instruere...inlustrare...delectare Disputations

Monday, January 31, 2005

Blessed unity

Ad Limina Apostolorum reports that, by deftly discarding the eighth Beatitude, St. Augustine was able to develop a parallel between the Beatitudes and the Gifts of the Holy Spirit:
Poor in Spirit: Fear of God
Meekness: Piety
Mourning: Knowledge
Hunger and Thirst for Righteousness: Fortitude
Merciful: Counsel
Pure in Heart: Understanding
Peacemakers: Wisdom
I love this sort of thing. As Jamie observes, it "demonstrates the unity of all Scripture, especially between the Old and New Covenants." And behind the unity of all Scripture is the unity of all Revelation, and ultimately the unity of God, a unity into which the Holy Spirit draws all disciples of Christ.

Once in grade school we had to draw a picture representing a beatitude of our choice. I went with peacemaking, probably because it seems such a concrete act: there's war (represented by two soldiers standing fifteen feet apart pointing rifles at each other), and then I come in and do my thing, and then there's peace. Yay for me. A child of God, no less.

But if peace is the tranquility of order, you don't make peace between others before making peace within yourself. St. Jerome puts it plainly, "The peacemakers are pronounced blessed, they namely who make peace first within their own hearts, then between brethren at variance. For what avails it to make peace between others, while in your own heart are wars of rebellious vices."

Which would I pick now? It's hard to say, without false humility or too-real pride. On St. Augustine's reading, though, we are all to live all of them, if we are to be truly blessed.


Sound mind and body, but don't forget the soul

The science of psychology is human wisdom. It teaches us a lot that is good to know about human behavior. But absent the Gospel, the prescriptions of psychology will be at best incomplete, at worst wrong. The Christian knows only grace can perfect nature, and that we are made for an end psychology cannot discern. When, instead of serving the Faith, it interferes with it, psychology must be rejected.

Most of us, perhaps, are so far from perfect that the acts of self-worship recommended for mental health have a negligible (though of course negative) effect on our relationship with God. But I doubt I'm the only one who finds it easy to believe that indulging my own will, from time to time, is objectively good.

God, meanwhile, doesn't play psychological tricks on us, is my guess. He doesn't humble the proud as a way to break down their resistance. He doesn't have to. Pride itself is humiliating.

"There are set before you fire and water," Sirach tells us. "To whichever you choose, stretch forth your hand." No tricks there; it's a straightforward proposition.

The Church must teach and worship in accord with human nature, but She can neither be satisfied with human nature as it exists now nor rely on carrot-and-stick means to bring her children home.


Friday, January 28, 2005

More feastday stuff

A biochemist quotes Josef Pieper on Aquinas, and links to an Aquinas website.

Also, today St. Thomas gets a bunch of new brothers and sisters.

And the man with black hat is passing his family's Thomism on to the next generation.

I rejoiced when I heard them say, "Let us go to the Summa-thon."

Why would any normal person want to read the Summa? How would I know?


Why I like Aquinas

I don't know very much about Catholicism. I took one (rather poor) five week course on Scripture over the Internet a couple of years ago; other than that, I've had no formal religious instruction since I dropped out of eighth grade CCD.

The little I have learned, in the fifteen or so years since I realized how little I knew, has come from discussing things with other people (who may or may not have known more than I did) and from reading this or that book. That means that what I do know, I know neither very broadly nor very deeply. (It also means I'm probably wrong about a lot of things I think I know, from historical facts to eternal mysteries.)

Still, I enjoy learning things, and when I learned the Dominican Third Order stresses study in addition to an ordered prayer life, I got a very good feeling about it. And when I joined, I got as an elder brother St. Thomas Aquinas, about whom I knew little more than that he had a fine and tasteful first name and was a big fish in Catholic theology.

I soon learned that St. Thomas had written a book in which he purposed "to treat of whatever belongs to the Christian religion, in such a way as may tend to the instruction of beginners." Well, that's me: a beginner looking for instruction in whatever belongs to the Christian religion.

The Summa is not an easy book to read -- as compared, say, to another book of Theology for Beginners. But neither is it impenetrable. And once you get the hang of a relatively small number of philosophical concepts, it starts to make sense, by and large.

(Many people, I believe, are thrown when they read something that only makes sense to them by and large; they focus on the parts that don't make sense, and the whole work is lost to them. I have read enough math textbooks and papers not to be brought up short by incomprehension. I can keep plowing through in the hope that the obscure passage will yield to a later reading, or at least not completely mess up my understanding of the stuff I think I understand.)

So in thinking about why I like St. Thomas, I have to admit that a lot of it is because I find his writing to be useful. No, his is not the last word. Yes, he was wrong insufficiently nuanced about things both small and large. No, I don't agree with all his opinions and judgments. But if a beginner like me wants to think about something that belongs to the Christian religion, time and again I have found that the teachings of St. Thomas is the place to begin.

Now, my knowledge of his teaching is neither broad nor deep. If New Advent goes down, I'm largely helpless. I refer to myself as a Tomist, too informal a student to be called a Thomist. But let me propose that it would be a great mistake to think of St. Thomas as representing the "reason" wing of Catholicism, as opposed to the "faith" wing.

I wrote about 1 Corinthians 1:17 below, the beginning of St. Paul's treatment of the folly of the Cross, in which he goes on to write that "the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom."

St. Thomas knew this about as well as anyone. In his own commentary on this verse, he writes:
But the fact that many teachers in the Church have used human reason and human wisdom as well as elegant words would seem to be contrary to [verse 17]....

The answer is that it is one thing to teach in eloquent wisdom [sophia logou], however you take it, and another to use it to teach eloquent wisdom in teaching. A person teaches in eloquent wisdom, when he takes the eloquent wisdom as the main source of his doctrine, so that he admits only those things which contain eloquent wisdom and rejects the others which do not have eloquent wisdom: and this is destructive of the faith.

But one uses eloquent wisdom, when he builds on the foundations of the true faith, so that if he finds any truths in the teachings of the philosophers, he employs them in the service of the faith.
For St. Thomas, the ingenuity or eloquence of a teaching counted for nothing; he was concerned only with how the truth of a teaching could be used in the service of the Faith. And "the chief element in the doctrines of the Catholic faith is salvation effected by the cross of Christ."

So, although what do I know, I suggest that they are wrong who see any sort of radical break between the St. Thomas who wrote the Summa and the St. Thomas who said that all his works were as straw unfit for a stable compared to what had been revealed to him. The truth of his eloquent wisdom was always at the service of the faith; the humility and nonisity with which he accepted the vision were not merely lifelong habits, but absolutely essential to the eloquent wisdom he used to help beginners like me begin to have some small inkling of what eye has not seen, and ear has not heard, and what has not entered the human heart: what God has prepared for those who love him.


Thursday, January 27, 2005

Speaking of limits on human reason

I don't remember reading this story in those children's Book of Saints booklets.


Wednesday, January 26, 2005

The wisdom of the wise

The second reading from this past Sunday ends in the middle of St. Paul's thought on the difference between human and Divine wisdom:
For Christ did not send me to baptize but to preach the gospel, and not with the wisdom of human eloquence, so that the cross of Christ might not be emptied of its meaning.
Where the NAB has "the wisdom of human eloquence," the Douay-Rheims has "wisdom of speech" and the KJV "the wisdom of words." (The Greek is sophia logou; see the NAB note for different connotations of "sophia" and "logos.")

This verse is the beginning of the well-known passage in which St. Paul writes that "we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles."

It's kind of interesting, I think, that St. Paul takes two words that have been identified with the Second Person of the Trinity, puts them together, and asserts that they would empty the cross of Christ of its meaning. (The Douay-Rheims has it that the Cross would "be made void.") If we preach Christ from a strictly human perspective, we preach nothing.

Yes, we all know that God's ways are not our ways, but I think this verse goes further. Human wisdom, human reason, human speech doesn't merely fall short of Divine wisdom; it empties it of meaning. We Catholics are perhaps too glib when we assert that faith and reason are compatible. They are, of course, in the sense that nothing in the Faith is contrary to human reason. But the Faith goes further, asserting Divine reason without which the Faith makes no sense.

We say, for example, that last month's tsunami is, in some way we do not understand, part of God's providence for the world. But all we're really saying is that there's nothing in human reason that makes that impossible. We can make no positive claim from human reason alone, and since the time of Job God has revealed to us that we cannot claim any right to be able to make such claims.

It is with God's wisdom, from His Word alone that the Cross makes sense, that the sufferings of the present time make sense. Christianity goes far beyond a philosophy of suffering, but it can go beyond philosophy only in and through Christ. When Christ lives in us, the Sophia and the Logos live in us, and the Cross is made full.

In practice, of course, we must fall back on human speech, as Jesus did in His public ministry. Or perhaps the better parallel is with St. John the Baptist; as we bring the Gospel to the world, we begin with our human wisdom and reason, but we must decrease and He must increase. Otherwise, we offer nothing but a man-made faith. Perhaps a gospel of delayed gratification, or triumphalism, or nobility in suffering, or virtue. But if we try to do it without Christ, we cannot offer the Gospel of Christ.


Tuesday, January 25, 2005

A wee retraction

Lest my jokes about "the proverbial Dominican reluctance to speak" be taken as a criticism of the friars of the Eastern Province, I should mention that they have truly been very supportive of the "Crisis of Truth" apostolate, and indeed of the Third Order generally.

In recent decades, the Lay Fraternities of St. Dominic have come to see themselves as active participants in the preaching mission of the Order, and that, if they fail to participate in this mission, they will wither and die -- and rightfully so.

Naturally, there remain those -- friars, tertiaries, and outside observers -- who regard the Third Order as canonically recognized prayer groups who gather once a month to listen to Father, pray the Rosary for the souls in purgatory, and collect donations for charity.

But if that image was ever accurate, it has long since been set aside. I know very little about what goes on in other provinces, but in the Eastern Province, the president of the Third Order Provincial Council has been working indefatigably to stress sound, ongoing formation for all tertiaries, as well as the necessity of specific chapter apostolates. The Prior Provincial, meanwhile, has assigned one of the province's finest young friars to be our full time promoter, and he in turn has been ceaseless in both calling the tertiaries to "go out into the deep" without fear, and in calling on other friars throughout the province to promote and support the Third Order.

As a result of the vision and hope of both friars and tertiaries (I should add that the vision and hope do predate the current office holders, though it seems to be coming into full bloom now), the Third Order is positively thriving, with a gorgeous quarterly journal, a Third Order Congress coming up this June (theme: Duc in Altum), a province-wide program to offer Bible study courses wherever a chapter exists, and much more.

While most of the attention these days is directed at the "new movements," we Third Order Dominicans have been undergoing new movement of our own, growing in numbers, activity, and perhaps even wisdom and charity. Whether we fulfill our role as Dominicans remains to be seen, but our brothers in the First Order are doing what they can to support and encourage us to succeed.


Monday, January 24, 2005

Worthy of the promises of Christ

The theme of the homily I heard yesterday was "the peace of love and the love of peace." The priest suggested that there are two reasons why Christians do not possess this peace and love.

The first is avoidance of the responsibilities of one's personal Christian vocation. Each Christian owes something to everyone else, generally a whole lot more than the culture requires and fallen human nature wants to give. We are free to refuse to love others as God loves them, but such freedom leads to slavery to sin, not to Christ dwelling in our hearts.

The second reason Christians lack peace and love, according to the homilist, is the evasion of one's responsibilities. It is not hard to become convinced that the culture, or the unreflective human heart, is the proper judge of how we are to live. It's not my job; I do enough; I'm a good person, fundamentally. The hard sayings of Jesus, of the Church, of the saints aren't meant for me; surely no one can expect more of me. Forgive them? Are you nuts?

I'm not doing justice to the homily, of course, and surely there's more to be said about the peace of love and the love of peace. But the Gospel contains Christ's promises to His true disciples, and even if we lack the living faith St. James preaches we ought to believe Christ will fulfill His promises for everyone who is, truly, His disciple. True Christian discipleship is the bearing of a cross, and no one will rise with Christ who rejects or denies the cross he is to bear.


In case you were wondering,

No, it's not enough. But it's a start.



Peter DePalma and Joseph Schreiber are Third Order Dominicans who will be hosting a weekly radio show called "Crisis of Truth/Shield of Faith: A Dominican Response" beginning Tuesday, February 1, at 4 p.m. Eastern on Holy Spirit Radio, WISP in Doylestown, PA. If you don't live in the WISP coverage area, you can listen in on the web.

The first few programs will cover the different branches of the Dominican Family. I know they interviewed the nuns at Summit for one program, and the president of the Third Order council for the Eastern Province for another. Perhaps they've even managed to turn up a friar or two willing to overcome the proverbial Dominican reluctance to speak.


Friday, January 21, 2005

Amateur Catholics

The last post was prompted by mention of Waugh's confession in this post at Summa Mamas, containing a quoted suggestion that the same could be said of Alec Guinness, another Twentieth Century English Catholic convert.
In "the minute details of daily life, where . . . men excel each other only by prudence and by virtue," Guinness did not altogether shine. Yet, to be fair, if at times he was insufferable, he was a loyal friend and a faithful husband. He was grandly munificent. He recognized his faults and sought to combat them.
The book review for Alec Guinness: The Authorized Biography, from which this quotation comes, has made MamaT eager to read the book.

In such conversion stories, I think Catholics find an appeal that goes beyond both the angelic joy of a lost sheep restored and the partisan delight of another run for our team. There is something bracing and refreshing in the story of someone for whom the Faith matters. Especially, perhaps, when that someone does not become in any sense a "professional Catholic," so that his faith does not become something to be defended or explained or even much talked about, but simply something to be lived as best he is able in his chosen vocation.

In a confession that practices infant baptism, there's no way around having significant numbers for whom their religious practice is just something they do because it's something they've always done. You wash clothes on Monday, you go to Mass on Sunday. There are Catholics who aren't Presbyterians or Hindus only because they were raised Catholics and there's never been a reason for them to change.

Let me say that this last paragraph expresses only my impression that there are many Catholics for whom Catholicism-as-opposed-to-anything-else doesn't really matter. Maybe there aren't any such Catholics, or maybe there are only a few. But this impression is at least entirely consistent with my experience of Catholics in the United States, who as a class don't tell me whether or how their Catholic faith makes a difference in their lives.

So I extrapolate from my own experience and impression to suggest that one thing that's nice about people who are unobtrusively Catholic -- more concerned with recognizing and combating their own faults than those of others -- is simply knowing that such people exist, by their very unobtrusiveness going unobserved by us, and perhaps in far larger numbers than those of us who are obtrusively Catholic might suspect.


A fault admitted, not celebrated

Evelyn Waugh is widely known to have said -- and, I think, widely admired for saying -- that, while it was true he was not a nice person, he would have been much worse if he hadn't been a Catholic.

There are at least two admirable things in Waugh's admission. One is his personal honesty (and, perhaps, a reflection of humility as well). The other is the tidy way the statement expresses a fundamental truth of the Catholic faith, that it is (as another well-known expression has it) a hospital for sinners. The perfecti of the Church have always been those most aware of their imperfections, and the crumbiest Catholic is no more than an act of perfect contrition away from joining their ranks (however briefly).

But recognition that you would be worse if you weren't Catholic is no basis for being satisfied with how un-bad you are now. I have the impression that some people positively admire Waugh's vices, as though a man's vice becomes virtue if he has some other virtue to accompany it. Does it make sense to enjoy Waugh's misanthropy because he was pious? No more than to enjoy our own vices under cover of our own virtues.

This character of the Church as comprising sinners is easily misused. The Church, in her teachings and actions, acknowledges the sinfulness of her members; she doesn't accept it. With the Eucharist, Confession, sacramentals, indulgences, and so forth, the Church accounts for sin; she never accommodates it. As the Church as a whole, so should each of her members.


Thursday, January 20, 2005

An observation

If today you were to begin a novena to St. Thomas Aquinas -- for the children of your parish school, say, if you have no other pressing intention -- you would finish it on his feast day.


Keeping the heart aboon

Next Tuesday is, as you know, the 246th anniversary of the birth of Robert Burns, the Bard of Scotland.

Burns was not renowned for sanctity, nor was he much of a friend to the Catholic Church. But he did adapt a couple of psalms into common meter, meaning you could sing them to many tunes you already know.

O Thou, the first, the greatest friend
Of all the human race!
Whose strong right hand has ever been
Their stay and dwelling place!

Before the mountains heav'd their heads
Beneath Thy forming hand,
Before this ponderous globe itself
Arose at Thy command;

That Pow'r which rais'd and still upholds
This universal frame,
From countless, unbeginning time
Was ever still the same.

Those mighty periods of years
Which seem to us so vast,
Appear no more before Thy sight
Than yesterday that's past.
Thou giv'st the word: Thy creature, man,
Is to existence brought;
Again Thou say'st, "Ye sons of men,
Return ye into nought!"

Thou layest them, with all their cares,
In everlasting sleep;
As with a flood Thou tak'st them off
With overwhelming sweep.

They flourish like the morning flow'r,
In beauty's pride array'd;
But long ere night cut down it lies
All wither'd and decay'd.

He also composed some simple graces, for both before a meal:
O thou who kindly dost provide
For every creature's want!
We bless Thee, God of Nature wide,
For all Thy goodness lent:
And if it please Thee, Heavenly Guide,
May never worse be sent;
But, whether granted, or denied,
Lord, bless us with content. Amen!
And after:
O Lord, since we have feasted thus,
Which we so little merit,
Let Meg now take away the flesh,
And Jock bring in the spirit! Amen.
And if you're looking for some old-fashioned theology, there's always "On a Suicide":
Earth'd up, here lies an imp o' hell,
Planted by Satan's dibble;
Poor silly wretch, he's damned himsel',
To save the Lord the trouble.


Wednesday, January 19, 2005


Zadok the Roman quotes a British newspaper article that recommends shooting wasps with a Berloque pistole loaded with 78 rpm gramophone needles.

What, you might ask, is a Berloque pistole? It is, reportedly, "the smallest pistol of the world." And what might it be used for, other than wasp hunting? If you click on the "Purpose" link on Berloque's main page, you'll learn that,







Tuesday, January 18, 2005

Infallibly, but contingently

You can't talk about free will with other Catholics for very long before the problem of reconciling that concept with the doctrine of predestination (or, more fundamentally, Divine providence) is brought up.

As I see it, the root of the problem is that Revelation doesn't leave an easy out. If you say we don't choose whether we will be saved, what do you do with all the Scriptural passages that say we do? If you say God doesn't cause us to choose, what do you do with all the passages that say He does? And if you try to bring the two ideas together in your mind at the same time... well, it's understandable why some people prefer to deny one or the other truth rather than accept them both.

The way St. Thomas explains it is something like this: God created human nature to be free -- that is, to be able to make free choices. And grace doesn't stamp out nature, but perfects it. So God's grace acts upon us in keeping with our human nature. This means that God's grace acts upon us such that we are able to make free choices in response to it.

So far, so good, I think. There are Scriptural bases for saying both that grace perfects nature and that human nature has free will.

The difficulties arise when you add in the infallibility of providence and predestination. Without denying the mystery, I think most of the difficulties I've heard expressed with this are due to thinking of God as a super-human, as basically just like us only much more powerful, rather than realizing that God is unutterably different from us. He doesn't know things the way we know them, He doesn't think the way we think (and I don't just mean He sees things differently than we do, I mean what we mean when we say we "think" is a different act than what we mean when we say God "thinks"; it's like if we say a tree is singing a hymn, only what a tree does is more like singing than God's "thinking" is like thinking). God doesn't cause things the way we cause them.

So if we say (following Revelation) that God knows who will be saved from eternity, and causes them to choose salvation, we need to realize that we're using "knows" and "causes" in highly analogical ways.

That's where the mystery lies. Not in how God can do that at the same time as we freely choose whether to accept salvation, but within the nature of God Himself, Who knows and causes in ways we can only indirectly and approximately even begin to understand.


Friday, January 14, 2005

What I like about Aristotle

Eve Tushnet writes that
right now I pretty much think of Aristotelians as people who won't admit to their parents that Plato is the Bomb....
I've read almost nothing by either Plato or Aristotle, so my impressions of them are drawn almost entirely from secondary sources at best. But from the time I first read the Allegory of the Cave, I have failed to find Plato compelling. Yeah, yeah, more about me than him, all the rest is footnotes, etc., etc. I'm sure studying him is not a complete and utter bore, and is more valuable than composing a monograph on strategies for tic-tac-toe.

What I like about Aristotle (again, more from hearsay than direct experience) is the way he says, "Well, what do we have here?," and then proceeds to answer his own question.

And it's his process, perhaps more than his answers, that appeals to me. There's a fundamental optimism and confidence in saying, "This thing is that way." That "'is' of predication" is at once bold and unremarkable. It says, "Things are one way or another, and the human mind is capable of determining which way they are." For a philosopher, that's quite a leap of faith. For a normal person, that's just common sense.

Beyond that, Aristotle created a framework St. Thomas relied on in organizing his own theology, and for almost any topic he considered St. Thomas is an excellent place to start your own thinking.

Of course, Aristotle is not to be accepted passively. It's said St. Thomas baptized him, but even after his writings are adapted to or interpreted in light of Christian Revelation, there remains a lot of stuff that just ain't so. Some philosophies are so carefully constructed they would crumble if that happened. Aristotle, or at least an Aristotelian, could say, "It isn't? Okay, then, what is so?"

And with that, I've written enough to convince anyone who's actually studied Aristotle that I don't hardly know what I'm talking about.


Thursday, January 13, 2005

St. Thomas answers the psychological determinists

Let me see if this helps at all. From the question, "Does man have free-will?":
Objection 5. Further, the Philosopher says (Ethic. iii, 5): "According as each one is, such does the end seem to him." But it is not in our power to be of one quality or another; for this comes to us from nature. Therefore it is natural to us to follow some particular end, and therefore we are not free in so doing....

Reply to Objection 5. Quality in man is of two kinds: natural and adventitious. Now the natural quality may be in the intellectual part, or in the body and its powers. From the very fact, therefore, that man is such by virtue of a natural quality which is in the intellectual part, he naturally desires his last end, which is happiness. Which desire, indeed, is a natural desire, and is not subject to free-will, as is clear from what we have said above (82, 1,2). But on the part of the body and its powers man may be such by virtue of a natural quality, inasmuch as he is of such a temperament or disposition due to any impression whatever produced by corporeal causes, which cannot affect the intellectual part, since it is not the act of a corporeal organ. And such as a man is by virtue of a corporeal quality, such also does his end seem to him, because from such a disposition a man is inclined to choose or reject something. But these inclinations are subject to the judgment of reason, which the lower appetite obeys, as we have said (81, 3). Wherefore this is in no way prejudicial to free-will.

The adventitious qualities are habits and passions, by virtue of which a man is inclined to one thing rather than to another. And yet even these inclinations are subject to the judgment of reason. Such qualities, too, are subject to reason, as it is in our power either to acquire them, whether by causing them or disposing ourselves to them, or to reject them. And so there is nothing in this that is repugnant to free-will.
Long story short: Yes, a man being as he is causes certain inclinations in him. But in order for him to act on these inclinations, they must be evaluated by his reason, which means they aren't all necessarily chosen.

Furthermore, a man's "being as he is" is itself the product of his past choices, so even if (purely hypothetically) I were unable to not eat a donut, that very fact would probably be a result of my use of free will in the past (assuming there's no chemical imbalance).


Why worship?

Come, let us worship the Lord, for He is our God.
Man is capax Dei, capable of God. In practice, this means everyone has at least one god (or possibly the one God) they worship.

So while there are many deep and rich ways of answering the question, "Why worship?," a simple and short answer is, "Because that's what it means to say the one God is your God."


Wednesday, January 12, 2005

Determined free will

Determinism is usually presented as a philosophical position contrary to the notion of free will.

The way free will works, as I understand it, is along these lines: At some point as we tootle along through life, we notice that we might do A, or we might do B. Our intellects marshal our thoughts about doing A and doing B, gathering whatever seems relevant in deciding between the two, and determines that there is something good about doing A and something good about doing B, but that, in the end, doing A is better than doing B. At this point, our intellect's judgment is presented to our will, which then makes the choice to go with is A.

The point to notice is that it wasn't absolutely necessary to go with one or the other. A real and for true choice was made.

There is a form of psychological determinism, though, holding that we are simply mistaken in our perception that we could have chosen either A or B, that in reality our psychological make-up was such that there was no way we could have made the choice we didn't make. Our minds act like bragging cowards who say, "I coulda taken that guy in the bar apart, I just felt like going home instead, is all," and we, like the cowards' dim but loyal girls, fall for it every time.

The important point is that this psychological determinism insists we're fooled every time. It's not just certain circumstances, or certain emotionally crippled people. There is never a single instance when what we perceive as a choice we could have made but didn't is a choice we could have made.

The Aristotelian in me idly wonders how, if our perception is that untrustworthy, we can trust the perceptions that led us to conclude our perception is untrustworthy. More seriously, I think this sort of determinism contains a fundamental misunderstanding of what free will is.

Let's say, purely hypothetically, that I absolutely love love love donuts. Someone brings a dozen donuts to the office to share, and I face the choice of whether to take a donut.

A psychological determinist might say something like, "No, you only think you face a choice. In fact, there is no choice; your will is determined by your psychology. You will take a donut."

To which I, as a believer in free will, would reply, "Well, of course I will take a donut. Just look at 'em! Yum!"

But that doesn't mean I did not exercise my free will. What my psychology determines is a certain contribution to how desirable eating a donut, and how desirable not eating a donut, is to me.

Free will doesn't mean I may, or even can, choose something I find less desirable over something I find more desirable. That would be a silly faculty for humans to have. What free will means is that I am able, first, to decide which possible act, which is somehow desirable, I find the most desirable of all possible and somehow desirable acts; and second, to choose that most desirable act.

Now, I may be less psychologically free to determine intellectually how desirable a possible act is than some in the Church have believed. But that doesn't mean that a necessity apart from my will determines every choice I perceive myself making.


So what is coercion of the will, anyway?

What do you think of this:

In order to use our free will, to make a choice, we need
  • to have in mind
  • at least two courses of action that are
  • possible for us;
  • mutually exclusive; and
  • in some way desirable to us.
If any of these elements is missing, it seems to me, we can't be said to be using our free will.

I think it makes sense to distinguish between compulsion and coercion by saying that, in compulsion, the opportunity to make a choice is taken from one, while in coercion the opportunity remains.

You could then compel someone to do something
  • by preventing him from thinking, or
  • by preventing him from thinking of more than one course of action, or
  • by convincing him that all other possible courses are impossible for him, or
  • by convincing him that no other possible course of action is desirable to him.
I'm not sure you can do anything about mutual exclusivity to destroy his ability to make a choice.

In coercion, though, all the elements of a free choice are present. What happens when I coerce someone, let me propose, is that I substitute my will for his will. I get him (through compulsion, I suppose) to weigh the desirability of the possible choices on a scale I provide, rather than the scale he himself would use if I did not coerce him.

What I have in mind is different from simply making a possible choice more or less desirable, by for example adding consequences ("If you don't talk, I'll...") or by changing the person's perception of the course of action ("Your friends are already talking, you know."). Coercion is an attempt to get at the part of the mind that says, "Given the choice between A and B, I choose A," and make it say, "I choose B."


Where there's a will, there's an image of God

I need to do a lot more thinking about this before I'm confident about any of it, but I'll just put it out here for discussion.

Free will -- which, as St. John Damascene teaches, "is nothing else than volition," or the power of choice -- is necessary to our humanity. Any being that lacks free will, either actual or potential, is not a human being, a point indicated by the fact that the term "human act" is used in moral theology to refer to an act freely willed.

Any attempt to destroy or coerce the free will of another person, then, is in a real sense an attempt to dehumanize that person, to literally change the human being into a non-human being. From this aspect, torture intended to crush someone's will is worse than murder.

But free will is not only necessary for our humanity. It is necessary for us to be the image of God. Free will, the faculty of choice, is what we use to love, to choose the good of another. Any being that doesn't have free will is incapable of love, and therefore incapable of bearing God's image.

An attempt to destroy or coerce the free will of another person is not only an attempt to make the person a non-person. It is an attempt to efface the image of God, even the potential for the image of God, within that person. It won't simply sever the victim from the rest of humanity, but in a way from God Himself.

Which might be something for Christians who advocate proportionalism to think about.



Tuesday, January 11, 2005

Applying your method

Here's an example of one reported interrogation:
   Stress broke a young bomb maker, for instance. Six months into the war, special forces brought a young Afghan to the Kandahar facility, the likely accomplice of a Taliban explosives expert who had been blowing up aid workers. Joe Martin [a pseudonymous American interrogator] got the assignment.
   "Who's your friend the Americans are looking for?" the interrogation began.
   "I don't know."
   "You think this is a joke? What do you think I'll do?"
   "Torture me."
   So now I understand his fear, Martin recollects.
   The interrogation continued: "You'll stand here until you tell me your friend."
   "No, sir, he's not my friend."
   Martin picked up a book and started reading. Several hours later, the young Taliban was losing his balance and was clearly terrified. Moreover, he’s got two "big hillbilly guards staring at him who want to kill him," the interrogator recalls.
   "You think THIS is bad?!" the questioning starts up again.
   "No, sir."
   The prisoner starts to fall; the guards stand him back up. If he falls again, and can't get back up, Martin can do nothing further. "I have no rack," he says matter-of-factly. The interrogator's power is an illusion; if a detainee refuses to obey a stress order, an American interrogator has no recourse.
   Martin risks a final display of his imaginary authority. "I get in his face, ‘What do you think I will do next?’" he barks. In the captive's mind, days have passed, and he has no idea what awaits him. He discloses where he planted bombs on a road and where to find his associate. "The price?" Martin asks. "I made a man stand up. Is this unlawful coercion?"
Moral? Immoral?



Friday, January 07, 2005

Torture. Again. Part 3

My third category of torture apologists -- those who hold that Torture is never acceptable, but anything clearly short of torture is -- might more accurately be called torture enablers.

I have in mind those who insist on precise, objective definitions of torture, or who attempt reductio ad absurdam against proposed limitations on treatment of prisoners short of inflicting extreme pain. "What, we can't disrupt their sleep patterns? Confine them in physical discomfort? Anything less than a glass of warm milk and a bedtime story is torture?"

The problem with this line of thought is that it reduces the moral question to a terminological one. But the fundamental question, for Christians at least, is not, "What is torture?" It is, "In treatment of prisoners, what is the good to be sought and the evil to be avoided?" And since torture, however it is defined, is not the only evil to be avoided, focusing on the sorties paradox of defining torture ("One slap per day? Ten slaps per day? Ten thousand slaps per day?") quite simply cannot answer the fundamental question.

The consequences are twofold. On the one hand, insisting on the grayness of the gray area between what all accept and what none accept gives cover for those who think torture is sometimes acceptable and those who deny certain methods of torture are torture (in short, those in the first two categories of torture apologists). After all, if there's debate over whether a certain act is torture, probabilism would allow someone to act as though it weren't torture.

On the other hand, attempting to unambiguously define "torture" ignores the fact that even acts that are unambiguously not torture are evil and to be avoided.

This, I think, is where the greatest challenge for Christians lies. Common decency tells most of us that flogging, mutilation, and electrocution are wrong; those who fall into the first two categories are, so to speak, trivially wrong when they attempt to justify the intrinsically immoral.

But common decency is a part of fallen human nature, and every adult Christian should have learned long ago not to trust his own human nature, unassisted by prayer, in matters of moral judgment.

I am not arguing that a single slap to the face of a prisoner who knows where the nuclear bomb is is categorically immoral; I don't find my own moral judgment all that trustworthy here.

I am arguing, however, that an argument that the slap is moral is required, and that, "Come on, a single slap? When there's a nuclear bomb ticking?" is inadequate.

Keep in mind that Christians aren't merely called to be a tempering influence on our culture. We are called to be disciples of Christ, other Christs. We are called to be, not better than others, but perfect.

I don't pretend to have the answers to all the questions of treatment of prisoners, but I do know that a lot of things that are unthinkable to the world are, not only thinkable, but commandments to the Christian.



Torture. Again. Part 2

The second category -- those who hold that torture is never acceptable, but certain methods of torture don't count -- comprises people who, I prefer to think, are simply unable to hear what they are saying. To quote a torture apologist who wrote to Jonah Goldberg, describing his U.S. military survival training:
After enduring the beating I was thrown on the water board, where under questioning the enemy would drown you till the verge of losing consciousness, only to revive you and start all over again. Then a black bag was secured around my head and throat which made it difficult to breathe. I was confined to a three by four foot tiger cage with a coffee can for a toilet. Loud music blared from speakers in the compound and I was repeatedly dragged from my cage for more beatings and interrogation. At night when it was freezing the guards would pour cold water on me. I was deprived of any food for five straight days....

We do this to our own people for training but we can't do it to terrorists? Incredible.
What I find incredible is that some people (including, apparently, some on the editorial board of the Wall Street Journal) think it's acceptable to drown prisoners till the verge of losing consciousness, only to revive them and start all over again.

The reason given is that "we do this to our own people for training." The argument fails, however, on two points.

First, the intention of an act affects the morality of an act; this surely can't be denied by people advocating torture when the intention is to stop some evil from occurring. The intention of waterboarding during survival training is to help the trainee survive should he be captured and tortured. (Plus the obvious benefit to the military of having torture-resistant servicemen.) The intention of waterboarding during interrogation is to coerce the will of the victim. To say both acts are the same is akin to one child saying, "I didn't kick him. I just swung my leg. What, I'm not allowed to swing by leg?" (If we were to accept this reasoning, by the way, we'd have to say that waterboarding captured American pilots isn't torture.)

The argument also fails because it neglects the differences in the trainer-trainee and the interrogator-prisoner relationships. Justice is a matter of proper action according to specific relationships. Is it incredible that I can kiss my wife but can't kiss yours? Is it incredible that we can circumcise our sons but can't circumcise imprisoned terrorists?



Torture. Again. Part 1

It's a bit depressing when the topic of torture comes up, as it has this week with the confirmation hearings for Alberto Gonzales. Apologists for torture aren't supposed to have American accents.

I suppose, though, it does demonstrate the reality of Original Sin, at least as Original Sin entails a clouding of the faculty of human reason. If we don't bring God with us into our discussions, whatever the topic, we can be sure He won't be with us in our conclusions.

The errors apologists for torture make can be placed in three categories:
  1. Torture is sometimes acceptable.
  2. Torture is never acceptable, but certain methods of torture don't count.
  3. Torture is never acceptable, but anything clearly short of torture is.
The first category includes those who draw no line between right and wrong treatment of a prisoner. In ethical terms, they deny that acts (or at least acts relating to treatment of prisoners) are intrinsically evil.

The category also includes honest proportionalists like Jonah Goldberg, who advocate torture as a good thing (assuming it's effective) when the stakes are sufficiently high.

There may also be proportionalists who, though they advocate torture, still think it's wrong. To paraphrase my second-favorite quotation from John Henry Newman (who was writing about lying):
To these must be added the unscientific way of dealing with torture,—viz. that on a great or cruel occasion a man cannot help torturing a suspect, and he would not be a man, did he not do it, but still it is very wrong, and he ought not to do it, and he must trust that the sin will be forgiven him, though he goes about to commit it ever so deliberately, and is sure to commit it again under similar circumstances. It is a necessary frailty, and had better not be thought about before it is incurred, and not thought of again, after it is well over. This view cannot for a moment be defended, but, I suppose, it is very common.
In the Church, proportionalism and denial of the existence of intrinsically evil acts are generally associated with theological liberals. In the public conversation on torture, they are associated with political conservatives.

(It should be, but probably isn't, needless to say that not all theological liberals, nor all political conservatives, are proportionalists or deny that intrinsically evil acts exist.)



Thursday, January 06, 2005

Theological Uncertainty Principle

As a follow-up to the last post, let me propose this hypothesis:

We can make statements about God that are both true and intelligible. The truer a statement, the less intelligible. The more intelligible a statement, the less true.



Steven Riddle indirectly quotes St. John of the Cross:
The whole creation compared with the infinite being of God is nothing. All the beauty of creation compared with His beauty is sheer ugliness; all its delicate loveliness merely repulsive. Compared with the goodness of God the goodness of the entire world is rather evil. All wisdom, all human understanding beside his is pure ignorance... and so it is with sweetness, pleasures, riches, glory, freedom.
Steven points out
that John thinks the created realm is very good indeed. He acknowledges throughout this short passage all the beauty and glory of creation and then moves on to say, nevertheless, these are less than dust compared to the creator of beauty and loveliness.
This is all very much in line with St. Catherine of Siena's famous formula, "I am He Who Is and you are she who is not." But I think there are two things worth mentioning.

First, this isn't mere hyperbole. "The finest star is a ball of mud compared to the sparkle of your eyes." A star isn't in any sense a ball of mud. But there is a sense in which the goodness of the world is evil -- viz., in comparison with the goodness of God.

But that's not the same sense of "evil" we usually think of, and in fact if we wanted to describe this sense of "evil" we'd quickly run out of things to say. (At least I would.) That's because it's a concept directly related to God, and when we're in contact with God our language fails. There's an intuition, perhaps, an inexpressible impression of what natural goodness is compared to divine goodness, of how absurd it is to use the same term to refer to such utterly different qualities (even, for that matter, how absurd it is to call divine goodness a "quality").

This leads to my second point: That it's easier to notice our language failing us when we use contrasting terms than when we use corresponding terms. When we hear, "God is good; creation is evil," we know that creation isn't really evil, the way sin is evil. But when we hear, "Creation is a lesser good than God," we don't necessarily think that God isn't really good, the way creation is good.

We say things like, "God is more powerful than the mightiest king," but do we realize that God's power and a king's power are utterly different? It's not that a certain king has 3.2 Caesars (a Caesar being a unit of power), while God rates a hundred million Caesars, or even infinite Caesars. God's power is not infinite through an accumulation of finite powers; it's not the upper limit of all possible power. It's probably better to say His power is "un-finite," there are no borders or boundaries or limits. (Okay, it's probably not better to say "un-finite," at least more than once.)


A Eucharistic life

What would a Eucharistic life look like? (And what it looks like is important, if it is to serve as a witness to Christ.)

I think it would have to include devotion to the Eucharist, both in the celebration of the Mass and in private worship. Sunday Mass as somehow the summit of the week, with daily Mass and prayer before the Blessed Sacrament to the extent possible. (This is, of course, for Catholics. How Christians with no Eucharist can have a Eucharistic liturgical and prayer life is an interesting question, but not for me to answer.)

But leaving it at this, as primarily a matter of external acts of religion, is to make the Mass a part of your life. To make your life a part of the Mass, I think you need to broaden the notion of "Eucharistic" (without, I suppose I should add, watering down the notion of "the Eucharist").

The Catechism says the Sacrament is called
Eucharist, because it is an action of thanksgiving to God. The Greek words eucharistein and eulogein recall the Jewish blessings that proclaim - especially during a meal - God's works: creation, redemption, and sanctification.
We could say, then, that a Eucharistic life is a life of thanksgiving, of blessing God, of humble gratitude for everything and everyone; a life free of complaint, of claims of privilege, of accepting what other people give us as no more than our due.

That would be a life others would find attractive, don't you think?


Wednesday, January 05, 2005

For the bishops of the United States, let us pray

Today is the Feast of St. John Neumann, immigrant bishop of immigrants. Last year, Kevin Miller posted the second reading from the Office of Readings for this feast. Here, if I'm following my West Coast breviary aright, is the first reading, from Titus:
For a bishop as God's steward must be blameless, not arrogant, not irritable, not a drunkard, not aggressive, not greedy for sordid gain, but hospitable, a lover of goodness, temperate, just, holy, and self-controlled, holding fast to the true message as taught so that he will be able both to exhort with sound doctrine and to refute opponents. For there are also many rebels, idle talkers and deceivers, especially the Jewish Christians. It is imperative to silence them, as they are upsetting whole families by teaching for sordid gain what they should not...

As for yourself, you must say what is consistent with sound doctrine, namely, that older men should be temperate, dignified, self-controlled, sound in faith, love, and endurance. Similarly, older women should be reverent in their behavior, not slanderers, not addicted to drink, teaching what is good, so that they may train younger women to love their husbands and children, to be self-controlled, chaste, good homemakers, under the control of their husbands, so that the word of God may not be discredited. Urge the younger men, similarly, to control themselves, showing yourself as a model of good deeds in every respect, with integrity in your teaching, dignity, and sound speech that cannot be criticized, so that the opponent will be put to shame without anything bad to say about us.
I have to say I prefer the first paragraph, which tells us how a bishop should behave, to the second paragraph, which tells us how everyone should behave. (Including us younger men.)

If your bishop doesn't live up to the ideal expressed here, then pray for him. And not just that he may enjoy his unexpected retirement, but that he live up to his ideal at least as well as you live up to yours.


Tuesday, January 04, 2005

A dangerous thing

A little learning is a dangerous thing;
Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring:
There shallow draughts intoxicate the brain,
And drinking largely sobers us again.
So wrote Alexander Pope in "An Essay on Criticism."

In popular use, though, the quotation has become, "A little knowledge is a dangerous thing." Google returns 23,800 hits on the changed version, and only 9,400 on the original.

The substitution of "knowledge" for "learning" is innocent enough, I suppose, but the two words can refer to distinct concepts that should not be confused.

For example, I might know that a certain cake batter has to be beaten until smooth, but I won't actually learn what "beaten until smooth" really means until I've done it, or at least seen it done. The difference between knowing a ton weighs 2,000 pounds and learning how much a ton weighs lies in carrying forty sacks of gravel round back to the ditch.

What I have in mind is the difference between knowledge acquired through intelligible concepts and knowledge acquired through experience. I have found that experiential knowledge, what I've learned, affects me more than conceptual knowledge, what I've been told.

My hypothesis is that the fact that experiential knowledge is in a sense richer and more affective than conceptual knowledge is part of the reason suffering can have value for us.

No greater love has a man, I happen to know, than that he lay down his life for his friends. But I have only learned this to the extent that I have experienced it. It can be a shared experience; I can learn of this greatest love from someone who has, or is, laying down his life for his friends. But the most profound knowledge will come from direct experience.

So, in this sense, to know Christ is insufficient. We are to learn from Him, which we can only do by spending time in close communion with Him, and then we are to pick up our crosses and follow Him. It's in enduring our own crosses that we learn the greatness of Christ's love for us.


Monday, January 03, 2005

Bad language

I made the mistake of reading half a dozen books by Thomas Merton before it occurred to me to ask whether he died an apostate syncretist or whether the very mention of his name smacks of heresy.

The matter of Merton's legacy is in the news again, for reasons described at Against the Grain.

I don't have anything to add about Merton, but something written of him by two of his friends, which was quoted in that post, struck me as remarkable:
He was a real person, not a saint....
I suppose we all understand what they meant by that: "a plastic saint[,] a contemporary Little Flower, a sweet, sinless individual who has a direct line to God."

But though it's a common enough observation, let me point out again that we must resist the urge to distinguish between "real persons" and saints. Saints are real persons (well, most of them are), and real persons are saints (at least, some of them are). The real persons who are saints living among us are not, generally speaking, sinless, nor are they necessarily sweet.

The reason we must resist thinking of saints as static and impeccable is that we must resist thinking of ourselves as called to anything less than sanctity, and we know we will never in this life be static and impeccable.

St. Paul was famously prodigal in his use of the term "saints." If it's too much for us nowadays to speak of ourselves as saints, we might at least manage to see the implications, the responsibilities, and the expectations, of calling ourselves "Christians."


A new resolution

A suggestion from a homily on Epiphany: Don't resolve, in 2005, to make the Mass more a part of your life. Resolve to make your life more a part of the Mass.

That's a clever turn of phrase, I think, but does it actually mean anything?

Well, consider how the Catechism begins its discussion of the Sacrament of the Eucharist: "The inexhaustible richness of this sacrament is expressed in the different names we give it." are:
  • "Eucharist" (i.e., "thanksgiving" or "gratitude").
  • "The Lord's Supper."
  • "The Breaking of Bread."
  • "The memorial of the Lord's Passion."
  • "The Holy Sacrifice."
  • "The Holy and Divine Liturgy."
  • "Holy Communion."
  • "Holy Mass."
To make your life a part of the Mass means, then, to live with these aspects of the Eucharist manifested in your life, always present to you and always alight (like the Star of Bethlehem) before others.

In the end, I think, this is really all the Church has to give the world. Not ethical arguments, not a moral system, but Christ Himself, offered to the Father for our salvation. If you don't know the Eucharist, you don't know the Church. A Catholic who doesn't give witness to the Eucharist doesn't give witness to Christ.