glory to the Father.

Lord Jesus Christ,
true light of the world,
You guide all mankind to salvation.


Monday, August 30, 2004

Our God is a consuming fire

Yesterday's first reading from the Lectionary has one of my oven mitt verses. As curious and confident as I am, I'm likely to be burned by this if I handle it directly:
What is too sublime for you, seek not, into things beyond your strength search not.
What is too sublime for me? I'm not sure. There are plenty of things I don't understand, and even more thing I can't understand. But I suppose the most sublime thing of all is God Himself, Whom we are to love with all our heart and mind and soul and strength, which suggests we ought to seek Him in some fashion, even if to look on His Face is death.

I suspect the secret is suggested by a previous verse from Sirach:
My son, conduct your affairs with humility, and you will be loved more than a giver of gifts.
If we conduct our God-oriented affairs with humility, He will love us. When faith seeks understanding humbly, the seeker does not expect to fit the mysteries of God inside his head, nor to wrest from God knowledge God does not want him to have. The humble inquirer is like a beggar at the door of a kind-hearted rich man; he knows he will receive all he needs, and likely more besides, even as he knows there is much more within he will never taste.

Yesterday's second reading teaches us something that is not too sublime for us to approach: have approached Mount Zion and the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and countless angels in festal gathering, and the assembly of the firstborn enrolled in heaven, and God the judge of all, and the spirits of the just made perfect, and Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and the sprinkled blood that speaks more eloquently than that of Abel.
And if that is not too sublime for us, there can't be much that is -- if, again, we seek it humbly, searching dependent on God's strength rather than our own.


Friday, August 20, 2004

Extricating Young Beaky, concl.

"I owe it all to you, Willie. I can't thank you enough."

"Think nothing of it, just following the code, you know. I shall watch your future career with interest, young Becksmith."

And, with proper camaraderie restored, Beaky rang off.

I smoothed the brow and looked to where Reeves sat polishing the phrases in the speech I was to give to St. Cecelia's Guild the next Sunday. "Extraordinary, eh, Reeves?"

"Your Excellency?"

"I mean to say, this time yesterday Beaky wanted to wring my neck, and now it's all I can do to stop him from wringing my hand in eternal gratitude."

"A most desirable change of affairs, your Excellency."

I eyed the fellow. "You know, Reeves, through the years I have made a study of your methods."

"My methods, your Excellency?"

"For fishing chaps out of the Mulligatawny. I'm afraid you've left your fingerprints all over this one. Unless I completely miss my mark, in l'affaire Becksmith you employed the trusty old study of the psychology of the individual."

"A very perceptive observation, your Excellency. When Mother Mary Dahlia suggested Bishop Becksmith's letter be intercepted, it occurred to me that, should his Excellency learn of the attempt, he could be counted on to shed the regrettable timidity that had heretofore been a factor limiting the suitable use of his skills in service of the Church."

"I'll say. Tigers will be telling their grandchildren about the day they heard Beaky roar in Cardinal Fratricidelli's office. And it was you, of course, who leaked word to him that there was a burglar on the prowl?"

"Yes, your Excellency. I was somewhat economical in the truth, as I had not telephoned Mother Mary Dahlia with the plan to have you attempt to steal the letter, but it was necessary to coordinate the timing as carefully as possible."

"Certainly, Reeves. These matters require delicate planning. But I don't see how you could know Beaky would react so strongly to the idea of his letter going astray. I'd have expected him to shrug his shoulders, asking permission first, and give it up for a lost cause."

"I based my judgment, your Excellency, on certain statements Bishop Becksmith made during our phone conversations."

"Phone conversations?"

"Yes, your Excellency. His Excellency had requested my assistance with the letter he was preparing, and our work extended over several weeks. He alluded numerous times to the passion that drove him to compose it."

My mouth fell open. "So you knew about his blasted letter all along!"

"Yes, your Excellency. The letter, while in my opinion insufficiently nuanced on certain matters, is the product of an inventive and original mind. Despite Mother Mary Dahlia's worry, there was little doubt that, if concerns over his retiring personality were allayed, Bishop Becksmith's abilities would be noticed."

"And allayed those concerns were, Reeves. Beaky was just telling me on the phone that he's off to Rome to head up one of those new bureaus they're always creating."

"Most welcome news, your Excellency."

"Indeed, and now I needn't quail every time the phone rings in fear that it's Mother M. D. calling to throttle me over the line for failing in my quest."

I paused to finish my drink, as we had reached a delicate point in the convers. "Which brings up another point, Reeves. I can't help but notice a certain running theme, as you might say, to be found throughout your otherwise sterling plots -- viz., that while they all pan out in the end, they too often seem to turn, in whole or in part, on me getting it in the neck."

"That has never been the end sought, your Excellency."

"Certainly not, Reeves, and yet. Well, take this most recent example. All's well that ends well and all that. We Boosters take the broad and flexible outlook and dwell not upon the past. Still, to launch Beaky off on his exciting new adventure, your plan led to me crawling about behind furniture, fumbling for a cover story, and being sized up for a long-sleeved overcoat by the president of the USCCB."

"The suffering you endured is regrettable, your Excellency. I arrived as soon as possible, but there was some risk that the events of the day would fall disproportionately on your head. Mention of Bishop Webster, however, calls to mind a message from him I regret to say I have neglected to deliver."

The Booster spirits, which had recovered their mid-season form, now took a stumble. "I suppose he's consulted with a nationally known loony doctor on the case of potty bishops?"

"Not to my knowledge, your Excellency. He wished me to inform you that, in light of what he termed your medical impairment, he would be pleased to receive your resignation from the national committees on which you serve, should you choose to tender them."

"Tender my resignations!" I leapt from my seat. I don't often leap from my seat, but when I do, it stays leapt from. "Do you realize what this means, Reeves!"

"From the perspective of the bishops' conference, your Excellency --"

"Oh, blast the perspective of the bishops' conference! From my perspective, it means I won't have to be sprinting back to the infernal sauna known to schoolchildren as Washington every other week to listen to Rotter and Pinkie natter on about the rural road paving bills before Congress. It means freedom, Reeves. What a stroke of luck!"

"So it would seem, your Excellency."

"I mean, you can't stand there and tell me you planned this part, can you, Reeves?"

"I would not presume to do so, your Excellency."

I snapped my fingers. "Oh, I've just thought of something! I never did make it to that shop to buy the icon for you. I suppose I'll have to put off resigning until after the next trip."

"That won't be necessary, your Excellency. I was able to purchase the icon at the shop myself, prior to meeting you at Bishop Webster's office."

"Did you? Well, well, Reeves. It seems like we both lucked out. That being the case, nothing more need be said on the matter of my role as chief prop in your stagings. Carry on, Reeves."

"Very good, your Excellency."



Personally prime

Have you ever heard of "E-Prime"? It's an artificial English dialect that lacks the verb "to be." Or maybe it's better to say E-Prime is its own language, with its own dialects based on which ways of using "to be" are prohibited.

It's an interesting concept, I think, though in the end one based on a mania of the sort only people trying to be too clever are susceptible to. I mean, is "John appears asleep to me" always better than "John is sleeping"?

I don't suppose my rule discussed in the post below -- "Use the 'is' of negative predication with care" -- constitutes a dialect of E-Prime (nor, for that matter, does Steven's "Don't use the 'is' of negative predication"), so that's one mania I've avoided so far.

[In E-Prime:

Have you ever heard of "E-Prime," an artificial English dialect that lacks the verb "to be." Or maybe I should describe E-Prime as its own language, with its own dialects based on which ways of using "to be" a speaker prohibits.

I consider it an interesting concept, though in the end one based on a mania of the sort only people too clever by half succumb to. I mean, what makes "John appears asleep to me" always better than "John is sleeping"?

I don't suppose my rule discussed in the post below -- "Use the 'is' of negative predication with care" -- constitutes a dialect of E-Prime (nor, for that matter, does Steven's "Don't use the 'is' of negative predication"), so I have avoided at least one mania so far.


If you can't say anything loving

Flos Carmeli revisits a previous discussion on judging others. This time, the question is whether it is ever morally acceptable to say, "You are a liar":
Some will argue that there is no condemnation in calling someone a liar. But I would ask, if not, why do so? ... The fact of the matter is that we know the difference to the core of our being. Calling someone a liar allows us to express our "righteous indignation" against such a profound transgression of God's peace and love....

At what point does one who tells lies become a liar? I would suggest that it most often occurs when we get angry enough to apply the label.... That said, I will open the door a very small amount to say that it is conceivable that in order to be shocked out of behavior the stronger language may be used, but never as it is commonly used and only in the hope of correcting the fault....

So I would say that the most general case calls us never to label, never to judge a person.
I think Steven is wrong to imply that there is no value in calling someone a liar other than condemnation. For example, there is value in explicitly acknowledging the relationship between what we do and who we are.

Still, I think he is basically on target at the pastoral level. People do use negative predication ("you are a liar") to jump to assignment of essence ("your species is Liar"). I wouldn't go as far as saying "the most general case calls us never to label," but I do think we should be very careful, about both what we really mean and what we might be taken to mean, when we find ourselves about to say (or even think) what someone else is.


Thursday, August 19, 2004

Extricating Young Beaky, cont.

"You say you missed the couch?"

"Er, yes. When one is light headed, you know, one's sense of distance is not in top form."

I will, of course, always be grateful to Ronnie Webster for speeding my exit from the nuncio's presence with a few words about matters best dealt with by fraternal dialogue between American bishops. But his insistence that we go straight to the USCCB offices to hash it out, and the evident doubt with which he was greeting my explanation, served to cool the gratitude noticeably.

"All this from the weather, you say?"

"Yes, dash it. What sort of a city is this where they keep all the fresh air indoors?"

When I tell you that -- on top of the events of the day, the story I was stuck with, which in the most flattering light could hardly be considered a pip, and the way Beaky was positively smoldering at me from across the room -- there was no restorative available at the USCCB stronger than black tea, I think you will pardon my uncharacteristic lack of buoyancy.

"How has your health been generally, William?"

"He's about to take a turn for the worse," Beaky prognosed.

"Please, Thomas," Ronnie said in soothing tones. "I respect your feelings, but at the moment --"

"At the moment, I am taking a turn for the worse!" I put in. "I see a mirage of Reeves, my secretary, standing before me."

This much, at least, was the unvarnished t. It wasn't so much the shimmering mirage that alarmed me -- Reeves always shimmers -- as the fact that a slight dampening of the spirits was no longer the worst effect the weather had on me.

The mirage spoke. "If I may say so, your Excellency, your vision is not at fault. I took the liberty of traveling to Washington this morning when I discovered that you had forgotten to bring your medicine with you."

Since Reeves does not babble, I naturally assumed my hearing was now going. "Did you say 'medicine,' Reeves?"

"Precisely, your Excellency." Reeves extended a small glass bottle filled with some sort of liquid. "This, I believe, is the proper dosage for your condition."

I took the bottle doubtfully. It seemed like the proper dosage for a village with malaria. Still, if Reeves said I should take it, I would take it, but I was dashed if I knew where all this would lead.

I looked at the others as I uncapped the bottle. Beaky seemed to be sizing up Reeves, uncertain whether this was a trick that might free me from his wrathful grasp. Ronnie was gazing at me as though some particularly thick scales had just fallen from his eyes.

I sniffed at the dark brown liquid, and knew in an inst. that what I held was bourbon. For the first time all afternoon, the way was clear before me. "Right you are, Reeves," I said. "My medicine. I feel better already."

And with a quick but earnest "Cheers!" I downed the whole dose, in the sure and certain knowledge that the presence of Reeves bearing cocktails (for a splash of soda was evidenced to the palate on the way down) signified that he knew all and possessed the formula to win me through to home.

"Now that he's feeling better," Beaky snarled, "is it okay if I break his arms?"



With friends like this

Today's Gospel reading is the parable of the king who throws a wedding party for his son, and along the way razes a city to the ground. Mel Gibson could have made a great movie out of it.

What strikes me most about the parable is how the king addresses the ill-dressed guest:
My friend, how is it that you came in here without a wedding garment?
It seems odd for the king to call the man "my friend," both because they don't seem to have ever met (the man was only invited because a servant of the king happened to meet him on the street) and because the very next thing the king says is an order to have his friend bound hand and foot, then tossed into the outer darkness.

Quite a party.

Now, God does not pretend. If He calls someone His friend, He means it. In the parable, He is confirming that the invitation to His Son's wedding feast is an invitation to friendship with Him.

But at this stage it can only be an invitation, because two people are necessary for friendship. A proper response to the invitation is needed for the friendship God offers to come into being.

The parable is filled with examples of improper responses, from ignoring the invitation to violently rejecting it. The man without a wedding garment wants all the benefits of friendship with the king without any of the responsibilities. He wants the king to be, not his friend, but his servant.

The irony is that having God as your friend is far better for you than having Him as your servant. If you accept His invitation to friendship, not only does He serve you at the wedding feast, but He draws you in to share in the Divine beatitude.

Still, if you only want God as your servant, He will oblige, fulfilling the command such a desire contains to bind you hand and foot and throw you into the outer darkness, saying, "Thy will be done."


Wednesday, August 18, 2004

Extricating Young Beaky, cont.

I don't know if you keep up with those notes and letters that come flying out of Rome like wasps out of a nest struck by an innocent mashie on a backswing in the rough. If so, you know that one of Rome's idees fixes is that the importance of what's known in the trade as "episcopal dignity" should be talked up at every opportunity.

I could see now that the chaps in Rome had a point. Crouching behind the sofa in Cardinal Fratricidelli's study, my own episcopal dignity was in need of all the bucking up Rome could dish out, and I wouldn't have turned up my nose at a kind word from Constantinople, either.

It would be a mistake, however, to believe I was entirely occupied during my ordeal with thoughts of the universal Church. I beguiled a good deal of time considering particular responses to Mother M. Dahlia the next time her blasted spiritual son got it up his nose to lecture the Pope on the failings of his Prefect of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith in re canon law, moral theology, and the sacraments.

On the bright side – it is the Booster nature to search out the bright side – listening to the papal nuncio chat with his assistant made me for the first time grateful I had turned down an opportunity to study in Italy after my ordination. Had I done so, I would surely have been able to understand more of their conversation. Judging by the full-bodied Italian laughter, scored for both quantity and quality, that followed the two words I did understand – "Vescovo Booster" – it was not a conversation I would have enjoyed, even if I weren't listening to it while hiding behind the furniture.

After six or seven years, the pleasantries were interrupted by the sound of a bell offstage. The assistant, I supposed, left the room, and within a month or two returned to announce, "Bishop Webster and Bishop, ah..."

"Becksmith," supplied a voice.

It was, in fact, the voice of Beaky himself, though if he hadn't spoken his own name – thereby providing the final clue to the puzzle – I may not have recognized it. It contained a certain whatsit one does not ordinarily associate with Beaky's voice.

"Welcome, my dear brothers," Cardinal Fratricidelli said, using words I had never heard when fewer than forty other bishops were present.

"Hello, Calvino," Ronnie Webster replied. He is the USCCB president, and justly so, yet I must say he rose several notches in my estimation simply by daring to look the cardinal in the eye and call him by his first name. At least, I assume he looked him in the eye. I couldn't see it myself from my vantage point. "I apologize for not calling ahead –"

"I'm here to hand deliver a letter," Beaky's voice interrupted. Steel, I realized. A hint of steel was the new note Beaky had added to his speech. It seemed so out of place, I was tempted to peek over the top of the sofa to see if he still kept his lower jaw unhinged while listening to others.

"Hand deliver?" The cardinal's voice sounded as surprised as I was at Beaky's tone.

"I have written a letter that I wish you to read and forward to the Holy Father," Beaky explained with measured care, like a man speaking to a maitre d' who had misplaced his luncheon reservation for twenty. "I had mailed a copy of it to you, but now I wish to deliver it to you personally. I have it on good authority that someone soon will make an attempt, if he has not already, to steal the copy I mailed."

"Extraordinary!" Cardinal Fratricidelli said, and I couldn't have agreed more. "Who would want to steal your letter?"

"A certain snake with legs, your Eminence, someone whom in the days of my innocence I considered a friend. I refer to that blot on the Apostles' escutcheon, Bishop William Booster."

"Booster?" If the cardinal was attempting to register utter surprise at this denunciation, he would not have been called back for a second audition.

"It's unclear, Calvino," Ronnie put in, "exactly what William might have had in mind, if indeed there is anything to this."

"But this is a simple matter to make clear," Cardinal Fratricidelli said, and if the delivery of his previous line was somewhat flat, there was something in the way he spoke these words that interested me strangely. "Let us merely ask Bishop Booster what his intentions are. He has been lying behind that sofa, for reasons of health perhaps, since I entered this room half an hour ago. Shall we wake him and put the question to him?"



Monday, August 16, 2004

The measure that you measure

To me, one of the least appealing features of St. Blogs (and Catholicism on the Internet in general) is the game of Musical Judgment Seats played when a new story about an imperfect Roman Catholic comes up. The music stops the moment you've read the linked 800-word article. Quick! Make a judgment on the background, ethics, hidden agenda, and current state of grace of the principal figures! Don't wait, or you'll be out of the game until the next story.

What puzzles me about this game isn't how it's played -- the human mind is, after all, a pattern-making machine, and someone whose mind is set to "those lousy modernists" will encounter a lot of lousy modernists -- so much as why it's played.

What end is both desirable and achievable by condemning people you've never heard of living in dioceses you've never been to based on a brief newspaper article?

Whether the condemnation is accurate is a secondary matter. The person condemned may well be the self-centered relativist out to destroy Church tradition that the Musical Judgment Seat player pegs him as. What desirable end is achieved by saying so?

And yes, I do know that Jesus called people whited sepulchers and said we should treat people who won't listen to the Church as pagans and tax collectors. I don't think that explains the gratuitous vilification so often indulged in.

Last week, Karen Marie Knapp quoted St. Isaac of Nineveh, who said a compassionate heart
is a heart on fire for the whole of creation, for humanity, for the birds, for the animals, for all that exists. At the recollection and at the sight of them such a person's eyes overflow with tears owing to the vehemence of the compassion which grips his heart....
That is why he constantly offers up prayer full of tears, even for the irrational animals and for the enemies of truth, even for those who harm him, so that they may be protected and find mercy.
Among the grave injuries done to the Church in the United States through imprudence in the years following the Second Vatican Council is the distrust, among those reacting against that imprudence, of compassion and love as motives. As someone commented below,
...I am also sick of charity being used as an excuse to cover up, if not ignore, the doctrines and dogmas of the church. This is the approach that has been used since the late 60s, it is time we see it has not worked, and has led millions upon millions of souls astray.
This seems to be where we are. One generation called ignoring the teachings of the Church "charity"; the next generation regards expressions of charity with suspicion.

If we don't pay attention to the doctrines and dogmas of the Church in order to produce compassionate hearts, though, why do we pay attention?


Applying a distinction

Let me overgeneralize:

The East is far more comfortable with mythos than with logos. The West is far less satisfied with mythos.

The mythos/logos tension captures one of the challenges of Roman Catholic apologetics. Some Christian denominations have all but reduced the Christian mythos to a logos: you are saved if and only if you have accepted Jesus as your personal Savior; the logos is clear from the Bible, and anything else is at best excessive. Sacraments and mysteries are by nature mythos, and therefore not part of Christianity.

Other Christians, though, reject either the particular Catholic logos or even the whole idea of a Christian logos. All that rationality, all that theologizing, is in this view a Hellenization of Christianity. Jesus told stories; He didn't write treatises. The God of the Bible is not the god of the philosophers; He gets mad, He changes His mind. Without a logos, what matters is my story, my experiences, and these don't depend on what a bunch of men said at some council or other.

So, depending on who he's talking to, a Catholic may be seen as either a poet (boo!)or a philosopher (hiss!). [I'm not suggesting this situation is unique to Catholics.] In fact, he might even be seen as both a poet and a philosopher, choosing his persona based on which best suits his purposes.

Am I talking about the doctrine of the Trinity? Then let me mention procession and relation and models of memory, understanding, and will. If pressed on it, though, let me switch to shamrocks and a love so great it becomes a person, like the myth of Narcissus in reverse -- except (pardon the switch) that it doesn't become a person, since as you'll recall the Divinity can have no potential.

In order to understand someone, you need to have some idea of where he's coming from on the mythos/logos graph (a representation of which I will spare my readers. For now). It would help avoid endless "But you just said..." counterarguments to reach some agreement on whether and how poetry and philosophy apply to the matters you're discussing.

My position, obviously, is that Catholicism (if not each individual Catholic) is both poetic and philosophical, and rightly so. The trick is to present both story and reason in a way that isn't entirely ad hoc and self-serving. It's a trick I've by no means mastered myself, but I think it has to be based on one of the assumptions any attempt at a logos has to make: that the world is intelligible to humans.


Introducing a distinction

I recently came across a distinction that is very helpful for understanding other points of view, a distinction with the added bonus -- since the context was a discussion of ancient Greek philosophy -- of using Greek terms, which makes it sound extra-clever.

There are two contrasting views of the world: the mythos view and the logos view. The mythical and the rational, you might say. Mythos doesn't so much explain the world as describe it with story. With mythos, the question of why is not really important, compared to who and what.

Logos (we know the term from St. John's Gospel; it means "organizing thought" as well as "word") explains the world according to some principle. It seeks to answer the question "Why?" Logos is fundamentally philosophical, where mythos is fundamentally poetical. (Though see Mark Shea's Catholic Exchange article for a good distinction between story and poetry.)

When you think about it, an appeal to logos is an extremely bold position. It assumes not only that there is an objective answer to the question "Why?", but that the answer can be known and understood by humans. Neither assumption is self-evident.

What struck me most when I heard about the opposition of mythos and logos in Greek culture twenty-five centuries ago is how familiar I am with it. I am on a mailing list that has a published poet and a philosophy professor who seem incapable of communicating with each other. The philosopher makes jokes about what he will eat if the poet ever offers an actual argument for something he says; the poet is deeply scornful of what he sees as an indifference to suffering in the actual arguments of the philosopher.

If you know my methods and apply them, you'll know how I'd answer the question, "Is the Catholic view that of mythos or of logos?"


Friday, August 13, 2004

Star chamber rulings

Mark Shea links to a story of a woman -- a celiac sufferer whose daughter is also gluten-intolerant -- who is upset that rice wafers cannot be used for the Eucharist. "Why not just give her the Cup?" Mark writes. "I don't understand these sob stories."

Yeah. Mothers acting with less than perfect logic in matters concerning their daughters' (and their own) physical and spiritual health. Inconceivable.

Unsurprisingly, many of Mark's commenters are quite ready to sit in judgment on the woman:
This is the fruit of thirty years of teaching that the Eucharist is merely a sentimental re-enactment of the "Upper Room Event" in which Christ is confected by our feelings of solidarity with others....

You can't blame poor catechesis, because the option of receiving the Blood only was explained and offered. The girl's mother is at fault, not the Church....

Seriously though, this Mother needs to get over the fact that her daughter is not like everyone else and deal with what she has....

That solution [receiving the Cup] would seem to address the girl's spiritual and physical health. Unless, of course, Mom has another, more vocal, agenda in mind....
And, most contemptibly:
10 to 1 says this Mommy flees the Church when her request gets rejected by the Big Mean Vatican. This lady stinks of self-importance.
What matters, evidently, are the rules. If the rules make your life difficult, get over yourself. If you've been told the rules and don't understand them, it's your fault. If you want the rules changed, you're an obstinate stinker, an ignorant relativist, and an odds on favorite to leave the Church -- and good riddance! Who needs troublemakers like that in the Church?

Given the choice, I personally would rather be in a Church with confused, ignorant, and overly protective troublemakers than with well-catechized and theologically educated people who don't give a rat's ass about the confused and the ignorant.

But I'm not given that choice. I'm told there's only one Church, and what ultimately determines whether I personally am in that one Church is how well I love others, the troublemakers and the self-satisfied included.

At this point, I don't do that very well. So either everyone is going to have to become a whole lot more lovable, or I am going to have to become a whole lot more loving.


Extricating Young Beaky

As everyone who, like me, has passed through Sr. Bernard's fifth grade American History class at St. Jude Thaddeus Academy knows, when the time came to establish a capital city for the United States, it was Maryland who coughed up the acreage. "Awfully sporting of Maryland," about sums up my own fifth-grade reaction to this fact.

Years later, however, as I found myself swimming through an August afternoon in Washington, DC, on my way to a church supply store to pick up an icon for my secretary, Monsignor Reeves, I wondered whether, in unloading this particular piece of real estate, Maryland hadn't come out the clear winner in the deal. If, in fact, "swindle" rather than "deal" wouldn't be the mot juste.

These political ruminations were interrupted by the sound of my cell phone. I had scarcely managed a welcoming "Hallo!" down the line when a voice rushed upon me with the force of the Scotch Express.

"Willie, lad, is that you? Tell me, where in blazes are you?"

"Right here," I replied, looking around to make sure.

"Try not to be an ass for just a moment, will you? Are you or are you not in Washington, DC?"

The p. dropped. "Mother Mary Dahlia! How nice of you to call!"

"Of course it is. Now answer the question, blast you!"

Mother M. Dahlia is one of those Natural Forces in the Church who are always founding congregations, opening orphanages, and telling cardinals to put a sock in it. Her brusqueness toward me was a sign of fondness; she has known me from my youth, even before I had ever set foot in Sr. Bernard's fifth grade American History classroom.

"I am indeed, as you suggest, in Washington, Mother M.," I told her. "Though how you guessed is beyond me. Have you ever wondered whether, when swindlers get together, they begin the proceedings with a teary-eyed toast to Maryland, the standard against --"

"You'll be teary eyed when I get hold of you if you don't stop babbling for a moment."

"Oh, right ho."

"Now then. I suspected you were in Washington because Reeves told me you should be, for one of your USCCB committee meetings. Though, knowing you were traveling on your own, it was entirely possible you were wandering through downtown Seattle, wondering why you were there."

"Seattle would certainly be an improvement. I hear the summers there --"

"Teary eyed, Willie."

"Ah, right."

"The reason I want to know whether you are in Washington, DC, is that I need you to do a small favor for me."

"Absolutely, aged mother! Always glad to lend a hand to one of your projects."

"And I do appreciate it, Willie, dear. Though this particular favor isn't exactly for one of my projects. It's more of a favor for one of your brother bishops."

"Not Beaky, by any chance?" The Most Rev. Thos. "Beaky" Becksmith was Mother M. D.'s spiritual son, though even she would admit he was a work in progress. One of several assistants to a Midwestern cardinal, Beaky made me look positively Solomonic by comparison.

"Er, yes, actually. It does have to do with Tommy. But only indirectly."

"I see. If Beaky is playing to type, what you're telling me is that he is as we speak neck-deep in the bisque -- not unlike Washington in August, I might add -- and completely unaware of his predicament."

"That's right."

"So, naturally you turn to me for help in devising a way to ladle out young Thos. before he goes under for the third time."

There was a bark over the phone like a German shepherd stifling a laugh at the sight of a French poodle. "Don't be absurd, Willie. I turned to Reeves, and he's already provided the solution."

"Oh." I had to admit that this made even more sense. Monsignor Reeves was widely known to have a ready answer to any conundrum. I put it down to all the fish he eats during Lent. "And you want to run his solution by me?"

"I want you to execute his solution. Even you shouldn't be able to mess it up, and since you're already in Washington, you're the obvious choice."

"Ah, the plan requires a man on the spot, is that it?"

"Exactly. All you need to do is drop by the papal nuncio's office and pick something up for me."

At the thought of dropping by Cardinal Fratricidelli's office, involving as it did the very real possibility of seeing the nuncio himself, no joy welled in my bosom. As it was Mother M. Dahlia asking, though, I answered readily enough, "Certainly, old thing! Will they have it ready for me?"

"Unlikely. It's a letter Tommy imprudently sent, via the nuncio, to the Pope. You need to steal it before Cardinal Fratricidelli opens it."



Thursday, August 12, 2004

Prating about God

Meister Eckhart once preached, "If thou wilt be without sin, prate not about God." Keeping that in mind...

Someone asked me recently for my thoughts on why God would create someone whom He knows will go to an eternal punishment.

My first thought is that the mystery of why God would create someone He knows will go to an eternal punishment is bound up in the mystery of why God would create anyone at all. You can't truly solve the former without solving the latter, and mysteries aren't things you truly solve.

With that note of caution sounded, the short answer to the question has to be that God wants to create someone He knows will go to an eternal punishment. That sounds awful, doesn't it? Why would God want to do that?

The idea that works best for me, today, is that God wants to create someone who will be damned because God wants that person to share in the divine life of the Trinity
forever, and the person can't share in that life unless he's created.

The key here is that God wants me to share eternal life with Him. He wants me-as-He-created-me. He doesn't want me-as-I-would-be-if-I-couldn't-be-damned. Or rather, me-as-I-would-be-if-I-couldn't-be-damned is not me-as-God-created-me. Those terms describe two different people -- people belonging to two different species, in fact.

Now, I don't know what's so hot about me-as-God-created-me that He would want to spend eternity with me. I have the impression, though, that He wants to spend eternity with creatures who freely choose to spend eternity with Him, which clearly means He has to create creatures who can freely choose to spend eternity with Him. And if they can do that, then they have to be able to freely choose not to spend eternity with Him.

Could God create only those people whom He knows will freely choose to spend eternity with Him? Maybe, but by not creating those who would have freely chosen
otherwise, He would be failing to love them, and that's impossible for God.

I'd be surprised if any of this actually helps anyone troubled by the question. I wouldn't be surprised if it causes people to be troubled by the question who didn't used to be. But it's the best response I have right now in the face of this deep mystery of love, freedom, and justice.


Wednesday, August 11, 2004

A really good prayer

Happy Catholic, meeting your really good prayer needs.


A perfect finish

To wrap things up for now: It's a bit tricky to say, "Human perfection has to be multiform," because what human perfection is is entirely up to the will of God.

Still, if we keep this contingency in the back of our minds, I think we can say that in order for humanity to be what God evidently intends humanity to be, individual humans must be both perfect and distinct. They must be perfect, or else God's will would not be effective; they must be distinct, or else they cannot constitute a community.

But why must they constitute a community? Or rather -- since the answer to that is "God wills it" -- why does God desire humanity to constitute a community?

Again, saying "God desires something because..." is tricky, and can only be done with the understanding that it doesn't impose an absolute necessity on God. But let me suggest two consequences of perfected humanity constituting a community, which God may (for further reasons of His own) desire.

First, the Trinity is a community of persons, so any participation in the life of the Trinity is a participation in a community of persons. Divine life is fullness, so two humans cannot both participate in the Divine life without participating in each other's life. If, then, we are not to be annihilated as individual persons, we must constitute a community if we are to participate in the Divine life.

(Annihilation can happen in at least two ways. We could be made identical, differing only in number like so many sanctified toothpicks; this, as I suggested earlier, makes us unlovable to any but a miser. Or we could somehow fuse into a single person distributed across all our bodies; we'd be the Body of Christ literally infused with a single personal soul, which would necessarily be Jesus', which would mean we would cease to exist as such.)

Another consequence of the eschatological human community is what might be called a richness of expression. As St. Thomas puts it:
[God] brought things into being in order that His goodness might be communicated to creatures, and be represented by them; and because His goodness could not be adequately represented by one creature alone, He produced many and diverse creatures, that what was wanting to one in the representation of the divine goodness might be supplied by another. For goodness, which in God is simple and uniform, in creatures is manifold and divided and hence the whole universe together participates the divine goodness more perfectly, and represents it better than any single creature whatever.
What's true of the whole universe together is in a particular way true of mankind. We are all created in God's image and likeness, but God's image and likeness cannot be expressed by creatures, not even by human creatures, in a simple and uniform way. Our differences in perfection, then, have value in themselves, apart from their usefulness in making communion possible. And what better means of communion is there than varied participations in the divine goodness?

One final point: God's perfection is perfectly perfect. The participation in the Divine life by the human community neither adds to nor subtracts from that perfection. Nor would participation by a collection of glorified toothpicks, or by a single person distributed across many bodies. It's not a question of what effect an arrangement has on God, but on what is capable of the participation God desires.

This line of thought confirms the dogma of the sovereign effectiveness of God's will. No one can be absent from the community of the saved if that community is to be perfect, as it must be. It also confirms the hope of salvation (not the presumption!) of everyone we love, whose absence would mean imperfection in the community of the saved.


Multipart posts on multiform perfection

I wrote below to the effect that the uniform perfection of humanity consists in the multiform perfection of individual humans, that my perfection is not your perfection, and that each of our perfections lies in becoming what God wills us to be.

All this does raise some difficulties. For example, if my perfection is not your perfection, what is my perfection? What standard should we aim for, and how do we know, if each of us is aiming for a different standard?

The Christian impulse is to answer, "Jesus is the standard," then figure out what that means. But if the Christian impulse is correct here, then Jesus is the standard for all of us, which seems to mean the perfection of individual humans is uniform. And if the Christian impulse is not correct, then what are we to make of the Christian doctrine that we are to conform ourselves to Jesus. For that matter, isn't Jesus the perfect human, so that no one else who is perfect can be unlike Him?

I think these difficulties can be resolved by appealing to the original thesis. First, if each individual's perfection lies in becoming what God wills him to be, then Jesus is "the perfect human," and the standard of perfection for us all, because in His humanity He perfectly was what God willed Him to be. Again, that is what human perfection is; not this or that particular perfection, a certain standard of physical or mental ability, but to be what God wills us to be. "Son though He was, He learned obedience from what he suffered; and when He was made perfect, He became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him, declared by God high priest according to the order of Melchizedek."

(A side note: In His humanity, Jesus had two perfections (says I). First, He was perfect at every moment of His life, doing His Father's will. Second, He
became perfect by completing His Father's will for His life. As a time-bound human, Jesus could not instantly be what the Father willed Him to be. Though He was our Savior from the moment of His conception, He didn't effectively become our Savior until His death and resurrection, if you see what I mean.)

So we can see Jesus as the single standard of human perfection, where that perfection is obedience to the will of the Father. Every perfect human would be identical to Jesus only if the Father wills that every human be identical to Jesus. But we can't be identical to Jesus. He, recall, is God. We are to be divinized, perhaps, but we will remain children by adoption. We simply can't become children by nature, so we simply can't become identical to Jesus.

That doesn't mean we have nothing to learn from the human standard Jesus sets other than obedience to the Father (although if we learned that perfectly, it would suffice). There remains the fact that we all share a common human nature; in terms of the thesis, this means that though God wills different things for each of us, He wills some things for all of us.

This is where the whole Christian moral tradition comes in. God wills that everyone love Him with all their heart, mind, soul, and strength, and their neighbor as themselves. God wills that we all have perfect faith and hope in Him. These are the universal human perfections, the things in which, the closer we are to Jesus, the closer we are to our own individual perfection.

We don't need to be itinerant First Century Jewish rabbis from Galilee to perfect ourselves. The Father doesn't want copies of His Eternal Son, He wants brothers and sisters for Him. We become Jesus' brothers and sisters by letting Him live in us, so that we share His universal perfections, but we become perfected as His brothers and sisters by achieving our individual perfections.

But why is the perfection of humanity multiform? Clearly it needs to be multiform in the present, since corporeal limitations prevent us from all being identical, but what does it buy us in eternity? And what does it buy God, the One who really does have everything? Sounds like there's one more post to be written on this.


Tuesday, August 10, 2004

Human perfection

Kevin Miller writes:
There is what de Lubac refers to as "the Christian paradox of man." We are truly open, by nature, to being made one with Christ - and - in fact even more so precisely by virtue of that union - we are truly made to be distinct persons. Perhaps it could be said that some saints reveal especially one of those truths, and some saints the other. Francis's distinctiveness in Christ is known to all. Dominic even more fully "decreases" so that Christ - and the saint - may "increase."
The idea that "we are truly made to be distinct persons" has some important consequences.

First, if we are made to be distinct, then if we were all perfectly what we were made to be (as we will be, God willing), we would all be different. My perfection is not your perfection.

This means there is no single idea of human perfection; the perfection of mankind, or rather of the Mystical Body of Christ, necessarily involves the individual perfections of individual men. Which means humans by nature exist in community.

Of course, you don't need a chain of theological reasoning to conclude that humans by nature exist in community. But the human community we simply observe is only a pale suggestion of the eschatological community of the Divine Family -- the Father, His Son by nature, and all His children by adoption, united by the Holy Spirit. For this Family to be perfect (as it pretty obviously will be), each member must be distinct, and therefore every member will relate to every other member in a unique way. It's a very dynamic picture, I think.

Suppose, though, that perfect humans weren't distinct. Then one would have the identical relationship with every other perfect human. And if one of these perfect humans happened to not be there -- happened to have died cut off from God -- who would know? What difference would it make, even to God. Divine perfection does not consist in infinite accumulation; the measure of the Divine Family is not in sheer number, as though it would be more perfect with eighty billion humans than with seventy-nine billion. (If numbers were the measure of perfection, there would have to be an infinite number of children-by-adoption, which is impossible.)

So when we are perfect we must be distinct if anyone is to care that we exist -- if, that is, we are to be lovable.


Monday, August 09, 2004

Difference #62 between Sts. Francis and Dominic

Neil mentions a miracle of St. Dominic that caused all those watching to laugh. I believe this is the one he has in mind:
At one time on his return journey from Spain, St. Dominic carried by way of a small present some wooden spoons, one for each of the sisters [of the convent of St. Sixtus]. One day, after preaching and other deeds of charity, he came when it was late to the sisters, and carried the spoons with him he had brought them from Spain.

As they were sitting together behind the grille, and his brethren were likewise seated beside him, he began to preach to them once more about the wiles of the enemy, showing how Satan, for the sake of deceiving souls, transforms himself not merely into an angel of light, but assumes the shapes of the vilest creatures to hinder preaching and other good works, sometimes even taking the shape of a common sparrow.

The venerable father had scarcely said the word ere the enemy of mankind came on the scene in the shape of a sparrow, and began to fly through the air, and hopping even on the sisters' heads, so that they could have handled him had they been so minded, and all this to hinder the preaching.

St Dominic observing this, called Sister Maximilla, and said, "Get up and catch him, and fetch him here to me."

She got up and, putting out her hand, had no difficulty in seizing hold of him, and handed him out through the window to St Dominic. St Dominic held him fast in one hand and commenced plucking off the feathers with the other, saying the while, "You wretch, you rogue!"

When he had plucked him clean of all his feathers amid much laughter from the brothers and sisters, and awful shrieks of the sparrow, he pitched him out, saying: "Fly now if you can, enemy of mankind! You can cry out and trouble us, but you can't hurt us!"

The sparrow hopped once more through the window into the church, while all the sisters sat down to hear the sermon, then climbing up to the brass vessel, suspended by chains, which held the oil lamp, he broke the chains with a strong wrench and overturned the vessel. The lamp fell out, but not only was it not damaged or extinguished, but went on burning upside down. The sisters all looked up at the crash of the upset, and saw the lamp standing without any support in mid-air.

And so it fell out as St Dominic had foretold, for although the lamp continued upturned not one drop of oil was spilled. Neither was the lamp put out, nor was the bran, put under the lamp for safety's sake, shaken out, but everything remained untouched as if it had stood unshaken in its right place.

When St Dominic and his brethren saw this they returned thanks to God. He then ordered Sister Sabina -- the same whom he had named sacristan when he appointed all the officials in St Sixtus' -- to put the lamp in its right place, and she did so. And so it came about that he employed for God's glory what the enemy of mankind had from envy done for their hurt and hindrance. The sparrow which flew in that night disappeared, and no one saw whither he went.

As it was late while St Dominic was preaching the sisters lit the large lamps in the enclosure and the brothers lit those without, so that all could easily see what was going on in the church. St Dominic wrought this laughter-stirring miracle by the window in St Sixtus' church, in the presence of Sister Cecilia, who saw and heard all that had been said, and of the other sisters of St Sixtus who were also present.


Family resemblance

In a way, St. Dominic makes an unlikely Dominican.

The founder of an order of theologians himself contributed nothing, basically, to theology. The founder of an order of scholars himself wasn't interested in studying. The founder of an order of academics himself never held an academic position. The founder of an order that produced two doctors of the Church in the decades after its founding himself is not a doctor of the Church (and would have no business being one). The founder of the Order of Preachers himself left us no real samples of his preaching.

But the Order of Preachers is not about forming its members into new St. Dominics. Which is just as well, since if it were all we'd know about it would come from a paragraph on the optional memorial of St. Domingo and Companions, Martyrs, who were killed while preaching the Gospel to the Tartars about the year 1220.

What the Order of Preachers is about, what St. Dominic was about, is identified in the opening words of the Fundamental Constitution of the friars:
The purpose of the Order was expressed by Pope Honorius III writing to St. Dominic and his brothers in these words: "He who ever makes His Church fruitful with new offspring, wanting to make these modern times measure up to former times, and to propagate the Catholic faith, inspired you with a holy desire by which, having embraced poverty and made profession of regular life, you have given yourselves to the proclamation of the Word of God, preaching the name of our Lord Jesus Christ throughout the world.

For the Order of Friars Preachers founded by St. Dominic "is known from the beginning to have been instituted especially for preaching and the salvation of souls."
That is the end of the Order of Preachers: preaching and the salvation of souls. It is, you'll note, a subjective end; the subjects are the souls to be saved through preaching. The means to a subjective end are necessarily subjective. The way you preach to someone dying in an American hospital is not necessarily the way you preach to someone in a university in Pakistan. The way you preach in 2004 Germany is not necessarily the way you preach in 1904 France.

That is why the specifics of St. Dominic's personality and life are not precisely copied by his faithful children. What defined him, what defines his Order, is the end sought, and the ways in which this end is sought are as different as the times, places, and people who seek it.

I'm not saying there are no means whatsoever common to all Dominicans. Preaching the name of our Lord Jesus Christ does have an objective component -- viz., our Lord Jesus Christ -- and St. Dominic's enduring vision of the Order is that a balance between prayer, study, and the common life is the means by which Dominicans acquire Jesus in their hearts in order to preach Him to others.

And I'm not saying the specifics of St. Dominic's personality and life do not at all influence his faithful children. The stories of his life have always been mined for their wisdom and guidance. Still, it's worth pointing out that he may not even have been aware of perhaps his richest personal example to the Order -- his Nine Ways of Prayer, written after his death from reports of those who had observed him -- and that the lessons they teach are not about preaching per se, but about the absorption in holiness necessary to preach as a saint.

Finally, his whole life teaches his children boldness and flexibility in response to the local need. To miss this while trying to recreate the details of a medieval Spanish priest's biography is to miss the gift St. Dominic has given the Order and the Church.

[I'll stipulate here that the above is pretty much all my personal opinion, and you can expect other Dominicans to disagree.]


Friday, August 06, 2004

I wish he'd stop

Whenever Mark Shea writes about the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, proportionalist commenters boast of their evil-for-the-sake-of-good moral theories. I find that depressing, particularly on August 6.

And yet, I also find I admire the moxie of this comment:
But I still think [the] passage from the Catechism...

"Every act of war directed to the indiscriminate destruction of whole cities or vast areas with their inhabitants is a crime against God and man, which merits firm and unequivocal condemnation."

...cannot be read as a priori condemning every conceivable strategic nuclear attack.

We should have the strongest possible presumption against such attacks, without absolutely ruling them out.
Reading "firm and unequivocal condemnation" to mean "strongest possible presumption against, without absolutely ruling out" is utterly unsound, of course, but it does have a certain entertainment value.


The Feast of the Loud Voice

When you think about it, isn't the Transfiguration kind of an odd choice for a feast?

I mean, sure, it's a dramatic story, an inexhaustible font of fruitful meditation, good homilies, and fine art.

But in terms of advancing the story of Jesus through the liturgical year, what really happened on Mount Tabor? The witnesses to this awesome theophany first babbled, then forgot about it, then reverted to the same squabbling bumblers they had always been.

The Transfiguration is a moment of profound theology plopped like a blinking neon light into a sequence of stories of Jesus' teaching and healing. It seems like the sort of thing that belongs in John's Gospel, rather than the synoptics.

Why the Feast of the Transfiguration, though, and not the Feast of the Multiplication of the Loaves and Fishes, or the Feast of the Wedding at Cana?

The old Catholic Encyclopedia suggests it was instituted as a practical substitution for a pagan feast. The role it seems to play in the current Roman Catholic calendar, though, seems to be the same it plays in the Gospels: a sudden confrontation with the declaration of God:
This is My chosen Son; listen to Him.
The implications of this are, as I say, inexhaustible, but I think that, fundamentally, the Feast of the Transfiguration is about a loud, startling noise or a splash of cold water to shake us out of the kircheschlaft routine of religion and say, "Hey, you know what? All that stuff we say about Jesus? IT'S TRUE!"


Extremes, social and un-

Among extremists, I think we can distinguish two types: the witness and the scold.

The witness is a living testament to the truth of what he lives. The one truth to which he clings serves as both his own path to the fullness of truth and a sign to the rest of society that we not forget that truth.

The scold insists that everyone cling to his one truth, as either the only path to the fullness of truth or even the fullness of truth itself. His insistence is not necessarily annoying and offensive, though it often is, and it is not necessarily explicit. He may simply assert that decency demands the adoption of his extremism, and leave the conclusion regarding those who don't adopt it unspoken.

I agree with Steven Riddle that extremists, even scolds, are useful to society. I'd guess, though, that among extremists, only witnesses are good in themselves, and then only when what they witness to is actually true.


Thursday, August 05, 2004

Pacifism is a harsh mistress

It seems to me that pacifism is a very demanding personal discipline, and that a committed Christian pacifist -- one who forswore all forms of violence to follow Christ -- would have to be tough as nails.

That's one reason I've never cared much for Pax Christi USA, which strikes me as a, what's the word, squishy? A squishy organization, sharing a "now, now, let's not be mean" version of pacifism, coupled for whatever reason with advocacy for "primacy of conscience, economic and social justice, and respect for creation."

I also find something unctuous in the holier-than-thou-but-we-still-love-you tone of many of their public statements, "'All Are Welcome' - A statement by Pax Christi Illinois regarding the denial of Communion" being a case in point. According to the statement,
We in Pax Christi are very passionate about Catholic Social Teaching and the call to protect and defend the dignity of life from womb to tomb. At the same time we are often disappointed by the lack of commitment to the principles of Catholic Social Teaching by many of our Catholic brothers and sisters who hold positions of responsibility in politics, business and sadly even in the Church. But it would never occur to us to seek the exclusion of any of these members of our Catholic family from the Eucharistic Table.
Which is a funny coincidence, because it would never occur to me to care whether it would ever occur to Pax Christi Illinois to do the bishops' job for them.

This paragraph also demonstrates the moral equivalence, which a subsequent paragraph spells out in more detail, that Pax Christi USA assigns to abortion and Catholic social teaching.

The subsequent paragraph begins, "As followers of the nonviolent Jesus, Pax Christi members assert that all who feel called to approach the Table of the Lord should be welcomed." This implicit call for open Communion is followed by a list of four parallel sets of people who should be welcomed:

those who reject war as a means of resolving conflictand those who feel that war is sometimes justified
those who reject the death penaltyand those who cling to the death penalty as an expression of justice
those who work to make abortion illegalas well as those who believe that criminalizing abortion is not the answer
those who believe that the needs of the poor and laborers have a priority over capitalas well as those who believe that the unfettered free market is the best way to distribute wealth and resources

Several points can be made regarding this list.

For instance, the presence of the first pair makes no real sense. It is Catholic teaching that war is sometimes justified; who would argue that people who follow Catholic teaching should be excluded from the Eucharist? If anything, it should be the pacifists who are listed second, but even that would be a strawman.

Note, too, the disingenuous expression "those who believe that criminalizing abortion is not the answer," as though this were a reasonable description of the pro-abortion Catholics under consideration. Is there be a squishier euphemism for their true position than "criminalizing abortion is not the answer"?

Note as well that, instead of a squishy euphemism, question-begging hyperbole is used to characterize free market advocates. Not only do they insist on an "unfettered" free market, but they are explicitly distinguished from people who value people more than capital. To be fair to Pax Christi Illinois, there may well be more unfettered free marketeer Catholics who value capital more than people than there are pro-abortion Catholic politicians who merely believe criminalization is not the answer, making this misrepresentation less egregious.

Note, finally, the overall composition of the list. Legalized abortion is set next to the actual Catholic teaching on war, a prudential judgment on capital punishment, and a prudential judgment on economic and business policy in a set of things regrettable to believe but certainly no cause for refusal of Communion.

I found the most astonishing sentence in the statement to be this:
In the same way, we urge our Illinois Catholic Bishops to continue to plead and pray for all of us sinners in the Catholic Body of Christ, without recourse to the violence of coercion or threats.
That is how Pax Christi Illinois characterizes what the USCCB considers "decisions [that] rest with the individual bishop in accord with the established canonical and pastoral principles": "the violence of coercion or threats."

Apparently, to Pax Christi Illinois, any act contrary to another's desire is violence and the assertion of the bishop's teaching office is coercion. No doubt accusations of "violence" come readily to Pax Christi pens, but somebody really needs to scrub their statements for unadulterated foolishness like this if they want to be considered a serious voice in society.

(Link via In Today's News.)


Beauty is a bear

The most common mistake people make when thinking about beauty is probably to confuse "pleasure" with "beauty."

You and I both look at a painting. I am pleased by the painting, and say it is beautiful. You are not pleased by it, and deny that it is beautiful. What do we conclude?

Rob would conclude (or perhaps he wouldn't; see his subsequent comments in that thread):
...the inner beauty--the state of the soul/spirit--of the beholder must be projected onto the object-in-the-world, endowing it with beauty, rather than the reverse.
If taken literally, that's absurd. My looking at a painting doesn't change the painting. The only change occurs inside me. But what is there inside me to change? My knowledge (or experience or idea) of the painting.

Now, if you want to say that I think a painting is beautiful because of my own inner beauty, who am I to argue? Even so, the fact would remain that it is the painting I experience as beautiful. There is something about the object-in-the-world that, when apprehended by my mind, I find pleasing.

In Rob's example of a dandelion, we have the color and shape of the dandelion, set perhaps against the uniform background of trimmed green grass, that the admirer finds beautiful. The color and shape of the dandelion exist in the dandelion (or, if you prefer, there is that which exists in the dandelion that produces the sense of color and shape in the observer); these are objective properties, properties of the object-in-the-world. It is the same color and shape that the gardener perceives as ugly.

So while "beauty is in the eye of the beholder" certainly means "beauty is subjective," it's also certainly false. What is subjective is the pleasure beauty causes. But this is an intellectual pleasure, which means that two people can have the same sense experience yet apprehend it differently because they derive different ideas from the sense experience.

Beauty itself exists in the thing sensed, by definition. (And if you don't agree, try defining beauty in a way that doesn't mean the pleasure caused by beauty as I define it.)

As an analogy, think of two people in a forest, both looking in the same direction. The sight causes one person to feel excitement and a degree of anxiety. The other person, who does not realize that that tree stump fifty yards away is actually a large black bear, does not feel any excitement or anxiety. Is the bear projected onto the forest-view-in-the-world by the first viewer?


Wednesday, August 04, 2004

Metablogging: Justice in the Third Millennium

Hernan has received the just penalty of a page rank of 0 from Google.

Speaking of which, I'd just like to say, with characteristic modesty, that if you can't get Dr. Peter Kreeft to deliver a keynote lecture, write a forward for a book, or answer your philosophical conundrum, I seem to be your next best choice. I wouldn't have thought so myself, but Google never lies.


The beauty of it

TSO observes:
The paradox is that we are driven to thirst for beauty and yet we must see beauty in our fellow wounded human beings who often are not beautiful in any way we can see.
Not beautiful in any way we can see. That's certainly a problem when beauty is thought of as what is pleasing to behold.

But what exactly is it that's being pleased by beholding something beautiful? No one thinks beauty is literally in the eye of the beholder. When we say something is pleasing to the eye, we mean its beauty is perceived through the eye, not experienced within the eye. No one thinks a beautiful poem's beauty is wholly experienced by the ear canal.*

No, the pleasure by which we recognize the beautiful exists in the mind. It's primarily an intellectual pleasure, not a sensual one (though there may be some sensual pleasure along with the intellectual pleasure).

Once you realize that beauty is perceived by the mind of the beholder, the idea that there is beauty in other people becomes easier to at least entertain (even if, for certain people, the idea remains more entertaining than self-evident). We apprehend other people, not just as shapes and sounds, but as human beings, and human beings have by nature both a specific beauty (specific, that is, to the human species) and an individual beauty (each possessing different levels of different perfections).

I suggested some time back that a lot of people are better at acknowledging beauty than truth. There are cases, though, that it's only by admitting the truth of another's humanity that we can perceive anything beautiful about him -- a fact that would be less dire if our society weren't so blithe in denying the truth of others' humanity.

* I shouldn't say "no one," I suppose. "Beauty is experienced only in the sense organs" is no more cracked than a lot of philosophies that have made their expositors famous.


Quiz time
Alice was talking with Bob and happened to ask him if he had seen Carl recently. "No," Bob answered cooly. "I asked him to take me sailing in his sailboat, and he wouldn't, which tells me what kind of person he is."

Later that day, Alice saw Carl and told him what Bob had said. "Yes, he asked me to take him sailing," Carl said. "And I said, 'Sure thing! Come on down to the marina any time.' Then he said, 'No, bring the sailboat to my kitchen. I want to go sailing in my sink.'"

What did Alice say in reply?
  1. "Man, Bob is nuts!"
  2. "A true friend would have brought the sailboat to his kitchen, Carl."
  3. "If these stories get any lamer, I'm going to color outside the lines of conformity to strident stale mores and theologies!"
I've never met Alice, so I have no idea what she said. But I think the only sensible choice is #1. I even think almost everyone can easily see that if you want to go sailing, you can't stay in your kitchen.

It's harder to see, though, that in prayer we might be asking God for things that He literally cannot give us if we refuse to move from where we are. The man in the parable who knocks on his neighbor's door in the middle of the night does get the bread he asks for, but only because he first goes to his neighbor's door. If he had stayed in his own house and tried shouting, it wouldn't have worked.

I may respond to Jesus' promise that it shall be given by praying for the gift of piety, say, but it's simply impossible for me to receive that gift from the position of desiring it in order to show up those holier-than-thou types on the parish council. In fact, for me to say "I want to be pious in order to show them up" is as nonsensical as Bob's saying "I want to go sailing in my sink." Whatever it is Bob wants to do, it isn't sailing, properly speaking. Whatever gift it is I want, it isn't true piety.


But I know what I like

There's a Peter DeVries novel in which a character taking a college course on poetry is given the assignment of answering the question, "Is 'Dare I eat a peach?' poetry?"

DeVries uses this as an excuse to slip an undigested lump of praise for T. S. Eliot and "Prufrock" past his editor, but as someone for whom poetry has little appeal, I didn't really understand the point of the question. Doesn't whether "Dare I eat a peach?" is poetry depend on the context?

Years later, though, I now see that not every question can be poetic, regardless of the context. For example, there's this, from a poem called "You have colored outside the lines!":
Am I bold to color outside the lines
    of conformity to strident stale mores
        and theologies?
No context in the world can make that poetry.

I mention this, though, not just to make fun of a really, really bad poem (you color outside the lines? How sassy! You go, girl!) that appears in a newsletter for the Dominican Institute for the Arts, but to point out (for those with Acrobat Reader) what I think is quite a good poem in that same newsletter. It's "mount tabor," by Sr. Ruthann Williams, OP, appears on the last page, and begins thusly:
homespun blushed to gold
your hair in maple glory
and eyes a sacrament
our joy was such
we could not turn aside
but longed to hold the moment still

can this be
the carpenter's son?
The poem pulls out the Gospel questions asked of (more than to) Jesus:
...what sort
of man is this one?

...what wrong
is this man guilty of?
Of course, these are the same questions people ask about Jesus today, and it's as true today as it was when the Evangelists first wrote them down that we need to be able to give our own answers.

Memorized answers certainly have their place, but they also have their limitations. We should not only be able to tell Who Jesus is, but to show Who He is, to be able to introduce Him to those who ask, to recognize Him when we need His help.

Now, I readily admit to knowing little about poetry, and all I'm going on is my own reaction. But the newsletter contains two poems, one about the wonder that is the poet, the other about the wonder that is Jesus. I have no difficulty in figuring out which poem is the work of a preacher.


Tuesday, August 03, 2004

Another reason I don't have disciples

My parables lack the deft touch:
A man returned from a long journey, and called his stewards to settle their accounts. The first steward came before him and said, "Master, when you left, you gave me ten talents. See, I have used them to earn you ten talents more." And he presented him with twenty talents.

The master replied, "What about the rest?"

The servant answered him, "The rest?"

"Yes, the rest. I sent you a talent a month while I was gone. What profit have you made from them?"

"A talent a month?" The steward was confused. "You mean... did you... was that what was in all those letters? I... I didn't... that is to say, I never quite got around to opening those letters, exactly. I was, ah, occupied with the talents... the, the first batch of talents, if you see what I mean, the ones I... I knew about."

"So what did you do with all the letters I sent you?" asked the master.

"Well, I... they're in my office. I sort of thought we would, you know, go over them when you returned. After you, you know, praised me for doing such a good job with... with the talents you had given me... to begin with, you see."

And the master answered him, "By my accounts, I gave you ten talents before I left, and ninety more while I was gone. You show me a profit of ten talents for the hundred I gave you, and you expect to be praised? The postage alone cost me ten talents."

And the master sent the steward out, having appointed him the household boot-polisher, which wasn't what you'd consider a promotion, seeing as everyone in the household wore sandals.
St. Catherine of Siena teaches us that the soul is always moving, either toward God or away from Him. I suppose this can be resolved with the sense of idling in spiritual neutral, of apparently neither approaching nor moving away from God, by considering the fact that God is always giving us graces, which we are expected to use to our good and the good of our neighbor. What we fail to do today is greater than what we failed to do yesterday by the amount of graces we have received but left unused since yesterday.


The Fifth Glorious Mystery is biblical

Karl Thienes points out that the role of intercessor to the King did not originate with Mary. (I must say I never thought of Bathsheba as a type of Mary before.)

Jennifer's comments include "the obvious Protestant question":
Why do I need to go through Mary to get to Jesus? Why not go directly to Jesus?
And the obvious answer -- "you ask your friends to pray for you, right? So why not the Mother of God?" -- is given.

It might help to make something implicit in that answer explicit: Those who ask Mary for her intercession don't "need" to do that to "get to" Jesus. We want to do that. We love and revere Mary; we have an active, personal relationship with her, just as we do with our natural mothers.

Asking, "Why do you need to pray to Mary?" is like asking, "Why do you need to call your mother every week?" It's not a matter of logical necessity, but of natural desire. It would be unnatural for someone who knows and loves Mary not to pray to her.


Monday, August 02, 2004

Happy August
I'm not a big fan of fisking.
Why is that? Could it be he's incapable of it himself? Or maybe he's been fisked by others one too many times.
I know:
Don't count on it. If he knew, he wouldn't make the "fake Latin makes me sound smart" mistake:
Bloggere est fiskere. The fisk is the rhetorical pinnacle of blogging. It works nowhere else but on a blog. A fine fisk is why many people bother reading (and, for that matter, writing) blogs in the first place. And boy, when one of us lets go with both barrels at one of them, what a great feeling!
I suppose he has peer-reviewed references for all these claims? I could say the sentence "The fisk is the rhetorical pinnacle of blogging" is the rhetorical sewer of blogging, but at least I wouldn't be making overblown claims I had no intention of backing up.
But the principle of fisking seems to lie in a kind of dishonesty.
That's funny. I thought it lay in pointing out the dishonesty of others. Or at least their idiocy. To wit:
To fisk an article is to treat it as one half of a dialogue, to set up the original writer as the oblivious straight man upstaged by the witty and biting satire of the fisker. When you read a fisk, what is striking is how the fisked writer can bear to continue when all his previous points, and quite likely his own character, have already been badly maligned.
You're right, that is what is striking when you read a fisk... if you're too stupid to realize the fisking isn't a dialogue, but is, in fact, a fisk. In other words, his complaint about what "[t]o fisk an article is" is based on his utter failure to understand what "to fisk an article is."
A fisk is a form of theater that uses the original as a slapstick whacked against its author's head.
As appealing as the thought of whacking him upside his head is, a fisk is a piece of writing, not theater. Correct his basic misunderstanding, and what's left of his point? Absolutely nothing.
It presents a false image of the author, as though in an actual give-and-take conversation he would completely ignore what is said against him.

Fisking also does a disservice to the whole point of communication. Though language is necessarily imperfect, it can still be used to communicate ideas.
And so, Dear Reader, rest assured that, in his eminent opinion, even something as "necessarily imperfect" as language "can still be used to communicate ideas." I guess we'll put our plans to burn all books for fuel and return to grunting and pointing on hold.
Fisking, though, takes advantage of imperfections, holding them up for condemnation or ridicule as though their very presence undercut the original writer's point. Any sentence, or even a part of a sentence, taken in isolation, can be mocked,
Some writers' sentences more than others.
but what does doing so prove?
Oh, I don't know, maybe that the writer is an idiot?
There is also the fact that, as it's generally done, fisking makes such heavy use of personal derision and insult. True, fisking doesn't positively require derision,
So why mention it? Anyone for a hasty generalization?
but I think by its very nature -- studying each sentence for some weakness, some opening for a quick shot to the short ribs -- composing a fisk is at least a near temptation of sins against charity. Add to that the encouraging reactions cheap shots often produce among the like-minded, and the habit of fisking is very likely to be at least tainted with vice.
It took him long enough, but he finally gets to his real point: unlike the rest of us, who occasionally get encouraging reactions from what we write, he is not tainted with vice.