instruere...inlustrare...delectare Disputations

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

To know this is to love Him

I concluded an earlier post on St. Thomas's conception of the Gifts of the Holy Spirit with the question, "... but how does knowing this help anyone to love God and neighbor any better?"

Leave it to Dominicans to answer the question by pointing out the inherent link between knowledge and love.

There's no chance I'll deny the value of knowing God better in order to love Him better, but what I was aiming for with my question was more specific: How, precisely, might my knowing what St. Thomas taught about the relationship between the Seven Gifts and the virtues affect my love of God and neighbor? Is this particular fruit of contemplation only good for contemplation, or is it useful for action as well?

Since (as I wrote before) not everything St. Thomas taught on this topic is Church doctrine to the exclusion of all contrary opinions I'll start with what the Catechism says (as I quoted before), with particular focus on the last sentence:
The seven gifts of the Holy Spirit are wisdom, understanding, counsel, fortitude, knowledge, piety, and fear of the Lord. They belong in their fullness to Christ, Son of David. They complete and perfect the virtues of those who receive them. They make the faithful docile in readily obeying divine inspirations.
In the ordinary use of the word, a gift is something (usually a material thing) that, once given to us, becomes entirely ours. We can use it, shelve it, waste it, throw it away, but whatever we do with it, it is our property and our choice.

The Seven Gifts of the Holy Spirit aren't exactly like that. They do become ours to use or not, but in a sense they also remain the Holy Spirit's. It's sort of like someone giving you a present of a pager whose number only they know, or a two-way wrist radio that only communicates with the one they have.

The Gift of Wisdom, then, doesn't make me wise in the same way the gift of a good singing voice makes (okay, would have made) me a good singer -- or, for that matter, in the same way the grace of the intellectual virtue of wisdom would make me wise. I am not wise in myself through this gift; rather, the Holy Spirit directly moves me to wisdom. (St. Thomas also distinguishes the gift from the intellectual virtue by saying that "the latter is attained by human effort, whereas the former is 'descending from above.'")

By thinking of the Gifts as things that make us "docile in readily obeying divine inspirations," then, we can reach two important conclusions:
  • The Gifts of the Holy Spirit produce in us an immediate and ongoing connection with God. The two-way wrist radio is an unspeakably hokey analogy, but it does suggest that, in being given the Gifts, we are able to receive and respond to Divine inspiration in an exceptional way.
  • The Gifts enable the Holy Spirit to complete and perfect us through our daily lives. In themselves, they don't perfect us; they only enable the relationship with God that does. It is a relationship that we must and can live out each day. With the Gifts, we are never far from God or from His action in our lives.
Can these conclusions help us to love God and neighbor better? Yes, by making us more conscious of the closeness of God, both in being (the Trinity dwells with those who are sanctified) and in doing (the Gifts tell us that God intends to act through us as a matter of course). In this way, we love God the more for better understanding His great love for us; no distant uncle mailing us a $20 bill He. We also love neighbor the more for being quicker to think of and to depend on the Gifts of the Holy Spirit rather than our own imperfect virtues.


Monday, June 11, 2007

Some dry distinctions

I am, if anything, too sympathetic to (and too prone to) criticism of Crabby Catholics, such as is found in Greg Erlandson's widely-linked editorial, "Orthodoxy's 'Dry Drunks.'" (In Erlander's vivid phrase, these are tradition-minded Catholics who are "all Inferno and little Paradiso.")

Still, I think Matthew Lickona makes some good points against Erlandson's pop-psychoanalyzing. I think the distinction between external act and internal disposition is useful here, to avoid overstating the evidence and to avoid rekindling the "only losers label others" debate, but mostly because they are different phenomena that should be treated differently.

Matthew uses an old joke to illustrate the point that simply complaining doesn't in itself make someone a complainer:'s rather like the kid who didn't speak until he was four, and then said, "This soup is too cold." When asked why he hadn't spoken earlier, he replied, "Up to now, everything was fine." Oftentimes, people speak up only when there's a problem.
True enough, and a person who spends twenty minutes a week blogging about problems in the Church may reasonably object to being considered "all Inferno."

It seems to me, though, that speaking up only when there's a problem is itself a problem. Catholics can't generally afford the luxury of being misunderstood; our mission is to make disciples of all nations, which we can only do by balancing Paradiso and Inferno in public.

What good is a heart full of joy if the only thing others ever see is bitterness? And by what others see, I mean what actual people actually see, not what they would see if they followed you around and listened in on your private conversations and prayers. If my public blog presents a different personality than my private speech, then I lack integrity; my joy and my [let's stipulate it as righteous] anger are dis-integrated, and therefore a poor reflection of the One God.

You see, then, what this means for the external/internal distinction. If I am more or less internally integrated, then I should make sure my external acts reflect this.

Oh, and we can also distinguish between integrity and balance. I might have an 80/20 balance of Paradiso/Inferno, but if I do it by being all Paradiso 4 days out of 5, and all Inferno the other day, then I'm not integrated. If I were integrated, then no matter how you sliced me, you'd get the same balance.

A final distinction that might be pertinent to the Crabby Catholic phenomenon (which, per the external/internal distinction, I should probably call "Crabbily Catholic") is between reasons and justifications. Most of us have reasons for most of the things we do, often reasons others can sympathize with. But merely having a reason for doing something, even a compelling reason, doesn't necessarily mean being justified in doing it.

(Links via People of the Book.)


Saturday, June 09, 2007

What has Cooperstown to do with Jerusalem?

Granted, athletes talking about their religion is better than politicians talking about their religion. But really, can they say much beyond the stock, "I give God all the glory"? And doesn't that always imply (as countless columnists have suggested) that the guy they beat should give God all the blame?

With these and similar thoughts, I wasn't all that enthusiastic when I first heard about "Champions of Faith," a movie in which "baseball's biggest stars reveal how their faith guides and sustains their spectacular Major League careers." It's a production of Catholic Exchange, so I figured it was done with good intent, but on the whole, I'd be more interested in a movie about how faith guides and sustains mediocre scrub leaguers.

Still, when I was offered a review copy, I figured I could always take a quick look, then pass it on to someone I know who uses sports in his work with Catholic youth.

Well, as Rich Donnelly says in the movie, "There are two kinds of people in this world: those who are humble, and those who are about to be." As I started the DVD, I was about to be humbled by the humble, honest, and forthright expressions of faith it contained.

It wasn't just all the baseball players who said, "All the success, fame, and money in the world doesn't matter. What matters is living right with God." That's good to hear -- particularly good for kids -- but it's not really too hard for successful, famous, and rich men to say.

The greater lesson, I think, was that living right with God was necessary for them to succeed (with fame and money following success). It's not sufficient, of course -- I doubt Bl. Hyacinth Cormier would have won many batting titles -- a fact overlooked by those countless columnists who make fun of athletes who thank God for their victory.

The point isn't that an active faith makes one ballplayer better than another. It's that it makes him better than he would be otherwise. And that's true of everyone, regardless of what they do for a living.

On top of that, "Champions of Faith: Baseball Edition" is a genuinely well-made movie. The narrator occasionally oversells his words, but I was impressed by the film's professionalism and quality. (As with athletics, some people think living right with God suffices to make them good movie-makers; the people involved in this have talent as well.)

So while I'd still be interested in a movie about how faith guides and sustains mediocre scrub leaguers, I really enjoyed "Champions of Faith," and I think it would be ideal for Catholic youth groups or high school sports teams. (There's even a companion guide with discussion questions included.)



Thursday, June 07, 2007

The Seven Gifts and the Ten Virtues

The Church teaches that the Seven Gifts of the Holy Spirit listed in Isaiah 11:2-3 are given to each of us in Baptism.

That's well and good, but it raises some difficulties, among them the fact that Isaiah 11:2-3 doesn't refer to "gifts." Moreover, the Church says generally what the gifts are and what they do for us -- to quote the Catechism again, they "are permanent dispositions which make man docile in following the promptings of the Holy Spirit" -- but doesn't really settle the question of what, if anything, makes the permanent dispositions we call "gifts" any different from the permanent dispositions we call "virtues."

St. Thomas respected the tradition of the Church too much, and he was too systematic a thinker, to brush off the question of how the gifts relate to the virtues. Here I'll paraphrase his answer, as I understand it; later, si Dominus voluerit, I'll write something about what difference it makes.

First, St. Thomas notes that Isaiah 11:2 refers to "a spirit of wisdom and of understanding, a spirit of counsel," and so forth. This, he says, means that it is the Holy Spirit Himself, rather than our own reason, Who causes us to move in wisdom, understanding, and the rest.

St. Thomas has already distinguished three kinds of virtues:The intellectual and moral virtues are natural to us, since they perfect us according to our natural happiness. The theological virtues are supernatural, since they perfect us according to our supernatural happiness.

The Seven Gifts, St. Thomas says, are also supernatural (and so distinguishable from the intellectual and moral virtues). We can't acquire these gifts naturally; as with the theological virtues, they must be infused in us by God.

The difference between the theological virtues and the Gifts, both of which direct us to God, is that, with the theological virtues we still move ourselves by our own (albeit supernaturally enlightened) reason, while with the Gifts the Holy Spirit moves us.

We could sum up with a table like this:

ClassSource & ObjectMoverOperates on
Seven GiftsGodGodreason and will
Theological VirtuesGodusreason
Intellectual Virtuesnatureusreason
Moral Virtuesnatureuswill

Which is as may be (and not every detail of St. Thomas's analysis has been adopted by the Church), but how does knowing this help anyone to love God and neighbor any better?


Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Iceland is cool

So says the Pope, mentioning among other things the Icelandic Crisis Response Unit, a military force even smaller than the Swiss Guards, and the Carmelite Sisters of Hafnarfjordur, which is the place to go if you need an icon in Iceland.

Pope Benedict XVI also mentioned "an inseparable link between peace with creation, and peace among people," the understanding of which "is found in the natural and moral order with which God has created man and has endowed the earth."

This, I think, is a challenging teaching for many Catholics in the United States, where the sides are drawn between the tree-huggers who value a sparrow as much as a human and the subdoers and dominionists who figure there's no chance we could use the Earth up before the Second Coming. (I exaggerate to save time.)

How do we achieve a Christian peace with creation, when so many of the voices arguing for peace with creation are pagan and so many of the Christian voices are arguing against peace with creation? (I overstate for rhetorical purposes.)


Monday, June 04, 2007

Spare me

What to make of this:
I suppose I'm fascinated by St. Pio for the same reason I read Tom of Disputations. They are both so spare & unsentimental when it comes to matters of faith.
My first instinct is to distinguish between blog and blogger, since I myself am quite sentimental. In my own way. After a fashion.

Be that as it may, the better distinction may be between respecting sentiment and practicing sentimentalism. We all have all sorts of sentiments, and as incarnate beings we cannot simply ignore ours or those of others. At the same time, sentiment does not, merely by virtue of being felt, create or suspend laws, rights, or responsibilities.

So I suppose I am, both on the blog and in person, opposed to sentimentalism, to ceding the objective truth or justice of a question to whomever feels strongest whatever it is they feel.

More generally, though, I like to think that what I'm about is being non-pastoral. Or, if you prefer, as impractical as possible.1

And the reason for that is because I think I can be of some help to people in figuring out the generalities and principles, and of little to no help in figuring out the particulars. Particulars are dashed particular, if you see what I mean, and have a way of changing with circumstances like who, what, and when.2

In St. Thomas's terms, I'm happy to volunteer my understanding, but not my counsel.3

In fact, when it comes to questions of practical reason, for the most part I don't really have counsel as such to give; what I have is my own experience. And while sharing our experiences with each other can be helpful, it can also be harmful, either because the experience teaches a false lesson or because it is taken to be normative.

This last point, of the problems arising when my experience is taken to be what your experience ought to be, has been sharpened for me recently while listening to people with many positive religious experiences talk with people with few or none. But that's a topic for a separate post.

1. In keeping with tradition. Fr. Timothy Radcliffe, O.P., former Master of the Dominican Order, tells it this way:
I am reminded of a man who was drifting across the country in a hot air balloon. He came down in a tree, with no idea where he was. He saw a couple of people wandering near by and he shouted out, ‘Where am I?’ One of them replied, ‘You are in a tree.’ And he replied ‘You must be a Dominican.’ ‘Oh, how did you know?’ ‘What you say is true, but no help at all.’
2. The full list of circumstances, per Cicero:
"Quis, quid, ubi, quibus auxiliis, cur, quomodo, quando--
Who, what, where, by what aids, why, how, and when."
3. Those links treat understanding and counsel as gifts of the Holy Spirit, a topic that's been on my mind, but I don't mean to suggest, the context in which I linked them notwithstanding, that I am regifting when I provide my own understanding and counsel. (And I will provide my counsel if asked.)