instruere...inlustrare...delectare Disputations

Thursday, September 29, 2005

"I have often traveled to Media"

I love the Book of Tobit. Demons, monstrous fish, love at first sight, bird poop as a major plot device, a hometown setting: it's got it all.

It especially has Raphael, "one of the seven angels who enter and serve before the Glory of the Lord." Included in his service was the task of reading the prayers of both Tobit (blinded and mocked) and Sarah (widowed and mocked).
So Raphael was sent to heal them both: to remove the cataracts from Tobit's eyes, so that he might again see God's sunlight; and to marry Raguel's daughter Sarah to Tobit's son Tobiah, and then drive the wicked demon Asmodeus from her.
Now, what you'd want, or at least what I'd want, is for Raphael to appear before Tobit and say, "The LORD has heard your prayer, your eyes are healed," then turn to Tobiah and say, "I will transport you instantly to Media, where you will marry Sarah once I drive the demon away."

But that, of course, isn't God's way. Even when He is as unsubtle as sending an archangel in the form of a man to answer a prayer, He does it such that the cooperation of the person whose prayers are being answered is required. This way, the person's free will is preserved, and consequently the very process of having his prayer answered is a source of virtue and an opportunity to grow in holiness.

When you think about it, if Tobit, who in his own words "walked all the days of my life on the paths of truth and righteousness," suddenly found an angel of the LORD appearing before him to heal him, he may well backslide from righteousness into childish presumption. "It is better for me to die than to live, because I have this crick in my neck, and I am overwhelmed with grief... I said, I have this crick in my neck... So where's the angel already?"

There's a lesson in that, I suppose, although those of us who are currently childishly presumptuous might be willing to put off learning it until tomorrow.


Well, of course there is

Why wouldn't there be?

In fact, there's not only a, there's also a and a This last is currently unavailable, possibly due to a traffic spike on this, the 27th anniversary of the death of Servant of God Pope John Paul I.

Reading through some of the anecdotes of his life, it's easy to see why people loved him. I like the one in which all the ladies of the rest home he (as Bishop of Vittorio Veneto) was visiting get up and leave him to go watch a television program. He tells himself:
"Oh, poor me! I speak about God, I make high speeches. I must come down, get into the interests and the ways of the people to speak to them. High clouds do not send the rain. I must catechize without a mitre, as don Forest told the Cardinal of Turin, who had gone to meet his boys with his episcopal mitre on his head, which hit against the beam of the house ceiling."


Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Vengeance is mine, too

Although St. Thomas agrees with St. Gregory's identification of anger as a capital vice (a.k.a., one of the Seven Deadly Sins), he also says that it is sometimes lawful to be angry.

The apparent contradiction is easily enough resolved -- anger is a broad term meaning "the desire for revenge," and "revenge may be desired both well and ill." But this, of course, just swaps "anger" for "revenge," and we're left with the question of whether revenge really can be desired both well and ill.

As St. Thomas points out in an objection:
Now it would seem unlawful to desire vengeance, since this should be left to God, according to Dt. 32:35, "Revenge is Mine." Therefore it would seem that to be angry is always an evil.
As often happens, St. Thomas grants much of the objection:
It is unlawful to desire vengeance considered as evil to the man who is to be punished, but it is praiseworthy to desire vengeance as a corrective of vice and for the good of justice... and when revenge is taken in accordance with the order of judgment, it is God's work, since he who has power to punish "is God's minister," as stated in Rm. 13:4.
There's a lot going on in this reply, and it needs to be read in the context of the whole article, so that for example you see in the main body of the article he has already said that all anger is evil when "one is angry, more or less than right reason demands." But here let me point out just a few things.

First, St. Thomas says "it is praiseworthy to desire vengeance as a corrective of vice and for the good of justice." It is to each person's conscience that he must look to decide how often his anger is directed toward correction of vice and the good of justice. Even when anger is directed toward these goods, one must determine whether the actions taken under its spur are at all likely to effect correction and justice. The passion of anger is often inflamed for reasons not in accordance with the order of judgment, and often not in circumstances in which the order of judgment can be served by the one who is angry.

Which leads to the second point, that my desire for vengeance is not necessarily a desire that I, personally, do the punishing. I can be justly angered by something I read in a newspaper without entertaining the thought of traveling to wherever the injustice occurred and knocking together the heads of the guilty.

What I don't see that I can do, though, is nurse the desire for vengeance without ever acting on it in some way that might contribute to the restoration of justice.

Finally, I think there's a real risk with humans that what begins as a corrective of vice becomes an unreasoned, habitual response. It is never in accordance with the order of justice to treat another person as an object; with anger, the danger is of treating another person as something that, when it acts in some way, we correct by kicking it, so to speak. Vengeance can never be indiscriminate; if it becomes habitual, it becomes vicious.



Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Lady Zdislava wanted that

Did she want me to read this post, then go here and find this article, so I would bring it to the attention of someone who will benefit from it?

Not likely, but who can say?

In this picture, the church is the one she paid for and snuck out at night to help build (and, by extension, the whole Church). The man represents the many poor and sick people she cared for, with such evident charity that, though she came from elsewhere and died young, her memory has been preserved for centuries, and will endure as long as the Church endures in Bohemia.


Tuesday, September 20, 2005

A mockery of the Faith

It's a traditional formula to pray to be "made worthy of the promises of Christ." I'm not sure, though, how sincerely I can pray to be made worthy of all of Christ's promises. One of these promises is put in stark terms by St. Paul:
In fact, all who want to live religiously in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.
My hypothesis today is that the Catholic Church is persecuted for what she teaches. Not what she has been given to teach, but what she actually teaches (and by "she" I of course mean "we").

So what are the common complaints, the stock prejudices, the stand-up comic routines, the op-ed tropes directed against the Church? That we believe in God, the Father Almighty? That we believe in Jesus Christ, His Son, Who became man and died to save us? That we believe in the Holy Spirit, the Holy Catholic Church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, and the resurrection of the body?

When the Church is mocked for her faith in the Eucharist, she is doing something right.

But as eager as some Catholics are to send up the balloon and race to the catacombs, I think we are doing a lousy job of being persecuted for preaching Christ and Him Crucified.


Monday, September 19, 2005

The utmost patience

Unsurprisingly, St. Benedict beat me to the point of my previous post. Here is Chapter 72 of his Rule:
Of the Virtuous Zeal Which the Monks Ought to Have

As there is a harsh and evil zeal which separates from God and leads to hell, so there is a virtuous zeal which separates from vice and leads to God and life everlasting.

Let the monks, therefore, practice this zeal with most ardent love; namely, that in honor they forerun one another (cf Rom 12:10). Let them bear their infirmities, whether of body or mind, with the utmost patience; let them vie with one another in obedience. Let no one follow what he thinks useful to himself, but rather to another. Let them practice fraternal charity with a chaste love.

Let them fear God and love their Abbot with sincere and humble affection; let them prefer nothing whatever to Christ, and may He lead us all together to life everlasting.
The Latin for the word in bold is morum, which of course means "mulberry."

No, actually it means morals or character. St. Benedict tells his monks to bear each others' moral infirmities with the utmost patience, infirmitates suas patientissime tolerent.

I should probably point out that patience with infirmity is not indifference toward iniquity. Patience is essentially an internal matter; strictly speaking, I am not patient with someone else's infirmity directly, but with his infirmity as it exists in my mind and heart. As St. Augustine wrote:
The patience of man, which is right and laudable and worthy of the name of virtue, is understood to be that by which we tolerate evil things with an even mind, that we may not with a mind uneven desert good things, through which we may arrive at better.
To receive the moral infirmity of my Christian brother with an even mind, this is St. Benedict's advice; and St. Augustine's warning is that if I receive it with an uneven mind, I lose not only the good things impatience costs me directly, but the better things they would have brought me later.

Finally, St. Benedict's pairing of the physical and the moral -- "infirmitates suas sive corporum sive morum" -- suggests that impatience with moral infirmities makes no more sense, at least for the monk aspiring to perfection, than impatience with physical infirmities. We are, perhaps, more capable of overcoming moral infirmities than physical ones, but that doesn't make overcoming the moral ones the work of an instant. If someone I know to be habitually sullen acts sullen, is this a reasonable cause of impatience for me? How should I expect him to act?



Friday, September 16, 2005

Clingy evil people

God and Mammon aren't the only things people can cling to. According to the Grail Psalter's translation of Psalm 36:5, the sinner "clings to what is evil." (Other translations are more passive; e.g., NAB has "they do not reject evil," Douay-Rheims has "evil he hath not hated.") And you might recall Sirach 27:30 from this past Sunday's first reading:
Wrath and anger are hateful things, yet the sinner hugs them tight.
That's indisputable, isn't it? Wrath and anger are hateful, and the sinner does hug them tight. (And yes, granted, your wrath and anger are perfectly justified, as are mine, but here we're speaking of sinners.)

I think that "hug them tight" gets it exactly right -- psychologically, I mean; I can't speak to the accuracy of a translation. (The Douay Rheims has "the sinful man shall be subject to them," which is also true and important, but makes a somewhat different point.)

This wrath and anger ("ira et furor" in the Vulgate) that sinners hug tight is clearly not rage (or choler), the first of three kinds of anger Aristotle identifies. You don't hug tight quick flashes of anger, unless maybe you're a boxer who can't count on his skill to win. St. Thomas says the sin of this first kind of anger has its origin in persons "who are angry too quickly and for any slight cause."

But in the other two kinds of sinful anger -- sullenness and ill temper -- the origin of the sin is "that anger endures too long," which is where the hugging tight comes in. St. Thomas gives a perceptive description of the differences between these two sins:
Both "sullen" and "ill-tempered" people have a long-lasting anger, but for different reasons. For a "sullen" person has an abiding anger on account of an abiding displeasure, which he holds locked in his breast; and as he does not break forth into the outward signs of anger, others cannot reason him out of it, nor does he of his own accord lay aside his anger, except his displeasure wear away with time and thus his anger cease. On the other hand, the anger of "ill-tempered" persons is long-lasting on account of their intense desire for revenge, so that it does not wear out with time, and can be quelled only by revenge.
From this perspective, the anger I see among Catholics on the Internet is largely a matter of ill temper. And not just because whatever is locked in a person's breast necessarily doesn't wind up in a blog comment. The "intense desire for revenge" among some Catholics is almost palpable.

What to do about this ill temper? From the perspective of the ill-tempered, of course, there is no question of sin, since they aren't holding onto their anger for too long. Fraternal correction, then, requires more than simply pointing out that they are sinning. You have to get them to see that "this long" is too long, and getting ill-tempered people to see something like that isn't easy.

Apart from that, though, I think it's crucial to avoid responding to anger with equal and opposite anger. There are a lot of vices that, when seen in action, tempt you to join in, but anger is one of the vices that tempt you by suggesting indulging in them will virtuously counter another person's sin. (Detraction is another such vice; drunkenness, on the other hand, is a vice whose temptations don't make much of an appeal to virtue.)

At the same time, with virtue lying in the middle, if someone is ill-tempered with respect to something that ought to anger you -- that is, if he was right to get angry in the first place, but wrong to cling to his desire for revenge for so long -- you shouldn't overcompensate by not getting angry, as though his excess and your deficit somehow average into just the proper amount of righteous anger.

All that's obvious enough, I suppose. What I have to remind myself of time and again, since ill temper is one of the vices that triggers a choleric reaction in me, is that it is not the unforgivable sin, nor a mark of utter depravity. Why a person has this vice and not another isn't generally for me to worry about. Everyone is fighting a great battle, as the saying goes, and clucking over how poorly someone else is doing on one front helps no one.



Wednesday, September 14, 2005

Seventh and Fourth

For St. Thomas, every moral precept -- which binds under pain of mortal sin -- "is reducible to the precepts of the Decalogue." If almsgiving is, under certain circumstances, a matter of precept, it must be found in one of the Ten Commandments.

Chris Sullivan has commented several times that breaking this precept breaks the Seventh Commandment, "Thou shalt not steal." That makes sense, given the choice of Commandments, and particularly in light of the Patristic tradition that the rich man's extra clothing belongs to the poor. The Catechism, too, discusses almsgiving in its section on this Commandment.

It's curious, then, that St. Thomas teaches that the precept of almsgiving is based on the Fourth Commandment:
All succor given to our neighbor is reduced to the precept about honoring our parents. For thus does the Apostle interpret it (1 Tim. 4:8) where he says: "Dutifulness [Vulgate: 'Pietas'; Douay: 'Godliness'] is profitable to all things, having promise of the life that now is, and of that which is to come," and he says this because the precept about honoring our parents contains the promise, "that thou mayest be longlived upon the land" (Ex. 20:12): and dutifulness comprises all kinds of almsgiving.
Well. This wants rumination. But to see what St. Thomas is getting at, you need to see what he means by "piety" or dutifulness, in particular why piety requires us to support our parents in their need:
Accidentally, that is due to a father, which it befits him to receive in respect of something accidental to him, for instance, if he be ill, it is fitting that his children should visit him and see to his cure; if he be poor, it is fitting that they should support him; and so on in like instance, all of which come under the head of service due.
So our parents are "accidentally" due our support should they accidentally need it (though "it is essentially fitting for a father to support his son").

It seems to me, as I type this, that St. Thomas left a lot unpacked in the flat assertion that "dutifulness comprises all kinds of almsgiving" ("sub pietate autem comprehenditur omnis eleemosynarum largitio"). However, choosing the Fourth Commandment rather than the Seventh does seem to have a couple of advantages. First, it affords a gentler transition from precept to counsel; it's a longer stretch, I'd say, to see the widow's mite as having been stolen from someone else than as a form of honor due the poor. Second, it better encompasses all forms of alms; not just money and material goods, but spiritual alms as well. Would we say, except by distant analogy, that we "steal" prayers from the poor?


Same as it ever was

Mark Shea, in his usual nuanced and cautious way, has been exploring the Intelligent Design debate with his readers. You can, and likely already have, read all about it over there, but inter alia Mark observes that St. Thomas could only think of two objections to the existence of God worth rebutting: if God exists, there would be no evil; and, since everything can be explained by nature and human reason, there's no need to suppose God exists.

What's striking about these objections, abstracted from an article much better known for the Five Proofs of God, is how contemporary they are. When was the last time you heard someone say something like, "This hurricane is further evidence that God doesn't exist," or, "Science has shown we no longer need God to explain what happens in nature"? Three days? Ten?

Compare these objections to those in the articles immediately before and after. Have you ever heard anyone say that, since a cause cannot be demonstrated by an effect not proportionate to it, the existence of God cannot be demonstrated? How about that, since posture belongs only to bodies, and something which supposes posture is said of God in the Scriptures, therefore God is a body?

Of course, whether God exists is a more fundamental question than whether His existence can be demonstrated or whether He is a body. Still, I find it interesting that the argument has remained essentially unchanged for all these centuries. Maybe it's not so remarkable that the pro multis argument hasn't changed in forty years.

Another point of those objections is how scientific they sound today. The first objection offers a hypothesis ("God exists"), determines what should be observed if the hypothesis is true (no evil in creation), makes an observation (evil exists), and corrects the hypothesis ("God doesn't exist"). The second objection is Occam's Razor avant Occam, and Occam's Razor is forever being wielded by acolytes of modern science who think it can carve God clean out of His creation. (These same acolytes look down on medieval thinkers like St. Thomas and their backward notions of science.) A culture that values scientific-sounding arguments as much as ours is one particularly susceptible to atheism.

A question: Are there any new objections -- objections that don't unspool on their own once they're clearly stated -- to the existence of God?


Tuesday, September 13, 2005

A high and lonely calling

I spent pretty much the whole weekend working on an article about the concept of qorban, which Jesus mentions in condemning the Pharisees:
"How well you have set aside the commandment of God in order to uphold your tradition! For Moses said, 'Honor your father and your mother,' and 'Whoever curses father or mother shall die.' Yet you say, 'If a person says to father or mother, "Any support you might have had from me is qorban"' (meaning, dedicated to God), you allow him to do nothing more for his father or mother. You nullify the word of God in favor of your tradition that you have handed on. And you do many such things."
It's an idea somewhat foreign to modern culture. From one perspective, it amounts to transferring ownership of a temporal good to God while retaining free use of it. You don't have to by a cynic to see how something like that might be abused.

Note, though, that Jesus doesn't condemn the practice of qorban as such. He doesn't say there's anything wrong with dedicating something to God. What He objects to is using this tradition to one's own, personal advantage and another's disadvantage. The child in His example is personally and materially better off having declared his property qorban than he would be otherwise. Even if he didn't do it to avoid having to support his parents, if the net result is that he doesn't support them, he still commits the double sin of failing to honor his parents and trying to excuse himself by invoking the LORD.

Anyway, as I said, I spent most of the weekend studying this practice and writing up some thoughts about it. It wasn't easy; the kids kept pestering me to come out and play, and at meals my wife would pointedly mention some chores that needed doing. I tried to explain gently to everyone that I've made a personal commitment to be more diligent in studying Holy Scripture, but I don't think they fully understand.


Monday, September 12, 2005

Clingy children

My soul clings to You; Your right hand holds me fast.
I've said these words often enough in Morning Prayer (Psalm 63:9 from the Grail Psalter, used for feasts, solemnities, and every fourth Sunday), but recently saw something new in them.

What does the word "clings" suggest? I envision hugging something close to your chest, with both arms wrapped around as tightly as possible. When a young child clings to his mother's leg, he's likely to wrap his legs around her, too. Clinging isn't something you do half-heartedly, or even single-handedly.

So if my soul clings to God, it's hanging on to Him for dear life, with both arms, so to speak.

Meanwhile, God is able to hold me fast with His right hand. The difference between clinging and holding demonstrates, among other things, our relative magnitudes: God is so much bigger than I am that what takes me both arms takes Him just one hand.

Now suppose I'm clinging, not just to God, but to something else as well. My wealth, say, or my job. How can I do this, except by holding God in one hand and the second object in the other? But if I'm holding God in one hand, then I've reversed our relationship. I've made God something small enough for me to hold onto, just one among other small things I can hold onto.

Is it any wonder that I have a hard time loving with my whole heart, my whole soul, my whole mind, and my whole strength a god smaller than I am? Of course God is a jealous God; the only way He can be our God at all, rather than a kewpie doll we call God, is to fill our lives so completely, to be so large that we can only cling to Him or fall away from Him.


A zero-sum game?

A lot has been said over the past two weeks about blame, and a lot that has been said about it seems to assume that any given crisis generates some fixed amount of blame to be apportioned out to those who are blameworthy.

I see the act of blaming as one of judging culpability for what a person did (or left undone), plus a call (stated or implied) that the person is to be punished. (Depending on the circumstances, the punishment might be a dirty look, or enduring enmity, or imprisonment.)

Now, moral culpability arises within the context of individual moral acts. As a rule, the avoidance or mitigation of a crisis depends on many individual moral acts, committed by many individual moral actors. The negative consequences of a crisis are not themselves the source of a pool of culpability, to be ladled out appropriately.

That some people do see the act of blaming as a matter of dividing up some fixed quantity of blame can be seen in the language they use. Someone earns the lion's share of the blame, or has all the blame hung on him. Some people even speak of proportions of blame -- "he shouldn't get any more than 30% of the blame" -- as though blame were a substance that can be measured.

This suggests that there's more going on when we blame others than judging their culpability. I think speaking of relative blame ("I blame him a lot more than her") adds to the judgment a recommendation of how much energy should be used in pursuit of punishing the people who are blamed. This, in effect, shifts the frame of reference from the general crisis to the individual commitment to the crisis. A person is willing to commit a certain amount of attention, indignation, time, and other resources to following up on a crisis; these resources are finite and non-sharable, so it makes sense to speak of partitioning them in some fashion.

Culpability itself, though, doesn't work that way. Even in the case of one single, discrete sin, there may be more culpability than is directly measurable from the effect of the sin. (Fr. F. X. Lassance identified nine ways we cooperate with evil: by counsel; by command; by consent; by provocation; by praise or flattery; by concealment; by partaking; by silence; and by defense of the ill done.)

In the recent Sunday reading from Ezekiel, the LORD says:
If I tell the wicked man that he shall surely die, and you do not speak out to dissuade the wicked man from his way, he (the wicked man) shall die for his guilt, but I will hold you responsible for his death. But if you warn the wicked man, trying to turn him from his way, and he refuses to turn from his way, he shall die for his guilt, but you shall save yourself.
In both cases, the wicked man dies, but the culpability of each person varies -- and the difference in culpability is not minor.

So we should be aware, when we are asking who is to blame, that the amount of blame we're willing to dole out does not necessarily correspond to the sum of each person's (individual and non-transferable) culpability.


Thursday, September 08, 2005

Speculation on cultural roles

A post at An Examined Life on religious humor prompted me to think some more on the effect of prudophobia -- the fear of being thought a prude -- has on our culture.

A prude may be defined as someone who thinks you shouldn't enjoy something you enjoy. Prudes are mercilessly mocked by people who think they should enjoy something prudes think they shouldn't enjoy.

Since most people think they should enjoy something some prude, somewhere, thinks they shouldn't, most people find the thought that they themselves might be thought a prude to be at least mildly off-putting. And a lot of people, I suspect, are downright afraid of the thought that they might think they themselves are a prude. Isn't it bad enough that we turn into our parents? Do we have to turn into our grandparents?

So, moved by prudophobia, we hepsters refuse to judge the entertainment habits of others; de gustibus, and so forth.

Though there's a limit, isn't there? I mean, between the prudes and the pigs, we find us, who have achieved a decent balance between what's decent and what's stick-in-the-mud. Even if the pigs can't tell us and the prudes apart.

Now, I don't know any better than anyone else where to draw the line between what is acceptable and what isn't, but I think the solution will encompass the following idea:

That doing something is enjoyable doesn't mean I should do it.

It's an idea that, in the abstract, all but axiomatic Epicureans would agree with. What it lets you do, though, is break the link between what is enjoyable and what is right.

The prude's mistake is to think pleasure can be prevented by an act of will. If that were true, it would follow [more or less] that only malicious people can take pleasure in something that should not be done. The end of this line of reasoning: you can do what you enjoy as long as you aren't doing it maliciously.

If, however, pleasure doesn't imply liceity, then... well, then nothing in particular follows. If I think a certain joke is funny, it doesn't follow that I should tell it, or even put up with its being told. If I enjoy reading a certain blog, or watching a certain TV show, or singing a certain song, it doesn't follow that I may do any of these things.

And if whether I enjoy something has nothing to do with whether I should do it, it also has nothing to do with whether I should counsel others not to do it. (Though it may affect how I should counsel them.)

The standard, then, isn't whether something is enjoyable, but whether it's good for you.

What I haven't given enough thought about yet is my impression that this standard is recognized to a far greater degree in matters of food and drink than it is in matters of entertainment. Evangelical vegans are a bore, but nutritionists get a hearing. The United States, at least, seems far more ready to admit the possibility of bad effects from what goes into their mouths than from what goes into their eyes and ears. Not entirely without reason, perhaps -- the result of eating a candy bar is a lot more deterministic than the result of watching an immoral commercial -- but neither entirely without unreasonable inconsistency.


The Dominicans are looking for a few good women

Nine, in this case.

Yes, it's in New Jersey, but it is a Dominican monastery.


Wednesday, September 07, 2005

Good working order

In his rebuttal to the objection that, since it's lawful to own things, it's lawful not to give alms, St. Thomas quotes an interesting perspective from St. Basil the Great:
Why are you rich while another is poor, unless it be that you may have the merit of a good stewardship, and he the reward of patience?
See, if everybody sold all he had and gave the money to the poor, then no one would be left to be a good steward, and creation would fail to express the good stewardship aspect of God.


Tuesday, September 06, 2005


I'm of two minds about the news that my bishop's resignation will not be accepted for a while yet.

On the one hand, I'm pleased, because Cardinal McCarrick is okay by me.

On the other hand, I'm pleased, because this news irritates people whose irritation is for me a temptation to morose delectation.


Ownership and free use

In his article on whether almsgiving is a matter of precept (a precept is a law that binds under penalty of mortal sin, so following it is necessary for salvation, while a counsel is a means to a perfection greater than what is necessary for salvation), St. Thomas begins his response to the objection that, since "it is lawful for everyone to use and to keep what is his own... it is lawful not to give alms," with this:
The temporal goods which God grants us are ours as to the ownership, but as to the use of them, they belong not to us alone but also to such others as we are able to succor out of what we have over and above our needs.
So we have ownership of our goods, but not free use of them.

Isn't this just the sort of distinction that drives some people up the wall? What's the point of my saying you own something if you can't stop me from using it? It sort of sounds like one of those stories of a burglar who sues his victim because he stubbed his toe on the victim's coffee table.

For St. Thomas, though, the distinction between owning something and using it was far from academic. As a member of a religious order, he himself was forbidden to own anything. In fact, he goes so far as to write "that in the attainment of the perfection of charity the first foundation is voluntary poverty, whereby a man lives without property of his own"; in other words, the evangelical counsel of poverty is a primary and necessary part of religious life. But a religious can still use things he doesn't own: the bed he sleeps in, for example, or the prayerbook he uses in the chapel.

I won't say it's unthinkable that a religious might come to regard something he uses as something he owns. Nor is it unthinkable that a secular person might come to regard something he owns as something that is necessarily his alone to use. But if we are to understand what St. Thomas teaches about temporal goods, we need to understand that the one doesn't always imply the other.

So what does ownership always imply, if not free use? "Stewardship" may be a better way of thinking about possessing temporal goods than the contemporary notion of "ownership," which would be expressed in terms of individual rights. What I own is for me, not anyone else, to dispose of, but that doesn't mean it's for me to dispose of however I want. I am, you might say, the rightful authority for determining what's to be done with what I own, but mine is not an absolute nor sovereign authority. In the case of my surplus or your need, I am bound by precept to let you use my goods (which may involve transferring ownership to you); if I fail, then under certain circumstances my ownership is forfeit and the goods are yours to take.


Monday, September 05, 2005

The Great Diocese Handicap, concl.

"Not feeling a bit down, are you, Reeves?"

"Not to my knowledge, your Excellency."

I eyed the fellow. Monsignor Reeves had taken news of the collapse of his plan with manly reserve. I wondered, though, whether the shock of failure had somewhat unnerved him. In the days since, he had been rather distant on the whole subj., as though the memory was still too fresh.

I decided a little pastoral care was wanted. "I think, Reeves, we must face up to failure and move on. The best laid plans of mice and men, and so forth, as you often remind me. Even Homer nods."

"Very true, your Excellency."

"On the other hand, what lasting harm has been done? Admittedly, Cardinal Vittoria thinks I'm some sort of criminal lunatic, but such misunderstandings are common within the episcopate. And Pimples did lose out on the Congregation to that Italian chap."

"Bishop Giovanni Fulsca, your Excellency. He was ordained a bishop by --"

"Yes, yes, Reeves. We shall review his C.V. in due time. My point now is that Vittoria's visit was no batsman's paradise for Pimples anyway. Mark my word, Reeves, a chap who will kick a football through a chap's window in the middle of the night is a chap who isn't destined for Congregations in Rome."

"They would seem mutually incompatible destinies, your Excellency."

"And true, Berggo didn't get his new cathedral. But do you know, I spoke with him yesterday evening, and he sounded quite relieved. 'I would hate to leave my dear lambs,' he said. A turn of heart" -- and here, I'm afraid, I registered a touch of disapproval, considering all the trouble Berggo's fickleness had put me through -- "that seems related to the Knights of Columbus raising three hundred fifty thousand dollars for his soup kitchen project."

"A shared goal does smooth over differences, your Excellency."

"He went so far as to say he would never have been happy with St. Glaphyra's. His very words were, 'A right horror it looks in the bright light of day.'"

"The aesthetics of that cathedral do not speak to the broad experiences of the human soul, your Excellency."

"And how, Reeves!" I poked through the mail Monsignor Reeves had brought me, reaching for a picture postcard that caught my eye. "On balance, the one lasting pain brought on by this whole affair was the lost opportunity to bet on the shuffling of bishops. Even there, though, your note of caution stopped me from placing a loser."

A sound like a sheep coughing on a distant peak came from the spot where Monsignor Reeves was standing. "As it happens, your Excellency, I --"

"Great Scott!" I exclaimed. "This postcard is from Pimples! Dateline Seattle, he writes as follows: 'Many thanks, old thing, for taking the rap. Now I'm taking the job you were to get, as Apostolic Visitator.'"

"Yes, your Excellency. Rumors abounded that you were to be named to that post."

At these words, my each particular hair stood an end, like quills upon the fretful porpentine. "But... an Apostolic Visitator! That would have completely ruined my fall schedule!"

"Undoubtedly, your Excellency. It seems, however, the impression you left on Cardinal Vittoria was such that minds in Rome were changed regarding the wisdom of assigning you to that post."

"But Pimples...?"

"After your hasty departure, Bishop Legendre and Cardinal Vittoria had a long and pleasant conversation, your Excellency. I have been informed that, in the course of their talk, they agreed that the Congregation was not the place for Bishop Legendre, football broadcasts being too rare in Rome, but that he would very much enjoy serving as Apostolic Visitator."

"Well, well, well. So even though your plan failed, we've all landed on our feet."

"So it would seem, your Excellency."

A cog turned a notch. "Tell me, Reeves. I don't mean to pry, but is it possible... that is, did your plan for me to visit Pimples take into account the possibility..."

"I did not wish to trouble you with rumors regarding the position of Apostolic Visitator, your Excellency. It did occur to me, however, that a day or two in the company of Cardinal Vittoria, under stressful circumstances, might prevent the appointment, which I took the liberty of feeling sure was a consummation you would devoutly wish."

"Certainly, Reeves."

"Furthermore, your Excellency, I placed modest bets on your behalf against your appointment, and also against Cardinal Legendre's appointment to the Congregation. The parlay paid off in three Eucharistic Congresses and one retreat of your choice."

"Did it indeed?" I leaned back and let out a deep breath. "I feel positively storm-tossed by events, Reeves. A retreat sounds like just the thing to recover."

"Yes, your Excellency. You are scheduled for a four-day retreat at a Redemptorist house in the Adirondacks next week. You need only give one two-hour conference to a women's sodality on the first day."

"Just the stuff! I say, Reeves, you have family in the area, don't you? Why don't you come with me, and take a few days to visit them?"

"Yes, your Excellency, my sister and her family. Thank you, your Excellency."

"Not at all, Reeves. When one lucks into something like this, I think it best to share the good fortune."

"If I may say so, your Excellency, that is an attitude toward which Divine Providence tends to respond with further good fortune."

"At least I've always found it so, Reeves. And what's the rest of it?"

"Benedicamus Domino, your Excellency."

"That's it, Reeves. Benedicamus Domino."



Saturday, September 03, 2005

In his riches

If you read the question on almsdeeds in St. Thomas's Summa Theologica, you can construct the following model of the levels of wealth he identifies.

A preliminary note: St. Thomas assumes, perhaps even insists on, a just disparity of wealth based on station in life. I have no particular insight regarding how much of this is due to his society (highly stratified), his upbringing (as an Italian nobleman, albeit one destined for the Church), his state in life (a mendicant religious), or his temperament (he is very fond of hierarchy), as opposed to his recognition of the truth of things. I suspect, though I am no medievalist, that at least part of what St. Thomas has in mind with this is the idea that certain stations in life imply maintaining one or more households, including servants, and extending hospitality, showing noblesse oblige, and so forth; so that the idea goes beyond the lines of, "Really, lawyers' wives ought to wear cashmere."

In any case, here's the model; the ideas are St. Thomas's, the terminology is my own.

At the bottom, the least wealthy are in a state of "Physical Insufficiency." This means they don't have enough to meet their physical needs, and if they don't get something from somewhere, they're going to die soon.

Next comes "Physical Sufficiency," a state in which people have enough to keep body and soul together. They don't need help just to stay alive, but they aren't doing much better than just staying alive.

Third is "Unbecoming Adequacy." Those whose wealth is unbecomingly adequate have sufficient wealth that strangers wouldn't think of them as charity cases, but not enough to live as they ought according to their station in life.

The next stage is "Becoming Adequacy," in which people have all the wealth required to maintain them in a manner suited to their station in life. The man of becomingly adequate wealth can take care of himself and those he's responsible for, and might even have a little set aside for the predictable vicissitudes of life.

Wealth at the level of "Excessive Adequacy" is wealth that not only maintains the household in a suitable manner, but ensures against even the remote and highly improbable downturns that might come in the future.

Finally, there is simply "Surplus Wealth," greater wealth than could reasonably, or even not-so-reasonably, be required for the household.

Now, how do these levels of wealth fit into St. Thomas's conception of the virtue of almsdeeds?

For starters, he regards giving corporal alms -- material aid given to someone in need -- as a matter of precept -- meaning we are categorically bound to do it, on pain of mortal sin -- in certain circumstances. Those circumstances may have to do with the giver or with the receiver. "On the part of the giver, it must be noted that he should give of his surplus... On the part of the recipient ... we are not bound to relieve all who are in need, but only those who could not be succored if we not did succor them."

So St. Thomas teaches that all surplus wealth is to be given in alms, on pain of mortal sin, which should not surprise anyone who has ever read the Gospels. But he adds that, in determining what is surplus wealth and what isn't, the giver shouldn't "consider every case that may possibly occur in the future, for this would be to think about the morrow, which Our Lord forbade us to do, but he should judge what is superfluous and what necessary, according as things probably and generally occur." What I've called "Excessive Adequacy," then, must also be given to those in need.


Thursday, September 01, 2005

The Great Diocese Handicap, cont.


I don't know if you've ever been "Oi"ed at by a Spanish cardinal looking down from his bedroom window on the shady side of midnight. It is not an experience one soon forgets. Spanish cardinals can "Oi" with the best of them, pouring into that brief expression the full passion of the Mediterranean temperament.

Pimples had vanished like a magician's rabbit the moment the ball had left his foot, and I could see the right reasoning of the thing to be done he had employed. But before I could follow suit, Cardinal Vittoria addressed me by name. "Booster? Is that you?"

"Oh, ah, what ho, your Eminence! Up late too, what?"

"What are you doing down there?"

"Me? Oh, you know, just out for an evening stroll. In the nights lift up your hands, and all that. I find that nothing clears the mind quite like emptying it, and what is more empty than a garden in the middle of the night? Not another soul here. I'm quite alone. Well, of course now you've joined me, if it can be called joining me when you're still --"

"Bishop Booster, do cease babbling."

"Oh, right-o."

"I take it, since you are alone, that you must be the one responsible for this object that came crashing through my window a moment ago."

"I? No, no! I strongly oppose crashing objects through windows. Ask anyone. Perhaps it was a prowler."

"And are the prowlers of your country, Bishop Booster, in the habit of throwing pointed balls through bedroom windows in the nighttime?" the cardinal asked, and if he was trying to keep the skepticism from his voice he failed.

"Not that I've heard. But there is a university in town. Perhaps it was a fraternity prank."

By way of answer, Cardinal Vittoria said nothing. Sister Mary Kathleen, the headmistress of Ss. Soter and Caius Day School during my time there, had also frequently employed this technique, under not dissimilar circs., so I knew from experience that, if the silence weren't broken, I would blurt out the full truth.

"Well, cheerio, then!" I offered, and, pivoting briskly, set off at a dignified trot toward a hedge some distance from the light spilling from the cardinal's window.

Had a surgeon examined me as soon as I achieved full concealment, he would have been baffled by the two red circular marks in the center of my back, until I explained they were made by the burning stare I could feel Cardinal Vittoria directing at me during my retreat.